June 5, 2008 at 9:28 PMMy 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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