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Terez Mertes

The Happy Birthday Blues

April 16, 2006 at 12:59 AM

I’m in a slump. For the first time since I started playing the violin nine months ago, I don’t have it in me to practice. And that’s freaking me out.

I’m hoping to cast the blame on April Syndrome. I knew the month would be like this, because last April was, and the April before it. The month carries with it such stupefying over-socialization that I’ve dubbed it “little December.” Alongside my Easter preparations and choir rehearsals, my husband, son and father all have birthdays during the first week of April. This year there were weekend parties in Kansas to fly to, parties in my house, overnight visitors, parties on weeknights, parties with too many little boys running around shrieking, and yet more visitors. And lots of singing happy birthday.

Oh, the happy birthday song. It makes me cringe when I play it poorly on my violin. My fingers don’t like the song and my ears don’t like the shaky, thin result I produce. But last week I dutifully played happy birthday to my dad, to my husband and son, and then pushed my way through the shrill, jittery sugar-induced gaiety and events of April.

I thought I was over the hump on Thursday when I bade goodbye to the last set of visitors and swept up the confetti and stale cake crumbs. But the funniest thing happened—the violin practice that had sustained me during the stressful period suddenly got lethargic. Just like me. We’re talking seriously lethargic, as in, wondering how you’re going to drag yourself through the motions of each day. But I had work to do for my next violin lesson, so I studied my assigned piece from a new lesson book. A new arrangement of the blasted happy birthday tune. Great.

This one has a catchier beat that keeps my fingers moving more quickly. And, to my dismay, I’m having trouble with it.

Yes, you read that right. I can’t master the happy birthday song. How’s that for humbling? This, alongside my failure to master the snake charmer song, even after a month of practice. My fingers can’t successfully negotiate the route from C natural to E with the fourth finger. My middle finger seems too pudgy to hit the C natural correctly on the birthday song. I recognize both songs are good to practice—they’re targeting what’s not working. I know I need to play them in order to master them. But I hate them. They’re for little kids. And they hate me in return. And now I dread my practice time.

I’m calling this funk “the happy birthday blues.” Thursday, I gave myself permission to stop practicing after twenty minutes. It had been the end of a tough two weeks, after all, and my intonation was simply tragic. Friday, I found 101 good reasons to do something else besides practice. Finally, when I did, for thirty minutes, I suffered once again from my terrible lethargy. Happy birthday has never sounded so pathetic. Never have I felt so glad to walk away from my violin. Today, well, here I am, and the terrible truth is that I don’t want to practice.

Is this just fatigue, or the sign of something worse? Does this signify the beginning of the end? Will I eventually cut my losses and give up on this violin endeavor? The thought frightens me. I need this love affair to last. It colors my world, creating a pleasant diversion from the junk of daily living. I need music, art. But, then again, what I’ve practiced in the past two days does not fall into either of the above categories.

The world won’t come to an end, I recognize, if I skip a day or two of practice in order to rejuvenate. I should be focusing on the music I’ll be singing for Easter mass on Sunday, anyway. Maybe the mass I’ll be attending will be balm for my blues. They say Jesus rose on the third day (recognizing here that not everyone believes what They say). Maybe my sagging spirits will do the same.

I hope so. I’ve got a love affair banking on it.

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on April 16, 2006 at 1:30 AM
"April is the cruelest month." Don't feel too bad. It sounds like you're just having a temporary letdown, as many of us do after a performance. The problems you've described (C natural, F natural, and 4th finger E) are difficult for all beginning students, even those who have been playing for nine months. I suggest that you take a break for a day or two, listen to some recordings that you like, and/or practice something completely different. You shouldn't fault love just because it takes a brief recess.
From Terez Mertes
Posted on April 16, 2006 at 2:41 AM
Pauline - I can't tell you how much I appreciate your comments. They're a true balm at this moment. Off I go - a glass of red wine awaits me, along with a video. Guilt-free, at that.
From Mendy Smith
Posted on April 16, 2006 at 3:50 AM
Terez - it's probably an overdose of rain and a bit of cabin fever. Take a break for a day or two, and ask your teacher for a different song that will cover the C-E fiasco and a bit more adult :) My first ever song was the first bit of the Star Wars theme (the original one). Maybe something from The Sound of Music - kinda springy! It is hard to keep up enthusiasm in your practice when playing childern's songs!
From Terez Mertes
Posted on April 16, 2006 at 4:04 AM
Mendy - thanks for your understanding - you're right, there have to be more sophisticated tunes to practice my problem spots! How are you settling in, BTW? I think you're right about the rain - so unusual for this area/time of year. It's got me feeling all off.
From Emily Grossman
Posted on April 16, 2006 at 4:36 AM
After you've continually been so encouraging to me, I wish to return the favor.

For heaven's sake, you've gone this far in your violin career and are only just now feeling this way? You've done good, so pat yourself on the back. From my personal experience, I can tell you that you will feel this many times, and that it does come to pass. It's okay to not want to practice every once in a while. I don't always get much done when I'm in a slump, but I make a point to play something I like every day until I feel the next surge of self-discipline. This way, I can keep up my enjoyment and keep in touch.

Let us know how it goes. Having musical friends to draw inspiration frm helps, too.

From Mendy Smith
Posted on April 16, 2006 at 4:38 AM
I'm settling in fine. It's been raining here all day, so I praciticed the pieces for the orchestra. Some areas are just darned tough! So, I worked through them all day and found out that 2nd position is my friend! :) Also learned that one area is 1000X easier starting in 4th position then just repeating the same fingerings while shifting down the string rather than doing it all in 1st position. VIOLA! Now to just bring it all up to speed (sigh) that's when my left hand and right hand want to do different things! (1/16 notes all the way through at 126 bpm!)

I was searching for some pieces that you could suggest to your teacher other than happy birthday and twinkle tinkle (pun intended!) - Bach has some very simple pieces great for a beginner - March in D major and Menuet in G major, and the Do Re Me song from Sound of Music is a fun way to do scales, and Eidelwise (sp) also from Sound of Music. Greensleeves should be OK also. Some of these may be a bit challenging for you now, but they would hold your interest alot better and have something to aim for.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on April 16, 2006 at 1:23 PM
Emily, your favor-returning encouragement was very successful - many thanks! It feels so good to get this kind of positive support here, 'cuz life sure isn't handing it to me!

Mendy - enjoyed reading about your practice and its challenges. And Edelweiss! That's got me interested in trying to pick out the tune right this minute, but as it's 6:30a on a Sunday, hubby is sleeping, and I'm off in 35 minutes, guess it will have to wait.

From Theresa Martin
Posted on April 18, 2006 at 5:46 PM
Well...I haven't read any of the responses yet, but I just wanted to say that it sounds like a perfectly normal reaction. The birthday month in my house is September (two boys and now-ex-husband), and that was perfectely exhausting. I wouldn't worry about it too much--though I'm having some of the same worries about my cello (not the fiddle for some reason, which I AM practicing daily, and playing, albiet badly, with other folks several times a week).

I don't know about that C natural/E interval either--I have a very hard time getting it in tune too. Or how about a roll stroke with B flat and D on the A string and G on the E string? Try that! Seriously, though (and that was), there are certain tunes that have little passages that are REALLY HARD...but it's encouraging to really work on them, and then a month or two later, discover that you can actually play them in tune. I'm hoping that will be the case with something I'm working on right now in A major (I've never liked anything in A major before, and I'm having a really really hard time with intonation on all the arpeggios--you know, just A C# E A C# E A--ought to be simple--I guess I know what I need to work on, eh?)

So maybe work on other things in the meantime...

...be very very kind to yourself. THis endeavor of learning to play an instrument as a Mature Person, is the best lesson in humility. It renews my faith that people CAN learn things, even very very hard things.

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