Geeking out about fiddle rosin, Part 1

This is a super-late post, as I’ve been lagging a lot on blogging. But I want to clear out my Drafts folder in WordPress, so here we go!
If you follow me on Facebook, you already saw me geeking out about this, this past late December/early January. But for the rest of you, here’s a post all about how I’ve been able to test various kinds of fiddle rosin I got from Dara as a holiday present.
My fiddle teacher, Lisa Ornstein, had suggested that I get better rosin to improve my sound. Up till that point, I’d been using the rosin I got with the instrument: a block of d’Addario Natural Light.
She recommended Salchow, so I put that on my wishlist–both the Light and the Dark kinds, as I didn’t know which one I wanted. But for 2018’s Solstice/Yule/Christmas/fill-in-your-favorite-winter-holiday-here, my belovedest Dara got me five different kinds of rosin. What she got me included:

Pyramid of Rosin
Pyramid of Rosin

  • Salchow Light
  • Salchow Dark
  • Jade L’Opera
  • Pirastro Goldflex
  • Pirastro Schwarz

This, for the record, is a whole helluva lot of rosin. Lisa was deeply amused when I told her about this, too. Essentially, I have a lifetime’s supply of rosin here. But Dara maintained (and I agree with her) that it was appropriate to get a whole bunch of types to try out, so I could make an informed decision on which ones I liked best.
I did some preliminary tests when I got all of these, throughout the first couple weeks of January. So far I prefer the Jade, with a side helping of the Pirastro Schwarz. The Jade gives my instrument a nice clear bright sound, while the Pirastro Schwarz adds a bit more depth and nuance that I appreciate.
However, I learned that since multiple rosins on a bow at once can have different effects on your sound, I didn’t really properly test the Salchows and the Pirastro Goldflex. With the cloth I’m using to clean my strings, I can take care of this problem. If I very gently stroke it along my bow hairs, this helps eliminate prior rosin residue.
So now, for anybody who might find me when they’re looking up what sort of rosin to get, I’ll do a few more posts about my experiments with this stuff. (Particularly since I want to give the Salchows and the Pirastro Goldflex a better shake.) I’ll talk about all five types of rosin, cleaning the bow before switching to each. And I’ll record a sample of how I sound with each as well, to see if I can detect any differences.
This should be fun. Stand by for more to come!

Fiddle practice, now with added winds

Just to check in on the whole fiddle practice thing, here, have a post about that, y’all!
Today my practice actually also involved winds, because I determined that I need to practice my arpeggios on my wind instruments as well as the fiddle. There are two goals here. One is to get better at recognizing those patterns in general, and the other is to get better at reproducing them quickly on my wind instruments, since those are the ones I’m most likely to be playing in session right now.
My main scales for fiddle practice, and their related arpeggios, are G, D, and A. These map easiest to fiddle strings tuning (G-D-A-E), and also, the vast majority of tunes at our session are in these keys. So they’re the ones I practice in the most.
Continue reading “Fiddle practice, now with added winds”

Hey Seattle locals, Folklife needs help!

Any of you who have followed me on a regular basis know that my household are longstanding fans of Folklife, the big four-day music festival that happens every year at the Seattle Center over Memorial Day weekend. This year’s is imminent, and as always, Dara, Paul, and I are looking forward to spending time there.
But I noted with dismay this morning that the Seattle Times has an article up saying that unless they get more donations at the gate this year, next year’s festival is in danger of being canceled. :(
According to that article, Folklife usually only gets donations from about 17 percent of attendees at the gate, and they take in around $190,000. They really need to bump that number up to $350,000 in order to afford next year.
So if you’re in the area, you love Folklife and what it brings to our local culture, and you’re planning to go this weekend, please please please donate anything you can spare at the gate. They need your help. Also, if you’re not going to be able to hit the festival but you still want to help out, you can donate to them directly on their website.
Please spread the word to other area locals! And if you’re going to be at the festival, hey, look for Dara and Paul and me, and say hi if you see us!

And now, a fiddle report!

I’ve mostly been talking about this on Facebook as of late, but for those of you who don’t follow me there, I wanted to do a post to get caught up on where I am with the fiddle lessons!
The biggest news here is that since I got promoted at work and got a lovely bonus to go with that, I went ahead and bought the 3/4-sized fiddle I’ve been renting for the past several months. Which of course means that I now need to update the official list of the Murkworks Household Instruments! And this fiddle also needs a name. I’ve been half-jokingly calling it “Rental” for a while, but now that I actually own it, not so much? I dunno yet. Unless I can come up with an amusing pseudo-French word for “Rental”. ;D
I also invested in a much better bow, a process which took rather less time than I anticipated–in no small part because Kenmore Violins had only four 3/4-sized bows immediately handy. (The rest of the ones they had in stock needed to be rehaired.) And the first one I picked up just sounded so very delightful, so I went YES PLEASE and bought that one.
Brought the new bow home and the jump in sound quality was immediately apparent to Dara–who, although she has hardly any fiddle experience either, does have an excellent ear. I am still very much a fiddle newbie myself, but oh my yes having a much better bow makes the experience of playing so much nicer.
Materials-wise, the new bow is a wooden one, vs. the carbon fiber one I’d been using. And I would not be surprised if it had better hair on it. Sound-wise, it produces a tone that’s much richer, smoother and… creamier, I guess. I don’t know if that’d make sense to people with more fiddle experience than me, but that’s what it sounds like to me!
I’m also much more able to just hold this bow. I’d expressed frustration to Lisa, and also to the owner of Kenmore Violins, that one of the issues I had with the CF bow was that when I tried to hold it properly, my pinky kept slipping out of place. So far this hasn’t happened with the new one.
I’ve used the new bow only a couple of times so far, but so far it seems like I don’t have to flail so much to find the proper amount to tighten it, either. Which I daresay will help with my consistency of general sound. The other frustration I’d had with the CF bow is that I was having a hard time determining exactly how much it should be tightened for play–because I was trying to go by what Lisa had advised during our lessons, except that it seemed like that bow wanted more tightening than that. I kept getting a scratchy, airy, overtone-laden sound, and I couldn’t tell whether this was because the bow was sub-par, my technique was sub-par, or a little bit of both.
But now I have a new lovely bow! So I can work more on my technique! :D
As to what I’ve actually been learning: Lisa’s got me working on arpeggios at this point. I can more or less reliably produce the G, D, and A scales, and I’ve been working on the arpeggios in those keys as well, going through several simple exercises to practice the finger placements. If I’m feeling particularly ambitious, I also work on simple tunes. Mostly that’s still “Frere Jacque” and a bit of “Road to Lisdoonvarna” as well, just because I’m still not too good yet at doing string transitions at anything resembling proper speed. I’m still having to work on what Lisa has called “stop, drop, and roll”–the sequence of individual small motions necessary to jump from a note on one string to a note on another.
What’s made this more fun though is that Dara has started jumping in on practicing with me. Since I have specific exercises Lisa’s given me, Dara’s doing those with me, since she does have her own fiddle and a non-zero level of “whelp I might as well learn a bit more about this thing” interest. Dara’s also better than I am at string transitions–she can whip out a closer-to-credible “Lisdoonvarna” for example. But I’ve been sharing with her tidbits that Lisa’s been teaching me, such as the proper way to hold the bow, and what’s supposed to happen in terms of what angle you keep when you’re bowing. (You’re supposed to keep a straight angle. I don’t yet. I keep curving a lot and need to work on that.)
And yesterday when we practiced, we derped our way through the C and upper octave G scales. I wanted to do this in no small part because I wanted to see if I could pick out the opening notes of André Brunet’s lovely waltz “La fée des dents”. Which is in G–so I need C naturals in there. So I clearly need to expand the scope of my scales! But happily, C and second octave G use the exact same fingerings, just jump over a string. So that’ll be easy to practice.
I will also need to think about other keys suitable for session tunes. E minor, A minor, and B minor all come immediately to mind. If I can build up my list of scales, I can get closer to what I still do on the flutes to warm up to this day: i.e., work my way up through progressively higher scales. And I still have flute exercises ingrained into my subconscious that involve first doing a scale for a given key, and THEN doing the matching arpeggio. So I want to do that on the violin as well.
Relatedly, I’m finding that one of the very first exercises I remember playing in sixth grade band is popping out of the back of my brain again! That exercise works like this:
[abcjs engraver=”{staffwidth: 500}”]
X: 1
T: Sixth-grade Anna Remembers This
M: 4/4
L: 1/4
K: D
D4|E4|F2 D2|G4|
D2 D D|E4|F F E F|G4||
[/abcjs]
(Side note: WHOA there’s a WordPress plugin that does ABC notation! Which is how I did that bit of music up there! \0/)
The fun thing about that exercise is that I have a distinct memory of my sixth grade band playing through it like that, but then doing it again staccato. And boy howdy am I not prepared to do staccato on the violin yet. That’ll be for getting ambitious later!
ANYWAY… this is all exciting and I am now a fiddle owner as well as a fiddle student! I continue to have wonderful fun learning from Lisa Ornstein, and I do heartily recommend her for anybody in the Puget Sound region who wants to learn violin, particularly if you have an interest in Quebec trad or Old-Time music.
AND! Dara and I both will be heading up to Qualicum Beach this coming weekend for a fiddle workshop. Y’all may recall that last year I had an amazing time at the Andre Brunet workshop there. Well, all parties involved had such a lovely time that we’re doing it again this year. And this time I’m bringing Dara, because it’ll do us both good to hang out in a house full of musicians for a whole weekend. And this time?
This time I can come with a few more clues about the fiddle. Stand by for a full report, Internets. It’ll be AWESOME. :D

Fiddle geekery, and new question for the string players

(Doing this as a blog post instead of a post to Facebook, since this is really too long for a status update.)
Okay, so my monthly-or-so lessons with Lisa Ornstein have been going swimmingly. Yesterday I had another lesson with her, and we started talking about how to do string transitions so that I could start to do simple arpeggios and if I’m feeling really ambitious, really simple tunes.
The arpeggio drill has been good, letting me practice walking from the tonic, to the third, to the fifth, and then up to the octave, and then back down again. So yay!
We’ve also been talking about four types of string transitions:

  • Open string to open string
  • Finger on a string to open string
  • Open string to finger on a string
  • Finger to finger

And, Lisa’s advised me that when I’m doing scales in particular, and I’m coming down from an open string (the fifth) back down to the fourth on the string below, that’s an open-to-finger transition. And she’s got me doing a “stop, drop, and roll” thing that’s seeming to click well with my brain to try to make the scale as smooth as possible. I’ve just tried it today, and it’s gotten me the smoothest scales I’ve managed to play yet.
Then I tried to get a bit ambitious, and this is where the question for string players who follow me comes in.
I’ve been toying with “Frere Jacque” since it’s a real simple little children’s tune, and I figured playing with something like that to start with would be within my capabilities. So we did a bit of that in yesterday’s lesson, applying to it the same techniques I’ve done in workshops learning session tunes: i.e., breaking it down into pieces and thinking about how to play each piece.
I also asked Lisa when I should be changing bow directions, and she told me, I should change direction when I change notes. (IMPORTANT NOTE: I already know just from observing fiddle players in session that there are plenty of times when this is not in fact the case, and just from screwing around on my own instrument, I discovered that oh okay playing a bunch of notes on a single stroke is apparently how you do slurs? But for purposes of this question, I’m assuming I need to keep it simple for my newbie self and stick to “change directions when I change notes.”)
Given this, and given breaking “Frere Jacque” down into its constituent pieces, it seems to me like the bowing pattern gets a little weird and I’m not entirely sure how to handle it. The pieces look like this:
1st piece: Fre-re Jac-que, Fre-re Jac-que (Down-up down-up, down-up down-up)
2nd piece: Dor-mez vous? Dor-mez vous? (Down-up-down, down-up-down)
3rd piece: Son-nez les ma-ti-nes, Son-nez les ma-ti-nes (Down-up-down-up-down-up, down-up-down-up-down-up)
4th piece: Ding-dong-ding, ding-dong-ding (Down-up-down, down-up-down)
So it’s the 2nd and the 4th pieces that are confusing me a bit, because those are tuples, not doubles. And I can’t do two down strokes in a row, right? So should I go down-up-down, up-down-up? That would seem like the right thing to do, but I am not a hundred percent sure.
Any string players want to advise me?

Fiddle geekery, October 2016 edition

This past weekend I had my latest lesson on the fiddle with Lisa Ornstein! We’ve more or less settled into a “once a month” kind of schedule, which is working out pretty well. And it’s a nice long lesson, too. Which is good, because if I’m going to drive all the way down to Olympia, a couple of hours of learning time makes that drive very, very worth it.
Lisa has told me some very gratifying things about how, since I have a bit of an analytical mind, this is standing me in good stead when it comes to understanding the various aspects of playing the instrument. And I certainly have to admit that coming at this as an adult student with a prior musical background is speeding things up a bit–Lisa only has to teach me the physical aspects of playing the instrument. She doesn’t have to teach me how scales work. We just have to focus on how to hold the instrument, how to hold the bow, and how to make noises that don’t suck.
I haven’t been practicing as often as I should, probably. (This is what happens when I have a full time day job AND I have writing to do!) But I do try to pick up the fiddle at least every few days and work my way through scales, and review how to hold the bow properly. We’ve wound up reviewing my bow grip at the beginning of the last couple of lessons, and this past weekend in particular Lisa had me move where I’m putting my thumb. I’ve had a bit of trouble getting it to settle properly on that notch between the grip and the frog–my thumb has a way of bending too much and coming in at a bad angle there. So Lisa had me move the thumb out to rest against the metal sleeve that holds the very bottom end of the bow hairs. She said this was often what Suzuki beginner students are taught, and during the lesson it certainly seemed to me like that gave me a more stable grip on the bow. Moving forward, I’ll be holding my bow like that and we’ll see where that takes me.
(More fiddle geekery behind the fold!)
Continue reading “Fiddle geekery, October 2016 edition”

A bit more fiddle geekery

It’ll be a bit yet before I’m able to have fiddle lesson #3 with Lisa Ornstein, so in the meantime, here’s a bit of an update as to what’s going on with me and the instrument, for those of you who haven’t seen me geeking out about this on Facebook.
First and foremost, I switched out what instrument I was renting from Kenmore Violins–trading in the full-sized one for a 3/4th sized one, as had been recommended to me by Alexander James Adams! This turned out to be a very wise choice. The issues I have experienced getting my left hand into the proper angle go away when I handle a smaller instrument. There’s a slight twist to the left that you need to do with your left hand to get it into position, so that your fingers can land correctly on the strings. (This is what you get for trying to play an instrument you hold at an angle out from your shoulder, as opposed to perpendicular or parallel!) When I try this on a full-sized fiddle, it is actively uncomfortable. On the 3/4th sized one, it feels a lot more natural.
The proprietor at the shop told me that in his experience, more adult players should play 3/4th sized instruments than actually do! He told me about a quite small woman, just under five feet (so quite a bit smaller than me) who was giving herself bad hand pain trying to play a full sized instrument. When he encouraged her to switch to a 3/4th, that was much easier on her. So yeah. :D I’m a fan of not hurting my hands–I need them to type with after all! Not to mention playing my other instruments.
And now that I’ve got a smaller instrument, I can move forward with actually learning how to make coherent noises on it.
So far this has mostly involved trying to do scales. The fingering is familiar to me, since I have prior experience with the mandolin, which is tuned the same way. Which means that my main goals are a) getting used to where to put my fingers without the use of frets, and b) getting used to the motions of the bow.
The first of these has proven so far to be less difficult than I expected! The lack of frets on a violin has always been one of the things that’s intimidated me about it. And while I do know about how many beginning students put tape on their instruments to mark the proper locations–Dara’s fiddle has such tape on it–I’ve also read about how some students get by just fine without it. The reasoning here is that if you don’t have the tape, you rely less upon the visual cue of where to put your fingers, and more upon muscle memory and the aural cue of where your fingers have to go to make the notes actually sound right.
And given how one of my ongoing musical goals is to get better at training my ear, this appeals to me. So right now, at least, I’m trying to do without the tape. And as long as the fiddle is tuned correctly, I’m doing okay so far in finding the scales and figuring out exactly where my fingers need to land.
The bowing, on the other hand, is still a bit of an adventure. I can semi-reliably get a good clear tone off a bow stroke, but that’s only semi-reliably; I don’t have a good sense yet of how to always do that on purpose. Sometimes the noise I make is very squeaky. And sometimes I wind up hitting two strings at once, or hitting the one string in such a way as to generate weird harmonics.
But then, this is exactly why I wanted to engage a teacher! So now at least I have a real good idea of what I’ll be asking Lisa about at the next lesson. :D
Because yeah, now that I have an instrument I can handle without pain, I do want to continue for a while with this and we will see where it goes! If all goes well, perhaps when I show up for next year’s Andre Brunet workshop in Qualicum, I’ll actually be able to bring a fiddle with me!

Fiddle lesson #2 happened!

Today I took another jaunt down to Olympia to see Lisa Ornstein and have fiddle lesson #2. So far, most importantly, I am delighted to report that I am still enjoying the hell out of this, and that there WILL be a lesson #3. And I think the big thing that I took away from today’s lesson is that I need to give myself permission to be patient with myself–because this is not going to be a fast process. I’d like to get to a point eventually where I can play something coherent on a fiddle, but there’s a lot of groundwork that needs to happen to get me there.
So today, Lisa and I did more of that groundwork.
Bow hand
Lisa mentioned a few different ways that players can use to get their fingers into the proper configuration to hold the bow. What appears to work best for me right now is doing a “bunny” configuration, which involves sticking my thumb between my middle and ring fingers, which become the “teeth” of the bunny. My index finger and pinky become the ears.
Then I bring the bow in under the “teeth”, which land first. Then my index finger comes down. Then my pinky, curled so that it sits on the bow. And my thumb comes in to sit in that little notch between the grip and the frog.
And I will definitely have to tell the folks at Violon Trad Qualicum next year that I remembered “don’t crush the bird!” I.e., to try to keep that curl in my thumb. Although this may now become “don’t crush the bunny!” in my brain.
Once we got my bow hand settled, we practiced just moving the bow around in various ways. Pretending to stir soup, and, while holding the bow vertically, raising and lowering it. This is all intended to just get me used to how the fingers feel while holding the thing.
All of which totally reminded me of the conversations at Fiddle Tunes last year about fiddlers and their bows being very much like Harry Potter universe wizards and their wands. The urge to yell EXPELLIARMUS when I’ve got the bow up is strong. Or maybe LUMOS MAXIMA. :D
And given that I set the Aubrey gif as the featured image of this post, I must also note that I even mentioned Aubrey and Maturin to Lisa, just because of being reminded of that lovely bit in Master and Commander when Jack and Stephen are playing together for the first time:

‘Did you notice my bowing in the pump-pump-pump piece?’ asked Jack.
‘I did indeed. Very sprightly, very agile. I noticed you neither struck the hanging shelf nor yet the lamp. I only grazed the locker once myself.’

I will count it as a victory if I manage not to hit the lamp.
Neck hand
This was harder. I have a pretty good idea at this point about how to get the instrument into place on my shoulder, but there are still challenges with getting my left hand where it needs to be.
Namely, trying to find the optimum way to hold the neck so that my fingers fall in a natural curve, and so that my pinky doesn’t wind up trembling because it’s trying to do too much.
Lisa says that this is a function of how I have pretty tiny fingers (which I knew already and which has proven a bit of a challenge on some of my bigger flutes). So we had to experiment some with how to hold the neck. We tried various thumb placements, as well as settling the instrument in my lap as if it were a guitar, which is more familiar territory to me.
We haven’t yet found the optimum way for me to do this. I’m going to experiment more.
Bringing the hands together
I did actually make a couple of noises, it must be said! There was some general plucking on the E string, just to practice landing my fingers in the general area of where they need to be to hit notes. I surprised myself a bit with not missing the frets as much as I was expecting, though having no frets did still wig me out a little. But I did manage to land the notes in the ballpark. Not perfect, but they didn’t have to be; I am, after all, a total newbie here.
But we did also get me to the point of laying bow on strings and playing a few open notes, just pulling the bow back and forth in short motions and then a couple long ones. Which began to answer some of the questions that have been bubbling around in the back of my head re: how exactly bow motion on the strings works. Getting to actually experience that was fun!
More experimenting will have to happen there, too.
Overall
I told Lisa about my medical history, which was relevant to the lesson in that it impacts how a lot of my back muscles, my shoulders, and the base of my neck tend to get cranky and carry a lot of stress. So we worked a lot on practicing being aware of my shoulders and neck, and how to stand and hold the instrument in a way that puts least stress on those parts of my body. And we talked about several exercises I can do to gently strengthen my abs, all in the name of laying more groundwork.
Because, important to note: what I’ve already learned because of my medical history about my pain thresholds and being on top of that has to apply here. If I start hurting my wrists and hands, or any other part of me, that means stop what I’m doing. Playing through the pain is not necessary, and not useful, and is in fact actively harmful.
And the other lesson here is this: it’s okay to go slow. I need to give myself permission to be patient, and not expect to get immediately to making coherent noises. If I want to play a tune right now, that’s what I’ve got the flutes and whistles for.
The violin is a totally different experience, though, and I need to give it the respect it deserves and proceed slowly and carefully. After all, I didn’t learn to play the flute immediately, either. Or the guitar.
This lesson even turned out longer than expected–but we covered a lot of ground, and made it worth it that I drove all the way down to Olympia for the afternoon. :D Very much looking forward to lesson #3!

In category Simultaneously Exciting and Terrifying

So y’all know how I’ve been talking about going to things like Fiddle Tunes, and the Andre Brunet workshop in Qualicum, and how I’m desperately wanting to go to Camp Violon Trad? And in general kind of being sheepish about it because hi, not a fiddle player?
Well, um, yeah. I might be about to change that.
Because here’s the thing: those wonderful instruction experiences I’ve been having, in which I’ve been able to crash the party and slurp up tunes on my flutes while all the fiddle players are getting tips on technique and such, have been percolating around in my brain. My brain which, I might add, has always been partial to the fiddle. There are reasons Kendis is a fiddle player, after all.
Reasons like how several of my favorite musicians at this point are fiddlers (Bob Hallett of Great Big Sea, Alexander James Adams, the aforementioned Andre, Olivier Demers of Le Vent du Nord, the amazing Lisa Ornstein, Jocelyn Pettit, and of COURSE all the excellent fiddlers in our session group).
Like how some of my very favorite recorded songs in the history of ever are ones where the fiddle just takes me right out at the knees (AJA’s “Faerie Queen” and “Tomorrow We Leave for Battle”, Le Vent du Nord’s “Manteau d’hiver”, De Temps Antan’s “La fee des dents”, and that one sweet piercing moment in the Raiders of the Lost Ark theme over the credits where one long lingering violin chord just shoots right down to my bones).
Like how some of my favorite fictional characters have been violin players. Especially this guy!

Captain Aubrey
Captain Aubrey

And Kili and Fili from The Hobbit, at least the book! (I am sad, SAD I SAY, that that detail was left out of the movies, but what music we did get in the movies was awesome enough that I forgive them that problem.)
And really, fiddle players are all over the goddamn place in fantasy novels. Any fantasy series that involves bards, you’re going to find fiddle players. Urban fantasy, too. Huff and Lackey and de Lint all come immediately to mind as having books that feature bards in prominent roles–and if the protagonists of certain stories are not themselves fiddlers, then somebody they know WILL be.
But also Sherlock Holmes. And Data is worth an honorable mention even though he was never one of my major favorite Star Trek characters–I AM a Trekkie, so he gets to count!
And all of this has finally exploded in my brain with a huge urge to see if I can actually learn how to make noises on a fiddle myself. I have in fact been moved to rent an instrument, and I have now engaged the aforementioned Lisa Ornstein for at least a couple of initial beginner-level lessons. The plan here is going to be, see if I can get used to the physical mechanics of playing the instrument, with the help of an experienced teacher. And, depending on how that goes, then decide if I want to seriously pursue taking it up as a second melody instrument.
Because yeah, I really need the help of an experienced teacher here. Flutes and whistles, no problem, I can play those! Self-taught on the guitar? ON THAT. Sprinkling of mandolin and bouzouki, sure why not!
But the fiddle is its very own strange and wonderful beast, one that fills me with simultaneous awe and dread. Dara found me the perfect GIF to express what goes through my brain when I think of trying to play one without help.
This is About Right, Yep
This is About Right, Yep

Now, though? Now I’ve actually gone to Kenmore Violins (which, as it happened, is run by a gentleman who even lives in our neighborhood), and I’ve rented me a student-grade fiddle.
And I’ve arranged to go see Lisa Ornstein this weekend!
You guys. This is going to be FUN.
All hands: BRACE FOR FIDDLE.

Concert review: Fellowship of the Ring, by the Seattle Symphony

Title Card
Title Card

I’ve said before and I’ll say it again: Seattle is a wonderful town to be a nerd. We’re such a bastion of glorious nerdery that even our symphony hall every so often celebrates hallowed icons of nerddom.
Like, say, doing a showing of Fellowship of the Ring while the Seattle Symphony and Chorale do a live performance of the entire musical score.
Dara and I went to this last night, and I’m here to tell you guys, it was glorious.
First, about their showing of the movie. They did the theatrical cut, not the extended, which I have to admit was odd to watch after so many of my viewings over the years since Fellowship‘s release have been of the extended edition. So I did miss a lot of things that I’d come to expect as part of this movie’s experience, such as Frodo and Sam seeing the elves on their way out of the Shire, Aragorn’s singing a bit of the Lay of Luthien, and a lot of the mileage in Lothlorien (notably, Galadriel revealing to Frodo her bearing Nenya, the Ring of Adamant). Ultimately, though, this was the right choice. The theatrical cut is already pretty long, and they did an intermission as well, which added extra time to the already lengthy amount of time required to be at Benaroya for the show.
Also, they ran the movie with subtitles on. This too was the correct choice, since through a good portion of the performance, the music actually came through louder than the dialogue. I initially found this odd and slightly vexing, but I quickly got over it. For one thing, the point of this show was after all to hear the score being performed live. For another thing, it ain’t like I didn’t already know the movie backwards and forwards.
And, as it happened, watching it with the subtitles on actually gave Dara and me a chance to catch stuff we’d never caught before! Because there are a few moments here and there throughout the movie where characters are throwing off incidental little bits of dialogue that are obscured by surrounding action, and it was delightful to be able to finally catch those.
The first of these was when Gandalf shows up at Bag End, and Bilbo’s rambling on about what he can offer Gandalf to eat as he wanders through his pantry and kitchen. The second was also Bilbo, greeting attendees who show up for the birthday party–at which point I actually finally caught that he greeted Fatty Bolger! (Who, of course, is a notable side character at the very beginning of the book, and who is actively involved in the hobbit conspiracy to get Frodo and the Ring safely out of the Shire.) The third is when the hobbits have just fallen down the hill running away from Farmer Maggot, and the focus is on Frodo looking down the road at the imminent arriving Black Rider, while the other hobbits are nattering in the background about the mushrooms they’ve just discovered. The last is also with the hobbits–this time on Weathertop when Aragorn has had them stop to make camp, and Frodo catches the others cooking on a VERY obvious campfire. I finally caught that Pippin complained about Frodo kicking ash onto his tomato. Ha!
So even though this was the theatrical cut of the movie, it did actually give me a chance to find out new things about it. And that was delightful.
But all of this is of course secondary to the whole point of hearing the live performance of the score.
And oh. My. Gods. It was beautiful. Dara and I happened to be at the very back of the main floor–we had two seats immediately to the left of the sound engineer’s console, as it happened. So acoustically speaking, we weren’t in an optimal spot. But even given that, I was left breathless multiple times just by the added depth and dimension of the score. I own the full extended version of the soundtracks of all three of these movies, and I’ve listened to them multiple times. But listening to them on good headphones doesn’t have a patch on listening to a live symphony do it.
In a live setting, I had the distinct pleasure of catching a lot of little nuances and details of various themes, details that are often (like the aforementioned incidental dialogue) obscured by the action of scenes. A notable example of this is during the Council of Elrond, while everyone on screen is arguing about who should take the Ring to Mordor. The orchestra lays down this little storm of metallic, clanging accents that are very evocative of clashing weaponry, and which are an amazing accent to the visual of Frodo staring anxiously at the Ring and seeing a vision of fire playing along its shape. I could not actually see what they were doing to make those noises–they didn’t sound necessarily like just the horn section–but it sounded amazing.
We had not one but two choirs singing for this performance: the Seattle Symphony Chorale, but also the Northwest Boychoir. I am particularly partial to listening to what the Chorale does, given that two friends of mine and Dara’s are chorale members. And I am delighted to say that the chorales performed splendidly. All the women’s voices came through with a clear sweetness for themes during the scenes in Rivendell and Lothlorien, and there were multiple points where they sang where I thought, again, how wonderful it was to get extra depth and dimension to the score. Likewise, when the men all stood up in Moria, I got a lovely thrill of anticipation as I thought oh shit it’s Balrog time.
Specific props as well to these instrumentalists:

  • The chimes player. I intellectually knew that chimes were present in the score, but in this performance, the chimes were one of the details that stood out with crystalline clarity in the acoustics of the hall.
  • The brass section. They stood out for me in particular when Boromir makes his first appearance in Rivendell, and they kicked in with his theme at that point.
  • The contrabasses. I had an eye on them through many of the deeper themes, like the theme for Isengard/the orcs, and at assorted points in Moria. From my point at the very back of the hall I could barely catch what they were doing, but more than once I saw them doing interesting-looking strikes on their strings.
  • Whatever wind player was doing the Shire theme solos. I wasn’t entirely sure what instrument it was, whether it was a clarinet or an oboe, but it was lovely and reedy.

And speaking of solos, I have got to mention the solos by the vocalists. Alex Zuniga, boy soprano, had an achingly lovely high range. And soprano Kaitlyn Lusk took several solos–notably, during Rivendell for Arwen and Aragorn’s scenes together, and especially at the end over the credits, when she sang the hell out of “May It Be”. And don’t get me wrong, I love the take of that song as sung by Enya. But Lusk had some extra color to her voice that you don’t normally get out of Enya, and that added a whole new layer of nuance to that song for me.
And with Lusk and Zuniga together doing their solos over the credits, well. Let’s put it this way: usually when I watch this trilogy, it takes Return of the King to get me crying over the credits. This time, I cried for Fellowship. Because after hearing Lusk’s solos during the actual movie, I had a very strong suspicion of what she’d do with “May It Be”, and I even sat forward on my seat in anticipation. She did not disappoint in the slightest.
Also worth noting was the audience reactions to various bits of the performance. Laughter broke out for several of the lighter-hearted bits, such as Merry and Pippin raiding Gandalf’s fireworks. And applause broke out for Aragorn taking down the head Uruk-hai in the final battle, just after Boromir’s death. My favorite audience reaction moment, though, was at the very end when Frodo’s standing there by the water, flashing back to his conversation with Gandalf, and you see his indecision on his face. There was a palpable hush in the hall, just before Frodo determinedly closes his fingers around the Ring and continues forward, with the orchestra gliding in to underscore his resolution. Beautiful.
In short, most expensive movie I’ve ever attended–but worth every penny spent on the tickets. My fellow Tolkien fans, if you’re fortunate enough to live in a town where your symphony can put on a performance like this, go. You’ll be happy you did.
And I will absolutely be attending if the Seattle Symphony decides they’ll also do The Two Towers and Return of the King. Because after this performance, I will live in sweet piercing anticipation of hearing “Into the West” sung in Benaroya Hall.