I used to blog regularly, especially when I first re-started playing the violin and viola. It was a way to motivate myself and be accountable: the more I practiced, the more I had to write about. And the more I wrote, the more I could work through and get support for issues that were holding me back. Then in 2015 I moved across the country for family reasons. I knew I was going to miss my musical life in Massachusetts. I didn’t realize how much.
At first it seemed like in California I jumped right in, landed on my feet, hit the ground running, etc. I didn’t even have to audition for the community orchestra I’d picked out, and I started rehearsing two of my favorite orchestra pieces of all time–Eroica and William Tell–for a nice concert, with puppies. But still, when I got the email announcing the first rehearsals of the season for my old orchestra, the Arlington Philharmonic, I stared at the computer, blurry eyed, unable to hold back tears.
It wasn’t just orchestra I missed–Walter, the conductor and visionary educator who believed in me enough to make me concertmaster; Phyllis, the former long-term concertmistress who left me her music collection and played in the first violin section almost up until she passed away at age 96; Marianne, my best friend, founding member of the Mystic String Quartet (named for her street), and stand-partner-in-crime for concerts indoor and out; Dewey, the gentleman with the wicked sense of humor who said it was an honor to turn my pages; Chandreyee, the violinist who organized the orchestra’s first outdoor concert and wrote a grant to fund it; Ben, the violist/trombonist who was my first stand partner until my dreadful alto clef reading scared me back to violin for a while; or Sandy, the unflappable principal cellist, the rock who kept the orchestra together; or many others–I missed the intimacy of getting together and playing music with friends.
There had actually been a string of losses leading up to my departure: Walter retired, Phyllis passed away, Dewey stopped playing. Marianne moved out of the house on Mystic St. Then I moved too, and Chandreyee’s kids got my son’s old Star Wars toys in a shoebox. It was a little overwhelming. Other than time, the best way for me to cope with these losses came from something, or perhaps someone, that I didn’t expect: a new friend invited me to play Schubert.
Years previously, right around the time Sandy, Marianne, Ben and I started playing as the Mystic String Quartet, Sandy had dropped by my house with a basket full of chamber music. She had inherited it from another cellist who passed away, and she was offering me the duplicates. I had also recently inherited a box of violin music from Phyllis, and while I was honored to have it, my shelves (not to mention storage closets) were full. So I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with all those parts. They were in varying conditions, too, some pristine, some yellowed and torn. And they were marked with the name of their late owner, a man I had never met: Leonard Kaplan. I used some of it for our Mystic performances, particularly the Mozart which was in reasonably good shape. Then I boxed it up and shipped it to California with 547 other boxes.
I was playing Beethoven’s 7th in a different community orchestra, the South Bay Philharmonic, turning pages for the principal viola and trying again to get used to alto clef when Schubert re-surfaced. The SBP concertmaster, Gene Huang, whom I knew from violinist.com, invited me to sub for the regular violist in his chamber group playing the Schubert Cello Quintet in C.
I had never heard of, let alone heard, this piece before. I was kind of vague on the whole quintet concept: I remembered having played a viola quintet once. Well, the violin part. Which I wouldn’t be doing this time. I looked through the collection that Sandy brought me, and there, virtually in mint condition, it was: Quintet D956 with 2 violins, 1 viola, and 2 cellos. I took the music, went to that rehearsal, subbed a couple more times, and after the summer I became the regular violist with the chamber group.
In some of those early rehearsals I felt like I was just holding on. Even though Gene said no pressure, and meant it, my alto clef reading still failed me at intervals and there were times I had to watch the violinists’ feet tapping to keep the pulse. But we performed the first movement on the fall concert program, and then moved on to the second movement for the winter. Each performance got better as we got used to working with each other. I also became a better violist myself as I worked on other orchestral and chamber parts, and the violin moments began to fade.
This fall, as we continued to work our way through the Quintet movements, we decided to perform the whole piece, all 4 movements, as part of a standalone chamber concert that also included a quartet and a trio. This was a more ambitious undertaking than anything I had done before in chamber music. This quintet is over 50 minutes long–symphony length–even if you omit the long first movement repeat. And unlike most symphonies, within those 50+ minutes there is no opportunity to lose focus, space out, or rest. Not even for the viola. Maybe especially not for the viola, who is both outnumbered by, and provides a bridge between, the two violins and the two cellos. Even page turns are challenging. After the first time we rehearsed it the whole way through without stopping we all just kind of sat there, stunned, looking at at each other and moaning “We’re so tired!”
Of all the movements, the 2nd movement may have been the most challenging, for a few reasons: first, we had a different 2nd violinist the first time we performed it, so Min, our violin 2 for this concert, had to learn this movement from scratch too. And second, its middle section in which the violin I and cello I play a beautiful melody over the angsty triplets and syncopations of the other 3 voices, is just really difficult to keep together. The rhythm sometimes deliberately sets 3 beats against 4; the cello 2 has to bravely hold his own against the violin 1/cello 1 melody line and the violin 2/viola groove; and on top of all the rhythmic challenges the whole thing has four flats. Just to keep it interesting . . .
I remembered that on one occasion last year, I sight-read the violin I part of this quintet with an informal chamber music reading group. I also remembered that, at the time, doing that had helped me especially with the 2nd movement. So I tried again. I owned all 5 parts courtesy of Mr. Kaplan, and so I got out the violin 1 part, recorded it with the metronome, and played viola along with myself. It was better the next week but I was still struggling.
I finally asked my teacher, who had loaned me her score of the piece. “Listen downwards,” she said. “Listen to the cello.” I thought I had been doing that. I have a number of sections–melodies, countermelodies, and accompaniments–that I play along with Harris, cello 1, and I was getting used to looking over at him. He, like Sandy, is the orchestra’s principal cello, steady and reliable, always there to be counted on to keep the group together. “No, not him!” my teacher reminded me. “Cello 2! He has the pulse here.” She was right. My bass clef reading skills are even more rudimentary than my alto clef reading, but I managed to record myself playing about 10 measures of the cello 2 part up an octave, with a metronome, and practiced playing along with that. After a few of those sessions somehow it went into my brain through a back channel, and from then on it clicked much better. Instead of trying to ignore what Alex was playing, as I had before, I embraced it, focused on it, and allowed his part to guide me.
At our later rehearsals, we often discussed who we were playing with at different times, whom we should watch, who should lead what section. I still probably watched Gene (violin 1) the most, but this piece gives something to everyone. Alex (cello 2) and I start the slow, grand trio section of the 3rd movement together. Min (violin 2) and I groove together in the 2nd movement and give it its Sturm und Drang. We accelerate together into the da capo section of the third movement. Harris (cello 1) and I have some beautiful melodies and counter-melodies together in the 1st and 3rd movements, and sometimes his part soars above mine. Besides watching him for all the starts and finishes, Gene and I have some fast 8th notes together towards the end of the 4th movement.
Honestly, all this togetherness and eye contact takes a little getting used to, especially for introverts. I tend to bury myself too much in the music anyway, especially when performing. And I fret that I make funny faces: Do I look like a deer in the headlights? Do I have food on my chin? Do I have 3 chins? Do I have resting bi**h face?
A few months ago, while playing Ashokan Farewell as a warmup, I stumbled across some names from the past that I had written in my music. “Look at Sandy,” the music admonished me, with some little eyeglasses drawn above the “Sandy.” Later one of the other players piped up, “who is Chandreyee?” “Oh, she’s the second violinist I played this with at the Farmers’ Market back in Boston this one time . . .” “It says to watch Chandreyee here in my part!” “Yeah, watch violin 2. That would be good.” “Okay.” I remember this conversation as I am marking up my Kaplan/Schubert part.
“Maybe you should just write ‘Violin 1,'” I tell Min. I launch into an abbreviated version of one of my boring “when I was back in Boston . . . ” stories and end with “Sandy isn’t here.” Because my friends are nice people, they laugh sympathetically, but when I go home I think about it some more.
Easily my favourite piece is his last chamber work, the String Quintet in C major, featuring two cellos . . . I grew up playing the piece with family and friends . . . Later, while I was a student, we would often put on marathon chamber music evenings that would last all night, with the ensembles growing in size. These were some of the most fun evenings of my life. For me the Quintet will always represent youth, friendship and the warmth of the shared experience.
–Marin Alsop, conductor, quoted in “Schubert: Ferocious, tender, sublime“; The Guardian, 19 March 2012.
I said that I had stopped writing people’s names in my music, only their instrument parts, because names were too “confusing.” I realized, on reflection, that that’s silly and a little sad. Some day, in the not-too-distant future, this will all be in the past too. And I actually *like* seeing people’s names in the music. In an important way, the people you play with are the music. So I went back to writing names in my part. This has been a special experience and if I’m ever fortunate enough to play this piece again, I’ll want to see, and remember.
For a long time, my blogging strategy has served me well. I’ve been playing continuously now for 11 years (almost as long as the first time I played, as a child and teen) and have no plans to stop. But my source of motivation and the relationship I developed between music and writing have undergone a sea change. Now I seem to have more of an inverse relationship between music and writing: the more I play, the less I write. And the deeper I go into new musical territory, the more complex the concepts and the harder they are to express in another medium. One by one, words fall away, leaving only the music.