Category Archives: viola

Thursday Doors: At the Concert

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

Continue reading Thursday Doors: At the Concert

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World Enough and Time: My Telemann Performance

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

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The New World: Yosemite Valley

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

Either way, it’s time to go.

Foothill Presbyterian Church
Foothill Presbyterian Church

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

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Here we go!

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

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In black, before the quintet

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

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

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

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

Golden Light

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

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

PlayingTelemann

Here’s the complete video of the performance:

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

EncoreGoinOverJordan

***

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

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

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Memories of Memorizing

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

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

“I don’t think I could do that.”

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

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

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

In my case, I need to memorize.

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

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Cultured neurons, from a figure in my PhD thesis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I passed.

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

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Elephants and their trunks. Photo by Antoine Plüss on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s my card

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werner22brigitte, Pixabay 

Growing up and as a student, I didn’t view violin soloists as regular people. They were a breed apart, and they played music that was so far out of my reach that I couldn’t even imagine it. Otherworldly images on album covers and in galleries tended to reinforce this notion. I find these images beautiful, but more intimidating than not.

Back in Massachusetts when I was in the Philharmonic Society of Arlington, we had a cellist whose day job was graphic designer. He made the posters for our concerts. They were lovely: colorful, artistic, ornate and a little quirky, like the orchestra itself. It was always a treat to see what the poster would look like a month before the concert rolled around. And we were fortunate: he donated his services for free.

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PSA poster by Arch MacInnis

One aspect of graphic design that these posters never had, though, was photographs of people’s faces. We were a volunteer organization and we sometimes had competition-winner soloists whose pictures we used for online and print publicity, but the posters were different. I had a short concertmaster solo one year, in the Tchiakovsky “Mozartiana” suite, and while I told all my friends and family and they brought me flowers at the end, I wasn’t on the poster (much to my relief!)

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With my kids, after “Mozartiana”

Then last year, after moving to California and becoming an almost-full-time violist, I had the privilege of being in a different orchestra, the South Bay Philharmonic, accompanying the concertmaster, Gene Huang, on the Mendelssohn violin concerto, and the principal cellist, Harris Karsch, performing the Popper Hungarian Rhapsody.

I also play with them in a quintet, and seeing my own chamber music partners perform major solo works was an inspiration to me. This time, unlike with concerto competition winners who might fly in only for the dress rehearsal and concert, I was able to hear the pieces at the beginning, before they were polished. While the final product was amazing to watch and listen to, I also saw how much time and work were needed to get there. They prepared these performances while holding down full-time Silicon Valley tech jobs, as well as the regular ebb and flow of weekly orchestra rehearsals and weekend chamber music get-togethers.

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As befits its origins at Hewlett-Packard, the SBP, now an independent orchestra, calls itself an “Open Source Symphony.” A lot of the publicity is online, but they also print out business cards for members of the group to distribute. When I first saw these, I kind of wondered what to do with them, and in particular it struck me that they had photos of faces on them, not just of composers but of people I knew. “How does it feel to see your face on a card?” I asked. I don’t remember the response, exactly, but it was something like “it was a little weird at first, but I’m getting used to it.”

businesscards

Or maybe I’m projecting, because that describes just how I feel. The original design of the card had my face next to Dvořák’s portrait, but I felt a little uncomfortable with that. Instead I suggested this picture of Yosemite Valley, to represent the “New World” of the symphony. The blue of the sky is nice and color-coordinated with my dress and the orchestra’s logo. My daughter, who is now a freshman in college, took the picture of me with my viola in the backyard while she was home for spring break.

I’ve been giving them out to friends, other musicians I know, members of my writers’ group, people at church, even coworkers. It still feels a little odd to see my face there on a card. Proud? Happy? Sure, but that’s not all. Nervous? Anxious about “putting myself out there?” Yeah, that too. It’s not a bad feeling, but I struggle to find the right words. It is not a feeling I’ve ever had before and not something I expected when I picked up the violin again, and then the viola, more than 10 years ago. A new feeling. A new world.

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Practice Performances

If I had to pick one thing that has made my musical journey more fulfilling now than when I was younger, it would be this: low-stakes performances. I was a shy child, and I regarded performance not as a reward for a job well done, but as an opportunity to be put on the spot. That I didn’t perform much under such circumstances was probably a kindness. But it meant that any single performance was elevated to high stakes in my mind, ensuring that any anxieties and insecurities I had would be self-fulfilling.

When I started playing violin again, and viola, as an adult, I did a lot more performing. I started in church services and moved up to the Farmers’ Market. I found a non-audition orchestra to play in and some chamber music partners. I played in recitals and in church talent shows. Performances were no longer singular events, squinted at and dreaded like Mount Doom in the distance. I started to have so many performances that I even stopped making my family come to all of them!

What changed? I’d like to say the change was all in my attitude, and much of it was. But there’s also a positive feedback loop triggered when you have a good performance experience in a low-stakes venue. Even if you know you were in a wading pool, a friendly audience, positive comments and smiles, and an adrenaline rush that does not dissolve into a flood of cold hands and tears, are memories you can count on when you head into deeper, rougher waters.

WhiteWater

So. I hear the rapids gathering downstream as May 11, the date of my Telemann solo, approaches. As of this writing I’m at day 70/108–quite a bit over halfway there–which is a little scary.  Where did the other 69 days go?? Sharing videos in Facebook groups is nice, but I could still use some real practice performances. Where do you find such opportunities, especially as an adult student?

On the advice of my teacher, I was able to schedule playing Telemann in two church services, one for movements 1 and 2, and another for movements 3 and 4. Movements 1 and 3 are slow and work for a meditation; movements 2 and 4 are cheerful and sprightly and work for an offertory or prelude. And none of them is too long. The service with movements 1 and 2 took place in mid-March.

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In spite of feeling like I knew the piece pretty well in my practice room, when I got to the first rehearsal, it all flew out of my head. Libby, the church pianist, is a real pro, a teacher, and an experienced accompanist. She had some helpful suggestions that I just couldn’t process the first time I heard them. Such as, “take your time, don’t rush.” What, was I rushing?  . . . it’s hard to *not* do something that you weren’t doing in the first place . . . But, when I listened to my recording the next day, sure enough, it did sound rushed after all. Perceptions of time and space, and even of sound, are more different in the moment, in different contexts, than I would have expected. This makes recording, and the ears of knowledgeable colleagues, even more valuable.

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With Libby at church

My goal is still to be able to play from memory, but I used the sheet music in the service. It went well, in spite of various logistical challenges that had the minister running around until the last minute. The guest speaker was quite interesting too and took my attention off myself while I was waiting to play. Although I played decently, I did muff a shift at the end of the 2nd movement and played an open D instead of an A for 3 notes, but I got back on track and nobody seemed to notice. It became clear that at least at a church service, nothing was primarily about me, and all the little things I worried about were just not that important.

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Standing in front of the TACO orchestra during Harold in Italy

The following weekend, I played a movement of the Harold in Italy viola solo with a reading orchestra called TACO (the “Terrible Adult Chamber Orchestra“). One of my viola colleagues in the South Bay Philharmonic is the husband of the TACO conductor, and they organized a special session of TACO focusing on the viola. I couldn’t play Telemann again with them because it’s only for a string orchestra and TACO has winds and brass too. So I worked on the 3rd movement, the Serenade, in which a Mountaineer from the Abruzzi region sings to his mistress. This is a very pretty movement, but according to the program notes I read, Harold (as represented by the viola) is unsatisfied with what he sees and hears in the pastoral scene, and in the next movement he gets swept into an orgy of brigands.

This experience too was less about me than I might have feared. The afternoon opened with viola jokes and segued into birthday cake. The Harold in Italy movement was indeed challenging to put together in an afternoon, but it really didn’t matter that I had decided to just play the upper note of some of the fingered-octave double stops rather than risk repetitive stress injury to my 4th finger. What mattered was meeting some new people, celebrating the viola as an instrument, and having a good time playing with people who love music and playing together. I also got a viola clef T-shirt, perfect for wearing to rehearsals!

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

Even as an adult, I have a complicated relationship with performance. A few years ago I blogged about the potential development of an unbalanced “performance self” of a child who feels his or her worth is founded only on ability and accomplishment. Psychologist Lisa Miller offers the “spiritual self” as a counter to this limited worldview.

Although I personally find playing in church very rewarding, I don’t think a musician has to go to a place of worship to develop his or her spiritual self. It can be encouraged and fostered by steps such as meditation, prayer, or long walks in nature, and modeled by such traits as caring for others, empathy, and optimism. Practice performances like these give me a chance to give both selves, spiritual and performance, something they need. I think that the goal (probably a lifelong one) is to integrate the two and become a more complete musician.

We are the World Blogfest: Strings for Haitian Musicians

This is the second year that the Musicians of the Utah Symphony (MOTUS), led by their music director Thierry Fischer, have gone to Haiti to teach young musicians there in an orchestra institute. Last year’s institute received coverage in The Salt Lake Tribune, the Deseret News, and others.

Fischer said the students’ work ethic and eagerness to learn quickly dispelled any qualms about “talking about intonation when they don’t have a roof over their heads.” Beyond musical technique, he hopes the lessons learned at the institute strengthened skills and traits the students can use throughout their lives: “persistence, consistency, determination, discipline.”

–Salt Lake Tribune, April 30, 2017

The Utah Symphony musicians are in Haiti right now for this year’s Institute, and are blogging about it here on Tumblr: MOTUS in Haiti.

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Kate (L) with Mercedes (R), the principal flutist at the Utah Symphony

A violinist friend of mine, Kate Little, pictured at left and on the Tumblr blog, collected used-but-usable strings to be sent along with the musicians in their luggage. The climate in Haiti is such that strings deteriorate quickly, so they can make good use of our old used strings that are still in decent shape.

Kate put out a call for strings in some online music groups that I am a part of and I collected them from friends and teachers and sent them on to Kate, who gave them to the traveling musicians to take in their luggage.

The collection of strings pictured here is a selection of what was donated by friends I play music with in local community orchestras. It includes violin, viola, and cello strings! My son’s cello teacher also gave me a large envelope containing strings, collected from her professional colleagues and her own closet.

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The orchestra under Maestro Fischer is currently rehearsing Tchaikovsky’s 5th symphony!

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We are the World Logo

We Are the World Blogfest,” posted around the last Friday of each month, seeks to promote positive news. There are many oases of love and light out there, stories that show compassion and the resilience of the human spirit. Sharing these stories increases our awareness of hope in our increasingly dark world. The #WATWB co-hosts for this month are:  Belinda Witzenhausen,  Sylvia McGrath, Sylvia Stein,  Shilpa Garg, and Eric Lahti. Please check out their posts and say hello!

Playing Around With Telemann

cover-medium_large_fileI thought I had everything I needed to perform the Telemann viola concerto in May. I have a viola, I have a bow, I have the green-covered music. All the orchestra parts and a score can be downloaded from IMSLP.

But I keep finding new things to play around with.

1. A Baroque Bow. A couple of years ago, in response to the interest generated by this blog on violinist.com, I asked for and received a Baroque bow for Christmas. But after a few brief experiments, it never came out of the violin case. Was this just another one of those Christmas gifts that looks better under the tree?

It was a couple weeks into learning this concerto that it occurred to me to try the Baroque bow. In the article, Laurie Niles says that “it is much easier to play string crossings, certain gestures, double stops, voicing, etc. with a Baroque bow because of its unique shape and nimble nature.” The Telemann has all of these, and I when I did a one-after-another comparison between the modern and Baroque bow, I heard the tone improve with the Baroque. I was also able to easily perform a Baroque-shaped stroke, with the emphasis on the beginning of the note and a dying away at the end. Even though it’s technically a violin bow, I didn’t feel that I had a problem generating a robust, even sound. I didn’t even think the bow needed re-hairing.

2. Baroque tuning (A415). Ummm . . . no. Modern orchestras tune to the note A at a frequency of 440 Hz (A440), or even higher. But Baroque orchestras generally tuned a half-step lower than we do. In fact, when I was looking for recordings of the viola concerto, I found many that were performed with Baroque tuning, for example this one here:

This recording, by a group called the Juilliard415 ensemble, is a historically informed performance that uses Baroque instruments (not just bows) and pure gut strings. I enjoyed listening to this, especially the improvised ornaments added by the soloist, but I’ve made a conscious decision not to go all the way down this route. For one thing, I don’t own a Baroque viola. And, I’m not interested in giving up my chin rest.

I’ll also be playing in a moderately large church sanctuary with a larger orchestra than this one, and I’ll need to project. My modern viola with Evah Pirazzi strings can do this. Finally, the concert program also includes two Dvorak pieces, the “American” Quintet (in which I’ll be playing viola I) and the New World Symphony. These aren’t going to be in Baroque tuning. “Don’t do that to the orchestra!” pleaded the conductor. Okay, I won’t. But I did try tuning my viola down to A415 in practice and I thought it sounded mellower and the notes on the A-string didn’t stick out as much. Which leads me to:

3. Wound-gut A-string. I have new Evah Pirazzi Gold strings on my viola now, and I like them. Their core is made from a modern synthetic multifilament fibre, and they are rich and strong and project well. But the A, the highest viola string, sticks out in string crossings and is sometimes too loud or too strained or both. So I put a Passione wound gut A-string on my viola two days ago. It is not particularly mellow but it is sweeter and sounds less strained than the Evah Pirazzi Gold. I’m still letting it settle in, but I think I’m going to keep it.

4. Cadenzas, Tuttis, and Editions. The cadenzas I am performing were written by Milton Katims. They are in the International Edition. I like the way they sound and they are non-trivial in terms of difficulty. I will just note that it is really hard to find recordings of these cadenzas. Everyone has their own and everyone seems to have a different one.  This set of recordings, which seem to have been made by a viola teacher for his students, are quite good in terms of the solo part and have the Milton Katims cadenzas, but they don’t have any accompaniment, so they’re not that useful for playing along.

There is also disagreement about whether and how the soloist plays along with the orchestra in the Tutti sections. For example, the concerto is in one of the Suzuki viola books, and that edition has the first movement’s ending Tutti written out for the soloist to play too. My edition doesn’t have that; it has rests for the soloist. But my version of the 2nd movement has the soloist playing its ending Tutti along with the violins, in their octave in 5th position. Whereas the Suzuki version has it written out an octave lower for the soloist.

I decided to play all the ending Tutti sections. It’s one thing to be standing waiting to come in while the orchestra opens the piece, but in general I’d rather be playing than standing there. And as for playing fast 16th notes and string crossings in 5th position, I can do it. Go big or go home. 😉

5. It’s all in the wrist (except when it’s not). I tend to like to bow from the wrist, and I have a good flexible wrist that helps me play fast and do bariolage (both of which I love to do, especially with the Baroque bow), but too much of that can get in the way of a nice, smooth, legato tone. In fact, using my wrist too much–with virtually every bow change–can lead to crunching. So, I am playing a bit more from the elbow and arm and trying to keep the tone more smooth and even.

6. Recording myself. I’m a member of several Facebook groups that focus on playing stringed instruments. More on this later, but one thing these groups have in common is recording yourself and sharing the videos in the group. I have shared a handful of videos on my blog in the past, but those have usually been performances, not “warts and all” practices, and truth be told, even though I recognize its value, recording myself has always made me nervous and uncomfortable. I hate watching myself on video; it’s like a constant cringefest.

But with these Facebook groups the process is getting to be a little easier. They are closed groups so the videos are only shared with people who signed up for this and are in the same boat themselves. One group has a rule of no critique or advice unless explicitly requested by the original poster. They all encourage posters to be positive and supportive of each other. So I’ve been doing it: recording myself almost every day and posting it to Facebook. I am getting caught up enough in the process of recording–of setting up the tripod to hold my phone, of working out the camera angles, of just deciding what section or concept I’m going to record and post today, of writing a little blurb about the video, of uploading and making sure it’s in the right group and not on my general feed (ack!)–that I don’t have time to be nervous anymore. I have work to do, and the nerves just have to go away and let me do it.

Rehearsals start with the orchestra next week. Ready or not.

108 Days of Telemann

I’m in a lot of online violin and viola groups. It all started for me back in 2006 with violinist.com, a website edited by violinist and journalist Laurie Niles, devoted to the idea that “you can’t say enough about the violin.” When I joined, it was already an ambitious project, but still relatively small. If you hung around on the site for a while you soon got to know most of the regular posters. I started blogging there in the fall of 2006 when I started playing the violin again after a long break and added the viola.

Since then the internet has exploded as a medium for meeting other musicians online. There has been a YouTube symphony orchestra. Violin lessons via Skype are commonplace, and Facebook groups abound, where players of all ages and skill levels share videos and support. I have found myself a member and sometime moderator of a number of these groups, and I have met great friends there. In fact, when I moved to the SF Bay Area a couple of years ago, I found out about all the groups I play with now IRL, online. I wouldn’t have imagined any of this back the first time I was playing the violin, as a child and teen.

In fact at this point I am in what would probably be described as an embarrassment of Facebook-group riches. I’m not sure I can even remember all their names. (I’m a moderator for one of them, so I remember that one, at least.) I see many of the same friends in multiple groups too: some are violin- or viola-centric, some are for adult starters and re-starters, one is focused on the Alexander Technique. Then I got added to the “100-Day Practice Challenge.” A little overwhelmed, I hid the notifications and was thinking about just signing out of the group. And then I went to orchestra rehearsal.

One of the orchestras I play with, the South Bay Philharmonic, is an all-volunteer group that I found out about when a friend from violinist.com, Gene Huang, let me know about it on my blog when I announced I was moving. I looked it up then and found that they rehearsed around the corner from my new house. It took several months before I became a regular member, but once I did I was hooked. The SBP evolved out of the Hewlett-Packard Orchestra, and there are still some H-P employees playing with the group, but it is now independent. Scientists and tech nerds are heavily represented among the musicians, so I fit in well!

KarenViola2017a
Playing in the SBP viola section

An aspect of the SBP that especially appeals to me is the “open mic” portion of the concerts, shorter pieces played by small chamber groups, and full chamber music concerts. I’ve played in several of these, most recently a performance of the Schubert Cello Quintet. Gene Huang, who is the concertmaster of the SBP, has performed the entire Mendelssohn violin concerto with the orchestra, and our principal cellist, Harris Karsch, performed the Popper Hungarian Rhapsody with orchestra last spring. The concert we are currently preparing features tubist John Whitecar playing the first movement of the Gregson tuba concerto, and there were rumors of a bassoon concerto on the spring concert.

Watching my friends perform solo repertoire with the SBP got me to thinking: could I do this too? I have never performed a concerto for anyone but a private teacher in the past. Several years ago I came close when I played the concertmaster solo of  Tchiakovksy’s “Mozartiana” suite with the Arlington Philharmonic. I’m a violist in the SBP, and there are fewer of these types of solos for viola, and fewer concertos. (Our conductor likes to joke about this fact). There is one, though, that is decently well known: the Telemann viola concerto in G. Here is one of my favorite recordings: Yuri Bashmet playing it on a modern instrument with modern tuning.

I have played it in various situations over the past several years as I was learning the viola. It’s quite charming to listen to and not that technically difficult, either for soloist or orchestra. I played it through once with an informal chamber group I read music with on weekends, and it went okay. So when the SBP’s outgoing music director asked for suggestions moving forward, I stepped up and volunteered. The process was made easier when I thought the actual performance would be a ways in the future: when we had exhausted the repertoire the director picked out before he retired and moved to Texas.

Then came the fateful orchestra rehearsal. The bassoonist who was going to perform this spring had a conflict with a paying gig with another orchestra. She wanted to postpone. Could I do the Telemann sooner? Um . . . sure?

I went home and counted the days until the concert (which will be on May 11 2018): it was 108. Suddenly the 100-day practice challenge took on a whole different meaning. That evening, I made my first post.

redxs

 

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

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!