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.

Jedi mind tricks

I currently find myself at my second music camp of the summer:  Luzerne Music Center.  We’re in Lake Luzerne, New York which is nestled in the beautiful Adirondack mountains.  We’ve been here for a few days now, so my apologies for not posting lately (excuses, excuses) as it’s taken a few days to get internet up.

The good news though is that I’ve been practicing quite a bit since I’ve been here, and no, I didn’t forget the video camera!  The bad news is that Danielle is so busy with her students, chamber music coaching, and her own practicing and rehearsing that she doesn’t have a whole lot of time to work with a rising star like myself.

Luckily, I’m pretty good at managing my own time and my practicing so far here has gone pretty well.  Remember the ending to the theme?  The part that looks like this:

That little ending requires playing (all in first position) the second finger on the D string, then the fourth finger on the A string to get that D#, then back to the first finger on the D string and then a half step higher on the A string for an E.  So the fourth finger sort of slides up a half step while the first finger does its job on the D string.  The point of this is that it’s some finger gymnastics and definitely the most challenging passage in the theme.  I’ve had some trouble with this part before, but it’s getting better.

Interestingly, what’s helped me with this passage is something that’s happened sort of naturally.  When I first started playing, I would completely stare at my left hand the entire time.  This, of course, causes my bow to get sloppy, play on the wrong strings, too close to the bridge, etc.  Lately, I’ve done a much better job of trusting my left hand and looking at where my bow crosses the strings while I play.  It’s funny; like Obi Won said, “your eyes can deceive you…don’t trust them.”  It seems like I can “see” my left hand play without staring at it.  Maybe it’s muscle memory, maybe my ears are getting better, maybe both and something else as well.  Maybe I’m becoming a Jedi.  Whatever the case, it’s helping with that tricky last passage.

Here’s a nice slow run-through of the theme.  Notice that throughout, I snag quick glances at my left hand, but for the most part, I look at my bow:

I played this yesterday morning, and in the afternoon, Danielle gave me a little mini lesson.  I taped the entire thing, so the following video was sort of luck that I got it at all.  Danielle was helping me with my sound and intonation on the theme and I was getting frustrated by how slowly I was playing it.  She didn’t mind the speed; she just wanted me to play it smoothly and correctly.  Really not intending to tape it or anything, I just busted out with this:

OK, so it’s not the best playing ever, but we were pretty happy with it (although I do look at my left hand during the last passage!).  The sound could definitely get better, but the intonation is the best I’ve played it at that speed.  Do you notice the goofy looks on my face at times?  I didn’t originally even mean for her to take this seriously.  It’s funny; I just went for it and it turned out well.  Danielle called it an “anomaly” which I’m not exactly crazy about, but the fact is I played a bit above my station.

I got another explanation that I like better than it being something supremely out of the ordinary.  Have I mentioned Elbert before?  He was at USC when Danielle was there and they both studied with Mr. Lipsett.  He’s now with the San Francisco ballet and helps Danielle with some of her students and was on faculty at Danielle’s camp.  He’s here at Luzerne now as well and he told me a story.  When he was younger, he worked on a piece (I can’t remember which one), and he only practiced it long and slow and didn’t want to pump up the tempo.  His teacher at the time (not Lipsett) told, rather ordered, him to just go for it and bust out the much faster tempo.  Just go for it!  He did and it sounded great.  Perhaps it’s an argument to just practice it slowly most of the time and then just go for it.  Danielle typically stresses building slowly to the tempo with a metronome, going faster and faster bit by bit.

Which approach is better for building speed?  Perhaps they both have their place.


I’m truly sorry

So I’ve done a lot of whining about how hard thirds are and how they’re going to bite me if anything will, yet I haven’t posted myself playing them.  Unfortunately for all of you, that changes today.

First off, in my defense of the following video, it was filmed again on my laptop (Danielle and I went down and stayed at my parents’ house for a few days and I didn’t want to be without the video camera in case I was playing something particularly well.  Ironically, I left it down there so now I’m stuck up here without it).  The nice thing about my laptop is that the videos get stored directly on here so there’s no extra transfer from my camera.  A convenience that doesn’t really translate to the blog, of course, but it is nice for me all the same.  The bad part is that the sound sucks.  Or it could just be me.

I’ve been practicing the opening to variation 6, which has thirds played on the A and E strings starting really high and then coming down.  The first one is played with the second and fourth fingers, then a shift down for the second one, and then the third is played with the first and third fingers and then the fourth is another shift to the second and fourth fingers again.  That last shift is really tricky and I don’t think I’ve gotten it perfect yet, but I’m getting better.  Here’s the music:

The music here says to play the first third with the third and fourth fingers (which makes a little sense, because it’s a half step for the lower note and a whole step for the higher note, so using 3 4 kind of makes the hand just shift up.  With 2 4, you have to widen the fingers a bit on the shift.  Danielle told me to play 2 4 so that’s what I’m doing).  After the first passage with the thirds, you can see it switches to tenths.  Yeah, not thrilled about that one either (although a violinist at Danielle’s camp said that no one plays the tenths in tune anyway, so not to sweat too much about it).

So here’s the video of these first four thirds coming down and then back up (the back up part isn’t in the piece, I’m just practicing).  Again, like the last video that came from my laptop the sound isn’t great, but it’s all I have and I don’t feel like waiting to get my video camera to post again.  When you listen, it will sound really screechy, which of course could be me, but it doesn’t sound this bad under my ear so I refuse to believe I sound this ungodly awful.  I blame it on the laptop (it’s probably me).  Either way, I’m truly sorry and if you need to turn your sound off then I will understand.  I mostly want you to watch my left hand and empathize with me on how hard thirds are.  Oh, and I’m not trying to play them in tempo, I’m just trying to get the hand mechanics right so forgive me there too.

No, I didn’t go to USC.  Danielle did though – Thornton school of music.

I’m going to keep trucking with these.  Hopefully I’ll have the entire opening passage down soon enough.


Another good comment

I got a nice comment today that poses a question that I’ve asked myself directly quite a bit and indirectly on the blog a few times.  Here’s the comment from Lilibeth:

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Interesting. I might not recall correctly so please correct me if I’m wrong.

When you were starting this journey someone criticized your methodology saying you were skipping steps that were important to building a good violinist’s foundation and you replied that you didn’t intend to become a violinist, you just wanted to play a certain piece when the year has passed. It was all just an experiment.

I think it’s been around six months now, and I wonder if your position has changed a little or not. What I mean is that the violin is an easy instrument to fall in love with (in my experience), even though learning to play it especially after already being an adult and without having prior musical training will most likely be a difficult and sometimes even frustrating experience.

How do you feel about that “sound box” at this point? Do you really think you won’t end up being a violinist? Are you already one? At what moment do you become one? Do you think you’ll be able to give it up when the experiment is over? I know these are a lot of questions. I’m just a curious follower. :)

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This begs the question:  am I a musician?  To be honest, I definitely don’t feel like a musician, and am not exactly used to calling myself one.  Before this little project I would answer the question “are you a musician” in the negative at countless parties, dinners, get-togethers, whatever.  Whenever I was out with Danielle, that question would of course inevitably come up.  Now, I simply avoid the question and use the opportunity to discuss my blog to anyone interested in listening, but I don’t really know the answer.  Being with Danielle and working at The Colburn School have truly made me a non-musician in a musician’s world and now it’s possible I’m becoming…wait for it…ONE OF THEM!!!  It’s like Danielle’s converting me to her religion.  Weird.

Either way, I’m probably not there yet.  I’m just a guy with a blog.  When will I become an actual bona fide musician (if ever)?  I don’t know.  Danielle jokingly said that when I can play thirds perfectly I can call myself a violinist.  I may be in for a long wait.

But to directly answer Lilibeth’s question above, I wouldn’t say that I never intended to be a violinist, only that it wasn’t the direct goal.  I have always thought it was going to be interesting how much of an actual violinist I would be at the end of this shebang.  Let’s just say that I play the piece very well.  And this probably isn’t going to happen, but let’s say I play it at a level that a “normal” violinist would play it.  If you saw that video out of the blue on youtube you might think “oh, that guy’s a violinist.”  In a way you’d be right, but there will be some serious holes.  First, I don’t have to play with anyone else, so throw me in a chamber group or orchestra?  Yeah right.  Second, I won’t be able to sight read, or even read music very well at all since I’m really just memorizing everything.  As for music theory?  Forget about it.  However good my playing of the Paganini is at the end of this year, there will still be some holes to fill, and it will be interesting to see what they are.

As to whether or not I’ll continue with the violin after this year is up, I can only say that I’d be a pretty big idiot not to.


So I got nothing

That little injury turned out to be just that – little.  It actually healed pretty quickly and I ended up only taking one day off completely from the violin.  I was thinking about how to capitalize on the injury as far as the blog goes and I had a pretty good idea.  The cut was on my middle finger and I thought of a loophole (I actually wanted to title my next post as just that:  “A loophole!”).  The loophole was that I would practice octaves!  Genius, huh?  Since my middle finger was out of commission, I could simply practice octaves, where I only use my first and fourth fingers!  Brilliant!

At first, anyway, it came along quite swimmingly…that is until Danielle got involved.  I was merrily practicing away when Danielle poked her head into my room and said “I’m not sure what you think you’re practicing, but they’re certainly not octaves.”  Which leads me to my next point.  Danielle is a bit of a smart ass.

The hard thing about octaves, at first, is stretching your hand enough so that the first finger and fourth finger can be on the same note, one octave away.  This means getting those two fingers farther apart than the good lord intended us to be able to do when designing our hands.  That’s the first challenge.  Well, I’ve been soldiering away with this sound box for four whole months now, so stretching isn’t that much of a problem.  The new challenge is to actually play the octaves in tune.

In tune.

My nemesis.

Normally, when I play a scale all out of tune, I’m dorking up only one note at a time.  When playing octaves, or any double stop for that matter, you have to nail the lower note and then adjust the higher note, in this case the fourth finger, so that you’re playing a perfect octave.  It wouldn’t be that big of a deal if the distance between the fingers remained the same.  Unfortunately, as the notes get higher, the first and fourth fingers get closer together to remain at a perfect octave.  This makes playing an actual passage tricky.  For example, the second passage requires going from that high A to a C# and then a D, D#, E, F, etc and the distance between the first and fourth fingers for each of those notes varies slightly.  This makes listening all the more important.  Also unfortunately, my ear isn’t what Danielle’s is and it’s really hard for me to tell quickly if I’m playing a perfect octave.  When someone good plays this variation, they know about how apart the fingers need to be and then they instantly adjust to make the octave perfect.  All while keeping a good sound.

Really???

Ugh.  So to be quite honest, I have nothing.  I could play the third variation now, after three days of work on it, but it wouldn’t be a whole lot better than when I played it right after I took the violin tapes off (you know, the time I played it and someone said I should put the violin tapes back on).  Yeah, that one.  You’ll just have to take my word on it that I’m playing my little heart out and hopefully one day when I’m older I’ll be able to bust out some crazy in-tune octaves.  Maybe I’ll think about not sucking so much at thirds as well.


Injury!

It was bound to happen sooner or later.

Last night I went to my buddy Dave’s 32nd birthday party at this place that offered us this giant bottle of beer for a hundred bucks or so.  Of course, the one they showed us was an empty demo bottle, so I picked it up to take a closer look at it.  I didn’t notice that there was a hole in the bottom of the bottle, and I sliced my finger on the glass.  It actually bled quite a bit at the restaurant, but I took care of it when I got home.  I forgot to take a picture of it until tonight, and it looks like it’s on the way to being healed, but here it is:

OK, so it doesn’t look that bad, does it?  Let me tell you though, it does hurt and the whole line there is a loose piece of skin, sort of like a really bad paper cut.  The worst part is, as you can probably guess, is the fact that it’s right on the tip of my left hand middle finger!  Or second finger in violin lingo.  You can just imagine coming down hard and fast on the string with that cut.

When this happens, it’s a bit of a fine line to walk; I can’t wait until it’s fully healed before playing because that would be a week or more of lost practicing, but at the same time, I don’t want to totally ignore it because it will take much longer to heal if I do.  To be honest, I don’t know exactly what I’m going to do, but I did take today off of practicing (only my third day off to date).  I will practice to some extent tomorrow, but I’m not sure if I’ll have a band aid or what.

I’ll let you know.


A crash course in vibrato

So my last post is causing a bit of a stir.  Originally, I never meant to have any vibrato in this piece until I listened to Shlomo Mintz’s interpretation of the caprice where he has that wonderfully beautiful vibrato in a rather slower rendition of the theme.  This post is to convey how I learned vibrato since I’ve had several comments in the last 24 hours about how my vibrato is great and one reader even thinks this whole thing is fake because no one could have that good of a vibrato in four months.  Is my vibrato that good?  It’s funny; I’ve been so down on myself this entire project and now someone thinks I’m too good to be true.  I suppose I should take it as a compliment.

So after these comments started rolling in, I simply asked Danielle point blank:  “why am I good at vibrato?”  A)  she actually doesn’t think I’m that good at vibrato which brings me to my next point…Danielle is really mean  B)  she does concede that it’s pretty good for where I am in my learning and the reason I’m this good defies modern science.  Just kidding.  She simply thinks that I practice a ton and that she gets to watch over my training every day.  I can’t tell you how beneficial it is for her to be able to poke her head in to almost any of my practice sessions and correct things on the spot.  Of course, that same thing is oftentimes frustrating, but in all honesty, correcting things on the spot is huge.  It is a big advantage to have never developed a vibrato that Danielle describes as being a “spaz.”  Remember a post from about a month or so ago where I complained to Danielle about practicing something incorrect for 5 hours and she said that I was lucky I didn’t practice it incorrectly for 5 years?  Similar.  And one last note:  having Danielle around keeps all of my fundamentals sharp.  My bow arm position, my left hand and arm positions, how my left hand fingers hover over the strings, etc.  Having the fundamentals down can only help when tackling something more difficult like vibrato.  Interestingly, a great teacher might actually correct an improper vibrato by correcting, for example, the position of the left elbow under the violin because that’s what’s really causing the poor vibrato – a lack of proper fundamentals.

So I’ve made all my excuses trying to convince you, dear reader, that I’m not a giant humongous fraud.  This post, then, is to describe how Danielle taught me vibrato in the first place.  Let’s begin with what vibrato is and what it isn’t.  Vibrato is a back-and-forth between the pitch of the note you’re trying to play and a pitch slightly lower (never higher).  It’s a bit of a misconception that vibrato is simply “wiggling” the finger around on the string, although that’s kind of what it looks like.  How you change the pitch so precisely is what makes vibrato difficult.

So Danielle breaks vibrato down into three parts.  Here’s the first:

Sorry about the video quality there.  Danielle and I are on vacation and I forgot the video camera.  This was taken in our hotel room on my laptop webcam.  So the first aspect of vibrato is keeping that first finger knuckle limber.  Here’s the second part:

Again, sorry about the quality.  The sound is pretty bad in that one (I prefer to blame the recording device and not my playing…).  As you can see, that concept of the WA-wa-Wa-wa-WA-wa… is very important as far as vibrato goes.  Here’s the third, and most important, video:

When first tackling vibrato, it’s important to begin with that nice arm vibrato.  Keeping it controlled with the entire arm, in my opinion, is not only easier but sounds better and is more effective than vibrating by just quivering the wrist or the hand, or whatever.  To practice this, practice it like anything else:  start slowly and move faster.  Begin with the slow WA-wa-WA-wa… and go faster.  You can even oscillate between the pitch and the slightly lower pitch using a metronome and eventually go faster.  This is actually how I got faster at the theme and variation 2 or whatever.  The metronome is a handy tool.  Anyway, I hope that helps and truly, that’s all Danielle ever taught me about vibrato.  And of course, I also have her eagle eyes on me at all times, which is what really keeps me in line.


You’re not so tough without your vibrato, are you?

OK, so I’m tackling Paganini’s 24th caprice, an extremely difficult piece perhaps a little too early in my violin life.  I think I’ve mentioned something similar in the past, but the piece has octaves, chromatic scales, tenths, thirds (these really fast thirds that if anything’s going to get me, they will), and more.  With that in mind, though, there are a couple of advantages to playing this piece early.

For starters, it’s only 5 minutes or so long.  True, at my tempo I’ll probably come in more like 8 minutes, but it’s not a horrendously long piece.  What if I originally said I was going to learn the Brahms violin concerto in a year?  Would that even be possible?  Here you might think I’m crazy, but if I wanted to play a 45 minute concerto, you’d think I was absolutely mad.  Or just doing some serious wishful thinking.

Another advantage to playing this piece is it’s so fast that, I have to be careful how I word this, you don’t really need vibrato.  That’s not quite right since Danielle and other great players would still use fast vibrato throughout.  How about, it’s so fast that I can probably get away with playing little to no vibrato.  That’s good news since learning to vibrate is a very difficult piece of the violinist’s set of tools.  Of course, I listened to a youtube recording of the caprice by Shlomo Mintz:

There are many interesting things about this recording.  First, it’s markedly different than the Heifetz one I posted a few months ago (most noticeably it’s a minute longer!)  When you listen to the theme, do you notice the vibrato in each passage surrounding the fast 1/16th notes?  It kind of goes bum(vibrato)-rest-bum-bum-bum-bum-bum-bum(vibrato)-rest-bum-bum-bum-bum-bum-bum(vibrato)-bum-bum-etc.

It’s very beautiful with the vibrato in there, so I get this crazy idea that I could learn some vibrato to perform on some key notes.  Danielle gave me a crash course (a few days ago) on vibrato, so I’ll tackle a one octave scale:

Yeah, I know, I really need a haircut and a shave.  Anyway.  Danielle actually doesn’t love the idea of vibrato, as she says I could play the entire caprice without vibrato and everyone would forgive me, so there’s no sense in wasting time.  But it would be so awesome!  I’ll simply add it to the laundry list of stuff I have to practice every day anyway:

1.  scales

2.  octave scales – then work on variation 3 if I feel saucy

3.  chromatic scales – beginning of variation 4

4.  thirds (on the A and E strings – the beginning of variation 6)

5.  theme – working faster with metronome

6.  variation 2 – working faster with metronome

7.  and now…vibrato!

I figure that if I get toward the end and the vibrato doesn’t sound that great, then I can always not do it and people would forgive me, but if I am going to do the vibrato, I had better get cracking on it now.  No harm in keeping my options open, huh?

Remember the theme we were talking about earlier?  Here’s me with the first part of the theme with some vibrato sprinkled in there:

It’s no Shlomo Mintz, but I think even at this level the vibrato adds a tiny bit.