Saturday’s “Never too Late” chamber music festival in Naperville was a blast. I had a wonderful day meeting people passionate about music, spending time with Teacher, and, yes, making some chamber music. The festival was nicely organized – our groups were pre-assigned so we could work on our parts for the music prior to the festival. Upon arrival we received schedules, a nametag/lanyard and a nice tote bag with a couple of handy giveaways inside – I found the bag eminently more useful than the little bag I brought along, so I switched immediately. As far as I could tell, from the youngest child up to the eldest senior, every one of the people participating in the festival have been down quite a few more musical roads than me, at least in recent decades. It was immensely fun to dive back into a musical subculture again.
Despite my newbie nature, I felt extremely welcome – the atmosphere was friendly and laid back – nobody knew strangers, and before we got into our assigned groups for the day everyone was gathered in a comfortable North Central Illinois University campus building lounging on sofas and armchairs and chatting away about our backgrounds and musical pursuits. The coordinator introduced me to one of my group mates, and we started chatting about his PhD pursuits in chemistry, along with the passion we both share for classical music and listening to big name violin players play big name violins. Watching an Arabella Steinbacher concert with the Chicago Symphony is what got him into playing the violin 10 years ago. We met the other member of our group, a younger cellist who has also been at it for about 10 years. Neither studies music academically; it’s a hobby pursuit for all of us, and currently it sounds like I’m the one of the three of us getting the most formal education and practice time in. As I’ll get to, we were a well-matched group.
Soon enough our get to know you chatting gave way to the first official event on the agenda – a group photo! At the end of the day we all received a nice 8 x 10 of this shot, then the next day – yesterday – I received a wonderful photo collection from the whole day – as I mentioned, the event was quite well-organized (the need in this particular photo to stare directly into the beautiful mid-summer morning sun notwithstanding!).
Then we were off to our first practice session – my group, group six, AKA, “Hymns” was assigned to a lovely chapel in an adjacent building. The beautiful dark wood beams and paneling combined with the soaring stained glass windows and the small, intimate nature of the room made it a joy for my first experience playing my instrument with others. We were up on the small stage, and we noted that a wedding would be taking place there in the afternoon. I can definitely see why someone would choose this chapel for their small wedding service.
Our first coach was the conference organizer, a veteran instructor and head of some of the music at the university. She was quite excellent at making some adjustments to our scores to bring our music to the level we could play it – she quickly modified my part for Simple Gifts to make it more likely that we could succeed at bringing it up to par over the course of the day. It was her arrangement of the music to begin with that we were working with, so that likely had something to do with her ability to alter it on the fly. But I was impressed. She started us off on the right foot and then turned us over to a young student coach to finish the session, a wonderful pianist who provided excellent leadership of our group, a group of people much older than herself! She helped us by playing the piano, by counting out our parts, and by pointing out what was going wrong as we tried to synchronize our playing. Later in the day I heard her play Clare de Lune on the piano – she is quite talented!
Our second session was with a pair of young student coaches, who allowed our group to try to get going on Amazing Grace. As I wrote before, this arrangement of Amazing Grace and my violin 2 part was quite difficult for me, and I quickly learned that it was quite difficult for my group mates as well. We played along for a bit, but quickly determined that there was really no way we were going to be able to do much with it, certainly not perform it by the end of the day. The top melody line has quite a few embellishments that were really throwing my fellow violinist, and the cellist’s chock-full of double stops part seemed to be a major challenge for him as well.
So we decided to bail on that hymn, and just work up Simple Gifts for the recital we knew to be coming up at the end of the day. The new coaches permitted us to do our own thing on the Amazing Grace decision making process, then seemed to rightly identify that we had arrived at the place where we should just play through Simple Gifts a number of times. They offered some refinements, but they weren’t quite as comfortable in the leadership role as our other young coach had been. One was a violinist and one a cellist. They were very friendly, and the time we spent just playing the song was clearly beneficial for our group.
After session two it was lunch time, for which we went back to the building we started in for a lunch buffet. The food was good – pre-made, quite decent sandwiches, a salad, a fruit salad, chips and cookies. Perfect for the hot day, and we had a whole hour; it was fun to sit and talk with Teacher and the organizer of the festival and a couple of Teacher’s other teacher buddies, as well as a few of the younger students on hand. The Saturday festival combines young students who have participated in the organization’s weeklong camp as well as my own “Never too Late” track, which makes for a wonderful, intergenerational spirit for the event. In addition to the teachers, I chatted with a young flutist from a suburban middle school, as well as a young violinist. Most of the participants live in the suburbs, though the other violinist in my group is a fellow city dweller, as is my Teacher.
After lunch our Hymns group was assigned to the same building where lunch was held, a nice studio that contains a big mirror and a piano – I think it doubles for music and dance. By this third session, my group had determined that Amazing Grace was absolutely a no-go. Our new coach helped us with Simple Gifts – adding dynamics and making the piece more interesting. We had quite a bit of trouble getting the dynamics synchronized, and then we also decided to add ritardando to the end, which threw a wrench in our rhythmic works as we tried to slow down in unison to finish the piece. I think that was just a bit beyond our capabilities (and we definitely failed to do it come showtime!).
Our final session was with my own Teacher – can I just say I have a great teacher? It was such a treat to see her in a context other than my living room. She pulled out her violin, took charge, and saw that we had basically prepped Simple Gifts well enough, heard our story about Amazing Grace, then pushed us gently into working up one of the more challenging lines from Amazing Grace. She was totally on board with our decision not to work up the whole piece, but she wanted us all to experience how an ensemble goes about working up difficult passages. My group-mates played along as Teacher corrected the other violinist’s bow hold, his arm, and then she did the same for the cellist, giving them tips. I could tell they were appreciative – neither gets good formal instruction often. We ended up playing through this quite complicated line and mostly being able to sync it up. That particular moment was a rewarding but quite intense 20 minutes or so!
After the four coaching sessions, it was time to go to the concert hall for a rehearsal/sound check. The venue is lovely – I’ve been there a couple of times before for martial arts performances. I was quite happy to see that my group was first up on the concert program – we would be able to get out there and do our thing then just sit back and watch the rest of the performers do theirs. The audience was, of course, mostly comprised of parents and relatives of the children participating in the day – a very friendly crowd. I was so tickled to see all of us grown adults get out there and give it our best, followed by these kids who, to a group, showed up the adults mercilessly! There were some extremely talented children on that stage, but I will definitely say that there were also some seniors who had good commands of their instruments. My group was the most beginner of the bunch, which was a relief and a nice boost all at once – there was no pressure, and everyone was so supportive.
I don’t have a recording of my bit (I think they spared the adults from listening to themselves) but I’ve linked to what I think is probably the best child ensemble, performing a Mendelsohn Sextet. Check out that pianist!
I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to participate in the festival. I learned a lot, and had so much fun. I connected with this other violinist from my group, who seems somewhat interested in playing with me going forward. I’m not sure we’re going to make it happen, but this day definitely planted a seed in me that has me wanting to continue to seek out opportunities to play with others. I don’t have time to add something like an orchestra to my schedule right now, but occasional jam sessions would sure be fun.
When I got home I told Michael that people who play at my level do indeed get out there and engage with the musical world. You don’t remotely have to be a prodigy to throw your hat in the ring. And you know what else I realized? At this point, approaching two years into my musical pursuit, I can actually do this thing – play the violin. Of course it’s at whatever level it’s at, but that part doesn’t matter so much; I can definitely get out there and play.
Thanks for reading.