Category Archives: Music

Swimming Journeys

I have lived in California for almost 2-and-a-half years. One might think that I now spend my days on the sunny beach, swimming in the ocean, or at least in a pool. Alas, no.

When we first got here, while waiting for our furniture to arrive and our bathroom remodel to finish, we lived in a furnished corporate apartment complex with the portentous name of Domus on the Boulevard. An outdoor pool was part of the complex, and I swam there somewhat regularly and even blogged about it: My Kind of Exercise. Not for me, the usual middle-aged “I’ve lost my youthful athleticism” lament. You can’t lose what you never had. Instead in that blog I attempt to come to terms with my swimming history.

The pool at night at "Domus on the Boulevard"
The pool at night at Domus on the Boulevard

Two years later, I am still exactly there: ambivalent about my history as a not-particularly-athletic ex-swimmer who prefers the breaststroke.

But then I got the email:  “Thank you for your interest in the Y and for downloading a 3-day free trial pass from our website. Join in January and save 50% off the Joining Fee!”

Wait, did I download a 3-day free trial pass? Yeah, I guess I did, a whole year and a half ago. So they still remember that? What are they over there at the El Camino YMCA, some sort of tech wizards? You’d think this was Silicon Valley or something . . .

It becomes a huge production for me to actually use this trial pass, which is probably why I haven’t done it until now. When I invite him along, my son says “scout it out and tell me if it’s crowded” before turning back to his computer. The pass file is still on my computer, in a folder cleverly marked YMCA, along with a pool schedule from October 2016. Fortunately I replaced all the empty printer ink cartridges for the holiday letter, so I can print out the pass. A few years ago I thought I could combat boredom by listening to music while I swim, so I got a waterproof iPhone case for Christmas. This plan struck me then–and now–as very exciting: I am going to listen to orchestra music while swimming! I am going to emulate my heroine, Maria Popova of Brain Pickings, who reports in Lifehacker: “I practically live with headphones glued to my ears—when I work, when I bike (don’t tell my mom), when I work out.”

I locate that case, never actually exposed to water, in a bottom drawer under my goggles, suit, and one of my daughter’s old swim caps. I briefly consider that I should try it out with my ancient iPod touch first, in case the case leaks. But the iPod doesn’t have any interesting music on it, and its touch screen is almost non-functional, so I’m back to the phone. It fits in the case but it takes me a while to figure out how to plug it in. And then there’s getting the current orchestra music onto the phone. Download, copy into itunes, plug phone into computer. Lather, rinse, repeat. Yet when I drive to the Y, I still manage to leave my phone at home and have to drive back for it.

By the time I traverse the cold, cold concrete path in my bare feet (forgot flip-flops) from the women’s locker room (forgot a combination lock) to the pool, the sun is low in the sky. Attention Lap Swimmers! a sign along the path admonishes me. Do not enter a lane without telling the other occupants of that lane.

There are only 1-2 people per lane, and they don’t appear to be swimming super-fast. In fact, here is a lane where one middle-aged guy is doggedly swimming the breaststroke. I sit on the side and dangle my feet in the nice warm water while I wait for him to come back so I can tell him I am “entering his lane.” He doesn’t mind sharing. I find out a number of things about him, including that he used to manage a pool himself, that he has been in California about the same length of time that I have, and that this pool is better than the one at the YMCA he first joined. He is amused by the contraption around my neck, but wishes me good luck with it. I let him get a good head start and then I’m off.

Yes, you can take a picture with your iphone while it is in a waterproof case
Yes, you can take a picture with your iPhone while it is in a waterproof case

My first several laps are a tangle of leaking goggles and the phone case knocking around. First I can barely hear the music, then it’s too loud. One minute I’m listening to Journeys by Linda Robbins Coleman, and then it jumps to Scheherazade. Then my earbuds fall out again. Finally I figure out that it works best to put the phone case in the front of my suit, the equivalent of sticking it in my bra. It probably looks weird, but there isn’t much drag and it stays put, which also keeps the ear buds in place. My goggles are too tight and give me raccoon eyes so I’m going to look for new ones, but for now at least they don’t leak.

MeSwimmingAs the sun goes down and the pool lights come on, I start to find a rhythm. The laps run together, but I keep swimming: mostly breaststroke and a few lengths of front crawl, sidestroke, or backstroke in there just for fun. The music, which is all modern and unfamiliar to me this early in the rehearsal cycle, fits the watery chaos. I feel alone in the universe, suspended in time and space. A couple of the pieces have astronomical themes: one is called Transit of Venus, another Saint-Exupery: of Heart, Sand, and Stars. The last one is called Journeys, and I’m finally on one.

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Film Review: Coco

I saw two movies over Christmas break, The Last Jedi and Coco. I don’t feel like reviewing The Last Jedi right noweven though I enjoyed it. Maybe it needs to percolate a bit longer, or maybe with all the hype and dissection afterwards it just didn’t seem like I had anything to add. But Coco was a delightful surprise. I’d heard it was about the Mexican custom of celebrating the Day of the Dead and honoring one’s ancestors, but I hadn’t realized it was about music. The film has been out for a while, so I’m not going to be concerned about spoilers. If you are, please stop reading here.

Coco starts out as a sort of Cinderella/Harry Potter-ish tale, with a child, Miguel, who doesn’t feel like he belongs with the rest of his family. He plays a homemade guitar and sings, hiding in the attic where he has built a little shrine to his musical hero, Ernesto de la Cruz, a celebrity singer and guitarist. His family of shoemakers is mean to him, and seemingly tone-deaf about what he needs. The scene in which his grandmother smashes his guitar is particularly harsh. At first the idea that the family hates music and has banished it from their home because of their musician ancestor who abandoned the family seemed overdone and melodramatic to me. The story was heavily weighted in sympathy with poor little Miguel, forbidden by these old, hidebound meanies from following his sacred dreams. The film is visually gorgeous and inventive, so I was prepared to enjoy that aspect of it even if the story was cliched.

And then the story surprised me.

In order to “seize his moment” and enter the talent show his family forbade, Miguel tries to steal Ernesto de la Cruz’s guitar from his mausoleum, and thereby becomes cursed and sent to the Land of the Dead. There he meets the ancestors he has heard so much about over the years. He meets Hector, a ne’er-do-well who seems good only for comic relief, and he meets his hero, Ernesto de la Cruz, as big a celebrity in death as in life.

The rules governing the Land of the Dead are both complicated and unforgiving: souls can’t cross back to the Land of the Living, even for a holiday visit, unless their ancestors have put their photo on the family’s ofrenda, a ritual altar for the Day of the Dead containing a collection of objects associated with the familial ancestors. (One might wonder what happened in the days before photos, but that, and other equally interesting questions, are left to the viewer’s imagination). Hector, whose descendants put up no photo of him, tries to cross every year by disguising himself as someone else who does have an ofrenda photo, and keeps getting caught and returned. Ernesto, who has no known living descendants, prefers to stay in the Land of the Dead anyway, where he is still a big celebrity who throws a swanky concert and sunrise party. Hector claims to have known and played music with Ernesto in life, and offers to take Miguel to him.

At first, Miguel’s meeting with Ernesto goes well. Miguel is convinced that Ernesto is his long-lost great-great-grandfather, and that Miguel is his rightful musical heir. Ernesto parades around with Miguel at the party and urges him to do “whatever it takes” to follow his own dream. But in the course of their conversations, Hector shows up, and it is revealed that not only did Hector and Ernesto know each other and play together, but that Hector wrote Ernesto’s most famous songs. And not only that, but Hector wanted to go home to his family, and Ernesto murdered him and stole the songs for himself. Hector, not Ernesto, was really Miguel’s great-great-grandfather. And Hector didn’t abandon his family on purpose; he was murdered while trying to return to them.

Miguel returns to the Land of the Living and, in a touching scene, plays Hector’s most famous song for his great-grandmother Coco, Hector’s now-elderly daughter. She is the last living person who remembers Hector, and hearing Miguel play the music awakens her from what may be the silence of Alzheimer’s Disease. The denouement is graceful and returns Hector’s photo to its rightful place on the family’s ofrenda.

Most of these customs were new to me, as a Northern-and-Middle-European American, and I enjoyed that aspect of the movie very much. I had initially been a little put off of going to it at all because I recoil from the stylized iconography of death. I just don’t like skulls and skeletons; I find them creepy and uncomfortable, and not a fashion statement. Watching this movie, I got over those feelings in about 2 minutes. The filmmakers did their homework and Mexican culture and customs are treated with respect and love. For their perspective, read these wonderful reviews by Latino Film Critics.

I would like to offer my personal thoughts from the perspective of a musician. I don’t play the guitar; I play the violin and viola, stringed instruments with a different provenance. And I’m a musical mudblood, a Hermione Grainger (but with less talent). When I was Miguel’s age, my family didn’t hate music: they bought me my first instruments, came to my school concerts, and paid for and shuttled me to and from lessons. But they didn’t play music themselves, either. In fact my father had a bad experience with being forced to play the clarinet as a child, and he gave it up as soon as he left home. And my mother’s large working class family had not had money for music. So I don’t see myself as having come from musical roots. If it hadn’t been for that public school orchestra program I had in 4th grade, I doubt I’d be playing today. I still identified and sympathized with Miguel for that reason: music and family can be complicated.

The other reason I identified and sympathized with Miguel was that he became swept up in the excitement of achievements, goals, dreams, fame, and celebrity glitz. That is how music–even classical violin/viola music–is sold to us these days. Especially in early January when resolution mania reaches a fever pitch, we are exhorted from every side and even from within to seize our moment, do whatever it takes, and take charge of our dreams. It’s a seductive call to action; it’s the golden flower-petal promise of youth. Of course Miguel would desire it too. Don’t we all?

Coco may be the first mainstream, mass-market movie shown in the United States that I’ve seen that dares to suggest that this “seize your moment” and “follow your dreams” attitude has a dark side. And it doesn’t just suggest that, it spells it out plainly: no, doing “whatever it takes” to achieve your dream is not admirable. It can be downright evil. It can destroy families and destroy lives.

What had me crying tears of joy at its end is that this film doesn’t stop there as a cautionary tale. It offers an alternative: music as a way of connecting people and bringing them together in love. Coco, Hector’s daughter and Miguel’s great-grandmother, is the perfect title character. Elderly by the time the film takes place, she is brought back to herself by Miguel’s singing the song she heard her father sing when she was a child. At the end of the film, a year later, Miguel is shown playing joyfully on a new guitar. His cousin Rosa appears to have taken up the violin. Miguel didn’t have to make that false choice between his musical dreams and his family. He could have both.

Featured Picture: Concept art by Robert Kondo. ©2017 Disney•Pixar.

The Names in the Music

instrumentquintet.jpg

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.

SandyIt 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.

Have Mozart Will TravelYears 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.

SchubertParts

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.

SchubertQuintetPlayers

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 . . .

2ndMovementAskew

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.

TrioNames

Mvt. 1:

Mvt 2:

Mvt 3:

Mvt 4:

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.

Winter concert 20171030

Fantasia in Red Sleeves

My Aunt Beth is a quilter now, but years ago she made pins and other jewelry. One Christmas she made me a little green Christmas tree, and my mother a matching red one. I still wear the Christmas tree pin in December, with my red velvet jacket. I’ve had plenty of opportunities this year. It has been a busy, Christmas-y season with concerts, parties, and plays. Our church play this year was a re-telling of the Christmas Truce of 1914, during World War I. Kevin Puts’ opera called “Silent Night” set the truce in the Belgian trenches, with the cease-fire between German and French/Scottish battalions.  Continue reading Fantasia in Red Sleeves

Saturday Doors: Henry C Hall House

My doors for this week are also from the archives. I visited Boston this past summer and caught up with an old friend. She was my orchestra stand partner, to be precise. We often rehearsed together at her house on Mystic Street, near the Mystic River in Arlington MA. We were stand partners in crime through symphonies, requiems, concertos, masses, and medleys. We also played chamber music together at the Belmont Farmers’ Market. That all changed a little over 2 years ago when she got divorced and moved out of the house on Mystic Street, and I moved to California.  Continue reading Saturday Doors: Henry C Hall House

Buying a Cello

TopOfStairsWhen you are buying a new instrument, whether for yourself or someone else, it feels like opening (and closing) many doors. The last time I went instrument shopping, it was for myself. In the past 10 years, I have bought both a violin and a viola. As an adult, I found that experience fun.

But I remember the experience as a teen being stressful. I played several instruments and tried to think about tone, sound, playability, etc, but the looming questions in the back of my mind were always things like, would my teachers like it? Would my parents complain about the price? Was this instrument “worth it?” I had a hard time focusing on what was important. Continue reading Buying a Cello

Fijapaw Update: Bound for Korea

More than a year ago now, not long after I had moved to California, I had the unique pleasure of playing string quartets with a bicycling violinist in a fencing studio. I blogged about the experience here: The Fiji Quartet. That bicycling violinist is a woman named Jasmine Reese, who is cycling around the world with her dog named Fiji. Her website is called Fijapaw: One Girl. Her Dog. A Violin. On a Bicycle. Continue reading Fijapaw Update: Bound for Korea

A Different Kind of Eclipse

eclipse-poster-imageMy daughter’s future alma mater, Willamette University in Salem OR, is indirectly responsible for my being here in the path of totality for the total solar eclipse on August 21st. I dropped her off yesterday morning for an introductory hiking trip out in the Oregon wilderness. The University is supplying her and her fellow pre-frosh with official ISO 12312-2:2015 standard glasses for watching the event. This camping trip lasts for several days before the official “opening days” when the students really move in and start classes. So I decided to stay up here in OR and watch the event myself. I have seen a partial eclipse before myself, but I’ve never seen a total one. The Willamette dorms aren’t accepting guests, however, so I’m here at another festival program about an hour south, but still right in the path of totality, at Oregon State University in Corvallis.

Continue reading A Different Kind of Eclipse

Afghan Girls Orchestra, for #WATWB

WATWIC-Bright-TuqBlkIt’s time for this month’s We are the World Blogfest (#WATWB)! In a world where news and social media are awash with negativity, we aim to turn the focus on to small but significant stories that renew our faith in humanity.

My article for this month is about Zohra, an all-female orchestra from Afghanistan. Named for a Persian music goddess, the orchestra toured the world earlier in the year, starting at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The musicians are all very young, most not out of their teens. And many of them are the first in their families, or even in their entire provinces, to play an instrument.

I was touched especially by the story of the 18-year-old conductor, who played the viola when she was an instrumentalist. Her uncle was initially against her playing in the orchestra, but he eventually grew to be proud of her.

“I’m happy that at least I changed my family,” she said, adding, her fellow musicians, too, “are going to change their families and when their families are going to change, you can have a society which is changed.”

Sign up to join us and be visited on the last weekend of the month when you post your article.  Click here to enter your link on this Linky Tools list! This month’s #WATWB co-hosts are: Simon FalkRoshan RadhakrishnanInderpreet Uppal, Sylvia Stein, and Damyanti Biswas. Please stop by and say hello!

The Bicycling Violinist

We are the World LogoIt’s already the last Friday of the month, time for the We are the World Blogfest! The #WATWB seeks to infuse social media with good news. This month’s hosts are Emerald BarnesEric Lahti, Inderpreet UppalLynn HallbrooksPeter Nena, and Roshan Radhakrishnan. Please stop by and say hello!    Continue reading The Bicycling Violinist