Do you ever get a sense of deja vu in music? Like you’ve been down this road before? And not just because of the repeats!
Much of my spring was occupied with preparing the Telemann viola concerto in G major for the South Bay Philharmonic’s concert on May 11th. It was the first time I had played a solo concerto with an orchestra. (I had had a small concertmaster solo several years ago with the Arlington Philharmonic, which was technically my first solo with orchestra, but that wasn’t a concerto).
After the performance I went on vacation to Europe for a month. My husband is German and we visited our friends and family there, as well as going on a British Isles cruise. I’ll be blogging more about the trip throughout the year. I’m back now and looking forward to a summer chamber music concert this Sunday, in which I’ll be playing . . . uh . . . a Telemann viola concerto in G major.
Yep. Did you know there was more than one? Telemann also wrote a double viola concerto, and it’s quite charming and very different from the concerto for one viola that more people know. A friend from the viola section of the SBP and I have the same viola teacher, and she put us up to learning it this summer.
This is one of my favorite recordings of the piece on YouTube, for several reasons. I especially like the energy level of viola 1, but I also like viola 2’s different, calmer approach. They are great foils for one another. Also, this version is only 7-and-a-half minutes long, all 4 movements. There is something about the essence of the concerto being distilled into less than 8 minutes that really appeals to me. You can try to blame modern attention spans, I suppose, but this piece was composed around 1740.
Interestingly, it was originally scored for two “violettas,” and it was composed shortly after Telemann returned from France. At least two of the movements have French titles. Read this paper from the American Viola Society to learn more. We’ll just be using two modern violas, with a cello continuo (my 15-yo son).
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!
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
My musical life since moving to CA has been a little “all over the place.” So far I’ve taken this year to sample different orchestras and different instruments. Do I want to play violin, viola, or both? Which orchestra has the best fit for me with respect to rehearsal venue, concert venue, conductor, repertoire, and community?
One of the things I miss most about my life in Belmont is the Philharmonic Society of Arlington. I was the creator and admin of the group’s Facebook page, so I can recite this by heart: “The Philharmonic Society of Arlington, Inc., established in 1933, consists of three performing groups, The Arlington Philharmonic Orchestra, The Arlington-Belmont Chorale, and The Arlington-Belmont Chamber Chorus.” Yes, you read that right: 1933, which makes it older than many professional symphony orchestras. The orchestra performed a mix of old favorites and premieres by local, living composers. We also provided playing opportunities for a diversity of musicians, from adult starters and re-starters, to professional music teachers, to up-and-coming Young Artists’ Competition winners.
I don’t think it really sank in until this morning, though–until I shed a few tears here at the computer–that that chapter of my life is over. Tonight, the Arlington Philharmonic Orchestra has the first rehearsal of its 82nd season, and it will be without me.
When I told people that I was moving, I got plenty of recommendations for orchestras–so many, in fact, that I wasn’t sure what to do with them all. I felt overwhelmed. Many of the recommendations centered on the conductor, which I understand, since the tone that the conductor sets is very important. Names I don’t know, don’t recognize . . . I can google them and find out how many awards they’ve won and where they’ve studied, I can see which orchestras have recorded CDs, who has the best reviews, and who has the most professional-looking website. I can see where they rehearse and how far that is from my house. But none of that was helping.
Way back when we were first talking about moving, I just looked on the web for orchestras that rehearsed in the general area of Mountain View and Sunnyvale. I found one called the Nova Vista Symphony. I liked the name immediately: I pictured standing on a mountain and looking out into one of the many valleys around here with their green (or brown) rolling hills. I also liked the fact that they played with a chorale sometimes and had a Young Artists’ Competition. They had the right number of concerts–not too many, not too few–and a mix of repertoire, both familiar and new, with different types of challenges. The website said they had auditions, and when I inquired I was told I should prepare 1 fast piece, 1 slow piece, and a 2-octave scale. I took this seriously and started preparing. I figured a 3-octave scale would be fine too.
Not sure which instrument I wanted to play, I thought about viola again. I brought my viola with me on the plane and shipped my violin, because I couldn’t carry on both instruments. I practiced the viola in the guest apartment we were staying in while we waited for our furniture to arrive so we could move into the house. I played the 3rd movement to the Anton Stamitz viola concerto in D, and recorded it for the Adult Starter and Restarter Facebook group. I wrote about my viola as a cherished object for a blogfest that I was trying out. I met up with a buddy from the Facebook group, and we tried to play some chamber music, as well as sight-read the Handel-Halvorsen Passacaglia and the Barber Adagio in his large fencing studio in Redwood City with You Tube accompaniment projected on the wall.
The furniture, and the violin, finally arrived, and life kept accelerating. Our kids started school already on August 17. My daughter was asked to switch to viola in school orchestra and she has taken up the challenge. She needed a viola to practice at home, and so I loaned her mine. I also volunteered to be an assistant soccer coach to get my 12-yo son a spot on a team. Team practice schedules reduced the number of hours available for violin and viola, and conflicted with rehearsals of the South Bay Philharmonic, another group I had been considering, Through all of this, I heard no more about an audition, until last week. I got an email from the personnel manager of the Nova Vista Symphony saying that I had enough experience they didn’t need to audition me, and the first rehearsal was a week from then, i.e. last night. They included a list of the repertoire, which included both the William Tell Overture, and Eroica, two of my favorite pieces of all time.
I could interpret this in different ways–after all, not everyone wants to always be playing old favorites that they’ve played before–but in this time and place, it felt right. In this strange and wonderful and horrible season where everything is slippery, and is changing too fast, and I’m grieving one too many losses and goodbyes, it felt like coming home to see and hear and be part of these pieces again. I brought my violin and my little folding stand, and parked it there in the back of the firsts, shook the rust out of my fingers, and said hello to my old friends.
Yesterday I had what realistically is probably my last viola lesson with my current teacher. Probably . . . realistically . . . clearly I don’t want this to have been my last lesson. Qualifying adverbs much? We left it open that as moving day approaches, if I want some time to do something hands-on that uses a different part of my brain than packing and decluttering (like, I dunno, PLAYING AN INSTRUMENT?), I should come over and have another lesson. She’ll be there.
Looking forward because I really enjoy playing POPS music. Over the years my orchestra, the Arlington Philharmonic, has performed patriotic songs, medleys from “Titanic,” Wicked,” “West Side Story,” and “Chicago,” music of Disney movies, Leroy Anderson, Henry Mancini, and John Philip Sousa (some videos are online here). This music always has its unexpected challenges, and sometimes it has a solo for me. (I particularly remember the year I had a solo I affectionately called “Intonation is a Wish the Heart Makes.”) When the weather cooperates (about 2/3 of the time) it really is a nice event. The strawberry and ice cream festival out in the garden near the Town Hall is fun for the whole family.
Dread comes from anticipating the amount of work that it takes for an all-volunteer organization like the Philharmonic society of Arlington to put on a POPS concert and strawberry festival event. Tables, flowers, strawberries, hall rental, baked goods. Online publicity. A clown. This concert is a good–but not great–fundraiser for the rest of the season. I think that over the years the fundraising aspect has ceased to be the main point. The main point is tradition, and celebration.
Between our last concert and this one, however, circumstances changed to make this my last POPS—my last concert of any sort–with this group. This summer, my family is moving to California.
We weren’t sure about anything until close to the day of the concert. My husband was in Mountain View CA, talking to the people who would be on his new team at Google Headquarters. He had also been looking at houses and we had been quietly reeling from the sticker shock in what may be the one housing market in the USA that makes the Boston area look reasonable.
Back in 2008 I showed up to the first rehearsal, rushing and late because I couldn’t find parking, with my violin/viola double case. The first person I met, a violinist named Noel, asked me if the large black case was a coffin. I showed up to this POPS concert at the last minute too, after first talking to my husband over the phone and then signing, snapping pictures of, and emailing documents for a loan approval to make an offer on a house. The parking gods smiled on me this time and I was able to get a spot after someone else pulled away. As I walked in to the Town Hall, carrying the flowers for our soloist that I’d been asked to procure, I was again met by Noel. “You’re here!” he said. “You missed the picture.” He’d been taking one for the Facebook page with our new conductor.
Drop off the kids, give them money for tickets, drop off the baked goods, plan how to deliver the flowers. Set up my folding stand. Note that even though we didn’t plan it, my stand partner and I (as well as two other first violinists, both named Rebecca) are wearing matching green tops. And then it’s time to tune. One Karen (me) signals to another Karen (the oboist) for the A.
During the first third of the concert, Brahms’ Hungarian Dance #5, West Side Story, and Zigeunerweisen with the YAC winner, Caitlin Kelley, I was grateful for auto-pilot and muscle memory. The violin I orchestral part to Zigeunerweisen is a 19th-century Lumosity brain-training game: switching between pizzicato, arco, on-beats, and off-beats in a seemingly random pattern; keeping track of which sections are repeated and which are not and and which repeat you are on; staying with the soloist as she performs incredible feats of virtuosity and acrobatics inches from your music stand.
Near the end of the concert, we celebrated Snowpocalypse-Boston with a “Frozen” medley. I had a solo, “For the First Time in Forever.” I had sticky fingers to go with it. That too went by fast, and unlike my previous Disney solo, my bow didn’t shake. Early on I had changed a few of the printed bowings to something that made me feel more comfortable. I experimented with shifts vs. string crossings and decided that a little portamento was a benefit, not a liability, to keeping it all on the E-string. The solo comes on the heels of a particularly hair-raising part in “Let it Go,” so I didn’t have time to get too nervous. It was more of a relief than anything else. And the hot weather meant my vibrato didn’t freeze up.
I didn’t really have time to think, and I was grateful for that. If I stopped to think too much, I might cry.
A couple of days ago I announced the move on Facebook and here in my personal blog. There I framed it as a new, exciting adventure, which it is, of course. Although I won’t have time for any music groups this summer, I’ve already made inquiries into auditions for other orchestras next fall. And if anyone in the SF Bay area or Silicon Valley (Palo Alto, Mountain View, Santa Clara, San Jose) has suggestions (or would be interested in getting together for duets/chamber music), please let me know!
But I also need time and space to say goodbye and to grieve for what I’m going to lose. As my daughter’s school principal says, don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened. I’ll get there. Eventually.
Last weekend was a bit of a blur. I know as the spring comes on things really start to get busy. From now until the end of the school year, it just doesn’t let up.
And, this year I have tulips:
Two years ago, I planted tulip bulbs, but last year the bunnies or the squirrels ate them all. This year they seem to be protected, hiding there in among the daffodils.
The arrival of the daffodils and tulips also signals the arrival of our church talent show and my orchestra’s Sponsors’ Concert. Usually those two are not on the same weekend, but this year they were: talent show, Saturday night, concert Sunday afternoon.
I’ve performed violin or viola solos for several years. Last year I played Ashokan Farewell with piano, which worked out nicely. Usually I try to get one or both kids to join me, but this has had mixed results. My son, a cellist, has been more willing to do it than my daughter, who plays the violin and bassoon. The first year he played “Simple Gifts.” Other times it has been his recital piece, or a carol at Christmas. Performance seems to be working a bit more as advertised for him than it ever did for my daughter (or for me as a child). This year we played “Entrance to the Queen of Sheba,” by Handel. I found the arrangement on a site called Free Gig Music, which I’d like to give a little shout-out to. This site has good arrangements of classical standards and old favorites, for many instrument combinations, and at an intermediate level appropriate for students and sight-readers. I first used it last December when a septet from my orchestra was playing at a Winter Market for the holidays. I was playing viola with that group, and there was an awesome viola part to “Wachet Auf” as well as other nice Bach pieces appropriate to the season.
Invariably, a few hours before we go on, the feet start to get cold. “Do I really have to?” “I don’t want to.” “Maybe we should just stay home.” I recognize echoes of this in myself too. It gets better, I want to tell him. Sometimes I do tell him that. And when we play, neither of us is perfect (that piece, intermediate arrangement or no, has a lot of 16th notes!), but it’s fine. And it’s fun.
A few acts later the band comes on and plays a Stones medley, complete with dancing, and nobody remembers those few flubbed 16th notes or the missed shift (except maybe the person who played it). That’s one of the many beauties of a talent show.
The next day was something entirely different: the Philharmonic Society’s Sponsors’ Concert. This concert had an eclectic musical program: Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, our Young Artists’ Competition winner playing Stamitz viola concerto in D, and Rossini’s Stabat Mater with full chorale and orchestra. We perform this concert in honor of our sponsors, local businesses who donate to have ads included in a yearbook. Rushing home from church to eat lunch, we didn’t get much of a chance to bask in the show’s afterglow before heading to the warm-up.
The viola soloist was awesome from start to finish. We haven’t had a viola competition winner before now, while I’ve been in the orchestra. He played the Carl Stamitz viola concerto in D, the one in every violist’s repertoire (as opposed to the Anton Stamitz viola concerto in D that I learned a few years ago). I’ve been looking for a new solo piece to work on, and this might be it.
I had been a little concerned with how the Rossini was going to go. In the course of learning this piece I came to wonder why Rossini isn’t a more well-known composer. He is well known, of course, by classical music people, and fans of Looney Tunes cartoons can sing his overtures. But the Stabat Mater, an ambitious choral piece with many key changes, ostensibly about the suffering of Mary, Mother of Jesus, is something else. We had a quartet of awesome professional soloists to sing with us, and some folks from a Rossini society came to the concert. It seemed to me, and this impression was confirmed when I did a little reading about the piece, that the music is more secular than its subject matter. It is highly dramatic, has soaring melodies, is even witty and charming in places, as well as being grandiose.
The final fugue is great fun to play, and you really have to memorize the last page of music in order to keep up. The conductor wanted to take it really fast–and he did.
We have a week off before starting rehearsals for POPS, and at least I need it!
Last weekend on the violinist.com website where I keep my violin blog, there was a poll: “Who is your musical role model?” The choices were: a teacher, a superstar, a fellow student, a colleague, or I have no role model. I had a hard time choosing between my violin teacher and a friend/colleague who passed away a few years ago. But, I went ahead and picked “a teacher,” which both then and today was narrowly the most popular choice, picked by ~40% of the respondents.
It no longer surprises me, but it still puzzles me, that “a superstar” comes in a close second. I have never really understood how superstars are supposed to work as role models: people one doesn’t know, probably will never know, and, unless one is uniquely gifted (I’m not), cannot reasonably hope to emulate. As a spectator or consumer, one can taste and enjoy what they bring to the world on special occasions, but my day-to-day life, at least, flows on without many ripples from superstardom.
Music is “just” a hobby for me though. I didn’t go to music school, and I don’t usually make money at music. I had industrial-strength performance anxiety until at least my mid-20s, and while it has gradually waned since then–after much effort to combat it on my part—it has never fully gone away. To me, performing on the violin, especially solo, is rather like eating quinoa, or like vigorous exercise. I know it’s good for me, and I’m always glad to have done it. But that’s only if you ask me after it’s over.
So maybe I just don’t get the appeal of the superstar role model on the violin because violin isn’t my passion and my everything. By profession, I am a PhD scientist and science educator. I care deeply about STEM education and about a scientifically literate public, and I want to see all students succeed, including students from diverse genders and cultural and economic backgrounds. So, what was my reaction when I saw this article this morning?
After reading and mentally processing the article, I am filled with admiration for this young woman. It’s a short article, but in it she appears to be gifted, hard-working, and humble. A woman of color and the daughter of immigrants, she has made the most of her opportunities, and she demonstrates an uncommon level of maturity and generosity. She’s clearly a superstar, and deserves admission to any top college in the country or in the world.
But my first reaction was still, “yikes!”
The yikes don’t have to do with this brilliant young woman herself, but rather specifically with the idea of her as a role model. Her principal calls her a “STEM superwoman.” Her guidance counselor is quoted as saying that the senior is “dedicated to pushing herself in the classroom . . . ‘she’s taking the hardest courses, the most challenging we offer’ . . .” And, her decision to apply to all 8 Ivy League schools is “not typically what we advise.” Some commenters say that we “need more” of students like this. Others want to know “how she did it.” Either way the implication is that others should read this article and emulate its subject. This superstar can be their role model.
Yet, I already know entire high schools worth of kids, kids from all different backgrounds and cultures, some privileged and some less so, who want, and who try, to be like the student described in this article. Who overload themselves with too many AP classes and too little sleep in order to gain that precious Ivy League acceptance. I have a teenager in one of these high schools now. Thirty or so years ago, I was one of them too (but back then the acceptance rate at my alma mater, Princeton University, was around 17%, not the 6.99% it was in 2015). There isn’t a shortage of teenagers trying as hard as they can, to be super. It’s just that most of them don’t succeed, at least not by this definition.
A few spaces in my Facebook feed down from the article about the Ivy League-bound student, I saw this one: Why kids who believe in something are happier and healthier. A little put off by the title at first, I read it anyway when a friend summarized the contents. The author, Lisa Miller, a clinical psychologist, sees a lot of unhappy teens. She claims that over the past decade, up to 65% of teens have been shown to struggle with intrusive depression symptoms at some point, and often with anxiety and substance abuse as well. And this is especially a problem for the kids who should, theoretically, have the easiest chance for happiness: those who are economically well-off and whose parents provide them with opportunities and choices.
Her theory to explain this paradox is that “an increasingly narcissistic culture and the constant reward for achievement, whether on the playing field, the music stage or the math test, creates what I call in my book the unbalanced “performance self” of the child; a child who feels his or her worth is founded on ability and accomplishment.”
Her antidote to the unbalanced “performance self” is the development of the “spiritual self,” which she says is neglected in our culture. The spiritual self is not connected to any specific religion, or even to religion, per se. It is measured as a deep spiritual connection with a sense of a sacred world. 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.
“In contrast to the performance self, the spiritual self is sturdy and resilient, happy at a win, but not dependent on it to feel worthy as a human being.”
Miller is writing generally here; this is her life’s work, and she has book coming out. But I couldn’t help but think specifically about music, the violin, and the role of the performance self vs. the spiritual self. Historically people came to music through the church, and music served a spiritual function, first and foremost. This is especially true for what we call “classical music” today, and for large parts of the violin, symphonic, and choral repertoire. Personally, its spiritual meaning is what drew me to this music, and is why I play the violin in the first place. Although I have been through several marked changes in religious and spiritual path along the way, the constant thread has been music. Music still makes me cry in embarrassing moments, mortifying my performance self.
It has actually taken me a long time to develop any kind of real performance self at all, and that which I do have is still fragile and easily injured. I regularly like to give the performance self a rest. Maybe it’s the introvert in me. I feel pretty content in this approach, at least for myself. But I still wonder, especially as I look at the suffering this imbalance between personal and performance selves seems to create in our culture, how music can help it heal.
I was never in a talent show as a child. I’d heard about them, and even attended a handful, but overall I had a rather negative impression of talent shows. What I believed was that either the performances weren’t very good (if you were in the audience), or the experience was anxiety-provoking (if you were one of the performers). Why would anyone want to do that?