February 2009

All viola all the time

February 26, 2009 07:34

I signed up for a new challenge:  a viola recital at the Longy Music School where I take lessons.  It is a chance to play with a professional-quality pianist in a real venue with good acoustics.  

I am just going to play one piece, the Clarke Passacaglia on an Old English Tune for viola, about 5 minutes long.  I've already auditioned using this piece, and played it for an offertory in church, with one of the new co-music directors.  So I am hoping that the recital situation won't be too terrifying.  

So, at my lesson this week, I got re-acquainted with my viola.  He was peeved that I had not played him since Christmas break.  The D and G strings had slipped.  I was consistently flat playing on the C string.  And there was some weird uneven vibrating with the bow when I tried to draw it smoothly across the C string and make a sustained sound.  Still, after 15-20 minutes of scales and a new Fiorillo etude, I played the Clarke through and it wasn't too bad.  The 7th position sections are still out of tune (sharp), but I learned all that pre-tuner.  Maybe the tuner can help.  I know what I have to do.

The bigger issue is that switching back and forth between two instruments would drive me nuts, and I don't have time to practice two instruments on a regular basis anyway.  So now it's the violin's turn to sit in the case for a couple of months.  

I approached our orchestra conductor with my dilemma and asked to play viola for the next concert.  He was understanding about it, and last year's concertmaster has come back after sitting out a couple of concerts.  The first violins are just fine.

I, however, am back in the back of the viola section trying to sight-read alto clef.  Hoooo boy.

One of the pieces we are playing is a world premiere choral work, written by David Sears, who plays keyboard in the orchestra when we need a keyboard.  No recordings of this piece exist, professional or otherwise.  Fortunately, his music manuscript writing is quite legible, and there isn't much that goes over third position.  We are also playing the Mendelssohn violin concerto with a guest soloist.  I know that piece to listen to, almost by heart.  I even messed around with the solo part in high school.   It just lies nicely under the fingers, even when sight-reading alto clef.  

And then there is the Dvorak.  Carnival Overture. On first read-through, the first violins weren't have a much better time of it than I was.   What is it about Dvorak?  Last concert it was the Slavonic Dance #1 that gave me fits.  This concert Dvorak again owns the ledger line vertigo prize for "most screechy".  I think it'll all be be fine once I get a chance to practice.  In the several concerts I've played now with this orchestra, I've always been impressed with how it rises to the occasion.  The first rehearsal is often shaky (to be polite).  I fully contribute to that shakiness--while I've improved a lot since I started taking lessons again, one skill that still hasn't fully come back for me is sight-reading.  But over time, in and around families, work, and snow storms, we get the job done.

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Family Concert

February 23, 2009 05:06

I always feel good after a concert.  In spite of the icky Boston weather, there is a warm glow and a real sense of community.  It's something, however, that I find very difficult to put into words.

This is the Arlington Philharmonic Society's 75th anniversary year.  There will be a big celebration at the POPS concert in June.  The family concert was at the Arlington town hall, and it was a full house.  The lighting there is much better than at the church we sometimes play in, but the acoustics are quite different.  The atmosphere is informal for the family concert, it is free of charge and there are a lot of kids.

I am finally getting the hang of this tuning thing:

(Except that I have to remember to say "winds AND BRASS.")

Every year the orchestra has a concerto competition for players 18 and under.  The winner plays at the family concert.  Last year's winner was Pei-Wen Liao, a really wonderful 14-year-old violinist from Juilliard.  This year's winner was an 11-year-old from Lexington, MA, just the next town over, named Yuki Beppu.  It is exciting to play with these young violinists before they become too famous!

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Vacation Practice

February 16, 2009 14:50

I have never really been one for practicing the violin while on vacation.  When I was growing up I tended to take the view that it was like homework:  if you had to do it on vacation, it wasn’t really a vacation.  That view was challenged in high school, and then met its demise in college as I struggled (and failed) to keep up with the workload, but not without considerable resentment on my part. 

Years later, I’m still fighting the battle of not wanting to work on vacation, but having to. I’m typing this, in fact, on my laptop at my parents’ home.  Last year I visited them over February vacation week to help them pack up their old house in preparation for moving in here, to this retirement community.  This year they are settled in their newer, smaller house, complete with pool and spa in the neighboring building.  With the kids, we’ve been skiing, we’ve been geocaching, we’ve played Wii Music on the Wii my parents bought in order to do Wii Fit, we’ve been in the pool, we baked a Valentine Cake, and we saw a matinee of “Paul Blart:  Mall Cop.”  What could we possibly have to do next?

Well, practicing the violin, that’s what.  I’m not sure when or how it happened.  Maybe it’s the ski carrier we bought last year to put on the top of the car.  Maybe it’s the fact that my husband couldn’t get off work, so he (and his big suitcase) stayed home.  But we had enough room in the back of the car for two violins and a folding music stand, and we used it.  It seemed perfectly natural to be going somewhere on vacation, and to take the instruments along.  After all, I have a concert next Sunday.

Practicing here in my parents’ house doesn’t quite have the resonance that it could have, since it’s a new house and not the one I used to practice in in high school.  But there’s still something nice about practicing with my daughter here.  She has practiced about 20 minutes each night, about what she does at home.  She’d rather not perform for her grandparents right now, although she has in the past.  We go into the bedroom, shut the door, and she does her two pages of EE2000 and the two pieces she is learning for enrichment to perform at the end of the year. 

She is going to have another trial lesson next week with a private teacher. Her intonation is actually getting quite good and her work ethic has improved. She’s been able to practice regularly without me present, and she won the “pencil prize” in her school lesson last week.  We think she might be able to try private lessons again.  Her new teacher will be my sometime stand partner in the Arlington Phil and the first violinist in my quartet.  She’s a young, enthusiastic recent music school grad who has a flexible teaching philosophy.  We’ll have a trial lesson to see how they get along.  My son (who is 5) is also going to have a trial lesson, separate from his sister.

Then, after my daughter goes to bed, I’ve been practicing too.  It’s still only ~45 minutes a night, which could be more, but which I keep telling myself is better than nothing.  The drive from Boston to Buffalo is long and boring.  I used some of that time to work out the 8va for the Strauss Thunder and Lightning Polka.  There is a short, repeated trio section of that piece that says (in German) that on the repeat it should be played an octave higher than written.  Considering that I in fact can read German, I probably should have realized this and acted on it previously, before someone else pointed it out.  But I may have been repressing that knowledge, since it’s just part of my psychological makeup that I hate 8va and try to avoid it wherever and whenever possible.

Well, um, no.  Hating 8va was part of my psychological makeup, when I was younger and wasn’t the type to practice on vacation.  But I’m different now.  Furthermore, I’m the concertmaster, and it’s my job to get the 8va’s.  I can play the 8va for the last page of “America” in West Side Story, and that’s in about 85th position.  This little part of the Strauss is trivial in comparison.  It’s not even that high:  the melody as written starts on an open Ging.  What’s so hard about playing an octave higher?

Well, what’s so hard about it is that the fingerings are different.  G-3-1-4-----3-2--3-0-3 . . doesn’t map easily onto 3-2-4-3----2-1—2-3-2.  And that last part, G-A-Bflat-B-DEFF#G, is really high, and 8va’ing that requires going into 6th position. 

But, as I said, the drive is long and boring.  And as the kids fall asleep, in my mind I go from 1st position fingerings, to note names, to 1st,  3rd, and 6th position fingerings an octave higher, and I repeat that section over and over in my mind:  as written, an octave higher, again as written, again an octave higher. I also realize, belatedly, that D-E-F-F#-G played as a 1-2-3-3-4 in 6th position is not really a weird, scary finger pattern at all.  It’s actually an old familiar friend:  3rd position on the Aing, and 1st position on the viola Cing. When I arrive, settle in, and actually get out the instrument, I find I can play that section of the Strauss 8va, as I’m supposed to.  It’s kind of aggravating that it took me this long, but I figure it’s better late than never.  At least it’s still in time for the concert . . .

An aspect to this vacation practice that I am finding remarkable is how much of a difference using the electronic tuner makes.  I’ve been using it on C-major 3-octave scales, on selected parts of the Dvorak Slavonic Dance #1, and on the West Side Story 8va.  For the first time, I’ve been able to discern larger trends in my problems with intonation.  I tend to shift down too far when I shift down on the first finger.  I tend to be flat when I cross strings with the same finger to play a fifth.  I tend to shift up too far when I shift up on the second finger.  When I come down on a half step from 4 to 4, I don’t come down far enough.  E-flat is a hard note for me to hear, but it improves the more time I spend in that key.  I have finally defined the intonation problems in ways that make sense to me, and I finally feel like I have some concrete hope for solving them.

The difference between now and before is the immediate and specific feedback that the tuner gives.  Getting that feedback makes all the difference between a vague, frustrating practice session that I have no idea if it went anywhere, and one where I know that I’ve made progress (however incremental), or not.  That second kind of practice is worth doing, even on vacation.

 

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Music with Kids

February 3, 2009 05:30

In which Karen attempts to use pictures in her blog for the first time since the new format . . .

Christmas pageant

I meant to blog about this earlier, but never got around to it. My daughter and a viola-playing friend (and I) played three songs for our church's pageant: Deck the Halls, Silent Night, and O Christmas Tree. The violist had only been playing for a few months, and it turned out she wasn't ready for some of the notes on the G and C string that I tried to give her in my arrangement of these tunes. It also turned out that, right before the pageant, her bow had a serious hair problem, rendering it unusable. I have a really old cheap bow that I used to use in high school and still carry around with me, "just in case." It's a violin bow, and it's full size, but our young violist was game to use it anyway. And she did fine.

School Talent Show

My daughter and a different friend will be playing the duet "Rockin Strings" from the EE2000 book for their school talent show this week. My daughter will also play a simple Bach Minuet (also from that book) by herself. The organizers of the talent show were very clear, NO MOMS ALLOWED on stage!

Music Fan Girl Scout Badge

There are actually two badges that junior girl scouts can earn, this one called "Music Fan" and another one called "Making Music."  I spoke with the leader of my daughter's troop and she thought that Music Fan would be more accessible to all the girls. About half the girls are learning an instrument in school. At one of the meetings they designed a dance routine to their favorite songs (mostly Rhianna and Miranda Cosgrove), and picked out the different instruments in songs they liked. They are also interviewing people they know with careers in music but who are not primarily performers, including their school music teacher, one of their dads who is a DJ, a church music director, and the conductor of the community orchestra I play in. Which brings me to the final event, later this month:

Let's Dance!

The whole girl scout troop will be in the audience.

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