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Laurie Trlak

Playing the Violin: An Exercise in Masochism?

February 21, 2009 at 3:24 PM

Sometimes, I think a violinist is a glutton for punishment. I mean, who else would attempt to learn to play an instrument so difficult, loaded with so many variables with regard to dynamics, tone color, variation and interpretation, an instrument that my daughter swears sounds like a dying cat if it's played badly? Why would anyone want to learn to play an instrument that makes you have to contort your hands into awkward positions (like when you play double stops or chords, or shift into really high position)? Why would anyone try to play an instrument that is so unforgiving regarding intonation and tone quality? I think most of us here would agree that for us, at least, not playing is not something we would seriously consider. It's in our blood. And let's face it: when you've worked your fingers to the bone learning to play a difficult piece well, there's a wonderful sense of satisfaction and accomplishment that is not provided for us doing anything else. I don't know about anyone else, but as frustrated as I get (there are times when I feel I could cheerfully smash my fiddle into kindling) there's a part of me that is driven to play, and to get better.

Then there's the question of why anyone would take on all those challenges when he or she already has enough, as I do with MS.

My doctor has had to double the dose of Inderal (propranolol) to 120 mg a day. After a brief period of no tremors, they came back again, though not as badly. So far doubling the dose hasn't helped a lot, but it's been only a week or so. (Just as an aside, given my last blog entry, would I still recommend the use of Inderal if it helps? Yes, for all the reasons I listed, and for all the reasons given by those who replied. If it helps, then I say go for it). That being said, my teacher observed that since these tremors are "intention tremors" which occur as the muscles in question are being used (while I'm bowing up-bow), I should work on relaxing my bow hand more, lightening up the pressure my hand and arm put on the string. Now so far, that's worked fairly well, although I sacrifice something of sound and tone color by easing up on the bow, especially when playing in high position. But having to work on letting gravity do more of the work, instead of my hand and arm doing it, should be beneficial to my playing. I hope that having to correct this problem at this point will improve my playing, because I really don't want to give it up (and I have a wedding to play this summer). In any case, taking Inderal has had the added benefit of keeping me from freaking out during a performance: this past week I had to sing a difficult piece for my music club, one that I hadn't had a lot of time to prepare (and neither had my accompanist, and it had 6 sharps!), but it was arguably the best performance I have given to date. But I digress.

I'm going to continue working to improve my technique (couldn't we all benefit from that?) and to resolve these challenges with which I have been faced, because darn it, we violinists are just like that, aren't we? I love this instrument; a well-played violin is one of the sweetest sounds on earth.


From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on February 21, 2009 at 9:03 PM

Your right, I guess I'm a masochist too according to your description lol. Why do I play when I can count on my fingers the number of times I really was satisfied with my playing in public or exams.  Why do I endure this torture of hearing for a few seconds this good violinist trying so hard to get out  when I know very well that I could do so much better in another body + knowing that It will be all gone the next morning  Why do I take the risk of becoming death, breaking my tiny fingers and do a ... of myself when playing in public?  Why do I add this difficult task to my life and often get up at night or stay until very late to practice when I am clearly exshausted?  Well, I guess it is in the human nature to hope that things will get you where you want one day, to say that all these efforts will and have to be paying in the long run etc.  But our hopes are to often destroyed for many reasons. Take the examples of jobs. How much people really succed to get the job they dreamed of?  The violin is for many the last thing where they can still do what they want and not what the society wants them to do! For the average persons, the process can be really long and take decades but it surely worth it!  In these times, we need something to "forget" all our problems or ... think about other problems (bowing, intonation fingerings etc) Music is an international escapery for mankind. A good one (not like alchohol and drugs)  +  the harder things are often the most rewarding.  You don't have the impression to do something special when you do something easy everyone can do.     I think we are hooked to violin because of all this.  It's a kind of religion when you think about it! 

Interesting topic!


From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on February 22, 2009 at 1:37 AM

Well I though about it and the most "suffering" thing in violin (for violinists) is probably to have to restrict your practice time in order to do your compulsory things: homework, school, job etc    It's really thought when your heart is somewhere and your acivities or elswhere.  It's rather disturbing...

What is worse, the masochism of playing violin or the masochism of eating veggies when you want to eat cake so to speak!  But I'm going off topic here since the topic was the masochism of violin! I guess I'll continu my maths homework...


From Laurie Trlak
Posted on February 22, 2009 at 8:26 PM

Anne-Marie, I had to laugh at your last post: mathematics was always the homework that I loved to do! No arm-twistin was necessary to get me to do my math homework; in fact I often had it finished before I got home from school. It was so easy for me. But yes, having to do anything besides play can be very frustrating to me: the dishes have to be washed, the laundry has to be folded and/or ironed, the floor swept, etc.  Anything that takes time away from playing is resented at some level, I think (my poor husband)! In the best of all worlds, I would be able to play to my heart's content. But I live in this one, so sometimes the mundane things of life (like housework and eating) have to be accommodated.


From Pauline Lerner
Posted on February 23, 2009 at 6:24 AM

Laurie, I'm sorry that your Inderal stopped working.  Sometimes people develop tolerance to it.  I hope the higher dose helps.  Regardless of your medical issues, I like your teacher's advice on bowing.  You don't need to apply much pressure on the bow.  Your task is mainly to guide the bow, and having a light touch should improve your quality of sound.

You are fortunate to have a teacher who is willing to work with you on playing the violin despite your MS.

From Laurie Trlak
Posted on February 23, 2009 at 1:45 PM

yes, very fortunate, and he is a very good teacher and a great musician to boot. He seems to have great intuition, and very good understanding of interpetation.

As I said in my blog yesterday, the lighter bow pressure really helped at the nursing home. I did so much better, even though I hadn't rehearsed the most difficult of the pieces (Handel's Sonata in D Major). I can't wait to tell him when I see him on Wednesday.


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