When I first moved to Houston, I got involved in the local amateur music scene with a vengeance from day one: private lessons, two community orchestras, performances at church, pit orchestras, concerts in the park. You name it, I did it. At the time it was a good strategy. I made several new friends and never had a moment when I sat on the couch wishing I was back on the West Coast. It was a great way to make Houston a "home" and not simply a place I was living in at the moment.
Two years later, I'm finding myself in a situation where I'm having to cut back. The weekends where I used to spend my time doing household chores and practicing throughout the day developing my skills were quickly filled with driving back and forth between lessons, rehearsals, and concerts. The fire was burning itself out. It turned out to be too much of a good thing. It is difficult to say "No" to the various activities and events, however I'm learning to do it. Lessons are being moved from the weekend back to a weekday. Chamber music is a priority over orchestral music, and I'm playing in one pit and one pit alone over the summer. Interlochen is still a summer vacation priority - I wouldn't miss it for the world.
With my weekends reclaimed, my viola garden is tamed. Goodbye to a stand overgrown with pieces that I never have enough time to master. Goodbye to shelving all the etudes and scales that I really need to be working on to improve. Hello to a few hours outside in the garden each weekend. Hello again to the luxury of time to really work my technique.
After working on Vieuxtemp's Elegie for several months I had the entire piece memorized, shifts, bowings, dynamics, and even those little non-musical notations that I made over the course of studying the piece. I worked out most of the issues in the first three pages, but hit a wall when it came to the last page of the piece: a non-stop series of 16th note runs all over the fingerboard across each and every string.
I worked that section note by note for months starting at the slowest tempo imaginable and then kicking it up a notch on the metronome week over week. That is until I hit a tempo wall. There came a point in time where my left and right hand lost all coordination and I stumbled all over myself in that last page. Rhythmic exercises didn't help. I decided to put the piece aside for awhile and begin working on something completely new with a totally different set of challenges.
After a few weeks off from Vieuxtemps, I played through it again for giggles a few days ago. To my delight, my fingers untangled themselves and I regained the coordination that I had lost. My tempo barrier was magically broken.
Sometimes it is a simple matter of over-practice that a short break will solve.
It has been several months since I've performed solo. This Sunday I'll be playing one of the shorter pieces for viola and piano by Rebecca Clark at the early service at church - "I'll Bid My Heart Be Still". The original lyrics to the song are:
"I'll bid my heart be still; and check each struggling sigh; and there's none e'er shall know my soul's cherished woe: when the first tears of sorrow are dry."
"They bid me cease to weep; for glory gilds his name; Ah, 'tis therefore I mourn, he can never return: to enjoy the bright noon of his fame."
"My cheek has lost its hue; my eye grows faint and dim; but 'tis sweeter to die in grief's gloomy shade: than bloom for another than him."
It is a simple piece, but one that I've never played before until this past week. I'll be performing it with in the early hours of the morning after one 30 minute rehearsal earlier in the week. The pianist and I will be running through the piece a second time a few minutes before the service starts. In those sparse minutes, I have time to tune, warm up, compose myself, and work out any questions on dynamics and tempo changes.
Though the piece is simple, it requires impeccable bow control and dynamic changes. It is very transparent in the harmonies with the piano with little room for error. "Simple" in this regard is quite the challenge.
If I can keep from tensing up, it will go quite well.
'If you can sing it, you can play it' is something we all hear time and time again from our teachers, and it is very true.
When I first learn a new piece, my eyes are glued to the printed notes in front of me - trying to make musical sense out of all the markings scattered across the page like a bunch of chicken scratchings. I add to the chaos by adding my own markings, erasing them, and adding different ones. Over time, I find that I start memorizing the markings and what is printed becomes music.
Only when I have memorized a piece - the notes, bowings, dynamics, other instrument parts - I begin to truly study the music. Freed from the printed page, I begin to understand the notes as they relate to one another, sense the changes of mood from one phrase to the next, and can focus on the technique required to make the music 'speak'.
It takes weeks, sometimes months, to memorize a piece of music from beginning to end. Sometimes I memorize wrong notes, wrong rhythms, wrong tempos - those that are in my mind but not printed on the page. I listen to recordings when I can find them to try to prevent this from happening. It takes longer to un-learn something than it does to learn it correctly to begin with. On complicated passages, I break it down to its component parts - a small grouping of notes, the upper voice, lower voice, open strings for rhythm & bow control - then build it back up again.
It sometimes seems tedious to break things down like this, but it all adds up in the end.
More entries: March 2011
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