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.

Not enough practice

So I’m in this zone.  I have to say I’m practicing every day because I am, but I’m in this not practicing enough and unfortunately not really wanting to practice a lot zone.  I hit this moment today where I subconsciously knew that I hadn’t been practicing enough and didn’t want to practice because of it.


I’ve been there before with lots of other stuff I’ve tried to do:  P90X (which I’m trying for the third time right now), learning Spanish, probably some other stuff I can’t think of, but that’s the mark of the gradual decline where something you do transitions to something you used to do.  Fortunately, I know the reason I’m a little lost:  I don’t have a clearly defined goal at the moment.

Before, I had the Paganini I was working toward, and then I had the Bach Double with a bunch of performances coming up.  I sort of understand now why violin learners need things like upcoming performances, even little performances in front of family or group performances, etc, to keep their rears in gear.  I know I do.

Does this mean I’m announcing another upcoming performance?  No.  To be honest.  But at least I know what my problem is!

Remember my last post?  Where I boasted about becoming a “real” violinist?  Hmm.  Let me tell you, all these scales and slow intonation work is killing me!  I know, I know, if I’m going to become significantly better, I need to so those things, but it’s so hard to stay focused through slow scales and such.  Danielle has some awesome students who have infinite patience with regards to slow work like that (and their intonation shows it), but I can’t take it.

Well, I can take it a little bit, and I do.  I haven’t actually not practiced very many days, it’s just that my practice times are really short.  When playing the Bach, practice time flew (most likely because I wasn’t practicing very rigorously) but now it drags.  I need to play a piece and play it soon.

So I’m working on a new piece, which I’ll divulge next time with a little preview.  Hopefully you won’t be surprised with how much my playing has gone downhill!

Oh, and there was a request for me to post video of me playing shifting exercises, so look out for that as well.

There and back again

So I performed the Bach at my mom’s church a couple of weeks ago.  I suppose it is a rather delayed blog post about a two week old performance, but right afterwards, Danielle and I were whisked away to the airport and have been on vacation in Costa Rica since.  I could have blogged there, but I was busy doing other things, like walking through rain forests,

getting beat up by waves at the beach,

taking pictures of sloths,

and unfortunately, being quite sick for a good part of it.

It was fairly bad timing, as I actually caught a nasty cold on July 7th, the day before we were to leave.  The morning of July 8th rolled around and I had to do two pretty big deal things:  1) perform the Bach 2) fly to Costa Rica.  It occurred to me that the sickness might be a ticket out of performing (c’mon, who wouldn’t it occur to, at least for a second!) but I ended up soldering through it.  It actually went pretty well, although I don’t have a video of it unfortunately.  But let’s be honest here, do we really need another video of me playing the Bach double?

We played it with the organist at St Andrews, Dwayne (I actually don’t know his last name) and he’s an extremely proficient musician.  We actually rehearsed it the day before and was just sort of along for the ride while Danielle and Dwayne talked music talk, where they were starting, where they were coming in, etc.  I just played when they told me to play.  One little clever thing Danielle decided to do for this performance was during some of my harder parts, she actually played along with me to strengthen them up.  The two violins in this piece sort of dance around each other, and while one plays the melody, the other is accompaniment, then it switches, back and forth etc.  So dropping her accompaniment for a couple of parts was no big deal.  I got lost once, but it was actually the same part I got lost in rehearsal, so it was also no big deal, as I watched Danielle for my entrance and came right on back in.  Overall a success.

Interestingly, though, Costa Rica affected my violin much more than the performance did, even though I practiced hardly at all.  We only brought one violin (mine, of course) which meant practicing was much harder.  If we had any down time, Danielle had dibs on the violin, which meant I was usually out of luck, but I did a little here and there.  Along with me being sick and being content with resting, this led to practicing extremely little, but a good week of light practice was probably a good thing, provided I jump right back on–which I am.

Not practicing is not what I was talking about, though, as far as Costa Rica affecting my violin.  Since Danielle played mine, she took off the third finger tape.  So we decided to just go ahead and leave it off.  It’s probably time.  And if it’s not, then we’ll make it time.

The other big thing that happened over the vacation is my mindset.  First, I missed playing and I just wanted to play and sound beautiful.  Second, apparently my intonation really sucks.  This project didn’t start because I wanted to become a violinist, but that’s just where I’m headed.  So I’m taking a step back and am really trying to work on my intonation and ear.  So was it wise, how I started the violin, for my long term development?  Perhaps there were better ways to start playing, worrying about the basic violin-y type things right off the bat (tackling scales over and over like RF said), but then again just playing got me to do the most important thing:  practice.

So now I’m ready for the monotonous work of scales and shifting exercises and all that.  The key word there being READY.  My mind is right, and that’s the most important thing of all.

Center Stage Strings Year 3

So the camp has once again come and gone. And I must say, with absolute certainty, that this was the best year yet. I’m of course referring to Center Stage Strings, which if you don’t remember me talking about it last year I wrote a post about it. You can also check out the official website.

A little history. Two years ago we had our first camp which weighed in at one week, a paltry 9 students, all violin. Last year we doubled to two weeks, about 20 students, now with viola and cello thrown into the mix. This year we followed the same formula, again with around 20 students (21 to be exact), but everything took a step up. From the non-musical side: administration, housing, transportation, recreation, food, cleaning, cooling, video, sound, photography, and countless other things that go into making a music camp run, we had one more year of experience that led to a much smoother camp operation.

From the musical side, the level of the students was higher, the motivation better, the performances absolutely first class. And the students. It would be impossible to say enough about the students. What a great bunch of human beings (and I’m not talking about their ridiculously high levels as musicians, which they also have). When helping run a camp like this, there are so many stresses and long, tiring days. I can truly say that the students were paramount to me getting through in one piece.

For the many, many remarkable performance video and official photographs, many will be available soon on the CSS website. I’ll keep you updated.

As for the Bach, I’ll officially put it away for awhile after tomorrow, when I’m playing at my mom’s church (St Andrews in Fullerton on Chapman Ave). We’re playing the prelude to the service at around 9:45. Only a few people will be really paying attention. How I like it.

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 p0st 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.


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