It is a Houston tradition that I have come to look forward to each year: the annual playing of the Brandenburg Concertos on New Year's Day.
Each New Year's Day, several amateur musicians in the greater Houston area get together to play through ALL of the Brandenburg concertos. Soloists volunteer themselves and some bring period instruments. The most unusual is a retrofitted violin for the violin-piccolo in the 1st concerto. The person that plays it is primarily a violist, go figure!
The highlight, for me as a violist is #6, for 2 violas, de gambas, cello, bass and harpsichord. All violists that are there play one of the two parts. It is so popular that there are 3 to a part most times, with us all standing in a circle.
With family so far away, holidays are many times spent alone. However, I always look forward to a long weekend to spend doing what I love most. This year, it is uninterrupted hours working on Schubert's Arpeggione, a 3 octave A-minor scale and Kreutzer #7. Schubert is deceptively simple - until the last bit of the last movement - at which point one can forget about using open strings to any advantage whatsoever, and shifting becomes a nightmare. The scale takes me to the very end of the fingerboard, and the etude tests my bow control.
My last lesson before the holidays brought all my failings into the light, and was sent home with the admonishment to get it "perfect" by the new year. Thus started my holiday weekend.
I began the weekend with the metronome set at 25 bpm with every beat representing a quarter note on the Schubert. At this speed getting a good tone is incredibly difficult. But none the less, this was the tempo that I had the best chance at getting all the notes in tune. Two shifts gave me particular problems, and I had to slow it down even more - 10 bpm, and even resorted to pulling out a shifting study assigned to me by the teacher I had in Oregon to help me work on the problem shifts.
I started to really notice particularities about my technique that my teacher pointed out to me at this tempo: such as what was happening with by bow hand and arm with every stroke, and how my wrist lifted on the up-bow rather than pushing the stick up the string, how my left hand would get "stuck" mid-shift, or how I tended to push my bow arm away from me as I moved to the lower strings. Bit by bit, I started the long process of correcting these issues.
After a day, I progressed up to 35 bpm, practicing those problem shifts at a quicker speed and focusing a bit more on bow control, distribution, and a "proper" stance in addition to "just notes". Clicking the metronome up a few notches introduced a new problem: tension. Those dreaded shifts caused me to tense up and miss them, and I lost track of all the other things I needed to focus on. So back down to 25 bpm...
The next day, I made more progress, upping the tempo to 40 and then finally 45 bpm. The dreaded shifts weren't dreaded as much, and I started exploring how to use my bow to get the articulation and dynamics I wanted. I spent at least an hour on open strings figuring this out. Then I noticed something interesting: my tone was getting better, even at such a slow tempo, and I wasn't getting tense.
As far as the scale goes, after struggling with Flesch fingerings for an hour (I was taught Galamian), I ended up spending quite some time writing them out note by note and then getting them under my hand. The A-minor scale takes a violist up to the very end of the fingerboard. Getting up there is difficult enough (nevermind having it in tune and sounding OK), getting back down again seems impossible at this point without resorting to left-arm gymnastics. I now know the fingerings and am getting closer to having the upper notes in tune and have it sounding a bit less like a cat screech.
The Kreutzer etude is a mixed bag. At the frog I can get a clear tone, but at the tip I found myself angling my bow in odd ways trying to get a good tone - all of them crooked, away from the bridge, and not working. Again, slowing it down to 25 bpm per quarter note seems to be my best chance of fixing these issues.
I can't remember spending this much time working on a few measures of music in years, let alone a scale or etude. The last time was back in 2008/9 when I was auditioning for a scholarship.
I have one more day of my long weekend to pamper myself with unhurried practice. I hope I earn a gold star when I re-start lessons after the new year. At least my cats are no longer running away and hiding while I practice.
More entries: November 2012
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