blog

I blame the equipment.

photo by Richard Shilkus

photo by Richard Shilkus

Some of you may know, I grew up on my family’s farm in Indiana. Hard work with daily doses of other frugal mantras were plenty in my overall upbringing. However, I never recalled an expectation that my dad would somehow be responsible for harvesting a crop if the combine didn’t work properly...the focus would’ve shifted to fixing the combine or replacing it. It wasn’t optional, extravagant, or only noticeably missed by a ‘refined ear’ to whether or not it was vital to the task at hand. While the expectation remained that harvest still needed to be completed, the acknowledgement that the combine was never ‘optional’ is my point. 

In Chicago, I have many friends in the restaurant industry. If (and when) any of the equipment breaks, it’s well understood that the chef can no longer act like “biz as usual.” When the equipment breaks or is faulty, no one should expect that the menu can be produced as usual (and shame on you if you do!) It is not a test of their ‘true skill’ if they can produce excellence with inadequate equipment. 


Why the heck is this the case in music?  


For both of our instruments, we’ve had ingrained into our psyche and expectation that one should never ‘blame’ the instrument. Why the hell not? 

  • If the keys on the piano cannot produce quick repetition, you cannot play fast, repeated-note passages. 

  • If there is disparity in the resonance of the violin’s four strings, it will not produce rich and clear double stops.  

  • If the voicing on the piano is uneven, your ability to smoothly recreate line and balance between the 20-something voices on the page is greatly diminished. 

  • If the stick of the bow is not well-balanced (like the tang of a sword), you cannot play passages that blossom and sing right next to flitting spiccato. 

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 Can I also just say: you know those classical recordings that you listen to? You know the soloists that you hear at your local symphony? They are equipped with 6-7 figure instruments. Does it make a difference? Yes. Yes, it absolutely does. 

 

Seven years ago, I was able to purchase a Boston grand. It’s short (at 5’4’’), but I’ve maintained it exceptionally well (thanks to my piano tech wife). It was the first time I had unlimited access to a piano that was fully functional and consistently in tune. Luckily—when it’s time— we can trade up. Within the Steinway family of pianos, Boston is it’s B tier. While I’ve been very happy with my Boston, it is simply not a concert instrument. It’s time to thank it and progress to a piano that sparks joy.  

On the violin front, Kit was loaned a new instrument to try out. This instrument would be comparable to her getting a ‘Boston’ in the violin world. It has been unbelievably exciting and frustrating. On one hand, it’s very encouraging to hear such a difference. But the amount of labor she had been accustomed to employing to extract a base level of musicianship and projection has been sobering to say the least. While some aspects have started to ease, the limitations are still plentiful. With the amount of energy and efficiency she loses in trying to get the instrument to perform at a level in which it realistically cannot, we had to have a heart to heart and say, it’s time to get a ‘Steinway’ (You know, the violin version. I only speak piano). 

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Seven years of playing together, we’ve rehearsed....a lot. Our approach to violin and piano repertoire is unique to say the least. We approach the duo like a conductor and soloist. Both are important, both have a say, and both have different roles within their leadership. Yet, it’s just us. No orchestra to hide blemishes, or other members to create extra sonorities. 

The obstacles we face as a violin and piano duo are many. But it’s time that our instruments are not one of them. And, I think it’s time for musicians to shed the unnecessary self-loathing and expectation to perform flawlessly and un-phased when required to crank out the menu—Biz as usual—when your equipment simply doesn’t work.

—Elizabeth

My Homage to Lazar

This past spring I had the distinct honor to celebrate Ludmila Lazar's 50th year of teaching at the Chicago College of Performing Arts (CCPA). She was my professor during my master's degree at CCPA, and has continued to be a mentor and coach for Bow & Hammer. The history of Dr. Lazar's tenure highlights not only the legacy of Rudolph Ganz but the rich tradition that has existed at CCPA. 

Dr. Lazar as a student with Rudolph Ganz

Dr. Lazar as a student with Rudolph Ganz

Just to give you a little background: Dr. Lazar first came to Chicago to study at CCPA as a young woman from Slovenia. Her time as a student under Ganz shaped so much of her work and led her down many roads of musical discovery. Dr. Lazar's musical knowledge is one that is extremely vast while yet being extremely personal. Her Slovenian heritage remains an incredible compass in navigating different customs and languages. She describes Slovenia as a crossroads of many cultures, and attributes her life there with giving her a sense of discovery and also the ability to recognize the dance and song within many musical languages. She is especially celebrated for her performances and lectures of the music by Béla Bartók. 

While I know she has touched and truly changed the life of many, I'd like to (as poetically as I am able) share my experience of studying with her.

If there’s one thing that can be difficult to navigate as a student (or a teacher) in the arts, it’s the balance of cultivating self intuition and expression while learning techniques, styles, and forms. While that may not sound like a tricky balance, often in the pursuit of learning proper technique and style, students can straight-jacket themselves into regurgitating examples from their teacher or become solely concerned with getting a passage ‘correct’. While at the same time, students who forge ahead on personal feeling that is uninformed, can produce playing (or art) that lacks sophistication and maturity because they are not informed of historical context, fail to recognize references from the composer, and/or understand concepts that would make the work clearer and more palpable to the listener. 

A lesson with Dr. Lazar addresses these two paradigms effortlessly. I remember working on the “Les Adieux” Sonata by Beethoven, and we spent the entire hour on the first 3 lines. The dotted rhythms in the introduction were not high on my priority list, and it became clear to her that it wasn’t a lack of rhythmic coordination on my part but furthermore that I wasn’t sensitive to what Beethoven was referencing with these distinct dotted rhythms. She asks, “Come on, Elizabeth, where have you heard these rhythms??” I shrug my shoulders. She exclaims, “Baroque French Overture!” I nodded, even though this perplexed me. Afterwards, I scurried home to listen to several recordings. 

This would be the first of many stories where context would illuminate notation, helping me to see the stories and narratives the composer was saying through each work. This isn’t to say it discouraged me from creating my own narratives, but it helped me to recognize the concrete ideas already put in place, their historical references, and the possibility of connecting ideas to other contextual suggestions. The ability of the performer to relate a work to the surrounding world, personal situations, and for a larger global context is vitally important, maybe now more than ever. And this ability (for me at least) undoubtedly relies on a creative balance between specific and ambiguous contexts. 

One last note about Dr. Lazar: She jokes about her 'dinosaur-ish' nature (refusing to email, not tech savvy). I find this quality about her extremely refreshing. As an American, I recognize my country's struggle with managing a talent for innovation and discovery while also maintaining and enlisting a deep and diverse knowledge of past and cultural traditions. These are often acknowledged as opposing ideas. Yet, her presentation of these two worlds is incredibly unique and genuine. To truly understand the past, to recognize the roots of our present abilities and actions with the achievements and failures of previous generations, can never be complete without acknowledging their risks, acceptance of new ideas, and ability to integrate the new with the old.

I'm so thankful to know her. I hope to be that person for others in the future. Thank you, Dr. Lazar, for all that you do and for all that you've done. 

-Elizabeth

Dr. Lazar with Elizabeth

Dr. Lazar with Elizabeth