I’ve given myself one year to master the violin.

As an adult beginner, I should be playing Twinkle Twinkle; instead, I'm playing Paganini's 24th caprice.

My first tour – the culmination of a year and a quarter

At least it seemed like a tour anyway. I already told you about my performance on Monday in Danielle’s studio class playing in front if her students. I had three glorious days off until I performed again, this time in front of junior high school students at Danielle’s old middle school.

Do you think that these students made me nervous? You better believe it!  In some ways kids are the toughest audience, and I knew they’d be the toughest on my most feared mistake: the memory slip.  Oh, and they weren’t just any old students, they were two orchestra classes combined into a giant sea of attentive 13 year old musicians.

Of course, Danielle played also, and she warmed up the crowd with some playing of her own.  She played the first movement of the Corigliano violin sonata, which she’ll play this summer at both her camp and Luzerne Music Center, where she’s going again this July and August.  She then gave a mini masterclass to one of the students.  While this was going on, I warmed up in the other room.  Before I played, Danielle introduced my project (thank goodness) so they didn’t think they were getting some kind of professional.  All-in-all, it was a great crowd to play in front of because most of them only started a year or two before also.  We were like kindred spirits.

Danielle and I played in two separate classes and in neither did I play great.  Imagine watching two figure skating performances.  One skater might eek through it, barely landing all of her jumps and sloppily getting through everything else.  But she doesn’t all out fall onto the ice.  A second skater, on the contrary, might perform everything perfectly, nailing every jump, spin, whatever, but one time all out falls down.  My second performance was like the second skater and my first performance was like, well, a third skater I didn’t talk about:  one that eeks through AND all out falls onto the ice.

My second performance was going so well!  Up to the stumble, it was the best I’ve ever performed it.  By far.  Oh, and what I mean when I say stumble is a memory slip that causes me to get lost for a second or two and play randomness until I get myself back on.  This happened in both performances:  three times in the first and once in the second.  I didn’t stop and start crying though, which is good.

The unfortunate thing, though, is that we forgot to film it.  It did happen though!  As promised, since I don’t have the middle school performance, here’s me playing in front of Danielle’s studio class.  The video doesn’t really show the students watching, so I took a picture of the motley crew that formed my audience:

And for the performance:

Watching this, a few thoughts.  1) I always play those first few notes really sloppily.  2)  It’s actually way better than I remember and also much better than my performances yesterday.  I really only messed up the part right at the end before Danielle’s second solo.  Not too bad (if I do say so myself🙂  I rush a little bit here and there, but overall I have to say that I’m happy.

Well, the Bach Double has been fun, and I’ll probably dabble around with it some more (and I’m sure I’ll perform it again in the future) but Danielle and I have made the decision to put it down for a while and start a new piece!  More to come on this later…


master class performance

I had my first performance!  For the most part.  On Monday, I performed in Danielle’s studio class with Danielle and Anna.  Why didn’t I blog about it and tell you?  Well, that’s a good question.  I’m not quite sure myself, and in retrospect I probably should have.  Sorry.  Not like you necessarily would have wanted to be there, but it was a good performance for the most part.

But I’m not going to post the video…yet.  I’m performing again at Danielle’s junior high orchestra teacher’s class tomorrow, so I’ll post the better video of the two.  One week and two performances.  It’s been busy.


A momentous occasion

The other day Danielle interjected in every conversation we had with anyone:  “Oh, did we tell you?  Today was a momentous occasion!  It’s what we’ve been working on for the past year!”

I don’t know if I’d go that far, but I suppose it’s some sort of minor landmark:  I finally played with piano.  So there it is.  We ran through the whole thing like it’s supposed to be played (sort of – but I’m not going to play it in front of an orchestra.  I make it hard enough for a piano to keep pace with me).   Who is the pianist?  Do you remember Danielle’s student Anna who gave me a lesson last summer?  Well, she started her musical life as a two instrument person and transitioned to violin before she started studying with Danielle.

So Anna, Danielle and I got together one afternoon and ran through it.  The good news is that I actually got through it.  It wasn’t good or polished, or, well, good in any sense of the word, but I did limp through.  Danielle worked with me on a few places, I settled down, and then we played it again.  Good news and bad news:  I played great!  (that’s the good news).  I felt good, smooth, and in tempo.  I had a nasty habit of rushing the first time around (not to take credit away from Anna, but she was essentially site reading the piano part and couldn’t play it as fast as I had been rehearsing.  I should be able to keep whatever pace, but I never claimed to be an extremely sophisticated musician!).  Everything had been going great, except something happened that had happened several times before:  I say to myself while playing, “man, this is going great!  I can’t believe I’m playing like this…uh oh…”  Then I had a horrible memory slip and couldn’t pick up where I was.  I sort of should of kept playing, but I was really lost and stopped.  I know, I know, I should never stop, but I couldn’t help it.

After the stop, I had to go because we started to eat into Anna’s lesson time (that’s why I stopped, just being considerate heh, heh).  We did devise a little strategy for Anna when I get lost like that in the future:  she will stop playing her part and start playing mine.  This is actually a technique they use on little kids who get lost during their performances.  Hopefully it will work if it actually happens.  When I get lost though, I get lo-o-o-ost.

Here, of course, is where being able to visualize what’s going on comes in handy.  Danielle has stressed being able to visualize every part of the piece, what it sounds like, where your fingers go, what note is being played, etc.  It’s really hard.  When you get into the rhythm, especially on a piece you’ve played through many times before, it just sort of happens.  It’s natural.  That natural-ness is great, except if you get lost, then it’s all over.  It’s like a golfer.  “Feeling” your swing is important, but when something starts to go wrong it’s really important to “understand” your swing so you can fix it.  Right now, I for the most part feel the piece, but I really need to start to understand it.

Enough ado.  Here’s where we actually got all the way through the piece.  You’ll hear Danielle instructing the whole time because I rush, rush, rush:

It’s funny how obvious it is when I haven’t worked with the metronome in several days.  It’s gotten to the point that I actually like playing with it.  It makes me feel in control, like my playing is honed and tight.


Beware of the burnout

My mom calls my dad an obsessive personality.  He’ll wrap his mind around some activity and then completely absorb himself in it for the next week or so.  This, of course, annoys the heck out of my mom and I can’t tell you how many times I can recall my dad sitting in his chair on his laptop working on his puzzle (he designed a game on the android called gatemaze), ignoring the world around him as my mom calls out from another part of the house:  “you’re obsessed, Eldon.”

Naturally, this brings me to my next point:  yes, my dad’s name is Eldon.  It’s rare you meet someone with a name you’ve never heard anyone else have.  I’ve never met another Eldon, but apparently it’s an actual name.  My dad once looked up on the internet to find every Eldon Vaughn in the country and believe it or not there are something like 7 of them.  Also believe it or not, there’s someone named “Eldon Eldon” and this person lives in Eldon, Iowa.  I am not kidding.  I don’t know anything about Eldon, Iowa, like if they have electricity, running water, or are still on the barter system, but if these people are ruled by a king, this guy has to be it.  It’s as the old saying goes:  “In the land of Eldon, Eldon Eldon is king.”

So I’m sorry to tell you this, mom, but I think I have a bit in common with Dad.  I don’t know if I obsess over things like he does, but I’m certainly an obsessive personality to some degree.  There are good and bad things about being this way.  The good:  during the obsessive period, tremendous amounts of work can be done completing whatever task is being obsessed over.  The bad:  once this period ends, it’s like pulling teeth to actually pay it attention ever again.  At one point in this project I was obsessed with the violin, but alas, that period has since passed and I’m in caught on a long, difficult road—a plateau that seems nearly impossible to conquer as the difference between one day’s playing to the next is transparent, and almost half the time, it seems worse.  It’s like trying to watch a child grow; day-to-day growth is impossible to measure, but if you haven’t seen the child in a year, the added inches are incredibly obvious.

This is where I am in this project, stuck in the harsh reality that I am doomed to violinistic plateau unless I push with all my might to bust through it.  And busting through a plateau is hard.  Really, really freaking hard.

But what do I do?  I can’t quit.  I just can’t.  Do you know how much time I’ve put in here?  Quitting would be foolish at best and downright tragic at worst.  There’s a poker concept that “spent money is spent” meaning when deciding whether or not to stay in the hand, don’t stay in with a losing hand simply because of the money you’ve already spent.  If you have a losing hand, that money is gone regardless.  Maybe I do have a losing hand here, but then again, maybe old mister violin is bluffing.  Maybe he doesn’t really have those four queens he claims and I really can beat him.  Who knows, but I certainly can’t just up and quit.  A year from now (and more) all I’ll think is “what if I had kept playing…”  It’s a common theme, but one that occupies me every day.

So maybe I’m burned out.  Or maybe these are just the early warning signs indicating a possible future burnout.  Either way, sometimes it’s really, really hard to practice.  To be quite honest, without this blog I certainly would have quit long ago, and whenever I have a particularly bad practice day (like this morning) coming on and writing about it makes it a little better.  Like a cool band-aid with a GI-Joe print on it.  It’s also like being able to rise above and look at the situation with a bird’s eye view, something in life that could come in handy with any number of activities.

When I say a bad practice I don’t really mean necessarily playing badly, although that’s possible.  This morning I just didn’t want to play.  I would play a little and then, spookily, my bow would come off the violin and I would just stand there, staring straight ahead wanting nothing more than to put the violin in its case and run in the opposite direction.  But I promise I’m not totally burned out.  Yesterday I had a very good practice day.  I played through the entire piece by myself with the metronome on 120 bpm 1/8th notes.  I didn’t play it perfectly (surprised?) but I didn’t stop, which is rare with the metronome; when I get off the beat, I usually have to wait to get on perfectly, but this time I just sort of slowed down for a second or so or sped up or if I messed up then simply melded back into the rhythm.  It was very encouraging.

Danielle has New West symphony this week and her rehearsal last night was in Santa Monica.  She got home around 10:30 and she suggested we watch TV, but I suggested we play.  She was happy to oblige, but she had a different definition of play.  I just wanted to play together, see if we could get through it after my success earlier.  She wanted to have a lesson, something I wasn’t mentally prepared for, and after a long, tiring day to then have a lesson, well, let’s just say that it didn’t go well.  I didn’t storm out after two minutes, but after she pounded a lesson into me for a half hour, I wasn’t mentally strong enough to play through the piece.  I couldn’t concentrate, and my fingers would get boggled.  She said that those are the times I need to push through and play it anyway.  Perhaps, but I didn’t.

Did I wimp out?  Should I have toughened up and stuck it out?  Yes and no (in my humble opinion).  In a pure, getting-better-at-the-violin sort of way, then of course I should have.  Those are the times to get better and wasting that opportunity wasn’t ideal.  But then again, getting totally burned out and then never picking up the violin again isn’t ideal either.  That’s probably drastic, but I felt FRIED.  Like I wanted nothing to do with the violin ever again.  That sentiment carried into this morning as I tinkered around and then had to put it away.  I felt bad about it until my drive down to Fullerton where I thought about the violin and had a small desire to play again.  I guess it’s a good thing I put it down for one morning.  Maybe next time I will press through the pain and take a small step out of this possibly bounded plateau.  Maybe sometimes I do need to just play and actually enjoy playing once in a while.  Maybe I simply need to look to improve whenever possible, but at the same time, beware of the burnout.


The whole magilla

Assuming that’s how you spell magilla, of course.  You know what I mean.  After my last post, I was pretty jazzed about playing nice and slowly, in rhythm, in tune (sorta), all that.  So, what happens at my next lesson with Evin?  She cranked the metronome up and had me play quarter notes at 72 bpm.  That might not sound like much to you, but for me that might as well be Paganini.  It was a huge struggle getting through up to the first violin’s solo, but I did get through it.  After that, it went downhill.  It was a good eye-opener, and a good teaching strategy:  just when the student gets comfortable, throw in something new.

Oh, and here’s the bummer:  I have my last lesson with Evin tomorrow😦  It was fun, but the school year is coming to an end and she’s going to Aspen and I’m going to Danielle’s camp and then Luzerne Music Center like last year.  I’ll get some footage from our final lesson.  Hopefully we’ll make it through the whole piece.

And as for making it through the whole piece, Danielle and I played this together the other day, and for the first time, I got through it all!  I can actually routinely make it through the entire thing by myself (without metronome – I can usually only handle metronome for smaller snippets because once I get off, I’m through) at a modest tempo, but I hadn’t with someone else.  Now, before you watch, it isn’t without fault (is anything I ever post?).

It goes downhill in the middle, and of course I screw up my solo.  But I get it back – a little.  It is my fault, though.  We played through almost whole thing a little earlier than this and it was better.  The difference was the tempo.  If you’re not familiar with the piece, the first movement starts with the second violin playing and then the first violin comes in and they play together for a while and then the second violin drops off, giving the first violin a solo.  The part before that solo I have down a little better than after, which of course should make sense since I’ve played it longer, but it’s also a little easier.  So we practiced the part after her solo, which means she started and I came in.  The important part was, she determined the tempo and she decided on a more practical tempo.  When we tackled the whole piece, not only was it just MORE music, making my little handy tired, but I began, so I determined the tempo and I was a bit, er, ambitious.

Before you watch this, then, watch it like you’re watching your little 6 year old niece giving a recital.  What’s the one thing you’re hoping?  For her NOT TO STOP!  We’ve all seen it:  the cute little 6 year old comes to a hard part, messes it up, stops…and then the tears come.

So watch this as if your only hope for my success resides in getting through the whole darn thing.  Maybe I’ll make a few good sounds here and there and maybe I’ll play a few notes in tune, but let’s just consider all that gravy.

When we were smack dab in the middle there, my hand was sweating, slipping and sliding all over the fingerboard, and my hand was getting really tired, not wanting to move very fast, but it just somehow did.  It literally felt like I was on a freight train going out of control.  And unfortunately it sort of sounds like it at times there too.


Violin is not fun

But then again, it’s really not supposed to be.  Hold on a minute; I’m actually not trying to complain here (believe it or not).  Many things in life aren’t fun, and they truly aren’t supposed to be.  I teach math, and I routinely tell my students that math isn’t fun, and it isn’t supposed to be.  It’s not supposed to be outright painful either (which many of my students may disagree with) but there’s another word for what it’s supposed to be.

Say someone is graduating from college.  That moment when they call his name, he walks to the center of the stage, his family cheers like a bunch of lunatics, he’s blushing, the whole nine yards.  That moment seems like fun, but it really isn’t.  It’s the culmination of a lot of hard work, like finishing your taxes, mowing your lawn, getting a new job, or finally nailing that really difficult part with the metronome.  None of that is fun.  What it is, is rewarding.  And I think I’m finally starting to get a little bit rewarded.

Danielle has been telling me this for eons:  work slowly, work with the metronome, work on intonation, don’t worry about speed.  It will come.  She could have thrown on a “young padawan” there, but it wouldn’t have mattered.  I wasn’t ready to hear it.  The Paganini was so darn fast, that I was obsessed with speed, speed, and more speed.  That led to tons of frustration because my little fingies weren’t ready for that kind of heat.  They wanted to play in tune, yearned for it, but I wouldn’t let them.  Yes, Danielle’s been telling me this forever, but I didn’t listen.  And I’m not saying I’ve been a total failure up to this point; I’ve had lots of success, but nevertheless, I was impatient.

No guilt, though.  I wasn’t ready.  It’s like writing a screenplay.  Sometimes you just have to write that ending that you know won’t work, because, well, you’re not ready to write the good one.  You have to get the crap out of your system before you’re ready to do some serious tear-jerking, you know what I mean?  Now I’m ready.  Hopefully.

I guess I do feel a tiny bit guilty though.  Not because I think I’ve wasted the last year and two months, but because I ignored Danielle for so long, and finally listened when Evin told me.  Not that I’m that guilty; Danielle does the same thing to me all the time.  I tell Danielle she should change a color on her website, or in a brochure, or some other thing and she only listens when someone else tells her.  Mmm hmm.  You know the story.  Either way, it was like this light bulb.  Practice slowly.  What a concept.  I think I remember someone telling me this about a year ago in a comment on here.  “Practice slowly” they said “Whatevs” I thought.  Only now do I understand.

I had a lesson yesterday with Evin.  This was after our last lesson where she hammered me on my intonation, and I figured if I was going to mess anything up, it wasn’t going to be intonation.  Or at least I wouldn’t mess it up worse than I had the lesson before.  I practiced for about 50 minutes before the lesson, 40 of those were slow playing, the piece and scales, really working on intonation.  The last 10 minutes before she came in I worked with the metronome, except with the beats as 1/8 notes instead of 1/4.  So it was like slow rhythm work.  Nice and slow.  Yeah.

When she came in, we played together somewhat slowly, not as slowly as I had just been practicing, but slower than usual.  Everything was pretty good.  Then we picked up the speed, and what do you know?  It was fine.  Pretty crazy actually how doing it so many times really slowly actually helps when picking up the speed.  Why didn’t someone tell me this a year ago?  Why didn’t, er, oh yeah.  Sorry Danielle.  Well, at least I’m listening now!  (thanks Evin)

I unfortunately didn’t tape my lesson with Evin.  That’s the way it always is.  If it goes well, I probably didn’t tape it, but if I really want to tank a lesson, break out the recorder.  Anyway.  Today I worked on, you guessed it, slow metronome work, and you might think that it would be easier to play this really slow, but for some reason it isn’t.  My mind sort of goes numb and I forget the notes when it’s not going fast enough.  And I out play the metronome all the time.  So often I get a little off the beat and just a tiny slow-down could bring me back, but I think I’m behind, so I play faster until I catch up with the next beat, but I’m playing too fast, so I blow through the next one and all hell breaks loose.  Well, I actually just sort of stop playing and play the passage again, but it’s like driving.  Some people, when they get freaked out on the road, hit the gas.  Sometimes that’s a good thing, but typically, you just want to take your foot off the gas, keep a calm mind, and assess the situation.  Music is like the road.  Lots of stuff going on and pretty chaotic.

So here is me playing with the metronome:

I lose the beat in the middle there and use the tie to get back on.  I also lose it at the end, which is why I smile there.  It’s funny; it doesn’t look like much, but to even get it to there with the metronome is very difficult for me, and I would guess for all beginners who haven’t grown up playing an instrument.  I’m particularly proud of the ties at the end, the ones that tie into a 1/16th note and I have to come off in the middle of the beat.  It’s easier to do with 1/8th notes instead of quarters.


A straight three minutes

Because of Colburn’s spring break when Evin was back home in San Francisco and my spring break from Cal State Fullerton when Danielle and I went down to San Diego for a little while, I hadn’t had a lesson with Evin in a while.  Yesterday morning, we worked together and it was a bit of an eye opener.  I think I’ve really taken a step backwards in the last couple of weeks.  Of course, when getting better, it’s common to think you’re actually getting worse, but in this case, I think it’s true.  For a while there I was hitting the metronome hard and the slow work, and everything was slowly coming along.  I’ve been slacking with the hard stuff and have been doing mostly performance practice lately, trying to just get through the new stuff.  I sort of fell into that pit with Paganini where I just wanted to play enough to get something on video, but wasn’t actually getting better as a violinist.  Same thing here.  The good news:  I pretty much know the entire piece now!  The bad news:  I sound like crap when I play it.

My vision, of course, was to play with Evin and record it during our lesson and have a sparkling little gem to post on here today.  Not so much.  We did play, but I couldn’t get through it.  Since we haven’t played together for a while, I was nervous.  That sounds like a weak excuse, but it’s true.  I usually go into a practice room, text her where I am, and she comes and finds me.  Our lesson was at 11am and I texted her my location at 10:53.  As soon as I sent it, it was like I could feel her presence coming and I got a little scared.  It was like the water ripples from Jurassic Park.  (And Evin is not that intimidating by the way.  She’s very sweet.  The scary part is just playing in front of her when I know she’s so good.  It’s hard to explain)  When she showed up, I sucked it up for a while, but sort of got it together.  The title of this post refers to our best run, which was about a three minute segment of the piece.  I decided not to post it because the only redeeming thing about it is that I simply play for three minutes.  My rhythm is pretty bad, as I hold most of the ties too long.  It was very apparent I haven’t been working with the metronome (something I started to correct this morning, which was also depressing.  Parts I could whip through with the metronome a couple of weeks ago I really had a difficult time with today.  You just can’t let up with these things).  Worse than the rhythm, though, was the intonation, which was atrocious.  Really bad.  When listening, even I cringe.  My sound is surprisingly decent, but it is the only thing I’ve really been working on.

Hmm.  So I need slow work to improve my intonation and metronome work to improve my rhythm?  This is nothing new.  Hopefully I’ll actually DO what I should be doing.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.