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I think it’s a UK thing. In any case, what even the trait–I mean, British– may not know is that it’s actually an anglicization of the Dutch “toon,” meaning (it always seems silly to translate Dutch) tune. Source: Urban Dictionary, but originally Conor.

Nathan recently put me in touch with a fiddler we knew from a few years ago, of whom I’ve always been scared for a couple of reasons. First of all, he is ridiculously good. Second of all, last time we talked, he was ridiculously mean. Ok, a little bit mean. Mean enough for me to remember it five years later, anyway. Third of all, just as I had convinced myself that he couldn’t possibly be that bad, cousin Laura (the reason we know him) heard that I was planning to study with him and warned me over Skype not to “take any of his crap.” Aaaand back to square one.

Finally I worked up the courage to contact him. He was (a) super nice, and (b) actually enthusiastic about teaching, which I had been totally unprepared for. We scheduled a trial lesson, and I borrowed my friend’s violin (nothing quite like getting caught in a rainstorm on your bike 2 miles from the train station with 2,000 of a friend’s euros–now available in vintage wood!–strapped to your back) and made the trek to Neukölln. When I arrived, he said it was nice to meet me, and, in the first few minutes of conversation, asked how I had heard about him. There were a couple of things that were funny about this whole situation:

a) We’ve met probably 5 or 6 times before.
b) How did I hear about you? I was dating your guitarist, the cousin of your singer, and I followed your band around for an entire summer. Also, I helped you move into this apartment. Also, that fiddle on your wall? Remember when it went to a stranger for a quarter of a year? Yeah, that was me.
c) His socks were mismatched (pink and turquoise).
d) While I told him about my goals and did the show-me-what-you’ve-got thing you always have to do when you go to a new teacher, he stood in the corner of his studio, eating risotto straight from the pot he’d cooked it in.

Then we got down to work, at which point it became clear that it was totally OK for him to wear strange socks and incorporate elements of haute cuisine and dorm life into his lunch, which he was eating while on the clock–after all, after you reach a certain level of awesomeness, professionalism isn’t necessary anymore (although perhaps don’t throw it out entirely). He’s there.

 

He asked me what my goals were for the violin, and I said “mastery.” He said he could work with that. 80 minutes into my 60-minute lesson, he had deconstructed everything my professors had ever tried (and failed) to teach me about music theory, with the promise to start reconstructing it next time. One criticism: “why do you start your arpeggios and scales on the tonic [“first note” of the scale]?” Because…it never occurred to me that there would ever be a reason not to, and because in the 13 years of my music education so far, no one ever suggested otherwise. Anyway, we no longer do that, apparently.

 

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Goodbye, things I thought I knew about theory.

 

This could be the start of a beautiful tutorship–if he remembers who I am next week.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Since I can’t very well borrow Marc’s only fiddle every week, we went together to his music store to rent me a fiddle this morning. Marc warned me that the owner was a bit gruff (No, really? A gruff Berliner?). But my problem with him wound up being of a different kind: the store computer was broken, and rather than taking copious notes or making a rubbing of the credit card or doing any of the other things people in retail normally do when the register dies, he told me to come back another day.

“Well, can’t she at least play a little bit on the fiddle that she’ll be renting?” Good ol’ Marc, always looking out for me. So the owner handed me a fiddle that I would think had been created by Orpheus himself if the label inside hadn’t said otherwise. I asked how much they would charge to buy it, the answer to which isn’t important–the only thing you need to know is that you will never be seeing that fiddle. It’s your loss.

  ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

But wait! There’s more! It’s been an action-packed week in musical procrastination land! Marc’s violin teacher’s string quartet played a show in a cosy wine cafe that was called the “Moss Garden Cafe of Culture,” but was sadly lacking in both gardens and mosses. It’s the kind of venue that would be unlikely to survive in any other city–too small to be sustainable unless filled to capacity daily, with the whole operation (including wine, beer, espresso drinks, tapas, Flammkuchen (a sort of flatbread pizza), and salads, and guilt-tripping tips out of the customers for the band) run by just two people. From the perspective of three out of the four tables, a half-wall blocked the first violinist from view.

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The program started with some Vivaldi, then moved onto Mozart’s Something in D minor, ending with Dvorak. At that point they announced that the first half of the concert was over, and the second half would commence. This seemed unnecessary until the second half began to unfold (the pieces weren’t announced this time), and I realized that the announcement had been to remove any doubt that the performers had paid their due diligence to the lofty heroes of classical music and were now free to  move on to “fun stuff.”

This usage of the word “fun” drives me up the wall. It simultaneously confirms classical music as stodgy and denies that the genres from which “fun stuff” draws can be serious. Fun does not need to be incorporated into classical music (unless it’s like this, which I am 100% OK with). An orchestra does not have to play Queen to be fun. You know what’s fun? Listening to Queen play Queen. Or listening to any other music you happen to enjoy, whether it’s Glinka or Blink-182.

If it’s fun you’re after, check out Bartok’s “Intermezzo Interrottoa piece that I have never listened to without laughing (although not everyone finds it as beguiling as I do). Or the score, if not the actual piece, 4’33”.  Or the Surprise Symphony (granted, it’s only funny in an 18th-century, been-there-done-that kind of way; for full effect, you have to imagine Haydn sitting off to the side at the premiere, giggling to himself as he waited and watched).

There was originally a whole paragraph here, but I tried to condense it down to the main point so you could get on with your day: when classical ensembles play “popular” music, it often feels like they’re throwing a bone to the uncultured masses. And I understand how someone who doesn’t get anything out of classical music, but who got dragged to the concert on a date might be relieved to hear a familiar tune. But wouldn’t it make more sense for everyone to play the things that suit their instrumentation and experience, and that person can tough it out for a few hours and next time go to their kind of concert? And maybe don’t go out with that person again?

 Of course, sometimes you have to play a certain piece with the instrumentation you’ve got on hand. That’s not what I’m arguing against. Rearrangements are fine, but not if they’re forced. See the whole Wendy Carlos thing for an example of something that is definitely forced and not fine.

 

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The only time when it’s generally acceptable for classical musicians to play Queen is middle school band. Because “We Will Rock You” has four notes, which is four notes too many from your precious offspring who just got their first oboe.

 

While I’ve always been wary of classical arrangements of non-classical music, it was my college fiddle professor, the concert master of the Nashville Somethingorother, who left jig after reel after jig twitching in a pool of its own blood on the floor, having bludgeoned it to death by aggressively symmetrical triplets and a Puritanical commitment to the downbeat, that cemented my opinion (although her tendency to smatter our lessons with dismissive comments about how technique wasn’t relevant to fiddle playing because “it’s supposed to be grungy” certainly didn’t help). Because how could you fail to realize that what makes this music alive is completely different from what makes your music come alive–except, of course, if you haven’t been listening?
Anyway, because apparently no, we cannot stick to what our instruments were made for and we were trained to play,  the audience endured two 90s love ballads (which were extra amusing because Sarah, Marc’s wife, apparently never learned not to sing along at classical concerts) and two arrangements of Gershwin songs.
The only point at which I almost lost my cool was when faced with three of my music pet peeves at once:

1) the perpetually disappointing European relegation of Gershwin (or any American composer) to the same puny status as a pop ballad that some grad student arranged for strings as a homework assignment

2) ending on a major major 7th chord (Nathan and I have had actual fights [i.e. heated discussions] over his use of this chord*)…

3) …combined with a tremolo. The cheesiest of conclusions, the bowed instrument player’s answer to the rock musician’s fade-out. “We didn’t bother to think of an ending to this piece. What if we just do this until the audience gets the message and leaves?”

I will admit, for all my meckern, the quartet played well, I learned a lot about bowing technique (which is, in fact, of concern to fiddle players) and ensemble communication, and the arrangements were very good for what they were. But at the end of the day, even a well-made herring in a fur coat salad is still salt herring, mayonnaise, and beets.

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“Yum!” cried 140 million Russians in unison, along with no one else.

 

At the end, the musicians filed into the kitchen, then reappeared, tripping over their cases and stands, to calls of “Zugabe! Zugabe!” This is possibly the first time in my life that I’ve seen the encore performed as it was (I think) originally intended. The players came out, bowed, disappeared again, and then came back, and the violinist assured us that we could have an encore, but she didn’t want to impose it on us. Of course, we cried, “yes! yes!” Okay, she said. What would you like to hear again? 

Personally, I really could have gone for the Dvorak, but I think we all knew that that wasn’t going to win. They ended up playing “The Man I Love.” The one with the tremolo.

 

 

* There used to be a link here, but I took it out because after going back and listening at not 2 AM, I realized that it was actually not a 7 chord, but rather some kind of 9 chord (??? this is the point where I stopped trying in theory class). At some point I’ll come across a reasonable example of it for you, but since I don’t feel like combing the entire jazz Internet for a suitable video, just go find the piano that you made your kids take lessons on (slash that your parents made you take lessons on) and play C E G B.

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