Friday, February 24, 2017

Next Step: Vibrato and Shifting

At my lesson yesterday, Strings had me practice a small bit where I shift my left hand (the one that fingers the strings) up the violin so that the first finger is where the third finger usually is.  This is "third" position.  It's a little step, but I'm excited.  And I got a shifting practice exercise and a vibrato exercise.  I know someone who plays the violin (non-professionally) who said that for him, when he learned vibrato, that made everything so much better.  Since I'm pretty happily playing what I can, it will be fun to have it even better when it gets there.  (I think vibrato takes a good while to get on violin.)

We also talked about learning how to play by ear.  The plan is for me to start with really basic tunes, the sort of things we know deeply, like "Row, Row" and such, and just work them out. 

So after my lesson, when I did my practice so that I can remember what I learned at my lesson session, I worked out "Happy Birthday" and "Itsy Bitsy Spider" and "Row, Row."  It's going to take some practice!

We had 6-8" of snow last night, so it's time to rev up the snowthrower and clear some ground!

Sunday, February 19, 2017

First Outside Bike Ride of the Year!

I don't think I've ridden outside this early in the year since I moved here.  Pretty amazing.

I almost fell because I hit an area of ice without being able to stop in time.  My rear tire slid out, but I was able to unclip and get a foot out in time, so I didn't fall.

It was really great to be outside!

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Public Performance

I performed on the violin before an audience of more than my teacher or one other amused person today.  In front of a fairly good sized group, in fact. 

It went pretty well.

Don't get me wrong, it was no big recital or anything.  Just a good step for me.

Strings is primarily a violist, and put together a viola day on campus today, with master classes for three different levels of student (middle school, high school, and college), lecture/workshops, and a big concert (and rehearsals for that).  All of them open to the public and free.  (You had to sign up ahead to play viola, though.)

But let me start from the beginning of my day.  The first thing I was going to was mid morning, so I decided to practice before.  Except my strings were all out of tune.  So I went to tune my A string (second over), but instead, wound the peg for the E string (the highest, thinnest one), and yes, broke it before I even realized.  (But, the good news is that I had bought a set of replacement strings about a month ago; the bad news is that I don't know how to change strings yet).

So, I went to the master class, and before it started, while folks were in the milling about stage, I asked one of the college viola players how long/hard it is to change a string (and explained that I'd broken my E string; the viola folks on campus know that I'm learning violin).  She said it takes about five minutes to change a string, and anyone here (all the viola folks) should be able to do it.

So after the fascinating master class (I sat in on the college one), I went home, had lunch, picked up my violin (and strings) and went back.  When I got there, one of the college players I'd met before was sitting at the registration table, so I asked her, and she changed my string for me, and tuned me up.  (I'm ever grateful.  These students are super!)

Then I went to the workshop by Strings on performance anxiety, and learned some strategies (because, as I've written before, I got so nervous playing for a "test" that I was shaking).  There were a few minutes before the time was up, so Strings asked who wanted to play something for the rest.  A couple of students volunteered, and while they were getting instruments out, Strings reminded everyone that we're all rooting for people, we're a friendly audience.  Which was true.  Three students played, and they did well, but there were still a few minutes, and Strings asked for more.  Silence.  So I finally asked if I could play violin, and she said yes, enthusiastically.  So while I was getting my violin out, she explained to the students who I was, and that I've been playing about a year.  And I got up and played the opening two sections of the first piece of Book 3.

And you know what, it was pretty good.  I didn't have time to fret, and everyone was very nice about it, and I sounded pretty good (for where I'm at as a violinist so far).  And I didn't die, or shake even.

So that was great, to at least do it and stand in front of a group, on a little stage, and play.  To have at least done that was very good for me.

I don't think Joshua Bell (or whatever other violinist comes to your mind) needs to worry about competition for gigs just yet, though.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Politcal Conundrum - Interdisciplinary Basketweaving Style

I just got off the phone with a colleague over in Interdisciplinary Basketweaving.  They've got a special course taught once a year by a deanling with an MA, during one of our breaks in the regular semester.  They've been teaching the course for at least ten years, maybe more.

One group of basketweavers finds the course and the deanling's approach to it unsatisfactory.  The deanling isn't qualified as a basketweaver, and doesn't teach the sorts of things that basketweavers think are really vital.  The course might be better housed in Underwater Arts, but the Underwater Arts folks said "no" many years ago because the course wasn't using an approach that's vital to the faculty over in Underwater Arts.  And so, it found its way to Interdisciplinary Basketweaving, where it's been taught pretty much with the deanling doing their thing, ever since.  And Interdisciplinary Basketweaving doesn't really have the power of a department such as Underwater Arts, and there's a deanling involved, so it happened despite some people's reservations.

The deanling wants to make the course fit a campus requirement.  That in itself isn't unusual, since lots of courses fulfil one or another requirement.  But this iteration of this course the deanling teaches isn't the only iteration, and the other iterations don't really fit the same requirement. 

So, in order to make this work, it looks like the deanling needs a new course, something that's not umbrella-ish, and just includes what the deanling does.

Some folks want to stand up against the new course because it doesn't really work for Interdisciplinary Basketweaving.  And the deanling really isn't well-qualified to teach the course.

On the other hand, to be honest, the deanling's been teaching this course for 10 plus years, and if I'd taught anything for 10 plus years, you can bet I'd be pretty well-qualified to teach it by then.  (Because I'd have studied my ass off to do so.  Wouldn't you?)

It seems to me that the time to draw the line was back when the deanling first started teaching this course.  To suddenly say, "you've been teaching it for ten plus years, but now you're not qualified" seems stupid now.  Why has Interdisciplinary Basketweaving not stopped it way back?

The answer, of course, is that the deanling is a deanling, and so it's convenient to let deanlings do what they want.  It was then, and it probably will be now.  It was easy to imagine the deanling would do this course, and then get bored, and give it up.  But that hasn't happened.  (There's a political payoff for the deanling, I think.  Also a bit of financial, I bet.)

I guess one question is, is the course doing what it should be doing well enough?

If not, is there a way to get it to "well enough"?

Students who've taken the course (mostly first and second year students) tend to think it's wonderful.  It makes them feel good.  They think they've learned lots.

Maybe they have learned lots, but they haven't learned the "lots" that either the Basketweaver faculty or the Underwater Arts faculty think they should, mostly in terms of critical thinking and theoretical understanding (these aren't grad school sorts of theoretical understanding, but the sorts of theoretical understanding introduced and taught in lower level Interdisciplinary Basketweaving and Underwater Arts courses).

Take a stand or no?

I'm so bad at political stuff.  I hate the idea that faculty folks didn't take a stand 10 plus years ago, but I also understand why they didn't.  But I don't want to stick my neck out, either.

Except, you know, isn't this flattering of authority types a slippery slope to worse?

Monday, February 13, 2017

Red Lips?

The local college feminists are sponsoring something called a "Red Lips Project."

My initial reaction was to just wonder why.  I don't really want to criticize young feminists, but this seems so... heteronormative or something.  Traditionally, in western culture, red lips are about looking sexually appealing to men, no?

Then I figured, this must be a "thing" that I just don't know about.  And I found out that the idea comes from this tumblr called The Red Lips Project.

The idea, according to the about page on the tumblr:
Women are intrinsically powerful. But I realized that many of the women in my life don’t always have a space to express their power. I wanted to create a project to change this and give them that space. 

As a photographer, I have always been fascinated by the imagery of red lips. To me, red symbolizes power; it is a sign of strength and courage. This was corroborated further when rapper A$AP Rocky stated that dark skinned women shouldn’t wear red lipstick. He certainly wasn’t the first to say this and he certainly won’t be the last. This inspired a movement where women of color posted pictures of themselves wearing red lipstick. These pictures were just one way in which women were able to fight back the beauty norms and instead revel in their own ideals. 

When I saw these pictures, what stood out to me was how powerful each woman looked; they had all maintained their individual identities, but the underlying power behind each picture was the unifying element. 

I took inspiration from this movement to create The Red Lips Project. Each woman I photograph is asked the question, “What makes you feel powerful?” My only other request is that they wear red lipstick as it serves as both an aesthetic and symbolic unifier. Every other detail in the photograph is the subject’s decision. 

The Red Lips Project serves to remind women everywhere of their intrinsic power. I find this to be a therapeutic process for both myself and the women I photograph; we don’t always take time to pause and remind ourselves why we should feel powerful. I hope in exploring this blog you too can find ways to remind yourself of why you are powerful. 
So, I gather there's a critique in this project about a rapper who said that dark skinned women shouldn't wear red lipstick.  From reading what he said (here's [a version of?] the interview and an article about the interview that has the quote where he says dark skinned women shouldn't wear red lipstick, and also an article about how he responded to criticism about what he said from women of color) he's not making a feminist critique of makeup, but more saying that he doesn't like it much. 

This complicates things, doesn't it? 

My reaction is still that red lipstick doesn't feel empowering to me.  But having read some critiques and responses of the general idea (not specifically aimed at the rapper's comments) (here's one from Essence (2014), and here's one from Essence in 2016), I think there's a whole lot of thinking I haven't done about lipstick, especially for women of color. 

I don't know if my students have, either.  (The college feminists here tend to be pretty white, and overall, this isn't a campus where most white students are really thoughtfully critiquing racism.)

What are your thoughts?

(I don't wear make-up, and am unlikely to notice if someone else is, unless it's really sparkly or something; I'm also very bad at noticing what people are wearing unless it's a really strong color that appeals to me.  The bonus is that you can wear the same thing to see me every day and I won't be bored.  The downside is that I probably won't notice when you've put on an especially wonderful outfit and look especially wonderful in it.  I try to dress myself so that my clothes are reasonably clean, weather appropriate, and won't get me arrested.  So far, so good on the arrest part.)

Sunday, February 12, 2017

A String

The last week, before my violin lesson, I was getting sort of frustrated by how bad I sound on the violin.  It was like, every time I hit the A string, I wouldn't set it vibrating right off, so there'd be this scratchy nastiness.  And then it would "catch" and start vibrating, and sound less nasty.

Still, the scratchy nastiness was frustrating.

So when I started my lesson, I told my teacher about my frustration with the A string.  And I tried to play a note on the A string, but it came out sounding pretty well.  Argh!

Strings had me play my piece, and I did okay, but again with the scratchy nastiness.  Except Strings being Strings, knew what was happening, and could explain and help me solve it.

The scratchiness tended to happen when I crossed to the A string, especially from the E string (which is a fifth higher).  As Strings explained, you have to bow each of the strings slightly differently.  The higher strings, you bow more lightly, and a bit quicker.  The lower strings, your arm feels heavier, and you can move the bow a bit less quickly.  So, there's a point where on any string, the bow "grabs" the string just so and vibrates it.  Voila!

But when I was crossing (that means switching strings), I had played the E string appropriately lightly, but that lightness doesn't work on the A string.  And I was unconsciously adjusting, but only after I'd played a note (or two, or three) on the A string.  And then when I crossed down, I had the same problem on the D string (but I was spending way less time on the D string with this piece).  And up again, I'd be too heavy on the A string, and make a slightly different scratchy nastiness.

So, for example, if you look at the Gavotte I've been working on, the starting B is on the A string, and then the jump from the D to G puts me on the E string, and then back down to the A string.  That's where I'd have the first scratchy nastiness.  As you can see (at least if you read music in a basic way), there are a lot of string crossings in this piece from the A to E and E to A.  (At my level of violin playing, I can play up to the E at the top of the music staff on the A string (by using my pinky.  From the E up, is on the E string.  Deciding when to use the pinky E vs the open E string E seems to be about what makes sense in fingering.).  I was having a lot of opportunities for scratchy nastiness, and pretty much making a lot of scratchy nastiness out of each one.

Strings gave me two exercises to work on for crossing down to the A string.  One is to sort of hold my bow in a fist, which makes the arm feel heavier, and makes it easier to get the weight right when I cross down.  (But clumsier in other ways.)  The other is to hesitate just before crossing, and think about the heaviness of the arm, and then cross to the A string.  That moment of hesitation is enough to get the weight right for me (mostly).

Do you know about TwoSetViolin?  They've got a youtube bit about how it feels when your teacher solves your problem.  It was like that. 

It's fascinating, because real string players are constantly making these fine adjustments, but as a beginner, I really have to slow down and think my way through things.  I mean, I was sort of aware of the different arm weight feel, and was doing it okay with scales and such, but when I was focused on my piece, I wasn't doing it.

After my lesson, the next day, I worked through book 1 and part of book 2, paying close attention to the arm weight on crossings, and it was so fun to hear how much better I sound.  (I also did my scales, technique exercises, and worked on my new piece a bit.)

The next day, I finished working through book 2, still focusing on the bow feel, and it's so much better.

I think about April of last year, I found some sheet music on the web.  One was the "Ashokan Farewell," which you probably have heard if you've seen the Civil War documentary.  (It's a recently written piece, though, and not from the period.  But it's absolutely beautiful.)  The other was "Turkey in the Straw."  "Turkey in the Straw" was my Father's go to piece when he pulled out his violin if there were songs to be sung, kids to be entertained.  He and my great Aunt (a professional organist) would play by ear for Christmas carols and such, but "Turkey in the Straw" was always in the mix.  So the piece is special in my memory.

Anyway, I found those, and I could sort of muddle through "Ashokan Farewell" a bit, but "Turkey in the Straw" was totally beyond me.

And then yesterday, for some reason, having practiced my stuff, I pulled them back out, and boy, I could really hear a difference.  I could play them both, slowly, yes (which makes total sense for "Ashokan Farewell"), but play them.  I'm going to add them to my practice a bit.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Teaching Sonnets

When I teach sonnets in a poetry course or in Shakespeare, it's pretty easy to spend a fair bit of time, and that means I can tease out how English Sonnets and Italian Sonnets work, slightly differently.  (I don't usually teach Spenserian sonnets.)

But in my intro to lit course, I'm not teaching a lot of sonnets, and the one I really love to teach for this course is Countee Cullen's "Yet Do I Marvel."

I doubt not God is good, well-meaning, kind,
And did He stoop to quibble could tell why
The little buried mole continues blind,
Why flesh that mirrors Him must some day die,
Make plain the reason tortured Tantalus
Is baited by the fickle fruit, declare
If merely brute caprice dooms Sisyphus
To struggle up a never-ending stair.
Inscrutable His ways are, and immune
To catechism by a mind too strewn
With petty cares to slightly understand
What awful brain compels His awful hand.
Yet do I marvel at this curious thing:
To make a poet black, and bid him sing!

The thing is, if you work out the rhyme and big punctuation, here's what you get:


(I put the big punctuation, periods, colons, semi-colons in, because they help you get a really quick sense of how the sentences work.)

Punctuation-wise, it first looks like a variation on an Italian sonnet.

And the change in rhyme scheme sort of supports that.

But the rhyme scheme also feels more like an English sonnet, and the volta to me comes more with the couplet.

If I were taking several days to look at sonnets, then I'd play with some obvious Italian and English sonnets, and then use Cullen (though even Shakespeare does the mix thing in terms of playing with the volta placement), and my students would get a better sense of how darned amazing Cullen is.

The question of the day is: how do you get all that across with just Cullen?

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Doing Assignments

Back when I was doing basic pedagogical training (you know, when we baked our syllabus onto a clay tablet), one of the strongest suggestions was that every time we give an assignment, before we give an assignment, we take the assignment and write it ourselves (this was in the context of an English department, so the assignments didn't involve other production than writing).

At various times, I've done this pretty regularly.  At other times, not so much.

But I've found for certain kinds of assignments, it really helps if I do them, and then give my work to the whole class as a model.

This semester, for one of my classes, I've adopted a discussion leading assignment from a really smart colleague.  However, I was a bit late getting students to sign up, and even though I offered to move the first one from tomorrow to a week from tomorrow, everyone asked not to do it.  So I moved it back to tomorrow and did it myself.

First, I have to say, it was good in a good way; you really have to put in some real effort to do a good job, and have to read carefully, and that's good.

It took me about 5 hours to do, and that's after having thought about stuff this semester and such.  So I started with an advantage there.

On the other hand, the students get to work in small groups to help each other, and I didn't get to work in a group to get help, so that's perhaps a small disadvantage.

What's really good is that I was able to tell the students (in an email) how long it took me to do, and to encourage them to give themselves plenty of time as they work on the project (it counts for a fair chunk of their grade, so I don't feel bad if they put in a like number of hours).