Post #3218: Of Bridges and Bows

Besides work and writing, this week has been almost entirely consumed by instrument-related issues.

I have two violins – a “Stainer” copy (factory-made likely in Germany around 100 years ago), and a 5-string acoustic-electric Realist that I bought seven years ago new. It’s the second instrument I’ve played most since I acquired it. It has a nice big sound when played acoustically, as well as built-in electronics that make it easy to plug in and amplify. Neither of my instruments is professional-grade, but they are not bottom-barrel either – and both are enjoyable to play for different reasons.

As mentioned in my last post, I’ve returned to playing recently and been fooling around with amplification and effects pedals. Last Saturday Brian loaned me a practically-new Peavy amp, one with a bunch of built-in settings and effects (too complicated, he says). He hauled it up to my studio and I got down to figuring out what each of the knobs did to my sound and started having some real fun with it. Amplified and using the low octave setting, I was getting some growly cello-like sounds, which inspired me to get a little bit heavy with my playing style. I didn’t think I was going all *that* hard until suddenly my bridge broke into two pieces, pinging out into the room and causing my strings to collapse.

Fortunately, I was recording when it happened so you can listen to that moment (and my reaction) here:

The sound of a bridge breaking mid-action.

In my whole lifetime of playing, including some serious rocking out on stage with the Flying Folk Army back in the day, I have never had a bridge do that!

I got right down to figuring out where I could get a new bridge by putting the feelers out on one of the Gabriola Facebook boards, and was pointed in the direction of Michael Vann, a world-renowned bow maker who also does all-manner of classical string repairs. Someone had mentioned him to me previously because I was in need of getting my very neglected bow redone, but it was news to me that he handled other small jobs also. I sent him an email on Saturday afternoon and by that evening we had made an arrangement to meet the following day.

When I met Michael at his studio, he quickly assessed my violin as “not a collector’s item” (no it certainly is not) and also told me he’d never seen a 5-string and he would work out a sturdier bridge for it. The bridge the Realist shipped with never did sit on the instrument properly (it wasn’t fitted) – so I was glad to have an actual violin technician fit it up. Entering Michael’s workspace was more than just dropping off an instrument for repair, it was also a step back into my youth where instrument shops and repairs were a regular feature of my life. I left feeling a bit of nostalgia for my old teachers, the halls of the Victoria Conservatory of Music, and the other young people with whom I trained before quitting classical music altogether at the age of 16.

After I left my violin, I decided that on my return I would bring my bow to have it re-haired. People who are playing regularly have this job done once every year or two. I haven’t had mine done for at least ten, partly because I haven’t been playing much, but also because I just never get around to it. Over time bows lose hairs, but they also get really dirty from rosin buildup and skin oils. Even if you never touch the hairs (which is drilled in from a young age), there is still enough close contact that things get pretty shabby over time.

On Wednesday I returned to Michael’s shop and tried out my newly-bridged violin (which also had new strings and was polished to a high-shine). He pointed out to me the greater thickness compared to the one that had broken, and I also noticed he reinforced the slot where the e-string sits (so thin, it can cut into even a hard wood like maple with time and tension).

Better than new!

When it came time for me to leave my only bow with Michael for his attention, he offered me a loan of one of his bows to try out. I had joked with him on the previous visit about how it would take me the rest of my life to pay off the cost of one of his bows which retail for about $8000 Cdn. But I was curious – not to try a bow I could *never* afford, but whether or not he carried something more in my price range (under $1000). Of course he does – and he sent me home with two Chas. Dubois bows to try while he is re-hairing mine.

That was on Wednesday night, and since then I have been playing with each of them on both of my violins whenever I have the chance. I have played almost every song I know from a variety of musical traditions and have been stumped as to how to choose between them. Both are vastly superior to the bow I have had all my life – my playing is immediately improved 1000% by selecting either of these. I made Brian come and take a listen and he was as impressed as I on the quality of sound after only hearing one. After I trialed both for him, he was pretty definite in his preference as listener, and I agreed with his ear on that, but as a player I am more torn. One of them is heavier, takes more effort to bow but stays really true on the string and produces a full-throated sound. The other one is lighter, it skips a little, and is a pleasure to play with though the tone is a bit brighter/sharper. The heavier one plays Eastern European/Klezmer tunes with the right tonal range, the lighter one bounces through Celtic-style jigs and reels. And finally, one of them makes the Realist sound better, and the other picks up the bright tones in the Stainer.

When I agreed to take two, I thought that choosing would be much simpler. With most things I am decisive, I can feel my way to a choice right away. Not so this time, because they have such different attributes, which is something I have never given much consideration to. Frankly, up until now, I couldn’t really afford to pay attention to the differences. I had an instrument and not a lot of money to purchase anything else. Since moving and dispensing with our massive mortgage a few years ago, I am finally in a place where if I want to upgrade my equipment, I can. The irony is not lost on me that as a young performing musician, I couldn’t afford nearly the instrument I can afford in my settled, non-performing life now.

I am in a privileged position in that if I want both, I can afford it with a little bit of saving around the edges for the next couple of months. That would give me a bow at the low-end of the professional level for each of my instruments, and also give me options when recording or playing specific types of music live (if that ever happens again, right now I just want to play for me). My old bow could serve as a back-up or whenever I don’t feel like taking something pricey out for the ride. The question for me is if this is just indecision, a refusal to make a choice when faced with two really compelling options. Will I use two bows? How much playing do I anticipate over the next years of my life? These are questions that will only be borne out over time. Right now, I’m playing again and there is no doubt that these bows make that much more pleasurable.

I’ve got a decision to make and in the meantime I am playing through my repertoire with each bow which means lots of extra practice this week!

If you really want to nerd out about this stuff with me – take a look at the Youtube video at the end of this post in which professional violinist Timothy Chooi compares a Dubois bow, a Vann bow, and a cheap bow from Amazon. Fun fact – Timothy Chooi and I share two teachers – Esther Tsang (Ngai) and Sydney Humphreys (now deceased), though clearly Chooi got a lot more out of their instruction than I did. He’s a phenomenal player!

Post # 3217: Just another week

Hello Friday! In case you missed it, I relaunched my now bi-monthly mailing Comfort for the Apocalypse this last Sunday with a “Small Comforts” edition. It always feels risky to put myself out there, and I appreciate the kind feedback (and the stats that show how many people opened the email) very much!

Food: Meal planning this week has lead to some very satisfying meals including Instant Pot chicken tinga, a stuffed/baked pasta (which I’ll share at the end of the month in CfA), and beef barley soup. I made a batch of my favourite granola bars, and also ate a lot of dried apple rings (I am running out of my summer-stores of them). While I’ve weeded out most of the sugary treats from the holiday period, I am still eating chocolate every day and I intend to continue to do so. It’s all about balance right?

Studio: Since my last post, I have threaded my big loom, though it’s still not fully dressed so I haven’t taken triumphant photos to share. Since rebalancing my schedule to fit in more writing and music practice, I have less time for textile, and this week a lot of other (mostly work-related) things came up that ate into my studio time. I have been playing my fiddle again, and to facilitate regular practice I’ve moved my instruments and music up to my studio. I borrowed a looper pedal from a neighbour and an amp from Brian this week, and have started to explore pedal effects in conjunction with Eastern European folk tunes. Just a bit of studio fun, not sure where it’s going at the moment.

Fitness: I am on Week 6 of Stronger by the Day and I think I am actually getting stronger! However, between running and doing a major upper body workout on Tuesday back-to-back, I managed to trigger a small inflammation/arthritis flare which I am still feeling the mild effects of. On the positive front, lifting weights yesterday alleviated a lot of the pain – because exercise endorphins are good for you! With new variants of COVID floating around and an increase in cases overall, I am so glad we have the home gym set-up and that I’ve picked up running for the cardio.

Work: I think my update is the same as last week on this front. Work is a bit overwhelming these days. Earlier this week I did some research about how I could take a year off before my pension date, but it looks like it might be difficult to do (they make it really, really hard to retire before 55 in the federal government). Instead I think I’m going to make some new financial goals so I can have greater flexibility over the next seven years to take more leave or at least take pre-retirement transition leave when I get closer to that date. I’m definitely into work right now, my projects are challenging and that’s a positive, but I don’t think my talents are best utilized in my job and I’ve had a really hard time over the years pivoting into any other career (that’s a whole other story which I’ve long put to rest). In some ways it’s best that I didn’t switch careers mid-stream or I wouldn’t have the pensionable time to be considering retirement as early as I am. Seven years is still a way to go and I am not for wishing my life away so it’s more about what I do now to set up choices in the future.

Not a very exciting week around here, but the 2nd week of January never is!

Post # 3216: Back to Friday postings

Well here we are, in another year and so far it’s been interesting even though I’ve barely left the house (grocery shopping yesterday was as social as I’ve been in ages). What would we do without the Internet to inform these otherwise shapeless days?

One thing I have been thinking about lately is the things I do want to shape my life in the next few months, and I spent the holidays after Christmas deep in planning mode, coming up with a schedule that involves time for writing, music, meditation, studio, exercise and so on. In this first week back at work, I’ve pretty much stuck to it, despite the avalanche of tasks and union issues I’ve had to deal with on my return. We’ll see how this goes as the shine of new commitments wears off.

Food: I’m back to meal planning after a haphazard holiday eating season. This was a bit of an Instant Pot week with Turkish Instant Post Split Pea Stew (which I ate for a dinner and two lunches) and our household favourite Chicken Biryani on the menu this week. I also remembered to marinate some sablefish for a couple of days and we had Nobu’s Miso-Marinated Black Cod on Monday night. This recipe is one of few ingredients to astounding effect – I can’t recommend it enough. After a couple of weeks of eating quite a lot of sugary stuff, we are right back to regular eating, which is still always a little bit decadent for the simple fact that we cook every night.

Brian has recently decided that we should be able to have dim sum whenever we want it, so he’s been on a dumpling-making kick. He’s been flash-freezing his treasured creations so that at a moment’s notice he can get out the steamer and serve up a variety of dumplings, rice packets, and barbequed pork – it’s really rather impressive. We had our first dim sum meal on New Year’s Day and holy doodle was it ever good!

Textiles: I cleaned the studio over the holidays and now I’m working on warping both looms. Warp chains are done, and I’ve started “sleying the reed” with the easiest of the two projects. I should have that warp on by Sunday. The other one (hundreds of more threads) will take me some time to complete. I am refocusing a bit on writing at the moment, and given the finite time available to me (damned work, always getting in the way), I have not had as much of it available for sewing and other fun projects. I have come to recognize that all my creative projects will happen though, I just have to be prepared for the ebbs and flows of interest and time, and not despair when I don’t get as far as I’d like to.

Fitness: I did not slack off during the holidays, mostly because we didn’t go anywhere and I had no real excuse to break my routine. I’ve fully incorporated proper rest days into my schedule in the last three weeks, and it feels like the right approach. However, there is a noted absence on the days I don’t exercise – it’s become such a part of my routine. I think I am getting stronger lately, but still need to set some new lifting goals since I’ve been floating for the last little while without setting my sights on anything except overall health. I would like to start driving my power lifts upward again, and get some run goals in place for 2021.

Work: Back at it this week even waged work is *bullshit* (oh, did I say that outloud? I really enjoyed the time off). I’ve returned to finish off the last interview in my hiring process and now I’m moving on to the next stages to compete the staffing. I’ve also got a lot of pressure to deliver a project plan, a content management plan and an internal engagement strategy on the big web conversion project I’m responsible for. Also, lots of union stuff. My focus this year is going to be less union stuff/mentoring other people to do it because I plan to run for one more 2-year term as president of my local (AGM in February) and then retire from union leadership. I keep telling people that, but they don’t seem to believe me, so it’s time to start stepping back and nudging other people forward.

Notable: To kick off 2021, I am relaunching my monthly mailing Comfort for the Apocalypse alongside a smaller Sunday (“small comforts”) edition!

I have moved to the Substack platform (which has tons of really great writers on it), registered a domain, and am working on the drafts of my January offerings.

If you were subscribed before, you still are. If not, you can subscribe at Comfort for the Apocalypse. These mailings are separate from this blog and includes more of my writing, recipes, books/links/listens worth checking out, and news from the studio – all built around the theme of living our best possible lives in these impossible times. You can read past issues at the link if you aren’t sure, and it’s totally free!

I’m excited to get back to writing in a structured format, and connecting with people in this way again. Even before the pandemic, I was struggling with the writing process, so it’s no mystery to me why the words dried up a bit over the spring and summer. But now that we’re here for the longer haul, I am finding my way into a new normal that includes this creative outlet again. This weekly blog post has been helping me find my way back to a regular output (no matter how small), and to planning around producing (if I don’t schedule things in, they don’t happen) – and I plan keep posting this and other material to the blog. My plan is to make lots of content happen this year as it’s not like I’ll be leaving the island much 🙂

Post #3215: Renewal

I had a year-end post half-drafted last week, but returning to my laptop today, I cannot find it which means it must not have saved. And so ends 2020, though I can’t really blame the year for this, it’s really my fault for trusting the auto-save function.

Truth be told, though I missed out on some things this year, 2020 wasn’t terrible around here. It was quiet, for sure. We had to cancel a lot of shows and planned events. But I also benefited from skipping a ton of work and union-related travel, having Brian around more, and feeling fully accepted as a teleworker for the first time since I started working from home five years ago. I won some union cases, had the opportunity to manage my work unit for six months, read nearly 80 books, helped start a new non-profit organization, took up running, and got way stronger through the powerlifting habit established last year. I did see some friends, in smaller and more intimate settings, and I appreciated so much those moments when I did. I spent a lot of time in the woods, and by the ocean. I learned the contours of my neighbourhood one step after another.

Towards the end of the year I took stock of what had fallen away as well and started to reprioritize adding the things I’ve been missing back into my life. Writing, music, and meditation have all happened in 2020, but a bit too intermittently for any real development of my practice. I am recommitting to my creative and spiritual life in 2021 and have set aside time for all my disciplines in my weekly schedule (which means giving up goofing around on the Internet time mostly). When the first quarantine happened in March, I stopped using any daily planner, and with that, I let a lot of daily practice go. It’s been a reminder that if I don’t schedule things into my life, they don’t happen.

For the last six years I’ve done the Year Compass as a way to close out the old year and plan for the new. This year I haven’t been feeling it, so I’m not going to do it – however, I am sticking with the tradition of picking one word to carry into the new year. I have to be careful with this, as some of you know. The year I picked “Motion” I ended up making a sudden (and unexpected) move to Gabriola. This past year was guided by the word “Rooted” which I carried with irony from March onwards (not least of which because someone told me that in Australian slang, rooted means “fucked”).

This year it seems the words coming up most strongly for me are “re” words – as in “again” or “return to”. Rebuild, restore, recommit…. and finally I’ve settled on “Renew” because I feel that it most signifies my desire for the year to come. I would like to renew my creative and spiritual practice, which are increasingly entwined. I would like to renew the musical shows at Birdsong, not to mention my commitment to promoting musicians and music through launching a songwriting residency program. And I would like to inhabit beginner’s mind in all things, thus coming to each and everything as new again – a practice essential to survival in 2021 and beyond.

I don’t believe 2021 or the years that follow are going to be any “easier” or “better” but I do remain committed to living the best life I can despite what happens next. My New Year’s wish for all of us is to do better together and for each other as we step over the doorsill into another unknown year ahead. If 2020 taught me anything, it’s that we need each other more than ever – and so I am grateful for each and every day I spend with each of you. xoxo Happy New Year!

Post #3214: Unfinished Objects (UFOs)

A finished UFO – new bag for Brian!

On the weekend, Brian asked me to fix the busted strap on the courier bag he uses for his laptop and work papers. It’s one of two bags I made years ago – he wore the first one out after three years of daily use, and has been carrying the other one for about two years. While evaluating the repair (easy enough to make), I noted the bag is in bad shape overall. In a couple of spots the exterior fabric is worn right through and can’t be repaired properly without a high level of skill. “It’s time for a new bag,” I said.

As luck would have it, two years ago I came pretty close to finishing a new courier bag for him. It just never got done, there was a power outage that lasted for days and I lost momentum). Thus, it was languishing in the basket of Unfinished Objects.

Since I’ve been in my annual studio-cleanout mode this month (triggered by year-end out-with-the-old vibes), it was a natural next step to upend the UFO basket and pick all the bag pieces out for finishing. But of course, that wasn’t the end of it, and over the last few days I have sorted through, ironed out, and evaluated many of the projects in the UFO basket – a few of them several years old.

Some items were no-brainers to get rid of – lining for a coat I gave up on sewing years ago, knitted sweater pieces that blocked out to different sizes. Others just needed a bit of work to finish or repair – the infinity scarf at the head of this post was basically done. A couple of them – the courier bag and a linen robe – were not perfectly executed but I assessed that I could still finish them to functionality, saving materials and labour already spent.

I then made a list of the projects I figured I could get through before the end of 2020, and have spent the last couple of days working on it. On Sunday I steam-blocked the scarf so it would be ready to gift to my step-daughter. Yesterday, I finished the courier bag (which took some doing), a set of placemats that needed mending, and a small tote bag that required just a tiny bit of hand finishing. Today I plan to get the hand-sewing done on the linen robe and consult the pattern for the attachment of a belt. Then I’ll work on the floral dress I flailed on but could never get rid of because I loved the fabric too much. And so on.

I have a ton of projects I want to start – and am going to focus on dressing the looms over the holidays – but the fact is we’re at home, not going anywhere over the holiday, and work is winding down until 2021. This gives me a chance to do some end-of-year clean-up and move items out of my mental and physical space.

There are still a couple of large UFOs – a quilt top, a sweater for Brian – that won’t get attended to right now. But for the first time in years, the basket of unfinished objects is not overflowing!

As I write, a piece of crewel-work sits on the desk beside me. I brought it home from my Mom’s place a few weeks ago when helping clean-out her sewing room. Fifty-five years ago, a close friend gave it to her as a wedding present, and my mom meant to make it into a pillow or footstool. Instead, it’s sat untouched in the bottom of her sewing drawer, a nagging “thing to do” that never got done. After more than five decades, I’ve offered to turn it into a pillow for her and mercifully end its unfinished status so that finally she can move on from the weird limbo of the things you can’t use, but also don’t want to get rid of.

In the last couple of years, I have gotten much better at seeing projects through or dismantling them if they aren’t working (I frogged a sweater a couple of weeks ago rather than leaving it aside), but I don’t think my relationship with the UFO-basket will ever come to an end. Such is the maker-space; always items undone, not quite working, needing more attention – which I suppose is just one big metaphor for all our human undertakings!

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