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.

Kicking it into high gear

Another title I could have used for this post is “squeaky wheel gets the grease.”  More to come on that in a second.

I just passed the 6 month mark.  Ouch.  In some ways I feel good, like when I think I’ve come from zero to where I am now in six months is actually a little bit remarkable.  In other, and let’s be honest here most, ways I feel extremely uneasy as I still haven’t learned the majority of the piece and of the stuff I know, there is precious little of it that I’m actually proud to play.  So I need to kick it into high gear.

Easier said than done, especially since school eats an extremely large amount of my time.  Ugh – 2 hours of driving round trip per day down to Orange County and back, five days a week.  I feel like a giant carbon monster leaving huge black footprints on poor mother earth.  I would take the train, but my personal convenience would take a hit.  Is that hypocritical?  Probably, but either way I can easily see why many adults don’t take up an instrument – you have to sacrifice something and it’s usually that thing called personal time.  Of course, I don’t want to discourage anyone from taking up an instrument (you don’t have to start with Paganini) but let’s just be honest here:  it’s hard.  But I have a feeling I’ll sink into my schedule soon enough.

Why should I have called this the squeaky wheel title?  Three days ago, I whined, yes I’ll admit it–it was a bit whiny, to Danielle about how she wasn’t paying me enough attention and that if she didn’t give me more lessons, I simply wasn’t going to do this thing.  Period.  Whiny?  Perhaps, but I did have a point.  I’m sort of flittering around right now and if Paganini’s going to be tamed, or tamed enough so that when I get thrown off I don’t break anything too important, I’m going to have to get much more focused.  She actually agreed and promised to work with me quite a bit, not only on my technique but also to help me learn all of the new stuff.  So there’s that.

We’ve been working on learning the new stuff in the fourth variation, but I wanted to take a quick detour last night into the third variation–the one with the octaves.  So I played the third variation for her and she ended up helping me with phrasing, something I hadn’t really worked on too much.  This was last night:

At the end there, right after I cut it out, I completely played the wrong note and stopped playing, prompting Danielle to yell at me not to stop, and then we had a little spat.  I wanted to spare you there, so sorry for the sudden cutoff.

We also worked on the fourth variation last night, but I haven’t edited the video yet, so I’ll get that up soon.  I don’t  know why I’m on this editing kick instead of just shooting something specific, but a little bit of the lesson seems more interesting.  And for me, it’s always interesting to go back and watch a lesson again, and it’s probably fairly helpful too.


A lesson with Anna

This has been quite a week.  We started our yearly RA training/year preparation on Wednesday to get ready for the incoming students who began rolling in yesterday.  They’ll continue to trickle in for a week or so as summer camps and festivals finish up.  Last year, Colburn training was no big deal.  I only had one class to teach, and I had already taught it so I wasn’t too worried, but now I have three classes to teach and prepare for, violin to practice (and write about), and classes start tomorrow!  It was a bit stressful fitting everything in, but I think I survived.

This afternoon I got around to editing that lesson with Danielle’s student Anna that I had a couple of weeks ago.  The first thing I want you to notice is how long Anna’s fingers are.  They remind me of a daddy long legs.  I think they’re even longer than mine.  It’s probably pretty obvious how much of an advantage having long fingers can be when playing violin and having them be thin enough not to hit the wrong string like I do.  If you hear a third voice at the end of the lesson, it’s Elbert who wandered by because he wanted to play catch in preparation for the annual Luzerne Music Center vs Philadelphia Orchestra softball game (which Luzerne won 20-4 or something like that.  Unfortunately I wasn’t there because I had to leave the morning of the game).

When I was in this lesson, it felt sort of like a King’s Speech moment when I did something as simple as walking and it changed my playing dramatically.  I’m not sure how dramatic it seems in the video, but when I was playing at the time (I cut out a lot of my BAD playing by the way) it felt a little bit like magic.  As you can see, Anna didn’t let me get away with much when I messed up, but she also picked and prodded, trying various techniques and we finally hit one that really worked.

Needless to say, I walk much more while practicing these days.

Colburn’s starting up again

So this week I have Colburn RA training, which means I’ll be in training most of the day (truly most of the day – until late) and all the while I still have to practice, work out, prepare for classes which start Monday, and somehow post.  I’m going to try to edit and post that lesson with Anna in the next day or so.

To be honest, since I’ve been back I can’t believe I’ve practiced at all, but I managed to every day.  Yesterday was particularly brutal and only got in a measly 15 minutes late last night.  I guess I should get used to a schedule like this.  When classes start it’s not going to be pretty with me teaching every day.  It’s one of the tough things about taking up the violin as a non-musician–it’s still just a hobby.  How many of us have the time to work on our hobby every single day?  Luckily, my wife appreciates my hobby and is very forgiving.  Now if my hobby was bull riding, it might be a different story.

A lesson with Stephanie

Well, Luzerne is over.  For me, that is.  I left a week early to prepare for my classes this fall and also for Colburn residential life training/year preparation.  Did I mention my classes?  I got hired at Cal State Fullerton to teach 3 classes:  two precalculus and one statistics.  I was very fortunate to get anything anywhere (state employment in California isn’t the best right now) but it means I have to prepare for some math!

Violin, however, doesn’t stop.  Remember when I was at Danielle’s camp and I wanted to get lessons from a bunch of the people there?  Well, that didn’t end up happening for whatever reason (mostly my cowardice), but Luzerne was a bit different.  I got three lessons in all, besides the ones from Danielle, from various people at the camp.  You’ve already seen the one from Elbert, the one I’m talking about today is from a cellist named Stephanie Gunst, and the last is from Anna Vosbigian, one of Danielle’s students.  I’ll post the one with Anna later; this one’s about Stephanie.

During the first week of camp I was having trouble tuning my violin.  Having trouble isn’t exactly right, as I can never tune my violin properly (unless I have some piece of software that tells me what note I’m playing).  I’ve gotten much better at hearing an octave when played as a double stop, but fifths are still hard for me to hear.  And Luzerne is notorious for tuning problems since the weather varies so quickly from hot to cold, and it’s perpetually muggy.  So I put my violin down, went to the office, found Steph and asked her to help me.  She came over and helped me tune my instrument.  Probably about a week and a half later I was practicing in my room and heard a knock at the door.  It was Steph–she walked by and heard me practice.  We scheduled a lesson for later that afternoon.

Now, as a precursor to this video, our lesson was a little over an hour, and we worked on lots of stuff, but the best thing we did was on shifting.  That’s what I concentrated on in the video.  Also, this was the first lesson I got from someone not a violinist, but as you can see, some things carry over:

At the beginning, when she says “one of the shifts in there” she’s talking about another piece she mentioned, but I cut out her talking about it.  It might be a little confusing, since there’s no shift like that in this Caprice.

Also, I don’t know why, but the camera cut out before it was supposed to.  At the end of the video, I of course played her cello as she gave me a mini cello lesson, but when I checked the file, it wasn’t there.  Maybe I maxed out my SD card.  Darn.

The lesson with Elbert

So I’m finally getting around to putting up something about my lesson with Elbert.  I videoed the entire lesson (about 45 minutes) and edited it down to a little under 5 minutes of highlights.

Video editing is a pain in the butt.

Or maybe that’s just an excuse as to why I’m posting this a week after the lesson.  Either way, here it is!  First though, let me say a quick couple of words before you watch.  Elbert is a buddy of mine, so at times it might sound like he’s being a smartass or giving me a hard time, and I just want to make it clear that he’s (probably) not like that with all of his students.

See what I’m talking about?  I could have edited out him giving me a hard time (maybe he would have preferred it!) but I left them in for two reasons.  First, they’re kind of funny.  Second, and more importantly, they lead to a point I would like to make about doing a little project like this:  you have to have thick skin.  When learning something new, especially something inherently frustrating like an instrument, it’s essential to take it seriously, yet at the same time with a grain of salt.  I think that it’s pretty important not to wrap up my personal self worth with how I’m playing the violin at the time; if I did, I’d be in the fetal position crying in the corner my entire life.

While waiting for Obama

The country is in a bit of a funk today.  The US’s credit rating dropped, as did the stock market, and 31 navy SEALS died over the weekend.  Not a great way to start a week.

Still, I pressed forward with violin practice, but as it went on, my thoughts more and more drifted to world events, so I turned on my computer to read the latest.  MSN’s homepage had a red banner running along the top:  Obama to address the nation…  So I clicked the link and there was an empty podium with murmurs from an unseen crowd that had apparently formed for the occasion and waited for the president as patiently as I did.  Of course, with my violin in hand, I naturally had something to do while I waited.  With my mind mostly on the upcoming speech, I practiced the most simple thing (besides a scale) that I cover, which is of course the theme.  I played through the theme a few times and I noticed something interesting happening.  I grabbed my video camera.  Take a look:

What did you notice, besides the relatively low quality of my playing and the chit chat of the peanut gallery waiting for Mr. President?  Besides a quick peak during that shift to third position, I look straight forward at my computer screen (it looks like I’m looking at the camera, but the camera was sitting on my computer), and not at the violin at all!  I looked at neither the strings nor my fingers, but at the computer.  I’m actually pretty happy about that; not only did I think I could never be able to do that, but I have always been amazed when I’ve seen musicians do that in the past.  Of course, I tried the blindfold approach with a few of the other things that I play, but none came out anywhere near decent.  I suppose to play without looking sort of requires extreme familiarity with the piece, which I can only claim to even come close to with the theme.

And as for the president’s speech?  I’m not an economist (or a politician), so I’m not going to go spouting my opinions about deficit spending or the influence of speculation or Congress or whatever, but I just want to make one small point about education:  I hope that education doesn’t suffer as we approach another possible recession or worse.

I didn’t start this blog to make a statement about anything.  To be honest, I envisioned this blog to be me attempting to do the impossible, getting continually wrecked by Paganini, and having all of my wonderful viewers laughing at my expense.  Maybe I would play something at the end and maybe I wouldn’t, but either way, I was going to try as hard as I could during the journey.  As the blog has gone on though, an interesting thing happened:  I’m actually somewhat good at playing the violin.  I really didn’t expect this, although it’s a fortunate side effect because a blog about nothing more than me playing badly each and every time seems now to be incredibly short-sighted.  The fact that I’ve gone from zero to where I am now in five months speaks encouragingly to my prospects of actually playing the whole thing in seven months.

Of course, I’m not there yet, so I’ll wait to break open the champagne.  But the fact that it might actually happen speaks volumes to the power of desire on attaining something.  As far as education goes, it seems like we need the means (government not cutting education across the board) AND desire (people actually wanting to be educated (parents encouraging their children) and taking the measures to use the education system to get an education, ie actually going to class and studying hard, etc).

So perhaps this is just my ignorance talking, but if we were an extremely educated society, how poor could we really be?  Even if the “economy” tanked, if we as a society know how to heal the sick, build bridges, manufacture goods, perform needed services, put out fires, fight crime, whatever else we would need to do, isn’t that what’s important?  Isn’t that how capitalism works?  But in order to actually have a capitalism and have this invisible hand thing working, doesn’t everyone have to be educated enough to actually be able to do whatever they want to do with their lives?

To be honest, I don’t think that I truly understand how money in this country works, so maybe the solution really is buried somewhere in the world of investors, “creating jobs,” interest rates, and that thing called a derivative market.  So I don’t have an economic solution, and even if I thought I did, I’m certainly smart enough not to bring it up on my violin blog, but the fact that kindergarteners may not be introduced to classical music and community college students may have their engineering classes cut in order to pay for the mistakes of a bunch of bankers and politicians to me is just sad.

Sarah Chang

Remember me talking about Liz Pitcairn giving that master class at Center Stage Strings (Danielle’s camp)?  Well, Liz is the artistic director of Luzerne Music Center and is friends with Sarah Chang (yes, THE Sarah Chang).  Liz asked Sarah to give a benefit concert here at the camp and Sarah was happy to do it.

The concert was last night, and as you can probably imagine, this week has been busy.  Sarah flew in on Monday and had her first rehearsal that afternoon.  She played Mendelssohn with the student orchestra, so it was a great experience for our campers to accompany a major soloist like Sarah Chang.  There was a second rehearsal on Tuesday and a third on Wednesday morning.  After the Wednesday rehearsal, she gave a great question and answer with the students and then set up shop for the students to have her sign CDs, pictures, their cases, metronomes, one camper even had her sign a chessboard!  I had never met her before, although I did see her perform in Aspen in 2008, so I didn’t know what to expect.  It turns out she’s an incredibly sweet person along with being a hell of a violinist.

The concert itself was awesome; the kids played great, stayed with her, and of course Sarah herself played amazingly.

After the concert there was a dinner with the patrons and many of the faculty members played chamber music.  While Danielle was playing, Sarah noticed something and talked to Danielle afterward.  After they were done talking, something was missing from Danielle’s violin.  It turns out that Sarah loved Danielle’s mute and Danielle ended up giving it to her!

Of course, this was no ordinary mute.  A friend of Danielle’s, Lauren Chipman, began making mutes, pegs, probably other string instrument paraphernalia with Swarovski crystals on them.  It’s called Baroque Bling and you can check them out here:  www.baroquebling.com.

So anyway, when Sarah showed up on Monday, of course I thought about the blog.  In my mind, I saw myself telling her all about it, her being extremely excited and then asking her for a lesson.  Well, as you can probably imagine, I chickened out, and that didn’t happen, but I did mention the blog and got a picture with her:

Sarah, if you’re reading this, you played beautifully and your presence was a great uplift for the entire camp.  (and if you ever find yourself in LA and want to give me a lesson, let me know…)

Yeah, I’m stubborn

It’s been a good couple of violin days.  Yesterday I practiced for over 4 hours, which is a pretty big day for me.  Danielle gave me a mini lesson last night and this morning Elbert (I’ve talked about Elbert, right?  Oh yeah, last post…) gave me a lesson.  I did a bunch of stuff in each lesson, but I’ve been wanting to post something about variation 3, so darn it, that’s exactly what I’m going to do!  (even though I’m not posting a complete gem, but oh well–that’s where the stubborn part comes in)

So during my lesson with Danielle, I played this:

There’s always positives and negatives.  I finish up pretty well in this one, but there are a couple of hangups.  The move to the high A is really messy, and there’s another hangup a little later, but I finish up well and begin relatively well.  After this, Danielle worked with me a bit on that high A move, to make it more of a slide.  It worked OK last night, but when I watched the rest of the video, we just talked the whole time.  I guess I didn’t get the improved high A move on tape.

So this morning I had a lesson with Elbert.  First, I was super nervous, much more nervous than I thought I would be.  Second, after I left the Luzerne dining hall after breakfast, I used one of those purell squirter things to clean off my hands and it kind of made my hands sticky.  I know, excuses excuses, but still, it didn’t help.

Luckily, those hangups just really hurt the first few things I played.  Elbert wanted to hear everything to see where I was and to decide on what we were going to work on, so I started with the theme and variation 2.  Those two really sucked.  By the time I got to variation 3, I had settled down a little and my fingers started to feel a bit more normal.  Here’s my variation 3:

Again, not perfect, but the shift to the high A is a little better.  I like this playing, other than the beginning.  The second C sounds like a kazoo and there are a few parts that are flat, but not horrible considering.  I talked to Elbert about that and he said that’s what being a musician is all about.  You can practice and practice, but every performance you have one shot at it.

Oh yeah, one more thing about this playing:  do you notice my left hand thumb?  Danielle’s not going to be ecstatic about seeing that, but sometimes is creeps up like that.  She wants me to keep it right under my first finger as I shift.  It’s funny, because right before this lesson Elbert and Danielle were talking and Danielle mentioned that exact thing.  Elbert then told a story about how Dorothy DeLay used to say that you can have your thumb wherever you want.  No, I’m not trying to start a rebellion–I just messed up in that video.  I’m trying to keep my thumb under control (like everything else).

I taped the entire lesson with Elbert.  There’s a 45 minute video to weed through, but I’ll go through it and post an edited video like I did with the Simone lesson.  That’s the nice thing about having a blog–people willing to give free lessons.