learning is hard – and you control how hard it is

I’ve had some learning to do these past few weeks, and more to come. A large part of being a professional musician is having someone come to you and say “play this”. Now, if you’re supposed to hold your viola like a viol, and bow between your left hand and the scroll, then you just have to learn how to do that. The same goes for doing right hand tremolo with thimbles on your fingers and playing a melody with your left hand. Or playing tuned wine glasses with your bow, or a large tam tam with same. As you may have guessed, all of these techniques are featured in George Crumb’s Black Angels for electric string quartet, which I’m performing with the Pyxis Quartet later this month.

A movement from Crumb’s Black Angels quartet. [click to enlarge]

Now suppose that you’re a perfectionist, and you’re also prone to being down on yourself, and you have major league imposter syndrome (raising hand). That makes the learning process doubly difficult. Because I look at a movement of such a piece, and I think, “I should be able to play this, because I am somewhat accomplished”. I then attempt to play the passage, fall flat on my face, and then say “I suck, I am the worst violist in the world, and everyone else can play this perfectly.” I expect to get from zero to 100 instantly, and that is just not the way the world works! So, after an initial (sometimes extended) period of this idiocy, I stop, take things apart, and work methodically to figure out how to do each technique in each passage. Sometimes this is mind-numbingly slow work. When I was working on John Zorn’s The Alchemist (one of the most difficult pieces I’ve ever played) I would spend an hour working on just one or two bars, figuring out just how to choreograph fingers and bow, just so I could get through those bars at barely half of the performance tempo.

The place when the panic really sets in is when I haven’t allowed enough time to prepare before the first rehearsal. Sometimes this is just unavoidable – life intervenes in the best laid practice plans more often than not. I try to tell myself that I’ll work to get as much of it under my fingers as I can, and that the others in my ensemble are likely feeling the same way. Sometimes that’s true, and other times I’m the weakest link in a particular rehearsal. One thing that helps me a lot in these sorts of situations is spending at least as much time doing score study and part marking as I do just learning notes. That way, even if I’m only approximating what’s on the page, I know pretty well what I should be doing, what the other voices should be doing, and how I might fit with those voices.

Excerpt from Black Angels. [click to enlarge]

The main point is that only you know how you learn best, and only you can control how you structure and nurture that learning process. Negative self-talk and impatience only serve to short-circuit the process and lead to a downward spiral of shame and recrimination.

new york state of mind

I just got back from a 10 day trip to New York – both the City, and upstate, near Syracuse. The first half of the trip was purely a vacation – it’s been since our honeymoon almost two years ago that my wife and I had taken a serious trip anywhere – the second half was quiet time with my brother.

It was an interesting (and very fun) trip. The first day we were in NYC, we walked, and we walked way too much. I racked up nearly 19,000 steps on my fitbit that day. A search for the nearest Duane Reade pharmacy to our hotel was the next bit of business, as blisters were the lovely morning surprise that awaited us. We went to have the famous ‘cronut’ at Dominique Ansel‘s eponymous bakery. We ate at Gabrielle Hamilton‘s lovely East Village restaurant Prune. In fact, I chose our hotel based upon its proximity to Prune. Yes, I’m one of those people!

It was the very first time either of us had been to the city without being there for some sort of gig or audition. That makes a big difference! If you’re on tour, every moment is usually accounted for with rehearsals, sound checks, receptions, concerts, and getting to and from your hotel. If you’re taking an audition, everything sucks. So, to be there with no real agenda, and having some actual money to spend (not being a starving student), was heaven.

We got some culture, too. We got tickets to the Reich, Richter, Pärt performance at the city’s newest performance venue The Shed, which featured, on the day we went, Ensemble Signal and the Choir of Trinity Wall Street. The Pärt choral work was paired with Gerhard Richter‘s tapestries and floor to ceiling prints. The choristers were in street dress and seeded amongst the wandering audience in the gallery space. It was cool to suddenly hear the music emanating from all around you, with no apparent center. The audience was then invited to go to the neighboring gallery space, where folding seats were provided (to be placed where each person wanted to sit) between the performers (Ensemble Signal) and a large projection screen, where Richter’s film was projected, accompanied by live music. Reich’s piece was a big one, a bit over 30 minutes in length, and to me, about 10 minutes too long. I don’t know how collaborative the process was between Reich and Richter, but someone didn’t want to edit their portion down a bit, and as a result, things got a bit stale by the end. The work was wonderfully played by the ensemble, and very ably and clearly conducted by ensemble director Brad Lubman.

We walked the High Line from the oligarch’s playground of Hudson Yards (where the Shed is located) to Chelsea, where we were drenched to the bone by a sudden thunderstorm, thanks to a crappy umbrella that wouldn’t stay open. Adventure!

We got a nice respite from the city by visiting friends up in Croton, in Westchester County, above the Hudson River. Sitting outside, lounging in the hot tub, and watching many, many birds as they came to the verdant property was fantastic.

My long-time friend, oboist Erin Gustafson, scored us amazing tickets to her New York City Ballet performance of an all-Balanchine production. The first half: Scotch Symphony, and Valse Fantasie, was not really to my taste. Too much kitsch in the kilts and tam o’shanters in the symphony, and too much meh in the waltz. But the second half was stunning: Sonatine, which is a pas de deux on Ravel’s great work for piano. The piano was stunningly played by Elaine Chelton, and the dancing was spectacular. The closing ballet was Stravinsky Violin Concerto, which is an absolute masterpiece of ballet. This was such a privilege to see danced by Balanchine’s own company. It was spectacularly played (this concerto is not played enough!) by Concertmaster Arturo Delmoni with old-school charm and elan.

On Sunday morning we got up to go see Oregon Symphony principal clarinetist James Shields perform on the Gather NYC series at the Bleeker Street venue SubCulture, a basement venue that most resembles Doug Fir‘s underground venue here in Portland. Concerts are given nearly every Sunday at 11 am, and each is about an hour or so in length.

The program opened with a beautifully meditative performance of Mark O’Connor’s Appalachian Waltz by the Trifecta Trio. Missy Mazzoli’s energetic trio Lies You Can Believe In was played with total conviction, and is a piece that I must perform myself someday! The program concluded with guest artists violinist Lara St. John, and clarinetist James Shields. The five combined to play Osvaldo Golijov’s 1994 magnum opus The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind for clarinet and string quartet. I should say four clarinets, as the score calls for four different clarinets to be played during its duration. What an amazing and crazy piece this is! Lara St. John led with total conviction (and with a casualty – during one very strenuous passage her bow caught the corner of her 18th century Italian violin and broke it off – the errant piece was found after the show and can be easily restored), and James was his usual charismatic self, playing with assuredness and personality. As an encore, they performed klezmer arrangements of two of the tunes used by Golijov in his piece. After the performance, we joined the performers for brunch nearby, which was a lot of fun as they’re all fantastic people as well as incredible musicians.

On Monday – Memorial Day – we took the subway downtown – from our new accommodations in Harlem – to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I’d never been before, and the one time that Stephanie had was for a gig with Cappella Romana. Being a holiday, the early part of our visit was remarkably uncrowded, but by the time we left, around 1pm or so, it was packed to the rafters. It was great to see so many incredible works of art – the Met is one of the great museums of the world, and even at $25 a pop, worth every penny. We walked from the museum through Central Park, found a nice tree to lie down under, and people watched for an hour or so before we went back to the hotel to leave for the airport. The trip was a whirlwind, but so fun and relaxing, too!

Now that vacation is over, the painful task of learning to play my viola starts anew. I’ve got some major projects coming up this month, and as time allows, I’ll write about them as I go along.

A (mostly) very good year.

Personally and musically, it was on the whole a very good year. Almost an entirely very good one. But there is always the element of the bittersweet as one gets older, and one starts to get ever more particular about what may be defined as ‘good’ or ‘very good’. The mortality reflex starts to kick in at the age of 50. You don’t want to give too much importance to minor things when the time you have left might be less than the time you’ve already had. [Hm, that was way more dark than I was intending, but I’ll leave it because it’s true.]

People love lists (even when they say they don’t), so this will basically be what they call in the blog biz a ‘listicle’. It sounds like it should be a body part, but don’t fear – it’s just an amalgamation of ‘list’ and ‘article’. Enjoy! (or not, your choice.) And it’s in chronological order, sort of.

The (very) good list(icle).

*recorded for broadcast/streaming on OPB’s State of Wonder – coming January 2019

So, lots of different stuff happened in 2018, and it’s looking like 2019 might be just as interesting (in a good way) or better! I wish the same for you as well – thanks for making this blog a place to visit, and I hope to make it a little bit more populated with reading material in the coming year!