November 2007

Quiet Left Hand

November 28, 2007 05:44

One reason I started and maintain this blog was to be able to look back and see where I had been and where I was going with music. Life this time of year gets really nutty with holiday preparations; all of the sudden you turn around and it's January.

So I looked back at my November 2006 entries . . . I'm playing "Greensleeves" in church again, maybe it's the start of a tradition? But I'm not singing in the choir. I took a break from choir this year in order not to get too overwhelmed. Greensleeves is earlier in the month, the performance is this Sunday, two days before my birthday, and it is going to be accompanied by Largo from Winter for the prelude and Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring for the musical meditation. I feel pretty good about all 3 pieces.

The Vivaldi in particular benefitted from a teacher's input. I'd decided against playing it at the Farmers' Market last summer because the intonation sounded generally "shaky" and "iffy" and I couldn't seem to fix it. There were too many flats, and I couldn't check them easily against open strings and hear clearly what needed to be done.

It turned out there were just a few notes and shifts and string crossings that needed grounding in order to make a big difference in the intonation of the piece as a whole. In particular, moving a finger across strings from the A to E or vice-versa in a perfect fifth was something that I was doing in a weird way. I was always trying to cover both strings together with the same finger and then rock my hand to the string where I was playing. My teacher noted that the exaggerated rocking of the left hand would make the notes out of tune. She suggested actually moving the finger from one string to another without major changes to the overall hand position, and that has turned out to be much more consistent.

And not letting Nellie the thumb fidget so much, especially when going from "second and a half" position with first finger on an A-flat or D-flat to third position, with first finger on a D-natural on the A string. I can cover both positions without moving the thumb at all, and it gives me a better kinesthetic sense of where I am on the instrument, helps me visualize in my mind's eye where to put the fingers.

Eliminating unnecessary movements, keeping the left hand quiet, have a lot of unexpected benefits.

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Violin this time, not viola

November 20, 2007 05:53

Thanks to everyone who responded to my last blog about my first lesson. It's delightful, like having several teachers and not just one. I had another lesson yesterday, almost as long.

My friend with whom I was going to play the Bach Double in church has Lyme Disease and her hands have swollen up. She hasn't formally said she can't play, but the music director thinks that she and I need to make other plans. So, after panicking briefly, I suggested that I play Vivaldi's Largo from Winter and a violin solo arrangement of Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring, along with the previously planned Fantasia on Greensleeves. My teacher thought these were both good choices, and she found the perfect Bach arrangement for me. I played an orchestral arrangement of it in high school where the 2nd violins had the triplets, and I've sung the chorale, and this arrangement has the triplets alternating with the chorale, so here I get both! :)

I started out the lesson by telling her that I'd asked for a violin/viola double case for Christmas. I don't know why I hadn't thought of that before (duh! rocks!). She thought we'd be able to work on both instruments in the future. She brought me some Fiorillo viola etudes instead of Schradieck or Sitt. She said she'd run into my former teacher while shopping for music at Johnson and they'd talked about me and etudes and come up with the Fiorillo. Some of them look scary! But she said to start with #9-11, which have the shifting and playing in higher positions that I'm looking for without the scary double stops--those can be for later.

Then, as warm-up for the Vivaldi, I played an E-flat major scale. E-flat is apparently an especially hard note for me to hear. And my left thumb (the old car door injury--or "Crazy Aunt Nellie," as Anne would call her) was giving me her usual problems when shifting to the second octave. I got some of the most useful advice I've had so far about my thumb: don't just let go and take it off the neck. I hadn't even realized I was doing that. What I thought I was doing was adjusting the thumb so that I could feel the neck. My thumb injury is such that I have a surgical scar in the middle of the back of the tip, on the pad, where the innervation is a bit odd and the feeling is not quite normal. But at the very tip, or down by the first knuckle, the innervation is normal and fine, so I often end up moving/adjusting my thumb a few mm this way or that so that one of those good parts of the thumb, rather than the weird part, is in contact with the neck. This makes Nellie "fidgety" as well. My teacher understood why I wanted to do this, but she said that if I needed to adjust, I should do it after I've shifted and found the note, rather than while I'm shifting or between notes. I tried that and I think it's going to help. Just thinking and being aware of the purpose of those fidgety thumb movements should help me control them better and keep them from getting in the way of intonation.

I also asked my teacher about bow Sound Points, as covered in Fisher's _Basics_ and _Practice_. She isn't aware of the system and seems to integrate the same concepts by listening. That seems to work for her, but for me it seems to put too much pressure on my ear. I'm all for training and improving my ear, but I'm also thinking that I need other ways than listening to become aware of all the different issues I need to work on. I was also really struck by Drew's different names for types of bowings in his last comment: Spiccato lirico, Detache Porte, Detache Pulse. I'm sure there are more. They remind me of classifications of birds, or of neurons, or of barnacles or something--a real old-time natural historian's type of classification system. The kind of thing I was never particularly good at in school and was told, as was the pedagogical fashion at the time, that I "didn't have to learn" because it was "just" rote memorization. Like the sound points, and the kinds of neurons, I just learned it by listening (or looking). I don't know any names of bowings.

But now maybe I'm ready for more of that. Knowing about the 5 soundpoints, the different classifications of bowing, gives me a framework to think about these issues until my ear catches up.

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A long blog about a long lesson

November 12, 2007 19:23

It's been a long time. What with first going to a scientific meeting for work with 31,000+ other neuroscientists and then to my parents' to visit a retirement community they're interested in, I've had a lot on my mind. Fortunately I remembered to go to my viola lesson this afternoon.

It was going to be a violin and viola lesson, but last night when I was practicing, for the first time in nearly 2 weeks, I realized that there was no way I was going to schlep two instruments with me on the T, through Harvard Square, and back, and also that I just didn't want to overwhelm my poor teacher with too much all at once.

I may have done so anyway. I just brought the viola, and lots of viola music. The lesson lasted nearly an hour and a half and could have been longer. I felt like I had so much to say: I showed her what I had been studying with her friend, my former teacher. I said I had done all of Wohlfahrt I and was doing Wohlfahrt II but maybe I could make better use of something in the higher positions. I asked about Schradieck. She thought that could be good, that or Sitt. She said she would look and bring something in next week that she thought would be good for me. I showed her the Carl Fleisch scales and we talked about practicing them. I showed her my thumb. We also talked about the "Jaws" phenomenon of clamping the instrument too much with the chin and shoulder and interestingly she had struggled with the same problem when she was a conservatory student, only worse. While I have had head, neck, and backaches from too much clamping, and a tense left arm and wrist, she had all of those *plus* a tight thumb. She came to a solution quite similar to what has been discussed here on in some of the shoulder "restless" discussions--that is, balance the instrument on your collar bone and left hand--but kept the shoulder rest. She even uses a Kun rest, which is the same one I came up with when I was first working on my similar issues 10-12 years ago. Interestingly, she came to her solution inspired by playing the Baroque viola.

It took a while before I finally played something. I decided to pick the Bouree from the 3rd Bach cello suite, rather than anything from the 1st suite. I had this mistaken impression that it was maybe "easier," and that I wouldn't screw it up as badly when nervous. I was surprisingly, and disappointingly, nervous. More nervous than in church, and more nervous than at the Farmers' Market. I also had not warmed up but had instead come directly from work and it showed.

She managed to get a lot out of a little, which I think must be a good sign. I had half-planned to play several pieces to give her some kind of broad overview of my strengths and weaknesses as a player, but she only heard me play the Bouree in the whole hour and a half. And all of her comments were right on target: even with that little bit, she seemed to understand what could help and to get to the point and make concrete suggestions. She said it was a little "breathless," which it was because of the nerves (I refrained from dragging out Anne's first cliche: "it sounded better at home!") She had me count first aloud and then internally 1 and 2 to feel the beat before I started playing, so it didn't take me the first couple of measures to find my tempo and settle in. She also had some different ideas about phrasing that I had never considered before: which notes to emphasize, which were the high point of the phrases. After she played the same passage I had just played, I heard it in a different way, and I was suddenly able to see that I was accenting the second beat of the measure, sometimes for no good reason.

But at one point, due to no fault of hers, I started to go into the Twilight Zone. I recognized this Twilight Zone from my teenage violin years. It's dangerous. It seems to be triggered by my just not getting a metaphor or explanation. I was once triggered by being told my playing was "too square" and it needed to be "rounder." I hadn't know what that meant, hadn't been able to make my playing sufficiently round, and had gotten discouraged and alienated. Her comment about my accenting the second beat in every measure brought that idea back up. It occurred to me that this is what the former teacher might have meant by my playing being "too square." All the beats were corners, sticking out of the phrases where they didn't belong, and my playing had too many of those.

I hadn't quite finished processing that idea when she started talking about "clarity" and "finding the sound." There were several notes that she claimed were out of tune that I had not noticed. She wanted me to repeat certain phrases until I "found the clarity." And again, I really didn't know what she was talking about. So I kept repeating the phrase and not really knowing what goal I was working towards. I didn't know when I would know I had found the clarity and when I could stop. That was the Twilight Zone. I then realized that the Bouree was one piece I had not gone through carefully and slowly for intonation, playing individual notes against open strings and isolating intervals, the way I had with the Courante and Prelude from the 1st Cello Suite. Hmm. So she picked up on that too . . . she picks up on a lot, all right.

I'm pretty detail-oriented in a visual sense. I regularly find typos and the like in printed material that others miss. But with auditory input, I don't seem to have that same ability. I talked about just not hearing it. "You said it was out of tune, but I just didn't notice. I thought it was fine. You said the E-flat in that measure had to be lower and I didn't hear a difference between the right and the wrong E-flat." My father is, by his own admission, tone-deaf. I'm not sure that's true, but it might be (I've heard him sing). I'm not tone-deaf, I know that. I don't have "perfect pitch," but I can hear and identify intervals when they're played slowly. My intonation isn't that bad overall. People don't cringe and laugh when I play a scale or something like that. But I still wonder, at times, if I'm missing something. Other people hear things that I don't. I still don't understand why that is, or really, how to address it.

We also talked about what dots over the notes mean in Bach. Her feeling is that they do not mean that the bow should bounce. When she plays and I listen, I agree with that. But still, when I'm playing, I just like bouncing the bow sometimes. It's fun. I try out different phrases, sometimes with bouncing sometimes without. I like the variation. But honestly, what I like most about it is a tactile feeling, not an auditory one.

I've got a tension here between big picture and details: some might say that it's the famous adult student "impatience" rearing its ugly head, but I disagree with that interpretation. It's more that I want to operate on general rules and first principles. Having to think about and remember too many details makes my eyes glaze over and my mind go blank. I can't be consciously thinking about 5 different things at once (remembering to breathe, deciding whether or not to bounce the bow, making sure I am not clamping down with my jaw, preparing for the shift in the next measure, reading alto clef, AND listening for very fine nuances in pitch--all with a mental background of worrying about my parents' retirement). Some of those things have to become automatic/unconscious at some point or I'm lost.

My teacher was able to talk me through and out of the Twilight Zone. She said my ear was fine, or at least it could be trained to hear these kinds of differences. She was encouraging, too, she said I knew my way around the instrument, and at one point she even said "that was great!" My husband said, in the car on the way home, that it was good she was so detail-oriented, because he thought I was pretty well in control of the big picture myself already. So that's food for thought too. It will be nice to have someone who complements me and hears things that I don't.

I feel like something Jennifer wrote in her blog a few months ago: whew, that was a lot of good, pointless rambling. But I think it will be interesting to look back on a year from now to see what my approach to intonation is by then.

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