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Mendy Smith

A Well Tempered Practice Diet - Playing with Friends

March 13, 2011 at 2:13 AM

Studying at home alone is a necessary part of the practice diet.  It is the time to work through techniques, skills, and particularly troublesome spots. But unless you are a pure soloist , practicing alone can only take you so far.  There comes a time where you need to figure out how to take your part and fit it in it with another part (or parts).  Being perfectly in tune with your own instrument or in rhythm with a metronome alone is one thing.  Being in tune and rhythmically together with a group is entirely different.

My music-partner-in-crime and I are getting ready for Interlochen's Adult Chamber Music Camp this summer.  We are setting weekly "play dates" to work on two pieces that we will be coached on:  Frank Bridge's "Lament" and Daughtery's "Viola Zombies".  Two very contrasting works for two violas, both modern.   This afternoon was our first "play date".

The Lament is difficult on many different levels:  intonation with dual double-stops, dynamic balance, and rhythm.  There are passages that build on chord transitions from a ppp to FFF within a few measures with very few notes that line up on a beat.  It is relatively easy to practice these passages alone, but by adding another instrument, the complexity becomes overwhelming at times.  Playing these measures ever so slowly helps to provide a clear road-map - moving from a dissonance to a resolution in alternating sub-beats, finding the base of a chord to build upon, tuning perfect octaves, lining up on each beat. Something that can't be practiced alone.

The other piece "Viola Zombies" has entirely different set of ensemble challenges.  The piece is based on the tune of the "Twilight Zone" and demands religious counting and  trading off ordinary bowing to ponticello to col lengo and tempo changes from one measure to the next.  If concentration wavers for a single beat, the piece falls apart, and like a fugue, it may be several measures until it is realized. 

The trick to both of these pieces is learning how to play well with each other.  The person next to you is not the human version of a metronome nor a tuner.  Even with the best of partners, there are variations that requires adjustments.  Beyond learning the part, there is learning the other person's body language: breathing habits that queue a bow change, eye contact to indicate a change of tempo or dynamic, body movement for changes in style.  When you think you have all these things figured out, the human factor kicks in - one day may be slower or faster, notes sharper or flatter, tempos different from the previous day.  An endless variety of factors to adjust to.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on March 17, 2011 at 3:03 PM

 >The trick to both of these pieces is learning how to play well with each other.  

Hey, you just summed up the trick of life/living/global politics, at the same time! 

Enjoyed reading. Wish you still lived close so I could have a play date with you. : )

From Mendy Smith
Posted on March 19, 2011 at 2:05 AM

There are days that I wish that I was still on the West Coast.  Maybe one day we can meet up at Interlochen and have a 'play date'.

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