November 2008

A New Angle on Vibrato

November 28, 2008 19:08

How I love these long holiday weekends!  Plenty of time to work a technique for hours without feeling pressed for time. 

This weekend's project - freeing the base of my first finger from the fingerboard on the lower strings so I can finally achieve some vibrato down in 1st position with my first finger on the lower two strings.  Piece of cake!  Humphhhh!  My teacher jokingly suggested that I chop off the length of the fingerboard by 3 inches to get the perfect left hand frame on the lower strings in first position since my hand frame in third position was "perfect".  However, this would just turn me into a violinist, and not a violist.  Hilda would be aghast to be shortened from a full 16" down to 13" so brutally!

I started yesterday in "guitar position", first getting a good vibrato in those lower positions, taking note of the relation between my hand and the fingerboard.  I experimented with my finger touching the fingerboard firmly as it normally is, and then lighter and lighter until I was happy with the vibrato I was getting.  I took a moment to sketch and note down that ideal left hand frame.  Ready for step 2 - doing this in playing position.  Deep breath, stay relaxed.

Over several hours over two days, I experimented with my viola position, trying to reproduce that ideal left hand frame to vibrate on the C string with my first finger in first position.  I finally found the vibrato sweet-spot.  For me, the viola must be angled so that the strings are at about a 70-80 degree angle to my nose - viola far to the left,  nearly flat along my upper chest, with the A string angled a bit more towards the floor.  In this position, the base of my first finger is free from the fingerboard on the lower strings, and a nice vibrato just happened without any effort.

However, this advancement in vibrato comes at a price.  Bowing perpendicular to the strings in the upper third of the bow is nearly impossible.  Once I pass the mid-point of the bow, it started to angle towards the fingerboard.  My arms simply are not long enough to pull a straight bow in this position.  Tomorrow I will try holding my bow a little higher up on the stick.  I've seen other professional violists hold the bow this way when the voila is more towards the left.  This may help compensate for the position of the viola and my short arms (short for a full sized viola). 

Luckily, no other aspect of my playing besides bowing in the upper third seemed to be adversely affected by this new angle.  I could still shift easily, and even a little more smoothly on the C string from first to third and back down again.  Intonation with my 4th finger was a little sharp at first, but that is a simple thing to adjust for; far better than being flat and trying to develop a larger stretch.  Chords were easier to play, especially the difficult ones in Suite #3 Sarabande (G#,D,B & G#,F,B).  String crossings from C to A were easier to manage as well.

My cats have recovered from this experiement over the past two days and came out of hiding.  My oldest even forgave me for torturing his sensitive ears and is now sitting on my lap.  Little do they know that this all starts again tomorrow.

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The Magic of Mozart

November 26, 2008 23:49

Tonight topped off a week full of rehearsals and a concert - Quartet Night!  One of my favorite nights of the week.  I finally convinced the guys to warm up with a scale two weeks ago.  Tonight we did a 2-octave G-Major (C-Minor was voted down).  Then I had us do it with a twist - playing it in thirds - with the violins starting, and the cellist and I starting two notes later.  They have never tried this before and were surprised with how it sounded.  There is something very musical about playing scales this way.  My teacher would be proud - converting others to the beauty of scales ;-)

After warming up, we started on Mozart's quartet K421.  We have been studying it for several weeks now.  Up until tonight, rehearsals have all been about learning the notes, rhythms, dynamics and studying how our parts interact with each other.  Tonight, it started to become magical.  The end of each movement had us smiling at each other in satisfaction.  Our notes blended, our dynamics changing as if played by one person, and our tempo much more consistent with each other; even when one or another of us started to "rush" a bit with the cellist pulling us back in line. (What is it with cellists and being the "human metronome" anyway?)

The Allegro movement has some technical challenges for the "inner voices".  There is a challenging section for the 2nd violinist rhythmically.  The cellist helped him out by emphasizing the beats.  There is also a spot where the violist (me) carries the melody which has some tricky shifts.  We studied the score and each others parts to work how the parts interacted in a few spots.  Key change!  Oooops!  It took our first violinist a measure or two to notice.  However, even this movement, with all its challenges is starting to sound more musical.

After break, the cellist's daughter joined us on viola to play a Mozart Quintet.  She normally plays violin, but will play viola (or "sub" on violin) with us on occasion.  She plays in 1st violin section at PYP (Portland Youth Philharmonic), and is very talented.  It is always fun playing with her! I found myself watching how she was able to easily vibrate on the Cing with her 1st finger in 1st position, taking a few mental notes for myself to apply in practice later.

So, with her tonight, we played the first of the Mozart Quintets.  I never played this one before, so sight reading time for me again.  It was 2 measures in the Adagio movement that had me scratching my head, causing us to have a few "do-overs" while I figured out the ryhthm.   I asked everyone to stop  for a moment to let me mark out the beats and figure out how to sub-divide those measures.  Once I did that, and listened to the 1st violinist play his similar part, the light-bulb turned on.  "Ahhhhhhh! I get it!".  We resumed again without any major blunders, and a few very musical moments. 

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Fading into the Distance

November 25, 2008 02:04

Stage Fright. 

It is something that all performers, amateurs and professionals alike, experience at some point.  We all learn how to cope or manage in some fashion or another.  My approach has been one used for various phobias:  increasingly controlled exposures to what scares the living intonation out of you.

A year ago I entered myself into the community orchestra's concerto competition.  I was the only stringed participant.  Preparing for this event was an ordeal.  First was learning the repetoire, and then learning to overcome severe stage fright.  My stage fright at that time was to the point where playing solo in front of someone new had my bow arm quivering, be it judges, my teacher in a performance setting, his wife, or complete strangers in large numbers or small.  It made no difference.  If I was in performance mode, my bow arm shook like a leaf in a tree.

Fast forward to last night.  After a weekend-long rehearsal leading up to the concert, my principal violist and I plodded into one last rehearsal at her church for the Messiah.  I was tired.  After setting up the chairs for the chamber orchestra and choir, I pulled out Bach to help reset my musical mind back to a baroque style.  Bach is a nice comfort zone -  I'm familiar with his style.  Playing Bach is like getting a mini-massage, musically speaking.

There were a few other people in the room at that time - a singer or two, the choir director, the conductor, and a few other church-folks unknown to me.  I got the typical question: "what is the difference between a violin and viola".  Rather than explain how a viola will burn longer than a violin, I simply started playing some Bach.  While I played, I semi-tuned out those around me while still being aware that they were still in the same room.  I found myself sitting more on the edge of my chair, applying just the right amount of vibrato in the right places, accentuating the dynamics, and focusing on my bowing 'lanes' for best effect.  I played for the sake of sharing that music with others with no other thought in the world.  I was, for that moment, an 'ambassador' for all violists.  I was woken from my private world of Bach by an applause.

A day later it dawned on me...  my bow arm didn't shake.  I didn't have that all encompassing fear that I normally have when playing in front of folks with a critcal ear for music.  There was no feeling of being 'judged'.  Only a desire of sharing the beauty of Bach and the richness of tone that you can only get out of a viola.  There was a point where my audience seemed to fade into the distance and it was only me, my viola and the music of  Bach filling the room.

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Viol-A-Thon

November 24, 2008 00:14

This is shaping up to be a very busy month.  The viol-a-thon started Saturday with a 3 hour-long dress rehearsal with one of the Jewish Community Orchestras.  Sunday, concert day, started with the call at 1pm, with the concert starting at 3pm.

The concert featured the Hummel Trumpet Concerto, with Michael Stodd, co-principal trumpist from the Komische Opera in East Berlin.  He grew up in the Portland area, and came back home to perform this piece with our orchestra.  It was a great experience playing with a high-caliber professional.  In addition to the Concerto, we played Finlandia and Beethoven's 5th Symphony, as well as a few traditional Jewish pieces for the opening of the season. 

After the concert was over, the principal violist, bassist and I grabbed a quick dinner on the way to our next rehearsal - the Messiah.  Rehearsal was with the choir, for two hours without break.  When I finally made it home, I noticed that a viola hickey was forming. 

Tomorrow I have another rehearsal with a different orchestra, and rehearsal with my Quartet before the Thanksgiving weekend.  I've recently had several requests to "sub" in other community orchestras and other events over the next month.  I turned them all down.  Three concerts in one month is about as much as this amature violist can handle (or would that be "Handel"?). 

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Small Adjustment - Big Difference

November 20, 2008 22:16

This week, I was early for lessons, learning my lesson to give myself even more time getting through Portland during rush-hour traffic and rain this time of year. 

While warming up on the requisite scales (now doing C-Minor 3 octave, 12 notes per bow), my teacher noticed the shape of my hand and how it differed between third position (best hand shape) and first position.  He jokingly suggested that I chop off about 3 inches of the neck of my viola and only play in 3rd position or higher.  A year or two ago, just the thought of playing in higher positions all the time would have put me into a mild state of shock (nevermind the thought of chopping my viola down to violin size). 

However, the point he was making was that up in 3rd position, I had a small space between my first finger and the neck, and all my fingers were nicely curved, even more when my 4th finger was placed down.  So he had me try to fix my hand in that position on the next round of scales.  That didn't work very well :-)  He suggested that maybe if I dipped my scroll down a little it would help.  Nope, made it worse.  So this is my homework assignment (I'll come back to this in a moment).

Then onto the Sarabande & Courante.  We continued working on chord execution, and playing very very very softly - over the fingerboard.  I kept migrating back towards the bridge, even when I was watching the bow.  Funny, I used to have the exact opposite problem.  Now, it is more about putting the bow where I want it to be when I want it to be there.  Another homework assignment.  We also worked on slowing down my shifts.  As Joel said, slow it down as much as you can... trust me, I'll tell you when it is too slow.  My shifts are still "lightening" fast.  Going slow is the least of my worries at this point.

Onto the Courante we worked on some of the string crossings - from C to A.  This has been challenging - not hitting the G and D along the way from one to the other.  We finished the evening on my nemesis - the Allegro movement of Beethoven's 5th (a nasty run of triplets divisi).  My left hand can play the notes at tempo (proven when we tried them slurred), but my right hand was lagging, tripping up my left hand.  Finally, I was getting it by the end of lessons.

On the way home, I was stuck in traffic once again (another wreck on the other side of the tunnel, same spot as last time).  That gave me a chance to think about conctact points with my left hand.  I developed a plan while crawling my way through the tunnel.  When I got home, I took my shoulder rest, lowered the right hand side a few mm, and tried my scales again with little if no contact between my first finger and the neck.  What do you know!!!!  I lowered it just a little more and it got even better.  A little more,  and it started to become more difficult to get a good tone with the bow, so back up a notch or two. 

Having found this happy place, I tried my scales again with the space between my first finger and the neck.  Much better.  Not quite what my teacher suggested yet, but better.  So then I tried playing the Sarabande & Courante again.  The chords were easier to get with my left hand, even the ones down in half position that I've been struggling with.  On the Courante, the string crossings from C to A were MUCH easier.

So there we go, a minor adjustment made a big difference in ease of playing.  Note to self however - leave this adjustment where it is for the next week or two...  no piddling around with it!!!!

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The Truth About Chords

November 17, 2008 23:47

It was section rehearsals tonight in my community orchestra.  One piece we are playing is Shostakovich's Piano Concerto #2.  There are long stretches in the 3rd movement that are all pizz. chords.  At one point, our conductor (a flautist) asked us if we figured out the divisi for that section.  We collectively gave her a puzzled look.  Someone told her that there was no divisi in that section.  She then gave us a puzzled look .  "You mean you have to play all those notes at once?".   

Yup! 

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Christmas is Coming

November 14, 2008 20:39

This year, I'm heading back to the South East to visit family for Christmas.  We haven't all been together in....  well, I can't remember when.  It's been that long.

Yesterday, I recieved a cryptic e-mail from my mother.  It included a link to something she ordered and was having shipped to my house, and the words "Practice!  Bring the CD with you.  - M".  Following that link, I discovered that she ordered Christmas sheet music for viola with an accompanying CD.  It is due to arrive in the next week or two.  

Apparently, my mother and sister were sitting around having a glass of wine discussing the upcoming Christmas holiday, when they started trying to remember the lyrics to various Carols.  So they went online...  one thing turned into another and now I have this sheet music being shipped to my house, with a familial demand for Christmas musical entertainment.  They way my sister explained it was that either they bought me sheet music for what THEY wanted to listen to, or listen to me play through light-hearted music like Bach or Brahms.  (sarcasm intended)

I wonder if I could play these Carols in the style of Bach or Brahms.   Sounds like a fun last lesson before the Christmas holiday ;)

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Bach 201: Chapter 2 - Bowing

November 13, 2008 22:41

I was late for lessons today.  The traffic into Portland was absolutely horrible.  It took 2 hours what normally takes only 1 hour, and I give myself a 30 minute buffer for traffic.  I SMS'd my teacher that I'd be late, and then a follow up call when I knew he would be done with his prior student.  He called the student that follows me to come late. 

That made warm-up scales that much more important - to soothe my mind and relax my shoulders.  We did a 3-octave C-Minor, nothing terribly challenging, starting at one note per two beats.  When we reached 3 notes per beat, he had me accent each note with my right hand to see if it would trigger a continuous vibrato with my left hand.  I played 4 notes per bow while counting 3:)  I have a triplet problem.  So, rather than spend the rest of lessons on how to play groups of three, we moved to 4 notes per bow, then 8.  And.... then 12!!!!  I've never tried to do 12 notes per bow (that is 12 notes in one bow at a mm of 63).  It was sooooo close!!!  Then we did the 3-octave C-Major arrpeggios, but with a twist.  We played it almost like a round, with him coming in on the second note.  That was fun!

By then, I was sufficiently warmed up, so onto the 3rd Suite Sarabande.  This week we focused on bowing chords.  On a 4-note, playing the bottom two first only using about 1/4 of a bow, then the top two - with absolutely no "rocking" across the strings.  The bottom two notes soft, then louder on the upper two, the other way around dynamically, and another alternative:  playing the bottom 2 & upper two as mentioned, but then dropping the note on the D string and sustain the note on the A just a little longer.  I never knew how many ways a basic CGEC chord could be played!  We then moved on to ways to play a 3-note chord using some of the same techniques he just taught me with the 4-note chords, but alternating the sustaining note to the middle string. 

Onto the Courante.  I played it slower using the upper third of the bow like he taught me last week.  Then he asked if I'd like to try it faster.  Sure!  That meant more in middle to lower half of the bow.  That was how I learned to play this movement originally years ago.  We worked on some the string crossings (from C to A) so I wouldn't hit the middle two strings.  This was topped off with some pointers on bowing:  how to play the last note at the end of a 3 note slur before going into 3 bowed notes, shortening individually bowed notes staccato but on the string, and what notes to emphasize in the section that has alternating notes on adjacent strings. 

By now, I've worked up a sweat.  This bowing thing is a real workout!  One more piece:  Allemande.  I hadn't played this one in years.  I had to remember what my fingerings were for the run of double-stops - and I stumbled.  He gave me another option for the highest doublestop that I never tried before. I think it will be much easier once I practice it some more.  Keeping with the bowing themed lesson, he reviewed some alternate bowing styles that I could use on this movement.

As we ended the lesson, I mopped the sweat off my brow and packed up. He asked if my quartet made a final decision on coaching, which I was able to answer happily "YES!"  I'll be calling him in a few days to set up our first coached session.  We are all soooo excited! 

Then I headed home.  It only took 30 minutes to get home - without traffic :|

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Chamber Music Coach

November 11, 2008 23:43

Nearly a year ago I joined a newly forming chamber music group.  We started off as a trio - 2 violins, and me - the violist.  It was very informal and just for fun.  We studied Dvorak, Beethoven, and some Bach.  A few months later, we found a cellist and became a quartet.  Then a bug got into us - let's see if we could play publicly.  The opportunity arose, and we performed at an art gallery grand opening.  It was a hit.   Back then we thought about getting a coach, but decided not to do so at the time.

A year later, we have a new cellist and we are getting more serious about performance and improving our collective tone.  We chose a piece that we want to work on intensively - a Mozart quartet.  My teacher and his wife agreed to coach us on occasion (not both of them at the same time).  The discussion on whether or not to get a coach is scheduled for tomorrow night.  

I hope the group decision is "yea".  We have been able to 'gel' as a group quite well, and getting a coach will help work on those nuances that will help our music become that more enjoyable and beautiful. 

Tomorrow will tell.

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Personal Music Journaling

November 11, 2008 00:23

With all the discussion surrounding the new blog page format, Karen's recent blog, and what Laurie wrote about what she looks for in a featured blog, I became a little more interested in the phenomena of blogging and what it means to different people (myself included).

Some use it as a mini-news/professional journal format: writing reviews on concerts or CDs, hot topics of the day in the music world, teaching techniques, etc...  Many other use it as a source of internal expression: photo journaling, youtube inspirations, life stories, and so on.  Then there are those who use blogging as an upgraded version of keeping a personal journal. 

I'm one of the later types.  I've kept a personal journal regularly over the past 20 odd years.  Only since discovering this site did I move from pen and paper to electronic.  The one thing it took me a long time to get used to was having my journal entries open for public review and comment.  Receiving a comment on my blogs or not, or being "featured" has never been of any great concern - outside of the time I googled my name for the first time and my blog was at the top of the list ;)

I started focusing on blogging on my lessons awhile back: what I learned that day, what I needed to focus on over the next week, what worked, what didn't, and the funny moments I have during lessons.  This has now started to morph into a study hall of sorts outside of class: blogging on my practice time between lessons.  The end result?  I get more out of my lessons and practice time. If someone else is inspired or learns something from my blogs, I'm even more pleased.

Enough about why I blog.  Time to do it. 

It was orchestra rehearsal tonight.  I think I may have bitten off more than I could chew this season:  2 orchestras, one quartet, solo works, lessons, the Messiah for Christmas, and traditional Christmas Carols for family, and oh yes - my day job.  I'm finally going back home for the holidays and my sister has demanded Christmas Carols.  I haven't been able to spend the needed time practicing all the pieces that I'm expected to play over the next two months.  Orchestra rehearsals are turning into practical etudes and technical studies: from shifting, vibrato to bowing techniques. 

Tonight, I focused on vibrato in 1st postition.  I'm lucky.  In my section is a BYU and Julliard grad (both retired) - an endless source of inspiration and helpful advice.  It's like having a mini-lesson between lessons (teacher approved of course).  I came home with a new trick to try out between now and lesson night.   But mostly I learned how much you can bow with a mute while still maintaining a piano dynamic.  We are playing Shostakovich Piano Concerto #2.  The second movement is played entirely with a mute.  Rarely do I play with a mute these days, even a practice mute.  I had nearly forgotten what a mute does to the tone of a viola.  What starts off dark, becomes even darker.  A lovely sound if I may say so.  However, it does seem to require a different type of vibrato.  I can't quite put my finger on it yet.

That will be a question for lessons this week.

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Vibrato on a C String

November 8, 2008 19:09

Taking my "homework" assignment to heart, I spent the day trying to figure out what was going on (or should I say not going on) with my first finger vibrato in 1st position.  The very first thing I noticed was the difference in contact points on the neck with my first finger vs. the others.  With my 2nd - 4th fingers, I have a space between the hand and the fingerboard.  It is even there with my first finger up in 3rd position.  However down in 2nd and 1st position, my first finger makes contact with the fingerboard between the base and middle joints.

So, I pulled my hand away from the fingerboard a bit, and viola!  Vibrato on my 1st finger on the A and D strings.  However once I moved onto the G string, I could not create that seemingly necessary space between my left hand and the fingerboard.  With that in mind, I went back into "guitar" position keeping the same contact on the fingerboard.  When I achieved a good vibrato in that position, I took note of what was happening:  a sort of massaging feeling of my finger against the fingerboard between the base and middle joints.  However, up in playing position my finger was rigidly in place and NOT moving.  After a few hours off and on, I started to develop some movement, but not at all relaxed. 

This tension brought to mind the Yost exercises that my teacher had me start on when shifting.  A free flowing up and down the fingerboard, with the shifts on each finger fluid and relaxed.  So I started those on the lower strings with my first finger.  The shifts on the G string were fluid, and I managed some vibrato down in first position on that string.  However, when I repeated that exercise on the C string, something curious happened.  I could shift up fluidly enough, but when I shifted down, it was jerky and strained.  That same contact point between my left hand and the fingerboard was hindering the free-flowing movement needed, not just for shifting, but also for vibrato.  

After another hour or so on the Yost shifting exercises on the C string, the tension started becoming greater.  This was so much like the tension I developed when first learning how to shift up past 4th position on the A string.  So, I tried the same exercises I did when developing that shift.  I held my hand with all fingers down on the C string for a few minutes and started some breathing exercises to relax, then shift and hold, relaxing again, then shift down ever so slowly trying to maintain the relaxed feeling.  

By the end of the day, I was a little more relaxed than before, but still a long way from where I need to be.  It had taken me several weeks to be able sustain that relaxed state before when shifting in higher positions.  I expect the same will be true for lower shifts, and eventually vibrato on the lower strings in lower positions.  However, I think things will be easier this time  around.  My muscles weren't sore after several hours of practice this time. In fact, I'm surpisingly relaxed at the moment.

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Tone and Style

November 6, 2008 22:07

I had quite some time to think about this lesson blog, being stuck in traffic for over an hour coming back home.  I was all set on rushing forward through the remaining Suites to meet my "Bach by 40" goal.  But after practicing at home over the weekend and recording myself, I re-thought that approach.  Listening to my practice recordings made me cringe in enough places that I decided it was time to stick with the Suite that I'm working on now, and work through some of these issues.

So I sent a warning e-mail to my teacher that I didn't t want to proceed with the 2nd Suite Minuet at this time, but stay with the 3rd and work on my technique, tone and style.  When lessons began, he agreed it was a good idea.  Our focus for the next several weeks at least will be developing a continuous vibrato, tackling 1st finger vibrato in 1st position, intonation of chords, bowing and dynamics.

With that in mind, we started the scale warm-up with a continuous vibrato, and tried to isolate what was going on with my 1st finger vibrato on the Cing.  It's back to "guitar" exercises again to try to isolate the movements, and next week trying to develop an arm vibrato vs. the wrist vibrato I'm using now. 

We spent quite a bit of time on the 3rd Suite Sarabande.  My tempo was deemed good (thanks to the Body Beat!!!)  and to my surprise, he suggested using rubato on this movement.  I questioned him on this.  I had been taught before that the Suites were dance movements and besides the preludes, rubato was pretty much a no-no.  He said that the Suites were in the style of the dances but not truly intended to be danced with, so I could give a little bit more artistic license to the other movements as well.  With that, he asked me to take a look at the first two measures and decide on a starting dynamic as long as it was not mezzo anything.  I chose forte - which meant piano on the next measure.  We worked on the bowing so that I was not accenting notes that should be emphasized.  Then I played it through.  Somewhere along the line, I got my bowing all backwards and ended up on the final chord of the movement in an up-bow.  Out comes the magic pencil.  I played it through again while he changed bowings.  With each bowing change I played the measure again.  It was a test of my memory of the piece since his hand was covering most of the music.

Then we moved on to the Courante.  This is a piece that I never had lessons on before, but had played on my own several times and felt quite comfortable with it.  Until he pointed out that I should be using a martele bowing at the tip.  So, bowing exercises commenced with "Mississippi Hotdog".  :::GROAN::: !!!  I was forced to regress back to my childhood with all the children's songs for a few minutes.  When my martele came back to me, we played the Courante through together.  I got a thumbs up :)

Then for the last few minutes, we worked on the Prelude from the middle to the end.  I *thought* I was playing ppp but he deemed it more mp to mf.  So, I played it again, softer - at the tip with less bow.  Not soft enough.  After about 3 takes, my ppp was judged soft enough.  I worked up to forte where the arpeggiated chords started and built up the tempo.  The shift that I've been struggling with was much better this time around.  But that is not what got the attention, it was how I was bowing that section.  I needed to give more movement across the strings so it doesn't sound so "fiddle-like" with double-stops. 

By then, lessons were over and I was sweating from the workout he had just put me through.  Good thing it is autumn!

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