November 2010

Adventures with Pyotr Ilyich, I: the Retreat, Fall Colors, and the Hurdy-Gurdy

November 6, 2010 07:41

 Tomorrow, I'm playing Tchaikovsky.  With an orchestra, in front of an audience.  

Saying that aloud, or even writing in public, feels strange, a little unreal, even though I've said it repeatedly now in the time leading up to the concert.   I even told my boss about it at work.  And when I say I'm playing Tchaikovsky, people jump to interesting conclusions:  most of the time it's the concerto they think of.  Then they realize who they are talking to.  As much as I love to listen to that piece, I won't be performing the Tchaikovsky violin concerto in this lifetime.  

I will be playing a 5-minute concertmaster solo in the Tchaikovsky Orchestral Suite #4, "Mozartiana."  While it's not the concerto, even this has been a task significantly out of my comfort zone.  What comes most naturally to me, what feels most comfortable and safe, is to blend into a violin section, to become part of a whole larger than myself.  To sit in the middle of things, watch the conductor, listen, and let the music become the whole world.  The mindset, the confidence-without-hubris necessary to perform solo, is still an enigma.  

Even just the approach:  when and how much do I practice this solo?  In fact, shouldn't I be practicing now, instead of blogging?  The mind games one can play with oneself.  Ugh.  Back in September when I first got the music I didn't think I could miss a day of practice, no matter what.  I had a work retreat coming up:  the 500 or so people who work at the research Institute on a weekend in Waterville Valley NH, filled with seminars, posters, hikes, and parties.  Where did a violin fit into all this?  I dithered.  I posted to Facebook:  "dithering about taking violin to retreat.  Do I really want to subject my coworkers to me slogging my way through Tchaikovsky and Brahms?"  A few kind souls wrote back, things like "yes, if I were them, I would want to hear that," and even "last year I subjected *my* coworkers to the Bavicchi, this will be fine!"  In general I took too much luggage, and a violin didn't help.  I was assigned to a 6-person suite, which had a big group bedroom and two individual bedrooms.  My pregnant coworker got one of those, my violin and I got the other.

I practiced twice during the retreat, the big session coming on the Saturday afternoon that is normally reserved for bonding and team-building experiences like hikes.  It was a beautiful fall day and the leaves were already starting to turn colors, up there in NH.  At lunch I listened to colleagues talking about whether the mountain biking trail was too dangerous for beginners, whether they wanted to rent kayaks, whether they would take a longer hiking loop than they did last year.

Afterwards, when I went back to my room to practice, it took me what must have been a full hour to get the little voice out of the back of my head, the voice that kept repeating, over and over, "It's a beautiful fall day.  You should be outdoors.  It's a beautiful fall day.  You should be outdoors.  It's a beautiful fall day.  You should be outdoors."  

As I wrote to my Facebook profile when I got back,  "The leaves change color. Soon they will fall off the trees. Been there, done that, I get it. But I have never before, and may never again, have the opportunity to play this caliber of violin solo with an orchestra."  

On the city bus on the way home from institute after the retreat, I met a hurdy-gurdy player.  Two, actually.  I had all this luggage, including the violin, and was taking up more than my share of space.  A friendly, well-dressed older man sat down beside me, with his own oddly-shaped baggage.  "Guess this is the musician's seat," he remarked.  I looked at the big bag he was carrying.  It resembled a drawstring burlap sack.  "Is that an instrument?" I asked, somewhat non-plussed.  "Yes," he said.  "It's a hurdy-gurdy."  When I looked up and across the aisle,  I saw a pretty blonde woman with a similar burlap sack.  "We have a band," he said.  She looked at us and smiled sympathetically.  

I asked the obvious question, "What's a hurdy-gurdy?"  Clearly I had been confused.  Those words had always evoked, to me, some kind of off-kilter carousel, whirling around in a jerky, frenetic dance.  Or, the line from Macbeth:  "When the hurdy-gurdy's done.  When the battle's lost and won."  Oh, oops, wait, that's a hurly-burly, not a hurdy-gurdy.  (I didn't say any of this out loud).

A hurdy-gurdy is also known as a "wheel fiddle."  According to wikipedia, it is a stringed musical instrument that produces sound by a crank-turned rosined wheel rubbing against the strings.  The hurdy-gurdy plays violin music, but doesn't quite sound like a violin.  My seat mate also handed me a postcard, with his name and his wife's, Donald and Anicet Heller, and some more information about the band and the hurdy-gurdy as an instrument, with pictures (the real one needed to stay in the bag).   He also mentioned that his son is a violinist and conservatory student who sometimes plays with the Hurdy Gurdy Band.  He even claimed to have heard of the "Mozartiana" suite.  When I got off the bus, I said I hoped to see him around, busking, and sure enough, I have, just this week, mornings in the Harvard Square T station.  

But I haven't stopped to listen.  Not really.  I don't feel like I have time.  My T time is when I listen to and learn the rest of the orchestra music.  Having learned my lesson a few years ago when I accidentally left a rental sheet music part on the T, I now make copies and carry those in a folder back and forth to work, following along while I listen to the music on my iPod.  As it happens, the solo has thrown a real hurdy-gurdy into my practice routine.  When I started playing violin again a few years ago, I used to keep a careful and detailed practice log.  I wrote everything down.  I also blogged more frequently.  I needed all this.  It was what kept me going: I had to be very left-brained, analytical, and superego about it in order to pull myself through what felt like an excessively demanding program of expectations.  

But somehow, lately, the practice log feels more and more like an unnecessary chore and even a waste of time.  It's time I could be spending practicing instead of writing about practicing.  Only 5 minutes, but when you've only got 45, that's 1/9 of the time . . . I could play the arpeggios again . . . practice the shift . . . I could listen to the entire Brahms 3rd movement!  

Like all those people who ignored Joshua Bell when he was busking, I have places to go and things to do.  Sorry Donald, maybe next week, when the solo is over.

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