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.

The whole magilla

Assuming that’s how you spell magilla, of course.  You know what I mean.  After my last post, I was pretty jazzed about playing nice and slowly, in rhythm, in tune (sorta), all that.  So, what happens at my next lesson with Evin?  She cranked the metronome up and had me play quarter notes at 72 bpm.  That might not sound like much to you, but for me that might as well be Paganini.  It was a huge struggle getting through up to the first violin’s solo, but I did get through it.  After that, it went downhill.  It was a good eye-opener, and a good teaching strategy:  just when the student gets comfortable, throw in something new.

Oh, and here’s the bummer:  I have my last lesson with Evin tomorrow 😦  It was fun, but the school year is coming to an end and she’s going to Aspen and I’m going to Danielle’s camp and then Luzerne Music Center like last year.  I’ll get some footage from our final lesson.  Hopefully we’ll make it through the whole piece.

And as for making it through the whole piece, Danielle and I played this together the other day, and for the first time, I got through it all!  I can actually routinely make it through the entire thing by myself (without metronome – I can usually only handle metronome for smaller snippets because once I get off, I’m through) at a modest tempo, but I hadn’t with someone else.  Now, before you watch, it isn’t without fault (is anything I ever post?).

It goes downhill in the middle, and of course I screw up my solo.  But I get it back – a little.  It is my fault, though.  We played through almost whole thing a little earlier than this and it was better.  The difference was the tempo.  If you’re not familiar with the piece, the first movement starts with the second violin playing and then the first violin comes in and they play together for a while and then the second violin drops off, giving the first violin a solo.  The part before that solo I have down a little better than after, which of course should make sense since I’ve played it longer, but it’s also a little easier.  So we practiced the part after her solo, which means she started and I came in.  The important part was, she determined the tempo and she decided on a more practical tempo.  When we tackled the whole piece, not only was it just MORE music, making my little handy tired, but I began, so I determined the tempo and I was a bit, er, ambitious.

Before you watch this, then, watch it like you’re watching your little 6 year old niece giving a recital.  What’s the one thing you’re hoping?  For her NOT TO STOP!  We’ve all seen it:  the cute little 6 year old comes to a hard part, messes it up, stops…and then the tears come.

So watch this as if your only hope for my success resides in getting through the whole darn thing.  Maybe I’ll make a few good sounds here and there and maybe I’ll play a few notes in tune, but let’s just consider all that gravy.

When we were smack dab in the middle there, my hand was sweating, slipping and sliding all over the fingerboard, and my hand was getting really tired, not wanting to move very fast, but it just somehow did.  It literally felt like I was on a freight train going out of control.  And unfortunately it sort of sounds like it at times there too.


Violin is not fun

But then again, it’s really not supposed to be.  Hold on a minute; I’m actually not trying to complain here (believe it or not).  Many things in life aren’t fun, and they truly aren’t supposed to be.  I teach math, and I routinely tell my students that math isn’t fun, and it isn’t supposed to be.  It’s not supposed to be outright painful either (which many of my students may disagree with) but there’s another word for what it’s supposed to be.

Say someone is graduating from college.  That moment when they call his name, he walks to the center of the stage, his family cheers like a bunch of lunatics, he’s blushing, the whole nine yards.  That moment seems like fun, but it really isn’t.  It’s the culmination of a lot of hard work, like finishing your taxes, mowing your lawn, getting a new job, or finally nailing that really difficult part with the metronome.  None of that is fun.  What it is, is rewarding.  And I think I’m finally starting to get a little bit rewarded.

Danielle has been telling me this for eons:  work slowly, work with the metronome, work on intonation, don’t worry about speed.  It will come.  She could have thrown on a “young padawan” there, but it wouldn’t have mattered.  I wasn’t ready to hear it.  The Paganini was so darn fast, that I was obsessed with speed, speed, and more speed.  That led to tons of frustration because my little fingies weren’t ready for that kind of heat.  They wanted to play in tune, yearned for it, but I wouldn’t let them.  Yes, Danielle’s been telling me this forever, but I didn’t listen.  And I’m not saying I’ve been a total failure up to this point; I’ve had lots of success, but nevertheless, I was impatient.

No guilt, though.  I wasn’t ready.  It’s like writing a screenplay.  Sometimes you just have to write that ending that you know won’t work, because, well, you’re not ready to write the good one.  You have to get the crap out of your system before you’re ready to do some serious tear-jerking, you know what I mean?  Now I’m ready.  Hopefully.

I guess I do feel a tiny bit guilty though.  Not because I think I’ve wasted the last year and two months, but because I ignored Danielle for so long, and finally listened when Evin told me.  Not that I’m that guilty; Danielle does the same thing to me all the time.  I tell Danielle she should change a color on her website, or in a brochure, or some other thing and she only listens when someone else tells her.  Mmm hmm.  You know the story.  Either way, it was like this light bulb.  Practice slowly.  What a concept.  I think I remember someone telling me this about a year ago in a comment on here.  “Practice slowly” they said “Whatevs” I thought.  Only now do I understand.

I had a lesson yesterday with Evin.  This was after our last lesson where she hammered me on my intonation, and I figured if I was going to mess anything up, it wasn’t going to be intonation.  Or at least I wouldn’t mess it up worse than I had the lesson before.  I practiced for about 50 minutes before the lesson, 40 of those were slow playing, the piece and scales, really working on intonation.  The last 10 minutes before she came in I worked with the metronome, except with the beats as 1/8 notes instead of 1/4.  So it was like slow rhythm work.  Nice and slow.  Yeah.

When she came in, we played together somewhat slowly, not as slowly as I had just been practicing, but slower than usual.  Everything was pretty good.  Then we picked up the speed, and what do you know?  It was fine.  Pretty crazy actually how doing it so many times really slowly actually helps when picking up the speed.  Why didn’t someone tell me this a year ago?  Why didn’t, er, oh yeah.  Sorry Danielle.  Well, at least I’m listening now!  (thanks Evin)

I unfortunately didn’t tape my lesson with Evin.  That’s the way it always is.  If it goes well, I probably didn’t tape it, but if I really want to tank a lesson, break out the recorder.  Anyway.  Today I worked on, you guessed it, slow metronome work, and you might think that it would be easier to play this really slow, but for some reason it isn’t.  My mind sort of goes numb and I forget the notes when it’s not going fast enough.  And I out play the metronome all the time.  So often I get a little off the beat and just a tiny slow-down could bring me back, but I think I’m behind, so I play faster until I catch up with the next beat, but I’m playing too fast, so I blow through the next one and all hell breaks loose.  Well, I actually just sort of stop playing and play the passage again, but it’s like driving.  Some people, when they get freaked out on the road, hit the gas.  Sometimes that’s a good thing, but typically, you just want to take your foot off the gas, keep a calm mind, and assess the situation.  Music is like the road.  Lots of stuff going on and pretty chaotic.

So here is me playing with the metronome:

I lose the beat in the middle there and use the tie to get back on.  I also lose it at the end, which is why I smile there.  It’s funny; it doesn’t look like much, but to even get it to there with the metronome is very difficult for me, and I would guess for all beginners who haven’t grown up playing an instrument.  I’m particularly proud of the ties at the end, the ones that tie into a 1/16th note and I have to come off in the middle of the beat.  It’s easier to do with 1/8th notes instead of quarters.

A straight three minutes

Because of Colburn’s spring break when Evin was back home in San Francisco and my spring break from Cal State Fullerton when Danielle and I went down to San Diego for a little while, I hadn’t had a lesson with Evin in a while.  Yesterday morning, we worked together and it was a bit of an eye opener.  I think I’ve really taken a step backwards in the last couple of weeks.  Of course, when getting better, it’s common to think you’re actually getting worse, but in this case, I think it’s true.  For a while there I was hitting the metronome hard and the slow work, and everything was slowly coming along.  I’ve been slacking with the hard stuff and have been doing mostly performance practice lately, trying to just get through the new stuff.  I sort of fell into that pit with Paganini where I just wanted to play enough to get something on video, but wasn’t actually getting better as a violinist.  Same thing here.  The good news:  I pretty much know the entire piece now!  The bad news:  I sound like crap when I play it.

My vision, of course, was to play with Evin and record it during our lesson and have a sparkling little gem to post on here today.  Not so much.  We did play, but I couldn’t get through it.  Since we haven’t played together for a while, I was nervous.  That sounds like a weak excuse, but it’s true.  I usually go into a practice room, text her where I am, and she comes and finds me.  Our lesson was at 11am and I texted her my location at 10:53.  As soon as I sent it, it was like I could feel her presence coming and I got a little scared.  It was like the water ripples from Jurassic Park.  (And Evin is not that intimidating by the way.  She’s very sweet.  The scary part is just playing in front of her when I know she’s so good.  It’s hard to explain)  When she showed up, I sucked it up for a while, but sort of got it together.  The title of this post refers to our best run, which was about a three minute segment of the piece.  I decided not to post it because the only redeeming thing about it is that I simply play for three minutes.  My rhythm is pretty bad, as I hold most of the ties too long.  It was very apparent I haven’t been working with the metronome (something I started to correct this morning, which was also depressing.  Parts I could whip through with the metronome a couple of weeks ago I really had a difficult time with today.  You just can’t let up with these things).  Worse than the rhythm, though, was the intonation, which was atrocious.  Really bad.  When listening, even I cringe.  My sound is surprisingly decent, but it is the only thing I’ve really been working on.

Hmm.  So I need slow work to improve my intonation and metronome work to improve my rhythm?  This is nothing new.  Hopefully I’ll actually DO what I should be doing.