Thursday, March 04, 2021

Solving technical problems with musical answers: thoughts about teaching


I got my "author's copies" of A Tunes this week, so I can assure you that physical copies are now available. It was a treat yesterday to teach lessons using a physical copy.

I thought that it might be a good idea to write a post expaining why I wrote it and what I hope teachers and students will get from using it. I have included a bit of my history for people who are not regular readers of this blog.

I have taught people to play, on one instrument or another, for more than forty years.  And I have also, from time to time, been in the position of being a beginner or a near beginner. When I showed up for my first day of my first real job, teaching at a music school in a small town in Austria (a week before the semester was to begin), I was shocked to see that the majority of my students were recorder students. I think that there might have been two flutists, and thirty (or more) beginning recorder players. I hadn't touched a recorder since I was six or seven--the age of many of my students. 

Fortunately there was a recorder in the top drawer of my desk, along with the beginner book my students would be using. I spent the whole week, when I wasn't studying German (which I barely spoke)  learning to play the recorder, and I fell in love with the instrument. As soon as I had enough money to do so (I arrived in Schladming with only pocket change), I bought a soprano recorder and an alto recorder.

I was shocked that my students learned to play the recorder and learned to read music. I attribute my succes to the fact that I taught myself to read music while playing the recorder when I was five or six (a Honer recorder bought with S&H Greenstamps that I put toothmarks in, because I didn't know not to--I can still remember the taste of the wood).

The kids I taught in Austria also liked the kid-oriented folk music that was in the excellent recorder book they used. It was probably used by all the kids in Austria who learned to play recorder in their music schools. In Austria recorder was the "entry level" instrument, after which you could move to any other instrument. Everyone learned to read music while playing the recorder. Just like I had.

[The mechanics of recorder playing at an elementary level are straightforward. The refinements, like bending your thumb in order to make a horizontal half hole when going up an octave, using the tongue to make a variety of articulations, mastering the fingerings in the upper octave, and adjusting the air so that you can play in tune, are not. I learned those through studying at the Hochschule in Vienna.]

I really wanted to play violin as a kid, but could not learn to play until I was seven because the smallest instrument we had in the house was a half size. And once I was big enough to fit that violin, my father gave me an "A-Tune-A-Day" book (OMG I just realized that the "A Tunes" title bears homage to that series of books!), and I vividly remember making a physical analogy to the written B on the A string using the first finger, just like the left hand (top hand) of the recorder, and that C used the second finger. And G used three fingers on the D string, just like the recorder. I made visual connections between what I saw on the page and what my left hand fingers could do to "get" the note to sound right.

When I moved to Illinois I had the idea of writing a beginner flute book for my flute students. I wanted to create the same visual and kinetic connections I had experienced when learning to play the recorder both the first time and the second time, and the way I learned to play the violin. I found that it was really useful. My students liked it, particularly the tunes that I made up myself in order to develop physical skills.

In my early 30s I returned to string playing. In my late  30s I started composing seriously. In my 40s I taught  violin and viola students using the Suzuki books, but not the method. As my abilities as a teacher improved, I started to see problems that every one of my students encountered while working through the Suzuki books. I do know that they were designed not to be "read from" by students, and that the main use was as reference for "by ear only" teaching, particularly for young students who were too young to read words fluently.

During in-person lessons with beginning students I could, by a multitude of means, get students to use a mixture of eye, ear, touch, and brain to get beyond reading by the numbers. I could use manipulative toys to help them to understand rhythm and the way it could relate to physical volume. They could listen and watch me play. We could play together. 

[nostalgic pause]

When I had to switch to on-line teaching last March, I realized that I needed to come up with new ways to help my students learn, so I started writing these "A Tunes" to address problems that I would normally need to be in the same physical space to work through. 

The first uses the pitches of "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star," but in a different order, and with different rhythms. The "Starry Night" title is meant to draw a connection. A person who can play "Twinkle Twinkle" can play "Starry Night," a brand-new piece, written just for their skill level, doubling their repertoire.  It also sounds really good when students use the whole bow, from frog to tip, and the "sounding good" part is a great motivator for developing a bowstroke that is parallel to the bridge and can change speeds.

"Wait, What?" uses the same pitches as "Starry Night," and introduces quarter-note and half-note rests. There is one whole note, and a whole note that is tied to a quarter note, as well as easy and functional dynamics.

"Breeze in the Trees" introduces pizzicato and addresses the difficulties that students find in "Song of the Wind." There is a fermata that will be familiar to students who have played "Allegro" in the first Suzuki book. My students all really like fermatas.

"The Big Dipper" is in 3/4 time and it introduces slurs in a way that will feel nice and expressive in a beginning bow arm. It is a variation on "Starry Night," and uses the D string when it modulates to D major in the middle section.

"A Tunes" doesn't call for the lowered second finger until the "Solo Two-Step," which also introduces the idea of musical sequences (a melodic string of sixths going between two strings with a low second finger on the A string and the E string that my students really like). The pitches and rhythms are the same in the "Slurry Two-Step," but we get slurs and dynamics. It also begins up-bow, which introduces the idea of bowing logic early on. 

"String-Crossing Waltz" combines the meter of three with hooked quarter notes played on the same pitch. Many of my students have been befuddled by the down/up/up bowing pattern in the first of the Bach Minuets in the first Suzuki book. "String-Crossing Waltz" takes the pattern out of the Bach musical context and repeats it over and over. After studying this piece the Bach Minuet is far easier for students to play in rhythm because their arms know what to do.

"The Happy Farmer" is one of the most difficult pieces to teach (and learn) for beginner violinists. I wrote "Farmer's Crossing" to address each of the bowing difficulties separately. I also added left-hand pizzicato on open strings, which strengthens the left hand, and students really like doing. After working on "Farmer's Crossing" my students have been far happier farmers.

The two "Leading-Tone Gallops" (one slurred and one not slurred) in E minor teach students about the raised third finger and the fourth finger plopping down right next to it. The title gives a chance for a teacher to explain about scale structure. These Gallops,  "Gotcha!," and "The Fourth Heroic Muse" will help with the Gossec "Gavotte" and the Handel "Chorus" that begins the second Suzuki book. The Gallops also help navigate the fourth-finger waters found in the Bach Musette and the middle section of the Lully Gavotte (which, for the record is really by Marin Marias).

The second Suzuki book works fine on its own for me until we get to the Beethoven Minuet in G, which is riddled with left-hand and right-hand difficulties. I wrote "Te Unim" to isolate the difficulties and put them in a vastly different musical context from the very familiar Beethoven piece.  The title is the word "Minuet" spelled backwards. I'm surprised how well it works with students.

"Goodnight Air" uses the rhythms of the well-known children's book Goodnight Moon, and introduces the way meter that changes in order to "hold" the rhythms of the music. The phrasing of the text becomes the phrasing of the music, and it playing the phrases expressively becomes a gateway for being expressive when playing other pieces of music. It can also serve as a gateway for students to write musical settings of poems they like. 

The Castor and Pollux Lullaby and Dance are harmonized (double-stop) versions of the "Starry Night" theme. They are in different meters, which provides an easy to introduce compound time to students.

The "Vocalise" and "Appogiare with Variations" are just expresesive solo pieces, and they can be played by violinists at any level. One of my advanced students played some of these pieces as violin solos for a wedding she played this past October. 

All these pieces are written as expressive solo pieces that can be performed without the need for accompaniment. There is something empowering about being in charge of all of the music.

If "A Tunes" sells well in the original violin version, I'm hoping that Mel Bay will issue a version for viola.

You can order the music here.




Tuesday, March 02, 2021

Music by Women Festival Concert Tonight (Live on YouTube)

I'm excited to hear this concert tonight, coming live (on tape) from Mississippi University for Women. This is the fifth year of the festival, and the second year that a piece of mine has been included. The whole festival is online, so it can reach a far wider audience than it ever has before.


Here's the program 


Suite in a minor - Élisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre (1665-1729)

 

Prelude

Sarabande 

Gavotte Allegro 

Aria Affettuoso 

Cannaris 


Elizabeth CD Brown, baroque guitar (Pacific Lutheran University) 


“Wit and Whimsy: The Flute Music of Elaine Fine” 


A Flutist’s Garden of Verses: Five Pieces for Solo Alto and Bass Flute - Elaine Fine


1. The Swing 

2. Foreign Lands 

3. My Shadow 

4. My Bed is a Boat 

5. Singing 


Carol Shansky (New Jersey City University) 


In An Old House in Paris: An Antiphonal Piece for Two Musicians to Play Over the Internet - Elaine Fine 


Carol Shansky (New Jersey City University) 

Michelle Kiec (Kutztown University) 


The Whistleblower Complaint - Elaine Fine 


Carol Shansky (New Jersey City University) 


Fantasy in A - Joanna Kenyon 


Fabio Menchetti, piano (Washington State University)  


Rejoice, Rejoice - Lelia Naylor Morris (1862-1929) 

arr. Hersey Dr. Brian Meixner, euphonium (High Point University) 


Dr. Joanna Hersey, euphonium (University of North Carolina at Pembroke) 

Dr. Dan Johnson, tuba (University of North Carolina at Wilmington) 

Dr. William Beach, tuba (Campbell University)

The Gift of the Condor: a new piece to teach kids about the orchestra

This is a new orchestral piece for an audience of children (of all ages) that uses one-on-a-part winds and brass (all with solos), percussion, strings, and a narrator. The protagonist in the story is a solo child violinist (of any age). The voices of the animal characters, some that have rhythmic notation, can come from within the ensemble.
The total performance time is 22 minutes.

The score, parts, and script are available on this page of the IMSLP.

You can also listen to a midi recording here. It takes about 19 minutes, and one of the sections of the midi has a narration made by my in-house narrator (i.e. me).

You can follow the script by going here. Robin and I were inspired to write this because we realized that the animals in "Peter and the Wolf" and the "Carnival of the Animals," pieces that we have played at children's concerts for half a century, do not resonate as well with twenty-first-century children as they did with children of previous centuries. We felt that the menagerie needed a twenty-first-century update. We consulted our students in order to find the animals that would resonate most musically with them. The whale was included because one of my granddaughters loves whales.

Here is the list of animals represented, along with the instruments and instrumental combinations that represent them:
Bunny (featuring the xylophone)
Condor (featuring the bass clarinet, the viola, and the timpani)
Dog (featuring the trumpet)
Dragon (featuring a brass quartet)
Raccoon (featuring a woodwind trio)
Squirrels (featuring the strings)
Crocodile (featuring the snare drum and the trombone)
Snakes (featuring strings, trumpet, and woodwinds)
Unicorn (featuring the French Horn, of course)
Camel (featuring the flute and the English Horn)
Whale (featuring the tuba)
Teddy Bear (featuring the strings)
Olivia/Oliver, the solo child violinist, engages in musical dialogue with all of these animals. The technical demands of the Olivia/Oliver part are minimal: the part could be played by a confident young violinist who has been playing for two or three years and likes to do a little acting. The story includes riddles, and can involve the work of a "quick drawing" visual artist as well as imaginative drawings by kids in the audience. There are many possibilities for engaging and interactive performances.

The themes involved are curiosity, imagination, and engagement.

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Dol: a measurement of pain or sadness

The history of the development of the dol as a unit for measuring pain is rather horrible. It came as a result of inflicting pain by way of heat onto the hands of women while they were giving birth, and asking them to rate the pain of the contraction against the pain they felt in their hands. You can read about it here. The kind of abuse that was inflicted on people in the name of science during the 1940s is in itself cause for a huge amount of sadness.

The name comes from the Latin dolor meaning pain, grief, or sorrow. The Italian word dolore is used often in late Italian Renaissance music, particularly in the music of Carlo Gesualdo and Claudio Monteverdi. I encountered it first in Bach's Cantata 209, Non sa che sia dolore. I chose (because I could) to think of the "grief" associations with the Dol scale for this piece in "Weights and Measures," and thought it would be useful (I had a day visited by doldrums yesterday) to play this piece on viola in order to work out some of my feelings. Then I tried it on the violin, and found a whole different spectrum of feelings to work through. I recorded both of them, with the idea of posting one or the other on line to share.

Then, while messing around in iMovie, I thought of playing both videos simultaneously. I lined them up to end at the same time (the tempos were a little different), and was really thrilled with the results. Sometimes the voices answer one another, and, surpisingly, sometimes they play exactly together, purely by chance!

Saturday, February 27, 2021

DIY Improvisation Device

I found an excellent interactive circle of fifths graphic. I took screenshots of a circle I assembled (using this interactive tool) in the treble and the alto clef, pasted the treble clef graphic to one side of a piece of cardboard, and the alto clef graphic to the other, and cut out the circle, leaving a little tab to hang it by. I have really enjoyed using it while I improvise (see my last post).


It kind of reminds me of a natal chart (which can also be a vehicle for improvisation)!

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Improvising and practicing scales

After having written (and finished) more than sixty scale pieces since the beginning of 2021, I'm taking a break and spending time practicing "normal" scales and other music. For a while there I couldn't play a scale without stopping to write down a scale melody (there are so many possibilities) I had just discovered (or uncovered).

Yesterday I gave myself the luxury of playing through the Hrimaly series of three-octave scales that lives on my music stand. Today I found the process kind of mindless (though physically useful), so I decided to try something different. I started by improvising using scale fragements and arpeggio fragments in the key of C major. Then I thought about the F sharp that would happen in G major, the next key in the circle of fifths, and made my way, via that "new" F sharp, to the key of G. When ready I added the C sharp for the key of D, and so on all they way through C-sharp major/D-flat major, and down the circle by removing flats. This took a lot of "head space," in the keys with large numbers of sharps and flats, but I gave myself ample time to think.

Then I did the same with the minor keys, sticking with harmonic minor. Tomorrow I think I might go backwards, adding flats.

What I find most interesting about doing this is the way my awarness of modulations when playing solo music is heightened. The solo Bach pieces that have been etched in deep grooves in my brain for more than half a century become new vehicles for exploring the way scale passages work as well as an elevated vantage point for observing the possibilities of how well music can travel along the circle of fifths from one key to the next.

Perhaps I am "late to the party" with all of this, but I grew up and came of musical age during a time when (at least in Western European-oriented music) tonality was considered obsolete by composers of new music. It was a time when "improvisation" seemed to be connected almost exclusively with jazz, and if it wasn't connected with jazz it seemed to be concerned with sound (including extended techniques) not connected to a harmonic structure or framework.

Twenty-four of the sixty scale pieces are part of a collection that I put in the IMSLP, and the rest, two books of violin scale studies (one in the first position and the other that uses the whole range of the instrument) that are all named for animals that have scales, will be available from Mel Bay sometime later this year (I submitted the final books yesterday).

Just for fun I'm including one of the "Weights and Measures" pieces here. That is the name of the collection in the IMSLP.
Needless to say, I had a lot of punny fun working on this collection.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Jubilate Composer!

I had the wonderful pleasure of sitting in on a Zoom rehearsal of Two Fragments of Fragments from Jubilate Agno with the CoMA Singers of London today, and am pleased to say that the piece works really well as an internet duet.

5th Annual International Music by Women Festival



I am proud to be participating in this festival as a composer (with music being performed on two of the concerts), and am so excited to be able to hear performances from the entire festival by way of this YouTube channel.

I hope that after it is possible to have in-person concerts and festivals again that this festival will continue to make their concerts available on YouTube.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

A Tunes: Capricious Pieces for Beginner Violinists


[From the back cover]
Incorporating skills taught in many popular violin methods, these tuneful solo pieces offer a fresh alternative for teachers who would like a stimulating supplement to their usual method. These entertaining and whimsical compositions reinforce and develop violin skills through repetition disguised as lyrical musical phrases. They strengthen the left hand, exercise the fourth finger, and use rests in musically compelling ways that keep the student attentive.

They also present mixed meter and double-stops, and offer a practical introduction to musical form and phrase structure. Slurs and dynamics are incorporated immediately, along with right-hand pizzicato on stopped strings and left-hand pizzicato on all open strings. These pieces are written specifically to encourage interpretive creativity, even at the most elementary levels. As twenty-first-century pieces for solo violin, they are meant to be performed as well as studied.
I wrote these pieces to isolate and address specific right-hand and left-hand difficulties that my students have encountered while working through the first three Suzuki books. The progress my students have made while working on these pieces has suprised even me. Up until this point only a few of my friends have enjoyed using them in their teaching, and now that it is being released by Mel Bay "A Tunes" can be used by everyone. The book can be ordered (it's very reasonably priced at $12.99) via the Mel Bay Website.

As a introduction, here's a video of Linnaea Brophy playing "The Big Dipper."

You can find videos of Linnaea playing all twenty pieces on this playlist.

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Doktor Faustus! Doktor Faustus!



Anna Maria Olivari's book about musical interpretations of Thomas Mann's novel is now in print and available as a printed book or as an open-source download. You can get it through this link.

She includes a lengthy discussion (with musical examples) of my Four Pieces from Doktor Faustus, which is very exciting for me to read, even in German.

And speaking of German, I was perplexed at first (I never saw such a thing before), and then delighted to meet the Gendersternschen for the first time. Here it is, embedded in a cognate from English, boldly declaring that a group of "specialists" should not be identified as being male because of archaisms that are built into the language.

Monday, February 15, 2021

Scales, Scales, and More Scales

Twenty-four one-page scale studies in all of the major and minor keys, in versions for soprano recorder (c fingerings) and alto recorder (f fingerings). They can also be played on just about any melody instrument.

The titles of these recorder scale pieces relate to the weighing and measuring applications of the word "scale." This set of scale pieces will be available soon on this page of the IMSLP. And in forthcoming news, I am working on two scale books for violin that will be published later in 2021 by Mel Bay. One concentrates on the first position, and the other goes into the higher positions. The titles and characteristics of these violin pieces (more than fifty!) relate to animals with scales: fish, birds, reptiles, and even a handful of mammals.

For the recorder scale pieces and the forthcoming violin scale pieces I followed this basic guideline: everything moves stepwise, with pitches that repeat at the unison and at the octave (the only interval larger than a second is a perfect octave). I allowed myself freedom to float between the natural, harmonic, and melodic minor scales. Just for added sport, each piece fits on (or fills) a single page.

UPDATE: Because I can't leave well enough alone, I made versions for bass clef instruments and viola. You can find both on the "transcriptions" tab of the above link.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

The Secret Key to Haydn

I got an email message today introducing me to a music school in London called WKMT. In this documentary the school's teachers talk about their teaching methods, their school, and one another. They are devoteed to a method of teaching based on the work of Vincenzo Scaramuzza. This involves joints that are fluent but not loose, and vigorous but not rigid. These ideas seem to be extremely specific to the piano, but I imagine once they rattle around in my head for a while I will manage to make analogies to the bow arm. You can hear a reading of Scaramuzza's general ideas here.

What I find most enticing about this school's website is the fact that they offer a full analysis of the piano sonatas in Haydn's Hoboken XVI by an array of scholars. Understanding is the secret key to playing Haydn well. And the other secret is that there are no secrets.

They also have a blog that is well worth exploring (I'm putting the link in the sidebar too. Look for "WKMT").

Wednesday, February 03, 2021

Mela Tenenbaum

One of the perks of working at a radio station is that you sometimes get a chance to have phone friendships with the people who make the recordings. I had the great good fortune to have many conversations with the great violinist, violist, and viola d'amore player, Mela Tenenbaum.

Mela and I lost touch after I left the radio station, but an inquiry about her on the Facebook viola group sent me on a search to find her whereabouts.

I didn't find out exactly where Mela is now, but I did find something that seems to be a chapter from a forthcoming book, which am I sharing here. After reading this I imagine that you will head to YouTube to hear Mela play. I will make it easy for you. Just go through this link.

Mela Tenenbaum, Virtuoso Musician


I was born in a small town called Chernovtsy.  It belongs to the Ukraine now, but earlier in the century it was part of Romania.  In another time, as Czernowitz, it belonged to Poland and later to the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  So it had a very special culture.  Most of the people in this town could speak three languages and were highly educated.  Aside from that, Chernovtsy was one of those Jewish towns that had its own Jewish professor, Jewish shoemaker, Jewish doctor, and even Jewish alcoholic.  So I was raised in this very special environment, where I spent my childhood and part of my adult life.  I studied at a music school in Chernovtsy.  It was a very good school.


All of my former schoolmates now work as professional musicians in different parts of the world – some in Russia, some in Tel Aviv, and some in New York.  The cultural differences between my native town and the rest of the Soviet Union were so immense that when I moved to Kiev, it was no less dramatic than my immigration to America.  For instance, going to a concert was always a big event in Chernovtsy.  People would prepare way in advance, thinking of what they would wear, how they would look.  In Kiev, you could easily attend a concert wearing slippers, or a T-shirt; it was a much more casual event.


It's not easy to explain why I decided to leave Kiev.  We used to say it was because we were Jews.  In truth, it was the Chernobyl disaster that completely turned our lives upside down.  My children became sick after the explosion of the nuclear reactor in 19xx.  I thought we'd lose them.  My eldest son was twenty-seven at the time, my daughter twenty-five, and my youngest son was ten.  After the catastrophe in Chernobyl*, the general mood in Kiev was one of doom.  People really felt hopeless.  At first we expected measures to be taken to improve our living conditions, such as new apartments or raises in salary.  But nothing happened. The authorities didn't spend a cent on social benefits.  So we lost all hope of better living conditions.  My family lived in a tiny apartment, and I had no room to practice.  I wanted very much to leave, but that wasn't so easy. 


I was a soloist with the Kiev Philharmonic.  I went on wonderful tours and played with the best orchestras in the country.  At a certain point, I made a deal with myself: that I'd never regret anything, even if I happened never again to play the violin.  In the Soviet Union, musicians were always a privileged caste.  The belief was that if you're an engineer, you were trained to become an engineer; but if you're a musician, you were born to be one.


Yet, after Chernobyl, we decided to leave the country.  I left with my husband and children.  Four days before our departure, I gave my last performance with the Kiev Philharmonic.  So I had these fresh memories of the audience’s applause.  They all knew me and loved me.  From the time I was a child, I remember being always surrounded by people, wherever I'd go.  Part of it was language: I knew and loved my language, the Russian language, I could express myself with precision, express the slightest overtone of meaning in this language.  And now I was going to a country whose language I didn't know at all.  I couldn’t ask for a piece of bread in English.  I knew German very well.  I could have gone to Germany, like a lot of our friends from Chernovtsy.  In Germany we would receive passports right away.  They don't call Jewish immigrants “Jews” in Germany, they call them “German citizens who practice Judaism.”  I loathed those words the first time I heard them.  Anyway, I couldn't seriously think of going to Germany.


We took a train from Kiev to Vienna.  It was a peculiar experience.  Imagine it: you throw your luggage, your suitcases, through the window into the train, and next to you in the compartment is a family of ten people, only three of whom are men.  Two women are pregnant, and one of the men, the youngest, drinks nonstop.  The oldest tries to carry the suitcases, but he's ninety-two years old so everybody shouts at him to leave the suitcases alone.  But there is nobody else to carry those suitcases because the third man has no legs.  So, all this: tossing the suitcases, children who are always ill on the road, overcrowded trains, kids looking for someone whose last name they don't know.  When we finally arrived in Vienna, we stood in this long line on the platform with the other immigrants, absolutely faceless, because what matters to a Soviet person is his passport, not himself.  So, we were waiting on this platform, with my son lying ill on the trunks, and suddenly we saw a crowd coming out from the nearby opera house.  The show had just ended.  We saw all these dressed-up people, talking, and not laughing – Austrians don't laugh, they cackle, they roar.  And I began to cry: it was actually the first time that I cried in my adult life.  I had this piercing feeling that I'd never again play the violin, never again be on stage.  But I knew I had made my choice. 


We went to Italy.  It happened that we spent five-and-a-half months in Italy.  We had wanted to go to New York, but New York was overcrowded with immigrants at the time, so we had to wait in Italy.  We spoke Italian relatively well. We lived in a house in the mountains, near Florence, with nine other immigrant families.  There were all kinds of people: a shoemaker, musicians, engineers.  There is one observation I made about Russian emigrants.  When they had to write their résumés, describing the positions they held back in Russia, somehow they all turned into  “supervisors.”  If someone was a shoemaker, he was a “supervisor-shoemaker.”  If he was a doctor, he was a supervisor-doctor.  I remember my first English teacher in America once asking her students, “Why have things turned out so badly in Russia?'”  And I replied, using whatever bad English I had at the time: “Because all the supervisors have left.”


Our Italian friends tried to talk us into staying in Italy.  One of them owned a photo shop. He often visited us and heard me play.  There was a man who belonged to Italian high society.  The man owned an enormous estate, as well as coffee plantations in Brazil. He had graduated from the conservatory in Rome and considered himself an artist.  He was a painter and a hunter.  Anyway, he invited us to his home for dinner one evening.  I'll never forget his mansion – all that land, a huge lake with white swans.  He greeted us wearing tall leather boots and a hunter's hat with a feather – an artistic look.  Two tables were set up: one was for his wife, the woman who had introduced us, some other couple, and my husband; the second table was for himself and me.  There were two servants to take care of us.  The women were all wrapped in white sheets, like tunics.  After dinner, he took a brush and began to paint these sheets, their dresses.  I felt as if I were in a Fellini movie, only this was much more ridiculous.  After he finished painting the dresses, he told me, “Well, now, we can play some music.”  He sat at the piano.  I took my violin.  I thought I'd choke with laughter, but I had to accompany him.  The women in painted dresses were sitting at his feet.


Eventually, we arrived in New York and settled in Brooklyn.  We had friends living in Brooklyn, and they found us an apartment.  Compared to our tiny apartment in Kiev, it seemed like paradise.  Two of my cousins were born here, both doctors.  Their father was the only one in the family who had emigrated to America before the revolution.  After he had immigrated, one of his sisters wrote him about how hard life in Russia was at the time.  What she really meant, but couldn't spell out, was the threat of pogroms.  But he hadn’t understood and wrote back, “Don't think that life in America is easy, it's not.”  Five months later she was killed, buried alive with her five small sons.  And he bore a burden of guilt throughout his entire life.  “If at any time someone from Russia tells you that life in Russia is hard,” he told his sons, don't respond that it's hard here, too.  Because what they mean by ‘hard’ is an entirely different thing.”


My cousins are wonderful people, and they did their best to help us.  I don't think they understood precisely what we were going through.  Many Soviet people, when they come to America, are very needy.  So I think they were scared a bit.  But now, they’re the ones who keep calling us, inviting us over, asking why we don't call them.  Now they eagerly follow my tours with the orchestra.


From the beginning, I decided that I'd never be on welfare.  I realized that if I said to myself, even just once, “Come on, relax, there's nothing bad about it,” there would be no way out.  I often recalled this Russian folktale about two frogs who fell into a milk jar.  One of them gave up immediately, saying, “There is nothing I can do,” and she drowned. The other started moving around, trying to get out, until she whipped the milk into butter.  I wanted to be like this other frog.  I couldn't whip the butter yet, and I may never do it, but at least I'm trying.

 

I remember my first job in America.  I was supposed to hand out flyers on the bridge, above the Battery tunnel.  My English wasn't great at the time.  I was supposed to pass out flyers to truck drivers.  But I had never driven a car in my life.  I couldn't tell a truck from a cab.  My supervisor, an Indian guy, obviously didn't trust me very much.  He stood next to me on this bridge, watching what I did.  One time, a small car stopped next to me.  It was so small that even I was able to notice it wasn't a truck.  The driver asked me, “Can I have this paper?”  And I said, “No, this is only for the truck drivers.”  He reached into his pocket.  During the training session, we had all been warned that if somebody didn’t want a flyer, we should never insist, because he could draw a pistol and shoot.  So, when I saw that driver reaching for something in his pocket, I felt funny.  But what he took out was a quarter.  He handed it to me and said, “Lady, I'm giving you a good-citizen price.  Take it and give me the paper.”  So I took the twenty-five cents and gave him the flyer. When I turned around, I saw the Indian guy laughing so hard he had to hold his stomach.  Then he asked me, in this quiet, almost intimate voice: “Are you Jewish?” “How do you know?”  I answered. “Only a Jewish person can sell something that nobody wants to take for free,” he said, adding: “If you could sell this piece of paper, you will never be without a job.'' 


That's another thing I came to realize: if you do something professionally, you've got to be paid for it.  Otherwise, people don't take you seriously.  In my first year here, I didn't understand it.  I remember one day walking down the street in Brooklyn, carrying my instrument.  A man approached and introduced himself as the director of a school orchestra.  He asked me to play for the school but said he couldn't pay me: the school had no money and was trying to raise funds for its music program.  I agreed.  My husband and I gave a concert.  The principal of the school was there, along with some people from the Board of Education.  After the concert, they kept thanking and hugging me.  A year later, an old friend told me that he had gotten a call from that school.  They were looking for professional musicians who lived in Brooklyn.  About a year earlier, they told him, two people had come to play in their school, and the concert helped them to raise money for the music program.  But now that they could pay, they wanted professionals, not people from the street.


That taught us a good lesson.  In Russia we had gotten used to barter: you don't pay the doctor for treating you and he doesn't pay you for playing the violin.  Or a neighbor asks you to give music lessons to her son, and you refuse the money; so she brings you a box of chocolates instead.  But here it's different: if you don't accept money, then people think you're not a professional musician.  The more money you take, the better they think that you play.


I never stopped practicing.  And then I met a woman, an organist.  She suggested that we ask the Chamber Music Society to arrange a concert for us.  They asked us for a tape, a professional recording.  The recording was very expensive, fifty dollars for an hour of work.  For me, at the time, it was a lot of money.  But we agreed and decided to share the cost.  We found a sound engineer who had a studio, a Russian who had lived here for seventeen years.  I'll be grateful to him for the rest of my life – and my future life, too.  Everything good that happened to me in the next five years, I owe to him.  We had arranged to make the recording in a small church in Queens.  My friend was playing the organ, I was playing viola d'amore.  We had hoped to finish recording in an hour, playing nonstop, so that it wouldn’t cost more than fifty dollars.  As soon as we began to play, he stopped us and asked for my name.  “You don't have to pay me anything, Mela,” he said.  “I'll pay you, just to hear you play.”  So we made the recording and sent it to the manager of the Chamber Music Society.  Of course, he never even listened to the tape.


But I was lucky.  It happened that this sound engineer, Misha Liberman, was listening to the tape in his studio when he had a visit from the orchestra conductor that I'm working with now.   The conductor heard the tape and asked who it was.  Misha told him about me.  The conductor said, “I would like to meet this woman.”  And we met.  Because I played the viola d'amore on the tape, he was convinced I was a violist.  “I'm very impressed with your playing,” he said.  “Would you play just a few notes for me?'”  And I did.  After I had finished, he asked me to play with his orchestra in two weeks.  It was the Philharmonia Virtuosi, one of the finest chamber orchestras in New York.  I hadn’t told him I could play the violin.


I gave solo concerts, playing both viola and viola d'amore.  But one day – the way it happens in Hollywood – the concertmaster became sick, and there was nobody to play first violin.  “It's too bad you don't play the violin,” the conductor said.  And I replied, “Of course I play the violin.”  He was so surprised that I’d kept it a secret for two years.  But I couldn't tell him any sooner.  Competition was so intense among the musicians, and I felt I was, well, too strong for them.  I couldn't just say, “Here I am, and I can play violin and viola and viola d'amore.”  They would have killed me.  You have to respect the rules, especially if you're in another country. Anyway, it has worked out well.  I've been playing with the Philharmonia Virtuosi for five years now.


What I learned in this country is that one has to work hard in order to achieve something.  Another thing I learned is that so much is left to chance – as Americans put it, “being in the right place at the right time.”  Because the competition is so tough, being good at something is not always good enough.   


I travel a lot now, touring with the orchestra. We've been to the most remote parts of the world.  What we've seen in these past five years is enough to last a couple of lives.  So I don't have any regrets.  Still, I miss Russia terribly.  I miss the snow especially.  But I have a house in Canada now.  I went to Canada two years ago and found this house on an island.  Suddenly, there was everything I remembered so well from my childhood – only here it wasn't scary.  I decided it was time to stop being frightened. There is always a place for snow in your life.  It doesn't have to be in Russia.


Tuesday, February 02, 2021

Impressions Performed by soprano Andrea Bickford and pianist Migeun Chung

The poetry is by the 18-year-old Alice Ruth Moore before she became better know as Alice Dunbar Nelson.
You can find the music on this page of the IMSLP.