As difficult as this question is for an individual picking the next solo or concerto to learn, the challenge is increased fourfold when posed to a quartet. The piece(s) chosen must be comfortable enough for all four players to do justice with as a group while at the same time be interesting enough for all involved.
For the past several weeks, the quartet I play in has been working through the process of coming up with an answer to this age-old question of what to work on next. We started with a rather large stack of music and began sight-reading the first page or so of everything brought in. This helped to narrow the choices down by removing from the list pieces that were overly difficult or complex. Some pieces that were judged "simple" based on the individual parts turned out to be overly complex when played as a group, while others that seemed similarly difficult were surprisingly simple when put into context.
We are down to a relatively small list of four pieces: Haydn's Op. 76 #4 (the "Sunrise"), Barber's Adagio, Borodin #1 4th movement, and Clarke's "Two Movements for Quartet". The Haydn was a hands-down winner with the other three on the plate for consideration. The remaining three pieces to choose from are very diverse in style and are equally challenging but in different manners.
The Adagio is a challenge for its familiarity, slow tempo, and climbs into the stratosphere. Borodin has some very complex rhythms and interactions between the parts. The Clarke is the 'deceptively simple' piece, being modern, atonal and a challenge to put together into a cohesive musical interpretation.
The process of getting four people to agree on what to work on next is both a fun and sometimes frustrating endeavor. However, choosing a piece is like choosing a violin - you just 'know' when the right one crosses your path. All of the collective experiences and desires are satisfied in the first read-through, though sometimes it takes a little time "living" with it to realize its potential.
In the past few weeks, my homework assignments have tripled: from one 'easy' 3 octave scale at a leisurely pace to a difficult one with 6 variations plus three finger exercises. Not wanting to walk into my next lesson unprepared with my latest assignments, I doubled my practice time working those new exercises trying to perfect them as much as I could within a weeks time.
It was a productive practice week. I focused on intonation, discovered some tension in the left hand and started trying to figure out where it was coming from and fixing it. However at the same time, my lawn went un-mowed, the carpets not vacuumed, and a week's worth of lunches not cooked, all for the sake of trying to 'master' these finger exercises. Luckily my habit of practice and doing laundry at the same time saved me from not having clean clothes to wear the following week.
When I walked into my following lesson, I begged for the workload to be reduced. The response was asking why exactly I was spending so much time on the exercises? She reminded me that I'm a working adult with a profession outside of the music field and am not preparing for an audition. The exercises are meant to just exercise and strengthen my hand, nothing more, and they should take no more than 5-10 minutes of my time each day. In other words, don't obsess over them.
Tonight, I tried just that, 5-10 minutes of exercises tops with no worries about getting through all of the variations and just picked a few to work on. I relaxed more and the little that I did manage was even more productive than all of the extra work I put in the previous week.
This weekend, I'll be spending a little extra time catching up on house-work and not home-work.
I was recently assigned 3 octave G major scales. For violinists this is the equivalent of the D major scale. While this may not seem like a great feat on the surface, it has turned out to be a major undertaking in left arm flexibility.
The upper bouts on my viola are much larger than those of a violin, so making the leap from 7th to 9th position requires a bit more maneuvering than on a violin. After much trial and effort, I've discovered that the elbow must be brought around to the right nearly under the nose, and the left hand completely opened and relaxed in the hope that the notes will be in tune.
This extreme position is one where there is little support from the thumb, hence the upward-scroll position to support the instrument. Imagine twisting your arm around so that you can kiss your knuckles with no tension. Not an easy feat!
Though I'm still a long way away from having the notes above 7th position in tune, my left arm & hand is relaxing into this most unusual contortion - but only when I remember to rotate my left arm up and around to the right. It is a frustrating process, but one that with time I know will become natural.
Until then, my cats are running for cover while I practice.
It was a bitter-sweet day: my birthday and finding out about Steve Job's passing when I got home from lessons.
I remember when the "Walkman" was the ultimate portable music machine. Imagine being able to take your cassette tapes with you where-ever you wanted! It was bulky, heavy, only carried 1 hour of music at best, and you had to carry a pencil with you all the time to fix the tape windings. But for the first time, you weren't bound to either the turn-table at home or the cassette deck in you car. The upgrade several years later was the CD walkman, still bulky, a battery drain, but no need to carry a pencil.
Then enter the the iPod. Suddenly you could store a day's worth of music on something not much larger than a credit card. That format shrunk to the size of something no larger than your thumb at lightening speed. Extensive personal music libraries became completely portable. The technology didn't stop there. Now you can record videos with your iPhone, share them with friends and even download apps for metronomes and tuners - all in one device that can fit in the palm of your hand. When the iPads first came out, I saw some of my musician friends use them to store their sheet-music and use them in place of their traditional paper sheet-music.
While Bill Gates focused on the business world of computing, Steve Jobs made computing a truly personal and integral part of our lives in a profound way. He will be sorely missed.
I've said it before, I struggle with my setup. What I've started realizing (with the help from my teacher), is that is is more about posture than setup.
My teacher and I have been focusing on tension issues. During my last lesson she asked if I had always held my viola so far low on the shoulder. Luckily, I have two pictures inside my case of me playing as a young child, so it was easy to tell. In the first one, the viola was almost straight in front of me with my nose pointed down the fingerboard (granted, I was playing with my music on the floor while I sat on the bed - not good to begin with). In the second, it was indeed low on the shoulder.
She suggested (again) that I consider moving the viola up higher on my shoulder. After going home, I took off both the chin and shoulder rests and started playing scales. It was quite comfortable except for the down-shifts. The viola teeter-tottered all over the place. But what I discovered was that the comfortable spot was indeed higher up on the shoulder.
I dug through my collection of chin rests and found one that could go over the tail-piece a bit more and did my scales again (still no SR). It was still comfortable. Once I started adding SR's, it became a nightmare. But still, downshifting was an issue without support on the right side. I settled with a SR that is extremely low on the left with a support on the right and hiked my viola up on the shoulder.
My left hand was quite comfortable and after some scale and bow work, my bowing straightened out and I was making it to the tip even on the lower strings, something I haven't been able to do - ever. Instead of under-shooting the shifts, I was over-shooting them since my left hand was more free to move about. I had to remind myself to not clamp down with my chin or scrunch my shoulder, but after a few days, that issue diminished.
So far, there has been no bow-arm / neck pain. When I look in the mirror, I'm standing up straighter and am not hunched around my viola. In a word, more relaxed.
Now if I can only adapt this while sitting down.....
Mendy Smith is from League City, Texas. Biography
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