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Too much Brahms!

April 20, 2010 at 1:25 AM

 I really didn't think it was possible but I'm now convinced. Has anyone ever experienced finally achieving like a maximum level at a piece and then slowly losing it all? I hope this isn't just me. I've been working on the second movement of the Brahm's E flat sonata for my jury. It's an intonation killer being that it's in 6 flats and then modulates to 5 sharps. Boo hoo I say. (clarinet's have it easy!) In addition, I've been trying to work in my slow vibrato with it, which has been the most difficult task for me this semester, making sure I keep a continuous, not tense vibrato. About 2 weeks ago I was feeling great about everything. I was weeks ahead of my jury and playing it wonderfully. All of the sudden, honestly, over the past 2 weeks or so it's gotten very tense and almost as if all the vibrato work I've been working on has gone away. I'm more tense in general when I play, and I've also noticed this in my orchestral playing. It's like I reached my best playing of the semester and ever since then it's declined. My practice habits haven't changed; if anything I'm practicing more now to make up for how terrible everything sounds now. 

I've started doing my vibrato exercises again.. as much as I hate them. Hopefully some slow vibrato work with the metronome and on long bowed scales will ease up my tenseness again. Suggestions?

From Marianne Hansen
Posted on April 22, 2010 at 12:40 AM

It's the end of the semester and you are scorched.  You are trying to finish your school work and prepare for your jury and you are almost certainly running on too little sleep (you posted at 1:25 a.m.).  If you are like the students I work with every day, some of your friends are ill, and contagious.  I don't know you and I cannot guess exactly what you need to beak through (and that is part of what you learn at college, as it happens), but I am sure of this: if you were near your limit of excellence on the Brahms and you feel that you have started having trouble with it, the last thing you should do is to increase your practice time with it.  In fact, you should immediately take an entire day off and not touch the piece at all in that time. 

First, you risk injury if you are experiencing increasing tension and increasing playing time simultaneously.  Two, your brain needs time to work, as well as your body - and it knows how to work while you are not consciously focused on a task.  Three, I suspect that what you are currently practicing as you play is anxiety, rather than whatever technique you need.

I hope folks will join in with some other ideas, but for now, take my word for it.  A day off is the best place to start.

From Matt Scinto
Posted on April 23, 2010 at 4:00 AM

 Thanks for the reply Marianne. I don't know what happened after I posted this but everything has really come together this week! Vibrato is finally behaving.. I started doing whole note scale warm ups with slow vibrato and it's really helped me get in the mind set of not tensing up. I'm very excited!

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on April 23, 2010 at 7:45 AM


glad things are going well.  I was going to write the same thing as Marianne but she beat me to it.  Its very easy to burn out without realizing it.   When we do reahc this stage we have to recognize that mind and body simply want a little time off to assimilate. That is why it is often better for people to practice six days a week rather than seven but the young tend to ignore this point. 

I often think of the words of one of the great Russian Quartet leaders soloists in the Way They Play series (Tsiganov) who said that in order to be an artist on the violin one actually has to have something to say and in this instance he  wa srefrring to cultural development outside the violin.   Reading the biographies of people like Milstein one sees that he attende dplays,  painted pictures,  watched ballet, read a lot and so forth.   Being a cultured person can not only contribute to one`s playign in a general sense but also help with burn out issues. I also like to see the whole question taken more widely.  O

Of course, prior to finals one naturally tends to block out other things in life that contribute towards a balance ut I question the advisabilty of this if taken too far.   Think of it this way:  if everything going on in your life is violin playing and you write thta in a box,  when you have a day when tings aren`t hapeing for you the box (representing your life becomes empty.   If you divide the box into nine squares and write one importnat aspect of your life in each box (things like family time,  cleaning,  exercise,  studying etc) then when the violin box is out of order you still have the other boxes goign on to keep things ticking over.

I am glad you are back on track now. My suggesitons are therefore reduntant. However,  I wa sgoing to suggest that nstead of being afraid of or irritated by e flat minor or whatever key it is thats ugging you it is time to take possession ofit and make it your slave.  Do all your scale work in this key. Practice transposing etudes into this key .  Look for other music in this key and noodle around with it.  Find orchestral, qurtet piano music in this key and listen to it and ppay around with some of the parts.  See what makes it tick across the whole spectrum. 

Also,  try differnt passages from the Brahms in differntpositions.  This will give you a lot of insight into notes that ay not be quite in tune that you have trained yourself to get used to.  Changing position, even if the fingering is actually quite crude and akward is a great mentla exercise which can really expose errors if there are any.

Hopefully if you are going to practice vibrato exercises that you @hate@ you will come to love them.  But if they are really bugigng you then it might be time to give them a break for a while  You might try holding the violin in a cello position and singing the Brahms while doing a cello vibrato. Just let te speed of the vibrato follow the intensity of your feelings and phrasng as you hear it in your head and sing it.  The external singing may be quite unpleasant. That is normal form string players.

Go from strength to strength,


From Marianne Hansen
Posted on April 23, 2010 at 6:37 PM


I'm glad things picked up.  Best wishes on a cheerful, relaxed, focused end of the semester!

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