As I've posted in a couple of discussion threads, I injured my left thumb by shutting it in a car door when I was 11. That was a long time ago, and while the thumb has healed, I'm still struggling with it now. What it means, how I can work with it.
The car door severed the tip of the thumb so that it is about half a centimeter shorter than the other one. More significantly it has a large scar on the back, the part that touches my viola, and a place where some skin was stitched together. You don't really notice it unless you're looking at it, but since it's there, I look at it. None of my violin teachers ever even noticed it until I pointed it out to one of them. His reaction was sort of an "oh yeah, hmm," and he didn't seem to think it made much difference. Ignore it, don't use it as an excuse, seemed to be the prevailing opinion at the time.
Except that I still now seem to naturally shy away from really using that thumb for much of anything. I've started to play pieces a few times through while thinking about my thumb and even watching my thumb. Rather than leading shifts, it usually trails behind the rest of my hand. It never loses contact with the instrument neck, but often the tip does, because the tip is short, and I end up resting the instrument agains the first joint. Up in 4th and 5th position, it's really trailing and its position is inconsistent.
I especially notice it at the end of the Prelude to Bach cello suite #1. The piece goes from 3rd position to 4th to 5th and my thumb just stays behind in 3rd. I assume that most people use the thumb as kind of an anchor, but I don't seem to. I think I'm using overall hand position, the position of the other fingers, and the knuckle of the first finger, as my only anchors. Visual input helps too (another reason to memorize, maybe). My intonation in higher positions has always been inconsistent. I've been trying to consciously bring the thumb along with the other fingers, but the feeling is strange. It's almost as if I can't use the neural input from the tip of that thumb meaningfully.
The neuroscientist in me has spent a lot time speculating on the state of my somatosensory cortex in that area. What happened to it, how did it rearrange? There's good evidence for plasticity in this area, even in adulthood. So I have hope, I just feel like I need to guide that plasticity in the right direction.
I recorded myself last night playing the Bach Allemande from Suite #1. The sound quality from my camera is terrible, there's a kind of weird buzzing noise on the A string that I don't hear in person. But all that aside, I was surprised and disappointed at how limited my dynamic range was. I think I'd been so star-struck by my new instrument that I was letting it do all the work. I guess I just thought it magically knew what to do :(
So I played the piece again, really concentrating on the dynamics. Not much better. So then I really exaggerated them, or it felt like that, and finally that seemed to make a difference on the recording. It sounded more interesting, less mechanical, and not nearly as exaggerated as I felt when I was playing. Again, I'm brought up short by the difference between what I think I look and sound like while I'm playing and the evidence of the camera and recorder.
It felt somewhat of out of control to play the dynamics like that. And it was quite tiring, but mostly in a good way. I only played half the movement, less than a minute, but I felt it in my muscles. I think this is a good step towards more expressive playing, but I'm kind of all over the place. And the feeling of loss of control is scary to contemplate in a performance context. I wouldn't think that's something to shoot for. I'm having a little trouble fitting this into practice goals for the week: just keep playing it like that until it doesn't feel exaggerated and unnatural anymore?
Okay, well, the honeymoon is over. It lasted 2 days. My daughter still wants to play her violin, Lucy, but the attitude is back. She doesn't like to repeat things. If she plays it once, as far as she's concerned, she's done with it until tomorrow. Especially if "it" is a scale.
Also, she seems to have some trouble coordinating her right and left hand. She moves the bow before she takes her finger off the string, so when she descends an A-major scale, it sounds like 3, 3-2 (slurred), 2-1 (slurred), 1-A (slurred). Doo, da-doo, da-doo, da-doo. She laughs when I point it out but has basically no desire to correct it. Adventures in Violinland is still going well. She's still doing its pizzicato exercises, and doesn't have any problem with the da-doo's there.
Also, her Suzuki teacher taught her a weird bow hold last year. She holds the bow with her thumb on the bottom of the frog rather than in the niche where I was taught to hold it (and where everybody else that I've seen play holds it). Is that bow hold typically done in Suzuki or elsewhere for beginners with small hands? I don't think holding the bow that way is related to the other issue, but nonetheless I think it's probably time to change her to a regular bow hold--no? The "Meet the Bow" book in "Adventures . . ." is coming up next and that could be a good time. But I can already imagine the balking: "No, I like it this way! I won't do it." It'll probably take a teacher or someone other than me to get her to listen.
I got my performance date for the Belmont Farmers' Market: July 5th at 4 p.m. (unless it rains--I'm not taking my new viola out in the rain).
I have about 30 minutes of "programming" for it: 1 fiddle tune, Hook Sonatina, the first 3 movements of the 1st Bach cello suite. Then 4 more fiddle tunes and ending with a nice arrangement of Shenandoah from "Solos for the Viola Player." I thought that fiddle and folk songs were appropriate for a Farmers' Market.
I'm a little concerned about the Bach--after all, unaccompanied Bach didn't seem to do much for Joshua Bell in a subway station--but I've been working the hardest on it, it's the biggest challenge I've taken on so far on viola, I love the music, and the Courante (3rd movement) is a lively dance that I think will provide a nice bridge into the fiddling that comes next. Besides, it's hard to find viola solos that don't need accompaniment. The Sonatina and Shenandoah both have a piano part, but I think in those cases the viola part stands well enough on its own.
And it's also hard to arrange a program in an order that makes sense. I've switched it around several times already and probably will again.
After quite a long break from the violin, my daughter asked to play it again. Her school music program had a demonstration last week, with all the 3rd and 4th graders playing violin, viola, and cello as a group. They played Frere Jacques as a round and Turkey in the Straw. I think they actually skipped Twinkle, which was just fine with me. I was impressed with how many kids they had doing this just in her elementary school alone, and especially with how many violas and cellos there were in addition to violins. Also, there were a lot of boys in all three sections. (I'd heard that in some suburbs, stringed instruments were considered too girly. Yikes. Glad that doesn't seem to be the case here). Sure, there'll be some attrition as they get older, but it looked like a very healthy program.
My daughter came right home and wanted to practice again. I mentioned that Lucy had probably been lonely not being played for several months and she agreed. We played for 35 minutes, reviewing scales, old Suzuki pieces + duets, and some more Adventures in Violinland. While that isn't a huge amount of time, it was all good time. There was no whining, no complaining, no losing focus. When I asked her to repeat something or correct something, she made a good faith effort to do so. She also just seemed to understand what I was telling her at a higher level than she did before. Maybe the piano lessons have helped, or maybe she's made some kind of developmental cognitive leap just through maturity. Yesterday she was a pleasure to teach, unlike she really ever has been before.
I went back to Princeton for my 20th reunion last weekend. The Princeton University Orchestra has started a tradition of playing a pre-fireworks lawn concert, something that they didn't do when I was a member from 1985-87. I also missed the alumni get-together, to which I would have showed up as a violist, because it was held during the morning I was driving up there. So I didn't bother to bring along my instrument, thereby breaking my latest 35-day practice streak :(
During my sophomore year, I was in a string quartet class with three other musicians. I was the first violinist. I saw the second violinist and the cellist and asked them if they were still playing. It turned out that both were in community orchestras, and the 2nd violinist said he'd also been in 2 quartets. Now I feel like a slouch, giving up playing for 7 years! I got home and started over last night with day 1 again.
Revisit Violinist.com editor Laurie Niles' coverage from Canada of the 2013 Montreal International Musical Competition, including her interview with gold medalist Marc Bouchkov.
Karen Allendoerfer is from Belmont, Massachusetts. Biography
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