Archive for the ‘music’ Category

The Voice of God

June 9, 2015

What do you think of when I say the word trombonist?

This, I’ll bet:

No, really, take the time to watch it. I’ll wait.

There. Was I right?

Now listen to this:

So, is that what you were expecting?

Now try this. You don’t have to listen to the whole thing, a few moments will suffice:

Do you think you may want to do some stereotype rethinking?

I do understand that we are talking about musicians who make raspberry noises for a living, whose instruments resemble large kazoos and who seem to always be the ones who provide the musical underscore for any comedic scene in which a pratfall occurs.

Still. Think of a world without William Tell, Beethoven’s Fifth or The Ride of the Valkyrie.

And then consider what a young trombonist has to endure to get to the point where he can play those works.

Picture to yourself a student recital.  Here comes a little violinist. Her teacher takes her miniature violin and tunes it quickly, and the precocious infant scrapes out Song of the Wind.  It’s out of tune, and missing a note or two, but owing to the tininess of the instrument you can barely hear it anyway. And she’s just soooo cute, with that tiny violin and all.

Cheers and whistles and waves and waves and waves of applause.

Here comes a young pianist.

He starts strongly on Spinning Song. He gets hung up on the repeat. He starts it again. He forgets what’s going on in his left hand. He starts it again.

The audience, hushed and sympathetic, concentrates on sending him encouraging vibes.

He eventually bashes his way through to the end.

And is rewarded with cheers and congratulatory cries and loud applause as he half ducks, half bows and throws himself blushing into his seat.

Now a little cellist only eight years old. The audience prepares itself for another nursery song and is completely bowled over by a flashy Popper showpiece, immaculately executed.

The crowd erupts and this time it’s genuine. They leap to their feet as one.

And now comes the brand-new trombone student.

Here I must insert a word of explanation for those of you to whom one instrument is much like another: Before you can start to play a brass instrument you have to have shed and completely regrown all eight of your front teeth. This could put you as late as ten or eleven years old before you can even go to the music store to rent your first trombone. If your parents were wise you’ve at least been given piano lessons in the meantime to keep you interested and help you learn to read music, but no amount of piano study is going to help you with the hideous sounds you are going to be making for the first several months of trombone lessons. Contrast this with the fact that there are violins and cellos made to fit two year olds.

So there you are, a giant, large-footed eleven-year-old in the middle of a growth spurt, too old to be cute, too young to command respectful attention, taking the stage directly following a little kid half your size who just earned a standing ovation…

And the first thing your teacher does is to play a B-flat on the piano and ask you to tune.

So you play a B-flat.  Only it doesn’t come out as a B-flat.  It comes out as a tiny, repressed raspberry. The audience titters. The teacher strikes the note again and waits.  You try again.  This time you produce only a loud whoosh of air, and now the audience is really fascinated. Desperately you blow again and a great honk surges out of your bell and someone in the front row gasps audibly and jumps and then everyone laughs.  Some clown starts clapping and then the whole audience applauds, because that’s funny. You feel like you have to bow but you really don’t want to.

Then your teacher plays the introduction.  It is eight measures long.

You play your very first recital piece, Hot Cross Buns.  It too is eight measures long.

When you stop, the audience just sits there.  Surely this mid-to-large-sized child is going to play something more impressive than that?

Silence continues for a second longer than is comfortable, then all at once an understanding murmur whispers around the room and there is a sudden burst of hearty, warm, genuine, supportive applause – the kind adults do with the corners of their mouths turned down in wry sympathy – peppered with admiring chuckles. Better get used to the chuckles, kid. You’re a trombonist now.

To be unfazed by all this requires a comedian’s temperament.  A child with the temperament of, say, an oboist would never survive as a trombonist.

Someone musically important with the first name of Richard is said to have said, “Never look at the trombones, it only encourages them.” (I get my information from memes and in my short survey of them just now I found that opinion is divided. Some memes say Richard Wagner; some memes say Richard Strauss. I’m too lazy to look into it further but will welcome evidence either way in the comment section.)

The trombone is the only orchestral instrument (as opposed to the banjo and the bagpipes which also take their turns here) to be featured in the old “Hey, I got one!” chestnut, “A gentleman is someone who knows how to play the trombone but refrains from doing so,” a quote upon which the world of memes is again divided – it’s either Mark Twain or Oscar Wilde.

If remarks like these are going to hurt your feelings it’s best to find out right away, while you’re young, while there is still time to switch to the viola.

The word ‘brass’ can be a noun (“The trombone is made of brass”) or it can be an adjective (“The trombone is a brass instrument.”)  More unusually it can be a verb, however, and then it means to endure an embarrassing or difficult situation by behaving with apparent confidence and lack of shame.

Coincidence?  I think not.

I would only argue with the word ‘apparent.’ Trombonists are confident. They have to be. They have no shame. There isn’t room for any. In the natural selection of the musical instrument world, the survival of a young trombonist depends more on his personality than on his physical characteristics.  This is why – in contrast to your typical orchestral section of three medium-sized trumpet players sitting bolt upright in space enough for four (to allow room for the egos), or a mild-mannered, spectacled row of four studious but unpretentious horn players (or eight for Wagner)  – a trombone section will generally be a ragged and unpredictable assortment of regular guys, because trombonists come in all shapes and sizes. They can look like bears or mountain men or plumbers or physicists or surfers or serial killers or writers. The only thing that they have in common is that they have a good sense of fun and can take a ribbing.

They will need these assets throughout their orchestral careers for the jokes from non-musicians are only the beginning. Trombonists are not safe even from their own conductors.

Here is an example of this treachery which you may have seen.

At an Educational Children’s Symphony Concert (which you shouldn’t go to anyway; see previous post “How to Make Your Children Love Classical Music”) the conductor will often attempt to woo the young audience by baby talking down at them about the instruments. One by one he will invite each section principal to stand up and play something. (By the way, if you go, you should know that these are not the actual section principals, even though they are sitting in the first seats. The real principals’ contracts allow them to opt out of the children’s concerts. These poor substitute suckers are just here for the danger money.)

The (substitute) concertmaster will play something fast and flashy like a bit of the Tchaikovsky concerto or The Devil’s Trill or the first few bars of the Prelude of the Bach E Major Partita.

The principal cellist will also play from unaccompanied Bach and the bass principal will play The Elephant from Carnival of the Animals.

The children will stare impassively but at least they won’t boo and that’s the main thing.

Then will come the winds.

The flute will play something that sounds like birds twittering and the clarinet will do something entirely forgettable and then the oboe will be called forth.

Here is where things should become amusing, but no.

The conductor will say, “Now children, everyone thinks that the oboe sounds like a duck.”*

There will be a small ripple of sycophantic laughter from the eight parents and two kids who are still paying attention and the conductor will continue, “But the oboe is actually a very beautiful instrument.”

And then the oboist will be invited to play “Gabriel’s Oboe.”

Young moms will sigh and swoon and older moms will wipe away tears.

After that, to cheer everyone up, the trumpet will play a fanfare, probably something by John Williams (interesting) or Aaron Copland (boring), and the horn will play the opening theme from a Mozart Concerto, the tuba will surprise anyone who’s still listening with the melodious Tubby the Tuba tune, and then the conductor will offer a great treat.

Now, children, let’s meet the clowns of the orchestra!”

And the trombonists, the whole section, will be made to stand up and play Lassus Trombone while all the school children take a break from picking their noses and harassing their teachers to point and hoot at three grown men pandering to them with honking glissandos.  There ought to be a law.

So to drive the point home, the guy who plays the actual comic instrument (the oboe, for those of you who lost track) gets to pretend that he plays the Official Instrument of Heaven, while the guy who plays the instrument which has in fact been described as the Voice of God plays for chuckles.**

What, you think I’m kidding about that Voice of God thing?

“In Luther’s translation of the Old Testament, the trombone is an instrument with which the people of God are called together, important news is announced, and the call to battle is made; the sound of trombones accompanies the righteous fight for God. The trombone is the instrument of the priests when they announce a new king and when they march ahead of the Ark of the Covenant. It is the sound that accompanies the sound of the voice of God and symbolizes the power of God and his judgment. Furthermore, the trombone is played to please and praise God, together with a wide variety of other instruments. In Luther’s translation of the New Testament, the trombone is the instrument that God’s companions, the angels, use to gather his elect to announce the Resurrection, the end of times, Judgment Day, and the Second Coming of Christ. When God speaks, his voice sounds like a trombone.”*** ****

There you go.

For my Adventist friends who are careful about your Sabbath listening, I’ve just opened up a whole new world of possibilities for you.

You’re welcome!

See you in a week or so,


* It does sound like a duck; however, the oboe, despite its sounding exactly like a duck, is always played by someone too sensitive to be the butt of even the mildest of jokes. In the one oboe/duck piece of music I can think of, the one from Peter and the Wolf, the duck is portrayed as suspiciously melodious, indeed not duck-like at all.  Have you ever heard a duck sing like that?  I haven’t.  It’s very beautiful, very dignified, a warm and gentle tune with only a couple of grace notes gently hinting at a quack sound.  Then there’s a faster section to show the duck running, you can hear a sort of waddling quality to it but still it’s fluid and chromatic and probably rewarding to play.  I never heard a duck sound like that, and I don’t think Prokofiev ever did either. In fact, I suspect that what we hear today was his second version.  I’ll bet that the first version sounded all kinds of quacky, but that after the first rehearsal there were tears and cries (“I’m not going to play that!  I won’t! You can’t make me! I’ll quit!  I really will!”) and Prokofiev had to go home quickly and whip up something completely unfunny and not at all duck-like to replace it with.

To be fair, there aren’t many comic songs for violin either, as we violinists tend to be mean and humourless and to take ourselves way too seriously.  Not long ago I attended a comedy violin concert by a violinist who was simply hilarious on stage. I met her afterwards and found that she was as mean and cold hearted as the rest of us. When she deliberately hurt my feelings I actually felt better, because the idea of a happy, jolly violinist with a great sense of humour had been making me feel a little bit uneasy and the calculated snubbing put my universe back on track.  I’ve never met a mean trombonist, though.

** Again, this is because if the oboist was made to suffer the laughter of children for making duck noises he would simply dissolve, but not only can the trombone players take it, it actually doesn’t bother them.

*** Knouse, Nola Reed. The Music of the Moravian Church in America. Rochester: U of Rochester, 2008. 172. Print.

**** Full disclosure:  I should probably have mentioned in the beginning that I’m married to a trombonist. That is, a trombonist trapped in the body of a lawyer.  No possibility of a God complex there.


Spring Awakenings, So to Speak

March 18, 2015

It’s self improvement week here on the ranch.

All the nice bulky sweaters that have facilitated denial throughout the long winter are now too hot to wear.  I dug out some spring clothes and put on my favourite light blue Life Is Good t-shirt.  It did not enhance my end-of-winter yellow complexion so I opened the drawer to get out some make-up.

My make-up drawer at best consists of three items:  an ancient bottle of Clinique foundation and two identical lipsticks.  I shook the foundation bottle and applied some.  It was like spreading grout over a gravel driveway.  I scraped it off, and remembered that the family make-up expert, Young Maria Callas, wears something called moisturizing cream.

Speaking of Young Maria Callas, now, brings us to the reason that I feel the need to self-improve at this particular time.  In less than two weeks we will be attending her junior recital.  Young Maria Callas studies at a conservatory which is in a part of the country where they care more about what they look like than I generally do, and besides that, Young Maria Callas is a soprano and so most of her many friends are also singers.  I met some of them last year, when we went to Yale Man’s senior cello recital at the same conservatory.  Like all singers, they looked like they belonged in a fashion magazine, they were put together so smoothly and so elegantly and they were all so perfectly accessorized. Now my own dream of growing old involves living in a very tiny house somewhere on the Maine coast, wearing ratty old stuff from L.L. Bean and doing all my own snow shoveling, looking weatherbeaten and elderly and not giving a damn what anyone thinks and I have to say I’m well on my way to achieving that style and most of the time I’m pretty happy with it. But that’s not the look to bring when you’re mixing with a bunch of singers. One senses that they don’t recognize it as the charming individualism it actually is, and one feels self-conscious.

So with the upcoming trip to soprano-land in mind I went out and bought some moisturizer.  What a miracle that stuff is.  Do you know, I have always assumed that facial skin is supposed to feel like it’s about to crack and fall off.  Now I know that this can be avoided.

I thought that I should also get a new dress for the recital.  Now I know I have a very nice black dress which I just bought, but the thing is I wanted a different colour. When we went to the recital last year, which was in late April, we were a large party of extended family.  As we all stood around the reception area afterwards, one of YMC’s singer friends asked who the big group was.  YMC replied, “Oh, that’s my family.  Some of them are from Massachusetts and some of them are from California.”  The friend looked at us and replied, “I can tell who the New Englanders are. They’re the ones wearing black.”

And of course she was right.

So I thought this year I would try to dress more appropriately for the season.  A horrific shopping trip eventually netted a nice Ralph Lauren dress in dark red jersey (well, it’s not BLACK, anyway) and when I got home from that shopping trip I got out my exercise DVDs from last year.*  I like the Leslie Sansone Walk Away the Pounds series. This is a very nice program that really works if you actually do it.  I enjoy it, and I even enjoy all the dorky encouraging chatter.  Leslie tells me periodically that I am doing a good job and each time I nod in thanks and say, “Yes! I am!”  Near the beginning of one of the warm ups there is a move where you reach one hand across to the opposite knee, and Leslie says, “That activates that big muscle, the Transverse Abdominus.  As soon as you reach across there, that big muscle starts talking to all the other muscles in the region!”

I listened to my Transverse Abdominus.  It was hissing in a frantic whisper:

“Hey!  You down there!  Anyone… Hip! Knee! Ankle!  Psst!   Listen!  If one of you will just let go for half a second so she falls over, then we can all go back to sleep for a couple of months!”

That didn’t discourage me though.  Walk Away the Pounds has worked before and it will work again.  As I walked I thought of a perky little inspirational article I had read in spite of myself that morning. If I remember rightly it mostly nattered along in the same vein as most of these articles:

“Find Your Pas-Sion!

Rah! Rah! Rah!


Car-Pe Di-Em!

Sis! Boom! Bah!


Learn To Say No!

Nah! Nah! Nah!


To Thine Own Self!

Blah! Blah! Blah!”


and so on.


But at the very end was one piece of advice, a crystal clear truth that I have long suspected.  It said, “If you like what’s on the mannequin, buy what’s on the mannequin.”

I feel that this one thing may be just the self-improvement I need.

The Patient Man has been informed that it will cost a great deal more to clothe me in future.


Only Three Days Till Spring!



*Remember that I have just been through the kind of winter where my walking exercise has been limited to shuffling a couple dozen steps between my car and my studio.  That exercise I only did three times a week, but I was much more faithful about the other exercise, which was wandering downstairs to see if there was any cake left.  That one I did every evening, without fail.

Wind Bashing Apology Post

March 6, 2015

Last week in a February funk I behaved snarkily to the wind quintet combination.   I said they were only tolerable in the springtime along with all the other chirpy things, and I may have compared them to a screaming toddler.  Well, as I said, it was February.

Actually I quite like wind instruments.  We had a wind quintet play at our wedding.  Well, it was really a wind quartet because we didn’t know any horn players well enough to ask them to travel to California but among our nearby good friends were a clarinetist, an oboist, a flutist* and a bassoonist.  I say, they were among our good friends.  Hopefully they still are.

Even if I weren’t in apology mode I would tell you that I very much admire orchestral woodwind players, a group that includes the players of all sizes and keys of flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons. These play solistically all the time; that is, there is only one instrument to a part, each player is totally on his own, and this on an instrument with carrying qualities and a distinctive tone so that anyone listening knows exactly who is responsible for it.  One thing I impress on young string players in a youth orchestra situation is that they must never, ever, EVER turn and smirk at a wind player who has come in wrong.  Strings – except for section principals – do not understand the kind of courage it takes to play a woodwind instrument in an orchestra.  In a major symphony there may be a section of twenty-two first violins arranged at stage front, playing in unison, and although each violinist’s body language implies that he is individually responsible for holding the whole show together, let me tell you that each of them is relying on the principal to bring them in.  If he brings them in wrong, they will throw him under the bus.**

But I digress.  This is supposed to be about the woodwinds.

In contrast to the string players, who sit in packs at the front of the stage reaping a great deal of glory for an investment of relatively little personal risk, the woodwind section is buried in the middle of the orchestra (behind even the violas!), each individual player responsible for coming in on time with huge solos full of chromatic and rhythmic difficulties which he always seems to play with effortless fluidity despite being hindered from making excessive interpretive body motions by the fact that he must keep both hands on his instrument and his instrument centered in front of his body.***  Oboists, flutists, bassoonists, and clarinetists all have so many solos woven throughout everything that we don’t even really count them as solos, which doesn’t seem fair.  When they play correctly we take them for granted.  When one of them comes in wrong we all know exactly who it was.  A woodwind player does not have the luxury of faking away a false entrance.  If a string player has not been counting and thinks it might be time to come in but isn’t sure, he can balk: approaching the string with gusto but not making any noise until the entrance is confirmed by those around him.  No one will really know for sure, because if he was wrong he can easily change a false downbow entrance into a shrug, rolling his neck and tilting his head like he was just relieving a crick, and if it was an upbow entrance he might move his hand quickly from fingerboard to pegs, leaning discreetly to the side and tapping the bow lightly on the strings to pretend that he was checking his tuning.   A false woodwind entrance, though, can be nothing but a false entrance, a bright toot embarrassingly misplaced.

Last weekend Yale Man was playing principal cello so we went to his concert. First up was the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra, which I listened to once in Survey of Music and have never felt the need to listen to again.  Sitting there a little glassy-eyed, just waiting for it to be done so we could get on to Beethoven Five, I was startled to hear the sound of a single, very familiar cello and I quickly looked up and focused. There was Yale Man playing a little solo of four measures or so, a tiny beautiful gem with trills, arpeggios and all sorts of good stuff, his cello singing out all alone through the packed hall. The Patient Man and I nudged each other and grinned the whole time and even the Pokerface Joker nodded twice in approval and gave a thumbs up.  It was a really big deal, and if I had known ahead of time it was coming I would have been a nervous wreck on our son’s behalf. I seem to be digressing yet again but I’m not – my point is that here we were bursting with pride over four measures of a principal solo, while virtually every single note an orchestral woodwind player plays is just that exposed and identifiable.

Perhaps it is this constant individual self-reliance that makes the woodwind section seem to be a collection of individuals, sixteen or so independent persons sitting straightforwardly in a line, each facing the conductor head on rather than circling the wagons in the way the strings do.  They do not seem to have the solidarity of the brass players at the back of the orchestra, who look like a football squad and act like class clowns in the back row of English class.****  One imagines that if the trombones came in wrong they would all crack up laughing and then high-five each other, and that a wrongly entering trumpet player would carry it through with alpha-dog confidence, leaving the rest of the orchestra to wonder if perhaps he hadn’t been right after all.  In contrast, all the woodwind players seem to be such sensitive people.  One fears that the clarinetist who toots out wrongly during a rest might crawl under his chair to die, and that a flutist might drop her flute and fall weeping into the arms of her friends. A bassoonist who miscounts might look pained behind a brave facade and then go home and write tragic verse.  One hates to even imagine what an oboist might do.

Okay, one more story about me***** but this one is actually relevant.  It’s rare that a violinist can incur the extent of a conductor’s wrath, but I’ve done it, and so I know how it feels.  I was fourteen, cocky about winning the second-to-last chair in the second violin section of the local college orchestra; I was too lazy to count and too cool to watch the conductor.  In my first concert we played some classical symphony that ended with several chords.  The spaces between the chords were not of the same duration.  Particularly, the rest between the penultimate and ultimate chords was at the conductor’s artistic discretion and I did not bother to look up and see what he wanted.  It’s unfortunate that I decided at that moment to take to heart a comment my dad had made a day or two before, which was “We paid for a whole bow, so why do you only use six inches of it?”  So, with great strength and bravado I used my whole bow on a great crashing fortissi-issimo four-string chord . . . all by myself, into dead silence, while everyone else was still waiting for the cue.

I’ve often tried to find the perfect adjective to describe the conductor’s eyes at that moment, but although I can wield a wide variety of words I just can’t find one that really works.  He controlled his face and his body very well; he flung up his head and did a savage open mouthed grin of triumph and stretched his arms high and wide, fingers clawed and curved to pull the real final chord from the rest of the orchestra, but his eyes (oh, his eyes!) locked maniacally with mine in intense, focused hatred mixed with suspended white hot fury.  After he lowered his arms and the applause began he kept this look skewered on me until the moment he whipped around to take his bow.  It was a look that said, “Because there are people watching and I’m trying to save face, I’m pretending like this is over now, but later I’m going to find you and I’m going to kill you.”  I ran away to cry.  I had really thought that he was going to put his baton right through my head and I knew I would have deserved it.

And that is how I know what’s at stake every time a wind player takes a breath.  I know that every orchestral woodwind player sits on a trap door above a seething pit of a conductor’s fury and this trap door is secured only by his ability to count.  I respect them for their courage to sit there, but what really amazes me is how rarely they fall in.

So, as a humble peace offering, here is a list of some of my favourite music that include woodwind solos great or small:

Smetana, The Moldau.  We practiced this during the first orchestra rehearsal of my freshman year in college.  I was in awe – In AWE! – of the two flute players who had the courage and the skill to play this opening theme right there, all by themselves, with all of us listening.

Debussy, Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun

Berlioz, Symphonie Fantastique (listen for the clarinet solo)

Beethoven, Symphony No. 6, Pastoral

Dvorak, Symphony No. 8 (but then be prepared to spend some time deeply regretting that you never learned to play the French Horn)

Mozart, Clarinet Concerto, especially the Adagio (second movement)

Vivaldi, the Bassoon Concertos******

Mozart, Horn Concertos  (yes, a horn is made of brass, but was implicated in the wind quintet insult so deserves some restitution here, even though all I said was that it had a warm and sunny sound)

J. S. Bach, Concerto for Violin and Oboe in C minor, especially third movement

J. S. Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No. 5

J.S. Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No. 2

Mozart, D Major Flute Quartet, especially the Rondo (third movement)

Gershwin, Rhapsody in Blue

And on the way home from the Pokerface Joker run this morning I happened to hear Rossini’s Barber of Seville Overture. I don’t know if you’d find this one on a list of wind excerpts for auditions, but the winds certainly play their cheerful part and the whole thing is lots of fun to listen to.

Enjoy these selections, and be kind to wind players.

See you soon,


* I know as well as you do that a flutist is really a flautist, but I think if you’re going to say ‘flautist’ instead of ‘flutist’ you have to be consistent and say ‘faggottist’ when you mean ‘bassoonist’ and I’m just not prepared to commit to remembering to do that on a regular basis.

**The conductor will look at them questioningly and they will look back at him in wide-eyed sympathy, making minimal but eloquent shrugs and wry faces that clearly say, “Don’t blame us.  You’re the one who made him principal.”  But really, that’s just violin players.  Cello players generally are too nice for this kind of behavior (they are the trombonists of the string family) and no one hears what the violas are doing anyway so they can really get by with a lot.

*** Except for flutists.  They can dip and sway, like (first) violins, and this is appropriate because flutes are the first violins of the wind family.

****Except for the horns, who look like a Mathlete team.

*****What do you want?  I’m a violinist. 

****** Concerto/Concerti — Cello/Celli — Sorry, I’m just not consistently pompous enough, although I do have my moments.

The Winter of Our Complete and Utter Despair

February 25, 2015

Disclaimer:  I don’t live in the city of Boston.  I don’t work full time and the hours I do work are completely flexible and totally at my discretion.  I don’t have to EVER leave my house if I don’t feel like it, and I have really not been inconvenienced in any way.  And yet…

This has been the kind of winter that makes grown women stand over the kitchen sink and eat Swiss Miss right out of the can, savagely crunching the tiny brittle marshmallows and gazing dully out at the snow from through drooping eyes they have not the energy to focus.  By March, you realize but do not care that your face has been dragged downward in folds and grooves and creases by the heavy gravity of February, that your features are drawn inward in a constant scowl; that all the muscles of your body are rigid against the cold even when you’re inside a warm house.  You are habitually hunched, bent forward in a posture safe for walking on ice, you are a scowling, bear shaped presence stalking menacingly about the house in the tartan flannel robe you have worn for weeks on end; it smells, and you do not care. You stop listening to music, because any kind of music, even that which you normally love, is irritating in the way that a TV blaring in the next room is irritating when you are not feeling well. It interrupts your misery and you resent it.

And when the sun comes out a little, and you think you might want to make a tiny effort to pull yourself together and so you do turn on the radio, you find that to add insult to injury WCRB has inexplicably taken to programming woodwind quintets with infuriating frequency. This may be a well-intentioned if misguided effort to cheer us all up, or they may just be deliberately tormenting us, because everyone knows that there’s only one time of year that that woodwind quintet music is tolerable and that is in the early spring time, just as you are beginning to see just a little tiny green fuzz on the branches and your heart is leaping with joy.  Perhaps it is appropriate at that time because all of nature then is a woodwind quintet — the woody sniff of earth and sap and new leaves, the chirp of birds and peep of ducklings like clarinets and oboes, the playful breezes like the trills of flutes, the froggy bassoon, the warm and sunny horn, the merry rush of meltwater like the spatter of five spit valves being blown out all at once.  Or perhaps it is that only when our hearts are already bursting with joy can we tolerate the sound of the woodwind quintet, in the way that even a screaming toddler probably wouldn’t spoil the moment when you’ve just found out you’ve won the lottery.   In any case, when you’re hunched over the wheel of a salt encrusted car, your face fixed in a menacing stare calculated to intimidate other drivers from turning into the street and blocking you, concentrating with clenched jaws on negotiating intersections rendered blind by overhanging seven foot snowbanks, this is not a good time to be presented with all that chirpiness, and so you have to swear and turn the radio off.

People whose forbears came from northern climes are at their best in winter, with their clear porcelain faces, their bright eyes, their rosy pink cheeks.  They look  happy and gorgeous, they even look beautiful shoveling snow; their eyes even brighter with exertion and their glowing cheeks so healthy and charming.  Those of us whose color indicates a Mediterranean origin fare a little differently this time of year.  The olive skin that we love so much in the summertime, that never burns, that glows without the application of makeup and that with care can even resist wrinkles, in the winter that olive skin fades to yellow tinged with grey and speckled with tiny brown spots we didn’t notice before.  Our lips turn white in the cold, and as the Vitamin D deprivation drags on and on we become foul tempered and evil spirited and we know without doubt that the whole world, especially the happy people of the world, but really just the whole world itself in general, is out to get us.

Here is an example of the spiteful hatred that the world has for me. The other day when the phone rang as I was reading I found that my glasses, which I cannot wear while reading but absolutely must wear for everything else, including walking around my own bedroom, had inexplicably disappeared even though I had not budged from my seat.  Enraged, I rose and stomped blindly around the room, tripping and groping; I picked up and flung down three pairs of the Patient Man’s reading glasses (Why does he have to have three pairs in one room?  Why?).  Then the ringing stopped.  I threw back my head to howl in fury and my glasses fell off my head and onto the floor behind me.  I jammed them onto my face and immediately jerked them off again to read the caller ID and found that I had gone to all this trouble for a telemarketer.  It’s probably as well that he had hung up by this point.  Now in summertime this would be actually kind of funny but in the grip of winter I know that it’s a sure sign that I am becoming demented and am about to die, probably in a completely stupid and infamous way like dislocating my neck by violent sneezing brought about by inhaling powdered Swiss Miss into my sinuses.

And then there’s the issue of having bulked up for winter with a protective layer of, well, you know, a protective layer, like bears do before they hibernate.  Of course bears bulk up and then don’t eat for the next six months, but whereas a lot of New Englanders, mostly those porcelain skinned chirpy ones, hear the word ‘blizzard’  and think Snowshoeing! Cross Country Skiing! Ice Skating! Winter Hiking! or at least Building Snowmen!…when I hear the word ‘blizzard’ I think Fire in the Woodstove!  Baking cookies! Eating Cookies in Front of the Fire in the Woodstove!*

So it happened that five blizzards’ worth of cookies into February I got an unexpected invitation to conduct.  What fun!  A bright spot in a gloomy season.  Mindful of the recent cookies, I went for my biggest black dress.  I shall draw a veil over what happened in the next few minutes but after that was over I went shopping.  That didn’t make it better, because in the dressing room I made a terrible discovery.  I don’t know exactly when it was that I went from an hourglass shape (albeit the shape of an hourglass well reinforced around the small part to keep it from breaking too easily) to the shape of a 55 gallon drum but I do know that it occurred since the last time I bought a dress.

I’ve known from experience since the age of 13 that savagely kicking all the dresses into the corner of the dressing room and then jumping up and down on them and then sitting down on them to weep does no good at all.  It does not summon the Size 2 Fairy (or even the Size 8 Fairy) (or even the Size 10 Fairy) who will wave a magic wand and make everything fit. I did consider punching the mirror, not out of temper but with the idea of rendering myself incapable of conducting by breaking my hand, but then in desperate rage I yanked one last dress off the hanger, a dress with such a youthful silhouette that I had decided not to bother with it, and in a furious spasm of self-punishment pulled it over my head anyway.

It fit.  It fit, and it looked good.  I practically wept.  Then I thought again.  I mean, it’s one thing to squeeze yourself into a dress and double check to be sure that the front view is nice and then take care to stand in a corner the whole time or wear a shawl or a sweater to disguise the back view.  It’s quite another thing to stand on the podium with your back to the audience and then lift your arms and wave them energetically in the air.  In that position you are kind of a focal point.  And at this juncture my very unkind former self came back to haunt me.  When I was young and perfect of shape and cruel of wit I played in a group whose director was a stocky woman — much like my present self  — who wore a shiny polyester sheath dress underlayered with various tight garments spaced in such a way that her back view reminded one of the Michelin Man dressed for a funeral. Believe me when I say that I am not making fun of this poor woman (anymore). I just have nightmares of accidentally dressing like that myself and then turning my back on an audience.

However, I couldn’t see my back view in the dressing room mirror.  I could see my side view, and I could see my mostly-back-but-craning-my-neck-to-see-over-my-shoulder view, but I needed to know that from straight on behind I wasn’t going to be distracting people from the beautiful music.  I did not feel that I could walk out into the store and ask strangers to look at my behind and tell me whether or not I looked like Michelin Man, so I decided to head over to the slimming garments section and pick up a little insurance.

Is there any feeling like that of a slimming garment under a silky, slinky dress with a gracefully small waist and an elegantly draping skirt?  You feel young, you feel fit, with tummy muscles taut and toned.  And when dressing for the concert you discover too late, having overlooked the stockings and the panel that was already built into the dress, that you are wearing not one but three slimming layers, you feel totally inflexible and also very fearful that soon you may not be able to breathe. In the car on the way to the concert, bent forcefully into the passenger seat, I summoned tiny gasps to tell The Patient Man that should I happen to pass out he should not waste money calling an ambulance but should instead just find a pair of scissors and cut through one or two $45 layers.  (I didn’t mention the price to him just then, though, because I knew that if the worst should happen he might spend valuable moments debating whether or not it was worth it, and I might actually die in the meantime.)

But all went well.  I moved with mincing steps to the podium, and knowing myself to be sleek if solid of body I raised my arms confidently, and it was only when the applause came that I realized that to turn around in a small space requires flexibility of the midsection.  I had to instead execute a series of rapid, tiny steps and thus I rotated stiffly and slowly in place to face an audience to which I then could not bow.  I nodded graciously instead.  If I could have, I would have breathed a sigh of relief.

So that has been my New England winter.


See you soon,



**Yes, I ski.  Downhill ski, which burns about twelve calories, because you ride uphill and ski downhill.  No effort at all, at least the way I do it.

How to Make Your Children Love Classical Music

January 8, 2015

You have heard about the Mozart Effect and want to add this accessory to your Perfect Parenting Portfolio, but unfortunately you do not know anything about Classical Music.  Do Not Panic.  Here is handbook containing everything you need to know.  I have arranged it in a handy Do and Don’t format.


DO Take the Family to the Symphony

Taking kids to a regular symphony concert can be perilous, as we have recently been reminded by Michael Tilson Thomas* and if you take children under the age of eight or so to a long, indoor major symphony concert you should probably sit way in the back the first time to see how it goes.  However, an outdoor symphony concert on a perfect summer’s evening can shine in a child’s memory forever. The smell of freshly cut grass and the wafting smoke from citronella candles, the flicker of fireflies and shooting stars, the bright ozone taste of a nearby thunderstorm, the clink of plates and glasses and the soft creak of lawn chairs, the tuning of the orchestra in the big tent and the sudden settling and hushing of the crowd around you, the applause, the bow, the downbeat, the swell of cellos and tympani in the gathering dark…a child who falls asleep lying on the blanket at his parents’ feet while gazing at the stars even before the overture has finished is a child who has experienced a very pleasant emotional association with classical music.


DON’T Take the Family to Musical Events Aimed at Children

At all costs stay away from anything calling itself a Classical Cartoon Fest, unless you like paying a lot of money to spend the day in the company of frantically perfect parents who can’t seem to stop desperately insisting in high pitched voices that their screaming, ice-cream smeared toddlers are totally enthralled by the music, and on that same note under no circumstances should you ever agree to go to a Children’s Concert either because if you do you will spend two hours sealed in a concert hall stuffed with hundreds of field-tripping children, the music overlaid by the hum and whine of starving, bus-crazed third graders and punctuated by thumps and crashes as they bounce frenetically and not quite rhythmically in the wooden folding chairs. They will wad up their programs and throw them, they will yell to their friends rows away, a few of them will vomit from excitement.  You can watch the teachers and chaperons swiveling constantly from back to front and side to side, hissing and swatting, trying to quell the most immediately egregious concert etiquette violations in a hideous game of whack a mole, which is kind of funny, but other than that it’s a horrible experience and you will leave with a migraine like none you have ever experienced.  Don’t do it.  I know it’s supposed to be educational, but all you’ll remember later is discovering you have spent the morning sitting in half a peanut butter sandwich that the kid behind you put down the back of your chair when you weren’t paying attention, and possibly you’ll have a vague memory of some completely incomprehensible piece of music about a hut that gets up and walks around.** Don’t.  Just…don’t.

DO Take the Family to the Opera

I tell you the truth when I say that opera is great for children.  Big, loud, outlandishly dressed people running around on stage caterwauling and shouting at each other, brandishing swords, knocking each other over, fighting endlessly over silly misunderstandings and falling for deceptions that even a child would see through, many of the characters ultimately collapsing upon the floor to die but continuing to sing for several minutes in what children find to be a very comical voice, seriously, this is terrific entertainment! Nearly all operas are sung in another language (Italian or German, mostly) but if you actually care about the plot there are English supertitles provided. You should always read the synopsis before you go just to be sure there isn’t too much murder or mayhem or outrageously immoral behavior, but of all the operas we have been to only Rigoletto and Lucia di Lammermoor would have been seriously inappropriate for young children.  Many of the Mozart operas are hilarious, though, and that is where you should start. The Abduction from the Seraglio and Cosi Fan Tutte are totally violence-free and  pretty much pure slapstick all the way through and Magic Flute has enough bells and whistles and fireworks and smoke and things that explode in both the vocal score and the staging to keep a whole family of kids happy all evening.  Rossini is also extremely entertaining.


DON’T Forget to Research First

Don’t pick your first opera based solely on which titles are familiar to you.  You might end up at Madame Butterfly and unless you’ve had trouble sleeping lately and don’t mind paying $75 for a solid four-hour nap, you’re going to feel as if you’ve been had.  You should probably save anything by Wagner for much later in your opera-going experience as well.

Further, look into the particular production you are thinking of seeing. Read the description carefully to be sure that the staging is not described as ‘trendy’ or ‘edgy’ or ‘modern’ or even ‘new.’  Don’t go see anything that is set in a dump, on a spaceship, in a disco or in an abandoned building until you have seen some traditionally staged operas.  Sumptuous and glittering period staging is half the fun.  Once you’ve booked the tickets, remember that this is a fun and entertaining family outing (like going to the movies) rather than an improving experience (like going to the Museum of Work and Industry).  Don’t gather a lot of boring educational materials and force them upon the children.  They’ll hate it and it will put them right off the idea of opera, even (especially) if you read the educational materials aloud to them in a voice of breathless wonder and delight.  By all means study the synopsis yourself and then share the information, but only because you yourself find it interesting.

DO Listen to Classical Music As You Go About Your Life

Here is a list of totally accessible and instantly enjoyable music.  You can buy CDs or you can buy them in other formats and put them on any of your electronic devices (which I will not show my ignorance by listing) and then listen to them around the house and in the car. These selections are totally non-threatening, non-taxing, and extremely appealing to all ages:

  • Mendelssohn – Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture, Symphony No. 4 (Italian), Symphony No. 5 (Reformation), Violin Concerto in e minor.


  • Beethoven – any symphonies but especially numbers 5, 7 and 9, the Choral Fantasy, also Consecration of the House overture.


  • Grieg – In the Hall of the Mountain King, Wedding Day at Troldhaugen


  • Vivaldi – The Four Seasons, the Mandolin, Lute and Guitar Concertos


  • Praetorius –  Dances from Terpsichore (lots of fun, plus some of the instruments sound like kazoos***)


  • Bach – Brandenburg Concertos, Double Violin Concerto, the Suites for Unaccompanied Cello


  • Scarlatti – Keyboard sonatas


  • Prokofiev – Lieutenant Kije Suite


  • Smetana – Bartered Bride Overture, The Moldau


  • Glinka – Russlan and Ludmilla Overture (You might have heard this during the opening credits of the sitcom ‘Mom’)


  • also any brass music by Gabrieli and by Scheidt, as well as


  • anything by Shostakovich


  • And Telemann.  Only this morning on my way home from dropping off the Pokerface Joker at school I heard a Telemann Divertimento that was so charming, so elegant, so full of courtly cheer that although it ended just as I was pulling into the driveway I turned off the engine and sat in the garage with my eyes closed for several minutes, reliving it until it faded from my memory.

DON’T Patronize!

Do not patronize the children.  They can tell, and they don’t like it. Don’t throw on a bargain bin Best of Mozart CD, make them stop whatever they’re doing so they can listen to it, and then instantly start cooing, “This is Mozart, children!  Isn’t it pretty?”  Just pick something nice but not too taxing and play it at a moderate volume while you’re all quietly doing something else nearby. Don’t make much of it.  Don’t draw attention to the fact that you’re listening to anything different than the usual. Do not say, “This is Wonderful!  You will love it! Stop talking and having fun and LISTEN!”

That won’t work.

Also, don’t compare it to whatever music you usually listen to. Don’t say that it’s better, or more exciting, or even AS exciting.  Just play it from time to time. Sing along in nonsense syllables once you get the drift but for goodness’ sake don’t invite them to sing along too and if they should happen to do so, pretend not to notice!  And most importantly, when talking about the new music DO NOT use any voice that requires you to put on an engaging smile and go all shiny-eyed and magical, and you can apply this rule to all parts of your life if you like, not just when talking to your children about music.

Regarding your Local Community Orchestra: A Warning

Taking your impressionable young children to concerts of your Local Community Orchestra (hereinafter known as LCO) was not included in the list above.  This was not an accidental omission.   Subscribing to your LCO in a wholesale way is not necessarily a good idea.  You have to be careful.  Let me tell you a story about our LCO.

Our LCO, a semi-professional group of which I try to be supportive, has a music library which is not huge and therefore has some favourites which it performs often.  Inexplicably one of these staples is the Prokofiev Classical Symphony, a deceptively difficult work which, depending on how it’s played, can either sound sublime or sound like a middle school band playing a bad arrangement.  In the second movement of this Classical Symphony the first violins have a theme which begins way on up double high H in 37th position on the e string, a thin spiral of notes twirling down like the few first snowflakes in the holy light of a Christmas Eve midnight — except when the first violins are all fearful and tentative and not quite in unison, in which case it sounds like a metal garden rake being dragged down a chalk board. For years I shivered in my seat as I endured this passage, and closed my eyes and massaged my forehead and curled my toes and tried not to think about it. Having never heard it played elsewhere, I thought the Prokofiev Classical Symphony was really the most horrid thing in the whole world.  

So imagine my frustration when we were on a quick trip to London and the only London Symphony Orchestra concert we could get to featured the Prokofiev Classical Symphony.  We had to go, of course – it was the London Symphony! – but the outrage of paying $85 to have broken glass shoved down my ears was almost more than I could bear.  As the passage approached I activated the special sound shields that we violin teachers develop in our ears…and then the violinists gently moved their bows and the most lovely melody spun softly upward from the strings and floated gracefully into the ceiling and drifted back down upon us like a fall of angels’ feathers. It was exactly like being gently cosseted in a soft fluffy comforter still warm from the dryer when I was expecting to get whacked over the head with a shovel.

The problem is, how many people in our LCO audience finally couldn’t stand it anymore and just stopped trying? I’m just saying, if you want your LCO to be an enhancement to your classical music experience rather than a detriment, you’ll have to pick your concerts wisely.  And it might take a little experience for you to be able to do that.

And of course…

Finally, and probably most importantly, give your children instrument lessons and as soon as possible enroll them in a youth orchestra. Yes, you will have to go to all the concerts, and I’m afraid that it may hurt your ears for quite some time, and for that I am sorry. All I can say is that in the end it will be worth it.

This is true, I promise.

Alrighty then, see you next week.



* I don’t know how to paste a link, or the legally correct way to do so, so if you’re interested you’ll need to google ‘Michael Tilson Thomas New World Symphony asks mother and child to move’ and there will be plenty for you to read about that.  In the interest of full disclosure, I totally support his action.

** Mussorgsky, The Hut of Baba-Yaga from Pictures at an Exhibition.  It’s on EVERY Children’s Concert program. No one gets it.

*** the krumhorns