Resilience and International String Playing

Music opens doors. This essay is about how resilience supports life as an international string player and teacher. Sometimes I think that “resilience” is what keeps opening the doors.

Because I’ve made the effort to apply my training and expertise as a violinist and violist, I have been invited to play on some incredible stages and in some wildly beautiful concerts in China, Germany and the US. My husband, who is a double-bass player at the semi-professional level, has also helped a lot in getting to know some orchestras to play with in Germany.

Having a Washington State professional teaching license in K-12 Instrumental Music has also been a real help in supporting my teaching practice as a credential in addition to a performance degree.

The music I have been so blessed to have been a part of so far has encompassed chamber music, solos, symphonies, chamber orchestras and even full-production opera orchestras. I really miss playing operas – it has been a while since I played any.

As far as teaching, I have had an abundance of different positions thus far in my life, from teaching young violin majors at Nanjing Normal University, to running the orchestra program of a busy rural school district int the US, to directing and teaching music in Shanghai at an international school, and more recently as a private teacher with small group classes out of my home studio in Germany.

That being said, this has not always been smooth sailing. There are a few perils which I and others have faced and which string players and teachers all have to overcome, whether working internationally or not.

international air travel is for the birds

To be honest I also do not care one whit for international air travel. What used to be slightly glamorous and fun is now more like riding a crowded bus through the skies, with the pleasant experience of having your body, documents and belongings checked at many points before boarding. It ranks right up there in my book with going to the doctor, which I tend to avoid.

(Travel even within Europe is very strict – airports have their own 1-L clear resealable bags in which all of your liquids must be contained in carry-on items.)

Another potential difficulty is timing. Simply put, I would never plan to have a long-distance drive immediately following a long-haul flight, to any address I did not already know, in a town I had never been to before, without a cushion of say six hours, give or take.

I was at a string teacher conference, where an invited guest who was to be the highlight of the event, finally did show up an hour or so later than planned due to difficulties finding his way. It turns out we are not super human after all and are still limited by the realities of new roads, road construction, traffic and unforeseen detours. It is better to allow ample extra time, if only to take a nap and be really refreshed if an event is following closely after a long overseas trip.

This is really an example of learning how to cope with a very dynamic, ever-evolving world, the one in which our conservatory education did not prepare us for.

But really learning our instruments to an advanced or professional level does help us hopefully with a very important quality which is sometimes lacking in our formal education: resilience.

The Value of Resilience

Playing, living and working as an international musician gives us the perfect opportunity to practice the value of resilience.

I know, values are not the sexy topic of many popular blogs, but the values we teach as string teachers are some pretty hefty pillars of human evolution which I believe help bring more joy, empathy, help, creative thinking and brain development in general to the humans residing on the third rock.

When you start working long-term in a foreign culture, one of the first tests of your resilience is about being willing to be a beginner again. When we find ourselves in unfamiliar territory and a new culture and maybe language, we get the chance to absorb all the subtle and not-so-subtle new ideas, nuances and ways of being. It’s in some ways like being a baby, taking everything in anew.

It also lets you sometimes be “off the hook” for mistakes you make that you don’t know you’re making.

Other times it doesn’t.

I had it in my mind to do banking with a local bank, for example, where I wanted to have an account because this particular bank supports culture a lot in the area. First I set up an account, and then due to a bunch of things taking up my time and attention, which was completely my fault, I didn’t fund the account in the necessary amount of time. So the bank supposedly closed the account.

Later I went back to apply again, and kept on getting the cold shoulder. I persisted, however. Finally a representative gave me an ear-full, berating me and complaining that there was an outstanding fee (that I had never seen any notice for) and that my business was not wanted. I inquired politely about how much the outstanding charge was. He then became a bit quieter, perhaps even embarrassed, and told me it was for .85€. Yes, that was actually for 85 cents. I still to this day don’t know what the charge was for but I did go and pay it, and was able to open a business account at this institution. I call it my 85-cent ear-full. 🙂

For the most part, people seem to be very kind and helpful when they realize we have come from somewhere far away. I think this is a natural human tendency, when one’s basic needs are being met, to enjoy helping others.

And having this basic language of music in our pockets, so to speak, gives us a doorway to walk through to connect with the unfamiliar in the a new culture if we’re willing to apply it.

How about you? Have you had any interesting overseas experiences where your music ability opened or closed a door? Do you think resilience is worth teaching? Follow this blog if you think string music education helps people learn resilience.

Musical Celebration of Life

They say hindsight is 20/20, but what would we say about this according to the sense of listening? Audiovoyance? Audiovoyance is 440/440? Wait, don’t answer that. Yesterday students of my colleague and mine played an informal, lovely non-concert: a Musical Celebration of Life.

We invited students and their families to come, for the learners to have the chance to perform what they are working on, and spend some time together visiting, snacking, playing more music, playing games and relaxing afterward.

I’m really not normally one to schedule something like this at this already over-busy time of year but a parent had asked whether we would be holding a musical party, and it sounded like a great idea–thanks Rebecca Oldmixon! After all, children love parties (and so do I).

I put out some dates back in early November and they chose December 15.

My colleague Cornelia Hierlinger and I also put together some duets to start off the event: Wohlfahrt’s Christmas Fantasy and the Blackwells’ Jazzy Jingle Bells. I’d invited a videographer I’ve worked with this year, Philip Fricker, to film the event and my husband also supported us by taking amazing photos and using his fantastic huge bass to support in a trio for a guitar student.

Like Baby Birds Being Pushed Out of The Nest

The children and one adult student were truly adorable and I feel so blessed that they were able to enjoy their new wings as players before a gentle audience. It really was like a nest, where the baby birds are pushed out of the nest, maybe a bit wobbly with their wings, but all of them flew. It made all of our hearts happy and then some.

Ever since I discovered the Ernst arrangement of Schubert’s Erlkönig for Violin and Viola I’ve wanted to play it. So for this occasion I convinced Cornelia that we should play it. To be honest, it was something of a risk. She got pretty big eyes last week when I said we should play it. Why play something with such a sad ending for an uplifting event like this?

Well, life is not always fun and inspiring, but I have loved this piece ever since I heard it properly performed as a young student at the Longy School. I remember Victor Rosenbaum had invited me to a private concert where it was sung, in preparation for a concert at the school. This was long ago, when Longy was an independent school, both a community school and a degree-granting institution and I was a young undergraduate diploma student. I think that hearing this piece then, and many times since then, has made a lasting impression on me.

Although the piece is somewhat dark, it isn’t dark like some atonal garbage that tries to pass itself off as great. It does stretch your ear a bit but I find it to be in good fun, and thought it would be nice for children and families to hear something a bit dramatic.

Siblings In Attendance

Afterward, a lovely mom mentioned her young child who’d been sleeping on her shoulder popped up a couple of times with the excitement and said “Why does it sound like it’s running?” She told her it was the goblin king, and the child went back to sleep.

Another sibling who is an adult mentioned she was so glad we played that piece, that she loved it so much! She had played violin for a bunch of years, but had to stop due to her heavy academic studies; now that she is back working for her parents’ company, she has a bit more time and it looks like she might get some lessons to get started again! So exciting! She had learned a few bars of this piece, apparently, as a student.

I would say that choosing Der Erlkönig was an intuitive choice but it made sense for us that the reasoning, logical mind would probably have argued against.

Another reason it was the right choice was that on the same day I found out our dear friend had passed away, which we knew was coming, but didn’t know exactly that it would be at this time. I mean we are all headed to the same destination and I believe music comforts us if we let it. That’s the muse, holding our heads and hearts when we need rest and comfort.

And playing with Cornelia is always a joy. We actually met as stand partners for Lobgesang, with Laudamus Te in Stuttgart, after which I found out she was actually living close by in my neighborhood.

And if you’ve ever seen Labyrinth, the film with David Bowie as the goblin king, you know that a goblin king might not be all bad.

Background

You have to understand that I’m working in Germany, as a US citizen, running a private business, having built my teaching practice utterly from scratch here, and did not have a single teacher connection when I arrived over five years ago direct from China. (Yes, you read that right, but it’s the subject of a future post.) And to be quite honest, there is no way I would have been able to build a successful teaching studio without the help of my intuition, journaling a lot, taking risks and asking for support.

I write this because it was listening to a parent, and following my intuition that it was a good idea to have a mini-concert, even at this time of year, instead of brushing it off and not following a good idea, that allowed this lovely experience to unfold.

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Concert on the first Sunday of Advent

This morning I started off thinking about our concert today in Heilbronn, Germany, which marks the first Sunday of Advent.

We will be performing two cantatas, one by a local composer which was written in the 1970s, and the other by Vivaldi – Vivaldi Magnificat RV 610. (When I say “we” I mean the orchestra and choir of the Deutschordensmünster of St. Peter and St. Paul in Heilbronn.)

The church building itself, originally constructed in ca 1300, was destroyed in air raids during World War II in 1944. In 1948, reconstruction began and was finished in 1951.

The modern piece on today’s program contains a message about praising the merciful. But the music is at odds with the message. I wonder if this had anything to do with the lyricist and the composer.

After the rehearsal I asked Ingeborg, the section leader, which piece would be first on the program. She didn’t know, but she agreed it would be a tragedy if it was the Vivaldi.

In other words, we both wanted to leave the concert feeling uplifted by the glorious music of Vivaldi.

I have a bit of trouble understanding the words in both cantatas, but as an instrumentalist it doesn’t concern me that much. As a musician and as a teacher, however, I am interested in the lyrics because they form an integral part of the form and the whole experience. Besides, I just like to know what is being sung to decide for myself if the meaning seems to fit.

Praising the merciful is the main theme of the modern piece. But it breaks so many rules of harmony I wonder if there was personal animosity between the two individuals responsible for the work. It just does not bring the words to life for me. Hopefully my opinion will change in the concert.

Thank heavens for Vivaldi. When lyrics accompany music, I want the music to convey the message even without understanding the words. Vivaldi manages this and then some.

If you enjoy Vivaldi, leave a comment and let me know!