May 2010

Self Taught Lesson #1

May 20, 2010 16:21

I must admit that at the beginning of Lesson #1, my first thought was, my God, I’m really going to post this on Youtube? Where, like, people can watch it? And then I’m going to blog about it? Where people can read it? I have this thing where I feel hideously exposed if I share my playing or my writing or any number of things to other people if I don’t feel the product in question is perfect, or at least as close to perfect as I’m going to get. I’m writing my first novel and I swore I would give my mother the first five chapters as a Mother’s Day gift. Darn if I didn’t chicken out at the last minute, simply because…why? I don’t even know! She’ll love it regardless of what needs to be fixed and tweaked, but I'm always so humiliated to show anything to anybody before I have it 100% under control. Why? Am I scared my own mother is going to hate me because a couple of my sentences are clumsily constructed? What’s my problem? And it’s the same way with violin playing. If I let my ego have my way, I would have shot dozens of videos and picked the very best. But that’s not what happens in a real lesson, so I shot maybe one or two prep videos to warm up and make sure I was in the view of the camera, then took the ones I uploaded below. (I also reminded myself beforehand to keep the Christmas decorations out of the frame, but I obviously forgot about that too late. Oh, well. Yes, I like Christmas decorations. And I’m lazy. Either/or.)

My bow arm is almost always the weakest link in my playing and I want to talk about that a bit before I continue. During my first five years of playing, I was a student of a student of Auer. If I’m understanding correctly, this Russian method can often translate into a high wrist that tilts into the bow. Because of this, I was always under the impression that the movement of the bow was a purely horizontal one, that a player was holding the bow above the strings and merely skimming the bow across them. (No wonder I had wrist problems that entered into my neck! At one point I was practicing this way obliviously for four hours a day. My God.) It took me many years to even be exposed to an alternate viewpoint - thinking of the bow movement as a vertical one as well as a horizontal one; letting the entire weight of my shoulder and upper arm and lower arm come to a relaxed rest on the bow. A whole new world of sound opened up to me with that single idea. It has taken me a long time to even begin to apply this to my own playing, but believe it or not, despite what it looks like on the video, I have made some progress.

Onto the first video, the b-flat major scales. (Gulp!)

As I was watching this video for the first time, I had an incredibly disheartening revelation. If I was asked to describe to a beginning violin student how to bow, I wouldn’t be able to do it, aside from saying, pull down, push up, and check in a mirror to make sure you’re parallel to the bridge. But I ought to be able to describe this motion, and in detail. It’s the most basic building block of violin playing. And I’ve been playing for ten years, for God’s sake. What muscles should move first? Where should you envision the movement coming from? The wrist? The elbow, opening and closing? Where does the weight rest? How is an up-bow different from a down-bow, in regards to which muscles start the movement? Is it different at all? And then a whole new terrifying world opens up - how does one describe bow changes? What happens in the arm, the fingers? This whole realization is humbling, and a tad humiliating. The violin has a way of humbling and humiliating you, though, so I suppose it’s par for the course.

But anyway. Back to the video. It was difficult for me to watch because it just all looked so ugly and ungainly. Four things leapt out at me straight away, all having to do with the right hand.

(1) The bow is awfully tilted toward me. In fact I can see the entire frog. I must only be using twenty percent of the hair, at best. And my pinky’s not even resting on the top of the bow; it’s resting on the edge of it!

(2) I’m having trouble keeping the bow parallel to the bridge. It’s making a curved motion, like the curve in a capital D, especially on long bows, and especially especially on up-bows.

(3) My wrist bends too much. I’ve heard this referred to as “chicken wing” bowing. It’s not pretty, and it’s not relaxed or efficient.

(4) Perhaps because of the wrist bending, my elbow gets too low, or at the very least, the connection between the elbow and wrist is broken up when the wrist bends so much. I can’t imagine how the relaxed weight of my arm is going to get into the bow to make a nice big sound.

I went back to the practice room later and experimented. After a few moments of working with the elbow and the wrist, I decided to tilt the bow hair so more of it was flat on the string. And voila. Ten years of chicken wing bowing, (for the most part) gone. I took a video of myself with the new position and looked at it and rewound it and watched it again. And I almost started to cry. Wait - what? My bow arm still needs a lot of work, don’t get me wrong. But - seriously? That was my problem for ten years? And nobody told me (that I can remember)? Really? The bow stayed parallel to the bridge more often. The wrist didn’t flop around as much. And perhaps more importantly, the line between the elbow and the wrist was more consistent, and I was able to relax the weight of the arm into it. The sound was much bigger (although I don’t know that you’d hear a difference in the camera) and I felt much more relaxed. All from a simple tilt of the bow hair.

As for the left hand…well, I don’t think I should even start with that yet. Maybe next week.

During the same recording session as the scale I played the first Kayser etude, so this was before my bow-tilt breakthrough. No bowing variations. I had enough to worry about without them.

The first thing that struck me upon review was how square and metronomic it sounded. No dynamic variations or ritardandos or anything like that, just a student pummeling through an etude best she can, excited to be over with it. One and two and three and four and. You’d never guess from this video that I’m a great believer that players should strive to make etudes sound just as musical as their “real” pieces. Also, the D-curve motion is obvious, but I started doing better with that after I made the tilted bow breakthrough, so try to ignore it as best you can.
Another thing I noticed: I was going to wear my hair down, but at the last minute I kept it up. I’m so glad I did, because right beneath my ear is a huge visual indicator of tension. The tendon that goes down from the ear to the collarbone never ever relaxes in the entire video, and it looks awfully painful! I can just imagine a room full of people watching me play, ignoring what I’m doing and transfixed by the pulsing tendon. Have I found a symptom - or perhaps the cause - of the jaw stiffness that always occurs after long practice sessions? I suppose I ought to read up on that tendon - where it originates, where its going, what it does - so I can relax it. I experimented a bit after the video was over and noticed that it stays more relaxed if I keep my head looking forward and avoid tilting it at a forty-five degree angle, like I do in these videos. My head also feels more grounded and in touch with my spine and hips if I look straight ahead. I’ll have to keep that in mind as I practice, because despite my glancing back and forth between the music and the bow throughout this entire video, I’m a firm believer that you shouldn’t have to watch your fingers or your bow as you play. In fact, maybe it’s preferable that you don’t!
Recommendations for next week to make the Kayser sound more musical -
There are dynamics marked. Notice them. When I went to the Green Lake Festival of Music Chamber Music Workshop in the summer of 2006, we played a fantastic game where our group would play a bit of our assigned piece, then the others would sit and guess what dynamics we were playing. We always guessed that they were playing mf when they meant to play f or ff, and we always guessed that they were playing mp when they meant to play p or pp. In other words, we all need to expand our range of dynamics. I think that’s one of the things that separates the good players from the so-so ones.
Tug at the tempo a little. Make the notes say something. Be conscious of phrases and not just notes. Sing it - just not out loud; you want to spare the neighbors.
And experiment playing a note at a time, trying your best not to tighten up that tendon. And then move onto the next note. See how long you can go without tightening it.
Plus, if you have time, a couple of bowing variations.
Onto the first movement of the Dvorak Sonatina, my repertoire for the week.
There are dozens of little individual things I could nitpick at, and I know what they are and I won’t go over all of them here, but in general -
Go over all the tricky bits each practice session. I have an actual list written out but of course I ignored the list during my practice sessions, and I made a mistake in every single place I had noted out to practice. I have this thing where I like to run everything through from the beginning during my practice session. I have a habit of drifting off and just playing instead of practicing. I could be a lot more productive than that. So - remember kids, write down every spot where you find yourself stumbling, write down what’s tricky about it and what you can do to fix it, and remember to practice those bits correctly until they’re ingrained in you correctly. Practice does not make perfect; practice makes permanent.
Sometimes I wasn’t totally on the beat, but I always do better at that when I get my midi of the accompaniment out, which wasn’t available when I made this video. And if I had used a metronome for this video I would have been…metronomic. So I’ll let that slide. For now.
Dynamics, again. And the neck tendon thing. Yikes. And also, maybe smiling a bit more. On the whole I want my stage presence to be more Heifetz-like than some of the younger players who are bobbing and weaving all over the place. I suppose it comes from my desire - my need - to be relaxed and efficient. But that doesn’t mean I have to look so darn despondent playing such a cheery little piece that I love very much. Besides, smiling might help me relax my face, which might help relax that darn tendon that I can’t stop watching now. Maybe if I can’t get it under control for my next performance I should wear a turtleneck… *muses* ;)
Last, as a thank-you for holding in here this long, here’s one of my favorite performances of all time. David Oistrakh, the king of relaxation and sound production, playing Clair de lune.
Feels a little sacrilegious to include my scales with Oistrakh, but whatever.
All in all, a very interesting beginning (for me) to my little experiment. Thoughts or comments are welcome if anyone has the inclination or time!

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A self teaching regimen

May 20, 2010 15:44

May 17, 2010

My Internet is out, so I’m going to resort to what people did in the Dark Ages of dialup and write my blog out in Word before I venture online.

As I mentioned in my last entry, I’m going to start making violin videos to post on Youtube. I haven’t had a teacher for over four years, and I haven’t had a long-term one for nearly seven. My playing has improved somewhat during that time, but not nearly as much as it could have if I had had a good teacher - or, at the very least, focused my studies. As you know from my last entry, I’ve had some pretty major health issues over the past four years, and unfortunately, when you’re convinced you’re going to die, focusing your music studies is not a major priority. If I ever played at all, it was in a desperate attempt to have some fun.

So. Now that I’m feeling (somewhat) better, and playing the violin seriously is possible again, I want to try my best to improve. Having a teacher would obviously be the best way to go about that, but thanks to a variety of circumstances, a teacher is simply not in the cards right now. That’s the bad news. Now the good news: as I said in my last entry, I’m feeling the ground shift beneath my feet when it comes to self-teaching. Yes, self-teaching still has a stigma attached to it (and I’d say that it’s usually a well-deserved one - the violin is just about impossible to learn well on your own, and studying with a teacher is almost always preferable to teaching yourself). But in the last couple of years, with high-speed Internet becoming more and more ubiquitous, self-teachers have opportunities that no musicians have ever had before. We can instantly solicit advice, critiques, and possibly praise from string-players all over the world. I feel that this is an opportunity I should take advantage of, especially when the alternative is not playing at all.

I’ve thought about self-teaching question for a few months now and I decided that one way for me to focus my studies would be to shoot a series of videos every week or two (or three or four, depending on my schedule), consisting of a scale, an etude, and repertoire. Then I’ll boot up the computer, load the video from my little red Canon camera, and watch and critique. I’ll share my videos and blog about them, and then other people can feel free to chime in with their thoughts, both here and on Youtube. This method is going to have its drawbacks (people will no doubt have conflicting advice; lots of things about violin-playing are invisible through videos; the sound quality won’t be the greatest, etc.), but surely this method has to be better than me aimlessly shifting through loose sheet music late at night, wondering what I should play through next, ignoring the scale book and etudes I’ve let settle toward the bottom of the pile.

There are three main reasons I’m doing this. First, I want a motivation to play better. If I know other people are watching, that’s a huge motivation to improve. Second, I’m an aspiring teacher, and there is no better guinea pig to experiment on than myself. I’ll always be on time for lessons and I’ll never argue about repertoire. Third, and most importantly, maybe someone somewhere will learn something, either from what I’ve written or others’ comments.  That would be worth the time alone.

So here’s a run-down of what I hope to include each week (or two or three or four, as I said).

First, I’ll play a three-octave scale, preferably in one of the keys that my repertoire for the week is in. I’m going to try the Quarter Equals Sixty method, where you set the metronome to sixty and then do your scale in whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, triplets, eighth notes, and sixteenth notes. I’ve never employed that particular practice method before but I’ve heard great things about it.

Second, a Kayser etude. Many years ago someone recommended that I go from Wolhlfahrt Book One to…Kreutzer.  In my anxiousness to get to the blessed state of Kreutzer, which I figured meant that I had arrived as a violinist, I never questioned this advice. I struggled through a few Kreutzers and although I could play most of the notes, I felt like I needed etudes for the Kreutzers, which, when I think about it, is kind of insane. After checking this site, I see that most people recommend Kayser in between Wolfhart and Kreutzer. I found a copy of the book and I heartily agree. Kayser looks like a terrific stepping stone for the intermediate violinist.

Third, repertoire. I’m trying to get a group of pieces ready for performance for the late summer or early fall. As I mentioned in my last blog entry, I’m wondering about giving a recital in September, and it looks like I may also be playing at a family reunion in August. So I’m bringing out a variety of Victorian and Edwardian pieces: the adorable Dvorak Sonatina, the Scene de Ballet, a violin arrangement of Kol Nidrei, and the Praeludium and Allegro (the dear old P&A is a bit of a push for me technically, and if the time comes and I don’t feel comfortable including it on the program, so be it).

As for longer term repertoire goals, this may be foolhardy, but I desperately want to play one movement from a big romantic concerto. Afterward I'll "go back" to do the Mozarts and maybe some Rode and Viotti and Haydn and Kabalevsky and de Beriot, but I desperately want to try out one of those "overplayed" "warhorses."  I’ve looked through the scores of the Mendelssohn, Bruch, Lalo, etc., and decided that the first movement of the Bruch would fit my strengths best. It’s a very emotionally fulfilling choice for me because the Bruch was one of the first big violin pieces I fell in love with. I still remember clicking open the CD player and putting the disc in and being completely blown away by it.  It would be such a great way to celebrate my recovery to finally be able to play it myself. In the meantime I’m going to need to get comfortable with finger strength, velocity, double-stops, chords, higher positions, and my bow - in short, everything. In a couple of months or so, when I feel like I can run through the rest of my possible recital repertoire without crashing and burning, I'll begin Viotti 22 to prepare. It looks like it has a lot of the technical elements I’m looking for help with, and it’s a pretty piece in and of itself. If I play that and still feel like I need some help before Bruch, then I'll scout around for something else to supplement.

And fourth, I’ll always try to remember to include one of my favorite classical music Youtube videos, so that viewers don’t have to slog through watching me without seeing some good stuff.

So that’s the tentative game plan from here on out. I’ve already done one week’s video review and it has been one of the most illuminating weeks of my violin study so far. So even if no one reads this but me, it will have been well worth it!

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It's a long story

May 6, 2010 09:40

Well, I’ve been gone for a very long time. Over five years, actually. I’ve popped in here and there, but I’ve been, for the most part, silent.

So what happened, you ask?
That’s my cue to give a long sigh and a wry smile and say, it’s a long story.
The highlights:
Finding, and despite extremely long odds, attaining the violin I’ll be spending the rest of my life with.
Attending the Green Lake Festival of Music Chamber Music Workshop (affectionately abbreviated as the GLFOMCMW) in Green Lake, Wisconsin, in the summer of 2006. That summer, the members of the Amelia Piano Trio became my heroes. Superman is now superfluous.
Sitting in the co-concertmaster’s chair…………for one rehearsal, once, when she was sick. But still. Remember, I am a girl who three years earlier had come into the room and sat in the back of the second violins and couldn’t shift to third position. It was a full-circle moment.
The advent of Youtube, and online videos of violinists. This is a biggie. I’m feeling the entire culture of self-teaching evolve around me, in no small part to the easy access we have to such extraordinary videos. I'd be interested in others' thoughts on this subject.
Having the good fortune to take a lesson with a very famous violinist, who studied with another very, very, very famous violinist. I learned a lot of things about myself and my playing from this person. The best part of it was that someone actually took the time to look me in the eye, my feelings be damned, and say, you care about this too much. It sounds horrible, but that was just what I needed to hear. The frustration of constantly falling short of one’s own expectations will invariably result in slower progress, along with unnecessary anger and tension. It took a long time for that message to mean something to me, but now I’m so thankful for it.
Discovering that my wrist injury (see my previous posts from 2005 and earlier) was actually not a wrist injury at all. It was the result of tension traveling down my neck from clamping my chin down on the instrument. It took seeing a video of Oistrakh to finally hammer home to me what was wrong - to really, truly understand what relaxation and efficiency look like. It took a while, but I no longer clench the instrument, and I no longer have any wrist problems, no matter how long I play.
Seeing a variety of amazing concerts by some of the greatest musicians of our time.
The lowlights:
Totally crashing and burning at an audition. It was the worst audition imaginable. Its only redeeming asset is that I will never ever have another audition as bad as it. I honestly think that it would have gone better if I would have taken a cigarette lighter and burned the instrument in front of the jury. It was that bad.
Having to drop out of my youth symphony due to illness a few weeks before the final performance. This was a horribly bitter disappointment that - embarrassingly - I find I’m still getting over, three years later.
Poor health. I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia over eleven years ago, when I was nine, but in 2006 and 2007, something else crept up on me while I wasn’t looking. I got to the point a few years ago where I began to have panic attacks in the mid-afternoon because I was worrying if I’d be able to hold up a toothbrush that night. I told my doctors this, and they told me that I needed to exercise - basically, that I was being a lazy eighteen-year-old hypochondriac. Well, thank God for the Internet. My gut was that I had hypothyroidism. So I read about it, and eventually found out about adrenal fatigue. It turns out, I am the poster child for adrenal fatigue. I had every single symptom. A few years later - a consultation with a holistic MD; supplements; healthier eating; better mind-body connection - I have greatly improved my quality of life. But, two years after I began to recover, I still feel as if I’m picking up the pieces from that “dark night of the soul.” I didn’t even realize how dark it was until I got out of it. I was eighteen years old and I was crying myself to sleep at night because I was convinced I was dying. It takes a person a long time to heal from that. There are still bad days, or bad weeks. I get impatient - I’m a perfectionist, and it’s in my nature to be impatient. But broadly speaking, there has been a great deal of improvement. I am able to hold up not just a toothbrush, but a violin. This is one of the great victories of my life so far. Perhaps in another blog I will muse out loud about what poor health and the physical healing process has taught me, and how that applies to the study of music. The subject appeals to me.
Not having the money for a teacher. I’m not going to detail the circumstances but I can say it’s been very difficult. I am terrified that I’m ingraining bad habits, but now that I’m feeling better, I can’t fathom the idea of not playing. I’ve missed it too much. In the future I intend to put my playing on public display here to get bits and pieces of feedback. A little start-up site called Youtube has made that easier in the last five years. I’m past the point where I care what other people think. I’m to the place where I value improving more than I value what other people think of my playing, and I celebrate that.
So, to sum, it has been a tough journey, and the violin has often taken a metaphorical back seat, while I was up in the metaphorical front seat, parked in a cul-de-sac, turning a map over and upside down. But, to my surprise and gratitude, the tough times have taught me more than the good times. I know what a horrid old worn-out cliché that is, but it became a cliché for a reason. I’m excited to turn forward with my newfound knowledge. I’m no longer seeking to become a full-time professional violinist with a master’s in performance, as I once dreamed, but I am hoping to become a very good violinist who can eventually be a leader in community orchestras and who can someday teach her students how to play in a relaxed, efficient, beautiful manner.
Zooming in from the profound to the general, I just got my bow rehaired and new strings put on. It has been four years since I’ve had either. I’m trying a tailpiece with fine-tuners because the fibromyalgia and the accompanying weakness in my fingers oftentimes makes it difficult to turn the pegs. So my fiddle’s in the shop and I don’t pick her up until tomorrow. Perhaps later next week I will be able to take some videos of myself on Youtube. I will be brave and post the links here; being teacher-less I need all of the feedback I can get. This July I’m starting up with a local intermediate orchestra which I am sure will be rewarding. I also hit a bit of a mother lode when it comes to concerts this summer: way-back seats to see the Miro Quartet in Winona, Minnesota, on July 8 - first-row balcony seats to see Midori in-recital in Winona, July 13 - way-back seats again to see the Minnesota Orchestra in Winona, July 18 - (there will obviously be a few day-trips to Winona, and a couple of nights spent in a Walmart parking lot) - and then, the concert I’m looking forward to the most, tickets to see James Ehnes in the first Bartok concerto and the Chausson Poeme in Door County, Wisconsin, on August 21st. I’m also hoping - no guarantees - but I’m hoping to give a violin recital this September, consisting of the Dvorak Sonatina, the Beriot Scene de Ballet, the Praeludium and Allegro, and a violin arrangement of Kol Nidrei, and maybe, time permitting, a couple of shorter filler pieces.  (Before you complain about stylistic uniformity, the concert would be at a church built in 1881 as a fundraiser from a historic house museum from the 1850s, so I thought a Victorian theme would be the only way to go!) In any case, this summer will be a much more musical one than summers past, and I thought I would start up my blog again to help document it.
These thoughts are incoherent but I will submit them anyway.  I don’t know how often I will be posting here in the future but I do hope it will be more often than every five years.  It is good to be back.

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