Friday, October 30, 2009


I'm going to make a confession here that will sound strange: I don't like listening to music all that much. Oh, there are times when I can get into it, and I do enjoy turning on the radio and listening to the flow of programming, but in general, a lot of music just bores me. When I do listen, I prefer hearing either the best or someone who's learning -- I find both instructive. Many nicely polished performances are missing that spark of something real and warm that is so compelling in some of the old recordings, for example.

Few concerts actually appeal to me enough for me to spend the time and money attending them. The only reason I've been to as many concerts as I have has been because of my husband, who is an avid jazz listener and who also has wanted to hear classical music since he met me. But many times I have to get into a mood in which I close my eyes to the cost of the tickets and just go with the flow.

Why is this? Well, in the case of orchestras, I know most of them are just going through the motions, playing the classical top 40 over and over and over again, year after year after year. It's really a terrible shame that this is so, but there is little vitality to these types of concerts, despite the tremendous amount of talent that is often on display. They all seem to put together bland programs designed to appeal to the least ambitious, most conservative ticket buyer. I know this kind of thing has been said by many others more qualified to complain than I, but there it is.

As for soloists, recitalists, and chamber groups, it is more or less the same deal for me. Instrumentalists -- violinists, violists, cellists, wind players -- play the same handful of concertos when they solo with orchestras, and more or less the same group of sonatas and other recital pieces when they play accompanied by piano. There are some people I remember finding interesting for various reasons, or maybe it was just the circumstances under which I heard them -- perhaps if they were people that I knew, or they were playing a piece I was interested in because I was playing it, too. I always liked the Guarneri Quartet, for example, but I can't exactly tell you why.

But I must emphasize that I am embarrassed to be admitting this (on the Internet, where thousands of people can read it, yes, of course) and wish it were all different for me. I envy people who can listen attentively and then come up with incisive commentary afterward. I have never been able to offer a sincere yet thoughtful critique of other people's playing, which is especially awkward after a concert by a friend, or during a rehearsal. Every once in a while, if I'm tuned in to the piece or the performer, I can say something useful, but more often I'm standing there stammering, "Uh, that was really good!"

One exception to my listener ennui: since I have gotten back into playing the piano, I have been fascinated with seeing and hearing pianists play. However, I still don't know what to say to them after I have heard them play.

Criticism is something they ought to teach at music school. It should be a required course, along with the one in which they teach you how to earn a living.

The fact is that I'd rather play than listen.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

What's going on here?

I seem to be developing a theme here -- basically, "Man (and woman) does not live by music alone." Am I still trying to justify quitting, or my lack of success at it, by pointing out these cautionary tales of truncated, empty lives?

Or am I trying to get at why I could never throw myself into it completely? Perhaps it was a self-preservative instinct that kept me from doing so. If you don't commit, it's harder to get hurt.

Perhaps the people who crash and burn give it their all, and then they don't have anything left when things get rough.

Then there's the question of what "success" even means in this business. To me, it's always been figuring out how to set up one's life with a good balance among all of one's activities, both those necessary to survive and those that serve to feed one's interests and passions.

I know now that I've set things up so that I can work on the piano any time I want to, playing the cello doesn't make me feel sad the way it used to. All of my eggs are not in one basket.

This is something I need to think about some more.

Geoffrey Tozer

I had never heard of this pianist until a few days ago, when someone on Piano World posted a link to a story about his memorial service. He died in August of this year at the age of 54 after years of decline following early successes as a child prodigy and young man. The medical cause of his death was liver disease, developed over years of alcoholic drinking.

You can read about him here and in former Australian prime minister Paul Keating's eulogy here.

I was struck, reading about this man so soon after seeing the movie I described in my last post, by the contrast between his difficult life and those of the accomplished amateur pianists in the movie. I keep thinking about how his early concentration on music crippled his personal development.

From my admittedly quick reading of the facts, it seems that Tozer followed some very bad advice and made some very bad decisions. For example, one trusted adviser told him he should skip high school and just play concerts and meet people, which he proceeded to do. I'm sure following this course of action enabled him to develop his artistry and technical skill to a high level, but at what cost?

And then when Tozer was in his early 40s, he came to Keating's notice and ultimately was awarded grants totaling more than half a million dollars over 10 years. He certainly did many worthwhile things with the money -- such as embarking on some ambitious recording projects -- but did not establish a stable life. The grants were given by one politician and taken away by another, so they were not something anyone should have counted on for the long term.

Keating, in his eulogy, laid heavy blame for Tozer's death on the failure of the musical establishment in his own country to support and nurture this artist, and he excoriated Australia's orchestras for not supporting their home-grown genius. His comments were ill-informed. Very few classical musicians -- only those at the very top of the heap, like the Yo Yo Mas -- are supported by such hiring, which only is financially significant if the artist performs constantly at first-class venues. Most full-time musicians, even the very successful ones, put together a patchwork of jobs and count themselves lucky if they can pay the rent. Even if Tozer had performed with every orchestra in Australia several times a year, though perhaps it would have supported him emotionally, it would not have supported him materially.

I do believe that governments should support the arts because they cannot flourish under capitalism. Just because something is commercially viable does not mean that it's good. So much dreck that is passed off as music earns most of the money, and most of the real artists, whether they play classical, jazz, or other creative forms, are left to flounder and make their own way.

Thousands of very fine musicians have the same troubles as Tozer and do not self-destruct. His story is a sad one, and perhaps even a tragedy in the classical sense in which the protagonist causes his own downfall, but I sense that his problems went much deeper than lack of recognition for his art.

Monday, October 26, 2009

They Came to Play

I saw this movie this evening: They Came to Play.

It's a documentary about the 2007 Van Cliburn International Amateur Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs. Held in Fort Worth, Texas, every 4 years, the competition chooses 75 pianists for the preliminary round based on recorded applications, narrows them down to 25 for the semifinals, six for the finals, and then awards three prizes. Amateur is defined here someone who does not earn their living from playing or teaching piano. The requirements are much looser than for professional competitions -- there are no repertoire restrictions, and music does not need to be memorized.

The documentary was fantastic. This was the premiere showing in a commercial theater (it has been shown at several film festivals and has won prizes), and the producer of the film was there as well as a couple of the competitors, who played after the screening. If you go to the film's website at the link above, you will get a taste of the look and sound of the movie.

What was especially interesting to me was that almost all the people in the competition were middle-aged, with full-time jobs, families, and other interests. Some were older and retired from long nonmusic careers. Some had had terrible setbacks in life, such as major illness, drug problems, family problems, and dislocation from their birth countries. But they were all highly intelligent, articulate, and interesting people who had made the best of their various situations. A number of them had studied piano seriously and gone to conservatories. They were all very good players, some excellent.

I guess what I'm driving at is related to my previous post: that it's possible to have a full life, not be a starving artist, and also achieve a high level of playing an instrument. Not doing it for money (the prizes in this competition are extremely modest -- first prize is only $2,000; the real prize is getting to participate) seems to enhance the experience.

One of the competitors in the movie quoted Stravinsky: "If you can make a million dollars doing something other than music, do it."

Another, berating himself for not playing so well after he came off stage, said, "I have to turn the switch and remember that I'm an amateur!"

Friday, October 23, 2009

Never too late?

Years ago, my mother gave me a book titled Never Too Late. The cover had a photograph of a man playing the cello next to a little girl playing the violin, which is probably what caught my mother's eye.

The book was by a man named John Holt. Holt was an educator who wrote several influential books (including How Children Fail and How Children Learn). Early in his career as a teacher, he began trying to reform the U.S. educational system, but later came to believe that it could not be reformed and became one of the first proponents of homeschooling.

Never Too Late (this link takes you to a preview of the book where you can read several of its chapters) is the story of how he learned about music and took up the cello when he was 50. The comments I've seen about this book have been along the lines of "inspiring," "moving," "gave me hope."

I remember reading this book and thinking, "Well, okay, that's nice," but (you knew there would be a "but" somewhere in here, didn't you?) then I got to the end, where he had a list of all the things he had given up to pursue his dream of playing the cello. It was a very long list that included things like traveling, going to movies, socializing with his friends, and on and on. He acknowledged that he knew he'd never be that good a cello player but that it was worth it anyway.

I was shocked. It's all very well to want to play an instrument; I'm obviously in favor of that. But to give up every other enjoyable activity in your life? That's nutty, I thought at the time.

You have to have a balance. Even if you are a genius at music, you need to do other things that engage your mind or playing becomes a stale prison.

It's true that it's never too late to try, but to reach a level of proficiency equal to that of people who started when they were younger -- really, in whatever skill you're talking about, not just music -- it is too late. Maybe the nonmusician thinks that playing an instrument is like driving a car: you either can do it or you can't, like there's an on-off switch. Although to a car-driving afficionado there's probably all kinds of fine points of differentiation, even so, there's a point of competence at which a person has mastered the skills enough to turn the car on, start it, stop it, steer it, maneuver it in traffic, and park -- and you get a license attesting to all this. There's no license for cello playing (though maybe there should be).

I don't know if my mother gave me that book because she didn't understand what it was about or because she thought it would encourage me to be satisfied with amateur status. At the time, I was in the middle of all my battles and anxieties over my so-called career and wasn't ready to think about it that way. But I still think Holt was wrong to advocate forswearing every other joy in life. My conjecture is that he must have had some other issues that he wasn't willing to face, at least not in public.

The way I see it now is there is a long, long skill continuum. People can be musical at every point on it. The process of development is also a continuum, and the best way to learn is slowly and steadily. The most important thing is to keep at it regularly, even if you spend just a little bit of time some days. If you do this, you will learn and grow at your own pace. And live your life!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

What I've played so far

I've been meaning to sit down and figure out what I've played over the past 5 years. So here it is, to the best of my recollection:

Granados, Valses Poeticos
Bach, J. S., Preludes and Fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier (in the order I learned them):
D Minor (No. 6,  Book II)
B flat Major (No. 21, Book I)
A Minor (No. 20, Book II)
F Major (No. 11, Book I)
F minor (No. 12, Book II)
C Minor (No. 2, Book I)
C Major (No. 1, Book I)
C Sharp Major (No. 3, Book I)
Debussy, Children’s Corner
Mozart, Sonata K310 (A Minor)
Waltz (A Minor, Op. Post.)
Nocturnes 55/1 (F Minor); 27/1 (C Sharp Minor)
Preludes 28/1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 9, 15, 21, 22
Mazurka 6/1
Etude 25/7
Tiersen, Comptine d’un autre ete; Valse d’Amelie
Beethoven, Sonata (“Tempest”; incomplete)
Gershwin, Preludes (incomplete)
Brahms, Intermezzo Op. 118, No. 1 (C Major)

A real moment of truth here. When I wrote it all down, a couple of things struck me. One is how short this list is, and how short most of the pieces are! I felt like I've been practicing for many hours over these 5 years. But if I'm honest, I have to admit that many days I either didn't practice at all or practiced for a very short time. I do have a full-time job, and I have also been busy with a lot of other things.

Another is how lopsided it is toward Bach and Chopin. I've gotten into this -- well, it's a rut, I guess, where I'm thinking that I have to press on in my quest to learn all of the Well-Tempered Clavier and all of the Op. 28 Preludes. On the other hand, these pieces really are my exercises. Learning them has developed my technique and ability to memorize, and it has been interesting.

So I really don't know whether this is good, bad, or indifferent. Should I branch out and try to make this more well-rounded? I have had fits of doing this, when I worked on Bartok or Scarlatti or Rachmaninoff for a while, but because I've been focused on the Bach and Chopin projects, those other pieces fell by the wayside after a week or so.

I suppose if I get to the end of my life and I've only learned the entire WTC and the complete Chopin Op. 28, it won't be a total loss.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Recognition: Other thoughts

My post yesterday sounded awfully preachy; I had some need to wrap things up with a moral, skipping over the darkest nights of the soul and all that.

One reason people crave recognition is it's part of the apparently wired-in need to compete. Picture cavemen sitting around the fire, and Ogg wowing the others with his ability throw a rock and hit the prey every time. Ogg not only gets to eat more often but people maybe give him stuff so he will bag them more food, too, or so he will throw rocks at predators and protect them.

With musicians, what happens is that first, you realize you love to play. Then, if you get good enough, you think that maybe you can do this all the time. You quickly realize that if you want to play for other people, you have to compete with other musicians for the opportunity. This is where desire for success starts to dilute love of playing. The deeper you get into competing -- for awards, for spots in schools, for jobs -- the farther you get from your original motivation.

If you suffer defeat after defeat -- as most of us do, for one reason or another -- you wake up after 5, 10, 20 years, or more, and realize that you don't love playing anymore or, if you do, that you hate this competition business.

Some do thrive on it. They have the constitution and the extroverted personality. As you can probably guess, I do not. I can handle a certain amount of socializing, but it's work for me; I am not energized by it. Competing, even when I am legitimately equal to or better than those I"m competing with, exhausts me and fills me with a deep sense of inadequacy. I'd venture that even an extrovert tires of the game eventually, but I get tired before it even starts.

Self-recognition is all very well, and certainly is necessary, but it doesn't pay the rent. Recognition by others doesn't always have much to do with one's playing ability, or even music at all.

I don't have a neat way to wrap this up, other than to add that this is a complicated topic that calls for careful consideration. Anyone who ventures into playing music must grapple with it at some point, at some level.

Monday, October 19, 2009


Part of why people do anything is to be recognized. They want other people to notice them.

One reason for the letdown after a performance is the feeling that you haven't gotten enough applause. I know I've been disappointed in reactions to my playing. With regard to my piano playing, those who know me well seem to expect me to be good at it, maybe because I'm the most expert music person they know. I can put a lot of work into learning a piece and play it for a family member, and the best they can say is, "That sounded hard."

Sometimes what is missing is self-recognition. Two years ago, I played a concerto with an orchestra. This was actually a big deal for me because I have never done anything like win a concerto competition or been chosen by a conductor to solo in a really big piece. I did play a Vivaldi concerto with the school Baroque ensemble when I was at CCM, and even performed the piece several times on a tour of Japan, but this is not one of those pieces that you study for years that is a backbone of the repertoire, and the director of the ensemble coached me on it down to every little ornament and wrote all the cadenzas, so it didn't seem like my piece at all.

I started learning the Saint-Saëns A minor concerto when I was about 15, and then "finished" it as an undergrad, so it's been part of my life for a long time. It's not the most difficult piece in the cello oeuvre, but it is one of the great Romantic concertos for cello. When the conductor of the TCO asked if I'd like to play a concerto with the orchestra, that seemed like the best choice.

So it was arranged, and then I immediately was filled with self-doubt. I had an almost visceral antipathy to putting myself through what I knew would be months nerve-wracked preparation. All kinds of imagined teacher recriminations floated through me, boiling down to: How could I possibly do this without practicing 4 to 6 hours a day?

As it turned out, I practiced a good, solid hour or so most days for 4 months, and it went fine. I mastered my stage fright and played musically, expressively, and in tune, with good tone. I had one little flub in the last movement, but considering everything, I should have been happy about it. I was, until the day after the concert when I listened to the recording. It was so draggy! It didn't have the sparkle, the joie de vivre, that it should have. It sounded like the conductor added an extra beat before each of my entrances (probably because I had pleaded with the orchestra not to push me). You can hear the first movement here:

Saint-Saens Cello Concerto, First movement

For a long time afterward, I berated myself: Why did I go through all that to end up with this mediocre (I thought) performance?

Why, indeed?

In the 2 years since that concert, I've come to terms with it and now look on it as a tremendously worthwhile experience. It forced me to tap back into all my training as a cellist and a musician, and I did it on my own, without a teacher or a coach. I developed an interpretation and came up with a strong performance, without shaking hands or wobbly bow.

I did get recognition from others for that concert, too. Everyone paid me a lot of compliments. But without the recognition from myself, it seemed it didn't mean much. There is sometimes a fine line between realistic self-esteem and delusions of grandeur. We all need to stay on the right side of that line.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Master class

I attended a master class today put on by the Adult Music Student Forum. This is an incorporated successor of a group founded 21 years ago by piano teacher Matthew Harre to give adult music students opportunities to perform. There are several recitals every month, ranging from small groups in people's living rooms to recitals at the mansion at Strathmore. It's really a great organization. The small membership fee is well worth it for what it offers.

I joined this group a couple of years ago, but have only participated in a few events. I've had one excuse after another -- both legit and non. When I saw this master class had been scheduled, I asked if I could play, but the four slots were already taken. I decided to go anyway, and it was interesting. I unfortunately forgot to bring anything to write with, so I couldn't take notes, but the gist of what was said was aimed at bringing out structures and long lines by focusing on the smallest details of phrasing, articulation, and pedaling.

It made me itchy to get home and practice. Off to do so!

Saturday, October 17, 2009


I'm typing this while listening to the Chopin nocturne e-cital. Give it a listen yourself -- some lovely performances by amateur pianists.

I feel I know so many of these people even though we've never met. There's a monster thread started by a Chopin-lover in Chicago, "Just for those totally devoted to Chopin," that's been going on continually for more than 3 years now and contains more than 5,000 posts, and through it, I've read what they've had to say about topics musical and non-, heard about their triumphs and tragedies, and listened to their playing.

It's become an institution. I don't know what will happen to us when it ends, as it surely will one of these days. Until then, it's a touchstone, maybe even a "third place."

Thursday, October 15, 2009

More about that hangover

To expand on what I wrote yesterday: Playing music taps into deep currents. The harder you try to express something, the more of an effect it has on you emotionally.

One of my cello teachers told me once that she "tried to quit" but was a "cranky witch" (or words to that effect) and had to start practicing again. (And as an aside, this was a person with a tenure-track professorship at a big university -- and she wanted to quit? Tells you something, doesn't it?)

Playing taps into the creative urge, which I think has some biological basis: the instinctive, subconscious need shared by all living things to carry on, reproduce, ensure that their genetic material continues to exist. Humans have sublimated this, and it becomes the driving force behind all of our various ostensibly nonbiological pursuits.

Humans are also inherently social, perhaps as part of the same survival instinct. Music is a vehicle for expression that satisfies, or provides a method for, connection with others that is more direct and powerful than the spoken word.

 When you play music that someone else has composed, you are communicating not only with your audience but with the composer. You are in a sense entering into his or her brain and communing in a most intimate way. You almost become the composer, but without all those inconvenient problems of having 25 children (Bach), being involved with a scandal-mongering lover (Chopin), or being a jackass (Wagner).

Anyway, I'm not a biologist, neurologist, or any other "ist," but I know from experience that once you get used to playing music every day, it's not easy to stop. Certainly there is some pain involved in the experience of playing and especially performing, or preparing to perform -- ranging from boredom to psychic pain to physical pain -- that often has you begging to stop: "Do I really have to keep doing this?!" When I was recording my nocturne the other night, for example, the combination of stage fright (or what we at Piano World refer to as "fear of the red dot") and frustration about how short my playing fell from what I was imagining had me thinking/feeling, while my hands were flying over the keys, "Oh, how I hate this!" But then when it's done, there is a deep satisfaction, combined with disappointment and an unsettling feeling that a compass has been removed.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


No, not that kind.

I always have a what feels like a hangover after I've worked hard at some music and reached whatever goal I was preparing for (a concert, making a recording). On the one hand there's a lot of satisfaction at having done it, but on the other there's a feeling like, "What now?" This is one reason I hesitate over working on something for a really long time, because the more of myself I put into it, the more let down I feel afterward.

Maybe this is my own personal psychological problem, but I doubt it. Anyone out there reading this: Do you know what I'm talking about?


Recording is less stressful than performing in front of people -- in some ways. You can always do it over. But in other ways, it's more stressful because once done, it's there forever, especially if you post it on the Internet.

Chopin Nocturne Op. 27 No. 1, performed by me

I've had this deadline for a year now, so cramming to learn this is completely my fault -- or, I should say, choice. From time to time over this past year, I took this piece out and looked at it; thought, "How will I ever learn this?"; and put it away again. When you play on an amateur basis and you're not in school or doing a concert this is how it goes unless you can set some sort of goal. That's why these online recitals have been a great thing for me (and all the other people who participate).

I've learned a few things about doing this. One is if you are your own engineer, just hit the record button and keep going. Don't stop unless there is a total train wreck. Sometimes the take ends up better than you would have thought when you were playing it.

Another is that it's better not to listen until after the recording session is over, if you have the time to wait. I like to do at least three takes, get away from the piano, and try to listen objectively. This is instead of hovering over the recording device in the practice room, the piano glaring at you in the background, injured notes littering the floor.

And third, listen critically but not too critically. Cut yourself some slack. It's not as bad as you think it is (or even if it is, at least you tried).

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

What I'm playing this week

I'm concentrating on recording the Chopin Nocturne Op. 27 No. 1. I spent several hours today practicing, recording, listening, and then practicing again. As I suspected, the left hand was much too heavy (as usual for these floaty Chopin left hand parts) and plunky. I worked a lot on making it more light and legato, yet still expressive.

I am at the point in my work on this piece that I think of as "engaging with the piece." This is when I know it, understand the structure, and have it memorized, and I can go farther than just trying to learn the notes. Sometimes I try to come up with a story, something I can narrate to myself and visualize.

I will probably embarrass myself by describing this, but for this piece, I am thinking of it (for now) as describing a man asleep and dreaming on a moonlit night that is beautiful but eerie (the music alternating between major and minor, with the third of the scale first E natural, then E sharp). The constantly murmuring left hand in the two outer sections are his breathing and the blood flowing through his veins. Thus, it should be dark but fluid, as smooth as possible, and not too slow. His dreams are bittersweet but not unpleasant. Suddenly, there is a sense of danger, and then the dreams turn into a nightmare. Perhaps he is trying to escape something. The sforzati in this section are his racing heartbeats. The nightmare morphs into the scene of a dance -- a short mazurka-like section -- but the danger is still present. The people (all familiar, but strange as well) dance faster and faster, and it all spins away into darkness and perhaps death. Then, as he dreams again, the music settles into an angelic C sharp major; he falls into a deep, peaceful sleep.

As I hope to do soon. Good night!

Monday, October 12, 2009


The chamber orchestra I'm in played its first concert of the year this afternoon.  Even though this was a very short program, there were not enough rehearsals. Or rather, there were not enough rehearsals with everyone attending. This is a big problem with amateur orchestras. I've experienced conductors who fired people if they missed too many rehearsals and others who gently suggested it would be a good idea to be there for every one. I don't know if either is very effective, but when you're dealing with people who are donating their time (i.e., without all these volunteer players, there would be no orchestra), the latter course is more likely to obtain the most positive outcome, net.

The conductor of this orchestra follows the latter course, probably after doing the calculations.

My husband (who is no slick-talking complimenter) said the orchestra sounded pretty good, though in the Brahms Academic Festival Overture, the strings were overpowered by the winds (not surprising, considering that we had only six first violins, four seconds, two violas, four cellos, and three basses versus the full complement of woodwinds, brass, and percussion. The Haydn symphony (No. 92, "Oxford") was actually going very well until the last movement, when someone came in wrong (or something else happened -- I'm not exactly sure) at the beginning of the development, which happens to be a fugal section, so there were about 10 measures of confusion, but rather impressively (at least, my husband thought so), we kept playing and pulled together.

The Hummel (Introduction, Theme, and Variations for oboe and orchestra) was not too bad, though unfortunately we rushed the soloist in a few places. The Bloch (Suite Modale, for flute and strings), probably was the best overall. Although it has a lot of shifts in meter and the tonality is a little out of the ordinary, most of it is slow and soft, so it was less difficult than the other pieces on the program.

I continue to have mixed feelings about these concerts. On the one hand, you could go to any number of places on almost any day of the week to hear professional musicians playing similar programs perfectly. You could even go to a university music department and hear much more polished performances. On the other hand, there's something worthwhile (even sweet) about a group of adults who all have busy lives spending their time contributing to the cultural life of a community. It keeps music alive in a way that the professional stuff does not.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Slow day

Tonight, I passed on playing at the monthly English country dance that's in the neighborhood (see Dance music post from September). Instead I spent my musical energy today on the Chopin nocturne I want to record over the next few days. It's improving, but I miss notes here and there and can't pinpoint exactly why.

I try to avoid practicing only by playing something over and over; it really helps to instead think about exactly what I want to accomplish on each repetition. But sometimes I can't make myself think that hard and end up on autopilot -- which isn't entirely useless, either (it's good to be able to play without consciously doing everything all the time, even if one shouldn't make a habit of it).

I also had other things to do (e.g., I'm painting a room in the basement, so had to go out to buy paint, then come home and see if the color looked right, then go back out and buy more paint). When I have a day like this, I just do several shorter practice sessions and probably end up practicing more than if I only do one long one.

So, back to moving furniture out of the way . . .

Friday, October 9, 2009

The banjo factor

In 2000, my husband gave me a banjo for Christmas. His mother's side of the family is from Appalachia (though no one in it plays the banjo, as far as I know), so we do a bit of kidding about hillbillies around here. Maybe this gave him the idea. In any case, he had gone to the House of Musical Traditions and picked out a nice little open-back banjo. I loved my new toy. It was nicely made, with a sweet tone. Unfortunately, this is not going to be a story about how I mastered the banjo. I did spend some time with it and learned a few simple tunes, but it didn't seem quite the right instrument for me.

However, this got my instrument-playing juices flowing again. After several rough years of being caregiver for my mother when she had a brain tumor and then taking care of her estate, I wasn't playing much of anything and wasn't enjoying what I did play.

When I was a teenager, I taught myself (in addition to the cello) the guitar, the recorder, and the flute. I used to spend hours playing chords on the guitar and singing, both alone and with my younger sister. We even worked out a harmony part to "Sounds of Silence." So I suppose the banjo experience stirred some pleasant memories, devoid of critical teachers.

It somehow came to me that I wanted to learn to play the viola. My reasons:
1. I love the sound of it. It's possibly the mellowist instrument of all.
2. Good violists are in demand, so I figured if I got reasonably good at it I would have plenty of playing opportunities -- most viola parts are pretty easy.
3. It would be kind of like the cello, only a lot easier to carry around.
4. I was smart and more talented than a lot of violists.

Then followed several years in which I seriously pursued this idea. I tried teaching myself, but the posture and hand position were mysterious and not intuitive, so eventually I took lessons, first at a community college and then at a private music school. Both of the teachers were decent, but I was frustrated. Playing was fun, but I could not get a good vibrato. I practiced it all kinds of ways, but it never became natural. So much for being smart.

I also discovered that amateur groups were full of violinists who had decamped to the viola. There were always too many violists and not enough cellists. When people found out not only that I played the cello but that I played it well, they started asking me to play cello instead of viola.

Toward the end of this time, I noted how when I played the cello, it felt so easy.  It became harder and harder for me to make myself practice the viola, even though I was committed to a set number of lessons so I was basically wasting the opportunity. Part of it was that the teacher would assign me a new piece or exercise, and I would work on it for a week and go for my lesson, expecting to get to the nitty gritty on how to master it but would get assigned a new piece instead. I finally decided to stop going to the lessons before the semester was over. I received a written evaluation in the mail later, and I was touched that the teacher expressed disappointment that I had stopped my lessons because I was one of his most advanced students.

If I had only taken up the accordion next, I would have hit the music joke trifecta. I suppose it's never too late . . .

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Measure by measure

On my brand-new Baldwin Hamilton studio piano, walnut finish and all, I decided I would play everything perfectly. After a few sessions of carefully sight-reading through some Bach and Brahms, I came up with the idea of learning only a measure or two of each piece at a time. I started with Beethoven's first sonata (F minor, Op. 2, No. 1) and Bach's B flat major partita.

This proved both boring and inadequate. The mind can hold so much more information than this, for one thing. For another, if you learn only a tiny amount of a piece at a time without at least somewhat knowing the context (structure, harmony), your mind has nothing to connect this new bit of knowledge with. Bar lines are artificial constructs providing simple rhythmic divisions and groupings, so this is a fragmented, sterile method of learning. Probably the only reason I learned as much as I did in this way is that I was already familiar with the pieces, at least aurally, so I wasn't starting from a place of no knowledge at all.

At any rate, I didn't get very far, or obtain much enjoyment. My piano playing dwindled down, along with my cello playing, as I became busy with other parts of my life.

When I first considered working at nonmusic jobs, my goal was to find a job that paid enough to live on that would also leave me enough time and energy to do other things. I remember calculating exactly how many hours I would have to myself after subtracting work, commuting, sleeping, and eating. They were always dismayingly few.

As long as I was doing the court reporting gig, I could maintain the illusion that this was just a temporary thing until I found my niche as a musician. I took any music job that came along, whether it was a wedding in Bethesda or an orchestra concert in Hagerstown (with a 3-hour commute).

There was a turning point. I sent a tape applying for a spot to play a recital at Montpelier Mansion in Laurel. For some reason, I told myself that if I didn't get it, it meant I wasn't any good and I should quit trying. Maybe I was looking for an excuse. It really is hard to go to work all day, even if the job is not challenging or difficult, and then come home and practice. It's like working a second job -- and in my case, this job didn't pay anything. I was tired of trying to keep my hard pieces ready. They weren't music to me anymore, but drudgery, an exercise.  It has occurred to me to wonder what I'd have done if I had gotten that gig (which, as I recall was just a one-time deal and didn't pay anything, either). It would have been a validation, I suppose, but then I would have had to scrape my way through a whole recital, and I wasn't at all in the right frame of mind for it.

That's the paradoxical plight of the musician. On the one hand, music is a fresh, eternally young, spontaneous thing, and the most appealing players have an attitude to match. On the other hand, gaining the skill to play it involves daily drudging. A harpist with one of the military bands once told me, "When you're young, they don't tell you that you're going to have to practice every day for the rest of your life!"

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


When I began majoring in cello at college, I was still playing the piano a little bit. I would hear the pianists practicing Brahms and Chopin and wish I could do the same, but I didn't know how. The cello proved enough of a challenge. That first semester I was assigned to play in a piano quartet -- violin, viola, cello, and piano -- and we learned the Mozart G minor quartet. The pianist was a mild young lady; the violinist and violist, on the other hand, were my introduction to a certain type of one-upping personality that abounds in the music world. These are people who know a lot -- or think they know a lot. These two had already been around quite a bit, musically speaking: The violinist's father was a well-known music teacher, and the violist had been to the North Carolina School of the Arts for high school.

They spoke a language I didn't understand. I was way out of my depth. I could play perfectly acceptably; the Mozart cello part was easy. Also, I was the best cellist at the school that year (unbelievable, but true; the music department was not the cauldron of competition it is today). These two string players had ended up at the school by default (the violinist's husband was in graduate school in another department, and the violist had had some difficulties in her personal life and was living with her parents, who happened to have a house down the street from the school).  They made all kinds of pronouncements that I didn't think to question because I figured they knew better.

One I particularly remember was the violist saying that a string player couldn't play the piano because it "uses different muscles." I suppose if you aspired to be a violin-playin' maniac like Heifetz, this might prove a problem, but for a late-blooming cellist, like me, not likely. That wasn't entirely the reason I stopped playing the piano; part of it was that I was very busy with school. I also became absorbed with the challenge of learning how to play the cello. It's hard to describe my odd combination of enthusiasm and diffidence: I was interested in learning things, but I was not ambitious, and I had no idea how to present myself favorably. It just didn't even occur to me.

In any case, that was how I quit the piano.

I took it up again briefly some years later when I was working on my doctorate. I had to prove some piano proficiency; most of the nonpianists took class piano to do this, but I decided to take an exam instead. With the help of one of my pianist friends, I worked up a couple of pages of the Brahms Rhapsody I'd played to death when I was a teenager, and that was enough to fulfill the requirement. I also took piano lessons one semester, from an very nice elderly lady who wasn't considered much of a teacher, though I did learn a few things from her.

When I moved to Baltimore after I finished my coursework in Cincinnati, I adopted the old family baby grand. This was a 5-foot-long instrument with the name "Kimmel" on the fallboard, and it was a musical wreck, though it looked nice in the living room of my apartment. I bought a tuning hammer so I could adjust the tuning enough to be tolerable, which I had to do every time I played on it. It was like owning a harpsichord.

When I moved to a house the following year, I sold the baby grand to my landlord. In a rush of enthusiasm over buying my first place, I went to one of those university piano sales and bought a new Baldwin upright that I really couldn't afford. I had the piano delivered to the new house, and I was determined to make a fresh start.

To be continued . . .

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Working, part 3

All my life, I'd been told, or it had been intimated to me, that I could "always get a job as a secretary." My understanding of such a job was that it mainly consisted of typing -- on a manual, or later, IBM Selectric, typewriter (on paper, for all you young folks out there). Although supposedly a safe fallback, such a job was also supposedly completely boring.

When I reached the point where I had finished my coursework in Cincinnati, I could have simply stayed on there, freelancing on the cello, teaching my few students, and perhaps getting one of those secretarial jobs of family lore. For some reason, though, I recoiled at the idea of lingering, eking out a living while the next batches of young hopefuls thronged into the conservatory. Some sort of nesting instinct crept into my consciousness. I suddenly wanted to be close to my family, to have a real job that wasn't a month-to-month scrape, to live in a nicer place.

My eldest sister had a job managing the office for a small court reporting agency in Glen Burnie. I asked her if I could get a job as a court reporter. She didn't seem to think I could do it, but my painful shyness that my whole family was familiar with had morphed to a more normal shyness. My years of performing, organizing music for weddings and parties, and teaching had made me more than minimally capable of the interactions needed for doing the court reporting work.

This was not the reporting most people are familiar with, with the reporter typing furiously on a little machine and a long ticker tape boiling out of it. Instead, I was trained as a Stenomask reporter. A Stenomask looks something like this:

We used two-track tape recorders, with one track recording the actual sound in the room and the other our reporting into the mask (identifying each speaker and repeating word for word what he or she said so that in case there was too much background noise for a clear recording, there was an accurate record). We also had to take notes -- for example, noting the counter number for when each speaker started, names mentioned and spellings thereof, exhibits introduced. We also had to swear in each witness. There's a certain amount of skill involved in speaking into the mouthpiece without being audible to anyone in the room and without whispering (which translates into a lot of hissing on the tape).

Another aspect of the job was traveling to different locations every day. Someone from the office would call and leave a message with the address and time, and I was expected to show up. Yet a third duty was transcribing our reporting. By the time I started doing this, transcribing was done on a computer, with the files saved on 5 1/2 inch floppy disks (realizing that this was all state of the art at the time makes me feel old!).

The company owner did the training himself, but there was also a national organization that did testing and provided a certificate. I took the test after about a year of working at this and passed it (some of the other reporters kept trying and couldn't pass it).

So I was fairly successful at this, and at first it was exciting; I was out there doing a real job, with real people! The most interesting part was learning about how other people lived and worked. During depositions, I would hear all about the witnesses' lives, sometimes in intimate detail. I learned what they did for a living, how they had been trained, how much money they earned, and many more details. It was like being a fly on the wall. But after about three years of it I was weary. I was tired of doing so much driving and not earning enough money. I didn't like it enough to go into business for myself, which was the way to make real money at it. (Sounds familiar, doesn't it?)

So I started applying for jobs, and I was hired to work as an administrative assistant for a start-up nonprofit. I worked there for two years, until they ran out of money and were about to close up shop, and then I got a job at a university law school in the administration office as a "Faculty Manuscript  Assistant." This job had been created at the request of some of the professors to help them with preparing papers for law journals and doing other things like getting copyright permission for course materials. It was not a terribly challenging job. After I'd been there for a couple of years, I met a woman who was a technical writer at a small engineering company where a friend worked. We got to talking about jobs, and the upshot was that she got me a job at the company as a technical editor.

I had always thought I'd like to be an editor. It combined the mythical typing job I'd grown up hearing about with reading, research, and schoolmarmy grammar policing. I took a couple of editing courses (proofreading, copyediting, printing and graphics). The job at the engineering company was not busy enough, so I left and, through someone I knew, got a job as a production editor in the publishing arm of a large nonprofit. That was almost 10 years ago, and I'm still there. I've gotten pretty skilled at it, and am one of the most senior production editors there, which is almost an oxymoron, "production editor" being more or less an entry-level job.

People often tell me I should be "doing something with my music." It sounds like a good idea in the abstract, but when I imagine trying to put it into practice, I remember that panicked feeling I had back when I realized that $400 a month wasn't enough to live on in the real world. I remember my first piano teacher packing in those students, stuck in her basement smoking cigarettes all day, getting fat and suffering from back problems. And then there's the issue of whether I'm good enough to make it worthwhile, which I'm still not sure about. But that's a subject for another post.

Monday, October 5, 2009

What I'm playing this week

I'm continuing with the Chopin nocturne Op. 27 No. 1, which I will attempt to record next weekend (after the piano is tuned). I still can't play the middle section at the tempo I'd like, though I do have most of the piece memorized now. I have the opportunity to possibly play something at a master class in a couple of weeks, so I was thinking of signing up and playing this piece. Will report back on that.

I'm going to keep plugging away at the Bach and the Gershwin.

On the cello, our orchestra concert is next Sunday, so I will need to practice the music for that before the dress rehearsal on Friday.

I'm also taking a closer look at the piece I'm scheduled to play with the orchestra at the next concert in January: Dvorak's "Waldesruhe" (Silent Woods). This was originally one of a set of little character pieces for piano four hands that Dvorak arranged for cello and piano, and then because it proved popular, for cello and orchestra. I have listened to the piano version, and I think it doesn't work as well as the cello version. The melody is really particularly suited for the cello, with its slow tempo and long, singing lines.

I've come up with the idea of learning the piano part and seeing if I can record both parts. The Zoom recorder has four-track capability, so I should be able to do it technically. That will be a really interesting way to become familiar with the piece, and something I have not tried before.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Speaking of Jacqueline Du Pré

I came across this excerpt on YouTube from the film "Hilary and Jackie" that I thought was cute.

There are the usual nasty comments about the movie in the link below. (Why is it that so many trolls troll YouTube?)

People seemed personally offended that Du Pré was portrayed in any remotely negative way. The filmmakers probably erred in not presenting this more firmly as a tale altered in some of its details (although I must say, it's very true to the book by Hilary and Piers Du Pré -- which clearly was presented as fact, and which garnered even more hate than the movie). I loved the movie. Aside from the great acting and production values, I thought it got at some deeper truths, beyond the stories of the real individuals.

What deeper truths? Well, if it took a 90-minute movie to convey them, I probably can't do so in a few sentences, but one thread was that genius, though rewarding in itself, can also twist the person's life because it doesn't make room for the things people need to be healthy. There are reams of books and dozens of movies about how in many artists this manifests itself in behavior (drugs, alcohol, criminality, sexual escapades), so then one can say it's the behavior that is the real problem. But here, it is purely that Jackie's genius and early obsession with the cello distort her development so that as an adult, she cannot lead a normal life. The implication is that this is her inexorable fate.

That's what I see as the message of the movie. Now, a real person's life cannot be that easily interpreted, but that's the difference between art and life, parable and reality.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Working, continued

It's sometimes hard to explain to a nonmusician why you don't have a music job. People tend to say helpful things like "Have you thought about playing in an orchestra?" or "What about teaching?"

Orchestra auditions are cattle calls. The way they work is that all the orchestras that pay any kind of regular remuneration, whether salary or per service, advertise in the International Musician (the monthly paper put out by the AFM). Interested applicants send in a resume, and sometimes a recording, and they get a list of excerpts. The excerpts are usually the hardest bits from the standard repertoire. Auditioners prepare these plus a solo piece. Any orchestra that pays any kind of money, especially if it is in or near a decent-sized city, will draw a large number of applicants for an audition. A committee sits, sometimes behind a screen, and listens to each player in turn play a bit of the solo piece and some of the excerpts. Then the hook comes out they say, "Thanks," and the next victim applicant takes a turn.

This doesn't sound so bad, but let's say you spent many hours, over many years, practicing the excerpts. You have played most of the pieces in actual concerts. You have traveled to the audition, perhaps buying a plane ticket. You wait, sometimes in a hallway, sometimes in a dressing room, with dozens of other people either practicing furiously or making snide comments to each other about where they went to school and who they studied with. The excerpts are usually the most awkward parts of the pieces, some of them really almost impossible to play perfectly (e.g., the opening of "Don Juan," or the last movement of Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony), though there's always some wunderkind who can play them perfectly (usually scheduled right before you). And then all of you play, and they decide no one was good enough and don't hire anyone. Then you hear later that the conductor's girlfriend got the job.

I remember one audition I did for the New Jersey Symphony, in Newark, that was for a job paying about $10,000 a year: At least 100 cellists showed up for that one. I later happened to be talking to someone who was on the committee, and he said if someone missed a note in any of the excerpts, they were out then and there. Another time, I auditioned for the National Symphony in DC. They heard us in groups of five. I actually made it to the second round (I think the only time for one of these things); I heard another young woman who didn't complaining bitterly to the assistant who was escorting us on and off the stage about how she had flown from California for this, and they had only listened to her for two minutes.

Anyway, anyone who wants to read audition stories can find thousands of them out there. I didn't do that many; I simply didn't have the funds to travel that much, especially with a cello (which is like traveling with an ancient mummy in a wheelchair, plus you have to buy a ticket for it to bring it on an airplane if you don't want it smashed to bits in the baggage, which doubles your travel expense). The two salaried orchestra jobs I had did not have auditions like those because they were in the Dakotas, and not enough people were willing to travel there for an audition (or even live there at all).

I had those jobs in the two consecutive years before I went back to graduate school for my DMA, during which I developed a sort of carpe diem attitude after my incarceration time on the Great Plains. I had gotten a full scholarship through my connection with a former teacher, and I basically just tried to enjoy myself being a student -- nothing wild, by any means, but simply going to classes, taking lessons, giving recitals.

At the end of that time, I put some thought into the problem of how to support myself, and I came to the conclusion that I didn't like playing in orchestras enough to invest the work, not to mention tens of thousands of dollars, into trying to get into one. And the odds were against me, anyway because of my age. Even before I went back to graduate school to earn my DMA, I was almost 30, and by the time I was finished, I was almost 35, which is considered ancient for a string player looking for a first job.

So what about teaching? Well, teaching at the college level is even more difficult to get than an orchestra job. You need to have credentials beyond a degree (such as competitions won), which I didn't. I was a competent but not great player, had basic but not inspiring teaching skills, and had no clue about how to use connections to help me find something. Teaching on one's own is really the best way to be employed, but the difficulties of setting up and running a business were beyond me at the time.

So I followed the only possible course: I moved to Baltimore and started working as a court reporter.

To be continued . . .

Friday, October 2, 2009


Working for money is something most of have to do. Some people are able to meld this necessity with an activity they love; others come to love (or at least like) what they have to do; and still others never work it out.

I was brought up to believe in honest work, but at the same time was never taught how one figured out what to do or how to go about being able to do it. There was also an underlying idea -- perhaps simply by the suggestion of what I observed at home -- that I might end up doing what my mother did until she was 50, which was being a housewife. Again, nothing was done to guide me along a path to that occupation (such as encouraging that which would lead to mating, quite obviously a prerequisite).

So I went to school; read a lot of books for entertainment; messed around on the piano; played with Barbie dolls; and learned to ride a bike, roller skate, play badminton and croquet, sew, knit, crochet, and draw and paint a little. My fifth-grade teacher (Nora Drew Gregory, who is a remarkable woman: sister of Charles Drew, the doctor who invented blood plasma; mother of Frederick Gregory, the first African American astronaut -- and as far as I know is still alive) could see that I was intelligent, and she tried to encourage me to write, going so far as to help me publish a couple of (childish) poems in some children's magazines and in a vanity-published book.

My mother, my default role model, told us often that she had graduated from high school a semester early and hung around the house for a few months, then went to D.C. Teacher's College for two years with the intention of being a science teacher, but then met my father and gratefully dropped out of school to get married and have five children. Perhaps that really was the extent of her ambition. It certainly was a full-time job. She also, though, had earlier managed to get a job working in a gas station when she was 16 (in the middle of the Great Depression! and she didn't even know how to drive). She had dabbled in drawing and painting for years, and probably around the same time as my fifth-grade writing exploits returned to college to major in studio art. She graduated in 1971 and then couldn't settle on what to do with herself. My younger sister and I decided that for her: We were going through hell dealing with the racial tension in the public schools, and after a great deal of family arguing, she ended up getting a job as a secretary at the National Academy of Sciences to earn the money for us to be sent to private high schools.

I graduated from high school having never worked for money. I had not done babysitting or any of the other things kids often do. I wasn't interested in buying stuff, so I never had the desire to have my own money. The couple of quarters or whatever it was I received as allowance was generally sufficient for my needs. And then because of the cello and the piano, my weekends and several evenings a week were taken up with going to lessons and orchestra rehearsals from the time I was around 14.

I tried a couple of summer jobs. One was in a grungy office somewhere in the suburbs, where I was fired after a week because no one told me what to do and I was too shy to ask. Another was in the accounting office at GW, where I went through columns of numbers to look for discrepancies. They actually liked me there and said I could come back any time, but I never did. Most of my summers, I took classes instead of working. Then, after I became a music major, I started playing for money, and that was more or less what I did for the next 15 years.

To be continued . . .

Thursday, October 1, 2009

This doesn't have anything to do with music, but ...

I just came home from seeing the new Coen brothers' movie, "A Serious Man." A friend offered me a free ticket to an advance screening. Michael Stuhlbarg, who plays Larry Gopnik in the movie, was at the screening and did a Q&A afterward. Unfortunately, the MC (whose name escapes me, but he's an announcer on NPR) was awful and talked to the audience like we were grade-school kids. But Stuhlbarg did provide some interesting tidbits about how he got the part (it took two auditions, both requiring a large amount of preparation, and 11 months for the Coens to choose him) and what it was like to work with the Coens.

The movie was both hilarious and mysterious, and I don't think I've ever seen so many Jewish actors in one movie. My friend wondered, as we left the theater, who it would appeal to besides Jews of a certain age.  Audience comments during the Q&A:
  •  It's based on the story of Job.
  • With some slight modifications, it could be a documentary.
  • Would this be a shanda far die goyim? (Okay, he didn't use those words, but that's what he meant!)
If you've seen it, what do you think?

P.S. After I wrote the above last night, I read David Denby's review in the New Yorker. He hated the movie. I don't entirely agree with him (I usually don't), but in thinking about it realized one weakness in all of the Coen brothers' movies I've seen (admittedly, only a few): Their female characters are are either scary temptresses, whiny bimbos, or sexless crones. Marge, the chief of police in Fargo, has been their only sympathetically portrayed woman in their pictures that I've seen, and I wonder if it's because Frances McDormand is married to Joel Coen and maybe had some say in it.

I still like "A Serious Man," though. Not every movie has to be the best to be worthwhile, and this is certainly a thoughtful picture, done with a great deal of artistic and technical polish.