Saturday, November 20, 2010

I have moved!

I am excited to announce that 'meanwhile, here in france' has, after five years, decided to grow up and be part of the new me on Moveable Type. With the help of the brilliant Julian I have integrated my professional site with two blogs, one called 'meanwhile...' (this is the name I always wanted but it wasn't available on blogspot at the time) and the other, a series of musical essays, called 'cello notes'. In true Julian style, of course, the site is not quite finished, and what is currently a side bar will one day, I hope, be transformed into a row of cute golden buttons, but I think you will agree that already the new look is better. Though I was sad to abandon the fern banner and indeed the poppies, times are changing. Clutter is out and clean white space is in. While Julian redesigned, I took the time to significantly rewrite some old essays and articles so I do hope you will enjoy browsing Ruth and please feel free to give any feedback (especially if something is not working properly!)

Monday, November 15, 2010

Posture and Psyche

(Adapted from an article that appeared in the BBC Music Magazine in 2005.)

It is the first day of the music course. In the bare fluorescent-lit schoolroom are twelve roll-top desks pushed aside and four young string players playing a Brahms quartet in front of a chalk board. Immediately I sit down to coach them I am struck by each of the musicians' physical differences. Although they are playing the same score, it is as if, in this small room, we have the gestural equivalent of Swan Lake, The Sex Pistols, The Gypsy Kings, and the recent New Age title, Solo Didgeridoo, competing for airspace.


Kirsty, the cellist in the quartet, is achingly pretty, willow-like, with long legs emerging from a flowing skirt and ending in petite court shoes. Her long-lashed unblinking eyes constantly scan the room for approval. An eager student, her positive attitude is reflected in her posture, which is projected forward and wide open in the front.

'I am going to be a professional cellist!' Kirsty tells me in the rehearsal break, and I don't know why I feel sad.

After the break I observe and listen further. Kirsty reminds me of a ballet dancer with her arms in third position. She has a long endpin which means the contact point between her bow and her cello is far from her body and the natural swing of her arm. Her rhythm is somewhat unreliable and her bow arm, though elegant, shakes. Consequently her sound is airy. I notice that she seems happiest in the upper half of the bow where she does not have to deal with the natural mass of her arm. When I stand behind her I cannot help feeling that the back of her is like a shadow of the front. Where the front is animated, brimming over, tilted forward and convex, the back appears to be lifeless, hollow, concave and defeated.

Towards the end of the first day's session Kirsty collapses with excruciating lower back pain and has to be taken to the infirmary.

During the week's coaching I try and bring Kirsty's attention to her back, and to the inside rather than the outside of her. I help her find a sitting position which is centred and resting on her sitting bones. I get her to close her eyes and listen rather than look in order to be together with her colleagues. With her eyes closed I ask her to observe her breathing and what it does to her body, in particular the back of her rib cage. Of her own accord Kirsty experiments with a lower endpin and it seems, by Friday, that her back pain is easing off. Her rhythm has improved and her sound has more body.

Some of the questions that arise for me as I work with Kirsty are:

1. Is Kirsty's projection forward in space connected to her being projected forward into her future as a professional cellist?

2. Could giving attention to her back, in helping her become more centred physically, help her become more present?

3. Could it be that looking and listening outwards for approval from her colleagues and teachers is sabotaging Kirsty's inner voice?

I look again at the four musicians and wonder what might be influencing their posture, their rhythm, their tone, their listening: Do they feel 'behind' a sibling? pushed 'down' by Mum? Are they trying to 'rise' to Dad's standards? Are they told they are beautiful, slow, quick, fat, loud, shy, elegant? That they are a terrible dancer or a good leader?

Andrea and Faith

Andrea, the second violinist, holds her violin low and angled downwards like a folk musician, whereas Faith, very much the soloist and the leader, holds her instrument high and angled upwards. It turns out both these postures have advantages and disadvantages in the two sections of the last movement of the quartet.

Johannes Brahms was strongly influenced by Hungarian folk music, and in the first section Andrea, breathing and moving easily in her baggy combat trousers, has the advantage, grasping the punchy syncopations like a barefoot drummer. Faith, meanwhile, is having difficulty touching the earthy quality of the music. With her violin angled upwards, the natural swing of her arm round her torso is inhibited. She breathes not from her abdomen (which, anyway, is squished by tightly fitting jeans) but in shallow gasps. The silver cross resting on her clavicule jogs up and down as she struggles with the short rhythmic phrases.

First of all I help Faith to breathe from her abdomen. This does involve loosening a button or two but we are all girls in the room so, with good humour, she obliges. Next I encourage her to feel the musical impulses coming from the same place. I ask her to take the lead from her colleague and let her violin point less to the heavens and more towards the earth. As she starts to feel the uninhibited swing of her arm, Faith's sound doubles and her rhythm begins to pulsate. During the week a new way of quartet playing emerges that does not involve three people following the nod of one other person but rather, four people connecting, through their breath, to the same shared impulse.

Some of the questions that arise for me as I work with Faith are:

1. Is the high angle of Faith's violin connected to being a leader and her desire to set a high example?

2. Is Faith an older or more dominant sibling and is someone at home getting squashed?

3. Does Andrea's earth-bound attitude represent a part of Faith's shadow?

We arrive at the lyrical transformation of the theme into a legato phrase that seems never to land as it reaches up and up into the heavens. Whilst Andrea is fighting against gravity to keep the melody going Faith is spinning the phrase out into eternity. During the week I encourage Andrea take inspiration from Faith and lift her fiddle to free the horizontal plane of her arm movement, to open up in the front of her body and allow more scope for long phrases. At one point, like actors changing masks, I get the two firls to swap shoes: Faith's strappy sandals with their little heel for Andrea's Nikes. As, gradually, Andrea takes off and begins to fly with the long phrases, she and Faith begin to rise and dip in perfect harmony through Brahms' music.

Some of the questions that arise for me as I work with Andrea are:

1. Is Andrea's second fiddle persona influencing her downward posture?

2. Does she find herself in a supportive rôle at home and does this prevent her from flying?

3. Is the ambitious soloist persona (represented here by Faith) part of Andrea's shadow?


Greta is not a pretty girl. In fact I have to admit I feel sorry for her. She slouches. Her knees are fat at the end of her short skirt. When the phone in her breast pocket lights up with text messages she exchanges it for her bow (regardless of whether or not she is in the middle of a phrase) and taps out replies with more bounce than she puts into her quavers. The thing about Greta is that I keep on forgetting to give her attention. If this were a therapy session and this my 'transference', I would deduct that Greta is simply not there.

When, in the break, I ask Greta what brought her to the course she says 'I was supposed to be on the violin but they didn't have any places left. I'm just filling in for a violist who cancelled.'

The first thing I do (when indeed I do remember to give some attention to her) is to tell Greta the story of when I first worked with Nicholas Harnoncourt and how, despite the fact that we could all play our notes fine and it was the bloody violins that were having problems, he spent three hours working with the violas and cellos, trying to find the perfect buoyant engine. After these three hours, even though not one violin bow had touched the string, all the violinists' problems, both technical and musical, disappeared. Faith, Kirsty and Andrea smile at this anecdote but Greta's face remains unmoved. It is only when I ask her what, after all, is more exciting in a sandwich, the bread or the filling, that she smiles for the first time. And when she smiles she is not only there but she is beautiful! As we work on her running quavers as the life-blood coursing through the music Greta seems to creep back in to the room. With a vital rôle to play she becomes animated.

Some of the questions that arise for me as I work with Greta are:

1. How can Greta bring her self to a rôle for which she has no feeling?

2. I wonder if Greta is a middle child and/or often ignored.

3. If unchecked, does Greta risk going through life as an extra player?

Of all the four musicians, I find myself relating most strongly to Greta and to Kirsty. Although the older child, I was slow to learn and my brother, a violinist, was quick and brilliant. Desperate to please and to be approved of, especially as there were fragile family relationships seemingly dependent on my success, I was convex in the front of my body and my eyes were wide open. Thus I did not have any connection to my inner voice, to my back, or to the ground. Every time I felt insecure I made my endpin longer and became even more ungrounded. With no attention given either in my family or at the specialist music school to sport or the physicality of playing, I was completely disembodied. This lead to problems with stage fright. I longed to soar like Faith or rock like Andrea but instead I ended up filling in gaps in concerts quivering my way through 'easy' slow movements. I then became an extra player in many orchestras and chamber groups, becoming a member of (a part time) orchestra only in my late twenties.

Now, of course, I realize that there are many different ways of learning and that mine, though 'slow', was also deep. Through meditation I have become more attuned to my inner voice, and indeed have learned to recognize the voices that are distracting me from it. Thanks to the work-out wake-up call I had in an American university and to yoga and Alexander Technique I have become more embodied and no longer suffer from stage fright. Though when I was these girls' age I never thought I would, I can, at last, both rock and soar. What occurs to me while I am coaching them is that music training can be a training in so much more than just playing music. It can be an opportunity to jump out of the moulds made for us by family structures and by our social, economic or political circumstances, an opportunity for rockers to soar and soarers to rock, for laggers to run and runners to chill, for leaders to follow and followers to take to the wind. Our posture, so long as it is always in motion, can be an ever changing expression, not just of our own personality, but of the human psyche.

(All characters in this article are fictional.)

Friday, November 12, 2010

venice and home

How hard is it to wheel a box of eggs over a Venetian bridge?


We had a rainy week in Venice but it suits the city of course to have a liquid grey light. Anyway, nothing could take away the joy of the daily visit to the Rialto market


Followed by prosecco and sandwichettini at our fave joint, Al Mercà...



Then LUNCH at the flat and some of the best fish I have ever had. San Pietro (Saint Peter's fish), rombo (brill i think), prawns...and all with those greener than green greens the Italians are so good at....this season rape and rucola, but in others cavolo nero and purple sprouting broccoli...

..Which brings me to the sad fact about the Potager du Peintre; that all the lovely seeds brought home from Italy of the above, thought nurtured under cloches and transplanted with love by us, were munched and mangled by a very mean red and black beetle, the only treatment for which, apparently, though organic, has just been taken off the market.


Hoping for the only other killer of said bête, the first frost, I have no taken up the last crop, the leeks, and put in a winter garden. Chard (if it survives), spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, onions, garlic and shallots. Plus winter seeding of peas and broad beans. Raphael next door, aged twelve, has, in the absence due to workload of my husband, become my keen assistant.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Making mozzarella...

..on Tonino's farm in Puglia.













Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Provence and the British Imagination

here is the link to Julie's blog with everything you need to know about Julian's book signing and conference moment in Aix, except that on the Thursday night we are thrilled to announce that Gary Humphreys, the writer who wrote the beautiful introduction to the book, will be reading his piece before the signing.

Provence and the British Imagination

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Homage to Sandor Vegh


Thirty or so young musicians are curled up on velvet love-seats and scabby leather armchairs. Some clutch at tea and scones with gobs of cornish cream, and others at an early-bird half of ‘scrumpy’, the local cider. The remains of the log fire from last night's quartet-reading session relax in the oversized grate. Out of the lead paneled triple window, beyond trestle tables covered with remains of pasties and salad, beyond the abandoned croquet game on the tufty grass rolls the sea, its rhythmic crash against the cliffs constantly reinforcing what the maestro is saying.

We are in the Great Room at Porth-en-Alls at the International Musician’s Seminar, and in front of us is Sandor Vegh, the larger than life Hungarian musician. He has lain down his violin. With one hand and he is making as if to pull something very long out of his mouth and with the other he is making scissor movements, as if he is cutting the long thing that is coming out of his mouth. From his gut we hear a semi disgusted sound ‘Naaaaaaaa’ punctuated, each time he makes the scissor movement, by the word ‘Cutted!’ . Suddenly he stops, swings round on his chair (his belly and several chins seemingly a split second behind the rest of him) and cries:

‘Why you make macaroni sound?Naaaaaaaa… Cutted! Naaaaaaaaa…. Cutted!’

The student lets her violin hang from its scroll hooked in her sweating fingers and looks at Vegh. For those of us who have been here fifteen years on the trot, of course, the little piece of theatre is a welcome reminder of the curved nature of things, whether they be notes, waves, phrases, pasties, forearms, chins or purfling. However, for those for whom this is the first encounter with the great man who played with Casals and was friends with Bartok, there is a little more explaining to do.

Mr Vegh juts a fat first finger at the window and says: ‘Look ze waves! Avery sing in nature is caaaaarved!’

On that day, and on many days before it and still to come, from that grand oak chair in the Great Room looking out to sea, Mr Vegh taught me possibly the greatest lesson I ever learned. That nothing - no note, no phrase, no symphony, no movement, no preparation, no vibration - is made from straight lines. Meanwhile I have often wondered if, in his lifetime, not that it is very important, he gleaned any more information about pasta shapes. I still wonder, when he said macaroni (the curviest type of pasta available) did the Maestro in fact mean spaghetti, which is long and straight? Or, even better, flat sheets of hard edged lasagne that could well describe some sounds I have heard? Or perhaps Mr Vegh was simply incapable of contemplating anything straight in the universe. I shall never know.

(Sandor Vegh 1912-1997)

Sunday, October 03, 2010

A traditional French folk tune


It is the usual Wedensday kerfuffle at Mourchon: Twenty-five Americans arriving for lunch on a Rick Steve’s
‘Villages and Vineyards of Eastern France’
tour, Mum, Grandmum, and little sister serving goats’ cheese quiche, the excitement of a new kitten who loves the chestnut cake a little bit too much, grandpa trying to ration the rosé, Dad trying to snatch some leftover fromage in between the tour and the afternoon’s picking, and a ballet outfit waiting to be worn for only the second time. Aggie, meanwhile, is curled up as if nothing were going on but the wind whistling in the vineyard. On the sofa with a book. Oblivious.

‘I’ve written a story….’ she says when I enter. Aggie is nine and plays the cello very well. She has been both well taught (not by me, I might add) and studious. However, the connection between her love of the arc of a story and that of a piece of music is about as tenuous as the connection between my love, at her age, of dancing to the Bee Gees and playing a baroque Gigue. She continues. ‘…about the traditional French folk song I am going to play you.’

It is unlike me, but I actually try, for a minute, to temper my excitement. ‘Do tell me your story, Aggie. Do you have it written down?’

‘No. Yes, well it’s at the other house, but it’s in my head. It’s about a little girl, well, it’s in the second world war and she’s in her room and she wakes up and well she feels something is different…..’

It is a beautiful story. A perfect fairy tale with all the elements we need to construct a piece of music: A young heroine, an exotic location, a premonition, a village chorus, the handsome horseman with some big news, an unraveling scroll (not quite from the right century but who cares) and lastly confirmation of the premonition.

Aggie concludes ‘…. And that is when the little girl thinks, I knew something was different about today, and she feels happy.’

First, by playing the piece (fortunately in three parts, two of which I can just about play simultaneously) we establish how many phrases we have in which to tell her story. Then by stopping at the end of each phrase, listening to the silence and identifying the feeling in the room before we continue, we decide what kind of mood each phrase has and whether it is, for example, a statement, question, answer or exclamation. There are five phrases, we decide. 1. Questioning. 2. Confirming. 3. With a sense of unraveling. 4. With a sense of excitement. 5. A joyous statement with a feeling of peaceful resolution.

Both Aggie and I are excited by the story, and after we work on it for a while I ask her if she would like for us to play it for the family. Back in the kitchen twenty-five chestnut puddings and cream are scurrying out the door, the tiniest barrista I have ever seen (little sister Lilla) is working the Nespresso machine, there is a pile of washing up to be done and coffee to be served to the punters on the lawn, but everyone, including the six week old kitten, decides they can spare a few minutes to listen to Aggie’s story.

Aggie’s story goes like this:

A little girl is in lying in her bed in her French village house. Through the open windows, on this particular summer’s day in 1945, she can hear not just the breeze and the usual birdsong, but something different. A new sound. She thinks, something special is going to happen today….

The little girl walks towards the window, looks out on the street, and sees that people are milling about everywhere. In doorways, on the pavements and the road. It is not just the normal milling either, the going-to-the-boulangerie or catching-up-with-a-neighbour milling. This is special milling. It is then the little girl catches sight of the handsome man in uniform on horseback whom everyone seems to be watching.

The man on horseback starts unraveling a very long scroll. The tension amongst the villagers is mounting…

He starts to read the script which has an endless preamble ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, His Royal Highness….’ Blah blah. The villagers are becoming impatient to know the news.

The man on horseback finally delivers the news. ‘Ladies and Gentlemen! The war is over!’. The little girl is overjoyed and thinks to herself quietly, yes, I knew something special was going to happen today.

Aggie starts playing quietly, sleepily. The sleepiness makes her arm move slowly and heavily producing a perfect ‘Once-upon-a-time’ sound, with core and yet not too definite. She allows a questioning silence between phrases one and two, and yet she is eager to go on with the story so her upbeat has energy. During the second phrase, the fresh breeze at the window and the sense of confirmation make her bow move more briskly and with more attack, causing the sound to be airier with more defined edges. The bow slows down again in the first unravelling passage to keep us on tenterhooks, but speeds up naturally, almost despite itself, as the impatience to tell the news mounts. The breath before the last phrase is almost swallowed in anticipation and with the affirmative joy of the news in the last phrase, Aggie almost throws the bow in exuberation. This causes a brilliant energetic sound that, I think at the time, could sing for Europe at the end of a long war. In the closing bars, with the sense of relief and relaxation, Aggie executes a delicious diminuendo and rallentando. How she does it, I don’t know. I think perhaps it does her. She takes her bow off the string gently and sits in silence. We sit in silence with her. With Aggie the story teller and the little girl in the story Aggie told.

Aggie the cellist is nowhere to be seen.