Violympics Event No. 5: From Foundations to Complexity

August 16, 2020, 11:16 PM · The second to last event of the Violympics has come and gone, and once again I’m starting to see the method behind the mastery, as Nathan Cole’s tagline reads.

Some aspects of this course have been challenging and frustrating for me. Nathan's way of structuring material is very different from my typical learning style. I like to know what I’m learning and why from the beginning - his way is more suspenseful, giving assignments with seemingly minimal context or only tantalizing clues dropped in his videos that only make sense once the challenge piece is revealed. Many of my fellow Violympians really enjoy this approach, at least judging from the enthusiastic theorizing that happens in our Facebook group, but as a tired violin teacher, most days I'd rather just get straight to the point.

The first week of Event 5 started with technique work focusing on doublestops, trills, vibrato, and combining the above! The value of the summer’s earlier work on hand frame and fourth finger was immediately clear.

Each day of Week 1 in the event involved trills and playing one or two octave scales in thirds, sixths, and doublestops. In theory, I know that this should be a part of every violinist’s daily routine anyway! In practice, well, let’s just say that one of my motivations for doing the Violympics was for extra accountability and support for my own playing, and to have a break from assigning myself work after assigning it to my students all day. It was great to have this assigned and to have Nathan's insights to playing doublestops to work with this week.

The interval scales really helped me. Octaves used to be somewhat scary for me, but these days I find them very centering. Even a few minutes of octaves a day helps my left hand feel more organized and my intonation is also much more accurate! One of the most useful tips that Nathan gave us this week was that when playing octaves, your hand should always maintain an in-tune octave interval, even when shifting and crossing strings. It’s definitely a lot more challenging to practice and listen this way initially, but the results are worth it.

Thirds are something that brings back slightly traumatic memories of butchering the third movement of the Bruch Concerto in a grad school jury, but practicing them this week, especially with the work earlier this summer on hand frame and fourth finger, was different. Thirds felt like something my hand *could* do effectively, not like something I was dreading.

I think the lesson learned here is that sometimes, the solution is not to practice a tough passage over and over, but to take a step (or five) back and really look at the skills needed to play it. In my case, it started with the very way my head balanced on my neck and how the violin balanced on my shoulder! This summer, working on hand frame, fourth finger, MVP (see Nathan’s video here), and careful, methodical exercises in thirds has made more of a difference than practicing passages of the Bruch blindly for hours every day did.

Sixths have always been a mystery to me, and this week, Nathan’s tips on which fingers to move in what order and choose both effective and expressive fingerings helped shine a little light on the situation. In this case, the finger that is staying the same has to change strings before the new finger. And, sometimes, doing same-finger shifts for a sixth in order to avoid having to cross strings just for one interval can make a huge difference in the smoothness of a passage!

Trills were a central feature of our technique work, both single notes and trilled thirds. Nathan has YouTube videos on his trill technique, so I'll let him explain that himself to you so you can join in the fun if you would like:

Trill Video #1

Trill Video #2

Trill Video #3: Double Trouble

And finally, we revisited our vibrato exercises from the previous event - but this time, we did them in doublestops. After years of trying to make a beautiful tone on my doublestops, I’m ashamed to admit I never actually put much effort into doing vibrato exercises in doublestops. That’s an error I’ve corrected in my own practice and will soon be assigning to my students. If any of my students are reading this, look out!

We also got to have a little fun applying our new skills to the second movement of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto and the octaves passage from Paganini 24.

Week 2 revealed our Challenge Piece: an excerpt from the second movement of Louis Spohr’s Violin Concerto No. 2. You can find the sheet music here on IMSLP if you’d like to give it a try for yourself. Our excerpt was the first five lines of the Adagio.

Spohr Violin Concerto No. 2

As expected, this piece combines doublestops of all kinds, trills, trilled doublestops, and lyrical playing that cries out for vibrato. Nathan’s videos led us to practice material from the concerto using the same methods as last week. I quite enjoyed working through this movement. Choreographing doublestops and trills is like solving a puzzle, and it was very gratifying to see and hear all the pieces coming together.

If you’d like to hear my performance, it’s here.

Only one event left - onward to Event 6 and summer’s end!


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