Practice Challenge: 108 Days of Telemann

February 11, 2018, 2:06 PM · I'm in a lot of online violin and viola groups. It all began for me back in 2006. I started this blog when I began playing the violin again after a long break, and added the viola. This site was ambitious and expansive even then, but if you hung around for a while you would get to know most of the regulars.

Since then the internet has exploded as a medium for meeting other musicians online. There has been a YouTube symphony orchestra. Violin lessons via Skype are commonplace, and Facebook groups abound, where players of all ages and skill levels share videos and support. I have found myself a member and sometime moderator of a number of these groups, and I have met great friends there. In fact, when I moved to the SF Bay Area a couple of years ago, I found out about all the groups I play with now IRL, online. I wouldn't have imagined any of this back the first time I was playing the violin, as a child and teen.

In fact at this point I am in what would probably be described as an embarrassment of Facebook-group riches. I'm not sure I can even remember all their names. (I'm a moderator for one of them, so I remember that one, at least.) I see many of the same friends in multiple groups too: some are violin- or viola-centric, some are for adult starters and re-starters, one is focused on the Alexander Technique. Then I got added to the "100-Day Practice Challenge." A little overwhelmed, I hid the notifications and was thinking about just signing out of the group. And then I went to orchestra rehearsal.

Playing in the SBP viola section.

One of the orchestras I play with, the South Bay Philharmonic, is an all-volunteer group that I found out about when a friend from, Gene Huang, let me know about it on my blog when I announced I was moving. I looked it up then and found that they rehearsed around the corner from my new house. It took several months before I became a regular member, but once I did I was hooked. The SBP evolved out of the Hewlett-Packard Orchestra, and there are still some H-P employees playing with the group, but it is now independent. Scientists and tech nerds are heavily represented among the musicians, so I fit in well!

An aspect of the SBP that especially appeals to me is the "open mic" portion of the concerts, shorter pieces played by small chamber groups, and full chamber music concerts. I've played in several of these, most recently a performance of the Schubert Cello Quintet. Gene Huang, who is the concertmaster of the SBP, has performed the entire Mendelssohn violin concerto with the orchestra, and our principal cellist, Harris Karsch, performed the Popper Hungarian Rhapsody with orchestra last spring. The concert we are currently preparing features tubist John Whitecar playing the first movement of the Gregson tuba concerto, and there were rumors of a bassoon concerto on the spring concert.


Watching my friends perform solo repertoire with the SBP got me to thinking: could I do this too? I have never performed a concerto for anyone but a private teacher in the past. Several years ago I came close when I played the concertmaster solo of  Tchiakovksy's "Mozartiana" suite with the Arlington Philharmonic. I'm a violist in the SBP, and there are fewer of these types of solos for viola, and fewer concertos. (Our conductor likes to joke about this fact). There is one, though, that is decently well known: the Telemann viola concerto in G. Here is one of my favorite recordings: Yuri Bashmet playing it on a modern instrument with modern tuning.

I have played it in various situations over the past several years as I was learning the viola. It's quite charming to listen to and not that technically difficult, either for soloist or orchestra. I played it through once with an informal chamber group I read music with on weekends, and it went okay. So when the SBP's outgoing music director asked for suggestions moving forward, I stepped up and volunteered. The process was made easier when I thought the actual performance would be a ways in the future: when we had exhausted the repertoire the director picked out before he retired and moved to Texas.

Then came the fateful orchestra rehearsal. The bassoonist who was going to perform this spring had a conflict with a paying gig with another orchestra. She wanted to postpone. Could I do the Telemann sooner? Um . . . sure?

I went home and counted the days until the concert (which will be on May 11 2018): it was 108. Suddenly the 100-day practice challenge took on a whole different meaning. That evening, I made my first post.




February 12, 2018 at 08:46 AM · You can do it, but better, you will do it well, because you'll have practiced for 108 days! :)

February 12, 2018 at 02:55 PM · Yes! I'm trying to memorize it, also. I know movements 1 and 2 pretty well, but not 3 and 4 yet. Some people are negative about that when I tell them, and say, "oh, you don't need to do that," but I find that the work put into memorizing is work that I should do anyway. It's not wasted.

February 12, 2018 at 03:52 PM · Memorization is easier in small sections for me.Sometimes connecting those sections into the larger piece is the largest challenge especially if there is a huge contrast between sections.

It's as if mentally I'm on step 3 of a ladder and need to go to step 9 immediately. Of course it isn't really that difficult. It's more about what goes on mentally and how we look at it I think. Good Luck! As you say, it's never wasted.

February 12, 2018 at 05:34 PM · Karen, I think you are right about the value of memorizing it. Memorization equals mastery! And sometimes, after that much practicing, I truly think it gets to be easier to play something without the music than with it!

February 12, 2018 at 06:49 PM · Go, Karen! I'm really looking forward to the May concert!

February 12, 2018 at 07:30 PM · Thanks @Gene! I'm wondering what the third piece on the program is going to be :) And I'm looking forward to your next performance next year too!

@Laurie, yes. I agree, I've only gotten to that point with a few things. I gave my PhD thesis defense talk without notes. I learned it by memorizing the order of my slides and practicing it that way, and it felt different, and yes, ultimately easier than with written notes. A couple years after that I started playing the violin again when I was at Caltech (the first time I restarted) and I found that principle of memorizing for mastery translated to music.

I'm still glad the whole piece is only about 14 minutes long, though!

February 15, 2018 at 02:38 PM · Wish I were going to be there to watch you do an excellent performance of a concerto I really like. What a wonderful opportunity! Will you make any effort at historically informed performance, e.g., baroque instrument or bow, gut strings, or will you just do it as Bashmet did it?

I wish you good luck memorizing it. I have always had problems memorizing music and found out a couple of years ago through testing that several aspects of my memory are low-functioning. Bummer.

February 15, 2018 at 02:44 PM · What a wonderful opportunity! You are so lucky. I wish I were going to be there and am sure you will do a great job.

Are you going to do anything "historically informed", e.g., use a period instrument or guitar strings? Or, will you do it a la Bashmet in the modern fashion?

Good luck memorizing it. I have always had memorization problems which have only gotten worse with age. Two years ago, through testing, I found out that certain aspects of my memory were low-functioning. Bummer.

Anyhow, good luck and keep us updated.

February 15, 2018 at 03:07 PM · Hi Tom! The only historical thing that I'm planning to do is use a Baroque bow. My parents gave me one for Christmas a couple of years ago and I hadn't found anything particularly interesting to do with it until now. It makes it easier to play with what I understand to be the stroke that Telemann intended, with an emphasis at the beginning and a dying away.

Ideally I would also like to play it with Baroque tuning--at A 415--because that makes it sound mellower and the A-string doesn't pop out when I cross over to it. But the conductor put the kibosh on that idea, and I can understand why. Dvorak's 9th symphony is also on the program, and that doesn't use Baroque tuning! Plan B is looking for a mellower A-string to put on my instrument. Gut strings scare me, though. I have enough intonation to worry about without that!

February 16, 2018 at 03:20 PM · Thanks for the inspiration, Karen. I've been practicing the Brandenburg #3 so my viola was already tuned to 415, and it turned out I had also downloaded the Telemann a few months ago, so I decided to try it. Well, my first jolt was to see the passages written in treble clef. And then on my second read through, I noticed some unusual fingering (suggested by the publisher? I haven't compared other versions yet). So maybe it's not that technically challenging but it does offer some challenges. I also have faith that you'll perform it wondefully.

I might as well make a plug here for my new favorite local group: The San Francisco Chamber Orchestra. Their director is a violist and almost every month they play a string quartet concert at the Freight & Salvage in Berkeley. It's incredibly refreshing to see a violist in such an influential role. At the end of the month, the entire orchestra (minus the violins!) is playing Brahms' Serenade #2 in A Major!

February 16, 2018 at 07:15 PM · Karen - if you get wound gut, e.g., Pirastro Passiones, you avoid a lot of the problems of pure gut. Have fun with the baroque bow!

February 17, 2018 at 01:58 AM · Good idea! Thanks for the suggestion :-)

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