I started a new project this year, with my friend and colleague Wade Meyers. After playing a recital together last year, we realized that we not only worked well together musically, but that we shared a number of geeky interests. We decided to form The Argonath Duo to promote both live acoustic performances of music but also to present contemporary popular music alongside classical masterworks. We also decided to video blog about our experiences as performers and as fans to help create an audience and connect with people as passionate about music as we are.
I expected that this would be a fun outlet - a way to play regularly with a chamber partner, to be really geeky, and a good challenge for me to play anything that isn't strictly classical. What I didn't expect was that learning one wizard rock song would change my entire process for learning music and lead to a feeling shockingly close to creative fulfillment.
As we are both fans of Harry Potter, and I am a fan of web series and YouTube director Yulin Kuang, we decided to do a cover of the song "Horcruxes," written by wizard rocker Kirstyn Hippe, from the short film I Ship It. Wizard rock, by the way, is a genre of music that was created by Harry Potter fans - rock music with lyrics drawn from themes from the Harry Potter book series. There was no sheet music available, so I set out learning the song in a way that I've never learned a piece before: I sang.
I listened to the song over, and over again, and then I started singing along until I had it memorized. Only then did I pick up my violin. I would sing a line of text and then try to match my voice with my violin. Once I thought I had the whole song, I blasted it on my speakers and played along, listening carefully to match the singer's (actress Mary Kate Wiles) rhythms, inflections, and character.
Wade and I had a ridiculously fun and geeky recording session, and when I listened back to the take we selected for our YouTube channel, I was shocked. I almost didn't recognize my sound. The intonation was better than when I played classical repertoire. The vibrato was more integrated with the sound. The phrasing was cohesive and made sense. And - I looked like I was engaged in my performance, because I was. I spent the next few days listening to the recording over and over again.
Violin has always been a struggle for me. I could write an entire blog series on my decades-long struggle to rehabilitate technique problems and release tension. I'm used to performance being a stressful situation. I'm used to accepting that I did the best I could under the circumstances and that I will always be in the process of learning. I'm not used to recording something, listening to it, and going "I love that sound. I cannot wait to share it with the world!"
Is this what being creatively fulfilled feels like, even a little?
When I went to my practice room the next day, I took out the Wieniawski concerto I'm playing and I looked at it. I played a little, and I asked myself, "Why does this not sound as integrated as my performance of Horcruxes?" And the answer came to me - singing. So, I sang a phrase of the concerto. Then I sang it with intervals. And then I played it on my violin. It instantly sounded better. The vibrato was more appropriate to the style, the tone was integrated with the phrasing, and the intonation was more centered. I talked to a friend about my experience and she said, "You're finally making the violin your voice."
I feel like I've turned a corner in my violin playing. What started out as a fun side project turned into a transformative musical experience that's left me happier with my playing than I've ever been, and empowered to do more.
* * *
Here is the original song, ""Horcruxes", performed by Zoe (Mary Kate Wiles in the short film "I Ship It"):
And here is our cover video, by the Argonath Duo:
You can see the original blog post on my website.
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Memorization is an important aspect of performance. It's also the part of performance that people freak out about the most, at least among my students. Here are some tips both for basic memorization AND for those who are already memorized.
1. Start from the end. This way, you'll feel stronger and more secure as you go through your piece.
2. Start early. The first day you are working on a new piece, play a phrase twice with the music, then once without. Plan to memorize as you learn the piece.
Identify patterns and sections so you know both the large-scale and small-scale architecture of the piece.
3. Memorize in small pieces - start with a phrase, then add phrases together to make a section - rather than playing through the whole piece a lot and hoping the big pieces will fall into place.
4. Know the levels of memorization: aural (how the piece sounds), kinesthetic (how it feels to be playing the piece), and visual (what the piece looks like on the page).
So, you think you have your piece memorized? Well, can you...
...Play through your piece with NO memory slips or hesitations?
...Play your piece first thing in the morning, as soon as you wake up? No warmup, ...no breakfast, no teeth brushing, just play your piece.
...Play your piece from memory in your concert shoes? Many of my students like to practice and have lessons in bare feet or socks, so practicing with the feeling of shoes is new.
...Play your piece with your eyes closed? No looking at your fingers, or at your music.
...Write out your piece on staff paper?
...Sing your piece while playing air violin? You still have to do all the right fingerings and bowings!
...March a steady pulse while playing your piece?
...Sit in one place, without moving your hands, close your eyes, and feel what it is like to play your piece from start to finish? Hear the sound you want your violin to make, feel the fingerings, feel the bowings, and imagine yourself playing.
...Play your piece after watching an episode of your favorite tv show? It can be challenging to switch your brain from relaxed-on-the-couch mode to focus/performance mode.
...Play your piece with distractions? Ask your family to make noise by coughing, whispering or talking to each other, unwrapping snacks, and making noise with their phones. If you don't have some distraction assistants handy, try setting timers on your mobile devices to go off at random intervals while you're playing.
...Play your piece before you go to bed, when you're completely exhausted and feel like your brain doesn't work anymore?
The reality is that very few of our performances will take place in ideal situations. We need to make sure that our pieces are so deeply ingrained in our ears, our memories, and our bodies that we can perform under any circumstances!
Originally posted on my website.
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More entries: October 2014
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