It's a funny holiday - Halloween. Adults dress in the strangest ways in the office. The office costumes are things like a blind referee, a "three hole punch", can-can dancers, and a few clowns. Everyone leaves work early to pick up the multiple bags of candy to hand out to the waves of children demanding sugar in its various forms at your front door, or to prepare their children to do the same throughout the night.
It is not a night to try to practice anything. However, it is a good night to listen to the local classical music station. The one out here in Portland does an excellent Halloween program, full of spookey and scary music. A great set of background music to try to scare the kids with.
Lesson night once again. Tonight scale warm-ups also included vibrato. One of these days (years) my first finger WILL vibrate in first position. Until then however, I've been given a homework assignment to do "drop and a little wiggle" during scale practice.
So, Back to Bach and Rubato. The experimentation I did over the weekend had good results in lessons. My chosen tempo was approved, as well as most of my choices in where apply rubato. However at measure 20 & 85 he had some other suggestions. First at measure 20 - I had failed to notice the repeating phrase in this measure like the ones before it, which needed a diminuendo and a slight ritard. Then at measure 85 - building up to the trill, accelerating the tempo to "trill speed" in one measure. I had to laugh at how he described me playing this part originally: "Chord!!!! Note note Note note Note note Note note pause TRILLLL!!!!!". Guilty as charged!!!
We also worked on the section with all the arpeggiated chords. I still stumble on the shift from 3rd position B&D to 2nd position B&C. I have two issues here: one is a "simple" matter of finger replacement (Yost shifting time); and widening my reach backwards by opening up the space between my 4th and 3rd fingers. I've been going about this focused only on my 1st finger reaching back as far as I could while trying to keep my 4th finger somewhat curved, and forgetting about the rest of my left hand.
Then my teacher noticed something about my bowing in this section - a slight up-bow on the open G before playing it down-bow. At first I had no idea what he was talking about. Then he demonstrated what I was doing wrong. My turn - I played the measure - agggghhhh!!! Now its annoying! And there I was going along bowing happily, oblivious to what I was doing, until now.
It's always a annoying when someone points out embarrassing habits to you that you never noticed before. Your start focusing on that habit to eliminate it. Well, that is why I take lessons.
My teacher declared the 3rd Suite Prelude in "polishing" mode, so it was time to start on a new movement to keep going on my Bach by 40 goal. We're moving backwards to Suite 2 Minuet. It is the first one that is a challenge with the chords. He said they come as a pair, so I have to also include the 2nd Minuet. He gave me fingerings for the chords, and a few bowings. Now it is up to me to go home and see what I can figure out on my own until next week.
I spent quite a bit of time this weekend on the 3rd Suite Prelude, putting into into practice what I learned about the use of rubato from lessons last Thursday. This was much more difficult than it seemed at first. Where in the phrase do you slow down or speed up? How many notes do you use to transition from one tempo to another? And then with Bach, there is the question how much vibrato do you use and when?
Then, the nagging question: what tempo should I take the arpeggiated chords in the middle? I've listened to various recordings and live performances. This section can either be taken very fast so that is sounds more like a solid chord, or much slower emphasizing either the lower note or one of the two higher ones. I explored them all, and still don't know what approach I want to take yet. My teacher generally wants me to take a slower tempo, however this section just begs to be built into and played faster than the rest.
There is also the question of dynamics. In the copy that I'm using, none is given. However the bowings indicated lead to some interesting dynamics all on their own. I never paid attention much before on how certain bowings can move a phrase from the frog to tip then tip to frog. A whole new world just opened up to me.
Lesson night again. It's been awhile. We started on the requisite scales, with a twist - or should I say buzz. As I had promised, I brought the Body Beat with me. I warned him to make sure he had a very firm grip on his viola, held it to his arm, then turned it on. He made a jump of surprise and still had a good hold on his viola.
Question number one from my teacher was where do you put the little buzzing part. After settling on the waistband, and the tempo we started scale warm ups. He wore it during my scale warm-up(not me). By the time scales were over, it was starting to become annoying to him. YIPEE! Revenge! His bleepy time metronome does the same thing to me. :)
We worked through some parts of the 5th Symphony at tempo. There are some "really cool" viola parts, especially in the 2nd movement. There is one towards the end of the movement where the violas play divisi the most beautiful little melody. Let me tell you, playing divisi with a professional can get the hairs on the back of your neck to stand up and your heart move up to your throat a little. And as usual, I got a few new bowings.
Moving on to Bach's 3rd Suite Prelude. I was scolded slightly for playing it at the same tempo as one of his other students (the one I was "audience" for a few weeks ago). I slowed it down a several notches. However, when I got to this one part in the second half, I couldn't resist. I sped it up considerably and did the "fiddle" thing ;-) OK, NOT in the style of Bach, but still fun anyway. I was gently reminded that while may be OK to practice that way to keep things fun, that is NOT the way to perform Bach (I kept my rejoinder about the Rock Bach styles to myself). So back to the "traditional" Bach style.
We finished up working on how to play the chords at the end, with emphasis on the lower two notes, and rubato. The way he explained it made a light-bulb turn on in my mind. He explained that a good rubato in Bach (maybe others, I didn't ask) is to think of the tempo like a rubber band, slowly stretching and relaxing. Not the stretch and fling (release).
By that time, lessons were over, but there was still one thing left to do. Scare the living daylights out of his next student with the Body Beat. The first reaction to feeling this thing buzz on you is quite predictable, and quite funny. After his next student recovered, I checked out his gizmo - a Sony digial recorder. Much fancier than the one I have. I've been out-geeked by a teenager!
So far I've tried open string bowings and sub-divided bowings with my old fashioned pendulum metronome, and the new metronome gizmo (dubbed 'The Merry Metronome' by the viola section). Open string bowings and sub-divided bowings go well up to a certain point. There are passages where my eyes just can't seem to focus on ONLY my part (the divided sections), and others where the left hand and right hand seem to be in contrary motions.
I plan on making this topic #1 in lessons this week.
On a side note (pun intended), I went to my engineer's B-Day party put on by his quartet group (of the vocal, not stringed type). It was a blast. His quartet, A Toast of the Town, did the traditional joke of pretending to start on one piece, but instead do the Happy Birthday song. It made me feel better that I'm not the only one to have fallen for that trick. After the joke, they continued singing other pieces for us party-goers. It was quite entertaining.
While mingling with these other musicians, I couldn't help but make some humorous mental correlations with a string group:
Soprano's - (violinists) everything revolves around the all-mighty violin, even if they are the counter-melody.
Alto's - (violists) are very friendly but horribly misunderstood, and will make even the most boring parts fun and interesting.
Tenor's - (celli) are fun-loving but still reserved and dignified. They are the musical metronome in a group with interesting parts.
Baritone's - (bassists) are the real party animals in any musical group. They pretend they are serious (helping keep the beat with the celli), but will often display antics to keep everyone amused.
Funny how some things hold true no matter what your "instrument" is.
As I hinted to yesterday, here is what a couple of engineers think "cubicle decorations" should look like:
We found an old Sun Sparc 10 workstation, tablet, an external hard drive & tape drive, several manuals dating to about 1990 or older, and an old phone. We were quite proud of ourselves and our creative decorating skills. Apparently while we were re-arranging things, we accidently dialed the IT helpdesk several times when we were moving the phone back behind the Sparc workstation. The Helpdesk guy on duty got concerned hearing strange noises and talking in the background and decided to come see what was going on. He got a good chuckle on what we were up to.
This is what it looked like by the morning:
Some folks added to the decor and brought food... alot of it. The Birthday Boy managed to move the antique equipment to the other side of his desk and get his original equipment back up and operational again.
By lunch time, we were already full with belly aches starting to develop. It was time for the Happy Birthday Saranade. Live music in the office (other than Ron's singing in the stairwell - great acoustics there BTW) is unhread of.
When I pulled the viola out of the case and put the shoulder rest on, my team was a little surprised that I was really going to play. They had gotten used to me bringing the viola into the office several times a week (I have rehearsals and lessons immediately after work most of days of the week). Rosining up the bow started a side conversation on the physics of bowing and the role of rosin. I started on the first Birthday Variation: doubled stopped with a few chords for the finale. A few folks that hadn't already left for "real" food were drawn by the unusal sounds of a viola being played in the office. Everyone was expecting for me to play out of tune on purpose. One lady asked if I could even play out of tune if I tried - so I tried. I just ended up playing in a minor key :) That opened things up to the 3rd variation: birthday trills, then a small discussion on if a trill should start on the higher or lower note.
It was the most unusual day I ever had in the office!
Most surprising was that there was not ONE single viola joke!
Lessons were cancelled tonight - my teacher had to put in some extra practice hours of his own for an upcoming concert this weekend.
So, I spent some of the extra time "decorating" one of my engineer's cubical for his birthday tomorrow. I can't disclose publicly what we did to it until he sees it for himself. Let's just say for now, it is a unique way of cubicle decorating that only computer geeks can devise.
Then I went home to practice. But before I could practice, I found my own birthday gifts on the front porch. My family is scattered across the country, so we do the gift-certificate thing. I had purchased 3 more stands and stand lights for quartet nights at my house. After assembling the music stands, I was ready to practice.
Since my own birthday just passed, I still had those "Happy Birthday Variations" on my mind. I wonder... Well, I can't do the left-hand pizz variation, but I can do some of the other variation techniques. So, I started trying them out, transposed for viola of course. After much experimentation, I settled on two variations that I can manage by tomorrow. I've never performed solo in the office before (viola solo that is), but this time I'll be making an exception.
You see, this particular software engineer is also a musician. At this point, no one knows if I will be playing out-of-tune on purpose or not. Everyone knows I'll do something, but I can't hint on what I decided yet. Let's just say for now it will be fun.
I never quite realized how much of a balancing act playing viola was before today. I had struggled wtih my setup for some time, and finally thought I found that happy place where everything was just right. That was until I started playing Bach again - movements with many doublestops and arpeggiated chords. Then I ran into an issue.
While my setup allowed for a good straight bow and being able to really "dig" into the strings, I had unknowingly compromised my ability to finger doublestops and chords easily. Angling my viola so it was more parallel to the floor (the left/right tilt, not dipping the scroll down) is good for bowing, but not for fingerings. When I tilt my viola more to the right so it more or less rests flat on my body, I can reach any string without touching any others if I desire. In this position, my 4th finger can stretch farther making those G# (on the C string) much easier. Not to mention vibrato on the lower strings easier. However by doing so, bowing is that much more difficult. I cannot take advantage of the weight of the bow on the D and A strings.
There must be a point of balance that can achieve both goals.
Lesson night once again. This time we both made absolutely certain that I was warmed up first. We had repeated that mistake once last week, and my teacher's ears paid dearly for that mistake. This time is was much better.
I've put aside the Brahms Sonata for now, and putting my focus back on the Bach Suites. Right now I'm learning two movements of the 3rd that I hadn't learned before: Prelude and Sarabande. The Prelude has a tricky section that is basically arpeggiated chords. We spent quite a bit of time practicing these as double stops, tuning the intervals, and working on finger placement when stopping the D string while playing open strings on the G and A.
We spent so much time on the Prelude, that we were only to get a minute in on the Sarabande before his next student arrived.
Speaking of whom. This talented teenager will be on the radio show From The Top tomorrow. He actually played last May (I think), and it is now finally airing tomorrow night.
Griffin is an amazing young violist. I had the joy of listening to him as an "audience" of sorts last week as he prepared for an upcoming concert in his lessons with Joel. He also really is a good baker. I have the opportunity to taste some of his treats. His cookies are mmmmmmmm!
On a different note, I'm purchasing a new music gizmo - the "Body Beat". It is a metrome that you wear that pulses to the mm. My teacher is excited to check this gizmo out once it arrives.
One of my friends forwarded this link to me for my birthday. Lo and behold it is from one of our own... Rachel Barton Pine!!! What amazing left hand pizz. technique!
Thank you Rachel for the inspiration!
Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. All great composers. All wrote interesting compositions for us violists. All should not be played back to back in one lesson without warming up, nor "resetting" the musical mind between composers.
Lessons tonight started with a review of what Cello Suites were remaining in my "Bach by 40" goal, and breaking the cardinal rule of lessons I vowed to never make again - beginning a lessons without a warmup. I think my teacher and I were both a little over excited and ambitious to get this goal back on track again.
We decided to start with the 3rd Suite Prelude - and immediately jumped into the trickiest part of the movement. That went surprisingly well for the first go around, except the bowing. Up here? Down there? What??? Then immediately followed by the Sarabande with a few tricky chords that had my fingers almost tripping over each other.
The Bach itself went quite well considering. It was what happened afterwards... Brahms... after 3 false starts on the first page, we decided to try the second instead. After 2 false starts on the second, we decided that maybe going from Bach to Brahms wasn't such a good idea after-all. My mind was just not able to jump between the stylistic differences between the two composers.
So, maybe Beethoven? Yes, I had the 5th Symphony with me! No, don't laugh, I really do! I had grabbed everything off my stand rushing out the door this morning: lesson music, orchestra music, and quartet music. It was my "homework" assignment to have the opening of the 2nd movement nailed down so that my teacher could play any one of the variations at the same time and NOT throw me off rhythmically.
Well, that didn't go so well either. I was in-tune but my rhythm was off. So we sub-divided the beats. My ability to count to 4 vanished. Oh dear. I could definitely count to 4 last night during quartets, even with a very modern piece. What happened?
By this time, my lesson time was up. But Joel asked if I could stick around for a few minutes and play "audience" to his next student who was going to be playing a concert soon. I agreed. So, in comes his next student, lamenting over the fact that he had just tried to "fix" a broken knob in his parent's car with superglue and glued the knob frozen tight. HEY - finally something that I could contribute to positively for the evening!!! "Acetone!!!", I piped up. They looked at me with a puzzled expression. "Acetone", I repeated. "It dissolves superglue. Use fingernail polish remover, it has acetone in it.", I clarified. Ahhhhhhh.
After giving a brief "lesson" in using acetone to dissolve superglue to un-fix the fix (and feeling a little bit better about myself), the next student tuned and jumped right in the Prelude of the 2nd Suite.
WOW!!!! And WOW again!!!! After he was done, I applauded. By his expression, I believe that he forgot that I was even there. I turned to my teacher and said: "That is my next set of goals. To be able to play like that before I turn 50!" His other student gave me a very puzzled look. But rather than taking up any more of his lesson time, I excused myself.
After getting back home, I did the warm-up routine that was skipped, and tried the Brahms one more time. I couldn't face ending the evening on a literal wrong note. Lo and behold, I could play the Brahms as well as I normally could during prior lessons and practice times. Then I tried the Prelude and stumbled all the way through.
Lesson learned twice over.
Enter to win Leonidas Kavakos' recording of the Brahms Violin Concerto.
Mendy Smith is from League City, Texas. Biography
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