November/December 2011 Newsletter

Albany Music Fund Newsletter

November/December 2011

–       Calendar of AUSD music events

–       AMF Interview: AHS student Siobhan Bauer

–       Outreach report: On the road with AMS Chamber Choir

–       In The Spotlight: AUSD’s newest- but largest!- musical baby

–       More music, please! Where I can hear great music in the area, preferably for free?

–       AMF Thanks: Jay Ifshin, violin maker

Calendar of AUSD music events

Friday, December 2, Saturday, December 3, Memorial Hall: Albany High School Choirs present Madrigal Delights at Memorial Hall.  Tickets available through Ms. Stocker or AHS choir students, or at the door. $12 – $17.

Thursday, December 15, 7 p.m., Memorial Hall: Albany High School Choirs Winter Concert. Free!

Thursday, December 15, 7 p.m., Cornell School multipurpose room: Cornell School Choir Winter Concert.  Free!

Friday, December 16, 7 p.m., Marin School multipurpose room: Marin School Choir Winter Concert.  Free!

Monday. December 19, 7 p.m., Albany High School Little Theater: Albany High School Jazz Concert, introducing AUSD’s new string bass! Free!

Tuesday, December 20, 7 p.m., Albany High School Little Theater: Albany High School Band/Orchestra concert, introducing AUSD’s new string bass! Free!  Meet the bass’s donors, Jay and Leslie Ifshin of Ifshin Violins.

Tuesday, December 20, 7 p.m., Ocean View School multipurpose room: Ocean View School Choir Winter Concert.  Free!

AMF Interview:

AHS student Siobhan Bauer

Q: Tell us a little about music in your life.  What instrument(s) do you play?  When did you start playing music, and what was your inspiration?  What music groups have you played with, both in and outside the Albany schools?

A:   I can’t imagine my life without music because it plays such a large role. I started when I was five playing piano, which I still play today. My inspiration to play music came from my family who is very musical. I started with piano because my grandpa encouraged me to. Both my brothers went through the entire Albany music program and my mom and dad are also musical. My dad has played tuba since high school and my mother sings. Seeing the family I come from, It was only fitting that I also become musical.  I joined the Albany music system in fourth grade when I started on the alto saxophone. Since then, I progressed to the tenor sax and finally to the bari sax which I currently play in the Wind Ensemble and Rhythm Bound at Albany High. I also play lead alto in the Jazz Band. Though I focused much of my music career on saxophone, I also taught myself how to play flute and clarinet.  I often double on these instruments in jazz band but enjoy playing them on my own time. Furthermore, I am a part of Winds Across the Bay, which is a youth wind ensemble that I have been apart of for three years. I’ve played both bari sax and clarinet in that group.

Q: Certain stereotypes exist about musicians, just as stereotypes exist for pretty much every group of people.  What part of the stereotype about musicians is true when it comes to you, and what parts of it are completely wrong?

A:    The one stereotype that I fulfill is that I’m a total music geek. The second I get into the band room I become a total nerd. I get excited when the band plays a chord in-tune or when jazz band plays an ensemble passage really together. The little things in band like that make me super happy, things that other people might not take note of.  On the other hand, a stereotype I am not a part of is that musicians are not athletic. I am proud to say that sports are equally as important to me as music. At Albany high, I have participated in ten seasons of sports, seven of them being varsity sports. I’ve played soccer, softball, baseball, basketball, volleyball, and my two serious sports now are cross country and track. Being an athlete has allowed me to be well rounded and a part of different aspects of the school community.

Q: What types of music do you listen to?  What’s on your iPod?  What would be people be surprised to find there?

A:  As unexciting as this answer may be, I listen to all types of music. Maybe not so much of the slasher metal genre, but all the other can be found on my iPod. I feel that every genre has something different to offer which is why I enjoy listening to music from all ends of the spectrum. Jazz, R&B, Hip-Hop and Classical are the most occurring ones on my iPod. The only thing that may be surprising to some is that I have all of Pat Metheny’s albums. His guitar playing was most famous during the 80’s so I’m pretty sure most people my age don’t have all if any of his music.

Q: A common complaint of music teachers is that their students don’t practice.  Do you practice a lot? What advice do you have to get students to practice?

A:  Let’s just say I wish I practiced more. The truth is that you really can never practice too much, but I get in as much as I can with all of my other extracurriculars. I have thirteen hours of music rehearsals a week so I am still playing a lot, just not necessarily at home. Most nights I don’t actually practice saxophone but I always try to play piano for at least twenty minutes a day.

To younger students debating whether or not they should practice: If you put in the extra work now, playing music will be much fun and rewarding when you’re older. I always wish that I had practiced more in middle school and I can’t stress enough how much better even 30 minutes of practice a day can make you.

Q: The Ifshin family (who own and run Ifshin Violins) just made an incredibly generous donation of a string bass to the Albany Unified School District.  This is a dream come true for Mr. Bryant, who’s been wanting a good bass for some time.  If you could hand pick a gift to help our music students, what would it be?

A:   If I had the chance to donate a gift to Albany music students, I would definitely set up a series of opportunities for students to meet and interact with famous musicians. I guess you could call it a master series and ideally, I’d be able to get three professionals to come throughout the year to do clinics and put on a concert for everyone. Having the chance to meet successful musicians would be greatly beneficial to Albany music students because I believe it is important for developing musicians to see where their interest and hard work toward music has the ability to take them. From my experiences, listening to professional musicians talk about how music has affected their lives has inspired me to continue having music be a part of my life. I am now more appreciative of the fact that I can be part of the musical community.

Outreach Report: On the road with Albany Middle School Chamber Choir

On October 21, the Albany Middle School Chamber Choir took part in Chanticleer’s Middle School Youth Choral Festival 2011.   Five choirs from the Bay Area were selected to participate by Chanticleer Education Director Ben Johns, based on those choirs’ experience and his prior knowledge of their programs. Although Mr. Johns had never heard the AMS Choir, he has worked with Albany High School’s Chorale, and several members of Chorale have been part of the Louis A. Botto Youth Outreach Choir.  In short, Ms. Stocker’s excellent work with our high school singers earned our middle school singers an invitation to the festival.

Chanticleer is a Grammy-winning, world-renowned choral group based in San Francisco.  The group consists of 12 men who sing works ranging from Gregorian plainchant to contemporary popular music. What makes them unique is that six of these singers sing soprano and alto parts- not transposed, but in the original register (typically sung by women and children).  These countertenors hit high notes with ease, fluidity, grace and a special, almost unearthly beauty.  Though their general sound is at first slightly different than the traditional SATB (soprano/alto/tenor/bass) choirs, it’s a taste quickly acquired.  The twelve singers are all consummate musicians, whose ensemble work is remarkable: they sing “with” each other in a way that shows time spent balancing the group sound, listening to and singing each others’ parts and working together to create a whole that is reflective of a love and understanding of the music they take such joy in presenting.

The festival consisted of a day long workshop- each choir participating had 3 Chanticleer singers listen to and coach their group.  These coaching sessions were followed by a short concert in which each choir sang three songs for Chanticleer, the other choirs and assembled family and friends.  All events took place in San Francisco’s First Unitarian Universalist Church, a gorgeous old stone building filled with stained glass windows and very live acoustics,

And how did our AMS singers do?

Under the direction of Mary Stocker, they trooped onto the risers, a mere 33 students as opposed to the three larger choirs (which had between 50-97 members).  Unlike the other choirs, there were no uniforms on our students; they were modestly but classily attired in white tops and black skirt or pants.  Our 4 boys and 29 girls began their set with the challenging, intricate and glorious Mozart Alleluia.  8th grader Arthur Lin handled the difficult piano accompaniment ably; his crisp, light touch was an excellent complement to the clear, bright sound of the choir.  Your newsletter editor saw other choir members and their parents sit up and take notice of our small but accomplished group.  (They were rather like “the little engine that could”.)  Our singers followed Mozart with the haunting a cappella Hungarian folk song, “Before rain”.  Beautiful phrasing and hairpin dynamics showed our students can handle more than just the notes.  Their last number was a swingy spiritual, “I’m going home on a cloud”, delivered with joyful energy.  For a group barely two months old, they are sounding terrific, and will no doubt continue to improve as the year goes by.

Chanticleer performed 6 pieces, ranging from intricate Renaissance polyphony to Erika Lloyd’s “Cells planets” (see their first ever music video, made using cell phones and a webcam, at  “Cells planets” featured a remarkable countertenor solo; the pure tones of his delicate vibrato were the perfect medium for the song’s message.  The group received a standing ovation before they joined the student choirs for a joint performance of the Israeli folk song “Hava Nashira” (a contemplative treatment with beautiful descants) and the spiritual “Little David, Play On Your Harp”.  In this final number, the combined choirs achieved a full, rich sound and a lovely, upbeat energy.  It was a great ending to a day of unforgettable music education, and not incidentally, a whole lot of fun for our kids.

Although the Albany Music Fund does help send our students to music festivals, this one was entirely free.  Chanticleer has a real commitment to public outreach and educational outreach programming.   See (and bay-area-offerings/) to see how they bring music and music education to our communities.

Full credit for the Chamber Choir’s valuable day with Chanticleer must go to vocal music instructor Mary Stocker.  Our students love music and work hard, it’s true- but without Ms. Stocker’s inspired teaching, they wouldn’t be the sort of group invited to take part in such an event. AMF thanks Ms. Stocker, and all our dedicated music teachers, for their commitment to excellence and equity in music education.

In The Spotlight: AUSD’s newest- but largest!- musical baby

If you are a string musician, or live with one, you’ve no doubt seen and marveled at the giant of the violin family- the string (or double) bass. It’s the largest bowed string instrument in the modern orchestra, and is frequently used in jazz ensembles as well.  Providing wonderful low tones (three octaves below middle C), it looks different from violins and violas, with sloping shoulders and a flat back.  Its large size is of course the reason it can provide those deep tones, but that large size also calls for larger amounts of wood.  This makes a student bass a much pricier instrument than say, a student violin, which needs much less wood to build.

For years, Craig Bryant, instrumental music instructor at Albany High, has wished for a “decent” bass for the jazz and classical bass players to play on during classes and concerts.  A few weeks ago, the Ifshin family  (of Ifshin Violin fame) made his dream- and the dream of many AHS students- come true.  Jay and Leslie Ifshin donated a beautiful new string bass (value $4200) to the Albany Unified School District.  You may not know that the Ifshins regularly support AUSD music students with substantial discounts of repairs on our school district’s existing string instruments.  They have been quietly and generously helping our students make music for years.   But there will be no missing the AUSD’s newest musical baby-  basses don’t hide.

Mr. Bryant reports that the bass players at AHS are ecstatic, because it’s not just a “decent” bass, but a really nice instrument.  It sounds fantastic and is a joy to play (and is gorgeous to look at, too).  Come out and hear the bass’ debut concerts:  Monday, December 19 and Tuesday, December 20 (see the Calendar above for details), and join us in thanking the Ifshin family for a gift that will keep on giving, as it nurtures our young musicians for years to come.  If you’d like to meet the Ifshins, they’ll be attending the December 20 concert.

Ifshin Violins’ new(ish) store, on Fairmount just off of San Pablo, is a spacious, beautiful building, with plenty of rooms to try out new instruments for purchase, a friendly, helpful rental department, and violin makers visible from the front service desk.  All this is clearly visible to customers and passersby- but now you know a little about the generosity of the Ifshin family in their support of Albany’s music programs.  Read more about the Ifshins in the AMF Thanks… column.

More music, please! Where I can hear great music in the area, preferably for free?

The San Francisco State University campus is home to the Morrison Artist Series, a major presenter of chamber music concerts on the west coast, and the oldest chamber music concert series in San Francisco.

The Morrison Chamber Music Center at San Francisco State provides six admission free concerts each year by nationally and internationally acclaimed ensembles, and offers master classes where our students are mentored by the visiting concert artists who perform on the series.

The first concert was Friday, October 21, with the Borealis Wind Quintet.  The next concert is the Alexander String Quartet, on Sunday, December 4 at 3 p.m., playing, Haydn, Dvorak and Bartok.

For the first time this year our master classes are open to observation by the public,; check the  website to find times and locations for upcoming classes.

We welcome you to join us, and share in the wonderful music-making of the Morrison Center’s concerts and educational activities as we embark upon our 56th season, and I invite you to pass on this information to your students, colleagues, families and friends.

More information: neists-series

Directions to campus:

Parking on campus:

Campus map: (In the Creative Arts Building)

AMF Thanks…  Jay Ifshin, violin maker

For many years, Jay and Leslie Ifshin have been quiet but constant supporters of music education not just in Albany, but in the Bay Area.  Violinmaker Jay has donated so many instruments and services to youth music organizations such Berkeley Youth Orchestra that he literally can’t keep track of how many he’s helped.  Here in Albany, he has been offering reduced rates for repairs to AUSD loaner instruments, as well as donating the occasional violin.  But with the Ifshins’ recent gift of a string bass to the school district, we thought it was time to give this quiet, unassuming man a moment in the spotlight.

Before he became a violinmaker, Jay Ifshin was a diesel mechanic for Caterpillar tractors. He started taking violin lessons in his early twenties, and decided it would be more fun (and cleaner) to make violins.  He attended the Violin Making School of America in Salt Lake City from 1974-1977. At this small school, students learn the art of violin making from the ground up, working with patterns and molds, learning carving and the intricacies of varnish.  After training, students typically get jobs in other shops, or start their own shops.  Jay went to Montana and Minnesota, but ended up in California.  The climate and the music industry are both better here.  It’s difficult to varnish an instrument when dealing with freezing temperatures- the varnish gets too thick or even freezes.

In 1981, he opened his first Berkeley store, a small storefront on  University Ave. near Drucquer & Sons’ tobacco shop.  In 1984, he bought a house further down University Ave. and turned it into a store.  The expanded business included a separate rental department, rooms for trying out instruments and the friendly, helpful, experienced staff that characterizes Ifshin’s store.  Ifshin Violins became the place to go in the East Bay for one’s string instruments needs, and developed a wide and loyal customer base.  Three and a half years ago, Jay moved the store to its present El Cerrito location.  The new spacious building’s electrical needs are completely met by solar panels, and ground-up blue jeans insulate the rooms, resulting in superior acoustics.  A recital room off the main lobby has hosted concerts and exhibits such as violins from Cremona, Italy (home of the most famous violin making school).  But what most customers notice walking in is the space.  The large lobby opens on to the separate (but equal!) rental department, and beyond the front desk, you can see violin makers at work, making and repairing string instruments of all sizes in the glassed-in workshop.  There are multiple rooms for trying out instruments, and those ground-up blue jeans for insulation make it possible for customers to hear and focus on their own music, rather than competing with the customer next door.  With a parking lot in back and El Cerrito Plaza BART station just yards away, it’s easy to get to, and the calm yet busy atmosphere encourages one to stay and admire both instruments and store.  There are now 18 staff members, who handle rentals, shipping and sales- as well as making and repairing instruments.

Although Jay doesn’t have the time to play the violin as much as he’d like, the Ifshin house is full of music.  Jay’s wife Leslie is an accomplished cellist and also plays Renaissance lute.  Their son studies violin, and their daughter enjoys singing.  In addition, Jay’s eclectic musical taste includes not just the expected classical concerti for strings, but the “gypsy jazz” of Stephane Grappeli and Django Reinhardt, other jazz guitar music of the 1920s and 1930s and Romanian folk music.  On a recent trip to Romania, Jay heard the cimbalon, a large zither played with two hammers and was fascinated by its sound.

Why was Jay in Romania?  Although one might not instinctively add “travel to Europe” as a list of violin maker’s duties, remember the wood for these instruments has to come from somewhere- and some of the best wood is found in Romania, Germany, France, Italy, Switzerland and Sweden.  You might find Jay actually visiting trees in the forest, to assess their suitability for instrument making.  While on these trips, he also goes to estate sales and auctions, trolling for fine old instruments.  It’s not always a fruitful hunt- age alone does not a fine instrument make- but it’s very exciting when he finds a lovely instrument to bring home for a new incarnation here in the U. S.

Violin making is not a task for the impatient.  One can finish constructing a violin in about two weeks to get it to its “white” stage (before the many layers of varnish are applied).  But larger instruments require more time.  A string bass, such as the one the Ifshins just gave to our school district, takes two months to build and requires a special large workbench and large pieces of wood.  Typically, violin makers are working on multiple instruments at the same time, and their work includes hand carving, inlay and varnishing as well as making and putting together the pieces that form the instrument.  It is careful, exacting work where the removal of a millimeter of wood on the belly of an instrument can make or break the sound.  But the results are well worth that effort- in the hands of a fine musician, a good violin’s sound and effect are unforgettable.

Jay sees a lot of string players, from four year olds renting a tiny violin to begin lessons, to professionals.  I asked him what he felt was the best way to grow and/or inspire a beginning string player.  “Get rid of electronic pacifiers (video games) which provide instant gratification,” he replied.  “It’s hard for an instrument to compete with that.  It takes a while for a player to become proficient on an instrument, whereas one can quickly master a video game.”  I think we all agree with Jay that the lasting impact of musical proficiency trumps video games any day!

I asked Jay what his least favorite repair was.  He answered, “Finding a buzz on a bass.  A customer will complain that the instrument buzzes when hitting a certain note on a certain string- but when they demonstrate it in the shop, it frequently doesn’t happen.”  (Rather like the “I went to the doctor’s office, and now I feel much better!” effect.)  He also had entertaining stories of how instruments sustain an injury.  Sometimes, a violinist will put their bow or violin on their chair during a break in rehearsal- then forget it’s there and sit on it.  If you want to keep your instrument out of the repair shop, there’s a simple way:  put it in its case when you’re not playing it.  Not on the table, the chair, the couch, the piano lid: in its case.

We have probably all heard- or experienced- a “dog ate my homework” story.  In Montana, Jay had just finished constructing a violin, but had not yet begun varnishing it.  His new puppy found the new instrument irresistible, and chewed a corner off.

Would you like to meet and thank the Ifshins in person?  Please join us at the free AHS Orchestra and Band Winter Concert on December 20, Tuesday, 7 p.m. at the Little Theater, to hear the new string bass in its debut concert.  You can also visit the Ifshin Violin shop at 6420 Fairmount, in El Cerrito just off San Pablo, on the web at, or call them at 510-843-5466.

If you know of an individual, business or organization who has been a strong supporter of music in Albany’s schools, and would like to recommend them for this column, please contact the newsletter editor, Debbie Carton at:

One thought on “November/December 2011 Newsletter”

  • What a fine man, Jay Ifshin. He truly is the best source of instruments and repairs in the Bay Area, if not the entire country. We’re lucky to have him and his AMF support right here in Albany. Thanks for the string bass, Jay. It’s spectacular!
    –Frank Bliss

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