It's been awhile since I last blogged. I've been busy relaxing on my sister's farm.
First, I entertained the family with a little holiday music (it was a serious event):
And then I groomed a draft horse (that took a little while):
And then I took a little ride around the farm (and yes, I can still walk):
Mostly, we just sat around and watched the grass grow while I re-developed my Southern accent. I only practiced one hour out of the nearly 2 weeks I was in Tennessee.
After getting back home, I put on the new strings I got for Christmas and started to practice, tune, practice, tune, practice, tune, aw heck. It's New Years!!!
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Tonight was my last lesson of the year. I had gotten to my teacher's house VERY early and was sitting in my car in the driveway playing a game on my blackberry when I got a message: "you can come in if you want". SURE!
We started with the prerequisite C-Minor scale, with a new twist... a change in the bowings. The first set of notes are slurred, then the second set bowed individually. It was a little bit of a mind-teaser at first until I got the hang of it.
We then started on the Bloch. He's very excited about this.. it is one of his favorite pieces, and after listening to it a few times now I understand why. What I didn't know was that he performed this with OSO before. He started copying his fingerings and bowings from his copy, every once in awhile I heard "we'll keep that fingering" - referring to what I had ventured to figure out on my own (insert big smiley here). We worked through it once in sections. This is definitely going to be fun to learn!!!
After the Bloch, I gave my "graduation" performance of Bach's Suite #3 Sarabande - entirely from memory. This was the first time I had ever attempted a "graduation" performance from memory. I didn't even open the sheet-music to tempt myself to peek. Only once did I have a complete miss... and it wasn't that bad. I made a 4 part chord into a 3-part (all the right notes, but forgot one). After the repeat though, I did have to crack open the sheet music to get me through a "brain fade", but then didn't look at it again. It was so liberating playing a piece without needing to rely on the sheet music. I was able to focus more on the MUSIC and not on the notes themselves.
It was a nice way to end the last lesson of 2008. Next year is going to be very exciting!
It is a little early, but it is time for a review of last year's musical (and a few non-musical) goals and a preview of next years musical goals:
1. Learn vibrato on the C string; & with my 1st finger on the G & D strings - Check! The 1st finger on G is still tenacious, but it is happening. The D is becoming comfortable. So I'll count it as done for this goal. C string vibrato is happening now but not with my 1st finger, but 1st finger on C wasn't the original goal.
2. Practice my technical studies at least 2 times per week. - Check! I now cannot even start a lesson sans scale without disaster.
3. Have dinner BEFORE rehearsals & lessons. - Check!
4. Learn 6 more movements from the Suites. I think I got this one... Did a few movements from #5, and a few in #3, and the Sarabande in #2.
5. Eat all the vegetables that I grow in the garden. - Check!
6. Exercise more than my right arm and left fingers. - Failed, miserably. Unless you count the treks from Hong Kong into China with viola & luggage in tow. In that case, I met the goal.
7. Do something on my vacation days other than practice. - Failed Miserably! Summer vacation was all about music (Interlochen). But I still have X-mas vacation to make up for that. So this might be a check!
8. Learn Hummel's Fantasy for Viola & Orchestra - Check!!! But never performed it in public.
10. Figure out what shoulder-rest/chinrest combo to use once and for all. - FINALLY!!! Check!
11. Spend more time in the great outdoors in the summer rather than the practice room. - Failed miserably.
Goal-wise, I did well! So here are my 2009 Musical Resolutions:
1. C String 1st finger vibrato, and G string 1st finger “natural” vibrato.
2. 7th + position comfort, even on strings other than the A
3. Observe dynamics regularly and often (without reminders)
4. Produce the “Big Viola Sound” regularly and often
5. Play any 3-octave scale in ONE bow at mm 60-ish.
6. Learn how to count with multiple rhythms and tempos. Consistently!
7. Memorize Bloch’s Suite Hebraigue
8. Achieve “Bach by 40” by Dec. ’09 (10 months early).
9. Perform with my quartet publicly – with NO fear!
10. Teacher's Choice
Tomorrow I'll be finding out what "Teacher's Choice" will be.
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The Messiah was canceled tonight due to white stuff falling out of the sky, quickly hardening into a solid mass of frozen white stuff on the roads. Here in Portland, the temperature is in the low 20's with tomorrow night expecting to get down to 8. Somthing I haven't experienced in longer than I can remember.
So instead, I started working on Bloch's Suite Hebraique. I worked out some preliminary fingerings that I'm sure my teacher will re-do to make more expressive. I can almost guess where those will be, but for now, I'm trying to stay in 4th or lower when possible. I worked on those notes in the statosphere ever so slowly. On viola, getting a high E on the A string is a stretch to say the least. Not much room left on the fingerboard once you get that high.
There is this very interesting run of notes: A, Bb, C#, D, E, F, G#, A. The first few times I played it, I made my sharps natural, when it finally dawned on me... oooops! So I played that run of notes again, building up the run one note at a time, then at tempo. I trick I learned for this type of thing a year ago. Quite effective in learning to play runs of notes very fast.
Then there is the rhythm. It starts off with a double-dotted eight & 32nd rhythm, followed by 3rds then 16'th notes, and then something I've never seen before: a 1/16th note "triplet" ending on a "regular" 1/6th note. This piece is full of these types of rhythm changes: from the double-dotted's, to triplets, 1/8ths, 1/4's, runs of 6 in a beat, 14 to a beat, triplets, etc.... Just to make things more interesting, the tempo is constantly changing from between mm 69 - 79.
I think my teacher is excited to teach this to me, not just because he loves the piece, but that it will also force me to do many many rhythm and tempo changing exercises, in addition to more shifting exercises.
I just hope I don't mangle it up too much this week. Assuming of course, the mass of white frozen stuff on the road has been cleared away.
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I'm sitting here separating out movements and splicing the clandestine recording I made of quartet rehearsal this past Wednesday. I have until next Wednesday to get CD's put together for "internal distribution only". The last time I recorded a quartet rehearsal was over a year and a half ago. My first thoughts were "Wow! We are sounding better!!!". Then came the "OMG! I can't I believe how I mangled that measure - time and time again" (down from 8 measures a few months ago). Finally came the realization of how much we help each other out on this musical journey.
There are about 30 minutes on the cutting room floor where we re-worked different sections. A full 8 minutes of the guys helping me master the rhythm in a single measure (BTW - I finally got it), and a few minutes where the cellist forgot to count, being distracted by the music itself. Some of those moments were very humorous! There was a very funny time when we re-took a section in different places (give or take a measure) that had us collectively laughing our hearts out.
I feel truly blessed to be playing not only with others at my own skill level, but with others who know how to take each of our individual challenges in stride and do our best to help each other through those challenges. Those "oops" moments are funny enough that I'm not cutting them out of the CD that I'm giving to the guys.
I also got on tape a sight reading of the middle two movements of Schubert's "Death and the Maiden". I started beautifully enough, and then... well, let's just say, that's the fun part of rehearsals!
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I made my decision after much thought and trials of what I have in my music library. Next year's concerto competition piece will be Bloch's Suite Hebraique - Rhapsody. It is an amazing piece that brings out the full range and colors of the viola, reminiscent of the violin solo from Schindler's List. It is difficult to play this piece without passion.
The difficult part of this piece technically are the shifts up to 7th position, staying in that higher region of space for a measure or two, then descending back down to the lower registers. There are a few intense chords, while powerful, are not that difficult to execute with the left hand.
I'm excited about learning this new piece. It will be a culmination of what I've learned over the past two years: technically and stylistically. There are many challenges in store for me with this piece. At the same time, it will be a continuation of what I'm currently being taught in lessons.
Am I ready for this next leg of my musical journey? YES!
I have a small bow collection - 5 total. One is a cello bow, so it really doesn't count in my comparison. Of the other 4 bows, one is the very first student bow that came with my first viola. Another is a very cheap bow I purchased in Malaysia while I got my student bow re-haired. The other two I would classify as my playing bows - in the $600 price range (ish). These two bows are balanced differently.
One has a wider frog (more space for the thumb), is octagonal and weighted more at the frog. The other is a round with less space for the thumb and balanced more towards the lower third. For both of these bows, there is a definite shift in the balance towards the hand. I favor the later bow, the one with the smaller frog. When I played the Tourte, there seemed to be no discernable weight focal point. It felt more like an extension of my own arm.
This got me thinking of making a bow-upgrade. I occassionaly have pains in my right arm - a tingling sensation that starts from the elbow that makes its way to my fingers. This occurs more frequently in very fast bowing passages. Granted, my bowing technique needs work, and some if not all of this pain is related to my technique. However, upgrading to a bow with a balance more suitable to my technique would be beneficial.
So now, it is bow-shopping time. Think of it as my contribution to keeping the economy going. I haven't shopped for a bow in years. I have a good idea of my price range, about 1/4 of the price of my current instrument, give or take. I do know that when trying out bows to not limit the price factor at first so I can get a feel for what is available as far as weight distribution and balance so I don't eliminate models that are outside of my price range due to mainly cosmetic factors (gold windings, frog aesthetic details, etc...). I also know to try a variety of bowing techniques to get a feel of how the bow works for me and my instrument.
Past those basics however, I really don't know how to evaluate a bow. I'll engage my teacher in the process. I hope he has a little time to go shopping with me.
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I survived yet another concert, with just one more remaining (Messiah).
My CO did our concert Friday evening, and a Saturday matinee. Friday's concert went without a glitch. It will be aired on the local access cable TV show. When, I don't know. We got an applause between movements (we don't mind those at all), standing ovation, etc... All around, it was a very good concert.
Saturday's matinee was cursed from the start. The conductor said something during warm-up about things going so smoothly on Friday... NOOOOOO!!!! We will be cursed!!! And cursed we were. We had to change the program sequence due to the primary french horn player having car problems and finally appearing midway through the first half of the concert - just in time to do the brass piece before intermission.
Coming back from intermission, I was carrying my former stand-partner's viola and bow. She had a leg injury last year and is heavily reliant on using a cane to get around, so I carry her instrument as well as my own up onto the stage. When we got back on the stage, I held up her bow to hand it to her, when I noticed something. I saw by the frog, very worn and nearly unreadable: "TOU~~E". I handed the viola to her first then look a closer look at the bow, then asked her: "Is this a Tourte !?!?!?!?!" Indeed it was.
And to think I was carrying it around all this time hooked on my pinky finger from the tip!!!!
She let me try it out. It was like bowing with silk! So perfectly balanced. I didn't want to give it back to her. The cellists and a few other were wondering what the fuss was all about. I had to acttually explain that the Tourte bow is the Strativari of bows. They still didn't quite understand. She DID promice me she would let me play with another time.
Now that my fun was over, time to get back to work. In the second half after intermission, I had sequenced the symphony movements incorrectly, and delayed the start of the third movement while I frantically tried to find just exactly where in that stack of music the 3rd movement was hiding. Thank goodness to the second violinist that saw it peeking through (I had the 3rd & 4th movements swapped). :::sigh::::
A year from now is the next concerto competition. I've been wracking my brain on what to submit this time. At the last competition I submitted the Bruch Romanze. It was the first time in decades that I ever performed solo in public and had some intonation issues, dynamic issues, and just overall sheer terror. My teacher suggested the Mozart violin/viola concerto or the Bruch clarinet/viola concerto. My thinking is to still try this solo. After perusing my concerto library I ran across Bloch's Suite Hebraique. Two years ago I ruled this out as being too technically demanding with a some shifts up to 7th position on the A string. Hmmmmmm.... those shifts aren't as challenging now. This has some definite possibilities.
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You can tell your friends you heard it here first. My first finger vibrated on the G string!!!
The last 15 minutes or so of lessons tonight were all about 1st finger vibrato on the lower strings. My teacher asked for me to show him the little I was able to figure out on my own. So, I lowered my SR a little bit, placed my first finger down on the Ging and told it to vibrate. At first it didn't cooperate, so I took a deep breath and by a force of will made my finger begin to move in the manner I wanted it to. A moment later it finally cooperated with me and made the most beautiful vibrato. (Buri - it was a push, not a pull that happened). Joel got excited, and gave a little yell "Look at that!!!!". Then it was over. My finger seemed to think that 10 seconds of work was more than enough and called it quits for the night. However my arm was moving as it should in an arm vibrato, even though the focus was on the finger movement.
I got it to wake up again on the A string. That was when Joel asked me politely to stop vibrating like a violinist (no offense guys). That led to the question on WHY is a violist (moi) blogging on a violin web-site, and how he tried explaining this seemingly unexplainable fact to one of his other students. Well, they are both on-the-shoulder fret-less stringed instruments played with a bow, so why not? Makes more sense than blogging about viola playing on a cello site being that there are no viola sites around like this violin one :)
Back to work.... he then asked me if I ever tried a finger vibrato - the slight lightening/pressing of the finger. Oh that? That's easy! Just like a trill but never leaving the string. Piece of cake. Well, I found out that it is not necessarily a piece of cake for everyone, so I have at least one natural ability to be thankful for. He made up some exercises for me to try at home to make my first finger earn it's way into my vibrato playing.
So backtracking to the beginning of lessons. Scales as usual, but no help from my teacher by playing them together. This turned into a study of tone production through bowing - he actually took a hold of my bow and moved it in the manner he wished. This act nearly pulled me across the room. Hey!!! Short arms here!!! Then he had me sub-dividing beats to get my tempo perfect all on my own. Of course it was the triplets that gave me the most problems. After that my ability to count past 4 disappeared, and I was over-reaching with my 4th finger (used to have the opposite problem). So we moved onto the finger exercises. Every few measures he changed the tempo on me, ratcheting up the metronome a few clicks at a time. My ability to adjust to the tempo changes started to gradually improve.
Onto the Sarabande. After playing the first half through at the repeat, he slipped and asked me "to play it better, I mean differently". No - I needed to play it better. He was right the first time. :) I did play it better the second time through, then moved on to the second half. Of course I had to show off being finally able to play pppppp way up on the fingerboard. But still not soft enough - need to go up higher. This meant bowing at an angle to keep the bow from hitting the "waist" . I lamented that he trained bowing at an angle totally out of me. The verdict was that the technical aspects were indeed improving, a little rushing in the "easy" part, but he liked the overall tempo, chord execution, etc.
Then a new spin in lessons - doing it again WITHOUT looking at the music. The difference was apparent... the music came through and a glimmer of real style appeared. The lesson learned being that when my eyes are not glued to the notes on the page, I focused more on the making of music. We worked a bit on the intonation in one measure where you transition from 1/2 position back up to first, then on how to play the harmonic (a natural harmonic on the D string) and make it the interesting part in the phrase without rushing through it. I got a thumbs up on some of the "Mendy Ornaments" - my hallmark.
Then onto something new - the 2nd Suite Minuet. We started this movement before when I asked to stop and go back to the Sarabande to work on chords a bit more with a familiar piece. My fingering changes to the opening chord was "approved", and thank goodness. Playing 4-2-0 is not easy to keep in tune. 3-1-0 is so much easier. We reviewed the style of the Minuet, and worked on bowing a 3-part chord where all three notes are played at once, not rolled or broken. I never that such a thing could be done before! After a few attempts at this new technique I was starting to get it.
Lessons had gone well past the scheduled hour. But it couldn't be totally over without looking over the Christmas music book my mother had shipped to my house. I think Joel was starting to formulate ways these could be played in the style of other composers :)
These were the exact words out of my quartet tonight when I told them that I was planning on recording our next rehearsal. The violinists lamented over hearing themselves once again in these recording, and the cellist just had this look of sheer terror on his face. However, everyone grudgingly agreed to a recorded session.
It is something I used to do a long time ago - record our practice sessions and burn CDs for everyone to distribute the following week. Listening to ourselves objectively is a great tool for improving our musicianship. Intonation issues, rhtyhm/tempo issues, dynamics, etc... are blatently exposed. When we listen to these self-recordings, we all tend to pick out our own parts and discover the areas we need more work on that we may not have noticed before. There are also the fun times that are captured for prosperity's sake, such as having to re-take the beginning of a section due to playing it in the wrong key - collectively - 4 times! ( I still listen to that recording on occasion for the giggles it gives me).
We've been focusing on K421 over several months, and believe that it is getting closer to a performance standard. Our collective rhythms and intonation are getting tighter with each other every week. The two violins were quite in sync tonight on a run of notes played an octave apart, and I finally nailed down a few tricky entrances and rhtyhms. We are now entering the realm of emphasizing the dynamics and bowing styles. A recording at this time will help pin-point those areas that we need to focus on more.
I just wonder if the batteries of my MP3 recorder will hold out long enough to record 2-3 hours of rehearsal....
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I went to extremes in viola angles/positions to see how this could engage a vibrato on the lower strings in low positions lately. I'm back at the 45 deg. angle nose to string, letting the base of my 1st finger be in contact with the fingerboard. Trying to keep a space with my finger and fingerboard caused tension in my whole body, not to mention destroying my bowing. The A string still dips to the floor a little which has helped my get my fingers across to the C string with less strain, but the scroll is back up where it should be.
I tried the vibrato again from the finger as my former stand partner suggested. I'm still struggling whether it should be an action moving my finger towards me or away from me. A "push" vs. a "pull" of sorts. In a "push" action, my finger starts more on the pad, then moves towards the nail, while a "pull" action starts from the nail and then relaxes to the pad. The "push" seems to generate more tension than the "pull". This in and of itself causes a dilemma. When playing viola, the fingers are typically more on the pad (not flat or collapsed) than towards the nail to get a good tone, especially on the lower and thicker strings, approaching a more cello-like finger position. So a "push" action seems to be the most obvious approach to take if it were not for the tension it creates. When I vibrate in higher positions, it is always a "pull" action that engages the wrist like a knocking the back of your hand on a wall. The "pull" action is supported as my thumb acts as a fulcrum to the movement. When the first finger is engaged, a pinching between the thumb and the first finger with the fingerboard between the two occurs. In higher positions on the higher strings this is not so much of an issue since my left arm is more naturally moved towards my right placing my thumb under the neck at it's base.
So, the biggest problem that must be overcome by far is the tension, or gripping, between my first finger and thumb in lower positions on lower strings. When I first started learning vibrato nearly a year ago, I had this same problem in first position with my 2nd - 4th fingers on all strings. I used a few exercises to relax the left hand: playing with no contact between the thumb and fingerboard, and moving the thumb to different positions (behind the first finger, next to the third, under fingerboard, high on fingerboard, etc...) while playing a single note. This helped tremendously over the course of a few months.
I attempted the "no thumb contact" exercise with my first finger in first position tonight. My thumb just did not want to cooperate with me at all. The moment I lightened it's contact with the fingerboard and dropped my first finger onto the string, my thumb with a mind of its own, instantaneously tightened itself on the fingerboard in a secure and unmovable grip, restricting all movement. When this happened, the contact point betwen my first finger and fingerboard moved towards the middle joint (not the base joint).
I think I need to spend a bit more time in front of a mirror to analyze thumb position. There is something obvious that I'm missing at the moment. It is nearly like training for a gymnastics - conditioning your body to do what you want and when you want it.
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This is going to be another very busy week. Messiah rehearsal last night, orchestra rehearsal tonight, Quartet rehearsal Wednesday, Lessons Thursday, Concert Friday, Messiah rehearsal Sat am, Concert Sat pm. Whew!!!!!
The Messiah is sounding quite nice. My stand partner & principal violist in my community orchestra conducts at her church. She has many music-friends who all came out to form her orchestra at the church. In dress rehearsal for the orchestra tonight, she told me that the violas sounded "marvelous" - all two of us ;) She seems to be getting a little worn down being principle viola in not just one, but two orchestras, and joked with me about trading seats for one of the concerts or just giving it up for good measure. I'm not certain she was entirely joking or not. If she's not, I may just get one of my dreams to come true.
During break, my former stand partner asked how my 1st finger vibrato was coming along on the lower strings. So I showed her the little bit I was able to accomplish. True to her nature, she cried "No! NO! Don't do it from the wrist, do it with your FINGER!" She then proceded to get up off her chair and take a hold of my hand and force it to move the way she wanted it to move. Lo and behold, it started doing it on it's own a little bit after a few seconds, even on the C string. She made me continue to practice the finger vibrato all during break. Slave Driver!!!! :)
Unfortunately I could not reproduce that vibrato during the last half of rehearsal, but I got something else to try now at home. Or should I say during all the other rehearsals I have this week....
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