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.

Well, it’s something

So apparently, variation 1 is really hard.  I started it several months ago and got to the repeat, but passed on the rest of it.  That is, until now.  I’ve been in this mode recently (and for good reason – I have exactly four months left!) where I’m trying to learn as much new stuff as possible.  Here’s the rundown of the stuff I technically have memorized, not that I can actually play any of it very well:


Variation 1

Variation 2 sans grace notes

Variation 3

Variation 4

Variation 7

1/2 Variation 9

1/2 Finale

That’s roughly half the piece right there.  Of course, I’m now two-thirds the way through my year here, so you’d think I should be two-thirds the way through the piece, right?  Although I would rather report more progress, I’m not necessarily worried about it.  I’m learning things much faster these days and my goal is to have the entire piece “learned” in two months from now.  At that point I’ll hopefully begin playing in Danielle’s class much more and really try to sharpen things over the next two months before my, er, performance in late February.  Assuming everything stays on track.

As for now, though, I’ve been learning variation 1 for the last little while and it’s, what’s the word I’m looking for, really freaking difficult.  I know, I know, I say every variation is really difficult when I run across it, but this one is particularly tricky.  It has the trifecta of hardness:  it jumps all around the violin, it has these fast grace notes, and then it has the spiccato (yes it’s back; I’ve put off mentioning it again after I misspelled it a few months back, hoping you’d forget about that little mistake).  There’s actually a fourth difficult thing, and that’s transitioning from spiccato to regular playing.  I tend to bounce.

Wow.  So I have this little routine when I post something on here.  I’ll record what I want to record, take it off the SD card, load it on my computer, and then actually write the post while I’m waiting for it to load.  Right after I wrote the word “bounce” above, I actually watched the video of me playing the first variation.  I have to say, I’ve been pretty forthcoming with my violin playing, but this is the first real time I’m actually embarrassed.  It’s not good.  At all.  It’s really, painfully slow and not even good for being slow.  Wow.  Really depressing considering I haven’t posted for a week or so trying to get this to the point where I can actually play it.

Sad.  Just sad.  Anyway, I’m actually not going to post it.  Yuck.  I know this is uncharacteristic of me, as I’m usually underly-bashful about displaying myself and my screeching sounds, but even I have to have some standards.  And this doesn’t meet them.

Perhaps I can put something up involving the first variation soon.  Or I just may move on.  For now.

What do you expect…perfection?

Because you’re certainly not going to get it.  But at least I have another variation memorized, albeit slowly.  As in, I play it slowly, but hey–I’m not exactly going for perfection here.

I’m sort of in a box-checking mode right now.  I need to get these variations down and in the books.  It’s kind of like Iron Chef.  Have you seen this show?  Two chefs compete over 1 hour to create 5 dishes of a meal that all focus on a central ingredient that’s exposed right before the match.  The chefs have to plate each dish during the hour, so as you can imagine, you can’t plate the dishes soon enough.  That’s how I feel – I can’t plate these variations soon enough.  If they’re not great, I can always go back, but let’s get them learned!

With that spirit, here’s the entire variation 7:

I slow down a bit at the end, but it’s getting better.  Hopefully I’ll have this one faster and a little bit of variation 8 down.

So it’s 12:43am right now as I write this on Sunday morning.  All day Saturday was spent grading my students’ 74 pre-calculus exams and I’m pretty exhausted.  It’s funny; grading tests like this can be so frustrating when they mess up stuff we specifically talked about.  I can tell so easily which students studied and which didn’t.  On that note though, as some may disappoint me, others make me proud.  This is, of course, the same as many of Danielle’s students and the way they make her feel at times.  As I progress with this little project, I’m trying harder and harder to make her proud.

Left to my own devices

I don’t know if I practice well all by myself.  At least I don’t feel like I do.  When I first started, Danielle would strategically place herself outside my room while practicing and constantly barge in and give her two cents.  This, of course, infuriated me at the time, but as this project has gone on, I don’t mind as much since my main goal is now to get better.  Pride?  Already swallowed, digested, and is well on its way, swimming to a new and brighter future.

So I like it when Danielle critiques me these days, although we do have a rule that if I’m practicing on my own, she has to let me screw something up three times before chiming in, since I oftentimes do correct my own mistakes.  These casual monitored practice sessions have grown into more structured mini lessons lately, and these lessons have dramatically helped.  Of course, they can only help when Danielle is around and unfortunately, she’s out of town at the moment.

As many of you know, Danielle won the Sphinx competition in 2008 and this led to her soloing with numerous orchestras (including the Cleveland Orchestra and the Boston Pops).  This week, the Sphinx orchestra is touring in Ohio and North Carolina and Danielle is soloing (she’s actually playing the Handel-Halvorsen duet) with them.  So she’s gone and I’m here left to my own devices.  I can feel my playing going downhill.

I suppose that’s a very defeatist and overly dependent attitude, but what do you expect?  I know darn well that my chances of doing this thing are hugely dependent on Danielle helping me, even though I need to put in the hours on my own to succeed.  I guess it’s a little of both.  I need instruction and I need to practice.  Well, duh!  That’s a bit of a blinding flash of the obvious.

Yesterday, my buddy Dave was over and he recorded me playing a new variation I’ve been working on:  variation 7.  I don’t know the whole thing yet, but I can play a little bit past the repeat.  Here it is:

Again, of course it’s not perfect, but when I listened to this, I have to say I was pleased.  It sounds much better than I thought it would.  Maybe I don’t practice by myself as badly as I thought.

Add one to the list

Well, sort of.  Like every other variation, I don’t exactly play the fourth variation here up to tempo or even mostly in tune, but there are some good parts…like the fact that I play the whole thing!  That’s pretty huge.  Whenever I play an entire variation, I feel like I’m on Iron Chef, plating one of the courses.  “You can’t plate too soon” according to Bobby Flay, and I feel the same way here.  If I can play through an entire variation, that’s a good thing–I’ll worry about making it perfect (or at least not that horrible) later, but for now, let’s plate it and learn more!  Because there’s quite a bit of this piece I haven’t even looked at yet.

So for now, I’ll add one to the list – variation 4 I can play all the way through!

It’s a little rough, but I have all the time in the world, right?

Wrong, unfortunately.  I’m now under the 5  month mark – scary!  As a side story, I opened my violin case a few nights ago and my violin was, well, different.  I instantly knew something was wrong as I picked up the mysterious instrument in my case and turned it over in my hands.  I didn’t know who in the world’s violin it was, but it certainly wasn’t mine!  My mind raced through all the possibilities like Danielle playing a trick on me to someone running a huge sting operation to steal violins and replace them with cheap instruments from Target.

As it turned out, Danielle had taken my violin because, as a birthday present, she got me new pegs–these ones with little gears on them that make tuning much, much easier!  The funniest part of the story is that I was actually pretty excited about it and couldn’t think of a better birthday present (maybe an ipad would have been better, but what can you do?), but every musician I’ve told this too has said that they’d be pretty pissed if their significant other gave them an instrument-improving gift for their birthday.  I feel like a little kid, excited to get new stuff for my violin.

I suppose that’s probably a good thing when it comes right down to it.

Danielle’s Army

I don’t know why, but I’ve always disliked getting haircuts.  I like the result, of course, but for some reason I don’t like to actually sit through a haircut, and I certainly don’t like paying for one (which is why my mom cuts my hair a lot of the time).

So my hair has gotten long lately and I knew a haircut was on the horizon.  What did I do?  What any normal cheapskate would have done:  asked Danielle to cut it.  She, of course, didn’t really want to because she interestingly enough likes my hair longer.  So I did it myself, or started it anyway.  We have these clippers that I think are mostly for facial hair, so I took them to my long, red mane.  Danielle couldn’t take it so she began to help with the scissors and clippers.

Let’s just say that mistakes were made.

Long story short, my hair is what’s now very short.  How short?

Yeah, it’s short.  Probably too short, but it’s OK.  It will grow.

For now, though, I’m in the Army.  Danielle’s Army.  And the enemy?  Bad sounds, poor intonation, improper rhythm, with an unfortunate terrorist threat of not practicing due to laziness.  Fortunately, General Belen is leading the way.  And when it comes to the violin, she makes Patton look like a cuddly little teddy bear.

Let’s put some pizz on the situation

About four months ago, one of the variations I was most afraid of was the 9th – the one with all of the left hand pizzicato.  Left hand pizz (I originally spelled it ‘pitz’ but Danielle nixed that) is a very cool technique that sounds super cool.  Of course it’s incredibly intimidating as well and that’s why I’ve put it off, but Danielle put a stop to that as well.  For some of you not familar with how left hand pizzicato sounds, here’s a little taste:

Danielle began teaching this piece by just teaching the notes and then progressing into the actual pizzicato.  A couple night ago she gave me a lesson on this variation and you’ll see here how it progresses.  We start with just the notes, then we move to the pizz.  I had practiced the pizz technique on my own a little bit (to her surprise) but I play it as Elbert would call ‘scrambly.’  So we move on to playing the notes again but in a long-short-long-short rhythm that’s supposed to help when trying to play the proper rhythm.  As it turns out, it’s really hard to vary the rhythm like that and I got a little frustrated (which I don’t show you, dear viewer).  We plowed on and it turned out a little better.  After this, we move on to the actual variation.  This is just the first part, not quite all the way to the repeat, but almost:

I’m not going on the record to say that left hand pizz is easy, but compared to some of the other stuff (thirds come to mind) this variation was a pleasant surprise.  I’m going to try to knock out the rest of the variation soon so I can play through it all.

I have learned the rest of the fourth variation by now as well (which I’ll play for you in the next couple of days) so here’s a quick rundown of how much I’ve learned:

Theme – entire thing

Variation 1 – until the repeat

Variation 2 – entire thing without the grace notes

Variation 3 – entire thing

Variation 4 – entire thing

Variation 5 – not attempted

Variation 6 – thirds attempted, not really in tempo

Variation 7 – not attempted

Variation 8 – not attempted

Variation 9 – until the repeat

Variation 10 – not attempted

Variation 11 – not attempted

Finale – until the repeat

It does seem like I have a considerable amount left, but it also seems like I’m learning stuff much faster than before.

Honestly, I might just do it.  Well, I think I have good chances anyway.

what the #$&*% is going on? from Danielle

My husband’s skills on the violin are like magic.  I don’t mean they are magical in a beautiful artistic way, I mean they are not based in logic.  He can play these crazy arpeggios that go way up high in the stratosphere of the violin, practically sightreading them, slowly but PERFECTLY in tune.  Then seconds later I’m hearing all kinds of varieties of simple notes in third position.  ??????   The inconsistencies are mind boggling!  Sometimes I think he is purposely screwing with my mind.

It’s like a child that can’t feed himself without smearing mashed carrots all over his face, but then he can somehow balance a saltshaker perfectly on it’s corner.

Video evidence coming soon.

More to come…….

Let’s give it a go with chromatic scales

I actually wrote this post several days ago, but Danielle read it and didn’t like the way it sounded, and she’s right in a way…it does sound a bit sad.  Nonetheless, it does point out an inherent difficulty in this project and is an important topic.  Don’t worry, our marriage will survive the violin!  (If anything it makes it stronger if you can believe it).

Original post:

Apparently, chromatic scales are just like regular scales except every note played is a half step.  Paganini toys around with chromatic scales in the fourth variation, and unfortunately they’re really high.  Also unfortunately, it’s not the highest variation (the highest variation has to be written with a little dotted line because they can’t fit notes that high on a regular treble clef.  I can’t wait).

Danielle introduced me to variation four a couple of months ago and I’ve been toying around with them for a bit, but she hasn’t officially worked with me on them.  If you remember, Elbert worked with me a little bit with the chromatics (I’m not even sure that’s correct lingo) during our lesson at Luzerne, but that’s it.  So the other night, the same night when she worked with me on the octave variation, she finally helped me with them–and it wasn’t pretty.

And I’m not talking about the playing, although that wasn’t pretty either.  You see, many people are astounded we’re doing this little project of ours.  Oh, and it’s not because Paganini is so difficult or because I’m a beginner.  It’s because they can’t believe a wife could give her husband lessons on something as frustrating as violin without one of the parties ending up dead or being served divorce papers.  This was one of those nights.  I actually cut a video of a few clips of us arguing, but watching a couple of minutes of us fighting isn’t as funny as I thought it would have been, so I’ll spare you.  Didn’t I write a post about not pushing back?  Remember when I mentioned it was hard to push someone so close because they just push back?  I know, I know.  I’m getting better, but late night lessons when we’re both tired already are just bad news.  The other unfortunate part is with our schedules, late night lessons might be the only times we can work them in.

Well, this is a relatively G rated video anyway.  You might notice some parts cut off at weird times; it’s because the fireworks started right afterwards:

See what I’m talking about?  The two clips in the middle of me running through it that just sort of cut off abruptly?  I’ll let your imagination take it from there.

As far as my playing, this variation is probably the best example yet of the importance of proper bow division.  The first part requires playing 16 notes in one bow.  It’s really easy to play the first four notes with half the bow and then have to squeeze in the following 12 with the other half.  As you can imagine, sound suffers considerably.  Remember the lesson with Anna when we worked on the finale?  Bow division is important there too and she stressed saving bow at the beginning and then using more as it went on.  Same is true here, but it’s more essential as the notes are higher and pickier.

Update:  I usually don’t write a post and then wait a few days before posting, but I have the luxury of a little update here.  I’m progressing quite nicely with this variation and I actually have the entire thing memorized!  Well, except for this one measure that Danielle couldn’t remember the fingering, but it’s just about another one in the books.  I’ll post it soon and hopefully keep learning more of the piece, as I really have to get moving.

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.