January 2008

Return to Saturday Music

January 26, 2008 09:56

I checked back in my blog archive for the last time I took my daughter to Saturday music. It was in October. The title of that blog was, aptly, "Still Not Working." My daughter really didn't want to go back to the program again after a couple of traumatic experiences with crying and everything. Mindful of her sensitive nature and some of the insightful comments that people made on that blog entry--that I didn't want to traumatize her and turn her off music, I decided not to force the issue. I left it open, left it her choice.

Last night, somewhat out of the blue, she said she wanted to go back today, so we went. It has improved. Somewhat. In particular, the small group lesson is better--the most disruptive kid has moved on, up, or out, and the teacher, who is the regular teacher for this group, is a little older than high school age, warm and friendly, and seems to have appropriate classroom management skills.

Most of the other kids who struggled at the beginning seem to have weathered the struggle a bit better than my daughter. The two others that were crying like my daughter are still there and were there the whole time. They didn't take getting lost and all that personally and just got over it and stayed. A few other parents stay for the big group orchestra rehearsal, but not many, and none seem to stay for the small group lessons, except me.

I asked the teacher if it was okay if I stayed and she said sure. During the lesson it became apparent that I could be helpful with tasks like tuning or reattaching chin rests (one girl's chin rest fell off and went flying while she was swinging her violin inappropriately back and forth). A great deal of time is still spent on those things and the other kids get bored and antsy--but if the instruments aren't in tune, the kids notice that too and how dreadful it sounds with all those out of tune instruments. So I mentioned my desire to help to the teacher and she again said sure.

I also have to remember to bring a snack, maybe not just for my daughter, who gets hungry and gets low-blood-sugar cranky if she doesn't eat.

I feel more hopeful about this than I have so far this year. But I have definitely asked myself more than once if it is worth it. My daughter is probably not a violin genius. She's talking about wanting to learn a wind instrument next year and that might be a better fit. She likes the idea of playing several instruments, and I know some people do this (there is a violist in my orchestra who also plays bassoon, for example). I'm trying to follow her lead and hope not to get sucked in too much to the temptation to specialize and pre-professionalize too early.

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Letting go

January 24, 2008 05:45

I've been thinking about "letting go." Most modern uses of the term are meant to be positive: letting go of grief, of "baggage" of various sorts, of anger, of perfectionism, and of "yourself," whatever that really means.

But when I "let go" it often doesn't work.

Even though I'm supposed to be taking viola lessons, I went to my teacher (who plays both instruments) this week with the violin for help with the William Tell and Copland.

Although I have a pretty good handle on the fingerings and left hand for the fast 16th notes, I am using too much bow. That became glaringly apparent after only a measure or two. I thought had been using only a little bit already. No. "Think about an eighth of an inch." Hmm. It already sounds less frantic and out of control. A little more work on placing the string crossings carefully and it's cleaner, too. That's all fine for the pianissimo, but look, there's that big crescendo, followed by a big ff. "Yes, you can play louder and use more bow, but you don't have to carry the fortissimo there. You can let the brass really carry it."

This is true. Again, it sounds much better when I'm not trying to get as much volume as I can out of my somewhat muffled instrument.

But there are a few times in this piece, and in others, where it seems like it just calls for you, the player, to go all out. To "let go." To play fast and furious and fortissimo. To, for a while, just let your guard down and play. Without thinking about an eighth of an inch of bow and about the brass and on and on.

Sometimes, when I'm alone by myself, channeling the past, it can feel like those places get smaller and smaller until there are none left. There's always something to be "careful" about, to be tripped up, to be self-conscious about, to engage the left brain, to take up rather than to let go.

My teacher now is really nice, and encouraging. I realize that one reason this is so, is that she is very skilled at finding the nugget of good, the grain of promise, in what I did on my own during the week. Even if my playing in the lesson is not really where it could be yet (and it never is), she helps me feel that my effort, and my joy, and my letting go, weren't wasted. That's why I look forward to lessons every week.

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Sitting up front

January 17, 2008 05:44

The first week of rehearsal, I didn't have a stand partner at all. The second week, a nice woman from the 2nd violins said she wanted to try 1st, and she sat with me. It was nice to have someone to sit with, but this week she decided the music was too challenging and so went back to the 2nds.

Then, it turned out that the person who normally sits 1st chair, inside, was out sick and the concertmaster invited me to sit with her.

I was nervous (again!), but at least I didn't embarrass myself. I was reminded of how much I dislike sitting in the back of the firsts. I could see and hear so much better up there. We worked the William Tell, and after "the spot," the concertmaster turned to me and said "wow, you've been practicing!" which is true--despite having played this part 12 years ago, it didn't all just magically come back. After woodshedding it for a couple of weeks, it's getting there.

Unfortunately my lesson where I was going to work on the 8va in the Copland Outdoor Overture with my teacher was cancelled on Monday because of snow. On the other hand, I think I can say now that learning to play the viola has helped me with the violin in unexpected ways. After learning viola clef I really am less afraid of 8va now. I've started to be able to visualize and think about finger patterns and match them with notes no matter what string I'm on or where I am on the fingerboard. It's not like I always play in tune up there now or anything--I still have to work on it, of course--but my ground thinking about it has changed. I don't freak out anymore; those notes up there are starting to become, if not friends, at least passing acquaintances who I would consider inviting for dinner.

I wanted to play this Rossini part because it was so much fun 12 years ago. It still is, mostly. But I seem to be getting kind of wound up after the rehearsals. Back when I played it before, I was in the front of the firsts and I remember sometimes there was a lot of adrenaline then too. The conductor may have to make large gestures and speak loudly, just to be heard and understood in the brass section, and he's right there in your face. And people are watching your bowings. The concertmaster and I discussed several, and a few times she asked me for my opinion.

I'm happy to go back to the back of the section next week when the rightful owner of that seat returns, but I think this experience whetted my appetite for trying to get back to the front.

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Listening and Leaping

January 7, 2008 14:42

I had 3 weeks off from lessons over the holidays, and even though I haven't been taking lessons very long since picking up an instrument again, I really missed them.

I am now done with Fiorillo #9, which was a good learning experience. As Etudes go, Fiorillo's are pretty interesting: shifting, arpeggios, and for the viola, lots of clef-switching. All of which I needed, and still need to do more of.

But then there is the leaping. On the viola there is a passage in this etude with a leap from an open C (the lowest note playable on a viola) to a high C three octaves above it on the A string. It is like an open G to the G three octaves higher on the E, on the violin. On either instrument, I'm not very good at that kind of leap.

I often miss the High C. When I do, I know it's wrong, and I know by approximately how much and in what direction, and I can fix it after the fact. But I don't seem to get any better at hitting it on the first try no matter how many times I repeat it in practice. In fact, sometimes, during practice, it would seem like I was just learning it wrong, so I would stop and go on to something else, rather than keep repeating the same mistake over and over.

My teacher asked me to play the open C and then try to "hear in my head" the C three octaves above. She said it might take a while to hear it. Then, once I heard it, I should try to play it with one shift.

I tried this a few times but felt like I was missing something. I did not hit the C very well. I was almost always flat. I would recognize that I was flat and try to go higher the next time and then I would be sharp. I thought I could hear a C in my head, but my fingers weren't getting the message.

I asked if I could start from 3rd position rather than 1st (where my left hand has to be to play the notes right before the open C). She thought that was a good idea: move to 3rd position while playing the open C, then shift with the 3rd finger to the A in 5th position, practice that shift for a while, and then extend the 4th finger to the C. That worked better. I kind of know where that A is. I can find it with my 4th finger quite easily and play the harmonic, and it's not much harder to find it with the 3rd finger. And I can both picture and hear the C in relation to the A, even as a 4th finger extension.

There is an old discussion thread about a similar issue: Practicing 6th position. In fact, the topic of this thread is pretty much exactly what I'm trying to do here. This C that I can't hit is in 6th position, or it's an extension from 5th position, depending on how you conceptualize and play it. I'm even using the octave harmonic as a guidepost, as one of the posters there suggested.

But I admit I'm still kind of wishing for a tape, even though everyone on the thread (and there are some pretty heavy hitters on the thread) is really negative about tapes for this type of playing. Buri wrote that "the violin is played by having a mental conception of the note before going there and then using your ear." This clearly makes intuitive sense to a great many people. I'm not arguing, but unfortunately I'm not one of those people. How are the mental conception of the note and what you're hearing in your ear supposed to be related? How is the connection made between the ear and the fingers? Is it unconscious, just something that you take on faith will happen over time with enough repetitions?

Well . . . at least I'm making some progress with Clarke, and the rest of Fiorillo #9 was good enough that I'm allowed to go on to #10.

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Once a violinist . . .

January 3, 2008 05:25

. . . Always a violinist? Apparently you can take the violin away from the player, but you can't keep the player away from the violin.

The community orchestra I joined is playing the William Tell Overture for the next concert. I've played the piece before, twice even: once in the Greater Buffalo Youth Orchestra (violin II) and once at Caltech (violin I). It's violin I especially that I remember as having been a blast, some of the most fun I've ever had playing in an orchestra. In the morning, going to work, I treated myself to a rousing concert of William Tell on the iPod. The weather is not great around here right now: it's cold, there is decaying snow on the ground, and it's time to go back to work after 11 days off. A little Rossini while waiting for the bus can only help. Hi-ho Silver! Away!

So, for rehearsal, I loaded up my new double case with my violin and viola because I had this crazy idea that maybe I could play the William Tell violin I part again. Last time there hadn't been very many 1st violins--only 6--and maybe they needed another one. When I got there, however, I kind of chickened out at first. I started getting my viola out of its case and tightening the bow. A friendly first violinist came over and started talking to me while I was rosining. He said he'd been playing first violin in this orchestra since 1982. He liked my pants (paisley and velour: a Christmas present). Then he said my double case looked like a nice coffin . . . for some reason that cheered me up a little bit. It was funny.

Then I found the lady in charge of the orchestra and told her about my past experiences and my desire to play violin I for the William Tell. Hmm, she said. We need violas too, but we really need first violins. You could play first violin if you're willing to play it for the whole concert, not just the one piece. She then went and asked the conductor what he thought, and came back with the first violin music, which she gave me while I moved to become first violin #7, right behind my new acquaintance. I went back to my "coffin" and switched instruments.

I was nervous again. Even though I have played the piece before, it's been 12 years. And the price I had to pay for the pleasure is sitting in my least favorite area of the orchestra: back of the firsts. And as my own little stand by myself back there (there was supposed to be another one, but she never showed up) I could hear myself extremely well, and felt rather exposed. By the end of the first run-through, I had something of a death grip in the left hand. And the right hand, making the ricochet a little too bouncy and out of control at first. And there is a deadly page turn before the hardest and most exposed 16th note passage--and I have no stand partner.

But, once I calmed down, was it as fun as I remembered? You bet! We are also playing the first movement of the Beethoven violin concerto with a 13-year-old soloist and several short Copland pieces, including "Buckaroo Holiday." I came home last night and still haven't stopped humming.

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