January 2008

Rubber Bands and Tape

January 30, 2008 22:45

I guess the theory that rubber bands and tape can fix ANYTHING has made its way into the world of viola playing. When I was young, it was tape on my fingerboard, last summer my "substitute" teacher taped my fingers in an attempt to fix my bow hold. Tonight, my teacher brought out the rubber bands. "You can study vibrato and left hand work well enough on your own for now, we're going to fix the bow hold!" he said.

He runs downstairs. I'm thinking to myself, "Oh no! What now?!?!" He comes back upstairs with a little blue rubber band, takes my bow and proceeds to wrap it around the frog. I'm now thinking to myself that my bow isn't THAT bad that it needs to be held together with a rubber band. But no, it's to give a tactile reminder where my third finger SHOULD be. Then another surprise "I was thinking about you lately and have something I want you to play". My hopes were instantly dashed when the sheet music he was hiding was NOT Clarke's Sonata, but Kreutzer .... #3.... again!!!!! ::::groan:::::

I'm telling myself at this point "Mendy, suck it up. You got over the scales thing, you can get over the Kreutzer thing." So bowing lessons began. A good half of the lesson was spent on bowing . Then the D-flat minor scale (after getting over the shock of all the flats, it wasn't that difficult at all really). He asked me what shifting studies I was doing, so I showed him - from 2nd to 8th position - right on the money (or at least close enough). OK, enough of that!

On to Hummel! I FINALLY figured out what I was doing wrong with the turns - I was adding an extra note in the turns where I shouldn't be. I can take that home and practice them correctly now. Then moving along further into the piece to a run of 16th notes. My hand is small, so reaching a note with my 4th finger on my 16" viola is a bit of a challenge. I often try to shift my way out of having to use my 4th, but no, can't do that anymore.... We work on the passage, then I stop to watch his hand formation for a moment, wait a minute! That's not Hummel that I'm hearing! That's "Over the Rainbow"! Goof!

For the rest of the lesson while I was playing Hummel, this stupid little blue rubber band kept on reminding me that my hand was not in the right position. How irritating! He saved his electronic torture device from being tossed out the window, and invented a new form of torture. The new torture device is this little blue thing on my bow, and he KNOWS I won't be tossing my bow out the window any time soon. I surrender!!!!!

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Exploring the Fingerboard

January 28, 2008 00:59

In picking up a new piece, Hummel's Fantasie, I perused the cadenza thinking that maybe some day I might be able to play a cadenza like this. My first exposure to the cadenza not long ago left me sitting back and listening to my teacher play a rather remarkable peformance, while I gave up even trying to keep pace.

Not long after that lesson I thought to myself, if not now then when? Why not just go for it? It's a huge challenge, but then again, I've pushed myself before and took giant leaps both technically and musically from the experience. So, I e-mailed my teacher - I'm going for it! He accomodated my desire for a new musical adventure, and the cadenza has been worked into the last few minutes of lessons.

After the time I spent with Jose yesterday, my recent lesson with Joel, and a new-found bravery after performing in public solo for the first time in decades, I looked at the cadenza under a new light. The 32nd note run that covers 3 octaves, shifts from 2nd position to 8th position and then proceding back down the fingerboard, 3rd & 4th position on the C string, harmonics (single, double stopped, fingered), etc... Seems a bit overwhelming, but then again, it wouldn't be the first time I've pushed myself. I applied the tricks & tips that both Joel & Jose have given me and worked through the cadenza note by note, measure by measure, forwards and backwards. Then I gave the cadenza a run-through. I think I can do this!

With my new-found sense of adventure still going, I pulled out Clarke's Sonata for Viola & Piano, a piece that I didn't think I would be able to tackle for several more years. Looking at the first movement, it didn't seem THAT much more difficult than the cadenza. Could I even attempt a piece that is written almost entirely in treble clef that is mostly played in 3rd position and higher all the way through?

What the heck! I gave it a go, slowly, without worrying much about tempo, rhythm or dynamics at this point. Hummmmmm...... it's got some definite possibilities now. What will Joel think when we finish Hummel and I bring this piece in...

Enough music candy! Back to my "homework" assignment: the string crossing excercises on the last page of the Hummel. Just a bit faster now, just a tad under tempo...

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An Afternoon with Jose

January 26, 2008 21:38

I had an absolutely amazing experience this afternoon. Jose, my former stand-partner at HSO (she is in my bio pic - the shorter of the two) came over for an afternoon coaching session. She graduated from Julliard many many years ago and has a life-time of experiences that most of us can only dream of. She wanted to share with me what she has learned over the years to help me prepare for my next concerto competition, and just be a better musician overall.

We shared an afternoon that really opened my eyes on so many different levels. I got her "secret trick" to overcoming performance anxiety - really simple when you start thinking about it. She helped me learn HOW to practice all over again, almost like a "Study Hall" in High School. My teacher has taught me new techniques, given me homework assignments and recommendations on how to practice, Jose helped me how to take those new techniques, homework assignments and practice recommendations and apply them at home on my own practice time by myself - an extension-course of sorts. I also have one more tool in my toolbox to help me practice vibrato and those dreaded 32nd note runs, and more hope that my 1st finger vibrato in 1st position will finally come out of the box that its in.

Best of all, I got to spend a wonderful afternoon with an amazing woman and musician that was willing to share her time and experience with me this Saturday afternoon.

Thanks Jose!!!!!

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First Finger Vibrato - A Breakthrough

January 23, 2008 21:49

So here I am, on duty to "babysit" a huge database transfer from China to the US tonight (yes, we have one of those long mind-numbing nights ahead of us again). I'm sitting in my home office (the "wall" behind the computer is a large mirror) watching this thing chug along at a snails pace while doing my scales and Yost exercises with vibrato, doing my best to keep Bolero out of my head. I have HOURS to practice excercises tonight that I've memorized (I got to keep an eye on the computer, so no Hummel practice tonight).

I started watching my hand in the mirror and noticed how my first finger vibrates nicely in 3rd posistion. So I slowed it down to the same rate as this file trasfer (easy to do in this mental state) and started noticing the smallest details. Aha! I think I figured it out!!!! So I start inching my hand down to first position. Guess what!!!! I figured it out!!!!!! WHOOOHOOOO!!! Sped it up.... still works!! Move down to the Ding... still works! Move to the G.... ok, gotta work on that one. But, I know how to tackle the lower strings now, so this will come in time after I get more confidence on the A and D string.

OK, here was the trick.... when I play with my 1st finger in most positions my finger is is sort of flattened a bit naturally (not perched up like my other fingers). I just had to "flatten" it just a little bit more (like collapsing when you are tired, and I'm TIRED right now), with my thumb a bit more towards the scroll, more towards the base of the scroll BEHIND my first finger by about the same distance as it is when vibrating on my 2nd finger. The only fingers that have been vibrating up to this point were those that where up the fingerboard from my thumb....

So there we have it! A first finger vibrato in first position - FINALLY!!!! The experiements with my teacher yesterday on thumb position got me to looking at thumb to finger relationships. "Scientific Observation" comes through again.

Back to file transfer babysitting and vibrato scales & shifts.... ::::sigh::::::

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Scales can be pretty too

January 23, 2008 00:37

Another lesson and another new experience. It started as normal, my wild eyed look after a hectic day/week at work (finished a conference call the moment I stepped into the front door), my teacher picking up on that, and doing some Yost exercises to literally shift my way "into music mode". It's impossible for me to think about work when my teacher talks to me continuously about hand formation while playing. Ahhhhhh, relaxation!!!!!

Then onto scales WITH vibrato... miraculously my intonation on this new way of studying scales got better, and I was still wiggling some on the Cing. Last time I tried this, my cats hid under the bed and I was prepared to bring ear-plugs with me to lessons to save my teacher's ears. When I reached 3rd position on the A string, he began playing a counter melody (3rds) along with me. He's pulled this trick on me before during lessons. It's amazing how I could adjust my intonation to make the 3rd sound just ever so perfect. With the vibrato added, it was like playing a duet, even though it was just a simple scale. How beautiful!!!! We experimented a bit with HOW to get my first finger to vibrate in 1st position. I got a wiggle or two on the A string, and a single wiggle on the D string for a nano-second.

Then onto Hummel. It was my first try without him playing along with me and without a metronome. I played the first few lines that I've been practicing. Stop. "OK, we need to work on..." he started saying. I interrupted "RHYTHM!". "Yes!" he said. The electronic torture device is pulled out and placed on the stand. I REALLY do prefer my old fashioned mechanical metronome! There is something about the electronic clicks that drives me mad. After several evil glares at this electronic torture device (I'm thinking to myself at this point that I want to chuck this thing out the window), he turns it off (thus saving himself from trying to find it later in the dark in his backyard) and plays along with me again. We work on the turns again, and slowly move our way along the the first half of the first page, pausing to work on each turn in turn.

Then, "music candy".... the cadenza!!!! He takes a seat and tells me to go for it!. After warning him that there was going to be no rhythm, dynamics, bowing focus or vibrato happening at all whatsoever, but only a focus on getting the notes in tune (somewhat) - I give it a go. Wooohooo! I hit the high D again, and actually did pretty good at the double-stops going up beyond 5th position, including the double-stopped harmonics, then followed by several other harmonics including one that is fingered at the end. At the run of 32nd notes I stumbled and stopped. He worked with me a bit on a few of the technical and stylistic aspects of playing this cadenza. I got to listen to him try it on his own again while I mentally followed along.

Then my homework assignment: Wiggle work with my 1st finger in 1st position (vibrato comes easier to me when I think of a Jello commercial...), some self study on the 16th note bowing exercises on the last page, practice on the turns, Yost excercises for the cadenza (from 2nd to I think 8th position, I'll have to count it out again) and continued focus on rhythm (more metronome work - but thankfully at home with my old-fashioned mechanical clicker rather than an electronic torture device).

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When Your Day Job is Like Bolero

January 22, 2008 02:16

Have you ever had those moments in your day job when the task at hand seems to go on forever and forever with no end in sight? Then for some reason, Bolero comes to the surface of your mind. The single melody that repeats itself over and over and over again, seemingly never ending. I can't seem to get that tune out of my head at the moment.

Over the past week my day job has been like playing Bolero at 20 bpm with repeats for each instrument playing the melody over and over again. Run a program to convert data from one database to another and then wait 19 hours for the encore. Then to make matters worse, having random failures happen every few hours. Then a flurry of activity at the end. Then guess what? Bolero is played all over again from the top so that one instrument learns how to wake up long enough to do their part without mistakes.

It is times like these that I wish I wasn't both a musician and a software engineer. I can't stand Bolero!!!!

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A Weekend Fantasie

January 20, 2008 19:14

It is so nice to be playing a piece other than Bruch!

The first few lines of Hummel are fairly solid now. I have one turn that is still a bit delayed even at the slower tempo. The first few lines are filled with turns at every turn, which is a fairly new technique for me. I moved along to not only the next few lines, but the first two pages. The runs of 32 notes are giving me some trouble, the same issue that I had with Bruch. Although for some reason, it seems a bit easier this time around. It may be because I have learned techniques to practice these more effectively. One thing that popped out, was a more prolific use of vibrato (even a few wiggles on the C string) and wider range of dynamics.

And to ease Buri's concern (and my teacher's)that I'm being entirely too self critical, I had a go at the Cadenza for fun (the one that I gave up trying to play at all during lessons last week and ended up listening to my teacher play it instead). Forget about dynamics or rhythm, it didn't exist and I didn't even try. Much to my surprise I made it all the way up to the high D on the A string with not too much searching around for the note. After a few tries, that D became more stable. I even managed about half of the harmonics. Boy, that was fun (and slow)! It ended up with me trying to find different harmonics on all my strings as a sort of game.

My father reminded me to listen to a recording of myself from a year or so ago, vs. the past month before I started berating myself over my most recent performance experience. He was wise in his recommendation.

"You've come along way kid."

As he said, it was like listening to a different musician.

The quest for perfection is a never-ending one. Each day brings you just a little bit closer. It is the journey and experience that makes life enjoyable.

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Just a Wiggle Will Do

January 18, 2008 22:51

I did my first C-major scale practice with vibrato. YUK! I ended up going back and playing it several times without vibrato first to warm up (and gain back some intonation confidence), then back to the vibrato version with half notes. Still YUK! Slowed down, tried it with whole notes... I got a vibrato on the Cing!!!! A total of 4 wiggles on one beat with my 3rd finger! Wooohoooo! The whole experience was out of tune, but my fingers were wiggling when they could, and I was close to the right note. My first finger won't wiggle in first position on any string but the A right now. It wiggles in 3rd position & higher though, and it wants to in 2nd position. My 4th finger wiggles, but I don't get a vibrato sound when I do it. Haven't figured out why yet...

Onto a few shifting studies (with a few wiggles). Made it smoothly up to 7th position, even on the C string! Wow! Not so in tune way up there on the lowest string, but I made it without tensing up, which was the whole point of the exercise.

Finally, I started practicing Hummel on my own tonight with an intense focus right from the start. When I first started Bruch, I didn't work much with a metronome and my rhythm suffered. I also didn't start adding vibrato until much later. This time, I'm trying something different:

I'm not leaving a measure behind that is out of tune, out of rhythm, out of tempo (slow to start), incorrect bowing, or without vibrato when called for (if I'm technically capable of doing it in-tune at the moment) and with the proper dynamics. If something isn't right, I work it a few times until it is corrected, back up a bit and approach the trouble spot, work it more if needed, and so on.

Two hours later, I made it through 3 lines (with the metronome going) in tune and in rhythm with some vibrato and the correct bowing. I turned off the metronome, and played the next few lines to work out my shifts and bowing's (with not much consideration for anything else). Played it through a few times to make sure my right arm and left hand knew what they were supposed to do for the big moves, then went back to the first 3 lines again (with the metronome back on).

This may be a slow process...

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Now for something completely different

January 17, 2008 02:09

Now that the competition is done and over, I'm moving on to new pieces and an updated lesson plan.

I shared my competition scores and comments with my teacher & coach. His assessment was that my intonation was actually quite good and the problems I had during the competition were mostly due to nerves. That was a relief to hear! It was also comforting to know that he also struggles with nervousness from time to time. At least I'm in good company!

I've been assigned more technical work - shifting studies and scales WITH vibrato - "even if it just one wiggle, DO IT! ". Wow! I have been taught since a youngster to do scales WITHOUT vibrato in order to focus in on intonation. When I questioned this practice, he told me that my intonation and ear was good enough to go ahead and add vibrato into this technical work. I had to e-mail him after I got home on HOW I should be practicing scales with vibrato - (1) all fingers down as with normal scale studies, or (2) only the vibrating finger down with the other fingers hovering. The answer back was #2 for now. #1 would come later. I also asked on how to tackle the C string vibrato - the answer back was that I need to move my arm around to the right like I do when I shift up to the nose-bleed section.

We worked on a few measures of an orchestral piece that has given me fits on how I should approach a few shifts (up to 4th & 5th position). The fingerings he advised made playing those passages sooooo much easier! He also jumped ahead to a few tricky measures and showed me how to tackle those.

Then on to the first two pages of the Hummel, at a slower tempo than what was printed (but not by much). He played it along with me so I could get a feel for the rhythm & style of the piece. The turns are a bit troublesome, but I know how to practice those now at home. We started to work on the cadenza until I gave up and told him to just play it while I listened, and followed along with just the fingering. We worked a few minutes on how to do the harmonics - technically. Totally new territory for me!

My latest experience getting ready for the competition has helped alot in fine-tuning my practice & lesson routine. Blast through the piece once with my teacher playing with me, stumbles and all to get a general feel for the piece. Then working it phrase by phrase until it is correct - intonation, vibrato, dynamics, bowings, shifts, expression... the works.

PS. My pianist and I are scheduling a "jam session" at my place starting in the next week or so to begin recording the Bruch and start work on the Hummel together. This is going to be fun!

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Competition Scores

January 15, 2008 00:47

DISCLAIMER: I am not permitted to share the actual scores and comments with anyone other than my teacher. I can only generalize what was noted and what I have blogged about before. The results were in-line with my own self-assessment.

Lesson learned #1 was on my score card (tuning to the piano in the room). I blew it and know it. I'll NEVER make that mistake again! As a result, my intonation suffered and it showed. I realized my error when my opening A rang with my open A but was out of tune to the piano noticeably. I should have known that an unheated room (it was around 55 degrees) and having my viola in it for 30 minutes before I started playing would have made everything sharp. I'll stop beating myself up over that one for now. A lesson WELL learned!

Vibrato!!!! Like I've posted before, Bruch DEMANDS a lot of vibrato, which is still a developing skill for me. My dynamics need more work as well as bowing skills (esp. at the tip). Funny how my "bow tip" playing used to be strong and now it has weakened since I've focused playing at the frog.

On the up-side, the double stops were good. Those few measures are what I actually worried about the most! I went from horrible and totally out of tune to pretty good and slightly out of tune in two weeks. Also, I used to have a problem playing timidly and not projecting at all. That has now turned into the opposite problem by projecting too much. And based on my results, I think I've learned to apply the fundamentals of expression.

There weren't real any surprises for me on the results. I'm glad to know that my own assessment matches those of the judges. It has helped reinforce what I need to work on with my teacher. I expect that my vibrato study will get more attention now.

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Post Concerto Competition Thoughts

January 13, 2008 19:37

First of all, thank you to all of you who have cheered me on, gave some last minute advice on public performing, nosebleed shifting, and virtual "pats on the back" after it was all said and done. It is wonderful to have a community such as this, and I appreciate the support.

I called my pianist to congratulate her on coming in 2nd. She also accompanied one other musician. She told me she was surprised that I didn't place. Apparently she has accompanied many musicians for competitions such as yesterdays. This compliment from her means a lot to me.

Now, the real fun starts. Even though I didn't place in the competition, I've made a new friend and I'll be making my first ever recording with a pianist on a piece we have both been working very hard to make "performance ready" (you guessed it, Bruch). She also wants to join my quartet group, and play Hummel with me on piano as I begin process of learning it this week. (Hummel was in the running as a competition piece). Maybe I'll name my new big shiny black thing in my living room Max, after the composer of the first piece played on it.

I took a 25 year long break studying viola seriously, then picked it back up again only 4 years ago. Four years ago I couldn't shift out of 1st position, vibrato was a foreign word, rhythm problems all over the place, and few solo experiences. Flash forward to yesterday: I performed a piece that had me shifting up to 6th position, using my newly found vibrato, with much better intonation and rhythm; in public; in front of judges!

I'm amazed that I actually pulled off what I just did.

Back to practicing Hummel..... I've got 2 years to get it ready for the next competition.

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Competition Day

January 12, 2008 19:23

I did it and lived. I was beat out by one of the cellist that competed on Piano (she's been playing piano for ever), and my own accompanist (2nd place), another excellent pianist. So, the winners were both experienced and accomplished pianists. According to the "Proctor", the competition was fierce this year and the level of playing was better than it has been in years past. I'm happy to have been a part of it all. They will not be ranking any other entries (outside of the "wild card" TBD, not me though, but most likely the flutist who is also amazing), but will be giving us our individual "score cards" on Monday.

I did ending up getting some bow arm shakes (nowhere near as bad as before though), totally missed one note (and not a difficult one). But other than that, I think I did well (or so said my pianist). My nerves had me making some mistakes that I didn't make during my impromptu performance Wednesday.

My best performance was actually in the "waiting room" with everyone one else. No nerves, bow arm shakes or anything else. The waiting room was a mini-chapel, so I went up on the stage and played through WITHOUT my music (I ended up memorizing the entire piece BTW, much to my own surprise). A few of the folks waiting along with me listened to my pre-performance "performance" and were actually swaying along to the music. I received some compliments from my "performance". That was worth it more to me than the actual competition itself.

Bruch was harder than I thought before as a performance piece. This piece pushed my technical and expressive capabilities despite it's slower tempo at a performance level. Shifting all over the fingerboard, the absolute requirement for a lot of vibrato, double stops, trills, etc... Having only learned these techniques over the past few years, I'm thrilled to have been able to do it at all in front of 3 people with clip boards.

I'm glad I did this, even though I didn't win. It was an experience I haven't had in many many years. I want to do it again when the next competition happens (in two years). What I need to work on most is public performance nerves, and more experience playing with a pianist. Now that I have a piano, the "playing with a pianist" part will be easier. Getting more comfortable playing in public only takes time and experience. I'm still quite proud of myself on how I did despite my errors. I was the only string player in the competition. The double stops were actually the best measures of my performance, as well as the trills. The final lines were beautiful.

As it was said in Monty Python... "now for something completely different". Put Bruch aside, put Bach aside (for awhile), I'd like to start working on Hummel's Fantasie for Viola & Orchestra.

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T-1 Days to the "Big Day"

January 11, 2008 22:00

My piano arrived today. It is really quite fascinating to watch the movers bring in a large black box and turn it into a piano within an hour. I guess it is customary to play something once it is set up. I played "Chopsticks". It is ALL that I know how to play on piano. I don't actually play piano at all.

After the movers set it up, I went back to work for the rest of the day, and ended up thinking about this big black shiny thing in my living room. After work, I came come, warmed up (on viola), and played Bruch through 3 times. First time as a "performance", second time to work a few technical and stylistic details, and one last time to put it all together. 45 minutes tops.

My pianist called to confirm our 11th hour final practice session at her house, tommorrow 11am. "I have another option. I live 1 mile from the church, why don't we do this at my place? You can be the first to play on my new baby grand." I said in response. "You what?!?!?!" She replies. "You actually did it and bought a piano, and it is there, sitting in your music room? I'd LOVE to come to your house for practice. Give me directions!"

So there we have it. This is why I bought a piano. Not necessarily for myself to play, but to open up the door a little further to welcome others into my space to make beautiful music. My quartet group is seriously pondering now making us a quintet with a pianist.

A side note: I did discover that I know enough about the piano to play my viola part on it, with my right hand only. This may come in handy when I pick up a new piece for the first time and have "intonation issues". :)

Pictures will come later. I have a competition to get ready for tomorrow.

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T - 2 Days and Counting

January 11, 2008 02:55

It is now 2 days before the competition. So what do I do tonight? Do I practice Bruch? No, I play with my quartet group (minus the cellist) and we practice Mozart's Dissonant quartet! It took awhile to determine who would start the measure playing the cello part to start us going and set the tempo. We then proceded to practice the quartet minus one. Although it is a bit difficult playing a quartet without the cellist, we worked through our parts, took a break and discussed where I should place my new piano due to arrive tomorrow, then resumed practice.

Towards the end of our 2 1/2 long session, we discussed the tempo we have been playing (very slow) at vs. "concert tempo" (very fast) compared to a recording our second violinist has been listening to. I suggested that we attempt the final movement at "concert tempo" for at least a few lines just to see what happens and where it falls apart. After a few protests about the disaster ready to face us, we dive into it, full speed ahead. Instead of stopping after the first few lines, we ended up playing the entire movement. We ended the piece stunned. We looked at each other in silence with jaws gaping. OMG! We actually did it! And better than ever before!

After an excited discussion on how well we pulled off a seemingly impossible feat, we began a brainstorming session on WHERE we could perform this piece for the public. Retirement homes, hospitals (our 1st violinist is an MD), the break-room at the office during lunch or after hours... We are READY to perform as a group in public!

Nine months ago, we started as a trio, then became a quartet. Over time we've worked through how to play with each other: queues, tempo matching, intonation as a group, dynamics, inter-play of the different parts, how to support each other, etc... We've critiqued each other's work, helped each other on various personal musical challenges. We even used our own literal Dr. Beat (the 1st violinist has literally counted out loud while the second violinist and I worked on some tricky rhythmic parts between us).

After all this time, we have finally reached that point when we are truly a single musical entity. No speech is necessary (except when one of us gets lost and someone shouts out "C!!!" - the practice mark). Even this limited speech is prompted by our intense focus on each other. The end of a fermata and the start of the next section is queued by a simple glance and a slight raising of the scroll. The interplay of parts is like dancing with each other.

I LOVE quartet night!

Oh, I guess I should practice Bruch a little more tomorrow!

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First Public Performance of Bruch

January 9, 2008 23:48

I walk into the concert hall and look around. Wood floors, nice for acoustics, not-too high ceilings, the piano and the stand. I place my music on the stand. There are only two people in the audience, but they are very well known musicians in the Portland Area and Oregon Symphony members: principal violist Joel Belgique, and violinist Ines Voglar. Can I play up to their expectations? Will I embarrass myself? I've worked hard at this for a long time and have most of it memorized now. I want this to be a beautiful romantic moment for my two audience members.

I smile at them, they smile back.

I take a moment for myself, ready my viola, finding that perfect spot in time to begin, and nod to the pianist. As the introduction begins, I ready my bow and pull the sweetest A from the strings and begin to play. My viola sounds very nice in this room, the acoustics are quite good, and I hear a nice bounce-back of my music, just like in my own music room at home. The music flows easily from my instrument. I start noticing that my feet are cold. As I come to the end of the section, I turn the page and begin the second section. Nice and easy. Then comes the a difficult part. I notice that I'm starting to tense up a bit and make my body and mind relax. I've done this a dozen times. A few notes came out out of tune - I force myself to not cringe up my face, and continue back in tune again.

I run up and down the fingerboard on the 32nd note runs. Ooops! Missed a note! Now onto those c-flats, just a tad flat. Then the final run of double-stops. Oooops! Missed the open A on the last chord, OK, just play the F like you meant that to happen. Onto the ending. Sweet as can be. Ooops again! I added a bow change when it should had been slurred. I add one more bow change in a good spot so I can end in the right bowing direction. Still sounding good. The final measures come out sweet and heart breaking. I let the final A fade and hold my pose until there is no hint of sound letting the moment last.

I look up at the audience and they are grinning ear to ear.

I let out a big "YIPPEEEE! My bow didn't shake one bit!!!! AND I wasn't nervous at ALLLL". Joel smiles at me and says "See? You CAN do this!!! Now lets review a few things..." We leave his living room and head back upstairs to the studio. (There was no actual piano playing in this recital, just in our mind's ears.)

That was at the end of my lesson tonight, so I'll back up to the beginning... It has been absolutely crazy at work for the last few days. When I get into the studio, I say "I NEED SCALES!!!!" with a wild eyed look. My first scale attempt was horrid. My teacher then starting playing a drone (middle C) while I do scales again. He has me hang out for awhile on the notes that make perfect 5ths, 4ths, 3rds, octaves, etc... By the end of this exercise, my mind was TOTALLY off of work and into "music mode".

I played the piece through for him once as if it were a performance. I made the mistake of not taking that 100% seriously and looked at him a few times, cringed my face up when a note was not in-tune, hummed and talked to myself a time or two while playing, and didn't stay in the moment after the final note was played. We worked through a few finer musical & technical issues, then tackled the "stage presence". HOW to mentally and physically prepare BEFORE the first note is played, how to let my pianist know when to begin, how to turn the pages gracefully, and how to end the piece - physically - keeping a serious face and staying in playing position for the right about of time AFTER the last note is played WITHOUT looking at the "audience" or anywhere else but my at my sounding point.

He excused himself for a moment (apparently to stage this unexpected concert with his wife), then came back a minute later. We work few a more details. Then he pulls a fast one on me. "Play this through one more time, then let's go downstairs and perform for me and Ines!" OMG!!! Panic sets in for a moment. He has me play it in performance mode one more time, then another round of critique. "Are you ready? You want to do this?" he asks. "Well, this won't kill me, so OK. Let's do it!"

It was the most interesting "lesson" I have ever had! It was not so much of a lesson as it was a coaching session, and so incredibly helpful. This little covert performance helped me convince myself that I COULD do this and not get massive stage fright and fall apart or shake like a leaf, like what happened my last solo performance experience at my grandfather's funeral. The work on stage presence answered alot of questions that I never could formulate a question for.

Now, instead of being anxious for this competition, I'm now eagerly looking forward to it!

2 replies | Archive link

Practicing for Performance

January 6, 2008 23:04

My teacher made a very interesting suggestion regarding my practice routine, that was to practice as if it were a performance. With this competition coming up next week, playing a piece through without stopping, NO MATTER WHAT HAPPENS, is paramount. In my practice sessions at home, if I make an error, I stop, work the measure several times, THEN continue. This simply cannot occur at the competition.

This problem came to light when my teacher "helped" me by getting ready to turn the page for me. This simple act of kindness threw me off so much, I ended up having to go back several measures to "get my groove back", and then turn the page for myself (with a glare at him from the corner of my eye to NOT help!).

After I completed my "performance", he brought up a very good point. If a simple page turner throws me off so completely, what is going to happen if any of the judges cough, talk to each other, or who knows what else? Will I be distracted to the point were I can no longer play through the piece? He suggested that during my practice time at home, I play as if I played in front of a large audience: people coughing, talking, getting up and walking around, babies crying, and any of a wide variety of other disturbances. THAT my dear is reality.

If a freight train runs through the concert hall, KEEP PLAYING!!!!

PS. I bought a baby grand piano today.

4 replies | Archive link

Playing with a Pianist

January 2, 2008 23:24

My first practice session with my pianist brought on many frustrations. Mostly this was due to two significant factors: it was the first time we ever played together, so there was a "getting to know you" phase to go through, the other was the different ways in which a piano is tuned to a stringed instrument.

With the advice of my teacher, I tuned my open strings to the piano. Before, there were a few spots with a sustained note on the lower strings that made both of us cringe (funny how something so little can throw you off so much!), but with the change of tuning, any "out of tuneness" with each other was less noticeable.

I did the "cerebral" thing and researched how much of a difference there was in the different tuning of a piano vs. my chosen instrument. Add to that my own intonation inaccuracies and the differences are even greater. I could get extremely cerebral and explain the root-mean-square method of calculating probable tolerances (and what those tolerances are), but that would lead to an extremely long discussion. ;-) Without going into advanced statistical methods, suffice it to say that removing most of the tuning differences by tuning my open strings to the piano made my D on the C string sound so much better with the piano, which in turn made for a happier practice session. (Sometimes I just LOVE being an engineer!)

My confidence level rose several notches tonight on other levels as well. We spent most of our hour tonight working a few tempo changes. The most significant "turning on the light-bulb" moment was how pianist do not need to take any time do a bow re-take; they can just plug right along happy as can be without needing any time to re-adjust in any way, shape or form.

We worked on the timing of a few of those spots. What a difference that made once we started penciling in and working those slight pauses! I didn't feel so rushed after we added those pauses so I could either reshape my hand or reposition my bow and be ready for what came next both mentally and physically. We also worked on how to queue to each other in certain areas. It was really exciting when we were able to "play off of each other" so to speak. It was like having a conversation with each other; but instead of words we used musical notes. How cool is that!

We have 2 more 1-hour practice sessions scheduled, including on the Saturday before the competition to work any remaining tidbits out. I am so excited! My nervousness playing with her dropped several notches tonight and it showed. Our final run-through got a WOW from her. As she says "we are going to blow their socks of with this piece!" I hope we do!

I have 3 spots that need some more technical work and confidence building so I don't trip-up under pressure: the 32nd note runs (2 out of 4), one 6-note run where my 4th finger just refuses to cooperate with my other fingers, and the final run of double-stops (in-tuneness is a 50-50% chance of happening at a +/- 10 cent tolerance at best). I need to start the piece a little more gracefully (I'm still attacking the first note too harshly and the following C needs a good dose of vibrato), and I have some questions on emphasizing notes on the 3rd page.

It has been many many years (OK, close to 30) since I've attempted to do anything like this (solo, pianist, competition/audition, etc..) It's a little nerve-wracking, even though my career does not depend on how this competition turns out. I want to do justice to all the time my teacher and I have spent on this piece and not end up feeling like a fool in front of my "musical peers" as they are. I just need to relax, go with the flow, and have fun.

I think I have a fighting chance of doing well at the competition. Such a beautiful piece! I just have to convey that beauty to the judges when the time comes....

Stay tuned for a recording of this piece with a piano accompaniment coming soon to a web-site near you!

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