(photo by Georg Schroll)
I'm not sure if anyone out there in the vast, interstellar space of the Interwebs read the Sunday article in the New York Times Magazine on Jonny Greenwood, the Radiohead guitarist and composer extraordinaire.
The article profiles Greenwood and his forays into contemporary classical music, forays which are fuelled by his obsession with the Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki. Greenwood comes off as a melancholy but brilliant rock musician and classical composer, although, really, more than simply profiling Greenwood, the article attempts to document a transitional moment for Greenwood – how firmly in-between rock musician and experimental composer he is.
This in-between state of Greenwood's is something different, the article argues, than Paul McCartney's "politely received" classical compositions, or anything by Deep Purple or Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. Or even Billy Joel. Greenwood isn't moonlighting in classical. Or if he is moonlighting at all, he could be a composer moonlighting as a rock musician.
The article is especially interesting for classical musicians and string players, since in documenting where Greenwood is in his career, it points toward an exciting trend in both indie rock and classical music. The two, once ignorant of each other, are now bedfellows.
(photo by Georg Schroll)
I'm not sure if you all follow Alex Ross's music blog The Rest Is Noise but today I came across a post that has my brain in a tailspin. In a good way.
Ross's post is titled "The Appoggiatura Imbroglio", and whatever the words "appoggiatura" and "imbroglio" mean alone or together, the post is about Grammy-winner Adele and her song"Someone Like You". Apparently, the song makes EVERYONE cry. To help explain why, The Wall Street Journal featured an article on the science behind songs that make us cry. Here's what the article, "Anatomy of a Tear-Jerker", by Michaeleen Doucleff, says:
Music and arts education programs matter because they engage the bizarre and beautiful creativity of Generation Y.
So, I've been thinking about education recently. Entries on the joys and trials of being a Suzuki Mom have flooded my inbox (send more!), and my colleague Alberta, a fine violinist and writer here at SHAR, just posted an entry last week on the sacrifices and payoffs of studying and playing the violin.
The entries on this blog, however, aren't reflective of the dominant opinion on most school boards. No surprise there. Arts education can't really compete with the sciences, and I'm not sure if they've ever been able to compete. Certainly these days most of the rhetoric from President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan has centered on the sciences. When Obama and Duncan talk about our test scores dropping behind Scandanavian countries or China, it's usually in the sciences. Administrators value reading, but not reading as a way to make art: more so, they care about reading skills because the savvy use of language is necessary to get ahead.
This week I finally talk about the Super Bowl and Madonna's halftime show. I'm both fascinated by and suspicious of the spectacle we witnessed, and so I ask, What's the value of the solo performance? And what sort of armor do we put on when everything in our culture is grandiose and awe-inspiring? If you'd like to contribute to our blog -- as a parent, teacher, or player -- email me at email@example.com.
In today's post, I ask the big question: is the string community just fooling itself by paying so much for Stradivarius cellos and violins? If you'd like to contribute to our blog -- as a Suzuki parent, player, or teacher -- email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Although I'm not a musician -- I'm a writer -- I've found myself fascinated by the recent discussion of Bernard Greenhouse's Countess of Stainlein Stradivarius cello. After Greenhouse's death, his daughter and son-in-law Elena and Nicholas Delbanco sold Greenhouse's cello for more than 6 million dollars. That's a lot of money, and though money isn't everything, it is how we mark the value of objects. (Even John & Paul give us contradictory wisdom on this one: "Can't Buy Me Love" and "You Never Give Me Your Money" don't exactly send the same message.)
I can't but think, too, that maybe there's a bigger question behind my fascination with Greenhouse's cello: as artists and musicians, what is our relationship with our instruments? I guess I'm not just talking about consumer objects but more so the instruments through which we make art (though there is certainly overlap).
I'm attached to my writing desk and my computer. I'm attached to my fancy leather-bound journal and a certain type of pen. I know writers who are even more particular. A dear friend and mentor from graduate school once admitted that as a young writer she absolutely needed two tables (one for her typewriter and one for the books necessary to her project), a pot of coffee, and a pack of cigarettes. And so I wonder about the things that I think I need. Do I need to write at the same desk and with the same pen? Do they affect my writing?
I'm not sure this line of thinking carries over as neatly as I would like into the world of high-end instruments. A quality pen is much less essential to writing than a quality violin is to making music. That said, the comparison to writing does bring up questions for me and everyone else salivating over Greenhouse's Stradivarius cello, namely whether the Stradivarius violin simply produces better sound than other violins or if we've falsely come to believe that.
There's more to complicate the question. An experiment by the National Academy of Sciences found that 8 of 21 players, in a blind test, preferred to take home newer instruments rather than old ones. To add insult to injury, a Stradivarius violin came in last place: it was the least preferred instrument. Of course, there were a few problems with the experiment -- a limited number of test violins were used and the experiment was carried out in a hotel room with predictably poor acoustics -- but the results are still troubling. The Stradivarius came in last place? Seriously?
Instruments made by the famous Italian craftsman Antonio Stradivari are said to be capable of subtler expression, and Greenhouse, of course, agrees. In “The Countess of Stanlein Restored: A History of the Countess of Stanlein ex-Paganini Stradivarius Cello of 1707," written by his son-in-law Nicholas Delbanco, Greenhouse says:
The quality of sound is something that one wears, that adorns an individual as though it were a beautiful piece of apparel. The ear can be deceiving sometimes; sometimes I’ll pick up one of the lovely modern celli in the morning and be very happy with it, but in the afternoon I’ll ask what could possibly have pleased me.
And here's how Daniel J. Watkin in his NY Times article "Selling a 300-Year-Old Cello" describes Greenhouse's playing:
In a Beaux Arts recording of Schubert’s Trio in E flat, the elegiac opening measures of the Andante con Moto movement convey everything beautiful about his playing. The vibrato is light and warm; the notes taper elegantly. The drop in the 15th measure to a low G sounds like a cat jumping onto a carpet.
I love that Greenhouse discards modern celli like unsatisfactory lovers. But what I find most interesting is how individualized both Greenhouse and Watkin approach playing. Greenhouse equates quality of sound to one's clothing, something that's worn, and Watkin's idiosyncratic metaphor compares Greenhouse's drop in the 15th measure to "a cat jumping onto a carpet." These metaphors suggest that the quality of one's playing is like style: if it's done right, no one else can pull it off.
Greenhouse and Watkin would surely scoff at any objective test of the quality of an instrument's sound. I agree. It's a little absurd. The player and the instrument are in a relationship and the result is their style of sound. If the player is a master player, the sound will not be better or worse in any scientific sense, although aficionados will of course disagree on the quality of the style.
For today's post, Nerissa Nields from Massachussets shares a story in response to Megan Crownholm's Suzuki Mom entry "When the Student is the Teacher." What I find especially exciting in Nerissa's entry is the way she closes the post: after a tough practice session, her daughter Lila plays a Bach minuet to their guests while the Western Massachussets sun sets behind the tree line. I think Nerissa gets the moment exactly right, its complicated mixture of relief, joy, and resolution. If you'd like to post about about being a Suzuki mom -- or on anything string-related -- email me at email@example.com.
As I hope I have conveyed in this blog, I am not the model Suzuki parent. I sometimes wonder if such a creature exists. In my mind, all Suzuki moms and dads (other than me) are endlessly patient (“It’s OK -- I am more than happy to wait while you scratch that spot behind your knee/rosin the bow with every single crumb of the “special” rosin/stop being a gelatinous version of yourself”) and perpetually creative (“Hey! Let’s spin the twister spinner, and every time it lands on the red we’ll play that difficult spot twelve times!” or “Let’s play the piece for the stuffed kitten. Let’s make a baby violin for the stuffed kitten! I will draw one and color it in with water colors.”)
On my very best days, and on the days when Suzuki practice doesn’t double as the time I nurse my two-year-old (which are about one in seven), I can employ a smattering of these qualities. But most days are not like this. Most days, I resort to threatening my daughter with the termination of violin lessons, which is mean, cruel and something I would never follow through with. I do this because I am in a hurry and don’t want to take the time for her to get comfortable and ease into the practice herself. Also -- and this is testament to the exceptional quality of (and my daughter's love for) her teacher, Emily Greene -- I do this because it works. As soon as I threaten, or even invoke Emily’s name, my daughter, Lila, perks up. For a few minutes, anyway.
I am not proud of this. But I don’t want to mislead you into thinking I am some great mom, just in case you were fooled. What I am is determined, slightly insane and madly in love with my daughter. I am hoping the latter supersedes the former two.
Today, we're posting our first customer blog! And it's a charming, lovely story from Megan Crownholm in Germany about the frustrations and joys of being a Suzuki mom. If you'd like to contribute to our blog, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. A big thanks to Megan and her daughter for their insightful story!
Sometimes being a Suzuki parent is a humbling experience. And not just in a “Wow, every other five year old on Youtube is better than my daughter” way. In our post-"Twinkles" but pre-"Allegretto" days, I was a frustrated Suzuki mom. My daughter, who had always treated her preschool teachers with reverence, was a squirmy worm while practicing, talked back to her talented violin teacher, and threw tantrums during lessons. On lesson days with her teacher, she showcased none of the excellent playing skills that I had observed during our home practices.
One particularly challenging practice day, I found myself alternately holding my breath and exhaling noisily. It was not yoga breathing. Why couldn’t my daughter, who had played “Go Tell Aunt Rhody” so masterfully for three consecutive days, play the song straight through today? Despite the repetition in the song, she would jet through the opening line, and by the end of the song, she would collapse into tears. Finally, trying to mask my frustration, I said, “Here, I will play it for you on my violin.”
Although I was up against the double-whammy of being a new violin player and a new Suzuki mom, I felt confident that my modeling of how to correctly play the ending would solve the problem. As an elementary school teacher, I know the importance of modeling and have seen timid students find confidence in following my lead when approaching new math problems or struggling to find the main idea of a reading passage.
Buoyed by the idea that, though I was an inexperienced violinist, I was an experienced educator, I picked up my violin and started to play the song. After a few missed notes and some poorly hidden giggles from my daughter, I approached the last line of “Go Tell Aunt Rhody.” Without question, I was going to nail this. After all, the first and final lines of the song are nearly identical, so what could go wrong?
I’m sure that there is some clever word or phrase that describes what happens when your fingers simply won’t obey, much like being tongue-tied, and that word would precisely illustrate what happened to me that day. I could feel my frustration moving up my body, my face burning hot, but I was determined to persist. Just then, my daughter laid her small hand on my bow arm, stopping its movement.
In this week's blog post, I quote from Romeo & Juliet and talk about the stink eye, Apple computers, and globalization. Then I share praise for our John Cheng line of violins from Strings Magazine. Intrigued? Read on.
Your wildest dreams just came true: we're taking submissions for our blog. Write a blog entry for us and share tips and stories with other teachers, students, and musicians. Have your say. Speak your mind. But first check out the details below.
Call for Submissions:
We're excited about expanding our blog to include our readers and customers! As we increase our number of weekly blog entries, we'd like to read the entries that you want to see on our page. So, we're looking for entries between 500 and 1,000 words on any topic you think the string community would find useful and interesting. That said, here are some suggested topics:
SHAR is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. I can't help but get all self-conscious about the celebrations and wonder how Stephen Colbert would respond to institutional birthdays. I also admit that SHAR is a good and decent company after all and probably deserves a birthday celebration.
With all the talk about Super PACs in the Republican primaries and the two-year anniversary of the Citizens United (2010) Supreme Court case coming up, I feel a little strange writing a blog about SHAR's 50th anniversary. Mainly, I guess, because we're celebrating the birthday of a company. (Are institutions people? Who should actually get the cake and presents?) I worry that Stephen Colbert, comedic genius and chief tormentor of the new Super PAC practice, might mock me.
It's true. The two-year anniversary of the Citizens United case and its effects on the current political climate have got me thinking too much about the intricacies of SHAR's big 50th celebration. Here are my further questions: Is it weird to celebrate a company's birthday? Do companies have birthdays like real people? And, more importantly, can you hurt a company's feelings by not celebrating its birthday?
Of course, SHAR is not a person. It's a company that sells strings and string instruments to make a profit, and SHAR probably does not have feelings that can be hurt. That said, SHAR has done some things worth celebrating. It started out as a family business in 1962 -- in the basement of Michael Avsharian, Sr., the father of Charles Avsharian, the current CEO -- and has remained a family business since. And though SHAR does sell stuff, it doesn't just sell any type of stuff: it sells musical instruments, strings, sheet music, and all the accouterments and accessories necessary to making music. If most folks can agree that making music is one of the finest things in this world, then serving musicians and the teachers of those musicians is a good and decent mission for a company.
And to celebrate the SHAR's good and decent mission, we're releasing a video series that documents the company's history and its engagement with the string community. Mostly what comes across in this video series is SHAR's commitment to fine craftsmanship, education, and, especially, to musicians, whatever your age, level, or budget. One upcoming video episode will focus on our highly respected violin repair shop (the Henry Ford collection asked SHAR to work on their violins). Other episodes will highlight our deep commitment to the American String Teachers Association (ASTA) and school sales and rentals, with testimonials from the former president of ASTA and local high school teachers. Essentially, the point of all these videos is to show that for fifty years SHAR has provided quality goods to musicians throughout all the stages of their careers: from awkward middle school players to refined orchestra members.
(Excuse the brief self-awareness and pop-culture reference, but I wonder how Don Draper and Peggy Olson from Mad Men would write pithy ad copy for SHAR if Don and Peggy played up the stages-of-your-career angle. "We're there for you from string orchestra to symphony." "Make music. We'll worry about the rest." I could go on. If you're so inclined, leave a comment below with your own Don Draper and/or Peggy Olson ad copy for SHAR.)
Anyway, all this is to say that SHAR is celebrating its 50th anniversary, and we're happy about it. It's tough to think of a company as a person, but maybe it's not so tough to think of SHAR as a group of folks with good intentions who are dedicated to music and music education. Check out our weekly videos here every Monday and raise a toast to fifty more years.