Category Archives: Violin

TACOs for Christmas

Facebook has taken a lot of flack recently, for good reason, but one thing it is good at is bringing back the ghosts of Christmas past: “We hope you enjoy looking back and sharing your memories on Facebook, from the most recent to those long ago.” Each morning brings a bittersweet memory of something missing: the pageants, the choruses, the holiday concerts.

Leia uses The Force

Last year, I am reminded, I played the Star Wars finale of the Nova Vista Symphony’s John Williams tribute with a glowing light-saber bow. But this year, in the Christmas present, as we approach the one-year anniversary of the time when everything changed, there’s a shadow over the proceedings, even on Facebook. Those revelers in the Leia hats, Yoda ears, and Jedi robes have no inkling what is coming.

Violas of the Nova Vista Symphony

I have been busy this year with teaching and with teaching online. While I find zooming as exhausting as the next person, I am happy to be rid of the daily car commute and to be able to eat lunch with family. The orderliness of online classrooms and learning management systems has its charms. Most of my high-school-age students say, about online learning, some variation of “it’s not what we expected or wanted, but we can handle it.” A few even prefer the ability to set their own schedules and work at their own pace. The reasons I want to get back to in-person school have to do with forming relationships, and with the hands-on, experiential activities that make learning stick, like Biology labs. And music.

Music has been hit harder than other activities, especially the kind of music I like best, which involves playing with others. I have learned two unaccompanied Bach preludes from memory so far during the pandemic, but solo playing isn’t my true love (or my strength, technically) and never has been. I’ve been fortunate to be able to participate in some amazing virtual ensembles, from the International L O V E Project–which had a professional conductor, sound editor, and roster of 1000 musicians from around the world, amateurs and pros both—to TACO’s Christmas Sing-along, which I’m going to describe in more detail below.

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

TACO stands for the “Terrible Adult Chamber Orchestra,” although only two of those words are really accurate (I’ll leave it up to the reader to decide which ones). The name was inspired by the Really Terrible Orchestra who play for fun and humor in Edinburgh, Scotland. TACO is conceived as a drop-in reading group that meets once a month. Its purpose is similar to the RTO in that its main point is enjoying playing together. But it doesn’t have a goal of practicing to get better. Instead its target is a broad range of people who don’t have time to rehearse weekly but who still want to play: adult starters, re-starters, older musicians with physical limitations, professionals and parents who are too busy with work or family to practice regularly. The group would have been celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, and its mailing list has grown to over 700, with 65-70 musicians coming to its monthly drop-in sessions pre-pandemic.

Karen at a TACO session in 2018

TACO’s founder and conductor, Cathy Humphers Smith, runs the group through the Los Altos Recreation Department, which sponsors them financially as a non-profit and guarantees them regular, reliable meeting space and publicity. I talked to Cathy–over zoom of course–about how the Christmas Sing-along project came to be.

Karen: Where did the idea come from to do this project?

Cathy: When the pandemic first hit, we wanted to do a group video project like those you’ve been seeing for other local orchestras, and I decided on Viva la Vida by Coldplay. That song is straightforward and doesn’t have any major tempo or key changes so I thought it was something we could do as a group with all volunteers. We have a sister organization in LA, called TACO Los Angeles, and we collaborated with them. We got a great response to our call, about 25 musicians from Silicon Valley and 10 from LA, and then one of our LA folks in the animation industry was able to do our editing for us. It was successful and people loved doing it.

So, after the success of Viva la Vida, the pandemic was still going on, and people were asking, when are we going to do another group project?

Karen: High school students got involved this time, and it’s being shown on public access TV. How did that all come about?

Cathy: I got a phone call from the Los Altos Recreation Department Senior Services. Normally they provide all kinds of activities and classes for seniors at the senior center, but they were worried about isolation during the holidays because of the pandemic.

So they produced programming on cable TV for seniors isolated in the community, from 10am-noon every day through December. They are showing Viva La Vida on this channel, and they asked us to put together a Christmas concert. They also asked the Peninsula Symphony to contribute some of their chamber music. After that, I started thinking about this audience. What pieces could I choose and how to introduce them?

Karen: So you chose the music?

Cathy: Yes. I had it all ready. It was simple, well-known carols. But then I realized, Oh no! It’s 10 videos! Each video on its own is short and simple like Viva la Vida, but now there are 10 of them. I didn’t know how to get them all put together.

Karen: Could you ask the same person who did Viva la Vida?

Cathy: I asked him, but he didn’t have time. The Freestyle Academy at Mountain View High School is local, and the students are in it because they are interested in video and animation, so I sent an email out to [their teacher] Leo Florendo. He offered it as extra credit, and there were several students interested. But they had to do it on top of their regular school work, and in some cases their college applications, and only 4 ended up being able to participate. They are all musicians themselves and 2 of them are seniors in film. I had a zoom meeting with all of them to meet them and explain how we were going to keep track of the videos. They received an honorarium, and it was a huge amount of work!

Karen: What about recruiting musicians?

Cathy: I initially had 60 TACO musicians interested too, but in the end there were only 30 who could submit videos and I had to get some ringers. I had some older musicians as well and they couldn’t have participated unless I helped them with the recording. For example, I recorded one video on my back deck. Behind the musician’s green sweater you can see it getting dark in my backyard in the later takes. I pulled an all-nighter to figure out the best takes for some of these recordings.

Karen: I’ve done these kinds of videos before so I knew how to record myself with my phone, but there were some new wrinkles with these recordings for TACO, like saying “pop” before starting.

Cathy: I had to get the conducting videos out already in mid-October and then there was a deadline with the high school of early November to get all the data loaded into google folders by song.

Once we had all the videos, the students started going through the data and creating a rough draft of the mixing. Keeping track of all of the data was complicated, and so was aligning the videos. You can’t just line it up at the “pop” at the beginning and be done, you have to line it up at other points as well. Then once they had a good mix of the music, they added the visuals. They used several different programs to do all of that, including Premier Pro. They had 2-3 weeks to get that all done. They ended up working through Thanksgiving weekend.

They could fix the intonation, and they did some of that when absolutely necessary. But we agreed that they would not make this totally perfect, so that it would maintain the charm of TACO.

One of the big groups in the sing-along

Karen: You did a really nice job making it charming, with your introductions to each piece.

Cathy: I was already exhausted from pulling that all-nighter and then Leo reminded me I needed to do the intros. I had let my hair go grey during the pandemic, so I was feeling old and tired, and my challenge was how to be upbeat and cheerful and find the right tone. But my husband created a clapboard for each take, and we got it done!

Karen: I really enjoyed participating in this! I’ve been playing viola almost exclusively for the past year or so, and I was happy for the opportunity to get my violin out and play it too during some of the numbers.

Cathy: You weren’t the only one who did multiple parts. One of the other violinists played first violin, second violin, and even third violin when there was a part for it. He couldn’t have done that in person. The virtual format opens up new opportunities. People feel like they are doing something purposeful and fun even though they do miss playing together.

Karen: What is some other feedback you’ve gotten on the project?

Cathy: I’ve received tons of great feedback. People have been saying it’s very singable. It’s just a fun sing-along for anybody. One of our bassoon players moved to Oregon and she was still able to participate from there. She has family in England, and she sent the video to them also. The 30-minute sing-along got over 1000 views on YouTube in 2 weeks. It was a wonderful collaboration with the high school too: not just an academic exercise, but something with real-world applications. For an amateur group performance, I’m very proud of it.

Karen: What is on deck for TACO in 2021?

Cathy: We may do something else virtual in the spring, we’ll see, when we get through the holidays. But as soon as we can, we will go back to monthly in-person meetings. We are all hoping we’ll be able to get back to making music together in 2021!

Happy Holidays!

The l o v e project

It is the last Friday of June, which means that it is time for the We Are the World Blogfest or #WATWB. This is the first #WATWB that I have participated in for almost a year and I am glad to see the blog hop is still going strong. Now more than ever we need stories of love and connection.

Professional musicians are one of the groups hardest hit by the pandemic. This article was written back in March, but 3 months later, not much has changed: Classical Musicians Say Coronavirus Cancellations are Financially Catastrophic. With live concerts still being cancelled for safety reasons, musicians have lost most of their paying gigs. Teaching is still happening, and a bright spot is the rising of online music ensembles.

The L O V E Project 2020 stands for “Liquid Open Viral Ensemble.” It is the world’s largest online symphony orchestra. I found out about it on Facebook about a month ago. Their goal is to have 1000 musicians playing Mozart’s Magic Flute Overture. As their website says,

[O]nce there was a quarantined violist from COVID-19! . . . The violist begins to wonder how music could go on in these conditions; and in these conditions he thinks of an idea to let the music start again while the whole world is waiting. 

I especially love that it started with a quarantined violist. We violists do tend to think outside the box! It sounds a little like a viola joke gone right for a change. My own community orchestra has also been doing some of these types of videos, (as I blogged about in April) so I already knew how to make a video of myself playing the viola part while watching the conductor and listening to a track on earbuds.

It’s really hard to get such a video perfect, though, especially for a piece that is over 7 minutes long. After practicing several days, I did 4 or 5 takes, and they all ended up with different mistakes. I finally submitted one with 2 mistakes. The mistakes are in places where the viola part is in the background, either scrubbing away with repeated 16th notes to add some drive, or drowned out by the winds. It’ll add authenticity–live performances are rarely perfect anyway. And with 999 other musicians (139 other violists), I’m sure I’m not the only one.

When I submitted my music video I was also asked to make this invitation video. It felt a little cringey to record it at first, but I found I really enjoyed watching everyone else’s, which you can find on this YouTube Channel, so it was worth getting over that self-conscious feeling.

They have started putting the videos they have together, but they haven’t received all 1000 yet. There are already musicians from around the world: Italy, the UK, Germany, Belgium, Monaco, Serbia, Russia, Ukraine, China, Malaysia, Japan, Brazil, Venezuela, Canada, and all over the USA including here in Silicon Valley. They still need string players, especially violin IIs. So there is still time to send in your video!

There is something amazing about all of these musicians, young and old, amateur and professional, coming together to play this masterwork of Mozart’s.

“Music is the language of the spirit. It opens the secret of life bringing peace, abolishing strife.”
― Kahlil Gibran

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.

We are the World Logo

Co-hosts for this month’s #WATWB are: Sylvia McGrath, Susan Scott , Shilpa Garg, Damyanti Biswas, and Sylvia McGrath, Susan Scott , Shilpa Garg, Damyanti Biswas, and Belinda Witzenhausen. Please stop by their blogs and say hello!

A Long Time

It’s been a long time since I have blogged. This past year I have been teaching grades 6 and 7 Biology at a private STEM-oriented school in Silicon Valley. It’s my first year teaching full-time and often it feels like I have 2 jobs, not one, and hardly any time for orchestra, let alone blogging.  I had started to feel like I was barely keeping my head above water, technique-wise, and I wondered, am I going to have to quit playing altogether again, at least for a while, to make this job work?

But now, my school, like all the others in Santa Clara county California, has been closed for almost 4 weeks, and we teachers and our students are slowly adjusting to distance learning, Microsoft Teams, and Zoom, Zoom Zoom.

TheMask

I am privileged to still have a job and roof over my head. And I have a box of masks left over from the CA wildfires last year–not sure whether I can call that lucky, but I do have them. Introvert that I am, I may not be minding the current situation as much socially as some folks are. I need quite a bit of alone time, and I remember many long days of childhood spent at home with only books, dolls, and imaginary friends. In some ways, I’ve been doing this before it was cool. Or necessary. I even have a husband who shops and cooks, so I don’t have to!

But one aspect of this quarantine that has bothered me and made me disappointed and sad even more than I expected was the complete loss of my musical outlets and opportunities. First it was my remaining chamber group: no, we can’t go to the organizer’s house this week. He and his partner are in the high-risk age group. Then it was the South Bay Philharmonic concert that got cancelled. In honor of the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, we had planned to play Beethoven’s 4th, one of two Beethoven symphonies (#4 and 8) that I need for my bucket list. We had been through all the rehearsals but the dress, and then the news came: no gatherings of more than 250 people allowed.

Things moved quickly after that: I went home from school for a short March break and haven’t been back since. My son’s high school closed too; my Googler husband is working from home.

And here we are.

ViolaHanger

For some reason when I finally did pick up the viola to play again, I felt the need to go back to my viola roots, to the basics. When I first started playing the viola, switching from violin around 14 years ago, that meant Bach suites. I played the Courante from #1, which had been my favorite back then, and the Allemande. Then I found suite #2, with its D-minor prelude. It seemed darker and more serious than suite #1. That was when I really started feeling like I had gone over to the “dark side,” the viola, and there was no turning back.

Instead of putting my viola back in its case after that, I put it on a hanger in my spare bedroom/office. I started taking “Bach breaks” from online teaching or lesson planning. I would just run through something, work on a little bit here or there . . . and then something else occurred to me. My daughter stayed in Oregon, where she attends Willamette University, because she lives off-campus and dorm closures didn’t affect her. Her room, sitting empty, has a balcony, which is why she claimed that room when we moved here in 2015.

Inspired by the quarantined Italians I had seen singing from their balconies, I stepped out from my daughter’s room with my viola. Would this work, or would I look ridiculous? A few joggers and dog walkers went by, and I brought out my music stand and played some Bach.

Later I set up my phone and livestreamed it on Facebook. I think I had a larger audience on Facebook than I did live on my small, quiet street, but that may have been for the best. If a real crowd had gathered I might not have had the courage to continue.

That balcony session led to some surprising and delightful responses. One was the reaction of my new friends and colleagues at school. I decided to go out on a limb and share it with my fellow teachers and my students in our online platform. They were very sweet–“that sounded awesome!” said one. The video got shared in our school newsletter too. And then there were the oranges. One of my neighbors left some oranges on our front porch from a tree in their yard, with a nice Thank You card for the “beautiful music while working in the garden.” I eat one orange every morning for breakfast, and I still don’t know who it is!

I’ve also had a Skype lesson with my viola teacher. We worked on Bach–the prelude from the 3rd suite now–and also on Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante, which I think might be my next project. The lesson worked quite well and I think I’d like to continue this type of lesson with my teacher even when the quarantine is lifted. Not having to drive to Palo Alto and back saves me almost an hour, and might enable me to fit more lessons back into my regular schedule, even when school starts again.

And, I’ve played some fiddle tunes in what I’ll call “Zoom church.” It is the UU Fellowship of Sunnyvale’s answer to having to close down live services. Instead, we have Sunday services on Zoom, with everyone calling in from home. At this point I’m still not a pro with Zoom by any means (just ask my students) but any squeamishness I may have felt about being recorded on video is rapidly becoming a thing of the past.

But, what about orchestra? I still miss it terribly. When I moved to CA, orchestra was both my greatest loss for what I left behind in MA, and my best source of new friends and experiences in CA. But I’m no longer just finding my way in these orchestras. I’ve been here a long time. It surprises me and brings me up a little short that now, here, I’m at the point of grieving another musical loss rather than exploring something new and exciting.

I’ve seen many wonderful videos of orchestras playing together at a distance, some of them on violinist.com. George Yefchak, our conductor at the SBP, had the idea to do a video like this as well, using the Scherzo from Beethoven’s 4th that we were going to play in the concert. He had the vision and did a heroic collecting and editing job to make that vision a reality. I’m there in the third row on the left, wearing an alto clef T-shirt. Fellow violinist.commer Gene Huang, the SBP concertmaster, is up in the top left corner too.

It’s not the whole symphony, and my sympathies go out to Roger, our horn soloist, whose concerto had to be postponed. But I’m still going to count it for my bucket list. Only Symphony #8 to go!

I know this quarantine has been a disaster for many professional musicians who live from gig to gig. I appreciate every one of them who has been sharing their talents with the rest of us to inspire hope and help us get through this difficult time. This is also a time when some of those distinctions start to fall away–professional, amateur, rich, poor, famous, ordinary, even young and old–the virus, and the need for human contact and hope, don’t know these distinctions. We may be here a long time, and we can all share with each other, and need each other. The woods would be very silent if no birds sang except those who sang the best.

Redwoods

 

Musical Monday: Chamber Music

This week I am going to chamber music camp with my 16-yo son, a cellist, and a pre-formed group of friends as a quartet.  This “camp” is not really a camp. It’s in a church, not the woods, and it is run by my teacher and her colleagues. Nobody stays overnight. We view that as a feature rather than a bug, but not everyone would. And I am at least temporarily returned to my roots as a violinist. No viola this week!

Another thing that is different about this camp is that it mixes adults and kids. This is convenient for me because I can go with my son. My quartet-mates are all retired, so I am not the oldest person there, but I am in the top half. For the introductions, the teacher asked what school we all went to as one of the line items. Unlike the other adults, I actually had a school, since I’ll be teaching at one next year. Surprisingly there was even a student from my school in the group. She plays a wind instrument, so I didn’t work with her directly, and didn’t remember her well, but she did remember me helping out the music teacher a couple of times last year.

My son is working on the first movement of Beethoven’s quartet Op. 18, No 4. I played it a couple of years ago and still remember the experience as a high point, and I saw the original manuscripts in Prague this spring.

And I’m working on the first movement of the Florence Price string quartet in G. I played the 2nd movement earlier this year and wanted to tackle the first also. There are only 2 movements in this quartet. The first is even less often played than the second, and there are only a couple of YouTube recordings available. Our coach is learning the music along with us!

The coaching sessions went by very quickly. I wasn’t ready to be done yet, and could have gone on for at least another couple of hours! I think the recordings that are available go too fast. We won’t be able to achieve those tempos in a week, and I don’t think I’d even want to. I need time to hear the unique harmonies.

And this post is a bit of an experiment too. Can I actually write something concise and not take an inordinate amount of time doing it, when I should be practicing? Yes, yes I can . . .

 

 

 

 

Musical Monday: Florence Price’s String Quartet in G

sbp2019-05posterIt’s spring, and the season for concerts. One of the orchestras that I joined when I moved to California, the South Bay Philharmonic (SBP), turned 10 years old this spring. Formerly known as the Hewlett-Packard Symphony, it is now an independent group, with a few members remaining from the old HP days. (I don’t work for HP, so I’m happy about the transition).

One of my favorite things about playing in the SBP is the opportunity to play chamber music at a high level. With SBP chamber music, I’ve explored classics of the repertoire including the Dvorak “American” viola Quintet and Schubert’s famous Cello Quintet and “Death and the Maiden” Quartet. For this concert, we tried something new, a movement from the Florence Price String Quartet in G.

florence-finalFlorence Price is not as well-known as Dvorak or Schubert. She was an African-American composer who lived in the first half of the 20th century. She passed away suddenly in 1953 and in the confusion surrounding her death, many of her manuscripts were lost, only to be rediscovered in 2009 in an abandoned house that had once been Price’s summer home.

I traveled to Sacramento in March to hear Er-Gene Kahng play Price’s violin concerto #2. I also talked with Kahng about the Price string quartets, and obtained the sheet music for the String Quartet in G. This recording is of the Second Movement, the Andante Moderato. Like the Dvorak quintet, it has two contrasting sections, in this case a lyrical opening and a jazzy middle. Like the concerto, it is sunnier than I expected, and the lyrical section evokes the beauty of the South.

 

Music Monday: Dedicated

IMG_2455The Mundane Monday blog challenge has run its course, and I am grateful to Trablogger and Dr K Ottaway for running it the past few years. Thank you for your dedication! It has been fun and lent a modicum of discipline to my blogging efforts.

Rather than taking over this challenge myself, though, I’ve decided to make a new one called Music Monday. I blog about music a lot anyway, and it’s a natural fit. There are no real rules, just try to take a music theme and run with it. Post a YouTube video if you would like! I will summarize and link back to them next week.

 *   *   *

Cello
Cello from the Lobkowicz Palace

Many of us violinists, violists, and cellists have played quartets from Beethoven’s Op. 18. These quartets are “early Beethoven,” composed in Vienna while the string quartet as an art form was relatively fresh, and in the classical spirit of Haydn and Mozart. They are more technically accessible than the “late” Op. 130s, which overwhelmed even some of the best musicians of Beethoven’s time.

I inherited the set of sheet music to Op.18, all 6 quartets, years ago from a player in my old orchestra in Massachusetts. Yellowing and with bent corners, these venerable parts always seemed appropriate to my learning this venerable old music. And then there was the curious phrase written across the top.

Screen Shot 2019-04-28 at 4.03.57 PM

I’ve been learning German for most of my life but I still didn’t recognize a lot of these words at first. A “Fürst” is not a title that translates easily,  and Lobkowitz sounds vaguely like “lobster”  (or like Wolowitz, as in Howard). I got distracted by those things and by the fact that “gewidmet” was an completely unfamiliar verb too, rather than just figuring it out from the context like a normal person. So, who was Prince Lobkowitz, anyway, and why should we care? I found out on a recent visit to Prague.

The 7th Prince Lobkowicz (1772-1816) was Joseph František Maximilian, the Duke of Raudnitz (now Roudnice nad Labem in Czechia).

220px-c396lenhainz_-_franz_joseph_maximilian_von_lobkowitz
Joseph František Maximilian, the 7th Prince Lobkowitz. Source: Wikipedia

This Prince Lobkowicz (also spelled Lobkowitz) was well known for his love of music. He was an accomplished violinist, cellist, and bass singer. He also hired musicians for a private orchestra and put on performances at his family’s Palais Lobkowitz in Vienna. A relative said of him that he was “kindhearted as a child and the most foolish music enthusiast. He played music from dusk to dawn and spent a fortune on musicians. Innumerable musicians gathered in his house, whom he treated regally.”

He and Beethoven met as young men and were peers and perhaps even friends. The Prince paid Beethoven a stipend and encouraged him to compose as he saw fit, rather than commissioning specific pieces, as most patrons of the era did. Under Lobkowicz’s patronage, Beethoven composed all of the Op. 18 string quartets. 

Op18Quartets
First performance edition of the Op. 18 string quartets 1-6, from Lobkowicz Palace, Prague

Even more importantly for western classical music, Beethoven also composed several symphonies under Lobkowicz’s patronage. Beethoven famously planned to dedicate his Symphony  No. 3, the Eroica, to his hero Napoleon. When Napoleon declared himself Emperor, however, Beethoven became disillusioned and angry, and instead dedicated the symphony to Lobkowicz. The Eroica premiered in the Lobkowicz family palace in 1804, played by their private orchestra and conducted by Beethoven, before its public premiere in 1805.

Eroica
First performance edition of the “Eroica”

Beethoven’s symphonies 4,5, and 6 were also composed and premiered under Lobkowicz’s patronage. The first performance editions of these pieces too are exhibited in the Lobkowicz Palace museum, which opened to the public in 2007 after the 1989 revolution allowed the return of the Lobkowicz family property (for the second time).

I dragged my traveling companions to this museum in order to see these artifacts; my friends aren’t musicians and wouldn’t have gone without my suggestion. I may have mentioned a few times that the Eroica is my favorite symphony. I’ve played it 3 times, the first going all the way back to my senior year of high school in the Greater Buffalo Youth Orchestra. But even so, I was unprepared for the emotional reaction; the pages blurred and I blinked back tears.

Living in the 21st century United States, we tend to take a dim view of royalty. We fought a revolution to throw out a king and have been happy to be rid of him for almost two-and-a-half centuries. But I would still like to take a moment here to praise Prince Lobkowicz. Under the constraints of the political system of his time, he was a forward thinking and generous ruler. He identified in Ludwig van Beethoven a talented person, supported him, and trusted him with the independence to create greatness.

We will never know how many other talents, bright and shining as Beethoven’s, may have languished and shriveled because they never got the support they needed to thrive, were never heard in a room of their own. Like Judith Shakespeare, they lie buried at some cross-roads where the omnibuses now stop.

Eroica Hall (Source: Secret Vienna, The story of the Palais Lobkowitz)

As much as everyone wants to be Beethoven in this story, most of us are more like Lobkowicz–if we’re lucky. Most of us are not royalty, musical, political, or otherwise. But all players who make a serious and sincere attempt to learn this music are performing the same essential, sacred duty: bringing the music to life.

My performance, with the South Bay Philharmonic Chamber Players, of Op. 18 No. 4, Mvt. 1

Music and Memory in Ireland

I’m posting this blog in honor of the Mountain View High School Chamber Orchestra, which has been touring Ireland for the past week with violinist Chloe Trevor.  My 15-yo son plays the cello in this group. My school spring break and his don’t coincide, so I couldn’t chaperone. I’m a little disappointed, but this may be for the best. My son is at the age now where he is needing his own space, personally and musically.

And, I have been to Ireland too. Twice. The first time the kids were pretty little and we took our au pair along. We visited the Cliffs of Moher on a very windy day, and the visit, while gorgeous, wasn’t entirely stress-free.

I was just starting to play the violin again after a long break, and I bought a nice book of Irish fiddle music to learn, complete with CD. I’ve shared this video before. It was recorded in 2010 at the Belmont Farmers’ Market, by my son who was 7 at the time. I think the intonation is decent, but stylistically I am not really playing fiddle style, but more classical, which is how I was trained.

Fiddling was a nice way to play with my kids when they were younger, and I continue to love this type of music. This video was taken before my son had started playing the cello, and he wasn’t yet able to play with us. He looks pretty bored back there!

The doors I want to show are on some bars in Dublin, the Temple Bar Pub in particular. Bright red, and decorated with nice fiddle icons, this area is a great place to find live music. I visited there on my second trip to Ireland, in the summer of 2018.

TempleBarDoorTempleDoorCorner

The Temple Bar area is located on the south bank of the River Liffey in Dublin. It is a major cultural center and tourist attraction. Temple Bar Pub isn’t the only establishment.

Bar1

You also find buskers playing as you walk the streets. They aren’t all playing traditional Irish music; these were playing the theme from “Game of Thrones.”

Buskers

Here is the Mountain View High School Chamber Orchestra playing “Irish Junkyard Jam” by Brian Balmages at one of their three concerts. (And there is my son, now all grown up, leading the cello section!)

Their tour included a visit to Bunratty Castle, shown here when the kids were little, and most recently, a picture of the castle taken by my now-15-year-old son.

I asked my son, when I picked him up at the airport, if he remembered the earlier trip. Not at all, he said wryly. Whereas to me these visits are almost all mixed up together, with few boundaries. In spite of years of violin and viola practice and child raising in between, I was pretty much the same person who visited Ireland then and now; and he is not.

 

Thursday Doors is a weekly feature allowing door lovers to come together to admire and share their favorite door photos from around the world. Feel free to join in on the fun by creating your own Thursday Doors post each week and then sharing your link in the comments at Norm’s blog

Mundane Monday: Opening up the Instrument

I haven’t blogged much recently because I’ve been so busy at work. And I notice that the longer the time off, the harder it is to get going again. It’s almost like those stories about people who lose their voices and become mute. The longer the silence, the harder it is to break. And then when you do try to say something, try to open your mouth and speak, to vibrate those vocal cords again, it comes out like a creaky croak. Ribbit!

My viola has been sounding this way. The viola is lower in pitch than the violin, so it doesn’t emit the characteristic screechy-dying-cat sound that immediately comes to mind when you think of bad violin. Bad viola is more subtle. The instrument gets hoarse and scratchy, the strings decline incrementally, imperceptibly until you are, one day, scrubbing away, working hard, and thinking “ugh, this piece is so difficult to get to sound good. I don’t like it. This composer is terrible.” Or worse, “I really suck at playing the viola.”

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Well, there is hope.  Strings don’t last forever, and the last time I changed mine was over a year ago. I still have the same strings on my viola that I used to play the Telemann viola concerto last year. That puts it in some perspective. I order a new brand of string, called Obligatos, on the recommendation of a friend. I’ve never tried them before but at this point they can’t hurt.

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Changing your own strings is something I learned how to do relatively late in life, but now it’s pretty easy. I change them one at a time and keep the bridge of the instrument straight and perpendicular to its surface. And for tone, they sound wonderful. The instrument opens up and rings out like a bell. It is easy to get a tone with a normal bow stroke. I should have done this sooner! The main reason I didn’t is that the curse of new strings is keeping them in tune. They stretch and pull and don’t settle in right away. My “Pitch” app keeps reminding me of this. It informs me that I was only in tune 82% of the time today. Naturally I blame it on the strings.

But after a few days of settling in, it will be fine. The instrument has opened back up.

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For Dr. KO’s Mundane Monday #206 Opening.

 

 

Not Irish

I’m not Irish. Not even a little. When I was a kid I would forget to wear green on this day and get pinched on the playground, a custom I’m still not really fond of.

But as a musician I am getting more fond of St. Patrick’s Day as an opportunity to play fun music.

Playing at the Belmont Farmers’ Market

We were in Ireland last summer as part of our trip. One of the places we visited in Dublin was Christchurch Cathedral.

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The cathedral’s choir had its first performance of Handel’s Messiah in April of 1742. There is an electrical box on the grounds painted in Handel’s honor.

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The oldest geocache in Europe is also in Ireland. It was placed on June 3, 2000. Here I am, finding it:

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Happy St. Patrick’s Day! (Please don’t pinch anyone . . .)

Bringing the Past to Life: A Conversation with violinist Er-Gene Kahng

PSAConcertKahngBack in 2009, not long after I joined the Philharmonic Society of Arlington, that group celebrated its 75th anniversary season. The winner of that year’s Young Artists’ Competition was violinist Er-Gene Kahng, who performed the Mendelssohn concerto. I made a rare appearance as a violist in that concert, my last before I went back to the first violins for good.

Almost ten years later and 3000 miles to the west, I remembered and met Er-Gene again at her performance of the Florence Price Violin Concerto No. 2 with the Camellia Symphony in Sacramento. Florence Price’s two violin concertos were recently rediscovered amidst other forgotten manuscripts by Price in an abandoned house that was once her summer home. Kahng, a Professor at the University of Arkansas, has edited and recorded these concertos in order to bring the work to a wider audience.

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I caught up with Er-Gene after the concert and we made arrangements to chat via Skype, as she was leaving the next day–to go to London!

KarenandErGeneKaren with Er-Gene after the concert in the fabulously renovated art deco CK McClatchy High School Auditorium

Karen: I wanted to talk with you about Florence Price, but I also wanted to talk about your development as a musician. You mentioned that you are from California. What brought you to Arkansas?

Er-Gene: As I was finishing up my doctoral degree at Northwestern, I started applying for jobs. University of Arkansas listed a vacancy for a violin professor. I applied, interviewed and got the job! Sorry the story is not more interesting! 🙂 Growing up in southern California, I didn’t know anything about Arkansas, and had never even visited!

Karen: I also went to grad school, to get a PhD in Neuroscience. I’m only belatedly realizing that academia is a path for violinists too. Did you have plans to become an academic?

Er-Gene: No, I did not really have plans to be in academia. And I didn’t know–still don’t–if it is a common path for violinists. I was very idealistic and only knew that I liked the structured environment of school and wanted the chance to learn more and dedicate time to my artistic self-development.

I would even go further to say that for me growing up, the understanding was that people went into academia if they could not “make it” as a practicing artist. It was the “those who can’t play, teach” concept.

Karen: I noticed something similar, even though I didn’t go on professionally in music. When you are a child learning violin you are exposed from the beginning to performers who were all child prodigies and major soloists from an early age, and you get the impression that that is the only path.

Er-Gene: I feel like even the concept of a doctoral degree in music was relatively new’when I was going to school. It may have existed for decades before, but the idea was that a Masters’ degree should be enough, and that if you actually needed “all that time” to learn your craft, it was evidence of a lack of talent. It’s interesting how this narrative of “genius”, “prodigy”, and “talent” is so prevalent in our industry.

Karen: So did you go to a regular public school? Many violinists homeschool or do school online so that they can spend more time practicing!

Er-Gene: I’m very proud that I went to a public school. My school still exists today: the LA Center for Enriched Studies. It is a humanities magnet and I still keep in touch with some of my teachers. I remember my third grade elementary school teacher had us memorize Robert Frost poems by setting them to music. He composed at the piano, which was housed in our classroom. I didn’t realize how incredible this was until much later.

Karen: That sounds very cool! I teach at a relatively new STEM-oriented private school. I’m always interested in hearing about what works to make a healthy school community.

Er-Gene: I took my music classes at Colburn, back when it was still near USC, not downtown as it is now. I took music theory, chamber music, orchestra, piano and violin lessons there. From there, I have seen some stars born. I remember seeing and hearing Leila Josefowicz, and I was completely amazed, as I am still.

Karen: I’ve seen her on YouTube. Yes, she is pretty amazing!

Er-Gene: Being surrounded by such young artists growing up, I wasn’t sure I had a place in the music world. I definitely loved violin, but the master teachers enforced a strict 3-4-hour practice schedule, which, at the time, I couldn’t handle. I still don’t really have an explanation for it, only that I was very interested in academics and wanted to divide my time equally. I wanted to take the time to study and read, as well as practice.

Karen: I can totally relate to that. I always had a lot of other things I wanted to do besides practicing.

Er-Gene: I had very supportive parents and many teachers who never “pushed” in the sense of being stern time keepers. I think they observed my interests and allowed me the independence to use my time the way I wished.

I do sometimes think about “what would have been” if I had gone to a conservatory. I think I would be a much stronger violinist today. But I’m also grateful that somehow, so far, I’ve been allowed to progress at my own pace.

Karen: How do you think your academic training and orientation influenced your interactions with Florence Price’s music? Do you think that you felt more ready or willing to take on the project because you have a doctorate? What is the degree called in music? Is it still a PhD? I mean, this project is a dream PhD thesis. You discover this awesome music and bring it back to life!

Er-Gene: My degree is called a “DM, ” a Doctor of Music. I think my program at Northwestern was a good fit because again, it allowed for a lot of independence and space for me to explore and play with ideas. But it didn’t literally prepare me for work like the Florence Price concerto–although obviously it also did!

I don’t think that most higher ed programs are able to be, or want to be that prescriptive. So much of academia is trying to play catch up to the pace of real life. Many jobs that we train our students for may not exist by the time they graduate.

Karen: That’s an excellent point! There has been a sea change in what PhDs do with their degrees in many fields. I have a PhD in neuroscience and I am not doing the job I trained for either. Do you have your own graduate students that you teach now?

Er-Gene: Yes! We don’t offer a DM, so the highest degree is a Masters. I have my own students and I’m also Director of Graduate Advising. This is my favorite part of the administrative side of my job: the chance to talk to our students about their passions, their hopes and their concerns about creating a path in music. It’s so exciting to see them going off to their dream doctoral programs!

Karen: What else do the graduates of your program do?

Er-Gene: Music education is our most popular major, so many of our graduates go on to secondary school teaching within the state of Arkansas. Some have gone to neighboring states like Texas, Oklahoma, and Missouri. Others choose to freelance and/or set up their own private studios.

Karen: One tends to hear about music programs in schools being cut, especially in states with less money. I hope that is good news for AK overall, that there are jobs for music teachers!

Er-Gene: Working at a state university means that I am able to have friends who are involved in the work of new ideas . . . the work of thinking, speaking, teaching and writing. For interpretive / performing artists, we also have the experience of realizing our interpretations and performances! I’m sure that being in this environment helped me feel the familiarity of doing primary research, even if I had never done it before, even in my doctoral work.

Karen: That is really great! I think that is the ideal of how universities are supposed to work. How did you first learn about Florence Price, and how long did it take before you felt ready to perform the Price concertos and record them?

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Kahng playing the Price concerto No. 2 with the Camellia Symphony

Er-Gene: I first learned about Price at the University of Arkansas’ own symposium about her in 2015. With respect to the recordings, I didn’t really have the luxury of choosing the timeline. Our contract set a date with the Janacek Philharmonic, who were available in the summer when I had time myself, but who only had a 3-day window to record. There was no choice but to agree to their timeline! Nevertheless, I had about 9 months before that to prepare.

Karen: Where would you place Price in the tradition of violin concertos? Does her music remind you of any other composer?

Er-Gene: This is actually a tricky question, because I believe the paradigm with which we have judged, excluded and included certain composers would not traditionally include Price. We can’t properly judge Price’s concertos against this tradition.

Karen: That’s fair enough. I don’t have a lot invested in that paradigm. I haven’t studied many violin concertos, myself, other than Bach and Mozart. And at this point I’m primarily a violist.

Er-Gene: It would be easy to say that Price deserves a place . . . up there with the Beethoven Violin Concerto! But even if I felt that way, it’s not as simple as persuading people to see the “greatness” of Price against the narrative of greatness they have inherited and been taught since childhood.

On the other hand, to say that Price (or any other historically underrepresented composer) is not the same as composers traditionally included in the canon is not equivalent to saying she is not great. Rather, I think to say so simply acknowledges that the canon has been very exclusive and narrow.

And that brings into question the way in which we raise our young musicians. We teach them a great deal about how to think and judge greatness. History is so much of the stories we tell our children. And sometimes–often times?–our children never question those stories that they hear from their parents and teachers.

Karen: Interesting. I felt that a lot of what I learned about determining greatness didn’t have much substance. It was mostly about hero worship and about talent, as you mentioned earlier. I love what you are saying here, that we need to be more thoughtful about that.

Er-Gene: This is not to say that Bach, Brahms, Beethoven, etc. are not great masters. They are. But we need to be more conscientious about the stories we preserve, and informed about the important figures we overlook (even when it is unintentional, which I believe it is, most of the time). This brings to the fore our responsibility as citizens, parents, teachers. We have to face our own blind spots, stay curious and cultivate critical independent thinking in our young musicians.

Karen: Yes! I think that for many musicians their introduction to the repertoire comes when they are students. They learn concertos in a very formative time, when they are children or teens, and that shapes their whole outlook on concertos and on which ones should be included.

Er-Gene: Because so much of violin training at earlier ages has to address basic sound production and technique, it focuses on the absorption and successful performance of these 50 or so “great” pieces that we as a community have agreed deserve to be learned. And as you know, just making a pleasant sound on the violin can be all consuming! Where in all of that do we have time to bring up these critical questions? I’m not sure, but we must make it a value and a priority in our lessons.

Karen: I came to the concert with a friend, Jasmine Reese, who is a violinist interested in learning concertos, and she thought the Price concerto you played was within her technical abilities, or at least that it could be if she worked on it. If that is the case for other students, then I think the Price concertos will come to be more widely known.

Er-Gene: I believe the mission is about expanding and redefining the canon, not denigrating “dead, white European males” or pushing Florence Price to hold an equal place in the old canon. We need to address the points of accessibility and visibility. Publishers will help with accessibility, while performances and programming will address both.

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I did a recital with a friend a couple of weeks ago, and afterwards I posted on Instagram something that is in line with what we have been discussing:

The shift into Db Major when the second theme first appears in Florence Price’s second violin concerto is tender, jarring and heart-breaking. Though its final statement is a resounding D Major, it feels like a Pyrrhic victory, despite my best efforts to convey celebration and triumph. Perhaps I give myself away in expressing skepticism at simple happy endings, even as the notes on the page could suggest otherwise. This is not only the vessel of emotional ambivalence Price’s concerto carries, but more largely the truth (of an unequal, unjust society) in which Price lived. I’d like to believe that with every deeply considered performance, we can take on the role of stepping up to the daunting task of moving toward a more just (musical) society. Here is to our collective efforts to program and interpret with intention and justice.

I keep trying to find ways to salvage the narrative, but then I think that it’s not my job to put a pretty package on the narrative. Many things are broken, and it is our job, first and foremost, to show the truth.

Karen: When I first heard the concerto, I found it touchingly sunny, and I was a bit surprised by that. With everything Price must have gone through, I expected something heavier and darker. I want to listen to it again in light of your comments!

Er-Gene: I encourage performers who may feel that their work is not as impactful as that of historians or librarians or publishers to acknowledge the raw power of their medium. It takes a village and no single element is most important. A performer is not just a simple “mouthpiece.” That view downgrades the power of direct transmission and the realization of abstract notes on a page that brings the essence of music to life!

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Kahng with Chris Castro, composer of “Sing High,” which premiered at the same concert