Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Review: All the Birds in the Sky

I'm always been a fan of Charlie Jane Anders' writing at io9, so when she released her new book, All the Birds in the Sky, I knew I wanted to read it. The concept--integrating fantasy and science fiction in a wonderfully inventive near future world--sounded fascinating. I found a copy at the library and dove in.

I loved Anders' world and her characters from the very first chapter. Patricia, an earthy but eccentric witch, and Laurence, a precocious scientific genius, are as flawed as they are lovable. They make terrible mistakes for the reasons that all people do, yet find beautiful ways to redeem themselves and each other. Anders' writing is witty and funny in the way I've come to expect from her work at io9, with some delightful plot twists I won't spoil here, especially regarding Patricia and Laurence's evil school counselor, Theodolphus Rose. Her depiction of middle school life in a school devoted to memorization and standardized testing is one of the most biting satires I've ever read, one that feels eerily close to life.

If there's one criticism I'd make of the book, it's that I found Laurence's parents unrealistically cruel and discouraging at times. I understand that from a middle schooler's point of view parents often seem capricious, and that even the best parent-child relationships can be fraught with misunderstandings. But most parents I know would be thrilled that their child wanted to attend a science and math high school, not discouraging. I think if his parents had been portrayed differently earlier on in the book, their actions might have made more sense, but as it was they seemed unrealistic. However, I found Patricia's tense but heartfelt reconciliations with her parents and her sister some of the most powerful moments in the book. I also loved the way Laurence and Patricia awkwardly found their love for each other. In fact, this book was one of the best geeky love stories I've read.

I'd recommend this book to anyone who likes science fiction or fantasy, or who enjoys Charlie Jane Anders' writing at io9. It's funny, tragic and heartfelt in turns, with just enough love and hope to carry its characters through the dark times.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

San Francisco Trip 2016

Last month, my family went on a big trip. We started in San Francisco, spending several days there  before we drove through Napa Valley and up to the Redwoods National Park. It was an amazing experience, so much so that I've only recently had time to look through the enormous number of pictures we took! Here's a few pictures from our time in the beautiful city of San Francisco.  
My daughter at Fisherman's Wharf. She loved seeing the sea lions!
We loved visiting China Town, and had delicious food at Z & Y Restaurant.
The docks were windy, but beautiful!
Sea Lions at Fisherman's Wharf!
The Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate State Park
My family and I at the Japanese Tea Gardens
A beautiful pond at the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park!
My daughter loved looking at all the trees and flowers. When she got cold, I gave her my hoodie. It made her look like a wizard! Here she is with one of our friends! 
A lovely pond at the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park.
My little wizard! My hoodie kept her warm in the cold San Francisco wind.
My husband and me in front of a Pagoda in the Japanese Tea Garden.
Beautiful waterfall and pagoda at the Japanese Tea Garden.
The Golden Gate Bridge, covered in fog. 
San Francisco in the evening.
The bay bridge lights at night in San Francisco.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Playing by Ear--Why You Should Try It!

I'm a traditionally-trained classical musician, which means that I didn't get any ear-training until I went to college. Before that, I had excellent teachers who taught me to listen to my playing and try to play in tune, but playing by ear was just not something that classical musicians in my area did--that was for jazz musicians. We could sight-read and memorize music, but that's it.

The first time I tried playing by ear was when I took a jazz improve class, again in college. I was the only strings person there, and I felt quite out of my league playing with a bunch of experienced jazz musicians. I did my best, but in the end I felt like playing by ear was just not something I could do. Fast forward a few years, and I took a class in Suzuki Method. There, we were expected to at least give playing by ear a try, and since most of the songs we were working on were fairly simple, I took a deep breath and gave it a shot. For the first time, I felt like it was okay to try and fail, and to my surprise, it wasn't as hard as I'd thought (I think years of aural skills training had definitely helped by then). I still don't feel like an expert in playing by ear, but I've found it can definitely be a fun and exciting way to practice.

I think the key to successfully playing by ear is listening. It's much easier if the music you're trying to learn is deeply embedded in your memory. For example, I'm a huge fan of the TV show Game of Thrones. Since I watch it regularly, it's easy for me to hear the theme song in my head. So the other day when I was practicing, I decided to try and play it by ear, instead of looking up the sheet music. It took me a few tries to find all the notes, but eventually I did. It was fun to play, and my daughter loved it! I've tried playing similar songs by ear as well, including the Misty Mountain song from the Hobbit Movie and simple folk tunes.

When I first started playing by ear, I found it very intimidating. It wasn't how I usually practiced, and I felt insecure without a music stand and sheet music in front of me. I was uncomfortable with making mistakes and feeling notes out (or listening for them) instead of knowing exactly what I was supposed to play. But I think that's one of the things playing by ear helps us to let go of. Instead of relying on sheet music, playing by ear makes us explore music more, thinking carefully about how it sounds, not what notes are on the page. What's more, it's good for music students to learn to take risks, and sometimes making mistakes is an important part of that process. That's what learning to play by ear has helped teach me, and it's a lesson I hope to impart to my students as well

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Dallas, My Beloved City

Texas Blue Bonnets 
So there's a lot that's been happening in the news lately about Dallas. We've had a terrible mass shooting that targeted police officers who were protecting people at a peaceful rally. I had friends who were attending that rally, and I also have friends on the Dallas PD. It's been hard to even process the terrible things that keep happening in our country, especially the recent shootings in Orlando and Dallas, so I haven't written about it until now.

I came to Dallas in 2010. I've lived in many places throughout the United States, including Florida, Oklahoma, Virginia, and Alaska, but Dallas has been one of my favorite places to live. It's affordable, family-friendly in the best sense, and people here tend to be kind and polite to strangers in a way you don't always see in other places. You may have seen the pictures the Dallas PD posted before the shooting, of police officers posing for pictures with the Black Lives Matter protesters, everyone smiling and peaceful. That might surprise people, but it doesn't surprise me. That's Dallas. You may have seen the video of a Black Lives Matter protesters encountering a counter-protest, and everyone hugging each other, praying together, and agreeing to stand together. That's Dallas (in fact, I know one of the people in that video).

There's a lot of things people complain about when it comes to Dallas. The city is highly stratified between rich and poor, and it does get crazy, crazy hot here. The school system has plenty of problems, including huge inequality. But in terms of the kindness and generosity of the people here, I can honestly say it's one of the best places I've ever lived. I'm horrified that the shooter (I won't mention his name--these people deserve to be forgotten) targeted our city, and our people, and our police for his hate.

But I know that Dallas isn't going to fall apart because of one angry, hateful person. Dallas is stronger than that. Our police department is a model for the rest of the country in terms of reducing police shootings and complaints of police brutality. I hope, I believe that progress will continue. Our mayor and police chief gave some beautiful speeches about our city and its police, and I hope you read about them. This tragedy doesn't have to divide us if we don't let it. Black Lives Matter. It's important that we train police officers to deescalate situations, for their own safety and for the sake of the people they serve and protect. And it's important that we recognize that most cops are good, decent people who are trying their best to do a difficult, sometimes dangerous job. When the bullets started flying, they protected the people around them. We can appreciate their heroism even as we ask them to do better.

Dallas has been attacked, but we're still here, and we can stand together.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Listening to the Glass Harmonica

The glass harmonica was an instrument that became popular in Western Europe for about 70 years. Instruments made of glass, usually filled with different levels of water, had been used in Eastern music for hundreds of years, but they were introduced to Western music by a man named Richard Puckeridge in 1743. Benjamin Franklin (yes, that Benjamin Franklin) improved them enough to make it popular and relatively easy to play. Unfortunately, the instruments, which had cylinders of glass that spun and corresponded to different tones, used leaded glass. The possibility of lead contamination made the glass harmonicas lose popularity and become associated with madness. However, by the time they fell out of fashion, many composers had already written music for the ethereal, celestial sounding instruments, including Beethoven and Mozart. In particular, Donizetti originally called for the glass harmonica in the famous "Mad Scene" from his opera Lucia di Lammermoor, perhaps using the instrument's ominous reputation to enhance the scene's disturbing effects.

I found this CD of glass harmonica music at the library, and I had to listen to it. I had never heard that instruments like this had achieved such a great popularity, and I was interested to hear how it sounded. It does indeed sound ethereal and beautiful, not unlike a celesta that can sustain notes. I especially loved the effect of the glass harmonica when paired with strings or voice, where it added an eerie, ethereal effect, like fairies humming along with the instruments. If some of the compositions on the CD are less then thrilling (I found the Reichardt piece a bit tedious), others are as fantastical as the instrument deserves, including the Mozart and Beethoven pieces. Mozart's Quintet for glass harmonica, flute, cello, viola, and oboe is an incredible exploration of tonal color that contrasts the richness of the lower strings with the haunting tones of the glass harmonica. Mozart himself played the viola at the piece's premiere. It's worth listening to for anyone who's interested in some very novel classical music.

As a writer, I also found the history of this instrument a dark and fascinating piece of music history. The instrument was loved by many, but developed a reputation for causing depression, illness, and insanity in its aficionados. Was it the trace amounts of lead musicians may have absorbed from the glass, or some quality of the music itself which made some people find it uncanny? Some scholars have argued that instrumentalists would not have absorbed enough lead from the glass to endanger their lives or their sanity, but it's hard to be certain. Whatever the case, the idea of a musical instrument that slowly poisons the people who play it is certainly fascinating.  


Thursday, July 7, 2016

Review: The Green Man: Tales from the Mythic Forest

The Green Man: Tales from the Mythic Forest is collection of fantasy short stories and poems that I found at the library. It was edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, the same duo who had edited another book I enjoyed, Black Swan, White Raven, so I decided to check it out. I loved the theme of the book, and since I just returned from a trip to the Redwood Forest, it felt like the right book for me to read. I'm glad I did, because while I didn't love all the stories, many of them were haunting and unique, and I'm looking forward to reading more from those authors.

Some of my favorite stories were "Grand Central Park," by Delia Sherman, "A World Painted by Birds" by Katherine Vaz, and "Joshua Tree" by Emma Bull. These stories captured the theme in beautifully imaginative ways, but each one was as different from the others as water from fire. In particular, I loved the coming-of-age theme in "Grand Central Park," as well as the heroine's kindness and generosity even as she "wins." Vaz's story is as gorgeous and lush as a canvas, yet as sorrowful and haunting as a poem by Frederico Garcia Lorca. I loved her imagery, and how the worst characters had some humanity in them, even the selfish General's Wife. In contrast, Bull's "Joshua Tree" was spare and understated, yet the germs of hope and freedom her main character discovers in the desert felt as tough as the trees in her title. It was a reminder that there's a beauty even in harsh, hard-to-survive environments, like high school and the desert.

Other notable stories included "Fee, Fie, Foe, et Cetera" by Gregory Maguire, "Remnants" by Kathe Koja, and "The Pagodas of Ciboure" by M. Shayne Bell. I loved Maguire's matter-of-fact take on fairy tales, where Jack has to contend with taxes and bureaucracy as much as a giant. Koja's "Remnants" on the other hand, had one of the darkest takes on the theme in the anthology. The forest of trash is both a refuge and perhaps a trap for the main character, who seems both magical and deeply disturbed. The dark secrets she uses the forest to conceal lurk beneath her supposedly sunny outlook, and the enemies she fears might be people trying to help her, if perhaps ineffectually. It's a story that definitely sticks in your mind, and raises uncomfortable questions about society and the "trash" we throw away. In contrast, "The Pagodas of Ciboure" is a charming, lovely story about the imagined childhood of one of my favorite composers, Maurice Ravel. I loved, loved, loved the pagodas, which are not Chinese temples but a type of French fairy creature made of porcelain, jewels, and crystal. The lovely little creatures and their relationship with a kind but sickly boy made this story one of the most enjoyable to read.

Overall, I'd highly recommend this book to anyone interested in fantasy stories. Like many anthologies, there's such a wide variety of voices and approaches to the theme that it's easy to find stories to love.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Solo vs. Orchestra Playing

Recently, Strad magazine published an article where bassist Chi-chi Nwanoku suggested that double bass students spend too much time and energy practicing their solo pieces, at the expense of their orchestra music. While I don't play the double bass, I'm familiar with the attitude he's describing, and it effects many musicians, especially younger ones. So why is it so important for music students, and their teachers, to focus on orchestra playing as well as solo playing?

Realistically, most musicians play in orchestras or other ensembles far more than they perform as soloists. I'd guess there's fewer than a hundred full-time, professional violin soloists world wide. Keep in mind, the music industry as a whole (including pop music), has lost nearly half its revenue since people began downloading and streaming music instead of buying CDs. Few if any classical musicians can make money selling CDs in the traditional way (some might do better with their youtube videos, but even then most people don't make a good living that way either). What's more, jobs performing as a soloist with orchestras are few and far between, and it often takes a particular combination of talent, luck, excellent connections, and attractiveness to make someone an in-demand soloist.

That's not to say that we shouldn't practice solo music, of course. It's great for anyone to keep up their chops and explore new repertoire. But most of us make our money playing in orchestras or small ensembles like string quartets. For some reason, some music teachers and musicians actually look down on orchestra playing. Perhaps from the standpoint of an academic with a tenured job, orchestra playing looks less exciting or independent than solo playing, or less glamorous. But that doesn't mean that orchestra musicians don't have highly developed skills, including ensemble skills, or that their work isn't important. In fact, I'd argue that the orchestra is an essential part of Western music and culture, and without dedicated orchestra musicians, we'd lose that.

Orchestra playing helps young musicians develop essential ensemble skills, such as learning to listen to the music around you and blend your sound, or how to follow a conductor. It also helps musicians develop their sight-reading and rhythmic sense. I once did a string quartet gig with students from a highly prestigious musical conservatory (which shall remain nameless). I'm sure those students were skilled soloists who could play advanced concertos with ease. But when it came time to sight-read simple wedding music with a quartet, I was appalled at their poor sight-reading and ensemble skills. I couldn't believe that this elite institution had produced students who couldn't perform a wedding gig as well as students from a far less prestigious state university. This is a failure of music education, one that no doubt contributes to the infamous Julliard effect, which shows that out of a class of 36 instrumentalists, only 3 became soloists, and a good many ended up quitting music all together.

So practice your solo music, but practice your orchestra (chamber) music, too. Very few people can have a successful career without all those things.