i got music, part iv: in praise of second fiddle

(NOTE: Last year, I started writing an amateur musical memoir. Then I stopped. But in the eternal spirit of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, I’ve decided to take what I’ve written, break it up into tidy, digestible chunks, toss in a few new chunks and then spew it out into the world via this shit-figurin’ blog. And so, with no further ado. . . )


“Second fiddle”: as a violinist, this idiom bugs the crap out of me. It always has. Discussing it recently with friends, I expressed no small umbrage at the phrase and its demoralizing message in a world that undervalues the dusky contribution of second violins. To play second fiddle is “to be less important or in a weaker position than someone else”: So sayeth the compilers of the Cambridge Dictionary, the jerks. (Yes,  yes, I know it’s not their fault — they’re only reporting on accepted usage. But after seeing their ridiculously cutesy example invoking some dingbat named Christina, I AM STILL GOING TO CALL THEM JERKS.)

All my life I’ve played second violin. In middle school orchestra I played second violin. In every community orchestra since I played second violin. In string quartets with friends I played second violin. Whenever someone nudged me to play first, for reasons I never entirely understood but took as profound if misguided expressions of kindness, I resisted. I didn’t want to. For starters, I liked second. I didn’t want to play first. The one exception was Dvořák’s “American” quartet, when my well-meaning chamber-music mates insisted I take first violin and I rewarded their generosity by filling their ears with the sounds of a dying squirrel.

See, this is the other problem: although I’ve played the violin for most of my life, I never actually worked at it. Not the way other people work at it. I never set aside, say, two hours or three or four or six to run through scales and arpeggios and etudes in pursuit of EXtreme-Ass Musicality (EXAM), chiefly because I was busy adhering to my preexisting policy of NO Practicing Ever (NOPE) compounded by a Sad and Pathetic Lack of Theory (SPLAT), but also because I knew without even trying that I would never actually attain said vaunted state. I knew EXAM was beyond my reach. I knew my mother had already attained it on the violin; my sister had already attained it at the piano. I knew what they sounded like. I knew I’d never get there. I knewknewknewknewknew. 

But this knowledge never stopped me from playing — and loving it. It only stopped me from expecting or pursuing perfection. And it never stopped me from hearing music everywhere, from feeling its thudding bass and slinking harmonies and wanting to join in. As a kid I heard entire orchestras in the engine of our ’72 Corolla. As a teenager I quit the violin for several years to play soccer and pick my nose, but I sang alto in the school choir and relished the low notes that scraped the underbelly, far below the sopranos. I never wanted to join them on top. “You’re a soprano with a big range,” one teacher after another told me, and I always wondered why no one ever characterized me as an alto with a big range.  I always said gee thanks but nope, uh-uh, no soprano parts for me. I prefer the dankest recesses of the woman’s range. I prefer grubbing around the bottom of the treble staff, the musty places where harmony gets built on the violin, because that’s where the music happens.

I like how alto feels in my chest. I like how it sounds. I would rather hear the melody soaring above and beyond me than use my own body to sing it myself. I would rather play the harmony in a second-violin part than go up into a nosebleed on the first, and I’ve always preferred it that way. Even if I’d practiced two hours a day or thee or four or six for decades and decades, I’d still want to live in the thrumming lower end of any given music.

I wonder about our American obsession with leadership, with rising to the tippety-top at every life-stage, with proving our power and expertise and authority and our status as Alpha-Human Hot-Shit Type-A Everythings in school and sport and vocation and avocation and avocado sales, which I only added to the list because I just noticed the startling similarity between those two words. But seriously: WHY DOES EVERYONE HAVE TO BE THE TOP AT EVERYTHING? Doesn’t Captain Kirk need Scotty in the bowels of the engine room? Don’t the owners of a building need someone in the sub-basement, tending the furnace? It’s the same with music. One solo voice can’t carry all of western harmony. If everyone sang soprano, we’d have no Bach choral works. If everyone played first violin, we’d have no Beethoven string quartets: the Grosse Fuge would be a little less Gross, and I’d be a little more heartbroken.

The revelation, for me, occurred with my entry into the world of jazz, where there is no First This and Second That, just Whoever Happens to Be Playing Something Interesting On Their Instrument at the Moment, Amigo. I’m one of two violins in my six-piece gypsy-jazz band, and we take turns at everything: melodies, solos, comping chords and harmonies underneath. Every single one of us plays at the upper, middle and lower ends of our instruments, although the bass player’s high end makes my low end sound like Dolly Parton on crack.

In some Django-style bands, one guitarist is permanently on rhythm, another permanently on lead, but there’s no innate hierarchy. Jazz is thrillingly democratic. Everyone grooves on harmony. Everyone spends time in that beautifully fertile underworld where music sparks to life. Everyone plays second fiddle, at least for a spell, and nobody diminishes that role when they do. Maybe that’s why I love it. Maybe that’s why, after all these many decades of NOPE and SPLAT, I’m actually, finally working at it. I’ve found my permanent musical home.

Anyway, who cares about the Cambridge Dictionary. Jerks.

Click here to read PART I: MY DJANGO OBSESSION


Barry Manilow, meet my sister Betsy

Barry, meet your biggest fan: my sister Betsy. She’s developmentally disabled, but there is nothing incomplete about her. She is beautiful and wise and whole, full of insight and joy, compassion for all and passion for all that she loves: her family; butterflies; the color purple; jigsaw puzzles; word searches; rocks; animals; nature shows; and you, you, you.

She first fell in love with you at age 6, maybe 7. It might have been “Could It Be Magic.” Whatever the song, “I fell in love with him and became his fan immediately.” Aside from owning, and memorizing, every CD you ever recorded, she has books, posters, photos, you name it.

I asked her what she loves so much about her Barry. Her reply:

“I like the way he sings, and I think he is handsome. I like everything about him. I like his eyes, nose, and hair. I like the way he dresses — very fancy clothes. I love the way he plays piano. I like it when he sings with the piano, and when he does not. . . . His music makes me happy and cheers me up when I am sad. I think he is sexy—I was disappointed when he got married, as I dreamed he would marry me.”

If you want to know just how happy you make her, watch the video.

Betsy is 49 and works at a bakery. She hasn’t been my sister the whole time (I’m a latecomer to the family), but I could not love her more. I could not admire her more. Betsy is the person I want to be: caring, honest, accepting, warm, with a delight in everyday pleasures and a willingness to take things as they come. She has a shy smile, a gutsy laugh and a great sense of humor.

In short, you need to know her. Why?

1) It would make her life.
2) It would make her life.
3) Everyone should know Betsy. She’s one of the sweetest, dearest, kindest, purest souls to ever walk the earth. To be with her is to be happy, because her loving nature and joy in living are both infectious.
4) It would make her life.

“I do love him to death, for sure,” she told me, adding: “I would like to meet Barry Manilow, if you can do that, Amy.”

So Barry, meet Betsy. If this finds you – if enough people share this, snagging your attention – then please contact me, and I’ll put you in touch with her.

You won’t regret it, I promise. It would make your life, too.


put another nickel in

Tonight, I announced to my son that I was heading upstairs to blog. (And while we’re on the subject, ISN’T “BLOG” AN UGLY WORD? It sounds like a swamp monster hocking up phlegm. BlogBlogBlogBlogBlog.)

He asked: What are you gonna blog about?
I replied: I have noooo idea.
He said: You should blog about something that makes you happy.
I responded: Hmm. Yes. What makes me happy?
He replied: Music.

I love this kid. I mean, OF COURSE I love this kid, he’s, like, my son, but in that moment I loved him for how well he knew me and how matter-of-factly he deployed this knowledge to remind me — as though I needed reminding — of the rejuvenating blast I get from something as nebulous, permanent and necessary as air. I would not technically die without music, but I can’t imagine how life would proceed without it. Were I deaf, I would unspool it in my mind and sing along: Stevie Wonder songs. Shostakovich scherzi. The Tin Pan Alley that Daddy squeezed out on accordion, the Kreisler that Mama played on fiddle, the Chopin that Lucy coaxed from the piano.

As a kid I was surrounded by music and made a little bit of it myself, though mine was always the least. I sang here and there. Took voice lessons in high school. I scratched at the violin, sawed, flailed, practiced fitfully, struggled constantly with Not Being Perfect and eventually quit, never hearing in the sounds I made on my instrument anything similar to what my mother and sister made on theirs. It didn’t occur to me that I could play and enjoy myself the way Daddy played and enjoyed his time with his squeezebox or the piano — hunched over, blissed-out and slamming away. There was never any intrusion of ego or embarrassment at Not Being Perfect. He honestly didn’t give a damn. Who cared about Perfect! Who cared about ego! Making music was SUCH HUGE FUN!

Sometimes I wonder if that’s what made him a great critic in the classical realm: music meant more to him than the flawless ordering of abstract symbols into sound and silence. He wrote about it because he loved it, because he loved performers who loved it, his wife included. Because the music itself was, for him, a form of love, too.

Talk about nebulous. Talk about necessary. Though my father didn’t believe squat about God or an afterlife (not until his deathbed, when he saw and spoke with his departed eldest daughter), he believed in music. We all did — though I was the lollygagging convert of the bunch. I loved it as much as any of them, but I didn’t understand just how critical a role it played in the formation and proper maintenance of my psyche.

Then, in my early 20s, I started taking lessons again. Paying for them myself, I started practicing. I started playing in a community orchestra. I started playing string quartets with friends. I started caring less about Not Being Perfect and more about Just Being Better so I could have more fun. And it was SUCH HUGE FUN.

Eight or so years ago, I joined up with friends and neighbors to for evenings of rock and folk tunes, which had me noodling around by ear and exercising a whole new set of musical muscles. I joined my church choir; I joined my church band. After my husband died in 2011, I took up jazz violin lessons and ventured into that rich, sexy, scary musical realm. Last weekend, I sight-read standards with a friend at piano, drumming up improvised harmonies here and there. And it was SUCH HUGE FUN.

When I make music, I lose myself. I stop worrying about whatever I think I need to be worrying about. Music demands such focus, such consideration, such careful regard, such love, that I can’t focus or consider or regard or love anything but the notes on the page and in the air around me. I listen to them; I listen to my fellow players; I listen to the humming fifth between my A and D strings, and to the mystical, powerful, pulsating throb of one small piece of the cosmos suddenly ringing with joy. My son was right. It makes me happy.


beautiful-mamaHere I present one of the most beautiful images I own: an early, glorious, glamour shot of my late mother, Jeanne Frances Mitchell Biancolli. Mama for short.

I could write a book about this woman. Maybe someday I will; I already devoted a sizable wedge of paper to her in my last wild stab at memoirizing, “House of Holy Fools.” I also wrote about her, and my second mother, Pat, in a Times Union column last summer

As you can see, she was a knockout. What you can’t see is the blueness of her eyes, the outrageousness of her wit, the flintiness of her spirit, the wiriness of her arms or the roughness of her left hand’s fingertips, which were calloused from many hard hours of practicing the violin. Those callouses said it all for me. They said: Beauty makes demands on us. It hurts. It toughens us, but in a good way, a necessary way. Sometimes, in the creation of music and the living of life, we grow new layers of skin.

Mama was a world-class concert violinist who performed six times in Carnegie Hall, toured South America and Scandinavia, soloed with the Philly under Ormandy — while drawing raves for her musicianship and wolf whistles for her looks. My father Louis, a music critic for the New York World-Telegram, reviewed her and loved her playing long before he loved her, too.

When she played, all that she was came out in her violin: Her music was an aural blast of authenticity, clarity, intellect, deep human insight and ferocious emotional might. She always said exactly what she knew to be true, in words and music; her phrasing was apt and efficient, whether nailing rubato in a hunk of Brahms or flattening me with straight talk when I was mooning over a boy. (“He’s pretty, I take it.” Quarter-beat rest. “Just be sure you’re not thinking with your gonads.”)

This directness drove me nuts, sometimes. When I was a teenager, more than sometimes. I now recognize it as Mama’s single greatest beauty, a source of strength and balance in a house so often cluttered and listing. But not when she played the violin, or my sister the piano. Not when we laughed. Not when she cut through all of it with her piercing, uncompromising, fearless mind. That was as clear as her eyes, as sinewy as her arms, as powerful as her music.

sit still and follow the stick

Without fail, every single time I attend a city school concert — and I’ve attended lots and lots of concerts over the years, as it’s been lots and lots of years — two things smack me between the eyes or, depending on the sense being aroused and the direction I’m facing, the ears.

One is the sound of winds and strings and beatific voices playing and singing in tune, or damn near close to it. And that’s not nothing. No matter how often grown-ups crack jokes about the squeaks and squawks emitting from student instruments in the midst of practice — as though these sounds are any more aggravating or less mellifluous than any other noises emitting from a child at any point in his or her early life, like, say, whining, farting, shouting for cookies and marathon virtuosic tantrum-throwing  — the fact is, learning an instrument isn’t easy. If a kid is bold enough to wrap hands around a viola or a French horn or an oboe or some other ancient and altogether convoluted melody-making machine and actually create something akin to music, well, huzzah. Let us applaud loudly. Let us applaud the teachers, too.

This leads me to the other fact that smacks me in the face whenever I’m squished in the crowd at a school auditorium — as I was earlier tonight for my son’s middle-school winter concert. It’s the fact that APPROXIMATELY ONE MILLION KIDS are crowding the stage, sitting still, performing an insanely complex, cooperative task, doing so with total coordination, concentration and good nature, and — this is the best part — TAKING DIRECTION FROM A SINGLE ADULT HOLDING A STICK. And not even a big stick. TAKING DIRECTION FROM A SINGLE ADULT HOLDING A PATHETICALLY FLIMSY STICK. 

I watch this spectacle of civilization at its best, and I wonder: Why don’t schools encourage more of this shockingly effective crowd control disguised as art? Why don’t workplaces do it? Whole troubled neighborhoods? Congress? If a mob of squirmy children can get along for several long minutes to perform an arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture,” then shouldn’t leaders of belligerent nations give it a whirl? Leaving out the cannons, maybe? If they have trouble with it, no probs. The kids can show them how.