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Karen Allendoerfer

Karen and Julie

August 18, 2009 at 11:54 AM

 While I haven't had time to see any movies this summer, not even Harry Potter, I keep stumbling across reviews of the movie, "Julie and Julia."  The consensus among critics seems to be that Meryl Streep is amazing, Julia Child is amazing, and Julie Powell, the modern blogger and Julie of the title, is annoying and obnoxious, a petty and even trivial personality who is unfairly making money and 15 minutes of fame off her project of cooking her way through Julia Child's recipes, and blogging about it.  

I read the book last year.  Well, sort of read the book.  I read the abridged version as an Audiobook, on the T, the place where I do most of my reading these days.  I found Julie Powell's voice somewhat annoying too.  I didn't like some of the foul language she tossed around.  And, probably unlike most people who read that book, I'm not particularly a fan of Julia Child or of French cooking.  I don't have anything *against* Child or that cuisine, but my personal food paradise would either be in Italy or in Asia, not France.  The food that Powell described had too many weird animal parts for my taste.  Sometimes I found myself listening to Powell's descriptions of the food she cooked with an almost lurid fascination, as if I were observing a weird scientific experiment--and thinking, "you mean, they actually ATE that?"

So, if I don't even like French cooking and was irritated by the author, why did I read the book in the first place?  I was drawn to the premise, of getting out of a personal rut by following a dream, and then blogging about it.  I started doing something like that myself, with the violin, 3 years ago, and for that, I identified with Powell.  A number of Powell's critics have slammed her for 1.  liking the fact that people read her blog and that she gets comments on her blog, when she does; and 2.  being so much less interesting than her subject.  With these two things, I admit, I'm also guilty as charged.  I like getting comments too--who wouldn't?  Sometimes I check my blog while I'm at work, to see if I got a new comment.  And not always only when things are slow . . . sometimes as just a stress reliever.

Number 2, though, is what this particular blog is really about.   Julia Child is reported to have not been interested in Julie Powell, or her project.  Child may have made a dismissive comment about it, considering it "un-serious."  This moment is described in the book and apparently in the movie as well.  And what really surprised me, and inspired me, and gave me a grudging admiration for Powell in spite of her potty mouth, was Powell's reaction to that dismissal.   Powell didn't just pick up her marbles and go home.  She didn't give up.  If she felt betrayed by her idol, she didn't let that crush her spirit.  She even continued to admire Child, as she had before, and went to a museum to pay homage (in her own odd, irritating way).

For me as a violinist, being considered "un-serious" and being casually dismissed by someone whose opinion matters, the way Powell was by Child, is one of my worst nightmares. Sometimes this fear is so paralyzing to me that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Since I've been home from my trip, I've started at the Franck 4th movement a few times, at the notes on the page, and just not been able to move forward with it.  I inherited this music from a 92-year-old violinist in the Arlington Philharmonic, Phyllis Spence.  She's not Julia Child in terms of stature, but I admire her.  She's like the patron saint of the orchestra, she's been there from the beginning.  This piece was her senior recital.  At this point, the music is a little crumbly, so I xeroxed it.  But I can't decide if I want to use Phyllis' 75-year-old markings or those of Sarah Chang, who does many things differently on the recording I bought.  Coming up with my own markings and interpretation, which I know is what I'm supposed to do, seems completely beyond me.  Yes, I did it for the Stamitz first movement on viola, and felt proud of myself, but this isn't Stamitz.  Staring at the notes, I am Julie Powell at her worst, trivial and annoying.  I feel like Cesar Franck, Sarah Chang, and all the other heavyweights who have performed this through the ages and on YouTube, are laughing.  No, not even laughing.  I don't even matter enough to be laughed at.

But, I go to my lesson, because it's Monday, and after I stall for too long by chatting with my teacher and catching up on how the summer has been, the moment of truth arrives.  I have to play the Franck.  And, it's terrible.  It's out of tune, I am not sure of the fingerings, I keep stopping and saying "I don't know if I should play an open E here" or "that slide sounds bizarre" "I can't do that shift."  "What note IS that anyway?  Good grief."  Overstressed and underpracticed.  Not serious.  

Well, this is what teachers are for.  Somehow, my teacher was able to pull a few pearls out of the swamp and find a thing or two that I had done well.  She also had an interesting perspective on the history of violin playing.  She said that back when Phyllis learned this piece (at age 17, 75 years ago), she was probably using gut strings.  And so the open E wouldn't have sounded so weird in that context the way it did when I played it on my modern strings.  And back then people used portamento more routinely, it was Heifetz who introduced cleaner shifts and more selective use of portamento to achieve certain effects.  I started to calm down.  Heifetz wasn't laughing, or dismissing, he was introducing me to clean shifts and useful portamento.  Phyllis wouldn't be laughing, regardless.  She cared enough to give me this music.  

I practice the shift to the high A a few times.  First by moving my first finger from B to E, then putting down the 4th finger on the A and remembering where that is.  It's flat a lot at first, but with a few repetitions it starts to approximate the correct pitch.  I also settle into a slower, more comfortable tempo, well below Sarah Chang's but easier to hear the interpretation as the notes slide by.  We only did about 3/4 of the first page, but at least that bit is starting to sound recognizable. 

I feel more at peace when I leave the lesson, like I know what I have to do.  And, I plan to go home and blog about it.  I think about Julie Powell again as I'm walking back to the T.  And this time what I think about is how she didn't let Julia Child's dismissal get her down or crush her.  How she might indeed be kind of trivial and annoying the way the movie critics say, but that, in the end, her very ordinariness is why I cared about her at all and read her book.  We can't all be Julia, or Sarah, or Jasha, but we can all find our own way, and connect with each other.

From Anne Horvath
Posted on August 18, 2009 at 6:27 PM

Chin up, you are rusty, and with a little time, you'll be fine.  Don't be so hard on yourself!

I'm probably not going to see the movie, as it is not my sort of thing.  I do have a dear friend, out on the Left Coast, that is the biggest Julia Child fan EVER.  There are big, big perks in having a good friend that loves to cook good French food, show off, and dole out the nice French vino.

Have fun with the Franck Sinatra.  I adore the 4th movement.  I was listening to my Oistrakh/Richter recording the other day.  Just heaven, heaven, heaven, as lovely as my friend's salmon souffle!

(I always read your blogs, but I don't always have the time to comment, or have anything special to say.  If you want, I can blather on more...)


From Michael Divino
Posted on August 18, 2009 at 10:07 PM

What a wonderful blog!

What a great parallel to draw between food and music. 

I feel the same way as you do, like nothing I do will ever put me up to par with anything and you should just stop because you can do anything worth a darn.


But that's just on bad days :)

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on August 18, 2009 at 10:32 PM

Anne, please blather away!  I never find anything you write to be "blather" anyway.  I will probably forever associate the Franck in my mind with the water, and sailing, because I listened to it so much on the trip.  And then there is the "stormy" part, which I am going to work on at my next lesson . . .

Michael--usually I'm pretty good at keeping those feelings at bay, but not every day.  My teacher said that even she has days like that occasionally, but she's still made a long and successful career as a teacher, orchestral and chamber performer, and section leader. 

From Robert Niles
Posted on August 19, 2009 at 4:54 AM

FWIW, I met Julie Powell at a conference a few years back, where the two of us spoke together on a panel for food-industry bloggers.

Trust me, I paid attention to every word she said (including all the f-bombs!) about blogging communities. She recommended that beginning bloggers start in a community (Julie started on Salon), rather than going it alone on a service such as Blogger, and with Laurie's leadership, we've tried to create an encouraging community for violin bloggers here, where they can get attention for their work.

So, yes, keep blogging in the style of Julie! That's exactly one of the reasons we've got the site here for you. 

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on August 19, 2009 at 11:06 AM

Robert,  That's interesting, I didn't get a good sense from the book where her blog started.  It had  sounded to me like she went it alone.  And lately I've been reading articles with these depressing titles like "If your blog falls in the forest does anyone hear a sound?"  But really, for me, the main purpose of blogging is to keep myself focused, to keep practicing, and keep playing, which is often a challenge for adult violin students.  

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on August 19, 2009 at 10:39 PM

Apropos of nothing in particular, Molly, one of the guinea pig stars of my favoritely titled blog so far, "Meerschweinchen und glückliche Fahrt," passed away yesterday.  RIP Molly.  My daughter is sad, but is getting over it.

From Margaret Lee
Posted on August 20, 2009 at 8:44 PM

I enjoy reading your writing, Karen. I haven't seen the movie Julia and Julie, but I thought about the movie "The Soloist" that I saw on the plane coming back from Taiwan. There was something about the ordinary (though I'm not saying the main character Nathaniel Ayers was ordinary) being caught up by the extraordinary (Beethoven's music) that made me understand a little more about why we continue to practice, go to lessons, etc.

From Kirsten Scheid
Posted on August 21, 2009 at 1:53 AM

I registered here just to be able to respond to your entry. You made it so clear, the value of mistakes and what can be learned from them.

From Laurie Niles
Posted on August 21, 2009 at 3:11 AM

I really liked that book! Nutty but honest. Most of us are pretty nutty, if we're honest.

From Tom Holzman
Posted on August 24, 2009 at 3:37 PM

Great blog!  I love French food, but have no patience for Child's recipes, which assume you have hours and hours of time with nothing better to do.  My mother came up with some very good shortcuts for a few of the recipes which make them doable by people like me.  I do not know if I will see the film or not.  Low priority.

Good luck with the Franck, and keep working on it.  Eventually you will go to your lesson with the right combination of stress and practice, and you will get it the way you want it (to the extent we amateurs can).


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