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Last Lesson

Karen Allendoerfer

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Published: July 7, 2015 at 3:09 PM [UTC]

Oh dear. The title of my previous blog started with the word “last” too, and I’m not done yet. Stay tuned for “Last Performance at the Belmont Farmers’ Market.” I’m too tired to come up with more original titles.

Our move to California is approaching. July 25 is the day we fly out. Two days before, the movers pack up our stuff and put it in a truck. Less than three weeks. AAAAH!

Yesterday I had what realistically is probably my last viola lesson with my current teacher. Probably . . . realistically . . . clearly I don’t want this to have been my last lesson. Qualifying adverbs much? We left it open that as moving day approaches, if I want some time to do something hands-on that uses a different part of my brain than packing and decluttering (like, I dunno, PLAYING AN INSTRUMENT?), I should come over and have another lesson. She’ll be there.

It’s been almost 8 years that I’ve been taking violin and viola lessons, and throughout those 8 years, my teacher Dianne has been there for me. Reading the blog I wrote when I first started with her (“A Long Blog About a Long Lesson”) is interesting, but not particularly surprising. Much of what I've been thinking about, violin- and viola-wise, over the past 8 years is already there: the ongoing discussion of how to keep tension out, informed by her own experiences with it as a student; her ability to say a lot about a little bit of playing and have that be right on target; the importance of shaping musical lines; the never-ending quest to improve intonation and get it a little closer to perfect.

As I’ve made teaching a larger part of my own work life over the past few years, I’ve come to realize that one of the hallmarks of a great teacher is that he or she sees, and addresses, the best of a student, rather than the worst. When I balked at re-learning Mozart #3, and instead opted for the Rockin’ Fiddle Challenge, she was right there with me, watching Adam DeGraff’s videos. She let me play Violinists Don’t Stop Believin’ in a recital (where another adult student tapped me on the shoulder afterwards, and whispered, “that was awesome!”). When I needed advice on how to be a better section leader and orchestral player, she was there with that too. She taught me how to use an electronic tuner to improve my intonation rather than as a crutch. She has never stopped nudging me towards a better attitude about scales, but she doesn’t harp on it. She has read my blog (hi Dianne) and we’ve had interesting conversations about the violinists profiled in Laurie’s book.

But now I have arrived at my last lesson. What did we do at it? I brought my viola and the two pieces I want to play when I audition for the Nova Vista Symphony: a slow piece, “The Pride of Kildare” from 6 Etudies in English Folksong by Vaughan Williams; and a fast piece, the 3rd movement Rondo from the Anton Stamitz viola concerto in D (yeah, I know, that’s a concerto, and I said I didn’t do concertos. I’m making an exception for this one because I want to be the first person to put all 3 movements of it on YouTube).

The Vaughan Williams is, like many of his pieces, deceptively simple. It’s in book 4 of Solos for Young Violists and it doesn’t go above 3rd position. It has a lovely melody and not even much shifting. I played it in church last weekend as a Prelude (Last Time Playing in This Church—AAAAH!) and didn’t even get nervous.

But Dianne still had quite a bit to say about vibrato. Apparently some of the notes had it, and some of them didn’t, and when the vibrato dropped out, it interrupted the musical phrase. As usual, I hadn’t even noticed. I’d been concentrating on the notes, the intonation, and the dynamics. I’ve always found the notion of “continuous vibrato” to be a thorny and confusing thicket best steered clear of, so we didn’t go there. But the issues we did talk about were:

  • Using vibrato as an expressive tool. It’s fine to back off on the vibrato if you are doing that intentionally, to create a musical effect. But don’t just not vibrate on a note because it’s a 4th finger in third position and that’s hard to do.

  • To create a situation where you can vibrate where you want, be aware of hand and finger placement. My fourth finger was not in a good position to vibrate when it wasn’t, because a couple of measures before I had played a harmonic with it and then lifted it into the air, where it was still waving around like a flag two measures later. I then came down for its note somewhat randomly and haphazardly, sacrificing not only vibrato but also good intonation. So, be aware beforehand of where your finger has to be, and prepare it. Hear where it has to go in your head, know where it has to go, then put it down.

  • Not noticing this kind of thing on your own isn’t only for amateurs. Even pros will tell each other, especially in chamber music “that note needs more/less vibrato.” It’s always good to have a fresh pair of ears, to have listeners you trust, and to listen to and think about what they tell you.

The Stamitz is something I’ve been working on for a long time. I feel like I have a special relationship to this piece, because I played the orchestral violin I part to it in Germany when I was 17 and I remembered it for 25 years before I tried to play the solo part myself. As I wrote, I learned the first movement in 2010, performed it at a church talent show, and put the recording on YouTube. I’m still reasonably proud of that performance, although I think I hear the intonation problems and bow sluggishness more acutely now that I did then.

The third movement is similar in difficulty: it’s high and goes into treble clef quite a bit. As a violist who is also a violinist, this doesn’t bother me. The clef switching in the middle of a bar can get to be a bit much sometimes, but I’m used to it now.

  • It goes into 7th position. I’d been having some issues with getting up there on a viola. Back when I played the first movement and had to play a 7th position high D, I just stretched my hand and that seemed to work. Five years later, that stretching is not working so well any more. It felt like I was going to get tendonitis, or worse. And that vibrato issue again: the high D is the top of the phrase and is *not* where I want the vibrato to just drop out. In this case, it’s not my 4th finger that’s the problem, it’s my left thumb. The thumb is short to begin with, but it’s also too locked in position at the center of the neck of the instrument. Again, find a time to move it to the side of the neck in preparation for that long reach. Do I need to take it off the neck entirely and press it against the rib of the instrument? No, it doesn’t look like I have to. Just plan to move the thumb to the side, actually do it, and “voila!" (or “viola!”), vibrato.

  • It’s a little frantic-sounding. I can play it a little more slowly and deliberately and not rush. It’s not a race. The metronome is my friend.

  • Prepare and place fingers before beginning a long run. Don’t rush headlong into it.

  • Shifting on 2 in the main theme is better than shifting on 1 and leaves my hand in a better position to play the next notes.

  • Don’t chop off the quarter notes, let them ring.

  • A dotted 16th note is not as long as a dotted 8th note, even if I’m hearing it that way.

  • Keep the bow moving, rather than digging in, especially on high notes.

  • For any shift, know where your left thumb is, and when you are going to move it and where.

The list goes on, but there are commonalities. I’ve heard them before and I’ll no doubt hear them again, with new pieces and new listeners. The issue often gets back to preparation: I find that I, or my hand, am somehow not prepared enough before leaping into the next thing. I suppose I could feel discouraged that I still haven’t fixed this, but I’m not. Sometimes you do just have to leap in, get started, take risks, work on instinct rather than overthinking every last detail. The tendency to jump in is not a bad instinct or one I want to quash completely. I just want to channel it appropriately.

One of the best things about my lessons with Dianne is the way she has been able to meet me where I’m at. It’s been a while since I was acutely and painfully aware of my limitations as a violin student. I mean, in the back of my mind I know I’m an adult with major gaps in my playing background, I’m busy, I have bad habits, I don’t practice every day, I talk too much in lessons, and I don’t like concertos or scales. And I have musical interests and passions that could be described as either wide-ranging and creative or scattered and dilettante-ish. But at my lessons, none of this matters, or at least it doesn’t matter enough to keep me from having a good lesson, learning something, improving as a violinist, and being able to make music.

From Mendy Smith
Posted on July 8, 2015 at 12:57 AM
Never say never. I moved away from Oregon many years ago and still get to see my teacher from there once a year at Interlochen. Who knows when you might meet up again or where!
From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on July 8, 2015 at 10:44 AM
I'll definitely have to start going to music camp one of these years!
From Alice Trimmer
Posted on July 8, 2015 at 4:18 PM
Enjoyed reading this, and I hope you find as good and sympathetic teacher in your new city. Regarding the "continuous vibrato"--the way my teacher describes it is "having a live left hand." I find this way of thinking about it a little less daunting, although still not easy to achieve.
From Tom Holzman
Posted on July 8, 2015 at 9:27 PM
Karen - good luck and have a safe trip out there. I have every confidence that you will find a good teacher out there. I have had a succession of teachers here, and each one has been quite good. I suspect that in a musician-rich environment like that SF area, you will quickly find what you need in terms of an orch, a chamber group, and teacher(s). Have fun and don't look back. One door is closing and one is opening. Go through the door that is opening.
From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on July 9, 2015 at 1:37 AM
I already have a lead on a teacher who sounds quite promising. Someone I met indirectly through, who plays the viola, recommended his teacher, who is both a violinist and violist, who is flexible, and who likes to teach adults at all different levels. The only drawback is that he's in San Francisco, which is kind of a schlep from Mountain View. It might still be doable every few weeks, so I'm definitely going to contact him and have a trial lesson.
From Gene Huang
Posted on July 9, 2015 at 6:49 PM
Karen -- Welcome back to the SF bay area! If you are interested in a local community orchestra, look into South Bay Philharmonic. Rehearsals are Monday evenings in Mountain View (season starts in September). I joined last season and it was great fun!

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on July 9, 2015 at 7:52 PM
Where in Mountain View? That sounds great. That's where I'm going to live.

Ha! I just looked at their website. The rehearsal location is 1.1 miles from my new house. I could walk :)

I also noticed, Gene, that you are playing the 1st movement of the Mendelssohn with them next year. Congratulations!

From Gene Huang
Posted on July 10, 2015 at 12:08 AM
Thanks, Karen! It will be my first time ever performing solo with an orchestra, so I'm really looking forward to it. What a coincidence that you'll be so close to the SBP rehearsals. Hope to see you in the fall!

From Francesca Rizzardi
Posted on July 11, 2015 at 7:03 PM
Best wishes, Karen. I read the blog you linked to about your first lesson with Dianne. It made me realize that I really have to find another teacher. I haven't had a lesson since mine passed away in October. I too hope to find someone like that teacher in SF that you mentioned, although closer to home. FYI, Berkeley Parents Network ( isn't just for Berkeley residents and you can get good references for all kinds of things and people in the Bay Area.
I was just inspired to post for a teacher request on it.
From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on July 13, 2015 at 10:59 AM
Thanks Fran, I just signed up!

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