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.

Slow work

It’s been quite a while since my last post and my happy birthday post was a little on the dour side, but not to worry, not posting does not equal not practicing.  In fact, in the last few weeks my goal has been to ramp up the practicing schedule and as of now, I consciously try to practice two hours a day.  Of course, I don’t always hit it, but it is the goal, and what it does mean is that little 20 minute practice days are pretty much gone.  An hour is short and I’m typically between an hour and two (sometimes more).

Now, just because I’m in a practice room doesn’t necessarily mean my practice is quality, and lately I’ve been much more self conscious about how I practice and getting the most for my money.  Danielle is the epitome of power-packed practicing, mostly because she has to be.  She doesn’t have a lot of time, so she has to be economical with her practice time, but when it comes down to it, more efficient practice is much more effective anyway.  After practicing, it should feel like you’ve just gone to the gym.  It should feel like you’ve been working, dripping sweat, out of breath, the whole nine yards.

A couple of weeks ago, Danielle worked with me on what she calls slow work.  I could describe it, but I’ll just let her:

One of the biggest worries I’ve had this entire time, especially when I was doing the Paganini, was the speed.  I’m always worrying that I won’t be able to play fast enough.  Danielle says that the speed will come, but what I should worry about is playing perfectly.  Evin says the same things, that it’s better to play steady through the whole part (whatever part I happen to be working on) rather than playing some fast and some slow in a really choppy way.  I suppose I’ll listen to my teachers.  For now.

At the end of the video, Danielle mentions doing that slow work she describes during a large part of the practice, and then do some performance practicing at the end, sort of putting your money where your mouth is.  With that in mind, this was tonight.  It’s in three parts.  The first part I play through this passage slowly:

Then I attempt to play through it much faster, but unfortunately I get tangled on the last line above.  I have had lots of trouble with that passage in the past because of the shift, so I’ll need to give it much more attention.  The third part in the video is slowly playing that tough part.  I also exaggerate my right hand movement while playing it.  It’s a little unrelated, but I’ve noticed when watching myself that my bow hand isn’t as flexible as it could be.

I don’t know, maybe it’s not unrelated.  Maybe it’s all related.

Happy birthday, v vs v

I suppose this post should have come yesterday, but here it is today anyway.  February 26th, 2012 – one year in and, er, no Paganini.  I guess we all knew Paganini wasn’t in the cards just yet.  That will hopefully come February 26th 2013, assuming I’m ready and the world doesn’t end in December.

Unfortunately, though, no Bach yet either.  Not to say it’s not coming, as there is progress there, but alas, not yet.  The question, of course, is when and as Danielle and I were talking about my year anniversary, she mentioned my world premiere should be at her summer camp, Center Stage Strings.  The bad (and good, depending on who you are) news here is that this is in June, several months late. This is turning into a government project, months (maybe years?) past due and over budget, as I never expected to pay another teacher when this whole thing started.  The good (and bad, depending on who you are) is that Center Stage Strings will provide a much bigger audience for this whole shebang.  Anyway, this was just an idea – nothing is set in stone.

In the meantime, I’m going to have to do a whole lot of performance first, and the most logical place will be Danielle’s studio class.  Look for me to play with Danielle and/or Evin in class soon as I get closer to getting everything all ready to go.

A couple of notes

Note 1: I feel like a real violin student!  I’ve had four lessons with my *new* teacher and they both have been great!  We scheduled a time, I practiced beforehand, we had the lesson, and I worked on the stuff we just did afterwards. She came in, gave the lesson, and left. Professional. We’re on the schedule of two 30-40 minute lessons a week, which I really like. With my teaching schedule this semester, Thursdays and Saturdays work fairly well and they seem to work for her also.

Now I’m not saying I play particularly well during the lessons because, well, I don’t.  It’s surprising how nervous I get when someone else comes in.  I’m no Heifetz, but by myself I can get into a nice groove – nice sound, tempo, etc.  When someone else comes in and the pressure’s on, it doesn’t even feel like I’m doing the same thing.  The violin feels strange and foreign as my left hand gets weak and my right hand leads the bow over all the wrong strings, causing the violin to whine and squeak.  Of course, the violin whines and squeaks a little when I’m alone, but with someone else, it’s magnified.  It shows how valuable having someone else to play with really is.  It also shows how valuable listening to recordings can be to get used to the sound of two violins – not just one.  Also playing with a metronome is helpful to have something else making noise while playing, causing chaos.  Basically, anything to throw me off during practice is a good thing since performing is such a stressful situation.  I teach math in college and tell my students all the time to make their studying as stressful as possible, setting up exam conditions as much as they can, and that way during the exam, hopefully some of the inherent stress will be relieved.  It took me a little while to take my own advice.

So, let me introduce my new teacher.  Several weeks ago, one of Mr. Lipsett’s students, Evin Blomberg, asked Danielle her advice on how to get students since she was interested in teaching.  Getting a violin studio isn’t easy, after all.  This gave Danielle the idea of working with me and five lessons later, here we are.  Evin caused quite a commotion around Colburn when she showed up a few years ago.  I work as an RA and we got word that Mr. Lipsett had just accepted a 15 year old who had already graduated high school into the conservatory!  At the time it was unheard of for a student that young to live in the dorms with college kids, but we were assured that Evin was mature for her age and would get along fine.  That was two and a half years ago, and she’s still doing great.  As you can imagine, she’s a little bit of a genius, which can be extra scary, but I’m used to being around virtuosos so that’s a plus.

Here’s a video we took two days ago from our fourth lesson.  We played it together quite a few times, but I couldn’t focus and get through it.  We took a break, learned some of the new stuff, and then at the very end, right before she had to go, we gave it one more try running through as much as we could:

I like this video almost more for the parts where I mess up (which I do a few times) than the parts I don’t.  I’m getting better at pushing through the mess ups and just keep playing when I’m performing.  Not great, you understand, but better.

The second thing I want to point out from the video is how hard we’re both working.  Does it seem like, compared to Evin, I’m working a bit too hard?  It reminds me of a story when I went to the Air Force Academy, when I was a glider instructor pilot.  If you’re not familiar with a glider, it’s essentially a small plane with really long wings and no engine, so it just sort of glides along.  It has similar flight characteristics to a small airplane like a Cessna, and in the pattern (the pattern is the “setup” for a landing) the characteristics are almost identical, as you throttle down to let the Cessna come down on its own.  Going up, though, we tied the glider to a tow plane with a 200 foot long rope, let it tow us up, and then released from it when we were high enough.  One of the most difficult things for students to get was staying behind the tow plane; as you can probably imagine, getting out of position too high, low, to the side, etc could be dangerous for everyone.  I remember a point I used to make with a student who was miserably out of position – I would take the plane, get it back into position, then thrust my hands toward the front of the plane (the instructor sits behind the student, so the student couldn’t really see the instructor when they were in the air) and say “You see my hands?  We’re still in position.  Stop messing it up!”  That’s one of the things she pointed out in this early going – I move my elbow probably a little too much to change strings, which can cause playing on the wrong string.  Moving around while playing can be great, but I think I’m a little out of control.

Note 2:  Danielle’s benefit concert last weekend was superb!  Lynn Harrell was the guest artist and Alan Chapman from KUSC was the MC.  Her students played and they also played the Center Stage Strings 15-minute documentary.  All of the music was incredible, but the last piece – Danielle and Lynn played Handel-Halvorsen – was something extra special.  They are both such amazing musicians, and really looked like they were having a lot of fun.  We have video of that, so hopefully I’ll be able to put it up soon.

During the reception afterwards, Danielle came up to me and asked if I had talked to the guy who came for me.  I said, “whaaaat?”  Apparently someone read about the benefit concert on the blog and ended up coming.  I’m not sure if he came to see me (which is the way Danielle put it) or if he just came because I had advertised it, but either way I didn’t get to talk to him.  I felt bad about that, as I would have liked to say hello.  If you’re out there, thanks for coming!  Leave a comment and tell me how you liked the benefit!

A new teacher

Not totally new, as I haven’t fired Danielle or anything, but there are a couple of problems with having Danielle as a sole instructor:

1.  Danielle is BUSY.  And this is her normal life.  When something big comes up, like soloing with New West Symphony for a triple play of Friday, Saturday, and Sunday up in Oxnard, Thousand Oaks, and Santa Monica, it’s insane.  As of right now, I can’t even remember the last time we’ve had a lesson.  This of course doesn’t mean that I don’t practice.  I also can’t remember the last day I didn’t practice, but without her guidance, I feel a little bit like I’m floating.  It’s remarkable how a little direction tightens things up and makes me sound so much better.

As for Danielle, things aren’t letting up anytime soon.  She has a benefit concert for her summer camp coming up this Sunday Feb 5th and her recital is coming up later in the month on the 26th.  After February, things should slow down a little, but that’s life in the fast lane.

2.  Reason number two has to do with the problem I always keep mentioning throughout this blog and is characterized by what several different people said this past weekend.  Danielle soloed Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, and I proudly attended them all.  During each concert, people fall madly in love with Danielle and afterwards, want nothing more than to shower her with love and affection.  Unfortunately, a thousand other people who just attended the concert will also have that same idea, so sometimes it’s impossible to give each adoring fan his or her proper attention.  So standing 15 feet away from Danielle is this tall, slightly awkward red head who, when concertgoers find out is the husband of the immortal vision they just witnessed on stage moments before, they also tend to flock to.  It was funny; I was almost holding court with my own fans as they asked about Danielle, what I did, if I was a musician, etc.  When asked the musician question, I would talk about the blog and they would ask who my teacher was.

“Why, Danielle teaches me, of course.”

“And you’re still married???”

There is a whole lot of truth to that.  We haven’t managed to kill each other yet during a lesson, but it remains impossible for me not to push back to some degree and sabotage my own learning.  I have gotten better at swallowing my pride, but by no means am I perfect during learning time.

3.  Gosh, those first 2 reasons took so long, do I even need a third?  Let’s see, perhaps it’s nice to have another perspective?  That could work.  The truth is, there are probably a hundred good reasons I should have another teacher (but still keep Danielle as my primary teacher).

So who is this masked violin pedagogue?  I leave it shrouded in mystery for now, but will say that it is one of Mr. Lipsett’s students.

To be continued…

A tricky passage and the return of a tape

Fine.  I’ll out with it.  I put a tape back on the violin.  It actually wasn’t up to me, as it was a matter of pride to play without tapes, but others didn’t see it that way.  Last weekend, Danielle’s friend from college Ilana Setapen, who’s now the assistant concertmaster at the Milwaukee Symphony, was over and gave me a mini lesson (which I didn’t record for some reason).  One of the things she said was that my third finger was consistently out of tune, something Danielle has also said.  She suggested that I just put one third finger tape on, also something Danielle has mentioned, so it came to be that my fate was sealed.  We used a piece of scotch tape, so it’s practically invisible.  A little better than those loud blue tapes I had on before.  I must say, it does make those shifts to third position MUCH easier–this one part early in the piece that involved a shift gave me problems and is now a non-issue.  Funny.  Hopefully I won’t go through the same pains as last time when I took the tapes off.  We’ll see.

Enough of that.  The stuff you heard me play with Danielle a week or so ago was the stuff right before the 1st violin solo, and after that is a 2nd violin solo.  That’s where I start here.  As you’ll hear, I get tangled up and Danielle helps me.  There’s a second of black in the middle of the video, so don’t stop the video too soon.  Also, Danielle holds the recorder later in the video, which you can always tell because it looks like something out of Paranormal Activity:

Since that lesson, I really have been trying to play with a big sound regardless of whether I’m playing it for the first of 100th time.  I think that’s pretty good advice.

Tahoe practicing

As I’ve alluded to before, Danielle and I did a lot of practicing on our vacation up in Lake Tahoe.  It was sort of like a music camp – a music camp with one teacher and one student receiving lots and lots of instruction.  I actually enjoyed practicing twice a day (at least) and then rehearsing with Danielle on the piece.

Like any student at my level of experience, I still waste too much time while practicing, but I think I’ve made some improvements there.  A practice session should be  like a workout.  I imagine leaving the practice room tired, sore, with sweat dripping down my face and partially out of breath.  This doesn’t really ever happen, with the exception of my hands being maybe a little sore, but the idea is there.  Practicing shouldn’t be something that you do, it should be something that you DO!  Not to say I’m anywhere near reaching this level of personal practice power, but there were a few times in Tahoe when my hands felt like dynamite, as if I’d played through the hard part and they were just ready to fly.  After a while it just feels like pressing the string down all the way is no problem and the only thing to worry about is rhythm and intonation.  Not that those things are anywhere near perfect or anything, but when your hands are on fire (in a good way) it makes attempting perfection in the other areas not seem like a total waste of time.  When I got to this level of practice, I wouldn’t want to stop playing because I didn’t want to have to get all revved up again after my hands cooled down in the 30 degree Tahoe air.  When Danielle came in and stopped me so we could watch a movie, drive around the lake, go on a hike, or go to the ski area for a bite to eat, you know, standard vacation-y type things, I sometimes just wanted to stay and practice.  Of course, after getting back from one of these activities, Danielle would suggest we practice for a few minutes.  At that point, I wanted to do anything but.  It’s like going to the gym or doing homework.  I never want to start the activity in the first place, but once I do, I get into a groove and then it just rolls.  I guess that’s pretty typical for a lot of things.

So here are three videos of me practicing in Tahoe.  There’s good news and bad news.  The bad:  this is practice, so you’re not going to get incredibly lyrical, beautiful melodies.  I know; it is me playing, so we hardly get that anyway, but at least normally there’s a semblance of beauty, or you can tell what I’m playing is supposed to be beautiful.  Here, I’m just playing the same notes over and over, trying to nail the rhythm with the best sound I can.  But wait, there’s good news too:  Danielle is practicing the Mendelssohn concerto in the other room, so some of her playing bleeds in.  You want beauty?  I deliver!  Er, just don’t expect it from me.

This first little part is right where the opening theme gets repeated a little ways into the piece.  Instead of starting on the D string like the beginning, we start on the A string here, so the notes are a little higher, but the melody is the same.  I’m playing along with the metronome (in quarter notes) and what I’m trying to do is match up the beat notes to the clicking of the metronome.  Here’s the music to this little part:

See that half note at the end?  I want to land that note right on the metronome beat.  I’m not always successful, but hey, I try.  It’s funny when playing with the metronome.  A part that I can usually breeze through I tend to forget the notes when that clicking is going on.  I also tend to get flustered when actually playing for other people, so the metronome must somehow make me nervous.  I guess the only way to fight that is to do it a lot.  OK, here’s the video.  Remember, it’s not (supposed to be) pretty:

(Actually, after re-watching the video, I don’t play those first two eighth notes, but I’m too lazy to take them out of the image.  Oh well.)

After practicing the part above, I then try to play through a larger part of the piece, but I mess up the part right before the part up there.  So I practice next the part right before:

You can notice that the last three notes there are actually the first three notes in that first line of music.  Here’s the video:

After that, Danielle came in and wanted me to play some of the stuff on the 2nd violin’s solo.  I hadn’t practiced it a whole lot, so she helped me out with this part:

It doesn’t seem like it would be that hard, just some 16th notes, but the fingering is a little tricky:


Ah, the holidays.  The food, festivities, family, you know.  Of course, you think I’m about to use the seemingly innocent holiday cheer as an excuse as to why I haven’t been practicing, but the truth is, I actually have been practicing believe it or not.  Somehow, while Danielle and I were down at my parents’ or even while her parents were at our house,  I found a way to slip away and get in a little practice time.  I felt important and sneaky at the same time, silently disappearing to make mystery music from elsewhere in the house.

So Christmas has come and gone.  It was fun.  I’ll spare you the family details, but only say that I hope your holidays were as enjoyable as ours.  On the 27th, Danielle and I left town for Lake Tahoe, where we’ll be for the next five days.  It’s our longest vacation since our honeymoon two and a half years ago.  Yeah, we don’t get out much.  We’ve both been so excited about this trip – the sights, lake, mountains, and the time off to practice.  Does that sound weird?  We finally get the time to get out of town for more than one night, get the chance to be together in a beautiful area only to…wait for it…practice???  Yes, of course we’ll see the sights and do some cool Tahoe-y type stuff, but to get the chance to stop and have a bunch of uninterrupted time to practice?  I’m both proud and embarrassed that time off to practice sounds pretty darn good to me.

Last night Danielle and I played quite a bit together.  We actually played for a long, long time and got an enormous amount of footage (some of it I’ve actually watched).  Here’s some of the later stuff, which is, well, not perfect but surprisingly not too horribly not watchable:

Besides the obvious sound and intonation issues, messing up quite a bit at the end there, I mess up a few of the spots in the middle.  When playing a bunch of 16th notes, I can for the most part do OK, but when I have to hold a long half note and tie it in with a 16th note or 8th note it’s hard for me to always come out at the right moment.  You can see Danielle helping me with some head nods there.  I also have a few other poor moments like playing an eighth note like a quarter, and some others.  I won’t name them all, but leave it to you dear reader to find them all like an item-finding cartoon in the Sunday comics.

It’s funny how I can be so gloriously imperfect with my playing, yet with Danielle in there it doesn’t sound half bad.  Duh!  Some may say instead of her lifting me up, I’m dragging her down (not completely untrue either way) but watching us play together makes me happy, like for the first time in this whole experience I actually feel like I’m making music.