Chamber Music, Intimacy, Joy

With a bungling beginning, oh the first attempt was awkward. Even painful. We didn’t know if we’d be able to learn it. But we did! Everyone was so committed and worked so hard. I am so proud of my trio. We learned so much, individually and collectively: Haydn’s Divertimento VI for String Trio.

Along with the music, I learned that the core of chamber ensemble work is exposure, dependency, and responsibility.

Exposure, because, as the only person with your part, you will be heard, in all your glory and all your failing, first by your partners, and then by your audience. Everyone will know exactly what you can and cannot do. Unlike real life and the masks we wear and deflections we wield to hide our imperfections, there is no hiding in a chamber ensemble, from anyone.

Dependency, because without the full and best contribution of each ensemble member, the music will fail to exist, and the efforts of one’s partners will have been wasted.

Responsibility, because others are relying on you to do everything you can to help them do everything they can so you can all bring your music to life.

All of this exposure and dependency and responsibility requires a high level of trust among group members. Trust that everyone will strive their fullest and contribute their best. Trust that everyone will support each other in this striving.

Trust, in turn, requires personal intimacy. Intimacy expressed in knowing members’ strengths, accepting their weaknesses, encouraging their growth, and appreciating their contribution in accepting, loving, non-judgmental fashion. Intimacy that allows the creation of a supportive, nurturing environment in which to work together.

In return for commitment to intimacy and trust, you receive joy. Joy of music. Joy of belonging. Joy of friendship. Joy of support. Joy of work. Joy of growth. Joy of sharing.

It had been told to me that playing chamber music is among the most intimate of experiences. I had never understood what that meant. Now I do, from playing with my trio. It is an intimacy found in a sonic realm, through the caressing of another’s sound with one’s own, that can be found in no other way. And when infused with trust and joy, chamber music adds a deeply fulfilling level of personal intimacy to life.
Copyright 2017, All rights reserved.

Best Trio Ever!

Here are 10 reasons why I love my trio:

Everyone loves their instrument, and music, and learning to play.
Everyone is dedicated.
Everyone takes private lessons.
Everyone practices on their own.
Everyone comes to rehearsals prepared.
Everyone works hard.
Everyone is reliable.
Everyone is kind and friendly and interesting and fun to be with.
Everyone brings musical experience into the group, and shares what they know.
Everyone listens to each other.
Everyone supports each other.
Everyone helps each other work out tricky parts.
Everyone focuses at rehearsals.
Everyone is easy and flexible with scheduling meetings.
Everyone respects our coaches and applies what is taught.
Everyone wants to get better, and to perform at our best.
Everyone is excited about working together.
Everyone brings joy and wonder to music and to life.

We started 3 months ago. Cello and viola are accomplished musicians on piano and french horn, but we are all adult-beginners on our string instruments, and this is the first small string ensemble for each of us. My violin teacher agreed to coach us on Haydn’s Divertimento VI. Our first lesson was about feeling a scale together, in tune, watching each other and breathing together. Just the basics! Our first attempt to play the piece was painful. However, after one lesson per movement, and 2 guest coaches on musicianship (Appoggiatura = tension/release = drama/calm = strong/weak, and it’s all over the place! Or, which instrument has the beat when? Rhythm is important! Or, where is conversation happening, and when do you play off each other?) we are playing the entire piece through, comfortably and musically. Our 4 performances will be the test of what we have learned and accomplished.

The most important aspect of a chamber ensemble is how the members respect and appreciate each other, to what degree they work together and get along. In this regard, we are lucky. For a random grouping of adult students, we share common work ethic and aspiration. Practicing and learning together some 6 – 8 hours a week over 10 weeks, we worked hard together, enjoyed each other’s company, and take pride in our joint achievement.

From my partners I have learned what joy it is to play in a small ensemble, and what wonder the making and sharing of music brings to life.
Copyright 2017, All rights reserved.

Fridays @ 5: David-Porter

 The thing about violinist and violin-teacher David-Porter is that he draws me into my dis-comfort zone, relentlessly, every lesson. My job as a student is to go home and spend the week turning that dis-comfort zone into a comfort zone. No tears allowed. And as my goal is to learn to play violin, we wouldn’t want it any other way.

Progress is tacitly acknowledged. The real teaching comes from his weaving his way through the labyrinth of my ineptitude, showing me the sights and providing musical guidance as we go. Always prodding, always pushing, David-Porter isn’t interested in producing mediocre violinists, and it takes a certain kind of stamina to stand for his weekly challenge.

Lately we’ve been working on bowing techniques and the various colors they produce. David-Porter exudes a trust that, with time, I will master these techniques and their subtleties; that, as breath and vocal cords learn to automatically produce expressive language, so will my breath and arm learn to do for music. This trust gives me confidence to toil forward weekly, violin in tow.

If you want to push yourself and maximize your ability, it helps to seek out an elite-violinist and teacher like David-Porter. The higher the level a musician works at and continuously pursues, the more highly their hearing and expressive ability is developed over the decades of a career; and if such violinist cares deeply about the process of translating and providing this information for those lower down the chain, then you have a great teacher uncanny at drawing the best from their students. David-Porter is one such.
copyright 2017, All rights reserved.
photo by Francisco Kjolseth, Salt Lake Tribune

Hard work? Work hard!

Does learning violin take hard work? As a simplification, yes. More than that:

Learning violin takes patience, to accomplish years of study;
Learning violin takes time, to carry out hours of practice;
Learning violin takes diligence, to stick with practice;
Learning violin takes imagination, to envision eventual capability;
Learning violin takes vision, to set goals;
Learning violin takes self-awareness, to set priorities;
Learning violin takes concentration, to filter out distractions;
Learning violin takes focus, to stay on task;
Learning violin takes self-discipline, to meet goals;
Learning violin takes confidence, to spurn pessimists;
Learning violin takes courage, to encounter challenges;
Learning violin takes temerity, to believe in eventual success;
Learning violin takes playfulness, to enliven exercises;
Learning violin takes insight, to understand the value of repetition;
Learning violin takes curiosity, to explore technique;
Learning violin takes inventiveness, to create solutions to problems;
Learning violin takes inquisitiveness, to expand knowledge;
Learning violin takes creativity, to develop musical interpretation;
Learning violin takes forgiveness, to see beyond mistakes;
Learning violin takes calm spirit, to dissipate frustration;
Learning violin takes intellect, to analyze complexity;
Learning violin takes attention, to perceive details of coordination;
Learning violin takes acuity, to critique growing capabilities;
Learning violin takes sensitivity, to hear subtleties in sound;
Learning violin takes precision, to create meticulous sound;
Learning violin takes rigor, to meet technical demands;
Learning violin takes sociability, to play with others;
Learning violin takes respect, to work with teachers;
Learning violin takes assertiveness, to find opportunities;
Learning violin takes listening, to broaden musical knowledge;
Learning violin takes dedication to creating music;
Learning violin takes joy in knowing accomplishment.

copyright 2017, All rights reserved.


Not a lot about studying violin frustrates me. I could think of only three things. Mostly, I can’t do anything about them, except introspect, and keep plugging away.   I get frustrated by life interfering with practice time. When a flat tire 200-miles from home wipes out Saturday’s practice, solving the tire problem wipes out Sunday’s practice, a car oil leak wipes out Monday’s practice, a sick relative wipes Tuesday’s practice, a last-minute trip to the doctor wipes Wednesday’s practice, and all I am left with is Thursday and Friday to prepare for Friday’s lesson, this is frustrating. I think of the child whose path is cleared for practice every day, and oh how I wish someone would do this for me. Oh well! It is the adult responsibilities of life that interfere with adult learners’ progress.

I get frustrated by my own failure to trust the process of practice. I have a tendency to over-focus and work beyond the daily crest of improvement; to grind my way down the path of deterioration, deaf to consequences. I forget to stop on the upswing, allowing 10 repetitions to be enough. The body and mind need a night’s rest to assimilate the day’s work and create a launch pad for the next practice. It’s a personality trait that violin demands I address.

Occasionally, I get frustrated by slow progress. I know of some who learn rapidly, and feel tinges of jealousy. Not that I can do anything about this. We are each blessed with unique characteristics that provide each with unique strengths and weaknesses. As much as I might wish otherwise, my neural-makeup is slow to change and grow, particularly regarding fingers that continually trip-up and sight-reading that continually stalls-out. I can only count my blessings that, with effort, and one synapse at a time, it does evolve, if I just keep plugging away.

Thierry and Eric and Me

 The orchestra tunes. The conductor enters. He takes the podium. The audience settles. The baton raises. Quiet. More quiet. Energy gathers into the conductor’s focus as it trains right. A lone instrumentalist reflects the beam. And poom, paum paoum, pom, declares the timpanist. The beats cascade through the hall the winds on their tail and so is Beethoven’s violin concerto borne again.

Was it magic? Was it electric? Was it joy, beauty, solace? It was all of these. It was just the three of us: Thierry and Eric and me. And it was everyone else, too. An orchestra of musicians on the stage, and over a thousand souls in the audience. It was a moment to convene, to be one sound, to feel one beat, our miscellany of being, as one. How did it happen?

It is actually a highly calculated, highly prepared event. Music emerges from silence and Maestro Thierry Fischer has honed his body language to command this from the audience. In rehearsal, also non-verbally, Timpanist Eric Hopkins has understood that his four notes need to sound even, not rushed, yet moving forward and with energy. These ideas come from Fischer’s imagination, having deeply studied the score.

Eric arrives first on stage, with colleagues, selects his mallets, tunes, and sits quietly waiting for Thierry. Head bent, Thierry creates quiet, and looks up to Eric. Eric acknowledges Thierry with a smile and eye contact saying “Things are OK. I’m ready,” and centers his mallets on the instruments. The conductor’s internal tempo begins to tick, the baton is raised, the beat falls, and Eric responds: momentum and energy.

The magic moment comes on beat five as woodwinds enter, when everyone lands together in time and tone. The orchestra is a body in synch, producing a soundscape blossoming from nothing, except ideas translated into physical activity: a laser sparked and we are all in. Magic: Thierry and Eric and You.

(Fine Print: Thank you to Eric Hopkins for discussion regarding his work. The part about Thierry Fischer, well, a peon like me doesn’t get a private audience with a maestro like him, so I made it up. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that you feel inspired to experience the magic of symphony.)
Photo courtesy of MOTUS.
Copyright 2017, all rights reserved.