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February 12, 2009

Book Notes - Barbara Hall ("The Music Teacher")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published books.

Having written for television shows like Judging Amy and Joan of Arcadia along with producing eight novels, Barbara Hall has shown a gift for creating unforgettable characters. In The Music Teacher, Pearl Swain, a violin instructor facing her own personal crises, meets and mentors a young protege. Cinematically told and often surprising, the book is a refreshing telling of the "teacher as mentor" story.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"It's High Fidelity for the orchestra set in this slim, assured drama."

In her own words, here is Barbara Hall's Book Notes essay for her novel, The Music Teacher:

The Music Teacher is about Pearl Swain, a forty year-old violin teacher who works in a quaint music store in Los Angeles. Here she ruminates about her losses while arguing with other musicians about obscure details in the history of their would-be professions. She comes from a loveless background which has rendered her both scared of the possibility and ignorant of its properties, so she has sought refuge in music. Which is not a poor substitute for human connection but a substitute nonetheless. She figures out how to extend herself with a gifted student named Hallie. This investment in a troubled girl's future as both a musician and a woman is what frees her to recognize love in human form and finally to understand her calling. At least I think that's what it's about.

The idea for the book came to me in stages. I had been a guitar player, singer-songwriter most of my life but it was just a hobby. When I began to study bluegrass I became a little more serious about it and formed a bluegrass duo. In no time I became fascinated with the fiddle and wanted to learn it. I knew I wasn't going to master it but I figured if I stuck with it I could learn enough to get by. But that wasn't what happened. Instead, I became fascinated by my teacher, a forty-something woman who was angry with me for wanting to learn the instrument. I had to get to the bottom of whatever that was and the character of Pearl began to gestate in my head.

A few months later, I formed a band called The Enablers—alt country rock is the genre we're going with—and the late night conversations we had while rehearsing became another jumping off point for the book. Everything from arguing over what note the old fashioned dial tone is, to a guitarist who took a tuner into his shower to prove that it hummed in the key of E. And then the inevitable lists, the histories of songs and musicians, what lyrics meant, how much they mattered, how space worked, how instrumentation changed or redirected intention. I noticed that musicians (all artists I suppose) can sometimes isolate themselves from others by the depth of their passion for something intangible and I wanted to explore the dangers of that, while celebrating the mysteries of it.

I was a rock and punk rat growing up in Southern Virginia so I could barely hear the music which was born in my neck of the woods. Bluegrass didn't catch my attention until I started to play it in my twenties. It was then that I noticed how it had profoundly influenced some of the people I most loved from The Beatles to the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen to The Clash. Now it has obviously seeped into the mainstream under the marketing label of roots music or alternative country rock. Whatever you want to call it, the music is about crossover. I'm always impressed by people who can organically integrate unusual instruments into their mix without completely altering the genre. Some of the songs I've chosen do that. Others come straight from the source. All are mentioned directly or indirectly in the novel. This represents the frequency in the heads of my characters. Not so much Radio Nowhere as Radio Hello in There.

Jungleland—Bruce Springsteen

Pearl's 14 year-old student Hallie is a tortured, Goth wanna be, self-taught violinist who has enormously mixed feelings about her instrument. When asked who her heroes are, she claims not to have any but she refers to Suki Lahav's playing on this record. The violin intro sets up the atmosphere for the operatic journey of the song. I think the wistful poetics appeal to Hallie, though she has trouble admitting it.

Graceland—Paul Simon

The mysterious character of Patrick, who won't identify what instrument he plays, worships Paul Simon. In a heated argument, Pearl cites this record as an example of how a dearth of ideas can be mistaken for creativity. She says that Simon ran out of ideas and had to go to Africa to borrow some. Patrick doesn't take the bait. (This is Pearl's point of view. I like the record a lot. Don't send emails).

Roxanne—The Police

Clive, a twenty-eight year-old bass player, says that there's no such thing as a great band without a great rhythm section. Franklin, the cranky bluegrass guitar player says, "Yeah? Show me the all rhythm section band." To which Clive responds, "The Police."

Dixie Chicken—Little Feat

Pearl claims that Clive, the bass player who's in love with her, goes into a fugue state when he hears this band. Me, too.

California—Joni Mitchell

Pearl, who has "stopped being pretty", identifies with Joni Mitchell because she didn't wear make up. She refers to this song when explaining why people move to Los Angeles despite its shortcomings.

Pretty Polly—Ralph Stanley

Pearl and Franklin form a bluegrass duo to "play some Ralph Stanley songs" and I'm sure they picked this one. It's the scariest song ever.

Windy and Warm—Doc Watson

This is the first bluegrass song I learned and yet I kept going. Franklin plays it to scare people away on Open Mic Night at the guitar shop.

Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)—Woody Guthrie

Woody is Pearl's favorite lyricist and this song will explain it. Listen to Bruce Springsteen's version. This is a fine example of how songwriters can be inspired by something as elemental as a newspaper article. Woody was moved by the fact that only the names of the Americans who died in the crash were listed. All others, mostly migrant farm workers, were listed as "deportees."

Fort Worth Blues—Steve Earle

Steve Earle makes a character's best lyricist list. This song, which is about Townes Van Zandt (also mentioned in the book), is a great example and one of the saddest songs ever written. "Goodbye" is the other one. Also by Steve Earle.

Back Street Slide—Richard Thompson

Richard is Franklin's favorite guitar player and I imagine this song is his favorite though I'm not sure why. The great thing about it being another person's opinion is that I don't have to know why.

Alison—Elvis Costello

Elvis makes Clive's best lyricist list. It's hard to pick from his vast library but you might as well start with this: "I don't know if you are loving somebody, I only know it isn't mine."

Talkin' World War Three Blues—Bob Dylan

Pearl decides to let someone be in her dream, if she can be in his.

Barbara Hall and The Music Teacher links:

Goodreads page for the author
Goodreads page for the book
LibraryThing page for the author

ForeWord magazine review
The Internet Review of Books review
Los Angeles Times review
MORE Magazine review
Publishers Weekly review
Redlady's Reading Room review

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Online "Best Books of 2008" Lists
Largehearted Boy Favorite Novels of 2008
Largehearted Boy Favorite Graphic Novels of 2008
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Why Obama (musicians and authors explain their support of the Democratic presidential candidate's campaign)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2008 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)


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