March 2007

Upgrading the hardware

March 22, 2007 14:25

I took my violin to a luthier this afternoon. The violin is the one in my picture over there accompanying this blog. I've been playing it, off and on, for more than 25 years. The luthier said that it needed a new nut because the grooves from the strings were too deep and it was keeping them from vibrating, that the bridge was warped and needed replacing, and the soundpost was leaning. Yikes. I also got new strings.

Then he said that fixing all of those things would help, but even then I shouldn't expect too much from this instrument. It's a "factory instrument." I "can't make a silk purse from a sow's ear." Sigh. I kind of expected that, but was hoping that new strings and a good luthier could help stave off the inevitable trade-in that is looming in my future if I want to be any kind of serious violinist. Well, we'll see. Maybe he was just trying to make sure that my expectations are realistic.

At least my impressions are confirmed. My ear isn't faulty. I can actually tell a good instrument from a mediocre one, something that I had been insecure about. Now my "new instrument" list officially has two items on it, a viola AND a violin.

Then I exchanged my 16" rental viola for a 15.5". First I tried 3 15" violas, played the Bach Courante on all of them, and didn't like any of them. They felt better--smaller, lighter--but they sounded hollow like my violin.

The 15.5" I ended up choosing sounds pretty good, I think, but it's ugly. It has two obvious blemishes on the top and the color is really boring and bland. I don't think there's any way I'd buy it, unless its sound really grows on me, or I get a really good price. But my point with this instrument is really just to see if a 15.5" feels better than a 16" and keeps the tension out of my neck and back, and if switching back and forth between a violin and a 15.5" viola is a little less jarring than a 16" viola.

If 15" violas all sound like those 3 I tried, I'm not interested. But maybe they don't. Maybe there is the rare rich 15" viola. I've heard Barbara Barber has one.

And maybe I can rent (or borrow) a nice violin for the Bach double. :-P

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Back to violin again--sort of

March 21, 2007 07:24

So, the Bach double. The music director wants us to play it in May. Cool! But the Bach double is for 2 violins, not 2 violas . . . so I took out the little toy with the bouncy bow again last night.

Wow. That's what it felt like, a little toy with a bouncy bow. Sounded a little like that too, unfortunately.

Somewhere, sometime in the past 3 months without my really realizing it, I became a violist. When I first started playing the viola, I felt like an impostor: I couldn't sight-read worth squat, the clef was weird, the instrument was heavy and produced tension in my neck. But it's feeling much more natural now. And my playing sounds *so* much better on viola I just can't even describe it here. I've gone over to the dark side.

Can one play the Bach double on the viola, down a 5th? How would it sound? My friend is a violist too, so we could do it. We should just give it a try and see what we think.

Also, what are the best D and G strings for a rich, dark sound on the violin? I am not going to be able to afford a real violin hardware upgrade for several years, and it may not be possible to play everything I want on the viola, so since I have to make do with this one for a while, how can I maximize it?

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Something's wrong when Wohlfahrt is the highlight of your day

March 19, 2007 19:22

Last week my boss asked me to check out some project management software. Since my job title includes the term project manager, I thought this was appropriate. But then I had a hard time getting my mind around the software. I've never been very good at thinking in milestones and deadlines and breaking larger tasks down into small, manageable bites. I hope it is something that I could get better at with practice, if I knew how to practice.

The truth is that I've been feeling pretty overwhelmed at work for the past several months. I've been in this job about a year and a half, and recently the workload seems to have accelerated and isn't letting up. I enjoy all the pieces of my job: my coworkers are nice, everyone is smart and there's a lot of positive energy at the Institute, the research we do on neurodegenerative disease mechanisms and therapies is not only interesting but meaningful and something that I can feel good about when I go home at night.

So why am I still feeling so exhausted and burnt out and like the best part of my day, by far, is the 30 minutes of viola practice I do in the morning? This morning I felt like I wanted to take a break from the pieces I had just performed so I spent the whole time on Wohlfahrt etudes. I want to finish viola Book 1 by June. I'm on #16. They're pretty easy, when I get going I can just motor through them. But then it's really time to pack it in and start the day, and I'm like, oh, why don't I just play another one? Oh, yeah, just another Wohlfahrt etude, please. Something's wrong when Wohlfahrt etudes are such a big treat, isn't it?

It might be the feeling of confidence and mastery that's so appealing about Wohlfahrt. Since I can do the etudes, they're fun. Whereas when I go to work I'm facing another day of confusion and vagueness and not really being sure if what I did was right or not.

Which brings me back to the project management software. Even my boss, who is a very creative, brilliant, high-energy person, said she was feeling overwhelmed by what's going on in the lab right now. Can project management software be like a practice log? A way to get the neverending swirling to-do list out of your mind and get you to focus?


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Iron a gi and wear Darth Vader gloves

March 19, 2007 03:36

Of course my daughter's karate dojo scheduled her for a belt test yesterday. And she needed a clean, pressed white gi (uniform). But what does she do when she takes off her gi after practice: wad it up and shove it in a drawer!

Nothing like spending the time you thought you were going to be spending warming up your viola ironing a gi.

I finally get to the church, 5 minutes late, and the pianist says "I was about to call you!" I go through the Bach, we go through the Vierne. It sounds pretty good. The first time through I mess up some intonation at the end of the Prelude. Ugh. Cold hands are a curse. I do it again. It's better. I do the Courante and it's really good. The room is starting to warm up. I put on my new leather gloves while I wait.

During "greet your neighbor," I shake hands with the minister because I'm sitting on stage. I apologize for the Darth Vader gloves. "Don't worry, you don't look anything like Darth Vader!" the pianist says. But I don't care if I do, my hands are warm. The offertory (the Courante) goes by pretty fast and I don't do the second repeat. And the Vierne, the meditation, is among the best I've ever played it. The shifts are in tune, the sustained notes have substance. The pianist and I make phrases together.

And I find I can think. My brain has a long history of going AWOL, of just checking out, during performances. I would hear the first notes and it would disappear in a haze of anxiety and my cold hands would be left to fend for themselves. Not this time.

Several people after the performance asked if the Bach was "hard." It's not a student piece but I wouldn't say it's hard. A kid asked me how long I'd been playing the viola, he'd been playing a year. That's hard to say. Nine months 7 years ago, plus the last 6 months. Plus 34 years of on-and-off violin (but more off than on). How meaningful is any of that? That warped time sense again--time is either now or not now.

My friend who is a professional violinist and violist was very complimentary. It means a lot coming from her. She suggested we perform the Bach double together at some point.

Getting home, facing the week at work, I'm now feeling a real let-down. I want to perform again. I want to play the Bach double, which I haven't played since 1979. It's addictive, and it's highly motivating. I wish performing had been like this for me when I was a student instead of the harrowing ordeal it always turned out to be. Even little things, like playing for family or in church or for friends, were exercises in misery and stress. While auditions and sectionals were the stuff of weeks of dread.

I find myself musing about brain development. Am I just discovering the pleasures of performing at my advanced age because of maturity? Or is it something else, such as successful ADD treatment? Or motherhood? Why is it so backwards? Aren't kids and teenagers supposed to be the ones with that youthful confidence and feeling of invincibility (something I never, ever understood or felt at that age)? Not that that's what I feel now, exactly, either. I still have insecurities and doubts and I know there's plenty about my playing that can be improved. But they're manageable, they don't dominate my thinking or render me a basket case. I just feel more "normal" somehow, like I've gotten a huge monkey off my back.

I got home to find out my daughter passed her test. She's now an orange belt.

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This will be fun

March 17, 2007 15:28

I finally got a chance to rehearse with the music director, who also happens to be the pianist on the Vierne Legende that I'm playing tomorrow. It was great! It was like having a free lesson. Like me, she had never heard the piece before but she had a number of good ideas for interpretation.

She even understood why I don't have time for lessons right now. And agreed that I shouldn't buy this viola I'm renting unless I'm really in love with it. I'm not. I like it, it's better than my violin. But I'm not ready to marry it. Still dating. Maybe I'll trade it in for an older model.

It made me realize again what a good teacher could do for me. I think I'm doing reasonably well on my own, but there were a couple of new bowings that I decided to put in to help the phrasing based on her comments, and in retrospect I'm sure a teacher would have caught that right away--not the day before the performance.

On the other hand, I think we both enjoyed the rehearsal. I felt like she took me seriously and although she has more experience, we were able to discuss musical interpretation issues as peers. We were both energized and could have gone on playing much longer, except it was time for lunch and time for me to get back to the kiddos.

I love amateur music. I'm so glad I kept up playing and still have this as part of my life.

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Pre-performance Anxiety

March 15, 2007 15:39


Daylight Savings Time did screw me up a little bit. It is indeed harder to get my sorry butt out of bed in the dark.

But that shouldn't be an excuse. In the last week before my performance I am not that motivated to practice. I kind of run through the pieces to make sure they haven't gotten any worse since yesterday, and work on some shifts and rough spots that have given me trouble in the past, but basically I'm kind of scared to take anything apart and break it down, or try anything new (like a new fingering, for example) in case I can't put it back together in time.

How do you practice a piece in the days before a performance? What do you think about to keep from getting distracted? What are useful goals that can be realistically accomplished in 2-3 days?

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Bach cello suite #1 on viola

March 12, 2007 04:20

It snuck up on me, but my performance in church is less than a week away. I'm playing two movements from the Bach cello suite #1 on viola, the Prelude and the Courante, and the Louis Vierne Legende.

I feel reasonably well prepared. I can play the Courante easily from memory and the Legende almost from memory. That one is harder because I haven't played it with the pianist yet and I was never able to find a recording. I did record myself, though, and found and fixed a few intonation and shifting problems that are much better now.

The Prelude was a more recent addition. I'm playing it for the prelude to the service. People are going to be talking and filing in, and it's only around 2 minutes long. The very last line, the end, is still a little shaky. Some of it, right before the end, is a bit like the Preludio from Partita in E on violin, which I've auditioned on successfully, and that part I do pretty well here . . . but then I get to the last few measures, the climax, with the string crossings and the intonation can go out without my really understanding why. Some of what Corwin Slack wrote about shifting from a finger seems to help, as well as just keeping the left hand quiet and in position without unnecessary movements. First I just lift one finger, then I roll my fingers rather than lifting and repositioning. That seems good, when it works, but it doesn't always work. And I'm a little at sea with respect to "shifting to a position." Except for easy, low positions (i.e. 1-3), I generally have to stop and think about (and therefore get distracted by) what position I'm in. Is this 4th or 6th? Usually by the time I've figured that out the notes I was supposed to be playing are long gone. And I don't find that information all that useful anyway--I'm in 4th position now, then I'm in 5th for those 2 notes and then I'm in 6th and now back to 2nd--how does that help?

Anyway, I'm trying not to think too much about the performance itself because I'll get nervous, and nerves don't focus me, they just make me feel stressed out and ineffective. The goal-setting aspect of this performance has been great: I'm thrilled that I can play a lot of this stuff from memory and that I've learned two movements of this suite. Having and working towards a goal has given me a real sense of progress and accomplishment. But the emotional aspect of an impending performance is something I'd still rather forego if I could.

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Morning Practice

March 5, 2007 05:39

I started practicing in the morning today instead of the evening. It's kind of nice, I'd like to continue. My vibrato is looser and my mind feels clearer than in the evening. I like watching the early morning sun as I play.

I used to practice right after I got up in high school and then was nicely warmed up for orchestra rehearsal, which was the first class of the day.

Unfortunately Daylight Savings Time is coming up soon and that may screw this up again for a while. I don't think I'm going to be able to drag my sorry butt out of bed to practice in the dark.

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