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My current challenge is memorizing my music. I’m told that the instrument is easier to play if I’m not engaging my brain in reading music at the same time. My festival piece is sort of memorized. There’s a bit of a slip happening in the transition that still needs work. My last concerto is memorized except for about 9 lines. Considering that the thing is three pages long, that’s pretty near a miracle.

What I’m finding with the memorizing is that I can concentrate more on my bowing, but my dynamics pretty much disappear. Everything is ff (that’s fortissimo, or very loud, for you non-music folks). So even though the notes are in my fingers, I periodically have to check the page for dynamic notation. I hope that it gets in my brain in the next 10 days. It would be amazing to walk out on stage without having to carry the score. I think it always looks more professional when people can play from memory.

My teacher is also eager for my vibrato to come on line. I can only do it if that is my primary focus, and sometimes it doesn’t really work right. It’s terribly frustrating. Lots of drill for very little progress so far. I have been working on it over a year now. *sigh*

Still, we’re focusing now on the 3rd movement of the Vivaldi A minor concerto, and I have lots of music to work on for string ensemble. Practicing second violin parts is a challenge because lots of it is just playing the oom pa pa bits. It’s great counting practice. I’m really learning a lot and working on my lazy reading skills. By the end of this, I’ll be a much stronger sight reader.

Memorizing, on the other hand, is still open to negotiation.

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When It Rains, It Pours

For the last 2+ years, I have been primarily just practicing the violin. I go to lessons, work on my assignments, play at a studio recital once in a while, but mostly just play at home by myself. That’s a pretty unsatisfactory musical path after a while. I picked up an instrument so that I could play it for people, not just practice.

The solution to this is to perform, of course. However, while there are numerous opportunities for young people to perform, there are not so much for the adult starter. I could busk, or if I was good enough, play at a nursing home or something. But for most of us there just aren’t the beginner orchestra or newbie ensemble options that are in place for the kids. Since adult starters are unlikely to monetize their playing, encouraging beginners is not profitable. And if you don’t want to solo, but instead wish to learn how to blend sound, or participate in something bigger than yourself, you’re pretty much out of luck.

This week, however, two amazing things happened. The first was that I had the opportunity to join an adult beginners string ensemble. I had a great time. The music was all in first position so it was very easy to sight read. But that’s a good thing, because I needed to focus on the skills I haven’t learned yet, namely watching a conductor, blending my sound, and learning to listen. Rehearsal also drilled home the fact that I really can’t count. I generally don’t need to while playing alone. In a group, that becomes a crucial skill.

The second cool thing that happened was that my teacher signed me up Friday to play in an exhibition at the end of the month. There’s this string festival that happens every year where the kids go to compete and test for their levels. The way I understand it, the exhibition is supposed to showcase adult beginners, but the organization has been making do with high school students due to the lack of adult participation.

We spent a little bit of time picking out a piece for me to play. It’s a favorite from about a year ago. Yes, I know we did that for the recital in May, but this time I have several weeks to prepare, and it’s a bit easier for me. As much as I would prefer to play something more in line with my current level, it will be better to play something I already know very well.

I’ve gone from no opportunities to perform, to a rich performing ground indeed. I feel lucky, and hope that I live up to people’s faith in my ability. Wish me luck!

Slowing Down Speeds Things Up

You knew it wouldn’t be long before I got back to violin blogging, right? This girl is seriously obsessed.

At any rate, I have come up on a couple of issues that are holding me back, namely quadruplets with varying bowings and string crossings, vibrato, and timing. My teacher has given me a number of ways to practice these things which should cure the problem, IF I manage to practice them correctly. Note the big IF.

Here’s the thing – my practice is limited to a couple of hours late at night. As a morning person, my attention span has pretty much gone kaput at that point, but what are you gonna do, right? Practice time is practice time. What has been happening is that I play through the pieces I am working on, do some concentrated work on open strings and the etude I am working on that week, and hurry through the identified weak points in my concertos. That’s all good, except for the last bit.

One of the issues I have identified is that if I play something incorrectly, I just keep repeating it to try to fix the problem. However, this means that I am practicing it more times wrong than right. Because once I get it right, I move on. When I come back to the same place the next day, I automatically play it wrong. Why is that? Oh yeah, I only played it right once and wrong 15 times.

Because of this, I have become increasingly frustrated. I have known all along that it needs to be practiced more times right than wrong, and yet I have been doing exactly the opposite. Why? Because I’m tired, and too lazy to stop and correct the errors when they happen. I guess I’m afraid to slow down because that feels like going backwards, when in reality, it would help me move forwards. Did that make sense?

Here, this guy says it way better than I do: http://www.bulletproofmusician.com/8-things-top-practicers-do-differently/

When I was a child there was an advertisement in every comic book for “Sea Monkeys” with colorful depictions of happy little beige mer-people wearing crowns, carrying tridents, and building castles. Just add tap water to the handy dandy included plastic aquarium, treat it with this little package of powder, pour in the eggs, and prepare for hours of fun watching your new pets. You were supposed to be able to view said pets through little circles of magnification built thriftily into the walls of the habitat. So simple, right? What’s not to love?

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Only, Sea Monkeys don’t exist. They’re really brine shrimp and they don’t look even a little bit like mer-people. Brine shrimp don’t wear crowns, or build castles. They just swim around microscopically and exist. Then after a couple of weeks you just have a lovely crop of algae and nothing to show for it. Endlessly disappointing, and yet we continued to try to grow them. I think my mom had one of those silly habitats on her kitchen window sill for two years.

Enter the new generation. They are being marketed a similar product that Milton has dubbed “Aquasaurs”.

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Just add bottled spring water to the colorful and cheaply made, non-rigid plastic habitat, pour in the package of eggs mixed with organic matter, and in just one day watch your new pets come to life. I was prepared for the disappointment. After all, Sea Monkeys were a joke. I planned how I was going to sooth my son’s sorrow over not being able to hatch a dinosaur fish. It was a great mothering moment in the making. I was practically chomping at the bit while I waited for the proof of failure.

The next day we had microscopic little swimmy things. OK, I thought, they’re basically sea monkeys. I can work with this. With just a little patience, there was still a great parenting moment in my future. I was practically giddy with anticipation. However, my plan was crushed when a week later we had 10 one inch long crustaceans that looked like this:

triops

These things are so very, very grotesque. The picture makes them look cute, but it’s basically like growing an extremely ugly bug. And we have 10 of them! They are lively, and eat voraciously, and are reproducing. I think I am doomed to have these monsters and their poorly made habitat on my breakfast table indefinitely. Ugh, Ugh, Ugh!!!!!!

Yes, they really are sort of a prehistoric creature. Officially, they are called Triops Longicaudatus, named so for their three-eyed configuration. Their physiology has remained virtually unchanged in the last 70 million years, exactly matching their ancient fossils, making them one of the oldest animal species still in existence. It’s a type of tadpole shrimp that can get up to 3 inches in length. These guys look like they might make it to that size, although they are ugly enough already at 1 inch.

I have one saving throw. They only live up to 90 days, or until the water temperature drops below 72 degrees. Twenty one days down, 69 to go, with winter on its way. Fortunately, the tank water is now so dirty, I can only see the terrifying creatures when they get near the walls. I suppose it’s time to clean the tank again. This is not the glorious parenting moment I was hoping for. Making my kid happy is good too, but I really didn’t want any more pets to take care of. Looks like I learned a lesson instead of getting to teach one.

My Weekend Adventure

I had the opportunity to meet another adult starter violinist. We found each other via the Violin/Fiddle Adult Starters group on Facebook. She has been playing about six years and is a member of a local string ensemble. We met on Saturday and had a delightful afternoon getting to know each other and visiting with her friend, Don Liester in his awesome studio.

Don is a local violin maker who makes really lovely instruments. He allowed me to play several of his violins and I fell absolutely in love with one. So much so, that he gave me the opportunity to take it home for a week’s test run. It’s a full-size instrument, and I have determined that it’s still too much of a stretch for me to play for any length of time. However, my teacher says that I could consider a 7/8ths violin now that my hand is better able for it.

In playing the borrowed violin, I discovered that the reason that I like it so much is that it sounds just like mine, only bigger. When I mentioned that to my teacher, he was quite intrigued. He is very interested to hear and play it on Friday. I know that he is simply going to love it! It would be fantastic if he bought it so that I could hear it more often. If I can’t have it, then it would be cool if he did. I really love this violin!

Don also makes 7/8ths size violins. My new acquaintance has one, and it is delightful. Because I love the full size one so much, I am considering commissioning a 7/8ths one from Don with the aim of sounding like the one I have out on trial. My husband thinks I’m daft for wanting to spend more money on a violin that sounds like what I have already. However, I think it will be difficult for me to be taken seriously on a small instrument with a small sound. A 7/8 would still be a compromise in sound, but would be much closer in output than the 3/4 I have.

Part of me thinks that I should consider something with a different sound quality altogether, but every time I try violins I gravitate to the sound I have. I wish I were experienced enough to know whether it is the right one for what I plan to do in the future. Is it sweet enough for chamber music? Is it colorful enough to play solo repertoire? Can it be heard in a hall, and blend with an orchestra? There are so many questions that I don’t have the answer to. In the end, does it matter? After all, I am the one who hears it 100% of the time. If I don’t love it, will I want to play it, regardless of whether it sounds fantastic in a space or situation I will probably never play in?

In other news, I told my teacher about the Facebook group and mentioned that it’s closed with no teachers or professionals allowed. His immediate reaction was a stunned, “You mean I can’t check it out?”. Yup, that’s right. It’s a good thing I like you, buddy. LOL!

It’s Alive!

I have to say for the record that the square foot gardening method worked for me. This is the first year ever that I have gotten to the end of August and still had a living, thriving garden. The tomato plants are taller than I am. The dahlias and zinnias did fantastic. The cucumbers, peas, beans, lettuce, cabbage, carrots, radishes, bell peppers, and marigolds all did wonderfully. I will not grow onions or pole beans again, I think. They did poorly.

The family all agrees that the produce from the garden is much, much better than what we get from the store. There have been so many tomatoes that we can’t eat them all. And weeding has been a complete non-event. I have pulled maybe three stray blades of grass from the garden. Overall, I am calling it a win. I might even expand it next year to grow more things. We’ll see.

Now that it is almost September, it is time to put in some cool weather plants. I will do another round of radishes, some lettuce, more peas, and maybe some spinach. I won’t go overboard and will probably confine it all to one square so that I can do some amendment to the soil in the first one. Seriously, guys-I never thought this square foot gardening thing would work out. I’m really pleased with this project.

The Process of Enjoyment

I think that sometimes, because I use this outlet to vent, that people get the incorrect impression that I am not enjoying my violin journey. Quite the opposite! I would not have stuck with it for over two years, paying out thousands of dollars in tuition and equipment, if I did not truly enjoy what I am doing.

I vent here, because it’s safe. If I have a rough practice, or a phrase isn’t shaping correctly, or I just can’t stand to watch yet one more miniature prodigy on You Tube, then I come here and complain. What I don’t often do is tell you what I love about playing this instrument.

As silly as this may sound, I love being able to say that I am a violinist. Sure, I’m not Anne Sophie Mutter, but I can play a pretty fair tune or two. When once I felt awkward even holding the instrument, now I’m doing fun things like double stops (chords), harmonics, and creeping my way towards the very far reaches of the finger board. The harder this gets, the more interesting I find it to be. And there’s nothing more gratifying than going back to an old piece and wondering what was so hard about it the first time. With this instrument, I’m always learning, always improving, and always have more to work towards. I can’t get bored. It’s simply not possible.

Sure, I mostly play for myself, and a relatively tolerant husband and children; but I dream of one day playing with a group of musicians. I want to know what it is like to be a part of a whole – one voice in a sea of orchestral sound, or a supporting role in a small chamber setting. Maybe one day I will even nail a solo in a group recital. I can’t possibly play worse than I did for that first ever solo.

For once, I can see measurable progress in something that I am doing, and it hasn’t stagnated. Other endeavors have not been so satisfying. Running was great at first, but after I ran several races, I stopped improving, and I lost interest because training for faster speeds was fruitless and exhausting. Knitting is just wrapping yarn around needles. There’s variation, but there’s tedium too. Of course I still knit because it’s relaxing, but it’s less interesting to me now.

Playing the violin is both relaxing and exhausting; but it’s also intriguing, exciting, sometimes tedious, always a welcome break from every day chores, intellectually stimulating, and blissfully frustrating. The extremely difficult nature of this instrument is the very thing that keeps it always fresh. Plus, there’s so much to learn that if you hit paralysis on one aspect of playing, you can attack something else and still make progress.

I don’t think I would enjoy the process as much as I do if I didn’t have the capable guidance of my teacher. He knows when to push me, can pick out and solve any problem, and reminds me frequently that I’m only human, that my struggles are normal, and that I’m still moving forward. My teacher provides that constant gut check that helps me refocus and direct my energies in a positive direction. Without that, I would lose my way, and playing would have a much less satisfactory return on investment of time and energy.

With my violin, I can sing like an angel even if I can’t vocalize. When the low notes reverberate through my collarbone, or the E string vibrates in sympathy with a well placed finger on the A, or a heart-stoppingly high note rings out perfectly in tune, you can’t help but feel joy. Joy-because the notes are so sweet, and joy because you made them.

The definition of enjoy is to have or experience pleasure or satisfaction in something. That’s what playing the violin is like – pure enjoyment.

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