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 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!


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.

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.

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.

The lesson with Elbert

So I’m finally getting around to putting up something about my lesson with Elbert.  I videoed the entire lesson (about 45 minutes) and edited it down to a little under 5 minutes of highlights.

Video editing is a pain in the butt.

Or maybe that’s just an excuse as to why I’m posting this a week after the lesson.  Either way, here it is!  First though, let me say a quick couple of words before you watch.  Elbert is a buddy of mine, so at times it might sound like he’s being a smartass or giving me a hard time, and I just want to make it clear that he’s (probably) not like that with all of his students.

See what I’m talking about?  I could have edited out him giving me a hard time (maybe he would have preferred it!) but I left them in for two reasons.  First, they’re kind of funny.  Second, and more importantly, they lead to a point I would like to make about doing a little project like this:  you have to have thick skin.  When learning something new, especially something inherently frustrating like an instrument, it’s essential to take it seriously, yet at the same time with a grain of salt.  I think that it’s pretty important not to wrap up my personal self worth with how I’m playing the violin at the time; if I did, I’d be in the fetal position crying in the corner my entire life.

While waiting for Obama

The country is in a bit of a funk today.  The US’s credit rating dropped, as did the stock market, and 31 navy SEALS died over the weekend.  Not a great way to start a week.

Still, I pressed forward with violin practice, but as it went on, my thoughts more and more drifted to world events, so I turned on my computer to read the latest.  MSN’s homepage had a red banner running along the top:  Obama to address the nation…  So I clicked the link and there was an empty podium with murmurs from an unseen crowd that had apparently formed for the occasion and waited for the president as patiently as I did.  Of course, with my violin in hand, I naturally had something to do while I waited.  With my mind mostly on the upcoming speech, I practiced the most simple thing (besides a scale) that I cover, which is of course the theme.  I played through the theme a few times and I noticed something interesting happening.  I grabbed my video camera.  Take a look:

What did you notice, besides the relatively low quality of my playing and the chit chat of the peanut gallery waiting for Mr. President?  Besides a quick peak during that shift to third position, I look straight forward at my computer screen (it looks like I’m looking at the camera, but the camera was sitting on my computer), and not at the violin at all!  I looked at neither the strings nor my fingers, but at the computer.  I’m actually pretty happy about that; not only did I think I could never be able to do that, but I have always been amazed when I’ve seen musicians do that in the past.  Of course, I tried the blindfold approach with a few of the other things that I play, but none came out anywhere near decent.  I suppose to play without looking sort of requires extreme familiarity with the piece, which I can only claim to even come close to with the theme.

And as for the president’s speech?  I’m not an economist (or a politician), so I’m not going to go spouting my opinions about deficit spending or the influence of speculation or Congress or whatever, but I just want to make one small point about education:  I hope that education doesn’t suffer as we approach another possible recession or worse.

I didn’t start this blog to make a statement about anything.  To be honest, I envisioned this blog to be me attempting to do the impossible, getting continually wrecked by Paganini, and having all of my wonderful viewers laughing at my expense.  Maybe I would play something at the end and maybe I wouldn’t, but either way, I was going to try as hard as I could during the journey.  As the blog has gone on though, an interesting thing happened:  I’m actually somewhat good at playing the violin.  I really didn’t expect this, although it’s a fortunate side effect because a blog about nothing more than me playing badly each and every time seems now to be incredibly short-sighted.  The fact that I’ve gone from zero to where I am now in five months speaks encouragingly to my prospects of actually playing the whole thing in seven months.

Of course, I’m not there yet, so I’ll wait to break open the champagne.  But the fact that it might actually happen speaks volumes to the power of desire on attaining something.  As far as education goes, it seems like we need the means (government not cutting education across the board) AND desire (people actually wanting to be educated (parents encouraging their children) and taking the measures to use the education system to get an education, ie actually going to class and studying hard, etc).

So perhaps this is just my ignorance talking, but if we were an extremely educated society, how poor could we really be?  Even if the “economy” tanked, if we as a society know how to heal the sick, build bridges, manufacture goods, perform needed services, put out fires, fight crime, whatever else we would need to do, isn’t that what’s important?  Isn’t that how capitalism works?  But in order to actually have a capitalism and have this invisible hand thing working, doesn’t everyone have to be educated enough to actually be able to do whatever they want to do with their lives?

To be honest, I don’t think that I truly understand how money in this country works, so maybe the solution really is buried somewhere in the world of investors, “creating jobs,” interest rates, and that thing called a derivative market.  So I don’t have an economic solution, and even if I thought I did, I’m certainly smart enough not to bring it up on my violin blog, but the fact that kindergarteners may not be introduced to classical music and community college students may have their engineering classes cut in order to pay for the mistakes of a bunch of bankers and politicians to me is just sad.

Sarah Chang

Remember me talking about Liz Pitcairn giving that master class at Center Stage Strings (Danielle’s camp)?  Well, Liz is the artistic director of Luzerne Music Center and is friends with Sarah Chang (yes, THE Sarah Chang).  Liz asked Sarah to give a benefit concert here at the camp and Sarah was happy to do it.

The concert was last night, and as you can probably imagine, this week has been busy.  Sarah flew in on Monday and had her first rehearsal that afternoon.  She played Mendelssohn with the student orchestra, so it was a great experience for our campers to accompany a major soloist like Sarah Chang.  There was a second rehearsal on Tuesday and a third on Wednesday morning.  After the Wednesday rehearsal, she gave a great question and answer with the students and then set up shop for the students to have her sign CDs, pictures, their cases, metronomes, one camper even had her sign a chessboard!  I had never met her before, although I did see her perform in Aspen in 2008, so I didn’t know what to expect.  It turns out she’s an incredibly sweet person along with being a hell of a violinist.

The concert itself was awesome; the kids played great, stayed with her, and of course Sarah herself played amazingly.

After the concert there was a dinner with the patrons and many of the faculty members played chamber music.  While Danielle was playing, Sarah noticed something and talked to Danielle afterward.  After they were done talking, something was missing from Danielle’s violin.  It turns out that Sarah loved Danielle’s mute and Danielle ended up giving it to her!

Of course, this was no ordinary mute.  A friend of Danielle’s, Lauren Chipman, began making mutes, pegs, probably other string instrument paraphernalia with Swarovski crystals on them.  It’s called Baroque Bling and you can check them out here:  www.baroquebling.com.

So anyway, when Sarah showed up on Monday, of course I thought about the blog.  In my mind, I saw myself telling her all about it, her being extremely excited and then asking her for a lesson.  Well, as you can probably imagine, I chickened out, and that didn’t happen, but I did mention the blog and got a picture with her:

Sarah, if you’re reading this, you played beautifully and your presence was a great uplift for the entire camp.  (and if you ever find yourself in LA and want to give me a lesson, let me know…)