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Rome burned

February 15, 2010

I woke up in the middle of a dream which I was remembering vividly all day until now, this very minute, when I sat down to write about it and I can no longer remember one single thing about it. I think the dream was responsible for the unshakable lethargy that left me sluggish for most of the day. Mr. Spy was similarly afflicted. I’m not sure about AJ. He spent the day with his uncle, who took him to a science museum and a minor league hockey game.

Mr. Spy and I decided to try to wake ourselves up early this afternoon with a quick ski in a local park. The sun had come out and the trail was well groomed and slick. I’m happy to report that I did not fall, although I’m a total wuss about going downhill in cross country skis. I grew up on downhill skis and have never figured out how to go downhill without my heels attached. But it was nice to have our moment of mock Olympian glory.

By the time we came home, I had to get ready to go to School of Rock. I was anticipating an aggravating day. My 4:00 cancelled without warning and my 4:30 moved to 5, which meant I had an hour of dead time in the middle of my lessons today. I pulled out the battered copy of the final Passacaglia from Heinrich Biber’s Sonatas of the Rosary. These are sort of precursors to Bach’s violin partitas. The Passacaglia is very tricky to play (although not the hardest of the bunch by a long shot), chock full of double stops and insane ornamentation and squeaky high positions. I worked on it my junior year in college. The plan was for me to play it in my junior recital, but a few weeks before I was supposed to play it, I slipped on a sheet of ice buried under fresh snow coming out of French class with my violin on my way to my lesson. By the time I got there, my left thumb was several times its normal size. X-rays showed a hairline fracture of the bones at the base of my thumb and a torn tendon. No violin for me. Lucky I’d started singing that year. It saved me.

Senior year I’d hoped to try again, but when I came back to school, I learned that my vivacious violin teacher had been diagnosed with cancer and would be taking a leave of absence while she underwent chemotherapy. I was heartbroken. J was a wonderful and warm person who got involved in her students lives. She spent a lot of time trying to convince me to wear Birkenstocks, although I refused because I thought they were hideous. (I came around a few years later when I started suffering from plantar fasciitis. I should have listened to you sooner, J!). Once a month, she held what she called her “deli dinners” in the recital hall. We students would take turns playing things we’d been working on for each other in a friendly version of a master class. We all learned a ton from those nights, but what we mostly remember is the enormous amount of food J brought for us. The food itself varied, but dessert was always a flourless chocolate cake of unbelievable richness. She was beyond generous, regularly loaning out equipment. I got to experiment with all kinds of baroque bows and even a viola d’amore. One day, when I was working on the Biber, she handed me a baroque bow and one of her violins, which was fitted with gut strings. It was so much fun to play (even with the gut strings, which are a bear to work with). I sounded fantastic on that violin. “Take it home for the week,” she said, helping me pack it up after my lesson. It wasn’t until the following week that I realized what I’d been playing, when she asked me, “So, how’d you like the Guarneri?” (I liked it a lot, J, and I will never forget it).

Suddenly in my senior year, I had new teacher, the scary senior violin teacher who looked exactly like Mahler and regularly brought me to the brink of tears in lessons. He didn’t think I was up to the Biber, nor was he as big a fan of early music. He tried me on Beethoven and Handel and wasn’t sure I was even up to a recital. Finally, we decided I could share a recital with a vocalist friend of mine. I played Handel and Telemann and we did some Beethoven, Vaughan Williams and Boulanger together. It was a grueling and stressful experience. I was thinking about this last week when I was dining at the President’s House in the very room where I’d given that recital.

Maybe that’s why I pulled the piece out today. I hadn’t played it since college. I have a bound copy, but J, whose eyesight was not great, always blew up our pieces on the xerox machine so there’s be plenty of room to write, which she did in large scrawly handwriting, always color coded. Her marks are everywhere on the pages of the Biber, sometimes almost obscuring the music. It is bittersweet to read them — J died a number of years ago of the same cancer that sidelined her back then. Her comments made me smile. but what was remarkable to me was how well I remembered it. Sure, my fingers aren’t quite up to the task after too many years of not enough practice time, but they knew where to go. I hadn’t played it in 20 years. I could barely read the music, now faded and scribbled on. How could I remember it so well?

It was fabulous getting back inside that piece again. Learning music alway feels like building a building to me. I remember when I was working on a paper for my Medieval music class, I was struck by how in several different situations, musicians were considered qualified as architects based on their musical skill. This was a logic I understood. You have to understand the shape of the building, the way its beams go together, the patterns they make, the play of light and shadow inside. I got lost in the Biber building for an hour this afternoon, oblivious to the drum class that was going on outside my door.

My body was not quite up for it. Between the skiing and the 3 and a half hours of violining I did today, my arms are toast. But it was a surprisingly lovely afternoon with an old friend.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. February 15, 2010 10:32 pm

    I had a weird sleep experience.

    I was on an early flight to Grand Rapids, and we had to de-ice the plain. I was relaxing my eyes, and felt the plane move from the de-icing pad. Later, I felt the plane moving and wondered why we were still taxiing. The next thing I heard was the announcement that portable electronic devices were now allowed and I could get another cuppa joe. Weird. Normally you can tell the difference between taxiing and flying – but not in my state of snooze.

    Great story about the violin and the skiing. I saw part of the Olympics cross country today and marvel at those athletes. The biathlon is up there with hockey and curling for me – how can you ski, ski, ski, ski THEN shoot a rifle at an itty bitty target?

    Your experience with the senior teacher made me mad for the younger version of you. I never want anyone telling Katie or Kristin what they can or can’t do – or can or can’t try. If Katie or Kristin want to become president, Supreme Court Justice, or the new drummer for Spinal Tap – more power to them.

    (Ok, new drummer for Spinal Tap without the nasty side effects…)
    (Yes, I like curling – for the strategery…)

  2. eleanorio permalink
    February 15, 2010 11:07 pm

    “You have to understand the shape of the building, the way its beams go together, the patterns they make, the play of light and shadow inside.” What a great Schenkerian way to describe a piece of music. It’s so true. Form is everything.

  3. February 15, 2010 11:23 pm

    Musicians as architects. Fascinating. I wonder how the buildings held up?

  4. eleanorio permalink
    February 16, 2010 9:47 am

    On a totally different topic, is there a way for me to move my Sitemeter here from my old place? Is it possible to make changes to the actual blog html?

  5. February 16, 2010 10:18 am

    I’ll have to see if I still have the paper I wrote on it. I think the cathedral I was writing about was Cluny (III, I think — not the original part), and some of it is still standing, so apparently he did an okay job. There were others too, though. Eleanor, yay! Welcome to wordpress! I had no luck with sitemeter on this site. It has something to do with the scripting. The free wordpress blogs don’t permit java — it’s my one real frustration with wordpress. If it’s important to you, you can pay for a blog and get that access, I think. I switched to statcounter when I moved over here at the suggestion of Julia and I’ve been pretty happy with it, although the java block prevents you from finding out how people get to your site. However, the in-house wordpress stats are pretty good with that information, so I find the combination of the wordpress stats and statcounter to be adequate. You will have to start your count over, though, unless there’s a way to manually input your preexisting stats when you set up your new account. And there may be. I just never cared enough to investigate it.

  6. February 16, 2010 10:24 am

    Funny- I’ve spent part of the weekend with my old piano, stumbling my way through stuff I worked on in college (I was always a dilettante at the piano – therefore I’m not any good, but I do have some sense of the idea of re-inhabiting old pieces).

    The architecture metaphor/relationship I understand perfectly. In high school, I always said that AP Harmony was my advanced math class.

  7. February 16, 2010 12:54 pm

    Sometime will you post a bit of your playing? Please?

  8. February 16, 2010 1:26 pm

    beautiful 😉

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