Technique Obsession and Performance Preparation: The Violympics Trials Days 4 & 5

May 9, 2020, 1:11 AM · All last week I participated in LA Phil Associate Concertmaster Nathan Cole's Violympics Trials, and it's boosted both my level of inspiration and my time in the practice room. Over the course of those days, violinists have been learning a "Violympic Theme" written by Nathan - and full of technical challenges. He addressed those challenges in a series of videos throughout the week, which you can find here, even if you aren't participating. (The Violympic Trial is a free lead-in to Nathan's 12-week paid Violympics program - click here if you are interested in that.)

Here is my journal from the last two days of the challenge.

Claire's Violympic setup

Day 4:

My name is Claire and I am a technique junkie. In theory, I know that this challenge is about learning a piece in five days and that the whole point of technique is to make music, but somehow, I managed to lose that point today. Nathan has referenced Simon Fischer’s excellent book Warming Up several times this week. I was obsessed with this book even before the Violympics Trials started, and highly recommend it to everyone.

I had some grand ideas about re-doing the assignments from Day 3 this morning, but when I started practicing I promptly ignored all of that and worked through all of Warming Up instead. Nathan’s insights into this book in his videos helped me a lot - particularly, the hand frame tips from his pinky video, his trill videos, and the vibrato video - which is essentially a tutorial on the two Vibrato pages in Warming Up. Nathan's teaching and demonstrations gave me a fresh perspective on the material, and I felt a lot of the rust falling off of my technique as I played each exercise.

I realized about halfway through that all this time spent on technique was a sneaky way of avoiding the piece. Without telling you my violin life story - which would be a novel, not a blog - I’ll sum it up by saying that I’m a classic case of a very ambitious kid without a lot of self-awareness who played *a lot* of major repertoire before her technical skills were up to the task, then ended up with a lot of tension habits and injuries.

I’ve spent the last 10 years rebuilding my technique and only recently have started venturing back into the world of playing actual music. It was pretty devastating when I realized just how far apart the repertoire I was trying to play and my functional technique were, so I spent a long time telling myself "No, you can’t play [Ysayë/Paganini/Brahms concerto] yet. That wouldn't be good for you." Even though I've progressed a lot, I've gotten into the habit of telling myself no when it comes to technically difficult and virtuosic music.

I was happy that I recognized that thought pattern and was able to pivot in the middle of my practice to practicing the different sections of the piece and thinking at least a bit about the music. I still spent a lot of time on the octaves, but the second half of my practice was much more musically oriented.

My first run-through of the piece was…humbling, to say the least, and showed me the importance of applying the technique to the actual music. I guess I know what my focus for tomorrow needs to be.

Day 5:

I did it. I actually managed to practice in a mostly structured way for five days in a row. I don’t remember the last time I focused this much on one project. I feel like a different part of my brain is more awake, despite how exhausted I am. I haven’t exercised the artistic or performance part of my violin skills for myself in a very, very long time.

Part of me just wanted to sleep when I finished teaching today, but having this goal, the commitment, and the accountability got me up and practicing. Okay, and the competition element contributed just a bit, too. It’s not about winning so much as the chance at a free spot in this summer’s Violin Olympics, which is incredibly appealing to me.

It felt strange to start putting things together in preparation for a recorded performance only five days into learning a new piece. Left to my own devices, I think I’d probably keep working on the technical elements…forever. Nathan’s live session today talked about choosing mental images that help prepare the mind and body to be in the right space to play each section effectively and confidently.

I tell my students to create stories for their pieces all the time, and I frequently neglect it in my own playing. It felt very different and, honestly, really uncomfortable to put myself into that artistic headspace. It felt like I didn't quite belong there. Like my fourth finger, I think my visualization needs practice. I think thinking of myself as an artist again might need some practice, too.

The final official practice task today was to make a test recording, not to analyze for playing, but to make sure the technology works for this weekend’s recording session. I invested heavily in new technology out of necessity when my teaching had to transition online, so for this weekend I’ll be recording directly into QuickTime on my new MacBook Pro, using a Blue Yeti external microphone set on stereo. I’m not an audio person by any stretch of the imagination, but I think this should work well enough for these purposes.

So…that’s the end of the learning part of the Violympic Trials. I’ve learned some different ways to practice and some different ways to think about practice strategies that I was already familiar with. I’ve been inspired by the energy and excitement of other violinists from around the world. Nathan’s teaching both during the live sessions and his tutorial videos has been clear, effective, and very supportive. It's been a wonderful blend of technical structure, performance mindset, and encouraging community.

Will I be brave enough to share a video of me playing for real publicly? Will trying to learn the octaves passage tomorrow before recording drive me insane? Who will win the coveted free spot in the summer Violympics?

Stay tuned to find out - and, even though it’s too late to follow along live, you can still register for the Violympic trials and participate on your own schedule. I highly recommend it. It’s been transformative for my playing, and my life this week.

* * *
If you are interested in signing up for Nathan Cole's Violympics, a 12-week program that starts in late May, click here to sign up. Signing up through link partially benefits

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