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"Colburn School Commencement Address" by Arnold Steinhardt

Guerneri CA (1)

The Guarneri String Quartet (photo by Erwin Fischer) and Charles Avsharian

Art and Illness

Joseph Chapman

Do mental and physical illness help us make better art?

Monday, May 27th was the anniversary of Niccolo Paganini's death. Paganini, of course, was the early 19th century violin virtuoso, and his life now seems like a rock cliché: drugs (he took opium and mercury for syphilis), sex (well, he did contract syphilis), and brilliant musicianship (without a doubt, Paganini was one of the great violin virtuosos). Two days later on Wednesday, May 29th, Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring celebrated its 100 year anniversary. Vaslav Nijinskychoreographed The Rite of Spring, and the combination of his forward-thinking, modern choreography and Stravinsky's experiments in tonality and dissonance caused the audience to riot at the premiere.

Both these anniversaries got me thinking about the intersections between great art and illness. Paganini suffered from a rare disorder called Marfan's syndrome and Nijinsky, following the 1916 Ballets Russes tour of America, was diagnosed with schizophrenia and spent the rest of his life in and out of psychiatric hospitals. (Side note: other famous, alleged sufferers of Marfan's syndrome include Sergei Rachmaninoff, Robert Johnson, and Bradford Cox.) Both Paganini and Nijinsky were, undoubtedly, troubled but brilliant performers.

Moreover, what's striking to me about the proximity of these anniversies is the different types of illness each artist suffered from. Paganini's illness is a genetic disorder that affects, among other things, the skeletal system; people with this genetic disorder typically have a thin, tall frame and longer-than-average fingers (which wasn't necessarily a bad thing for Rachmaninoff, Johnson, and Paganini). In short, it's a physical illness. Nijinksy, conversely, struggled for many years with a mental illness that many have encountered through film and the news, or even through friends and family.

Although I try not to trust Hollywood too much, it's pretty much expected that any depiction of a major artists will include a requisite depiction of illness. A few biopics come to mind:Sylvia Plath in Plath (depression), Jackson Pollock in Pollock (alcoholism), Frida Kahlo in Frida (injury), Ludwig van Beethoven in Immortal Beloved (bipolar and more), the list goes on and on. This correlation between art and illness is one many have long suspected, but last year the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden completed a 40-year-long study of 1.2 million patients and their relatives. Their study found that mental illnesses were more common among artists and scientists than among the general population. OK, so Hollywood isn't totally lying about art and illness. However, what interested me the most about the study was a statement by Simon Kyaga, a doctoral student at the institute: "If one takes the view that certain phenomena associated with the patient's illness are beneficial, it opens the way for a new approach to treatment. In that case, the doctor and patient must come to an agreement on what is to be treated, and at what cost." Basically, what's the cost of treating a condition that enhances one's creativity?

Of course, much of what I'm writing here is speculation. (In fact, some researchers took issue with the Karolinska Institutet finding.) I know that all different types of folks become artists, and the only real thing that unifies them is, well, the fact that they make art. But I can't help but wonder about the conditions that catalyze art. Isn't art, in almost any genre or discipline you can think of, "a certain slant of light," an askance view of reality, or another reality the artist has created? I think of Paganini and Nijinksy and how illness, mental or physical, gives the artist distance from the reality most other people experience. Its their distance -- imaginative, prophetic, medical, or some combination of those -- that allows artists to create the alternate worlds that confront (and change) us.

In my head now, I hear the beginning of Beethoven's fifth symphony. 

The Best Metronomes and Tuners

best metronomes and tuners

Ever wondered what the best metronome or tuner is for you? In our newest e-catalog, the 2013 Metronome and Tuner issue, we have some handy charts that compare tempo range, beat, display, calibration, power source, and more. If you're in the market for a new metronome or tuner -- or a metronome-tuner combo! -- look no further than our latest e-catalog. Click on the image below to shop and compare!

SHAR #CaseConfessions Contest: What's In Your Case?

Bluegrass Gigger

Ever wonder what your fellow musicians carry in their case? Want to share what's in your case? Submit to and follow our #CaseConfessions contest and win a free Joey Violin Case Carrier! Here's an example entry below:

James E, Bluegrass Gigger, WI: Crucial stuff. Sound post adjusters, Dampit, fresh strings, and manicure kit keep everything in check for a tight schedule.  

"A Tale of Three Violinists" by Arnold Steinhardt

Guarneri Trio and CA

The Guarneir String Quartet (photo by Erwin Fischer) and Charles Avsharian

Watch the Winning Performances from SHAR's 2013 Quartet Competition


Each year, SHAR holds a string quartet competition for high school students. We get applicants from all over the state of Michigan; typically, these applicants represent up to a dozen high schools and youth orchestras. We divide the quartets into two divisions, depending on the size of their school or orchestra program. It's such a joy each year to hear these talented students play, and this year was no exception. You can watch the winning quartets play below:

Summer Suzuki Institutes Are Just Around the Corner

Joseph Chapman

I have plenty to regret from my high school days, but strangely enough one of my biggest regrets isn't one of the usual suspects: a train-wreck romance, a misguided teenage prank, or an angst-ridden poem I stupidly shared with friends. No, it's summer camp. Or, rather, not going to summer camp.

In North Carolina, right before spring and allergy season cloud what little sense a teenager has, high school teachers notify their best and brightest sophomores that they've been accepted to a month-long academic and arts program called Governer's School. (The nomination and selection process goes on behind the scenes, and starts in September.)

When I received my letter of acceptance for the Governer's School English Program that March, at first I was giddy. Someone noticed me! But when I saw that I'd be away from my friends for a whole month, I made, objectively speaking, a bad decision. Why would I want to go to school for a whole month during the summer? My teachers and guidance counselors were confused when I declined, but the decision made perfect sense to me.

That is, it did until late in the summer when I hung out with a friend who actually went. He described the comraderie, the fancy labs (he went for science), art studios, and the palpable dedication and creativity. My high school self still scoffed at his description, but I secretly wished I had gone. And as I've gotten older and taught at some wonderful summer institutes (like the Young Writers Workshop at the University of Virgina), my regret has grown. These summer institutes -- where testing and the hazards of typical school days disappear -- are havens for young creative minds.

All of this is to say that you should check out the Suzuki Summer Institutes schedule posted here. The Suzuki Method is meant to be a community effort (like language!), and I can't think of a better place to have that happen than a supportive, immersive summer institute. As Alexandra Ostroff, a Suzuki Teacher-in-Training at SHAR told me, "Taking a week to spend immersed in music is well worth the time and money. As a child seeing the wide ranges of players at camp help inspire me to practice harder and become a better player." One's creative endeavors, especially as a child or adolescent, aren't easy to maintain. But the right support structure, even if it's only for a week or two, can nourish an aspiring artist throughout the year.

For more on the Suzuki Method and summer institutes, check out Suzuki instructor Lucy Lewis's series of blogs here

The Ultimate Guide to Composer Sanity and Aesthetic Taste

Composer Graph

Ever wondered just how crazy and/or avant garde your favorite composer was? SHAR Apprentices James Engman and Josephine Llorente have put together this handy graph! It displays, on X and Y axes, the relative sanity and aesthetic taste of your favorite compsers. Agree, disagree, or think the graph needs a slight change? Leave a comment for the SHAR Apprentices below!

Felix Mendelssohn
As far as child prodigies go, Mendelssohn was pretty grounded and together. Felix and his three siblings were born with silver(ish) spoons; later he and his wife Cecile had five children of their own. Yawn. And although I love listening to/playing his music, Mendelssohn was also famously more cautious than some of his zanier contemporaries (ahem, Wagner). Double yawn.

George Gershwin
Gershwin’s life/personality seemed relatively normal; he was a Brooklyn-bred, first generation, high school dropout. And oh yeah, he was also sort of a musical genius. Although Porgy and Bess was initially slammed by critics, it was later lauded as one of the most important operas in history.

Franz Josef Haydn
Although Haydn had a bit of a rough start to his life, including bouts of starvation and homelessness, later in life he enjoyed wealth and fame in London and Vienna.  He was also described as likeable and humble — no easy feat for a prolific and successful composer.

I know it’s hard to view Papa Haydn as revolutionary in his musical contributions, but for us string players, but he was definitely a trailblazer... can you even imagine what our rep would look like if his string quartets didn’t exist?

Robert Schumann
I don’t have perfect pitch, but in my heyday in music school, I pretty much had an A440 stuck in my head at all times. Like me and George Costanza, Schumann went nuts over one note. (Remember this episode of Seinfeld?) All kidding aside, the reason he was institutionalized was because of severe depression. His works were fairly conservative in regard to form, but he helped push the boundaries of romantic music.

Johann Sebastian Bach
In his time, Bach was a name synonymous with “musician.” Being from a large family of musicians, Johann met and exceeded all of his expectations. Having never left Germany once in his career, he was a bit of a homebody. Besides conquering the study of counterpoint and being one of the greatest virtuosi ever, he was pretty much just a full-time family man.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Our favorite hearing-impaired composer places high on the crazy and genius/influential scale. He was definitely the tortured artist type — moody, passionate, and absolutely brilliant. We can thank him for bringing us into the Romantic era.

Johann Brahms
The mystery of his impoverished childhood has been debated — many think he may have been employed at the request of his parents in a dance hall. The circumstances of that appointment raise more questions regarding his very close relationship with Clara Schumann and his troubles successfully courting women. On many nights long-bearded Brahms could be seen in cheap clothes, walking with no socks on, to his favorite pub the Red Hedgehog. He would often hand out candy to children along the way. Despite his eccentricities, his music was labeled by the other half of the War of the Romantics as being “old-fashioned.” He admittedly focused on the study of counterpoint and imitation and development — much like his role-models, Bach, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.

Dmitri Shostakovich
As a musician I feel like I have the right to say that MUSICIANS ARE CRAZY. Sure Shosty was often described as a bundle of nerves, and he even allegedly had some OCD, but he was a child prodigy and musical genius. I should also probably mention that he had to grapple with keeping Stalin happy and staying alive. With the cards he was dealt, I think Shostakovich was pretty together.

Shostakovich’s music is deeply emotional and restrained in the best way. Even though he’s pretty average on this particular matrix, he’s ranked high in my book.

Hector Berlioz
Because of his fascination with opiates, some of you may think Berlioz should be ranked higher on the crazy scale, but hear me out. If you heard that a famous rock musician did some drugs and then created a composition based on that experience, you would probably shrug and move on. Berlioz was just ahead of his time. After writing Symphony Fantastique and other works, we can thank Berlioz for significantly changing the instrumentation of the modern orchestra.

John Cage
In my opinion, there’s a "good crazy" and a "bad crazy." People who are bad crazy hurt people for no reason. People in the good crazy category think outside the box and have weird interests like Cage, who happened to be an expert of mushrooms (the funghi, not the drug).

Without a doubt, Cage was a leader in avant-garde music. Just looking at one of his pieces shows that the dude thought way, way outside the box. I’m pretty sure he’s the only person who could release a work of silence and still be super respected by the music community.

Johann Strauss II
Strauss was the tin pan alley composer of classical music. He came from a musical family; his father Johann Sr. and two brothers were also composers. When I think of a musical Austrian family I think of a happy bunch, but the Strauss’ were less like the Austrian Von Trapps (pre-war, of course) and more like the American Jacksons. Johann Jr. and his father were in serious competition, and we all know who won the title of "The Waltz King."

Karlheinz Stockhausen
His ex-friends would say Stockhausen totally belongs in a looney bin. After reading this article, I can understand why. Maybe there’s some bias in the article, but Stockhausen is at best portrayed as eccentric and delusional. I can’t even imagine what it was like to rehearse the the Helicopter quartet with Stockhausen, who is often described as a hot-tempered perfectionist.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Tchaikovsky was known to be extremely sensitive and painfully shy. His anxiety began early in his childhood and continued in his adult life; there is speculation that he even ended his own life. The Russian composer made his most significant impact in ballet music, but his worship of Mozart influences his work's strict classical form.  

The Importance of Music Education

Nerissa Nields

Since our blog's been on a hiatus over the winter, it's been some time since we've had a chance to post one of Nerissa Nields's blogs. How we've missed her! And this blog is especially welcome since it addreses a subject near and dear to many of us at SHAR: music education. Nerissa makes the case that music education not only soothes us as infants but it helps bring together classrooms and families. 

A few days ago, I had the pleasure of holding a baby just 10 days old. It was mid afternoon, and I was guessing her poor mama hadn’t really slept since the birth. Elle and I took turns cuddling the baby, while my friend crept upstairs for a much needed nap. After a few minutes, the baby began fussing. I picked her up, walked around the room, sang our version of “Hush Little Baby.” Still gritchy. I switched to “All the Pretty Horsies” and did a gentle canter-y gait. More fussing. Then I started in on Ledbelly’s “Bring Me Little Water, Sylvie.” The baby pulled her head off my shoulder (strong baby!) and stared at me as if in disbelief. She stopped crying and listened as I sang. When her mother came downstairs fifteen minutes later, I told her what had happened.

“No wonder,” said her mother. “We played that song and sang that song many times while shewas in the womb, and since birth."

I’d certainly heard of this happening–baby recognizing pre-womb music post-womb–and in fact, we wrote about this phenomenon in our book All Together Singing in the Kitchen: Creative Ways to Make and Listen to Music as a Family. But I’d never witnessed it so directly. (Well, maybe I did. Maybe it happened with my own kids, but I was so sleep deprived then, I have no recollection.)

Today in Jay’s Suzuki class the teacher had the four-year-old pre-twinklers form a circle. She played “pass the Twinkle,” playing the first line of “Mississippi Stop Stop” to the child on her left, who in turn, wordlessly passed it on to the child on his left, and so on, around the circle. “Isn’t it amazing,” she said. “How you all knew what to do, and could do it without even saying any words. Music is a language we can all understand.”

Plans for SOS-SOA are looking up. Emails are circulating. I am making phone calls, juggling schedules, refining our focus. Meanwhile, doing a lot of thinking about the role of music in our children’s lives. Why fight to keep music in the schools?

- It’s a language we all share.
- It cuts through reason and goes right to the heart.
- When I look back on my own school memories, so many of them have to do with music class, performing, practicing an instrument. Maybe that’s just because I am a musician, but I can’t imagine growing up without all the music I had.
- It unites a group of disparate kids
- It’s the only academic discipline that is equally left-brained and right-brained

What about you? What do you remember about music education growing up?

For more about music education, visit the National Association for Music Education.

Lost & Found: Fritz Kreisler's University of Wisconsin Football Songs


Today we have a marvelous story from SHAR Apprentice James Engman. James shares with us his discovery, in the musty, dank corners of the University of Wisconsin's School of Music Library, two Fritz Kreisler pieces composed for the UW football team. Not only does James's story remind us to keep our eyes and ears open for what's wondrous and overlooked, it shows us how James's eclectism -- a love of old pipes, arrowheads, football, classical music -- has as much to do with his discovery as his determination to find the perfect performance piece to end his undergraduate career.

Several hours after taking my dog for a long walk last weekend, I was on my way to the local Ypsilanti Historical Museum with a 175 year-old ceramic tobacco pipe. It had apparently been dropped into the Huron River by An early 19th Century fur trader, where it remained caked in mud through the Civil War, the entire 20th Century, the birth and death of 15 US Presidents, and the blossoming and conclusion of Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez’s relationship. Finally, I came upon it sticking out of the silty river bank in the spring of 2013. My propensity to pick up interesting looking garbage is finally paying off, yet this is not the first time that I found something that hasn’t been gazed upon for many years. I once found a flawless arrowhead on my uncle’s property in Northern Wisconsin, and came upon some nickels from 1905 while replacing drywall in my childhood home. While reflecting on the excitement of finding the old pipe this weekend, I remembered another discovery from about a year ago. So far, it ranks as probably the most meaningful and exciting of my discoveries, and it was actually a piece of music.

While preparing for my senior recital last spring, I decided that there was room for a short “dessert” piece at the end of the program. I was intent on playing a piece by each of my favorite violinist-composers, Pablo de Sarasate and Fritz Kreisler. Since I had already chosen Sarasate’s “Jota Narvarra” to conclude the first half of the recital, I was in the market for a charming piece by Kreisler. Clicking through countless YouTube videos, exhausting myself through countless Naxos albums, and finally letting my Fritz Kreisler Pandora station do the work as I folded laundry, I was full of ideas. Still, nothing was speaking to me on a deep personal level – the way I wanted to conclude my undergraduate performance career. I decided to do some reading about Fritz Kreisler to learn more about his music, and I began with a short biography by Eric Wen at the beginning of The Fritz Kreisler Collection, the first book in a fantastic series of Kreisler sheet music compilations from the publisher Carl Fischer.(Note: If you have a chance to read about Kreisler’s early composing career, you will certainly find the circumstances of his success inspirational.) There was one sentence in that short biography that caught my eye. I suddenly knew exactly what I was going to play at the end of my recital, though I didn’t know the title or what the piece even sounded like.

The sentence that caught my eye was the conclusion of a paragraph about Kreisler’sversatility. Wen wrote, “At the request of a friend, [Fritz Kreisler] even composed two football songs for the University of Wisconsin.” My recital was the conclusion of my undergraduate studies at that very University. At first I simply sat and stared inquisitively at that line, reading and rereading it until it made sense. It was as if God himself inserted that coincidental nugget into the universe for the sole purpose of me finding it. Old posters in the Union Theater told me that Kreisler had performed for UW, but I had never heard of a piece written by him for Wisconsin. I immediately scoured the internet for information. Google didn’t bring up a single hit for anything about a UW football song by Kreisler. I even asked my professor, Tyrone Greive, who knows everything else you could possibly know about the violin and our University, and he had never heard of Kreisler writing a piece for the UW. Without the help of the internet or music scholars who had been at the University for years, there was only one option remaining: to search the depths of the musty catacombs that is the School of Music’s sheet music library.

After hours of paging through old songbooks from Kreisler’s time, I finally came upon a section of thin paperback books inside hard green folders entitled “Songs to Thee, Wisconsin.” They were printed in 1948, the year my grandfather returned from the War and enrolled in the University of Wisconsin as a freshman. In them were two songs with Fritz Kreisler’s name at the top: Pioneers of Wisonsin and Valiants of Wisconsin. The words were written below the melody, and below that was a piano accompaniment also written by Kreisler (who was an accomplished pianist). According to the songbook, Kreisler was a good friend of UW’s President Clarence A. Dykstra, who had written the words to Pioneers of Wisconsin and wished for Kreisler to write a melody and accompaniment for them. The piece was first performed at the 1943 homecoming game with a marching band arrangement by conductor Raymond Dvorak.

While both of the pieces certainly had all the gaudy charm of a football fight song, I chose Pioneers of Wisconsin, being that it was in D major, had a lyrical introduction, and a refrain that led itself to be easily turned into a theme and variation. I composed two variations to showcase double stops, harmonics, arpeggios, and barriolage, and had a few days to get them under my finders and memorized. My recital was a few months after the Rose Bowl, in which the Badgers ended their fantastic season with an unfortunate loss. While only a few members of my recital audience were avid Badger Football fans, of those, only one or two had any idea of the importance of Fritz Kreisler and his repertoire. Regardless, I felt that I had brushed of some lost artifact, and while it may not have awed anyone much more than a washed-up old tobacco pipe, it bridged two eras and united two very different pastimes. I imagine my grandfather singing these pieces at his first UW homecoming celebration, and how they may have had the popularity that “Sweet Caroline” or “Jump Around” have today (songs that are both played endlessly at UW football games).

My hope is that every musician will at some point have the experience of discovering an old, obscure piece. There are many out there, whether in print or not, lost among the multitudes of favorites that grace thousands of recitals and concerts each year. You might not always find them where you think you would, but eventually they surface and present themselves to someone lucky enough to have their eyes on unlikely places.

If you have a story of discovering a little-known piece of music, please send your story to

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