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Karen Allendoerfer

Vacation Practice

February 16, 2009 at 9:50 PM

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.


From Tom Holzman
Posted on February 16, 2009 at 11:35 PM

Karen - I am glad you had such a good experience with the practicing on vacation.  However, I use the term vacation differently.  When you have children, there are essentially three types of trip, all of which we loosely, and probably incorrectly, label "vacation":

Trips with children,

Trips with children to see relatives, and

Trips without children.

 In my view, only the last type of trip should merit the label "vacation."  I always brought my violin on the first two except when going abroad, and the last almost always involves a trip on an airplane, so I leave my violin at home.  Anyhow, on many of the first two types, there is no reason not to bring the violin.  Everyone has the time and is usually more relaxed, so the practice time is well spent and can be quite pleasurable.  Once, I was on vacation and discovered that the guy who owned the house up the hill from our vacation house played violin when he came down to our house to find out who was playing violin.  Each year when I go back, we get together and do Bartok Duos.

Anyhow, however you define the term, it can be a fun and productive period for practicing.

From Anne Horvath
Posted on February 16, 2009 at 11:56 PM

I used to be quite pleased to play violin for my Grandparents.  I also used to get cash from them, usually $5.00.  (That would be almost 30 years ago, so you can do the inflation calculator!)

Also, I hate 8va.  I would rather read 10,000 smudgy manuscript ledger lines...

Have fun practicing!!!

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on February 18, 2009 at 12:27 AM

I guess for me a vacation is a period of time when I don't have to do any work, or at least don't have to do work that I don't enjoy.   And it's a relatively new phenomenon for me to enjoy practicing.  It's still work, sort of, but at the moment it's satisfying work.  

Anne, why do you hate 8va?  I don't like 8va, but I like smudgy manuscript ledger lines even less!  At least with some 8va, like the West Side Story "America" section that I was blogging about, I can just think of it in 4th and 5th position.  It's not actually in those positions, but the fingerings are the same, just higher up on the fingerboard.  Whereas with all those ledger lines usually I can't even figure out what note I'm supposed to be playing without stopping and counting.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on February 19, 2009 at 9:40 PM

 Yay for you for practicing on vacation! I think the "better than nothing" approach is absolutely the best way to go in situations like that. On trips where I've brought my fiddle (that is to say, pretty much all trips), I give myself credit for little five-minute sessions while I'm killing the last few minutes before a group of us go out to dinner. I've had 45 mn sessions I've really enjoyed, and some "oh, well, I picked up my fiddle, that was my goal" sessions. Anything goes for me, no guilt either way. It's never happened that I didn't once pick up the fiddle during a trip. Invariably, it becomes a meditation for me -- probably b/c I'm stuck with family affixed to me like mussels for the length of the trip and I'm a person who NEEDS some solitude. Ah. That's my true reason for "practice time." : )

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