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Karen Allendoerfer

Who Needs Sleep?

September 30, 2007 at 12:41 PM

Yesterday I took my daughter to the town's Saturday morning music school. It's an adjunct to the in-school program--in my opinion, a necessary one. The students are divided up according to their instruments and grouped with a professional teacher on that instrument. There were also high school student helpers there who are doing community service. There are many more opportunities for orchestra performance with this group than there are in the school program. The downside: it meets from 8-10 a.m. on Saturday mornings. They were selling T-shirts that had printed on the back "Who Needs Sleep?"

Who needs sleep? That question reminded me of the thread going on right now in the discussion section started by a 13-year-old who has to practice 4 hours per day, on top of schoolwork, and whose mom yells at him if he doesn't. While I've never practiced 4 hours a day myself, my best friend and stand partner for a year in high school had a similar experience to the teen from the thread. We were best friends and stand partners during the school year when we were 13/14. She was a freshman in high school and I, having skipped a grade earlier, was a sophomore. Her parents were on her case about both academics and violin as long as I knew her. She ran away from home the following year; we lost touch for years and made contact briefly again as adults. At that time her life was pretty troubled and she'd quit the violin altogether.

We really were best friends for that year we were stand partners: played duets together, went to youth orchestra together, had the same crush on the same guy. It's been a long time but I still miss her. The stand partner is an interesting, complicated relationship, one that people don't talk about very much. I guess for professionals the relationship must be brief, superficial, and strictly business (or is it? Do some pros in orchestras sit with the same person for decades?). But it's also a situation where you get to know the other player's playing pretty well: her style, her idiosyncracies, where she gets lost, how she counts measures rest, when and whether and how she practices the orchestra music. And you sit next to your stand partner for a long time, hours on end, every week, baring your own soul as you play. Depending on where you sit, you might be able to hide from the conductor, at least for a while. But you can't hide from your stand partner.

I started subscribing to Strings magazine a couple of months ago. There was a discount order card along with some sheet music I ordered from Shar. It's great, I love it. Such fun to read on the bus/subway. People read all kinds of stuff, mostly the Boston Globe, Metro (a free daily), and books. There was a lot of Harry Potter a few months ago, for obvious reasons. Occasionally I'll see someone reading a scientific journal article (as I have also been known to do), but I've never seen anyone else reading Strings magazine.

One article from this month's issue that caught my eye was called "College of Arts and Sciences" by James Reel. It is about fiddler Brittany Haas, who is now also an undergraduate at Princeton University studying evolutionary biology. This article had a lot of resonance for me: I'm interested in fiddle music and was glad to be introduced to Brittany Haas. And twenty years ago, I was also a violin-playing Biology student at Princeton.

What I'll discuss here from the article is something a bit different, though. Fiddler Darol Anger, whom Haas has played with, is quoted as saying "I (and a lot of other people) encouraged her to go to college so she could get a degree in some other field than music, for her own personal development. Everything you learn in life feeds into your music, so nothing is lost." He also says, later in the article that "Touring musicians face an uncertain and difficult future . . . Travel will become much more difficult in the coming years, and most communities will lose arts funding as weather and government-related catastrophes pile up. . . . If you are talented in science, especially life sciences and environmental science, that's where the crucial work needs to be done. Music is essential to life, but played for fun and for community is where it's at."

I told the student on the discussion thread that when I was his age, I had started to make a decision about my life. While the decision wasn't fully conscious and completely thought out at the time, I think I was rejecting the path my friend and stand partner had been put on. Instead, I was starting to commit to being a scientist and putting most of my energy there. I haven't regretted it. Brittany Haas is certainly the better violinist of the two of us--and may very well turn out to be a better biologist too--but her story speaks to me as a role model for the new millenium.

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on October 1, 2007 at 1:06 AM
Karen, your blog has several themes, and I like them all.

It is really important for kids to get experience playing music with other kids at their age and skill level. This is a problem I have frequently with my students. Many of them start playing one or more years before musical instruction is offered at school. By the time they reach a grade where instrumental music is taught at school, they are way ahead of their classmates. I wish I could find an opportunity for my students similar to the one your daughter has, even though I value sleep.

I have never become as close a friend with any of my standmates as you have. Perhaps it's because you two were adolescents at the time, and perhaps it's just because I'm me. I'm so sorry that she has encountered so many problems in her life, many of them related to the way her parents treated her.

I agree with you that it is wise to be trained for a career that is more solid than being a professional violinist. However, one must keep in mind that professional fields that are in vogue for decades may fall by the wayside. I've got a Ph.D. in biochemistry, and I worked in food science and regulations for over 20 years. I've been unemployed for six years now. Now we have deregulation on a large scale, thanks to the Bush administration. Perhaps even more important is that many science jobs are outsourced overseas where salaries are much, much lower than in the U.S. It's ironic that I'm now working as a private violin teacher.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on October 1, 2007 at 10:54 AM
Pauline, I know what you mean about science jobs also being uncertain. Thomas Friedman can write all he wants about the world being flat and the need for tech workers, but there are a lot of unemployed PhD's out there too.

Thinking about it more, my point is not really so much that this is unique to music or science or to professional violin playing, but rather that diversity and flexibility are going to be necessary.

I thought Anger's comments about travel getting more difficult were sobering, and were food for thought. The idea that people's lives are going to be more geographically constrained in the future has a lot of implications, not just for musicians. Concert musicians tour around a lot, but so do many other professions, including scientists. It might actually be good for local communities and for nurturing local talent across the board if it's not so easy to bring in whoever's perceived as the latest, hottest "star" from somewhere else.

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