Nov 29, 2007

Here's what Joshua Bell thinks about playing the Beethoven concerto:

“It is as though I must succumb to this world that Beethoven has created, and I suppose I almost treat it in a religious sort of way. In the world of his music, Beethoven is God. I’d never thought of it that way before, but it is as though I begin to warm up to what religious people refer to as a loving God within that musical world. I feel as though I surrender to this. I feel that there is somebody who knows this world so much better than I do – and it is Beethoven himself, who created it – and there is something very comforting about that. Somehow that gets me feeling very relaxed. I think what a privilege it is to be a part of this great, beautiful piece of music. And this helps me get rid of my nerves and stops my extraneous thoughts about technical issues and what I did or didn’t do in the practice room.”

I thought about this all evening as I practiced. I recorded myself. Then I listened to the recording, and for the first time, some of it wasn't bad. When I listen to Joshua Bell or Isaac Stern or Itzhak Perlman or Jascha Heifitz play it, as I have so many times, I hear them shift in the same places where my shifts are audible. I hear their bows slide just a hair in the awkward passages. I can practically feel their hands moving in the places where the fingering is tricky. Of course they play so beautifully - and I'll never be that good - but it's comforting to know that even the masters have trouble with the same spots as I. And sometimes, for a few glorious seconds, the recording of me sounds just like Stern - or Heifitz - or someone. And then of course the illusion fades.

But maybe, sometime this evening, the spirit of ol' Beethoven hovered 'round.

Nov 28, 2007

down to the wire

My performance of the Beethoven concerto is in 4 days. Today I had my last lesson on the concerto. Monday's rehearsal had gone well, and when I warmed up for an hour before my lesson I was really *on* - everything falling in to place and flowing along. Intonation was good. Bow control was good. I had this beautiful daydream in which the concert was a grand success and everybody was so moved...

But then I went to my lesson. I was reaaaaally nervous. I'd never played the whole movement for Rictor with piano before. So, of course, I looked panicked and sounded dreadful. When I'd finished, Rictor said that if he had never heard me play before, he would have concluded only that Beethoven is hard and I don't like it very much.**

Ouch. OUCH.

When I get nervous, I get paralyzed. My fingers curl up and won't relax. I twist my back and neck unconsciously - although if you saw the position I get myself in to, you'd find it hard to believe that it's unconscious. (I have had a suspiciously sore back, complete with a visible enormous knot on the left side, for a week now. Hhhhhm.) My fingers seem to move whenever they feel like it, not when *I* want them to move, and this of course is extremely disconcerting and means that fast notes or large shifts are often fumbled.

So it's down to the wire. I need to clean up a few little spots - a shift here, a grace note there - but the piece is largely under my fingers. Now I just have to play it so that other people can tell how much I love it. For me, that means remembering to keep my head (chin) down and not tilt it back, to move my fingers from the first joint (the one in the palm), to release tension, to shift with my whole arm and not with my wrist, and especially not to make the icky facial expressions I make when I screw up a note. Because I *WILL* screw up a note in performance. I have to get used to that. Not even the greatest of the great plays perfectly.

Performing is such a funny thing. You work for hundreds of hours for the privilege to stand up in front of an audience and play once - just once, out of the thousands of times you've played it - so that it will mean something to them. You don't get to explain. You don't get a second chance. You can't give a lecture on your piece so they'll appreciate it more. You've just got to feed so much soul in to it that nobody could possibly be left untouched.

And this is what I have got to do on Sunday.

**Later, at the very end, he said that if I was a conservatory student, and I was playing the concerto for juries, I would be just fine. And that was very nice of him to say.

Nov 25, 2007

my funny family

My parents got a MacBook Pro... and look what happened.

We're rock stars!

Nov 22, 2007

Portrait of the Bird as an Old Man

Scooter was born on July 4, 1999 in a trailer park outside of Ithaca, NY. During his infancy, he made his home in a small cage with myriad brothers and sisters. As the smallest of the flock by far, he was unjustly disallowed the full run of the cage, and spent most of his time on the floor.

In early fall, 1999, Scooter was purchased for $5 by four enthusiastic budgerigar aficionados. His charming demeanor and stand-out method of locomotion ("scooting" on the cage floor) immediately earned him his name, in addition to much affection. Scooter then boarded a grubby VW Passat for the journey to his new home. His brief (yet daring) excursion underneath the driver's seat was a sign of adventure to come.

Scooter's first days as a free bird were rocky. Affected by a mysterious lack of flying strength, and a possible eye condition, Scooter crashed repeatedly in to walls and windows, despite closed curtains and padded walls. A year or so later, an air sack injury resulting from these crashes kept Scooter in his cage for much of his first three years.

During the years in the cage, Scooter thrived despite room to stretch his wings. His interests and hobbies expanded to exclude toothbrushes, corn chips, hanging upside down, and vacuum cleaners. Scooter presided over his living room from a large forest-green cage, complete with adjacent space heater. Despite a somewhat quirky appearance, due to bald spots (left by wing feathers which never grew in) and a beak of unusual shape, Scooter dazzled his housemates with his iridescent teal back and sky blue belly.

After several years of civilized cage life, Scooter once again made his mark upon the wider world of the living room. Despite becoming lodged behind bookcases and inside pianos, Scooter soon became Bird at Large. His flying skills rapidly improved, and within months he was able to land on hands playing piano or violin, hands holding forks full of food, hands holding pens, and any other place where avian assistance was generally warranted.

The next half-dozen years of Scooter's life were filled with many delights. His conversational repertoire expanded to include such words as "pencil", "Scooter", "budgie", "goodnight" and many varied shrieks. His new hobbies included landing on exposed food, attempting to bathe in juice glasses, chasing pencils, attacking shiny objects such as rings and spoons, and hampering the doing of homework (and occasionally befouling it). In all situations Scooter prevailed supremely over all other members of his household.

Though times were generally good, Scooter survived several brushes with death. Two unidentified infections placed him in the ER, and he endured a feeding needle full of bitter medicine for two straight weeks. His housemates were twice prepared for his passing, but not one to be outdone by Death, Scooter pulled through and returned to his passion for chasing pencils within a few months.

Though Scooter was never a long-distance flier, he made up for strength in tenacity. Never taking no for an answer, Scooter was known for his trademark evasive flying, and would dodge even the most desperate attempts to return him to his cage in the event that guests unaccustomed to birds landing on their heads would arrive. And although such attempts were made in good faith, they were almost never necessary, as Scooter's good looks and impressive singing served to thoroughly charm every single house guest. Most endearing was his habit of riding on shoulders in the morning, and stylishly adorning winter hats.

Scooter is now nearly nine years old, and very wise in his old age. Having honed his methods of communication with his cohabitants, he is now able to dictate his every whim from his regal perch with only a few short chirps. He exits the cage when and if he wants to, and always makes his desires perfectly clear. Scooter still enjoys jaunts around the living room, though his flying strength only propels him a few feet, and standby rescue is necessary. Crashes, however, do not faze this sage. He chirps for help from beneath the table, steps regally on to a finger, preens, and resumes his reign. Most of his time is spent gracing whomever is present with chatty conversation and puffing his feathers agreeably.

Also as a result of his old age, Scooter cheerfully allows snuggling, as shown.

Nov 19, 2007

my housemates

Yesterday, I came downstairs in to the dining room looking visibly upset, which is quite unusual for me. Within a few minutes, I had unwittingly attracted 6 concerned people, who arranged chairs around me, brought me tea, chocolate, backrubs, cough drops (I didn't even have a cold!), hugs, and crackers. After 10 quiet minutes or so, somebody said, "We don't like a Sad Lissa! It scares us!" (Feeling rather guilty for having worried them so, I went upstairs, with my *4* different types of tea, so as not to disturb the peace.)

What wonderful people I live with.

Nov 13, 2007

brain weirdness

So lately I've been composing a lot for my music class. I use the program Sibelius for notation. In Sibelius, there are 2 ways to enter in a note: you can either click on the stave where you want the note to be, or you can type the note name on the keyboard.

Being a fan of keyboard shortcuts in general I decided to type note names. But I was (and still am) really, really bad at it. For a few days, I thought I was just spacing out or tired or something, because I only typed the note I intended to about 30% of the time, and was constantly adjusting everything to make up for my mistakes.

But then I realized that each time I typed the wrong note, I typed it using the finger that would have fingered that note on the violin. So if I mean to type "F", I'd go for "D" instead, because in standard typing, "D" is typed with the middle finger, which is the finger for "F" (in the right octave of course).

Interestingly, this happened no matter what instrument I was writing for, or what clef I was using. Even if I was writing in viola clef - which is annoying for me to read - I would still make the same consistent mistakes.

Once I realized what was going on, I started thinking very carefully before typing each note. "Ok", I'd say to myself, "you want a 'A', so you'll have to use your pinky to type it". And then I'd go right ahead and get it wrong anyway. My brain just didn't want to be rewired.

This is related to another brain quirk that shows up in my mind, kind of like a lost traveler, ever once in a while: I'll be drifting off to sleep, and thoughts will be flowing through my mind. Somehow, in my sleepy state, I'll want to *play* the thoughts on my violin - sometimes it seems as though I should spell each word in notes, and sometimes it seems like each word should have a distinct pitch. Either way, after a few minutes, I realize that my fingers are moving, and that I'm trying to "play" something... but it never works, because obviously the musical alphabet only goes to G. After a few confused minutes, I wake myself up and laugh about it.

Very odd.

Nov 4, 2007

living scientifically - or not

This is a very provocative post. It may not seem like it, at first - at least in the circles I run in, it's not, shall we say, terribly outlandish to suggest that Black people are as intelligent as White people. But this post goes farther than that.

[Aside, I must say that the following quote is worthy of, I don't know, some fabulous accolade: "Beardiness is very much like intelligence; all a bit fuzzy."]

Here's the interesting part: the post concedes that we can't be 100% sure that race does not influence intelligence. That's true. There are a lot of things I can't be sure of: I can't be sure that my chair will not suddenly disappear from beneath my rear (quantum coincidences are possible!). I can't be sure that all my experience is not a hallucination. I can't be sure that I am not currently breathing in pathogenic bacteria right now.

In life, however, it's generally known that if you go about assuming, suspecting, or even planning for the sudden disappearance of your chair or impending mortal illness, your life will be compromised. You cannot simultaneously live in all of life's possible paths. You have to "have faith" in a few things in order to avoid paralysis by indecision.

Wait, you have to have WHAT? Is this a religious discussion or a scientific one? Ahh, this is where things get complicated. Is it actually possible to live life without trusting that your chair will remain solid beneath you? The answer is very important. If the answer is yes, that means it's possible to reach a degree of zen such that the uncertainty associated with being alive can coexist with choices that ignore that uncertainty. If the answer is no, that means that our actions in life will be profoundly dependent upon which possible reality we use as a model.

I suspect that the answer is, in fact, no. I don't think we're capable of living life without faith in a few things . We seem poorly equipped to be continuously aware, yet unfearful, of all the disastrous twists and turns life might suddenly take. It's not that we're never aware of What Could Happen, but most of the time we choose to ignore most other possible realities. You don't consider that you might break your leg with every single step, do you?

So, the possible reality that we focus on influences the way we act. That means that if we focus on the possibility of Black people being less intelligent than White people, we will act accordingly. And, as a society, we do. This page lists 10 ways in which it is "proven" that Black people score lower on IQ tests than White people. Proven, however, in a society that focuses heavily the concept inherent racial inequality and acts accordingly. Reason #10 on this list above says the following:

"Do Culture-Only Theories Explain the Data? Culture-only theories do not explain the highly consistent pattern of race differences in IQ, especially the East Asian data. No interventions such as ending segregation, introducing school busing, or "Head Start" programs have reduced the gaps as culture-only theory would predict."

Do they honestly believe that all the cultural bias was removed when segregation ended? That "Head Start" can shield a child from all discrimination? That school busing can solve the problem? The only way to test whether or not culture is the culprit is to put the kids in a locked box or something, and I expect that would lead to much worse results.

Humans are not perfect scientists. We can't pick a hypothesis and then let the data roll in, impartial as you please. We can't even pick a hypothesis and dispassionately collect evidence.

This is a case for optimism.