November 2009

Simple Gifts

November 25, 2009 20:06

Some days I really should not bring in the mail. Yesterday started out that way. My mailbox was stuffed, and when I opened it, pieces of mail flew out and fell to the floor. I gathered them up, brought them inside, and looked at them. I found:

A thick, glossy Christmas catalog from LL Bean.

A thick local gazette that I never ordered and don't want. It's such a waste of paper. I can't even find any information about its source, so I can't call someone and ask them to stop delivery.

A pseudonewspaper with ads and coupons for local merchants. Most of them are things I wouldn't buy, and almost all of them are inaccessible for me because I don't have a car.

Several large cards advertising sales at nearby stores.

Several ads from nearby eateries with menus and "We Delivery" displayed prominently.

A bill from a high priced doctor's office.

A bill from a very high priced doctor's office. We really need universal, affordable, high quality medical care in this country.

One small envelope, addressed by hand, with a return address that I didn't recognize. It felt like there was a card inside. When I opened the envelope, I found a check from the parents of one of my violin students and something else that was valuable: a thank you card. Inside the card, the mother had written, "Thank you very much for teaching my son violin. He looks forward to his lessons.

I let out a deep sigh and smiled. That card saved my day.

PS.  I wish you a happy Thanksgiving and things to be thankful for every day of the year.

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November 23, 2009 03:54

My favorite time of day is just before sunset. The sunlight makes Nature's colors intense, and as the sun moves closer to the horizon, the colors change rapidly. Sometimes it seems that a spotlight is moving, drawing my attention to different spots of nearby scenery. What had been obscure shines brightly but briefly. When the autumn leaves are full of color, the spotlight makes one group of leaves after another glitter. I saw and enjoyed this when I was out walking late one afternoon last week, but I regretted that I did not have my camera with me. The next day, luck was with me. The sky was clear and the sun was bright. I took my camera and returned to the trees about an hour before sunset, and I was rewarded with a fast moving light show. I snapped pictures like crazy, knowing that the scene would not be exactly the same twice. I'm glad that I did, because the next day the weater changed. We had two days of wind and rain, and most of the very brightly colored leaves blew down.

I'd like to share a few of my pictures with you.


From Fall foliage 2009



From Fall foliage 2009



From Fall foliage 2009



From Fall foliage 2009

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Rain and Ghosts

November 17, 2009 03:05


... but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply
Thus in winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.

From Sonnet XLIII by Edna St. Vincent Millay


I met him at a jam session and fell in love with him at first sight. Within a few weeks, he fell in love with me, too. It was wonderful having someone I loved, who also loved me, to play music with. We always had music playing on CDs or Internet radio. We had violins (my primary instrument) and mandolins (his primary instrument) scattered around the living room, and whenever one or both of us liked the music that was playing, we'd pick up an instrument and jam. He wanted to learn to play fiddle. The two instruments are tuned and fingered the same way, and that was an advantage for a beginning fiddle student. When I had students over for lessons, he would hide and listen. He said that he learned a lot that way. Of course, I gave him private lessons, too. The hardest thing for him to learn -- not surprisingly -- was bowing. It was even more difficult for him because he had an old, painful injury in his right shoulder. He was determined and persistent, though, and he gradually became better and better at it.

Then we broke up and lost contact with each other. Several years went by. Sometimes I'd get some news about him from a mutual friend. Sometimes it was sad news: lung cancer. When I looked at photos of him on Facebook, he looked emaciated, and I wanted to hug him. Tonight on Facebook I saw a rather poor quality video of him and a large group of friends jamming. He was playing fiddle, and he did it very well. I couldn't hear him individually, but his right hand posture, left hand posture, and bowing looked perfect. He must have had a good teacher, I thought.

Tonight the ghosts are back, and I feel lonely.

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Veteran's Day, 2009

November 11, 2009 21:24

Today, November 11, people in countries around the world observe Veteran's Day / Armistice Day, a holiday created to honor the millions of people who died in World War I, "The War To End All Wars."

Eric Bogle wrote a song called "The Green Fields of France" or "William MacBride" for this holiday. It is a very powerful song. For several years after I learned it, I could not listen to it or play it by myself. I had to do it in the company of friends to give me strength. It still affects me deeply. I cried and at times, had to avert my eyes, when I watched this video. This video is very special, too. It was put together by a 12th grader for a sociology class. She said that she wanted it to represent not only World War I, but all wars.

The chorus of the song, which starts with "Did they beat the drums slowly..." describes a traditional Scottish funeral rite. "The Flowers of the Forest" is played at Scottish funerals and other Scottish gatherings to honor the fallen.

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Playing Notes vs Playing Music

November 3, 2009 12:29

It seems so simple and obvious: Playing notes is not the same as playing music. I once saw a musician wearing a T-shirt that said, "Just because you know a lot of notes and can play them fast doesn't mean you're a good musician." I believe that.

I'm a sort of hybrid because I play both classical and nonclassical music. I hear ignorant criticism and snobbery from both sides.

I had an interesting conversation with a very good musician, a folk guitarist, about the state of classical music in the U.S. We agreed that classical music is fighting to stay alive while newer styles of music keep gaining audiences. His opinion of, say Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, was that if you've heard one performance of it, you've heard them all. Every time it's performed, the musicians play the same notes and markings, so the outcome is always the same. I considered the vastly different sounds of a given piece when played by different orchestras or under different conductors. I remembered the debates on about the merits of different violinists who play the same pieces with entirely different interpretations. I thought of pieces written a few centuries ago which are still played and loved today, and I compared them mentally to pieces of music which were very popular ten years ago but completely forgotten today. I wondered how I could convince this man that different performances of a given piece can reveal vast varieties of beauty or that one can hear completely different things in a single recorded performance of a single work each time one listens to it. There is something deep within the listener which resonates with the music. People who respond strongly to classical music may have grown up with it or may just have it written in their genes.

There are many kinds of nonclassical, European and American music, and I've tried playing a bunch of them. I gravitate towards the ones in which technique is important because my roots are in classical music. Scottish fiddle music is very technical and appeals to a lot of classically trained musicians like me. There are virtuoso soloists, of course, but even fiddlers playing in a group play some pretty technical stuff. In Irish music, fiddle soloists can really flaunt their virtuoso techniques. The same is true of bluegrass music, although I haven't noticed many classically trained violinists turning to that genre. Something that all these kinds of nonclassical music have in common is improvisation. Even if you're only improvising ornaments, you're making the music your own. My classical training has been very helpful here. All those bowing variations in Wohlfahrt, Kreutzer, and other etude books have served me very well in playing nonclassical music. Even my orchestra experience as a second violinist has taught me many ways I can contribute to the totality of the sound even though I'm not playing melody. One time when I was jamming, I had to stop and laugh because my playing sounded like the second violin part of a Mozart symphony.

I got a rude shock recently when I heard some folk musicians describe themselves as beginner, intermediate, or advanced players based on the number of tunes they knew. Don't they know the difference between quantity and quality and the sublime importance of the latter? I became sensitive to the shortcomings of some of the folk fiddlers I had been jamming with. One fellow, definitely not a beginner, proudly played for a group of us a few tunes that he had practiced a lot earlier in the day. I didn't know what they were until after he stopped playing and named them. They were tunes that I know, but his intonation was so bad that I didn't recognize them. Then a woman played lead fiddle for a set of tunes. Her intonation was not good, and her bowing was loud and scratchy. Ow! I don't let my beginning students get away with that.

Fortunately, there are some very good folk fiddlers who are also very good teachers, including Ken Kolodner. He has put out a two CD set on folk fiddling which is really fun and very educational. The CDs contain recordings of him playing 35 old time fiddle tunes three ways: first, slowly with no ornaments; second, slowly with ornaments; and third, a tempo with ornaments. It sure beats listening to a fiddle tune over and over and trying to figure out what the fiddler is doing so quickly. Of course, there is plenty of software which will play music slowed down with no change in pitch, but Ken's CDs are so much easier to use. The CDs also contain PDF files with sheet music for all 35 tunes with bowings, chords, and comments on stylistics. To top it all off, he has a PDF file eleven pages long which describes with remarkably clarity many fiddle ornaments, how to play them, and their best uses in tunes. I bought his CD set recently, and I'm having a lot of fun learning stylistics with it. I excitedly told a fiddling friend about the treasure trove of knowledge in these CDs. He responded, "How many tunes are on the CDs?"

I think I'll look elsewhere for people to jam with.

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More entries: October 2009