Sunday, November 30, 2008

Musical Postcards

Michael sent me a postcard from this wonderful postcard site. I thought I'd share the music pages here.

The image on the postcard above was drawn by Harrison Fisher, and it does indeed reflect the musical song of the soul. I wonder who the model might have been.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Monday, November 24, 2008

Sonata for Euphonium and Piano Performance

Charley Brighton and Malcolm Stowell gave the first performance of my Sonata for Euphonium and piano a few days ago in England. You can listen to a recording of it here.

Emma Goldman Opera

I have always admired Emma Goldman, and every once in a while I come across something that re-kindles my obsession with her. My first encounter, like the first encounter for many people of my generation, was the portrayal of her by Maureen Stapleton in the film Reds. When I found out that my great grandfather Israel Blume, a man I never met, was part of her "circle" in Chicago (my grandmother told me that he was the person who always picked up the tab), I became more and more interested in her, reading everything I could get my hands on written either by her or about her.

I was thrilled to find Howard Zinn's play Emma in the library one afternoon in 2005 (purely by chance), and was even hapier when I got permission (and enthusiastic support) from Howard Zinn to "extract" a libretto, and turn the play into an opera.

You can now see, hear (as midi files), read, and download the whole thing, parts and all here. My inspiration for putting it all on line comes from reading the graphic novel A Dangerous Woman by Sharon Rudahl that came in the mail from my friend Kenneth Ring who shares my admiration for Emma Goldman. Rudahl's drawn characters look and act exactly like the characters in the opera theater inside my head!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Games People Play

The game boards on Bibliodyssey are simply awesome.

Thumb Tension

Have you ever noticed the way bending the thumb causes the muscles in the whole hand to become ever-so-slightly more rigid? This rigidity is highly useful for a violinist's or violist's bow hand, because a strong and gentle bend encourages the other fingers to do the same, giving the bow hold some structure and support. The left hand is a different story. If the thumb bends a little too much on the left hand, the resulting small amount of rigidity can get in the way of achieving fluid efficiency, and can lead to cramped fingers and poor intonation.

Have you ever noticed that the thumb is kind of the "leader of the pack" as far as the fingers of the hand go? Have you ever noticed how much mobility the thumb has compared to the other fingers? That means it can get into more trouble if it isn't carefully monitored! Where is thumbkin?

A Seven Dollar Seating Solution for String Players

A chair that is engineered so that the person sitting in will sit back on the seat is the worst kind of chair for string playing. After an hour or so of rehearsing in a chair that throws my weight backwards, every muscle in my upper back and shoulders starts to rebel, and If I cannot really put my feet on the floor, rehearsals can be painful.

Last night I was sitting in such a chair at a rehearsal in a church. I noticed that one of my fellow string players had the back legs of her chair propped up on a couple of hymn books, and she seemed not to be the least bit unhappy or uncomfortable. I made a mental note to grab a couple of hymn books for the next rehearsal. Then I thought about what might happen if me and my chair were to leave some kind of dent in the book. I definitely needed to find another solution.

I entered the hardware store in search of something useful, and I found some PVC pipe caps that were the right size. I bought some anti-skid material to stick to the top of the cap, and made a little lattice of anti-skid material over the open part, and they work like a charm. The make conventional chairs so much more comfortable.

PVC is light, so I can keep these in the pocket of my viola case. It is also cheap (always a plus for musicians), and can be decorated to go with any decor. I think I'll paint mine concert black.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Meme of Seven

Oh dear! Lisa Hirsch's Iron Tongue tagged me for the meme of seven.

The rules:
1. Link to your tagger and list these rules on your blog.
2. Share 7 facts about yourself on your blog - some random, some weird.
3. Tag 7 people at the end of your post by leaving their names as well as links to their blog.
4. Let them know they have been tagged by leaving a comment on their blog.
5. If you don't have 7 blog friends, or if someone else already took dibs, then tag some unsuspecting strangers.

Here goes:

1. I chipped off half of my freshly-grown permanent left front tooth on the bathtub faucet when I was seven, and it grew back completely within a year.

2. I love the Smothers Brothers.

3. I was friends with the original cast of the PBS show Zoom when I was in junior high school.

4. I can count to ten in Cantonese.

5. I shared my "puzzle theory" about the continents being connected at one time with my third grade teacher. She thought I was crazy. I still love geography, especially since I found out later that science had proven my theory right.

6. I spent several of my kids' elementary school years as an "art lady." I came into the classrooms once a month and discussed works of art with them. The kids loved it when I turned pictures upside down. We had a blast. I imagine that one of those kids will end up in one of my college classes one of these days.

7. I was the parent-in-charge of "The Junior Cartoonists Society" when my son was in 4th, 5th, and 6th grades. We met in the basement of the library with a bunch of like-minded kids, and drew cartoons. We made four books and sold them in a local book store. They are available through interlibrary loan on the worldcat.

I'm tagging Michael, since I'm pretty sure he has not been a part of this meme. All the other bloggers I read have seem already to have revealed their seven deep secrets. I hope that my penalty for breaking the meme chain won't come in multiples of seven.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Friday, November 14, 2008


I think speed is over-valued in music. My flute-playing youth was tarnished by a desire for speed: everyone around me coveted it. My sense of self worth was often determined by how quickly I could play particular excerpts and etudes. Many of the people around me (in the hallowed halls of Juilliard) seemed mesmerized when someone could play particularly passages really fast. Speed was the currency of the flute world. Consider many of the recordings made by Jean-Pierre Rampal and James Galway.

The not-so-news is that it is really not that difficult to play fast music on the flute. It is far more difficult to play slowly and evenly. Slow-moving phrases (on any instrument) expose every cent of less-than-perfect intonation, and they require far more control and far more air (or bow control) than fast-moving phrases. It is also difficult to phrase in multi-measure units at a slower tempo, because you need to concentrate on where you are, where you are going, and where you have been. Playing music at high speeds obliterates the need (or the chance) to see or hear much of anything along the way. Sure, fast playing can be exciting (when the music calls for it), but for the most part music that is played as fast as possible ends up sounding too fast.

Playing baroque music on period instruments or replicas of period instruments can send musicians down a slippery slope, and onto the path of superficiality. These are instruments that, by their very design, speak quickly, and simply do not make large (or even medium-sized) sounds. The kind of sustaining quality that musicians work for on modern instruments isn't really possible on baroque instruments, especially if musicians play without vibrato. (We are so duped by recordings.)

The expressive alternative is to use articulation to musical advantage, and create a hierarchy of emphasis based sometimes on where notes fall in a measure. And then there are notes that you just throw away. The other alternative (the one that I don't like) is to play everything as quickly as possible, thus avoiding the concentration problem that comes up when musicians try to sustain a musical idea for a considerable number of measures, and making any kind of hierarchy meaningless. That means, as far as I'm concerned, that all the notes are thrown away.

I used to think speed was cool. I even thought it was exciting. I used to prefer baroque music and even classical music played at high speeds. Now, as a recovering exclusive period-instrument-only musician, I tend to think differently. Now I prefer Allegro playing that is even and rhythmic. I find a musicians who have ample sounds far more exciting than people who play music (from any period) made of strings of "thrown away notes" that are played with less-than-beautiful sounds at speeds that are too high.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Rule of Seven: Analyzing Barack Obama's Victory Speech

I'm so happy to have stumbled across David Crystal's blog!

Early Music: Choosing an Instrument

Recorder was my first instrument by default, not by design. It just happened to be around (thanks to S&H Greenstamps) when I happened to be sick one day and wasn't able to go to Kindergarten. I thought nothing of it, but it was the instrument that taught me to read music. When I started playing violin at around 7, I already knew how to read the treble clef.

When I got my first real job teaching at the Stadtmusikschule Schladming (a big name for a small school in a very small Austrian town), I found that I was required to teach about four flute students and about 40 7-year-old beginning recorder students. There was a recorder in my desk drawer, and I scoured around to find a copy of the method book that the students would be using. I was very new to German, hadn't touched the recorder since I was 5, and was terrified at the prospect of teaching something I didn't know anything about in a language that I could barely speak.

The Stadtmusikschule Schladming had a system where all the entering students took soprano recorder lessons. After a year of recorder they could choose a "real" instrument: clarinet, trumpet, trombone, piano, violin, cello, accordion, percussion, guitar, flute, or alto recorder. There was no "playing by ear" or "playing by feel." The students learned how to read, how to count, and how to play with one another in groups. To my shock, it was absolutely painless and was a great success. All the students had a year to figure out what instrument they wanted to play the next year. Everything they learned as beginning recorder players could translate to their new instrument, and they could make their way into the Stadtkappelle Schladming as full-fledged members within a year or two, as long as they were wind or brass players.

When I left that job I headed straight to Vienna to study recorder. I had fallen deeply in love with the instrument.

What strikes me as remarkable is the chance to study music while being given a grace period to decide what "grown up" instrument you want to play. Choosing an instrument has everything in the world to do with personality and temperament. Here in American we are kind of at the mercy of a Darwinian survival of the fittest system when it comes to music, and the survival rate is terribly low. In my Midwestern town, that has a band program in the schools but does not have a string program, kids are given aptitude tests to determine what instrument they should play in the 5th grade band. The "smart" kids are always assigned to the oboe, because the band directors seem to think that it requires more brains than other instruments. (I like Blair Tindall's story about getting assigned to play the oboe in her school because her name was late in the alphabet, and all the cool instruments were taken by kids with last names that started with letters that came earlier in the alphabet.) I only know one survivor of the "smart-kid" system, and she might actually have chosen the oboe on her own.

Musical natural selection comes into play through success and failure. If one person's lips, tongue, or facial muscles are not ideal for making a good sound on any particular wind instrument, other people with more appropriate physiology will be successful at that instrument. No matter how musical or expressive Person A is, s/he will feel like a failure, and might give up music altogether.


In my ideal music school, I would start 7-year-old children with recorder, and I would expose them to the repertoire of all the orchestral instruments during that year. I would explain the personal requirements of being a wind player, brass player, or percussionist: being able to count rests, being able to figure out who to tune to at what time, being able to deal with pressure and competition, being able to play solos without getting too nervous, showing up on time, and being able to deal with knives, cane, and frustration. I would explain what is necessary to succeed as a string player: being able to play people sitting next to you and all around you, being able to blend, being able to deal with coordinating both hands and arms, being able to pay attention to bowings, being able to read more than one clef, and practicing a whole lot more than wind players when it comes to orchestral music, because string players have so many more notes to play.

I would also discuss repertoire. People who want to play wind instruments should be warned that there is little in the Romantic solo repertoire for them, unless they play the clarinet. Flute players had better like baroque music and 20th century music, because the pickings are slim during the 19th century. Brass players should know that their Classical Period music is restricted mainly to orchestral music and a few concertos. People with a deep desire to play classical chamber music should think carefully about being brass players, unless they play French Horn.

I would also make it a requirement at my school for everyone take a few years of piano lessons, and I would require that everyone spend a lot of time singing, thus increaing the number of pianists and singers without lowering the numbers of local orchestral musicians.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Sam Zygmuntowicz's violin secrets

There aren't actually secrets here, but in a fascinating short film on the NPR website, Sam Zygmuntowicz shows how the design of the violin's f-holes allows for the top of the violin to be flexible enough to actually move when it is being played.

(Click on the "watch a video clip about the violin-imaging study" box.)

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Nifty Viola d'amore blog

This is but one of the treats to be found on this great viola d'amore blog.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Making a Connection

Yes, we did. Last night "we" saw a new "we" in America. We felt a new "we," and it was a "we" that we could see and measure. It was a triumph for all of us, but it was a particularly important triumph for our family because we took part in Barack Obama's campaign from the time of his Illinois senate race. And now he has been elected President of the United States of America, and we know that we helped. We all know that our voices and actions matter, and by contributing what we can in time and in resources to a collective effort for good, we can do anything.

I haven't felt a connection like this since the moment after giving birth for the first time. It was a odd suspended kind of moment. A moment when I felt a kind of "sisterhood" with every women who had ever lived who had given birth. That sisterhood faded a bit after a few hours of facing the challenges and responsibilities of actually being a mother, but this brother-and-sisterhood with my compatriots doesn't seem to be going anywhere. If anything it seems to coming into a clearer focus.

I was overcome with emotion last night, and now, after sleeping peacefully all through the night, I feel a new sense of calm and a well-informed sense of hope (expressed by the first movement of Beethoven's Opus 111 Sonata that has been ringing triumphantly through my head all morning).

Yes. We did. Yes. We will.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

The Musician's Guide to Having an MRI

Jennifer Paull appreciates the benefits of musical synaesthesia while having an MRI:

A white-clad person may offer bromide earphones oozing recordings of the above. One may even have been informed that bringing one's own CD is acceptable. On the other hand, depending upon the country/health service or amiability of all concerned, there may be no soft option. Good! None is required by the musician.

Here, for a change, we have a most decided advantage. I must admit that having synaesthesia I, perhaps, have a tad more luck on my side. However, I promise you that sans the latter blessing, the musician is well prepared for the mini Channel tunnel and what could be a claustrophobic hour or two.

The magnetic resonance imagery settings come in series (ranging from two to seven minutes), each having a different sound, pitch(es) and rhythm depending upon the particular machine and the specific examination. An American impressionist tone poem is not the same thing as an architecturally correct German fugue after all. Neither are these multi-million, cylindrical, wide-bored, electronic instrumental treasures from their respective countries. In fact, only a quartet of makers/countries is represented in this advancement in diagnostic technology. (The other two being Japanese and, originally, Dutch, drawing musical parallels would render me even more obtuse than usual.)
. . . continue reading here