Sunday, August 29, 2010

Violin Humidification Solution

This is a picture of a cello Dampit with two ex-asparagus rubber bands on its upper end. It had been sitting on my bookshelf for years, ever since Ben and I fished it out of his cello years and years ago (it somehow made its way into the body of the instrument, and never went in there again).

Suddenly I got the idea that it might make a good humidification system for my violin, so I removed the string tube (I never used it anyway), and replaced it with this Dampit.

As you can see I have a stretto device attached to my case. Once you let the little bags that go in the plastic case dry up completely, they never work again. Sometimes they get moldy, and then they lose their ability to absorb water. It is easy to forget to saturate a stretto gel bag when you can't actually see if it needs saturation. After going through a couple of gel bags (two come with the system), I ended up putting a bit of sponge in mine, which does very little to help humidify my instrument. The Dampit does a lot.

The cello dampit goes for ten bucks. A Stretto with two gel bags costs $30.00, and a replacement gel bag costs $11.00 (plus postage).

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Fanfare for Who?

What would Aaron Copland think about his Fanfare for the Common Man and the "Hoe Down" from his Rodeo being used to introduce the organizer and main speaker of the most inappropriate "faux" media event I can think of in current American history?

Of course the broadcasters will have to pay ASCAP fees to Copland's publishers, but it is just a pittance. The money funding this kind of nonsense flows like oil.

I wonder what all those silly people who are bowing to their self-ordained (and highly-funded) prophet, who is trying to stand in (and trivialize) the shoes of a great international hero (who was an actual minister), would think of this music that they identify as "typically-American," if they knew it was written by a composer who was sympathetic to socialism (he actually voted communist in 1936), was extremely smart, was openly gay, and non-religiously Jewish?

Disclaimer: This musical observation is being reported second hand. I couldn't bring myself to turn on the television, even for a peek, but Michael did--only long enough to witness the way that music can be bought and used in ways that a composer, who is no longer living, could never imagine.

UPDATE: If you have an inkling about similarities of the rhetoric used by these people in these rallies, and on television and radio, to a time in history that we should never forget, read this post for a lucid reality check.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Describe that Tune

Thomas Mann (translated by John E. Woods) describes (without naming) Wagner's Prelude to Act III of Die Meistersinger (you can listen to it here) in Doctor Faustus:
The cellos intone all by themselves a somber, pensive theme that questions the world's folly in a forthright and highly expressive philosophical "why" addressed to our hustle and bustle, our hounding and harrying. The cellos enlarge on this for a while, shaking their wise heads in regret over this riddle, and at a given, carefully considered point in their comments, the wind instruments, after a preparatory deep breath that causes shoulders to rise and fall again, enter with a chorale, stirringly solemn, splendidly harmonized, and played with all the muted dignity and gently constrained power of brass. With that, the sonorous melody pushes forward, approaching its highpoint, but, in accordance with the law of economy, avoids it for now, dodges, leaves an opening, leaves it aside, recedes, lingers very beautifully right there, but then steps back and makes room for another theme, a simple folk tune, jesting and pompous, apparently coarse by nature, but as shrewd as they come, too, and, when subjected to a few seasoned devices of orchestral analysis and coloration, proves amazingly capable of interpretation and sublimation. There is now some clever and sweet dandling with the little tune for a while; it is taken apart, each of its segments observed and transformed, and one charming figure in the middle voices is lifted to most magical heights, to the spheres of the violins and flutes, is cradled there for a while yet, until, at its most flattering moment, the gentle brass again announces the chorale from before, steps into the foreground, avoiding the long preparation of its first statement and entering not at the beginning, but as if the melody had already been there for a while, and now moves solemnly toward that same highpoint from which it wisely refrained the first time, so that the 'Ah!' effect, the surge of emotion is all the greater, when, ascending ruthlessly and supported by harmonic passing tones from the bass tuba, the brass gloriously bestrides the theme and then, gazing back, so to speak, with worthy satisfaction on what it has accomplished, sings its way modestly to the end.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Disgust and Dismay

I would like to be able to separate my personal feelings regarding life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (and that includes music on the top of the list) from the disgust and dismay that I feel when reading about one of New York's biggest patrons.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Women, Ego, Music, and Me

Gosh, it's sure difficult to find anything of substance on line that addresses ego issues of women. A search for "men and ego" in Google had 645,000 entries, many of them life-skill building posts, and a search for "women and ego" had 413,000, but a good quarter of them were for some store called "EGO vanity shoes."

I have spent a great deal of my life subscribing to the fallacy that ego is bad, that ego is something that gets in the way of creativity. The word "ego" seems first to have been used in 1789, and is primarily defined (at least in Merriam-Webster) as "the self especially as contrasted with another self or the world."

I often wonder why is it so easy for women, like me, to support the ego of another person (another self, contrasted with another self in the world), or other people, and why it is so difficult for me to proclaim the uniqueness of my own "self contrasted with another self in the world," I do know that invisibility and disposablility in the larger world, and not being properly acknowledged for what we do and what we have done, can cause all sorts of personal grief. True, we often have to make our own rewards, but so often the echo of our accomplishments doesn't escape to the world outside of our family (and often it doesn't even make as far as the "family of origin" parts of it).

There's something personally distasteful to me about broadcasting my accomplishments as a composer, but I'm going to do it anyway. Watch me.

I take my ipod shuffle on my daily walks. Navigating through the thing to play music "unshuffled" is a terrible pain, so I am now resigned to using the "shuffle." My ipod now holds most of the concert performances of pieces I have written during the past ten years. Those pieces shuffle around with Bach, Mozart, Brahms, Beethoven, Grieg, Schumann, Haydn, and a host of other composers of proven merit. When my pieces come up, I always enjoy listening to them. They do not sound "second rate" at all, even when they follow the "proven" composers I love. I feel that as a composer I have accomplished something worthwhile, but actual reactions from the "outside" world don't seem to present themselves regularly enough for me to believe that anyone (outside of my family, students, and my immediate friends) cares about what I have written, or who I am (and, believe me, in my case they are the same thing). The idea of doing what I do in a vacuum makes it very difficult for me to write anything at all, which is a shame.

Perhaps performing musicians are used to playing music by composers who are either dead or too "important" to contact. Maybe they believe that new music needs to be unintelligible or highly intellectual in order for people listening to their concerts to take them seriously as performers. From where I sit, I can only guess. The veil of the internet, and the format of the blog allows for a series of one-way contacts between people who would otherwise not communicate. I vent. You read. Perhaps you listen. Perhaps you play something. I'll never know unless you tell me.

There is a profound disconnect, especially when it comes to talking about and listening to something as potentially connecting as music. The "comment" window on the blog is a partial relief valve, but a comment is public, and people often feel self-conscious about making any kind of public statement, even under the cloak of anonymity. Perhaps commenting ruins the privacy of an imagined two-way communication. There's always e-mail.

I do feel better now. My public rant is over.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Vocal Cords, Tendons, and the Strings of Fate

Ancient wisdom gives us the story of the three fates; the women who spin and manipulate finite pieces of string that represent the length and course of our lives. They remind us that our lives are finite, fragile, and connected, and that we have to do with them what we can, while we are able.

Our musical lives are finite, fragile, and connected. Some people reveal extraordinary ability very early, and it blows our collective cultural minds when they do. There is something that tells us that singing like Jackie Evancho is not "natural" (though we can hear very clearly that singing is the most natural thing in the world for her). At the same time we have the collective fear that the beauty of her voice and the natural quality of her musicianship won't last. I'm reminded of Menuhin who played the violin like an angel as a child, and spent his adult life trying to figure out how he did it. We think of what happens to child pop stars like Michael Jackson, or child actresses like Lindsay Lohan, and see the toll that life in the public eye can take on take, and we look at (and listen to) this angelic kid, and only hope that her strings don't get tangled in the quagmire of life in the public eye. But people will want to hear her. People already want to hear her, and I imagine she enjoys the attention. What 10-year-old girl wouldn't?

Before I got distracted by Jackie's singing, this post was going to be about the tendons in my bow arm, the ones that are starting to wear out from overuse, or perhaps from practicing down-bow staccato. Now that I can finally "do" the stroke, my body is telling me that it is something I should not do. There is a great deal of music that I want to play (most of it doesn't use down-bow staccato), but I know now that my time to play is finite, and the chance to play it depends on the way I take care of my vital playing parts. I know this at 51. If I started playing the fiddle seriously at the age of 20, would my tendons have gotten to this point at 40? If I continued playing fiddle after the age of 11 (which is when I stopped), and if I became a soloist of some kind, would my physical trajectory have remained the same? Has my professional relationship with the viola (violists usually don't play much down-bow staccato) given my tendons more time?

The human voice is an instrument, and when that instrument is a particularly good one, it has to be cared for like a rare Italian fiddle. I trust that Jackie, with help from her family, is taking care of her voice. You can keep a fiddle in a case in order to keep it safe. Playing it with incorrect technique (within limits) will not damage it physically, though playing it with incorrect technique might, at some point in the future, make the instrument impossible to play. An Italian fiddle can last for centuries, and when parts wear out, they can be replaced. This is not the case with a voice, or an arm, or the person that uses them.

Russell Oberlin Interview Series

Listen to the great American countertenor speak about his career and about singing:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

and then listen to him sing.

Music of the Spheres

Once you get past the opening material of this podcast, Sandy Antunes offers an interesting discussion about sound, and he talks about (and shares) sounds that were recorded on other planets.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Minuet in ADD

For reasons I haven't been able to figure out, a lot of my private students seem to have attention deficit disorder. Some have come to me while on medication, and in the course of taking lessons, have stopped taking their medication, and some can barely function at all unless they have their medication.

Lessons with these students are always a challenge, and I always try to embrace the difficulties that my students encounter as a result of not being able to separate the various stimuli that come into play when trying to play the violin. Playing the violin involves the aural, the visual, and the tactile. The senses of smell and taste come into play only figuratively. The odd thing is that, to a person, all of my students with ADD are deeply musical people, and, when frustration doesn't get the better of them, playing the violin means a great deal to them.

During her lesson today, one of my students was looking at the title of Beethoven's "Minuet and G," which has a quagmire of bowing issues (direction and distribution) for young players. She laughed, and said that she read the title as "Minuet in ADD." We talked about the problems that she was having with bow direction, and the problems she had with attention in general, and then we devised a game to iron them out.

We divided the melody into two groups: the up-bows and down-bows. She played the groups of notes that went up-bow, and I played the groups of notes that went down bow. The difficulty of this game is that while the up-bow person is playing, the down-bow person has to get her bow into a suitable place to play her next down-bow. This is especially tricky when a down-bow is followed immediately by an up bow, and it is fun to throw the notes back and forth, hocket-style.

After playing through the passage twice, we switched. I played the up-bow group of notes, and she played the down-bow group. I then asked her to play the whole thing herself, which she did correctly and easily.

Radio Word Ramble

I don't know how many times I have listened to NPR's Morning Edition and wondered what on earth came before "and peaceful" in the MacArthur Foundation's tagline "building a more just, ________ , and peaceful world." The question in my mind (what is that word, anyway?) sang out so loudly that I couldn't remember the organization that was doing all that building of a more just, peaceful, and something world. Finally I got the brilliant idea to search online for "just, peaceful, and," and there it was. Verdant.

"Verdant" is a wonderful word. A word first used in print in English in 1581, it means "green." It means green, in the spirit of "sumer is Icumen":
c.1300, "fresh green color," from O.Fr. verdure "greenness," from verd, variant of vert "green," from L. viridis (cf. Sp., It. verde), related to virere "be green," of unknown origin. Perhaps ult. from a root meaning "growing plant" and cognate with Lith. veisti "propagate," O.N. visir "bud, sprout," O.E. wise "sprout, stalk, etc." Meaning "green plants, vegetation" is attested from c.1400.
When we learned the song in elementary school, my wonderful music teacher told us that the line bucke uerteþ (pronounced "buck-a verteth") meant that the buck was farting. She suggested that the origins of the word "fart" might have had to do something with eating greens. Etymolgies aside, (perhaps she missed the mark on that one, but the association still remains for me) the idea about the word "fart" being used in a song from the Middle Ages stays implanted in the brain for decades and decades. Perhaps that's one reason it the song has remained in the repertoire.

It is a real hoot to read the online musings about the word "verdant," like this one, and this one. We shouldn't forget that "verdant" (or its more colloquial "green") is nicely represented in song. Some examples are Schubert's setting of Muller's two faces of green in Die liebe farbe and Die bose farbe, Debussy's setting of Verlaine's poem "Green," and the classic reflection on the difficulties associated with actually being green.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Playing with Records

I didn't have a huge number of records (I'm talking about LPs) when I was growing up, and during my preteen years, we didn't even have a working record player (imagine--in a household of musicians). When I was in the 7th grade, I was given (after I got up the courage to ask) a cassette player and a few cassette recordings of age-appropriate music (I remember Tapestry, Deja Vu, and a James Taylor cassette), and I used to spend a lot of time listening late at night to an old Zenith radio that my parents had abandoned.

Perhaps it is when one of the radio tubes blew and could not be replaced (I recall hauling the heavy thing to the hardware store, and being very disappointed) that I got my first working record player. It was a high-class hybrid KLH model 20 that played at four speeds (16, 33, 45, and 78), and, unlike the one pictured below, had a radio tuner. We got it nearly new: it had only been used during the summer at Tanglewood, in the music library.
My father got a turntable and speakers made by AR that fall. It didn't have a radio or any other bells and whistles, and it only played at 33 r.p.m.

I found a stash of my parents' old records in the attic (a lot of Columbia chamber music recordings from various Casals festivals during the 1950s), and my father started buying new records. I had just started playing the flute, but there were not that many flute recordings around, except for recordings by Jean-Pierre Rampal. I preferred listening to non-flute recordings anyway (though I did like listening to recordings by Julius Baker). I had a flute-playing friend who had a whole series of "Music Minus One" recordings. I had no idea how to get any of those, so I remember buying a Rampal record and trying to play along with it. I was surprised to find that the recording was about half a tone sharp. I used the 16 r.p.m. setting to slow down that 33 r.p.m. recording to half speed, and I rather enjoyed listening to the uneven sloppiness in his playing.

When I was getting ready to audition for Juilliard, I had the idea of practicing my G-major Mozart Concerto with the Julius Baker recording (he actually sounded pretty good at 16 r.p.m). I decided that I would play the slow movement for my audition (I imagined that everyone else would be playing the fast movements), and I thought that playing along with the recording would help me to get inside of Julius Baker's musical head. I made a little star in my music every time he changed color, and I made sure to change my tone color in some way (but not the same way) at each of those points.

I guess it worked. I got in.

I had great times with my KLH. I even figured out how to wire my cassette player/recorder to make the sound go through the speakers.

Julius Baker used to tell his students to listen to recordings of Heifetz. I didn't have any Heifetz recordings (I guess I considered him too commercial for my eclectic tastes), but my friend Danny Morganstern had everything. I listened to the whole Heifetz collection (as it was the late 1970s) with him during the summer between my second and third years at Juilliard, and he gave me cassette tapes to take home. I got bought a few choice pieces at Patelson's, and used my "enhanced" audio system to play along with Heifetz on the flute (I particularly loved playing the Saint-Saens D minor Sonata with him and Emanuel Bay). I actually had my teacher's attention (a rare occurrence) at a lesson after one of my evenings with Mr. Heifetz. I never told him my secret.

Danny, who always plays with records, told me that if you play along with a recording, you are playing along with a really great musician's best work. Listening is one thing, but actually experiencing the physical movement involved in playing a piece (or even a passage of a piece) brings you right into the head of the people playing. I still play with recordings, and I sometimes play along with recordings that I get to review. You can learn an awful lot by joining in the dance, especially when playing an inner voice.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

All dressed up . . . to be here now

Towards the end of my life as an aspiring professional flute player, I would often experience the musical equivalent of being "all dressed up with nowhere to go." I practiced diligently, and though I could play the repertoire rather well, to a point, it was never really satisfying. I always imagined that playing for other people, on a very high level, could give me the kind of satisfaction that seemed to be missing from my personal experience playing the flute, but it never quite seemed to work.

I often found it difficult to play phrases that made sense on the flute. When I recorded myself practicing, I would often find that I wasn't holding notes quite long enough to make phrases sound satisfying (why couldn't I hear them while I was playing?). Getting from point A to point B in a piece of music never seemed to involve the closest distance between two points, and there seemed to be nothing I could do about it. I certainly had practice strategies (many learned from string players), but I couldn't seem to overcome my problems with bridging the gap between what I heard in my head and what came out of my instrument.

I remember talking with Joel Smirnoff back in the early 1980s (it was when he was in the second violin section of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and a few years before he started playing in the Juilliard Quartet). He told me then that he always knew exactly the way he sounded, and that he never needed a tape recorder to verify anything. I always coveted the ability he had to hear himself clearly, in real time. I thought it would have to be kind of a supernatural feat for me to actually hear myself, to actually experience my own satisfying music making, in real time.

I finally can.

It has taken me a good 17 years of violin and viola playing to build a technique equivalent to what I had after playing the flute for five. I have worked like crazy to build up enough string technique to play the music I want to play, and all that practicing is finally paying off. I can now make it purposefully from point A to point B in a musical phrase. What is most interesting is that I don't need any kind of outside validation in order to believe it or appreciate it. I also have more "space" to pay attention and take in the "now." The satisfaction is mine, and I can share it if I choose to.

Some of this new-found sense of experiencing the musical "now" has to do with simple age and experience, but I also think that a lot of it has to do with violin playing (and viola playing) itself. Practicing seems to clarify the "now" and "here" that exists physically in string playing (it only seems to exist conceptually in wind playing). There is real distance involved with getting from one place to another on a string instrument. Shifting is a spacial experience that involves getting from point A to point B in space as well as in time. Measuring the fingerboard with your fingers involves dividing up physical space, and bowing involves complicated measurements of space and time (that eventually become unconscious, like the motions involved in walking).

Monday, August 09, 2010


Our friends Seymour and Margie introduced us to Spanakorizo at their favorite restaurant (3 Guys at the corner of Madison and 96th Street in New York). I psyched out the ingredients, and came up with a very good approximation to share here:

3T olive oil
2 medium-sized onions
3 cloves garlic

1 bag of spinach leaves
1 1/2 cups medium grain white rice
3 1/2 cups water

the juice of 1 lemon
a teaspoon (or more) of dried mint leaves
salt and pepper

Use a nice big casserole with a lid. Chop the onions and cook them in the olive oil until they get soft. Add the garlic and the spinach leaves, stirring them around so that they wilt. After all of the spinach leaves are in the pot, pour in the rice and the water. Bring everything to a boil and then let it down to a simmer, stirring like you would a risotto. After about 20 minutes everything should be gloopy, and all the water should be absorbed. When the rice is truly tender, add the lemon juice, salt, pepper, and mint, cover the pot, and turn off the heat. Let the Spanakorizo sit for about 20 minutes before you eat it. This recipe makes enough for four people.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Summer Strings and Cicadas play the Pachelbel Canon

The Cicadas begin softly during this evening concert, and by the end they are singing (or winging) in full voice.

They don't let me out very often: things I learned on my summer vacation

Since Michael and I live such a bucolic life in our year-round vacation home in Illinois, our summer vacations away tend to be one-week-long over-stimulation festivals, bookended by dawn-to-dusk driving. We do the same thing every year: see family and close friends in New Jersey, Boston, and New York. It is basically a "same time next year" affair, yet each year is distinctly different.

We saw signs (complete with actual signs) of the Recovery Act everywhere. There were projects in progress, and smooth-riding evidence that projects had been completed. The construction projects on I 70 didn't cause any real delays for us, though going slowly through the awesome bridge building projects is actually a pleasure. The delays on I 80 were not very pleasurable, but they could have been much worse (they were for the westbound travelers.)

We also saw even more signs of kindness among the inhabitants of Manhattan's Upper East Side, and its West Village than we noticed during our last visit to the city. The bustle and commerce of the West Village, and the renovation of Chelsea Market (and the awesome transformation of an elevated railway into an urban park) makes me reconsider the merits of capitalism. Here's a picture of me and Seymour Barab, my favorite inhabitant of the Upper East Side.

And here's a photo of me with Seymour's wife, Margie King, my other favorite Upper East Side inhabitant:

Boston and its suburbs have become much more international. What a treat it was to sit in a coffee shop and hear two sets of conversations in two different languages (I understood neither one). New York also seemed a lot more international than I remember it being, and the expansion of the term "International" from the European-dominated 20th-century into the fully global 21st is very exciting.

It also seems that classical radio has improved greatly over the past year. In Ohio and Pennsylvania there were actual live in-house radio announcers, who played interesting music. There was a recording of the Prokofiev Classical Symphony with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Ormandy, and a recording of the Schoenberg transcription of Johann Strauss' "Roses from the South" played by the Boston Symphony Chamber Players (I got to hear my father's famous pa pa coming after each um). There was even some vocal music on the radio: some Byrd performed by Chanticleer, that was on a program that followed Phil Schaap's week-long dissection under a microscope (with lots of repetition) of one day in the life of Charlie Parker (I think it was February 11, 1949). Too bad the Columbia University student who announced the Byrd didn't say anything about the Byrd-Bird connection. Who could pass up a radio moment like that?

Eight things I learned this year:

1. Old friends and old friendships get better with time and age.
2. Places change, and sometimes they change for the better. Progress is often a good thing.
3. Classical radio is still alive and well, and it seems to be sharing an audience with Jazz in some places.
4. Whole Foods makes the most extraordinary baked sesame tofu, and it makes terrific picnic food.
5. It is possible to travel well without stopping in a single fast-food restaurant, as long as you bring a large insulated cooler bag on your journey.
6. It is preferable to travel (as long as the weather is good) without stopping in a single fast-food restaurant.
7. Just because a museum is famous and highly regarded, you can't count on it to exhibit contemporary art that is worthy of the visibility.
8. It really doesn't matter anyway, because so much of New York's art is not found in museums: it's found on the streets and in the people.