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June 2005

June 28, 2005 18:50

Got a double dose of inspiration last week (sorta like a double shot of espresso, without the sleeplessness).

First, I had my regular lesson with Virginia. This time, when she asked if I had any questions, I replied that I didn't have many this week but I really wanted her to help me with my artificial harmonics, because they sounded so terrible I didn't even want to practice them anymore. So she did, and once again showed me all these things I could play with that I hadn't, such as varying my bow speed and position. I discovered that I have to touch the E string really lightly, way more lightly than I had been. I also found that I have to do different things with the bow depending on what string I'm playing on. Also, I need to work on going back and forth between the natural 0-3 harmonic and the artificial 1-4. It's such a relief every time I realize that I'm not doomed to failure, that I just need to find a different way to play something.

Then, last Friday I had a real treat, watching Joshua Bell get inducted into the Hollywood Bowl Hall of Fame. He played Saint-Saƫns' "Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso", excerpts from "The Red Violin" soundtrack, and "Mi Mancherai" with Josh Groban. A wonderful concert and inspiring performance. Unfortunately I didn't get to meet him this time, but there will be other opportunities in the future.

It's people like this who make me realize how much I love being a violinist.

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June 22, 2005 23:08

Life is full of these little decisions that individually may not matter, but as a whole can determine your direction. French fries or salad? Exercise or watch TV? Practice or not practice?

I'm still in the early stages of my return to the violin, so usually it's not difficult to find the motivation to practice. But I didn't sleep much last night, had a stressful day at work, and it was 10:30 pm. I thought, "Well, my goal is four days a week, and that usually means four days between each lesson, but my lessons were less than a week apart this time, so if it were on Friday as usual, I'd still have four days because I'd be practicing tomorrow, and it's not that bad as long as I don't skip more than one day in a row, and I REALLY don't feel like working on those artificial harmonics tonight..." etc. etc. One can come up with lots of rationalizations.

So I went downstairs, figuring I'd do the last bit of housework and then go to bed. But my music was on the stand out in front of me, I took my violin out of its case. Twenty minutes instead of the usual thirty, and I worked on vibrato and intonation instead of the artificial harmonics. But that's twenty minutes more than I'd planned, and one decision I made correctly tonight.

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June 20, 2005 23:03

I hate artificial harmonics. I hate them, hate them, hate them. What else in violin playing is SO unforgiving? Your finger's off by a millimeter, and instead of just getting a note that's slightly out of tune, you get either nothing (if you're lucky) or a horrible-sounding, whistling mess.

I suppose I can take solace in that now only about 1/3 of my notes in this section are this horrible-sounding, whistling mess, instead of all of them. But that's only with cheating...I turned all the A's and D's into natural harmonics. My teacher said it was okay. I think that Monti would have written them as natural harmonics if that's what he'd intended, but is there really a difference in the sound? If there is, I can't hear it.

This brings me to a question, though. If you're working on a piece to become a better violinist in general, not necessarily to perform it, do you still always play something the way it's easiest for you? I have a weak and short pinky, so it's hard for me to do 4th finger shifts up on the G string. I sound much nicer when I use the 3rd finger instead, so that's what Virginia told me to do. But I wonder if I shouldn't just work at it until I can do it the way it's written (which I understand is an arbitrary editorial preference), looking at it as an opportunity rather than an encumbrance.

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June 18, 2005 22:50

I'm beginning to wonder if my violin lessons are normal, or, should I say, typical. I've had three hour-long-plus lessons so far with my new teacher, and in none of them have I played more than ten minutes. It goes like this: I come in with a list of questions I've come up with in my previous week of practicing, like "Why is it so hard to bow slowly at the frog?" and "How do I do vibrato when I'm so high up on the G string I can barely reach the note?" and we talk and talk and talk about it. The most I'll play is several bow strokes or a few notes of a scale to test out some technique she's suggesting. Last week I didn't even play any of my piece, unless you count the two double stops I played so she could check out what happens to my vibrato.

But maybe I shouldn't sweat it. As weird as this method of learning seems to me, it's working really well. I don't play much during my lesson, but then I go home and apply what Virginia's told me, and things get noticeably better. I like the way I sound now. I like practicing, because I know I'm making progress even though I can barely manage half an hour four times a week. I've learned more from Virginia in three lessons than I think I did in the six or seven years I studied with my last teacher as a teenager, even correcting for age and experience.

I've got to wonder what she does with her kid students who probably don't come with long lists of questions. Maybe one of these days I'll ask her just to listen to me play for a few minutes and comment, but as long as I can recognize areas I need to work on, I'll fix those first.

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June 12, 2005 23:21

Had my second lesson with Virginia yesterday, and this time I played about ten minutes. It's still amazing to me how much time we spend in my lesson just talking and not playing at all. But I think this is absolutely the right thing for me at this time, because I have so much to learn about my instrument (and because I don't have the stamina to play for very long!). I feel like the character of A Square in Edwin Abbott's Flatland, who suddenly discovers that there's another whole dimension to existence. I used to think that everything was just a matter of either practice or talent, that if I worked really hard at something and still couldn't get it, I just didn't have the gift. But now I realize just how many things one can do with the violin, how many variables there are. Virginia makes me feel like I really do have the power to be a good violinist, that if something doesn't work, we can find out a different way that does. How I wish I'd had such a teacher as a child, when I actually had time to practice as much as I'd like...but maybe back then I wouldn't have appreciated her as much.

Another thing I need to learn is that a music editor is not God. Just because a certain fingering appears in the music doesn't mean I have to use it! I can even break slurs if it makes more sense to me to do that!

So the first page of Csardas is sounding pretty good now. We didn't have time at my last lesson to get any farther, but I'm confident Virginia will teach me some new tricks next time.

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June 9, 2005 17:00

I have for myself a lifetime resolution: Learn to play the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto.

Recently, I came to terms with the fact that sitting around thinking, "Gee, I really wish I could play the Tchaikovsky" isn't a particularly effective way of moving toward this goal. I haven't taken lessons regularly in almost 15 years, and haven't even played regularly in six. I've got a decent bowarm but a lousy left hand, and the most advanced work I've ever managed is the Bach A Minor, so getting from where I am to the Tchaik will be no small task. But we've all got to start somewhere...

So, about a month ago, I decided I was going to start taking private lessons again. After a somewhat circuitous path of referrals that seems to characterize the networking process in the world of professional musicians, I found someone by the name of Virginia who seemed very promising. I had my first lesson with her last week, and to my great surprise, I played maybe a grand total of five minutes in the hour-plus-long lesson. Mostly we just talked, talked, and talked. For the first time I feel like I'm beginning to understand why my violin does what it does and how I can make it do what I want. What a difference a good teacher makes!

I'm working on Monti's Csardas now. It was a joyous occasion when, following Virginia's teachings, I realized all that stuff high up on the G string sounded a lot better when I bowed closer to the bridge. Of course! The vibrating portion of the string's so much shorter that the effective midpoint is shifted significantly from where it is on an open string. Now if I can just get a handle on those artificial harmonics...

We'll see what I learn tomorrow.

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