July 2010

Letting it all hang out

July 27, 2010 05:03

 I don't know what I've gotten myself into with the Rockin' Fiddle Challenge.  I'm supposed to be learning a Mendelssohn quartet and moving to the 3rd movement of the Franck.  But what I really want to practice, for some reason, is "Sweet Child O Mine."  When I have time to practice, that is.  Our new au pair arrived from Germany over the weekend and the old one left yesterday.  With a party, sightseeing, and explaining how the dishwasher works, I haven't been able to take the fiddle out for more than half an hour at a time.  (It feels strange to write "fiddle" instead of violin.  I don't see those as interchangeable words.  But for TRFC, fiddle is what it is).

Last Sunday there was a mini-challenge.  Record the introduction, the first 3 sections (1st 24 measures), to "Sweet Child" and post it to the Dueling Fiddlers' FB page by 11:59 pm Sunday night.  "Mini" is kind of a cute, sweet, harmless little prefix.  Minibar.  Minnie Mouse.  Mini-challenge, not so much.  

The first eight measures, which I posted about previously, weren't too bad, especially in retrospect.  While that part was in the dreaded 2nd position, it didn't have a "grab," or fingered octaves, or strange jumpy double stops.  Adam's comment to me for that section was to be less careful, to "let it all hang out."

It is the mark of a gifted musician and teacher to be able to tell that about a stranger from one slightly grainy, tinny YouTube clip.  Because I've heard that sort of comment before from people who know me and have heard me play week after week.  As a child/teen I found such comments frustrating because they seemed to be about me as a person as much as me as a violinist.  I would internalize the comments--"too square," "too careful"--and think about them and become sad about it in odd moments when I wasn't even playing the violin at all.  But somehow this time, whether it's just the maturity of age, or the constructive, helpful way the criticism was offered, or the fact that I know this isn't about me, really, unless I want it to be--it's just a YouTube clip on Facebook, after all--it didn't land on me that way.  Instead, I want to keep playing the piece, keep getting better.

So I entered the mini-challenge.  It was 11:52 pm when my clip was finally uploaded to the right FB page.  Scrolling through the other entries, many of which are amazing, I have to admit that mine does not stack up very well relative to most of the others.  It's not putting myself down to say that, it's just a statement of fact. I could make a list of everything that's wrong with it, just to show that I can, that I'm not oblivious or ignorant.  But instead of that, I would like to make a list of what is right with it, and what I plan to do to make it better.

What's right with it:

1.  I am making progress on letting it all hang out.  I'm just going for it, especially the double stops in the 3rd section, rather than freaking out about how out of tune it is.  

2.  I make it through this intro part from beginning to end, at a tempo that I could perform it at, if I cleaned up other aspects of the playing.  My fingers aren't really there or sure of themselves, and I need to seriously slow it down in practice, but I'm not halting and stumbling.

3.  I am starting to hear each section as a different character.  The 1st 8 measures in particular are almost repeated but not, they start on different notes, first a C, then a D, then an F.  Listening to the original GNR version, I hear this section being played on electric guitar.  Climbing some freakish stairs, ascending into the piece.  Repetition with a twist, kind of like parenting a "sweet child" on some days.  

What to do?

1.  Memorize.  In the better entries, the players generally did it without music.  I am someone who plays better when I play from memory.  It's just hard for me to get to that point, especially with double stops.

2.  Keep listening to other people.  Nearly every entry to the mini-challenge has something in it that I haven't thought of before.  Some people make the same mistakes I do.  Some make different ones, or ones that I would have made if I'd gotten that far.  I can learn from those mistakes.

3.  Slow it down and listen to the double stops.  Then work with the metronome to gradually speed it up.

4.  Play with the bow closer to the bridge.  Also lengthen the strokes.  When they are too short, they sound dorky.  

5.  Isolate the transitional measures and make the transitions smoother

6.  Think about and develop a character for the second section, which still is a bit of a jumbled mess in my mind.

7.  Do a little bit of the fingered octaves every day.   I was not used to stretching 2 to 4 and reaching an octave.  I can easily keep the 1 down and extend the 4 if I don't have to also keep the 2 down.  But the first day I worked on that stretch, my fingers hurt afterwards.  My teacher has warned me not to overdo extensions.  The 2 still has a tendency to get pulled sharp, even when I play it slowly, but over time it seems to be getting easier, and it doesn't hurt anymore if I work on that part a couple of minutes each practice session.

8.  Have fun!  Playing this piece is addictive.  

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Learning to Rock?

July 9, 2010 15:12

Reading about the Rockin' Fiddlers' Challenge on violinist.com got me interested.  I've tried a little bit of fiddling on my own, especially with my daughter, who seems to respond well to that type of music.  I also enjoy listening to fiddle music:  Darrol Anger, Natalie MacMaster, Celtic Woman, Childsplay, have recorded some of my favorite CDs.

But I've never spent any serious study or performance effort on fiddle music for myself.  It doesn't come naturally to me to play without sheet music or to play by ear, yet when I watched Adam DeGraff's amazing YouTube performance, it seemed that both of those are essential to getting the desired effect, to "rock."

So, I am going to try the "Rockin' Fiddler's Challenge."  I submitted my measures 1-8 this morning:

The limitations of my camera are pretty obvious.  There is a big crescendo at the end, which I tried to make but is hard to hear on the recording.  On the other hand, recording myself still taught me a few things.  One is that I tend to rush.  I needed a couple of tries before I got a recording where the rushing wasn't too obvious.  The other is that your facial expression, and manner, matter.  In some of my recordings I look kind of scared.  For this one that I posted, I was really trying to get rid of that "deer in the headlights" look, and I'm not sure that I entirely succeeded.

There are a lot of good recordings up on the challenge's Facebook page.  This is one of my favorites:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UTxT4EyIB-w

In addition to being technically very good, when she plays she really looks like she is having fun, smiling and getting into it.  It's fun to watch her.  (It's also fun to watch Adam.  That's an art in itself).  

Adam DeGraff generously posted a nice comment to my video on the FB page.  He is great, he really cares about everyone who posts and gives everyone a personal comment.  One thing he wants me to do is "be a little less careful and it all hang out."  He's right, but the next 8 measures are tough.  I am probably not going to be able to do that for another few days, if ever, especially with that "grab."  But I appreciate the challenge, and I appreciate his encouraging words.  It's going to make my summer more interesting!

 

 

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Fireworks

July 5, 2010 15:48

 This 4th of July I wanted to take my kids to see fireworks.  In the past, I haven't.  They start too late, my inner agoraphobic recoils from the crowds at the Boston Esplanade, or, as happened a few years ago, at work there is an NIH grant due on July 5.

This year my boss postponed a grant submission, leaving me with an unexpected free weekend.  I thought about a number of things I could do--drive to the Cape, maybe?  Go camping?  But I kept coming back to my memories as a kid of watching the fireworks at Bassett Park, with a lead-in from the Buffalo Philharmonic.  This was, in the retrospective glow, a low-key yet high-quality fireworks, one that started reasonably early, like 9:15, and had good music and reasonable crowds.  My violin teacher was in the Buffalo Philharmonic.  They played the 1812 Overture last, and the fireworks started as the cannons in the piece boomed, dusk fading to black as the music ended and the visual show began.

I knew it had changed venues, and maybe even orchestras, since then, but I headed to my parents' with the kids in tow, planning for fireworks.  We camped along the way.

I also arranged to meet a childhood friend, Diana.  We lived next door to each other from when I was about 5 and she was about 3, until I was 11 and she was 9.  Her family had an old beat-up piano in their basement that we used to bang on for fun.  We hadn't seen each other in many years, but she found me on the Greater Buffalo Youth Orchestra Alumni Facebook page.  We didn't overlap as members of the orchestra:  I played violin in it for 3 years, she played flute for 2.  She went on to major in music and become a flute and piano teacher.

My daughter, who has been playing violin for a few years now (and who was indirectly responsible for my starting to play again), has been asking about playing the piccolo.  The piccolo?  Oh boy . . . you mean that miniature, squeaky, ear-piercing, godawful . . . um, that nice little instrument that plays a cool solo in "Stars and Stripes Forever"?  Yeah, that one.

We contacted Diana on Facebook and asked if you had to learn to play the flute first before you could learn the piccolo.  She confirmed yes, she would recommend that.  She also said that she would bring along her instruments "Jean-Pierre" and "Tiko" when we visited and my daughter could meet them.  

My daughter spent quite a while blowing into Jean-Pierre's headpiece while Diana adjusted the position and gave her advice, but she was eventually able to make a decent sound.  She wasn't able to get a sound out of Tiko, but thereby gained a better understanding of why she should start on a flute first.  Diana said to me, "you should bring your violin, we could play duets."  I had wanted to, thought about it pretty seriously, but when it came down to packing the car and thinking about what I would do with it while we were camping, in this heat on top of everything else, I elected to leave it behind.  

After an afternoon of catching up, looking at old photo albums, eating chocolate chip cookies, and finding my daughter another instrument to play, we headed to the fireworks.  As I thought, they are no longer in Bassett Park, they are on the University at Buffalo campus, over a lake and near an installation of marble columns.  People gather on the shores of the lake, on picnic blankets and lawn chairs.  We, like everyone else, have a perfect view.  And, there is enough parking.  

But these are not my fireworks.  First of all, they aren't starting until 10.  A lot of places do that these days--wait until it is pitch black rather than dusk.  I remember a particularly annoying 4th one year in Pasadena, waiting for what seemed like forever on a beach towel outside the Rose Bowl--they may not have started there until 10:30 or 11.  I don't think this is necessary.  9:30 or even 9:15 still works to see the show, and is more family-friendly.  

I can live with starting at 10.  The kids are bored, but they spend time running up and down the ramp in front of the columns, collecting goose feathers from beside the lake, looking through my binoculars, whining for overpriced glowsticks, and asking "what time is it now?" every two minutes.  What I find harder to live with is the fact that there is no orchestra.  Only a band.

I approach the stage, which is not visible from where we are sitting, to get a closer look.  The band is playing the Light Cavalry Overture, which I played this year in the Arlington Phil. POPS concert.  It sounds fine.  Until they get to the sul-G section that is supposed to be played by the 1st and 2nd violins in unison.  I think the oboe is playing it in this arrangement.  The player is okay, but it sounds sort of jazzy, or swingy.  It sounds all wrong.  I'm interrupted from these uncharitable thoughts by two college students who want me to take their picture on their digital camera.  When I get done, the band is playing a Sousa march, one that I don't know, called "King Cotton."  This sounds better.

I decide to walk back to the picnic blanket where the rest of my family is sitting, arguing about who gets to use the binoculars, and as I walk, I wonder, what made the Buffalo Philharmonic stop playing this gig?  Why aren't they here anymore?  My own little community Philharmonic, in Arlington MA where I play violin, plays this same music.  We play it in June, not July, to a sold-out POPS crowd at the Arlington Town Hall.  There aren't fireworks at ours, but there is a strawberry festival and a generally festive atmosphere.  People come to hear the music--the rousing overtures, the tributes to the armed forces, the Sousa marches--it's a slice of small-town America that still exists.  Community orchestras, and apparently community bands, seem to still understand this.

Is it just that most people think that concert bands do this music well enough, or even better than orchestras?  Am I just a cranky string player, worried about the possibility of losing my violinist daughter to the charms of the flute and piccolo?  (She says she's not going to quit violin, but she only has so much time to practice).  When I get back to the blanket, they start the 1812 Overture.  And yes, I'm cranky and getting crankier.  Because they leave out the *entire opening.*

Last year, I had the privilege of playing the opening arranged as a string quartet with the Arlington Phil.   Admittedly, the opening is different from the rest of the piece.  There are no cannons going off, no bells ringing, no horses galloping.  The dynamic didn't go above mp, even with just the 4 of us.  

I've been in the audience for the opening of the 1812 overture, too, played by a real orchestra before fireworks.  The audience hushes, just for a few minutes, and looking around you see the glow sticks, the camera flashes, the cell phone screens, and the stars come out, both prefiguring what is to come, and reminding you what those fireworks symbolize.  This music honors the fallen, gives voice to grief, reassures that they did not die in vain.  When I was practicing this opening for my 1st violin part with the Arlington Phil., it took me several run-throughs at home before I could be sure of keeping back tears in rehearsal.  This music is not for the concert band.  It needs strings.

Which they don't have.  They launch right into the cannons, bells, and horses, and follow it with "Stars and Stripes Forever."  When they get to the piccolo solo, I nudge my daughter.  The piccolo player nails it.  My daughter nods and smiles.  I think she will carry good memories of these fireworks with her, but I hope that someday she too can look up at the stars to the opening of 1812, played by an orchestra.  

8 replies | Archive link


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