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Karen Allendoerfer

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

November 6, 2010 at 2:41 PM

 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.

From Tom Holzman
Posted on November 6, 2010 at 6:44 PM

What a great blog.  I didn't know hurdy gurdies still existed.  Clearly an alternative to consider, although don't you need a monkey to make the whole scene work?

I have every confidence that you will do fine tomorrow.  Certainly better than I would do.  Good luck.  However, beware of Facebook; it will be your downfall.

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on November 6, 2010 at 8:26 PM

Hi, a family friend plays the Hurdy-Gurdy, a wonderful instrument!  Sounds like a violin who had kids with a bagpipes ; ) 

Really sounds like a combination of these two instruments's sound and it's lovely.  I often attend his shows.    As much as it is great to support them, I do know that it is impossible to go to all their concerts because of school and life obligations...  So I do know what you mean...

Best of lucks with your Tchaikovsky!  How cool is it to tell this to somone too ; )  As if I had many soloist friends to tell this to...(lol)  (maybe not the concerto but, truely,  something just as valuable since it's written by the same man!) 

It's a so nice opportunity for you!


From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on November 6, 2010 at 10:22 PM

 I really will stop and talk to him if I see him again.  It has just been Donald, by himself, in the T station.  A single hurdy-gurdy is not that loud, it is a bit drowned out by the hustle and bustle of the morning rush hour.  It may be that in the past he was outside, but it's gotten cold and rainy this week.  Not only are the leaves all falling off the trees, the wind is helping them.  

I practiced about 2.5 hours so far this afternoon, mostly the orchestra music.  Then I try to hit the solo, cold, and play that.  It has these arpeggios that go very high, and I can get them in tune on the 2nd or 3rd try, if I'm really warmed up and have it in my ear.  But usually the first try, after playing something else, is not as good.  That's what's really hard about a solo in the middle of a big orchestral piece.  You've spent the past half hour playing something entirely different, with the rest of the orchestra, and then all of the sudden everybody else stops playing and you have to jump right in.  

From sharelle taylor
Posted on November 7, 2010 at 9:24 AM

wow, my heart is beating faster at the thought of it!

A 5 MINUTE solo! What was that Russian taking? I hope you can enjoy the first thirty seconds of it, Karen, after that it should be a breeze :)

On a far less ambitious note, I am now in 1sts for the 1812.  I really REALLY believe that chromatic scales should be played from conception, and every every day there after.  Pyotr is particularly mean with them.  If I had had 45 years of doing chromatics instead of just 5, things would be a lot easier.

I'll have to youtube the piece, I'm not familiar with it (I bet you are now!). go out and clean the floor with it, matey.

From Tom Holzman
Posted on November 7, 2010 at 12:22 PM

Karen - if I had known about the problem of the arpeggios, I would have pdfed you the four pages of my scale book that I have been working on for the past couple of months.  All sorts of interesting arpeggios in different keys.  Anyhow, I am sure it will go fine.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on November 7, 2010 at 12:45 PM

 Sharelle, my blog two blogs ago (A Recording is Worth 1000 Words, October 3) links to two YouTube versions of this solo, a professional to show how it's supposed to be done, and one of my early attempts when I was just barely getting through it.  That is meant as the "before."  A friend with good equipment is recording the "after" today with the orchestra.  We'll see if I really want to post that or not.  I'm almost more nervous at the thought of that than of the live audience, which will consist mostly of friends and family of the orchestra members, and is known to be friendly.  My teacher has a performance herself at the same time, so she can't come.  She did come to two of the rehearsals, though.  

And yes, there are several chromatic scales in this piece.  I think they're kind of fun--and I think I've practiced more chromatic scales in the past two months than I have ever before in my entire life.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on November 7, 2010 at 12:53 PM

 Tom, the most interesting thing about these arpeggios, to me, is actually how they sound in relation to each other, in the context of the piece.  The first ends on B and the second ends on D.  When I was first practicing them, they both pulled towards C:  the B was consistently sharp and the D was consistently flat, as much as a half step in each case.  And, I didn't hear that as the problem--I just thought they sounded kind of the same, fuzzy, and bad--until I started working with the electronic tuner consistently.  Then, over time, each one started to take on a different character and flavor, and I started to be able to hear that difference between the two, and it made musical sense to me why the composer would end the first one on B and the second one on D.  It's hard to explain any better than that, but I don't think I would have gotten the same idea or understanding from practicing straight arpeggios in different keys out of context.  

From Anne Horvath
Posted on November 7, 2010 at 1:09 PM

Good luck today!  I'm looking forward to the next post!  (smiley face here)

From Michelle Ippolito
Posted on November 7, 2010 at 6:38 PM

I really enjoy your blogs and am sure your Mozartiana will go well!  As for your comment "I won't be performing the Tchaikovsky violin concerto in this lifetime."  never say never!  

From Charlie Gibbs
Posted on November 8, 2010 at 5:15 AM

I probably won't be performing the first or third movements of the Tchaikovsky concerto in this lifetime, but my teacher does have me working on the second with some success.  If I ever reach the level of doing a public recital, perhaps I'll title it "All the Easy Bits".

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on November 8, 2010 at 11:22 AM

 Charlie and Michelle--ha!  I'll float that idea with my teacher, she might let me do it.  But I had intended to get back to the "Rockin Fiddle Challenge" (Sweet Child O Mine) after this was over.  Talk about a completely different style.  But just as difficult, if not more so.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on November 8, 2010 at 11:23 AM

 So, how did it go?  I still don't have the good recording to post, with the play-by-play, but it went reasonably well.  There were 2-3 spots that were shakier in the bow than I would have liked, and 2 spots where the intonation was off.  

But that means there were many more spots that *weren't* shaky in the bow and where the intonation was okay!

One new thing I noticed with the recording is that I need a better "poker face" when I'm playing.  In one of the spots where the intonation is off I make an obvious grimace in response to the bad note.  Even my daughter noticed that--"mom, you made a scary face" (and then, of course, she demonstrated.  Yikes!)

From Tom Holzman
Posted on November 8, 2010 at 5:24 PM

I am glad it went so well.  Your fans here can't wait to see your "scary face."  Practice that poker face!  I know I do the same thing because my teachers (both my regular teacher and my Alexander Technique teacher) point it out. 

From Christina C.
Posted on November 8, 2010 at 7:46 PM

Way to go Karen, you should be proud of yourself.

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