Category Archives: viola

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!


Merry Pranks: Becoming a Violist

Although I’ve been playing the viola for quite a while, and have previously blogged about it, there are stages to becoming a violist. I picked up the instrument as an adult after a long break from music, thinking that I might have an smoother re-entry into the stringed-instrument-playing world as a violist than a violinist.  Continue reading Merry Pranks: Becoming a Violist

Mundane Monday: The Moldau

Orchestra rehearsals are starting up again in a little over a week. For this concert cycle, I will be playing two pieces I’ve played before, on violin: Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, and Smetana’s Ma Vlast, or The Moldau. But this time I’ll be playing them on the viola.

Continue reading Mundane Monday: The Moldau

For Schubert

When I was in high school orchestra, we played and performed the first movement of Franz Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony. Like other orchestral pieces I played in high school, I remember it (or at least, I remember the 2nd violin part) decently well, many years and two long breaks from the violin later.

Continue reading For Schubert

Mundane Monday: Backstage

On Saturday night, I played the viola in a concert called Holiday Magic with the Nova Vista Symphony and the Vivace Youth Chorus of San Jose.  The performance, of holiday music both religious and secular was in a large domed church sanctuary.

The orchestra and choir assembled in the center, and behind us was a large cross and semi-transparent curtain blocking the view of the backstage area from the audience. Just before we went onstage, I took this picture, which looks a little like the snow we don’t get in the SF Bay area, and captured the mystery and wonder of the music we were about to experience.

Version 2

For the Mundane Monday challenge #87: find beauty in everyday mundane things and frame it beautifully and upload the photographs.

Beethoven for the Bucket List

My musical life since moving to CA has been a little “all over the place.” So far I’ve taken this year to sample different orchestras and different instruments. Do I want to play violin, viola, or both? Which orchestra has the best fit for me with respect to rehearsal venue, concert venue, conductor, repertoire, and community?

Continue reading Beethoven for the Bucket List

Nova Vista

One of the things I miss most about my life in Belmont is the Philharmonic Society of Arlington. I was the creator and admin of the group’s Facebook page, so I can recite this by heart: “The Philharmonic Society of Arlington, Inc., established in 1933, consists of three performing groups, The Arlington Philharmonic Orchestra, The Arlington-Belmont Chorale, and The Arlington-Belmont Chamber Chorus.” Yes, you read that right: 1933, which makes it older than many professional symphony orchestras. The orchestra performed a mix of old favorites and premieres by local, living composers. We also provided playing opportunities for a diversity of musicians, from adult starters and re-starters, to professional music teachers, to up-and-coming Young Artists’ Competition winners.

I don’t feel up to recapping the last 8 years of my time there right here right now, but I blogged about a lot of it while it was happening, from the first rehearsal, to becoming concertmaster, to my first real solo with an orchestra in the Tchiakovsky “Mozartiana” suite, my stand partner who became a chamber music partner and one of my best friends, a fond farewell to a beloved senior conductor, and finally a new start with a fresh face on the podium.

I don’t think it really sank in until this morning, though–until I shed a few tears here at the computer–that that chapter of my life is over. Tonight, the Arlington Philharmonic Orchestra has the first rehearsal of its 82nd season, and it will be without me.

When I told people that I was moving, I got plenty of recommendations for orchestras–so many, in fact, that I wasn’t sure what to do with them all. I felt overwhelmed. Many of the recommendations centered on the conductor, which I understand, since the tone that the conductor sets is very important. Names I don’t know, don’t recognize . . . I can google them and find out how many awards they’ve won and where they’ve studied, I can see which orchestras have recorded CDs, who has the best reviews, and who has the most professional-looking website. I can see where they rehearse and how far that is from my house. But none of that was helping.

Way back when we were first talking about moving, I just looked on the web for orchestras that rehearsed in the general area of Mountain View and Sunnyvale. I found one called the Nova Vista Symphony. I liked the name immediately: I pictured standing on a mountain and looking out into one of the many valleys around here with their green (or brown) rolling hills. I also liked the fact that they played with a chorale sometimes and had a Young Artists’ Competition. They had the right number of concerts–not too many, not too few–and a mix of repertoire, both familiar and new, with different types of challenges. The website said they had auditions, and when I inquired I was told I should prepare 1 fast piece, 1 slow piece, and a 2-octave scale. I took this seriously and started preparing. I figured a 3-octave scale would be fine too.

Not sure which instrument I wanted to play, I thought about viola again. I brought my viola with me on the plane and shipped my violin, because I couldn’t carry on both instruments. I practiced the viola in the guest apartment we were staying in while we waited for our furniture to arrive so we could move into the house. I played the 3rd movement to the Anton Stamitz viola concerto in D, and recorded it for the Adult Starter and Restarter Facebook group. I wrote about my viola as a cherished object for a blogfest that I was trying out. I met up with a buddy from the Facebook group, and we tried to play some chamber music, as well as sight-read the Handel-Halvorsen Passacaglia and the Barber Adagio in his large fencing studio in Redwood City with You Tube accompaniment projected on the wall.

The furniture, and the violin, finally arrived, and life kept accelerating. Our kids started school already on August 17. My daughter was asked to switch to viola in school orchestra and she has taken up the challenge. She needed a viola to practice at home, and so I loaned her mine. I also volunteered to be an assistant soccer coach to get my 12-yo son a spot on a team. Team practice schedules reduced the number of hours available for violin and viola, and conflicted with rehearsals of the South Bay Philharmonic, another group I had been considering, Through all of this, I heard no more about an audition, until last week. I got an email from the personnel manager of the Nova Vista Symphony saying that I had enough experience they didn’t need to audition me, and the first rehearsal was a week from then, i.e. last night. They included a list of the repertoire, which included both the William Tell Overture, and Eroica, two of my favorite pieces of all time.

I could interpret this in different ways–after all, not everyone wants to always be playing old favorites that they’ve played before–but in this time and place, it felt right. In this strange and wonderful and horrible season where everything is slippery, and is changing too fast, and I’m grieving one too many losses and goodbyes, it felt like coming home to see and hear and be part of these pieces again. I brought my violin and my little folding stand, and parked it there in the back of the firsts, shook the rust out of my fingers, and said hello to my old friends.

Sparking joy: a viola to cherish

This is my official post, about a single cherished object, for The Cherished Blogfest.

Family Portrait
Family Portrait

While I was decluttering in preparation for the move, people told me about “that book.” You know, the one on the best-seller list. Only keep things that “spark joy.” This process is supposed to be liberating, focusing your mind on what’s most important. Sounds great.

But then, there’s my violin: the violin that spent years in the back of various closets, from Princeton to Palo Alto to Pasadena. I was asked, more than once, “are you ever going to play that thing again? Why don’t you get rid of it?”

This was not an unreasonable question. I was in graduate school, getting my PhD in neuroscience. Perhaps more relevant, the violin did not spark joy. I’d had bad experiences in college—a failed audition for the university orchestra, followed by a flood of shame about both the failure and my emotional response to it. In my mind, I had not only failed, but had been so lacking in resilience, that I’d let it crush my spirit. Maybe decluttering the violin would have been the sane, humane, thing to do.

Instead, years later, I found myself living alone in my own apartment after breaking off an engagement. The violin re-emerged in the move and this time, it sparked something different: hope. I took it to a repair shop where it was restored to playing condition. I bought it a new, high-quality case. And I started taking lessons again. I found a group to play in that didn’t require auditions. And the joy was back. Not just like that. There may have been a spark somewhere, but it took serious effort to rekindle the joy. That joy lasted me through my postdoc up to the birth of my two children. But the violin went back into the closet when they were babies and toddlers.

When I started playing again most recently, I decided to try something new: the viola. A viola is a lot like a violin, but larger, tuned a fifth lower, and with a richer, darker sound. When I picked up a viola for the first time, it was both an old friend and a fresh start: no baggage, no failure and shame. Nothing to lose.

Playing the viola at the Farmers' Market
Playing the viola at the Farmers’ Market

Early on in my viola “career,” I had another unsuccessful audition for an orchestra. But this time I chalked it up to experience, and found another group to play in. I met people and formed a string quartet. I made new opportunities for myself. And then, through playing the viola, I was led back to the violin, now feeling comfortable on both instruments and able to switch back and forth between them as needed.

So, which do I cherish more? I’d rather not have to decide. If I hadn’t kept that violin, I probably would never have bothered again. I am grateful that I didn’t declutter it. But since I have to pick just one, I’ve chosen the viola. It helped me find my voice, and rekindle the joy for good.

Playing my viola in Boston's Symphony Hall, with the Onstage at Symphony program for adult amateurs
Playing my viola in Boston’s Symphony Hall, with the Onstage at Symphony program for adult amateurs

The Cherished Blogfest

So many new things are happening right now for me: new state, new house, new colleagues, new orchestra. And, on my relatively new blog, a blogfest. What is a blogfest? Well, that’s what I want to find out.  It’s certainly new to me.

The Cherished Blogfest Badge

Bloggers participating in this blogfest are writing 500 words about the most cherished object in their possession, and visiting the other participants’ blogs. The Cherished Blogfest is hosted by Dan AntionDamyanti Biswas, Paul Ruddock, Peter Nena, and Sharukh Bamboat.

I have had a lot of time to think about this question (and in a unique way) over the past several weeks, because I have been doing major decluttering, getting rid of possessions in preparation for a cross-country move.

My old Nancy Drew collection
Martial Arts Equipment
The Bitty Twins
BoB TV timer

I realized that it was going to be hard to pick just one thing, and that I cherished a lot of things. So it was important to me to find them good homes.

But now that we’re down to the end, to the empty house, what did I keep? What will I carry with me on the plane, being unwilling to be without it for the time it takes the moving van to drive from Boston to California?

Not surprisingly, the answer is, my viola! Since I have to say it in 500 words, I’ll write the official post next.