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 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.

Feeling the rhythm

When I first started playing Paganini, I had a lot of trouble with the theme and the (what I thought at the time) crazy rhythm. As I played more of the Paganini, I got into really hard stuff like spiccato, octaves, and thirds, but most of this hard stuff was just a bunch of fast sixteenth notes. The Bach is easier without all of the violinistic trickery, but the rhythms are now a lot harder to get. I remember with the Paganini, I used the metronome when learning the theme (and hated the metronome…a lot) but really haven’t touched it anytime lately. Of course, this probably wasn’t a good thing, but when just doing a bunch of sixteenth notes, it’s easier to get lazy. Now, that has all changed. The metronome is back out and I’m struggling to get all of the rhythms down.  It’s funny, playing rhythms for normal mortals like myself is extremely difficult.  People like Danielle (aka musicians), especially musicians who’ve been playing nearly all their lives, can’t truly comprehend how hard the timing is on music like this.  I especially hate it when you have a little sixteenth rest or eighth rest at the beginning of the beat and have to wait through the beat and start playing in the middle before the beginning of the next beat.  It’s hard to time it right.  For me, at least.

A technique Danielle and I started doing is her playing the notes of the piece with me playing open As along with the rhythm. We tried this with some of the later stuff, but I unfortunately didn’t know the notes well enough, so we went back to the beginning. Well, I messed up a bit here too:

When watching that, it’s surprising how crooked my bow was. I’ll have to work on that.

Anyway, I find it very hard especially when going from fast to slow notes. For example, an early part I’m having problem with is this part:

Especially the tie. See where the tie ends in that sixteenth note? Apparently, I’m not supposed to play that sixteenth note but treat it sort of like a rest. It’s not technically a rest but there needs to be a clear articulation there, not a slur. Of course I always forget to stop, but I’m getting better.  When you look at the passage up there, it doesn’t look too bad, and it’s not (other than the ties) but near the end of the first page, we have this:

You got a few 16th notes, 8th notes, quarter tied to an 8th, sixteenths, etc, etc.  This kind of stuff is so hard for me (to play it correctly) and I really believe for anyone without a lot of musical training, this stuff just doesn’t come naturally.  Each day plowing away with the metronome should make it easier over the course of time.  So Danielle says anyway.

OK. Got it.

So the Bach is coming OK, I suppose.  I haven’t really been videoing myself much until the other day after Danielle and I had a lesson.  It was a fine lesson and I had been working pretty hard the few days before it.  So I get the idea to tape us playing together, since this piece is a double concerto after all.  I began taping right after our lesson–when she starts practicing a little bit of the Wieniawski Polonaise (this is her practicing, not performing).  I convince her to play with me on camera and she agrees.  We play, I think it went really well, and I was very excited to watch the video.

Long story short:  my battery ran out and I didn’t get what I wanted.

My original idea for this particular post was to whine and cry about how the camera turned itself off and how I lost all the great footage, leave you with that, and then once again not post me playing the Bach.  Then I thought that would be lame.

So I did what any red blooded American would have done:  I got out my mo-freaking violin and played that mo-freaking piece.  Well, part of it anyway.  And Danielle’s not around, so it’s just the 2nd violin part, but no biggie, right?  This is actually the exact half-way point of the first page, out of three pages.  So it’s 1/6 of the first movement of this concerto.  Not bad, one sixth down (sorta):

So I got something, although I messed up a little at the end there.  It’s a shame because that part is so cool and a good flashy place to stop, but whatever.  I’ll get it in the future.

Cat out of the bag

OK, so I haven’t posted in a while.  This is, of course, the best time not to post anything since I have every excuse in the book with Thanksgiving, travel, and whatnot.  So I have all the excuses I need, except that they’re innocent as to why I’ve been a little hermitic lately, I’m sorry to say.  To be honest, I haven’t posted anything because I didn’t really know what to post.

Right about now you’re saying “why don’t you post some of the Paganini?”  Oh.  Yeah.  Er, about that.  Oh, Pags, why do you have to be so darn difficult?  I’ll just come out with it:  Paganini is too hard!  Yeah, yeah, all of the nay say-ers out there turned out to be, well, right.  (Where is RF when you need him?)  And also, wait, what?  No, don’t worry, I’m not quitting my little journey.  I’m letting the cat out of the bag.  If I was quitting, I would have titled this post “throwing in the towel.”

What cat is this, you ask?  About a week and a half ago it became obvious that I wasn’t going to debut Paganini come February, so Danielle and I went into bailout mode.  We had options.  An obvious thing I could have done is cut the thirds and chords and anything else remotely on that level of difficulty like the grace notes of variation 2 and that one variation that goes so high the treble clef can’t even handle it so they had to draw in that little dotted line:

After the trimmage, I would have a nice little incomplete ditty to show off my violin prowess.  I could have done that, and to be honest, something of that nature was what most of you were probably expecting.  The thing is, I want to play the whole thing!  Perhaps I could have learned the whole thing and then just screeched through it horribly, but hey, I played the whole thing!  Victory, right?  So let’s go with option 3:  I can play the whole thing, but let me have one more year.  No big deal, right?  Heh heh.  Everyone?  No biggie?  Yeah, I know, this experiment was supposed to be for one year, but how many experiments end differently than they began?  Lots of them!  Just ask the guy who invented the post it note.

So I’m giving myself one more year to learn the Paganini caprice 24.  Oh c’mon!  Don’t be that way!  It’s still pretty good for someone who’s played for two years to play a piece like that.  I’ll just be honest here.  I’m hitting a wall that’s just making violin not fun anymore.  Some of this Paganini stuff is so hard that I want to break my bow over my violin and then break my violin over the little shattered pieces of bow.  But that’s not the only reason for this decision.  If it was still possible then we still might give it a shot, as miserable as that might make me, but we’re reading the writing on the wall.  Given just a couple more months, there’s no way I’m going to have the whole piece memorized and if I forced it, some of the stuff wouldn’t simply be unpolished, but downright ugly.  I’m thinking of your ears here, not my embarrassment.  (I’m also thinking of my embarrassment)

But wait!  There’s an upside to all this.  I’m not getting out of performing, giving myself one more year to think of another excuse next November, giving myself one more year, etc, etc.  I’m still planning on playing come February, the only question is, what?  Hey, the title of this blog is “Vaughn vs Violin” not “Vaughn vs Paganini” or “Ryan vs Nicolo” or whatever.  And in the end, my goal is to still play the Paganini, I just need another year.  If you asked for another year, I’d give it to you…

So what should I play in the meantime?  Although twinkle twinkle would have some comic value with my tag line, we wanted something still challenging, but that I could realistically learn in the next couple of months.  The Kreutzer etude was an option, but we wanted something with a little more pizzazz.  We went, then, with, drumroll please…

The Bach Double Concerto!  The first movement of it anyway.  It’s funny; playing this piece has all of the reverse advantages and disadvantages as the Paganini.  Where Pags was ridiculously difficult with virtuoso trickery at every corner, Bach Double is much slower and more lyrical.  The up side to Paganini was that it’s so fast I didn’t have to really worry much about vibrato, which I have to do much more in the Bach Double, but hey, it turns out I’m pretty good at vibrato, so let’s just give it a go.  Other new challenges are things like playing with someone else and piano, so we’ll see how that turns out, but now I get to play something with Danielle!  So that’s a huge upside.  And still, let’s keep it in perspective here.  I still haven’t played violin for a whole year, and the Bach Double is by no means your typical beginner piece.

So there you have it.  We’re going in a slightly new direction, but just remember that even though I couldn’t play the Paganini (at least not yet) doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t have tried.  I’ve learned the first few lines of the Bach so far and let me tell you, going from Paganini caprice 24 to Bach Double is like a large breath of fresh air.

Although Danielle tells me that because this piece is easier, other things like intonation had better be that much more perfect.  We’ll see.

The Hot Canary

So I didn’t end up getting a whole heck of a lot of practicing done this past weekend.  Danielle and I stayed in a hotel in Visalia as she soloed with the Tulare County Symphony on Saturday night.  Whenever we travel, her practicing takes precedence (obviously) and it’s a little too easy to slack off.  I probably could have practiced a little more, but with Danielle concentrating on her solo and not policing me more, well, you get the picture.

I’m getting back on track, but the chords are really hard.  My fat fingers keep hitting the other strings causing really bad sounds.  I’m working on it.

Danielle, though, played fantastically.  She played the Mendelssohn concerto and afterwards gave an encore of a piece she’s been working on for a while now – The Hot Canary.  This piece was written by Paul Nero and arranged for violin by Florian Zebach.  Have you ever heard of Florian Zebach?  He was an extraordinary virtuoso and had a violin variety show in the 50s and was more famous than Captain Kangaroo.  He made many recordings and was on TV.  It’s funny how some people are lost in the annals of history while others are remembered well and fondly.

The original arrangement was meant for violin and piano.  Danielle had it arranged for violin and orchestra and this was the first time she played it at a concert.  I think you’ll agree that the piece lives up to its name:

It’s quite remarkable how much like a canary a violin can sound.


Enough said.  Yeah they’re tough.  Yeah they make your hand hurt.  And in variation 8, you get to play it as part of a chord!  Woo hoo!

OK, so I haven’t done this in a while, so I’ll show you the music:

See how there are three notes in one for all of those?  That’s a chord and it means more than one string has to be played at once.  Playing two strings is no problem, but it’s really hard to play three strings at the exact same time on a violin, so we don’t.  We play the low two notes on two strings and then immediately after play the upper two notes.  The middle note ends up getting played twice.

The problem with playing this variation becomes immediately obvious:  the first measure has thirds!  Remember, if I said anything was going to get me in this project it would be the thirds.  So before tackling the piece as a chord, I play just the first two measures, thirds only:

Coming back down IS hard.  Coming up is also hard, don’t get me wrong.  Double stops in general are very difficult because my chubby little fingers are all over the fingerboard and if one touches the wrong string then the violin has a cow and screeches horrifically.  Getting a good sound with just the open string is hard enough, and now I have to worry about now grazing the string with another finger?  It’s just one more hazard to avoid when playing these things.  Also, while octaves make my hand hurt, thirds REALLY make my hand hurt.   The more I play though, the better they feel.  Of course, that’s until I play the entire chord.

Luckily, the chord part you have to add is just the open e string.  For the first measure anyway.  Here’s me not quite getting through the first measure, but I get a pretty decent sound for the two notes I do play:

This variation is going to be a beast, although it is pretty satisfying when even a few notes are played well.

This is what I was talking about

Let me prepare you for the video you’re about to see, because trust me, you need preparing.  Not preparing in a good way, as in you’re going to fall down in disbelief that someone so violinistically green as myself can play so beautifully and in tune, but just prepared for the pain and torment I’m about to put you through.

The last few days have been about one thing:  get through variation 1 without it sounding ridiculously painful and unbelievably god-awful.  So, on the upside I suppose it’s not that bad, but it’s not in any way good.  Why, you ask, am I so negative recently when the whole point of this blog was to get ruined by that devilish Paganini anyway?

I blame variation 7.  I’m not saying I rocked out variation 7 like someone who’s been playing since the age of 4, but it’s certainly a much easier variation than some of them, and I was much more comfortable with it.  Going from that to variation 1 wasn’t fun to say the least.

Oh well.  Enough whining.  Get out your earplugs; here it is:

Notice how I have to shift around really quick?  That combined with the quick grace notes leading into quick spiccato makes it, do I even need to say it again?  Yeah, it’s a pain.