March 2008

Fiorillo in the morning

March 25, 2008 04:32

Last year it was Wohlfahrt in the morning, this year it's Fiorillo. What is it about starting your day with etudes? In high school I used to start my day with orchestra music. My parents' TV turned on first on the other side of the wall and woke me up. Then I got out my violin and returned the favor.

I think it makes a big difference for the entire rest of the day, what you do first. For a lot of people, it's TV. I have to admit that for me, it's often the other little screen. Get up, go to the bathroom, put on a bathrobe, shuffle down the stairs and turn on the computer. Type, type, type as the sun slowly comes up and the brain, like the little frowny face on the Macintosh that turns smiley, slowly boots up.

But etudes are better. Really. Feeling the wood in your hands and the strings under your fingers. A-440. AAAAAA, AAAAAA, AAAAAAAAAAA A. All the senses engaged, not just the eyes. It makes the smiley face come on faster.

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Talking to the Conductor

March 21, 2008 04:43

I've been historically scared to talk to conductors. I don't know why, either, because the conductors I've known have generally been nice. But it seems to be a version of the non-musician's being scared of the post-concert talk: I'm afraid of saying something stupid or ignorant. It's about me, not about them.

In a coincidence of good timing, Corwin's blog brought up an issue that has been bugging me in this regard: bowings in orchestra. I get surprisingly uncomfortable when I don't know what the bowings are for an orchestra piece. It makes it hard for me to practice the part. And when I don't know, I seem to be good at bowing the opposite direction from what the rest of the section is doing.

I also had this problem of being tongue-tied in the rehearsals of "Executive Orders." I was struggling with one of the midi files a few nights before the concert, especially the one for the movement that I ended up making a mistake on during the performance. I couldn't figure out how what I was hearing in the midi file mapped on to my part. Finally I gave up on the midi file for that movement, even though studying my part while listening to the midi files for the other movements had helped me greatly.

Then at the following orchestra rehearsal I finally ended up having a real conversation with the conductor. He started it, opening by saying how well he thought the piece had gone and how pleased the composer was with how it had turned out. And I finally brought up my problem with the midi file and he said if I could point them out, he would be happy to go over with me the specific measures where I wasn't getting it. That conversation was a relief in a couple of ways--one, that my mistake in that one movement wasn't weighing heavily on his mind; and two, that he was more than willing to help. I wish I had talked to him sooner.

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Why go to concerts?

March 18, 2008 04:53

I was formulating a response to this thread, and it got long.

I don't understand why threads on this site invariably turn towards screeds against "dumbing down" classical music. Or lamentations about what a bad state classical music is in these days. I don't really see it: not the dumbing down, not the dire straits. I feel like I'm a guest at a musical banquet. There is so much available to me that there is no way I can consume it all. But it's all so tasty!

As an amateur, and a musical "mudblood" at that, I know and love more non-musicians than musicians. My family and friends, for the most part, comprise the audience people talk about. Highly educated and intelligent, with advanced degrees in other subjects, they have some interest in but little knowledge about classical music. I try to get them to come to my concerts, and, believe it or not, they come. And they enjoy themselves and come back again.

One thing that I've noticed in conversation is that people like this seem to be nervous about having to make intelligent-sounding observations about the concert that won't mark them as foolish. They're scared of the post-concert talk: will I say something that other people think is stupid? As far as I'm concerned, post-concert talk is supposed to be fun, not a source of anxiety. If you thought the emperor had no clothes, or if you were moved to tears by Bolero, you ought to be allowed to say so without being worried that someone's going to think you're a rube.

Another thing I've noticed about non-musician audiences is that they often really can't tell the difference between a good community orchestra and a professional one. I've heard that particular comment about my community orchestra several times--that we sound like professionals, or are as good as professionals. I even heard it about my high school orchestra, and youth orchestra. It isn't true, of course, but I don't think people are "just saying it." And when they admit this, it is usually with shame and profuse apology.

I can tell the difference there, as a community orchestra insider, but honestly, when I start getting to the level of different professional orchestras, I have the same problem. For example, I recently learned that the professional orchestra I grew up listening to, the orchestra where my violin teacher played and Michael Tilson Thomas got his conducting start, the Buffalo Philharmonic, isn't a "major" orchestra. There are some rules about what is major and what is not that are important to some people, I guess, but that really doesn't mean much to many listeners in the audience. As a Buffalo Philharmonic fan, I just end up feeling a little dissed.

That's where I think the problem lies, if there's a problem at all. Asking audiences to make, and to value, distinctions that are not meaningful to them turns them off. And there's really no need for it. Music really can be for everyone.

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Post-concert blues

March 17, 2008 10:43

I performed on the violin twice yesterday, in two different venues. Once, in the morning, a quick church performance of some Mozart violin-viola duets filling in for someone else due to illness. The second, in the afternoon, accompanying the Arlington-Belmont chamber chorale on "Executive Orders," as I blogged about previously.

It was a lot. I enjoyed both, but felt rushed and like I didn't have time to savor the experience. I also MISS MY VIOLA! My friend for the duets is a professional violist, and of the two of us I have more violin experience, so it made sense that she play the viola part and I the violin part, but when I heard her playing the viola part, I felt almost a physical pang. With all these violin parts, I haven't touched my viola in weeks. I even felt the need to bring my violin to my lesson last week, rather than my viola. I feel sad about it.

The choral concert seemed to be a success; the chorus did very well, and the guests I invited (who are visiting from Germany) said they especially enjoyed "Executive Orders." And they learned something about US history in the process.

But I'm having trouble getting over a mistake I made in the performance. One of the movements was especially difficult to put together as an ensemble. We had limited rehearsal time and the only recordings available were midi files without choral parts, as this concert was the first performance, the world premiere. For this particular movement, there was a repetitive viola ostinato (making it hard to gauge where you are by listening if you lose count) with unusual riffs on top of it by the other instruments. And the chorus singing. None of the instruments were playing with each other for any length of time, or with the chorus.

And, some of the riffs for violin I included, among other things: 1. playing behind the bridge; 2. a descending glissando tremolo; 3. a low G-sharp followed by a G-natural three octaves above it and only a sixteenth-rest in between; 4. triplets played 3 against 2 and 4 played by violin II; 5. twenty-three measures rest and conductor busy cue-ing more important vocal parts at time of entrance.

I had gotten this movement completely right in 1-2 rehearsals. I had flubbed two parts of it in the dress rehearsal. And in the performance, I did the first entrance/riff correctly (behind the bridge, glissando/tremolo) and screwed up the second (23 measures rest, G's, triplets). Violin II may or may not have come in correctly (she probably did), but in any case, even if she didn't, it doesn't excuse me.

There were a few other things that I had done wrong in one rehearsal or another that I know I fixed and did correctly in the performance (I stayed with/under alto soloist, in rhythm, when we both had the melody; I entered alone and correctly while basses were singing and conductor was busy cue-ing them; I kept 5/8, 7/8, 3/8, and 10/8 time as it switched back and forth between those from measure to measure; I did not miss D-flats when it suddenly switched from B-major to A-flat-major). And, my guests said that no one would have noticed that I blew that one entrance in that one movement, since the music appeared somewhat chaotic anyway in that movement--and it was *supposed to*. So I should stop beating myself up, right?

But, the composer was there. He'd notice. And, it was being taped. It was the world premiere.

I don't remember where I read this, but somewhere I read that a big difference between an amateur and a professional is that a professional gets it right the first time. With limited rehearsal. So, I'm not a professional, and it showed. Even though I know that, I feel kind of embarrassed. My blown entrance has been digitized for posterity.

There is an encore concert in May where the same piece is being played. I have another chance to get it right. What steps can I take between now and then?

4 replies | Archive link


Executive Orders

March 12, 2008 08:15

Last night was "Belmont Unplugged," a no-homework night when families are supposed to be getting together and playing board games or something. What did I do? Three-hour violin rehearsal. But, at least it wasn't plugged in.

I am playing violin I for a small chamber ensemble (string quartet plus guitar) accompanying the Arlington-Belmont Chamber Chorus in the World Premiere of "Executive Orders" by Michael Veloso. I have to admit that I can be skeptical about music that was written in my lifetime, especially music by affable composers who are clearly younger than I am sitting right there on the couch in someone's living room where the rehearsal is taking place.

But, after hearing it for the first time with everyone together in rehearsal, this piece is really cool. It is a commentary on the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. The lyrics range from a Hugo Black Supreme Court opinion (sung aloud by the tenors and basses, with the sopranos and altos whispering the minority opinion in the background), to letters from survivors. One wouldn't necessarily think that all this non-rhyming legalese saturated with heretos and wherefores would sound better set to music, but, surprisingly, it does.

And it's great how he makes some of the movements sound like conversations, some like announcements. It's tricky rhythmically for the musicians, but I think the listening experience for the audience is (or will be) quite satisfying. Certainly not boring! The three hours of rehearsal flew by.

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Almost Spring

March 9, 2008 05:42

Last night we set the clocks ahead. That's usually a good omen. And, the "Almost Spring" concert is coming.

Photo


Now, if the weather would just cooperate . . .

I've been feeling a bit overwhelmed with too much music to learn and practice.

I brought it on myself, I suppose, I said yes to the small group accompanying the chorale for this concert. I said yes to my violist friend to play in church. I said yes to violin I in orchestra.

So much violin playing is doing odd things to my inner life, to what I think about when I'm not playing. There are neurological mechanisms to explain why certain smells can transport a person to another time and place by triggering whole sensory memories. I don't know, but I suspect music can have the same function, bringing you to an entirely new, or entirely old, context.

I had a breakthrough this week concerning my left thumb, which I injured in a car door accident as a child. My question about "the shakes" in the discussion thread did exactly what I hoped it would do: brought me the resources to think about my old thumb and vibrato problems in a new way.

Typically, after 15 minutes of woodshedding something like the Haydn with a lot of running 8th or 16th notes, my left hand is very tight. I grip the neck of the instrument between the thumb and the side of my hand. There's no space there at all, no way for the hand to move freely. I'm using the side of the hand, not the thumb, to feel where I am on the instrument. Even to hold the instrument. I've been doing this so long that it feels completely "natural."

The subtlest of shift of the instrument, more onto the thumb and away from the side of the hand, only a few millimeters, brings an entirely different feeling: not just sensory and tactile in those two places on my hand but all over, even into this non-playing mental space.

When I injured my thumb back in 7th grade, I had a big immobilizer on it for weeks, maybe months. It was metal, with blue spongy stuff inside it. I was also learning 3rd position, and shifting on the violin, at the same time as the injury. I think I learned to feel my way to the shifts using primarily the side of the hand because my thumb was wrapped in this big cocoon. It worked okay at the time, but didn't work as well later when the cocoon came off and shifting became more complex.

I may have been dwelling too much on this thumb injury. Everyone else minimized it even at the time: don't let it slow you down. Keep playing. Take that NYSSMA audition. And now that so much time has passed it seems even more remote. "Don't use a 30-year-old thumb injury as an excuse," is the unspoken message I hear in my mental space.

But I think I finally figured out the injury's legacy and can put it "behind me" in a way that makes sense, not by being tough,, calling it an excuse, and ignoring it, but instead by allowing myself to listen to it and analyze it. This is a small step, maybe, but enough of these, like the small shoots just coming up from the bulbs in the backyard, will bring a new spring.

6 replies | Archive link


Is he talking to me?

March 5, 2008 21:32

I am cranky. Three hours straight is too long to rehearse. Before the main orchestra rehearsal, I had a rehearsal with a small instrumental group that is supposed to be accompanying the chorale. The instrumentation is supposed to be string quartet plus guitar. But the 2nd violin, viola, and cello didn't come. So, this rehearsal was me and a guitar. It was helpful to have the conductor's undivided attention. Sort of. I know more about tempos, rhythms, and what's expected. And he said he will send me some midi files, since this is a modern piece, the world premiere, and therefore no recordings exist.

With the full orchestra, the conductor kept telling the first violin section to do things I was already doing. Play softly. Play light and short. Play in the middle of the bow. Or towards the tip. Or wherever it was that I was already playing. He'd stop us again and again and again and make us play the same thing again. Softer. Lighter. I get it. But all the stopping and repeating is kind of driving me nuts. Haydnus interruptus.

In spite of my general crankiness, I think there's a serious question here. When is it appropriate to just decide that the conductor must be talking to someone else in the section, and just not play any softer/shorter/lighter/whatever?

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In Time for the Concert

March 2, 2008 06:48

Around noon, the signs on the I-90 are looking promising. I'll be home in half an hour. Plenty of time for a 1:30 warm-up and a 3:00 concert, or so I thought. But then my 4-yo son says again, "I really, really have to go to the bathroom." He said 10 minutes ago that he could hold it until we got home. But not anymore. So, we get off the Mass Pike into a traffic jam in Framingham. We're on a divided highway with no obvious gas station on our side. At last, a Dunkin Donuts! And since you can't leave a Dunkin Donuts without buying some Donuts . . .

We drive up to our house around 1. We unload the car and my husband makes some lunch. This makes me, as I promised, late for the warm-up, but I don't think performing on an empty stomach is a good idea. The last time I wore my long black tunic with the Mandarin collar was to my grandmother's funeral. Nonetheless, I bought it for orchestra concerts at Caltech; it's old but it still looks nice. It's sleeveless.

And the Arlington Town Hall is freezing cold. I walk in at 2, and the only other person not wearing any sleeves is the soloist. My friend the principal 2nd whispers "you look lovely--would you like some sleeves?" My stand partner, in his jacket and tie, says "you're brave." I'm still running on adrenaline, so it's not too bad during the warm-up, but after that a bunch of us, including the soloist, Pei-Wen, are hanging around in the back room in long white parkas. Pei-Wen keeps her fingers warm by walking around the room playing 3-octave scales with vibrato. This seems like a very good idea in theory, but I leave her to it.

After all that build-up, the concert itself is something of a blur. The principal 2nd's husband brings her a couple of black velvet sweaters; she wears one and offers me the other. It's quite beautiful, I should buy one like it. My husband and kids are there, and two of my co-workers are even there. I invited one of them, but the other is a surprise. The hall is surprisingly packed full, of families. The conductor is wearing a cowboy hat for the William Tell.

The kids are a good audience, but I find the environment pretty distracting, especially during the concerto solo. The cadenza, which blew us all away during rehearsal, sort of gets covered by random noises and kids running around. Pei-Wen is, as always, unflappable. Afterwards kids come up and look at our instruments and even try them out. My daughter says to me, about Pei-Wen, "Is she the best violinist in the world? Is she better than YOU?" I tell her that Pei-Wen is much, much better than I am, but it is impossible to say who is the "best violinist in the world." I say I think that Pei-Wen has a chance to be one of the best when she grows up. My daughter thinks about that for a while and says "I don't want to be that good." I know already that she doesn't want to practice that hard, but I also get the sense that she wasn't entirely comfortable with the vision of a sweet, beautiful, preternaturally mature, little girl playing Beethoven with an orchestra of adults in front of a large, packed hall of people.

As I'm leaving, Pei-Wen and her mother ask for a picture with me. My husband has already taken the kids to the car, and my camera with them. But Pei-Wen's mother has one and snaps a picture with both of us. I tell her that I loved playing with her and it was a real honor, and then we all leave.

Photo

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