Monday, February 29, 2016

What's an Election?

[Posted by a very proud mother. Please play it for your children, students, and grandchildren.]

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

It's That Time of Year Again (Our Annual March Concert of Music Written by Women)

My friend John David and I play two recitals every year. Half of the music we play comes from female composers, and half of the music we play comes from male composers. I'm very excited about this year's Women's History and Awarness Month program, because it has some really terrific music on it, and everything was written originally for the viola.

Minna Keal's "Ballade," was written for the viola, but it is sometimes played by cellists (in the same octave, save a few notes, as the viola), and my Luxury Suite has a version for cello that is sometimes in the same octave as the original. Lionel Tertis, the great British violist and muse for composers interested in writing for the viola, admired the Ballade. Keal wrote it in 1928, while she was a student at the Royal Academy of Music. She revised it for publication in 1992.

Pamela Harrison's 1946 Sonata for Viola and Piano is a terrific piece that was written during the later part of England's viola-centric period (with Lionel Tertis as its focal point). Vavaria Gaigarova's Opus 8 Sonata is one of her earlier works. She dedicated it to Vadim Vasilyevich Borisovsky (1900-1972), who taught viola at the Moscow Conservatory.

The pieces by Harrison and Gaigarova were both published long after the death of their composers. Harrison died in 1990, and her Sonata was published in 2001; Gaigarova died in 1944 (at the age of 41), and her Sonata was published in 1969, four years before the death of Borisovsky, its dedicatee (and editor).

Sunday, February 21, 2016

A Few Quick Thoughts About Tempo

All tempo is relative.

Unless you are playing with a metronome, it is really difficult to maintain exactly the same tempo throughout an entire movement.

Why would you want to, anyway?

The more complicated a piece is harmonically, the more time a person who is listening needs to process the music.

The same goes for serious leaps in register.

Many composers write metronome markings that are too fast.

Sometimes composers write metronome markings that are too slow.

The same composer can do both.

The right tempo is the tempo that is right for the people playing and the acoustics of a space.

The right tempo is a tempo that is within the technical capabilities of the people playing.

The right tempo for you and your musical partner(s) may not be the right tempo for me and mine.

The tempo that happens in a rehearsal may not necessarily be the tempo that will happen in a performance.

But that's just fine.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Board of Education film of Chicago in the 1940s

My mother grew up in Chicago during the 1930s and 1940s. It is a different world from the Chicago of today.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

June Fine (June 30, 1932 - February 14, 2016)

My mother died peacefully in her sleep this morning. Her imminent death was not a surprise, and everyone in her family was able to see her and/or talk to her during her last several weeks, but the finality of it is still profound. Michael and I, along with my brother and his wife, were with her last Saturday, and I feel that nothing I wanted to say to her was left unsaid. I played her a recording of my Piccolo Sonata, which had been performed a few days before our visit, and I read her "The Pen and the Inkwell," a Hans Christian Andersen that always made me think of her wit and motivations, particularly for her artwork.

But there are things I would have wanted her to know. Yesterday, for example, Michael and I were at the Van Gogh exhibit at the Art Institute in my mother's home town of Chicago. It was a members-only preview so we actually got to get close enough to really look at the paintings. Michael and I both remarked that some of Van Gogh's early work is similar to some of my mother's work. They painted the same kinds of things, and it feels like there was a similar resonance in their emotional connection to objects, houses, and things of nature.

You can see my mother's paintings here.

My mother came to art later in her life. She was born with a great musical ear, a tremendous intellect, and an iron will. She went to Chicago Musical College as a flutist and studied with Julius Baker for a while. I'm pretty sure that the reason Baker took me as a student was became of my mother, who often mentioned how much he enjoyed her name (June Blume). There was one point in my childhood in Newton when my mother, who taught at the All Newton Music School, had a flutist colleague named April Showers. My mother did not make her maiden name public, so the beauty of this synchronicity was only appreciated by a select few.

My mother had rheumatic fever at the age of eight, and it left her with rheumatoid arthritis which compromised mobility in her hands. She began playing the flute for finger therapy, and became an accomplished flutist. She and my father met playing together in the Grant Park Symphony in Chicago. They married and moved to Cleveland, where she was active as a flutist (she loved Cleveland), and then they moved to Newton, Massachusetts when my father got a job in the Boston Symphony. In addition to teaching at the All Newton Music School and playing principal flute in the Newton Symphony, my mother also went to Emerson College to study music therapy, which was a relatively new field in the 1970s.

Eventually my mother's arthritis (and complications with surgery) made it impossible for her to play the flute, so she devoted her musical energies to singing. She was a founding member of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, which became the official chorus for the Boston Symphony. She had a good voice (and absolute pitch), but not a great voice, so she moved her expressive energies in the direction of art.

My mother always drew well (I have some of her early artwork), so she devoted her time and talent to learning how to paint with oils and water colors. Eventually she got a job working as a secretary at Mass Art, and was able to take classes there. She wanted to study seriously, and had to persuade the faculty members at Mass Art that as an older student she was just as capable of learning as a younger student would be.

She spent every weekend painting, and she had a storefront studio-gallery in Newton Highlands. All was well, until macular degeneration set in and slowly robbed her of her vision. When she could no longer see colors sharply, she did fabric collage, and when she could no longer do fabric collage, she had to stop doing artwork altogether.

When she began to lose her vision she threw her energies into writing (something she had always done, to a certain extent), and she wrote three novels and a couple of children's books, none of which have been published. She was always an avid reader, so her blindness made her a huge consumer of audiobooks (thanks to the Perkins Library). One of my greatest joys was going on their website and picking out books that I thought my mother would enjoy, and then talking with her about them. After Michael and I read Moby Dick together this past May (the inaugural book of our reading club), my mother read the audio book. In addition to audiobooks, she was an avid NPR listener.

When she knew that her life was coming to an end due to tongue and throat cancer, which was at stage four when she was diagnosed, she elected not to treat it because treatment would include not only chemotherapy and radiation, but the removal of her tongue and part of her jaw. This would end her ability to talk and eat, which were the two pleasures left to her. Her family and friends supported her in her decision. Her greatest desire was to remain alive long enough to vote in the primary. I think that she left this earth knowing that the political winds were blowing in a slightly more leftward direction.

[Michael also wrote a post about my mother on his blog.]

Thursday, February 11, 2016


I have a group of students who take the task of learning to play the violin seriously. We spend lessons disciplining left hands and bow arms, and I try to instill levity into the process. I try to make the work fun, because I actually enjoy work.

(Sometimes I liken training the fingers of the left hand, particularly the pinkie, to training a dog.)

(It usually makes my students smile.)

Once a student gets the upper hand on the technical stuff in a piece, and once a student is able to make a beautiful sound (I believe that a beautiful sound can happen from the beginning) at will, it's time to exercise the musical imagination.

I find that simply asking someone to play with imagination doesn't generate much in the way of musical excitement. Perhaps one of the reasons that children like to play with toys is that toys act as a springboard for the imagination. A toy can act as an object outside of the self that can be used to create a unique narrative. I suppose that even an imaginary friend or a character in a story can fill the purpose. The instrument and bow are tools that can act as toys as long as they are put into a context, but learning how to instill a sense of play in music making is what really makes for individualized performances and honest personal expression.

I suggested to one student that approaching a performance is kind of like starting a game in a team sport. We used basketball as an example because she likes to play basketball. At the beginning of a game everyone knows the rules, everyone knows the part of the court they are responsible for, and everyone has the necessary equipment. Once the game begins it becomes exciting because of the play that happens spontaneously when the elements (and people) interact. You cannot force excitement in a basketball game (or any other game), but you can allow, through the interplay of elements, excitement to happen.

When you are having fun, people who are watching the game are having fun.

It's the same with music. The elements in the music: the themes, the phrases, the articulations, the dynamics, the harmonies, the dialogues, and all sorts of other unnamable elements enter onto the "court," and the result is play. We toss melodies back and forth, we reach for high notes, and we execute difficult passages with precision. We follow the natural rebound of the bow on the string (or the tongue on the airstream), and we extend our awareness way beyond what is right in front of our eyes. The more awareness we have of what is happening in the music, the more interesting and exciting it becomes to play it.