Tuesday, July 31, 2007

A week without practicing?

Yup. I'm off with my family for our yearly visit to points east without an instrument. "See" you next week.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Composers at Tanglewood tell us what we want (and need) to know

This is one of the most useful articles I have read anywhere about writing music. Thanks to Matthew for asking the right questions.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Musical Connection

The thought that the fingers on the bow complete a kind of circuit the way batteries in a battery case complete a circuit has been taking over my mind while practicing lately. Music is, after all, a series of vibrations that travel through the air (and through the bow and the violin) in much the same way electricity travels.

When an electric circuit is not complete due to a faulty connection or a frayed wire, the energy cannot get from the wall to the toaster, and you end up with plain old bread instead of toast. If the springs in a battery holder are worn out and don't hold the batteries properly, your flashlight flickers on and off.

If my right hand is not in contact with the bow in a firm yet flexible way, the energy from the right side of my body will not be able to travel properly to my instrument (the left side of the body) through the strings, so that it can come out of the f holes and be free to travel through the air. If the fingers of my left hand are not strong enough to make the vibrating frequency of a string (or a set of double-stops) a true pitch, the transfer of "electricity" is compromised, and my sound won't be filled with as much energy as I would like it to have. My musical intentions can only be realized if I take care of the physical transfer of energy. Once I do, it's remarkably easy to play well.

When I think about my "circuitry" while practicing Sevcik, Dounis, and Kreutzer, and I concentrate on the points of contact with the violin and the bow, I can feel in any given difficult situation where the imbalance lies; and it usually lies in only a few fingers at a time. Identifying and fixing the imbalance strengthens my "electrical" connections, and it makes everything sound better when I'm practicing music.

I hope my experience might be of help to other string players. It certainly helps me to articulate it, and attempt complete some kind of larger circuit by sharing it.

Wise words about "growing older"

This liberating bit from Lee helps put things into perspective.
I never set out to be a revolutionary; I thought that best left to the young. But perhaps they're too busy trying to make it in the same manner as their parents - their contracts, their blurbs, their conferences, their awards, their Oprah - while I couldn't give a damn. Growing old is liberating - when you know you don't have forever, and maybe not very long at all, you think carefully about what you want to do.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Fun in the kitchen

Ever wonder what goes on when you leave the kitchen for a moment? This is our son Ben's entry that he made with his friend Dan for the Heinz 30-second commercial contest on YouTube:

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

What I did on my summer vacation

It seems like I have been spending the whole summer working on this piece for alto recorder and four drums, so I thought I'd post a link to it here for those who are "recorderly" or "percussively" inclined.

The first movement is also fun to play on the violin (the second movement works, but it requires some navigational thought). The four drums can be anything from differently-sized pots and pans to timpani.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Scalemate meets Dounis

While practicing my "row" of Dounis yesterday, I found myself, once again, having to make a choice of key for the double-stop segments (they are all written without sharps and flats for maximum flexibility, leaving the choice of key up to the person practicing). When I got to those "numbers" I simply reached for my Scalemate, gave it a spin, and got myself a randomly-generated key.

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Saturday, July 21, 2007


We all need to practice our scales, but there are just so many to choose from. Like the clothes in our wardrobe, most of us tend to go back to the same scales day after day, ignoring the ones that are problematic. We also tend to begin our scales on the tonic, a practice that sends some of us into "automatic" mode: playing scales by ear. I can do this kind of scale playing in my sleep, which means that I get little out of it besides a bit of finger exercise.

Several years ago I came up with a game that I hoped would make practicing scales both fun and intellectually challenging. I just found the board part of it, and thought I'd share it here. The green spinner comes from some kind of board game, and the spinner on the right is a old-fashioned paper fastener. The round spinning wheels are either old CDs or pieces of cardboard shaped exactly like CDs.

The directions call for companion articulation cards. They can be made from index cards. Mine had rhythmic patterns with different configurations of slurs and separate notes, and were written in various meters.

There are, of course, many possible variations on this theme. You could add more spinners for dynamics, double-stop intervals, or type of articulation (detache, martele, etc. for string players). You could also have something to generate a metronome marking, or you could go beyond the physical and write a computer program that would do the same kind of thing. It could even be digital stand-alone device that could be adjusted to meet the needs of any instrument. It could even generate a nice loud tonic (or dominant) pitch to give the person playing with it a consistent frame of tonal reference.

Since I have no plans (and obviously very few skills) to make a commercial version of this game, I encourage anyone who does to give it a try. You can even use the name if you want.

Thursday, July 19, 2007


I had an odd experience today that allowed me to look at two possible paths that my musical world could take. I was sitting in a bookstore coffee shop with my family, and I noticed a man at the next table reading Fanfare magazine, and I saw that he had the American Record Guide sitting on his table. In the 14 years I have been writing reviews for the ARG I have never actually seen a person reading the magazine or seen a person outside of my own family with the magazine in hand (or on table, in this case). I guess I don't spend much time in bookstore coffee shops: the closest one is an hour's drive away.

Anyway, I had the sudden inappropriate urge to tell the man that I wrote reviews for the ARG, which I stifled immediately because I didn't want to compromise his enjoyment of being able to read things people had to say about recordings in a private way. Sticking my face into his experience, like the way a foreign object can mess up a scientific experiment, could make him look at the whole classical recording magazine thing differently. That's too much responsibility for me. Besides, what I write for the magazine is information to let readers know what a recording is all about and whether it is something they want to listen to or buy. My reviews are not about me. I don't see why a person interested in buying recordings would be interested in me unless that person were buying a recording of something that I wrote or a recording I was playing on. As a reviewer I am proud to remain a name (and only a last name) on a page.

I think that keeping up a high level of humility is key to surviving in both the musical world and in the world at large. I get a daily dose of humility every time I pick up my violin or my viola because I know what those instruments could (and should) sound like. I get a dose of humility every time I teach, because if a student is doing something wrong it is my business to point it out and tell the student how to fix it. If the student doesn't fix it the first time, I have to figure out another way to present the information so that it can be understood.

I also get a dose of humility every time I write a piece of music. I still consider anything that is successful to be the result of a mixture of circumstances: mostly luck, timing, experience, and having the courage to get rid of the notes that don't need to be in the piece. It's kind of like cooking: if I have good ingredients I have to be careful not to burn anything, use the wrong spices, or do things in the wrong order. It used to be easy to write music, but the more I write, the more difficult it becomes. As a composer I have no idea the "direction" that new music is going. I only have control over the direction a piece I am writing is going. If someone enjoys playing, singing, or listening to the music I write, I feel happy. If someone plays (or sings) something really well, I feel humbled.

I believe that inspiration, musical or otherwise, comes from humility. If I start thinking about success (and I have had some small successes) my ability to write seems to vanish. When that happens I am miserable until I get back on track, so I turn to composers I really admire. There are really a lot of great composers to turn to, but sometimes in my search for humility I meet my useless old "friend" intimidation, and I get into an even more difficult spot to write myself out of.

Music is a very long path, and being on that path, going in any direction, it is most rewarding when your traveling companion is a healthy dose of humility.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

dum diddle dum diddle dum (what are the saying anyway?)

Ever wonder where the auctioneer singing style came from? Just listen to and watch this Tobacco Auction Video. Notice the importance of the intervals of the descending fourth, the descending minor third, the ascending major third, and the ascending fifth.

Monday, July 16, 2007

The Food of Knowledge

My family is surprised to see me watching television this summer, and even more surprised (well, not my daughter--she's my partner in "crime") that I would look forward to a television show at a particular time during prime time (which is usually prime time for me to practice). I have been hooked on the Next Food Network Star program, and have really been enjoying the intelligence that the judges show in commenting on the cooking and communication skills of the finalists. Last night there was a little television drama: the finalist who is clearly the best--her name is Amy Finley, and she is kind of like a Californian Julia Child--was let go, and the two finalists that remained were clearly not on her level. After the next commercial break we find out that JAG, guy who cooks Latino food who burned his chicken in a previous episode (setting off the smoke alarm), lied about his education and his military service (he was let out of the Marines after 8 months and never graduated from cooking school). After learning that he had been found out, he removed himself from the competition on camera. I have been enjoying the blogging buzz a great deal, especially because so many people feel exactly the same way I do about Amy.

Don't you think that the Food Network producers knew about this JAG scandal before eliminating the divine Amy? Don't you think that they were pulling on America's apron strings when they brought her back? Of course they did. It made for excellent television.

Anyway, I read on Amy's profile that her favorite food is eggplant, and I would be thrilled to learn how to cook eggplant (and anything else) from watching her show. The winner will be determined American Idol style, but you can go to the Food Network website and vote every day (but only once) if you want. I voted for Amy yesterday (I have never done this before), and I'm planning to vote again today.

It seems that the television-watching population who has had a great education in understanding the Intricacies of sports, is now getting a great food education. There is something on that Food Network for everyone. Once in a while there is even a vegan recipe or something that can be veganized. You can learn to make food that ranges from heart-attack rich to extremely light. You can learn food history and food chemistry, and you can learn where to get great food in cities all across the country.

Now we need to let all those people who love food and wine that the perfect compliment to their parties would be to hire musicians to play. Wait. There is a Food Network show that does that!

Friday, July 13, 2007

tromba marina: what a strange instrument

According to Rachel Barton Pine, the tromba marina was an 17th century instrument that was created for women to play in German churches instead of the trumpet (which women were forbidden to play). Another name for the instrument is the Nonnengeige, or nun's fiddle. The tromba marina was still being made into the 18th century.

The strange thing is that it actually sounds like a trumpet (there's a sound clip on the tromba marina website).

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Jerry Hadley

I haven't been able to stop thinking about Jerry Hadley and his suicide attempt. There are all sorts of complicated questions that run through my mind.

First of all, as a person who thinks of listening to opera (and even writing operas) as a way of "safely" working out emotional situations that people in real life don't usually ponder in public, I can appreciate the extremes of emotions that opera singers, particular great ones like Jerry Hadley, have to understand, as well as bring to life, night after night. When Jerry Hadley sang, it was real. He had a beautiful voice and great dramatic understanding, and he was a great musician.

I became fascinated by him when I heard him sing the emotionally-complicated role of Jimmy Mahoney in Kurt Weill's The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, and was amazed to learn that he grew up on a farm in rural Illinois, and went to school in Illinois. Since I know that he was close with people I know and work with, he is kind of like a neighbor, which makes this whole situation even harder to process.

Then there is the suicide question--a question that is really the largest of taboo questions. A failed suicide attempt is riddled with confusion. Hadley is now on life support with serious brain damage, and is not expected to live. We can talk about his singing career in the past tense, but we don't have the chance to put his life into perspective. Nobody does. I feel for his family and for his close friends, and for all the people who knew him and worked with him.

There are people who will hear him for the first time, people who are new to opera but who read the news on line, perhaps, now that he can no longer sing. And they will be moved. In a way I wish the media-driven world could be arranged in such a way that people who have influence would use this fantastic technology of seemingly-unlimited musical access to point the way to the recorded work of singers who might be a little past their vocal prime, but are still complicated artistic human beings with the same emotional needs that they had when they were actively performing. When the applause is over all of us, whether we are great opera singers or not, need some kind of emotional cushion to help us move on with our lives.

It must be hard to be a person with a natural gift and a brilliant career that existed in the (not so recent) past. Instrumentalists sometimes have to deal with the problem due to injury or Illness, but a singer's voice is an instrument with a finite lifespan. Some singers, like Domingo, devote their energies to conducting. Some go into musical administration (like Sills) or composition (like Viardot) or teaching. Some are happy and fulfilled, and some are not.

Musicians like Jerry Hadley are a sensitive lot, and we can't afford to lose anyone else due to whatever factors the musical market might present, like the value of youth over experience for tenor roles, the necessity to pander to audiences with pop music, or simply the huge number of excellent musicians serving a listening public that is not as large and as supportive as it should be in proportion to the population.

Please read what Frank Thompson, Richard Slade, Dick Strawser, and Daniel Gundlach have to say about Jerry Hadley.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

All dressed up and no place to play . . .

I'm getting into pretty good violin shape these days, but there's no place for me to play, so I decided to make a home recording of Elnora's Violin and put a link to it here, creating a "garage band" called Elnora. It's not perfect, but then again, neither am I.

Here's the gist of the piece: This is a one-movement work inspired by Gene Stratton Porter's 1909 novel A Girl of the Limberlost, which is set in a town situated near what was once a series of vast swamps in the eastern part of Indiana. The heroine of the novel is a teenage girl named Elnora Comstock who, in the process of "coming of age," discovers that she has inherited a talent for playing the violin from her long-dead father whom she never knew. Through a particular set of circumstances, Elnora is given her late-father's violin, but must practice the instrument in secret for fear of reminding her mother of her father's sudden death in the swamp. Through playing his violin, Elnora is able to connect with her dead father and ultimately help heal her mother's grief over his death. This piece comes from the part of me that understands Elnora's irrepressible desire to explore the natural world around her and express its wonders through music.

This picture is from my copy of the 1909 edition of the book (I have several editions), which, oddly enough is missing some of my favorite pages (pages 211-215), the pages that describe Elnora's violin playing, and the pages that inspired me to write this piece as well as to start playing the violin again (after giving it up as a child) at the age of 32. I like to imagine that what was written on those pages meant as much to the person who cut them out of the book as they mean to me.

The whole text is available on line.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Musical Tithing

I came across a line from the Talmud today:
A cow wishes far more to give its milk than the calf desires to suck.
Since I have been pondering the questions of ethics and stewardship, both concepts that usually reside in the world of religion, this bit of wisdom lead me to think about the kinds of things that musicians need to do in order to feel "whole." We are primarily a giving people, not a taking people, and our happiness comes from writing, playing, and sharing information about music.

People who depend on music for their livelihood usually don't make much money, so giving away the ten percent that tradition reminds us we should is not always possible. But there are ways that we can give the musical equivalent, and feel just as good about ourselves. We can write music for the joy of writing music, we can play free recitals for the joy of playing them, we can help and advise younger musicians for the joy of helping to pass on a tradition.

The problem is that figurative calf. Too much freshly-written music goes unplayed and unheard, too few people go to free recitals because they imagine that something free might not be worth their time, and too many young people who ask our advice, advice that we give freely, don't listen.

Still, it feels far better to give than not to give.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

More Ives for the Fourth of July

My husband Michael put a great video of Charles Ives' Variations on America on his blog today, so I thought I'd put something kind of unusual to add to the musical celebration of the Fourth of July: Michael Tippett conducting a youth orchestra of decidedly non-American musicians playing Putnam's Camp from Ives' Three Places in New England.

I think that any American orchestra today, even a good youth orchestra, would play this piece more appropriately, and I imagine that a British orchestra would certainly play this piece with far more understanding today than they would have in 1969, when this film was made. This reading (I know it's just a rehearsal) misses the mark, in my American opinion. The American "classical" musical tradition is very young when compared with European traditions, and it was much younger 38 years ago. What is interesting to me about watching this clip is that Tippett just doesn't seem to get the sense of the work as a piece of American music about American nostalgia. We have come a long way in 38 years by taking baby steps on the road towards interpreting American music.

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Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Beverly Sills as Baby Doe

I feel so fortunate to have had the chance to grow listening to Beverly Sills, who died last night at the age of 78. You can read all about her and listen to more music here.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Reality Check: Orchestral Salaries

Click on this picture to the left and take a look at this list from Drew McManus' Adaptistration, and notice the base salary figure for many of these orchestras. The concertmaster salaries are competitive (it's a hard job--really--to be a concertmaster), but some of the base salaries are really low, and the differences between some of the high concertmaster salaries and the low base salaries are sometimes terribly out of proportion. Base salary is what the newly hired members of the string sections make in a concert season. In some cases it is better than what you can make as a freelancer, and the work is steady, but I can't imagine how someone could pay rent and utilities, own a car, pay for a good instrument, and feed and clothe a family on some of these salaries. And these are the jobs that people who have spent huge amounts of money paying tuition at conservatories are happy to compete for, when there are openings.

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