I caught up with Er-Gene after the concert and we made arrangements to chat via Skype, as she was leaving the next day–to go to London!
Karen with Er-Gene after the concert in the fabulously renovated art deco CK McClatchy High School Auditorium
Karen: I wanted to talk with you about Florence Price, but I also wanted to talk about your development as a musician. You mentioned that you are from California. What brought you to Arkansas?
Er-Gene: As I was finishing up my doctoral degree at Northwestern, I started applying for jobs. University of Arkansas listed a vacancy for a violin professor. I applied, interviewed and got the job! Sorry the story is not more interesting! 🙂 Growing up in southern California, I didn’t know anything about Arkansas, and had never even visited!
Karen: I also went to grad school, to get a PhD in Neuroscience. I’m only belatedly realizing that academia is a path for violinists too. Did you have plans to become an academic?
Er-Gene: No, I did not really have plans to be in academia. And I didn’t know–still don’t–if it is a common path for violinists. I was very idealistic and only knew that I liked the structured environment of school and wanted the chance to learn more and dedicate time to my artistic self-development.
I would even go further to say that for me growing up, the understanding was that people went into academia if they could not “make it” as a practicing artist. It was the “those who can’t play, teach” concept.
Karen: I noticed something similar, even though I didn’t go on professionally in music. When you are a child learning violin you are exposed from the beginning to performers who were all child prodigies and major soloists from an early age, and you get the impression that that is the only path.
Er-Gene: I feel like even the concept of a doctoral degree in music was relatively new’when I was going to school. It may have existed for decades before, but the idea was that a Masters’ degree should be enough, and that if you actually needed “all that time” to learn your craft, it was evidence of a lack of talent. It’s interesting how this narrative of “genius”, “prodigy”, and “talent” is so prevalent in our industry.
Karen: So did you go to a regular public school? Many violinists homeschool or do school online so that they can spend more time practicing!
Er-Gene: I’m very proud that I went to a public school. My school still exists today: the LA Center for Enriched Studies. It is a humanities magnet and I still keep in touch with some of my teachers. I remember my third grade elementary school teacher had us memorize Robert Frost poems by setting them to music. He composed at the piano, which was housed in our classroom. I didn’t realize how incredible this was until much later.
Karen: That sounds very cool! I teach at a relatively new STEM-oriented private school. I’m always interested in hearing about what works to make a healthy school community.
Er-Gene: I took my music classes at Colburn, back when it was still near USC, not downtown as it is now. I took music theory, chamber music, orchestra, piano and violin lessons there. From there, I have seen some stars born. I remember seeing and hearing Leila Josefowicz, and I was completely amazed, as I am still.
Karen: I’ve seen her on YouTube. Yes, she is pretty amazing!
Er-Gene: Being surrounded by such young artists growing up, I wasn’t sure I had a place in the music world. I definitely loved violin, but the master teachers enforced a strict 3-4-hour practice schedule, which, at the time, I couldn’t handle. I still don’t really have an explanation for it, only that I was very interested in academics and wanted to divide my time equally. I wanted to take the time to study and read, as well as practice.
Karen: I can totally relate to that. I always had a lot of other things I wanted to do besides practicing.
Er-Gene: I had very supportive parents and many teachers who never “pushed” in the sense of being stern time keepers. I think they observed my interests and allowed me the independence to use my time the way I wished.
I do sometimes think about “what would have been” if I had gone to a conservatory. I think I would be a much stronger violinist today. But I’m also grateful that somehow, so far, I’ve been allowed to progress at my own pace.
Karen: How do you think your academic training and orientation influenced your interactions with Florence Price’s music? Do you think that you felt more ready or willing to take on the project because you have a doctorate? What is the degree called in music? Is it still a PhD? I mean, this project is a dream PhD thesis. You discover this awesome music and bring it back to life!
Er-Gene: My degree is called a “DM, ” a Doctor of Music. I think my program at Northwestern was a good fit because again, it allowed for a lot of independence and space for me to explore and play with ideas. But it didn’t literally prepare me for work like the Florence Price concerto–although obviously it also did!
I don’t think that most higher ed programs are able to be, or want to be that prescriptive. So much of academia is trying to play catch up to the pace of real life. Many jobs that we train our students for may not exist by the time they graduate.
Karen: That’s an excellent point! There has been a sea change in what PhDs do with their degrees in many fields. I have a PhD in neuroscience and I am not doing the job I trained for either. Do you have your own graduate students that you teach now?
Er-Gene: Yes! We don’t offer a DM, so the highest degree is a Masters. I have my own students and I’m also Director of Graduate Advising. This is my favorite part of the administrative side of my job: the chance to talk to our students about their passions, their hopes and their concerns about creating a path in music. It’s so exciting to see them going off to their dream doctoral programs!
Karen: What else do the graduates of your program do?
Er-Gene: Music education is our most popular major, so many of our graduates go on to secondary school teaching within the state of Arkansas. Some have gone to neighboring states like Texas, Oklahoma, and Missouri. Others choose to freelance and/or set up their own private studios.
Karen: One tends to hear about music programs in schools being cut, especially in states with less money. I hope that is good news for AK overall, that there are jobs for music teachers!
Er-Gene: Working at a state university means that I am able to have friends who are involved in the work of new ideas . . . the work of thinking, speaking, teaching and writing. For interpretive / performing artists, we also have the experience of realizing our interpretations and performances! I’m sure that being in this environment helped me feel the familiarity of doing primary research, even if I had never done it before, even in my doctoral work.
Karen: That is really great! I think that is the ideal of how universities are supposed to work. How did you first learn about Florence Price, and how long did it take before you felt ready to perform the Price concertos and record them?
Er-Gene: I first learned about Price at the University of Arkansas’ own symposium about her in 2015. With respect to the recordings, I didn’t really have the luxury of choosing the timeline. Our contract set a date with the Janacek Philharmonic, who were available in the summer when I had time myself, but who only had a 3-day window to record. There was no choice but to agree to their timeline! Nevertheless, I had about 9 months before that to prepare.
Karen: Where would you place Price in the tradition of violin concertos? Does her music remind you of any other composer?
Er-Gene: This is actually a tricky question, because I believe the paradigm with which we have judged, excluded and included certain composers would not traditionally include Price. We can’t properly judge Price’s concertos against this tradition.
Karen: That’s fair enough. I don’t have a lot invested in that paradigm. I haven’t studied many violin concertos, myself, other than Bach and Mozart. And at this point I’m primarily a violist.
Er-Gene: It would be easy to say that Price deserves a place . . . up there with the Beethoven Violin Concerto! But even if I felt that way, it’s not as simple as persuading people to see the “greatness” of Price against the narrative of greatness they have inherited and been taught since childhood.
On the other hand, to say that Price (or any other historically underrepresented composer) is not the same as composers traditionally included in the canon is not equivalent to saying she is not great. Rather, I think to say so simply acknowledges that the canon has been very exclusive and narrow.
And that brings into question the way in which we raise our young musicians. We teach them a great deal about how to think and judge greatness. History is so much of the stories we tell our children. And sometimes–often times?–our children never question those stories that they hear from their parents and teachers.
Karen: Interesting. I felt that a lot of what I learned about determining greatness didn’t have much substance. It was mostly about hero worship and about talent, as you mentioned earlier. I love what you are saying here, that we need to be more thoughtful about that.
Er-Gene: This is not to say that Bach, Brahms, Beethoven, etc. are not great masters. They are. But we need to be more conscientious about the stories we preserve, and informed about the important figures we overlook (even when it is unintentional, which I believe it is, most of the time). This brings to the fore our responsibility as citizens, parents, teachers. We have to face our own blind spots, stay curious and cultivate critical independent thinking in our young musicians.
Karen: Yes! I think that for many musicians their introduction to the repertoire comes when they are students. They learn concertos in a very formative time, when they are children or teens, and that shapes their whole outlook on concertos and on which ones should be included.
Er-Gene: Because so much of violin training at earlier ages has to address basic sound production and technique, it focuses on the absorption and successful performance of these 50 or so “great” pieces that we as a community have agreed deserve to be learned. And as you know, just making a pleasant sound on the violin can be all consuming! Where in all of that do we have time to bring up these critical questions? I’m not sure, but we must make it a value and a priority in our lessons.
Karen: I came to the concert with a friend, Jasmine Reese, who is a violinist interested in learning concertos, and she thought the Price concerto you played was within her technical abilities, or at least that it could be if she worked on it. If that is the case for other students, then I think the Price concertos will come to be more widely known.
Er-Gene: I believe the mission is about expanding and redefining the canon, not denigrating “dead, white European males” or pushing Florence Price to hold an equal place in the old canon. We need to address the points of accessibility and visibility. Publishers will help with accessibility, while performances and programming will address both.
I did a recital with a friend a couple of weeks ago, and afterwards I posted on Instagram something that is in line with what we have been discussing:
The shift into Db Major when the second theme first appears in Florence Price’s second violin concerto is tender, jarring and heart-breaking. Though its final statement is a resounding D Major, it feels like a Pyrrhic victory, despite my best efforts to convey celebration and triumph. Perhaps I give myself away in expressing skepticism at simple happy endings, even as the notes on the page could suggest otherwise. This is not only the vessel of emotional ambivalence Price’s concerto carries, but more largely the truth (of an unequal, unjust society) in which Price lived. I’d like to believe that with every deeply considered performance, we can take on the role of stepping up to the daunting task of moving toward a more just (musical) society. Here is to our collective efforts to program and interpret with intention and justice.
I keep trying to find ways to salvage the narrative, but then I think that it’s not my job to put a pretty package on the narrative. Many things are broken, and it is our job, first and foremost, to show the truth.
Karen: When I first heard the concerto, I found it touchingly sunny, and I was a bit surprised by that. With everything Price must have gone through, I expected something heavier and darker. I want to listen to it again in light of your comments!
Er-Gene: I encourage performers who may feel that their work is not as impactful as that of historians or librarians or publishers to acknowledge the raw power of their medium. It takes a village and no single element is most important. A performer is not just a simple “mouthpiece.” That view downgrades the power of direct transmission and the realization of abstract notes on a page that brings the essence of music to life!
Since January 8th I’ve been reliving adolescence. Hopefully in a good way: I started a job as a Teaching Fellow, training to become a full-time Biology teacher.
Working for someone else 40 hours a week, every day M-F, has required some adjustment after 6 years of part-time work. And getting up before the sun has never been my favorite thing, neither as a teen nor as an adult. But there’s another way in which I’ve been revisiting my teenage self: with my violin, the most reliable time machine yet invented.
Last fall was a whirlwind of music. I played in 3 different orchestras, and I played some of the most difficult repertoire I have yet attempted. I played in San Francisco with professionals! I had solos! It was exhilarating . . . and it was also tiring. At the end I felt like I might be getting tendonitis, or some vague inflammatory condition resulting from overuse. And the larger, heavier viola might have been making things worse.
I took most of December off playing altogether, and as the New Year dawned, I considered whether I might want to take more time off, especially with the new job looming. But an old friend from violinist.com, Jasmine Reese, was returning to the Bay Area to play the Bach Concerto in D minor for two violins, the Bach Double, with the South Bay Philharmonic. And another friend, chamber music partner, and fellow violinist.commer, Gene Huang, was going to be playing the Bach with Jasmine, and the Bruch violin concerto as a solo. I really didn’t want to miss that concert!
So I arranged to play the violin only for this concert. I had played the violin I part of all the repertoire before, so I thought maybe I’d have less work to do, and I could do what practicing was necessary on the smaller, lighter violin and preserve my hand and wrist.
Some of it, namely Beethoven #2, was quite recent, but the rest goes back. Way back. The Egmont Overture, for example: I first played that during my senior year of high school. I was sitting inside next to the concertmaster and turning pages. The way the sheet music is laid out, the last page-turn is a pregnant pause, a brief break in the tension before all heck breaks loose, horses come galloping in on the wave of a crescendo, and you climb up the ledger lines to the highest notes you have ever seen, and wail away up there as loud as you possibly can, while no one can hear you anyway because the brass is also wailing away as loud as they possibly can . . . and although at this point in my career I have now occasionally seen–and played–higher notes, the excitement of playing Egmont is still like that for me. I love Egmont! If I listen to it on the way to work, it has the added bonus of waking me up, no matter how early or dark it is outside.
Listening to the Bruch and the Bach on my commute, on the other hand, is a little more complicated. One year in my youth orchestra, we accompanied a competition winner playing the Bruch, and that sparked a surge of interest among the violin section players. Have you played it? Have you? Are you ready for it? I had to say no. Unlike many violinists who like to play concertos, I have never studied the Bruch. Back then, I was not ready for it, and now I’m more into viola and chamber works. I did learn the opening bars and I played them while I was violin shopping, to cover all the strings and a decent portion of the violin’s range. But other than that, I have hardly listened to the Bruch since I was back in youth orchestra. Even now, among some violinists, I notice that the piece can take on the role of technical benchmark for comparisons and competitions. That aspect of playing the violin–the comparison and competition–is something I was more than happy to leave behind when I left school.
On the car stereo in the morning as I prepare to leave, the opening measures of Bruch rise like the first rays of the sun. Then comes the G–just an open G, which on the violin can’t be anything else . . . how does Joshua Bell manage to make a simple open G so expressive? I wonder, and am curious and delighted. But as it goes on, I start to hear tension creep in. A cello pizzicato repeats over and over, lub-dub, lub-dub, beating like a heart. It’s cool at the beginning but after a while, for me, it starts to evoke more Edgar Allen Poe than Valentine’s Day.
Ironically, last year around this same time I blogged about a similar topic from a different angle: Anxiety, Biology, and Playing from the Heart. I had had to teach a heart dissection class for heart-lung day at a school, and it was making me anxious, much as the prospect of playing a solo concerto made me anxious. I eventually made my peace with the dissection and learned to enjoy it. I wonder, as I listen and drive past my son’s high school, if that will happen for me with the Bruch concerto too. Maybe I have been too busy, or too stuck in adolescent ways of thinking, to really hear the piece’s gentler, sweeter side. In any case, the tension dissipates when the second movement arrives along with the full sun.
The Bach Double was the first major piece I ever learned with my childhood violin teacher, Philip Teibel, a violinist with the Buffalo Philharmonic. He passed away years ago, but his handwriting–his fingerings and bowings–are still vivid both in the music and in my memory. I’ve looked through this piece periodically since then. I played the 2nd movement in church for “Music Sunday” back in Boston in 2008. But the main person I have played it with the most before now, both parts and all 3 movements, was Mr. Teibel, and I still associate it most strongly with him.
Mr. Teibel was an older gentleman when I was his student, and he gave me a recording to listen to of the husband-wife team of Leonid Kogan and Elizaveta Gilels playing the violin I and violin II parts, respectively. I had to look up Gilels’ name for this blog. What Mr. Teibel actually said at the time was “Kogan and his wife.” She didn’t get a name. And it went without saying that the husband was violin I and the wife was violin II. I also remember him suggesting to me that I might be able to play the Bach Double with a “nice young man” someday. At the time, I discounted that suggestion immediately. I didn’t aspire to be some famous dude’s nameless second fiddle.
I needn’t have worried. The musical romance implicit in the suggestion never happened. My husband is not a musician, and one of my few regrets in music is that I rarely have gotten together with friends to just jam or play for fun with no goal or performance in mind. While I do that occasionally now, I never did it as a kid. Competition, not fun or connection, seemed to rule the day back then. Even in my unfinished novel, which has a teen violinist protagonist named Hallie, I wrote a scene in which Hallie and her friend Annie try to play the Bach double. The session ends in tears as Hallie comes to a realization that Annie has advanced so far beyond her technically that she feels they can no longer play with each other. In the story, Hallie and Annie are (as I was at the time) also, at least temporarily, losing their fight against the toxic inferiority complex of the second violinist.
My meeting with Jasmine is nothing like what Hallie and Annie experienced in fiction. I stop by after work; she is staying with friends close by. Her dog Fiji and her hosts’ dog run around joyfully as we are playing, and they occasionally accompany us. There are mistakes but we restart, or play through them. There is a lot of laughter.
What Mr. Teibel knew already then, but what took me 30 years and a 16-year hiatus from the violin to learn, is that one of the best things about this piece, and the memories it holds, is being able to play it with a good friend.
In my experience, American music is not a staple of the symphony orchestra repertoire. It’s February, and in my orchestra we are already well into our rehearsal cycle for the winter concert. It is going to be a “Three B’s” concert: Bach, Beethoven, and Bruch, three well-known and beloved non-American composers.
Last concert we did something different. The program included William Grant Still’s “Afro-American” symphony, written in 1930 and first performed in Rochester NY, and a movement from Dvorak’s “American” string quintet No. 3, Op. 97, written in Spillville IA in 1893. Neither of these pieces was known to me before I started preparing them for this concert, and I’m writing about them here to bring more attention to these American masterpieces.
The “Afro-American” symphony is the first symphony written by an African-American composer to be performed by a major orchestra. Even the sheet music was a little different, written in the composer’s own charming and quite legible handwriting:
And insured for thousands of dollars:
Still gave each movement a title: Longing, Sorrow, Humor, and Aspiration, and he included with the symphony some short poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Once you figure out how to read the manuscript, the symphony is challenging, but not intimidatingly so. It uses jazz, blues, and gospel themes in a traditional, tonal, 4-movement structure. It also employs a banjo in the 3rd movement. I immediately said, as a shorthand, “oh, it sounds like Gershwin.”
The “American” quintet was written immediately after the more famous “American” quartet, during the summer of 1893 when Dvorak was living in Spillville IA. In fact, this piece isn’t always referred to as “American,” although there are a number of high-powered reviewers and references who use the term, for example this review from Gramophone, or this clip from the BBC.
Our group decided to do it for a more prosaic reason: after performing the Schubert cello quintet last year, we needed another quintet. And one of our cellists was learning to play the alto violin, which is tuned like a viola. So he took the viola 2 part. We played the first movement in the spring, and it served as the warm-up for me before my Telemann concerto performance.
The highlight of this movement for me was my viola solo about 2 minutes in. It is a plaintive melody, which I decided sounded better fingered high up on the D-string, rather than on the higher, shriller A-string. After I read that a group of Native Americans visited Spillville while Dvorak was composing this piece, I hear sadness in the melody along with its beauty. The drum-like viola 2 solo that opens the piece also brings Native music to mind.
Reviewing this concert to write the blog, I realize that so much is missing from this account. It’s very hard to write program notes; one is tempted to say “Just listen to the music!” But I hope that these lesser-known American masterpieces will find their way into more concert programs in the future!
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
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
Portrait of Louisa May Alcott
Jo in her “scribbling suit”
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
Portrait of Amos Bronson Alcott, from the NY Public Library
The Fruitlands farmhouse, from the Fruitlands museum
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 photos courtesy of Richard Ragan
Orchard House, where Louisa wrote Little Women
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
My Madame Alexander Jo March doll
My childhood copy of Little Women, the Illustrated Junior Library Edition
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
West Valley College Theater
Assembling for the Concert
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
The doors downstairs are quite diverse, some with glass:
Some with marble:
And the interior above the doors, which I never saw on my 1983 tour of East Berlin, is strikingly ornate and beautiful.
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.
Or where you might find a hunchback lurking around the corner.
Or some bees. Yes, this is really a thing! “Berlin is buzzing!” to call attention to the importance of pollinators.
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!
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.
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.