While the ups and downs of practicing are not entirely controllable, I've decided the least I can do is fight to stay there once I'm on an up-turn. I've been doing that this week and it's generally working; I have a lesson tomorrow with piano and feel I've worked well again through the first movement. It's at a more decent-sounding level now, although the weakest spots are still the opening, the second themes, and the cadenza--all crucial. The second movement comes more naturally to me and has potential but I haven't had time to fully work everything out yet and fiddle with new fingerings for the octaves (Mr. Preucil does a crawling thing rather than shifting, so I might look into that), and the third movement is just hell. So I have a long way to go but am relieved to finally be getting somewhere at all.
I have also been recording myself while practicing and need to record my lesson tomorrow to send to the Waukegan Symphony conductor, as I may end up having only one rehearsal with the orchestra. (No, that's not a typo, though I wish it were.) I have had the idea of podcasting some excerpts and talking about practicing and improvements for some time, and Robert has updated the blogging portion of the site partly at my suggestion, but it's something I'd have to put more thought into, plus I'd need some kind of fairly basic audio program to be able to insert speech and stuff, so this may take a while.
Another long-term goal: make it to as many Cleveland Orchestra concerts as possible in the next two years. CIM students are also allowed to sit in on some rehearsals (as long as you get there at least 15 minutes early and refrain from breathing or blinking the entire two-and-a-half hours; a specific rule in our handbook explicitly states, "Do not approach the conductor for any reason"), so I will try to do that as well. In my self-absorption I entirely forgot to mention that the opening concert last week was wonderful. Mr. Preucil's Brahms 1 solos were great, and I spoke to raving people who went on different nights, which means he must have played amazingly three nights in a row. (Or his entire life.) I also said hi to my old NUSO stand partner Alicia Koelz who is a new first violinist; it was great to see her. The orchestra's sound is so clear and unified, as anyone who has seen them knows, and I enjoyed Welser-Moest's conducting although I thought his tempos were rather fast for Brahms. There is a new principal oboist this year, Frank Rosenwein, and I thought he was amazing! I absolutely love his tone and vibrato; all of his many solos were quite breathtaking. In general, it is easy to see why Cleveland is considered the most European of the great American orchestras. Which simply increases my interest in studying abroad eventually--I have a couple friends who studied in Austria and it seems like the place to be. However, I figure I'd better become more secure in my playing in my own country first, so for now I'm making the most of living in exciting Ohio! I guess regardless of whatever doubts and uncertainties plague me from time to time, I still somehow (perhaps even arrogantly) sense that finding the right path will be inevitable, that things do work out and come together in the end.
Super-speedy update in honor of Amy:
Why is it that I've known for five years of orchestral playing that the lower octave should always be stronger than the higher one, and that I only tried the bright idea of applying this to my solo playing the other day?
The CIM orchestra violin section is out of control! Too many cell phones. I think we should end all our phrases up bow! Seriously, I'm really excited for the concert tonight, mostly because I would give my life for Brahms 3, or any Brahms symphony. I think they do a lot of good in the world.
It's totally crunch time now: concert coming up, plus school concerto competition a week before that, plus fun weeding-out prelims a week before that which would be next week. Provided that the awkwardness of the third movement doesn't kill me, I shall now proceed to work on the half of the cadenza that I have thus far been faking. Good times!
SWR: too wobbly/self-indulgent/mostly unusable
SNA: soft orchestral playing
In a nutshell my vibrato's too wide; it's a viola vibrato. Which means I have a lot of looseness in my joints which is great, but not always practical for staying on one pitch. Essentially I have to get from sounding too sentimental and too much like Tchaik (although I love Tchaikovsky and it's probably telling that that is more my natural temperament) and more like Brahms. Another thing that will probably be useful is to go through, say, the entire second movement, using a uniform kind of vibrato--then figuring out ways to vary and shade it in how I'll actually play the movement, and how to make transitions between the types.
After that exercise I worked on the first two (and sadly probably the easiest, though it's all difficult) pages of the Brahms third movement. As with the first movement, I have a hard time getting the opening to sound less like a student and more like I can actually say something musically intelligible and insightful. I did metronome work with the runs and those turned out to be easier to get back in the fingers than the double-stops, which were never really in my fingers to begin with. The octaves are sort of okay but again lack some direction. I think if I can bring this movement to a decent level that'll help me feel much more secure with the piece as a whole, which would be great: each major work I feel that I have even a slight chance of taming helps me realize more of my abilities.
Other than that I can't say much that I haven't said before. I feel that more and more in the past year or so I've become preoccupied while playing--certainly not with other things, but with notes, with every little articulation that's supposed to be there. With technical things and, more importantly, the mental hurdles they present and how I still can't focus in two directions at once because I still perceive them (i.e. music and technique) to be so far apart. I can tell that I definitely look preoccupied, because whoever's teaching me is usually watching me frown and furrow my brow while I attempt to play correctly. I've watched friends play this way and am always sad that they have so much to give but don't look very free with it because there are so many constraints and hoops to jump through before it will be deemed worthy or something. This is also why there is such a difference for me between performances and competitions. Competitions = work and effort and sheer willpower, whereas performances = relaxation and love and effortlessness. I was happy with the creative work I did on the second movement, but I know some of it was from going into the zone and "copping out" again by literally tuning out to whether the sound and the phrase really was consistent. Again, it's like I'm on the verge of reaching something real and great but don't trust that it is constant within me, that I can call on my creative soul at any time and have the strength to feel it and the tools to convey it.
Even this post seems half-assed to me because I get frustrated just trying to describe this nameless feeling of where I'm at. I'm sure my posts in general are making less and less sense. If so, however, then there's no reason to read my words; just run an experiment: listen to a friend's playing or tape record your own and hear how it reveals yourself, how your problems in real life might reflect in your playing. That's where you can't hide. For all I have, I haven't yet found my stability, my core, or if I have I don't trust it, and that's why I can't pull it all together yet.
Now I have to amend that last sentence because I don't even know if it's true (and risk sounding even more out there). I said something like this before, that I can feel what I would term my soul or what I draw on emotionally in my playing, right underneath the surface of my skin, and especially in my heart and stomach, whenever I choose. So it's not true that I don't know my own core or identity. What is true is that there is no peace or order to it, that I don't know how to maintain control of it. It's all here and I'm not expressing it properly--partially because I don't know how and partially because I'm afraid to really do so anyway. Another thing that holds me back, like comfort, is normalcy. To reach my potential I might have to be even stranger than I already am; my posts might no longer make any logical sense whatsoever. I'm not technically good enough to be an uninhibited insane artist and get away with it, so I'm struggling to get this discipline thing down and it's in turn driving me insane.
Looking for freedom in a box.
I posted something in the message boards that may or may not go up soon about Don Greene's profiles/inventories/surveys for performing artists. Despite the fact that I have yet to be able to actually take the artist survey I paid for, I did want to be fair and blog to say I got some use out of the profile that was free and worked properly. That would be the Seven Skills Survey. It measures your strengths and weaknesses in areas related to performance success and well-being, and the fact that all of the factors are shown in a concrete bar graph from low to high makes the issues I face a little more tangible. Here is the summary of my results, and if you're interested in some narcissistically self-absorbed pscyhoanalysis of them, you can continue reading the ensuing paragraphs as well:
*Intensity (the power of your concentration)
*Duration (your attention span)
*Presenting (your ability to present to groups)
*Will to Succeed (your intent to succeed)
*Intrinsic Motivation (motivation from within)
*Mental Quiet (the amount of mental chatter)
Areas for Improvement:
*Ability to Relax (the ability to relax)
*Ability to Risk Success (your fear of success)
*Ability to Risk Defeat (your fear of failure)
The complete bar graph shows even more factors (24 grouped into 7 broader category areas which I will denote in italics), but what strikes me most is those last two. In fact, looking at the bar graph, the only other area in dire need of improvement would also be Self Talk, which is much more towards the critical end rather than supportive. This makes a lot of sense to me; just as musically reaching the fusion of all my separate abilities is holding me back, so mentally do I have many strengths that often fall just short in the face of adversity.
Or a lot short. I can't really tell which; I only scored a bit less than 50% on Perspective in general. In fact, NOW looking at these graphs, they just look all over the place. According to Dr. Greene's analysis, I have an incredible Ability to Fight, but am too Sensitive and don't Recover from setbacks very well, putting my overall Resilience in a paltry middle range. My strongest areas are Focus and Poise, which may be why I appear to be so put together to people on the outside. Determination factors are all generally high but not enough so in my opinion, or I would be able to push through more often than I do. Self Confidence is about 50% which makes sense as I waver between optimism and pessimism, Self Talk is terribly negative, and Expectancy (which I assume means self-expectations) is through the roof. My Energy is rather low, though it has been a slow practice week. My Optimal performance Energy is exactly halfway between calm and excited, which I completely agree with. Of course, my actual Performance Energy is much too anxious. The most pathetic category, however, is Courage, and I suppose therein lies my problem. Despite all the thinking I do, I haven't completely learned to trust my own abilities. In fact often the thinking gives me an excuse to hide behind. In my personal life I am not a big risk taker, and this must show in my music as well. I don't believe my playing is at all boring, and I think it's often fairly free, but it's probably not too surprising. I stay in my emotional comfort zone, which is quite vast, but it doesn't run the gamut. I want to develop emotions that don't come as naturally; for example, I'm not a particularly adept showpiece performer because I'm not much of a charmer, I readily admit.
I apologize for the length of this entry and I hope I'm getting somewhere, if you're still with me. Even if you're not, this is mostly for myself anyway (in keeping with my self-absorbed nature lately, meaning, my entire life): I have been using the word fear a lot, but I'm sure the word risk works as well; in fact, it matters very little what word I use because everyone knows and understands the feeling. It's just that in my case it looks a little more preposterous, because here I am with the tools to make myself be (and I think no other verb belongs there), and I reject them because the sort of limbo or purgatory I am currently in, musically, is more comfortable than the work and years and sweat of striving, and once I arrive wherever it may be--top or bottom, makes no difference--I will still be less comfortable than I am now. However, I will probably be happier. So all you who have been reading and admiring my approach to things--you've been drawing inspiration from someone who values comfort right now more than anything else. What a silly thing to cling to in comparison to the greater things I could be achieving or the nobler things I could be doing, directly, for others. I don't love comfort; it is just the way I've lived and I've become attached. I know how to fight, but I would wager that I don't know how to fight for my life, and in a way that is the skill I need to learn to get past the last block. I'm at an edge now--a tired and melodramatic metaphor, but it serves its purpose--and I'd rather just idly stand there, dumbly ignoring my choices and my self-responsibility, when I know how much harder and how much better flying would be. Falling also would be better, but it's something I don't even like to consider an option.
The general premise of psychotherapy is that once you understand your own patterns and workings, you will be able to liberate yourself and change. Well, I'm not an idiot and I've empowered myself through all that rationalism, but it still just comes down to something in my gut kickstarting that change. I clearly haven't felt it for good yet, and maybe it never happens for good. I can certainly attempt to rationalize away my fears, but I'm not 100% logical and that can never completely vanquish them. I feel I need proof that trust works, and yet I have had that proof; I have given a handful of great performances and have been happy. As much as I would like to end this post on some lovely note, I think I'll have to leave it in this decidedly gray area for now.
What do musicians without regular existential crises have that I don't? They have overflowing determination, will to succeed, commitment, whatever--not lukewarm. And they probably don't think as much and therefore have less cause to fear.
Mostly what this first lesson has shown me is that I do all right creating those artistic effects of my own, but they get really laboriously, hopelessly bogged down not only in tempo but in the sheer amount of details I'm trying to nail. In some ways I feel like I'm being stretched in many directions: I had just decided to be as strict as possible with myself about technique and sound and intonation, and then I walk into a lesson and play fairly solidly, and have my eyes opened to a new level--sort of the old forest v. trees perspective. I need to reconcile approaching that high artistic level from both sides--by perfecting the little details of rubato, and also by keeping that strong internal clock and knowing exactly what there is room for and what there isn't; by knowing how to flow and knowing what remains constant to flow around. In my lesson Mr. Preucil had me conduct/snap a steady 3/4 beat while he demonstrated, and the freedom in his playing was pretty remarkable--yet it was all in time. A simple concept, I suppose--do the rubato but land on the important beats--but hard to master. I also have the problem of making the small notes so important that they become beaty, and then there is hardly even any room for rubato because every beat becomes important. I got this also from playing in a masterclass for Mauricio Fuks this past April, that I love every note but sometimes nearly suffocate them because I forget about letting go and letting it be as easy and natural as it should be. So anyway, I suppose all this shows me that I still have a long way to go before feeling comfortable living, breathing, and playing in both the practical and the spiritual realms of music at the same time. I hope all these realizations will help me slowly get there, though.
The most helpful specific thing we talked about were the chords. I have been playing them in a very circular motion and getting more crunch than I liked. He demonstrated just a tiny pinch at the frog, then tremendous bow speed and nearly a full bow (somewhat like in orchestral playing), and a flat retake almost touching the strings. I tried and couldn't get entirely comfortable with it immediately, but I saw right away how to achieve much more sound, ring, and beauty in those chords, so that was empowering. I feel like it's something I should have experimented with and figured out for myself, but then, I suppose this is why I need a teacher and still have much to learn.
Another thing that I hope will be helpful to me is Mr. Preucil's demeanor--he's just simply very kind and involved, and it's almost surreal to push myself hard and then go to a lesson where I feel that the atmosphere is more friendly than I have been to myself in the practice room all week. The very details that I grimace at, like double-stops I haven't yet tuned, he totally overlooks in favor of broader ideas. The fact that my intonation was not mentioned once makes me feel even more responsible to get the housekeeping fixed and out of the way. So, in a few days after I have things generally more under control, I hope to tape record again and find some kind of improvement in both arenas, and I know I don't have to hope for new things to work on, because they'll be there.
I have a tentative quartet and have checked some music out of the library to sight-read tonight. They're leaning towards Debussy or Prokofiev at the moment. We're not sure we'll be able to play together, as our group consists of three violinists and a cellist, but we can all switch off on viola. However, the faculty might have to put a real violist in the group if there's a viola major who signed up for chamber music in need of a quartet. So, I'm not expecting anything at this point, but I'll just see how it goes.
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