Monday, October 20, 2014

Using a Product Logo as a Teaching Tool

My violin students need to be constantly reminded to keep their left arms under the violin while they are playing. Today, while I was (once again) reminding a pre-teen student to keep her arm under, I noticed that all her clothes had the "Under Armour" logo on them. I drew it in her music to remind her to keep her arm under. Under Armour = Arm Under.

We both laughed. I told her that I would share this idea with other violin teachers on line, so here it is. Remember that you read it here first!

Friday, October 17, 2014


While I was slowly and carefully playing through the last of Bach's English Suites until a few minutes ago, I kept thinking about how many rules of counterpoint Bach breaks, and how often he breaks them. Then it occurred to me that Fux (1660-1741), the guy who wrote the rules of counterpoint as we know them, may have predated Bach by a generation, but he didn't write his Gradus Ad Parnassum until 1725, and by the time Bach could have even gotten his hands on a copy he could no longer see.

I have nothing against Fux. I cut several sets of teeth on Gradus Ad Parnassum. I just had a sudden realization about Bach today, and appreciate his deviations from what is to be expected even more than I did yesterday.

Thursday, October 16, 2014


I used to enjoy teaching music appreciation classes at our local community college. In the early years of the 21st century I had students in my classes who were genuinely interested in the material. Some were adult students who had returned to college after having children, some were adult students who were trying to make a new start by getting an education after unproductive early adulthood, and some were students who had served in the military. I had extremely smart students of normal college age who were using community college as an inexpensive way of taking courses that could be transferred to a four-year university. I also had students who had very little in the way of reading and writing skills, because the college had an open admissions policy. Some of these students found that they were genuinely interested in music (some, of course, were not). I even had a composer one semester, and I had to keep him stimulated while trying to get novices to understand the rudiments of listening to form in music.

During the past five years we have been suffering from some kind of a shift in our university community, and for various reasons college enrollment is down. I watched the abilities of my students slide downward, and found that very few students were able to get by with more than a passing grade during the last two semesters. Too many of them couldn't pass. Now most of the music appreciation classes have been cancelled, and mine, which met at 8:00 in the morning, was one of the first to go.

For a while I really didn't know what I would do.

Thanks to the kindness of one of my dear friends, and the departure from town by another friend who taught a handful of violinists, I now have eight new violin students who range in age from 9 to 14. It's been years since I worked with this many young people, and it is really refreshing to teach people who want to learn to play just for the sake of playing.

Everyone seems to be making progress, and I am making progress as well, because I make a point of practicing what I teach.


Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Meet the Composer Podcast from WQXR

I listened to an interview with Caroline Shaw today on "Meet the Composer," the new podcast from WQXR's Q2 station. I was impressed with the way Nadia Sirota conducted the interview, impressed by Shaw, and impressed with her music and the way she explained the extended vocal techniques used by Roomful of Teeth, the vocal ensemble she sings with and writes for.

I plan to listen to this podcast regularly.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014


When I taught flute students I would often observe their throats getting tight when they found themselves in the musical land of many sharps. I noticed it in myself as well, and always had to work to counteract the tendency.

Lately I have noticed the tendency of my bow arm to stray from the optimum sounding point when I find myself crossing strings in musical landscapes that have many flats.

Hmm . . .

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Honour Bound: The Exile of Adolf Busch

I have spent the past two days being blown away by the beauty of Adolf Busch's bow arm and his overall musicianship, but this film, a kind of animated graphic novel with Busch's Opus 40 String Sextet as its soundtrack, increases my admiration for this tremendous musician even more.

The String Sextet was never published, and the manuscript is in the BrĂ¼der-Busch-Archiv in Karlsruhe. Perhaps an administrator for that archive might find a way to scan the score and parts and add it to this page of the IMSLP.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Tipping Point (Cyber and Otherwise)

On the bottom of my blogger screen is a little tab that reads "Complaints," so I'm using this moment to register some of my complaints about what seems to have turned into a life as a targeted consumer.

I usually look at my email first thing in the morning. I used to engage in lengthy correspondence with friends from near and far, but now my email experience consists of deleting sale notices from stores where I happen to have shopped once and notices about musical events far removed from my realm of interest and my location. Sometimes I find a message from a friend, colleague, or family member, and once in a while I get a notice about a comment to this blog, but it is always the exception. There are sometimes work-related email messages, which I always welcome. I have actually come to cherish those.

I delete between eight and ten messages before breakfast. By lunch time there are usually eight more. I always try to "clean house" in my inbox before I go to bed.

If I look at Facebook these days, I am bombarded by "posts" from people who have paid to have their "posts" reach me, along with ads from places where I might have shopped on line. I bought some socks on line last week, and ads enticing me to buy more socks popped up everywhere (and not just on Facebook). Facebook seems to have become the de-facto vehicle for personal communication, and I hate the fact that I have had to use it as such in family matters. "It" is kind of making "itself" indispensable (and in some ways it is making me feel dispensable). I have decided, for the sake of my health, to limit my Facebook time to 17 minutes per day.

[We used to have a "17 minute rule" back when all four members of the family lived under one roof and shared a single desktop computer.]

Today's US mail brought two letters. One was an official looking one from Washington, DC marked "Finance Department." It was, of course, a plea for money from a political organization. The other had a hand-written address (which, upon further study, I realized was just a very well-designed handwriting font). Then there was a card from a business that sends us catalogs, and a New Yorker magazine.

Somehow, around the time when the ads in my email inbox started increasing, the annoying robo telephone calls started decreasing. If the phone rings now (and it does rarely) it is usually from someone in the family, or an automated reminder from our HMO to get a flu shot (which just happened--while I was writing this very paragraph).

I have to say that thanks to technology I have NEVER felt so emotionally disconnected from the outside world, which appears from this end to be an endless stream of people trying to sell me stuff.

My patience is exhausted.

Thank goodness for music. End of rant. Time to practice and (thankfully) teach a few lessons later this afternoon.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

It was 30 years ago today . . .

Happy Anniversary, Michael!

[Michael actually drew this shortly before our wedding.]

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Humor (and Surprise!) of Music

Michael and I spent some time in the University library today. I love mindlessly and randomly pulling one or two books from the music section off the shelf and taking them home, because you never know what you might find you don't know (or wouldn't otherwise know). In today's handful was a slim volume from 1971 called The Humor of Music by Humphrey.

The title page told me it was by Laning Humphrey, who was the (sole) publicist for the Boston Symphony for decades.

Laning Humphrey (1896-1988) was also the father of my elementary school music teacher, Patricia Frederick who, along with her husband, runs the (fantastic) Frederick Historic Piano Collection housed in Ashburnham, Massachusetts (with lots of information about the instruments on line, of course). Some of the illustrations in the book are by Pat's mother, Martha Burnham Humphrey, who I remember as Mrs. Humphrey (Pat was Miss Humphrey when I was in her classes and chorus).

I settled down to read the anecdotes about the great and mighty musicians of yesteryear, and then I came to page 45:

That is a story about my father!

There is what I imagine to be a proofreading error. My father entered the orchestra as a violinist, and he became the principal violist of the Boston Symphony.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Elnora's Violin

Our fourth grade teacher read installments of The Secret Garden out loud to us during class. I wanted to read ahead (and I guess I couldn't find a copy in the library) so I went up to the box of my mother's old books in the attic and found a book by Gene Stratton Porter called The Magic Garden, and I started reading it. I soon forgot about The Secret Garden, and became obsessed with the Magic one.

The novel is about a girl who called herself "little hungry heart" because neither of her parents, who were very rich but no longer loved one another, seemed to love her. She did what any rich five-year-old girl would do, and got into her chauffeured car, tricked the chauffeur, and ran off into the woods. There she found a barefooted teenage boy playing his violin in the middle of a swamp, imitating the sounds of birds. A wonderful friendship began. It became my favorite book. Nobody in Boston or New York knew about Gene Stratton Porter. She was a part of the mysterious Midwest from whence the maternal side of my family came.

When I moved to the Midwest I began reading all of Gene Stratton Porter's novels and her writings about nature (they were in used bookstores all over Illinois). I particularly loved (and still love) A Girl of the Limberlost, particularly the chapter where Elnora, the protagonist, discovers a violin for the first time.

It turns out that Elnora's father, a man she never met because he died while walking through the swamp on the night she was born, was a violinist. She eventually gets his violin, and through playing it (which she takes to immediately and obsessively) is able to heal her mother's complicated heartache, and eventually repair their relationship. The need to play the violin was simply in her blood.

In 2005 I met Sharilyn Spicknall, an Indiana born-and-bred violinist who had never heard of Gene Stratton Porter. In my romantic eye and ear I considered her playing as the Indianaian essence of what Elnora would have sounded like (and I still do). I wrote a piece for her called "Elnora's Violin," a musical "illustration" for A Girl of the Limberlost.

I had a "Limberlost" moment the other day. My maternal grandfather had given Marshall a violin, and my paternal grandfather had given Marshall a bow. These instruments are now in my house. I decided to try the Chicago-made Grandpa Henry violin (Grandpa Henry shared certain traits with Elnora's father) with the Grandpa Nathan bow, and the experience felt like an explosion in my musical mind. Yesterday I got together the gumption to make a recording of Elnora's Violin with that violin and bow combination.

You can here a compressed version of it here, and a better-sounding uncompressed one that will take longer to load here.

People who found this post because of their love for the novel and for the Limberlost, might want to listen to listen to a recording of "Song of the Limberlost," a piece I wrote for solo harp that is based on more images from the novel. The harpist is Julia Kay Jamieson. The piece is in four sections:

Trees are harps in winter
The very essence of June
Elnora finds a violin
The song of the Limberlost

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Oh Dear!

From a post on Barry Lenson's Classical Music Blog with the title "A Very Smart Bluffer's Guide to Classical Music":
The Fifth Brandenburg Concerto is remarkable because Bach inserted a puzzling chord in the middle of the first movement. In common practice, a harpsichordist improvises a long cadenza around it and then the orchestra rousingly enters.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Three More Pieces

Here's a link to an updated Thematic Catalog entry for The Song of the Limberlost for harp, and a link to a set of six piano preludes that I completed at the time of the turn of the 20th to the 21st century, which makes these some of the last pieces of 20th century music and some of the first pieces of 21st century music.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Taking Care of Business

Back in the early "wild west" days of the internet composers were able to share recordings of pieces they wrote through the American Music Center library. I used it to share recordings of published pieces in my Thematic Catalog, and thought it was working just fine until I heard from someone outside of the country who was unable to download my recordings. I couldn't access them either.

Now that Dropbox has increased their "professional" package to what seems like an obscene size, I am taking matters into my own hands and directing links to recordings of my music there. I have 79 pieces of published music so it will take me a while to get links to everything.

I'm starting with concert recordings, and will then move to computer-generated ones. Eventually I hope to have real performances of everything.

Someday . . .

Here are the spoils of today: these links will take you immediately to the catalog entries, but you will have to wait for the links to download.

Duo for Clarinet and Piano
Sonata for Violin and Piano
Lilacs (for flute, clarinet, cello, and piano)

Friday, September 19, 2014

Determining Musical and Artistic Value

How do we know if the work we do as composers will have value for people of future generations? Who is really equipped to judge the value of a body of work, whether it be music or visual art? Who is equipped to judge the value of work that we do ourselves? Who is equipped to judge the value of work done by someone you love?

It is all so subjective. The first scribblings of a child are extremely meaningful to young parents and young grandparents. Michael and I saved boxes and boxes of drawings, books, and paintings that our kids made. Our children drew a lot, and because of it their personalities made their way into their art. Our son had an unusual eye for emotion, detail, and perspective at a very young age, and our daughter had a unique intimate style, a nice spatial sense, and a real eye for color. Some of Rachel's and Ben's art hangs on our walls, and when we see it Michael and I are reminded of their childhoods. Nobody can convince me that their work isn't great art.

Choice pieces of my mother's art hangs on our walls too. Since I know the large body of her work, I can separate her pieces into categories of excellent, good, and not so good. Because I know the "back story," I can also appreciate the technique she acquired over the years. Seeing her art serves a personal purpose for me, but I'm pleased to find that friends who see her work find their own special attachments to individual pieces.

Many years ago, in the early days of the internet, my mother made a website with photos of her work. Nothing came of it, and when AOL changed something in its format, my mother's website melted into the ether. My mother mentioned that nobody seemed interested in putting much in the way of monetary value on her work because she was still alive. Death puts a finite cap onto someone's creative life, and by doing so changes the monetary value of his or her work. Consider the artists of the past who were unable to sell their works for a fraction of the price that those works can command today.

Who is qualified to place monetary value on my mother's work? I am far too subjective to make any kind of judgement, and because she is no longer a working artist who can calculate the cost of materials into a work's monetary value, neither is she. All I have to go on to determine what is excellent, good, and not so good is my instinct. My mother's memory is quite good, but she doesn't remember every piece of art she did from 1970 to 2004. She is also just as subjective as the next artist, and probably equally critical. Blindness put a finite cap on my mother's life as a visual artist, but it doesn't ease her burden of those of us who can see when we are put in a position to evaluate her work.

Yesterday, a few hours before Marshall's memorial service, I went to his apartment and had a look at the condition of his manuscripts. They were in meticulous order: each piece was placed within a large envelope, and those envelopes were stored in appropriately sized boxes. Marshall kept a catalog of his works as a "Monument" (his word for it), and followed the format that we see in scholarly collections of composers' works. He listed everything by opus number, whether it was published or not. I was not surprised at all that everything would be in perfect order because his exceptional abilities and talents were bundled together with an exceptional sense of self-importance.

[I was surprised to find that his library of books about music mirrored my own almost exactly.]

I have always experienced Marshall through his thick curtain of self-importance, so I am unable to subjectively determine either the quality or the importance of his work. Marshall believed his work was of great value. Now the "ball" is in the hands of people outside of the family, and I wish them great success and courage in separating the excellent from the good and from the not so good. Marshall's absolute sense of self-importance (absolute "pitch" if you will) will certainly make the job of archiving and preserving his music easier.

Perhaps it is a "gift" (along with my neuro-typical makeup) that I do not feel compelled to tout the merits of my own work (or "toot" my own horn, as it were). Perhaps my aversion to the practice of self-promotion comes from having a brother who "touted" his horn loudly and often.

I do believe that what I do is useful (because it serves a need), and I do believe it has some value (because I take pride in my work, and I actually enjoy playing it and listening to it). I am, however, not in a position to judge its quality or its ultimate value. Nor should I be.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Accidental Archivist: a Ramble

By first week of August it became clear to me that I would no longer be teaching music appreciation at Lake Land College. The single course that I had left did not have enough students to warrant the meagre salary that I made as an adjunct. I could see that this lack of interest in music appreciation was not going to turn around, so I took the plunge and purged my file cabinet of music appreciation course notes. I thought it would be nice to use the space for something useful.

On August 9th I got the call about my brother's accident, and on the 10th Michael and I found ourselves in Horse Cave Kentucky emptying my mother's belongings and Marshall's belongings into our car. Marshall's mission was to remove our mother's paintings and family stuff from her apartment so that when the time comes to sell it we won't have to worry about getting things out in a hurry. Marshall did this all with our mother's blessing (she is in a care facility), and he told her that he wanted to arrange for her paintings to be exhibited. My thought was to use the photographs our mother took of her work (which she had previously given to Marshall) to make a blog.

Perhaps I inherited the gene for archiving from my mother. Before she lost her vision her files were beautifully organized. After she lost her vision all that organization was worthless. She is proud of her work as an artist, and took pains to preserve it while she could. In the set of slides she gave Marshall was also the work that she had sold.

I spent the endless days of Marshall's stay in Intensive Care going through letters and photos, and I distributed photos digitally to family members. I also went through Marshall's laptop and extracted PDF files from his Sibelius files, which I put into the IMSLP. It is oddly ironic (perhaps the height of irony, considering the circumstances) that in July a violist friend who is getting her doctorate in library science asked me about the idea of doing her dissertation on my music. I suggested that it might be more interesting to do something about our family, and I told her about Marshall's claim to being the second most prolific writer of viola music (Rolla is the first). Then there's my father; I'm always interested in getting people who don't know him to realize what a great player and musical thinker he is. My friend changed her plan, and opted instead for an admirable project concerning the viola music that people had written for Emanuel Vardi.

I became Marshall's archivist, at least for the music that was available to me digitally. I hope that some real archivists will take care of his manuscripts and make them available as PDF files in the IMSLP.

I am in the process of archiving my mother's work. I have photographed the paintings Marshall had in the van he was driving, along with paintings that we had hanging on our walls (which I have replaced with paintings of hers that I hadn't seen before). You can see all her work here. Some of her paintings are really nice, but all of them show her love of painting, and I enjoy seeing that love. I am grateful that I am "wired" to derive feelings of love from works of art and pieces of music. Archiving and sharing our mother's work has helped me through a lot of grief.

Tonight I take the overnight train to Memphis for Marshall's memorial service, and I will be bringing back more family stuff, including that box of slides of all my mother's work, which I will digitize and add to her blog.

Where am I in all of this? For more than a month I have felt like the center of a wheel, constantly reaching out in all directions. It has helped in some ways to expend my energy outward during this time of fresh grief, but ultimately it is emotionally unhealthy for a creative person to get into the habit of living through others. Unlike a real archivist, the work of archiving does not give me pleasure.

One thing has lead to another in our household, and I have been using the time I would be preparing classes and teaching to do some serious house cleaning (yes, it is a bit obsessive). The other day I spied a box in one closet marked "Elaine's Pre-1988 Files." The box contained an accordion file full of letters from friends I corresponded with during my years in Austria, Hong Kong, Boston, and my first years here in Illinois. There were hundreds of letters. I didn't organize them, but I did store them safely in high-quality plastic. There were other pieces of a life I hadn't thought about in a long time in that box as well.

Now I have finally started organizing my music. I did it once, back in 1985 when we moved to Illinois. I made some wooden window boxes with file hangers in them, and that's where I kept my music. A few years later we bought a nice big legal-sized file cabinet, and I blindly transferred those files to the cabinet. After I knew I would no longer be practicing my flute music (which I gave away), I organized my violin music in that file cabinet, but during the past 20 years my music has migrated into various camps all over the house. My father's music was still in the plastic crates I used to move it from Newton to Illinois. Too much of my music sat everywhere, and in various stages of disorder.

I love thinking about the fact that one of these days it will no longer be in disorder. I love the fact that once this is over I will have a clear path to get on with my real work, cleaning up intonation and articulation, and getting rid of wrong notes.