Category Archives: music

The Stradivarius in the Basement

My Strad

I am very pleased to announce that 1.5 years after starting lessons, I finally finished my Level One Suzuki Violin book!

And, I got a Stradivarius.

Okay, so it’s not a real Strad*. I know that. But it’s very old, once having belonged to my husband’s great-great-great grandfather.  And it has a cool label on the inside that says “Stradivarius.” I mean, “Stradiuarius.” So what if they misspelled it?

The violin had been gathering dust in my in-laws’ basement for years, and when my MIL saw that I still hadn’t thrown in the towel on my lessons after a full year, she decided to surprise me by having it refurbished. Rebuilt, really, since at some point during the last 300 years, one Tessman (the story goes) seems to have used it as a weapon against another Tessman. So it wasn’t . . . how do you say? All in one piece.

But I love it. It’s a link to my husband’s past, it fits perfectly in the crook of my neck, and it has a really mellow tone that makes me sound better than I actually am when I play it.

Plus, it’s a Stradi(u)arius.

Inside Label

*There were thousands of copycat Strads – some better than others – made during the 1700s  Few, if any, of the originals crafted by Antonius Stradivari of Cremona, Italy are unaccounted for today.

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There’s a Pose for That

The P-Dawg has been hounding me to give yoga a try ever since he became obsessed with it earlier this year.

He started out just following the Wii Fit regimen, but soon it wasn’t enough. The P-Dawg’s thirst for contorting himself into unnatural poses was insatiable. Advanced yoga books from Amazon dot com began piling up on our doorstep. The P-Dawg started devoting up to an hour a day to his practice. He stopped eating foods that didn’t “nourish his life force” and toyed with the idea of painting a red line down the middle of his forehead.

Sometimes I’d wake up to the sight of him meditating in lotus position by the light of his salt lamp. “Namaste,” he’d nod to me as I hauled myself into the shower. Before long, he’d lost seven pounds and no longer felt pain in his back.

I was all for the P-Dawg’s new healthy lifestyle, but it was starting to cramp my ability to lie on the couch eating cookies. You just can’t enjoy an Oreo when your husband is sitting two feet away from you with his feet wrapped around his neck, saying things like, “That Oreo will suck the life force right out of you, you know.”

I told him I would give it a try. I geared up for my yoga practice by setting my alarm clock a little earlier each morning. When it went off, I would think about doing yoga for fifteen minutes.

And I was still in this phase of my practice, the gearing up phase, when the P-Dawg casually mentioned that one world famous violinist was able to recover from a debilitating violin injury and improve on his playing through the practice of yoga.

Well, that got my attention. Because though I’ve progressed handsomely on the violin since making my recording, I’ve been struggling with tension when I play, as all great string players do. See, you’re supposed to let the violin just barely rest on your shoulder as your bow dances gently across the strings, not hook it under your chin and grip it like it’s the last banana on the island.

What if yoga practice could help take my music to the next level?, I thought. My original violin teacher was a yoga fanatic and she seemed pretty good.

It was worth a try.

I decided to attend a beginners yoga class the very next morning, at the gym where I haven’t been in three months. I was able to sucker my friend Pauline into going, too, when she tweeted something about putting on a pair of yoga pants and going to the gym. In retrospect, she may have just been planning to run on the treadmill, but I took it as a silent plea for somebody to ask her to do a yoga class with them.

I met Pauline at the yoga studio with my iPhone and she with with her Droid. She was planning on live Tweeting our yoga class and I was planning on taking pictures of her to post on the Internet.  But what we found was that there was no time for Tweeting or picture taking while flowing gracefully from pose to pose and trying to balance ourselves, for example, on one foot.

But it was a good class and afterward I felt limber and rejuvenated. I think yoga will really help me to sneak up on my kids when I need to bust them doing something wrong because already my joints aren’t cracking as loudly as they used to.

There’s just one thing that’s bothering me.

When I came home, I made a beeline for my violin. But when I started playing, it still sounded like somebody (me?) was trying to skin a cat.

Well. I guess you just can’t expect these things to happen overnight.

There is something weird going on in this picture. But what?

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If You Have to Straddle Your Violin to Tune It, You Haven’t Been Practicing Enough

One thing about a violin is that it gets more out of tune the longer you don’t play it. My violin stared at me reproachfully all summer from its dusty case in the living room until the day arrived for my first lesson with my new teacher. I woke up late and scrambled to get in some practice time, but first I had to tune my instrument. I had to tune it quite vigorously because each string was off by at least two whole notes, and while I was doing this, one of the strings snapped off.  I didn’t know how to re-string it and had no time for a pit stop at Ye Olde Violin Shoppe, so I headed off to my first lesson with only half a violin.

“Hi, I’m Rima!” I said to my new teacher. “I’m here for my first lesson. But I have to tell you that I’m missing an A, and my G string is hanging on by a thread.”

There is not much you can play in your Level One Suzuki book without an A, but my teacher was very pragmatic and had me try an Allegro where instead of playing the notes on the A, I had to sing them.  And not only that, but here are the words to the song:

Head head, ears ears, shoulders shoulder, nose nose,
Waist waist, knees knees, ankles ankles, clap!
Head head, ears ears, shoulders shoulder, nose nose,
Waist waist, knees knees, ankles ankles, clap!
Lightly swaying, lightly swaying, as the music gently flows . . .
Head head, ears ears, shoulders shoulder, nose nose,
Waist waist, knees knees, ankles ankles, clap!

I rather liked it.  And instead of getting all up in my grill and re-arranging my limbs into various poses while I’m playing like my first teacher used to do, this one keeps her hands offa me while I complete the entire piece, and then she’ll say something very encouraging, like, “That’s it!” or, “You got it!” or, “Wonderful!” She even said I have great intonation, at which point I started purring and rubbing my ears on her ankles.

I don’t regret the time I spent with my first teacher, because in addition to a good Suzuki foundation, she also gave me psychoanalysis. But I think I knew from the beginning that we were not a good fit. Lorrie is a talented musician, but a little too intense for a non-traditional slacker like me who just wants to play some tunes by the Christmas tree. When you’re all grown up and paying for your own violin lessons out of your husband’s checkbook, you really want a teacher who will make you feel as though learning a challenging string instrument when you’re pushing forty is worth it.

I had the perfect opportunity to quit this summer when Lorrie took a month long teaching break and I didn’t have childcare because the kids were out of school.  And I’m not sure why I didn’t. My experience last year wasn’t very rewarding. Lorrie was always standing me up and I really didn’t feel like I was making any progress because she taught using the Suzuki method, which focuses on proper form and developing an ear at the expense (it seemed to me) of learning to read the music and make it sound pretty. Which is all I really want to do.

So I’m glad I switched teachers and gave it one more chance. If nothing else, I’m hoping that learning violin will prevent me from becoming demented in my old age. Forget Itzak Perlman! I just want to be Pa Ingalls.

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Full Circle

The Lithuanian word for song  – “daina” – can be traced back to the Indo-European “dhaina,” which means, “to give thought to.” It has been an integral part of Lithuanian life since time immemorial, and some of Lithuania’s most haunting ballads hearken back to our pagan roots, a time when vestal virgins kept round-the clock vigil over the eternal flame and the sun and moon were animate entities.

Lithuanians sing. We sing to our children. We sing in happiness and we sing in grief.  Wherever Lithuanians are gathered, you can bet someone is standing at their center with an accordion. We even sang our way to independence – the term “Singing Revolution” was coined to describe the Baltic independence movement of the late 80s, when Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia used song to protest peacefully against the Soviet occupation.

Last weekend, over 1,000 Lithuanians from America, Canada, Lithuania, and England gathered at Toronto’s Hershey Centre for the IX Lithuanian Song Festival.  Yup. We got together just to sing.  It was a huge event four years in the making, and it was worth every hour of the many rehearsals leading up to it.

The song festival tradition started in Lithuania in 1924 (where it is still held annually).  The first such event in North America occurred in 1956 and has been held seven times since then.  The people who gathered in Chicago in 1956 were first generation Lithuanian Americans who had fled their homeland during the Second World War.  This year’s festival included members of that generation, and three generations following it.

This year’s logo was a sun, half obscured by night. It represented the dawn of civilization and the songs that gave voice to the human condition. We began with songs of the dawn and, in the space of three hours, sang our way through a full 24 hour cycle, ending with a new morning, symbolic of continuity, of the migration of people from east to west, and the passing of the cultural baton. Fittingly, I had the pleasure of watching one of my closest friends – who has dreamed of conducting since we were children at summer camp – direct one of my favorite songs, and I had the privilege of singing a brand new composition written by another friend – the one who always dreamed of composing and used to walk around summer camp with an accordion around his neck.

The experience of singing in an an amphitheater with over a thousand people and accompanied by a full orchestra is hard to describe.  When a perfect chord is struck, the sympathetic vibrations are overwhelming. The tidal wave of sound takes you back to the forest primeval, to your ancient roots, and reminds you that you are a part of something much bigger than yourself.

It reignites the creative spark, and it gives you the strength to ignore you childrens’ nightly request for “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and instead keep singing them the ancient lullaby that saw you to adulthood, in hopes that it will leave the same imprint in them that it did in you.

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