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.
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!
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.
More entries: January 2005
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