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 momentous occasion

The other day Danielle interjected in every conversation we had with anyone:  “Oh, did we tell you?  Today was a momentous occasion!  It’s what we’ve been working on for the past year!”

I don’t know if I’d go that far, but I suppose it’s some sort of minor landmark:  I finally played with piano.  So there it is.  We ran through the whole thing like it’s supposed to be played (sort of – but I’m not going to play it in front of an orchestra.  I make it hard enough for a piano to keep pace with me).   Who is the pianist?  Do you remember Danielle’s student Anna who gave me a lesson last summer?  Well, she started her musical life as a two instrument person and transitioned to violin before she started studying with Danielle.

So Anna, Danielle and I got together one afternoon and ran through it.  The good news is that I actually got through it.  It wasn’t good or polished, or, well, good in any sense of the word, but I did limp through.  Danielle worked with me on a few places, I settled down, and then we played it again.  Good news and bad news:  I played great!  (that’s the good news).  I felt good, smooth, and in tempo.  I had a nasty habit of rushing the first time around (not to take credit away from Anna, but she was essentially site reading the piano part and couldn’t play it as fast as I had been rehearsing.  I should be able to keep whatever pace, but I never claimed to be an extremely sophisticated musician!).  Everything had been going great, except something happened that had happened several times before:  I say to myself while playing, “man, this is going great!  I can’t believe I’m playing like this…uh oh…”  Then I had a horrible memory slip and couldn’t pick up where I was.  I sort of should of kept playing, but I was really lost and stopped.  I know, I know, I should never stop, but I couldn’t help it.

After the stop, I had to go because we started to eat into Anna’s lesson time (that’s why I stopped, just being considerate heh, heh).  We did devise a little strategy for Anna when I get lost like that in the future:  she will stop playing her part and start playing mine.  This is actually a technique they use on little kids who get lost during their performances.  Hopefully it will work if it actually happens.  When I get lost though, I get lo-o-o-ost.

Here, of course, is where being able to visualize what’s going on comes in handy.  Danielle has stressed being able to visualize every part of the piece, what it sounds like, where your fingers go, what note is being played, etc.  It’s really hard.  When you get into the rhythm, especially on a piece you’ve played through many times before, it just sort of happens.  It’s natural.  That natural-ness is great, except if you get lost, then it’s all over.  It’s like a golfer.  “Feeling” your swing is important, but when something starts to go wrong it’s really important to “understand” your swing so you can fix it.  Right now, I for the most part feel the piece, but I really need to start to understand it.

Enough ado.  Here’s where we actually got all the way through the piece.  You’ll hear Danielle instructing the whole time because I rush, rush, rush:

It’s funny how obvious it is when I haven’t worked with the metronome in several days.  It’s gotten to the point that I actually like playing with it.  It makes me feel in control, like my playing is honed and tight.


Beware of the burnout

My mom calls my dad an obsessive personality.  He’ll wrap his mind around some activity and then completely absorb himself in it for the next week or so.  This, of course, annoys the heck out of my mom and I can’t tell you how many times I can recall my dad sitting in his chair on his laptop working on his puzzle (he designed a game on the android called gatemaze), ignoring the world around him as my mom calls out from another part of the house:  “you’re obsessed, Eldon.”

Naturally, this brings me to my next point:  yes, my dad’s name is Eldon.  It’s rare you meet someone with a name you’ve never heard anyone else have.  I’ve never met another Eldon, but apparently it’s an actual name.  My dad once looked up on the internet to find every Eldon Vaughn in the country and believe it or not there are something like 7 of them.  Also believe it or not, there’s someone named “Eldon Eldon” and this person lives in Eldon, Iowa.  I am not kidding.  I don’t know anything about Eldon, Iowa, like if they have electricity, running water, or are still on the barter system, but if these people are ruled by a king, this guy has to be it.  It’s as the old saying goes:  “In the land of Eldon, Eldon Eldon is king.”

So I’m sorry to tell you this, mom, but I think I have a bit in common with Dad.  I don’t know if I obsess over things like he does, but I’m certainly an obsessive personality to some degree.  There are good and bad things about being this way.  The good:  during the obsessive period, tremendous amounts of work can be done completing whatever task is being obsessed over.  The bad:  once this period ends, it’s like pulling teeth to actually pay it attention ever again.  At one point in this project I was obsessed with the violin, but alas, that period has since passed and I’m in caught on a long, difficult road—a plateau that seems nearly impossible to conquer as the difference between one day’s playing to the next is transparent, and almost half the time, it seems worse.  It’s like trying to watch a child grow; day-to-day growth is impossible to measure, but if you haven’t seen the child in a year, the added inches are incredibly obvious.

This is where I am in this project, stuck in the harsh reality that I am doomed to violinistic plateau unless I push with all my might to bust through it.  And busting through a plateau is hard.  Really, really freaking hard.

But what do I do?  I can’t quit.  I just can’t.  Do you know how much time I’ve put in here?  Quitting would be foolish at best and downright tragic at worst.  There’s a poker concept that “spent money is spent” meaning when deciding whether or not to stay in the hand, don’t stay in with a losing hand simply because of the money you’ve already spent.  If you have a losing hand, that money is gone regardless.  Maybe I do have a losing hand here, but then again, maybe old mister violin is bluffing.  Maybe he doesn’t really have those four queens he claims and I really can beat him.  Who knows, but I certainly can’t just up and quit.  A year from now (and more) all I’ll think is “what if I had kept playing…”  It’s a common theme, but one that occupies me every day.

So maybe I’m burned out.  Or maybe these are just the early warning signs indicating a possible future burnout.  Either way, sometimes it’s really, really hard to practice.  To be quite honest, without this blog I certainly would have quit long ago, and whenever I have a particularly bad practice day (like this morning) coming on and writing about it makes it a little better.  Like a cool band-aid with a GI-Joe print on it.  It’s also like being able to rise above and look at the situation with a bird’s eye view, something in life that could come in handy with any number of activities.

When I say a bad practice I don’t really mean necessarily playing badly, although that’s possible.  This morning I just didn’t want to play.  I would play a little and then, spookily, my bow would come off the violin and I would just stand there, staring straight ahead wanting nothing more than to put the violin in its case and run in the opposite direction.  But I promise I’m not totally burned out.  Yesterday I had a very good practice day.  I played through the entire piece by myself with the metronome on 120 bpm 1/8th notes.  I didn’t play it perfectly (surprised?) but I didn’t stop, which is rare with the metronome; when I get off the beat, I usually have to wait to get on perfectly, but this time I just sort of slowed down for a second or so or sped up or if I messed up then simply melded back into the rhythm.  It was very encouraging.

Danielle has New West symphony this week and her rehearsal last night was in Santa Monica.  She got home around 10:30 and she suggested we watch TV, but I suggested we play.  She was happy to oblige, but she had a different definition of play.  I just wanted to play together, see if we could get through it after my success earlier.  She wanted to have a lesson, something I wasn’t mentally prepared for, and after a long, tiring day to then have a lesson, well, let’s just say that it didn’t go well.  I didn’t storm out after two minutes, but after she pounded a lesson into me for a half hour, I wasn’t mentally strong enough to play through the piece.  I couldn’t concentrate, and my fingers would get boggled.  She said that those are the times I need to push through and play it anyway.  Perhaps, but I didn’t.

Did I wimp out?  Should I have toughened up and stuck it out?  Yes and no (in my humble opinion).  In a pure, getting-better-at-the-violin sort of way, then of course I should have.  Those are the times to get better and wasting that opportunity wasn’t ideal.  But then again, getting totally burned out and then never picking up the violin again isn’t ideal either.  That’s probably drastic, but I felt FRIED.  Like I wanted nothing to do with the violin ever again.  That sentiment carried into this morning as I tinkered around and then had to put it away.  I felt bad about it until my drive down to Fullerton where I thought about the violin and had a small desire to play again.  I guess it’s a good thing I put it down for one morning.  Maybe next time I will press through the pain and take a small step out of this possibly bounded plateau.  Maybe sometimes I do need to just play and actually enjoy playing once in a while.  Maybe I simply need to look to improve whenever possible, but at the same time, beware of the burnout.