Saturday, February 11, 2017

Thinking About Spring

Once again we have a tease of spring sandwiched between bouts of winter. Yesterday we were putting salt on the ice on the front step (so that the mail carrier wouldn't slip), and today, with the thermometer reading 61 degrees, I'm wearing a summer dress and am tempted, after doing some hefty practicing, to go dig in the spot in the back yard that will be our garden once official spring arrives.

Michael and I finished 1984 today, and I found a reference to "Some Thoughts on the Common Toad" in the introduction (I always read introductions last). I thought I would share a bit of it here.
As for spring, not even the narrow and gloomy streets round the Bank of England are quite able to exclude it. It comes seeping in everywhere, like one of those new poison gases which pass through all filters. The spring is commonly referred to as ‘a miracle’, and during the past five or six years this worn-out figure of speech has taken on a new lease of life. After the sorts of winters we have had to endure recently, the spring does seem miraculous, because it has become gradually harder and harder to believe that it is actually going to happen. Every February since 1940 I have found myself thinking that this time winter is going to be permanent. But Persephone, like the toads, always rises from the dead at about the same moment. Suddenly, towards the end of March, the miracle happens and the decaying slum in which I live is transfigured. Down in the square the sooty privets have turned bright green, the leaves are thickening on the chestnut trees, the daffodils are out, the wallflowers are budding, the policeman's tunic looks positively a pleasant shade of blue, the fishmonger greets his customers with a smile, and even the sparrows are quite a different color, having felt the balminess of the air and nerved themselves to take a bath, their first since last September.

Is it wicked to take a pleasure in spring and other seasonal changes? To put it more precisely, is it politically reprehensible, while we are all groaning, or at any rate ought to be groaning, under the shackles of the capitalist system, to point out that life is frequently more worth living because of a blackbird's song, a yellow elm tree in October, or some other natural phenomenon which does not cost money and does not have what the editors of left-wing newspapers call a class angle? There is not doubt that many people think so. I know by experience that a favourable reference to ‘Nature’ in one of my articles is liable to bring me abusive letters, and though the key-word in these letters is usually ‘sentimental’, two ideas seem to be mixed up in them. One is that any pleasure in the actual process of life encourages a sort of political quietism. People, so the thought runs, ought to be discontented, and it is our job to multiply our wants and not simply to increase our enjoyment of the things we have already. The other idea is that this is the age of machines and that to dislike the machine, or even to want to limit its domination, is backward-looking, reactionary and slightly ridiculous. This is often backed up by the statement that a love of Nature is a foible of urbanized people who have no notion what Nature is really like. Those who really have to deal with the soil, so it is argued, do not love the soil, and do not take the faintest interest in birds or flowers, except from a strictly utilitarian point of view. To love the country one must live in the town, merely taking an occasional week-end ramble at the warmer times of year.

This last idea is demonstrably false. Medieval literature, for instance, including the popular ballads, is full of an almost Georgian enthusiasm for Nature, and the art of agricultural peoples such as the Chinese and Japanese centre always round trees, birds, flowers, rivers, mountains. The other idea seems to me to be wrong in a subtler way. Certainly we ought to be discontented, we ought not simply to find out ways of making the best of a bad job, and yet if we kill all pleasure in the actual process of life, what sort of future are we preparing for ourselves? If a man cannot enjoy the return of spring, why should he be happy in a labour-saving Utopia? What will he do with the leisure that the machine will give him? I have always suspected that if our economic and political problems are ever really solved, life will become simpler instead of more complex, and that the sort of pleasure one gets from finding the first primrose will loom larger than the sort of pleasure one gets from eating an ice to the tune of a Wurlitzer. I think that by retaining one's childhood love of such things as trees, fishes, butterflies and — to return to my first instance — toads, one makes a peaceful and decent future a little more probable, and that by preaching the doctrine that nothing is to be admired except steel and concrete, one merely makes it a little surer that human beings will have no outlet for their surplus energy except in hatred and leader worship.
At any rate, spring is here, even in London N. 1, and they can't stop you enjoying it. This is a satisfying reflection. How many a time have I stood watching the toads mating, or a pair of hares having a boxing match in the young corn, and thought of all the important persons who would stop me enjoying this if they could. But luckily they can't. So long as you are not actually ill, hungry, frightened or immured in a prison or a holiday camp, spring is still spring. The atom bombs are piling up in the factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers, but the earth is still going round the sun, and neither the dictators nor the bureaucrats, deeply as they disapprove of the process, are able to prevent it.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Haydn Quartet Project

After this past year's Summer Strings came to a close, some adult members of the ensemble thought it might be a nice idea to play some chamber music together during the other seasons of the year, and to play it in the dining room of the assisted living facility where the violist lives. This violist, who was my stand-partner in orchestra for many years, suffers from early-onset Alzheimer's disease. She has difficulty with practical life issues, but when the viola is in her hands she plays beautifully. The cellist is a late starter who never played in a string quartet before, and the second violinist is a retired teacher who, though she has been a life-long amateur, also never played in a string quartet before. And I'm playing the first violin part, which is a novel position for me since I usually play viola in string quartets.

I suggested that we play through all the Haydn quartets in order, beginning with Opus 1. We meet once every two weeks or so, read the designated quartet through, work on trouble spots, and then read it through again. We have an appreciative audience of residents who keep coming back. The quartet novices get better every time we meet, and I keep surprising myself by actually doing what a first violinist in a string quartet needs to do.

Tonight we played Opus 2, Number 2 in E major. While we were playing I thought about the generations upon generations of people all over the world who have played these quartets, which were written in 1775, while living under all sorts of less-than-ideal systems of government. The people playing these quartets might have had the same psychic need for escape that my colleagues and I had this evening.

I don't know what the future holds for the country and the world, but I do know that next time we will play Opus 2, Number 3, and I know that it will be a meaningful, refreshing, and rewarding experience.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Dance to the Music of Time, or Caesium the Day

I have been listening to a podcast from the BBC that devotes individual episodes to individual elements. Aside from Tin, which is used in organ pipes, tin whistles, and a drum in a G├╝nther Grass novel, I have encountered little in the way of musical resonance, But today's episode on Caesium, which has been translated into this excellent article, makes me think of all sorts of musical things regarding time and measurement.

Now I understand what the atomic clock is. And I also learned that someone who studies time is called an Horologist, and the study of time is Horology.

I have always been amazed that we, as human beings, have the ability to divide beats into 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 16, and even 15 parts with enough accuracy to sing or play in unison with others. This article (and podcast) doesn't explain that phenomenon, but it at least provokes me to think about it. And then there's The Pajama Game.



With music's most famous Horologist!



And, of course, Messiaen's Quartet for the end of Time:


Sunday, January 08, 2017

Offbeat Afterthoughts

Last night, at the age of 57, I played my very first orchestral New Year's concert. The inspiration for most orchestral New Year's concerts is that of Willy Boskovsky and the Vienna Philharmonic, and there are usually Strauss Waltzes on the program. I have played quartet transcriptions of Strauss Waltzes, but last night was the first time I ever played the viola part of a true Viennese waltz as nature intended (as originally orchestrated).

At the first rehearsal my stand partner told me that one of her past orchestras devoted a whole year to playing Viennese music of all stripes, and the conductor was very meticulous about the way he wanted the after beats to fall. In Viennese fashion the second beat of the three-quarter-time measure falls a fraction of a bit sooner than it would fall when playing the second beat in a non-Viennese waltzes.

I had ample opportunity to experiment, and I found that if I simply let my bow drop to the string from above on the first of the after beats, and then allowed the second after beat to rebound gently on the up-bow stroke, I could get that lilting feeling that I understand to be stylistically appropriate. Since a mixture of gravity and Gem├╝tlichkeit was at play, it seemed to require no effort. No effort is good when your evening is populated mostly by off beats.

Another day, another off-beat.

This morning I played a bunch of waltzes arranged for string quartet. One was Viennese, but most of the pieces in three-quarter time were not. I tried my dropping bow technique on the Strauss, and it worked nicely. Then I tried the dropping bow technique on some non-Viennese waltzes, and it made them feel mannered and awkward.

Friday, January 06, 2017

Musical Life and Loss

The loss of a musician who, due to age, has exhausted his or her productivity is still a profound loss because a direct link to a tradition has been severed. I accept death as a natural ending to life. When someone lives out their full lifespan, that life is something to be celebrated, and the works and deeds that a person accomplished and shared should always be cherished as pieces of their best selves. I feel that with my mother's art that hangs on my walls.

But there is a personal connection that can't be seen, and can't truly be felt only through a person's works. (Usually words come easily to me, but now they don't.)

It has taken a while for me to truly accept Bernie Zaslav's death. I know that his body was failing. I know that he put in a good 90 years, and spent the last several months in physical discomfort. I know that he was ready to go, and that he was proud of what he accomplished during his life and his career as a musician.

Now I think of Bernie every time I play string quartets. And I believe that is the "place" he would have liked to be best remembered. In string quartets all over the world. There he is, mingled in with the Haydn. Celebrating sequences. Embracing dissonance, and rejoicing in resolution.

Now it's time to play some scales, while I look forward to playing quartets on Sunday . . .

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Bernard Zaslav: A Special Violist in My Life







Bernard Zaslav, who was born in 1926, died yesterday afternoon at the age of 90. He holds a very special and a very permanent place in my heart. I got to know Bernie extremely well, first through his recordings, then through the internet viola list, and later while working with him on his memoir, The Viola in My Life: An Alto Rhapsody.

Shortly after I began working with Bernie on his book I began to wonder if he might know my friend Seymour Barab, who was active in New York at the same time. I casually asked Seymour if he knew Bernie, and Seymour got very excited. He told me that they were in a string quartet together during the 1960s, and that they hadn't been in touch for 50 years (Bernie left New York for Milwaukee in 1968 to play with the Fine Arts Quartet, and Seymour remained in New York for the rest of his life). I gave each the other's phone number, and they renewed their friendship. Seymour read through a draft of Bernie's memoir and made many excellent suggestions. (Michael enjoyed Seymour's comments so much that he used to show pages of Seymour's editing to his college students.)

I have written a lot on this blog about Bernie. He was a remarkable man who, through his playing, his wit, and his kindness, brightened American musical life for much of the 20th century from sea to shining sea (peppered with many concert tours abroad).

You can find the posts I have written about him here, and you can get a copy of his memoir from Amazon, where he tells true tales about the marvelous musical world of the 20th century from the standpoint of one of its brilliant inner voices. The book comes with two CDs that give a musical overview of a remarkable career.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

What It Takes to Feel Good: The Nickolaus Technique

When I was a student at Juilliard I was often wracked with physical tension due mostly to constant practicing and always carrying a heavy shoulder bag filled with music and instruments. This was before people carried ergonomic backpacks. This was before the idea of ergonomic anything. Walking around the city in shoes that did not offer adequate support didn't help either.

One day in the winter 1979 a friend brought me to an exercise class that involved a brand new way of exercising developed by a dancer named Richard Nickolaus. The series of exercises, known as The Nickolaus Technique, was based on principles of Yoga and isometrics, and gave attention to all the moving parts of the body (including the feet). It involved controlled breathing, stretching, and strengthening, and it made an amazing difference in my life. There were studios all over the city, and if you were a member of one studio, you could take as many classes as you liked at any studio.



I took classes for around a year, and then I bought the book by Benno Isaacs and Jay Kobler so that I could keep doing the series of 30 exercises on my own when I went on my post-Juilliard travels. I somehow managed to misplace the book, but I still did the exercises. Well, some of them.

Last week, while I was out of town, I was showing a Yoga-minded friend some exercises from the Nickolaus Technique, and used my phone to search for it online. I couldn't remember the spelling of "Nickolaus," and was therefore unsuccessful. I tried again when I got home, and found a used copy of the book at Amazon for one cent. It arrived in the mail the other day, and I have been doing the series of 30 exercises after practicing.

What a great series of stretching and strengthening exercises it is! And it is particularly good for musicians of "a certain age" who are not as flexible as they once were.

Here's the cover:



And here's the Amazon link. I'm going to order a few more copies to give to my friends.

Friday, December 02, 2016

Trumpet Sonata Recording by Thomas Pfotenhauer and Vincent Fuh



A mystery package from Minnesota showed up in my postal mailbox. Michael opened it up and said, "You're on this CD!" We immediately put it in the CD player, and I am pleased to report that the playing is just great. I found a link to it here, and ordered some more copies.

I knew something about this recording, but I had no idea what the timeframe for it was!

Today's New York Times Includes a Piece about Music Written by Women

Maybe the New York Times could make "A History of Classical Music (The Women-Only Version) a column with weekly installments (with audio clips). Alice Gregory has started something good here.

For future columns, here is an incomplete list to work from. (And then there is this blog . . . )

Monday, November 28, 2016

Thoughts About Musical Memory

I am impressed by people who can memorize music and then perform that music from memory. I have (thankfully) only had to do it a few times in my life. The first time was in a lesson with Julius Baker during my first year at Juilliard. I was playing a Casterede etude for him. He asked me if I could play it from memory, and I had practiced the piece so many times (for many years) that I was able to play it for him without looking at the music (It was a short etude, and I had just played it with the music in front of me.)

I must have been playing that etude by ear and by feel. I wouldn't say that I was playing it by memory. I don't know if I could have done it again. Luckily I didn't have to find out. When my mother studied with Julius Baker in the 1950s, she had to play everything from memory (which she could do: she had absolute pitch and an incredible memory). I'm grateful that Baker softened up a bit by the 1970s, but he was still impressed by people who could play from memory.

When playing scales and arpeggios on the flute without looking at music, I have to take time to think about what notes I might be playing. When playing scales and arpeggios on the viola or the violin, I have to think about what position I might happen to be in, what instrument I am playing, and what string I happen to be on before I could begin to tell you what scale or arpeggio I might be playing.

I do not memorize music well. I have tried. Again and again. I can rattle off songs I learned long ago, but my interpretation and understanding of them hasn't changed since my adolescent brain imprinted them in the "permanent" section of my memory banks. There are theme songs to television shows, songs from musicals and operettas I did in Junior High and High School, the first dozen or so lines of the poem, "Cut" by Sylvia Plath that I recited as part of an "avant garde" band piece we did in high school where everyone had to recite a different poem at the same time, songs I sang with my kids when they were little, much of the Mozart D major Flute Concerto, Syrinx, the Gluck melody from Orpheus, and the Baker set of daily warm-up excerpts. These are things I learned by rote.

I can make it through some of the first movement of the Bach E-major Partita on the violin without the music in front of me, but I always end up modulating to an impossible key before I realize that I have gotten myself off track. I can also make it through the first movement of the Bach G-major Cello Suite once in a while, and occasionally I surprise myself to find that I can play other movements in the Cello Suites without music. But I can't tell you which ones.

When I practice the E-major Partita (in A major on the viola) with music, I get new musical insights every time. And when I practice the G-major Cello Suite with music I learn something new every time. For me having the music in front of me allows me the freedom to group notes in new (for me) ways. Having the music in front of me helps me to really know where I have been, where I am, and where I am going. It gives me a foot hold. It helps me feel at ease playing in front of people. Playing with the music in front of me becomes more about the music than it does about my playing of the music.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Joy of Hard Work: Getting From Can't to Can

While I believe that every child should have the opportunity to participate in musical activities, and I think that it is beneficial to everyone to study an instrument (or voice) with a good teacher, I have learned from experience that the only people who truly succeed at playing a musical instrument are the people who get enjoyment from the hard work of practicing.

Getting from can't to can is a profound journey, and it is a journey I have taken many times with different instruments. I have finally found the instrument I love to practice most of all (the viola), and feel extremely fortunate that I have put in enough work so that I use the word "can't" only rarely. I also love the journey between can't and can with the viola as much as I appreciate being able to play my instrument in a way that expresses my deepest inner voice. And every new piece allows for the possibility of a new and interesting journey.

In my nearly 40 years of teaching (nearly 40 years!), the students who seem to have gotten the greatest benefit from studying music are the students who enjoy the process of making improvements in their playing by taking baby steps: notching passages with a metronome, becoming aware of how they feel when using their playing mechanisms efficiently, and gaining an understanding of the possibilities to be found in a musical phrase.

Some people are "wired" to practice and play, and some people are "wired" to do other things. People who do not get pleasure out of the process of practicing might find that they get more pleasure out of the process of working hard at something other than music. My hope is that my students who no longer play find an area of concentration that asks them to work hard, and that they find joy in the process of improving in their area of concentration through consistent work. I also hope that they keep music in their lives and do not associate no longer playing with a sense of failure. And then there is the secret pie-in-the-sky hope that when they get to a point in their lives where they want to try playing again, I hope that they find new enjoyment in the hard work that all of us have to do in order to get from can't to can.



Saturday, November 26, 2016

New Mozart Flute Concerto?

I saw a notice that the very first performance of a recently-discovered flute concerto by W. A. Mozart will be live-streamed from Istanbul on December 2 by way of Tutti Mozart's FaceBook page, but it is not clear (to me, at least) if this is a work that is totally original or a piece written by Johann Baptist Wendling with some help from Mozart. Somehow I imagine that a discovery of a new Mozart concerto would have made large ripples in the musicological ether. I can't seem to find any at this point.

People interested will have to do some calculations regarding the time of the concert, taking the International Date Line into consideration. I might sit this one out, but I'm sharing the link here anyway.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Off Topic, But On My Mind

Michael mentioned that I hadn't written anything about this election on my blog, so I decided to interrupt my scales to say what is distracting me from practicing them properly. I'll be brief. Music is a distraction that I need to fill the larger part of my brain right now because the only positive thing I can see in Tuesday's election of Donald Trump is the possibility of a way out of a Trump presidency.

There is one that makes sense to me. You can read about it in Douglas Anthony Cooper's article in yesterday's Huffington Post. Cooper reminds us of the real purpose of the electoral college as envisioned by Alexander Hamilton:
Trump can still be stopped. The Founding Fathers foresaw just this catastrophe, and built a fail-safe into the Constitution. It’s called the Electoral College. Alexander Hamilton was explicit: this mechanism was designed to ensure that “the office of president will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.” In short, it was designed to prevent just this situation: the rise of an unqualified demagogue like Donald Trump.
Cooper suggests that we should all write to elected officials (both Democratic and Republican) in the states that voted for Trump to consider their electoral college options.

I think that most of the people reading this blog would agree, regardless of the party they support (or don't support), that we need to use whatever power (within the Constitution) we can to prevent this would-be autocrat from being inaugurated.

OK. I'm going back to my scales. I have been putting special focus on minor keys these days.

Sunday, November 06, 2016

Gravitas: Ballad for Americans

I find it interesting to compare these two recordings:





Here's an obituary for Earl Robinson, the composer.

Saturday, November 05, 2016

Reading Aloud

The latest adventure that Michael and I have had in our Four Seasons Book Club (we meet during all four seasons, in the living room, and generally after lunch) is reading the Odyssey out loud, swapping readers whenever there is a break in the text. Michael has read and taught the poem (in various translations) dozens of times, and this was my maiden voyage. What a tremendous experience it was to play the parts of both poet and audience in this re-enactment of such an important oral/aural tradition. It helped to really enjoy the work itself.

The act of reading out loud is quite different from the act of reading without speaking. Our eyes need to scan far ahead in order to make sense of the words we are reading. And when the lines I am reading are lines of poetry in translation, I find that I have to pay a different kind of attention to context, because the flow of the text is not necessarily predictable or natural. If the text is rhythmic and has a rhyme scheme, it is far easier to allow the words to trip off the tongue.

When we sightread music we are always preparing in our inner ears for what is ahead. Music set in regular rhythmic and harmonic patterns is far easier to sightread than music with irregular rhythmic patterns, and it is far easier to sightread a piece or passage when we can understand, by the experience of having played similar music, its harmonic logic.

I was thinking about this the other day while teaching a student who found herself tripping over otherwise straightforward notes in a passage. I took out a book and asked her to read a sentence or two. (She prefaced her reading with saying that she was horrible at reading aloud, but I found that she was perfectly good at it.) I asked her to observe the way her eyes and ears worked when she was reading aloud. Then we went back to the musical passage in question, and she found that she could expand her field of vision and inner ear the same way when reading music.

(For today's meeting of the reading club--after lunch, in the living room--we are going back to silent reading. And Balzac is on the menu.)