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Karen Allendoerfer

A long blog about a long lesson

November 13, 2007 at 2:23 AM

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.

From Drew Lecher
Posted on November 13, 2007 at 5:14 AM

Very interesting and honest blog.

You mentioned: “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.”

It is often easier for the listener to hear things more then the player. That is one of the jobs of the teacher — to awaken and make your hearing far keener.

On the right track with open stings and double-stops when changing strings, you are obviously with a good teacher and she has every confidence that your ear will catch up. This does happen for all of us — fine-tuning begets fine-tuning. To help hearing the E-flat, and all flats, it helps to alternate with the natural directly below — D in this case.
Conversely use the natural above to help with sharps. Sharps lead up and flats lead down.

One other aside regarding the dots in Bach — to the best of my knowledge he never used them. It is up to the player to determine the bow stoke style. Tend toward lyric dance-like pulses in the suites and, if doing a Spiccato, use the Spiccato Lirico. It is more elegant being done more on the side of the hair. It alternates beautifully with the Détaché Porté and the Détaché Pulsé.

The dots are really just the editor saying that the notes should have some distinction. You may want to invest in a really good urtext edition and/or one with facsimiles of the original manuscript — they are actually in Bach’s wife’s handwriting.

Spiccato lirico/Lyric Spiccato – Consists of a brushed and broadened lengthening of the bow-hair contact with the string, tilting toward the fingerboard to the side of the hair, thereby achieved with greater horizontal action and less vertical height. (Lower in the bow.)

Détaché Porté – No initial accent due to a slight swell or sneaking into the note at the beginning of the stroke followed by a lightening and relaxing of the tone to the end of the stroke.

Détaché Pulsé/Pulsed Détaché – Begin the stroke with additional weight and speed of bow followed by a release, retaining fluidity of motion and never stopping the bow. In certain instances the bow may minimally leave the string at the end of the stroke – make sure the return landing is of utmost elegance and refinement appropriate to the passage.

I hope I am not intruding and glad that “Jaws” might have helped a bit:-)

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on November 13, 2007 at 5:42 AM
I think that you have found a very good teacher for you. Even when you were nervous and in the Twilight Zone, she could talk you out of it. She showed you which of a few million details to focus on. Best of all, she praised you and let you know that she believes that you have the ability to make the necessary changes. Now you just need to relax and trust in her. Then you can accomplish great things.
From Emily Grossman
Posted on November 13, 2007 at 8:07 AM
I love the blog, love the comment by Drew. It's nice to be able to put on the glasses of the student from time to time to see their perspective. I learn so much. Thank you!
From Anne Horvath
Posted on November 13, 2007 at 12:36 PM
Listening skills get better with practice and experience. Just stay away from headphones! It is good to hear that you have a teacher that you like, and can work with. Please don't be too shy to speak up if your teacher tells you something that puts you in The Twilight Zone.

Speaking of, I am having a really hard time imagining what 31,000 neuroscientists
look like! That's a lot of IQ...

Also, since you refrained from blurting out "It was better at home!", I hope you managed to squeeze in a "Sorry" or two (insert smiley face here).

From Mendy Smith
Posted on November 13, 2007 at 1:38 PM
Oh how well I can relate to jumping from technical work mode to music mode and suffering for it during lessons. I have found that starting lessons with a simple scale in the key of the piece I'm about to play helps ALOT!

Sounds like you are going to have alot of fun in lessons. I look forward to comparing Bach Suites for viola notes with you!


From Bernardo B
Posted on November 13, 2007 at 4:38 PM
Very interesting blog. Keep us posted of your progress with the new teacher.
On a very practical standpoint, why don't you get a violin/viola double case so you can bring both instruments to your lesson?
From Yixi Zhang
Posted on November 13, 2007 at 11:16 PM

I share a lot similar experience with you, especially during the first a few lessons. Especially with the issue of intonation, even though I constantly checked with open strings and double stops, there are always chances for me to miss one or two in a piece. And it’s so easy for us to doubt our hearing when we don’t hear what others hear. I guess using a mirror is necessary and tape recording might help as well, but some of the stuff is a bit like the blind spots that is just very hard to recognise without being pointed out by our teachers. And with care and diligence, we will get better at avoiding them later on.

I also share with you the feeling of not getting something said during the lessons immediately. I find telling the teacher immediately that I didn’t get it and trying a few different ways to verify really save a lot of time and trouble. I used to take written notes but not any more. Have you thought about video taping your lessons?

Finally, no warm up before lesson is a given in most cases for me. I’m getting used to this now. One trick might help is when you warm up at home, pretend you are doing this under the eyes of your teacher. I do this in general when I’m practice so I don’t surprise myself too much during lessons when things do not turn out well.

From Roy Sonne
Posted on November 14, 2007 at 2:14 AM
Hello Karen,
I, in turn, want to thank you for your wonderful retelling of the details of your lesson and of your emotional reactions. This is immensely valuable to me as a teacher, helping me to understand the student's perspective better.
I think you have found a wonderful teacher who not only knows how to play the violin, but is sensitive, imaginative, and deals with a broad range of technical and musical issues even in the first lesson.

Many of the issues you are talking about are long term, lifetime issues. Even intonation. Keep at it. Your hearing and your mental image of what great intonation sounds like, and what it feels like in your fingers, will continue to evolve.
Likewise your concept of phrasing and of Baroque style. It's great that you like to experiment. Keep it up. And keep listening to a lot of Bach and other composers who are stylistically close to him. You might get some valuable ideas about bowing style, for example, by listening (watching a video would be even better) to a great performance of Handel's Messiah. In fact that might even show you how very appropriate it is to use a lot of spiccato in music of the German Baroque. Also listen to recordings of the great keyboardists such as Wanda Landowska, Igor Kipnis, and Glenn Gould.

I'm not quite sure what your teacher means by "find the clarity" but I often ask my students to play a phrase over and over again to "find the tone." I am hoping that they will find the ideal mix of ingredients (bow speed, pressure, sounding point, width and speed of vibrato) to make that particular phrase come to life. This is exactly what I do in my own practice.

Thank you again for your generosity and trust in sharing your thoughts with us.


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