September 12, 2010, 6:04 AM ·

Orchestra has started again.  The first rehearsal was Sept. 1, still full summer with the fan blowing the music off our stands in the church, as we sweated our way through Brahms #2. 

Several new violinists showed up.  Considerately, they emailed the orchestra chair first, and she forwarded the emails to me.  My first year in the orchestra, when I was one of them--an unknown quantity attached to an inquiring email wearing a temporary name tag--I ended up sitting with everyone in the section at one rehearsal or another.  As a result I knew who was there and how they played.  Now, although I love my stand partner--she can play pretty much anything, she's an excellent sight-reader and never gets lost--I am not sure how to get to know those new faces if I don't sit with them.  How are we going to cohere, to be a section?    I say hello, I get their emails in order to send the bowings after I get them worked out and scanned in.  It's a start, but it doesn't seem like enough.

Brahms #2.  I played the 2nd violin part of this piece 30 years ago, in youth orchestra.  I seem to be the only one who is impressed by this factoid, which perhaps I shouldn't advertise too loudly (was it really 30 years ago when I was in a youth orchestra?  How long before I start telling even more boring stories about walking uphill to school both ways in the snow carrying a heavy VSO?) 

But that factoid imbues the piece with some special meaning in my mind.  In 1980 it was probably the most difficult, complex piece I had ever played, and the first real major symphony I had ever been a part of playing.  I was probably only dimly aware of that, or of what a privilege it was to be able to play it at all.  In middle school orchestra we largely played student works, arrangements of real pieces.  In high school things were getting more sophisticated, but we tended to stick with the baroque and early classical--Corelli, Vivaldi, maybe a little Haydn if we were being particularly ambitious.  

But youth orchestra was different, you had to audition for it and drive a long way to another high school on Wednesday nights.  There were less than a handful of us from my school.  We carpooled.  I imagine my former self, a little clueless there in the middle of the 2nds, marveling at all the sharps in the 2nd movement.  You learn about that in school, in theory, but does anyone actually write real music using 5 sharps?  Apparently, yes.  And it doesn't actually sound freaky or metallic out in the audience, as somehow I had always imagined it would if a composer ventured into such alien territory.

But back to the present, and this concert.  I'm 1st violin now, I'm leading the section, and not only are all those sharps still there (it's been 30 years, don't they have somewhere to go?), but everything is an octave higher, including those unprepared As and B-flats.  As has happened before, the old reliable muscle memory from 30 years ago does kick in as we are reading the piece, and I keep to tempo, I come in on time (if not in tune), and I make it through without major mishap.  Occasionally I channel the 2nd violin part and play it an octave down.  This is the only rehearsal where I can get away with that.  The conductor says, at the break, "we're going to have a strong section."  He looks pleased.

The other pieces on the program are Mozart's "Magic Flute" Overture, and the Tchaikovsky "Mozartiana" suite.  The first I've heard of, the second, not.  And, the Tchaikovsky has a 2-page violin solo.  I've had a few solos, consisting of several measures, even up to 8 measures or so, in previous years.  One, in particular, I remember fondly . . . I called it "Intonation is a wish the heart makes."  

But this is another kettle of fish entirely (or is it barrel of monkeys?  Definitely some sort of bizarre container of unruly animals).  The orchestra librarian, a kind soul, warned me about it over the summer so that I wouldn't arrive at the first rehearsal, find it on my chair, and go into cardiac arrest at the thought of having to sight-read it.    I even discussed it with my friend and occasional stand partner, my daughter's violin teacher, who is a school music teacher and pro violinist.  Maybe she'd like to do this solo?  She would in fact, but she has a paying job this semester on Wednesday nights and can't do the concert at all.

So, I download it from IMSLP and send it to my teacher.  Her verdict:  it's doable.  By me.  By November 7.  Better get busy!


September 12, 2010 at 08:25 PM ·

Enjoyable as always, Karen!  Best wishes.

You haven't blogged lately about putting the viola aside.  How is it going?

Until last Friday (my most recent lesson), I was blissfully unaware of (a) the responsibilities of concert mistress (your other title--yes?) and (b) music librarian.  (Silly me--I thought all they did was make sure there were enough copies of each part on hand.   You mean they also have to know what's in all the parts?).  During this part of my violin education, my teacher showed me the music she is practicing for the next concert of HER symphony: a piece by John Adams with NO key signature!  Every note not a natural is an accidental!  (I didn't think to ask her if she had a solo!)

September 12, 2010 at 11:00 PM ·

Please feel free to write about trudging to and from school uphill both ways in the snow with your heavy VSO.  I would be most happy to read that!

And good luck with the solo.  I've never played it, but I did print it out once, and got nightmares at the thought.  Bleh.  It is hard!


September 12, 2010 at 11:39 PM ·

 How odd - I tried to cut and paste in your line about your "uphill both ways w/a VSO" digression, and it wouldn't post my reply.

Anyway. That bit cracked me up. And congrats/good luck, on the solo!

September 13, 2010 at 09:17 AM ·

 Great Stuff, Karen. I look forward to hearing how rehearsals and performances go.

September 13, 2010 at 10:27 AM ·

I like the way you haven't lost sight of where you've come from - I'm sure that'll help in dealing with the new fiddlers.

September 13, 2010 at 10:58 AM ·

This really brings back memories -- I feel like I've been on quite a journey just by reading this.  Walking to school in the snow -- I did a lot of it.  Ditto for rehearsals in hot temperatures.

The Brahms piece has a special place in my life.  See Laurie's 8-25-2010 blog "Listening Anew."  My take on the Brahms is third from bottom in feedback.

Thanks for sharing -- this was a great way to start the day.

September 13, 2010 at 11:05 AM ·

Karen - good luck to you and the orch for a great year.  I know you will do a great job on the solo.  Your description of the heat and fans suggests that you may need to investigate an "off-label" use for clothes pins.   They are marvelous for holding music to the stand when there is wind.  My orch plays an outdoor concert in the summer, and I keep a couple with my stand for that purpose.

September 13, 2010 at 01:47 PM ·

 Tom, I have some clothespins that I use outdoors, but I didn't really expect to be needing them inside!

Jim, my first album (yes, vinyl) of Brahms #2 had a beautiful pastoral scene on the cover.  Rolling green hills, a town with red roofs.  I still see that in my mind's eye.

And the "VSO in the snow" comment is more accurate than I wish it was . . . I am referring to the Greater Buffalo Youth Orchestra--I grew up near Buffalo--not quite Alaska, but still.



September 13, 2010 at 03:43 PM ·

I can't say about the Brahms - I'm still a struggling beginner who barely dares to dream of playing in an orchestra someday.  But as for the five sharps, my strong suit is bluegrass mandolin, and when I'm at jams I'm amazed at how many singers want to do songs in B - it's gotten to the point where I cynically refer to B as "the vocalists' key".  So I've had to just shrug my shoulders and learn to play in five sharps.  (Chopping chords in movable shapes is much easier than playing melody lines, but that doesn't stop me from trying anyway.)

As for the clothespins (setting aside jokes about how "the store was tied, the basses loaded..."), my violin (given to me by a friend) had a couple of clothespins in the case.  Yes, they're handy for keeping sheet music together, but they're also a good makeshift mute.  (I've since gotten a real mute, so people have one less thing to laugh at me about.)

September 13, 2010 at 06:09 PM ·

 Charlie, what is "chopping" on a violin/fiddle?  

I recently got some Celtic folk music for string quartet and the violin I part has a section that has the notes written as X's and it says "Chop."  Other than that, the music is pretty straightforward and well-explained, but none of us could figure out what we were supposed to do there.

September 14, 2010 at 07:30 AM ·

Charlie, I share your feelings about the keys that bluegrass players and singers sometimes use.  I have been playing along with a recording of a bluegrass song in F#.  Jeez!  Also, in the recording, the A is about 443 Hz,  It is a beautiful song, though.  I will let you explain to Karen what chop bowing is.  It's well described and taught in a beginner's fiddle book called The American Fiddle Method.  A few months ago, I went to a concert featuring a Tchaik symphony, and for part of the time, the second violinists were chopping.  Really.

Karen, it's good to hear from you again.  I'm sure you'll do fine with your solo.  I have the feeling that you treat other people with sensitivity, respect, and an attitude of outreach.  I'm sure you'll do well with the new members of the orchestra.  It's the beginning of the season, and you're being hit with a lot of new things at once.  I'm sure you'll handle them all well.  Let us know how it goes.

September 14, 2010 at 07:57 AM ·

Here is a fiddler chopping in a bluegrass band.  Starting at about 0:44, the mandolin player and then the banjo player play solos, and the fiddler does some chopping as backup while the soloists strut their stuff.

September 15, 2010 at 03:12 PM ·

woo-hoo! Look at all of those little solo-y notes.... go Karen!

September 15, 2010 at 07:17 PM ·

Yeah . . . did you see the sheet music?  Up in the "gerbil zone," as Anne so accurately refers to it. 

September 18, 2010 at 11:10 PM ·

We did Mozartiana last spring.  It was chosen by our soloist. She plays in one of the NY ballet orchestras and has listened to some of the violin solos in that literature over and over, but never had gotten to play them.  When our music director asked her what she would like to do, that was one of the pieces she chose.  It is a cool piece.  Just remember, this is a highly sought after solo!  Have fun with it.

This article has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.

Facebook Twitter YouTube Instagram Email is made possible by...

Shar Music
Shar Music

Pirastro Strings
Pirastro Strings

JR Judd Violins
JR Judd Violins

Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra
Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra

Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases Shopping Guide Shopping Guide

Metzler Violin Shop

Southwest Strings

Bobelock Cases

Johnson String Instrument/Carriage House Violins

Jargar Strings

Bay Fine Strings Violin Shop


Los Angeles Violin Shop


String Masters

Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

Laurie's Books

Discover the best of in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews. Interviews Volume 1 Interviews Volume 1, with introduction by Hilary Hahn Interviews Volume 2 Interviews Volume 2, with introduction by Rachel Barton Pine