February 2011

The Good, Bad and Ugly

February 24, 2011 21:08

Every once in awhile, I'll sit back and listen to several of the recordings I made of myself practicing or performing.  It is a mix of happiness and total mortification. 

Listening to my performance recordings from the past year I'm noticing some new things.  My intonation and tone production has improved quite a bit.   I still play just a tad flat overall (maybe I should tune a bit higher) and my shifts are on the 'lazy' side - they tend to slide a bit too much.  My trills kick ..... hehem....  they are good.  Tempo and rhythm has made tremendous progress.  The bowing is solid sounding (no shakes or wavering) though I can still hear the tension.  Most noticeably, my performance recordings are at about the same level of quality as my home practice recordings.  In other words - I am performing as well publicly as I do at home with no one else listening. 

Faults and all, I hear a noticeable improvement.  Listening to myself months later provides a different perspective of where I'm at and what I need to focus on.  From what I'm hearing now, it boils down to addressing tension and developing clean shifts. 

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Lesson in "V" - The Magic Word

February 19, 2011 19:32

I've been studying Viuextemp's Elegy for several months now in my Z-A composer goal.  It is a particularly difficult piece with some difficult to execute shifts and large swaths of running 16th notes - 6 per beat. 

Those runs are starting become much more comfortable under my hand with repeated slow practice, with and without rhythms, and notching up the tempo bit by bit over time.  There is one particular set of those notes in the beginning of the piece that I stumble over time and time again, even while playing slowly.

During lessons today, I started playing through the piece, got to that first run of 6 notes per beat, stumbled, stopped and told my teacher that no matter what I tried I have yet to feel comfortable with those 6 notes.  The next 30 minutes of my lesson was spent on those 6 notes.  After much experimentation with several 'tricks of the trade', it was a single word that my teacher said that worked magic... "phrasing".   

OK, it was more than one word.  However, when he suggested that I emphasize the 3rd note of the group with the barest break in the grouping of notes, everything started to fall into place where it should.  By simply thinking of that 3rd note in a different way, the shift from 1st finger 7th position to 3rd finger 3rd position became clean and clear - no more sloppy slides nor left hand scrambling to find it's new home position.  From there on, things went much better.  The little cadenza part finally sounded clear and I was able to make it through most of the end of the piece without stumbling at tempo. 

I still have much work to do on this piece before even considering moving on to a "T" composer.  After a run of particularly difficult pieces from Z to V thus far, I think I may revisit the Telemann Concerto when the time comes to move to "T".  Though it is considered a 'student' concerto, I haven't touched it in 30 years.  It will be interesting to see what the years have brought me, musically speaking.

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A Well Tempered Practice Diet - The Plan

February 16, 2011 19:57

After warming up, I normally start working through the stack of music on my stand.  Generally, the amount of focus each piece gets is based on how 'exposed' I will likely be performing it.  Upcoming solo performance pieces get first priority, followed by upcoming chamber music pieces for performance, then what is being worked on during lessons, and finally orchestral pieces.  What is often lacking is a specific plan for addressing the technical and stylistic demands of what I'm practicing.

Though I'm a violist who occasionally plays 2nd fiddle, I've been looking at the Sevcik study for the Wieniawski Scherzo-Tarantelle that I recently won from a contest on this site and am formulating ways to apply the practice techniques from the study to my own viola practice.  I had been toying with the idea lately of taking various bits and pieces of viola repertoire and creating a personalized etude book that incorporates the pieces that I play.  With the Wieniawski/Sevcik in hand, I'm learning how to break down a piece to its component parts and add variations to address a particular technique or style. 

I'm finding that it is actually fun and productive to sit down at the table with a piece of sheet music, score, notes jotted down during/after lessons, and method/etude books to formulate a practice plan on my own.  In this manner, I own the plan and its outcome.  My teacher is there to help me refine my plan and give objective input on how well it is working.


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Hilda's New Partner

February 12, 2011 20:00

Today I got up early and headed off to my local violin shops to see if they had any new bow offerings since the last time I had visited for a final comparison.  Most bows they carried were either good beginner/intermediate level bows and then a jump to two which were well above my budget.  Dutifully, I tried them all out, including the high end carbon fiber bows.

The bows tended to be quite heavy at the frog, much like the one of the two that I've been using.  They didn't track very well on the string and tended to  bounce around quite a bit on the string.  The high end carbon fiber bows weren't much better and felt like a rock in my hand.  The higher priced permabuco bows a little above my budget weren't in the greatest of shape and didn't grab my attention in feel, response or tone.

I went home and began working through the music that I'll be performing over the next few months, alternating between bow #1 and #4 for awhile.  After an hour into practice, I found myself tackling a particularly tricky five measures of the Mozart Oboe Quartet: tempo at 80 bpm for a dotted quarter with 6 notes per beat and string crossings with bow #1 for several hours with bow #1.  When I finally got tired a two hours later, I realized that it was the longest time that I was ever able to rehearse that section without pain and had made quite a bit of progress.  Additionally all of the dynamic changes, staccato and dolce sections were finally starting to come together.

Hilda and I found a bow partner: bow #1, an Albert Schuster (German) weighing in at 68 grams, on the light end for viola bows.    If I recall correctly, the Schuster is a pre-WWII bow restored by Josh Henry.  Bow #4, the other top contender, is a handmade bow by Mr. Henry.

It was a difficult decision to make, and I thank Mr. Henry for lending the bows to me for an extended trial period. 


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The String Factor

February 11, 2011 22:23

I have used the Dominant medium gauge strings for several years and switched to the heavy gauge strings about a year ago to get a little more volume and richness in tone.  Over the holidays I started experimenting with different brand strings: Zylex & Helicore .  The strings that have been on my viola for the past month have been Helicore.  The Zylex were too harsh sounding on my viola, but the Helicore were surprisingly warm sounding for a steel string with a very fast response.

But after working with the trial bows for some time now, I realized that I was evaluating them on a set of strings which for me are experimental. So this evening I switched back to the heavy gauge Dominant strings.  The difference under my ear was astonishing.  The question now is how does this affect my bow preferences?

I started with bow # 4, the heaviest of the four and was nearly blown away by the sound coming from my instrument.  It was crisp, clear and with all the overtones that the Dominants could give, fast and slow passages alike.  It was like having a cello under my ear.  But after an hour, I starting to get that warning tingling sensation in my bow arm, so I stopped for a break.

I then tried bow #1, the lightest.  I did not expect that it would be able to handle the thick C string, but it did surprisingly well, even at the tip of the bow and fast passages.  It responded well to staccato and sudden dynamic changes even with the thicker strings.  After an hour with the lighter bow, my arm didn't tingle. 

I have one more round of rehearsals and lessons over the next few days before I need to decide what to do next when my trial period expires.  So far bow #1 is the favorite.  I'll be making a trip down to the local music shop this weekend to see if there are any new offerings in the price range of the bows I'm trying out now.  The next few days will be very interesting.