February 2010

Identity Crisis

February 28, 2010 19:31

I am a violist.   I have always been a violist.  I grew up reading alto clef and only started reading treble and bass clefs later in my musical life.  (I dabbled around with cello whilst living in Malaysia.)  I never played violin - until recently.

After moving to Houston, I found myself involved in a plethera of musical groups, from the traditional community orchestra and various chamber ensembles, to the not-so-traditional groups.  I play in a pit orchestra for the Houston Bar Association's musical production Night Court (a yearly charity event) and the Fab40 (a group that reproduces Beatles songs).  Surprisingly, there have been times when there was a shortage of violin players in the smaller chamber groups and not-so-traditional groups.  So, I figured, why not buy a violin?  It's just like a viola, but smaller, right??? 

So, my friend and I went violin shopping.  I was quickly proven wrong in my assumption that the violin was just a little viola.  First and foremost, all the strings are shifted to the left, a challenge that had me playing on the wrong string half the time at first. The smallness in size posed different challenges.  The bridge is much closer to my nose, requiring adjustments to my bowing, and the relative placement of fingers are much closer together.  For weeks, I was playing everything wide - very wide.  Only after many-o-hours of practice did I consider myself competent enough to even think of playing violin in a performance setting.

This coming week, I'll be performing both violin & viola with the Houston Bar Association.  We are doing a 20th anniversary show, and a good portion of the regular pit orchestra cannot make it.  So us strings are picking up brass and woodwind parts for one number to fill in for th emissing instruments.  The contra-bass is playing the tuba part, the cello - bassoon, my viola friend - Bb clarinet, and me and one other violinist - 1st and 2nd flute.

While I no longer struggle with what string to play on, and am capable of playing in tune in ordinary circumstances, this particular piece (a western medley), is causing me some troubles.  While 3 flats may be easy to play on viola, it is a bear on violin. I'm struggling with fingerings.  Should I take advantage of my "stretch" ability I learned from years playing viola to simply play the Ab to G with a simple stretch or not?  I'm finding myself a bit lost on the fingerboard in higher positions, especially on the eing. 

While this has been a fun diversion, I was happy at the end of the day to revert back to alto clef and an instrument with a cing. 

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Lessons Re-Learned

February 15, 2010 21:34

For the past several weeks, the pieces that my teacher and I have been working on has been stopped early into lessons to address basic bowing or intonation issues. Issues that should never happen several minutes into lessons.

Years ago I learned that starting lessons (or practice for that matter) with a 3-octave scale, any scale, makes a difference in how productive the next hour would be. I think of scales as a musical-meditative technique to begin my musical "day". The few moments that it takes to play a scale gets me literally in-tune with my musical mind.

The first pass at one beat per bow sets my hand so that the notes begin to ring and I feel the vibrations in my hand and body. Any tension begins to fade away and my hand "remembers" where it should be to play in tune. By three beats per bow, my shifts smoothe out. By six beats per bow my left and right hands have become syncronized. By eight or more beats per bow, I consider myself sufficiently warmed up to tackle any piece that I'm working on at the moment.

This lesson was a very painful one to learn that I had vowed not to forget. But somehow I did in all the excitement of moving across country, completing my Bach by 40 goal, starting a new by 50 goal, and starting with a new teacher. I broke cardinal lesson rule #1: always begin lessons with a scale. How could I have forgotten such a difficult lesson learned? I hold to that rule during practice at home, but somehow have forgotten to apply it at the start of lessons.

Like re-visiting my viola and bow hold, warm-up routines need to be revisited from time to time.

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Etudes in Odd Places

February 1, 2010 20:00

A few years back when I was learning to play the Moldau, my teacher at the time threatened to give it to me as an etude, and later followed up on that threat.  It turned out to be an excellent etude for 2nd position as well as endurance. 

After that experience, I began looking at the pieces that I was learning in a different way and started identifying passages that posed a particular technical challenge that I could use as etudes: Bloch's Suite Hebraique for the cadenza up in the stratosphere, Bridge's Lament for its double-stops, Brandenburg #6 for its low 2nd (F-nat) & 4th (A-nat) passage, the list goes on.

I discovered a new piece/etude recently:  Vieuxtemp's Cappricio measures 28& 29.  These two measures has a whopping 53 notes with many string crossings.  The challenge, besides managing so many notes in two measures, is to make each note clear in tone - a matter of bowing technique.  Taking these two measures at a very slow tempo while looking in a mirror is helping me work on my bowing - from my bow hold, right hand flexibility, right arm height for each string, to the "push/pull" of the bow stroke. 

You never know where you will fine a good etude.

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