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.

A lesson with Simone

Danielle and I were at Colburn the other night when she got a phone call from Simone Porter, one of Mr. Lipsett’s students who Danielle also works with on a regular basis.  Simone is 14 years old and lives with her mom Deborah in Seattle.  For the last few years, they have flown down to LA every week to get lessons from Mr. Lipsett (and Danielle), and also to attend both of their studio classes.  We’re talking about a serious violinist here; if you took a small handful of the very best young musicians in the world, Simone would undoubtedly be among them.  The reason for her call, surprisingly, was me:  she wanted some help on her Geometry homework.

Danielle laughed and asked me if I would be willing to help, which of course I was, but I offered a trade.  I would help with her homework if Simone would give me a violin lesson.  She was happy to do it.

We met in Danielle’s studio and worked on violin first.  Now, let me just say, like most normal 14 year old girls, Simone has a very outgoing, bubbly personality.  I didn’t exactly know how this lesson was going to go, but as soon as we started, she became instantly professional, as if teaching something as dear to her as the violin could only be treated with the utmost respect.  I took this is a supreme compliment, as even though I’ve only been playing for three months, she treated me like any other violin student (or how I imagined she would treat any other violin student).

So I was very grateful for that.

Just to give you a little insight to Simone, here’s a link to channel 7 news that did a spot on her earlier this year, when she was still 13:

Simone on Channel 7

On to the lesson.  We worked a lot on the 4th finger as far as placement and strength and then we worked on the Paganini.  We filmed the first 20 minutes of the lesson until my video camera ran out of battery.  I tried to get a nice overview of the lesson, so you’ll have to forgive my video editing:

As you can tell, we both talk pretty fast, so we got along well there.  Overall, it was an awesome lesson and I was very thankful.

Next, it was on to math.  She wanted to work on geometric transformations and symmetry.  We got a short clip on her camera since my battery died:

OK, so violin is slightly more exciting than math…


And that’s that

So I graduated today.  Well, I technically didn’t graduate; I technically participated in the commencement ceremony, but that’s that as far as my masters experience goes.  What’s next?  Hopefully I’ll find a college teaching position or two in this horribly depressed economy.  In the meantime, I have to hit the practice room.

Danielle has been stressing a couple of things lately.  1)  Hover that pinkie.  Remember that curled up position my pinkie made?

It’s still hanging around, and Danielle’s sick of it!  Whenever I play anything now I think about that darn pinkie and in a way it makes things easier, but mostly it makes my life miserable.

The second, and perhaps more important and reaching change, is to how I practice.  Much more metronome.  I have been using the metronome, but with the violin screaming in my ear, it’s sometimes difficult to hear.  Someone on here recommended the body beat, so I tried it.  This device doesn’t make a sound like a normal metronome, but instead has this clip that vibrates to the beat.  I clip it to my right side collar and it feels like my heart is beating to the proper rhythm.  It feels a little like I’m a cardio patient, but as far as being an awesome metronome, I love it – much easier to follow along than a clicking metronome.

So here’s a quick video of the opening to variation 2:

Yeah, I mess up a little bit there, but the reason I’m happy with this video is mostly how I felt while playing.  When I first started with this variation, for some reason I had a ton of trouble with the scale part.  I think all these scales have actually helped (duh).  It won’t be long before I post this entire variation (maybe even with the grace notes).

Oh, and if you notice in the video, my hair’s a little messed up because of that funny little square graduation hat I was wearing all morning.

Done with my Masters!

OK, so this has nothing to do with violin, but I took my last final today for my masters degree!  Well, I guess it has a little to do with violin, since I’m now done, Danielle says I had better be a “violin machine.”  Whatever that means.  Bottom line, I’ve been slacking with the violin over the last few weeks, but I’m now done with the whole “math masters” thing, so now I’m focused!

Well, I have to install a patio in the back yard too, so there’s that.

Just like Jodie Foster

So I’m still on my quest to play the theme and the first three variations all in a row, nice and tidy, without tapes.  Yesterday and today I’ve been working on variation 3 and it’s, well it’s uh, well let’s just say it’s tough.  Remember when I played (sorta) variation 3 a couple of weeks ago?  I didn’t realize just how much I depended on those tapes.

The bad news in this variation is that every note is really two notes – an octave.  The good news is that I only have to slide up and down the G and D strings.  That’s sort of good news, good that I don’t have to jump over to the D & A or A & E strings, but the problem with sliding up and down is that you don’t have your other fingers to gauge off of, so hitting notes is a bit like guessing.  Of course, here’s where having a good ear comes in handy.

Do I have a good ear?  I don’t know.  I can tell you that I have a much, much better ear than when I started playing the violin and that it’s improved dramatically since I removed the violin tapes.  But good?  I’m just not sure.

I keep mentioning those confounded tapes.  Does it sound like I’m obsessed with them?  Let me put it this way.  Have you seen Silence of the Lambs?  Do you remember the end when Clarice (Jodie Foster) goes down into that basement after Buffalo Bill?  You see, I’m Jodie Foster and the violin is Buffalo Bill.  When she first goes after him, the lights are on – that’s when my tapes were on.  It was still scary, as she didn’t know exactly where he was, but at least she could see!  Then, of course, Buffalo Bill put on those night vision goggles and turned off the lights, so it was completely dark.  That’s how I feel now, wandering around in the pitch blackness while my violin watches me with silent amusement as I bump into things and feel around and wonder when my violin is going to pull the trigger and end my miserable existence.

Is that dramatic?

You decide.  Here’s me attempting the entire variation:

I don’t quite look comfortable, do I?  Along with the loss of tapes, that also has to do with octaves in and of themselves being really hard.  Like they say, with practice comes comfort.  Do they say that?  Even if they don’t, hopefully it’s true anyway.

Another look at Dissonance

Do you remember that video I linked to about a month ago about Danielle’s camp, Center Stage Strings?  It was the 15 minute promotional video?  That was made by a very talented documentarian named James Seligman who also filmed Danielle’s recital last weekend.  He sent us this clip of Danielle and I playing the Dissonance movement of Fifteen Minutes.  As you can see, it’s a much better angle.

Clearly, I’m not the performer Danielle is.  Although, in my defense, I am playing a kazoo.

Life post fingerboard tapes

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, I haven’t posted a heck of a lot in the last few days.  There are two reasons for that:  1) I’m about to graduate with my masters degree here in about a week and a half and have been, as you could probably guess, fairly busy and 2) I took those fingerboard tapes off and it has been a little dicey ever since.

It’s funny, the biggest influence the tapes had was probably mental.  Did they help with intonation?  Of course, as first position is laid out and they make finding third or fourth position a snap.  More importantly, though, was the boost of confidence.  Jose Canseco described the major boost steroids provided in baseball was that you would just feel stronger, faster, better.  Once that confidence is up, it simply makes everything else seem easier.  The same is true for these tapes on the violin.  I felt like I wouldn’t have to worry as much about intonation in first position and could care more about my sound, or tempo, or whatever.

That safety net is now gone.  Mostly I’m glad, but it has been a bit frustrating because I don’t have a whole lot of new rep to post on here.  A lot of my practicing has been going slowly through scales, checking open strings, trying to hold the intonation together so I don’t go off by a half step before the scale falls apart.

Last night, I got the realization that I actually do have some new rep to share.  I’ve played the theme, variation 2, 3, some of the finale, some of the Kreutzer, scales, but really none of this stuff without tapes.  So, here is the theme I played last night.  It’s not as fast as the one I posted before, but the tempo is a little steadier.  The intonation isn’t horrible, but not where it needs to be.  Hey, I just took the tapes off!


So I haven’t posted for a couple of days.  There is a reason for this besides laziness I promise.  When I posted last, we made the video of me playing some of the first variation.  During that shoot, Danielle actually had me play on another violin (she has them lying around), and of course this violin didn’t have the fingerboard tapes on it.  It wasn’t too bad without the tapes, and in fact, the posted video was without fingerboard tapes.

You probably know where this is going; the tapes came off that night.  Honestly, it has been like taking 12 step backwards in the last few days.  I”ve mostly been doing scales, very meticulous scales, checking open strings every time up and down while trying to stay in tune.  As close to in tune as I can anyway.  What has been interesting, however, is usually when I concentrate on one thing, everything else tends to fly out the window, but lately I’ve noticed my sound is quite nice on the scales.  Of course that also might be a result of me taking them considerably slower as I transition to the land of no training wheels, but it’s nice nonetheless.

What I’m getting at with all this is that I don’t have a video of me playing the violin.  But the kazoo–well!

For mother’s day, Danielle and I came up to her parents’ in Three Rivers CA (right outside Sequoia national park) for the weekend.  I suppose I could blame my lack of video on the trip as well since travelling always throws me out of whack.  But oh well.  The trip up here had another purpose:  Danielle held a recital as the final concert of the season put on by the Three Rivers Performing Arts Institute.

Three Rivers is a wonderful little town of about 2000 people nestled in the mountains.  Danielle started a music camp last summer called Center Stage Strings and this town has eaten it up.  They love their classical music and before team Danielle rolled into town, there was somewhat of a lack of classical music performances in Three Rivers itself.  So Center Stage Strings and the Three Rivers Performing Arts Institute came into existence and for the last year has filled this musical gap.  Whenever either the Institute or the camp puts on a concert, they fill the hall (a church here with very good sound) to capacity of about 250 people.  Not bad, considering it’s over one tenth of the town!

Several works featured on the recital were Lawrence Dillon pieces that Danielle played on the CD she just released.  One of them is called “Fifteen Minutes” and is a collection of 16 movements with names like Distractions, Runaway, Memory, and Self Absorption.  One of the movements is called Dissonance and, which you might be able to guess with that name, features a violin and kazoo playing in unison.  When putting the recital together, the kazoo player was still up in the air, but with my recent stint with the violin, I got the nod.

After three run-throughs (I can hardly call them rehearsals) Danielle felt I was ready.  Last night was the concert, and it was another typical Three Rivers full house.  They sat me strategically up front so I could jump up on stage for my movement and then sit back down for the rest of the piece.  Danielle’s dad Rudy recorded this from the side of the stage, so it’s not the best angle, but you get a nice little crowd view at the end:

Did you notice the little chuckle from the crowd at the beginning of the piece?  That was from Danielle telling me to face the audience.  If you see me looking at the music while playing, I’m actually not faking it.  This was the first time I actually needed the music.  It’s funny, while playing, I couldn’t tell you necessarily what note I was on, but I could tell the relative distances between notes to (hopefully) hit the right one.  Also, this piece was designed that the violin and kazoo play the exact same notes together at the same time, so oftentimes I just listened to Danielle and replicated the notes she played.

It was the first time I’d actually played with Danielle, certainly during a concert, and it was a lot of fun.  People asked me afterwards if we would play a violin duet next year.  We’ll see.

Photo courtesy Geoff Glass.

More variation 1

It’s funny how different I think I’m playing is compared to how I’m actually playing.  To be honest, the videos I keep subjecting myself to are probably, in and of themselves, helping this little cause of mine.  Oftentimes, I’ll watch a video of myself later and be surprised either in a good or bad way.  Tonight was a particularly glaring example.

I incorporated the spiccato into the first variation how it’s supposed to be played.  With the violin on my shoulder, I knew I wasn’t playing it up to tempo, like Danielle did in the last post, but I thought I was playing it kind of fast.


After watching the video, like a football player watching game tape, I was stunned at how slowly I played it.  It’s weird; while playing I felt like I was flying, but when watching it, I feel like I was dragging.  I wonder if this is a common phenomenon.

That one being the best gives you a rough idea of how all of the previous ones sounded.  Oh well.  As is a common theme throughout this blog, room for improvement isn’t a bad thing.

And I’m back

I thought it would be pretty awesome for the blog to go back east to Delaware for a few days.  Now, the wedding was great.  Hanging out with old friends, catching up, and watching a good buddy get married were all worth the price of admission, but the violin part of the trip was a little disappointing.  I originally imagined myself practicing every day and even getting a recording or two of myself playing in the hotel room with the mute on or something.

That, clearly, did not happen.  In a way, it’s surprising and not surprising how little time I actually had to practice.  On the day of the actual wedding, in order to get a good 45 minutes of playing time in, I had to duck out of the reception–although I did wait until the open bar switched over to a cash bar.

So I’m back.  I didn’t touch my violin yesterday, as I traveled back across the country, so I was worried about how much my hands were going to hurt when I picked it up today.  According to Danielle, sometimes a break can hurt, and sometimes it can help.  I was in a mode where I was playing a lot (for me) everyday, and my hands hurt on a daily basis.  Today, though, my hands didn’t hurt at all.  I hope that the little break over the past few days gave my hands some much needed rest.  Hopefully, they won’t be on fire tomorrow.

Today, it was back to the grind as Danielle set out a goal for me.  In two weeks, she wants me to be able to play through the theme and first three variations.  Now, I’ve played through the theme and variation 3 recently, and variation 2 a while ago, only nowhere near tempo and without those grace notes that give me so many problems.  Variation 1, however, is untouched.

Here’s a look at it:

See those dots above a lot of the notes?  That means they are played with spiccato.  Spiccato is a technique where you produce short notes by throwing the bow.  What does this mean?  Here’s Danielle playing the first three measures:

See how she throws the bow, creating short choppy notes?  That’s how this variation is supposed to be played.  Oh, and she was using my violin there (she doesn’t play with tapes!).

To go about learning this one, we again tackle it from two different angles.  First, I practice spaccato by playing it on open strings and then in scales:

After the way I set that up, did you think that video would be more exciting?  That makes two of us.  That’s all the spaccato I have right now; this is a technique that demands a LOT more practice.

The second avenue to play this is to play the notes without the spaccato.  Here I play it with slurs:

Right after this, Danielle suggested that I shift while playing the open string so I don’t have that ugly pause in there.  I try to make it a little more connected:

As I posted this, Danielle overheard and asked, “is that the best one we had?”  Unfortunately, yes.  For now.