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June, 2010

Monday Morning Music

by Valerie

How many people enjoy their vocation enough to actually want to do it for recreation? The question is a bit more intricate because it is possible to participate in different aspects of the same field, therefore not really doing exactly the same thing. For instance, during much of my career as a musician, I not only performed music but also taught private instrumental lessons. In fact, the teaching was usually more lucrative than the performing, due to it being more consistent. However, teaching up to 80 students a week was not my cup of tea, so I was glad to retire the private lesson business after 30 years. The other side of my profession - the performing - is much more enjoyable, and I continue it to this day.

Many professional musicians that I know either do not have the spare time or the inclination to play music just for fun. It's the old "Bus Driver's Holiday" quandary: why do more of what you do all the time when you have some time off?

I was lucky enough to grow up hearing lots of music, including popular, folk and classical. We had radio, television, a record player, and my mother played guitar and sang. I enjoyed it all. When it came time to choose to join the school band program in fifth grade, I did it for the same reason as everyone else: my friends were doing it too. The music itself was the farthest thing from my mind. Within the first year, though, many of my schoolmates had dropped out while I struggled to learn to play clarinet well enough to make it seem like a musical instrument. I'm not sure why I persevered, as it was not something that I picked up easily and I wasn't very good. However, I soon began trying to play songs that I knew, and there was the reason I kept at it. I just liked the music itself.

Up until I had to choose a major for college, I never considered that I might make music my profession. I enjoyed art, biology, and environmental studies, and assumed I would probably have a career in one of those fields. I'd been playing gigs and teaching clarinet lessons for several years, but it was just one of those part-time jobs that high school kids do to make a little extra cash, much like having a paper route or working at the grocer's check-out register. I also performed a lot for free, just as most amateurs do. When I really thought about it, though, I realized that I loved music so much that I was willing to study and work for years to try to make it my occupation.

As a working performer, my jobs have included playing for orchestra concerts, opera, ballet, musicals, tango dancing, rock concerts, weddings, church services, and dinner music. I even learned to play bass clarinet, flute and saxophone because those skills made me more marketable in the performance field. That should satisfy anyone's appetite for music. However, just for fun, I started playing violin during my senior year in high school, I played folk music for many years while I was still teaching, and, in 2003, I began playing chamber music on Monday mornings. I had retired from teaching in 2002 and was still experimenting with different activities to fill my weekdays.

I had happened to get an invitation to play for a Gilbert & Sullivan show, "Pirates of Penzance," as second clarinetist in June, 2003. A longtime friend named Martha was playing the first clarinet part and, after the regular second player had backed out, suggested I might fill in. Martha and I enjoyed the numerous performances of that show so much that we decided to try getting together occasionally to play duets.

The term "chamber music" has a variety of connotations. It was originally coined long ago as the informal get-togethers that happened in a room in somebody's house, where making music was the entertainment that would later be replaced by recordings, radio, movies, and television. One can imagine that friends would gather to snack, gossip, and play music, much the way that people now rent a movie for the evening. Later, chamber music came to mean anything played by an ensemble that was small enough to not need a conductor.

We quickly discovered that we enjoyed each others' conversation and company as much as making music, and soon the duet session became a regular weekly event. Martha has a piano and nice room dedicated to music (she teaches piano, clarinet and flute in her home) so it made sense for me to drive across town to her place.

Traffic on Mondays is usually a bit lighter than other weekdays so that was the deciding factor on the day we chose. I arrive around 9 AM and we play music and chat until around noon. This has been the pattern since we started, but the details have evolved over the years. At first we played clarinet duets and sometimes I played clarinet while she played piano. We quickly added flute duets, clarinet/flute duets, and flute/piano music too. Occasionally, we might have another musician stop by and we would play trios. The instrumentation just depended on who joined us and what they played.

We talked about all sorts of things, as a way of resting between songs, and so Martha knew that I had played violin years ago. She had played cello for a short time in college. At some point, she asked if I would pick up my violin again if she bought a cello. Well, I got my violin bow repaired and reviewed what I could remember from my few years of playing. She obtained a cello and we started relearning our string instruments. The first duets we used were ultra-beginner, and we sounded like it. The books always had the words "Easy," "First," or "Beautiful Music" in the titles. We also used a pair of hymnals that I checked out of the library; we played through hundreds of the easy tunes to improve our intonation and remember where the notes were on our violin and cello.

Very gradually, our playing has improved. We now can handle music that is above the beginner level. Because we are both adept at sight-reading music, we always just play straight through pieces. If we are tackling something difficult, we might have to stop and regroup, but generally we only play a piece once and then move on to something else, relegating the recent songs to the bottom of the pile. We've accumulated a good amount of music so we don't see a piece again for quite a long time, and then it is fun again.

We've been lucky to find a couple of other players who have joined us for trios. For awhile, Roxie was our third person. I knew her through the Austin Butterfly Forum and, when I found out she played music AND lived close to Martha, it was just a natural. She played both piano and violin, so we were able to do combinations like two violins and cello, or the standard piano trio: violin, cello and piano. Roxie's level of music reading was on a par with ours, and, more importantly, she had a knack for chat that fit right in. Unfortunately, Roxie moved away and we were left once again with just the two of us.

Since we had now had a taste of trio playing, we decided to try to find a third person. Martha succeeded this time, and now we are often joined by Virginia, a retired reference librarian who plays piano and is a great conversationalist.

After all this time, we never tire of playing music just for fun. I might have a week full of opera or symphony rehearsals and performances, and Martha might be snowed under with her own gigs and teaching, but the Monday Morning Music that we play is completely recreational. It is truly chamber music in every sense of the word.

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