Saturday, October 16, 2021

Dancing on the Fingerboard


I think that shifting from position to position on the violin and the viola should be a pleasure, and think that practicing in order to teach the arm and hand to shift should be an expressive activity rather than a mechanical one.

After years of teaching students to shift by using tried and true methods and materials from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (which tend to bore them), I decided to try my hand writing at a set of twenty-first-century lighthearted pieces with whimsical titles that employ guiding fingers in their melodic material.

Initially I imagined a small set of short pieces to introduce the shift from first to third position, but my project grew into two sets of twenty pieces (one for violin and one for viola) that cover the first six positions and dip a toe into the seventh position.

I thought of having it published, but I am too impatient to wait. Plus, I really wanted to use this cover image, which I cobbled together from two very old books (one about folk dancing, and one about violin making), to celebrate the dance-like joy of moving the fingers of the left hand from place to place on the fingerboard.

I often tell my students that the four fingers of the left hand are like four dancing feet. Publishers like to use the work of their own artists, which I understand completely, but priorities are priorities.

So into the IMSLP it has gone for other violinists and violists to use for practicing and teaching. I did my best to make the titles and tempo markings witty, so I hope that help keep practicing fun.

You can find both the violin and the viola music on this page of the IMSLP.

Thursday, October 07, 2021

Representation from "Are Women People?"

Here's another contribution to what I hope will become a body of work by various composers (see this challenge to fellow composers). I was compelled to set this song for male voice and piano, and made versions of it for baritone and for tenor which is available on this page of the IMSLP.

Here's the first page of the song in the baritone key:

Here's a link to a computer-generated audio file, and here is the text as published in 1915.
Go ahead and sing along!

Wednesday, October 06, 2021

An angle on shifting

I have a ten-year-old violin student who is ready to move beyond first position. I had her slide up the fingerboard, just for fun during the interval between last week's lesson and yesterday's lesson, and during the week I wrote a set of little pieces to teach her to shift using the first finger as a guiding finger.

Needless to say, I was very excited about yesterday's lesson.

I showed her how the angle of the elbow gets narrower when we shift to third position. She was very excited about this because she had JUST LEARNED IN SCHOOL that day about angles: acute, right, and obtuse (though we both needed to search for the word "obtuse"). And now we have vocabulary.

If the shift needs to be a little higher, the angle of the elbow needs to be more acute, and if the shift is too high, the angle of the elbow needs to be more obtuse. After a casual reminder that the "elbow bone" is connected to the "ear bone" and that the thumb and the first finger move as a team, this student was confidently shifting in fifteen minutes. We read through the fifty-measure piece I wrote for her, identified the new pitches, and incorporated some third position in the piece she is playing.

She happened to mention that shifting was easier than trying to do vibrato, but since vibrato is easier to learn in third position than it is in first position, we started learning vibrato yesterday too.

I'm at work now on a whole series of pieces to help with shifting, which I will make available to others in some way. I presented the idea to Mel Bay (they have such excellent distribution), but if they aren't interested I will make the set available in the IMSLP.

Monday, October 04, 2021

Are Women People? A Book of Rhymes for Suffrage Times

I learned about Alice Duer Miller's book from a conversation on an episode of the "Clear and Vivid" podcast between Alan Alda, Lynn Sherr and Ellen Goodman called "She Votes!" I knew immediately that these light verses should be turned into songs right away.

You can find podcast episode here, and the 1915 book they talk about here.

I am in the process of setting a few of the poems for voice and harp (or piano), and have shared the first of my set in the IMSLP. I'm hoping for a real performance in the not-too-distant future, but for now you can listen to a computer-generated one here.

It is my hope that other composers will set some of the verses in this book (that link goes to the public domain Gutenberg text), and will also make their songs available in the IMSLP. Then we might have a whole collection.

Please share this post with composers you think might be interested. My setting is for harp because I happened to talk about the idea first with a harpist, but I'm hoping for a grand array of vocal and instrumental settings.

[October 1, 2021]

You can find my setting of "Evolution" on this page of the IMSLP

I'm happy to report that I'm not the first composer to be moved musically by this set. Lori Laitman set a few of these poems, and used the title of Alice Duer Miller's book as the title of her recently released CD.

I'm hoping to be able to add other composers to this list. You (and I) can find out more about Alice Duer Miller and her work here.

Monday, September 27, 2021

Bows Down


Most violinists and violists of normal adult size can balance their bows in their laps when asked to do so, but my short legs make it very difficult for me. In the case of a tall chair and a whole movement, like the Scherzo of Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony, it is impossible.

I don't feel comfortable wearing heels and carrying an instrument onto a stage, so the other day I developed a useful no-sew (and no shoe) solution. The components:
Two old black socks with the feet cut off
Two black hair ties
A few wine bottle corks (for heft)
I put the sock parts inside one another and cuffed them on either side. Then I inserted the corks, and bound the cuffed ends together with the hair ties. This is what the finished (and unnamed) tool looks like:
And here is how it works:

It only takes up a little room in my case:

Sunday, September 26, 2021

You Never Know

After an orchestra rehearsal yesterday morning, I found myself in a lengthy parking-garage conversation about music with a young man who had recently decided to augment his musical life as a freelancer and teacher by doing music-related things involving technology.

I really enjoy being able to talk with younger musicians (people younger than my own kids, even), and find myself deeply impressed at how capable, enthusiastic, and dedicated so many of them are to the this activity that we pass, torch-like, from one generation to the next. When we get the opportunity to make music together, the result is often, as in the concert last night, a big emotional and artistic bonfire, fueled by a lot of attention and concentration. It seems that as an orchestral musician, age really doesn't matter. And at sixty-two I still have a lot to talk about with people thirty or forty years younger than I am. I also learn a great deal from sitting with truly capable young stand partners, some, in the case of this concert, with remarkable bow arms.

At any rate, I mentioned at some point that I wrote music. My new friend asked me what my last name was, wondering if he had ever heard of me. I told him that he probably hadn't, but when I mentioned my name there was a moment of recognition. He reached in his bag, took out a notebook of orchestra music that he was helping a student with, and produced the bass part of "High Speed Rail," a piece I wrote about ten years ago.

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

String Theory, the Mind of God, and Phrasing

While listening to a podcast conversation today between Michio Kaku and Alan Alda, I got an abstract glimpse of what string theory is, how string theory works, and how string theory relates to music. At any rate, I want to share the link here, just in case it is an interesting subject for anyone who reads this blog, and so I can be sure to know where it is in the universe of the internet when I want to listen again.

Here it is.

I started getting little awareness "pings" that relate to the way musical phrases are curved like physical space is curved, and how what I might have to rethink what I sometimes think of as "gravity" in phrases. And I can't stop thinking about Johann Sebastian Bach's curved beams.

Monday, September 13, 2021

Back in the Orchestral Viola Saddle

I played a family-friendly pops concert yesterday with the Champaign Urbana Symphony. It was a Covid-safe space with everybody in the orchestra vaccinated and with all the string players and the audience members masked.

In rehearsal we had to explore logistics, like coordinating bell covers along with trumpet muting and wind instrument changes, but otherwise it felt like a normal and well-organized couple of rehearsals.

It has been a long five hundred some-odd days (some odder than others), and I found that playing as a masked ensemble for a masked audience was perfectly comfortable.

Nobody could see the smiles coming from everyone's mouths, but we could feel them.

It was so inspiring to be sitting in the middle of excellent orchestration--hearing and feeling the brass players behind me, the winds, to the right, and the excellent strings all around.

I was concerned in the middle of the first piece, a Sound of Music medley, that I was going to start crying and get my mask all wet. I know that I wasn't alone.

And when it came time to go to sleep after such a stimulating day, I had one piece after another going through my head, just like in the old days. And I am still having spots that pop up here and there.

The next time I get to play, with another orchestra, is only two weeks away. And I get to play Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony for the first time as a violist, so I have two weeks to practice. I was so excited to find all the musical material that the violas get to play.

I wouldn't say that this aspect of life is "back to normal." I would say that I am experiencing orchestral musical life with a new sense of joy and purpose.

Thursday, September 09, 2021

Beethoven's Kol Nidre

This is beautifully described in a 1971 letter to the editor of the New York Times
TO THE EDITOR:
Joseph Roddy's piece on the Guarneri Quartet (“The New ‘In’ Group Is the Guarneri,” March 7), refers to the adagio of Beethoven's Quartet in C minor, Opus 131. Michael Tree, the group's violist, in response to some friendly joking about his playing “Jewish” in this movement, is quoted as saying, “Look, this is the Jewish movement. Beethoven took this from a synagogue... It is very well documented.” Since neither Mr. Tree nor Mr. Roddy indicated what this documentation is, may I point out that what one hears in the opening bars of the adagio is the 1,300‐year‐old “Kol Nidre” melody which is chanted in all or most synagogues on Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) Leo Tolstoy, I might add, once described the “Kol Nidre,” which he had heard in a Russian synagogue, as the “saddest, yet most uplifting” of all the melodies he had ever encountered, ethoing, as it does, “the story of the great martyrdom of a grief‐stricken nation” According to Abraham Idelson in his book, Jewish Music In Its Historical Development, Beethoven's use of the melody is probably related to the request by Viennese Jews in 1825 that he compose a cantata for the dedication of the new Reform Temple. Actually, Idelson points out, Beethoven was considering the request, but somehow never got around to it. Then, a year later, Opus 131 saw the light. Undoubtedly, in earlier times, members of such outfits as the Joachim String Quartet and the Budapest String Quartet must have noticed the remarkable similarity between the Jewish melody and the opening measures of the Beethoven adagio, but the first to call attention to it in print was Emil Rreslaur, in Leipzig in 1898 in his book on the ancient origins of synagogue and secular Jewish song.
There it is, abstracted and contracted, in the very short (twenty-eight measures long) sixth movement of Opus 131:

Monday, September 06, 2021

A Tale of Two Cities

In 2017 a new used bookstore opened up on the Charleston square. The owner, who owned the largest used bookstore in Chicago, moved to Charleston (by way of Arkansas) to raise his family in a more rural place. He had also gone to college in Charleston, and had fond memories of the friendly and intellectually offbeat community he encountered here.

I stopped into the bookstore shortly after it opened. Joe, the owner, told me how much he loved the college radio station when he was a student, and that he was having difficulty finding it. All he could get was a "top 40" station.

The radio station he remembered was the one that I worked at during the 1980s and 1990s. It turned into a "hit mix" station right after I left. Sometimes we think that the fixtures in a place will remain there after we leave. But places change, and too many of the fixtures live only in our memory of a place.

Joe's bookstore (called Bob's Books, after his father) made a huge impact on the community. Before it got filled with books, there was space large enough for our Collegium to play a concert there. We even gained a new member that evening because a recorder player from Germany, who had just moved to the area, stopped into the bookstore that evening, and heard our concert. It was such a moment of serendipity.

Joe had to move from the square because of safety issues, but he found a great new location accross the street from the university. After a couple of years the owner of the new building suddenly forced him to move, and he found a new location just off the square in a shaded building adjacent to a coffee shop. It was a perfect location. He moved during the first several months of the pandemic, and was eventually able to open up the store to people who wore masks.

I just learned that Joe has suddenly moved his family to Chicago, and is in the process of moving his bookstore there. I imagine it is because of the people who live around here who refuse to wear masks. I imagine that with all Joe's best intentions to try to give something of value to a city that existed, in part, in his nostalgic memory, it became a full-time job for him to have to deal with people who thought they had a right to go into his store without wearing masks.

It is astounding to me that despite a state mandate for masks, and signs on doors of businesses requiring masks, so few businesses are willing to enforce mask-wearing.

We will miss Joe and his bookstore, and I trust that he will be successful and will be safer and happier in Chicago.

After our first visit to Charleston in 1985 (we came here from Boston in order to look for a place to live), we made a list of a hundred things to like about Charleston. Michael was welcomed by a lively English department, and I was welcomed by a musical community that was happy to have me. Michael put in a good thirty years of teaching before the governor-assisted decline of the university and its enrollment (to put things politely), and I was able to create a baroque ensemble (back in my flute-playing days), work at a radio station, help form a string quartet, go to graduate school, help form a Renaissance consort, and help form a summer string orchestra. Together we live in a house that we really like (after doing a lot to improve it), and enjoy the natural beauty of the area.

We have raised two children, developed some strong friendships, and have participated in many community activities. But it seems to me that most of what we have done for the community is of our own making. We have given more than we have taken, which in most circumstances seems like a good formula for happiness. But so much of what was here has gone away, leaving some shared memories (some good, and some not so good).

And after thirty odd years (some odder than others) this is still home. And I still hope that things can change for the better, even if there is nowhere to buy books in town.

Saturday, September 04, 2021

The Beholder's Share and Music?

I just learned about Alois Rigel's idea about the importance of the viewer when considering the "life" of a piece of art. He calls this the "beholder's share." Here is an excellent video that explains the idea in visual terms.

Here is an article by Anne Sherwood Pundyk that discusses the work of Erik Kandel, the person from whom I learned, via Alan Alda's "Clear and Vivid" podcast, about the whole idea.

The question of how music, a thing that happens in time, relates to this stuff is complicated, and it is really difficult to delve into it without encountering a great deal of the kind of philosophy I have trouble understanding. But I did find this paper by Robert Williams that I would share, simply because I brought up the question.

Can we each bring our individual life experiences into listening to a piece of music the way we can when looking at a piece of visual art? Do we only bring our musical experiences into the experience of music, or does the music itself bring experiences to mind that we hadn't been conscious of?

Some of us do not feel the need to interpret what we hear (allowing it to function as background sound), while others are incapable of listening without paying full attention. And then a whole barnyard of interpretive tools come into play from each of our lives as musicians and as listeners for each listening experience.

Then there is the difference among performing musicians between what one person sees on the page (which itself contains lots of visual-art-related information, along with language information) and what another person sees on the page, and how that person chooses to apply her or his own sense of phrasing, grouping, gradations of tonal color, gradiations of dynamics, gradiations of articulation, and a whole slew of other factors to play a given piece to any number of "beholders," both seen and unseen. If the beholder happens to be a recording device, does it render the player and the beholder one, or does it split the player and beholder into two distinct parts. So many questions.

Friday, September 03, 2021

Viola or Cello Adoration

My violin and piano transcription of Florence Price's Adoration can certainly be played on the viola or the cello, but it is far more viola-or-cello-friendly when transposed down a whole step to C major. Hannah Barton and Michael Finlay put a beautiful video of this version played on viola that I would like to share here.

You can find the viola part here, and the piano score (with the cello part) here.

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Evening in Paris

This is the first piece of "Two Places in Illinois." It is a nostalgic look at the Paris of the past.



I got some of these images from a 1908 City Directory that I found by way of Archive.org. I also found a short history of the city, which was once a booming railroad town during the days when you could get almost anywhere by train.

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Coles County August 2020 and 2021

The natural world of Coles County, Illinois comes to a bright crescendo in August: everything is blooming, hopping, and buzzing. I wrote an optiminstic piano piece last August to celebrate the physical beauty of the place where I live. Writing it helped to offset the omnipresence of the pandemic. Oh those innocent days of the early virus!

Revisiting the piece in August of 2021, now that vaccines have FDA approval and are freely and readily available to everyone over the age of twelve, could have been rewarding and kind of triumphant.

But the virus is now much more infectious, and too many of the residents of Coles County choose to remain unvaccinated. Many of the adult residents of the county still will not wear masks in public indoor spaces. They still don't believe (for whatever reason) that Covid-19, particularly in its strengthened Delta state, is something to be concerned about.

But the flowers are blooming, and the trees are rich with bird life, bird songs, insect life, and insect songs.

My friend Marjorie takes beautiful photographs during her daily walks, and shares them with her friends. Yesterday I made a video using my "Coles County August" piece and photographs from some of Marjorie's August 2021 walks.



Friday, August 27, 2021

Atlas Moth

This is the first piece in a forthcoming book of scale pieces in first position that will be published by Mel Bay later this year or in 2022. Like "Weights and Measures," this set goes through all the major and minor keys, moving stepwise with repeated pitches that happen only at the unison or the octave. Working this way gave me a some sense of structure during the first wave of the pandemic, and now making videos is giving me some structure during this Delta wave, where it is more like a sunami here in the lower parts of Illinois.

I call this collection "Scale Tales," because each scale corresponds to an animal that has scales like moths and butterflies, birds, fish, lizards, turtles, and flying squirrels (!!!).

The second volume (again with scales in all the major and minor keys, but using the full range of the violin) will probably carry the title "Advanced Scale Studies," but it is structured the same way.