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.

Advice from Colburn students – that darn fourth finger

Normal humans call it a pinky, but to a violinist, it’s a fourth finger.  That little, almost insignificant finger in everyday life is absolutely essential to playing the violin.  Both the right and left hand pinkies are vital in their roles, and unfortunately, taming that left hand fourth finger is extremely difficult.

When picking up the violin for the first time, using the fourth finger at all is almost impossible.  Danielle started me out with scales that only went up to my third finger and then hopped on over to the next open string.  When using the fourth finger for the first time, it feels absolutely useless, like it won’t be able to push the string down at all.  After a while, it becomes usable, but sometimes it does thing it isn’t supposed to.  You see, the fourth finger is supposed to be curved the whole time:

Except, oftentimes, especially with high notes, the fourth finger tends to lock in a straight position that has no power to press firmly or (which I’ll get to later, hopefully) vibrate:

So the other day, as I walked through the Colburn Cafe, I ran into students Francesca, Radu, and Jeremy (violin, violin, viola) sitting at a table.  I said hello, and they asked me how the blog and violin playing was coming.  We chatted for a bit and then Radu asked how my fourth finger was coming.  I lamented that it wasn’t perfect, that it unfortunately locked at the wrong time, but once in a while I have a good looking pinky.  So he showed me this exercise called a “pinky pushup” designed to strengthen the fourth finger so it locks less:

Hopefully my pinky will be strong and curved from now on!


It’s just a little smile

Remember when you were at a high school dance and the dorky, balding cameraman said, “OK, pretend like you like each other…” right before he snapped the picture?  That’s a bit like how I feel about the violin.  You see, I do genuinely enjoy playing the violin, but so often as I look over my past videos, I notice an expression suggesting I’ve just smelled something awful.  You know the one:

One video, though, the one when I played variation 2 without the grace notes, I looked pretty happy.  There was this little smile on my face that just didn’t go away:

I don’t exactly know where that came from, but it almost seems like I’m having fun.  Oftentimes I’ll smile after I play, but there are few that have me smile while playing.  Lately, I’ve tried to manufacture a smile while playing.  Here’s an attempt from this morning when I played those extra 3 measures from the Kreutzer like I promised (although I don’t try to play all 11):

When I look at the camera while playing it’s because I play the same passage twice and I should have moved on.  So let’s drop the smile and get down to business:

Certainly not perfect, but I’ll take it.  A couple of those shifts were pretty clean, so I’m happy about that.  Also, the beginning is a little rough, but I seem to clean it up as I go on, which is good.

But no smile.  Oh well.  Maybe it’ll return soon.

A bit of a frustrating evening

I had a marathon practice day today.  This morning, I probably practiced about 45 minutes before going out and about my day.  I got home at around 5:30 and other than putting/taking out clothes from the washer and dryer, I’ve been practicing straight from then until now, which is about 10:20 (I didn’t even have dinner).  Today has been my longest practice day thus far, and the worst part is, I don’t feel like I did anything particularly useful.

Originally I wanted to learn a few more measures of the Kreutzer etude and then post me playing it all from the beginning.  It’s been a few days since I posted a good video of me playing, so I was getting a little antsy.  I already had the first 8 measures of the Kreutzer memorized, and I wanted to get the next 7 memorized.

Yeah right.  I did an OK job of memorizing the next 3 measures, but for the life of me, I couldn’t play the 11 measures all the way through.  I did a serviceable job once when I wasn’t filming, but that was it.  The more time that went by, the worse I got.  As I pushed the 5 hour mark, I couldn’t play through two measures without getting flustered and confused about what to play next.  I think I maxed out my mind.  It’s like I’m so mentally exhausted I can’t even play stuff I can play first thing in the morning.

I’m going to assume this is normal and go to bed.  Hopefully I’ll have a proper recording of the first 11 Kreutzer measures tomorrow.

Danielle’s Report Card – Month 1

Well, one whole month has passed since Ryan began this incredible journey.  How much progress has he made?   I’d like to approach answering this question in two parts.

As far as tackling the Paganini, he has now learned the Theme and the first halves of Variations 2 and 3, albeit quite under tempo.  As far as his progress in mastering the entire piece, he has a long long long way to go.  In fact, it’s quite daunting.  (Especially when I think about the upcoming variations with tenths and thirds – yikes!)  I expect we will start moving along faster after he has some experience.  However–and this is a big However–what he has accomplished thus far is quite extraordinary.

This leads me to the second half of my answer.  It’s extremely rare that a beginning violin student would practice two hours a day, and sometimes more, in his or her first month on the instrument.  I think beginners, even adults, usually max out at about 30 minutes, due to lack of concentration and sometimes simply to rest their sore muscles!  I also have never seen someone, even an agile young kid, play with such a straight bow and clear tone.  Of course, he makes some scratches here and there, but relatively speaking, he sounds like he’s been playing at least a year already.  He’s playing a three octave scale, complete with shifts up in the stratosphere sans tapes, and honestly, it’s not that bad.  I think that is more than I could ever ask for right now. Ryan clearly doesn’t have perfect pitch, but I think his ear is magnificent for someone who has never had training.

So, in a nutshell, Paganini is rough going now, but I expect it to pick up speed now that he’s getting more comfortable with some basics like bowing, simple shifting, and string crossings.  I do have a plan, believe it or not, and it will work.

Do I think Ryan will be successful?  Yes.  Even though he’s pretty scruffy now, he has many of the qualities it takes to become a fine violinist.  He has a good enough ear, a lot of patience and discipline, brainpower, and pretty good hand-eye coordination.  I attribute these qualities, in order, to good genes, the Air Force Academy, teaching Math, and video games.

His grade?  I’ll be a stickler.  B+.

That Guilt Poster

Remember that guilt poster about the fingerboard tapes?  Danielle and I had a few made up, so if anyone is interested in getting one, they’re available at Metzler’s Violin Shop in Glendale (www.metzlerviolins.com) Read the rest of this entry »

Adding in those grace notes

Who knew that one little not-even-counted note could cause so much trouble?  Remember the grace note from before?

It’s supposed to be played so fast that it doesn’t even figure in the count of each measure.  For instance, see where it says 2 4 on the left next to the treble clef?  That means each measure has the equivalent of 2 quarter notes.  Looking at the above measure, there are 8 1/16th notes and that little grace note, which means that grace note just sort of slides in there.  My last post had me playing the first four measures of variation 2 without the pesky grace notes.  Here’s me playing with (out of about 25 takes, this was the best one):

Can you tell the difference?

Still no grace notes

The other night Danielle had me return to variation 2, but still didn’t have me do any grace notes.  Danielle’s new thing lately is for me to “pound” my fingers down on the strings especially when I’m playing faster notes.  So before tackling the actual piece, she had me do a little exercise where I just played a few notes up and down the D-string:

In the actual variation, the bow dances along the A and D-strings, then transitions on the D-string (similarly to the exercise) so it dances along the E and A-strings:

It seems like I was really proud of myself when I played those two little connecting notes.  Missed it?

Also in the video, the camera work kind of degenerates there as Danielle started clapping, but oh well.  I really like this variation.  It’s fun to listen to, and it’s surprisingly easy.  It’s funny how some things, after listening to them, seem like they’ll be difficult but end up fairly easy, while others don’t seem like they should be a big deal but turn out to be beasts.  When Danielle played this for the first time I was actually really scared about this one.  Hopefully I’ll have the whole variation soon.

Patting your head and rubbing your belly

A couple of posts ago I mentioned how the right hand was a difficult beast to tame.  Last night, Danielle really wanted to focus on making the right hand more fluid and limber.  She had me put my elbow against the wall so I couldn’t use my arm much and had me play short single bows by only moving my hand:

After that, I played some scales trying to incorporate the new bow technique:

It’s really hard trying to remember everything.  One moment I would concentrate on keeping the hand limber, but then my left hand finger would go on the wrong string.  Then I concentrated on my left hand, but my bow would slide too close to the bridge and my right hand would tighten up into a claw!  It’s this huge balancing act that all has to come together to sound anywhere close to musical.

Skeptics Among Us

The following is a comment made by a visitor to this blog.  He brings up some really great points about how I’m going about learning the violin.  After, is my response.  (and I apologize for the rather long blog entry)

Comment by RF:

You are doing well for a beginner, but you should by no means be trying anything by Paganini. Read the rest of this entry »

On a Larger Scale

One piece of the violinist toolbox I’ve yet to touch upon is the scale.  I’ve been doing scales, of course, but just never showed myself doing them.  They’re more difficult than they seem like they should be.  Well, maybe they’re not more difficult, just that standards are higher with them.  On a difficult passage, if a few things here and there are off, then so what, but on a scale, you’re playing very predictable notes, so shouldn’t it be perfect?

With my playing, that answer is clearly no.

Since Paganini Caprice 24 is written in A-minor, it would makes sense for me to be practicing an A-minor scale, right?  Probably, but Danielle wanted me to start with A-major first so that’s what I’ve been doing.  At the beginning, I only went up two octaves, and I didn’t even use a 4th finger – I played with open strings.  Then I used the 4th finger, but still played only two octaves:

Besides the fancy camera work, noting too exciting, right?  Adding on just one more little octave means several shifts going up and down.  Here’s my valiant attempt:

Besides missing the cute little face at the end, not horrible, huh?  Several of the high notes are out of tune, but hey, my tapes don’t go up that high.  An interesting thing to do with the last video is actually to mute it and watch it again.  My left hand actually looks kind of good.  My darn right hand seems to be messing everything up.  When starting the violin, I would have guessed that the left hand would be 99% of the problems.  Now, I’m not saying I’ve mastered the left hand or anything, but the right hand is surprisingly an equally (if not more so) beast to tame.