Bach on the Balcony

April 8, 2020, 10:34 PM · PlayingOnBalcony

This past year I have been teaching grades 6 and 7 Biology at a private STEM-oriented school in Silicon Valley. It's my first year teaching full-time and often it feels like I have two jobs, not one, and hardly any time for orchestra.  I had started to feel like I was barely keeping my head above water, technique-wise, and I wondered, am I going to have to quit playing altogether again, at least for a while, to make this job work?

But now, my school, like all the others in Santa Clara county California, has been closed for almost 4 weeks, and we teachers and our students are slowly adjusting to distance learning, Microsoft Teams, and Zoom, Zoom Zoom.


I am privileged to still have a job and roof over my head. And I have a box of masks left over from the CA wildfires last year--not sure whether I can call that lucky, but I do have them. Introvert that I am, I may not be minding the current situation as much socially as some folks are. I need quite a bit of alone time, and I remember many long days of childhood spent at home with only books, dolls, and imaginary friends. In some ways, I've been doing this before it was cool. Or necessary. I even have a husband who shops and cooks, so I don't have to!

But one aspect of this quarantine that has bothered me and made me disappointed and sad even more than I expected was the complete loss of my musical outlets and opportunities as an amateur musician. First it was my remaining chamber group: no, we can't go to the organizer's house this week. He and his partner are in the high-risk age group. Then it was the South Bay Philharmonic concert that got cancelled. In honor of the 250th anniversary of Beethoven's birth, we had planned to play Beethoven's 4th, one of two Beethoven symphonies (#4 and 8) that I need for my bucket list. We had been through all the rehearsals but the dress, and then the news came: no gatherings of more than 250 people allowed.

Things moved quickly after that: I went home from school for a short March break and haven't been back since. My son's high school closed too; my Googler husband is working from home.

And here we are.


For some reason when I finally did pick up the viola to play again, I felt the need to go back to my viola roots, to the basics. When I first started playing the viola, switching from violin around 14 years ago, that meant Bach suites. I played the Courante from #1, which had been my favorite back then, and the Allemande. Then I found suite #2, with its D-minor prelude. It seemed darker and more serious than suite #1. That was when I really started feeling like I had gone over to the "dark side," the viola, and there was no turning back.

Instead of putting my viola back in its case after that, I put it on a hanger in my spare bedroom/office. I started taking "Bach breaks" from online teaching or lesson planning. I would just run through something, work on a little bit here or there . . . and then something else occurred to me. My daughter stayed in Oregon, where she attends Willamette University, because she lives off-campus and dorm closures didn't affect her. Her room, sitting empty, has a balcony, which is why she claimed that room when we moved here in 2015.

Inspired by the quarantined Italians I had seen singing from their balconies, I stepped out from my daughter's room with my viola. Would this work, or would I look ridiculous? A few joggers and dog walkers went by, and I brought out my music stand and played some Bach.

Later I set up my phone and livestreamed it on Facebook. I think I had a larger audience on Facebook than I did live on my small, quiet street, but that may have been for the best. If a real crowd had gathered I might not have had the courage to continue.

That balcony session led to some surprising and delightful responses. One was the reaction of my new friends and colleagues at school. I decided to go out on a limb and share it with my fellow teachers and my students in our online platform. They were very sweet--"that sounded awesome!" said one. The video got shared in our school newsletter too. And then there were the oranges. One of my neighbors left some oranges on our front porch from a tree in their yard, with a nice Thank You card for the "beautiful music while working in the garden." I eat one orange every morning for breakfast, and I still don't know who it is!


I've also had a Skype lesson with my viola teacher. We worked on Bach--the prelude from the 3rd suite now--and also on Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante, which I think might be my next project. The lesson worked quite well and I think I'd like to continue this type of lesson with my teacher even when the quarantine is lifted. Not having to drive to Palo Alto and back saves me almost an hour, and might enable me to fit more lessons back into my regular schedule, even when school starts again.

And, I've played some fiddle tunes in what I'll call "Zoom church." It is the UU Fellowship of Sunnyvale's answer to having to close down live services. Instead, we have Sunday services on Zoom, with everyone calling in from home. At this point I'm still not a pro with Zoom by any means (just ask my students) but any squeamishness I may have felt about being recorded on video is rapidly becoming a thing of the past.

But, what about orchestra? I still miss it terribly. When I moved to CA, orchestra was both my greatest loss for what I left behind in MA, and my best source of new friends and experiences in CA. But I'm no longer just finding my way in these orchestras. I've been here a long time. It surprises me and brings me up a little short that now, here, I'm at the point of grieving another musical loss rather than exploring something new and exciting.

I've seen many wonderful videos of orchestras playing together at a distance, some of them on George Yefchak, our conductor at the SBP, had the idea to do a video like this as well, using the Scherzo from Beethoven's 4th that we were going to play in the concert. He had the vision and did a heroic collecting and editing job to make that vision a reality. I'm there in the third row on the left, wearing an alto clef T-shirt. Fellow violinist.commer Gene Huang, the SBP concertmaster, is up in the top left corner too.

It's not the whole symphony, and my sympathies go out to Roger, our horn soloist, whose concerto had to be postponed. But I'm still going to count it for my bucket list. Only Symphony #8 to go!

I know this quarantine has been a disaster for many professional musicians who live from gig to gig. I appreciate every one of them who has been sharing their talents with the rest of us to inspire hope and help us get through this difficult time. This is also a time when some of those distinctions start to fall away--professional, amateur, rich, poor, famous, ordinary, even young and old--the virus, and the need for human contact and hope, don't know these distinctions. We may be here a long time, and we can all share with each other, and need each other. The woods would be very silent if no birds sang except those who sang the best.




April 9, 2020 at 05:57 PM · What a wonderful post, Karen! Let me know if you need a partner for rehearsing Sinfonia Concertante (after we are past this whole shelter-in-place situation, of course). ;-)

April 9, 2020 at 06:23 PM · Hi Gene, that would be great! I bought a play-along CD with the violin and orchestra parts, but it would be much more fun to play it with you! I'm not ready yet in any case, so the timing might be perfect.

April 9, 2020 at 08:35 PM · Nice playing. I have been enjoying your Bach on Facebook too. :)

April 9, 2020 at 08:43 PM · Karen, et al.,

What a wonderful message. Interesting that I've been tempted to take my violin outside along with my personal favorite music (Show Tunes, Jazz Tunes, et cetera) but I haven't managed the courage quite to step out among my neighbors and have them hearing me playing.

A former student, who transitioned to the Viola and a different teacher lives across the street, he and I could take on the transcription of the Mozart horn duets for Violin and Viola (staying apart playing from different stands).

April 9, 2020 at 08:54 PM · "The woods would be very silent if no birds sang except those who sang the best."

A lovely post! Thank you for sharing.

April 9, 2020 at 09:17 PM · Karen, I found your post to be particularly moving and inspiring. I think for many of us who perform "other jobs" during the day, music has even more meaning and importance as a way to reconnect with our artistic sides. Bravo to SBP, you, and Gene on a wonderful, heartfelt performance!

April 9, 2020 at 09:55 PM · That was wonderful! Thank you for sharing. I will look for your posts on Facebook.

April 9, 2020 at 10:10 PM · Thanks for your kind words, everyone! A little more about the "woods would be a quiet place" quote. I didn't make it up; you can find it on the internet variously attributed to Henry Van Dyke and John James Audubon. I find that it helps give me courage and overcome stage fright. I imagine my audience wants to hear all the birds singing.

April 10, 2020 at 08:28 PM · There’s so much to comment on in your blog: the opportunities you have had to form new friendships, thoughts of future goals, the kindness of strangers, the joy of Bach, and finally, technology to bring music where and when we need it. Karen, I’m curious how the video of your orchestra was created. Did each of you listen to a recording of the others while you were adding your part? Was there a clik track that only you could hear in your earphones? Did you use earphones? I’ve seen this technology with other orchestra, and I’ve wondered how it works. Thanks!

April 10, 2020 at 09:23 PM · It was George's doing. He made a MIDI file with a click track, and then made a video of himself conducting along with that. He sent us that link. We listened on headphones and watched, and played along to make our own videos that we sent back to him. He then did about 30 hours of editing to put it together. He used Adobe Premier Pro.

I was using earbuds with a cord, so I only had one in one ear because with two earbuds the cord really got in the way. You can see the white cord a little bit against the black of my T-shirt but it is not in the ear facing the camera. For some of the other players the earphones are much more obvious.

April 10, 2020 at 11:19 PM · Thank you! The result was excellent.

April 12, 2020 at 12:28 AM · Hola, Karen. Desde Madrid, España, le felicito por su riqueza emocional y attística. Yo soy un violinista amateur, tomo clases particulares y también toco en una orquesta amateur, pero no soy tan valiente como Vd. Felicidades...!!!

April 13, 2020 at 05:29 AM · ¡Hola! It's been a long time since I learned Spanish, but I understood your comment :-) Gracias for your nice words and please stay healthy!

April 13, 2020 at 01:06 PM · Karen - as always, your blog is an inspiration to those of us who are trying to figure out how to make lemonade out of the current lemons. I, too, miss orch and chamber music (although I have an additional problem due to rotator cuff tendonitis). Bach is always a great source of music for those of us who are string players and need something glorious and unaccompanied to play because we cannot do music with the usual folks. We have close friends in Paris who are professional musicians, and they are heavy into Bach. Also, it is wonderful that you are channeling the wonderful Italian example of playing for those in the neighborhood. Keep up the good work and stay healthy and virus-free.

April 13, 2020 at 06:08 PM · Karen, that is a wonderful post in so many ways. I love the quote you

ended with “The woods would be very silent if no birds sang except those who sang the best. When I lived in

A condo / apt, I did not practice on my balcony but indoors and I had a fan club of sorts. Some of the neighborhood kids used to gather outside my apt and listen to me practice. They said that they liked my music because it was so gentle. I thought of the pop stuff they must hear on their earphones and appreciated the difference. I have been a shut in for a long time because of medical issues and I seriously miss getting together with friends in community orchestras, singing groups and jam groups. Although I am an introvert and I probably handle my alone time better than most, the social aspects of playing music together really enrich me and I miss them.

April 14, 2020 at 12:01 AM · I'm sorry Pauline that you have not been able to play music with others due to medical issues. That stinks. I hope you have been able to derive some comfort from listening to music and from sharing your art and photography. Be virus-free and safe, friend.

April 14, 2020 at 06:28 PM · Our orchestra was just getting ready to perform Schubert's Rosamunda suite and were sounding pretty good, when the pandemic shut everything down just before our scheduled performance. My viola sat untouched for several weeks while I tried to adjust to the disruption. But recently I came across a recording of Telemann's Viola Concerto in G major; I've decided to make that my project to get me playing again. Now I need to figure out how to set up some video conferencing software so I can play with friends. One problem is that such software tends to mute the microphones of everyone except the one person speaking, which doesn't work too well for musical ensembles. If anyone figures out a way around this, let us know.

April 15, 2020 at 12:39 AM · Charlie, unfortunately videoconferencing software tends to have too much lag to enable you to play with friends that way. Behind all these virtual ensembles is an overworked and talented editor, piecing together a bunch of separate recordings.

Telemann sounds like a great project! There are a few YouTube playalongs that I found really useful when I was preparing my performance of that piece. For example, this is the Largo: and there is one of these for each movement.

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