Thursday, March 31, 2005

Top Gun nickname election

Voting closed yesterday in the election to choose Top Gun nicknames for members of the New World Symphony bass section. Like any good Miami-Dade county election, this one included ample opportunities for fraud and miscreance. Two different and somewhat confusing ballots were used, and completed ballots were kept secure by a swatch of packing tape stuck to a manila envelope on my locker.

The election process was completely unregulated and went on for a couple of weeks, though most people only knew about it the last couple of days. Anyone able to operate a pencil was eligible to vote, and 20 ballots were cast, 2 of which were incomplete or illegible. Despite all this, results were fairly conclusive, as follows:

Viper, Merlin, Maverick, Hollywood, Iceman, Wolfman, Steve, and Goose Posted by Hello

Dacy Gillespie - Hollywood
Dacy was chosen as Hollywood by the largest majority of any nickname, 11 votes out of 18 recorded. In the actual movie, Hollywood may have been a big black guy (no one can remember for sure), but Dacy earned his call sign with her sense of style and grace.

Dave DeRiso - Maverick
Eight voters nominated Dave as the short, dark, and handsome hero of Top Gun. As we like to continually remind Dave, "You're dangerous, Maverick - it's not your flying, it's your attitude."

Scott Dixon - Goose
Also with eight votes, Scott was chosen as Maverick's lovable but ill-fated wingman Goose. While the nickname could potentially be pejorative, in Scott's case it seems to reflect an appreciation of him as a great pal rather than a tendency to make squonking noises and bite small children.

Andy Giller - Wolfman
The voters favored Andy decisively with eight votes, possibly reflecting his take-no-prisoners attitude or his nocturnal habits. I don't really know what Andy's nocturnal habits are, it just seems like a Wolfman should have some.

Aaron White - Merlin
Though four voters nominated Aaron as Jester, a majority of six made him our Merlin, based perhaps on his wizened status as our eldest bass player or his magical execution of the finale of Mozart 40.

Matt Heller - Iceman
Matt was likened to the annoying antagonist played by Val Kilmer by a narrow majority of five votes, just one more than voted him as Goose. This would seem to reflect a deeply divided electorate which tilts slightly towards finding Matt a creep.

Sean O'Hara - Viper
In an even closer election, Sean was given this reptilian nickname with five votes, with four each for Jester and Iceman. Perhaps voters were attracted to the silent but deadly connotations, though Sean is not known to be particularly deadly.

Thanks to everyone who voted! Campaigning for cello section Care Bear nicknames will begin soon.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

eavesdropping on a French horn god

Yesterday afternoon I went to a masterclass by Philip Myers, principal horn of the New York Philharmonic. Everything about PM is big - his sound, his ideas, his reputation, his sense of humor, his girth. I unfortunately chose to sit about seven feet away with his bell pointed straight at me, so I had to repeatedly cover my hears when he picked up his horn to demonstrate something. I was able to pick up a few things, though, while trying to avoid being deafened.

1. Don't practice screwing up
Too many people spend far too much time practicing things they do badly. You need to fix whatever is not working, but you also need to accustom yourself to nailing things, and build the self-confidence that comes with doing it. If all you ever practice is the stuff you suck at, you're going to feel like you suck. Instead, "you want to leave the practice room feeling like you're Jesus Christ." Meaning a badass with all the answers, not a guy about to get crucified.

2. Know your strengths, then do them better than anyone else
You should have four or five things you know you do really well - and you should do them every day. This ties into the previous point, but it's worth emphasizing. When PM was auditioning for orchestras, he told us, there was a certain excerpt from Richard Strauss' tone poem Don Juan that he knew he could nail. Every time he was asked to play this excerpt, he won the audition - it became so automatic that he already knew when he saw the proctor turn to that page that he would win a job that day.

3. Be offensive
This one is a little difficult, since we're all so indoctrinated to sound pleasant and beautiful. Great playing should sometimes get in your face, though, like talking to someone who is encroaching on your personal space. It should have an intensity that refuses to let you sit back. "To me, there's nothing more offensive than when someone says everything should be beautiful. I hate that shit - it's far too limiting."

4. Have a system
You don't have to stick with your plan all the time, but you do need to have one so you know when you are making an exception. Having a plan also means finding a technique that fits your unique needs, not just adopting principles that work for other people.

5. You're paid to do, not to try
No one is impressed when you try a low percentage move and screw up. In fact, PM told us, he's not really impressed when he hears someone try something risky and pull it off. He would rather hire someone with the experience and savvy to execute a high percentage move well than an idiot who just got lucky. So find what works consistently, and make choices based on what will work that day.

6. Don't take his word for it, horn god or not
If someone tells you to do something a certain way, don't just swallow it whole. Listen to recordings or seek out other sources to find an answer that you believe in. That way you can take ownership of all your decisions.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

on being a twin

my twin brother Dan with Gilles Posted by Hello

Whenever it comes up in conversation that I have an identical twin brother, I notice people looking at me strangely, like they are trying to fit me into a new mold. Naturally, my twin and I must live in bunk beds and wear matching outfits every day, when we're not pulling off a big switch-o-change-o scheme to ace the math quiz or get our parents back together. Then again, based on our geographical distance and my cell phone records, you might easily conclude that we hate eachother's guts. I spent almost the whole summer living with Dan in LA, and we spent most of the time pretending that the other wasn't there - the summer actually brought me closer to Gilles, who you see in the picture above, than it did to Dan.

The reality of being a twin, for me at least, is pretty complicated. It's a little like having constant access to live video footage and psychological profiles of yourself - interesting sometimes, and a nice resource to have, but a bit much to take all the time. That's why when we're around each other, I think, we can be almost cold to one another. And yet, there are moments when we connect and understand eachother so completely, I feel, that I can tell him anything. And conversely, he's told me stories from his life that I instantly recognized in my own - only the characters were different, it seemed, the situations and emotions were exactly the same!

When we were little kids, one night my sister Zoe had to finish a science project for school, and decided at the last minute she would do a twin study, testing our telekinetic and esp abilities. The result was absolutely ridiculous, which is why we've never let her forget about it - some day we need to post it on the web! She asked one of us to think of a number, and the other one invariably thought of a different number, which she explained by saying their shapes were similar. I'm pretty sure we can't pass numbers back and forth, and I have never felt his pain or anything; still, in a very real sense, Dan is the closest person to me in the world. I'm still learning what it means to have a relationship with my genetic duplicate.

According to, Dan and I live 2,744 miles from one another, which is about 42 hours if you're driving. Bring carrots.

mis quince minutos

My 15 minutes of fame, or maybe more like 3 x 6 inches, are in today's edition of Miami's El Nuevo Herald. You can see the article here, but if you can't read Spanish you might want to scroll down to my original English version, posted below. A lot of what I wrote was cut, and they changed my alma mater to 'Northern University'. Still, I caught one mistake before it went to print - Marc was going to have me listed as a cello player.

uncle, and bluncle

Yesterday I became an uncle for the first time with the birth of my nephew, Isaac; I also became a bluncle, when my twin brother Dan created his own new blog, whisper key. My brother plays the bassoon, and the way I understand it the whisper key allows a bassoonist to produce a delicate, intimate tone quality without the risk of choking his or her sound. Or maybe it's a way of quickly clearing some of the spit out of the instrument without taking the whole thing apart. Either way, it seems like an apt title for a personal blog.

Dan is a fascinating and very funny person, so you should definitely click over and read him in person. I am planning on writing a bit more about him and being a twin, and posting it here later today.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Isaac's first day

Here is the official site for my nephew, Isaac Joseph Zaret. Funny how it took me 27 years and change to get my own website, and this kid has one on his first day.

mother Zoe with baby Isaac Posted by Hello

I first heard the news while writing in my blog this afternoon, so it seemed appropriate to post the news, even if I was maybe the last in the family to hear! I tend to turn my phone off for long stretches of time, leaving me more or less unreachable. Still, though, now that I've had the benefit of a few hours to ponder, I wanted to write a little more on the subject.

I've lately been reading this book called The Rural Life by Verlyn Klinkenborg, and I find it's a very difficult book to explain to people. It's one of those books in which the things it talks about - weather, insects, trees, animals, farming, etc. - are not really what it's about at all. I realized today that what it is about, what so many beautiful works of literature and music are about, when I stop and think about it, is time. We think we understand time, we think it behaves as simply and predictably as the gears in our watches, but then a day like this happens, and everything seems to change in an instant.

Would this day have seemed any less life-altering had it come a couple of weeks from now, when we were expecting it? For the past many months, whenever I told anyone I was about to be an uncle, or even thought about it, I always attached that word "April". So when it happened, my first reaction was, "How could this happen? It's not April yet!", as if the number on the calendar was the most amazing thing about this day. Really, though, I'm not sure anything would have prepared me for the idea of calling my sister Zoe "your mother", of calling my own mother "your grandma". I seem to have left the world I woke up in this morning for a different world, in which everyone has a new title and a new identity, all in relation to this new person.

Of course I've been telling everyone I know about Isaac, and looking forward to a chance to visit and see them in person. I'm not sure what it will be like to be in the same room as my new nephew, and I think it might seem just as strange and unfamiliar to see my sister as a mother. I am sure that she and Elliot will be great parents though, and that Isaac will be the new center around which their life orbits.

To extend that celestial metaphor a bit, I feel like I've been a comet that went skimming across my sister's atmosphere every so often, and it makes me a little sad to think that we'll be just as distant for the foreseeable future. Zoe has a very busy career, and I can only imagine how full her life will be now. Still, though, this is a day to celebrate and to marvel at my sister, and at life.

my sister's baby

I just found out that my sister gave birth to a baby boy today, Isaac Joseph Zaret. I heard from both of my parents, who left voicemail messages just a couple of hours ago. The baby came a couple of weeks early - we expected him around the middle of April, so it came as a surprise, but a happy one, since apparently they are both healthy. My brother-in-law Elliot is quite a web programmer and prolific writer, so I'm sure you can read much more about IJZ and see pictures soon at his website, which I will link to here.

Stephen Tramontozzi

All this week we have Stephen Tramontozzi (he prefers Steve) in town for a masterclass, lessons, and we'll also read a piece he wrote for chamber orchestra. Steve is the assistant principal bassist of the San Francisco Symphony and was featured in their DVD Keeping Score. He talked about the pizzicato movement of Tchaikovsky's 4th Symphony in that documentary, which showed his 6-year-old (now 9 y.o.) triplets playing and bouncing things around to illustrate the playful tossing of themes in the movement.

Steve had some great ideas about practicing and organizing one's playing. In the masterclass, he talked about playing solo Bach and the importance of individualizing the different voices, making explicit the polyphonic nature of the music. To do this, he suggested, it's helpful to take a voice out of context, decide what musical direction you want to create in it, and make the technical choices necessary to make it happen, before reintegrating it into the piece. I've been trying to be more deliberate and thoughtful in my practicing, and it was great to hear someone talking about a systematic approach to doing this. I played Bottesini in the masterclass, and Steve had a lot of ideas for me to think about in the piece, ways to organize and exaggerate in a bel canto style.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Feltsman and the Russian new music concert

Yesterday's concert was surprisingly well attended, I thought - I was expecting the usual tiny new music crowd, but the house was just about packed, apparently on the prestige and name recognition of Vladimir Feltsman. Feltsman conducted two of the pieces on the program, including the Gubaidulina piece I wrote about yesterday, and he also played a work at the end of the program, a strange and beautiful solo piano piece by Silvestrov that sounded like a Mozart sonata filtered through a modern sensibility.

After the concert, New World's VP of communications, Marc Fest, asked me to write something about Vladimir Feltsman for the next in a series of "Inside the orchestra" commentary pieces in the Nuevo Herald, Miami's main Spanish newspaper. So less than a day after I launched my blog and my first attempt at self-publishing, it looks like I'm about to be translated into Spanish!

I had an idea about what to write, which I will paste into the end of this posting. It's probably a bit too long to use uncut, though. I was a little challenged to come up with something interesting and positive - Vladimir Feltsman is a brilliant musician and a wonderful pianist, but his conducting left a little to be desired. Here's what I wrote:

Listening to a great musician like Vladimir Feltsman perform, I am struck by his command. He seems to have complete control, not only over his own hands and the keys and pedals of the piano, but over the sonorities as they emerge from the instrument and take shape in the space of the concert hall. Performing as a conductor, without any direct control over the production of sound, Mr. Feltsman's artistry at sculpting a sonority, guiding it all the way into the listener's consciousness, was often remarkable nonetheless. This skill was particularly notable in a concert with so many unusual and unexpected sonorities to organize.

I was principal bass for one of the pieces on the program, the US premiere of Sofia Gubaidulina's Stufen, and I was initially a little concerned because the score called for the bass section to divide into eight independent parts - we only have seven bass players. What Vladimir Feltsman explained, however, and what we quickly realized in playing the piece, was that the intent was not so much like a Bach invention with eight distinct voices, but like a chorus of insects chirping on a hot summer night. The effect was to sound like an infinite number of instruments might be playing, then gradually subsiding to only a few.

Several of the pieces on the program had sections of more or less aleatoric music, meaning that the notes and rhythms we played were not strictly dictated in the score. In situations like this, we look to the conductor for subtle clues for how to shape our collective improvisations. When done well, the effect can be mysterious and beautiful - as Michael Tilson Thomas, who conducted one of the pieces on the program explained, "Everyone goes ape a little differently," an idea I found strangely profound.

I'll post a link here if and when my piece gets published!

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Russian new music concert

Tonight our orchestra is playing a program of new music by Russian composers - we've just finished our dress rehearsal, so I thought I would write my thoughts about the concert, and then I can link to the newspaper if it gets reviewed so you can get the critic's take.

The first piece on the program is for solo violin and a chamber orchestra without violins - it is called Aftersight, by a composer named Kissine, and I don't play on it. I listened to a bit of the rehearsal though, and it sounded good. The soloist, Alexander Barantschik who is concertmaster of the San Francisco Symphony, plays it very convincingly and there are a lot of interesting orchestration effects to listen to.

In our system of string seating rotation, I got to be principal bass for the next piece, called Stufen by Sofia Gubaidulina. I was initially a little concerned, because much of the bass part is divided into 8 parts, and we only have 7 bass players. I quickly realized, though, that the intent was less like a Bach 8-part invention and more like a bunch of insects chirping on a summer evening. The effect is to sound just random and independent enough that there could be an infinite amount of people playing. While the notes and rhythms are a bit tricky, the effect is actually quite easy to pull off, I was pleasantly surprised to discover. I think the piece should come off very effectively, as long as the tape of Russian poetry starts when it is supposed to. The end of the piece features seven deep male voices reciting the same poem with different speeds and intonations, so that you can barely pick out more than short phrases, even if you understand Russian. It is kind of a spooky, mysterious way to end a piece, as long as the orchestra doesn't crack up listening to it.

The other piece for full orchestra is by Alfred Schnittke, and it is called In memoriam. In memoriam to whom, I'm not sure, though playing it I can't help thinking about Shostakovich all the time. It has a simple little theme that recurs in each of the five movements, including a beautiful waltz movement with solo clarinet. Another movement has a little aleatoric section - MTT, the conductor, said today in rehearsal that the reason for this is that "everyone goes ape a little differently", which I thought was a strangely profound thought. The bass section doesn't really do much, other than some solo harmonics and low B's. Our lowest note is normally a low C, so in cases like this we have to tune our lowest string down an extra half step, and try to remember so we don't play the wrong pitches in the rest of the piece. This isn't too difficult in this case, though - in one of the movements, we only play a single note. I was joking with my stand partner that I really disagreed with our interpretation of this movement, we need to sit with a slight more forward tilt to express the intensity of our 47 bars of rest. The last movement is a beautiful passacaglia with a 14-bar organ theme repeated 14 times.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Introducing hella frisch

Welcome to my new blog, which was inspired by a brand of bubbly bottled water that I drank in copious amounts one summer at the Schleswig Holstein Music Festival in northern Germany. Hella was one of the sponsors of the festival, and one day they brought their mascot/spokesman, Hella Frisch Man, decked out in superhero cape and tights, to spray Hella water at us from a pressurized tank attached to his back. This was a highlight of that summer for me, and I have always felt an odd sort of kinship with Hella Frisch Man, that strong, silent, yet occasionally effervescent superhero. My last name is also Heller, which presents a handy mnemonic device.

In addition to Hella Frisch Man, this blog was inspired by my friend George, a bass trombonist whose blog is called The Transient Trombonist, and by the realization that I was boring and exasperating my friends and family with my daily e-mails about Terri Schiavo. I was hoping to get everyone firing off reactions to the medical, political, moral, and legal dimensions of the case, which I couldn't stop thinking about. I guess it's sort of a Florida thing, though, to obsess about other people's moral and legal dilemmas when we're not obsessing about the weather.

This evening I was donating blood - it was sort of a spontaneous decision, actually, I just walked over to Kinko's to make some copies and there was a bloodmobile parked there, right next to the South Beach movie theater at 9 pm on a Friday night. I thought that was kind of weird, trying to get people to donate blood on their way to clubbing and stuff. I asked how late they normally run their Friday night blood drives, and the guy said 11:30, no later than midnight. I guess that by then most of the people who come in test as blood type Bacardi positive.

While the phlebotomist was disinfecting my elbow, I tried to engage him in a conversation about Terri Schiavo. He was a big Haitian guy who maybe didn't speak much English, but he seemed pretty smart. Rather than telling me his views, he just asked me what I thought about it and kind of nodded in agreement as he stuck a big needle in my arm. I guess it occurred to me that it's always nice to get a reaction to your ideas, even if it kind of hurts and costs you a pint or so of bodily fluids.

I'm not sure yet how much of this blog should be my thoughts about social and political topics like the Schiavo case, and how much about things I'm reading, or about my actual life. It will probably be a combination of all three. Of course, I always welcome comments from anyone who cares to contribute to the blog. Thanks for visiting!

Schiavo postscript

Most of this and the previous postings were actually written before hella frisch came into being, and sent as e-mail to members of my family.

The Terri Schiavo case, or at least the political machinations surrounding it, seems to invite a certain cynicism. Following the story, though, reminds me of how wonderful, and how mysterious and confusing, life as a human being can be. I wanted to copy out a poem I read yesterday which applied quite neatly, I thought - it's from Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters:

Professor Newcomer

Everyone laughed at Col. Prichard
For buying an engine so powerful
That it wrecked itself, and wrecked the grinder
He ran it with.
But here is a joke of cosmic size:
The urge of nature that made a man
Evolve from his brain a spiritual life ---
Oh miracle of the world! ---
The very same brain with which the ape and wolf
Get food and shelter and procreate themselves.
Nature has made man do this,
In a world where she gives him nothing to do
After all --- (though the strength of his soul goes round
In a futile waste of power,
To gear itself to the mills of the gods) ---
But get food and shelter and procreate himself!

Another passage I read recently also seemed relevant. This is from the book The Rural Life by Verlyn Klinkenborg:

For some reason the sight of that elderberry carried me back a year, to a hospice room in Sacramento where my stepmother, Sally, whom I'd known for more than half my life, lay in a coma, dying. All life support had ceased, and those of us who gathered around knew that the self within her had withdrawn for good. But the vigorous breathing continued, one day, then another and another. I can still feel the force of those breaths, the elemental power of the reflex that drove them. The conscious life we live seems so fragile that it comes as a shock to witness the organic thrust toward living that underlies it. I never understood the optimism or the power of that reflex until I watched, hour after hour, the raw persistence of those unthinking breaths, which finally ceased while my brother John and I stood over her one night. Our breathing seemed shallow by comparison.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

schiavesteia and messianic interventions

After thinking it over a little bit, I realized that maybe we're going about this in the wrong way. Rather than bothering with all these courts and laws, why not just bring President Bush and Dick Cheney down here to Florida, so they can use their messianic powers to lay hands on Terri Schiavo and miraculously heal her? Are the Democrats, with their pedantic insistence on church/state separation, standing in the way of this quick and easy solution?

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

schiavesteia and proposed legislation

I wrote this e-mail to my family after reading in the NY Times that the law signed by Pres. Bush over the weekend gave new rights only to "any parent of Theresa Marie Schiavo." The Times article pointed out we are traditionally a republic of laws, not of men.

Now that Congress has gone ahead and written a law that applies to just one specific family, I was thinking it might open some exciting possibilities for future legislation:

Whereas Jack Younger of Dayton, Ohio has a real hot hand with the dice lately, he shall be allowed to invest a portion of his Social Security taxes privately at the craps table of Harrah's casino in Las Vegas, NV, provided he is wearing his lucky yellow bowling shirt.

The Gulver children of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, attending Andrew Jackson Elementary School, shall be taught the history of human development in strict accordance with their family's belief that God created the world in seven days, then later Satan created black people.

For the Ramirez family of San Bernardino, California, marriage shall be defined as the union of one man and one woman. "Man" shall be defined to exclude that hijo de puta Joey Garcia.

If you guys have any more ideas for possible laws, send them along and we'll make sure that the House Republicans act promptly.

My sister Zoe responded:

You crack me up. Please don't ever go into a vegetative state. Zo

Monday, March 21, 2005

schiavesteia and living wills

This e-mail was written after a crazy weekend in which Congress rushed to pass a new law allowing Terri Schiavo's parents to bring her case to a federal court, rather than the state courts which had denied all of their motions to restore feeding tubes. President Bush flew to Washington from a vacation on his ranch in Crawford, Texas to sign the bill in his pajamas at 1 am Monday morning.

I'm not sure what to think about the substance of this whole Terry Schiavo thing, but I'm pretty sure it doesn't belong in the US Congress. Don't these guys have some designated hitter's drug habits to debate? I'm sorry that we don't have any modern Euripides or Sophocles, because I'm sure this case would make a great Greek tragedy cycle, complete with split chorus of Congresspeople.

More importantly, though, do any of you know how to write a living will, in case something unforeseen happens? What kinds of instructions should you include, or should you just delegate responsibility for medical decisions to a certain person or people? And do you distribute copies to all your family members or something? It seems kind of macabre to have to keep a notebook of what to do in case each of your friends and family members becomes a vegetable, but I guess it beats having Bill Frist decide.

Elliot Zaret, my brother-in-law, responded:

It's all prestidigitation to distract us from their destroying social security, pilfering the environment, mismanaging a war, ramrodding radical judges in, destroying the economy and so on. If this doesn't work they'll just start jingling their keys or holding up shiny pieces of paper and saying "pretty!!!"

Ernest Heller, my dad, responded:

The Living Will can be picked up at an office supply store or ordered on the Internet. It is not very difficult and it is too bad the lady in Florida didn't do it and spare her husband and the legal system a whole lot of grief. This case is filled with irony. The Republicans are defenders of marriage and totally opposed to government intruding into family life, with the single and undefendable exception of abortion and right to die. The Republicans are also fond of defending the right of states to resist federal intrusion into those matters not specifically delegated to Congress. Here they are, trouncing on states' rights. It will be interesting to see what a federal judge does with the parents' petition. Although Congress has given the federal court "jurisdiction" to consider the matter, what legal basis will the parents have to obtain any relief? All issues of law seem to have been resolved in the husband's favor. The judge could easily rule that he has the power to take action, but no legal grounds to take action. Aren't you glad you didn't go to law school?

I guess Dad had it right - the courts continued to deny the Schindlers' appeals, and Terri remained off the feeding tube.