Some days finding time, space, and energy to practice was easy. Some days it was not.
At a weekend gathering of the Women, Food and Agriculture Network at the Des Moines Airport Holiday Inn, the accommodating staff allowed me to use a conference room (at no extra charge!) from 6 to 8 am. Iowans are a nice people.
Getting up at 4 am to drive 935 miles from Salt Lake City for Thanksgiving in Fremont County, Iowa, did not leave much time at the end of the day. But I did manage 45 minutes between unpacking the car and going to bed.
Watching 3 to 4 films a day at the Sundance Film Festival left me reeling at the end of the week, and while practice still happened daily, it was reduced to only 30 minutes.
The day we had to fell a dead tree, and cut and stack it for firewood left my arms numb from the vibration of the chain saw, and back sore from hauling wood. This form of sawing wood did not count as practice, so out came the violin at the end of the day.
Trickiest was the February day I was flying BOS > MSP > BZN. Originally scheduled to arrive home after lunch, leaving the rest of the afternoon for practice, a snowstorm in New England shut down flights east of the Mississippi. Agh! I got stuck in Minneapolis, rebooked on a flight to arrive at 12:30 AM the next day!!!!! But practice-every-day means practice-every-day, so I swallowed my pride, found the most-alone corner of the MSP airport that I could, took out the mute (which I’ve learned to travel with), and chose a few fiddle tunes to work on, which I figured would be least offensive to innocent bystanders. It turns out I attracted a (very) small audience. People get desperate for entertainment when airport stranded.
Practice-every-day developed my self-discipline, and I made noticeable strides in technique. My family saw my commitment, and became much more accommodating. (“Would it be helpful if I cooked dinner tonight, Mother?”) Best of all, I learned that practice-every-day is not the onerous enterprise that I once thought it to be. I no longer ask myself if I feel like practicing today. I take it as a given that I will, and ask myself when & where & how. And then it’s done.
I want to enjoy listening to my own sound.
This first, fundamental decision was made shortly after beginning violin studies. No squeaky squawky beginning violining for me! Based on my teacher’s initial lessons on bowing, I created an open-string bowing exercise that involved all sections of the bow, different bowing lengths and speeds, and varied sounding points, and practiced this exercise daily on all strings, listening carefully for nuances of sound and working toward the most beautiful that I could muster. This exercise opened every practice, and lasted from 20 – 40 minutes, depending on the evolving daily objective. As the sound from the simplest type of bow stroke improved, complexities were added one at a time – string crossings, stroke types, double-stops – and were always practiced in every possible permutation and combination of bow position, length, speed on all open strings, and always seeking clarity, evenness and resonance of tone.
After 2-1/2 years, I am reasonably satisfied with my tone production for the time being, and while continuing to use the open-string exercise daily in a shortened version, the primary focus of elemental practice time has shifted to intonation. As I did with bowing and tone quality, I have assembled a set of simple exercises to hone my pitch accuracy as finely as possible. In any given practice session, working with tone quality and intonation takes up the first 30 – 60 minutes of practice. From there I go on to scales, technical exercises, and repertoire.
I’d rather play simple tunes well than complex tunes poorly.
This decision has had multiple ramifications. I work a lot on the intricate physical mechanics of playing the violin, as the more intentional and precise my bodywork, the better control I will have in creating sound and music. Using principles of physical therapy, I push hard on my physical limitations to increase capability, particularly dexterity and agility of the left hand. I do not advance quickly through technique books or repertoire, giving myself time to work on pieces. And, most importantly, while continuing to work on new repertoire with my original teacher, I have found a second teacher with whom to re-learn repertoire incorporating all the technique gained in the past two years. This project started a few months ago with “Twinkle, Twinkle” and is progressing at about one song per lesson.
Not content with paying just for fun or just for myself, my goal is to play well enough that others would like to hear me play.
The essence of music is communication, and I would like to eventually play well enough to do this. But what is the measure of success? Audience that seeks out music does so because it evokes some desired personal reaction; something has been communicated to them through the music. So, if I eventually have audience that wants, even asks, to hear me play, it is a safe bet that I am communicating musically. (Relatives and friends who just want to be supportive, while appreciated, don’t count.) But how good do you have to be before people seek out your music? I’ll hazard about as good as a professional musician. That’s a tall order.
No body of pedagogy exists for training a beginning adult violin student to the level of a professional, so I’ll have to forge a path myself.
This takes imagination, clear-headedness, focus, and direction. It means thinking outside-the-box, and experimenting with ways of learning. It means listening to all advice and opinions (you never know where you’ll pick up a golden nugget of information); but dis-regarding the bulk of it, which is inside-the-box and has no means to account for my goals. It requires independence and confidence and commitment. It takes time. Lots and lots of time.
These are technique books that I use:
I acquired them at various times in the last 2-1/2 years, and use them for various purposes, but not all at once.
Scales Plus! by William Starr was my very first technique book, purchased along with Suzuki Book 1. I used it for most of the first year learning single and double octave scales in first position, and associated finger patterns. It also has sections on shifting, 3-octave scales, arpeggios and melodic minor scales. Everything is pretty much in 4/4 time with quarter notes. The book is not comprehensive, and does not include all keys. Nor does it include scales with double-stops or varied rhythms. This is a fine book for an adult beginner.
School of Violin Technics by Otakar Ševcik was my second technique book. After about a half year of study, I found PDF of it on the internet and took a page of it in to a lesson and asked if I could do more of this sort of stuff. I use Part 1 – Exercises in the First Position. My Schirmer edition has 42 pages of about 50 measures a page of every possible finger-pattern that you could imagine, except for the fact that there is a Part 2 to this beloved series. After 1-1/2 years of working on exercise 1, page 1, measures 1 – 36 (all on the A-string), I have recently moved on to exercises 2, 3 and 4, which are basically the same thing on the D-, E- and G-strings. Work with these exercises is slow and meticulous, helping me find and coordinate small muscles of the left hand and fingers. This takes considerable time and patience for an adult with an under-utilized (from a violinist’s perspective) left hand, but without this sort of exercise and attention the hand will not develop the skill needed to play well.
Fingerboard Geography by Barbara Barber was designed to supplement Suzuki curriculum, and is targeted at a young audience. It uses big print and a color-coded presentation of finger patterns. This book was my introduction to “frames” for the left hand finger patterns, a helpful concept. The pre-song preparatory exercises can be helpful. None of my teachers assign me anything from this book. I use it independently for supplemental exercises.
Sixty Studies for the Violin by Franz Wohlfahrt addresses a wide range of fingering issues, but in contrast to Ševcik does so in melodic, musical settings. Wohlfahrt exercises can feel more satisfying than the austere Ševcik.
Scale Exercises, in All Major and Minor Keys for Daily Study by Carl Flesch is, like the Ševcik and Wohlfahrt, a product of late-19th/early-20th century violinistic thinking. All three are thorough to the max. If there is a permutation or combination to be done, these guys hand it to you. For the contemporary student used to skimming the surface of everything on the internet, the depth of technique which these volumes ask you to explore can be intimidating. On the other hand, the student up to their challenge will emerge atop the heap.
Melodeous Ddouble-Stops by Josephine Trott is my newest technique book, picked up last month on the advice of a respected (and sometimes respectable) violin-teaching-friend who said his students like it. The book is another oldie but goodie. Working on exercise #1, I am finding the book well recommended and am looking forward to continuing to use it to develop double-stop technique.
In addition to the above, I have various technique volumes by Constantine Dounis which I use to develop finger agility and precision; as well as a number of independent exercises from teachers (or made-up by myself) that address elemental aspects of bowing, intonation, finger speed, rhythm, shifting and double-stops.
I will try to get to a future post discussing how I employ all of this material.
(Here and on Facebook readers have also recommended technical studies and etudes by Edmond Agopian (2 mentions), Vladislav Blazhevich (1 mention), Jakob Don't (4 mentions), Constantine Dounis (1), Federigo Fiorillo (1), Simon Fischer (5 - Sort of Popular), Carl Flesch (10 - Popular) Ivan Galamian (1), Pierre Gavinies (1), Robert Gerle (2), Jan Hrimaly (2), Heinrich Ernst Kayser (3), Fritz Kreisler (1), Rodolphe Kreutzer (3), Drew Lecher (6 - SOP), Jaques Fereol Mazas (3), Niccolo Paganini (1), Enrico Polo (3), Pierre Rode (2), Henry Schradieck (1), Otakar Sevcik (15 - VERY Popular, despite certain drawbacks),Hans Sitt (1), Robert Starer (1), Joseph Szigeti (1), Josephine Trott (5 - SOP), Franz Wohlfahrt (5 - SOP), Eugene-Auguste Ysaye (1), and the Jack Benny theme song (1). Everyone has their favorite. Please feel free to leave a comment describing yours.)
(P.S. As has been noted by readers, many of the technical studies are available for free online. However, if you have a local music seller and you can afford to support the business by purchasing music from them, please do so. They are probably supporting music making in your community.)Tweet
Solo viola recitals are hard to come by, and it is always a delight to soak in their alto sound. On Monday, April 7, Alfonso Noriega Fernandez presented one at Reynolds Recital Hall at Montana State University in Bozeman.
This viola recital was unique in that all of the pieces were 20th century music (Correction: One piece was 21st century. When have you ever heard 21st century solo viola?), the musical direction this performer pursues. The first piece was disorienting: it was Bach as arranged by Kodaly. I kept listening for Bach but could only hear strains. Really, this was good as it challenged my expectations and thereby expanded my ability to hear and appreciate. The last piece was composed by an MSU student. Fernandez included it in the program to say thank you for the master classes that he had taught that week. What a nice way to celebrate his work with the students.
In 4th grade, I failed. School was offering violin lessons. But there were not enough violins for all the children, so we were screened for aptitude. The test presented twenty pairs of pitches, and we were to circle an up-arrow or a down-arrow indicating if the second pitch was higher or lower than the first. I did not get to take violin lessons. What I did get was deep-seated insecurity regarding pitch recognition. And when I finally did begin violin studies, 43 years later, my greatest fear, an acute inner panic really, was that I would fail, due to pitch.
I used a tuner. I played with drones. I listened for beats. Progress felt minimal. Other people seemed to perceive minute differences that I could not. Internally, fear was mounting, because I know that my ability to hear would always limit my ability to play. One day my teacher says to me: “You know, you can improve your ability to hear.” And I’m like “Seriously? Are you sure?” This idea had never crossed my mind. I thought that ability to hear was a static skill formed early on, that you had what you had and that was that. Her remark spurred me on a new quest to improve intonation. I spent an hour a day making up every kind of exercise that I could think of. And still progress was minimal.
After several weeks, it finally occurred to me that when tuning intervals that I don’t know what to listen for, and that if I don’t know what to listen for than I’ll never be able to recognize if I’m playing in tune, or not. Finally, I get to this question, “When tuning intervals, what do I listen for? What am I supposed to hear?” My teacher considers this a moment and decides to introduce combination tones to me. We spend the next hour playing harmonic intervals, looking for combination tones, until he is satisfied that I can find them and hear them. They sound like this (the red notes):
Typical me, I google the topic afterward and learn that they are called Tartini tones and that there is lots of information on the web about them, including discussions on Violinist.com. I’m excited. To me, Tartini tones are the best thing since buttered toast. Why? First, because an essential door has been opened. Now that I can recognize in-tune-ness, I can practice getting it quickly, and with practice the skill will come. In this, I have confidence.
Beyond developing the specific skill, there are meta-lessons to learn: It is important to ask questions. This helps teachers know what you need to know. It is more important to ask the right questions. They can open doors to entirely new realms of capability. It is important to be curious, to explore sound production, and to wonder why something is or is not working. Curiosity, exploration and wonder lead to questions. Questions lead to learning. Learning leads to practice. Practice leads to skill. Skill at the violin is what it's all about. You can trust your ability to improve. You can overcome fears and insecurities. You are human, and the human capacity to learn is infinite. Trust it. Trust yourself.
Previous entries: March 2014
Kate Little is from Salt Lake City, Utah. Biography
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