Category Archives: Music

“Little Women” Holiday Tea Party and Author Talk

 

00LW150Presentation

Yesterday I gave a talk about Little Women at the Mountain View Public Library. It was similar to my presentations about geocaching and Geocaching GPS a couple of years ago.

The librarian was also a fan of Little Women as a child, and she organized the tea party and made the lovely flyer. I set my childhood copy of the book, and my Madame Alexander Jo March doll (in red), there on the table. And I dressed up like a character from the book too: long brown skirt, high collar with a brooch, lace sweater, hair up. (What does it say about my wardrobe that I had all those pieces easily available in my closet?) This is what I talked about.

The 150th Anniversary

Little Women 150th Anniversary, Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Volume I was published in September of 1868, and volume II, originally called Good Wives, was published in 1869. Nowadays they are usually combined into 1 volume and published that way. Louisa wrote the first part–402 pages–in less than 6 weeks. Good Wives especially was written at the request of her publisher and readers. They all wanted to know who the girls would marry. Louisa herself wasn’t particularly interested in this: she said it was better to be an elderly spinster and paddle your own canoe. And she purposely disappointed all the Jo and Laurie shippers and made Jo what she called a “funny match.”

Many modern women writers claim to have been inspired by Little Women and its unforgettable protagonist, Jo March. Among them are J.K. Rowling, Simone deBeauvoir, Nora Ephron, Maxine Hong Kingston, Jhumpa Lahiri, Margaret Atwood, Doris Lessing, Zadie Smith, Gloria Steinem, and Ursula K LeGuin.  Singer-songwriter and punk rocker Patti Smith wrote

There are some moments within literature when a new character is born, one who sits at the summit with others, emblematic of an age, or steps ahead of it. There have been many high-spirited characters before Jo March, but none like her, who wrote, remained herself. Creating Jo at a time when women had not yet won the right to vote was an unflinching move. She was an activist by example. And standing apart to extend a sister’s hand, she has always been there to greet maverick girls like myself, with a toss of her cropped hair and a playful wink to say come along. To guide us, provide encouragement, lay her footprints on a path she beckons us to follow.

Louisa May Alcott

Louisa May Alcott was a writer, Unitarian, feminist, and abolitionist living in Concord Massachusetts. She hobnobbed with the Transcendentalists and had a crush on Ralph Waldo Emerson. She was was the first woman to register to vote in Concord, when women were given school, tax, and bond suffrage in 1879 in Massachusetts.

As many of us know, Little Women was largely autobiographical. Like Jo, Louisa wrote, published, and supported her family with what she called “blood and thunder tales”–gothic thrillers with names like “Pauline’s Passion and Punishment” and “The Abbot’s Ghost or Maurice Treherne’s Temptation.” She wrote under the androgynous pseudonym AM Barnard.

But when asked by her publisher Thomas Niles to write a book for girls, she acquiesced, writing in her journal: “Marmee, Anna, and May all approve my plan. So I plod away, though I don’t enjoy this sort of thing.”

Bronson Alcott and Fruitlands

Louisa’s father, Bronson Alcott, was an idealist, philosopher, progressive educator, and man ahead of his time. He was not, however, a practical man, a farmer, or someone who knew how to put food on the table. When Louisa was 10, Bronson moved the family to Fruitlands, a utopian community based on Transcendentalist principles that he founded with Charles Lane in Harvard Massachusetts. This community had high ideals–for example, they eschewed cotton clothing, because cotton was picked by slaves, and they were abolitionists. But Fruitlands lasted only about 6 months. The men were more interested in talking about the Oversoul than bringing in the harvest, and the women and children couldn’t do all the work themselves. Louisa later wrote about her Fruitlands experience in the satirical short story, Transcendental Wild Oats.  Because of Bronson’s inability to make money, the Alcott family was often poor. Louisa’s writing career was a passion born of necessity. 

Orchard House

When the book was first published, it  was extensively pirated, and now it is in the public domain, but it is estimated that more than ten million copies were sold, not including abridged editions. It has been through 100+ editions and been translated into more than 50 languages. Her publisher persuaded Louisa to take a royalty rather than a flat fee, and as a result, the book and its sequels supported her and her relatives, plus some of her relatives’ relatives, for the rest of their lives.

Little Women and I

So what about me and Little Women?  I had a Jo doll, whose head and legs I had to reattach to bring her to the library. I was pretty into playing with dolls back then. I didn’t play mother and baby much though; I used dolls to act out stories. Little Women was one of those stories, and the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder were another. Some of my dolls had an elected government, with Chrissy, a tall leggy redhead whose hair grew when you pushed a button on her belly, at the top. It was like a girls’school or a women’s college: girls did everything.

I received the Illustrated Junior Library Edition of Little Women as a gift. I read and enjoyed the book as a tween, and my mother also read it to me. One of the things about this book that has stayed with me since childhood is the image on the cover: the family gathered around the piano singing. Even though I’m not much of a singer, I am a musician. I play the violin and viola. My daughter played a number of different instruments growing up and my son plays the cello. I’ve always felt that was the highest purpose in music, not performance or musical skill or putting in your 1000 hours, but to bring people together.

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Susan Bailey reading Little Women

When I started playing the violin and viola again after a long break, I started blogging at violinist.com.  I wrote about reading Little Women to my daughter, and my blog was noticed by Susan W Bailey, author of the blog Louisa May Alcott is my passion, who contacted me. I started reading and following her blog, and there I found out about the anthology, Alcott’s Imaginary Heroes, edited by Merry Gordon and Marnae Kelley at Pink Umbrella Books

As they explain in this interview, Gordon and Kelley believe that Little Women is a pivotal book for many women, one that they return to in different phases of life and learn something new each time. “I’m delighted to be part of it,” says Gordon of the anthology, “and to connect with a community of readers who are as passionate about the book as I am.” 

Finding the Googleplex Beautiful

I reworked the ideas from my violinist dot com blog and submitted them as an essay called “Finding the Palace Beautiful.” As part of the publicity for the anthology, the publisher asked the authors to send a picture of themselves reading Little Women next to a local landmark. I chose the Googleplex.

One hundred and fifty years later, is Little Women still relevant?

Louisa's Gravesite
Louisa May Alcott’s grave on Author’s Ridge at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord MA. Fans pay tribute by leaving pens at the site. Photo courtesy of Richard Ragan.

When I told my writers’ group that I would be doing this reading,  one guy said that he tried but he couldn’t get past the first chapter of Little Women. And some people claim, not without justification, that it’s not really a feminist novel. Everyone gets married off. Ambitions get smaller. Beth dies from her own self-sacrifice. And Jo marries Professor Bhaer, a man who deprecates her writing. Tween and teen girls these days read dramatic tales with kickass heroines like The Hunger Games and Divergent and The Hate U Give.  Is there still space for a book about four flawed sisters in which nothing much really happens?

For me the relevance of Little Women 150 years later is captured well in Joan Acocella’s New Yorker article of August 2018, called “How Little Women Got Big”.  Acocella argues that Jo had to marry Friedrich Bhaer, a poor immigrant Professor, because Jo, unlike her rich neighbor Laurie, thinks hard about things and fights (her) way through them in darkness.

Not surprisingly,  since like Jo I moved to New York and married a German, I’m “team Friedrich” not “team Laurie.” But even without that personal analogy, Jo’s marriage to Professor Bhaer isn’t just a funny match to me. It is a marriage of true minds and intellectual equals. Jo asks him to sing, “Kennst du das Land,” a favorite song that at first meant to him Germany, his country of birth, but later meant to both of them a purer, higher vision of home and love. The book’s ending is Louisa’s transcendentalist love letter and her philosophical masterpiece.

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Mundane Monday: Cup

The theme of this week’s Mundane Monday Challenge is a cup or mug. I have way too many mugs. Like a lot of people, I have gotten and given them as gifts over the years.

In college I used to have a beautiful blue mug with a seashell on it. It was a gift from a friend; taller and thinner than your average mug, and graceful in shape, with gold leaf outlining the seashell. Later, during my biotech job, I had it at work for a while. I drank coffee out of it at the unenjoyable company meetings. Then one day I dropped it; it shattered beyond usefulness as a mug. The handle broke off and the bright white inside, under the royal blue coating was revealed.

When it fell I was kind of traumatized. This was my favorite mug, it had been a gift, and I was upset that the crash made a noise and attracted everyone’s attention. I used to run my thumb up and down the smooth handle while the lecture was going on, and the feeling was calming. Now the handle had become detached, and the edges were all jagged and rough. I was looking around on the floor to make sure I had all the pieces and pick them up, and a male coworker caught my eye and addressed me.

His eyes looked basically kind at first, and there he was asking me a question. What? He wanted to take the broken, jagged pieces from me. Why? My beautiful mug, ruined. Did he want to know its story? Did he want to tell me he was sorry for what happened? Could he help fix it, did he have glue? It looked like he wanted to help . . . but he wasn’t going to fix it . . . no, he was asking me if I wanted him to throw it away. This felt like an insult, an additional injury. No! I made a face and his eyes no longer looked kind.

The mug lived on for a while as a pen and pencil holder after I glued it back together with super glue. But it was never the same, no matter how many stories I told myself about the crack being how the light gets in. I kept seeing my coworker’s face and hearing his words in my mind: “Do you want me to throw that away?” He probably was trying to be kind. So why does he even now still seem like a nosy jerk to me? I didn’t move it to California with us. I didn’t want to think about him, or my weird, defensive reaction to his request, anymore.

TACOmug
With my alto clef T-shirt and TACO mug in the practice room

The mug I’m drinking out of in the picture above is from “TACO,” the “Terrible Adult Chamber Orchestra.” It too was a gift, from last spring when I played the viola solo from Berlioz’ Harold in Italy with the group. This mini-performance was part of my preparation for the Telemann solo I had in May.

A couple weeks ago I had tea for the first time this fall. I opened up the rather overstuffed cabinet where the mugs live, and as I reached for one, I knocked this one and it tumbled. I knew even as I tried to catch it that it was no use. It shattered beyond its usefulness as a mug. No one saw it happen; I threw it away myself. I missed it–I wish I had managed to break one of the less interesting ones we have instead–but I didn’t feel like trying to glue it again. I have enough pencil holders. Instead I ordered a new one from the TACO website. These days everything is replaceable.

Mundane Monday: Balance

Life has gotten away from me and I haven’t had much time for blogging this November. And I’m not even doing NaNoWriMo this year . . .  You might say my life has gotten out of balance!

One reason for this is that I’ve been playing a lot of music. I’m in three different orchestras and two chamber groups. I’m also in a couple of Facebook groups that are focused on music practice. I practice short snippets of my orchestra pieces, record the practice, and post the videos to the group for accountability and support. I first started doing this when I was practicing for my Telemann viola concerto performance last May.

I had a performance last weekend with the Silicon Valley Philharmonic, a group consisting mostly of music teachers and members of the San Francisco Korean Symphony that I heard about from a friend a couple of years ago when they needed last-minute violas. I have played several concerts with them since, some on violin rather than viola. The level of playing is higher than the other groups I am in. And this was a special performance at the Herbst Theater in San Francisco, in honor of Korean War Veterans.

The program opened with a quick Mozart Marriage of Figaro Overture, and then we played with the chorale on the Messe Solennelle for Saint Cecelia by Charles Gounod. Unlike Mozart, which I’d played before (but violin 2, not 1), the Gounod was new to me. It did remind me of some of the big oratorios, masses, and requiems that I used to play with the Philharmonic Society of Arlington back in Massachusetts.

The other players in this group, being music teachers with music degrees, didn’t need the rehearsal time that I generally do. I can keep up with players like these if I have played the piece before and/or have a longer rehearsal cycle and can take the music to a lesson, work out fingerings, and woodshed the hard parts. I didn’t have that luxury this time. The “one rehearsal” (as the conductor calls it) scared me a little. I missed accidentals. I realized that having played the 2nd violin part of a nice Mozart Overture doesn’t necessarily mean you’re ready to play the 1st violin part at a rapid clip. And I got completely left in the dust by some fast arpeggios in the Gounod Gloria, even though I had worked out fingerings beforehand and my stand partner graciously let me write them into her part that we were using. She played it all perfectly whereas I kind of wanted to hide under my chair.

But instead I went back to the practice room and recorded myself. There I am, reaching for the record button on my phone, violin balanced on my shoulder. I’ve done a lot more recording myself lately than I used to, and I cringe less now when watching myself. I already know the frames on those music glasses are so 2008, and I already know the guest room where I practice won’t win any decorating awards.

This passage lends itself well to practicing with a drone because each measure is a set of arpeggios with a specific base note. I can record the base note of each and play against it and listen. If I am playing out of tune, it will be noticeable because it will clash with the drone. To do this you need more than one electronic device, so I found a use for my old iPod with the broken screen (you can hear it in the background, along with the metronome). I thought this exercise would be like watching paint dry, but it’s surprisingly fun. The drone notes even add some tension, which you can hear building as the music goes on.

During the week before the concert, while I was practicing, I found out from a friend that the Philharmonic Society of Arlington was playing this very piece this year for their holiday concert. I knew it reminded me of them. It must be in the air!

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I had been playing so much that I was starting to worry about repetitive stress injury. I sometimes felt tingling or pain in my wrists, fingers, and joints. My left index finger joint was a little swollen for a while. I had a lesson with an Alexander Technique teacher, who asked me to “look for ease” in my body when I was holding and playing my instrument.

That request often leads to my finding places in my body that lack ease: spots of tension that shouldn’t be there and places where I’m out of balance. I noticed in particular that lifting my instrument with only my left hand was not good for my left wrist. As you can see in the video below, I started lifting my instrument to my chin while also supporting it with the right hand. This has made a surprising amount of difference in how my left wrist feels: less tension, more balance. No pain.

This last practice video, the morning of the concert, was another type of practice I like to do with orchestra music: playing along with a recording. It’s hard to find the right tempo, but this one was close. I had come to see this passage as an etude. Never perfect, but I was getting closer and learning in the attempt.

SVPhilConcert

The concert itself was really fun. I carpooled with a bassoonist friend and we talked about orchestra and our kids and our childhoods growing up in music. At the performance I didn’t play perfectly but I was no longer left in the dust or feeling like crawling under my chair. I looked for “ease” in my body as I held up my violin, and occasionally found it. My stand partner congratulated me after the concert, and I her. She asked where I taught and was surprised when I told her I taught science, not music.

I fantasized that this experience was giving me a window into an alternate life path, if only for an evening: that of professional orchestra musician. We took the stage of a beautiful theater and played beautiful music. And rang in the season of lights and concerts that won’t really stop until January.

St. Cecilia is the patron saint of musicians, after all.

SFCityHall
Across from the Herbst Theater: SF City Hall, lit purple

Fire and Fantasy

When I was in high school I had fantasies of being a concertmaster. My senior year I thought it might be a real possibility, and I was disappointed when, after the audition, I ended up “only” first stand inside, turning the pages. I was used to being a shy, quiet nerdy type who didn’t take up a lot of space. But, I had fantasies that the violin could take me out of all that.

Tuning
Tuning the Arlington Philharmonic Orchestra for the Family Concert

Many years and another instrument later, a lot water has flowed under that bridge. I have been a concertmaster in a volunteer community orchestra, and it is a service position. Sometimes I felt overwhelmed by administrative demands, thinking, “they pay me as much as they pay everyone else: ZERO.” But overall, I loved it. I came to think of the orchestra as a second family. I thought and worried about them outside of rehearsal. And I cried when I moved away.

Having taken up the viola as my primary instrument here in California, my concertmaster days are behind me, at least for now. But last spring after my Telemann concerto performance, my stand partner for the Nova Vista Symphony asked me if I would be principal viola in that group for this concert because he had a conflict with his other orchestra. I looked at my calendar, saw that the weekend was free, and said, “sure, I’d be honored.” I think principal viola is the best seat in the orchestral house: surrounded by cellos, violins, woodwinds, right in front of the conductor, in medias res. The fantasy was back.

And starting with the Bloch Concerto Grosso No. 1, the job seemed seemed manageable. I’d played the second violin part to the 4th movement Fugue of this piece in high school, and I recognized it. And there were a few nice, short solos for the principal viola. I dove right in to practicing those, took them to my teacher, figured out fingerings.

Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Fire

It took less than one tutti rehearsal before I was in over my head. Enamored of the Bloch, I had given short shrift in practice to the other two much more challenging pieces on the program: Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances. I felt like Mickey Mouse in the Fantasia version, helpless as everything got out of control and descended into chaos. At one point as the notes went by, my stand partner and I looked at each other and laughed nervously: “Where are we?” “I have no idea. You?” “Nope.” Goodbye to the fantasies of fun and glory, and hello to section leader as service position.

giphy

via GIPHY

This concert was already going to break the difficulty record previously held by Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel, which this group played a year and a half ago. Then I got two emails about injuries to fellow violists, including my former stand partner. The Mickey Mouse feeling intensified. I listened to the Symphonic Dances and thought, it may be in 3, but who would waltz to that?

PracticeRoom
The dreaded practice room

The 100-day practice challenge Facebook group that supported me through preparing for Telemann last spring was subjected to more than their share of my venting. I would watch other people post their practice videos of a nice fiddle tune, or a movement of the Bach Double, or a cello suite, or some cool ukulele riffs, and I’d be jealous. They sounded so nice, and here I was slogging my way through the impossible, alternating between trying to keep up with the metronome and with YouTube recordings set to 0.75 speed. (I’m only including a still picture here, no video, because, like Vegas, what happens in the group, stays in the group!)

My part-time teaching job became less part-time this year too, with two new schools and two new co-instructors. One night I came home from work and felt so brain-dead I doubt I would have taken the viola out of its case, had it not been for the Facebook group. I recorded some brain-dead Dukas, posted it, and went to bed.

Fantasia

Dear Mickey Mouse, I thought to myself. You brought this on by your tendency to bite off more than you can chew. What can you do about it?

Well, one choice would be cutting back. And I did that, sort of. I cut back on online debates and chores that I don’t enjoy. Another choice would be to do what I do for music that I love. I didn’t love the Symphonic Dances (yet), but what if I acted as if I did? What if this were Beethoven?

I started listening to it all the time, especially in the car while I was driving. I looked at the score while I listened (not while driving). I looked up Rachmaninoff’s wikipedia page. He had a fascinating life: escaped the Russian Revolution and ended up in Hollywood. This led me to think about his stories. The woodwind melody in the first movement is sublime. Later there’s some trippy drug music. If I listen closely, I hear the ongoing struggle. Rachmaninoff suffered from depression from time to time, and this was the last piece he ever wrote, a retrospective on his life and career.

Me trying on a long black dress
The good luck Telemann dress

I told my teacher that my practicing of this piece reminded me of the movie “50 First Dates.” This movie stars Drew Barrymore as a woman with amnesia who must relearn her life and relationships every morning when she wakes up. I felt the same: every time I picked up “Rocky,” as I had come to affectionately refer to it, it was like I was seeing it for the first time all over again. “Well, how many pieces of his have you played before?” my teacher asked. “You don’t speak Rachmaninoff yet!” That helped me be patient. The most foreign part of it was in the right hand, not the left. The music was not square; it didn’t always land on a down bow for the strong beats. I learned to write in unexpected bowings so I wouldn’t second-guess myself when I landed on an accented up-bow. I kept at the metronome and the play alongs, as well as marking and isolating difficult passages. I counted down in the Facebook group to the last day.

Concert day came and I stayed home from church in order to focus and review some spots in all 3 pieces. It felt like cramming for an exam, something I’ve done successfully many times, but which I now think results in more anxiety than is ideal. My husband made lunch. I put on my good-luck Telemann dress.

Wildfire

The air smelled of soot at the concert hall due to a wildfire in the East Bay. I said hi to my stand partners in crime in the viola section and we watched the pre-concert talk together. After all this, I felt pretty good about how the Bloch and Dukas went. My solos went off without a hitch. I never got lost. Even my performance in Rocky I was willing to give at least a B-minus. I missed notes here and there, but not in the exposed or important parts.

I had a small viola solo near the end of the Dukas. It is not technically difficult, but it is important, and it is just me, the only moving part. I am the Sorcerer returned, to set things back in balance after the apprentice’s chaos. And I had a bow of my own, after the bassoons.

ProgramCover
Concert Program Cover

It occurred to me that I’d been so focused on my own anxieties that I hadn’t given enough attention to all the great work going on around me: the cellos just a foot to my left, providing grounding, rhythm, and drive; the concertmaster, who played many solos beautifully and with whom I played a duet in octaves in the Bloch; the conductor who remained cool, composed, and accurate in spite of the too-bright lights making him and everyone else sweat; the viola section, who rose to the occasion with humor and grace, playing an exposed chorale section beautifully; the bassoons who brought the apprentice’s magic to life; the orchestra’s new President who is devoting considerable time and effort to the group; and the neighbors and friends and family who came, expected and un-, to be in the audience. I tried to take a minute to tell them all that they sounded great, to thank them.

I had the best time at the reception afterwards talking with everyone. It turns out I wasn’t the only one who was anxious about the ambitious program, and the feelings of relief and celebration were palpable. To paraphrase JFK, we did this concert not because it was easy, but because it was hard. And it served to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills. It brought us a little closer to the moon and stars.

mickeyfantasia
Fantasia (1940). Image via animationartblog.com

Play Music on the Porch Day

I’ve always liked “Days.” Like International Violin Day, which may or may not be June 17th, Igor Stravinsky’s birthday. Or International Walk to School Day, which is coming up on the first Wednesday in October.  Sometimes I find out about them after the fact, which is what’s happening right now if this is the first you’ve heard of Play Music on the Porch Day, Saturday, August 25th.

dsc02346Over the years I have eased in to playing outdoors, for example at the Farmers’ Market back in Belmont Massachusetts.

And this spring, I took the picture for the head shot for my Telemann solo with the SBP, out on my back deck. The green of the bushes in the yard blended in nicely with the green of the Yosemite hillside that I chose to illustrate the New World Symphony.

SBPSpringConcertPoster

Still, I’ve never heard live music in my neighborhood. It’s pretty quiet, except for the cars we can hear rushing by on the main street since we’re on the corner lot. When I took the picture for the poster I just posed with my instrument, I didn’t actually play it!

As I’ve mentioned I’m in a handful of Facebook music groups that keep me accountable for practicing. This is where I found out about the Porch Day. Other members of the group were posting videos of themselves on their porches. There was also a waltz challenge, “Play Me a Waltz,” and some players combined the two.

I decided to do that myself. I had been playing chamber music (Arvo Part and Borodin with friends–not on the porch) and when I got home, I found some waltz music I had lying around from fiddling in Seattle with friends from the Facebook group last year. I took it out on the porch and made my husband record me. These are the first takes.

This one is my favorite. I’ve been to the Yukon, and I can understand why one might feel lonesome for it.

We have not done a lot with our house and yard since moving to the Bay Area. But being out there I imagine soirees and house concerts and people laughing and talking.

“What if for one day everything stopped…and we all just listened to the music?”

 

Thursday Doors: Berliner Dom

Thursday Doors was on vacation too, but it’s back now, with a fascinating post about artist Maud Lewis, and the 1-room cottage that she lived in and turned into a studio. As promised, my Thursday Doors are going to be about my recent trip to Germany and the British Isles.

In Germany we started out in Berlin. I lived in West Berlin as a teenager in 1983, and I have already posted a couple of then vs now posts: 10316 days (about the Berlin Wall), and Thursday “Tors”: Brandenburg.

00WindyStairs
A lot of stairs for not much door!

The Berliner Dom, or Berlin Cathedral, had not been on my radar screen as a particularly joyful, beautiful, or even dramatic place. Lacking the romance of Notre Dame, the pagentry of Westminster Abbey, or the artistic genius of the Sistine Chapel, the Berliner Dom was just another fancy old building, dingy and always under construction. This photo, taken through a tour bus window, sums it up. Rows of leafless trees and a crane under a blackened dome complete the somber picture.

I wrote “East Berlin Cathedral” on the back of this Kodak Instamatic photo in March, 1983

And I have to say, our recent visit didn’t completely dispel the aura of dark severity that surrounds this place for me. The sky was still cloudy and construction remains a fact of life in contemporary Berlin. But the Dom itself has become more open and welcoming.

01Entrance
Eingang (entrance)

The doors downstairs are quite diverse, some with glass:

02SideDoor

Some with marble:

03Stairs

And the interior above the doors, which I never saw on my 1983 tour of East Berlin, is strikingly ornate and beautiful.

031Interior

As a musician, I wanted a picture of the 1905 Sauer Organ, which organist and blogger Dr. Jens Korndörfer terms “one a few choice organs in the world whose encounter is a life changing experience.”

The 1905 Sauer Organ
The 1905 Sauer Organ

There are some rather boring wooden doors too, probably to offices:

And side-chapel doors, adorned with gold and light:

I thought it all got a bit more adventurous when we went upstairs to the dome itself. Here is where you could get lost looking for a way out.

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Or where you might find a hunchback lurking around the corner.

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Or some bees. Yes, this is really a thing! “Berlin is buzzing!” to call attention to the importance of pollinators.

Beehive on roof of Berliner Dom
Beehive on roof of Berliner Dom

There is also something very neat about being up near the roof statues that look so ethereal from below. It’s like being backstage before the show and seeing all the makeup being put on.

For example, this angel clearly needs a smaller viola. If she keeps playing like that she’s going to get tendonitis in her left arm, or worse!

11ViolaTooBig

I approached a security guard on the roof to take our picture. When I asked him in German, he lost his severe, dour look, and happily did us the favor.

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Thursday Doors is a weekly feature allowing door lovers to come together to admire and share their favorite door photos from around the world. Feel free to join in on the fun by creating your own Thursday Doors post and then sharing it, between Thursday morning and Saturday noon (North American Eastern Time), on the linky list at Norm 2.0’s blog

ThroughTheGate

Follow my trip with this and previous posts:

July 20, 2018: Berlin Walk

June 13, 2018: Thursday “Tors”: Brandenburg

June 7, 2018: Germany

What, more Telemann?

Do you ever get a sense of deja vu in music? Like you’ve been down this road before? And not just because of the repeats!

Much of my spring was occupied with preparing the Telemann viola concerto in G major for the South Bay Philharmonic’s concert on May 11th. It was the first time I had played a solo concerto with an orchestra. (I had had a small concertmaster solo several years ago with the Arlington Philharmonic, which was technically my first solo with orchestra, but that wasn’t a concerto).

After the performance I went on vacation to Europe for a month. My husband is German and we visited our friends and family there, as well as going on a British Isles cruise. I’ll be blogging more about the trip throughout the year. I’m back now and looking forward to a summer chamber music concert this Sunday, in which I’ll be playing . . . uh . . . a Telemann viola concerto in G major.

Yep. Did you know there was more than one? Telemann also wrote a double viola concerto, and it’s quite charming and very different from the concerto for one viola that more people know. A friend from the viola section of the SBP and I have the same viola teacher, and she put us up to learning it this summer.

This is one of my favorite recordings of the piece on YouTube, for several reasons. I especially like the energy level of viola 1, but I also like viola 2’s different, calmer approach. They are great foils for one another. Also, this version is only 7-and-a-half minutes long, all 4 movements. There is something about the essence of the concerto being distilled into less than 8 minutes that really appeals to me. You can try to blame modern attention spans, I suppose, but this piece was composed around 1740.

Interestingly, it was originally scored for two “violettas,” and it was composed shortly after Telemann returned from France. At least two of the movements have French titles. Read this paper from the American Viola Society to learn more. We’ll just be using two modern violas, with a cello continuo (my 15-yo son).

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Thursday Doors: At the Concert

I haven’t made a Thursday Doors post for a few weeks because I’ve been busy preparing for and giving a concert, in which I played the Telemann viola concerto solo with the South Bay Philharmonic. With this post I want to introduce Thursday Doors readers to some forgotten or ignored doors in a musician’s life.

Continue reading Thursday Doors: At the Concert

World Enough and Time: My Telemann Performance

It’s a bright, cool California day heralding the coming of summer, and I am free until the evening. I slept well overnight, in spite of reading bad news about someone I knew a lifetime ago. I earned my certificate for completing the 100-day practice challenge last week. Regretful emails trickle in: car trouble, a grandson’s recital, an urgent sample to be analyzed, an unexpectedly long appointment. But my red sparkly Bolero jacket arrived from Jet unexpectedly early. And it fits!

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The New World: Yosemite Valley

Once, before a different performance, I dreamed of breaking my bow, borrowing a replacement, and running endlessly over hills and valleys that opened up in between me and the concert venue as the bow morphed into an archery weapon in my hand. But all these current ups and downs . . . I just watch them from a comfortable distance. The new black dress materialized; the professional make-up job did not. The peach cobbler I baked for the reception didn’t turn out well; the persimmon cookies did.

Either way, it’s time to go.

Foothill Presbyterian Church
Foothill Presbyterian Church

“Here we go!” That’s what our fearless leader and conductor of the South Bay Philharmonic uses as the subject heading on his concert week emails. At Foothill Presbyterian Church, the concert venue, they’re just setting up, getting ready to take tickets, and my musician’s pass is buried somewhere in my gig bag. “I’m not sure where it is,” I say apologetically. “But that’s me!” I’m on the sign. I take a moment to post it on social media.

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Here we go!

I have a list of snippets to warm up, including shifts, string crossings, and the openings to the first and third movements. That list is today’s stick for the elephant trunk brain to hold onto. I made the list after the dress rehearsal, which wasn’t my best effort. I take my instrument out and stand on the stage where I’m planning to stand for the performance, look out, and play a few things from that list. I remember the low ceiling, pews, and decent acoustics from when I was here rehearsing with the harpsichord. Nothing has changed. It’s still mostly empty.

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In black, before the quintet

The first half of the concert will bring people on stage step-wise: a trio, followed by a quintet, followed by a septet, followed by my concerto with string orchestra. (The second half will be the full orchestra playing Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9). While this ascending sequence of prime numbers of musicians appeals to the nerd in many of us, it is also good for me personally: it gives me something warm up with, namely Dvořák’s “American” viola quintet, Op. 97, a thematic match to a concert featuring both the viola and Dvořák.

This still means a quick change for me though: play the quintet and then rush off somewhere to put on my red soloist jacket and get used to my Baroque bow again while the septet is playing. But where to rush off to? There is an AA meeting in the usual warmup room, so I cross an interior courtyard to put my stuff in a corner of the social hall and decide to eat the banana I tucked into my gig bag. The septet arrives while I’m eating the banana and starts warming up too. I can’t hear myself at all and I really need to practice the openings of the 1st and 3rd movements of Telemann. I haven’t done that yet, here.

Back out into the courtyard, the Beethoven septet fades into quiet. People are arriving now in earnest, but they’re mostly staying over in the main sanctuary. A few are hurrying towards the social hall to put away their cases. I set my electronic tuner on the bench around one of the courtyard trees and play the opening measure several times. I take my hand off the instrument, put it back on, and play a B again. I watch the tuner; the intonation is fine. I don’t know what was happening during dress rehearsal and I don’t really want to know. Whatever it was that was making me come in out of tune, the problem seems to be fixed now. I fixed it.

The wind blows and rustles my hair, the skirt of my dress, and the leaves of the tree where I am practicing. The sun is starting to go down, lengthening the shadows of the hurrying musicians. I am vaguely aware that someone, a friend, is taking pictures. I just keep playing the first movement. This is the last time I am going to be playing Telemann before the concert. It is the end of the beginning, and the light is turning to gold.

Golden Light

The quintet movement went well. At least I think so. I didn’t play it perfectly, and I didn’t play it badly. Dvořák wrote the Quintet while he was living in Spillville Iowa, immediately after the “American” Quartet, Op. 96. It is not played as often as the Quartet, and sometimes overshadowed. It almost didn’t happen at all when our 2nd violinist headed to the Middle East on a business trip, but we were able to engage a sub who learned the piece in 3 weeks and did a great job. Also, the viola 2 part was played by a cellist on an alto violin (more on alto violins another time, perhaps. But I’ll be sticking with the regular on-the-shoulder method of playing the viola for the foreseeable future!)

Back out to the social hall, put on the red jacket, visit the rest room and wash my sticky hands, take out and tighten my Baroque bow, check the tuning on my viola, and back across the courtyard again in heels. The septet is nearing the end, and I stand to one side of the stage with George, the conductor, as we prepare to go on.

PlayingTelemann

Here’s the complete video of the performance:

For an encore, I prepared a spiritual called “I’m Just a-goin’ over Jordan” from Solos for the Viola Player by Paul Doktor. It’s a relatively simple melody, repeated several times in different octaves and with different dynamics and tempos. It takes advantage of the lonely, bluesy sound the viola can make. I played it as a meditation in church a while ago. To “go over Jordan” can be like crossing the River Styx in another mythology, to a better life in the next world. Would Dvořák still recognize, in today’s America, the “New World” he wrote of in his symphony?

EncoreGoinOverJordan

***

I was asked, on Facebook, “what did it feel like to be on stage with an orchestra?” The first answer is “surprisingly unremarkable.” I wasn’t that nervous. The temperature was warm enough that my hands weren’t cold, and my bow didn’t shake. Mainly, I had a script to follow: 1. While the orchestra is playing and I’m not, look out into the audience and smile; 2. When the orchestra hits a predetermined passage, usually when it goes up in pitch and foreshadows the cadence, that means it’s time for the viola to come in soon, so I raise my instrument to my chin; 3. While I’m playing, focus my eyes on where my bow contacts the string; 4. When necessary, particularly when the orchestra comes in after the cadenzas, turn my head to look over at George and the cellos.

That was it. I followed the script, and it was almost like a tape, or a DVD, was playing in my head and through my hands. That was what it felt like to have world enough and time to prepare, to know a piece so well it that had become a part of me. Although I didn’t take risks or stray from the script in the moment, it was fun. And as I headed into the last repeat of the last section of the 4th movement, the thought came to me, “I might really get through this whole concerto without screwing up!” And I did.

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Memories of Memorizing

When I said I had decided to perform the Telemann viola concerto from memory I was met with some skepticism.

2ndmovementaskew.jpg“You don’t *have* to, you know.”

“I don’t think I could do that.”

“A lot of soloists nowadays are using the sheet music.”

“I’d want the sheet music there just as a security blanket.”

There’s a lot of overlap between shared experience and advice. It’s a general human tendency to believe that the lessons of one’s own experience are relevant for others too. But, as I’ve learned (from—ha—experience), it’s better to let the recipient decide how and why that is true. This blog is intended in that spirit.

In my case, I need to memorize.

In my day job, I am a neuroscientist. I worked for several years in biotech, then in academia as a project manager, and now in STEM education and outreach. I could go on, comparing different aspects of scientific and musical careers, but for now, this concerto performance is taking me back to my PhD thesis defense. At Stanford where I was a student, as at other major research universities, PhD candidates have to write a thesis, present their work in a departmental seminar, and then answer questions from their committee, which comprises several professors in the student’s field of research.

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Cultured neurons, from a figure in my PhD thesis

My thesis committee members were intelligent and kind, and my thesis consisted largely of putting together three already-published papers and two manuscripts in preparation. I didn’t expect to fail based on my scientific work. But I did have these nagging thoughts that I could fail based on my presentation of that work. I had a history of performance anxiety and self-sabotage. There were the points lost from school reports because I read them verbatim from note cards. And the speech I gave for my failed run for student council. An All-State audition in which Mozart’s Violin Concerto #5 reduced me to tears wasn’t any better. And then came the worst one of all: the disastrous audition for the University Orchestra my freshman year in college that started me down the road to quitting the violin.

But there was a glimmer of hope in grad school, and it lay in the results of memorization. A few years before my thesis defense, I gave my first talk at a major scientific meeting, the Society for Neuroscience meeting in Phoenix AZ. My 10-minute talk was scheduled, along with two others from my lab, in a session starting at 9 am on Monday morning. The night before, I paced an empty hotel conference room, memorizing my talk word for word. One of my lab-mates had suggested I do this. She was older than I, a postdoc and a rising star in the field, known for giving good talks. And she let me in on a secret: she still got nervous. Like, really, really nervous. But these talks were only 10 minutes, short enough to memorize, and that helped her. It might help me too.

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Cajal’s drawing of the hippocampus, a brain structure important for memory. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=612536

I had about 10 slides and so first I memorized the order of the slides, then I chose a visual cue on each that would remind me of the slide to come. When I changed to the next slide I oriented the audience to what they were seeing and then gave the slide’s important message. Then it was time for the transition to the next one. This mental map of order of slides/visual cues/transitions/important message was something for me to hang onto and think about, even as the storms of anxiety raged.

The next morning busses from the hotels were crowded and we almost didn’t make it to the convention center in time. With over 25,000 neuroscientists in attendance from all over the world, this conference is so big that only a few convention centers in the country can handle it, and this particular meeting took place before the Society figured out that Phoenix wasn’t one of them.

The logistics were in disarray; attendees were packed into the ballroom like sardines without enough chairs and the podium lights weren’t working properly. My mentor was first from our lab to give her talk. I watched as the podium light went on and off randomly but she continued to speak calmly. The projector functioned, but there was no pointer available, laser or otherwise, and as she stepped back to the screen to point at something on one of her slides, she disappeared entirely. In the dark, she had missed the edge of the podium and fallen off. The audience gasped. She re-emerged, uninjured, climbed back up and finished her talk. Her voice shook but she got it under control. The podium lights came back on sometime near the end. The timing bell rang, people asked questions.

And then I was next. I took the stage wondering what fresh hell awaited.

My own talk went off without incident. The lights, and the laser pointer, and everything else were up and running by then thanks to the hardworking convention staff. I was hyper-aware of where the edge of the podium was. I knew my talk well. I’d just witnessed one of the worst things that could possibly happen during a talk, and I knew it was survivable. My friend’s preparation, the fact that she knew her talk backwards and forwards, had made the difference.

Several years later, when I was giving my thesis seminar, I had this experience to think back to. My seminar was about 5 times longer than the little 10-minute meeting talk, but I still approached it the same way: slides/visual cues/transitions/important messages. I just had more slides. I ran through them mentally, over and over again. The order was comforting; it was the stick I gave the trunk of my elephant brain to hold onto.

I passed.

Concertos don’t use slides or projectors to deliver their message, which is different from a scientific talk. But certain principles still hold true. First of all, having note cards, prompts, or the sheet music “just in case” isn’t going to work for me. If I know it’s available I’ll lean on it. I’ll steal a look and then start reading it verbatim. Instead I need to be prepared to look inward, not outward, even–or perhaps especially–for that cue to keep going when I stumble.

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Elephants and their trunks. Photo by Antoine Plüss on Unsplash

Of central importance is something that Meditation Instructor Eknath Easwaran called the stick for the elephant trunk.

The human mind is rather like the trunk of an elephant. It never rests. It goes here, there, ceaselessly moving through sensations, images, thoughts, hopes, regrets, impulses. Occasionally it does solve a problem or make necessary plans, but most of the time it wanders at large, simply because we do not know how to keep it quiet or profitably engaged.

Easwaran goes on to recommend the mantram, a spiritual formula in the form of a word or short phrase, to steady the mind. This is a subject of study for a lifetime. And I am not naturally a great meditator; sometimes when I try, it puts me to sleep. Furthermore, I find words themselves to be an awkward fit for a steadying mental substrate.

My mind gravitates more towards deeper non-verbal sensory experiences: pictures, kinesthetic feelings, and music. It is those sensations that I string together as another kind of mantra. Not power point slides this time, but bridges, ladders, and lattices. Finger patterns, and arpeggios climbing to the sky before sliding back down the other side of the bow. The deep purple of the C, the forest green of the G, as I put bow to string.

Brain Coral. Photo by Daniel Hjalmarsson on Unsplash
Brain Coral. Photo by Daniel Hjalmarsson on Unsplash