I played again at the Belmont Farmer's Market yesterday. I don't have any pictures this time, but there was a woman from the local public-access TV station who interviewed me after I played O Sole Mio. She had a (silent) cameraman with her who filmed the whole song.
So, why the title of this blog? Well, my mother is unwell. She and my father had been planning to come to hear me play. I'd picked the date for that reason. But then she got sick and couldn't come, and her illness is making her say some not-so-happy stuff. I talked to her on the phone the night before, and in a classic case of parents being especially good at pushing your buttons because they installed them, she rattled me. I had a hard time sleeping, and then in the morning was trying to finish writing out my arrangement of O Mio Babbino Caro for the viola, and I completely screwed it up. I had decided to put it in the key of D, and I put it in G by mistake. Alto clef--blecch.
I came home from work, changed into my new dress I'd bought for the occasion, put my viola in the car, drove there with all my bad old performance-anxiety nerves jangling, watching the sky thinking maybe it would start raining and I'd be off the hook and could just go home.
No such luck. The family trio playing before me had already packed up and left, and so I just took my time setting up: putting up my music stand, arranging the multiple clothespins just so (I brought 8 this time). I tuned. I'd forgotten my tuning fork and don't have absolute pitch, but oh well. The A didn't sound off and my viola generally holds its tune pretty well. So I took a deep breath and started to play.
And after a few minutes, the tension and angst started to slip away. There was a little baby, around a year old but pre-verbal, who kept making the ASL sign for "more." He and his mother stayed for a long time to listen and even went and got a stroller so she wouldn't have to hold him. There was the ~8-year-old who asked if my bow was made from horse hair, and the woman to whom I explained the difference between a violin and a viola. Then there were the two kids who started fighting about a scooter and had to be taken away by their parents--they distracted me, but didn't really *bother* me. There was the woman who wondered if I was with the local music school, and mentioned her service on its board of directors. She said that school had opened "before [I] was born--probably 40 years ago." (I'm 41, so no, it wasn't before I was born, but Thanks!). There was the woman who told me it was a great dress.
The "Come Back to Sorrento" guy unfortunately couldn't stay to hear the song. But I was happy with it anyway. It sounds quite nice on the viola. It can be played as written, in the right key, without needing to be transposed at all or played with weird fingerings. "O Sole Mio" is the same way. As I mentioned, someone taped it for "Focus Belmont" on local access TV.
I played enough different songs and got enough feedback that I think I'm beginning to be able to tell which are "crowd pleasers." These include:
"O Mio Babbino Caro" was okay too--but it would have been better on the violin. I had already punted Largo from Winter (Vivaldi's 4 seasons), Preludio from Partita in E, and Gusty's Frolics from the program completely, because they just didn't work on viola, and it turned out I just wasn't ready for violin, or for bringing two instruments.
I also have now heard my viola in enough different situations that I'm even happier with my purchase of it. Its sound is robust and resonant, and it carries well, even outdoors. Whereas even at its best, the sound of my violin can only really be described in positive terms as "sweet." And you know, I think I have to face facts here: I'm just not really that sweet.
For playing, I got a gift certificate from the market that I used to buy some corn, a jar of chocolate sauce, and a loaf of fresh whole-wheat bread. We had that for dinner, and even my picky-eating children loved it. Sitting around the dinner table with them, munching on fresh corn, I was glad it hadn't rained. I was glad I went through with it after all. I felt okay again, as if I'd been healed by the music.
Last night, after a week of bad practicing, desultory practicing, and not practicing the violin, I started to form a theory of violin as kryptonite. For me, that is.
My viola experience has been almost all positive, from the way my instrument sounds to the fun performing at the farmer's market. With the viola, I'm focused and I make progress. It's stress relief to play it. The sound is soothing under my ear and makes me happy. On the viola, I have long strings of unbroken practice: 21 days, 35 days, 18 days straight. With the violin, it's 1 day, then it's 1 day again a few days later.
I have some stressful stuff going on at work and with my parents, and I take my violin out to practice, and music is not therapeutic. Not stress relief at all. I'm not a happy camper. The sound of the violin is getting on my last nerve--eeeeek, eeeeek, eeeeek, screech, screech, screech. I was feeling really good about my violin sound a couple of weeks ago, ordered some strings and a new chin rest that I liked, but I seem to have lost that momentum again.
And now my good friend the viola is annoyed that I left him in the case for all that time while he had to listen to me murder the Four Seasons and Puccini. Screech, screech, screech. He wants to play Puccini himself.
I'm going to let him.
In my quest to improve the sound of my violin, I ordered Infeld Reds, based on what Pauline wrote in her blog ("I love my Infeld Reds!"). They came last week and I finally found the time to put them on my violin yesterday. And wow, they really do make a difference. For the first time I think I'm happy with the A&E sound on my violin (and the fact that the E is gold is a nice touch--cute). In the upper register, the violin sounds ringing, clear, and bell-like. It has resonance that it didn't have before. And the feel of playing it is more satisfying. Now it's only the G that really stands out as blah. It's still, scratchy, gritty, hollow. I'm not blaming the strings. I'm wondering now about a new chin rest. The one I have now clamps onto the left side, rather than around the middle the way the one on my viola does. I read on one of the discussion threads that where the chin rest is positioned can matter. It also seems to matter a little bit where the shoulder rest is. I'm not interested in learning to play without a shoulder rest entirely because I got rid of my back and neck pain with this rest (a Kun), but it still seems like I have to be careful where I put it.
I went through a period when I was breaking in my viola bow during which I realized for the first time that it was possible to put too much rosin on a bow. I'd take the bow out of the case and just rosin it up automatically before I started playing. And then my new viola, that started out so rich and smooth-sounding, was starting to sound gritty. I was worried at first, but it was just from too much rosin. I went cold turkey on the rosin for almost a month, things improved immediately, then I didn't use enough for a while; I'm closing in on just right. I'm now wondering what archival layers of caked-on junk are sitting there on my violin bow making everything scratchy. So, it's probably past time to get my violin bow re-haired. I can't remember the last time, it could be 10 years ago. Maybe even longer!
So then, just for fun, I tried the viola bow on the violin, and it's too heavy. My violin apparently needs a very light touch, as well (something that I doesn't come naturally. What can I say, maybe I was always a violist). And then, surprise, the light touch that made the violin sound better also makes the viola sound better.
Even with all that: having a Luthier fix the soundpost and the nut a few months ago, replacing the strings again, facing a new chin rest and bow rehair, I'm feeling pretty good about the progress I've made with the sound of this violin recently. It seems like I've been able to think about and diagnose and trouble shoot some of the problems on my own, and I've never been able to do that before on the violin. I'd just think it sounded bad and get discouraged and think it was my fault. It's turning my attitude towards the violin around. But I'm not sure I would have been able to do that even now if I hadn't just been through the experience of trying, buying, and playing a viola that I like. So that's why I think that I want to keep up playing both instruments at some level. Playing the one informs the other.
Violinist Frank Almond tells the life story of the 1715 Lipinski Strad in his new recording, "A Violin's Life."
Karen Allendoerfer is from Belmont, Massachusetts. Biography
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