October 2006

My first public performance on viola, next spring!

October 31, 2006 05:00

I have a performance to prepare for! I talked to the music director at my church and told her about my plans to audition for the LSO next year. She was delighted to hear that I was playing an instrument again. I sing in the choir but that's not my training or experience. I asked if I could play viola in church next spring, and she said sure, I could even play twice. She often has guest musicians play the prelude, offertory, and/or an anthem--usually all 3. She accompanies the soloist on the piano, and she is an excellent, professional pianist.

It's not a big church, usually there are about 75 adults in attendance any given Sunday after the kids go downstairs to their RE classes. And I know most of them to varying degrees, and have performed in this venue with the choir multiple times. So I think it should be a gentle, not-too-intimidating re-introduction to performing. The acoustics aren't great, but I'll have to work with it.

I'm thinking of playing the following pieces:

Prelude: Telemann viola concerto, 2nd movement. It's sprightly and fun and will hopefully get people feeling good about the service.

Offertory: one of the Bach cello suites transcribed for viola. I'm still in the process of choosing which one. I'm thinking this will be my audition piece for the LSO, too. But I'm having a little angst around this. I could also do it for the anthem/meditation and switch with the following:

Anthem/meditation: Conte Serieux, by Ludwig Mendelssohn. I heard this piece for the first time on a CD called "Solos for Young Violists" Volume I, and fell in love with it. I haven't actually played it yet, but considering the source I think it can't be too technically difficult and it's a different style from the others, something that I think makes good use of the viola's unique characteristics. It's also very "meditative" (maybe "emotive" is a better word, actually) in tone, and doesn't seem quite right to accompany passing the plate.

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In Search of a Different Stamitz viola concerto in D

October 29, 2006 15:37

Okay, I think it's official: I'm getting unhealthily obsessed. In 1983, while I was a violin student in Berlin, Germany, I accompanied a viola soloist playing a Stamitz viola concerto in D major. I remember loving that piece. I was very impressed with the soloist, as well. I may be able to trace my current fascination with the viola back to this experience.

I'm looking for pieces to learn on viola and I think there'd be some good karma in learning that viola solo part. I'd close some loop, I'd give voice to some part of myself that hasn't been heard from in a long time.

So I had assumed, until recently, that it must have been just the famous Karl Stamitz viola concerto in D that everyone knows and that is required for auditions. But, I just listened to that one more carefully, and it's not it. It's also not either of the viola d'more concertos in D. And I'm sure it's in D. It starts with a half-note D chord, followed by an F# and A.

It might be by Anton Stamitz, not Karl; there is an extant concerto in D by him, published by Breitkopf and Hartel in the 1970's. But I can't find a recording of it, nor the sheet music.

Amazon, emusic, and google are not helping too much, so I need to be a little smarter. Or find someone who knows this concerto too.

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When am I finished?

October 28, 2006 05:00

While it's clearly too early for this in the case of any of the pieces I'm learning currently, I'm already thinking about defining criteria for when I'm finished with a piece.

The obvious answer is, you're never really finished. There's always room for improvement. It's the journey not the destination that's important.

I always used to keep this in mind when I was training, and I'm not sure it was helpful. I felt like all parts of "the journey" were equal and if you were always on "the journey" it didn't really matter where you were on it. It was too open-ended, too fuzzy and vague: like a long, boring car ride on the I-90 somewhere in the middle of upstate New York. It was demotivating.

So I think that at this point, while this is all theoretically true, I need a different approach on the ground. I need a milestone, a signpost, some kind of ritual to mark finishing a piece and moving on to the next. One criterion that comes to mind is, when I can play it from memory. I find that being able to play a piece from memory kicks in a whole new level of subconscious practicing modes. I can then work on the piece or passage in my head while my instrument isn't even there, while I'm doing something else altogether.

My impression is that "rote memorization" has fallen out of favor with many educators. I was never encouraged to learn to play a piece from memory while I was studying violin. Is playing from memory something people usually do these days? And if so, how?

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In praise of the practice planner

October 27, 2006 04:34

My daughter is still pretty happy about her lessons with me. But last night after listening to her play, I was feeling a bit discouraged. I was channeling a hypothetical music teacher, one who didn't know her and who would instantly see 101 things for her to fix the minute she put bow to string.

I've been keeping a written record of her lessons and practice sessions, the "Musician's Practice Planner," which was recommended to me by a friend. And I looked back at some of the entries in September when I started this project . . . and realized that my daughter has made real, measurable progress.

Her first finger used to be consistently low, but these days she is playing a decently in-tune A major and D-major scale. She goes up, she goes down, she doesn't miss any notes or get confused about the string crossings. She doesn't even complain about the scale as much as she used to: she just does it. The improved first finger in the scales has carried over into the other pieces. And her bow arm is really quite good, she has long arms and her bow is very straight and consistently in the right place. And, she is getting better about the "pancake" left wrist. She still flattens her wrist too much occasionally, but most of the time not, and she is getting better about noticing when she's doing it and correcting it without being nagged.

Now I've started making little movies of her with my digital camera. At this age she still loves to watch herself. We talk about the good stuff (her straight bow arm, her improved intonation) and the stuff that needs to be better (her string crossings, her overall tone) and I think she's starting to notice it.

It's been much more helpful than I even imagined to have this written (and now, I hope, visual) record of her progress. I sometimes kept records of the number of minutes I practiced when I was a kid, but never anything like this.

I also remember being confused about why my teachers did some of the things they did--for example, I had one teacher who tended to skip over the "slow movements" (sic) of concertos. He'd have me do the 1st and 3rd movements of Mozart and Bach, but never the 2nd. I still don't know why, and there's a lot I missed as a result. Or he would change the fingerings and bowings in the music and again, not say why. And I would just follow it. My daughter isn't in any danger of doing that. She always wants to know why we're doing everything. And we write it down.

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Clef switching--UGH!

October 24, 2006 04:28

As I'm scrubbing away at Wohlfahrt, it's coming back to me: problems with the clef switch. UGH.

One problem is that I remember all these etudes from when I learned them on the violin the first time. They're just transposed down a fifth, and the fingerings are the same. This is helping my fingers get stronger, but it's not helping me learn alto clef.

I can't just go cold turkey and ignore treble clef altogether: I sing soprano in a church choir and have to read that music. I am teaching my daughter violin and have to read treble clef for that too. And, I already taught myself bass clef when I taught myself piano . . . and I feel like that's enough clefs already! My brain is not able to handle it. Sometimes I have to admit I just stare at the page and it's like my mind shuts off and says "I give up." Is that an A? An F? No, it's just an open G.

It gets me back to wondering: what do other people say to themselves in the back of their minds when they read music? I still "say" some combination of violin fingerings, mostly first position violin fingerings. And those are overlaid, mentally, on top of a string "color"; not verbal exactly, but almost. Verbal combined with other senses. Like a drone of "G, G, G," combined with the proprioceptive feeling of playing on the G in the right hand (the pressure, the position, the feeling of pushing the bow across the string), underneath the 1,2,3 or whatever the fingers are.

So now I've made some progress developing a "C,C,C" mental underlay to think about when I'm playing on the C string, but I'm not there yet.

It's a lot like learning a second (or in this case, third) language. I was a decent sight-reader on violin, but I'm terrible on viola. My teacher said she made the switch very quickly when she first started. Within 10 days of picking up a viola for the first time, she was playing the viola part in a string quartet in front of an audience. But I'm still stopping, counting, and writing the fingers above the notes.

Would flash cards help me? Some other etudes that I don't remember from my violin days?

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Am I serious?

October 24, 2006 04:06

Last night at choir rehearsal I talked to my closest viola-playing friend. I thought she was a born and bred violist, but it turns out she's like me: a trained violinist who switched as an adult because she liked the sound of the viola better. I was trying to explore the idea of getting a lesson or two from her, because she teaches children/beginners, but she didn't seem to feel comfortable.

I had a teacher 7 years ago, whom I liked a lot, and who was also a violinist-turned-violist, playing both instruments professionally. But I have to face it: I'm feeling intimidated to call her back now, after so much time has passed. I'm ashamed that I had such a big gap, and that in all that time I didn't play viola once, and played violin barely at all. I had two children during that time, bought a house, and made a pretty major job switch, so it's not like I've been sitting around twiddling my thumbs . . . but I have all this lingering guilt from childhood about not practicing enough, and this feels like the mother of all bad lessons. Not only did I not practice enough this past week, but I didn't practice at all for 7 years.

So, I was hoping my friend might help me ease back into lessons and then I could go back to her or another teacher with a bit more courage and evidence that I'm "serious." Nope.

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Getting started

October 22, 2006 04:42

Recently I've started two very ambitious projects: homeschooling my 7-yo daughter on violin, and learning to play the viola. I like to write, and do a lot of writing for my paid job, and I like to read blogs. So, I thought, maybe blogging about these two projects would help me sustain interest over the long term and find support (or a reality check) from people engaged in similar pursuits.

Viola: I started listening to some orchestral excerpts while I was doing my workout this morning: Don Quixote, Hary Janos, Ginastera Concert Variations. I was pretty lukewarm about the first, but the last blew me away. Not that I think I could play it now, but it was amazing. Then my iPod battery died. It's less than 2 years old and the battery life sucks.

Homeschooling: I've started letting (well, making) my daughter practice without me a couple nights a week. It's out of necessity and lack of time. I think she's doing okay by herself, but she's been whining about it. She's now as old as I was when I started violin. It was such a different world then, though. My parents never would have considered having anything to do with my practice sessions. And it took me so long to get any clue at all about how to practice and be efficient with my practice time. I still struggle with that, actually. But I think giving my daughter a little space and independence is a good thing for both of us, relationship-wise, if not music-wise.

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