Monday, April 30, 2007

Small Left Hand Changes: Big Musical Differences

While preparing for my recital on Saturday I noticed that the only way I could get a free-sounding vibrato in the upper register (on the E-string) was if my thumb was a 16th of an inch more under the neck of the violin. Then I started wondering if my vibrato in lower positions could benefit from the same slight adjustment, and bam, it made a huge difference. I also noticed that my left thumb had been constantly changing position depending on where I was on the neck of the instrument, and that it would sometimes bend, creating a bunch of tension in the rest of my hand (I always correct my students when they do this, but somehow I had neglected to fix it in my own left hand), making the angle of my fingers on the fingerboard less than ideal.

I was able to correct some of this in the few days between my discovery and the concert, and now I have been practicing with a specific focus on keeping my left-hand thumb in the same relaxed position relative to the rest of my hand no matter where I am on the instrument.

I realized that it is exactly the same concept that I used to use in flute playing: the idea of a flute emboucher that works for every single note on the instrument without having to adjust the angle or the lips or create tension in the facial muscles. Having a flute emboucher that works in such a way requires a lot of development of other muscles in the body, particularly the supporting diaphragm muscles, the tongue, the facial muscles, and the muscles that keep the throat open.

Developing a left hand position on the violin that works like an ideal flute emboucher also requires development of supporting muscles, especially the muscles in the left arm that supports the fiddle. These muscles come into play with me in particular because I don't use a shoulder rest. This fraction of an inch difference in my left hand has changed everything in my playing, even the way my right hand operates. For some reason it seems to have to do less work because my left hand no longer (most of the time) has the useless and energy-consuming task of changing when I move across the strings. Only my bow needs to move from string to string, and it even seems to move more efficiently for some reason. I can now play three notes chords more easily, and shifting from one position to another is a more efficient motion, but one that I need to practice in this new and more efficient way in order for the shifts to be accurate.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Classical Audience revisited

I have tried to be positive about the idea of building an audience for classical music. I feel that I have done everything in my power to do so, but the sad truth is the percentage of people who actually go to concerts of their own free will (even free concerts) is very small.

I played two concerts this weekend as part of a university arts festival in a town that boasts 20,000 residents when school is in session. The concerts were not publicized properly, but even with poor publicity (mostly e-mail messages from me and a listing in the local newspaper) more than a hundred people knew about the concerts. The first concert, a concert of Medieval songs and dances (great music from France, Italy and Spain) played by crummhorns, recorders, strings, and triangle, had an audience of four. It was in a museum on campus, and the museum director and his wife made up half the audience. The next quarter was made by the music history professor in the music department, and the fourth member of the audience read about it in the newspaper. The second concert was yesterday afternoon--a violin and piano recital. There was a larger audience--maybe 15-20 people came to it--devoted music lovers, every one. It was a very nice audience, and we played a very enjoyable concert. Meanwhile, a few hundred yards away, crowds of people (hundreds and hundreds of them) completely uninterested in listening to classical music, were eating dipping dots and arts festival food, enjoying looking at crafts in the lovely weather, and watching a man build a sand castle.

I have been teaching music appreciation classes at a rural community college for a few years now. I put my heart and soul into trying to teach people about music and how to listen to it. As part of the work of the course, I require students to go to a concert and write about the experience. I give them lists of concerts to choose from, and let them know that they can go to more than one if they like. With very few exceptions each student goes to one concert, writes about it enthusiastically, and never goes to another concert again after the course is over.

Thank goodness for my family, my friends, and the global musical community of the internet. Thank goodness for the cities 50 miles or so away that have enough of a population to support an active classical music culture.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

A Lesson in Instrument Safety

Last night while I was putting off work I had to do, I did a Google search for my brother. Boy, was I surprised to find this blog post, this article, and this article, that was picked up by the Associated Press! I feel that as a responsible sister I should come to Marshall's public defense (since he was not able to do so very well in court) and mention that he is a very good composer, a very good violist, and also, in spite of the fact that he ran a red light on camera in Memphis, a pretty good driver. It's a good thing he went into music and not into law.

My father told me that Marshall was right about the fact that sudden braking could cause damage to an instrument sitting on the back seat. Of course Marshall should have been prepared to stop when he saw the light turn red, and I agree with the powers that be that the fine was justified. If another car had been in the intersection, there could have been a terrible accident.

I have chosen to learn something from this and to share it with people who might be interested. From now on, just in case (no pun intended) I run into a situation when I have to brake suddenly, I'm going to take my father's advice (advice he got from a luthier) and keep my case on the floor between the front and back seats when I'm driving.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Musical Uncyclopedia

One of Michael's students told me about the Uncyclopedia, a parody of the Wikipedia, so I decided to investigate the musical entries. Here's a good one for Webern and good one for conductor.

There are some that are simply empty slapstick, and some that are just plain dumb, but it is fun to go through their collection. They certainly need more musical entries. Would you believe Musicologist, and Alban Berg aren't yet taken? Maybe they will be soon.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Musical Quiz from 1947

This quiz comes from A Treasury of Games, Quizzes, and Puzzles by Phyllis Frazer and Edith Young. My husband Michael refers to stuff like this as coming from "the dowdy world." Some of the questions are ridiculously simple, but some are pretty odd--especially the last one. Notice that this quiz is not labeled "classical music quiz," but simply "Musical Quiz," suggesting that general 1947 party folk in search of a good time would have considered the substance of this quiz "popular culture." (Do you think that anyone talked about "popular culture" as opposed to the other kind of culture in 1947?) At any rate, this quiz is a lot more friendly than that theory game.

You can find the answers here or leave some alternative answers (if you dare) in the comments.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Talk and demonstration by Evelyn Glennie

Evelyn Glennie is a deaf percussionist who talks here about listening to music through her whole body.

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Saturday, April 21, 2007

Music Theory Quiz

I won't tell you the score I got on this Music Theory Quiz, but I certainly did not make it into the top 15. If you would like a challenge and are not afraid of being intimidated, give it a try.


Friday, April 20, 2007


I have been practicing very carefully in order to prepare for a recital next Saturday. The program is difficult: were playing the Beethoven Spring Sonata, the Grieg C minor Sonata, and a one-movement Sonata from 1897 by Ravel. I want to play well because the music is so good, and I also want to have a good time playing it. I don't want to mess it up with sloppy shifts, false accents, or notes that are dead due to lack of vibrato, out of tune, or both. In order to accomplish this I have to practice everything slowly and carefully, and I have to pay careful attention to details as well as maintain a high level of concentration.

A person I invited to the concert wished me luck, after letting me know that he wasn't planning to attend. Suddenly it dawned on me that luck has absolutely nothing to do with playing well. Wishing someone luck for a concert could even suggest a lack of confidence in the person giving the concert, so in some ways it is counter-productive because a good amount of playing well depends on being confident. Playing well is a result of careful preparation. Winning at Bingo is a matter of luck.

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Everyone's got to start somewhere


Thursday, April 19, 2007

Erica Morini

I have been spending far too much time obsessing about and listening to recordings of Erica Morini (1904-1995), a Viennese violin virtuoso who would have had a career like that of Jascha Heifetz or Nathan Milstein, (both acknowledged her greatness and considered her a peer) if only she hadn't been a woman. She found it terribly frustrating not to be taken seriously by people in the managerial side of the music business. She did manage to have a career, but it was not the kind of career that a person of her tremendous ability and musicianship should have been able to enjoy. After she stopped playing she lived in semi-seclusion in New York. She died shortly after her instrument, the Davidoff Stradivarius, along with her scores, photos, and letters, had been stolen from her apartment. The instrument has yet to be recovered.

You can listen to her play the first movement of the Beethoven 7th Violin Sonata on this page, and read more about Morini here. The performance, of course, is not from 1928 (there's a mistake on the page), but there is a performance of a Brahms Hungarian dance on the same CD from 1927.

Monday, April 16, 2007

A Take on Small Talk

From Renoir, My Father by Jean Renoir:
Like people everywhere, the natives were fond of using clichés. On meeting anyone in the street they would say, "Oh, so you're awake," or, "So, you're up?" even though it might be the middle of the afternoon. Obviously, each knew that the other was awake or out of bed; but by exchanging these little familiar greetings, they felt less lonely in this vast world. Renoir said "Good-day," and nothing more. And the inhabitants would remark knowingly, "He has nothing to say," by which they implied that his thoughts were too profound to be put into words.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Speaking of Busking . . . here's the ultimate busking video

Popularity for Musical Mechanics

For a great ways of expanding your musical imagination, take a look at the music section of the Modern Mechanix website. Make sure to look at all the pages of advertisements from music's age of mechanical innocence (I'm sure you will).

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Friday, April 13, 2007

Augustin Hadelich interview on WBUR

Augustin Hadelich is playing the Glazunov Concerto with the Longwood Symphony Orchestra tomorrow night at 8:00 at Jordan Hall in Boston. Listen to this radio broadcast that includes an interview with Hadelich, and if you live anywhere near Boston do whatever you can to hear him play. Hearing him play and having the chance to interview him in Indianapolis this past September was one of the most inspiring experiences of my life.

The WBUR web page also has links to video recordings made in Indianapolis. When you hear him play you will be inspired too, even if you are not a violinist, and even if you are not a musician. Maybe you won't jump into a sea of Sevcik and Dounis like me, but you will understand why I have.

I want some day to be able to figuratively "touch the sun" of music the way he can. The way he plays reminds me of what Icarus might have felt if he were actually able to get close to the sun. Icarus' wings were made of wax, so they melted when he got too close, and he fell to his death in the sea. Hadelich's fiddle is not made of wax (it's a Stradivarius), and though the burning center of music is not life-threatening, it is a place where very few musicians have the courage, spirit, stamina, and musical intelligence to get (and remain) within arm's reach of. Hadelich is not a character from mythology, but his playing is the stuff that inspires myth because it really touches the deepest parts of the imagination.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Pianist ignored at a local starbucks

This post from Jeremy Denk made my day.

Horowitz playing his Carmen Fantasie

I came across this clip while figuring out how to introduce my students to Carmen. It's too good not to share.

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Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Mendelssohn Family Burial Plot

While searching for images of Fanny Hensel's music, I came across this interesing photo of the family burial plot. I couldn't help but notice that Fanny's headstone is not a cross (and it looks like it even has a Mogen David on it), which makes me wonder if she, being already 13 at the time of the family conversion, might have not joined her male siblings. After all, according to the family "rules" she would not benefit from conversion because she was a woman and was forbidden to work for a living.

One source tells me that the burial plot is in the cemetery of the New Jerusalem Church in Berlin, and another says its in the Dreifaltigkeitsfriedhof (Trinity Cemetery) in Berlin-Kreuzberg.

Does anyone know which location is correct? Is one a new name for the other?

By the way, here are some examples of what Fanny Mendelssohn's manuscripts look like. The illustrations are by her husband Wilhelm Hensel.

This one is the first page "January" from Das Jahr.

Monday, April 09, 2007

More Musical Uses for Index Cards

Happy Birthday to me! Actually, my birthday is still a few weeks away, but Michael gave me an early present: a Noligraph music writing pen.

I still have a bit of a learning curve (no pun intended, really) as far as writing straight staff lines is concerned, but I thought I'd share the use of index cards for Fux counterpoint exercises. This one is for second species. Eleven measures fits perfectly on an index card. The reverse side has the same cantus firmus in the other voice.

I can work on my counterpoint in pencil and erase it when I'm done. It is also the perfect size to use at the piano. The possibilities for fun with these tools are limitless. Thanks Michael!

Related posts:Musical Uses for Index Cards, Stand Hand

The Saw Lady: More on Joshua Bell's Busking

The comment referring to the Saw Lady's thoughts about Joshua Bell's busking skills that is on my last post deserves a thoughtful response (and a link). Yes, Bell is an excellent violinist and an excellent performer, but as the Saw Lady points out, successful busking takes specific busking skills.

Back in my busking days I would always choose a spot that created the effect of a stage: something to frame the "musical event." Bell stood in a hallway, stacking the deck against himself immediately. Come to think about it, stopping in front of where he was playing might have been difficult given the traffic pattern. Then there were the extremely-live acoustics. People could probably hear him all over the station, so there was really no reason for people to stand and watch him in order to listen.

Also, his choice of repertoire was not the best. He chose the extremes of darkness and brightness for his experiment. A serious piece like the Bach Chaconne, especially when it is well-played on an excellent fiddle, can put passers-by off because of its intensity: it never lets up. D-minor is also, even for people who don't have perfect pitch, a key that is riddled with darkness, especially when played on the violin. The E-major Gavotte en Roudeau that he played had a great deal of bright "in your face" intensity (it always does when played well). In the wild acoustics of a metro station, that kind of intensity can actually get kind of annoying.

On my best street-playing days I felt myself and my companions at one with the rhythm of the movement of the people on the street. It was often a wonderful experience. Bell was clearly not responding to the people in the station, except for the person who stopped to listen. He was kind of performing (but he also ended up kind of sounding like he was practicing). Maybe if his concentration had been geared towards drawing people in his "movable audience" he might have had more success. Who knows?

I think that he might have gotten more people to stop with lighter solo music like the Paganini 24th Caprice, the Bach G-minor Fugue, the Locatelli Harmonic Labyrinth, the Tartini "Art of Bowing," or the Tarrega-Ricci "Recuerdos de la Alhambra." Perhaps he could have tried the last movement of the Mendelssohn Concerto, the last movement of the Beethoven Concerto, or a movement from a concerto by Paganini.

Unfortunately the experiment can't be duplicated now that Bell's busking moment has had major press. The metro station might get some visits from curious Washington Post readers hoping for a repeat performance, and that spot might be taken by a real busker now that it has been written about. I hope that person has a better audience than Joshua Bell got, and I hope that s/he makes sure to get a permit.

Related post: Playing Music on the Street

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Joshua Bell Busking During Rush Hour in Washington D.C.

This expansive article in the Washington Post says it all. It even includes video footage.

A big thanks to Martha for telling me about it.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

A Case for Gradus ad Parnassum

Every few years, I take out Johann Joseph Fux's (1660-1741) The Study of Counterpoint and work through his species counterpoint exercises. Every time I return to it, I get more out of doing the exercises and evaluating them along with Alois and Joseph (the teacher and student who engage in the Socratic dialog in the book).

The idea that there is a "best way" to do a counterpoint exercise used to bother me. Now, after having years of experience searching daily for the "best note" to put in a given place in a piece of music, I appreciate someone (I know this someone is both fictional and would be long dead if he had been real) telling me why my particular solution to a particular music problem is not the best possible solution. Try as I may, I do end up making some of the mistakes that Joseph the student makes in the Fux exercises. Of course Fux himself spent a long time looking for the best possible solutions when he was writing the book. I am grateful for his hard work. After doing a few counterpoint exercises, my mind feels like it has been sharpened. I feel like I am more efficient when I write music, and I feel that I am more aware of voice leading in the music that I am practicing on the violin and the viola.

Now, more than thirty years after my introduction to the study of counterpoint (my teacher used Fux, though I didn't know it at the time), I really appreciate the value of being able to look at music on a note-against-note basis. When I do these exercises, I find myself in excellent company: Telemann was the first person to make a public announcement about a German translation (from the original Latin) that Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Albrechtsberger, Schubert, Brucker, and Brahms would later use. Fetis translated it into French so that Cherubini, Berlioz, Meyerbeer, Chopin, Rossini, Auber, Paganini, Moscheles, Hummel, and Liszt could use it.

Shameless Spouse Promotion

Anyone who enjoys (or doesn't enjoy) writing should read Michael's article called "How to Punctuate a Sentence" at

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Basil Bunting's Advice to Poets (and composers)

My husband Michael just came the house with a page of advice from Basil Bunting to young poets on the top of his "stack."

1. Compose aloud; poetry is a sound.
2. Vary rhythm enough to stir the emotion you want but not so as to lose impetus.
3. Use spoken words and syntax.
4. Fear adjective; they bleed nouns. Hate the passive.
5. Jettison ornament gaily but keep shape

Put your poem away till you forget it, then:
6. Cut out every word you dare.
7. Do it again a week later, and again.

Never explain - your reader is as smart as you.

Of course I instantly translated some of it into advice for writing music:

1. Compose aloud; music is a sound.
2. Vary rhythm enough to stir the emotion you want but not so as to lose impetus.
4. Hate the passive.
5. Jettison ornament gaily but keep shape.

Put your piece away till you forget it, then:

6. Cut out every note you dare.
7. Do it again a week later, and again.

Never explain - your listener is as smart as you.

Monday, April 02, 2007

I wish my next car would be called a "Heifetz"

When electric car technology started poking its head into the mainstream in the 1990s, I thought the idea name for an electric car should be "Heifetz." First of all the name means jewel in Hebrew, and second of all Jascha Heifetz was a pioneer in the field of electric car technology. In 1967 he spent $5,000 to have his Renault (which was a $2,000 car) converted so it could run on batteries. It was the first electric car on the West Coast. He did it to try to help the environment.

This photo of him in his Henney Kilowatt electric car is from 1976.

I actually wrote to a few car companies to present my idea of naming an electric car for Heifetz, but nobody seemed interested. What kind of world do we live in anyway?

Every once in a while I have to remind myself that Heifetz was not perfect. This collection of Heifetz stories has few that were new to me.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

The reality about trying to play well

I used to think that some day I would have the kind of technique on the violin that I had (and still have, actually) on the flute, but now I fear that it is never going to happen. In order to get in shape on the flute I would have to practice a couple of hours a day for a week or two. In order to even think about playing the violin repertoire at all (even poorly) I need to practice technique for several hours a day, and if I skip a day, or I skip something vital like double-stops, my intonation and sound suffers. And then I get depressed. This process of trying to become a good fiddle player always seems to be a "one step forward, three steps back" affair. It's kind of like a complicated version of the childhood game "Giant Steps." Somehow I always seem to find myself back at the starting line taking baby steps.

I guess (and hope) this will pass soon. Maybe if I go out into the world and return the unread library book that my husband renewed three times for me. It's Swann's Way by Proust which he just loved. I would love to have had the experience he had reading it, but now doesn't seem to be the right time for me. If you like Proust, or if you would like to read Proust some time, read what Michael wrote about reading all of In Search of Lost Time. Maybe after I come home I can muster up the strength to pick up my little fiddle and work on some Dounis.

Part of my spirit is beaten from trying to play the viola part of the Polka and Fugue from Schwanda the Bagpiper in a rehearsal today. That's my practicing project for tomorrow: beating my head against the key of B major while jumping on a bed covered with chromatic scales. The piece is very cool though. I'm hoping that working on it will be rewarding, eventually.