July 2012

Putting Down The Viola And Picking Up My Violin Again (or, public performance requires oxygen traveling to the brain, my dear)

July 15, 2012 00:21

Sooo... I had to quit the orchestra because I worried for my shoulder. The viola isn't too big really, but holding it up was too new and difficult for my weak shoulder muscles. I need to lift some weights once I'm back to normal, that should do the trick. For now it's staying at a friend's so I won't be tempted to say hello to it until I have lifted for 3 months. However, all the people using vibrato seems to have given my wrist the urge to join in. I went from 0 to 60 in two weeks and now I can vibrate on my scales! Yipee!

However, the viola playing helped my violin playing in some really amazing ways. I have become more conscious of every move, breath, pressure on the bow and strings, everything! It goes to show, if something is too hard do something more difficult and soon what you were doing before will be easy. At least, that's how I've done things, it seems.

For example, today, for my boyfriend's graduation party, I decided to put on a recital of the things I had been working on; namely "A Cure?" by Emilie Autumn (the piece I've been working on for over a year), and singing Gloomy Sunday. My boyfriend's cousin was in attendance, along with the smallest, most awesome guitar imaginable (for I find guitars too freaking huge to play normally). Guided by his perfect pitch and some drilling, he managed to come up with an amazing accompaniment in place of the usual harpsichord, and the piece was soon performance ready. The best part? I hardly messed up at all!

I blame the viola for this entirely. My bow pressure was much more controlled (though my hand kept slipping up the bow as my viola grip is pretty high). My fingers quickly listened when I told them to ease up on the pressure. The fingering of the notes was more fluid and natural, so quick and effortless I could hardly believe it. Because of viola I feel ready to tackle the absolutely diabolical lightning-fast 16th note breakdown that is the climax of "A Cure?". Heck, even my sightreading decided to improve (though now I get the issue of "Is the middle line B or C I forget AAAGH!" a little bit).

Preparing to perform with someone else also taught me how to breathe and get over my nerves. My hands shake if I forget to breathe and it's just so easy for a piece to take your breath away on way too many levels. One must breathe with the notes, how on earth did that not register before?! Also, thinking is bad, unless it is exactly what I am doing or am about to do in exactly 1-2 seconds. Also, my thumb likes to deathgrip out of nerves and my palms sweat. All of this was dealt with quite nicely with said boyfriend's cousin because he was a person I rarely see or talk to, simulating the audience minus the judgement since he was learning too, on a guitar he didn't play much at that. It was great to work with someone who is both a great musician with perfect pitch and willing to put of with my beginner-with-intonation-and-all without getting mad or impatient as I always fear. I messed up a bunch but he just learned with me and let me get it right, and that was really cool and just plain nice.

Well I would practice but it's past midnight so.. Bad idea. However, I'm looking forward to a 4-hour double-lesson with my music mentor on Friday, so practice I shall when the sun shines again!

2 replies


A Story Of Ergonomics (and trial, and error, and more trial, and then SUCESS!)

July 8, 2012 00:38

Reading the study on http://www.violinistinbalance.nl was rather satisfying for me. As a violinist with severe back problems and chronic pain, an ergonomic setup is a playing vs crippling myself for life issue. Thankfully, this study confirms pretty much every suspicion I've had concerning violin ergonomics, through 6 months of trial and error.

I started out restless, and am still quite comfortable that way. If I were to join one of those early music performance groups (which would be a dream!) I would only have to raise my chin rest with some cork. Ever since I started my body seemed to know how to balance the violin using chin and arm equally, which along with the higher chin rest is the secret to restless playing if you ask me. However, when I started my chin rest was side mounted, causing me to put my chin on the tailpiece, and was low enough to cramp my neck anyway.

My teacher was concerned with the violin's stability restless and suggested I try shoulder rests. Her's is one of those metal bendy ones that hooks over the shoulder a bit. At first I rubber-banded some cloth to the back, but it always slipped anyway. I spent a lot of time trying different models, especially Wolf and said bendy one I forget the name of. The metal near my violin's precious varnish scared me to death, though, and it felt so darned high.

Meanwhile, I changed my chin rest to a center mounted one that flares to the left a bit. It fit my jaw much better, for the unflared ones forced my jaw into odd positions. Recently I raised the very low cork a bit, and may raise it a bit more in the future.

The final piece of the puzzle came in when I bought some foam rests. As the study described (though before I had read about it) I cut the foam so that it was thin near my collar bone and neck, and thicker where is pointed towards my shoulder. I secure it with a rubber band configuration.

My set up feels perfect now, and my trial and error saved me from even more trouble later when I acquired a viola. My viola is so thick I laugh at the idea of a shoulder rest, a fact that may have eluded me and cause quite a bit more issues due to the size magnifying everything. However, I still need that new chin rest for it though, my neck hurts like heck right now. Hopefully on Tuesday I can get it.

I came to an amazing setup so quickly because I have had enough problems with my body to respond quickly to a problem. Also, my boyfriend has carpal tunnel or tendonitis from coding all day for work and school, so he gave me quite the scoldings for any procrastination in finding a way to play without pain. However, one shouldn't need either of those to be motivated to spend a few hours in the violin shop trying out every possible setup and then some. We need to remember how the violin is supposed to sit, scroll parallel to the floor, balancing on the collar bone and supported by the chin and hand evenly, so that one can easily support it more with one or the other when needed. Our necks should be straight, and often a higher chin rest is so much more necessary than a higher shoulder rest that lifts the violin off the collarbone where it doesn't belong. Center mounts tend to be best for most, though try everything, including adding or removing cork. Find or modify or make a shoulder rest that make sense, instead of settling for one that is not meant for your body type. We are all different and we must remember to take the care to set up our instruments properly and customized to our bodies just as we take care to select the perfect instrument, case, and bow. How can we remember those things, but forget or refuse to select the one thing that will insure our playing for years to come? It makes no sense at all.

So please, do your body good, don't ignore what it's trying to tell you about your setup. Even if the prospect of pain can't motivate you, your playing will improve tremendously. I know mine did!

2 replies


Why I Am Willingly Drowning Myself In Alto Clef (and waking up at 5am to do it)

July 3, 2012 21:16

I'm in a string orchestra (boot)camp this term at my community college, which means I'm currently in freaking-out-exhausted-will-I-ever-play-this-right mode. I'm glad to play with kids, if only because they're much more polite and much less scream-y than the kids I used to work with back when I was a teacher's aid for emotionally disturbed kids. But really the best part is I'm on a similar level to them, and they don't take things seriously enough to give me dirty looks (or allow my paranoia to imagine said looks) when my poor sightreading leaves me bow still, silently trying to catch up with my eyes. Technically I think I have some advantage, but they have fluency and I just gotta catch up quickly. It helps that the teachers also have to explain things simply, which is a breath of fresh air in the classical world of music if you ask me.

I'm the principal violist in this string orchestra, which is to say, I'm the only one save for an instructor who seems more inclined to share a stand with the cellos. That may change... After all, it's only the second day.

I'm a violinist generally speaking; I received the viola for my 20th birthday, to mark a year of violin and to help with the technical milestones to come. However, a lack of time and sheet music has left it unloved until I needed it, with the exception of a little bit of scales and general fiddling around, and that one time a string broke as I was busking with a friend. Now I must play it day in and day out, for our concert is next Thursday.

Though I'm still a little unsteady on viola, I kinda have to do this. It's not that I'm being made to; it's that I have realized that I only ever get good at something with some serious immersion and pressure. I am good at deadlines, in a weird way, and I go a bit crazy without one. Still, I'm more than a bit crazy on a good day, and I want to be equally competent on viola, because, well who wouldn't? It's pretty, and I like pretty things. However, my determination has set me up for wading through sheets of alto clef an inch thick; not to mention my muscles screaming for explanation as to why the violin grew in their language of soreness and exhaustion. It'll pass, it always does eventually, and as someone with 19 screws in their spine a little soreness is nothing. It's just strange to feel that feeling again, like when your pinkie is mad about having to reach allll the way to the Cing and wants you to feel it's suffering, for instance. The real price is getting up at 5am to commute to school, making me scary-diurnal and so separating me mentally from my nocturnal-working programmer boyfriend.

It'll all be worth it I hope! My fingers get mad stage fright, yet my mind is unaffected, does this happen to others? Either way I know no matter how immersed in the sea of viola the challenge will always be playing in front of others and trying to get my muscle memory to cooperate in doing so. I have anxiety disorder to the point where I'm kind of surprised that a doctor hasn't suggested beta-blockers before, not just for performance but for not panicking in school. Meh, may as well see if I really need them, I guess.

I must forever challenge myself, always playing just a bit above my level, or I will not improve. This is my mantra through these two weeks. Tomorrow I have an extra lesson with my violin teacher to help me understand how to play everything. After that, I honestly have no excuse to not be practicing from sunup to sundown. I'm hoping to convince my dad to let me go to my favorite violinist Emilie Autumn's album release party after, and it's in Chicago, so I have a lot of impressing to do. Not to mention, sleep is for the weak. Or is it week? Whatever, I can always sleep when I'm dead.

Wish me luck!

P.S. One of the kids called my viola a muddy sounding weird looking violin. I'm gonna count that as my first viola joke received, which I know must count somewhere as an achievement in a video game version of my life.

3 replies


Why I Am A Contemporary Violinist (and am obsessed with string cover songs)

July 1, 2012 03:46

As a violinist with contemporary leanings, I end up listening to quite a bit of cover songs done by the Vitamin String Quartet. I always feel like I'm discovering a new dimension to my favorite songs as I sit with my computer and studio monitors. However, I've just picked out one new reason for that extra awesome I hear. I can actually hear the bass line!

Seriously, when was the last time you heard the bass line, distinctly, in a pop/rock song? A cello or a standing bass totally fix these issues. Suddenly it goes from a background noise requiring high quality sound to even pick out, to a distinct counter melody.

It's also great to really hear the melody of the vocal parts with the violin. Words in music are great, but they can be distracting. Luckily, most violin music is instrumental, if only because A) singing is difficult with a violin and B) the human voice just cannot compete with the violin's need to steal the show (it's one of the things that makes violin amazing, if you ask me). Modern music, with the exception of the heavily electronic sort, has forgotten this to a large degree. However, the melodies of many songs, when played on an acoustic string instrument, when freed of their vocals in this wonderful manner, tend to take on a whole new life. The beauty of subtle key changes and syncopated rhythms comes to life as in other styles such as jazz, classical, and folk. We get to really notice the influences of these styles on rock and pop, two very confused genres with multitudes of influences from all corners of the earth.

I play contemporary violin because this is what I would like to express in my music. I want to take the classical style and translate it to a new era, where we have chopping bows, and distortion, and synthesizers, and electric violins that look like guitars from the 80s, and you have an entire orchestra at your fingertips, and all the knowledge of centuries of music to draw from, all nice and written down or recorded just for you to make something even more beautiful.

I will still play classical, if only because my weakness for baroque cannot be denied. However my goal is to play every genre that appeals to me, which pretty much means every genre in existence. I'm 20 years old. I have been playing the violin for one year. I am dedicated, I have resources, I know I can do my part to add to this rich pool. But sometimes I do wonder how many people like me are out there. Artist recommendations are always welcome, so if you have any there's a lovely comment box just for that.

7 replies


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