August 2005

August 31, 2005 18:06

I took two naps today. I need to work all night.

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August 30, 2005 12:07

Aside from the rainy weather here in Cleveland, everything seems to be going relatively well. My practicing is solid and I'm hoping to bump up my time to four or five hours a day when I get settled. I know that'll take some planning. This morning I had my orchestra audition, which probably wasn't a huge deal as the seating is thankfully rotating, but I still took it seriously and was reasonably satisfied with how my Brahms went (not even two pages). The lyrical parts actually went very smoothly and calmly and I felt I had achieved something there or created a few special moments; however, those kind of moments should ideally be so frequent that the whole performance is ear-opening. Right from the very first note with an audience I was not comfortable; even though I had worked on relaxing, the sound was still too harsh under my ear (and when I've recorded myself as well), and I have trouble maintaining a sense of majesty rather than sheer aggression. There's still much to be done with that opening.

At any rate, my first lesson with Mr. Preucil is Saturday, so I'm moving on to the development and recap and coda, and I had nearly forgotten until a few days ago about the Joachim cadenza. Cadenzas in general tend to expose technical flaws more severely than the rest of the piece (not only to the audience, but to the orchestra as well, who have nothing to do but sit there and watch), and as such I think I have avoided ever preparing any cadenza, save the Sibelius which is so integrated into the movement, to the best of my ability. My intonation is generally the weakest during a cadenza, so I will have to make it appear as if there's no room for weakness.

Perhaps the most uplifting thing in the midst of all the work I have ahead of me is that I know am already thinking, playing, and delving into this piece far more deeply than I could have three years ago. The many things I hear when recording myself would have never bothered me before, but now I see that it is just these small but crucial points that hold me back from the next level.

School-wise: the vibe of the Case campus seems similar to Northwestern in some ways, but mostly I am either at home or at CIM. The little rectangular building reminds me of my high school, and being now at a conservatory rather than a university music school makes things feel a little bit like summer music camp, except during the school year. This is by and large great, since there's nothing quite like that atmosphere of motivation and good-natured learning I felt at places like Meadowmount and ENCORE. I'm sure after some time I'll lose the rose-colored glasses and it will just feel like regular school, but at least for now I feel I have more control and direction than I have ever had thus far in my life.


On a side note--one thing I did like much better at Northwestern was the scheduling. The administration are great, hard-working, enthusiastic people here; however, I wish I could just click away online to drop and add classes rather than waiting in line in a crowded trailer for half an hour. Granted, Northwestern's online course registration system, CAESAR, did break down a couple times (prompting the running joke, "Et tu, Brute?"), so I guess no school's scheduling system is perfect. The most disappointing thing I discovered was that I'm not able to continue with German this year, because I have a required class called "World Rhythms" with Paul Simon's drummer. I love Paul Simon and I'm sure I'll love his drummer by extension, but I'm sad not to be taking German in the classroom, and have since bought myself some fun "Learn in Your Car" CDs to keep reviewing until my next opportunity to take the class--or go abroad!

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August 27, 2005 18:40

Today at the end of practicing and again feeling pretty solid, I recorded my Brahms exposition. Now I have a whole list of things to still work on, which is great because that was the point of taping myself--but it's still a little annoying that I couldn't just hear those things under my ear as I was playing. I listened first to write down all the details, and then a second time for a more general feel. And generally speaking, there are some weird problems with my rubatos and tempi. They just don't make sense. Not that surprising considering that I often play instinctively but don't plan things out well enough. So, right now my performance sounds decent but kind of off because I've been too obsessed with details to realize that the big picture is what will pull it together. I believe I'll probably have to do a lot of playing things straight, strictly in rhythm, and then altering just slightly, making sure rits are no more or less than they should be--things like that. I also listened to my Oistrakh and Szeryng recordings, and again noticed (besides the obvious fact that they are wonderful) what masterful conceptions they hold of the piece, and how their choices are generally undeniably appealing whether you agree with them or not because they make so much sense. I do not get that feeling from my own Brahms at the moment, and really think it's possibly the hardest concerto to make sound convincing. But, I now have literally hours of stuff to work on when I go at it again tomorrow.

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August 26, 2005 22:20

One thing I repeatedly find is that I am always, always amazed at how quickly I do improve and get right back into the swing of things when I have the right willpower, and an acceptable (read: not defeatist) attitude. I feel like I should take the fact that this has happened several times as a hint that things are not always as hard as they seem. After doing an hour of Flesch octaves as my technique warm up I did want to quit, but I've made a sort of pact with myself to keep plugging away whether it's a good day or a bad day, because of faith. And generally it actually works. I don't know why that surprises me, or why I keep forgetting that progress is possible, tangible. In a way the first time I worked hard for the long haul (and the longest haul of pure work to the best of my ability that I've had so far is about two straight months) it was easier because I didn't know what I could achieve. Now, there is always pressure for each performance to be better and more insightful than the last. My sophomore recital had to be more meaningful than my freshman recital, and it was; however, it was decidedly less in tune...

The most pleasantly surprising thing was that the first two pages of the Brahms actually started congealing. They are still in the preliminary stages, but I can tell I've laid the very first brick. I remember when learning this concerto before, again, I would psych myself out for the very first note, thinking that I couldn't crunch it, but then I wouldn't have enough power and sound to back it up. Now, I've simply taken to relaxing, imagining the tutti leading up to it in my mind, breathing out the beat before, and letting my arm weight do the work the minute the hair contacts the string. It's amazing what a simple mental change like that can do. I also see how before, there would be something dimly unsatisfying about a passage, but because of fear or whatever might be holding me back, I would let it slide. Now I see that facing it and actually telling myself, the sound is not right because you're just in the wrong part of the bow, I can really improve things. That sounds almost stupid, but it's true, and it goes with what people sometimes tell me: that I have a great ear, but don't always take advantage of it because I'd rather be comfortable. Intonation is an easy example: if we are to be really picky, everything's usually slightly out of tune, and the key to gradually improving one's intonation in general is to keep making that margin of error so slight that it is almost inaudible. A lot of intermediate students are at a level where everything's pretty in tune, and yet it's always slightly out of tune as well: listen closer and you'll hear that augmented seconds are not far enough apart, that fourth fingers especially when crossing strings are flat. It's just a matter of raising your bar to the next standard and jumping over the next hurdle. So, while I'm generally usually in tune, I know that I have to isolate dangerous shifts much, much more, as well as listen now for expressive, searing intonation rather than just bland, good intonation. It's exciting to think that intonation can be made personal and emotional, rather than just strictly "correct."

Overall I'm starting to catch myself more for those pesky excessive movements when I play. It's taken some time to click but now I do realize that the floweriness (I'm not sure if that's a word, but it works in this context so I'm going with it) of my bodily undulations during a long bow is pretty silly--it should just be a long, straight bow, plain and simple. I do think, however, that this has partially come from leading sections in orchestra. It is necessary to cue lots of notes, to make extra motions in the middle of a phrase to direct and guide people. However, in solo playing that type of thing need not occur, or it does very occasionally if I need to show a conductor. Likewise, the sublime E string moments, of which there are many in both Beethoven and Brahms, are much easier now when I remember to breathe and am still physically and mentally grounded. I guess I always thought that to stay so mentally still was to remove oneself from the emotional moment, but I'm starting to see that the opposite could be true. As with great spiritualists, the heights of enlightenment and ecstasy are only reached through an absolutely calm, peaceful, meditative mind.

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August 25, 2005 18:55

From practicing lately, which has been not bad but still frustrating for reasons mentioned in the last post (difficulty putting it all together), I can tell that the only way I have a shot of performing Brahms to a relative level of satisfaction in October is to make a practice schedule with enough structure so that I don't get lost, and stick with it. In the way of technique, which I desperately need to start spending a couple hours a day on, I should focus on the stuff I'll need. My double-stops are just not up to speed (literally) and if I play other things mostly in tune than I should learn how to play multiple, simultaneous notes in tune as well. Another huge thing is vibrato; I simply need to develop more widths so that I can actually choose differently for different passages. When I actually do practice repertoire, it needs to start crudely, with a constant solid sound no matter how unmusical, to counteract my habit of fading unreliably in and out of a core sound when I'm trying too hard to be sensitive. Intonation also--I feel like the last thing I played extremely in tune was Sibelius because I worked like a dog on it, and that was quite some time ago. From the standpoint of decent sound and intonation, I have to learn to sculpt from there, and not the other way around as I usually do.

In a way my biggest problem is simply psyching myself out. I have actually noticed that even when I'm not off ignoring what's coming out of the instrument because I'm too in the zone, even when I'm trying to observe what's really going on, I do tune it out. That's rather disconcerting. If I am watching my bow changes in the mirror, I will actually sometimes avoid watching them. What could I possibly be doing instead? Generally, flinching, or grimacing out of trying too hard, or quickly glancing somewhere else like at the floor during the moment of change, or psyching myself out by thinking that making this bow change smooth will be deathly hard, and thus it becomes so when it's really not at all. To beat this I need to settle myself down and concentrate much more objectively than emotionally, not worrying about what people outside my practice room might think but just about the way things look and sound and what needs to be adjusted to improve it. The psyching myself out thing also contributes to my periods of procrastination. I usually procrastinate because I know the first five minutes of rusty, cold, out-of-shape playing will be the worst, and I am too critical and perfectionistic to be able to bear getting through those five minutes and on to more warmed-up playing. On some level I know this is immature behavior. Five minutes of not getting what I want can be enough to make me give up and go seek out something that gives instant but hollow gratification, like a computer game, and that's really pretty lame. If I can accept faults in others, then with myself I must have the patience and faith to push through the rough times and know that something better lies ahead. If I can't stand to hear some bad playing or to fail something I experiment with, then I will never improve.

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August 25, 2005 13:58

Today's orientation was astoundingly thorough. It's good to see that the CIM administration likes to take care of its students--even if it means keeping us until the last possible second before lunch. I feel pretty excited; I've taken care of signing up for my orchestra audition and first lesson, and tomorrow's chamber music reading will be a sort of round robin thing, so I signed up for Beethoven Op. 18s, Mendelssohn quartets, and piano quartets. I also ran into and met Celeste Golden, who is starting her Master's here. She was very nice and looked understandably a bit taken aback when I excitedly exclaimed, "I've seen your videos from the Queen Elisabeth online!" before even introducing myself (which, as I explained to Jim in my comment below, made people stare--but in a good way!). Being in such company makes me even more motivated to do my best here.

Practicing a Clementi sonata yesterday paid off as I do not have to take Secondary Piano. However, I was placed in the last semester of theory, partly because Northwestern is unusual in that its system is movable Do and at CIM it is fixed. I happened to be sight-singing a melody in D minor and got a bit mixed up, calling D "Do" half the time and "Re" half the time.

In practicing lately, I get glimpses of how there could be much, much more variety, creativity, and spontaneity in my playing if I simply work things out more technically. And in a way I do see how I have been "cheating" for the past couple years--certainly not intentionally, so I wouldn't call it a crime, but I now see how my instinct when making something artistic has been to make a dramatic body movement rather than to really face the technical problem and figure out the real mechanics of making the music come out in the sound alone. This is even selfish in some regard, because my style has certainly helped myself feel the music emotionally, and yes, it has conveyed it pretty clearly to an audience visually. But has it really helped me create mindblowing dynamics and phrasing? Of course not. It has showed intent, and I am very grateful for that. In the past couple years I have worked on that so much that it can generally be second nature to me; I can close my eyes at any time with or without the instrument and conjure up that feeling of inner strength and love and peace (though at my age I'm not great with the peace part yet), or what The Inner Game of Tennis calls Self 2. However, I can only fully embrace that side with complete freedom when I have everything else technically worked out, nailed down, under control. That needs to be my focus. It's great that I don't fake my emotions, but not so great that I have used them not only to add depth and soul but also to bypass some technical inconsistencies. It is one thing to think, "This is a gorgeous phrase that builds up in a sublime way," and quite another to think, "In order to build this phrase, I must diligently save my bow, and thus the effect will be created with pure skill--yet the integration of my intent as well will convey the meaning even more powerfully." The first way is a lovely romantic sentiment, but the fact is induces me to play with excessive body movements that don't really help except to show how earnestly I am trying; the second way combines the mind and the heart in a unique way, allowing one to to both let go and have complete control at the same time. This is definitely what has not yet congealed in my playing, and it is something I very much admire when watching the finalists in major competitions. I have many ingredients, but they are not yet part of a unified package. Conveying my feelings and my soul will be that much easier if I can put together its metaphoric pieces. They are not broken, but they are scattered.

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August 24, 2005 15:42

I've been moved in for a few days and have appropriately wasted some time settling in, shopping, and driving aimlessly around town. I have a new school ID and am looking forward to a fresh start--even practiced some piano, a Clementi Sonata, to be ready for my secondary piano testing tomorrow. Keyboard Skills was mandatory for all freshmen at Northwestern, so I hope I can get out of essentially repeating that and save myself some valuable time. I haven't studied piano regularly since I was 12, and my technique never really got that far off the ground. I find it frustrating when my sixteenth notes are slightly uneven because I don't have complete control, and that my left hand is considerably weaker than my right. But enough of that--this blog is where I complain about my primary instrument!

As I've said, there are four or five fundamentals I need to go back to in my playing. I think the first thing I would like to do is change my bow hold just slightly. It is too pronated and too dependent on the first finger, which generally contacts the bow at my second knuckle. I would like to contact it closer to the first knuckle instead and be much more curved and wrapped around with my other three fingers, and develop more pinky strength at the frog (which is even more crucial with a viola bow). So today I started with the practice of setting an alarm to go off every five minutes or so, and when it goes off I'm supposed to stop, check my bow hold to see where it's gotten to, and readjust. The problem with this new practice is that the alarm startles me into putting down my bow and instrument right away instead of freezing so I can see what's actually going on. But I'm sure I'll get used to it.

I've begun work on the Brahms Concerto again. I think in general it is incredibly difficult to find the right balance of power and sheer beauty of tone. For example with the chords, which are traditionally all down bows, it's so tricky to find the right combination of weight and a slow bow while still hearing the right ring, and without crunching. There are orchestral seating auditions next week and I think I will probably have to play the first couple pages or something, so I'm trying to just focus on that. I have no idea what excerpts will be involved on this audition and that makes me kind of apprehensive. The good news, though, is I have a new string player sight-reading "play-in" to look forward to on Friday.

Feeling ready to make this school year as positive and worthwhile an experience as I can.

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August 15, 2005 23:45

After the last post's philosophical ramblings, a couple brief shameless plugs:

1. Looking to take on private students in the Cleveland area. Admittedly have virtually no teaching experience, but much performance and leadership experience and enthusiasm! I know there are many teachers on this site and as I'm sort of going into this blind, any advice would be thoughtfully considered and greatly appreciated. I am also checking out the past site discussions on teaching, so as not to make everyone rehash old information.

2. Details to come about my October 22nd Brahms Concerto performance with the Waukegan Symphony--if you're in the Chicago area, I'd love to see you there!

And another random musing: this site really cheers me up, which is bizarre in a good way. Anyone who knows me personally can tell you I'm not exactly a chipper person. I have a dark sense of humor, am too sensitive to personal and professional criticism, and get discouraged as quickly and easily as anyone else--perhaps more so if I'm being particularly self-critical. However, writing here makes me less afraid and ashamed of my inherent optimism. I have always believed in hope, while faith (though not at all in any sort of organized religion sense, and not necessarily exclusively of a supernatural deity) is an idea I've come to recently. I feel more and more lately that hope and faith go hand and hand--that happiness is not just a wish, but a belief. I may well turn out to be wrong the way I'm going, but I'll never really know until I plunge in with the belief in my head and heart and (literally) hands. Hey, it's worth a shot.

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August 15, 2005 23:35

So much has happened this summer. I believe it's been mostly good, but when things change so quickly it's hard to tell. The most important thing for me musically is that I've figured out pretty much exactly where I need to go from here--something I've been yearning to discover for the past two years. Considering that I haven't even transferred yet (officially moving in a few days!), that's not bad. Besides the whole technical solidity thing, there are always, always more things I can do artistically. I was fortunate enough to see Sergey Khachatryan's recital at Ravinia last week, and it was wonderful. I particularly loved his Debussy Sonata--it seemed to showcase all the capricious, spontaneous, creative aspects of his playing, and he is overflowing with those gifts, as well as a gift for inward playing, and a gift for heart-on-sleeve romantic many palettes! I feel I need to play much more French music to develop that side of my playing; I find it somewhat difficult to change emotions so quickly and subtly but the French violin sonatas demand it. In orchestra as well, capturing that special sound is in a way compounded in difficulty, what with so many musicians trying to blend into one shimmering voice. Mr. Preucil and I have emailed a couple times and it seems that my tentative recital program this year will in fact be the Debussy Sonata, the Beethoven "Kreutzer" Sonata, and some kind of showpiece (another area in which I am lacking).

Speaking of repertoire--I am also performing the Brahms Concerto with the Waukegan Symphony Orchestra and Stephen Blackwelder, conductor, this season! And I recently found out the concert date: Saturday, October 22nd. That was a daunting but mostly exciting surprise. I learned the concerto two years ago but was never satisfied with the way I played it and hopefully can bring it to a different level this time around. Of course, this theoretically means I should have as little life as possible in the next two months that's not spent slaving away inside the practice room. In a way I think that shouldn't be too hard to accomplish since that is, after all, just what I need to throw myself into right now; and of course on the other hand, I know that with adjusting and everything I'll want to actually meet people and check out the neighborhood and stuff.

So with all of these uncertainties I've actually become quite interested in finally starting to teach--something that would bring me pleasure and stability and open up a whole new host of wonders and learning opportunities and connections. I have literally no experience, other than an informal lesson helping out my little cousin, and yet I'm hoping to build skills and confidence by throwing myself into it and just doing it already (which I kind of need to do with my practicing anyway). I know I have lots of ideas about how to help students and I love hearing my peers play and giving comments and suggestions and really trying to figure out how best to help them. I also feel like I have a knack for seeing not just where people stand but also their future potential, which is important because without those aspirations and that sometimes insane idealism, we'd be directionless. I definitely want to experience more teaching styles in the next several years of my education, but thankfully I have already experienced a couple different ones--the methodical, tried-and-true discipline of my longtime teacher Mr. Ribeiro, and the wonder and imagination of Helen Callus. I also see the importance of balance, of not presenting mechanics and music as at odds with each other, but aspects that come together in harmony to achieve something simulatenously technically grounded and artistically otherworldly. I am of course still struggling to reconcile these things, so I don't profess to always know the cleanest, most efficient way to achieve these ends. Yet I do know that with that goal in mind, the only thing I can do is get down to practical, ugly problem-solving, and perhaps I would learn just as much going through those same difficulties with students as I would on my own.

Perhaps best of all for me personally, going through the painful work of practicing day in and day out will help me gain the kind of self-knowledge and reliability and confidence and independence that enables me to be a much better support system for myself. Life is complicated and people move around all the time--I read a lovely book called A General Theory of Love that looks at love and attachment from a biological standpoint, and I believe it brings up the simple fact that despite the amazing advances of modern technology, we're simply not wired to travel thousands of miles from those we're attached to in the blink of an eye and feel totally healthy. I have great friends at Northwestern, have kept in touch throughout the summer, and I actually feel more sure now in August than I did in May that they will continue to be important to me. As much as I am changing and shifting, so is my support system, and it would be wonderful to eventually learn real self-sufficiency without isolation or emptiness--just fulfillment in making the journey toward my goals, and enjoying greatly others' company along the way. We are so apt to look to others for happiness and to meet our own needs, yet we rarely realize our power to meet our needs ourselves. Once we do that, we are freer than ever to help and reach out to others. So somehow through all these changes in my life I need to find the strength to push through for what I believe in, what and who I believe I can eventually be. I'd like to believe that the end result is not selfish. It's to be able to reach and touch others in the fullest way possible by being as complete an individual human being as I can be. I guess this is part of growing up.

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August 1, 2005 21:42

Yet again, I had a not so good lesson followed by a great lesson where we tried to dig straight to the heart of the problem and clear things up and find out what makes me tick. Obviously, that can't all be accomplished in one day, but Helen and I did have an-hour-and-a-half conversation/pep talk about what I need to do, where I need to go from here mentally, physically, and emotionally (as trite as that sounds). One of her big beliefs that I have also adopted is that your playing very much reflects your life and vice versa. In both my playing and my life, I am at a crossroads where I am really starting to branch out on my own with greater independence and discover what I can make of myself. As with any change, it's alternately an intimidating and truly exciting feeling. That I've been a bit initially overwhelmed by all this new information is in a way only a matter of attitude: if I decide to take these ideas as a real gift, and the tools to unlock my full potential, I should be thrilled instead.

Totally unrelated, my stomach just growled, and it kind of did a descending major arpeggio. See, unlocking hidden talents already. I wish I could do that again.

When I take a deep breath, try to be a bit more objective and practice these basic skills that I haven't reviewed in years, I discover something new every few minutes. I have been reading Barry Green's The Inner Game of Music (after reading The Inner Game of Tennis a while ago), and it's reminding me that sometimes the most helpful thing we can do is let go of all our preconceived judgements and simply be peacefully aware of what's really happening in the moment. I've had teachers always telling me exactly how to do things, so it's liberating to know I can discover solutions that can work just as well by myself. I also know if I'm really focusing my ears and brain as well as possible, because I start to lose concentration after maybe 45 minutes. Sometimes I have long practice sessions, two or even three hours maximum (with bathroom breaks), and I do well but probably am not there 100% mentally. Or at least, I'm now learning to listen in a new way and this is requiring a lot of attention.

Aside from fear of failure, I think in a weird way I'm slightly afraid of success as well. The fact that I have no idea what exactly I'm capable of in my lifetime or where my limit is makes me nervous. I think my dream job would probably be the one my new teacher has--principal or concertmaster of a major orchestra. I feel like that would be really fulfilling and I would have a lot to bring to that. I want to be able to impact people in the most direct way possible; I want to be open to everything, and having no idea what the possibilities are or aren't is humbling. I'm even unsure about which instrument I ultimately should focus on--I still have a greater affinity for the violin, but I might be able to learn to really love the viola sound, and if I would make more of a difference on that instrument then that's appealing. At this point, I really don't know! But I'm trying, day in and day out, not to lose perspective of my ultimate goals--even if I don't know how precisely, in the next several years, I will go about getting there--and just enjoy the process.

I'm also reminded of Marianne Williamson's "Our Deepest Fear" (which is often attributed to Nelson Mandela, but that's supposedly inaccurate). I actually think it's been posted elsewhere on this site; I think I came across it doing a search or something. However, for everyone's convenience, here it is:

Our deepest fear is not
that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are
powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness,
that most frightens us.

We ask ourselves,
who am I to be brilliant,
gorgeous, talented, and fabulous?
Actually, who are you NOT to be?
You are a child of God.
Your playing small does not serve the world.
There is nothing enlightened about shrinking
so that other people
won't feel insecure around you.

We are all to make manifest
the glory of God
that is within us.
It's not just within some of us;
it's in everyone.
And as we let our light shine,
we unconsciously give others
permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our own fears,
our presence automatically liberates others.

~Marianne Williamson, A Return To Love

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