faking it

I’ve been taking violin lessons for quite a few years now. (I’m not really sure how to count the years, given the big interruptions. I started 11 years ago, but maybe missed 4 of those years I also don’t know how my progress in those “on” years counts, given that there have been quite a few slowdowns and interruptions.) In any case, I consider myself to be an intermediate player. Mostly, I have played classical music with my teacher. Last year, after my experience playing fiddle along with the American folksongs performed by the elementary school, I felt the urge to explore fiddling a bit more. I bought a couple of books: 1 on Celtic fiddling, and one on bluegrass fiddling. Each came with a CD. I started with the Celtic book/CD, and it was complicated enough that I decided to just stick with that. I’ve been enjoying playing songs from it for the past year or so, on my own, in addition to the classical music that I work on with my teacher. I never got around to cracking open the bluegrass book.

A few weeks ago, a musician friend of mine sent an email asking if I had any interest in taking one of the workshops offered as part of a bluegrass festival in Cambridge. I was so very tempted by the intro to bluegrass fiddling. At the same time pretty intimidated. I’d never taken a music workshop before, and have very rarely even played the violin in front of other people. I have performed in front of others now, a few times, but only after much preparation and practice. This would be going in cold.

I decided to do it anyhow.

So, today, I went to a workshop on intro bluegrass fiddling. It was a lot of fun, but a little overwhelming. It was a 2-hour course, but after about an hour and a half, I found that my stomach was empty and my brain was full. I muscled through, though. And I think I learned a lot, some fraction of which I may even be able remember. One thing that amused me was that the instructor described a lot of what he taught us as tricks, including how to play along when you don’t know the music. I’m hardly ready for a bluegrass jam, but I think I now know how to fake my way through at least one bluegrass song.

For added flavor, here is a bluegrass band playing Angelina Baker, the tune that we used for much of the lesson¹:

¹ And one which the other 3 participants all seemed to know. I felt good² that I could make the other students feel better about their knowledge by being the one who didn’t know much of anything.
² For some definitions of good
³ I’m sorry if this isn’t very coherent. I’m actually completely wiped out. It was a long day, given that I had an hour plus commute each way, and stayed for part of the bluegrass show that followed. (Which, by the way, was excellent.) And I think I am fighting off a cold. But when I commit to blogging daily, by gum, I commit to blogging daily.

high strung

John and I sometimes joke that the violin is the right instrument for me, being that I can be a little high strung.

When I get too tightly wound, I do sometimes snap.

It should also be noted that I have a tendency to fine tune things.

In case you didn’t see yesterday’s post, I wanted to draw attention to it. (It was the Big Thing I mentioned a couple of weeks ago.) These are some portraits of my collaborator in that endeavor.

Hey diddle diddle

It was the day before the big blizzard was expected to hit Massachusetts, and people all over the state were scrambling to buy their eggs and milk and bread and wine. I found myself in a school, in front of a crowd of several hundred people. And I played the fiddle.

I wasn’t wearing my pajamas, and I wasn’t late for a final. It was not, in fact, a nightmare. It was real, and I was actually supposed to be there. I was one of a small group of parent musicians accompanying the elementary school concert.

Flash back to December. Phoebe mentioned that her school music teacher was looking for an adult to play small violin part in the upcoming February concert. I was intrigued. I’ve been taking violin lessons for a few years, but I have never labeled myself as a violinist. I mean, I take lessons. I am, if anything, a student violinist. The only performances I had ever done with violin were a handful of recitals with my violin teacher and her other students, playing a single song in front of a moderately small audience composed mainly of the parents of the other students. (Who were mostly kids.) And the last of these was 5 years ago.

After some rather fruitless efforts trying to communicate with the teacher via Phoebe, I tracked down the teacher’s email address, and let her know I was interested in learning more about what she needed. She wrote back that another parent had already responded, and she was waiting to hear back. She decided to send me the music to look over, anyhow, in case the first parent decided not to participate. It turned out that there were more violin parts than I had expected, with violin parts to accompany 9 of the songs that the kids would be singing. Nine. On the bright side, they were fairly straight-forward. They were American folk songs, including “She’ll Be Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain” and “Skip to My Lou.” Phoebe really wanted me to play the violin part of “Fiddle-I-Fee,” one of the songs her grade would be singing, and which featured a prominent fiddle part. I started to learn the music, and became really taken with the idea of playing in the concert.

In the end (and there was a lot of back and forth and waiting and anxiety on my part in the meantime), we worked it out that the other parent and I would both participate, and we’d split the songs. We each took on the violin parts for 4 songs, which were grouped by grade, and then both learned the final song, which was a number sung by all the grades.

I spent a lot of time practicing, and worked on the music with my violin teacher during my lessons, in place of the classical music I usually play with her. I pretty well immersed myself in those songs. I played the CD, provided by the school teacher, of computer-generated instrumental versions of the songs in my car for a month straight. (I mean, when I was driving. I didn’t go out of my way to sit in the car to listen.) I played along with the CD. I played without the CD. I watched YouTube instructional videos on fiddling techniques. I worked myself up. I talked myself down. I played till my fingers were sore.

The concert came, with its two performances to accommodate the crowds of family members of the 400 students of the school, and felt I did pretty well. At the very least, I didn’t embarrass myself (or Phoebe).

I had a great time.

I could write loads more about the whole experience, but I should probably just move along. But I will say that I’d love to find more opportunities to perform.

Anyone need a fiddler?

The Hey diddle diddle image is from wpclipart.com.

what I’ve been doing the last 4 days

The daycare where Theo goes (and where Phoebe goes 2 days a week) was closed this past Friday, and also today, as the provider was taking some vacation time. What this meant was that I was not going to be getting a lot of work done for a few days. It also meant something exceedingly rare: a 4-day stretch with Theo at home. Not in daycare, not travelling. And not sick, either. A combination of factors that may not have been experienced since he started full-time daycare over a year ago. I realized, with a combination of dread and resolve, that the time had come for…potty training.

(Don’t worry, I’m not going to go into details. At least not many.)

Our main motivating tool for this endeavor is a progress chart, linked to the promise of a bigger prize. Each successful potty usage gets a sticker on the chart, and a full chart gets a trip to a store pick out a toy.

On Friday morning, I printed out a new chart for Theo. (Actually, the same chart we used for Phoebe¹, courtesy of my digital hoarding tendencies.)

Phoebe got mopey when I made out a chart for Theo, as she realized that she wouldn’t be having a chart, and thus Theo was in position to be gaining a toy when she wasn’t. Seeing as I have been struggling to get Phoebe to practice violin, I thought maybe this was an opportunity:

Phoebe was quite pleased that she was on her way to a prize. She practiced enthusiastically that very morning, and again the next day.

Theo, it turns out, was good and ready to be using the potty. He earned many, many stickers on his first day. And by the end of his second day, he was well on his way to have a filled chart. This is, of course, fantastic.

Unless you are Phoebe.

If you happen to be Phoebe, this is a near tragedy. Because while Theo’s chart had 20-odd stickers, Phoebe’s had only 2. All Theo had to do for his stickers was pee in a pot, an achievement that he quickly learned to achieve quickly. Phoebe had to do somewhat more than this. It was not likely that she would be practicing her violin 10 times a day.

Phoebe does not like to be the one left behind.

Sensing that Phoebe was ready to give up on her chart and her new-found enthusiasm for practicing violin, I had a flash of inspiration:

Phoebe, observant girl that she is, realized that I would not likely outpace her with my chart. If she couldn’t be at the front of the race, at least she wouldn’t be bringing up the rear.

As you can see, I have yet to put any stickers on my chart. I made mine on Saturday, and it was a long and harrowing weekend of exaggerated cheerfulness and frequent handwashing. Then, as I mentioned, there was no daycare today. I do hope to start adding stickers. I think I’m going to have the requirement that I work on my own research for at least a solid hour to earn a sticker. Failing that, I may just have to reward myself for peeing in the potty.

I can’t say how well this will all go in the weeks to come. Theo heads back to daycare tomorrow, which may be great for my own chart, but likely to be a big setback for his. (We achieved success by having Theo not wear a diaper at all, but that won’t fly at daycare.) In the meantime, check out this measure of success:

Here is the toy Theo picked out for his first filled chart:

Molly, a yellow engine from Thomas & Friends. Our first train with a face.

I’m also very happy to say that Phoebe’s flurry of practice sessions also paid off, if not yet with a toy. Our violin teacher was pleased enough with her progress to say it was time for us to get Phoebe her first violin book. Phoebe was thrilled. She may even have described herself as “ecstatic.”

Moral of the story: peeing is not the only route to success.

¹ I’m still very entertained by my post “Standoff at the P. P. Corral,” which I wrote almost 3 years ago. I crack myself up.


Here are some scenes from my violin lesson.

(There’s a story behind these photos, but I can’t get into it now, since it’s almost midnight, and I have to get up early in the morning to pry two overtired children out of bed to get them to daycare and preschool so that I can head to a lab meeting that I talked my bosses into scheduling for tomorrow since I couldn’t make the Tuesday meeting in person and I was sure we’d be back from my in-laws’ by Wednesday at the latest, and I need to get to bed since I’m tired after a long day involving packing up two stir crazy children and driving with them over 4 hours, much of which included stop-and-go traffic, only to get home half an hour before needing to leave for the violin lesson, which was rescheduled from Monday, and still needing to get the children to eat dinner before leaving for the violin lesson and half of dinner ended up being graham crackers in the car, which sounds like an intriguing name for a dish, kind of like pigs in a blanket, and I’m so tired right now that I think I’m starting to see things since I’m pretty sure we didn’t have a large floating guinea pig in the house when we left last week.)

portrait of girl with violin

Phoebe and I have now had 7 violin lessons together, and things are going a bit better than the first lesson. We managed to switch to Monday evening, which is much easier, as Phoebe doesn’t have a karate class on Mondays. It’s still been a bit rocky, though. Really, the early stage of learning the violin is not all that exciting. (Well, I suppose there might be different ways of teaching. But Phoebe is learning to do things right. In fact, she’s learning to do them better than I do. I have learned that the way I hold my bow is not entirely correct. ) At this point, the focus is still on how to properly hold and position the bow and violin. It’s been pretty hard to figure out when and how to get Phoebe to practice. The novelty has worn off a bit, and she gets pretty loopy at the end of the day. Plus it’s hard to fit in one more thing to do before bedtime.

On the other hand, I’ve managed to find time to practice, myself. And I’ve been really enjoying it. We have still been working on a book that I used before, from maybe a year or two into my lessons. It’s review, but it’s still challenging, and I’m learning (or relearning) from it. The pace has felt slower, and I like it. I’ve never really been in a hurry learning the violin, as I don’t have any particular goals. (I don’t expect, for example, to ever join an orchestra.) I just like making music. My teacher has had a tendency to push me faster than I really feel the need to, and I suspect that much of this is because most of her other students are eager to get to some sort of destination. I’m just along for the ride.

The lessons themselves have still been a bit of a mixed bag. We’ve figured out a system that works pretty well. Phoebe gets the first half hour lesson, and I wait out in the hallway (which is what other parents of students typically do) and have some time to myself. (It’s not quite peace and quiet, though, as the music store where we have lessons usually has a lot going on. People trying out instruments, and whatnot, and lots of people coming and going.) Then I go in for my half hour lesson, and Phoebe stays in the room and plays games or draws on my iPad. It’s been tricky sometimes as Phoebe will ask me questions, and sometimes talk to me when I’m in the middle of playing. And then tonight we had to interrupt my lesson to run to use the bathroom, because I noticed that Phoebe was bouncing. But overall things have worked enough such that I feel like Phoebe and I are both getting lessons.

Phoebe was being a bit of a goofball when I asked to take her picture after our lesson. An adorable goofball, though.


Having taken up violin lessons again this spring, it seems only fitting that I should give fiddlehead ferns a try. Here are some photos from dinner this weekend (and from Phoebe’s and my fiddles).

Raw fiddleheads.

Boiled fiddleheads. (Apparently one needs to boil them for 15 minutes, or steam them for 10 minutes, prior to eating. I’m not sure whether this is for health and safety, or for palatability. I just went along with it.)

Sauteed fiddleheads, post-boiling. (Verdict: they were pretty good. I’m not sure I was bonkers for them, but they were indeed tasty.)

These fiddleheads were not eaten for dinner.

I hadn’t really spent much time admiring the shape of my violin before.

The shape of the scroll is quite expressive. And indeed very much like the expressiveness of emerging fern fronds. (See Sue’s very expressive fronds, which she neither ate nor played, to the best of my knowledge.)

case reopened

A few months ago, I felt a strange and sudden urge to pull out my violin and show it to Phoebe and Theo.The case had been closed for many weeks. And when I say “many,” I mean a number greater than 52. I vaguely recall having had the violin case open at some point in early 2009. Or maybe I’m remembering a lunchbox. Something was open then.

But that evening a few months ago, I indeed opened up my violin case. I pulled out the violin, and the strings were totally loose. It may shock you to know that I barely know how to tune my violin. My teacher always did it, at the beginning of each lesson. I managed to tune it once, when it got so badly out of tune that I couldn’t practice, and I did a decent job. But this time the strings were so loose they might as well have been just lying on top of the violin. I decided to give it a whirl, anyhow. John pulled out his iPhone with a tuner app, and I started to turn the pegs and the little fine-tuny-screwy-things (that is the technical term), and I was feeling quite pleased with myself…until the E string snapped.

So much for that demo.

But I got to thinking, and the next day or so, I called my violin teacher. For the first time since Theo was born. I asked her about strings, and while I was at it, about starting lessons. For me, and for Phoebe, too. My teacher said she’d work on finding space in her schedule. Eventually, she found a time when she could put our two half hour lessons back-to-back.

Tonight, Phoebe and I started violin lessons together.

I can’t say it was all a joyful, magical experience. Phoebe was tired. She’d had a full day at daycare with no nap, then we’d rushed off to a 45-minute karate class, before rushing home for a rushed dinner, and rushing back out the door. Plus I think she found the process of starting the violin to be pretty anticlimactic. We got her set up with a violin of the right size (quarter-sized). Then it was about learning to hold the violin with her chin, and how to properly hold the bow. That was about it. By the time we got to my part of the lesson, which ended up being only the last 15 minutes of our hour, she was pretty much done for. She collapsed on the floor next to me, periodically rallying herself enough to tug on my arm while I attempted to play. In spite of this, I enjoyed myself. I remembered more than I was expecting. (Not that we tried any of the more advanced things I’d worked on when last I’d had lessons, over 2 years ago. We worked on stuff that was probably from my first or second year of lessons.)

Next week, we go back.

I feel like this post needs some sort of snappy ending, but I’m too tired to think of an ending, and I need to make Phoebe’s lunch and get to bed. So I’ll post a completely unrelated photo to distract you.

Hey, look. Tires. ‘Cause I’m tired. Ha, ha, ha.


My violin recital¹ was today. I tend not to think of myself as having a lot of performance anxiety, but I guess I have my share.

I’ve been playing the violin for 4 years, now. Learning more than playing, really. I have a lot of other things going on in my life, so I haven’t yet achieved a level that would merit the statement “I play the violin.” But I keep at it. I enjoy it. I have a wonderful teacher, who is very patient and encouraging.

I wanted to take part in the recital in large part because I knew that it would motivate me to push myself. I like working on a piece for an extended period of time, as I can really feel that I’m making progress. And the piece that I played, by Leopold Mozart (as in father to Wolfgang Amadeus) was, no doubt, the hardest piece I’ve played so far. One particular challenge for me is that it calls for lots of double stops, the violin equivalent of a chord, where two strings are bowed at the same time. It involved very careful fingering and bowing, and I managed to achieve some things that I had not yet managed. I got to know the piece quite well. In fact, I memorized it, without actually meaning to. I discovered that I could play it with my eyes closed. (In fact, I did a couple of times when I had to practice but was too tired to focus on the sheet music.)

But the trouble is, even though I could play the piece, I never managed to play it consistently well. The hardest part was always the beginning, as in just starting. (I could play the same section much better the second time around when it was repeated for the end of the piece.) Sometimes it would sound good, but not always.

I tried recording myself so I could listen to it, thinking that I was judging myself too harshly. But the recording only confirmed for me that I just didn’t sound so great. I would offer to share with you the recording, but seriously, I’m embarrassed by it.

In spite of this, I hadn’t been stressing terribly about the recital. For one thing, most of the other participants are also not so great. (My violin teacher once told me that I’m her best adult student. Of course, most of her students are kids, and there are a couple of teenagers who are really good. And I mean really good.) For another thing, I knew that very few people would actually see me playing, as the audience typically consists of a few family members of the students. Usually their parents. I would have John and Phoebe in the audience, but they already know all too well what I sound like. So I knew that even if I messed up, it wouldn’t be that big of a deal. But a big reason I hadn’t been stressing too much was that, quite honestly, there have been quite a lot of other things on my mind and on my metaphorical plate.

So I was caught off guard when I woke up this morning with what’s often known as butterflies in my stomach. The sounds coming from my stomach reminded me more of early 80s arcade games (Space Invaders, anyone?) than the fluttering of lepidoptera wings. But what the hell. Butterflies.

I practiced a bit before we left, and was determined to keep my hands warm. I play clumsily when my fingers are cold. The trouble is, it’s December, and I tend to get cold hands and feet. So sitting around before the recital started, I worked at warming my hands up. And was startled to discover that my hands were sweaty, even though they were still cold. And I’m not even prone to sweating.

I was second in the program, and the teenage girl who played ahead of me was good. As in, why-the-hell-am-I-playing-right-after-her good. Then it was my turn. I went on the little stage, put my sheet music on the stand, took a deep breath, and started in. It was a duet with my teacher, and we got off to a pretty good start. But then my arm started shaking. Not a huge amount, but enough to mess up my bowing. The result, while not devastatingly awful, was that I messed up more than usual. And, well, it didn’t sound great.

recital.jpgWe stayed for a bit after I played, and listened to a few of the kids who played after me. (Because it turned out there were only kids. The recital was split into two times, and apparently the 3 or 4 other adult students were all going in the second.) Most of the kids we heard were actually playing piano, since my teacher also teaches piano. But I did get to hear a couple of violins after me. And I’m happy to say that they sounded pretty bad, and with much less complex pieces. Of course, they were under 8. But I must take my comfort where I can find it. Even if it means mocking a cute little six-year-old behind her back.

Anyhow, it’s over. The butterflies (or aliens) departed quite unceremoniously from my stomach. And even though I’m not thrilled with how I did during the recital, I’m very glad I did it.

¹ Have you ever noticed that recital is one letter off from rectal?