Wednesday, November 30, 2022

"Scale Tales" Review in the ASTA Journal!

I hope that this review in the American String Teacher will lead a lot of people to "Scale Tales."

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

My Orchestra, enhanced with members of the East Central Illinois Youth Orchestra

This is from a concert the Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra played last April. I'm proud to share a video recording of the Tchaikovsky here (I'm the shorter of the two silver-haired violists, in case you are wondering).

Sunday, November 20, 2022

Music to play for Thanksgiving

I made this arrangement for violin and viola (with its alternate bass clef part for the lower voice) several Thanksgivings ago, and thought I'd share it again. It can be played by any combination of people who happen to be around on Thanksgiving, and can be played by any combination of instruments.

This song brings to mind the childhood school celebrations of the holiday. My mind's eye remembers the pilgrim and turkey candles we used to have as classroom decorations.

But when I look at the pilgrim candles through the eyes of a twenty-first-century adult, they look very odd. They are all so Germanically White. The men have muskets, and the women, who are presented as pious with their praying hands, look like girls. If the characters are supposed to be children, it is just as disconcerting to see they way they dress up to "be" adults.

I realize that one of the things I am most thankful for this Thanksgiving is the cultural and racial diversity that is twenty-first-century America. Another is that men don't have to carry muskets anymore. The sight of a gun on candle character meant to celebrate a holiday invented to give thanks takes me aback.

Saturday, November 19, 2022

The Fragrance of the Rose

What a treat to get an email from Sweden with a link to this video!

This is one of a set of songs that I wrote to five very short poems written by Milly Morganstern, my friend Danny Morganstern's mother. Milly was a very wise woman and a great pianist: Leonard Rose always enjoyed it when she played for Danny's lessons.

Milly's poems are loaded with musical possibilities, and I loved exploring them. I'm sure that she would have been thrilled to hear this performance. I certainly am.

Having this as "art song of the week" makes me smile, and brightens up my week. And month. And year.

Thank you Karin Fjellander and Amanda Elvin!

Sunday, November 06, 2022

Propelled by Air

The viola d'amore I play was a gift from my father, who had stopped using the instrument in the 1990s. I played it with a modern bow for many years, and at some point in the not-too-distant past my father remembered that he hadn't given me the baroque viola bow that it should be played with.

Since most of my viola d'amore playing is in a consort, where I use the instrument as a viol (a role it plays well), it doesn't get to act like a baroque viola bow should (or could). It has since migrated to my violin case, where I use it happily to practice Bach and Telemann, and to play Haydn Quartets on the violin. I hadn't yet had the occasion or opportunity to play it in a group setting as a viola bow.

I contemplated bringing it to the first rehearsal for a Handel and Telemann concert I played yesterday, but resisted because I thought it might be pretentious to do so. At the end of that rehearsal the conductor invited us to use baroque bows, if we had them. It turned out that the only people who brought baroque bows to the second rehearsal were two out of the three violas, but we were in good company (and we are good friends too).

It was my first time playing this beautiful baroque viola bow in the "home" it was designed for. It felt fantastic. Beyond fantastic. Everything felt propelled by air. The bow can move so quickly when playing down-bow, because there is absolutely no weight at the tip, and you can put a lot of arm weight in while playing up-bow without getting any pitch distortion or getting annoying lumps and bumps. Jumping across strings is a breeze, and varying the length and quality of notes requires thought and imagination, but very little physical effort.

Yesterday morning was blusetry. It was so blustery that the National Weather Service advised caution while driving on east-west roads. Luckily I had a route to drive (about an hour) that was mainly due north. I had the wind at my back, and enjoyed amazing gas mileage with our Prius. Also, before leaving for rehearsal, Michael and I enjoyed doing a 30-minute Pilates session with "The Girl with the Pilates Mat" on YouTube, so I felt stretched, strong, balanced, and comfortable in my skin.

During the morning rehearsal we got to play standing up, and I was able to shift my weight on the floor while my bow arm fully enjoyed the novel and wonderful physical sensation of using broad and varied gestures to connect with my fellow musicians.

Playing baroque music in a way that naturally draws upon the strengths of the instrument and the strengths of the moving body is so refreshing. The "rules-based" approach that some people used in my musical past turned me off because it focused more on limitations than on expression of what was in the music. But playing in this particular situation, with this bow, and with these people, I felt that the possibilities for expression were limitless.

During the concert I felt like I could play and connect with full presence, using everything I had, and expressing everything that I wanted (in the moment and in the music) to express. And when it was over I knew a good time was had by all.

Cellist Robert Gardner

My friend Danny Morganstern has written a lovely post about his friend Robert Gardner, a superb cellist, and the inventor of the Augmented Efficiency Bridge (pictured above).

Wednesday, November 02, 2022

The Beaten Path

When the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem you face looks like a nail.

--Abraham Maslow

Go on the beaten path. You won't have as much company as you think.

--Stevens Hewitt

These two seemingly contradictory ideas have been dancing around in my head today, and have started resonating together after my second day of practicing scales on the piano. I have always been an iconoclast, and I have a tendency to imagine that I can get things done by following my own methods. Sometimes it works. I have never been the kind of person who applies a single fingering pattern to scales and scale passages on the violin or the viola, because I like to look for the "solution" to a particular problem that feels most practical and/or most natural.

I thought I could apply this natural approach to piano playing, but I have reached a point where the dirt and dust on the "window" between my brain and my fingers requires a serious cleaning with a tool that I haven't used in a long time. Yesterday I looked into my file cabinet, pulled out the Cramer scale book, and practiced ascending and descending two-handed scales (with their tried-and-true fingerings) for the major and minor keys with sharps. Today I did the keys with flats, which I find to be more difficult than the sharp keys.

What a difference a good tool makes! I am not an proficient scale player by any stretch of the imagination (that will take a few months of daily practice), but I am able to make it into the world of many sharps and many flats in major and minor keys without looking at my hands. It feels kind of like I have taken a bottle of windex and a scouring pad, and have removed a bunch of calcified grime from the inside of my head. I'm looking forward to the day when those pathways will be clean and clear, and will only need wiping.

If I play the piano by ear, I can find the pitches I want, but I can't do it with any kind of speed or physical confidence. If I play viola or violin by ear, I can find the pitches I want, but since I do not have absolute pitch, I often have no clue what pitches I am playing once I venture outside of first and third position and into keys that do not involve open strings.

Perhaps that's why I like reading music so much. Reading the music allows me to spend my energy on other things, like sound, expression, phrasing, and context. As much as I appreciate some aspects of the Suzuki method of musical learning, I feel that learning to play by ear and by memorizing physical motions may not be the best way of learning for everyone. It certainly isn't the best way for me. It might be a quick way to learn in the short run, but I tend to forget things that I learn quickly.

Michael and I have been listening to "Sold a Story," a new podcast from American Public Media that concerns the teaching of reading. Episodes air every Thursday, and we have listened to the first three episodes. Tomorrow we'll get to hear the fourth episode. I wonder if there is a correlation between learning to read by using phonics and learning to play music by learning to read the notes, and I wonder if there is a correlation between teaching reading without incorporating phonics and teaching kids to play without incorporating note reading.