Tag Archives: viola

From the Heart

A Cyrenian coin from the 6th century B.C., with a silphium seed imprinted in it. KURT BATY/FAIR USEThis past week brought us Valentine’s Day, Ash Wednesday, Lunar New Year, and . . . Heart-Lung Day! I’m teaching at a new elementary school with Science from Scientists, an educational non-profit that brings hands-on science education to schools for grades 3-8. This was only my second time at this school and I was working with a new teaching partner. The school teachers wanted us to do two heart-related activities with the students, “Heart Health,” a lesson with blood pressure cuffs and stethoscopes, and “Heart Dissection,” which is what it sounds like: dissecting a preserved sheep heart. I’m a biologist, so people might reasonably think that I enjoy dissections. They can be an excellent way to learn anatomy. And yet . . .

In high school Biology class, dissection was traumatic for me. The smell made me sick to my stomach, and I was squeamish about the visuals and the texture. I watched as my lab partner struggled with the bulk of the work, and tried to participate by writing our names on the specimen’s identifying tag. A “friend” told me later that my lab partner had been annoyed and complained during the next class period about how little I had done and how I’d written my own name first, and larger, on the tag, even though she’d done all the work.

I was ashamed of my behavior but couldn’t do anything about it. The teacher, whom I otherwise loved and admired, made light of it and laughed. At that time in my life, many things felt out of control. I was ambushed by waves of performance anxiety about things that other people seemed to be able to do just fine. There were some narrow avenues of things that I was good at and that didn’t make me feel this way, and I concentrated on those and let others go. I let a lot of things go due to anxiety and shame, including public speaking and solo violin performance.

Because she’s new I gave my co-teacher a choice of which lesson she wanted to lead. She admitted to being squeamish herself and picked the Heart Health lesson, leaving me with the dissection. In this job, I had assisted with it once before and it went okay, so maybe leading this dissection was another chance for me to conquer some old demons. I didn’t view it that way at first–at first I was dreading it, procrastinating preparing because my old companion, the anxiety, was rearing its ugly head. My logical brain reminded me that procrastination would just make everything worse, but even that knowledge wasn’t enough to get me going.

What finally did was realizing that it was “just” anxiety, and I’d seen it before. Sure, anxiety can be pretty debilitating, but it is also something that I’ve been able to cope with in other situations by taking small concrete steps to support myself. I’ve learned, for example, to keep my hands warm during anxious violin playing situations by wearing fingerless gloves. That makes a tangible difference in how I feel, and how I sound, which leads to a virtuous feedback loop: I feel better, and then I play better.

Anxiety is also something that can be supported and worked through if other people are understanding about it. The education field has come a long way since my Biology teacher laughed and graded students on participation. Now we encourage participation but we explicitly allow students to sit back and observe if they are squeamish. We tell them that the sheep hearts come from animals that are being slaughtered anyway, for food, so we are using specimens that would go to waste otherwise. We let students leave the room if they don’t feel well. And we don’t grade them or judge them on the dissection; it’s a learning experience. What if I’d had that kind of support? Would my attitude towards dissection have been different?

So I made a list of all the things that made me anxious about this experience. The smell came to mind first. I read on the internet that Carolina Biological Supply now has something to preserve specimens called “Carolina’s Perfect Solution®,” which is supposed to be non-toxic and not require excessive ventilation. And I’ve used it before, last year: sure, it still smells a little funky, but it doesn’t bring to mind the maw of hell. I know I can handle it.Screen Shot 2018-02-17 at 11.51.46 AM

Another anxiety provoker was diagrams like this one, which make my eyes glaze over. Despite the fact that I’ve seen any number of blue and red diagrams with lots of labels at various levels of detail, I still can’t remember which vessel is the aorta, which one is the pulmonary trunk, and which one is the superior vena cava.

I went online and looked for some other diagrams. My favorite was this poster, available from Etsy, by artist Rachel Ignotofsky. It reminded me of another resource I saw in school and loved: the movie Hemo the Magnificent, directed by Frank Capra. Beethoven’s Eroica opens that 1957 movie, and Hemo, representing blood, talks and has a face. Smiling faces and all, the poster still has too much information for my class, but this is background information, the point being to make myself feel less anxious about the material, and it accomplished that.

Lub Dub goes the Heart by Rachel Ignotofsky https://www.etsy.com/listing/177478811/lub-dub-goes-the-heart-anatomy-poster
Lub Dub goes the Heart by Rachel Ignotofsky https://www.etsy.com/listing/177478811/lub-dub-goes-the-heart-anatomy-poster

Finally, I read the lesson plan slowly and just sat with it, and my feelings, for a while. I put on some relaxing music and listened while I was reading and sitting. As I listened, read, and sat, I told myself it was okay to be anxious. Wouldn’t that be normal for leading a complicated lesson for the first time at a new school? Wouldn’t that be expected, given my history with dissection? Wouldn’t that help me be more empathetic with any students who had misgivings?

I can do this.

The class didn’t go perfectly. Some kids were indeed bothered by the smell and put their sweatshirts over their noses and mouths to block it out. Most of them also didn’t remember the difference between the aorta, the pulmonary trunk, and the superior vena cava. At least one student said “this is awesome,” though. And a parent I saw as I was leaving called out to me, “my daughter loved that heart thing you guys did today!” I even had fun myself; I watched and observed all the different approaches the students brought to the activity, I marveled that you could stick your finger all the way through the aorta into the left ventricle and feel its elasticity and see its thick muscular wall. I felt my own heart steadily beating.

IMG_2540On the way home I drove a little ways to find my geocache for the day in a birdhouse. I had the Telemann viola concerto playing on the car’s sound system, as I do every day now. The day was warm, sunny, even though the winter sun was low in the sky, and I was struck again by how beautiful and joyful the piece is in its simplicity.

I’m still in that phase where I’m trying to get it all together technically. I’m memorizing it, I’m cleaning up the intonation, I’m using the metronome, I’m getting used to the Baroque bow, I’m fiddling with the bowings. I’m recording it every day and posting these recordings to the 100 Day practice challenge on Facebook. I’m trying to keep the weird faces and swaying to a minimum. The time will come, though, when all this will be a prelude to the main event. The time will come when I will have to play from the heart.

I can do this.

Violin Hearts, sculpture by Karissa Bishop https://fineartamerica.com/featured/violin-hearts-karissa-bishop.html
Violin Hearts, sculpture by Karissa Bishop https://fineartamerica.com/featured/violin-hearts-karissa-bishop.html

108 Days of Telemann

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

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

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

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

KarenViola2017a
Playing in the SBP viola section

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

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

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

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

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

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The Fiji Quartet

Back in 2006 when my kids were relatively small, I joined a website called violinist.com. My daughter, then 7 years old, was struggling to learn Suzuki violin from a teacher she didn’t get along with. I wasn’t playing at all at the time, but I was interested in helping my daughter. I had no idea back then what my little internet search for German folk songs was going to lead to. It introduced me to blogging. And blogging eventually brought me back to playing the violin myself, and the viola.

Continue reading The Fiji Quartet

Music of the Night

Last Monday evening I was at the dress rehearsal for my recent orchestra concert. During rehearsal, the sun went down, the moon came out. It was just starting to grow, curve bulging toward the right, in the shape of a “D,” a waxing crescent. My phone camera freaked out, trying to capture this distant shape, the little center square moving in and out of focus. Continue reading Music of the Night

Connections

Last Saturday, my 12-year-old cellist son and I played for a garden tour in Palo Alto. He’s going to be on tour with his school orchestra during his teacher’s regular recital in a couple of weeks, so this performance, also organized by his cello teacher, was like a mini-recital for him. He played 2 movements from the Vivaldi cello sonata in A minor that he’s been working on, and it went well. Continue reading Connections

New State, New Year, New Blog

A group of us on a violin Facebook group where I am a member have decided to start a new music blog for adult learners, called Soundpost. This blog will emphasize personal journeys and stories and will be a support for adults learning to play stringed instruments, especially those who started or re-started as adults.

I made my first post to the group today:

But, here I am facing possibly my biggest motivation challenge since I re-started in 2006. Last July I moved from the Boston area where I lived for 18 years, to the San Francisco Bay area in California. This move was motivated by my husband’s job at Google. I was able to transfer my teaching job at an educational non-profit to the California office, but I left my violin/viola teacher, my orchestra, and my chamber music buddies behind, and I miss them dearly.  I feel like I have to re-start all over again. Yet again. But by now I should be a pro at that. Right?

–> Read more on Soundpost.