Elissa

  I have been teaching violin lessons for twenty years now. At times it dawns on me that I wish I had kept a detailed record of all my students. Their name, age, how long they are/were with me, and exactly how they progressed would be a fascinating record to really refresh my memory. I’m sure my husband would love to make a spreadsheet out of all the information for me, since he loves to do that kind of thing.

There have been hundreds of students that have come to my studio, the youngest three and the oldest a man in his sixties. Instead of having a scrapbook to look back on for mostly better but occasionally worse, I have a collection of photos, addresses and phone numbers from former students mixed with the faces I currently see during my six days of teaching each week. When a flash of a former student comes to mind, I do wonder how they are and what they might be doing now.

One of my former students, Elissa Leventhal, was easy to keep track of because she has been attending college in New York City and has occasionally stopped by for lessons in the summer. I remember distinctly when she showed up a few summers back with the dreaded Don Juan orchestral excerpt in her hands that she was preparing for her orchestra seating audition for the fall. I wasn’t so happy to see her that day. Don Juan is known in the violin world as one of the most difficult excerpts, because of that it's best to have a fair warning that you will be playing it. Luckily, it went pretty well since I had formerly put my time in with that excerpt.

Summer ended and she was back in school and I was back to my busy life. A year had passed and we had not been in contact. Then one day I was on youtube looking for performances of the Vieuxtemps No. 5 Violin Concerto Cone piece or another and I came across the orchestra at Queens College. There was Elissa, right up front of the first violin section. I texted her right away and in our exchange discovered that her senior violin recital would be approaching in the current school year. I told her that, of course, I would not want to miss it.

So the date was set and I had changed my current teaching schedule to be able to attend this momentous occasion. On the day of the recital, I woke up with a sore throat and snow blowing everywhere outside. I was glad to hear that the blizzard of the week had forced her to change the date to a few days later. Luckily, when her new recital day had arrived and I was feeling better. I didn’t have to change my schedule to be able to attend her concert.

A senior recital is a big deal. I remember mine very well. The nerves, the pressure, playing a full concert of solo music, and the desire to be done with school already. When I walked into the beautiful Lefrak Concert Hall I didn’t know what to expect.  I had chatted with her parents before walking in so I knew a little about how her day had gone. I knew she was nervous and that her current teacher was tough on her (I remember that from college too). I knew she was already student teaching at the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, which has a great string program and I knew she was eager to get out of college.

 

I sat in that concert hall without a scrapbook, but I had my memories before the lights went down. I remembered when we first met at my fourth floor walk up apartment when she was twelve years old. She had begun her violin studies in the public school system, the same way I started, but it was time for a private teacher. The first piece that we worked on was Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik,” a piece that I loved from an early age. She continued to walk up all those stairs for years to come to her weekly lesson. I think she missed one or two lessons the whole six years we worked together.

She was dedicated to practice so when she set her mind to auditioning for LaGuardia high school, the school made famous by “Fame,” she got in. She wanted to be in another orchestra so we prepared the audition for the Interschool orchestra in NYC. She got in. As college approached she decided she wanted to study music. We selected the schools to go for and in the process she learned that she was much more comfortable in an urban environment. We put Queens College on top of the list. It has an excellent music program that doesn’t break the bank, offers music education, and it would be perfect for networking a job in NYC for after college. We worked on the Mendelssohn Violin concerto, the required Bach, the Kreutzer etude, and the scales for at least a year before her audition. As I sat there waiting for her to come out and play her recital, I remembered back on all the effort that she had put into getting the acceptance letter to Queens. She did it, and there I sat four years later.

The lights went down. She came out in a beautiful gown and performed Kreisler’s “Praeludium and Allegro,” Bach’s “Tempo di Bourree and Double,” from the Partita in b minor, Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise,” and the first movement from Viotti’s Concerto No.22. She played the entire recital beautifully, completely by memory, and with the poise of a seasoned professional.

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On the way to the reception her spunky grandma asked me if I was the famous Tonya. I’ve definitely never been asked that, but assumed that yes, I was. Her mother tearfully thanked me for all I had done for her daughter, and Elissa told me that she couldn’t have done it without me. Now that she will go into the world of music education herself, she will know one day that actually I’m the one that could really not do it without her. Just one student like Elissa out of the hundreds every twenty years will do it. That is all I need. 

Posted on February 28, 2014 .

ASTA Conference Highlights Day 4

The alarm went off way too soon again and there was not even time for coffee on this last day of ASTA. I was very excited to be playing one of the Choros that Catherine Bent had arranged for her session "Brazilian Choro: A Gateway to Improvisation," so I got to the Convention Center Ballroom at about 8am. It was so pleasant to have a recording playing of the warm Brazilian music over the speakers as you entered the room, it really made 8am feel better and set the tone for the rest of the session. I will call out the presider Joseph Alcocer, where were you buddy? Since he was a no show, I helped Catherine gather stands that were supposed to be in the room. It was really nice to run into one of the ASTA coordinators in this search for stands, she immediately took over and was very helpful at solving this glitch.

Catherine lead the crew that had gathered into a history of the Choro, broke down the rhythms used by having the group dance and clap a little, we presented a duo of the style with a tune called “Naquele Tempo,” and then she got everyone with an instrument to come up for a reading session of one of the Choros. It was a wonderful way to start the day.

The South American flavor continued for me with the presentation given by the Sweet Plantain string quartet. Their presentation was titled “The Laptop as the Fifth Member of the String Quartet,” but I didn’t care what they were talking about. I went to hear them play. The presentation covered how they incorporate electronic gear into some of their tunes and into their learning process. They played more hip hop based tunes rather than Latin, but as I expected, for me the highlight was just hearing them play. Not only are these guys creative and highly skilled artists playing fantastic music, they’re also super nice guys. When will they be headlining an ASTA event? Soon please.

My final, final highlight of a long list of highlights was hanging around after the Plantains were done with their session. I bought their CD (which made my drive home to Brooklyn much more enjoyable) and was talking with the guys and before I knew it the room had almost cleared out, but the cherry on the ASTA cake was about to happen.

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Rachel Barton Pine had decided to try out a few bows for her small entourage, including her daughter that was delightfully dancing around the room. This experience was fantastic on two counts. First, I was sitting in a room with about eight other people listening to Ms. Barton-Pine play scales and then tidbits of concertos, that would have obviously been enough, but it was also fascinating to be listening to the nuances of the different bow sounds that she was pulling and to witness how someone of her caliber goes about the process. I won’t mention how she said that finding a bow is harder than finding a husband.

The bow taste test was an unexpected treat. Along with the mirage of amazing planned sessions that swirled around me for four days straight, often times forcing a difficult decision because I really wanted to be in three places at one time, it is also those unexpected turns of who you talk with, eat with, and play with that make it worth the price of admission. And how could I almost forget to mention the performance of the collection of Berklee harpists playing jazz, wow. I’m kicking myself for not remembering my roller skates to ride around that convention center to their version on "Rock with You."

Lastly, my big picture highlight is witnessing the classical world of training opening up to the possibilities of playing in alternative styles and embracing all these sessions that explore improvisation. I really think it is long overdue and I applaud ASTA for having so many fascinating sessions that are outside of the classical box. It’s a lovely box, but so much more beautiful when it is allowed to sing it’s own tune as well.  Now that I’m home and finished with this blog I have the enormous task of putting to practice all the brilliant ideas that are overflowing from my black and lime green bag. Thanks ASTA, I’ll be back…

Posted on March 15, 2013 .

ASTA Conference Highlights Day 3

My Friday morning began in Eugene Friesen’s “Releasing Your Creative Intuition,” session. The next two hours were a clear highlight for me of the entire conference. First of all, his ideas are tailor made for classical players that are intimidated by improvisation. Secondly, this was not a session whipped together in whatever moments are to be found in a musician’s busy schedule. You know the sessions where the presenter is asking if there are any questions about forty minutes in, proceeded by an almost uncomfortable lull while they come up with a creative way to fill the rest of the session. No, Mr. Friesen’s session was two hours that flew by in a deeply profound and constructive way. 

He began with thirty minutes of a speech that he had written out word for word. I know that he wrote every word out because he was kind enough to send me a copy to add to the several pages of notes that I couldn’t seem to stop taking in an attempt to remember all the wisdom he was sharing. Rather than trying to recreate his speech, I will just advise my readers to keep a lookout for the book that he will hopefully write on the topic as suggested by myself and other attendees. A summary of his speech would some how dilute the depth of it so I won’t even try, but as you can imagine it was rich with ways to “Release your Creative Intuition.” Here are just a few threads, not the quilt by any means.

 Mr. Friesen invited us to return to a great performance that we have experienced in our memory, to return to that world where you could feel the electric power of intensity that the musical artist had tapped into. I personally remembered hearing a dress rehearsal of Joshua Bell playing Tchaikovsky violin concerto with the Cleveland Orchestra. Some how the intimacy of being one of a few in a very large concert hall intensified the experience for me. I was there with my quartet coach from college who knew him and when we were introduced shortly after the end of the rehearsal, so soon that the music created was still fresh in the air with him on the stage, I couldn’t even speak because I was so overcome by the visceral power of what had been created and was still alive on the stage. So great! And a sarcastic "great:" the one time I meet Josh Bell, I can’t even talk, great!

The power of that moment is what he was suggesting we return to. Being in the presence of an artist “in the zone,” of creative intuition where they have elated themselves and their listener to a world of pure expression is more natural and more powerful than the dialogue of fearful thoughts that can prevent that process. His speech outlined several ways we can return to the raw creative essence that oozed out of each of us when we were seven years old, which is a fantastic place to create music and really our duty as teachers, in terms of passing on a torch of a positive experience. Mr. Friesen suggests that we all have the ability to release this creative intuition that is innately natural to us when we venture into the world of improvisation.

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After his talk, we all got in a circle to try some of his ideas that he has in his book titled “Improvisation for Classical Musicians.” He set out a few parameters to make the classical non-improviser feel comfortable and then he invited a cellist who had never done any improvisation to play an improvised duet with him. I wish I had recorded what transpired in the moments that they were playing. It really could have been a premier of a well-paid commissioned piece. It was remarkable. He suggests that music is love and we, the classical players that were sometimes trained away from our natural instinct to create through improvisation, should let go of those fear based thoughts and get into the love of music via improvisation. The opportunity to deepen our musical experience is there, waiting for us through the ideas he demonstrated of immediate improvisation. As we travel through the rigorous stages of learning the language of the music that we are drawn to, we will be able to add to our conversation in new ways, but in the meantime Mr. Friesen shared ways to experience how our voice is relevant without any improvisational training and ways to create real beauty just from our competency of being able to play our instrument. This fact somehow did lighten the fear that I carry as a residue from my early training in the classical world and I found the information that he shared very helpful in my own personal pursuits of how to go deeper into improvisation. Thanks Eugene Friesen!

My Friday afternoon highlight was Janet Farrar-Royce and her session on “The First Twelve Lessons, What to Teach.” I already knew what I was getting into before entering her session, as I was blessed to have her as a conductor in my youth symphony years ago. By blessed I mean, big time way incredibly blessed and extremely lucky! Her enthusiasm for teaching is unstoppable and it’s based on decades of experience and a lot of love. Oddly enough, she really does look exactly the same as when she was jumping up and down on her podium thirty years ago on Saturday mornings in Norwalk, Ct screaming “Watch Me,” with her light blue T-shirt on that spelled out in large velvety iron on letters, “Watch Me!!” I know I liked violin when I was ten years old, but I don’t know if I would still be playing today if I hadn’t been exposed to the force of Mrs. Janet Farrar-Royce.

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Her session was brilliant as well. Why not turn each beginning major song immediately into a minor song, training the second finger to get used to moving into low or high position right away. It is truly amazing that I have not come across one Book 1 of any system that does this. So once “Hot Cross Buns,” is played, why not create a story for the student that starts off with a perfect breakfast of tasty hot cross buns, and then the boy is sent off to school all day, but he spends it dreaming about when he gets to return home for another hot cross cinnamon (added drama) bun. The boy walks into his kitchen and is so excited to find the buns and he puts it in his month and is shocked to discover that he has modulated into the minor key of a very sad and slow, “Cooold Crooosss Buuuns :( " And so the story goes, one two three through twelve songs and the kid knows minor and major second fingers for the rest of his life and the teacher is not faced with getting him to understand that after a long time of playing high second fingers, there is a low second finger as well. I love Mrs.Farrar-Royce!

As a side note, I was astonished by one woman who sat a few rows in front of me and I know I was not alone here. Of course, people forget to turn their phones off and then scramble to turn off the ringer when it rings in a session. Well, this lady proceeded to answer her call. The call must have dropped pretty quickly because she really didn’t get past hello. So I figured she would turn the ringer off then, but no, the phone rings again in a minute and she proceeds to talk quietly for a few moments, all the while people turning around and giving her the stink eye. She hangs up and then takes up a lot of time asking Mrs. Farrar-Royce questions about what she had missed and degrading her with her responses. Needless to say, she did not have me at hello and I just wanted to punch her in the face. She was like the evil witch trying to challenge Mrs. "Glinda" Farrar-Royce. I guess there is a bad apple in every crowd. My friend and I found it ultimately amusing as we waited in a line to sign a sheet so Glinda could email the handouts she had to anyone who didn’t receive one. Low and behold, who cuts right in front of us, non other than the cell phone witch. She signed her name and in parentheses put (string destroyer).  What? We couldn’t help but laugh. Luckily, the force that is Janet Farrar-Royce was not affected in the slightest by this intruder and I left feeling all warm and fuzzy, knowing that I would soon be making a batch of cold cross buns for all my little students.

On Friday night I finally got my foodie fix at Al Forno, mushroom pizza, baked pasta, spicy salad greens, and exquisite malbec. Finally good food! Thanks for that evening Catherine Bent. The food was worth the long walk in ballet slippers by the dark,cold, and unpopulated riverside. As a side note, I think we kind of knew what we were doing when we almost walked through the kitchen door instead of the front entrance, that kitchen could make a nice home, ha.

After dinner I stepped into the jam session going on in the Providence room at the Omni. Of course, all the heavy hitters were all there. It was fun to listen to a few rockin solos before finding my way back to the lobby for a quick phone call with my husband for my nightly attempt at updating him with all I had experienced since the night before. I was glad to be staying at the Omni for my last night of the conference, minus the artificial weird hotel smell that seemed to permeate the halls. I would be up early for Catherine Bent’s Choro session the next morning at 8:15am.

Posted on March 14, 2013 .

ASTA Conference Highlights Day 2

All right, so I admit that the Starbucks pit stop was deemed essential so I made it late to the opening ceremony, just in time to hear the last two tunes played by the Berklee World Strings. What? Why didn’t I know they were playing? Why wasn’t this listed in the program book? I was at least happy that I didn’t miss them all together as they were amazing! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=msuIAjW2F9M

One problem I have with ASTA is all the great choices of sessions and that so many times I found myself wanting to be in two or three places at a time. This was the case at 9:45am on Thursday. Play in tune or plug in a realist violin?  I went with David Wong’s gear class as I had googled him before the conference and landed on this and it cracked me up! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QKTpPyL33Uc 

I was glad that I went to his session as it was based around cool things you can do with equipment and the twelve year old boy that has studied with you for a while, but is realizing that guitar is much cooler than violin. Well, after this session I have plans to blow some twelve year old minds with the loop machine and pedal I’m about to buy. They will have to get a cheap pick up to start, but after that we are going to be off and running into the world of cool, guitar shmitar!

The rest of the day was filled with inner battles as to which session to attend. There was free form improvisational ideas and spontaneous conversations passed around the room via instruments in form of telephone and hot potato a la Martha Mooke in room 550 versus Kreutzer down the hall. Ms. Mooke’s “Am I allowed to do that?” won my attention when competing against what could be called in my mind “Do I have to do that Kreutzer?” I attended Brenda Brenner’s session years ago in Santa Clara so I know that she is excellent, but the rebel in me chose “Am I Allowed?” I do wish I could watch a video of the session that I missed, hint hint. I think there are some available, but not all? “New Stylistic Ideas,” versus “Keys to Success,” can’t I have both? I chose new styles and will hope for the best with my success.

When lunchtime rolled around, I decided to miss “Five Minutes a Day of Composition,” with Nancy Conley and now I'm regretting that. Instead, I thought I would treat myself to a nice lunch in the foodie town of Providence. I walked about a mile with all my stuff (remember my hotel is ten miles away) to find a closed Cav restaurant. I hated them and their website for saying they were open for lunch and proceeded to have the worst food in a very long time at some Cuban place.

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My afternoon continued in a session with Irene Sazer of the Real Vocal String Quartet, doing creative ideas like playing in a drone and layering rhythms in a small circle of players. Then she had everyone remember what we had for breakfast and play it, I was just relieved that I didn’t have to go into the requiem of my lunch. I closed the afternoon with Stringathon and then off to wander the endless aisles of music, violins, summer camps, and products to buy in the bottomless exhibitors hall. I was definitely losing steam when I stumbled upon the magic rosin table. Glitter rosin? What a perfect prize for the practice contest I’m having with my very young students right now. Thanks www.MagicRosin.com

Another obvious perk of the conference is meeting new people. Thursday night I was invited to a fun gathering at an Irish pub near the Convention Center. It was good times with new friends and the hardest part of the night was deciding which beer to order, especially since I am not a beer drinker. My only other difficulty was reading the menu in the dark setting until two of the Yamaha representatives whipped out their cell phones with flashlight apps, aww, chivalry is still alive!

Posted on March 13, 2013 .

ASTA Conference Highlights Day 1

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I wish I had taken a photo of the woman sitting on the couch in the convention center hall about noon on Saturday, the last day of the ASTA festivities. She was tightly wrapped around her oblong violin case with her head resting on the hard pillow that the top of the case made. The way I see it, my cat is the only one to make a violin case cozy. Anyway, if that sleepy woman felt anything like I did, I’m guessing that she was even drooling a little in the state of happy exhaustion that she found herself in on this last day of a really amazing collection of events with sweet dreams of better teaching and playing in her near future. These are the highlights of my experience.

My alarm abruptly woke me very early on Wednesday morning. I had what google said would be a three hour and sixteen minute drive ahead of me from Brooklyn, NY to Providence, RI. I had signed up for the pre-session of “Eclectic Strings, the Improvising Tool Kit.” I didn’t plan on the pouring rain and thirty mile an hour wind gusts that turned my drive into a long four and a half hours. In retrospect, if it had been snow, I’m guessing I would have missed the session all together so I guess I was lucky to arrive only half an hour late, without time to eat. The drive was not a highlight, but I thought I would mention it for added drama.

My first real highlight, besides making it there alive, was having several hours in this pre-session to gain ideas on improvising for myself and for my students. I was late for Tanya (with an A) Kalmanovich’s session, but I did see her exploring expression in drone form and presenting ways to open musical dialogues between players as they all sat in the comfort of a circle. Amy Marr had so much to say that I’m glad that she handed out a very specific four page break down of her ideas for improvising in a group setting. I can only imagine how much fun her kids are having improvising in their middle school orchestra. Amy also was a head cheerleader for the jam session that took place on Friday evening, handing out fliers and reminding people of the location every time I happen to be in the same room as her. She’s also probably wondering who I am if she ever gets to read this as we never officially met, but it just goes to show you never know who is out there listening, watching, and writing all about it. Luckily, I have all good things to say, opposite to my next blog about my experience in a luthier’s shop yesterday (stay tuned, if you want to read a rant).  

Christian Howes’ segment of the class was very interesting to me. Christian is a tornado of personality and expertise. I met Christian years ago when I serendipitously (wow, I spelled that correctly on the first try, yes I know it’s not that difficult but I’m still really tired so I’m impressed) bumped into him in a deli in Brooklyn. I had my violin case so he was eyeing me and about twenty minutes later he had run up to his apartment down the street to get me one of his CD’s and I was practically signed up to go to his Creative Strings Workshop a few months later. I did go and can recommend it to anyone who wants to be completely immersed in playing, learning, and hanging out with great musicians for five days straight. So back to the pre-session…I really enjoyed Christian’s because he was giving ideas that begin so basic and can be developed in many ways. He used the chords from Pachebel’s Canon (something very common) and stacked the notes for each chord of the progression, only using the notes in the first position on violin. You begin by using any root, third, or fifth note in the progression and can develop into voice leading and using different styles with the same chord progression to improvise. Here’s the idea http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cTfJdD0QPcw

I really enjoyed it because years ago when I was first introduced to this idea at his workshop; I was a bit overwhelmed and was in a state of information overload with all the new amazing people I was meeting and all the information coming at me. This time I was more settled and it made so much sense.

The finale of the day was finally meeting Bert Ligon. My first attempts at trying to branch out from the classical world into jazz were made in North Carolina before I moved to NYC. That is when I first was hearing about this master teacher in Columbia, SC. I continued to hear about him in New York and about his arrangements for string players so I was really excited to finally be in the same room with him. He dissected the rhythm section for the class and then there was a considerable amount of time to play some of his arrangements and go around the room with 2, 4, and 8 bars solos, which is a very simple and non-threatening way to begin soloing. It was a really fun way to end the day to be playing with Bert Ligon after hearing about him for many years. He even signed an autograph as a surprise for one of my students. She is playing one of his compositions in her orchestra so I thought she would enjoy it, how is it possible that it is the only thing that disappeared from my piles of conference papers? I’m left with a student that will never know how awesome I am, darn!

Even through the hungry highway trials of getting there, this was an excellent start to my ASTA conference. After making my way out of the parking lot (I had a cheaper hotel ten miles away) I made it to Warwick, finally ate, and prepared for my next day of sessions.

Posted on March 12, 2013 .

Practice Beans

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On a very cold day in early February, I went out on the icy sidewalk in front of our Brooklyn apartment building with spray glue, a large box, 2 bags of beans, and a lot of sparkle. Never mind the people walking by me wondering what I was up to, in New York everyone is pretty accustomed to crossing paths with oddities on a daily basis. So I went about my freezing cold business of bedazzling thousands of beans.

Mission accomplished, I was ready for my 5 and 6 year old girls to come over for their group lesson and to learn about their new practice contest. They would each receive 100 beans and each day they practiced, they would be allowed to place one of the beans in their decorated practice jar. Whomever reaches the 100 bean journey first will be receiving a grand surprise prize from me. I encouraged the parents to come up with small accolades along the way. 

So far it has definitely inspired most of my students. They really are more excited about practice, with several of them asking if they were allowed to practice more than once a day for extra beans, what?!! The bean patrol has also taken one of my students, and especially her mother,  to the boiling point with violin, resulting in her quitting the violin. When the child refuses to practice and throws a temper tantrum every time she is asked to pull her violin out and is not even encouraged by these awesome sparkly beans, it is time to stop. 

It was sad to have lost one student, but ultimately as a teacher I have to accept the fact that it is really best when you've done everything you can. The bottom line is it really is no fun to teach a student that refuses to practice. So now I'm left with 4 young girls that are having fun with practice, are loads of fun to teach, and are going to be progressing much faster than without this motivation. Go beans!

Posted on February 25, 2013 .