May 2005

May 28, 2005 14:00

Tai-Chi and the Art of Violin Playing

Today I gave a first lesson to an adult beginning student, and the experience was wonderful. This student has maturity and wisdom that will serve him well in learning to play the violin. He decided that he wanted to learn to play violin after years of listening to his daughter play. Some of his friends told him not to because learning to play violin when you’re an adult is just too hard. Fortunately, he had a goal in his mind and he continued to pursue it. He bought a very good violin for an incredibly low price on ebay. He used his knowledge of the violin and his sense of marketing to good advantage. He knew that he didn’t want to buy junk and he made a very good purchase. He started to teach himself but decided quickly that he needed feedback from a teacher. He started taking lessons from a college student but he was disappointed because she kept telling him that he was doing everything right and he knew that he wasn’t. (Mature, indeed.) He searched for another violin teacher and found me.

He is a dedicated student of Tai Chi and we talked about that. His approach to Tai Chi is quite handily transferable to playing the violin. I believe that his cultural background (Chinese American) is helping him, too. He told me that he loves Tai Chi because there are always new things to learn. In fact, one can spend a lifetime studying Tai Chi. After he took an introductory class, he took it again, and the second time he saw lots of things he didn’t notice the first time. I told him that violin is like that, too. The learning process never ends. The more you play, the more you hear and want to try. In teaching, I start with a relatively simple piece and add ornamentations and interpretations to it so the student grows with the music.

He had one concern about playing. His fingers are short and he has trouble reaching to play the notes. I watched him play and started correcting his left arm and hand position. Put your elbow under the violin and rotate your wrist so that your fingers are poised over the strings. He tried it and, of course, felt that it was uncomfortable. I told him that when he gets used to it, it will feel OK. In playing the violin, you use you arms, wrists, hands, and fingers in ways that you don’t use them for any other activity in everyday life. I told him that I don’t teach posture for its own sake but for the sake of making it easier to play well. He understood and accepted this in a way that a seven year old just can’t.

I also helped him with his bow hold. He was tightening his muscles and pressing down with the bow, as most beginners do. I told him that the more relaxed your bow hand and arm are, the more control you have. He immediately related this to Tai Chi. For Tai Chi, you learn to hold your arm out in front of you and keep it completely relaxed. When he does this, his hands feel heavy because his arm muscles are not working to keep his hand up. I tried a few approaches to help him learn his own relaxed bow hold. (Everyone’s hands are different.) I had him put his right arm by his side, relaxed, and then I told him to look at his hand. His hand should look like that when he holds the bow. He was surprised at first, as everyone is, but he understood the concept because of Tai Chi.

I asked him whether he had anything specific he wanted me to help him with now, and he asked for help playing slurs. You need to have a certain amount of maturity and self awareness to know your own strengths and weaknesses, although I’ve taught seven year olds who can do this. I told him about pacing himself with his bow arm and gave him a few exercises to practice.

Before leaving, he asked me about goals in playing the violin. I asked him what his goals were. He replied that he didn’t want to become a concert violinist, but he wanted to play for his own enjoyment and for the joy and challenge of learning. I asked him whether he wanted to learn to play classical music. He said yes, because he has listened to a lot of it, but he was also curious about Irish and other kinds of music. I told him that we could sample several different genres so he would be able to tell what he likes. He seemed happy and enthusiastic when he left.

I had so much fun. I’m looking forward to his next lesson.

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May 23, 2005 17:09

Second verse, same as the first
Two times louder and two times worse.

I’m punch drunk about yet another job interview. I’m getting tired of this. Unemployment doesn’t get easier as years go by. I’d like to have closure. I realize that this may not be possible and that I need to learn to live with this particular kind of uncertainty. Tomorrow I have an interview with a pseudo-government agency. The pay is good and they give benefits. Hot damn! I don’t think my chance of getting the job is very good because the agency is very picky and snooty. However, I will put on my best positive attitude, along with my interview suit, and give it a try. I am not feeling well, so I’m going to bed early. A good night’s sleep will help me as much as anything.

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May 21, 2005 14:05

Imagine a Lullaby

Today I listened to a recording of the Brahms Lullaby played by David Oistrakh and, as always, it made me cry. I closed my eyes and opened myself to images, but no image of me as a baby in a mother’s loving arms came to me. What came was an image of myself cradling someone I loved. I was crying because I hadn’t been able to save him. Yes, I had saved him once or twice, but not ultimately. He was overtaken by the Evil Spirit in the form of serotonin or insulin or blood glucose, and I could not save him.

This evening I listened with a friend to a recording of an Enya song he had made with his synthesizer. Over the sound of the music came the laughter of a little girl, his three and a half year old daughter. He told me that she recognized the laughter as her own and often requested that he play the recording. Then he told me more stories about the fun the two of them had together. I thought of my own father and started crying. I thought about the friend I was with and other friends who have a lot of fun with their kids. This is some special kind of love. Later we listened to a recording he had made of a song I love, John Lennon’s Imagine. My friend told me about a defining experience he had had with this song. I told him that one of our friends had used this song for her wedding and that I had coupled the song’s title with a drawing by Picasso of a dove encircled by children – red, black, brown, and white – dancing. Near the end of this recording came the soft sound of a child’s laughter, and the sound grew louder and happier. It was his daughter again! He said, “That’s really what it’s all about.” I agreed and added, “When she hears this recording, or even thinks about it, she’ll remember that you love her.”

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May 16, 2005 19:29

Doomsday and pains

I keep going over and over my Doomsday calculations in my head. How many more months can I hang on without an income, even if I don’t spend a single cent on anything that isn’t essential for survival? Would it help to move somewhere else? (No) What will happen to me if I do temp work for $9 an hour and no benefits? How about moonlighting at the 7-11 or U-Haul, again with no benefits? I have medical conditions that need treatments, and those things are *very* expensive. Can I make some money freelancing, again with no benefits? Will a wealthy man who likes to share come and rescue me? (No) I’ll probably never be able to buy a used car. Health insurance is more important. I’ve been unemployed for a couple of years. Who would hire a middle aged woman with a Ph.D. and 25 or so years of work experience? I’ve used up all my savings, and now I’m living off of my retirement money. I don’t spend a single cent on anything that isn’t essential for survival. When my money is gone, I’m at the end of the road. I have no family to take care of me. I refuse to be a homeless person. How can I go on with the feeling that I have no future?

I have so many pains. The #1 today is the feeling of disappointment I've had in some of my friendships. In yoga class tonight, when my yoga teacher talked about letting go of everything dross, everything you don’t need, I started crying. I don’t want to feel this pain. I want to let it go as I exhale. Perhaps I will.

I only need two things to make me happy: love and money.

I feel like I have a terminal illness. Of course we all do, but we don’t think about it much when we’re young. I have a lease on life, renewable every day. Will I? Can I?

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May 12, 2005 22:17

A First Lesson

I had a new student tonight. V is an adult beginner who speaks English as a second language, and I really respect her. She had called me on the phone to arrange lessons, and her communication was a bit strained. I have had lots of experience with people who speak English as a second language. I have taught English and violin to lots of people like her. In fact, her spoken English was better than that of some of my students. Frequently, non-native speakers of English have more trouble communicating on the phone than in person, and this was true for V. Her phone call took courage. I often email directions to my home to my students, and I asked her whether she used email. She said no, and I got some idea of her financial limitations. I asked her where she lived so I could give her directions, and her answer told me, again, that she is far from wealthy. I asked her whether she had a violin and she said yes. She knew nothing about violins, except that she wanted to learn to play, so she went to a music store, asked for help, and bought one. Gutsy! She brought the violin home and experimented with it, and her teen aged daughter told her that she sounded terrible, but she was undeterred. Some of her friends told her that learning the violin is very difficult and she’s too old to start, but she stayed right on track. Gutsy again!

During the lesson, I made a special effort to encourage her to ask questions. I always do this to make students feel more comfortable about expressing what they don’t know or don’t understand. In her case, there were two more reasons. First, people from cultures other than our own often have more respect for teachers (amen!) and sometimes feel that it is inappropriate to ask questions. Second, I didn’t want her to hold back because of her English. To this end, I also told her that I teach English to people from other countries, including hers. She asked whether I had other adult violin students, and I said yes. Then I told her that my adult beginners are often unsure of themselves, but they really enjoy learning to play.

She seems to be an innate violinist. I spent most of the lesson showing her how to hold the violin and the bow and then how to move the bow slowly, smoothly, and straight across each open string to produce a pleasant sound. She held the violin as if she’d played it all her life, and her bow hold was relaxed and graceful. I told her that using the bow to produce a good sound is something that even professional violinists work on. When her tone got a bit off, I looked at her left arm and hand, figured out why, and corrected her. She learned really quickly.

I made a list of things for her to buy at the violin store, along with their prices: music stand, Kun shoulder rest (I lent her one for now), tuning fork, and two books.

When she was getting ready to leave, I told her that her daughter has no business laughing at her any more. Then I told her that I enjoyed teaching her and I hope that she will enjoy taking lessons from me. Now I’m really looking forward to her second lesson.

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May 10, 2005 23:39

My previous blog entry has a photograph I took, and a lot of people have given me praise for it. I thank you all so much. When I first read Laurie’s comment, I was puzzled by her description of the photo as “a great representation of hope.” I hadn’t thought of it that way. Then I read the phrase “optimistic freshness” in JW’s comment. After a while, I could see hope and optimism in my photo. People helped me identify what was going on inside me.

Recently, I was talking to someone who said that we should be aware of our emotions so we can express them in our playing. I replied that sometimes I don’t know what mood I’m in and my violin tells me. I just put my fiddle under my chin and let it sing to me. I can hear my emotions that way. This is especially true if I play something that I’ve played many times before and, this time, I play it differently.

My creations, music and photographs, are like letters to myself. I just need to know how to read them.

Here is one of my photos which speaks of hope to me.

Japanese cherry tree

I took the photo last spring and sent it to a friend who had just had emergency heart surgery. I told him, “This is the time of year when Nature reminds us of the renewal of life.”

I am not religious in the conventional sense but I am very spiritual. I’ve often asked myself what makes life worth living. I can’t put my answer into words but I can describe it as I’m aware of it. Hanging on my living room wall is a poster with a photograph by Eliot Porter. It is a picture of early spring in the Appalachians, when the trees have not yet leafed out but the dogwoods and redbuds are starting to blossom. When I look at that picture, I often think, “Life is so fragile and so robust.” Sometimes I play my violin while I watch the picture, and the tune I play is Simple Gifts from Appalachian Spring. Appalachian Spring was choreographed by Martha Graham and tells a story about two young lovers whose lives hold great promise. Do you recognize this feeling?

If you’re interested, please take a look at some of my photos of flowers at and butterflies at

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May 9, 2005 22:01

Today I found out that I have some part time, temporary work which will last through July. I’ll try to make myself indispensable so they’ll hire me full time, but I won’t count on it. It’s not enough to make me celebrate, but it will keep the wolf from the door for a while. I’m also looking into free lance writing, renting a room in my home, and getting more violin students.

When I’m depressed, there are two things I can focus on and forget everything else: music and photography. Playing my violin keeps me entranced. Time goes by quickly and I have to discipline myself to stop after a reasonable amount of time. Playing as part of a group (orchestra), jamming, and teaching violin are also great escapes, and they have the advantage of enabling me to connect with other people. Nature photography, too, transports me. I love to go to places where the scenery is pretty and lose myself there. Since I don’t have a car, this presents a challenge. There is a park I can get to by bus and another park I can walk to. I also take photographs in people’s yards and around the condo complex where I live. One of the things I love about photography is that it makes me see things more attentively. I’ve heard the phrase “contemplative photography,” and that describes what I do, too. I’m going to try to put a small photo here.


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May 4, 2005 23:26

Today was a great day for playing hookie. I neglected all the things I was supposed to do indoors and enjoyed spring. Sunshine, clear blue sky, and comfortable temperatures – an unusual and welcome threesome. I ambled around with my camera, noticed things, and photographed a few of them.

Tonight we had a string sectional, and we needed it, too. Our concert is only a month away, and we’d better accomplish a lot in that month. Some of the music we’re playing is downright challenging. My favorite among our current pieces is Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. There is so much going on within that piece. It is so personal and so emotional. I also like Brahms’s Variations on a Theme by Haydn. Parts of it are challenging, especially the Finale, which is in Presto, but it’s well worth the effort because it’s so pretty. We string players had a good time playing Wellington’s Victory tonight without the rest of the orchestra. We could actually hear ourselves. At our previous rehearsal, I couldn’t cope with the sound of four trumpets just behind my head.

The venue for tonight’s rehearsal was very interesting. Instead of the church where we normally practice, we were in a nursing home. We had an open rehearsal and the residents enjoyed the opportunity to hear us. We normally have snacks (junk food) for our break halfway through the rehearsal. Tonight I didn’t eat dinner before the rehearsal so I brought an apple with me. When we stopped for our break, we had a wonderful surprise. The staff at the nursing home invited us to have hors d’oeuvres with them. We went into an elegantly furnished room with long tables with white tablecloths and wonderful food. There were several kinds of cheese with crackers and also sliced fruit to dip in a large serving bowl filled with melted chocolate. Wow! Then someone told us that we could go to another room for hot hors d’oeuvres and dessert. The hot hors d’oeuvres included shrimp toast, stuffed mushrooms, sesame chicken, and Beef Wellington. I had some of the latter in honor of the Victory music. The dessert table was incredible. Everything was delicious, even the non-chocolate items. I must have consumed twice my monthly dietary allowance for carbohydrates. I asked the staff why we were being feted this way, and I was told that this was an annual event for the residents. I didn’t think they did all that just for us.

The nursing home was large and lavishly decorated. The residents must come from wealthy families. I talked to one of the staff members about who stays there and why. She said that most of their residents come in ambulances from local hospitals and stay for a limited duration for rehab. However, some stay for long term nursing care if they can not take care of themselves or be cared for at home. The opulence and the needy were quite a contrast. There was an excess of gourmet food tonight, so everyone benefitted from our presence.

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May 2, 2005 21:06

I've got the interview blues.

I had an interview for a temporary, part time job today. A short time ago, I would not even have considered such a thing, but I’m getting desperate. I’ve noticed that most interviewers seem more nervous than I am. This time, I decided to try harder to warm up the audience, as if I were playing a gig or meeting a new student and trying to get him or her to relax. I was successful at doing that. When I applied for this job, back in January, I thought it would be full time, long term. The woman with whom I interviewed today told me that they had decided not to hire anyone at that time but they need someone now. She may be telling the truth. Actually, I had the impression that she doesn’t know what she wants. I tried to convince her that she wants to hire me full time. I told her that I have so many skills that I could pinch hit for other people in a crunch. She said she’s not sure whether they could afford to hire someone full time but she’ll check into it. We left it that if I go to work for her, I’d start as part time and then we’d see what happens. I still don’t know whether she wants to hire me short term (through the summer) or long term. I wouldn’t mind working part time if they’d give me benefits, but very few employers give benefits to part time workers. The work sounds boring as hell, but I’m in no position to turn down an income. Ow, I have an awful headache.

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May 1, 2005 23:02

I’m so glad that I’ve started exercising again. I used to work out, aerobics and weights, five days a week. Then there was my near-fatal car accident which changed my physical activities and my whole life. I felt so bad about my loss of skills, and that feeling held me back for a while. Recently a gym opened in my neighborhood and I joined. Now I go there three days a week and do 30 minutes on some aerobic equipment (elliptical trainer and stationary bike) and then weights (machines). I’m focusing on aerobic exercise because my asthma is so bad, and the exercise really helps. Tonight I walked to the gym slowly, carrying my gym bag and wheezing and gasping. I managed to do 20 minutes of aerobic exercise. My walk home was so much easier – no gasping or wheezing. I’m so happy that I’m addicted to exercise again. I have a strong drive to go to the gym whenever I can. I’m not what I used to be, but I’m moving ahead.

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