February 2010

How to 'Tune Up' Your Practice

February 25, 2010 12:10

This morning, as we do every morning, ‘Star’ the dog and I went for out for a little walk/run about.  In the course of it we did 4 hill sprints; about 600’ of vertical climb.

It was enough to trigger an endorphin rush in me.  Star just wanted to eat.

So then I pick up my violin.  Now, you might think you can imagine what I experienced when I lifted it to my shoulder.

I don’t think so.

My fingers felt so stiff and slow I thought I thought of calling 911.

Fortunately, things got better.  And fast.  Over the course of an hour-twenty I went from playing ultra-slow scales, with measured wide vibrato in triplets, to whizzing around Sarasate’s ‘Zapateado’ like a liquored up Marti-Gras celebrant.

And this is how I did it.

I imagined.

I experienced.

And I thought.

And then I did it again.  And sometimes, again.

You know, it’s a good policy to give yourself a maximum of 3 tries to execute what you have in mind before making a conscious decision to change the picture.

That really ties in to the ‘thought’ side of the process.

Now with a completely new skill the ‘imagine’ part will be pretty sketchy; unless, that is, you’ve really done your homework and reviewed my DVD instructions on the matter.

Yet nonetheless, once you have an working image of your goal you must ‘put one down’.  You must ‘experience’ it.  And what I mean by this is to execute the skill based on your image of it, while really paying attention to the actual physical feelings generated by the doing.

Stage three is merely to reflect on the difference, should there be one.  If there is you go back, refine the image, and experience again. 

As I say, sometimes the brain doesn’t grab anything ‘new’ from an experience, even though the result is clearly not up to snuff.

In such cases I give myself one additional try.  If, after 3 tries I’m not making progress, either I change the context of the image – i.e. go slower – or I move on to something else, temporarily.

Now I recognize that this is very likely ‘old hat’ to you.  Yet when a skill we are seeking feels ‘out of our depth’, it is tempting to abandon imagination and thought altogether.  And ‘practice’ quickly becomes one empty repetition after another.

The trick is to catch yourself.  And the '3 tries' rule is a great way to do it.

All the best,

Clayton Haslop
 

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The Unruly Vibrato Fix

February 11, 2010 12:16

After a bracing early morning walk and training session with our new pup, I did my own training session, on the violin.  It’s amazing how similar the work ethics are to produce good results in each.

And recently I’ve been focusing on vibrato, this after uncovering some unruliness in mine.  It’s something that just goes with the territory.  Guess I’d simply call it skills maintenance.

Yet whether you are reconditioning this particular skill or training yourself to it for the first time, the following little exercises can be very helpful.  Of course to begin with you do want to ensure that your hand and wrist are relaxed, and that the motion of the hand is clean. 

So the exercises to ‘top-off’ your vibrato have to do with gently, yet firmly, conditioning it to be constant and even.  And I do it at two speeds.

Now which speed you begin with has to do with the natural rate at which your hand oscillates.  If you have a lot of fast-twitch muscle fiber you will tend toward a fast vibrato, so begin at the faster speed.

If you suspect the opposite, then let your hand begin with a slow vibrato.

The exercises consist of playing adagio – think slow walk – whole note scales.  First position is fine.  And as you play I suggest you count the beats, quietly.

If you are in the slow vibrato mode you will be listening for 3 oscillations of the hand per beat.  In the fast mode listen for 4.

Remember, the idea is for the hand and wrist to be absolutely as relaxed as possible.  No tension in the fingers that are off the string, and the minimum of pressure to make a good tone for those that are on the string.

The challenge is to maintain the speed of oscillation through all 4 fingers.  Once you have it at one rate of speed, switch over to the other.

Now, you can do the scale with only one finger in contact with the fingerboard at a time, and you can do the scale where fingers remain on the string as you ascend.  Both are very useful.

Of course you will note that having all four fingers down while you play a 4th finger will necessarily limit the range of motion of the vibrato.  It needn’t affect the rate of oscillation, if the hand remains relaxed.

For an additional ‘variation’ you might move between forte and piano dynamics as play, noting that forte only requires a slight increase in pressure from the finger being sounded. 

When I began doing this a few days ago I felt somewhat challenged doing all that I have outlined here.  In fact, it was a couple days before I could pick the fiddle up cold and execute a two-octave scale without glitches at either speed.

Interestingly, just like training a puppy, the ‘pack leader’ is most effective when a clear vision precedes any choice of action.  When I raise the violin to my chin whilst seeing/feeling my hand relaxed and in the rate of speed of my choosing, success follows very quickly.

All the best,

Clayton Haslop
 

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On the Mastery of Two Skills

February 8, 2010 13:31

I am happy to report that after 5 days and nights, Star, our new puppy, is getting the potty thing right about 80% percent of the time.  Actually with ‘poop’ he’s been 100% for two straight days. 

And boy does it smell a lot better around here!

But hang on, these are not the SKILLS I was going to write about today!

Two questions came from players at very different places in their violin lives.  One arose from the rather uncomfortable challenge of sight-reading Saint-Saens’ ‘Organ Symphony’ – a rhythmically tricky piece.

The other, from a beginner, and addresses the challenge of putting fingers to string accurately and reliably.

First the question regarding sight-reading.  Here are the basic priorities, in order, that a good musician should hold: awareness of the BEAT; dynamics, rhythms, articulation, and finally, the notes.

Now, for some, the order of my priorities may come as a surprise.  They were to me when I first learned them.  After all, I thought ‘getting the notes’ was the deal. 

Uh-uh.

Awareness of the flow of time is numero uno.  And along those lines I have conducted experiments with myself that have proved very interesting. 

When I count the beats, even as I sight-read whatever is in front of me, I find that I am no less effective at getting the dynamics, rhythms, articulations OR the notes than when I don’t, in fact I tend to be better.  AND I’m a heck of a lot more steady and aware of the conductor, the other instruments, and the pace of the music as I do so.

You see, for some reason the conscious act of forcefully engaging another part of the brain – the language center – OPENS the mind big time to other challenges.

Now, that being said, if I have a few moments before the conductor starts in, I will take a quick look through the music, finding the ‘tricky’ spots and mentally visualizing my way through them. 

And certainly if the opportunity to play a little – quietly – is there, I will take it.  And here is what I do.

I do my slow, verbalizing-the-beat-while-playing practice – with no regard for even staying in time – until I can coordinate the notes with my count. 

Listen, I’ve had some REALLY tricky music put in front of me, rhythmically complex, notey, you name it.  Yet when I spend even a couple quiet minutes in this practice the payoff is enormous when the ‘reading’’ begins.

The off-the-beat rhythms of the Organ Symphony are tricky.  Yet once the hands and count are ‘Locked’ in this way, it is VERY difficult for anything to shake them apart.  Even the most annoying gesticulations of the typical wanna-be conductor!

But again, first thing is time, then dynamics, then rhythms, articulation, and finally, the notes.

All right, on to the basics of putting fingers to string.

Here again, the key is in your thinking.  Well, hang on, let’s say the first step begins with the ear.  If you can sing the note you are trying to place, you’re more than halfway there.

The next step is to connect the ear to your fingers.  And this is about mastering some spatial relationships – where things are on the fingerboard – and developing discrete control over each finger.

Now both of these have primarily to do with the brain, unless, that is, you have nerve damage between brain and fingertips.  Yet assuming you don’t, and I hope this is the case, the key is to go SLOWLY.  Don’t move until you’ve computed some idea in your head of where that next note lies.

And when you do move the finger, consciously relax the hand – and breathe – such that the second finger is free to move independently of the first; and that it purposefully takes position on the fingerboard where your mental image dictates. 

If the image you projected was wrong, well, you just learned something new.  If it was correct, why you just moved closer to ‘hard wiring’ the location of F# relative to E in first position on the D string.

And there you have it.

All the best,

Clayton Haslop

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Slide Your Way to Fingerboard Mastery

February 1, 2010 13:11

As you know, I place quite a bit of stock in how one Thinks when playing the violin.  And just to illustrate this a little bit, let me give you an example from my practice this morning.

While warming up I set a goal for myself to play a 3 octave B flat major scale in ‘broken thirds’, rapidly, and using separate bows.  Now, if you’re not yet familiar with broken thirds simply think of the following pattern where each number corresponds to a note, or degree, of the scale; 1, 3, 2, 4, 3, 5, 4, 6, etc.

Now in order to complete 3 octaves I had to ascend into the upper positions on the E string and return back down.  And this is where my ‘thinking’ really needed to make a difference.

You see, on the way down I was having a little difficulty, at first, with coordinating my down shifts with my right arm.  I also noticed that the accuracy of my intonation was slightly off. 

And after repeating the little exercise with the same result a second time, it struck me that I, yes I, was being quite lazy.  I was trying to let old ‘auto-pilot’ do the lion’s share of the work for me.  I was, in fact, trying to avoid thinking at all about pitch locations, form, or anything as I came down. 

Yep, wishful thinking, guilty as charged.

Now having had SOME experience in these things I recognized the ‘fix’ immediately.  I needed to have a very clear ‘picture’ of the form I wanted my left hand to trace on the way from 9th position on the E string right down to 1st position, and I needed to have a rock-solid sense of the distances between each interval my hand covered along the way.

So what did I do?  I resorted, briefly, to my ‘glissando technique.’ 

Now for those of you well into my ‘Allegro Players’ you’ll know exactly what I mean by this.  It is surely one of the cornerstones of learning the fingerboard.

Yet for those of you not in the program, and hungry for a bit of insight, I can say this.  My glissando technique is a way to isolate the movements of the hand/arm up and down the string without the distraction of individual finger movements. 

So in this example I used one finger, in this case the 2nd finger, and slid in a controlled, continuous motion from 1st to 9th position, listening intently for the pitches that would become ‘arrival points’ when the passage is played as intended.

In this case we are talking about a series of thirds; G, B flat, D, F and A.  Coming down the first shift is a major third, the second a minor third, and so on.  Putting the hand in motion and timing it to ‘hit’ each of these pitches accurately while allowing the position of the hand/arm to ‘morph’ as needed to accommodate the shape of the instrument teaches you a lot.  And fast.

All the best,

Clayton Haslop

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