Category Archives: Violin

Mundane Monday: Used Golf Clubs from Craigslist

My husband and I have always liked to play minigolf, but that’s it. Until now. I had always thought of golf as something rich people and Presidents did.

But recently I decided to try it. There are some advantages to being able to play. Golf is a sport you can play your whole life, even well into your 70s and 80s, as long as you are mobile. It gets you outside and walking. It can be social; you can chat, you can network. If you’re so inclined you might even be able to catch Pokemon on the course! And some courses are located in beautiful and/or interesting places that you wouldn’t even get to see if you didn’t play golf.

There is a course in our town, Mountain View, on Moffett Field. It’s not a well-known course and used to be for military only. Now they have opened it up to the public and while you do have to show your drivers license to get past the kiosk, they are friendly when you tell them you are going to the golf course. When you are leaving, you drive right past Hangar One.

HangarOne

My husband and I have taken a couple of lessons now and we’re planning to do more. I recently got a set of used women’s clubs off Craigslist so I can go down to the range and practice if I want to. I picked them up after church on Sunday, where I was playing violin for Earth Day.

This week’s Mundane Monday theme is “two for one.” Pictured here are the two blue cases for the equipment needed for my oldest and newest hobbies. They kinda match.

GolfViolin

The Mundane Monday Challenge is under new ownership. Check it out at K Ottaway’s Rural Mad as Hell Blog.

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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.

FallConcert
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!)

AfterMozartiana
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.

SBPSpringConcertPoster

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.

YosemiteVDC

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.

StringsforHaiti

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!

10316 Days

On Monday I saw a Facebook meme that said the Berlin Wall has now been gone for as many days as it stood: 10,316, to be exact. Fact-checking, I found this article. It’s true: Berlin Wall anniversary: Landmark date in Germany as symbol of division has now been down as long as it was up, by Jon Stone in the Independent.

At the Bus Stop, West Berlin, June 1983
At the Bus Stop, West Berlin, June 1983

In 1983, I lived in West Berlin for 8 months. I graduated from high school at age 16 and took a gap year before going to college. My father, a Chemistry professor, did a sabbatical at the Freie Universitaet Berlin, and our family went with him.

Paradoxically for a city surrounded by a wall, I was afforded a lot of freedom in Berlin. I took public transportation anywhere and everywhere using a student pass. I rode my bike. Every week I would go alone to my violin lesson on both the bus and the subway. My violin teacher, an American expat married to a German, lived in an apartment near the wall. She sometimes crossed into East Berlin to buy sheet music cheaply. My copy of the Brahms violin sonata #1 is an old Edition Peters, bought on one of those trips. When my teacher gave it to me, I handled it gingerly, like it might be radioactive.

The only time I ever crossed into East Berlin myself back then was on a carefully guided tour for American tourists, which we were.  After crossing at Checkpoint Charlie, we drove down Unter den Linden, toured a museum with a bust of Nefertiti, and visited a memorial to fallen soldiers.

We were shown a lot of the wall, too. Across the wall and no-man’s land, you could see this futuristic silver ball, the Fernsehturm (TV Tower). Built from 1965-1969 and 365 meters tall (at the time), it was visible from many parts of West Berlin. Particularly as I rode my bike around the city, it was a landmark I kept in my mind’s eye. Like my Eastern copy of Brahms, it seemed extra-foreign and a little sinister.

NoMansLand
Berlin Wall from the West, looking across no-man’s land. Fernsehturm in the distance. May 1983

Living there at that time and playing music there influenced what I’ve wanted to write about as an adult. One of my stories at the Clarion West writers’ workshop, “Sunrise on West Lake,” was fantasy about a musician who escaped from a repressive society.

In 1997 I married my husband, who was born and raised in (then West) Germany. We’ve been back many times to visit his friends and family, but only once to Berlin, in 1998.

We could visit the Brandenburg gate from the other side (and it’s a lot cleaner looking!)

Checkpoint Charlie was also no longer recognizable.

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Checkpoint Charlie, 15 years later, May 1998

Construction was everywhere in Berlin back then in the first heady years after the wall came down, and it’s still going on. Pieces of the wall were dismantled and sent around the world as memorials. We have such a piece right here in Mountain View CA. It’s next to the Public Library, and someone made a virtual geocache out of it. I decided that the anniversary would be a good day to find that cache, which is called “Wir Lieben Dich” for obvious reasons.

To find this virtual cache, you had to answer a question about the area around the cache, and have your picture taken with the pieces of the wall. I ran into a fellow cacher at the library, and she happily took my picture.

WirLiebenDich
A piece of the Berlin Wall outside the Mountain View Public Library

As we rightly celebrate the wall’s demise, we also remember those who died trying to cross it:

Checkpoint Charlie, 1983
Checkpoint Charlie, 1983

And the victims of the Nazis:

Plotzensee Memorial to the victims of Hitler's Dictatorship
Plotzensee Memorial to the victims of Hitler’s Dictatorship (May 1983)

No more walls.

The Names in the Music

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Fantasia in Red Sleeves

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

Fijapaw Update: Bound for Korea

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

The Bicycling Violinist

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

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

Holocaust Education: The Missing Piece

On the last Friday of the month, I am participating in the We Are the World Blogfest (#WATWB), in which we share a hopeful or peaceful story about humanity.

This month, I’m sharing this story, Holocaust Education: The Missing Piece, about the work of my new friend and sometime music partner, Dr. Margareta (Maya) Ackerman. I met her in the context of music at church. She sings, I play the violin, and we have performed together in services a couple of times. We’re getting together later today, in fact, to prepare for this Sunday’s service, called Faith and Hope after the Holocaust. We will be performing two Emily Dickinson poems set to music. Continue reading Holocaust Education: The Missing Piece