Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Poem: The Park

We spend a lovely Spring day in the park
My happy smiling baby on the swings
Listening to small dogs eagerly bark
As they chase Frisbees, sticks, and hopping things

The afternoon sun is peaceful and warm
My sweet girl falls asleep in her stroller
I walk through the meadows with her small form
The gentle wind blows pleasantly cooler

In the grass, insects hum their quiet song
While birds sing piercing tones from high in trees
Little rabbits graze as they hop along
The bouncing squirrels frolic through the leaves

Nature restores the hurt part of the mind
This place frees my heart from the soulless grind 

God's Fiddler: A Review of the Jascha Heifetz Documentary

God's Fiddler

As a classical musician, I love watching movies about famous virtuosos. These movies tell fascinating stories about their subject's lives, while showing videos of gorgeous performances. Watching how world-class violinists hold their bow or seeing them perform a concerto has often taught me more about music than I learned in my lessons. With this in mind, I was excited to see that there was a documentary on Jascha Heifetz called God's Fiddler (2011).
Heifetz is revered more than any other violinist of the twentieth century. Known for his impeccable technique, he was so admired that Itzak Perlman said meeting him was like talking to God. Yet Heifetz's enormous talent and dedication to his art also isolated him from other people, in the end leaving him lonely, if not unhappy.
God's Fiddler follows Heifetz's life, beginning with his childhood in Russian Lithuania. His father was a violinist who recognized Jascha's abilities, and began teaching him the violin at age three. At nine years old, the young virtuoso travelled with his father to St. Petersburg so he could study at the conservatory with the greatest violin teacher in Russia, Leopold Auer. There were significant difficulties; Heifetz was Jewish, and St. Petersburg strictly regulated the number of Jews allowed in the conservatory. Auer argued that an exception should be made for a musician as immensely talented as Heifetz, and so the authorities relented. For the rest of his life, Heifetz felted indebted to Auer for his teaching and support, and he described his years at the St. Petersburg conservatory as the happiest in his life.  
On the eve of the Russian Revolution in 1917, Heifetz and his family left for a tour of America, and would never live in Russia again. Heifetz became an American citizen in 1925, and was so deeply devoted to America that he spent three years performing USO shows during WWII, and regularly flew an American flag in his yard. In an emotional section of the movie, colleagues describe Heifetz's experiences playing for the troops--he always played his best, no matter how small the audience, or what the conditions were. Once, he played a concert in pouring rain with only a single soldier in the audience, yet he described it as one of the best performances of his life. 
After his return from the USO tours, Heifetz decided it was time to pass on his musical legacy to the next generation, so he began teaching. Though he could come across as cold to his students, he was also warm and generous; for example, he secretly paid one student's medical bills. Though his students and fans worshiped him, he had very few true friends. One of these was Gregor Piatigorsky, a Russian-American cellist who taught with Heifetz at USC and frequently played chamber music with him. After Piatigorsky's death, Heifetz felt alone. His family life was difficult--he married twice, but divorced each time. After his divorces, he became alienated from his children. A brilliant but complicated and intensely private man, Heifetz seemed to communicate his emotions through music only.
God's Fiddler is a compelling portrait of an incredible musician, one of the first modern violin virtuosos. It depicts a complex man who sacrificed for his art to become one of the greatest violinists in the world. Heifetz's journey is a powerful story, and the documentary shows many of his great performances, giving the viewer a taste of his masterful technique and passionate musicality. As Ida Haendel puts it, his playing is "fire, pure passion." It's well worth watching for any musician, and a necessity for any violinist or classical musician.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Matsuo Basho's "Narrow Road to a Far Province"

In honor of National Poetry Month, I decided to read some classic works of poetry. In particular, I wanted to get out of my comfort zone of Western literature, so I chose to read Matsuo Basho's Narrow Road to a Far Province, a Japanese masterpiece. Narrow Road is a haibun, a fusion of poetry and prose that originated in Japan and has elements of memoir, travelogue, and essays as well as interspersed short poems like haiku, waka, and tanka.

The book describes Basho's journey through the northern province of Japan, which he takes in order to follow in the footsteps of the ancient Japanese poet Saigyo, who made a similar trip. But Basho's travels become a metaphor for a soul's journey to enlightenment. This gives the poet's wandering a powerful spiritual dimension, especially in zen buddhism, which has a tradition of wayfaring saints.

I enjoyed this book. It's very short, but each entry has beautiful images and scenes from the Japan of several hundred years ago. Despite its age, Narrow Road feels surprisingly modern, or perhaps timeless. Basho's deep reverence for nature reminds me of the writings of John Muir, and the book has a profound balance of simplicity and depth. The descriptions of Japan's haunting natural beauties makes me long to visit them and travel along Basho's path. As I read the book, I often wondered how much the landscape has changed, and if any of the views Basho described still exist. I hope they do.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Blue Bonnet Baby: Pictures and Poems

sunshine in the park
indian paintbrush blooming
her pink bonnet

on the fresh green grass
she sees her first spring flowers
little fingers
gently caress the petals
blossoms dance in the breeze

little blue bonnet
delicate Texas flower
a gift of the Spring
joyful beauty 
a smile in my heart

the bright new world
written on a blade of grass 
each flower a poem

her eyes are as blue 
as the Texas flowers 
as sweet
as the scent of spring meadows
warm with sunlight

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Inspiring Practice: Dealing with Short Attention Spans

As a violin teacher, I've had many parents fret over their child's reluctance to practice. They know that practice is essential to learning music, but their children just don't want to practice by themselves, or maybe aren't doing it correctly. Parents start to feel frustrated and impatient, which makes the few practice sessions they do coerce their children into become fraught with tension and disappointment. This makes the children even more reluctant to practice, creating a vicious cycle!

For parents to inspire practice, not merely demand it or force it, they must break this negative cycle. The first step is to understand what type of practice is appropriate for their child's age and musical level. The younger the child, the shorter their attention span. It's unrealistic to expect a five year old to focus on one musical activity for longer than a few minutes. In my lessons, I frequently vary the musical activities to keep young children engaged. Here's list of fifteen different activities I might have a student do in a lesson:

1. Hold their violin while keeping their eyes focused on a sticker while I count to ten. If the child keeps their eyes on the sticker, they get to keep it! (You can use an M&M or a piece of skittles instead of a sticker).

2. Practice doing an "elevator" with the bow.

3. Use flashclass or another app on the iPad to practice reading our notes.

4. Watch a video of the music being played on youtube (or watch the DVD from a book like the Pascale Method).

5. Listen to a recording or listen to the teacher playing the music.

6. Sing through the music on the note names.

7. Play the music pizzicato

8. "Air bow" the music.

9. Practice the rhythm of the music on the open strings.

10. Play through the music slowly (very slowly!).

11. Talk about what the music sounds like, or means to the student.

12. Play the music while focusing on how the bow feels on the string.

13. Play the music while focusing on how the whole steps and half steps feel in the left hand.

14. Imagine what kind of story the music might tell us.

15. Try to play the music as though we are using it to tell a story or express its emotion.

16. Regularly review earlier music and exercises!

As you can see, there are lots of ways a student can practice, and some of these ways might be far easier to do at home than others. For example, having your student watch a youtube performance of their piece might be more approachable for a beginning violin student than playing a piece of music by memory without their teacher present. Starting with easier practice activities makes practice more approachable and keeps students from feeling overwhelmed and parents from getting frustrated. As students progress, they'll become more comfortable playing through pieces, but in the beginning it's perfectly fine to keep things simple.

So how do you deal with young students' short attention spans? Keep things simple at first, with activities like watching videos, listening practice, or singing. Beginner practice should have lots of different short activities, instead of laboring over one long or intense piece. Keep your expectations realistic--try to practice everyday, but for only a few minutes at a time. If something's too hard, or your child is getting overwhelmed, take a step back and review an earlier piece or exercise. For more ideas on inspiring practice, see my previous post.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Mozart in the Jungle: New Series on Amazon Prime

Mozart in the Jungle

Mozart in the Jungle is a new series on Amazon Prime about sex, drugs, and classical music. It's based on a book with the same name by Blair Tindall, who played oboe with the New York Philharmonic. The show is a little racy--it depicts the excitement and drama that goes on behind the scenes of the classical music world from the perspective of a young oboist struggling to make it in New York. It captures the tension between tradition and innovation, as well as making money versus making great art. But how realistic is its portrayal of the lives of classical musicians? Is this a show that musicians should watch? 

(minor spoilers follow)

It certainly gets some things right. The opening scene shows one of the main characters, Hailey, teaching a private lesson to a fourteen-year-old boy who's more interested in staring at his pretty teacher than learning the oboe. She asks him to please try to practice before his big performance (been there!). Later on, we see Hailey attend a performance of the New York Symphony (clearly a stand-in for the New York Philharmonic), where there's plenty of tension between outgoing conductor Thomas (Malcolm McDowell) and brilliant young newcomer Rodrigo (Gael Garcia Bernal). Rodrigo seems to be a reference to Gustavo Dudamel, the hot new Latin American conductor of the L.A. Philharmonic. Bernal plays him as a genius, but also arrogant and pretentious, while McDowell's Thomas seethes with jealousy and resentment. These bits of backstage intrigue are some of the most enjoyable parts of the show, featuring some fantastic acting from McDowell, Bernal, and Bernadette Peters, who plays the waspish chair of the orchestra's board of directors. Best line in the pilot--"Put that champagne down, Sargent Pepper!" 

After the glamorous classical concert, Hailey and one of the cellists from the symphony hustle downtown to play in the pit of a hilariously bad Broadway show. Hailey hits it off with the beautiful cellist, Cynthia, who's played by Saffron Burrows. Their conversation gets pretty explicit, with Cynthia coming off like the classical music version of Sex in the City's Samantha. Nonetheless, I enjoyed Cynthia's jaded but sophisticated character, and the dynamic between her as a seen-it-all cynic and Hailey as a ingénue felt compelling.

After her drink with Cynthia, Hailey goes home to find a wild party in progress at her apartment. At this point, however, the show veered away from realistic depictions of classical musicians. Don't get me wrong, I've certainly known musicians who party and drink, but classical music takes fine motor skills, so having a classical music drinking contest seems like a disaster waiting to happen. Even more so when you play an instrument you have to blow into, which basically means soaking your reeds and the inside of your oboe with liquor.

Even more unrealistic? Hailey getting a text message from Cynthia about "surprise" auditions that Rodrigo is having for woodwinds. Seriously, no major orchestra has ever had surprise auditions. People spend months preparing for those. I'm guessing that part was added in for extra drama--maybe the producers didn't think that showing months of repetitive practicing for one audition sounded exciting.

Overall, I enjoyed the show enough to look past some of its creative license in depicting musician's real lives (after all, how realistic are cop dramas or law shows?). I thought the acting was excellent, and the backstage drama so interesting it might interest more people in classical music. I'm looking forward to seeing the rest of the season soon. If you're interested in seeing how Hollywood imagines classical musicians, you should check it out too.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Poem: Poor Sick Baby

Concerned, I knew that she did not feel right
Then came a cough, a fever, a sick child
My poor little girl, she cried hard all night
Her face red with pain, her voice hoarse and wild

I called her doctor to get her advice
To find a remedy for my sweet one
But there's little to do that would suffice
Just prescriptions and care that must be done

So I held my baby while she fought
As she kicked and spit her medicine out
Choking and gagging, so deeply distraught
I cuddled her close, as she thrashed about

I wish I could somehow stop her illness
I hold her and kiss her, so very helpless

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Sonnet: Looking at Pictures

Together we looked at pictures of you
A little infant cuddled in our arms
Remembering the sound of your first coo
Enchanted by love with your baby charms

Your eyes open to the world the first time
As fresh and blue as the bright morning sky
With your vision, unique and sublime
You look around as your dad lifts you high

More happy memories, first smile and laugh
You beam with joy sitting on grandma's lap
Your fist wrapped around Sophie Le Giraffe
Then tired eyes close while you're taking your nap

Your pictures remind me you're growing fast
But photos will help our memories last

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

National Poetry Month

It's National Poetry Month this April, and in honor of the occasion I'm writing a series of blogs on both reading and writing poetry. I'd like to share some more of my own poetry, but also poems by other writers, as well as discussing what poetry means to me.

So what made me start writing poetry? After my daughter was born, I made an effort to stay "present" in my own life. It's so easy to get distracted by the internet or the TV, especially when you're exhausted. I found that writing poetry, especially short forms like haiku or tanka, helped me to appreciate a moment and capture it on paper (or digitally). Longer forms, like sonnets, have given me a new and exciting challenge. As I wrote more, I discovered a whole community of poets on twitter, people who made social media a tool for sharing art, not just banal trivia. I've admired many of the modern poets I've followed, so I started reading a few modern poetry e-journals and blogs. It's exciting to me that poetry is still a living art form, and it's become so democratic!

Discovering modern poets piqued my interest in reading more classical poets as well. I loved Greek and Roman mythology and poetry when I was in college, so I had read the great epic poems--Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, as well as Virgil's Aeneid and Ovid's Metamorphoses. Now I've started reading A Book of Women Poets: From Antiquity to Now, and I'm looking forward to starting Basho's Narrow Road to a Far Province, one of the great classics of Japanese poetry and literature.

As a writer, I think that reading and writing poetry helps you develop a sense for the rhythm of words, for the way they rise and fall in a sentence. Word choice is vital in poetry; it demands that you think carefully about every detail of a particular word, from its rhyme to its shades of meaning, to the number of syllables it has. It's a far more precise medium than prose writing, yet poetry also has enormous amounts of flexibility and creative possibilities. I have learned to enjoy it very much, and I hope that more people will give it a try.