Violympics Event 6: The Finish Line At Last

August 26, 2020, 11:58 AM · For the past 12 weeks, I, along with about 400 other violinists and violists from around the world, have taken part in Los Angeles Philharmonic Associate First Concertmaster Nathan Cole’s paid course, the Violympic Games. Inspired by the Olympics that were to have happened this summer, the Violympics consisted of six events, two weeks each, with the first week focusing on technical study and the second on learning a brand-new piece in just six or seven days. These last two weeks were the sixth and final event of the Games.

After Event 5’s focus on doublestops, trills, and vibrato, I was really excited for the final event. What was next? Harmonics? Doublestop harmonics? 10ths? As it turned out, the first week of Event 6, the technical week pieces.


We’d had five previous events, so on each day of the first week we reviewed one of our previous events. At first, I felt how I imagine my students do when I ask them to work on review pieces: disappointed, and a little confused. "Why are we just reviewing the old pieces? Wasn’t this supposed to be new technique week? What am I supposed to do?"

But as I started to do the assignments, I started to see things from a teacher's perspective: There are a lot of really meaningful reasons for review.

Claire Allen playing

First, it solidifies skills and confirms the progress you’ve made. I found that my intonation was clearer and my left hand more structured in the Mazas; and while I still loathed the Locatelli, the thirds were slightly less horrendous. Secondly, once the pesky business of learning the notes for the first time is out of the way, you can make fluency, musicality, and ease a better part of your technique. You can go deeper the second time through. Finally, review is empowering. Realizing that I had learned and recorded all these pieces over the last 12 weeks was greatly encouraging. I never would have learned these pieces - I wouldn’t have even bothered to attempt a couple of them - if not for the Violympics.

So, to my students: I hear you, and I empathize with you when you tell me review is not your favorite thing. I confess that I also rolled my eyes and sighed heavily when I learned that this was my assignment for the week. But my experiences only proved to me how valuable review is, and therefore, review will remain part of our lives.

The second week held what I was itching for - a new piece. It arrived in my inbox on Monday morning: one of the etudes from Henryk Wieniawski’s L’ecole Moderne, chosen for the Violympics by Canadian violin soloist James Ehnes, who later joined us for live Q & A! Fellow Violympian Ann Montzka Smelser, a Chicago-area based Suzuki teacher, summed up what he said very well: "James talked about how technical precision is necessary for musical connection and communication... and the love of that quest is everything."

Certainly technical precision was an issue in this piece, which presented so many challenges: combining string crossings, chromatic sequences, and arpeggios. So many arpeggios - including some four-octave ones. The process of learning it went more smoothly than I anticipated, bringing a lot of the skills we'd been building and refining all summer together. Still, I wanted more time to learn it.

If you'd like to give it a try yourself, it's here on IMSLP - our assignment was No. 5, Alla Saltarella.

Alla Saltarella

As I imagine everyone has, I've experienced varying levels of stress and anxiety over the pandemic, and my own personal anxiety really took over this last week - the last week of the Violympics. So I found it challenging to practice, focus, and prepare the final recording. I did find that solving a challenging puzzle like the Wieniawski helped calm and focus me -- that is when I was able to focus. In the long run, though, I'll need more time and and calmer state of being to get this piece to a more fluent level.

If you’re interested in what I was able to produce after just a week of practice in the midst of pandemic anxiety, here is my attempt.

In the time warp that is 2020, the start of the Violympic Trials, which I learned about right here on, seems like years ago. The Violympics brought together violinists and violists from all over the world, and gave us access to a great teacher who shared his unique vision for learning. It gave us focus, motivation, and a supportive community to encourage us along the way -- all during a summer when nothing felt normal, with regular summer festivals and the majority of live performances canceled.

I’m really glad I did it. Having structure created by someone other than myself was a welcome relief this summer. Teaching is already a demanding and draining job, and teaching online is more so. The irony of teaching my students how to practice and organize themselves is that very often, I don’t have the energy or willpower left to do that for myself.

While Nathan’s teaching on technique and the pieces was fantastic, I think the biggest lesson I learned this summer is that it’s okay to not do everything yourself. Even as a professional, it’s okay to have a teacher assign practice strategies and pieces. It’s okay to need the support of people who share your interests and passions. And for musicians, as we’re cut off from each other and aren’t able to play together in person, we need that connection more than ever in 2020.

So, what’s next for me? I’m going off the grid for a few days and taking a break both from the Internet and my violin. I have a stack of new music I’m really excited to dive into, and a very busy online studio waiting for me to start next week.

Thank you so much to Nathan for the immense amount of work that went into creating this experience this summer, to for making it possible for me to participate, to my fellow Violympians for their music, their enthusiasm, and support, and to all of you, for following along on this musical journey.

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August 26, 2020 at 09:30 PM · You should be very proud of all that you accomplished, Claire. I truly enjoyed being on this journey with you. Enjoy your time off the grid!

August 27, 2020 at 06:33 PM · This was such an amazing course! I enjoyed making progress and witnessing the growth and progress of others. It was a great way to spend this very unusual summer!

August 27, 2020 at 10:17 PM · Thank you for sharing these!

August 28, 2020 at 03:32 AM · There is some more discussion of "Violympics" (amid other discussion) here:

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