Lessons these days are becoming quite intense, and as I get older my memory is not getting much better. There is so much to remember over the course of the week between lessons - phrasings, tension points, relaxation techniques, shifting styles, breathing techniques. what and how to practice by next week... all sorts of things that typically aren't written into the music during lessons. Even with audio or video recordings, taking notes during or as soon after lessons are important. There is something to be said about the act of writing something down by hand to commit it to memory.
Then there is the act taking notes after practicing at home. What went well, not so well? I'm starting to form a habit of jotting down one-liners after my daily practice. The notes I take aren't novels, just one-liners like "bring elbow around while changing strings", "scrunching shoulder to chin when vibrating on lower strings" to "yeah! extended left arm is improving intonation and freeing up left hand!" or "remember to start at tip and move quickly to the frog at mm ##". Between lessons, these simple little notes help reinforce what works, reminders to self on what I should be focusing on, and to work through or remember to ask about what doesn't work or understand.
The down side to all of this is realizing how much work is ahead of me to get where I want to be musically. At least I can read up on my own progress and not get too discouraged.
It started seemingly minor at first, a little tension at the chin. Then later a little tension in the right arm when bowing fast passages. Then it moved to my left hand when learning vibrato. Then it creeped up to the right side of my neck and made it down to my fingers. Then one day, I had a shooting pain that traveled from my shoulder all the way down to my fingertips in my bow arm that caused me to loose feeling and drop the bow.
Since that day, I've been chasing tension all over my body while both working and playing, trying to get my muscles to relax. Over time, it only got worse, no matter what I tried to the point where I'm at now, having to cut seriously back on my musical activities to seriously address the problem.
During lessons, my teacher pointed out that the tension is affecting other areas of my playing: intonation, tone quality, vibrato... a whole host of techniques where being tense hinders the musical quality, not to mention the pain. Rather than focus on my bow arm pain, she zeroed in to my left hand tension and had me simply slide up and down the fingerboard with the pressure that is needed to make a harmonic - virtually none. Even then, my left hand was getting "stuck" from just first to third positions. My homework assignment for the week...
While practicing at home tonight, I spent several minutes simply trying to glide up and down the fingerboard. Without fail, the downwards slide was jerky and tense. I noticed that from my 4th finger down to my elbow was as tight as my viola strings and became sore after a minute of this exercise. Recalling a Simon Fisher exercise, I moved my thumb up to between the 3rd and 4th finger. The slides were much smoother. As I moved my thumb down I noticed that when it was near the 1st finger, the tension came back.
I also discovered that when my left hand was relaxed with the thumb closer to my 2nd - 3rd finger, my bow arm and neck relaxed as well and did not become sore after several minutes of practicing.
It is funny how tension in one area tends to make its way to other areas of the body. Just when I was convinced it was a right hand issue, I'm beginning to realize that it is a whole body issue.
Since last week's blog, I pulled out my old chromatic tuner that produced drones and started working on my Major scales. The drone was difficult to hear, but after some readjusting its position, I found a sweet-spot where I could hear the done through my own playing.
Besides learning that my 2nd finger was consistently flat by a few cents was that the non-ringing scales (C#, D#, F#) were the easiest to dial in my intonation with the drone. Even when coming down off of the 3rd octave and losing my fingerings, I managed to find the resonant tone. It took less time than I thought to learn to listen.
It was an ear opening experience.
After my last performance, I noticed my intonation was a bit off - just flat enough to stand out like a sore thumb in my ears. For years I used a tuner as a tool to determine if I was in tune or not. As my intonation skills progressed, I upgraded to a tuner that could be calibrated to perfect 5ths.
Though these tools helped me get my intonation closer to where it needed to be, there became flaws with this approach over time. The first one I noticed was with double stops and chords and then later when playing with other people. In the grander scheme of things, the sound was just off.
It took a long time to realize that there are many variations on a particular note to have it perfectly in tune and it depends on what is being played at the time. My first "aha" was that a F-nat can be sharp or flat against a tuner depending on the particular chord being played. The intonation complexities kicked in even further when putting intonation into context of the piece and if the note was a leading one or not.
I still have yet to fully understand "the rules", but I'm getting closer to having another of those "aha" moments. How I'm getting there is by listening with context in mind. Context is a subtle yet important distinction. It can make or break something sounding right or wrong.
I must admit that I still use my tuner in the stratosphere of the fingerboard to get me close, but am starting to rely more and more on my ear with the context of the piece to get me to the last few cents to make it sound "right".
There comes a time where the art exceeds the tool.
On the 10th anniversary of 9/11, I played music. I did not play in a memorial concert, remembrance service, or any other similar event. Instead I played German music with a lesbian Orthodox Jew.
We met up a year ago through a program by one of our local pro orchestras promoting chamber music by organizing ensembles with coaching. We quickly became friends through music despite our obvious differences in lifestyle and culture and committed to continue to practice together once the program was complete for the season.
This Sunday my cellist friend and I (both eyeglass wearers) had a light lunch and started working on Beethoven's "Two Eyeglasses". We're working from a urtext version that has no bowings, fingerings, dynamic or tempo markings. The whole interpretation is what we want to make out of it. We are starting at a very slow tempo in order to discover for ourselves how our parts fit with each other and working in bowings and dynamics. It is amazing how many possibilities there are when working with a blank slate.
We never made it past the first half of the first page, but spent quite a bit of time working on having everything line up rhythmically and bowing-wise. A good hour or so was simply spent discussing Beethoven's life and how it influenced his music, from his earliest works to his most profound symphonies and quartets when he was losing his hearing at the end of his life.
It seemed fitting to focus on what binds us together on a day such as this one. In another 10 years, who knows what I'll be playing and with whom. The possibilities are endless...
This year I'm changing a few things rather significantly.
After mulling it over and thinking about it for quite some time, I'll be sitting out of this season's orchestra rehearsals & concerts. Instead I'll be spending my time playing with other doing chamber music. Since starting viola back up again several years ago I have found that playing in an orchestra is more of a hindrance than a help to my playing ability. It is simply to easy to become lost in a sea of instruments and shrug off mistakes. In a chamber setting, there is no place to hide. You either pull your weight or stick out like a sore thumb.
I'll also be focusing in more on my technique and style. After finally becoming comfortable with the nether regions of the fingerboard and the most awful key signatures, it is time for me to start addressing some of the finer nuances of music making. Things like intonation in the context of the piece, vibrato through bow changes, gaining control over what vibrato I have, left hand finger independence, and better bow control at the tip are on the agenda.
But most importantly, I need to focus on learning how to play without tension. This has been a struggle for quite a long time. If I don't address it now, my viola-playing will most likely be cut short from injury. As it stands today, there are passages that I simply cannot play because they cause pain in my bow arm.
So, a new season and a new focus... The trick will be knowing when to say "no" to an offer to play.
More entries: August 2011
Mendy Smith is from League City, Texas. Biography
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