Since migrating south to Houston, I've performed more in the past year than I ever did in my three years living in Portland. Mostly the venues have been with larger groups, though I've performed a few solos and duets. Though my musical calendar is quite full, there is still an empty space begging to be filled: chamber music.
There is an intimacy in chamber music that cannot be duplicated in a larger orchestral setting: no "hiding" in a sea of instruments, no 3rd party conductor, no "following the leader" (principals). Just you and a few friends relying on each other to make beautiful music. Every note, entrance, tempo and dynamic change must be made with intent and thoughtfulness. You have to be mindful of when to play under or over your partners. Things like tonal color and minute tunings with each other become important. Group rubato without a conductor is an art form in and of itself.
Let's not forget other things like having a bit of apple pie and hot tea during break while sharing personal stories, coaching each other, choosing what to play next, deciding when and what to perform. These things don't happen often in a larger group setting.
After going so long without these small musical pleasures in life, I'm getting back into the chamber again. I've made friends who are interested in playing together that cover the span of instruments needed to form a chamber group. Next weekend promices to be our first gathering. Time to clear off the extra stands, pull out the chairs, and warm up some tea.
I was able to check off "V" in my A-Z composer's goal today. This morning I performed a Largo movement of Vivaldi's Sonata in A Minor at church with a harpsichord.
It is not a technically difficult piece, but one that is challenging to make musical. It is challenging to build tension while maintaining a slow tempo without having the piece sound no more interesting than a slow scale. Before I performed this piece, I experimented with rubato, use of vibrato and sans vibrato, and changes in dynamics. After working on this piece for a few weeks, I made my first ever independant interpretive decisions and "performed" it for my teacher for evaluation. It got two thumbs up.
When I performed the piece in the early service, I noticed something that I've never noticed before. I looked up for a moment and saw some people with their eyes closed and a smile on their face. I saw their bodies move in response to the music - from an intake of breath, to the relaxation of the body - in time with the ending of one phrase and the beginning of another. It was a profound moment.
I also discovered that my stage fright has not entirely disappeared, it has simply changed. Though I no longer get the "shakey bow syndrome" and lose utter control, my body tenses up, especially in the left arm. My left forearm was actually sore after playing what can be considered a relaxing piece. Something to work on.
Now, time for "S"...
I sent a friend of mine a clip of me playing a largo movement of Vivaldi that I was working on. This is what he sent back to me. My first thought was "THIS is Vivaldi?????"
You may have read about my Bach by 40 goal before on some of my older blogs here on this site. Back in 2003 when I restarted viola, I began what was to be a seven year long endeavor: to learn how to play all of the Bach Cello Suites before I turned 40. They didn't have to be played perfectly, nor at a performance standard, just competently without struggling, pausing, stopping and starting over, or major mistakes.
It started as a typical Saturday, doing laundry and practicing throughout the day. I started with the Suites from the beginning. By the evening I had worked my way up to the 6th Suite. There were two movements in this Suite that I had not tried before: the Sarabande and Gigue. After playing through the other movements in this Suite that I have played before, I decided to give the other two a go and see what happened. To my utter surprise, I was able to play them without stumbling or any major mistakes.
Bach BEFORE 40? Yes, and 9 months ahead of schedule to boot! I still can't quite believe that I actually accomplished this goal.
Working on this goal over the past 7 years, I learned many things about playing viola: good intonation, clear string crossings, vibrato, double stops and chords,shifting well above 3rd position, scordatura tuning, phrasing, articulation, overcoming stage fright ... the list goes on and on. But the two things I learned the most was that if I put my mind to something, I can achieve just about any goal I place before me; and that playing music is more than just mastering the technical aspects of playing an instrument, it is about giving life and meaning to the notes printed on the page.
Now it is time to move on to my next goal: Composers Z-A by 50. It promises to be a fun adventure! Does anyone know of any composers whose last name starts with the letter Q who wrote something for viola (or could be transcribed for viola)?
Apparently the theme this week on FB is retro - posting an old photo of yourself. When I was digging through my old photos I found a few from my early viola days. There are the ones of me playing viola while my father accompanied me on accordion. This reminded me the odd things I used in the past to tune with - the accordion, an oscilloscope, and finally an "old fashioned" pitch pipe.
I also ran across a few photos from when I went to Sewannee Music Camp back in the early '80's. One was of me playing my dorm-mate's cello, and another of the final concert. The conductor wore all white, I wore a white flowery dress (concert black was apparently not required). But what struck me most was the size of the viola in proportion to me. Then I remembered: my teacher at camp that summer loaned me her viola to perform with at the concert.
I'm sure I have more viola replated photos hidden away if I look. It will be interesting to see what I can dig up from my musical past.
It has been several months since I've recorded a practice session on viola. While this is often a painful experience, picking out each and every mistake I make, the learning experience is invaluable. No matter how my friends, teacher or colleagues critique me, only by listening to myself objectively can I really decipher what they are all telling me and apply it.
While the piece that I'm preparing now is less demanding technically, I've been focusing more on the musicality of the piece. This time around, listening to my practice recordings have been a pleasant experience. The improvements I made since last March when I was preparing for the audition are now apparent. My intonation, clarity, use of vibrato and dynamics have made leaps and bounds. Granted, there are still mistakes and plenty of room for improvement. However I must say that I'm pleased with the progress.
So, with no futher adeu, here is the latest: www.violinist.com/media/1295/ Not so bad for this almost 40 amateur.
After having seriously struggled with my setup in the not-so-distant past, I resolved to take a good close look at how I'm holding my instrument and bow every time I change strings. It is a good time to do it since my strings takes a day or two to stretch out. Yesterday was string-changing day, so I took a good look at my stance and hold in the mirror.
I noticed that I had started to lower my shoulder rest and allowing my scroll to drop a bit towards the floor and the body angled more towards the right. This was a major problem about a year ago. When my scroll drops, I use my hand more for support which makes shifting cumbersome which also affects my intonation. Additionally I do not get the full benefit of gravity when bowing to make a clear tone with the viola tilted so far to the right. So, I raised the right side of my shoulder rest to give me more support.
The difference was noticable immediately . My left hand was freed to move effortlessly about the fingerboard and allow gravity to do most of the right hand work for me. With the left hand more relaxed, my intonation improved. Much of the tension in my jaw and left shoulder magically went away. However, some old bad habits with my bow grip came back. That will take a bit more effort to fix. Time to pull out Blue Gumby (the rubber band) again.
More entries: December 2009
Mendy Smith is from League City, Texas. Biography
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