Friday, July 30, 2004

Noah is a violist!

It wasn't like he had begged for a viola. I play both violin and viola and he had expressed no spontaneous interest in taking up the viola. But I'd heard about the magnificent little Sabatier instruments and so I planted a seed with him. I said "Maybe someday you'll want to play the viola too." He's the biggest for his age of my four kids, though that's not saying much. And while he's never expressed any concerns about it, I had always had at the back of my mind the knowledge that he's growing up in the shadow of a precocious older sister who is learning the violin and piano as well. We also live in a tiny rural community with very limited group class opportunities but with a thriving community string orchestra which is in desperate need of violas.

He was beginning to outgrow his 1/8th size violin and it looked like yet again he'd be growing into a hand-me down instrument from his sister. He was about to begin a romp through Book 3 and was interested in really focusing on sight-reading and orchestral skills. It seemed like a good time to introduce a new instrument and a new clef and a new role in ensemble-playing. I mentioned the possibility again and he was enthusiastic. I'm sure most of it had to do with the simple business of growing into a new instrument, but whatever the reason he was keen on a viola.

And so I sent my mom off to an institute to meet an instrument I had located and priced out from the Sound Post in Toronto. I told her to buy it on my behalf if she thought it was wonderful. I was at another institute, and I actually called to locate her and give her my number in case she wasn't sure about the purchase. But she didn't call me back. It turned out this was because she was sure -- it was a simply amazing instrument.

The viola is an asymmetrical viola from luthier Bernard Sabatier in Paris France. It is the same size as a 1/4-size violin and has a rich C-string tone. We arrived back from our institute to the news that the viola was on its way. It was driving back across the prairies with some friends of ours. Noah couldn't wait! He asked me to start some alto clef reading work with him. He counted down the days. He wanted to cancel his piano lesson in case it came while we were there! Finally it arrived. Wow! It is at least as wonderful as we'd expected.

It has a much bigger, more mature sound than his 1/8th size violin. And it's a viola in spirit, timbre and tone, all the way to the bottom of the C-string. Noah was entranced by its wacky shape and by the sound he could get from it almost immediately. He began playing through a lot of his violin repertoire. I'd told him that except for 2 pieces all of Books 1 & 2 viola were the same as the violin books, so he should start there, just a fifth down. He knew what I meant, but his perfect pitch kept getting in the way. He'd want to start playing "Allegro" and shift to 4th position to find the high A, then realize that this was his viola so he didn't have to reach for the high notes. So he'd dig around on the lower strings for a lower A and then try to start 2 octaves down only to realize that this wasn't quite right either. Then he'd remember the "fifth down" rule and intellectually figure it out. I could tell his ear just didn't have a blueprint of "Allegro" in D major. I'll be buying some Suzuki Viola CDs, but I was intrigued to see how his mind and ear were competing to be in charge.

Almost immediately he loved his viola best. He talked about quitting violin. I explained that he would want to keep up violin to play in groups, but that the instruments would be the same size, so switching back and forth would be easy as his ear learned to adjust. He played it many times a day. He learned "French Folk Song" on Day 2 and "Bohemian Folk Song" on Day 4. He polished up "Martini Gavotte" in short order and forged ahead into the Book 3 "Bach Minuet". He picked up the viola to demonstrate any time anyone stopped by our house. People are intrigued by its "melted" look, and he enjoys the attention.

The technical transition is going well. Noah has a very intuitive physical sense, and with some encouragement to "really work for the tone" was able to get a big robust sound right from the start. He has a few technical issues (a 'tippy-toes' bowhand, for instance) that were being addressed anyway, but which now have more reason to be treated seriously. "You can't get away with that on the viola," I say. "You really need to be able to sink your arm weight into the string through those middle fingers. It's even more important with these big low strings." And of course he's more motivated to do so. He's finding the Kreisler highway easily, probably aided by the universal tendency to slip a bit towards the fingerboard when moving to a bigger instrument. Intonation is a little unreliable on fourth fingers and he needs some encouragement to use all of his (much longer) bow. But all in all the transition seems scarcely more challenging than that of moving to a larger-sized violin.

He's got the knack of starting a fifth lower, but his darn aural memory still likes to reassert itself from time to time a Da Capos, where he'll often suddenly modulate from C major to G major, for instance. Funny, that.

He's only been practising his violin every other day and very briefly at that. That's fine. His 1/4-size violin isn't available yet, but should be soon, so probably the less switching back and forth from the 1/8th the better. So far he's loving the change and enjoying the attention he's getting.

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Home again, home again, jiggety jog

Not much of note on the way home. We spent a day in Spokane, did some shopping, went to Riverfront Park and did some kid-things (rode the 1909 carousel, geocached, fed more ducks, etc.), swam in motel pools and so on. Bought some books and music CD's, drove back to Canada and bought a new truck for dh. Leased, actually. His Toyota is 13 years old and starting to get unreliable, which isn't so great considering he's the sole physician on-call for our ER 50% of the time. When we bought the Toyota we had just got married and were thinking we'd probably have a child or two before too many years went by, so we made sure the two bucket seats in the front were supplemented by a couple of jump seats behind in the extended cab. We had a rude awakening last summer when the minivan ended up in the shop for 6 weeks: you cannot fit a family of 6 in a light-duty 1991 Toyota extended cab! Especially not when 2 of them are in carseats and two ought to be in boosters. So this time around we got smart: the pickup truck seats six in a pinch!

Glad to be home. The garden is nuts with weeds, but many of the veggies are doing well. I've got some performance gigs coming up with rehearsing to do, and we have a packed social calendar for the next four or five days. But I'm hoping things will get a bit more relaxed for a time after that.

Sunday, July 11, 2004

Homeward bound

We went to a nearby city (Moscow, ID) for the Farmers' Market because Stanley, one of Erin's instructors, was playing jazz violin for the morning. We met about two dozen friends from the institute hanging about. It was a wonderful friendly wrap-up from the institute. We bought cherries and doughnuts and smoothies and coffee and browsed the market. Spent the afternoon at a terrific aquatic centre.

Saturday, July 10, 2004

Suzuki Institute

The institute was awesome. Erin had 6-7 hours a day of instruction. She was the youngest in most of her classes by at least 2-3 years, so she didn't really have any social peers, but she had plenty of musical peers, which was really what she needed since she doesn't get that at home. The Advanced Orchestra was excellent, very challenging and filled with capable players, and she ended up in a master class with two teens who clearly play with lots of passion and committment. The 13-17-year-olds she was with in orchestras and groups were a really nice bunch too and they made her feel part of the social banter even though she was so tiny and somewhat shy. She made some really big strides participating in discussions both during classes and afterwards.

Noah had 4 hours of classes a day and was well-placed for confidence-building. He was the most secure and most advanced kid in his orchestra and master class, which was great, because he doesn't have Erin's stoical "deal-with-it" mentality when outside his comfort zone. He made many friends and proved to be a bit of a social magnet for kids his age and a bit younger. Every time I'd enter the music building with one of the girls, kids would come up to me and ask "where's Noah?" He impressed his master class teacher enough that she promoted him to the 3rd Suzuki Book on the spot and asked him to learn a new piece, which he did. He got a big boost from that. He made a very good friend, another 7yo homeschooled boy, and really enjoyed his company in classes and elsewhere.

Sophie had 3 hours of classes a day. She too was well-placed for confidence-building. She was doing the Junior Institute for "first-time enrollees under 7 and in the first half of Book 1." While she had moved into the 2nd half of Book 1 since registering, and was therefore the most advanced kid in two of her classes, it was the right place for her since she'd never had a lesson or group class with anyone other than her mom or grandma. She loved her group class which was run by a truly gifted teacher who was unrelenting in his expectations. I couldn't believe that the kids were enjoying themselves... he worked them so hard, insisted they toe the line (literally and figuratively) and had them repeat things like standing up and sitting down like a drill sargeant until they were perfect. But the kids loved working hard for him. This particular teacher is an internet friend of mine, and is very unschooling-friendly and child-centred, yet was able to pull this motley group of 4-through-12-year-olds together through leadership rather than coercion. Amazing!

The social activities were low-key and enjoyable. The institute was friendly and warm. We really really enjoyed it. Chuck spent lots of time being the "Suzuki parent in loco" for Noah and also sometimes for Sophie, and really liked being able to be involved. Fiona survived just fine, napping on my shoulder, making countless recreational trips to the washrooms and drinking fountains, watching, singing, smiling.

Monday, July 05, 2004

Pullman Institute arrival

Arrived in Pullman, checked into the dorm (wonderful! a suite of three small bedrooms and a large living / kitchenette area and bathroom) and did some grocery shopping to stock the kitchen for the week. Then we headed 3 minutes' walk up the hill to the music building for registration and the welcoming "play-in" for the week's Suzuki institute. The kids were eager participants and very comfortable up on stage with scores of others. Later we watched July 4th fireworks from our dorm window far into the night.

Sunday, July 04, 2004

Into the US

Did most of the southerly drive to get us into the US for our music workshop. Stopped to get a map of the area in the first town on the American side and saw a guy walking across the parking lot to his RV with a rifle casually at his side. Eek! Plenty of interesting discussions and observations about cultural differences.

We stayed at motels on the way to and from the workshop. The kids really enjoyed the pools, and swam every evening and first thing in the morning. They were terrific about practising their violins too. They'd received ensemble music to prepare for the workshop just a few days before we left home, so practising had to continue during our meandering trip, and it did, quite cheerfully. They each did 10-20 minutes of hard work starting at about 9 am each morning.

Saturday, July 03, 2004

Fort Steele

We visited Fort Steele, a re-created 1898 town, and spent the better part of the day there despite an incredible downpour. Had a ride on a steam train. Watched blacksmiths (one with a personal interest in swordsmithing, much to Noah's delight!), leatherworkers, candy-makers, etc. at work. 

Friday, July 02, 2004

Creston and Cranbrook

We visited the Creston wetland wildlife preserve. Saw turtles and birds. Walked the boardwalk, hiked the perimeter of some marshes, looked at the indoor exhibits and learned a lot about flora and fauna. We also went to a railway museum in Cranbrook where they had many opulent passenger and sleeper cars restored to Edwardian splendour.

Quite wonderful. I've always had this dream of living in a railway car. It was definitely re-awakened.

Thursday, July 01, 2004

Vacation Time

Two weeks off for Chuck and a music workshop to go to in Washington State. Drove away amidst mixed weather. Waited an extra hour to take the big inland ferry (rather than the small one) across nearby Kootenay Lake. Fed the ducks and geese at the ferry dock. Fiona loved this. There were zillions and they were very tame. Kids enjoyed the ferry and the cafĂ©. On the other side of the lake we stopped and watched a glassblower, blacksmith, weaver and broom-maker at work in the artisans' village there. Erin collected the first of many amazing wildflower bouquets.