April 2009

Adult Beginners and Pandora's Box

April 22, 2009 10:37

I was having a bad hair day. First, I studied the printed and online information from my new health insurance company to see whether they would adequately fund some of the treatments I need. They would not.

Next I did battle with my computer. It has been behaving very, very badly. I feared that I would have to have it nuked and rebuilt it, as I did once before. I sent a desperate email to a friend who is a top notch trouble shooter of computers and asked him to help.

After that, I tried to clean up the mess I got when I downloaded Henryk Szeryng's Bach S&P recordings from amazon.com. Somehow, not deliberately, I downloaded six copies. Fortunately, amazon.com only charged me for one copy. The tracks were thoroughly randomized, and I tried to put them in order, hoping that I could outwit Microsoft. I couldn't.

By this time, I felt like doing some heavy exercise or punching someone out. Suddenly someone knocked on my door. I looked at my watch and realized that one of my adult beginner students had just arrived for his lesson.

That student was like the hope in Pandora's box. He was an adult male, and this was his second lesson. In the first lesson, I taught him how to hold the violin and bow and how to play the open strings with long, smooth bow strokes, making a pretty sound. He caught on unusually quickly. During the following week, he got bored playing open strings and tried to play some songs, but he didn't know where to place his fingers. He came to his second lesson with energy, excitement, and a sense of purpose.

Like most of my beginners, he experienced tension in his left shoulder after playing for a short time. Adult males have the most trouble with this because they have the biggest muscles. In his first lesson, I had showed him several exercises which would stretch his shoulder muscles and relieve the cramps and discomfort there. The strongest of these stretching exercises is the deltoid stretch. At his second lesson, he was still getting shoulder cramps frequently, sometimes after playing just a few notes. He didn't let it bother him, though. He would just put down his violin, laugh, shake his head, stretch, and resume playing. I admired him for his ability to laugh at himself and for his dedication to doing things correctly. I decided that he needed more help with relieving, or better still, preventing the cramps. I stood up and walked around him, a full 180 degrees, watching his left hand all the time, knowing that a little excess tension in the hand can create cramps all the way up the arm to the shoulder. Playing under my srutiny didn't bother him. He played as long as he could, then put his violin down, laughed, and stretched. I thought that I would never be able to do what he did -- continue working while my teacher circled around me like a hawk looking for good places to attack. My investigation was fruitful. I found several places where he could adjust his left hand to ease the tension in his shoulder. One by one, I showed him his sources of stress and ways to relieve them. He was quite excited to learn, especially because the changes helped him so much. I watched him concentrate while he played, knowing that when a person concentrates intensely on one part of his body, he often gets tense in a different part of his body. This student clenched his jaw. While he played, I frequently told him to relax his jaw, and he always laughed when I caught him in the act. I knew that this guy really wanted to learn to play the violin and didn't let a myriad of mistakes dampen his enthusiasm.

All of this happened while he was playing open strings. When I asked him whether he would like to learn to play some notes, his answer was an enthusiastic "Yes." This fellow had a strong sense of adventure, and I admired him for it. I started by teaching him how to play short "scales" on each string (for example, A B C# D C# B A on the A string). I played with him and had him match my pitch. At first, his fingers groped for the right places, and I sometimes gave him a clue, either "higher" or "lower." He caught on fast and loved it. He kept saying, "Wow! This is so satisfying." By then, we had gone a few minutes beyond the scheduled lesson time of 45 minutes, but he and I were having so much fun that I didn't stop.

I went to my computer to print out a cheat sheet (fingering diagram) for him, and he kept playing scales by himself -- almost always perfectly in tune. I was impressed with him.

I handed him the cheat sheet and gave him a preview of his next lesson by playing Twinkle. He got really excited and wanted to try it, so I taught him the first two lines by ear. He loved it. "This is so satisfying," he told me. He also said that he was eager to play the whole tune for his three year old daughter.

I checked the time again and told him that we had gone 20 minutes beyond his lesson time and we had to stop. He thanked me, told me that he was eager to go home and practice, and left.

Teaching that lesson had turned my day around. It was so satisfying.

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Bach and The Banjo

April 12, 2009 20:21

Bela Fleck is one of the best and most versatile banjo players alive.



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The Silk Road Ensemble with Yo Yo Ma in Concert

April 2, 2009 23:00

A concert by the Silk Road Ensemble with Yo Yo Ma enlivened my life recently, just as the one I attended four years ago (see my blog dated April 26, 2005) did.

The Silk Road Ensemble takes its name from the collection of ancient trade routes which connected Europe and the Far East, passing through southwest and south central Asia. The Ensemble now includes music from even more locales, including Africa and Central and South America. The format of the Ensemble's concerts, like the cultural makeup of its music, varies from time to time. This year the concert contained several composed pieces mingling various musical traditions. At first I was concerned that the vitality of the traditional music would be compromised when it was "imprisoned" on paper, but I was wrong. All the pieces were fantastic cross cultural musical experiences.

A mixture of Chinese and Incan music, as improbable as it may sound, did actually begin in the late 1800s when a Chinese man moved to the Andean mountains and opened a country store. His great-granddaughter. Gabriela Lena Frank, composed the first piece of the concert in his honor. It began with two violinists, two violists, and one cellist (Yo Yo Ma) playing some unusual, loud pizzicato notes on their instruments. Each player traced a wide arc with his right hand, beginning above and to the left of his head, gathering momentum until it plucked the string, and to finish the arc below and to the right of his body. The effect was especially dramatic on the cello, from which the pizz sound rang load and clear. Later in the piece, the Western stringed instruments were played in a more conventional manner with bows. The Western string musicians were joined by a woman playing the pipa, a Chinese traditional musical instrument resembling a large lute, which is held vertically in the lap and plucked with the fingers of the right hand, often in very complex finger picking patterns. This player's rapid, complex finger picking patterns seemed almost superhuman. The next musician played a (sheng), a traditional Chinese instrument which originated about 3,000 years ago. It is sometimes called a "Chinese mouth organ" because it can play up to six notes simultaneously. The pipa and players engaged in a musical dialogue backed up by the Western string instruments. The beginning of the following clip, from a workshop and performance of the Silk Road Ensemble in Chicago in 2007, contains a verbal and musical introduction to these two Chinese instruments.

The second piece was based on a very old Sanskrit treatise, dating back to about 800 B.C.E. The rhythm section consisted of tabla, small drums used in Indian classical music as far back as the first few millenia B.C.E., when they were played to accompany Vedic chants. The violins figured prominently in this piece, but they did not sound like any violins I've heard. I tried to guess how they produced such strange sounds. All notes played as harmonics? Strange mutes? Bows placed too close to the bridge? I looked through my opera glasses and ruled out all of these theories. My best guess is that they used ingenious electronic devices.



My favorite piece in this concert was in the same genre as my favorite in the concert four years ago: a gypsy dance that grew wilder and wilder as it was played. The original gypsies migrated westward from north central India through Persia, Turkey, and Eastern Europe. They were enslaved and persecuted mercilessly for centuries. The music of the gypsy Diaspora includes strains from many different cultures. The gypsy music at this concert was based on a Turkish folk song traditionally played at the end of a wedding party. Violins are absolutely wonderful instruments for gypsy music. The piece was started by a few violinists who continued in a prominent role throughout the piece, which culminated in a wild frenzy of playing. The violins played with an assorted collection of instruments from different cultures. One, an Indian drum, looked like a rectangular box roughly the size and shape of a good stereo speaker. The player sat on this drum while he played it, often exchanging riffs with a standup bass player. Other instruments in this performance were the Chinese sheng and the cajon, a Peruvian drum. The music was wild from the start, got wilder as it progressed, and ended in a dazzling frenzy.

The concert concluded with a piece based on a classic Arabian love story dating back to the seventh century. The story is well known and loved in the cultures of Central Asia. It is a theme so fundamentally human that it is found in many cultures and many eras. In our own culture, it is the Romeo and Juliet story. The setting played in this concert, although written in a complex form of Azerbaijani modal music, went right to the heart of the audience. The instruments came from several different cultures and included

the tar, a large, round, Persian frame drum,


the daf, a plucked instrument akin to the lute or guitar, with a long neck and two gourds joined together for the body, and


the erhu, a Chinese traditional bowed instrument with two strings.

There were also two singers, a man and a woman, clad in beautiful, flowing costumes. The man's voice was especially rich and seemed to fill the whole concert hall. The singers' voices conveyed their emotions beautifully and clearly even though their language was incomprehensible to the audience.

The performing ensemble, formerly called "Yo Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble," is now called "The Silk Road Ensemble with Yo Yo Ma" -- an important change. Yo Yo Ma created something bigger than himself, with a life of its own and changes he could not have foreseen. The music comes from many cultures and many eras, but it continues to thrive because it is so fundamentally human.


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