June 2008

Breaking through the plateau of okayness

June 30, 2008 12:49

I knew it had been too long since my last lesson. I'd been playing Bach, the Courante from the 1st cello suite, and it was "okay." It had sort of reached a plateau of okayness, where it was better than it had been, but not great, and not really getting any better. I've been there, done that, too many times before.

I had tried to break through that plateau by recording myself and seeing if that would bring new insights. What I learned from that recording was that my intonation is consistently inconsistent, even in 1st and 3rd positions, where I usually feel reasonably confident. This too was somewhat discouraging, and not new. I envisioned posting the video of the Courante on YouTube and decided against it. Even if they could view it, what would people say about it? "You need to work on your intonation." Um, yeah.

So I played it for my teacher today and she confirmed the problem, but unlike me, she had an idea of what to do about it. She didn't say anything that was all that different from advice I've heard before, but what she did was connect the dots.

She has been trying to get me to put my fingers down purposefully and clearly on the desired notes and not adjust them afterwards. But I tend to often not get it right the first time, and to make too many adjustments after the fact, making it sound fuzzy and wobbly and unclear. With Bach at the speed it moves, this is especially problematic.

She says to hear the note in my head before I put my finger down. Admittedly, that part is still pretty unclear to me: I can't really hear notes in my head. I can't hear much at all really, at least consciously, until I actually have something to hear, until those sound waves are vibrating in the air and hitting the eardrum.

But, leaving that aside for a moment, her point was that I could learn to increase my intonation "batting average" through repetition. I could isolate small segments of the piece, play them slowly and repeatedly, and then, over time, I would increase my in-tune percentage. So maybe the first 10 times I did it, it would be in tune 4/10 times. Then the next 10 times, it would be in tune 6/10. Then 8/10, and eventually, hopefully, 10/10. This connects the dots of "practicing slowly" and "isolating passages." I'd been told to do both of those things before, many times, but had never done it very systematically because I didn't understand the specific goal. The ostensible goal was "better intonation," but that was too vague, and I couldn't really hear it anyway.

The key here, for me, seems to be two-fold:

1. Isolating a small and short enough passage for repetition so that I remember, when I'm done playing it, whether it was in or out of tune, and how. This is something that many people, especially people with more talent than I, seem not to understand why I even worry about. For most other players it seems to be really obvious to them what note(s) they've played out of tune and in which direction, and they can tell you when they've finished playing, because they remember--even for a relatively long, several measure section of a piece, or even for a whole piece. In contrast, this is not something I generally thought I could do at all for small nuances in intonation. (I can do it for my daughter, whose intonation mistakes are on the order of a F# vs. an F-natural, and whose pieces are a couple of lines long--but smaller differences in larger pieces tend to escape me altogether). However, it turns out I can do it, even for quite small differences, if the section I'm working on is short enough, i.e. 1 or 2 measures.

And, 2. Trusting the ability of my unconscious mind to make improvements that I may not be immediately and consciously aware of. This trust issue remains pretty difficult for me, especially because there were times today in the lesson when I played my little 2-measure section through 10 times and had no idea if it was better at the end than the beginning. It all kind of sounded the same to me, and I didn't want to reinforce something incorrect by repetition. But my teacher said I was definitely hearing it, and improving, she could tell, she could hear it. According to her, by the 10th time of repetition at a slow tempo, it was more consistently in-tune than it was at the beginning. She currently has more faith in my ear than I do.

I've started a new practice that I'm hoping will help with this, inspired by Shailee Kennedy, who suggested it in my blog some time ago. I brought along a digital recorder to record my lesson. I seem to be able to hear these small differences better on a recording than under my ear. And, since they're recorded, I won't have to worry as much about remembering. Maybe I can get some quantitative information about my intonation "batting average" over time and learn to trust the improvements and where to put my fingers.

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It's been too long

June 28, 2008 04:43

between lessons again: three weeks on Monday. As Sue once wrote about adult students, life intervened. I had a really busy last Monday at work, with 3 deadlines, and rescheduled well in advance.

I know it's been too long because I'm getting frustrated with vibrato again. I had been doing a C-minor scale with vibrato, with the scroll against the wall, because the Clarke is in C-minor. It wasn't great, but it was happening, and improving.

Then I switched to a G-major scale because the Bach is in G-major, and that scale is all in 3rd and higher positions, and the vibrato is now horrible. I'm reading old threads to see if I can find some advice that will help, but I'm not connecting the dots. I'm not even ready for "Off the Wall Arm Vibrato" because "On the Wall Any Kind of Vibrato" isn't happening. I could go back to C minor, or major for a little change of pace. But that doesn't address the fundamental problem, which is any kind of vibrato outside of first position on the C and G strings. My hand feels tight and stretched in all the wrong ways. The fingers reach the notes and the notes are in tune, but the hand doesn't want to vibrate. If I do get some wiggles here or there, the whole instrument starts shaking.

And then there is the Boob Tube. Not the TV, YouTube. "Broadcast Yourself." Hah. I've really enjoyed watching other people's performances, even just the practice sessions, that they've posted for comments. I thought it would be interesting to try posting something of my own, especially to tide me over when I can't have a lesson. In April I linked to my church talent show performance of the Colombi Ciacona, and it was almost impossible to view. It took forever to load on most platforms, and I don't know if anyone saw it. So I thought I would try YouTube.

After I edited out the beginning and the end of the movie so that you don't see an enormous hand coming at the camera and engulfing it to turn it off, and added a mask to cover up the toys all over the practice room, I exported it for web and uploaded it.

The video still is stretched: they say the camera adds 10 pounds, but 50? The funniest part is how the audio doesn't match the video. I'm moving at 2X or 3X, while the sound is playing in real time. Barbara Barber on speed. And it doesn't finish, it only goes about 2/3 of the way through the first page. It was fine on my Macintosh . . . really! It's hard to believe that one of my job duties is maintaining a website at that Mecca of technological innovation, MIT.

Sunday morning edit: two kind souls said that the video was unavailable, so I took it down to see what's going on. I hope to have a better one, where the audio matches the video, next week

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Family Portrait

June 19, 2008 11:14

A recent thread asked, how many violins do you have? Well, our household has 4, plus a viola. The one in the very middle is my daughter's new 3/4 size. She's quite happy with it and can tell the difference in how much better it sounds than the 1/2 size.


Her Suzuki teacher put the fingerboard tapes on the two little ones a few years ago, but I had to put them on the most recent one (I wasn't allowed to get rid of the tapes altogether, alas). Putting on tapes is a lot harder than I expected. I kept having to move them a millimeter one way or another.

My daughter's viola-playing friend officially quit the viola this morning. Yesterday was the last day of school, and she decided, after hearing the 4th grade band, that she would like to play the clarinet instead in the fall. I'm surprised how disappointed I am. She had not made much progress during the school year and did not have good practice habits, so I am siding with her mother that this was a good decision.

But, I was going to be helping her with viola over the summer, alongside my daughter, and while I knew it was going to be challenging, I had been looking forward to it more than I realized. They did enjoy playing duets together. Maybe I thought I could help this other girl get over that tough patch where the playing sounds like a cat being tortured and earn eternal gratitude from her parents. Maybe I wanted to live out an alternate fantasy life as a music teacher. Well, I still do that a little bit . . . my daughter is enjoying Mel Bay's "Easiest Fiddling Tunes" as recommended by Laurie Niles. Happy Summer!

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Today is International Violin Day

June 17, 2008 08:41

It is celebrated on the birthday of Igor Stravinsky, born Lomonosov, 17 June 1882; died New York, 6 April 1971.

According to this site, June 17 is also "White Bronco Day." The low speed chase of O.J. Simpson occurred on this day in 1994.

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June 14, 2008 05:25

That's what it was called, including the exclamation point. I had actually never played this type of CONCERT! before. And, I didn't know what to expect--POPS concerts seem to have a dodgy reputation with some musicians. I'd also missed more rehearsals than I would have liked, due to my trip to Cleveland for my father's surgery, and the subsequent playing catch-up at work and at home. The first violin section was back down to 7 players, up from a high of 12 at the previous concert of Beethoven and Mozart.

But it turned out to be a blast! The Arlington town hall was full on a warm spring evening. We played a couple of Souza marches to open and close the program and included the Armed Forces Salute with all the US Military songs. Both our main conductor and one of the assistant conductors were military musicians and they encouraged anyone in the audience who had served or was serving now to stand when they heard their song. Many people of all ages stood, and there was applause each time. It was very touching.

My personal favorite of the pieces we played was a tribute to Henry Mancini, with "Baby Elephant Walk," "Peter Gunn," and the "Pink Panther." The rhythms in this, and in "Sophisticated Lady," and some others, were very different from the Beethoven and Mozart that we're used to.

It was over so quickly in the end that I'm only just now realizing, emotionally, that I don't have any orchestra rehearsals or plans over the summer. I'll be playing at the Farmer's Market again next month and need to start reviewing my viola solos for that. I'm not sure if I'm going to play the Clarke or not, maybe I can excerpt it so it sounds okay without the piano part.

The major question in the back of my mind is about my audition for the LSO in the fall. I'm playing the Clarke and the Bach, and both are in pretty good shape now already. I have the summer to polish them while working with my teacher on something new, the Schumann Adagio and Allegro, Op. 70. If I make the LSO, I can't do two orchestras, so I will have to quit this one. That would make me sad. One friend asked me if I was going to come back again next year and I was non-committally positive. I might very well come back, since the LSO is very competitive and not making it is a very real possibility. So in a way, that takes some pressure off the audition. If I don't make it, life, and music, will go on.

On the other hand, will I unconsciously sabotage myself at the audition due to these conflicted feelings? I haven't done a real audition, that is, one where making the group was on the line, in >20 years--and some of those in the past didn't go very well. I'm nervous about just the act of bringing up and working through those bad old feelings about auditions. I'm choosing to view this as a challenging experience that will foster my growth as a musician. In that light, "making it" is only a secondary goal.

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A Moral Issue?

June 9, 2008 04:45

Pauline's recent blog, "The Devil or Me," has been on my mind, as well as the ongoing thread about Suzuki. The link between the two in my thoughts has been the notion of moral development in violin playing. Suzuki's subtext, that learning to play the violin is good for the soul, is an idea that has a lot of resonance for me on many levels, as a player and as the parent of a young violin student. I share his faith in the healing and transformative powers of music.

But I don't share his respect for authority. I never have been very good with authority, and that's gotten me into trouble more than once, especially with music teachers. Something as simple as the idea of having to bow to your violin teacher still makes me cringe. Maybe it's a cultural difference; I respect the role that bowing plays in Japanese culture, but that still doesn't make me want to do it. It brings to mind cultural moments like the Japanese figure skater, Midori Ito, apologizing on a world stage for winning "only" a silver medal in the Olympics.

It's not so much the idea of admitting imperfection that gets to me, but of having to view one's imperfections as something shameful that will be on display and that will let others down if they are revealed. And of needing to acknowledge and apologize for them by showing "respect." Or something. Whatever the purpose is, I admit I don't really get it. My response is a gut reaction, hard to put into words, impossible to put into music.

Pauline wrote about her experiences with students who can't seem to deal with imperfection. They'd rather just quit playing than be imperfect. Or would they rather just quit than have to load their playing down with all that moral baggage?

One of my violin teachers once quoted a famous conductor as having said "intonation is a moral issue." Apparently it is attributable to Carlo Maria Guilini, conductor of the LA Philharmonic 1977-85. According to this site, Guilini said "intonation is not simply a matter of acoustics or physics, it is a moral issue".

Really? I think most people would be helped far more by learning to see it as a matter of acoustics or physics, and leaving the moral baggage out of it.

30 replies | Archive link

Three recordings

June 5, 2008 14:28

My teacher recommends that I listen to 3 different recordings of a piece that I'm learning. She might recommend differently to other students, but I like recordings, I do learn from them, but I also can have a tendency to be too tied to them. I can also get overwhelmed by too many different recordings and not understand what to be listening for. So we settled on 3.

For the piece that I am playing for an audition in the fall, Rebecca Clarke's "Passacaglia on an Old English Tune," it was a challenge to find even 3 recordings. The first one I had, which was the only one for a long time, was Patricia McCarthy's, which I got from Liane Curtis at the Rebecca Clarke Society. I listened to this one almost every day on my way to work. It's only 5 and a half minutes long, and the commute is 45 minutes, so it didn't take up a huge portion of my listening time. But this recording was what made me want to learn the piece. From listening, it sounded like an appropriate level: challenging, but not overly so. Like Karin Lin, I wanted a piece that would teach me something technically but also enable me to focus on musicality.

As a fan of Barbara Barber's "Solos for Young Violists" series Book 1, I saw that the music for this piece was available in Book 5. Ignoring any sense of sequence or orderly progression, I bought Book 5 and brought it to my early lessons with my viola teacher. After hearing me play a few times, she agreed that this would be a good piece for me and we started working on it. Barber has a number of very specific instructions in her edition: fingerings, bowings, dynamic markings. I started out by following them pretty much to the letter. In particular, she had 3 entrances high up on the D string to give a certain sound color. I struggled with these entrances. They were usually out of tune when I played them. And/or kind of wiggly and fuzzy. I didn't "find the clarity," as my teacher would say. But I soldiered on; I figured that Barber is a pedagogue and she's been playing the viola a lot longer than I have. She must have put those fingerings in there for a reason--for learning 6th and 7th position, maybe. Like eating vegetables you don't like because they're good for you and in the end you'll be glad you did it. It would be wimping out to go onto the A string. Patricia McCarty didn't start those phrases on the A string.

A few months into my lessons, I began discussing recordings with my teacher. That's when she mentioned 3 as a good starting point. I realized I could use another one, although I was skeptical. I wasn't sure what I'd learn from another recording. The one I had seemed complete. Perfect already. But I bought a second one, the only one they had on iTunes, which made it easy: Philip Dukes, viola. Being new to the viola, I don't know Philip Dukes, but the first time through his recording, I was amazed. He made a lot more use of the A string. And what's more, it sounded good. He didn't torture himself (or me) by requiring me to go way up into the stratosphere and enter on high C's and and E-flats on the Ding. I tried it that way too, and when I went back to my lesson the next week, it was a huge improvement, not just in intonation, but also in musicality. I didn't really need the Ding sound on those phrases, and the increased confidence I gained from playing in tune made the whole thing sound better.

But that was still only 2. I needed a 3rd. Well, Barbara Barber puts out CDs to go with the method books. I could get hers and try to hear why she insists on those high-position entrances. Was there a musical reason that would become apparent to me upon hearing?

Um, no, not really. Like McCarty, Barber's intonation is good in whatever position. But it wasn't any more obvious to me why I needed those entrances on the D string. What was obvious, though, was that Barber had a really good pianist. The piano accompaniment on the other two recordings had always been in the background to my ear. I'd noticed it mostly by its absence when I was practicing by myself. It was otherwise a bit lugubrious, boring even. It was one of those ubiquitous piano parts that, annoyingly, force you to find an accompanist if you have any performance ambitions and eliminate the piece from inclusion in your busking repertoire. But on Barber's recording, the piano part was sprightly and fun, it had momentum. It was going places. It was more of an equal partner with the viola and it was clear that without it, something would be missing.

It took a couple of times before I realized that the biggest difference, and what made the Barber version so exciting, was tempo. Barber's version was the fastest of the three, by a wide margin. In fact, the times for the three versions were McCarty 5:29, Dukes 5:12, Barber 4:31. I've been playing it faster ever since.

Each of these recordings is wonderful in its own way, but I've become much more of a believer now in the value of listening to different recordings, and amazed at how truly different they can be.

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