Centering, Extending, and Letting Go: Violympics Event No. 2

June 29, 2020, 12:02 AM · The Violympics are forcing me to take at least a few minutes every day for my own violin playing - and that's a good thing, but as a busy teacher, it's a challenge.

I, along with several hundred brave violinists and violists from around the world, am searching to improve my playing skills by participating in the "Violympic Games," created and taught by violinist Nathan Cole. The last two weeks were Event 2, with the first week being series of technical exercises designed to build the skills needed to learn the challenge piece in the second week.

There was a lot of buzz right away over the first week’s assignments: quite a bit of excitement and consternation about "Paganini." Nathan certainly knew how to get a lot of violinists’ attention - he was having us do some excerpts from Paganini's Caprice No. 2! It's interesting how certain composers provoke responses in us and can give us an idea of how we think something is going to go, how hard it is, or even if we're worthy of playing it.

Once I looked at the official assignments, I appreciated the themes - continuing structural work on the hand frame, expanding both within and outside of the frame, refining basic bow strokes, string crossings, and thirds. And, while I'm still working through my own "I'm not allowed to play Paganini" mental block, I appreciated the opportunity to look at Nathan’s selected passages from the second caprice, use them to help learn about hand frame and string crossings, and to also quell some of my apprehension about them. Just taking one thing at a time, in small pieces, with a very specific goal and a plan for achieving it does a lot for reducing anxiety. There was a time my life where I definitely shouldn't have been playing Paganini. But that's not this time, and it's good to be mindful of that particular mental attitude as I go through these Games.

When Week 2 rolled around, I was excited to see we'd be working on a wholly unfamiliar piece to me: L’arte del Violino, No. 2, by Pietro Locatelli, edited by Nathan Cole. I was...less excited to see some of the recommended fingerings in one passage, which immediately explained the thirds and extension exercises from Week 1. The piece features lots of string crossings in various patterns, doublestops, three and four note chords, and some flashy arpeggio passages with harmonics. Lots to dig into.

This was a hard week for me to find enough practice time, but for this piece, that was okay. For the technical challenges posed by this piece, small chunks of deliberate, careful, and aware practice was needed. Overdoing it or practicing too much definitely could have led to an injury if I wasn't careful.

Locatelli thirds

The thirds and extensions were really hard for me, for several reasons. Firstly, they’re just not a comfortable part of my left hand technique. I’ve struggled with tension and efficiency for years, and thirds are something I’ve worked on recently, but they're not comfortably integrated into my hand. Extensions are a tricky thing for anyone - it takes very deliberate, careful work over time to open the hand enough that it can reach the extensions, and anatomical knowledge of how the hand works so you can do it safely. For me, I know that I can’t practice extensions safely for more than a few minutes a day. The second I feel even the slightest bit of strain in my hand or fingers, I stop immediately. This is so frustrating, because I need more repetitions to feel comfortable and to be in tune, but I made the decision to put my hand first and my intonation second, and am very glad I did.

While looking deeply at how to play thirds and extensions in a healthy way, I reflected that preparing for these techniques is not unlike some new strategies I'm using as I approach my own daily life.

As a teacher, I frequently find myself pulled in several directions at once, and this week I had a small revelation. Somewhere between reading various schools’ opening plans for the fall, responding to parent emails that needed my attention, and trying to figure out how to do those ridiculous thirds, it occurred to me: I can’t do ANY of this unless I’m grounded, centered, and taking care of my own body.

That means I need to actually eat breakfast and drink some water and do some yoga before I open my laptop.

And it means that to play thirds and extensions, I need to start by feeling grounded through my feet, balanced through my knees, and released from the urge to lock my knees and upper legs. I need to unclench my jaw, and positioned my left arm. And that's before I can even start to think about opening my hand from the base joints and putting the fingers on the strings.

Around the middle of the week, I let go of the expectation that I would play these thirds in tune. I let my main goal be to get the right fingers in the right order, with a balanced support in my body, and less than complete clenching in the hand. It was harder than I expected, to let go of my ego and to break out of my old pattern of freaking out about my intonation and feeling my body freak out right along with me.

In both violin technique and life, inner balance and taking time to take care of what the body needs first is crucial. Once we do that, we can extend ourselves without being hurt (as long as we rest afterwards!).

stretch fingers

Nathan offered several modifications that could be made to this piece to make it attainable for the wide range of levels we have in the Violympics. He suggested strategic places to drop some of the chords, alternate fingerings and bowings, and, most crucially for me, said we had the freedom to change the tempo as often as we wanted.

I took extreme liberties with the tempo, and basically played the passage of thirds much slower than the rest of the piece. I elongated several rests to give myself time to breathe and reset, and then I, um, sped up because I got excited near the end and I could actually play that part.

(Side Note: If any of my students are reading this, this perspective does NOT apply to any of your pieces, so please go practice with a metronome…and maybe march along with it and count out loud! :-) )

If any of you are really interested in listening to my very loose interpretation of the Locatelli, you can do so here.

You can also find me on Instagram at @claireallenviolin, where I'm sharing a little more of the day-to-day journey of the Violympics, including a few videos of how I practiced the thirds and extensions, if that’s something you’re interested in.

If you'd like to bring a little Nathan Cole and Violympics flair to your own practice this week, you can learn about some of the things he taught us in his YouTube videos. I'm linking to two of the most relevant ones for this week’s challenge: trills in thirds, and pinky power.

For hand frame and gaining more control over your pinky, his Pinky Power video is amazing. If you want to learn more about Nathan’s perspective on thirds, I highly recommend you watch his series of videos on trills - he covers thirds in in this last video. To try some of the finger extension exercises we did, they can be found in Schradieck, the second major section (p. 4 in in this IMSLP version.

What techniques will we hone and develop in the next event? What will the next challenge piece be? Have we seen the last of the extensions for the summer? Tune in a couple weeks to find out.

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June 30, 2020 at 12:11 AM · Claire, You are my hero! First, a beautifully written blog; second, your students should be so proud of you; and, third, you are a wonderful violinist and a true inspiration to many of us. What a meaningful passage you wrote: "In both violin technique and life, inner balance and taking time to take care of what the body needs first is crucial." If we could all just remember that, how much happier we would be! Again, thanks for taking us with you on this journey!

June 30, 2020 at 08:57 AM · I love your reports Claire and I learn a lot from them but it is striking that every time you include a "do as I tell you, not as I do" to your students :-)

July 1, 2020 at 02:11 AM · Diana, thank you!! I hope I can remember it for myself as we keep going - we're not even halfway through the Violympics yet!

Jean, I think it's important to model honesty for my students, and several of them are very sharp and catch me out in any inconsistencies! We talk A LOT about musical context. Were I to teach one of them the Locatelli (not likely anytime soon), I'd tell them the same approach. Most of them are on the Vivaldi concerti in the Suzuki books, though, so we are having a lot of discussions about learning how to maintain a steady tempo.

I'm also open and honest with my students about my own struggles as a violinist and that I'm still learning. There are many amazing violinists out there who are far better than I will ever be. I'm further along on my violin journey, which means I can be an effective teacher for my students, but I don't pretend to be one of the world-class artists and I feel no need to portray myself as perfect or without error. I'm human, I definitely don't play violin perfectly, but I know how to face my weaknesses and to work on them. My students know that I'm working hard on myself, and I am helping them to do the same!

July 1, 2020 at 02:12 AM · Also, I teach some very sharp kids - I totally could see one of them reading this blog, changing tempos all over their Vivaldi concertos, and then saying "But you did it in that Violympics piece!" Hence the disclaimer. Musical context is everything...

July 1, 2020 at 02:17 PM ·

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