Friday, August 29, 2008

The Arts and the State

My friends at the Illinois Arts Council reminded me that we should all make sure to look at the way each of the candidates consider the arts. I really dislike it when anyone refers to music as one of "the arts," but it is something that I have learned to live with. I have come to understand and accept that these days (the days after the Kennedys, who invited musicians like Pablo Casals to the White House because they admired the man and his performances of music, music that the people in the administration actually ended up liking) playing background music for a reception or a dinner is probably the most state-like activity that a "classical" musician would be able to do--aside, perhaps, from going to North Korea and playing a televised concert for the sole (and that ain't Seoul) purpose of what I guess is "diplomacy." I still don't understand what that was all about.

I dream of a State where what I do and what I teach my students to do and to love is a viable way for a person to make a living, even if that person doesn't live in a major city. I dream of a State where music is considered a vital part of a child's education, and every school district is given ample funds to hire and retain excellent music teachers, buy and maintain instruments, and develop good instrumental and choral libraries. I dream of a State where tickets to concerts could be affordable to everyone, and musicians could also be paid well. I dream of a State that asks (that is a short way of spelling commissions) composers to write music for public functions (to be played by musicians who are hired for the occasion) in places other than major cities, and shows the citizens that new "classical" music is something that people still write and people still play all over the country. I dream of a State that values its local talent, musical and otherwise.

I want to believe the Democrats when they tell me that in America you can be anything that you want to be, but I find myself discouraging people, even people with talent and ambition, not to go into music in order to make a living. The opportunities (as I have written in previous posts) are too few, and the people who have success have to rely on a lot of financial support in order to study with good teachers and live the kind of life where they have ample time to practice. They also have to have a great business sense, and know how to market themselves. Good looks also help, and nerves of steel and a competitive drive are essential, because competition is the heart and soul of American success.

I don't think that any administration will change the reality of competition, but it could do its part to teach people that there is more to music than competition. There should be a place for all serious musicians, and "serious" music in what I hope will once again be a great society.

Stevie Wonder sings for all of us

Monday, August 25, 2008


The Democratic National Convention coming right on the broadcast heels of the Olympics makes for some really offensive television reporting. Allow me to rant.

Today I heard someone refer (favorably) to Michelle Obama as an athlete, while talking about her preparation for her speech tonight. She is not an athlete. She is a lawyer, a mother, and a brilliant speaker. Everything is just catty-wampus with the television. There is a sportscaster-like quality to the way that the "best political teams on television" deal with something that is extremely serious: definitely not an athletic event. It seems that they, the entertaining body of "racecasters," are appealing to the sports viewers in their television audience, which is a large and ever-growing demographic.

I believe that this election is about transparency of government and making government accountable for what it does with the money that taxpayers pay to make it run. It is about making it possible for normal people to live respectable lives. It is about restoring the image of America in the eyes of people over the world, and having a society where doing the right thing is part of being a citizen. We need elected officials who do the right thing for the right reasons. This is not a game, and it is certainly not an athletic event where there are winners and losers who can brush themselves off and go on to the next event. If people don't make intelligent choices for the right reasons, we all lose, and there is no next event.

I hate it when the the network and cable television anchors (and they are anchors because they are holding fast to the bottom of the lake or the ocean, like bottom feeding fish) ask the question, "What does Barack Obama have to do" to reach this or that demographic. Everywhere that Barack Obama goes people welcome him. The zillions of people who go listen to his speeches do so because they want to hear him speak--what he says has meaning. He doesn't need to do anything except show up and do what he always does. His content varies with time, but his message is completely consistent. He is running for president because he knows that he can do what needs to be done, and he understands the "fierce urgency of now."

What does "What does Barack Obama have to do" mean anyway, except to place doubts and questions (and worries) in people's minds. The best political teams (and I'm talking about the mainstream media and the cable media--the folks that make their money from selling advertising) want to keep people watching them and watching their commercials, which seem to be more and more for health insurance, a wide range of pharmaceuticals, selling your jewelry for the gold, and ways to get out of debt.

Say, why don't the people covering the convention talk about the pieces that David Amram wrote that are going to be played in connection with this convention? Because their television audience isn't interested. I ask the question "What does David Amram have to do to get people to care about the pieces he has written?" The answer is simple. Nothing. There is nothing that he can do to get people to care about music the way they care about sports and competition. Come to think of it, the current television audience's idea of music seems to be most focused on competition, with a world divided into winners and losers, with no accounting for taste or even quality.


Saturday, August 23, 2008

Great News from Springfield

Michael and I spent the day (in the sun) in Springfield today as part of the 35,000-person group of supporters who watched (or in my case, because I am so short, listened to) Barack Obama introduce Joe Biden as his running mate. It was a thrill to be part of such a fine, diverse (and I mean it in the most literal sense), orderly, and like-minded crowd.

Now that I am home, it is totally surreal to watch the event on television again and again, particularly after not really being able to watch it when I was there. But I was there, and I have the sunburn to prove it. I was able, along with 35,000 other people, to be a part of the experience. My clapping, cheering, and booing (when it was appropriate) meant a lot more in Springfield today than it does when I clap, cheer, and boo in my living room.

Here's one of the pictures that Michael took:

and his detailed post about our day.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

One way practicing helps

I came across an article by Cathy Malchiodi in Psychology Today about Kelly Lambert's book Lifting Depression that gives a little bit of insight as to why practicing (or even just playing) an instrument helps when things inside your head are not going so well. Malchiodi's article concerns arts and crafts: making things with the movements of the hands, and their relationship to the brain's frontal cortex. I imagine that the "effort-driven rewards" that result from the hand and finger movements involved in playing an instrument to make music, give the brain's frontal cortex a whole lot of positive stimulation.

Grocery Store Music

Like many people, I spend a good deal of time in the grocery store. I have often been lulled into a nostalgic reverie by one or more of the songs on the P.A. system that our local County Market plays both in the store, and at each of its two entrances. These songs take me back to "carefree" days of my youth in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Those days were certainly not carefree days as far as the world at large was concerned, but time heals all wounds when it comes to music. It helps us remember the good stuff of youth, when grass was green and grain was yellow.

At the age of 49, and as the proud mother of and cook for two adult-sized children and wife of an adult-sized husband, I am probably a member of the most important demographic for the social scientists who program the music for the Grocery Store. They know that I (and the other shoppers who share my profile) want to feel comfortable in the store. They know that I want to be enveloped in a feeling of well-being, so that I can get myself in the mood to cook delicious food for my family. They also might imagine that if a song had enough meaning for me, I might linger a while in a particular aisle and put an extra something in my market basket. I imagine that this music marketing thing could get very sophisticated: the masterminds of this system could easily figure out, through the use of those little bar-code cards that they scan when you check out, which songs "make" people buy what products.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Wagnerian Idol

My friend Carrie found this in the Seattle Times. It seems like something out of Frasier!

Cast your vote today!

Sunday, August 17, 2008

On Dangerous Ground: the Viola d'amore in the movies

Imagine my surprise last night when the opening credits of this 1951 Ida Lupino-Robert Ryan Film Noir Michael brought home read "Music by Bernard Herrmann--Viola d'Amour played by Virginia Majewski." I have to admit that I spent the first "act" of On Dangerous Ground, because of my own particular musical orientation, waiting to hear what Herrmann did with the viola d'amore, and waiting for the appearance of Ida Lupino. I was intrigued and impressed by both when they finally appeared together. Hermann does not use the viola d'amore as a harmonic or polyphonic instrument, but he takes advantage of the instrument's range and colors in each of its distinct registers. To the unsuspecting ear it sounds like a viola much of the time, with exciting escapes to the high register and surprising forays into the low register.

Majewski (1907-1995), who I know from chamber music recordings that she made with Heifetz and Primrose, and from a 1990 interview by Roland Kato in the newsletter of the Viola d'Amore Society of America (Volume 19/2, 1995) was a very active studio musician in Los Angeles. She came to Los Angeles in 1938 as the principal violist of the MGM Studio Orchestra, and was involved with the viola d'amore in the 1930s, during its first 20th-century "Renaissance." Majewski was never sure why Hermann wrote this music for the viola d'amore. She apparently recorded this score on a borrowed instrument: on the morning that she got the call to do the recording session, she found that when she opened her case, her viola d'amore had split its scroll (one of the dangerous consequences of keeping an 18th-century instrument at modern pitch). That she could play so beautifully on a borrowed instrument without any notice (she was probably sight reading) is quite a feat. Herrmann insisted that Majewski get solo billing in the credits for her performance, sharing his "card" with her.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Rebecca and her Beau

I just can't resist a good fiddle pun. This pun is brought to "life" thanks to the ever fertile imagination of Terry Border.

Musical Olympians

Though there seems to be a world of difference between what athletes, particularly Olympian athletes, do and what practicing musicians do, we actually have a lot in common. Perhaps the main difference is that what musicians do is mostly enjoyed by the ear and what Olympic athletes do is mostly enjoyed by the eye. What musicians do, especially musicians who play "classical" music, is to line up pre-designated patterns of notes, rhythms, and dynamics, and perform them in a meaningful way. What athletes do is to line up pre-designated motions, and perform them in a way that creates the most speed and the most power with the least amount of physical effort, allowing the physical effort that they use to be the thing that lets them excel and break speed records. Musicians, especially string players, use their fingers, arms, and hands to try to do the same thing. We don't propel our bodies anywhere, but we do use a similar approach to the physical aspects of playing, particularly when it comes to form and efficiency of motion.

Rhythm plays a great part in athletics, as does phrasing. Measuring out the length of a course or of a pool and knowing how to divide up the ultimate time you are going for as a swimmer or as a runner, is a kind of phrasing. Rhythm is of vital importance to gymnastics and diving, particularly synchronized diving, where the pairs of divers communicate their initial tempo in a way that the "go" of 1, 2, 3, go is not cadential. The end of the complicated rhythmic phrase that they hold in their heads, which includes rhythms for all kinds of flips and twists, is their synchronized arrival in the water.

I feel that my daily hour or two (or maybe three) of Olympic viewing during this past week has been well spent. I am grateful that all I need to do is to control very small parts of my body in order to be able to do what I want to do. It is an awful lot easier (and an awful lot less dangerous) than flipping around in the air or on a set of high bars.

I really enjoy it when the gold medal winners at the Olympics are awarded by a rendition of the national anthem (as arranged by Peter Breiner) of their country, particularly when I see them sing along, or when I see their eyes well up with tears at the top of a phrase.

August 22 update: Wow!!!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

My Thematic Catalog just turned 100!

After adding a bunch of transcriptions, I have just put my 100th piece of music into my thematic catalog blog! It is a cause for personal celebration. I do have some music that is not on there yet, like a handful of commissioned pieces still waiting for their first performances, but I thought I would share my momentary feeling of accomplishment having reached such a nice round number. Life's personal perks are rare.

Now I guess it is time to get back to work!

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Music for the Olympics

My moments watching the Olympics have turned themselves into longer stretches of time that I anticipated I would spend, and this year they have opened my inner eyes a little deeper into the ways that communism fosters precision athletes, both physical and musical. Watching how the Chinese women who do synchronized diving and the very little (could they actually be 16 years old?) gymnasts compare in precision to the women from countries that are no longer run by communist regimes scares me a bit. The Romanian and Russian gymnasts are just not as precise, and precision is the name of the game when it comes to judging athletes in these Olympic events. Could this be due to the fact that Romania and Russia are no longer communist countries?

Thank goodness the theme music for the Olympics on television has remained the same since 1968. Leo Arnaud's Bugler's Dream still makes me expect something extraordinary every time I hear it. John Williams Olympic Fanfare and Theme, which was added to the end of Arnaud's theme for the 1984 summer Olympics that were held in Los Angeles, still strikes me as something new, but at the age of 24 it predates most of the athletes that are competing in these Olympics.

It is from another world, but I love the first Olympic Anthem that written in 1896 for the first modern Olympic games by Spyros Samaras. A piano vocal score happens to be available on line as a PDF.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Meet The Swinger

The Polaroid Swinger, that is. I held the tune and all the lyrics to this commercial in my head for at least 40 years. And now they just won't leave. If this camera were actually alive it would be over 40, which makes me wonder just how old Ali McGraw must be now.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Julius Baker and Mimi Stillman

Mimi Stillman was a kind of legend in the flute world when she was a kid: the youngest wind player ever to be admitted to the Curtis Institute of Music. Tales were told of her intellectual brilliance as well as her musical ability. Since I was removed from the East Coast as well as the flute world in the 1990s (by my calculations she was born in 1983), I managed not to have heard her play until now. As hard as it was to revisit my "previous" life as a flutist, I couldn't help but be engaged by this video, which I found on YouTube while whimsically searching on a nostalgic lark for Julius Baker. I particularly enjoy hearing the animation in Julius Baker's playing when confronted by such a small child with such a huge "Baker" sound. I'm sure that he was also impressed by her astounding sense of self on stage. Of course to study with Julius Baker was to study Julius Baker, and Mimi Stillman, at 11 had already figured out exactly how to learn from him.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Musical Maturity

Everyone wants their child to get a head start on reading, and many people want their children to get a head start playing music. To this end we have Suzuki programs that take advantage of the natural grace, balance, ability to memorize, willingness to do anything for approval, and physical flexibility of small children. Good Suzuki teachers can give children a truly efficient technique, and can give the illusion of advanced musical intelligence in children due to their natural ability to mimic. There is nothing wrong with this approach, really, as long as children are able to grow as musicians because of the music they are playing.

Most of the children I know think of their progress as something measurable: which book they are in, what position they are learning, and where they are seated in orchestra. I was that way too. When I was a violin-playing kid I wanted to learn higher and higher positions in the same spirit that I wanted to be on the top of the "monkey club" at school (the monkey club was a rope climbing club--and I was, for a short time, on the top). Both my violin playing and my rope climbing were history by the time I hit the sixth grade.

I was also a pretty good reader, but I had a hard time finding books that were really challenging that were also interesting for me, until I came upon the "Discovery Book" series (I read them all), and the fairy books that came in all the different colors, like the SRA reading cards that we all used for reading competition stuff (kind of like the monkey club). I wanted to be on the top of that too. Yes. I guess you could say that I was a competitive kid. I imagine that I was also not playing music on the violin that was age-appropriate, or appropriate for my interests.

My competitive nature fueled my speedy flute progress, but at the age of 14, and in the rush to acquire technique, I seemed to have missed a lot of musical substance. My problem was that I could hear it. I could hear maturity in other players who had the same "amount" of technique that I had. I could recognize, through listening to myself on tape, that my interpretations were "all over the place." I wanted more than anything to be able to play a single phrase that had continuity from beginning to end. No amount of technical practice could give me that. No teacher seemed to understand how to "fix" my problem, and it was something I felt that I could not talk about with my friends.

I tried other routes. Early music, with all of its 1970s "rules" gave me at least a way to structure phrases so that they made more sense. Playing the recorder, with its greater tactile sense (there were holes instead of keys), helped as well. Playing baroque flute helped me to re-interpret the superficial way I played the baroque flute repertoire during my accelerated musical adolescence. Perhaps the closest I ever came to achieving some kind of musical maturity while playing the flute was when I was teaching, partly because I could usually relate to the immature musical personalities of my students, and because they were not me, I could help them to organize their musical thoughts and phrases.

I read a lot when I was a teenager and when I was a young adult. I tried to use every extra-musical experience to help achieve some kind of maturity in my playing. And then I started, essentially from scratch, on the violin when I was 31 or 32 (I keep forgetting). I used every piece I practiced as a stepping stone, and I consciously built my way towards a new form of musical maturity--one that included inner voices, through playing the viola, and one that used music of all periods, through a lot of study. It was hard to do, but now I actually have my reward. At 49 I now no longer feel like a musical adolescent. I know where my phrases are going, both when I am playing them and when I am writing them. I now understand rhythm, something that was never really explained adequately to me when I was a child or an adolescent. Sure, I knew how to count, but I never really understood meter or harmonic rhythm.

Through abandoning competition at about the same time I abandoned the flute, I have learned to open myself to a wider world of musical enjoyment. I feel for the speedy adolescents. I wish them all a lifetime of slowing down the roller coaster, and doing whatever they can to grow through the music that they are playing, and I hope that they can reap the musical rewards that come from aiming for total engagement rather than achievement.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Free String Orchestra Arrangements

Yup. I have a bunch of string orchestra arrangements that I made for our Summer Strings program. I do not sell (and cannot legally sell) these arrangements. But since they make people happy, and inspire young people to practice, I share them with people who will put them to good educational use. They are not doing anyone any good sitting here as PDF files on my computer. If you send me an e-mail (elainefine *at* gmail *dot* com), I'll send you a link to a Dropbox folder where they live.

July 2011 UPDATE: Three years after making this post the number of string orchestra arrangements I have made has TRIPLED. I now have a dropbox folder with scores and parts that I will share with anyone who is interested. Please e-mail me, and I'll send you a link to the folder.

June 2013 UPDATE: I'm still going strong, and am adding new arrangements every year.

JULY 2015 UPDATE I have renamed the folder, so if the link I sent you no longer works, please e-mail me so that I can send you a new one! Here are some new arrangements from this year:


These arrangements from 2016 and 2017 have been added to the folder.


These arrangements have been added to the folder: