December 2006

Back to viola

December 30, 2006 10:29

I didn't play viola for about 3 weeks because I didn't want to mess up my violin technique (such as that is) before my performance, but now that's over, and I was really itching to get back to the viola. I took it out again and it really does sound as good as I remembered.

For Christmas, I got a CD of the Bach cello suites played on viola by Patricia McCarty. I listened to it driving back and forth to New Jersey to visit relatives for the holidays. I was trying to pick a piece to work on next. I was at first partial to the prelude from suite no. 1; it's famous and I've heard it many times before. But the courante from that suite started to grow on me somewhere around Connecticut and I think I'll work on that one instead. First, anyway. There are six suites, each with many parts. I know you all know that already, and I did too, but I didn't really know it until now. So much to do, so little time.

I listen to music a lot while travelling. The landscape and its motion blend in with the music as I listen. I'm often on the subway or the bus, watching people. But this time, there were the leafless trees, the sleeping earth. The Bach cello suites. Right now I like them better on viola. On cello, I find them kind of depressing, mournful without end. You could listen to them while drifting through endless space watching the planets go by and the stardust. The viola gives them a dash of warmth and brightness.

I got back home and read some reviews of CD's and performances on I'm frankly amazed at the emotional maturity that other people exhibit in what they have to say about a particular interpretation of a piece of music. Whereas I am feeling, now, as if it could easily take me the rest of my life to really get my head around the Bach cello suites.

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Fantasia on Greensleeves

December 29, 2006 09:01

So, my first public performance on violin in approximately 7 years is done, and it went fine. I played on Christmas Eve morning, not evening, and that service wasn't that well attended--only about 50 people, at most. But a number of friends were there and the most fun part was sharing stories before and afterwards.

The church music director's daughter was playing cello for another part of the service and it was great to get to know her. My hands got really cold right before the service started--something that's happened to me many times before--and she loaned me her gloves. She said to wear them until the offertory, when I was playing. I did, and it helped a lot. It wasn't just the actual hand-warming effect of the gloves, which was good in itself, but also the fact of having someone care and be able to offer useful practical assistance. I felt supported and cared for even when I took the gloves off to play.

My husband recorded most of the performance but it's from a weird angle, basically from the back, because of where he was sitting. Watching myself from that angle, what I noticed most was how I was motioning the beat with my entire body. I think I did that more than would have been ideal. I'd been having some trouble keeping the beat with the pianist during rehearsal so I think this was some kind of response to that problem. We ended up doing fine with keeping the beat and keeping together during the performance, but I think I looked like I was gyrating too much. The other obvious mistake, to me, was a long note where I ran out of bow. That happened to me sometimes when I was practicing and I knew it might be a problem, and then it was. It didn't occur to me until afterwards that maybe I should have just changed bow while the piano had a moving part--that wouldn't have been so bad. As it was, I don't think anyone in the audience, other than I, was particularly bothered by it.

One woman in the congregation came up to me afterwards and said that her late husband, a documentary filmmaker during World War II, had used "Fantasia on Greensleeves" as background music to part of one of his films. She said that he had been very attached to all the music he used in his films and had owned records to all of it and played it repeatedly. As a result she came to associate that piece with him, and she thanked me for bringing that part of him back to her.

Another friend, also a mother, and a minister by profession, mused on how much easier it was not to be nervous in front of an audience after you've had kids. She's right.

And another woman mentioned that she'd studied viola for a while as a child but her teacher forced her to give up the viola and play violin instead, and she hadn't liked that as well and now she played neither. Scratch the surface of another violinist to find a violist . . .

I'm looking forward to playing viola in March for the same audience!

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One down, one to go

December 19, 2006 05:19

I had our Christmas choir concert on Sunday. I was also thinking about the vibrato thread as I was rehearsing. I ended up rehearsing with just one of my fellow sopranos the day before, a little mini-sectional, and it was very interesting. This woman is an adult beginner with respect to singing, she takes voice lessons, and she has a nice vibrato at least when she opens her mouth.

I usually just go along thinking that every amateur singer has the same problems I have--which are mostly with volume and tone (no vibrato and all that). But my friend has completely different issues. For example, she hits a note correctly and then goes flat. She also goes flat if she doesn't open her mouth widely enough. At one point I just had her do a few intervals, repeatedly: a fourth, a major sixth, a minor sixth, and then she got those jumps down, and in tune, forever afterwards. I'm no voice teacher, but I don't understand why her teacher doesn't do that with her all the time! If she got the notes, she'd be great. It just surprised me to hear vibrato come so naturally to someone who struggles with pitch.

I had a bit of a frog in my throat the morning of the performance and was warming up in the car driving to the church trying to get rid of it. I didn't, completely, but enough so that I was able to hold my own through the difficult descant. I was humming all the way home, and still singing "Gloria" (Vivaldi) under my breath.

Now it's time to concentrate on violin. I invited some friends to come hear me play this weekend, too. With all the other holiday hoo-ha, I'm feeling like I don't need this, too. But then on the other hand, it's a way to concentrate and shut it all out and make Christmas about something other than trying to be organized and cross things off my to-do list.

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Dark of Winter

December 12, 2006 07:53

One of my favorite songs for this time of year is "Dark of Winter," a Unitarian-Universalist hymn by Shelley Jackson Denham.

Dark of winter, soft and still,
your quiet calm surrounds me.
Let my thoughts go where they will,
ease my mind profoundly.
And then my soul will sing a song,
a blessed song of love eternal.
Gentle darkness soft and still,
bring your quiet to me.

Darkness, soothe my weary eyes,
that I may see more clearly.
When my heart with sorrow cries,
comfort and caress me.
And then my soul may hear a voice
still, small voice of love eternal.
Darkness, when fears arise,
let your peace flow through me.

As I learn Fantasia on Greensleeves to play on Christmas Eve, it has occurred to me a few times now that: 1. This hymn, Dark of Winter, would sound great on the viola; and 2. It also might lend itself to some kind of "Fantasia on . . ." arrangement. I did a little searching and found this blog:

Inspired by a snowstorm, the author wrote a little piece for viola based on this hymn.

I have a similar feeling--different interpretation than his, but the impulse of the viola sound, the warmth amid the darkness, renewal, comfort--all things I need to get me through this time of year when there is no light and things threaten to turn depressing. . .

I did a tiny bit of composing when I was in high school. Simple tunes as part of a music theory class. There was no Finale, no Sibelius, back then. I feel something that wants to come out, but I don't know if I have the skills . . .

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More Greensleeves

December 10, 2006 16:42

I rehearsed "Greensleeves" with the pianist this morning. It went pretty well. She said "we don't really need another full rehearsal, just a little warm-up before the performance." But I want another full rehearsal.

There were two things that became apparent. The first is that the dynamic markings for the violin solo need to be taken with a grain of salt. It's mostly marked piano. But if I really play piano, she'll drown me out. The piano part is lovely. It's very rich. I have to play what I would have considered a good solid forte the whole way through in order to be heard. She said, "I want you to play out, to project your sound." I've been working on using the whole bow consistently, and sustaining the tone, in practice, and I think I'm doing better with that. The vibrato thread is probably relevant here too. The other thing that became apparent is that I need to keep the tempo moving. I was practicing with a metronome to keep myself from dragging, but then I got on stage without the metronome, and there I was, dragging again. I think the pianist took it even faster than I was used to.

I could do it that way, but it felt like a really physical workout when I was done. I even had to take off my sweater while I was playing so I wouldn't sweat so much. I was nervous. Yikes. And it was just me, the pianist, and the sanctuary where we're playing. No audience--yet.

But then when I was done and came down from the adrenaline rush, I actually felt really good. I had been feeling kind of sick (stuffed nose) and anxious (work deadlines) and that all took a back seat. I felt energized and ready to work. So maybe performing is good for me after all . . .

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Longwood Symphony

December 7, 2006 17:27

I went to see the Longwood Symphony Orchestra over the weekend, for my birthday. First of all, my former neighbor, Owen Young, a cellist with the Boston Symphony, was playing the Saint-Saens Cello Concerto, No. 1. When he and I lived in the same condo complex a few years ago, I'd heard him practicing through the walls of his townhouse sometimes. I figured he must be good if he was in the BSO, but I didn't know how good. Second of all, I wanted to see what the Longwood Symphony was like. I wanted to know if I had a chance to make it next year.

On the first point, was Owen good, the answer was yes, yes, and yes. Wow. He kicked a**. And on top of that, he has a beautiful-sounding instrument. He's played a few other solos locally, I can find them on the web, but I don't think he's recorded any CD's. That's too bad, I'd buy them!

Most of my previous experience with listening to the cello has been with students, and it has always seemed to me that they had to be careful not to moo like a cow. I never cared for the cello all that much and I certainly never wanted to carry one around on a bus the way I did with my violin for years. But, there's something so deep and satisfying about the way it sounds when the bow is being pulled across the string of a really nice cello by a really talented player. It's similar to what I like about the sound of my viola.

Why is this sound so conspicuously lacking from my violin? I called a luthier today, finally, and left a message. It was the second place I called. The first place was snotty about the fact that I had not purchased the instrument at their store and wouldn't touch it because of that. (No, sorry, it was purchased from a private party in upstate New York in 1978).

On the second point, it was hard to tell. I had hoped I could sit near the violas and watch them, but my husband bought the tickets and from the seats he got we could see the soloist really well, and the first violins. After trying to watch the violas for a while and giving up, I decided to watch the firsts instead, and they were fascinating. I think there's a greater degree of variety in posture and style in amateur orchestras than in professional ones. Just in the two stands on the end, there was a very upright, extremely straight sitting-on-the-edge-of-the-chair, perfectly-made-up woman, right behind a kind of slouchy guy who looked too big for his instrument. My first thought about him was, get this man a viola. My second thought was, get him to the Alexander Technique, fast. But maybe it's the really straight sitting woman who needs the Alexander Technique. Trying to sit up really straight used to give me serious back pain in orchestra rehearsals.

In general, they were really good. But as a section they seemed to lack some cohesion in places. Fast passages could be muddy, especially in the Saint-Saens, and it was especially noticeable there when Owen played something and then passed the theme to the orchestra. He was always crisp and clear and right on, and they were sometimes, well, not. They weren't out of tune or obviously not together, it was just a little mushy.

The final piece was Bernstein Symphony No. 1, “Jeremiah.” I was not familiar with it and I'm not sure I really "got" it. It went by quite fast. The second movement was supposed to represent the malign influence of paganism, according to the program notes, but I thought it sounded surprisingly playful and cheerful. I didn't really understand where the notion of defilement was supposed to come in.

And I just have to ask this of the more experienced concert musicians: what is it with operatic singers and vibrato? As in, why do they use so much? The mezzo-soprano here had a beautiful voice in many ways: clear, projecting, perfect intonation. But I felt she used too much vibrato and it was distracting. The movement was supposed to be a lamentation in Hebrew and she didn't sound grieficken.

I've heard other "classical" singers and they all use at least that much vibrato as she did. She wasn't unusual or off-scale by those standards at all. But in "pop" music, with performers like Mariah Carey or Whitney Houston, yeah, they use some vibrato, but not like that.

In my own music, on the violin and viola, I've also been trying to work out how much vibrato I want to use and when. And I'm finding that often, for me, less is more. I'm curious how the convention developed in any case. Am I just showing my amateurity by saying that I prefer the "pop" style with less vibrato? Or is that a legitimate opinion held by others?

Then I talked to one of my friends at work who plays the violin and found out that she tried out last year for this orchestra and didn't make it. I've never heard her play; I don't know how good she is. She works pretty hard in lab, hasn't studied as long as I have, and probably doesn't have a lot of time to practice. And she said she was really nervous at her audition and she didn't even think she sounded very good. But still, even knowing all that, for some reason,knowing and liking someone who tried out and didn't make it makes me nervous. I wish she had made it. At least then I'd know someone who could tell me what it's like.

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