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.

Hands that stay

It’s funny how unnatural almost everything about the violin is.  When anyone picks up the violin for the first time, it’s impossible to rest it comfortably under the chin.  It’s also impossible to make any kind of good sound and pulling a straight bow?  Forget about it.  Whenever playing anything, at least for me, it’s always been the case that the most natural, normal-feeling thing is probably wrong.

This is, of course, why consistent quality instruction is essential for pretty much all people torturing themselves with this whole violin thing.  During the Center Stage Strings camp (which is now over!), we had a guest artist recital given by Elizabeth Pitcairn, owner of the famous Mendelssohn Red Stradivarius (the one the movie The Red Violin is based on).  She was a student and teaching assistant of Bob Lipsett at USC and The Colburn School, and in fact, she was Danielle’s first post-high school violin teacher when Danielle went to USC.  (Speaking of teachers, I don’t know why this popped into my head, but one of Danielle’s current students is an 8 year old Japanese boy and we just learned that he and his mom refer to Danielle as “Belen Sensei.”  I don’t know why, but I got a kick out of that).

Elizabeth’s recital was last Saturday, and the Friday before she gave a master class.  Here she is working with Danielle’s student Erin:  (photo by a wonderful photographer up here named Geoffrey Glass who generously donated his time to take countless photos of the camp.  If you want to check out Center Stage Strings photos go to http://geoffreyglass.com/p309840640)

Elizabeth is an incredibly accomplished performer and teacher, but she said during her class that she still sees Mr. Lipsett once in a while for a tune up.  It’s very difficult to get a perfectly accurate picture of one’s own playing, so instruction is always a good idea for a seasoned player and absolutely vital for the beginner.  It’s essentially impossible to take up the violin without getting lessons.

For example, when playing variation 2, Danielle told me that my fingers should just hover right above the strings when not playing.  Naturally, I would want to keep them as high as possible out of the way, but having them ready to pounce in on the action is much more effective.  Here’s a look at my fingers too high:

Here’s them doing a little better job of hovering:

OK, so it’s not THAT much better, but doesn’t it seem like they’re closer, ready to work?  (Oh, and I know my second finger is high…I’m working on that too 🙂 Either way, it’s something I should work on and I never would have considered it without Danielle telling me.  This project is pretty difficult, but luckily I have a pretty good lifeguard.


Shifting practice

One of the most difficult aspects of scales (besides staying in tune) is shifting.  Well, I should say shifting is one of the most difficult early violin skills to master on anything.  Sure, it’s not as difficult as more advanced techniques like vibrato, thirds, tenths, or left hand pizzicato (or probably a lot of other things), but it’s first thing after simply making a sound that all violinists will have to tackle.

So I’m playing a G-major scale here, and there’s a shift on the A string into third position (third position is when the first finger is in the spot where the third finger would be in first position.  Wait, does that make sense?)  There’s that same shift coming down, so I isolate the shift and practice it a few times:

Notice how I seem to be playing the same note twice at times?  That’s because the second finger in third position is an E, and in fact it’s the same E as the E string, so I’m testing it against the open E string to make sure it’s in tune.  As you can tell, many (if not most ) times it’s out of tune and I have to adjust it a bit.

To help with shifting, Danielle gave me a Sevcik exercise to work on.  Here I only play the opening measure three times in a row:

On the way up, I shift on my first finger, or I play consecutive notes both with the first finger.  On the way down, I do the same thing, except with my second finger.  More to come with this particular exercise.

Don’t push back

The Center Stage Strings music camp is about half done.  As you can probably imagine, it’s incredibly busy as I’m the taxi driver/recreation director/dishwasher/do-whatever-else-I’m-told-to-do-er.  Of course, you’re probably thinking that I’m using the camp as an excuse as I haven’t posted anything in a while, but to tell the truth, the camp is only partly to blame.

I was eavesdropping the other day on our chamber music coordinator, Diego Miralles, as he talked to another parent.  Diego’s daughter Ava studies with Danielle and attends the camp.  The parent asked Diego if he was coaching Ava’s chamber group, and he responded with a firm, hard no.  Why?  As he put it, it’s difficult to coach or teach your own kids because when you try to push them, they push right back!

As you can probably imagine, Danielle and my lessons are sort of like that.  I try not to be too much of a pain, but it’s frightfully easy to become frustrated with the violin and when you’re not scared of your teacher, or at least the smallest amount afraid of offending him or her, then it’s easy to push right back.  Unfortunately, in order to perform at any level on this instrument, it’s necessary to be pushed to the limit, and perhaps I need to let Danielle push harder.

One of the main ways I haven’t listened to her as much as I should have is with this blog.  The blog is a major part of this project, and she’s been telling me for a while that I should concentrate on the journey more than the destination.  In other words, I would be so focused on posting a video of me playing part of the actual piece, or a scale, or whatever that I would post nothing for days if I didn’t have something ready.  Unfortunately, at this point, I don’t make as much progress than at first, and it would be impossible to only post parts of the piece.  It might be a month between posts.  In fact, variation 2 sent me over the edge.  I pounded away at that variation day after day and never got anything good enough to post.  I wanted to throw myself into the raging river before one of the faculty members told me that any of these talented students here would also be having problems with this piece.  Of course, I don’t know if that should make me feel heartened or really, really scared.

So now I’m going to try to practice more efficiently by tackling more exercises and focusing more on the difficult parts over and over and not just muddle through each section from the beginning each time.

With that in mind, Danielle showed me the other day an exercise to help with the ending to variation 2:

Now, Danielle’s a great teacher, but her camerawork leaves a lot to be desired.  In case you couldn’t tell, that exercise involves playing the first finger in first position on the A string, then sliding up to third position and playing the third and second fingers on the A string then the first finger on the D string.  The exercise focuses on the shift, not playing the first finger, then playing the third and second before the first on the D string.

Here’s a little better example:

It’s played a little slowly, but apparently my intonation was good.

It’s time for some Center Stage Strings

I think I mentioned this a couple of months ago, but Danielle started a music camp in Three Rivers, CA (right south of Sequioa national park) last summer, and year number two starts this Sunday!

That’s a picture of all of the students, faculty, and staff from last year.

This year is bigger, better, with double the students and up to two weeks from just one last year.  They say summer music camps are times where students take big leaps since they get multiple lessons per week and have nothing else to do all day except practice, work with their chamber groups, and sleep.  (We feed them as well, I promise).  Technically I’m not a student at the camp, but I’m hoping to get a few more lessons from the students this summer.

I’ll probably also get a few lessons from Danielle also.

Good first bad later

You know when you think you should work out but don’t you feel crappy afterwards, but when you do you feel great?  Why is everything like this?  After I practice for several hours I feel great (about practicing, not necessarily about my playing) but when I don’t practice enough I feel bad.  Why do I do this to myself?  And it’s not just violin.  I should work out more, practice more, play video games less, eat more salads and less cheeseburgers.

That’s one reason I’m terrible these days (at playing and blogging).  Simply not enough practice.  This isn’t to say that I’m not practicing – in the three months since I’ve started I’ve only gone two days without practicing and both were travel related.  I just haven’t had enough gargantuan several-hour practice days.

Practice isn’t the only reason though.  Another, and perhaps more important, reason is that I’m plateauing.  (I wasn’t even sure if plateauing was a word, but spellcheck didn’t flag it…although spell check did flag “spellcheck”)  Of course you could quickly counter that if I’m plateauing then I need to practice more to break through the plateau, but it’s hard because I’m plateauing!  It’s a vicious cycle.

Another reason is that my little experiment is catching up with itself.  So much of my time these days is spent on scales and intonation and exercises (Danielle has me doing this shifting exercise that I’ll play for you soon) and with much of that stuff, how many posts about scales can I really have?  At first, I was improving rapidly and it was fun to see my progress, but now I’m slowing down and it’s, I’ll just be honest, very frustrating.

What am I trying to say?  Well, that little goal of playing the theme and the first three variations might be temporarily put on hold.  Danielle thinks we should move on as far as the Paganini goes (obviously scales and such will still be here) because I’m just hitting my head against the wall with these.  Not that I think it gets any easier when we move on, but it is something new.