Jul 7, 2008

doing "nothing"

This summer I am not working, but as a friend of mine wisely said, "nerds abhor a vacuum". At the end of May I announced my intention to "do nothing", but somehow there is still not nearly enough time in which to do all the things I want to do.

But the pace of life certainly is different. No homework, no schedule. This leaves time for thinking. When I decided not to work this summer, I decided to *think* instead. I decided to use the summer to Figure Things Out - what exactly I was going to figure out was, um, undecided. I thought that without a crazy schedule, things might rise to the surface.

And they have. This is my mid-summer report on Figuring Things Out. Since Figuring Things Out is a subject notoriously difficult to convey - hey, if they were easy to write about, they wouldn't count - I'm posting a series of vignettes I've written over the past week.

It begins in a dark place. Warning: the following dream is very disturbing.


In the dream, I was in my grandparent's house, although my grandparents weren't there. Instead, in various rooms in the house, were all but a few of my closest friends, puttering around, reading, doing their own quiet thing. I was in the study, looking through my grandfather's old desk, trying to find something. I got distracted, though, by examining the many little things in the small drawers of the desk. I can only remember one of those objects - a letter opener with a wooden handle - but in the dream, I got completely carried away, poking through the drawers for hours. Then the dream made an awkward shift to the next phase. I was still standing in the study, and a sickly aura had enveloped the house. Everything seemed blue tinged and silent. When I breathed in the air felt slimy and wrong. I floated out of the study and in to the dining room. Hanging over one of the chairs was one my friends, swollen and limp and blue and purple - dead. My heart raced. There was poison in the air. I tried to run to the other rooms to alert my other friends. But I was frozen. I floated, with no sense of the ground or of force at all. I could move, but painfully slowly. The force my muscles put out didn't move anything, it just disappeared. I was swimming through the air madly when I finally got to the next room. The friend who was in that room was still alive, staring at me with little comprehension, obviously under the effects of the poison. I opened my mouth to give the warning, and found that I had two tongues. All I could do was choke. I tried to speak a few words, but my friend could not understand. I realized I wasn't speaking English, though what exactly it was I'm not too sure. I reached out through the inexplicably thick air and tried to grab my friend. But everything in the house, my friend included, seemed to be rooted to the spot, unreachable. Despite using all my energy I could not make any difference. I fought through the closing air to the next room. There was another friend sitting, facing away from me, looking out the window. I tried to make a sound - any sound, but I choked again. As I floated there, my friend slid from the chair to the ground. I was too late. I gave up. The dream made another abrupt switch. I was running across a wooden bridge that was covered with sand. I must have been somewhere in Maine. This time the air was almost nonexistent, hypoxic, thin. I ran effortlessly until I came to an empty wood cabin. I went inside. It was completely bare except for one man sitting at a desk in the corner. There was no other furniture. The man at the desk was bush with some paperwork, and gave me the sign to wait. I stood there for a very long time. Finally, he beckoned me towards him. I opened my mouth but found I still had two tongues. I couldn't speak. He sneered at me. "There was one you could have saved, sitting in the door way, near the fresh air," he said.

I woke up soaked in sweat. It was 5 AM and still hot outside. I had only been asleep for two hours. I took off my sweaty tank top and stood at the sink and splashed water on my face. I looked in the mirror. Only one tongue. Maybe nobody had died after all.


I started out on the run knowing I didn't feel well. I told myself that if I wasn't comfortable, I'd stop running. I always tell myself things like that. It doesn't make any difference.

A mile in, it hurt. Ten steps later, it hurt a lot. I leaned my head back to get a better angle on breathing. Swallowed hard.

As I rounded the corner and passed the sandwich shop, I couldn't swallow. I stopped running and walked a few steps. The seconds ticked by on my watch. 11 seconds. I started running. I felt like some strange LEGO person, cobbled together out of parts that didn't match. My legs were restless, my lungs healthy, and my stomach (for which running is supposedly no work at all) an ill-fitting piece, the weakest link.

I made it back home in 31 minutes. I was sure I couldn't have gone another minute, but that's what I thought at minute 26, too. I stood in front of the sink again and splashed water on my face, holding my neck back in a funny position so I could swallow. I looked at myself in the mirror. The pain was completely invisible.


It rained on the day of graduation. All 2000 of us lined up in 4 rows, in the athletic fields, our mortarboards shielding us from some of the rain. I didn't feel well. It was a big day, and I'd just spent 2 hours waiting in a hugely crowded, incredibly hot gymnasium (wearing my robe, of course), talking to dozens of students. The air was pretty charged. Graduating from MIT is kind of like taking the top off 2000 soda bottle that've been shaken for 4 years. Of course, put me in that kind of energy, and no matter how celebratory the mood, I'm like to go under.

I stood in line, moving forward every once in a while. We had about half a mile to walk to the lawn on which the ceremony would take place. Even 10 steps seemed like too much for me. I watched people jumping out of line to hug family members, people shouting across the lines to their friends. I took a few more steps. I couldn't swallow. Was this how I was going to graduate? Would my family line up with their cameras, tears in their eyes, to take a picture of me in this state, barely able to focus my eyes, wondering if I'd be able to hold on? Would I have to forgo shaking the President's hand, and slump in my seat as the next person in line collected my diploma? Is this really want I wanted to remember about my graduation?

Of course I wanted everything to be perfect. I wanted to feel instantly well, I wanted the sun to come out and the rain to stop. But throwing hate at my kind of pain only feeds it. C'mon Lissa, I told myself. You've pulled through before. You don't have to give this up. You can just take one more breath. Don't worry about it. It'll be fine.

It took a quarter mile. I followed the guy in front of me and didn't look up. But when we neared the entrance to the lawn, I realized that I was actually... fine. I looked up. It was still raining. The grass was slick and well-trod and the entire audience was clad in identical MIT ponchos. But all of a sudden it looked beautiful. I passed through the entrance and in to the sea of people. I heard a shout. My family was to the right, all of them waving like madmen and yelling and snapping pictures. I smiled - and it was easy. Later, as I shook the President's hand, my sister jumped up in the audience in excitement and obscured the video my mom was making of the moment. No matter. The videotape wouldn't have shown how good I felt right then, anyway.


"When the spring comes, the grass grows all by itself."

Jul 1, 2008

a lesson

Yesterday, in the sweltering heat on the 6th floor of the old Steinway building, overlooking the Boston Common, I had a violin lesson. Just a regular one. But if you've never taken a violin lesson, it's certainly not obvious what that means. Many people have asked me, over the years, what exactly happens during that hour-and-a-half. You already know how to play the violin, they point out, since you've been playing for 17 years. You already know how to read music. Don't you just have to practice now? Other people wonder if I learn some brand new note each time I go - say, an E-flat 3 octaves above middle C. Or maybe I just go for interpretation advice - play this note quiet, this one long, this one angrily, and so on.

The reality, of course, is very complicated. Because the violin is complicated. And because music is complicated. There are technical challenges to tackle, and the better you get the more there are (you never get to stop practicing the basics). And there's the huge emotional challenge of making a piece of wood speak.

So... in case anyone's interested, the following is an annotated description of my lesson. It will, of course, be full of technical descriptions that are bound to be terrifically boring if you don't play the violin. That's ok. You don't have to read it :)

At the beginning of my lesson, we chat about what's been going on in my life, and how things are going in general. I find it's easier to be honest about my life in a violin lesson than anywhere else. The sense of rapport and trust with one's teacher is critically important. There's unusual potential for a meaningful relationship too, since private music lessons mean that the student will spend about an hour each week as the sole beneficent of the teacher's attention. I ask about his upcoming performances, and about the summer camp he founded. We talk about my grandfather's death.

I start with scales. A-flat major, 3 octaves. I play the whole scale with 1 note per bow, then 2, then 3, then 4, and then he stops me before I get all the way up to 16. He compliments me on improving my shifting. It's better, but not quite there. I have a tendency to let my left wrist flop backwards a little bit when I shift, instead of keeping my wrist completely straight. The difference between "correct" and "incorrect" is so small that I can't actually feel it, so I stand in front of a mirror for hours and practice the correct movement. The wrist must stay straight, but the forearm must also rotate clockwise. And the fingers must bend. Ok. I'm keeping that in mind.

He says that he can hear all my string crossings (and that's not a good thing). There are two reasons for this. First of all, I am picking up the last finger on the old string *before* putting down the first finger on the new strings. The timing is a few milliseconds off, and it makes a difference. I must leave the old finger down until the new note has sounded. My right elbow is also a problem. When you move from a low string to a higher one, the weight of your right elbow should aid, and when you move from a high string to a lower one, you should hold your right elbow aloft so that it doesn't make the crossing difficult. I play the scales again, thinking of my left arm in the shifts, trying to keep my fingers loose but firm, keeping the old finger down until the new note sounds, making sure my elbow is assisting the shifts. He says it's better, but my tone is not yet liquid enough. My notes sound portato, not cantabile. In order to achieve a truly connected sound, I have to use the weight of my entire right arm to my advantage. I play the scales again.

We move on to arpeggios and thirds. He says that when I play upbows, my right shoulder hunches up and forward. I have to keep it down, but loose, so that the rest of my bow arm doesn't become tense. My posture, too, comes up. I've got all kinds of posture problems. I used to lean heavily on my left hip, which caused my entire torso to twist. I've mostly fixed that problem, but I still tend to twist my neck up and back, and my back is still too bent. I concentrate on keeping my head centered and down, and my back straight.

A discussion of intonation comes up. Intonation is no simple matter. For one thing, there are LOTS of tuning systems. Pianos are "even tempered", meaning that the frequency of a note must be multiplied or divided by the 12th root of 2 in order to get the next and previous pitch, respectively. This mathematical tuning is convenient for pianos, but doesn't work for violins. This is because the harmonics produced by any given note are, of course, pitches themselves - and they do not correspond exactly with the notes dictated by the 12th root of 2 rule. Close but no cigar. Therefore, if you play a note, and a third above it, where the third is dictated by the 12th root of 2 rule, it will sound out of tune, due to the harmonics of the bottom note not corresponding with the top one. On a piano you don't notice much, but on a violin, it sounds awful. So on the violin, every note you play must be tailor-tuned to match the other notes you are playing. If you play a G and a B at the same time, you'll have to play the G higher than the even tempered pitch in order to get the third in tune. But play a G and a D, and the G must be lowered again. The list of adjustments you must make is enormous.

We spend a while talking about the Bach Sonata #2 for solo violin, and the tuning issues it presents. I go through the piece, playing one note, then hearing the next note in my head before I play it.

At the end of the lesson we talk Mozart 4th violin concerto. I need to work on my bow distribution. In preparation for this, he gives me a number of exercises to do. I must play long, slow notes while sliding my bow between the bridge and the fingerboard, keeping it perfectly parallel to the bridge. It's supposed to make me more aware of my contact point. I'm also supposed to practice playing in a pattern: 4 notes to a bow, then 1 note to a bow. WITHOUT slowing down. This teaches bow control.

Finally we talk about how Mozart's violin concertos really harbor an element of opera. The key to playing them well is to realize that although there's only one solo violin part, that one violin must speak all of the operatic roles. The player has to be a quick-change artist, changing character and voice every time the concerto demands a new "singer".

The elevator attendant says to me, as I step in to the old-fashioned lift, "Rictor must be a very good teacher. Everybody always comes in to the elevator looking happy!"