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Violin Breakthrough

Those of you who have been here for a while know that many violin students tend to plateau for a while and then make sudden, unexpected jumps in capability. I think that just happened for me. I’ve been in status quo for six months despite really being mindful with my practice. Tonight I picked up a book of compiled pieces and played it from beginning to end, even though previously I only knew one piece in the book. The pieces increased in difficulty towards the back of the book, and I found myself easily playing arpeggios in 4th and 5th position without stopping to think about it.

I put down my violin and thought “What just happened?”. It was so completely unexpected. Here, I’ve been dutifully slogging through Vivaldi’s A Minor Concerto, wondering if I was ever going to make any progress. When suddenly, I’m playing it nearly from memory and sight reading pieces of similar difficulty. What??? Merry Christmas to me. Watch out, Bach Double, here I come!

So what changed? About eight weeks ago I joined an adult string ensemble. I had to learn new music for that. I also had to up my game on sight reading, including dynamics, which honestly I have sort of ignored since day one. My teacher has also had a couple of studio practices for Christmas carol music and a couple of associated performance opportunities. Last year I played violin I. This year he asked me to play violin II. I had to sight read, and fast, because V-II does not follow the melody at all, so I couldn’t cheat and play it by ear. It must have been just the push I needed to level up.

I’ve done one of the studio Christmas performances so far this year. Last year, I was so nervous, I could barely play. This year was much less stressful. Usually I’m the only adult that shows up to these things. For this performance, I finally met another adult student. His name is Tom, and he has been playing for just a few months less than me. He said it was his first time performing, and I think he did a bang-up job. Seeing how nervous he was, made me remember all the same feelings I had this time last year. I hope he keeps performing. It just gets easier and easier. Plus, it’s no fun playing at home for the cat all the time. Music is meant to be shared.

Speaking of sharing, my husband took a picture Saturday night, but it turned out really blurry. I still like it though, so I’ll post it. Bonus, I don’t have to blur out the faces of the kids from the studio because it’s already done. I’m the one in green.

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Holidays are Here

It used to be that December was a terrible month for me despite Christmas being my favorite holiday. My father died 12/14/1984. Every year, I would get depressed around that time and wonder why until I realized the connection. Now, thirty years later, I marked the one year anniversary of my mother’s sudden death on November 21. This was the second Thanksgiving without my mother. Last year, things were already set, and my brother and sister and I “celebrated” as best we could because we needed each other’s support. This is the first year I had no one from my side of the family as part of our day of thanks. I went through the motions with my husband’s family, but my heart wasn’t in it. I’m not sure I will every really enjoy Thanksgiving day again. Well, maybe thirty years from now if things go on as they have.

Thanksgiving is behind us so now we can get down to the business of enjoying Christmas. Yesterday was an unusually warm day. Moe was unexpectedly off work due to damage from a power outage at the plant, so he brought the holiday decorations in and hung the outside lights. I should have taken the time to put up at least one tree, but I stayed busy cleaning the boys’ bathroom, sorting through old work papers, and practicing for upcoming holiday concerts.

I probably won’t get around to doing much decorating around the house until this weekend due to all the commitments on my calendar:

Monday – holiday program rehearsal
Tuesday – consort practice for Yule
Wednesday – date with my hubby to see my teacher play in the University of Richmond Symphony
Thursday – string ensemble practice
Friday – I’m playing in a benefit concert to support Arts Partners
Saturday – my company’s holiday party.

There will be lots of violin playing this week, but very little violin learning, which is why I had to work so hard at it this past weekend.

With all that going on, one of the things I have done to reduce the stress in my life was to order Christmas presents online. Why did I not do this sooner? Shopping during the holiday madness has always just about ruined Christmas for me. I will have to get stocking stuffers in a store, but that isn’t so bad. I also had to go clothes shopping because we have to wear black bottoms with red or green tops to the benefit concert this year. Last year, I just wore what I wore to work. And oddly, I own neither red, nor green tops. Fortunately I found a cute red top I can wear for work at half off. Check, and done.

Here’s hoping everyone finds happiness in their holiday.

Garden Clean Up

I’m home with a virus today and noticed bugs crawling around my back door. Upon closer inspection, they turned out to be lady bugs. I opened the door and found the outside of the house swarming with lady bugs of all colors – yellow, brown, orange and red. Some with spots, and some with no spots.

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I don’t know why they chose today to attack the house, but it may have to do with the beautiful warm sunshine.

Since I was outdoors, I figured a few minutes in the sun might help kill some germs so I did a few minutes of garden maintenance. My husband picked some tomatoes and peppers while I pulled up the frost-killed marigolds, zinnias, and beans. I also took down the trellis and stored it in the garage for next season. There’s still some work to do out there, but there’s no rush to pull up the rest.

It is interesting to note that the straw flowers, calendula and onions are still thriving. I will remember that for next year. There are still tomatoes ripening on the vine, so I left the plants and cages intact. At some point I need to pull the dahlias, but first I need to look up how to store the tubers. I look forward to next year’s garden already.

Solo for the Second Time

I did it. I successfully played a solo in a recital and didn’t immediately want to immolate myself. The recital was put on by the Richmond Music Study Club. I’m not sure what they do, but the group sure puts on a nice show. The performance was held in the beautiful Bon Air United Methodist Church.

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There were three violinists, including myself. Fortunately, I got to play first. Even then, my hands got a little sweaty, and I felt some stage fright. I loved being first on the docket because it gave me the chance to relax and enjoy all the other performances, which were wonderful. The three of us warmed up in the hall and adjoining lobby. Both of the other two violinists were rather young and played Suzuki Book 6 material. I got a bit psyched out by the youngest as she plays brilliantly. It’s stupid for me to be intimidated I know, because she has been playing for at least 10 years and I’ve only been playing for two.

Honestly, I was happy to be included in their company. Although I played a very simple Suzuki Book 2 piece, it was one that I know very well and had a great deal of confidence in. I did finally memorize it, which was amazing because I reached my goal of going up on stage without music to futz with. Our accompanist was fantastic. Hopefully I will have the opportunity to work with her again.

Was my performance perfect? No, but I don’t think anyone’s was. I had a few intonation slips and a minor bowing blip at the key change. However, in comparison to the spring recital debacle, this was a glorious victory. I’m so pleased my teacher chose to trust me. It’s one thing to blow it in a studio recital, and another thing altogether to screw things up in a mixed recital like this one. It must be so nerve wracking to be in my teacher’s position in times like that. Do the other teachers judge you by how your students perform in public?

There were seven other students performing – all pianists. They were lovely to hear. The best part of all was that I was one of the youngest people performing. The average age of the piano students must have been around 60. One of the piano teachers played two very long pieces. I enjoyed them, but I’m not sure how I feel about only one teacher performing. I would have liked to have heard all the teachers perform. Perhaps they weren’t aware that was an option.

The only thing I would change would be to mix up the performances. Instead of having all the violinists in a row, it would have been kind of nice to slip one in after every couple of piano pieces. However, logistically it just works better to have our accompanist stay at the piano until it’s all over rather than march up and down the stairs each time.

Overall, I give this an A-, only deducting points for my minor little blips. The venue was lovely and easy to play in. The piano was gorgeous and in tune. And the reception afterwards gave us time to congratulate the other participants and network a little. I hope I get invited back next year. Let’s hope I have both earned the privilege, and can play something a bit more interesting by then.

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/

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