December 2007

Animal, vegetable, miracle

December 31, 2007 06:36

I am reading the book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver, Steven Hopp, and Camille Kingsolver, which I received as a Christmas gift. It is about how Kingsolver and her family (husband and two daughters: college-age and elementary-school age) moved to a farm in Appalachia and grew their own food for a year. I've only gotten to the part about asparagus and wild mushrooms so far, which is around April.

One of Kingsolver's theses is that here in North America the average consumer is disconnected from the food seasons because any food is available at any time; if not in season, food is trucked in from great distances, often at great cost to the environment. She also touches on a related topic, that because everything is always available, even from distant lands, there isn't a coherent sense here in North America of what goes together, of a cuisine with integrity and unity: an idea also explored by Michael Pollan in his book, Omnivore's Dilemma (of which I've only read reviews and summaries).

I'm a fan of Kingsolver's work, especially her fiction and essays such as The Bean Trees , High Tide in Tucson, and The Poisonwood Bible. As a biologist myself, I love the way she writes about biology and I'm generally in sync with her politics. I've learned many fascinating things in just the first few chapters of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: I learned what "heirloom" varieties are--not just a fancy-schmancy rich-sounding name, but plant varieties that breed true and from which you can save the seeds from year to year (unlike many hybrids, seeds bred such that their desirable characteristics are reliable for one generation only). She also introduced me to the concept of the "vegetannual," a way to think about the growing season such that the order in which individual plants grow and mature can be mapped onto the series of vegetables: first the leaves (spinach, lettuce), then more mature heads of leaves and flower heads (broccoli, cauliflower), then early fruits (cucumbers green beans), followed by more mature, colorfully ripened fruits: (tomatoes, eggplants), and large, hard-shelled fruits with developed seeds inside (watermelons, pumpkins) and finally root crops. This is probably not news to many of you (hi, Albert), but it was to me, a North American suburban dweller who has only this year been able to find a suitable spot on my property with enough sun to grow tomatoes (on my playroom roof--the backyard is too shady!)

I could do without some of her opining about flavor and taste, however, which in my opinion borders on proselytizing and overgeneralization, the bugaboo of many otherwise worthy efforts to persuade the general reader of a particular point of view. But my negative gut reaction to her sometimes overly enthusiastic dissing of out-of-season fruits and vegetables is what triggered me to think about music in a similar context. Kingsolver is also a musician, a keyboardist and vocalist who has performed and toured with a group called the "Rock Bottom Remainders," a band made up of famous authors also including Amy Tan, Matt Groening, and Stephen King. I've never heard them play (but have seen them dissed in print, with much harsher language than anything Kingsolver dishes out about bad tomatoes), and I wonder if Kingsolver has thought about music the same way she has thought about food. Farmers' Markets figure prominently in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and in 2007 two of my own most enjoyable performing experiences on the viola took place at a local Farmers' Market.

When I was choosing the music for the market, I struggled with many of the same types of "seasonal" issues. For example, when I performed on July 5th, I wanted a patriotic song, something that might evoke July 4th and small-town America. I ended up choosing and arranging for viola two selections from the Laura Ingalls Wilder Songbook, "Hail Columbia," and "When Johnny Comes Marching Home." I also chose several fiddle tunes, two with the name of Boston in the title, thinking that they may be, or at least have been at one time, part of the local musical "cuisine." These efforts of mine seem a little amateurish (reflecting my amateur status), and I have started musing, for the future, on how to take the process of music choice to another level. Aside from Vivaldi's "Four Seasons," parts of which I've also performed, and the obvious Christmas music this time of year, I'm not aware of much in the way of seasonal music. Where is the music that goes with wild mushrooms and asparagus? With pumpkins and squash? Or, for that matter, with the February doldrums when nothing's growing, everyone's had about enough of snow and ice, but spring hasn't come?

I also think that we in modern classical music do suffer from something analogous to Pollan's "Omnivore's Dilemma." North American adolescents learn Russian and German and Polish concertos up to the highest technical levels, but my feeling from having grown up in the public school music system is that a lot of these pieces are taught out of context, technical issues first and foremost. And I've never shaken the slightly disoriented feeling I had seeing German folk songs renamed and presented as practice-building exercises in my daughter's Suzuki book 1.

But as my complaint about Kingsolver's relatively benign food dogmatism shows, it's a true dilemma without simple answers. There are real delights to being an omnivore, moral imperatives for embracing diversity. And as many opinions as there are listeners and tasters.

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Lesson, here I come . . .

December 26, 2007 05:24

When I posted about starting lessons and not being able to decide on violin vs. viola, someone suggested I get a violin/viola double case and bring both instruments to my lesson. I got one for Christmas:


The viola part is too big for my viola, which I knew would happen. The description said it will fit up to a 17" viola (mine is 15.5"). I'm thinking I will put a cloth in the space next to it to keep it from sliding around.

Also, the interior is green! I was complaining about my rental viola case being green in the spring. So much so that when I bought my real viola I made sure to get a blue case. But this is a better green. It could grow on me. I think the instruments look quite nice in there.

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Finger patterns and virtual strings

December 15, 2007 06:02

A few weeks ago I had a viola epiphany of sorts. I really wasn't treating the C string with the respect it is due. I was viewing it as a low G string, the "grandpa" string of the viola, same as the violin, just lower in some vague way. This was unconscious on my part, and I didn't even realize I was doing it, until I started playing Fiorillo #9, which starts on the C string, with a C-E-G major arpeggio. What was I saying to myself in my head as I played? "G-B(2)-D." Oops.

So, how could I get my unconscious mind on board and think C-E-G, give those notes their right names? Where is D-E-F-G fingered as 1-2-3-4? Those patterns are so unnatural! That makes no sense! Ugh, alto clef! But wait, actually, it does. The same pattern 1-2-3-4 with a half step between the 2 and 3 is already ingrained in my mind and fingers as third position on the A string, both violin and viola. Suddenly, with that piece of the puzzle, I was able to "see" and "feel" in my mind a natural D-E-F-G progression on the C string. Fiorillo "clicked." C-E-G-C-E-G-grace-note-B-C-G-E-C-G-E . . .

But then, last night I was practicing the dreaded 3-octave G-major scale. The Bach Allemande is in G major. Normally I will warm up with a 2-octave scale, but I decided to try to add the 3rd octave. The Fleisch scale system for viola starts this on in 3rd position on the C string, with a 2 for the G. So it was not as simple as just "adding" the third octave, I had to start out somewhere weird. And then I had another of these Cing moments: when in heck is G-A-B-C fingered as 2-3-4-1? Well, in 2nd position on the D string, I guess, but who does that? In first position on the E string, too, but that breaks down quickly because there isn't a B string up above that you can go to for the 1.

So, this is really a learning-something-new kind of moment. I've encountered a pattern I just need to get more comfortable with, and when/if I do, it should even help me with 2nd position. And, it's even kind of fun to imagine how one might finger a virtual B string.

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It's cold out there

December 14, 2007 03:29

We had a big snowstorm in Boston and Cambridge yesterday. It took me an hour and a half to get home, double my normal commute by T and bus. And at the end I just got off the bus and walked because it was faster. I beat the bus home. I even almost caught up to the one I had missed leaving Harvard Square because it was too crowded to get on. Where's that improbability drive when you need one?

An observation: iPod nano batteries get freaky and lose power when they get cold. But you warm them up again, and the icon goes back from red to green. What's up with that?

I'm feeling a little like I've hit a plateau in my string playing. My winter concert at church went well, but I have a serious case of the "what now's". And, I had to postpone this week's lesson because of work deadlines.

Another observation: They don't appear to be closing my daughter's school today. Bummer! ("Bummer" is not used very much anymore, is it? I'm dating myself. Now everything is "sweet!" The undergrad I'm supervising says, when I tell her to back up these files and burn a CD: "sweet!" My daughter would think a snow day is "sweet!" When, after waiting 25 minutes, not one but two busses finally showed up, people said, "sweet!")

I have, as usual, a lot of questions for my teacher. In particular, I want to start learning a new piece other than the Bach suites. My teacher recommended a Schumann (something. Sonata, maybe. I'm not sure). I liked it when I heard it. It was melodic and rich, round and not square.

But I had also told her about the Clarke Passacaglia and she'd been enthusiastic about that too. I probably don't have time for both at once. And I don't know which would make a better audition piece for the LSO. Maybe neither of those, maybe I should stick with Bach for the audition: I have it memorized (if I could just remember the dynamics). If anyone asks me to play something on the spot, I'm ready.

Some of these threads can be like Godiva chocolates. The box is just sitting there on your desk, wrapped in a gold elastic band. You really should *not* eat another one. You've had 6 already. But it's a big box. And, well, your boss gave them to you for a job well done. And, it's the holidays. One more is not going to make a difference in the grand scheme of things--after all, you've already had 6 (diet? Um . . . everyone knows diets don't work). So, you lift the lid, click the link, and . . . let's just say that the idea of having threads hit 100 and get archived is brilliant. How else would we be able to find the time to go back and practice our never-ending Kreutzer? Sweet!

Another observation: the wireless mouse on this computer has a loose connection. The little green light keeps going off. I jiggle it and it comes back on.

I've added several more lines of Fiorillo #9 and am slowly working my way through it. I think, however, that although he's not saying anything (yet), I'm driving my husband a little crazy with Fiorillo #9. Or maybe somewhere cats are howling and the Dalai Lama is shedding a tear (that was a hilarious blog). I'm trying to be a lot more of a perfectionist with this etude than I usually am (or was) with etudes.

And, I'm concluding that . . . I'm not a perfectionist! Nothing new there. It's just not in my nature. (The mouse went out again. Rats!)

This now seems to have happened to me often enough to be a trend: work towards a goal, achieve that goal reasonably well, let down. Flounder around, wonder what's next, try to decide what to do. I usually, eventually, make a decision and lurch onwards, but I wish I could decrease the turnaround time.

And boy, is it cold out there.

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Life, the Universe, and Everything

December 4, 2007 05:24

"You're really not going to like it," observed Deep Thought.
"Tell us!"
"Alright," said Deep Thought. "The Answer to the Great Question..."
"Of Life, the Universe and Everything..." said Deep Thought.
"Is..." said Deep Thought, and paused.
"Forty-two," said Deep Thought, with infinite majesty and calm.

[From the "The Hitch Hikers Guide to Galaxy", by Douglas Adams]

Today is my birthday. I'm now the answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything. I started playing music again a couple of years ago, some months after turning 40, and it has been an adventure.

My performance of Bach, Vivaldi, and Vaughan Williams on Sunday went pretty well. The music director told me that I'm "getting better every time," which coming from her is actually quite something. I think my most notable progress was that I was able to not get thrown by minor mistakes in performance. I made a few--intonation and otherwise--but I just moved on. I lost focus once in the middle of Greensleeves, but I got it back. The performance was an average (for me), rather than below-personal-average like I'm used to, rendition of the pieces. I hope that at some point I might actually be able to rise to the occasion and play above my average during a performance, but that's for another time. Another goal to aspire to. I will also note that the overall level of my personal average has improved.

I'm still processing my interactions with the music director during this. As I indicated in my last blog, I was clearly rattled by her comments during our penultimate rehearsal. I'm not thick-skinned, I'm self-conscious, and I'm still in what's probably a lifelong recovery process from performance anxiety. But now, I'm also "the answer."

For our dress rehearsal the morning of the performance, I took more charge of the rehearsal than I had previously. I just calmly told her I needed to rehearse each of the troublesome measures we'd identified in the previous rehearsal, and we did so, slowly and carefully. The entrance that I had initially missed in the Bach turned out fine, and the hardest measure for me to hear in the Vivaldi was reasonably in tune with the piano. People in the audience were very nice. My non-musician husband, bless his heart, said "that first piece (the Vivaldi) sounded pretty good. Was that the viola or the violin?" I reminded him it was the violin--although he's said before that he prefers the sound of the viola--and he said "yes, that was very good for a violin!" The minister sent me a nice email the next day telling me how he loves Greensleeves and it's one of his favorite seasonal pieces.

I debriefed my teacher during my lesson and she had very positive and encouraging things to say about how I'd handled the situation. One new conclusion we came to is that I really had needed more rehearsal time with the music director for the program. We had decided to do two of the pieces (the Vivaldi and the Bach) essentially at the last minute when my partner for the Bach double couldn't play due to illness. My teacher said that string players always need to adjust their intonation the first time they play with others--or at least she always does, and she plays with others professionally, all the time--that's normal. And choral directors and pianists aren't necessarily used to working with string players. Thinking back to that penultimate rehearsal, I think that's a lot of what was going on. She was just nervous and uncomfortable working with a "normal" string player and the issues that one encounters. I feel really good that I was able to talk her through those issues, at least to some extent. And to help my husband appreciate the violin :)

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Yelling doesn't pay

December 2, 2007 05:13

I have a performance today. It's 6:30 a.m. my time and I feel like it's too early to practice. I don't want to wake the kids, or my husband. Besides, it's pitch dark outside. Looking out my west-facing window here, there's no hint of the sun yet. The weather website is predicting snow. Advent calendars are up, and I'm playing "Fantasia on Greensleeves" in church about 5 hours from now. In between now and then, I will also have to attend a Religious Education Committee meeting and take minutes, and get my kids to their first Christmas pageant rehearsal.

I'm surprisingly un-nervous. Last year before performing this same piece in front of this same audience, I was pretty scared. But at that time it had only been about 3 months since I started playing again. Now it's been over a year, I have new, wonderful strings on my violin, a new chin rest and bow rehair, and I've even had some lessons.

But I must confess, after 10 years at this church, I'm still afraid of the music director. She doesn't read this blog, doesn't spend much time on the internet. In fact, she just got an email address a few years ago. And to be honest, this is mostly on me, not her. There are two things she does, both in the choir when I've been in that and while working with me individually as an instrumentalist, that have been hard for me to take in the right spirit.

The first is the way she handles entrances. In the choir a few years ago, the soprano section had a difficult entrance about 5 measures into a piece that we always screwed up. Every single time, it went like this: she'd play the intro, we'd enter incorrectly, she'd stop and yell at us and make us do it again. We'd do it until we got it sort of right, and then move on. Of course, since each of these sessions was of the 3-times-wrong, 1-time-right variety, we were learning exactly the wrong thing. Since I'd never heard the piece in any other context, that was what was in my ear. I'd get to the place where she always stopped us, and something would happen in my mind, the phrase would break and have to be picked up again. The performance was mediocre: the entrance was sort of okay but could have been better, and the phrase didn't really get going strongly until we moved beyond the part where she always stopped us in rehearsal.

So, last week there she and I were, rehearsing a violin and piano arrangement of Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring. We were sight-reading it. I don't find the notes of this piece difficult; it's familiar to me and I played 2nd violin in an orchestral arrangement of it in high school. However, there was a section where the piano was playing alone for two measures, she made a ritard, and I came in too early. She stopped and started yelling. "No! Listen! Don't count! I'm going to slow down there. Listen!" She went back to some place and started playing again. I didn't know where she'd gone back to. I still wasn't sure where to come in. I managed to do it correctly the second time, and she still stopped us again. "You've gotta know where to come in by listening," she said again. "Okay," I said meekly.

So she's right. I came in wrong. My bad. But we were sight-reading, and now, basically, I've got a complex about it. It's the soprano section all over again: I'm now afraid of that entrance. I've got the wrong thing mixed together with the right thing in my ear. And I've been told, in no uncertain terms, "don't count, listen!" If I had more time, maybe I'd try to find a recording and listen to that (that's helped in selected cases with choir in the past), but this is an unusual arrangement, it's not the composer's original, so I'm unlikely to find exactly what I need even if I did have more time. We have another rehearsal, right before the service. I'm hoping we can rehearse that passage *correctly* a few more times.

The other thing that's bugging me is the way she deals with intonation. Last year in the soprano section we had a member, "Mary," who was a beginning singer and who had trouble singing in tune although she had quite a nice voice in terms of volume, tone, and even vibrato. Mary confided to me at one point that she didn't think the director wanted her there, because the director kept giving her dirty looks during rehearsal. So before one of the performances, I rehearsed the part with Mary alone, slowly, just she and I at a piano, breaking it down and isolating intervals, playing them and singing them back. This helped me too. I didn't understand why we couldn't do something like that in rehearsal. Put the right thing in our ear instead of the wrong thing.

Anyway, something similar happened when I was rehearsing the Vivaldi Largo from Winter with the music director last week. In spite of much improvement with my teacher's help, I didn't have a lesson this week because my teacher was on tour and there were a few notes that were still off. I had had a hard time hearing it, and hadn't heard it practicing alone by myself, I only heard it once the piano accompaniment was there too. This time I stopped us and said I wanted to play that part slowly so I could figure out what was wrong and correct it. I didn't know whether the note was sharp or flat, only that it sounded wrong. I told her I can't hear it when it goes by so quickly. She then said "are you sure you want to play this?" Yikes, that made it sound like she was ready to drop the whole thing--and all I wanted to do was repeat a measure slowly a couple of times. The intonation flaw--like the ones my choir friend Mary had--seemed relatively minor to me, and eminently fixable. Why did it make her want to drop the whole piece (or make Mary feel bad the way she did in choir)? If we can't play it perfectly the first time, we should just pick up our marbles and go home?

The music director is a very good musician. She has a number of professional gigs outside of this choir director job and is no doubt used to working with higher caliber musicians than we. I'm sure they get it right the first time and don't have to work on intonation in rehearsal. And, in spite of what I wrote above, I think she even basically likes and respects me--even as a musician (not just as a scientist, or as a member of the RE committee, or any of the other roles in which we are passingly acquainted). It's just that her attitude wears on me. I feel that amateurs such as Mary and myself deserve the same kind of respect as the professionals she works with the rest of the week. We shouldn't be yelled at when we miss our entrances or play out of tune notes. We should be worked with so that we can get them right.

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