August 2009

A Leap Above Terrible

August 25, 2009 21:50

So in my last entry, I went through the trials and tribulations of an out-of-practice player trying to come to terms with both my level of skill and my level of instrument. I spent some time out of town, did some work related things that kept me busy, but ultimately got back around to violin concerns. Today I made an important step in the process: a step above terrible. More like a leap really.

I find my play skills are something along the description of "atrophied". I used to play decently, but time and lack of use have degraded my abilities. With some musical therapy, so to speak, I can get back on track.

Meanwhile I came to grips with the quality of my instrument. While I'm ultimately content with the violin itself (for now, it's just a student instrument so I tried to set my expectations to realistic levels), I had three candidates for upgrades: the rosin, the bow, and the case.

The case I figure is something I should only be worried about if I plan on carting my violin around with me. As of yet, I'm not ready to transport it anywhere so no sense worrying about the riding car of the violin if it never takes trips.

The rosin is in a really annoying form to me. The rosin I'm used to from my olden days is in a rectangular shape with a sort of cork (or something) backing and it's just well... bow shaped. It looks like something you run against a bow-like object. The rosin I have right now that came with the case is more like a pine tree hockey puck on a strip of fabric you'd use for waxing. It's awkward to work with for me. To me, rosin is like a knife sharpener. What I'm used to is one of those nifty sharpeners that you just run the knife through and presto, sharp knife. This rosin is more like when you have a rock that you can technically work the blade against to try and form the sharp edge. However, in the grand scheme of things rosin isn't that expensive, nor is it that big of a difference compared with other things. I can wait on this too.

So this left the bow. From the moment I held it out of the case, it didn't feel "right". The violin felt fine, sounded fine, looked cool, etc, but as soon as my fingers coiled around that stick I sensed something was wrong. I believe the term I've seen fiddle shop owners use is "throw away bows". Yep, that's an accurate description, because I sure wanted to throw this one away! It wasn't crooked or anything, but it just wasn't put together well and didn't use very good materials, even for my standards.

As I was talking with my friend who plays in the Irish session I was chatting with her about violin woes. She broke her E string tonight, her pegs aren't staying, little annoyances like that. I mentioned that I needed to go bow shopping and she said, to my surprise, that she had a bow she was willing to sell me. She had upgraded her own bow and was willing to part with her old one. So I took her up on the offer to "test drive" it this week. If I liked it, we would work out a deal. If I didn't like it, I could just bring it over to the party this weekend and give it back, no harm no foul. I figured hey, if my bow is terrible, any other bow is likely a step above terrible and that's an improvement.

She happened to have it with her and let me have it tonight. I didn't have anything to carry it in, so I just spent time holding it. I pretty much held it at the table all night chatting with our friends. I held it in the car on the way home. Something about holding bow or instrument in hand makes you want to start using it impulsively. As soon as we got home and stepped in the door, I wandered over to the violin case. II was just going to put the bow in the case and take out one of the old bows (it was late at night after all, no time to play). I like to call the two old bows "double trouble," as I had two of these so called "throw away" bows. Three bows, 2 spots, so one of them has to go. Honestly all I was going to do was put away the new bow, but when I opened the case, I found myself compulsed to pull out the fiddle and test out this new (new to me anyway) bow.

Wow. No really...... wow. Did I drink too much at the pub and my ears deceive me? I pulled out the old bow to compare the two. Holy mother of all gods, what is this miracle bow??? I couldn't believe the difference! Even my husband came in from the other room surprised by the improvement in quality when I played with the new bow. So I've only played for 5 minutes with this new bow tonight and I'm already completely in love with it. This got me thinking, what the heck is the difference that makes it THAT much better for me?

Both were wood. The frog seemed much better - nice mother of pearl and what not. Stick was a hex stick which was the same as my el cheapo bow. Wood seems darker on the new bow, and the way the hairs are done seems much better on the new one. The hairs themselves also seem to be of better quality. I do recall that I'd seen this bow before when my friend was telling me about where she got her fiddle. An old friend of hers had a father in eastern europe who used to make violins and would send extra ones as gifts. Since the daughter didn't really know how to play, she offered one to my friend as a gift. In my friend's closet it sat for many years until she got a wild hair to start learning to play it recently. My friend loved her fiddle, but didn't really care too much for the bow and bought a new bow a few months ago. She kept the old one though until now. So the workmanship is definately a factor in the difference between the two bows. Recently the new bow had been re-haired, but it was a thinner width of hair than what I'm used to. Maybe that was it? In the end, I think the real difference is the weight and balance of it.

The new bow is definately heavier than my old one. I'm not sure what kind of wood it's made from, but it's definately darker, almost black compared to the "orangey" color of the cheap bow. I find I actually like that it is heavier. My friend was getting rid of it because it was heavy (she had upgraded to a carbon fiber bow or something like that). I tried her new bow and didn't care for it even though it was lighter and all that jazz. I think I find the light bows bounce around too much for my taste - the heavier bow weight seems to ground it to the string. I don't even get "tired" using it. It' s the same problem I have with my computer mouse sensitivity - when I play my computer games, I set the sensitivity down. I like having to work my arm and get better/ more accurate results that way. Too "light" of a touch and I just fling my mouse everywhere except where I want it.  The balance point on the bow is also a teeny bit closer to the frog than my old ones.

I don't know if it's the weight or the balance or the hairs or heck maybe it's because it was made by a little old man in eastern europe - this bow rocks my casbah. Using this bow, I am hearing the sounds I remember. THAT is what my music is supposed to sound like! It's amazing how a ton of self consciousness about playing in front of people just melted away hearing this bow pull those sounds out of my little black fiddle.

Originally I was going to name my fiddle for fun. I haven't decided what name to give the fiddle, but I'm thinking this bow deserves a name now too. I'll figure something out, because "epic bow of sheer liquid awesome" is a little long.


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Newbie Shame

August 8, 2009 14:01

I figure the more I read and explore, the more I learn right? Well the more I read and chatted, the more intimidated I started to feel; not from the players, but a sense of "I am out of my league". Not only do I feel bashful about my play skills, but I even find I sort of cringe at the thought of my instrument compared to other people's instruments. The first strong sense of it I got was in relation to a local Irish session I know...

Ever since I moved to New England, every Tuesday night I go to a little Irish pub to meet up with some friends. At the pub there also happens to be a nice collective of local musicians who get together for an Irish session there on Tuesday nights as well. They order a big pitcher of beer, gather at one end of the pub, and play whatever they know. From violins to drums, they've got a real assortment of instruments happening! It's fun to sit and socialize with my friends, have dinner and some drinks, and listen to the session.

One day, a friend of ours announced that she was learning to fiddle and had joined a local class. We all encouraged her to start playing with the irish session once she felt comfortable - and eventually she did! She started timidly by creeping over to the session with her violin in hand and pulling up a chair, but she would just watch and listen rather than play. They told her the names of the songs and she'd go home to try and practice them. Eventually, she picked a song or two to play with them. At one point she invited her fiddling class to the session, and pretty soon the standard tuesday irish session was comprised of about 3/4ths violins. Her class had more or less "adopted" the session, and the other players didn't mind. They ended up with so many of them that they had to spill into the back room.

Around this time, a friend of mine who deals in historical instrument replicas got ahold of some Cecilio violins. Seeing my other friend play in the session had always sort of perked my interest in renewing my own fiddling. So I took my buddy up on the offer and bought a black Cecilio from him. I knew it wasn't an epic instrument or anything, but for the price it was right for me. Just something to get me started.

At first I was pretty happy with it. It's this crazy black color (jokingly the dealer who sold it to me, his wife calls it "very rockstar"). I took pictures of it to show it to my friends and family. I fussed with it and fawned over it for days. Then the giddy excitement wore down a bit and I started trying to be diligent with practice and learning as much as I could. I started to read some and really started second guessing my instrument. My little Cecilio was "okay" to learn on I think, but when I read about other instruments I started to feel like mine was, well... when you were a kid did you ever have a parent who wouldn't let you have "name brand" things so you felt self conscious about your knock-offs around other kids at school? That's the feeling I started to get about my instrument. Like, it's fine around the house to learn on, but the thought of playing it in front of others made the hairs on my neck stand up like a cat who sees something they don't like.

Meanwhile, my friend got so into playing with the session that when I show up for the night, I don't even see her at our table any more until towards the end of the evening, when she takes a break from playing to actually eat. A couple of times she started eating with the session folks. Our friends made a light-hearted joke to her of "what we're not good enough for you anymore now that you have your fiddle friends?" We had a good laugh, and then my collective of friends commented about how I had also gotten a violin to play. They turned to me and said "pretty soon you'll be part of the fiddle cliche too ay?" "yeah you should start playing in the session too", etc. I don't know how to describe the feeling I got from that inquiry other than SHEER TERROR. Me? Play with the session? With MY fiddle?

I really started scrutinizing my instrument and reading up about "good" violins/bows. Man that was a further maze of confusion at first. Everyone seemed to have a different idea about it:
These strings are great
These strings suck
Wait no it's just the E string that sucks
No all E's suck
No all E's are fine except for these particular E's
No no the rosin, this rosin is terrible
This rosin is wonderful
Rosin is everything
Rosin is nothing
This bow is made from a special tree in the rainforest
Wait don't deforest the rainforest there's this carbon fiber stuff
It's the age of the wood
NO it's the type of the wood
NO it's the shape of it
NO it's all of that!
Your bow and case should be X% the cost of your fiddle, wait I bought it from a friend who let me have it at cost so how does that factor into my %???
Aaaaaaaaaaeeerrrggh!!11!1! o_O; -_- >_<

It was tempting to buy "better" of everything. Then I slowed down and thought okay let's try a different approach. Instead of looking for what's best, let's just look at what I have now and see how bad is it really

Cracked wood? No seems fine. Pegs too loose/too tight? No seem to hold the tune alright. Sound post? Yep got one of those - though whether or not it's in a good spot dunno. Bridge? Sitting in the right spot, doesn't seem to be bending. What kind of strings? Steel, alright says some fiddlers prefer steel strings for the sound. Strings laying too close to fingerboard? No they seem ok. Bridge shaped funky? No seems fine. F holes look F-ish? Yeah. Anything seem crooked? No seems fine. Anything seem warped? No seems ok. Even the bow, which was the first thing that struck me as "cheap" about it when I held it, wasn't warped at least. Maybe I was being paranoid?

I talked to my dealer friend again about the instrument. He plays drums and a couple other instruments, and has a passable ability to hold most instruments for the purpose of seeing if they make a sound or not. But in terms of playing it, he has no clue. He leaves it to his customers to decide if the instrument is right for them or not. Mostly he only sells at festivals for fun (renessaunce festivals at that). Originally he got the violins because it was a good deal for him, and it was a more "traditional" instrument for public consumption compared to his viola de gamba or hurdy gurdy's for the historical re-enactment types. He thought hey, if someone who used to play sees the violin and wants it to start playing again, that makes him happy. I talked to him about what he knew about the instruments and he said:

"As far as I know, this company is chinese based. They make them in the factory and ship them back to the states to be set up. But to be honest, you ask me the difference between a german or a chinese or an italian violin? One's made by a chinese man, one by an italian, one by a german. To me, I'm no expert so when I hear someone play on an uber instrument vs one of these, I can't really tell the difference. I'm sure to someone with a refined ear the chinese violin might seem off, but to me, they all sound good. And to be honest, the tools some of these factory places have nowadays are way better than even the masters had back then. So is the hundreds of years old violin better sounding than these? Probably, but these factory ones sound fine for what I'm expecting to hear as an un-trained listener".

Later I decided to get brave when my visiting in-laws requested that I play them a couple tunes to hear how I was coming along. So I played a little for my inlaws and husband when I got home. I squeaked here. I hissed there. I clipped a string I didn't mean to. I mislanded my 4th finger (which is a whole other story but that's for another day). By my own standards, it was a train wreck. But they were very impressed. After the fact, little did I know but there was a reason they were so impressed: I had left my violin laying on my desk from when I was doing some research about it online. The three of them had gotten it in their heads that they wanted to try it. All they could get out of it was SCREEEEEEEAAAAACCH SCRAAAAWWWWK SCRAAAAAATCH SSSSHHHHH SCREEEE. (and in retrospect, I thought I saw some rosin up on my finger board before I started playing and wondered why). "Amanda you sound great. When you play it sounds like music. I can hear a song. We couldn't even get the thing to make a note". I didn't really believe them until I caught my husband trying to play it again when I came home early from work. I was walking up the steps when I heard this SCRRAAAWWWWWK SCRAWW SCRAWW SSSH SCRAWW sound. I mean it wasn't even notes behind the noise, just...noise. Man I've heard fingernails on a chalkboard played more melodic than that. He couldn't even get the basic sound of the E string to come out.

So I think I've reached a level of comfort with my instrument. I think if anything, the only thing I may upgrade is my bow because my instincts told me the moment I held it that it's terrible. So I'll go with my gut on that one. It doesn't need to be an epic bow, just something a step above terrible. And my case, because I think it's designed poorly. I'm still getting over my self consciousness about my instrument, and feeling better about it. I may not yet be session material, but I think blended in a crowd of other players my instrument will be fine for casual play.

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From Memory

August 2, 2009 20:33

In some ways my return to the violin has been like the proverbial bicycle. They say you never forget how to ride a bike, right? To a degree I find this to be true of my violin. It's been since I was barely a teen since I played with any regularity. Now as I'm almost 30 trying to return to playing, I find myself remembering and forgetting so much at once. It feels very natural in many ways. In other ways, it is so alien. Memory is perhaps a friend and enemy in this process.

I find I remember songs by their feel. Flipping through youtube videos of other players, within two notes of hearing the video, my fingers walk the neck where they should, and my arm moves the bow instinctively to the proper string.  Or what I remember to be proper. In other cases, I just know a song without knowing the sheet music nor the name of it - just the feel and the sound of it. Unfortunately I am quickly learning that muscle memory alone is not enough, and my technique is presently horrific. I've heard the debate that there is no such thing as "muscle memory". I disagree, but not based on anything related to instruments or music. I find the term is misunderstood and misused more so than a mythical phrase.

When I was an artist's model, we used the term "muscle memory" to describe a model's ability to return to the pose they held after an extended break. When you're sitting in front of a room of artists sketching or painting you, you must hold very still for a period of time - sometimes as much as hours, or as short as seconds, and everything in between. Naturally no human being short of a Shaolin Monk could ever hold the same position for more than thirty minutes straight without consequence, so it is customary during longer poses to take breaks of ten to fifteen minutes to allow the model to move about and get the circulation going again. Once the break is over, the model returns to the pose getting as close to the original positions as possible. It includes everything from the way the head is turned or titled to the position of fingers, feet, and twist in torso... and more. I always got a lot of praise from the artists for having excellent "muscle memory". It is not that my muscles remember where to go - that would be silly as muscles have no reasoning power. The phrase refers to my brain's ability to remember the feel of how the muscles (and other parts of the body with feeling) were previously in order to reproduce the same position a second time. How much tension was in the thigh; how much twist was in the forearm; which secondary muscles were straining in the neck in order to give the correct amount of tilt; what areas of my skin were taunt and which were relaxed; and so on. I never made the connection when I was a model that this type of use of memory dated as far back as my violin lessons...

I never learned to read music. I still can't. But I have always been able to memorize the sound and feel of things, and to remember which fingers produce what sounds that I want. In some ways I wish my instructor had been more harsh in insisting I learn to read music, but unfortunately the ultimate "test" of learning the songs was being able to get in front of the room and play the songs. I had my sheet music, but I was never reading it. I would just memorize what the song was supposed to sound like, and where my fingers and bow needed to move to make that happen. The book was in front of me, but if it was possible to watch my eyes, I was not following the sheet at all, just looking "at" it (or even through it).

We used to keep a chart of the progress we made with the songs. Next to your name below every song you were able to play in front of the class you got a little sticker. My song list was twice the length of the other students. Now you would think the teacher could "catch" me by forcing me to sit down with a sheet of music I hadn't seen before and asking me to play it back. This is correct, it was a way to catch me at it. Unfortunately that required you to present me with sheet music for something that I didn't know the sound of. There were two things working against my teacher for that sort of trap. The first was my love of music. I listened to a lot - and varied - music back then. So if I recognized the title of the song, then I recognized the sound, and I'd play it. The other problem was me being a diligent student in the wrong way. So those of you who play(ed) under the Suzuki school of teaching remember the little books and series of tapes that went with it. That's right, you guessed it: I would just look at the title of the song and listen to the tape, and play it all the way through based on the feel and sound of it, not the sheet music. I just memorized what melody went with what song name. Then I'd memorize where my fingers needed to go to make that happen. If I got the bow strokes wrong, she'd correct me, and I'd memorize that too. I'd even listen to the tapes to fall asleep at night like any other music because I thought they were pretty. Now if you've ever kept the same tape, CD, or MP3 playlist around without changing it up, and listened to it over and over again, you remember them. You know the songs so well you could probably hum the whole album straight through on your own. Well I can anyway if I use the same playlist over and over again, but I'm sure many of you can do that sort of thing too.

So she would pull out a song from a book or two ahead and I'd play it because I'd been listening to it on my tape player at home already before being prompted to study it. I know she was susipicous that I couldn't actually read the music, but because I was able to play the songs (and more songs in quantity than anyone else in the class) I guess she felt if she penalized me it might discourage me. I mean how do you "prove" someone isn't reading the music? You may be able to prove they don't know the names of the notes, but if by looking at the note they know where to put the finger and the appropriate sound, then what? Is it exceedingly important that they know the quarter note on the second line is ... whatever note that is when they're able to play the note on the proper string for the proper amount of time when you point it out to them? Well it should be! Okay but for me, it wasn't - heck I'm not even that good to be able to know what the notes are supposed to sound like when I see them on paper like that. I really couldn't read the music. So I sustained myself on the memorization of everything BUT what the sheet music actually meant.

Years and years later with no lessons or instructors motivating me, much of what I learned was relegated back to the deep ressesses of memory. The trouble with memorization is that you need constant repetition to keep it fresh. When you try and come back to it, you remember large chunks, but stumble a lot putting the chunks together again. It's like there are little foggy holes in some places that you're trying to fill in.

So now that I've gotten an instrument and started prodding at those memories, my bow arm and fingers are moving where they should... for the wrong instrument. I'm having to re-learn to play not because I don't know the songs, but because my fingers and arms "remember" a much smaller violin (and a much smaller me). Motions that were appropriate to move from the E to the D on my old violin are not correct for this one, among other problems. Furthermore, I know the melody of songs, but in many cases the titles of those songs are long forgotten and I'm having to scower music to reunite the two. It's frustrating to fumble through a song that only I seem to know the melody (or existance) of. Someone will ask me "do you know [song name]" and I have to stop and think... do I? Then there's the problem of forgetting what you were never taught...

It's been so long that I'm quickly realizing how little advancement I actually had. It's funny how when you're a student you feel like you know a lot more than you do (plus you're young so thinking you "know everything" is part of the territory). I distinctively remember two things I never learned to do back then: read music and any kind of vibrato. I now realize that there is so much more to playing that I never learned. Back then my skills were fine for my age and the amount of time I'd been playing, but they were far from refined. Now I bind up whenever a friend or relative asks to hear me play something even casually because I feel so subpar.

The only advantage to having the memories now is it's made for less frustrating practice. I find it's a lot easier to stomach playing the same things over and over again to improve your technique when it actually sounds like coherant - although sloppy - music. When I want to practice crossing from E to A, I have a song or three for that. When I want to re-educate my fingers on double stops, I have a song for that. They don't sound as good as I remember, but I can get them there again with time, practice, and research. Maybe I'll even mix in some memorization techniques for sheet music to make up for my old earplay sins. I have a few friends who offered some good sheet music techniques, so I'll give them a try. I think a big part of my old dread of sheet music reading was a stigma around it rather than legitimate effort to try and master it. If I can memorize the sound and the feel of things, why not the look, no?

The one conselation in my overbearing reliance on memories is that there is an echo memory between now and then. This shared link between past and present solidifies my comittment to sticking with it: it feels, and has always felt, good to play.

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