From the Cheap Seats

IMG_E0180Can you guess where I wasn’t sitting?  If you guessed in any of the seats in the photo, you would be right. I was in the standing room only section – where tickets cost 3€ each. For the most part you could see everything (except for stage right) – my view looked directly into the orchestra pit, with a focus on the oboist.

At the Staatsoper tonight, I saw Faust by Charles Gounod. What an incredible experience. Even from high up,  looking over the minimalistic set design, I marvelled at the costumes, and the staging, and the incredible voices of the cast and chorus. I was charmed by Mephistopheles and Valentine, pitied Faust, and completely related to Marguerite *spoiler alert – with the exception of her jail time (since I have never been incarcerated – nor have I ever had to plead to God for my soul…at least not yet).

The leads weren’t the only exceptional part of the production – the chorus was wonderful, that at one point I started crying. It may have been when Marguerite was dying  (again spoiler alert), but I believe that the tears happened because the chorus was flawless, and not because she perished on stage, although that probably helped.

Faust ends its run on January 28,2018. So if you aren’t already in Vienna or have plans to be here in the next couple of days – you will probably miss it. And that would be a shame.

My next and last opera in Vienna, will be Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda, on Sunday. Maybe by then, I will be better at writing opera reviews.

*Not sure why I offered spoiler alerts – since the opera is almost 160 years old, and the story of Faust and Mephistopheles goes back much further.  I’ve decided to not feel guilty about spoiling the story for those of you who haven’t seen it. It’s your own fault, for waiting this long.

Now go forth, and see an opera.

Call Me Maestra


Today, I conducted the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.
Before you start calling me a liar, or asking me for great seats to the next concert, let me fill you in on the story.

I was the virtual conductor for the Vienna Philharmonic and got a chance to conduct Strauss’ Radetzky March, at the Haus der Music. Think of it as Guitar Hero with a baton and a world class orchestra. You get to pretend you are Zubin Mehta for about 3 minutes.

Interested in knowing how I did? I mostly kept up (its a workout). But I lack the passion for Strauss, to do it any real justice. I am not a conductor. I don’t have any interest in conducting. Though at one time, I longed to be on that podium. That position has too much power for me to be comfortable. I can lead the occasional guitar quartet – and group lessons. But it’s easy (or not depending on your perspective) conducting 11 year old boys, because they don’t pay any attention. The focus that professional musicians have is intense and its intimidating, and I have no desire to lead an orchestra down a musical path. I much prefer being the conductor of one (one instrument- one player – only one person gets the boos or the applause). There is much less pressure to being a classical guitarist.

And just so you know, I am a golden goddess when it comes to Guitar Hero.

Now, as for calling me “maestra”, it’s completely unnecessary. And I would prefer that you didn’t.

**Photo Source – Logofag via flickr




Just a Usual Day in a Unusual Place


One of the reasons (not the best reason – but may be the most important reason) that I am grateful for having a friend show me around the city of Vienna, is to help me navigate the signage for the washroom situation.  I have yet to come across the (what I thought was) international signs for the ladies or mens or trans welcome signs that we are accustomed in North America.  The photo above demonstrates the signage for the washrooms at the Cafe Korb.  Looking at them now, it seems a bit obvious. But when encountering them for the first time – I had no idea that what I was searching for was located behind the door on the right. It’s little things like this, where I am grateful that I have someone to explain these idiosyncrasies. By the way, the coffee is good here at Cafe Korb.  And despite the offbeat signage, I can see myself returning, as the patrons of this cafe look to be an interesting sort. And while I am not one for conversing with strangers, I can imagine having great discussions about art, philosophy, literature, and world events with these people.

Now that I have this out of the way, let me run down through the rest of my day.

An organ concert by Mario Eritreo at St Peters Church, where the program consisted of:

Canon in D -Dur – Johann Pachelbel
Sonata VI, op.65 Nr 6, in d-moll – Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy*
La Ballo dell’intorcia – Antonio Valente
Toccata in F-Dur, aus der Symphonie Op 47, Nr 21 – Charles-Marie Widor
Andante fur eine Walze in eine kleine Orgel KV 616 – WA Mozart
Toccata und Fugue in d-moll, BWV 565 -JS Bach

I don’t usually listen to organ concerts – but I won’t pass up a free concert. This concert reminded me that I usually feel awake and like my spirit is clean after such an experience.  So I will have to make an effort to spend a lot more time going to organ and choral concerts, when I get back home.

After the concert we went to the 12 Apostles Cellar, for a bite and a beer. My first taste of beer in Austria. The beer was flavourful, the goulash soup delicious and comforting, and the ambiance medieval and generally awesome. The surly waiter added to the charm.  I especially loved the apostle lamp posts, and the potatoes.


Two saintly events in one day, is a bit much for me. We ended the day at the movies, where we saw the latest Matt Damon movie, “Downsizing”. I’m not going to say much about it since I am still processing.  I am not a movie reviewer by any stretch of the imagination, but I’d like to say that this movie is making me examine my role in the world.

Signing off from Vienna,

*I did take a video excerpt of the concert (and of the interior of the church) but I am unable to upload it right now, so it will have to wait until I get home.

Who Needs Sleep? 15 Things You Can Do Instead


I have bouts of insomnia throughout the year – but January is when my insomnia game is the strongest.  I don’t know if its the pressure of starting a new year off right, or what. But when January comes around, my circadian rhythms decide to pack a bag and go on vacation.  Over the years I have come up with a way to deal.  It doesn’t involve tossing or turning, or laying in bed waiting for sleep to come, or even watching netflix documentaries.

Here is my list of 15 things you can do to stop stressing about your lack of sleep and have some fun.

  1. Get some crayons, paper, and maybe a colouring book or two. Go to town. Colouring is a great way to relax and destress – and it engages your brain just enough to help you forget the stuff that is actually keeping you up at night.
  2. If you aren’t a classical musician, I would suggest listening to some music written before the romantic period. If you are a musician – may I suggest listening to ambient music written by Brian Eno (or someone similar), Music for Airports is my go to work for nights when I can’t sleep.  And if I’m still awake, I listen to Keith Jarret’s The Koln Concert. Here is  a snippet of him talking about some of the problems that came before the recording. *Not so fun fact- Keith Jarrett has lived with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome – and so he knows insomnia.  Why not commiserate together.
  3. Make art. Try to make art without using any electronics – the light that comes from that equipment is not your friend. Find other means.
  4. Clean. Get up and sweep floors, wash dishes, scrub your bathtub, make your bed.
  5. Write mantras in lipstick on all of your mirrors. Use sports quotes – In the past I have used quotes from Wayne Gretzky (but you will need a big mirror – he is wordy), words of wisdom from grandfathers work well, as do bon mots spewed by members of the Algonquin Round Table. This morning I wrote a bunch of hideous lipstick mantras about how failure makes you great – and that its healthy to fail – and then I cleaned my mirrors. Wiping out words about failure made me feel powerful – which is something we don’t often feel-when we can’t sleep. And fear of failure could also be the reason why you are still awake at 3am.  *side note – only use lipstick that is so hideous looking that you can’t believe you ever bought it.
  6. Resign yourself to the fact that sleep isn’t going to happen for you. Get up and start your day.
  7. My favourite insomnia activity (best done in the spring and summer) is to go outside with your camera every hour on the hour, and take photos of your street – notice how the light changes, if the cars have moved, wave to your neighbours, capture the trees blowing in the wind, or the crows digging for worms.
  8. Do some yoga. Im new to yoga – but am finding a lot of peace and enjoyment out of sun salutations. A couple of these will totally wake you up – and you will be ready for some coffee.
  9. Call a far away friend.  Just call someone that is several time zones ahead of you. Don’t interrupt someone else’s sleep – that’s a bit rude.
  10. Read a book. May I suggest opening an actual book made of paper – remember screens are bad.  I read 110 books last year, mostly during hours I should have been sleeping. You can find what I read here. Try reading the book backwards – read the last word first and make your way to the front of the book. This will help tire your brain – and you may find yourself back in bed sooner than you think. Hat Tip to Casper for this.
  11. For me, simple math is hard. And when you are in the throes of Chronic Fatigue – doctors will often ask you to start at 100 and count backwards by subtracting by 7.  Try doing these exercises – if you are anything like me, you will give up and fall asleep long before you get the final answer (its 2).  Its way better than counting sheep.
  12. If its safe to do so, go for a walk. A little bit of fresh air and exercise might be just what your body needs. I usually walk just before 5 am, head to Starbucks (because thats the closest place that is open) and walk for about an hour or so- but only if I am restless.  I won’t go earlier than that because when streets are too quiet, I find it a bit too scary to stray far from my home.
  13. Organize a closet. There is a strange clarity that comes at 2am that you don’t get during the rest of the day. Its an optimal time to do a clothing purge. Be quiet though, if there is someone else is sleeping in your bedroom.  Best practice would be to weed out a closet in a room where no one is sleeping.
  14. Make coffee, cinnamon rolls, and bacon. It’s a gentler way to wake up the other person/people in your house, if you are feeling a bit lonely and want someone to talk to. Chances are they would appreciate this method a lot more, than being pestered to wake up by being poked and nagged.
  15. Practice. Surely you have something going on that needs to be worked on. For me its guitar. But for you in might be a keynote you are preparing, or math problems, or getting ready for baseball season. Whatever you are passionate about find a way to work on your craft.  If you can practice full out – great! If you are sharing your space, find a way to practice quietly.

What do you do when you can’t sleep? Do you have an insomnia regime?  I know that the usual form is to do something to get you back to sleep. That rarely works for me – so I find ways to distract myself. But I would love to hear your tricks. Please share.

Being Mentally Strong


This post is based on Amy Morin’s book, 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do.
Let me preface this by saying, I have not read her book (yet), but I have read her summary post about it about 900 times in the past year – and I have some thoughts regarding my own journey  struggle to becoming mentally strong.

When I first came across this list, it was almost a year ago, and I had just re-injured my elbow so severely, that I couldn’t imagine playing guitar again. More than that, my doctors, and teachers/coaches didn’t think I would ever play guitar again.  If you know me at all, you know that there isn’t a whole lot in life that I love more than being a musician. It’s pretty much the reason for my existence.  So not only was I dealing with that stuff – but after years of teaching, I was unhappy with what had been happening in my studio, and had decided to take a break. I was in an unhappy place. I had isolated myself from a community that I loved, and I didn’t see a way to come back to it.

Of the 13 things that mentally strong people don’t do according to Amy Morin, I can tell you that I was doing all of them. These things are:

  1. They don’t waste time feeling sorry for themselves.
  2. They don’t give away their power.
  3. They don’t shy away from change.
  4. They don’t waste energy on things they can’t control.
  5. They don’t worry about pleasing everyone.
  6. They don’t fear taking calculated risks.
  7. They don’t dwell on the past.
  8. They don’t make the same mistakes over and over again.
  9. They don’t resent other people’s success.
  10. They don’t give up after the first failure.
  11. They don’t fear alone time.
  12. They don’t feel the world owes them anything.
  13. They don’t expect immediate results.

When I first read these- my initial reaction was “Fuck you Amy Morin!”.  I didn’t think that any of my problems at the time had anything to do with me – or at least weren’t my fault. I wanted a quick fix, and I didn’t think I should have to do the work.  I was pretty much the most spoiled brat on the planet when it came to viewing my situation.  I viewed myself as a victim, in the worst way possible. While I have definitely grown this past year, and made some great strides in my guitar playing and the way I see the world (and myself in it), I am still struggling with some of these things. Continue reading

The First Performance


Today the students of Studio de Chaos are taking the stage to perform some selections they have been working on this term for their friends and families.  It will be a day filled with music, fun, and excitement. But for some, there will be a few hours of anxiety and nerves, and uncertainty.  I have a lot of first time performers this year -who have no idea what to expect.  And these kids are nervous.  Excited but nervous.  Walking into the unknown can be a bit scary.  Explaining what is going to happen can only prepare them for so much, because something different happens to us each time we walk on stage. Sometimes its magical, and sometimes it isn’t. But its always an adventure.  So we take a breath, and hold our heads confidently, and we walk on stage just like we practiced so many times before.

But there are things we can do the day of the performance to make ourselves feel a bit more calm and confident. Here is my to do list on performance day:

  • Eat a breakfast that has not a lot of refined sugar – oatmeal is a good choice.
  • Something warm to drink is always nice, though Im not sure how many six year olds drink tea. But for me, a cup of tea rather than coffee is helpful.
  • Do a short practice in the morning, I would rather you not play the songs you are going to perform this afternoon, but if you feel you need to play them one more time – then do that.  No more than 5 minutes on those songs though.
  • If you are feeling nervous, read a chapter of a fun book.  Or tell someone a few jokes.  Laughter is great for relaxing the nerves.
  • Go for a walk at some point this morning. Pay attention to what you see, smell, and hear.  I expect all of you to be doing this at some point – and I want a report.
  • Most importantly, I want all of you to come prepared with a prank for the reception afterwards – because this holiday will be about fun and pranking!

I understand that sometimes we don’t feel up to playing in front of an audience, and that’s fine. If you feel like you cant do it this time, then stay and watch and learn from some of the other students. And if you feel like going up afterwards – we can arrange that too.  The recital is supposed to be fun.  It doesn’t always have to be serious.  And when the time comes, and you don’t feel like playing the song that we rehearsed, but want to tell a story or a joke, or a dance routine -then that’s fine too.  Anything goes!

The reward will be great today!

*Photo Source – David Vidmar via flickr






The Practice


Playing guitar doesn’t come easy to me these days. Almost all aspects of playing have become challenging – even areas where I once excelled at have become foreign and a bit enigmatic.  Which is why a daily practice has become more important than ever, to me.  I’m slowly adding my old pieces back into my repertoire, but am cautiously adding new to me composers as well.  For someone who has invested almost her entire life to the playing of classical guitar, there are some huge gaps in my knowledge of guitar music. For instance, almost the entire baroque repertoire, with the exception of the Bach cello suites.  So I have added this Weiss Fantasie into my practice.  And surprisingly, I am beginning to love it.

For those of you who are interested – this is what my rehab practice looks like.  I try to get in an hour a day. Sometimes I am unable to play that long – and sometimes I want to play more, but I know that if I push it too much, the pain that will occur will be too much for me to handle, and I will have to take several days off – and I cant afford that.

  • Arpeggio exercises – 10 minutes.  I do this instead of scales, because its easier on my hands, and it gives my brain a workout, when I progress past the standard PIMAMI
  • Sarabande by Francis Poulenc – its a simple piece, but its quite difficult to master.  Its meditative and somber.  It was my dog Charles favourite piece, and when I play it, I can feel him next to me, keeping time with his tail.  Its a great warm up. Usually I play this for 10 minutes.  Trying to get the tone as even as possible.
  • Suite no. 1 – Richard Rodney Bennett – A suite of Pieces for the early intermediate student. Structurally there isn’t much happening, but the soprano and bass voices are written in different keys, which makes playing a bit challenging.  But mostly its brain work. Usually by this point my fingers are warm and about as agile as Im going to get in the practice session.  So the set of pieces usually flows fairly well at this point. – 2 complete tun throughs- plus any extra practice where its needed.
  • I am now halfway through my practice session. At this point I choose a couple of pieces I have had in my repertoire for years, and I choose a passage or 2 in each to deconstruct and re-learn.  I usually do about 10-15 minutes on this.  Usually this is an older contemporary piece, it might go back as far as Mauel de Falla’s Homenaje, or some thing from the Four Pieces by Frank Martin, or probably one of the many pieces I have learned and loved by Leo Brouwer.  The only requirement here, is that it had to be something that was at one time, performance ready – and had to have been played in front of an audience.
  • The remainder of the hour is devoted to new work(s).  I have several in rotation.  Weiss, Bach, Stephen Dodgson, Richard Rodney Bennett, and Scarlatti.  I usually work on a phrase or 2.  Because I usually have between 15-20 minutes left in the session – learning new works is a slow business for me.

This time of regimen is new for me.  I used to be the type of musician who would skip warmups.  I hated scales and other technical exercises (I still do). I didn’t think technique was necessary.  Ah youth – so stubborn, so wrong!  In the past, I was the master mistress of thoughtless practice. I’d just play whatever was sitting on the music stand. I was a really good sight reader, so I didn’t have to think about what I was doing – I just did it, and I could get away with minimal amounts of practice.

Im in a very different situation now, I actually have to think about alternating my fingers. They don’t do it on their own anymore.  When you have to put that much thought into movement, playing becomes laboured, heavy, and clumsy. There really isn’t any way to make it sound good. So you have to look at your practice in a new way.  Instead of reclaiming a new skill. I have chosen to look at is as an adventure through history. Which is why I am trying to close the gaps. It’s going to take me a long time – since I am lucky if I can master 1 single measure of a new piece in one practice.  But if you aren’t aiming to get better, you are getting worse.

So I deem it to be worthwhile.