The church retreat is in two weeks. I managed to corral a few other string players for a Dvorak jam (the American). Since our church is short one "native" violinist, and I happen to have a violin laying around, I thought I'd give the American a try on second fiddle - though the viola part is awesome.
I haven't picked up the violin in months, but was happy to discover that I no longer struggled to play on the correct string. However, the 3-inch difference in size between the viola and violin made playing close to the bridge rather than over the fingerboard a challenge. I surprised myself by reaching an A# with my third finger on the D-string in first position quite by accident. I thought it was a G# and extended my third finger like I do on viola. Unfortunately, my intonation on violin suffers from my years on viola - everything is a bit sharp.
This promises to become a fun diversion, though I miss the sonority and physical presence of the viola under my chin. However, it is making me appreciate one of my all-time favorite quartets all the more.
This afternoon, my church put on an All Bach recital: "Bach's Priceless Treasures". The program consisted of the Fugue in D major BWV 532, Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 BWV 1050, "Suscepit Israel" from the Magnifcat BWV 243 and "Jesu Meine Freude" Motet No. 3 BWV 227.
Our organist/pianist received a boisterous applause for the Fugue on the Hook and Hastings Organ. The choir undertook the challenge of the Motet and delivered a stunning performance. The trio of sopranos and alto in the Magnifcat was magnificent.
Closest to my heart though was the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5. We had a rocky start trying to find the additional violinists needed to complete the ensemble. Coordinating rehearsal schedules for 10 musicians was a challenge. However, we were able to carve out times that most everyone was able to rehearse together a few times before the concert. It was only just minutes before the recital that we rehearsed a few measures from each movement as a complete group on our assigned instruments (we had some flip-flopping going on between violin & viola).
After the end of the first movement, we received a rounding applause. I had to suppress a chuckle when our soloist on violin said "But wait! There's More!" after the applause died down before continuing on to the second and third movements. The congregation has no scruples when it comes to showing their appreciation, even between movements.
We are truly blessed to have so many amazing musicians at our church, from the choir to instrumentalists.
Over the past few years, I've become much more comfortable playing works that explore the length of the fingerboard. At first shifting above 5th position was physically painful until I learned the trick of moving my arm up and around the body of the viola. Shifting back down was nearly impossible. I can now make it up and down the fingerboard pain free.
However, I discovered that I learned a bad habit. I had been leading my shifts with my fingers, rather than the whole arm and hand, resulting in spotty intonation on a good day. During lessons this afternoon, I worked on leading the shift with my arm rather than just my fingers. There were some odd moments when both my mind and body froze completely and I remained stuck where I was on the fingerboard while trying to figure out what should move first. After awhile, I started to get the hang of the movement.
I've heard a few times that it takes many repetitions to learn a new habit. I have this sinking feeling that I have thousands of repetitions to go....
This past Sunday, I performed the Rebecca Clarke's Passacaglia at church with our pianist Carl McAliley. As the church's organist, pianist and 'harpsichordist', Carl is often called upon to accompany the various musicians within the church when we play a piece for the service. He has that rare gift of not only being able to perform some incredibly difficult solo works on a variety of keyed instruments with great skill, but also of accompanying soloists.
During our two rehearsal sessions, we spent quite a bit of time on the drastic tempo changes, from the I Tempo, to allargando, to ritardando to molto ritardando; all within the last two measures of the piece. His advice on how to make those changes was invaluable. The balance of dynamics were a bit tricky as well. On viola, playing FF on the C string is a bit of an art - balancing the dynamic without either distorting the pitch or producing an awful scratching sound. However at the end of our last rehearsal, we were satisfied with the results.
Sunday morning came too early. I hardly had any sleep the previous night, partly due to nerves, but mostly due to coming down with a cold that would hit me hard later in the day. We had the chance to run through the piece twice before the service started. The first time through was a little rough. I was reminded by Carl that no matter what happened, I couldn't stop. The second time through was more like our previous rehearsal.
The performance went well, though I completely blew one note towards the end (but please, don't tell anyone!). After the service was over, Carl came up to me with a big grin on his face. He had really enjoyed playing the Clarke. A few of the folks at the service offered praise as well.
I'm learning more about performance these days than simply overcoming stage fright: making the most of limited rehearsal time, exploring and balancing the full range of dynamics, and putting the skills I've learned over the years to work to tell a story.
Maybe in a few weeks, some S music will be ready.
I have struggled with my setup for years. I've tried nearly every shoulder rest under the sun, no shoulder rest, every way of holding a viola possible while still being able to play it, a few different chin-rests and no-chin rest at all.
This weekend, I figured I'd spend a day down at the local shop and try every chin-rest they had to see if I could finally find a setup that worked. I knew I didn't like the Strad or Guaneri style which are both way to high on the left side. I've tried the Kaufman style which had too little support on the right. The luthier at the shop had me try a few different styles and watched while I tried them out. He then said he thought he knew what was right for me and pulled a chin-rest out of a bin and put in on my viola: Stuber - low on the left and high on the right.
I had a few hours to take it home and try it out while my violin was being worked on for some minor issues. I had to re-adjust my shoulder-rest slightly a few times, but found the right formula. The difference was shocking. I wasn't clamping down with my chin to hold my viola in place while shifting down or vibrating in lower positions. My left had had miraculously become free of tension. Surprisingly, my vibrato became wider, maybe too wide.
When I went back to the shop to pick up the violin, the luthier asked how the chin-rest worked out after a few hours of practice. It was all I could do to not give him a big bear-hug. I feel like a new violist.
Lately I've realized that my musical plate is full to overflowing, and I need to start making some decisions to better manage my time. I often have a rehearsal of some sort or another several times a week. I'm finding that I simply do not have enough hours in the week to dedicate to practicing what I should be working on. As a result, all my "musical projects" are getting the short end of the stick.
Over the past few years, I've been exposed to a very wide range of performance settings from orchestral, chamber, solo, and "the pit". Each of them have their own set of challenges and rewards:
In an orchestra you are one of many. Much time is spent practicing counting rests, eagerly awaiting the time you can finally put bow to string, when at last it comes and the conductor calls a halt to work the measures you were counting measures. It is too easy to get lost in the sea of instruments, which can be a comfort in difficult pieces. Musical choices are determined by the conductor and/or first desk. However there is a camaraderie in being with such a large group of people, though many of them you don't get to know that well.
Compare that with a chamber ensembles/pit orchestra: there may be eight to twelve of you at most. You are your own principal, or assistant principal. There is no relying on others when you don't have your part mastered. Mistakes are more transparent. In a "pit", the probability of mistakes are higher in the cramped quarters, often directly in front of a brass player. However with a smaller group, musical collaboration happens more frequently, though interpretation debates can become quite lively.
Then there is the solo experience. This takes a higher level of confidence to pull off. There is no hiding what-so-ever. Mistakes aren't just transparent, they are glaring. You are completely exposed. Music interpretation is entirely up to you.
Though I've met most of my friends through the orchestra and really enjoy playing larger symphonic works, it is the smaller, more intimate group settings that I enjoy the most. When practice time is sparse, I tend to gravitate towards what I'm working on in these smaller settings and my practice time is more focused on techniques and musicality.
So, after the season finale with Mahler in May, I'll be stepping away from the symphony, and directing my focus on the chamber/pit and solo works. Maybe in a year or two I'll go back to the symphony, but for now I'll be leaving the large sea for the small pond.
I've been recording myself practice as I prepare for my solo performance at church in a few weeks. The piece starts off nice enough, good intonation, tone, color, etc.. even high up on the fingerboard. I'm happy with those choices of fingerings.
But then about 2 minutes into the piece, comes a few measures of triple stops. The difference is glaring and hard on the ears. They are too loud, too broken, sound strained, and out of tune. It is enough to shake things for a measures beyond that point before settling back into the nice tone. Granted, I've only been working on this piece for a few days, but I had hoped for better.
I'm reminded of what I learned of chord execution while working on Bach. Take them slower than you think you should and don't arpegiate them, instead play them broken 1/2 or 2/2, use lots of bow, and stay relaxed. Seems easy enough, at least on the surface.
More entries: March 2010
Mendy Smith is from League City, Texas. Biography
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