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How am I doing?

February 15, 2012 at 12:15 AM

Every year I go to chamber music camp, where I spend a week playing glorious music in the deep woods. I have a standing group and every year we play the Schubert cello quintet, Mendelssohn octet, Dvorak American, and the amazing Brahms sextets among other things. I play the 2nd violin, and that's the way I like it. I am a good 2nd violinist. I understand how the parts function and really enjoy the inner voice role.

However, every year at camp I come away with 2 things that I find myself chewing on. The first is that I am reminded that I'm really a pretty good player. That sounds self-evident, but I think that for many of us who teach a lot, it's easy to fall into a self-identification of 'teacher' as opposed to 'player'. But at camp, I catch a glimpse of myself as player, a violinist, in a way that happens rarely in the school year. And every year, I come home determined to feed that part of myself a bit better.

The other thing that happens is that I am getting a great deal of encouragement to break out of the self-imposed mind-set of being a 2nd violinist. Now, understand that we all understand how important and valuable a good 2nd is to a group, and no one is devaluing it in the slightest. Rather, I am being encouraged to push against my personal boundaries for my own development. And what is the main difference usually between 1st and 2nd violin parts? Range.... as a committed 2nd violinist (and substitute violist) I've gotten very rusty and a little afraid of the extreme upper range. My mental 'map' is shaky in anything above 6th position.

So, this year, I decided that it was time to take these two observations and really choose to DO something about them.
I decided that this was the year that I was going to focus on ME and my musical development again. And I decided that I was going to do that by playing 1st violin all season in our orchestra. My concert mistress usually uses me as the flex-er, to go where needed, but is happy for me to play 1st, so I explained what my focus was for the year and off we've gone (with the exception of that one concert where I was drafted as an emergency violist).

This orchestra plays 6 concerts a year. Our latest was just this past Saturday, and it was a Doozy. Liszt piano concerto, 1st of Mozart Haffner, 4th of Tschaik. 4, 3rd of Brahms 4 (a killer), Polyvetsian Dances, plus a couple of other things. The difficulty level was so great that it became a real stress to find that much time to practice at the level of focus that each piece required. I teach a studio of private students, conduct a youth orchestra, am a church musician, am in grad school and play in 2 symphonies. Time was at a premium.

I set this all up because I was reminded recently of Laurie's New Year's blog about recommitting to daily practice. As I chewed over things at New Year, I decided that that encouragement fit well into my year-long focus on my violin, even though I do not believe in New Year's Resolutions.

Juggling a very busy life, with all of the above components (added to a large family, many of whom are in crisis periods ) makes it easy to lose track. So, I decided to set-myself a self-monitoring device. I put a reminder on my on-line calendar and set it to send me a reminder email every 2 weeks. This email asks me simply, "How am I doing?" How am I doing with healthy eating, exercise and good life choices? How am I doing with keeping up on my studies, writing papers and preparing for my thesis? How am I doing on seeing people, and nurturing healthy relationships? How am I doing on being there for my kids, caring for my baby grandson whose parents are divorcing, or being a substitute mother for the motherless high school students I have and love? How am I doing on practicing my violin, on preparing my various orchestra pieces, on growing myself in confidence and ability in the extreme upper range? How am I doing?

And the answer, sometimes, actually is "Not so well, this week." Especially during the week that I have a giant paper due, or am accompanying my daughter on audition trips, or...or...or.

But, I got to listen to a recording of our orchestra concert from this past weekend. And I realized, while listening to us (and thinking, 'this is really US?') that the answer is also, "Wow!. I'm doing great!" Because,for adult musicians who are balancing work and family and health and spiritual and intellectual pursuits, there just will be times when "how I'm doing" could feel like failure, if approached perfectionistically. However, "How am I doing?" is simply a question I ask as I press forward...and the destination, and progress toward it is what really counts.

I have not come even close to practicing every day so far this year. In fact, being away from home this week, I won't be practicing at all the whole week. But having had a real world chance to measure my progress against the high-speed 1st violin part of the 4th movement of the Tchaikovsky 4th symphony, I know that I'm achieving my goal. For this musician, at this stage of life, I'm doing just fine.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on February 15, 2012 at 1:28 AM
Dottie, thanks for this. It reminds me of a lot of the things I'm going through. I only play in one orchestra, though, and in church only very occasionally. I really sympathize also with the discomfort over 6th position. It's an ongoing thing for me too, getting and staying comfortable up there in the gerbil zone. I've had to just put my viola away for the time being :(

That was interesting what your CM said to you about your personal goals and your seating in the group. How involved is she generally in the orchestra seating and the other violinists' goals and so on?

From Dottie Case
Posted on February 15, 2012 at 1:42 AM
It's all very casual...she is the only paid violinist. We have a bunch of 2nds who refuse to play first, no matter what, and frankly, several who could not. So, my role has always been to go wherever needed from concert to concert. I can play first all the time if I want, but what I mostly was communicating was "if possible, please don't sub me in on 2nd or viola" this season. It may still be necessary on occasion, if a section is short staffed, but mostly she understands that I'm trying to stay put for the year.
It is sort of fun being flexible enough to do all 3 parts though... I'm the only player who can.

From Michelle Jones
Posted on February 16, 2012 at 1:47 PM
Excellent post! Very useful tips, too. Thank you for reminding me what I need to be doing, too, to better myself all the time.
From David Rowland
Posted on February 16, 2012 at 10:48 PM
Thanks Dottie! That was encouraging and motivational.

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