November 2011

Pound of Flesch

November 30, 2011 02:46

Phoebe pulled up a chair across from me as I flipped through Flesch's Art of Violin Playing at the coffee shop. I remembered he had some good advice on double stops, and I wanted to glean his take on it.

"Whatcha reading?"

"Oh, I think I've just been sentenced to three months of boot camp. I've got this technical hurdle I'd like to nail down once and for all. See, look here. It says, 'The whole problem can be mastered in about three months with daily half-hour practice of the following material...'" One month would be dedicated to studying the falling movement of the fingers without shifting or string changes. The second month would focus on the shifting motions, and the third month would be devoted to string crossings.

Phoebe's not a violinist, but she seems to be intrigued by the subject. "Wow, I guess practicing can't always be fun, huh?"

"Ah, but the secret of being a violinist is to enjoy the pain and suffering. So, basically, if you're a masochist, then you should be playing the violin."

I thought for a moment. "Hey, maybe if I log two sessions per day, I could be done in a month and a half."

"Better yet, you could do three and be done in one!"

"Oooh, non-stop double-stops and I can achieve results in just 45 hours!"

Too bad you can't just up and run a marathon of thirds, sixths, and octaves and cross the finish line with a medal. Training for a marathon takes foresight and lengthy planning, coupled with follow-through and daily commitment. You pay for your objective, one diligent step at a time.

Pound the asphalt. Pound the fingerboard. Train for your marathon, little finger peeps.

1 reply

Sanity is a Thread that Hangs by a Treadmill

November 29, 2011 02:47

"Augh, I'm so extremely frustrated right now." I mumbled as I reached for my student's notebook. Having just played a section of her assignment for me, she stepped back, obviously discouraged. Quickly, I clarified, "No, no, not you at all. Sorry!" I moved my focus back to my last lesson of the day and tried to forget about what lay ahead in the schedule.

Earlier last week, I received the annual preliminary pit rehearsal email from Tammy. Monday, 6:30. Tammy and I had made an agreement last spring--shook on it, mind you--that I would play for her musical if she would rehearse the Khatchaturian clarinet trio with me. Here it was, nine months later, and she hadn't yet held up her end of the bargain. I replied to her latest email with another gentle prodding--a little, shall we say, threat? No Annie unless we rehearse Khatchaturian. I wondered if she would call my bluff; after all, the pit is my family, and you can't just not be part of the family. She responded with a list of possible get-together times. I told her that I taught until 6:30 this Monday, so it might not work out for this first run-through. "Maria teaches until 6:45 and is coming over after..." she replied. Ugh, if Maria Allison can do it, then of course I gotta do it. I rounded up my gym bag before the teaching day started so I could hit the treadmill on the way home from rehearsal.

As the day wore on, it was obvious to me that my new-found left-handed-boot-camp progress would be completely undone if I had to jump in and sight-read a bunch of new music at a rehearsal. I'd have way too much to think about to concentrate on keeping my tension-free form. Moreover, I'd made an adjustment to my left hand shape, and my little finger buddies were still getting used to their new housing. I needed more time for things to settle.

I certainly needed more time for dinner. While the car warmed up, I threw together an egg muffin sandwich and tossed it down my throat while rounding up my gear. Four miles to town, and then ten miles over to Kenai Central High School. As I pulled up, I noticed the parking lot lay dark and empty. Shoot, did I even stop to read where this rehearsal was taking place? I trudged back over to Soldotna and out to the Skyview high school. Silly me... Even sillier, the Skyview band room lay dark and empty. Grr. Where was everyone? My anxiety and frustration came to a head. Slamming into the car once more (which, happily, had finally warmed up), I noted that if I'd had a pint of ice cream right about then, I probably would have sat there in a sulk and eaten the whole thing. But no, we will do the right thing and go to the gym. (I speak of myself as "we" so as to include my faithful finger buddies.)

The girl at the desk always gets to hear about my day. She's nice enough to give me her ear, and I usually offer mine in return. "Maybe you can still make part of your rehearsal," she offered. "Do you want to use our computer to look at that email?" Curious, I checked. And read: KCHS. "Kenai Central? I was there! The lot was empty!"

"Did you check the back lot?"
"Back lot?!" %&*$@

It's like they were all hiding from me.

I jumped on the mill and settled into an easy, tension-burning pace. My latest copy of Runner's World had enough mindless articles to allow me to escape while my body released the day's angst. Time passed, even without my steady eye. By the time I finished, I felt completely refreshed.

And people wonder why I insist on making time for the gym.

5 replies

A Late Letter

November 28, 2011 03:10

Hello Akiko,

You and I may never meet, but I am a violinist who lives in Alaska. Stephen Brivati gave me your name last spring because I wanted to do something to help those who were affected by the earthquakes and tsunami in Japan. At the time that it happened, I was overwhelmed with grief. I have been in love with Japanese culture for most of my life, and hope to one day be able to finally visit your country.

I know you may think that I'd forgotten all about you and your plight, which I'm sure is still affecting you deeply, even though I hear nothing about it in the news anymore. But I have been thinking about you every day, wondering what words or gifts could ever be adequate. Nothing can replace your losses. I only hope that you and your loved ones are well, and continue to have hope that you are finding happiness despite this tragedy.

With much love, I give you my hat. A fellow violinist whom I have never met, who lives far away from me, dyed and spun the yarn and sent it to me as a gift. When I designed it, I wanted a pattern that would symbolize my home, Alaska, and friendship. The brown zig-zags are the Kenai mountains, the blue trim is the Kenai River, our source of food and livelihood. The snowflakes represent the many months of winter that make this place unique. This hat has kept me warm on many a cold night.

Most importantly, though, the little blue flowers with the yellow centers are called forget-me-nots. They are given to loved ones as reminders when distance keeps them apart.

I haven't forgotten you, and I hope that when you look at this hat, you will remember that someone out there is thinking of you and praying for you. I regret taking so long to send it, but hope that you will still be able to enjoy it.

4 replies

A Positive Note

November 27, 2011 02:24

I made a couple of mistakes today. I spent each practice session without a watch, and every time, I ended up hashing on stuff until I got discouraged instead of quitting while I was still focused. Obviously, I went over my fifty minute window. You don't need a clock to tell you these things. Always quit on a positive note--if nothing else, so you can still feel good about yourself at the end of the day.

Secondly, I missed my little window of sunshine on an absolutely fairytale day. I would have had some very nice photos, but I only caught the fleeting pink in the tips of the trees. Thus, I will end this entry on that one little positive note, way up there.

7 replies

No Two are Alike

November 26, 2011 03:05

Everyone's hands have different personalities. Since I first ever remember meeting my fingers, they've always been to me a little barber shop quartet, complete with the short little tenor that hits the high notes. Their fingernail smiles are rather sheepish, and widen into goofy grins if I let them grow out. On the other hand, my student Baruke's fingers resemble a team of thugs: muscle-bound oafs built to gang up and finish the job. With a little skill, he will one day dominate the fingerboard into submission--that is, if he chooses to practice. With all the individuality built amongst us, we can't expect our hands to find the exact same relationship with the fingerboard. Our end goal, though is the same. The trick is to find the best way to set up your buddies and communicate to them in a way that lets you find your way to all the notes with lightning ease and grace.

I had a couple of light bulb moments over the last week. One came while watching Nathan Milstein play a moto perpetuo and noticing that, although an incomprehensible amount of notes came from his fingers, they barely moved at all. The shape of his hand remained motionless, and his fingers crawled this way and that, like spider legs. Not a single unnecessary motion kept him from reaching the next note.

The second light bulb happened while watching Menuhin describe the shape of the hand, while demonstrating with Dounis exercises. He told of a general arch shape that one must keep, and that the fingers all widened at the base to span the fingerboard. I watched him place all four of them down with perfect balance and, in a relaxed state, gave each finger a different job at the same time. They all moved independently, like office workers in little cubicles. This was what first got me interested in the powers of Dounis.

Stretching at the base of the fingers, I placed each one a whole step apart, one on each string, and waited until everything became calm. Then came the commands: Okay, finger one and finger three, you go up together. Finger two and four, stay down. When they come down, you two go up at the same time. We'll start slowly...

They looked at me like they were confused. For a moment, nothing happened. I repeated the command. There was some twitching, and straining, and then they slowly obliged. Still, I had my fair share of surprises. Sometimes, I wasn't sure which finger was going to pop up. I'm sure I said finger three, but finger two came up instead.

I tried different commands: Okay, let's focus on the down motion. Forget the up. You two, go down when they come up. You two, down. You two down. They held up their noses at this idea as well. This can't be so difficult! I play this pattern on the piano all the time, so why is it so confusing now?

I thought for a moment. Maybe I need to explain it a different way. Okay guys, you like walking, right? One and two, go on a walk together. Three and four, go on a walk together. Just like that.

I watched their little light bulbs go on, and in a matter of moments, they were marching along like it was their favorite. It's just a matter of time before they'll be running like Kenyans.

The exercises have multiple benefits. After pinning your fingers down and moving one or two in different patterns, you learn how to keep your hand shape the same while covering all the notes in one position. This greatly improves the ability to keep fingers down or barely hovering over the string during fast passages, eliminating unnecessary hand and finger motions. Both speed and intonation accuracy improve.

Nathan Milstien's hands are nothing like my own. Yehudi Menuhin's hands are nothing like my own. But they are nothing like anyone else's, either. Both of them developed an intimate connection with their appendages and learned to find ways to communicate the best path to speed and accuracy. I know, I only just began digging, but I can't believe how much I've gotten to know and converse with my hand this week. The barber shop is open for business.

3 replies

Late Night Cravings

November 25, 2011 06:10

Actually, one thing I am really, truly thankful for today is isolation. I hear so many tales about people who would like to overhaul something in their technique, but have too many pressing issues in front of them, like orchestra, juries, gigs, or other obligations. I don't have anything tying me down but me and my time. Bundling up, I take walks with my dog and think about form and technique.

I will break my practice sessions into several short, focused bits throughout the day. During these sessions, I analyze my playing to root out the source of my three main frustrations (inaccurate, slow fourth finger, insecure double stops, insufficient fourth finger vibrato) and prescribe specific exercises to tackle the roots of the issues. I can keep them as simple as I need for the time being, being mindful and focused on 100% success. As the new habits begin to stick, I will gradually increase the difficulty of the exercises. At all times, I keep as much tension out of the equation as possible. If my muscles get confused, I pause or shake it out and wait until it's clear what they need to do. (I know, this all sounds a bit vague, but I don't really want to bore you with the tedious details.)

With nothing else to distract or tempt me, I feel perfectly content with my own personal Siberia. It may sound harsh, but my mind is clear--and my, the snow is smooth and lovely this time of year!

Even so, I get these late-night cravings for St. Louis and swing... Here's a rendition of Fatboy Rag, performed by Swing DeVille. That's Matt Wyatt, my friend from Kansas City, in the corner.

4 replies

Boot Camp

November 24, 2011 03:10

Let me explain (and let this be a lesson to all you young folk out there who think it's no big deal to play with bad habits): Until college, I played with the second joint of my left pinky collapsed. Then, in college, my professor made me quit that habit, but by then, the tip joint had been abused for so long that it lacked the ability to flex gently like the other tips, and remains more or less frozen when I try to use vibrato. Moreover, the base knuckle acts rather double jointed and pops in and out of good form as I play. By sheer will power, I've forced that stupid fourth finger to be more reliable, at least in fast passages and simple phrases. However, it gets stuck on double stops and flails rather miserably for trills. Basically, my hand runs along like a car in need of a good alignment.

You'd be surprised at how long you can gimp along with a junky pinky. For instance, over the years, I've invented the most amazing fingerings. Entire pages of lyrical passages in my Brahms sonata contain not a single four. (Yampolsky would be proud.) Okay, perhaps I exaggerate, but not by much. I'm pretty embarrassed about it--and yet, slightly proud of the fact that I've managed to come as far as I have, despite my handicap. Maybe it runs in the family: my grandpa was completely missing the tip of his third finger, to the first joint, yet he could sing like a lark with his fiddle. Just goes to show, there's more than one way to play the violin.

Nevertheless, there's passable, and then there's efficient. I'm craving fluent double stops and trills, and you just can't manage that kind of skill without absolute mastery of the fourth finger. So this is why I've spent the last two days staring at the shape of my hand and sorting out its muscle structure, pondering training plans, imagining a minuscule gym, complete with bench presses and resistance training. I want a focused, precise, articulate pinky, and I will try anything at this point; I'm that desperate. (Either that, or I'm that bored.)

Pinky pull-ups. Maybe that'll do it...

11 replies


November 23, 2011 02:58

"How are you? You look like you're far away." One of my friends at the coffee shop observed, with slight concern. She's right: I am. Some days, I awake as though I'm in the middle of a Russian play. (In my mind, I speak with a thick Russian accent.)

The nights are long. The days are cold. The snow gradually buries us. Yes, I would defintely think twice before assigning any student to a technical Gulag, this time of year.

5 replies

What You Preach

November 22, 2011 02:53

The studio needed a solid cleaning after the weekend's practice binge. As I sorted and arranged stacks of books, I thought about some of the glaring flaws I'd discovered in my latest recording sessions: namely, double stops. Every time I'd come across a section in the Mozart duos, they basically stunk. That nagging fourth finger issue remained unresolved, even after all these years. The shape was all wrong. As a kid, I'd stuck my pinky down and let it buckle, unaware that it would learn such strong habits as to permanantly alter the muscle structure. To this day, I wonder with skepticism if it can be undone. When it lands, it doesn't buckle, but sometimes the base knuckle falls out of line, which makes it an unreliable member of the left hand machine. I won't even get into my vibrato issues. I am in utter despise of my pinky.

In case previous entries have led you to believe I have fully achieved "teacher" status, and have all the answers and can play the bejeezus out of everything I wish, you are mistaken. I am still a student--a student without a teacher. If I cannot keep myself as a student, I will cease all forward progress as a musician. The thought of settling back into my own mediocrity makes me want to curl up in a ball and turn off the answering machine.

So, every once in a while, I feel compelled to pull myself up by my own bootstraps, so to speak. When this desire presents itself, I put all other musical interests aside until the issue at hand is resolved. Problems like fourth finger weakness cannot be addressed with a wish and a blow of the candles. It must be daily taken to the gym until all the muscles understand their place. I pulled out the double-stop exercises of Schradiek and Sevcik, longing for something to pull my left hand into consistent alignment.

Sevcik exercises are methodical, covering every base of the technical spectrum. For this very reason, I fear their existence, because, like a coke addict, once I begin a line, I can't stop. The idea that one more phrase lies just ahead is unbearable, and I move forward, minute by minute, hour by hour. No teacher sets a boundary with a specific prescription. Instead, I have to decide before I begin where I will draw the line.

Then, today, I ran across the siren call of Dounis, reiterated by so many voices of the internet community. Apparently, Dounis' Daily Dozen could address the needs of the left hand's shape. I dug around and located a pfd.

Dounis came with a warning label, included in his last words of advice:

With ease and suppleness in mind, I tackled the first exercise, which didn't even include the bow. For twenty minutes, I analyzed the first left hand exercise, puzzling over the needs of the note placements on the fingerboard versus the shape of my individual left hand. So small. Look at that tiny hand, trying to swallow the intervals like a snake on a chicken egg. I felt genetically ripped off. Yehudi Menuhin mentioned stretching at the base of the knuckles. I reread the instructions, using his voice as my mental narrator. I stretched and watched my knuckles conform.

This is going to be a long process...

6 replies

The Long Road

November 21, 2011 02:46

This is a letter I wrote to a far-off teacher who contacted me a while ago about a specific, nagging question: are my teaching methods producing results? (We are using the Shirley Givens method books, which take a different route than most standard methods.)

Hi xxxx,

I apologise for the extremely long delay in my response to your letter. Quite frankly, you asked such a stumper of a question that I had to stop and think about it. It's a real soul-searching question: am I getting my students to progress at a fast enough speed? I've asked myself this question from time to time, and I wanted to be as honest with myself as possible before deciding yes or no.

It can be difficult to tell how your students progress when they aren't participating in level exams or competing. I suppose it's easier for me than you to handle this aspect, because the exams don't exist in my area, and I am practically the only teacher, anyway. Yes, progress is slow at the beginning, especially for some who have a poor sense of pitch. But this curriculum is especially good because it addresses the issue head on from the beginning: if you can't hear in your mind what something is supposed to sound like, you can't properly replicate that sound, and you will be always guessing as to whether something is in tune. And for those who have difficulty with this, yes, the path to gaining this ability can be long.

But the great power in developing the ear and the eye's ability to recognize intervals on a page and hear what they will sound like before they are played is that once you can do this, you can read and play anything in tune, at any level, so long as the technical skills are there. But a student's ability to do this has to be there, however long it takes to develop it. Otherwise, you will continually be telling the student "high second finger", "low first", etc. because they won't hear that they're off.

A lot of students can get away with manually training their fingers without addressing ear-training weaknesses for many years, even passing exams. I've taken in intermediate/advanced students from other teachers/methods, and in assessing their playing, find that most of them have large gaps in their understanding of interval relationships in major and minor keys. We always have to go back and fill this in before they can proceed to more difficult pieces.

Quite frankly, I would much rather listen to a student play something simple, with proper technique and sense of pitch than Vivaldi A minor with all the half steps out of whack, or slightly flat. When I hear this (and I've run into this so many times!) it makes me sick to my stomach because I know they aren't hearing what they're doing.

Anyway, for what it's worth, here's your light at the end of the tunnel:

I've been teaching for nearly eight years now. I've been using Givens' books for six of those years. All the students that I've been able to start from scratch on these books and have kept with it don't really begin to reap the full benefits until the upper levels. For instance, when I throw second position into the mix, it takes a while for their fingers to reach for the right place, but they know if they've got it or not. Or say, the key of A flat major. No problem. The different keys all open up at once, and accidentals make sense, both tonally and theoretically speaking. They know the circle of fifths. They are working on tone production exercises, various bow strokes (martele, portato, rubbing detache, etc.). They've had little bites of various etudes from different etude books. They have proficient shifting skills. By the time they graduate from the books, they are ready to join our local community orchestra.

A final word of advice: you don't have to hold a student back when you see that they fully understand a concept. For instance, some of my older students do not need all of the exercises at the beginning, and we usually graze the first three books lightly. I began a diligent violist this fall who is getting ready to finish 2A already (oh yes, I transcribed them). The more years you teach, the easier it will be to pick and choose the path each individual needs. Also, I supplement as the student gains skills in order to cater to their individual taste and needs. For instance, they'll work on a couple of student concertos toward the end of the books if that's what they crave. Or, we'll do some bluegrass or celtic training at the side.

The ear is an incredibly powerful tool, and this is why I've made it such a priority in my teaching. We may take the long slow road, but anyone who perseveres gains incredible empowerment: they gain a voice-like connection with their instrument. They can pick out anything they like by ear. They can compose, transpose, and they will be able to self-govern their practice time most effectively, since they will always know beyond a shadow of a doubt when they've got it right. Those who are not willing or able to cultivate the ear they need to play the violin (and I've had my fair share) should switch to a safer instrument, like the piano. Actually, the piano is a wonderful tool to become familiar with for musical ground-laying, regardless of instrumental preference. I highly recommend it.

I guess I'm more interested in cultivating a relationship with music, not in meeting a certain standardized test's requirements. The proof is in the pudding. The more years I've taught these methods, the better musician I've become myself.

Every teacher must find what works best for her. As you become more familiar with what you want your goals to be and how you work best with students, you will be more confident about the decisions you make with your teaching. Good luck, and please keep in touch; I promise I won't be so long in responding next time!

Thanks for connecting with me, and I hope all is well with you!


7 replies

Own Worst Critic

November 20, 2011 02:16

I spent today playing both parts of some Mozart duos. I'd record one part, then play along with it. Playing along with me, it was funny how aggravated I got with how much I sped up and slowed down. So, I put the both of us under metronome arrest until we could agree on a tempo. Then we had to agree on our intonation. Miss Soloist kept wanting to pull her leading tones up and flatten the sad ones, which sounded just awful. And Miss Accompanist kept blasting out her double stops and ignoring the phrasing. We both had a lot of tension in our playing, which I was surprised about, since I don't usually feel this way when I'm practicing by myself. Something about the pressure of having to keep up, even if I mess up, with the recording device as a witness, really jacks up my flow. I clench the chin rest, and my bow arm stiffens like I'm up to bat or something.

But after a couple of hours, I must say, we were finally starting to get along quite nicely. Note to self: play duets with self more often.

7 replies


November 19, 2011 02:31

Soldotna's a lonely town for me, and November is a pretty lonely month. When I first set a goal of writing thirty entries in thirty days, I wondered how boring I would be. Nothing crazy exciting has happened this month--just the usual goings on for a violin teacher in the middle of nowhere. Most days don't speak of much except the weather. (Why, it was minus ten by the time I finished teaching today, but I wasn't surprised by the thermometer's reading; my violin had already told me so by spitting its pegs out during the last lesson.)

Beyond the weather, I thought it would be a burdensome difficulty to try to come up with something new to write about every day. Instead, as I sorted and tidied my thoughts each evening, I found valuable nuggets of wisdom to chew, like a dog with his nightly bone session. It keeps me busy. Not only that, but when I post them for the world to read, I gain the embrace of a supportive community that continues to fill a desperate void in my life, despite the massive global gulf that separates us.

It is very difficult to pour yourself out into your teaching and have nothing to fill you in return at the end of the day. The folks at the coffee shop, as much as I love them, don't really understand the joy of a fresh cake of rosin or a crazy awesome new string combo. But if I write about them here, I get a little tickle in my toes, knowing that there's at least one person out there who feels the same way. And we need this kind of connection in our lives, this communication of heartfelt interests.

We're a rare breed, us violinists. Only a special type of individual can persevere through the hardships in order to gain the joy of self-expression through this exquisite, romantically exotic time portal that is the violin. Take it from me: I've seen my fair share of quitters. If you're the kind of person who still practices and comes to your lesson even after two whole days without power and sub-zero temperatures, then you, my friend, were meant for the violin.

That's probably part of why I spend so much time alone. But every time I connect with my little internet community and I get a letter from someone I've never met, or a comment on my blog--any comment!--I feel like I can keep on giving it my best. Your connection with me means the world to me.

Thank you.

10 replies

Octopus March

November 18, 2011 02:36

Drake and Phoebe don't just play the piano: they explore it. I have a hard time keeping their fingers still while directing them onto their next assignments, but I don't usually mind because we make such excellent discoveries along the way. Drake has been studying a series of marches by different composers in different time periods. "Don't be surprised if this particular march gets a little strange in the middle. Know anything about Shostakovich?" I asked. Drake shook his head. I elaborated, "He lived in a time and place where freedom of expression was severely limited, and the government systematically killed off a great number of people, including some of his friends. Since he wasn't allowed to outwardly object, he expressed himself rather sarcastically through his compositions. And, since there's no words to his music, he got away with it.

"What are marches written for? Who marches?"
"The military."
With a smirk, I concluded, "Have fun with your march this week!"

I led his little seven-year-old sister back to the studio for her lesson with a question.

"What do we count to when we march?"
"Right. Know why?"
"Because we have two legs."
"One-two, one-two." I marched in place.
Phoebe pondered legs for a second while I leafed through her books: "What about an octopus? They would count to eight."

Hmm, I wonder what an octopus march would sound like. "There's eight notes from C to C..." I played then in a row, counting as I went.

"No, an octopus would march like this:" She rounded her fingers and spread them apart. Crawling from left to right, first with the left hand and then with the right, she skipped every other key in the scale with four fingers and then played the ones she skipped with the right hand.

I observed, "Hey, I like that. One of us could play that pattern, and the other could make up a song that goes on top of it."

We made an octopus march. What would you create to complete this octopus?

7 replies

Heavenly Peace

November 17, 2011 02:15

The wind picked up yesterday evening. It blew and blew, like it was trying to get all us candles out for good. All that whining and howling that shook the doors and blasted the windows with powder was just a little spooky at first, but when the gusts became accompanied by the crackling sound of falling trees, I was downright frightened. Our motion lights flashed on and off outside the door to add to the spook-house effect. And then, at 3 am and twelve degrees, the 40+ mile-an-hour winds finally cut our power. At 7:30 in the morning, cold and strained from dozens of howling nightmares, I awoke to the flickering sound of my microwave's beep, pricked by a futile power surge. Luckily, the coffee shop in town had a warm fire and hot beverages waiting for me. So, by headlamp, I found the motivation to leave my heavy covers and warm up the car for a trip into town. The house grew colder in my absence. As I waited for the power to return, I noted that I was fortunate enough not to have to worry about my frozen goods thawing: Alaska is my freezer--I have all the freezer space I want. Refrigerator getting too warm? Crawl inside! Even luckier still, our power came back half an hour before my first lesson of the day.

Isn't it amazing how thankful you can be when you suddenly realise all the things you take for granted?

I'm thankful for my down-filled, fur-rimmed, Woolrich parka, given to me by Uncle Bob in Pennsylvania.

I'm thankful for the people who cleared the tree out of the road so I could get to the coffee shop.

I'm thankful for Jonathan's sense of humor, who let me throw my Microcosms at him and have him read it forward, backward, upside-down, up a half step, down a whole step, just to show him how good he was, and how nice I was to keep him on more musical activities.

I'm thankful for Haley's rubbing detache discovery, and I hope she gets addicted to it.

I'm thankful that if the power goes out tonight and I get cold, I can run into town to the local fire station and join the 5000 other people without power, under provisional lights and warm shelter. Thank you, local response teams!

Lastly, I'm thankful for Jaycie, who requested to be able to play Silent Night for the holidays. Thanks to her, I spent the rest of the evening composing my own arrangement of an age old song, in first position, with friendly fingerings and bowings and a simple, yet touching piano accompaniment. Because of her, I was able to create my own silent night, shutting out the howl and the threatening cold with the idea of something more serene, hopeful, and tranquil. This one's for you, Jaycie...

5 replies


November 16, 2011 02:20

Lately, I've been playing Mozart with a talented jazz pianist on break from studying composition at Berklee. Wanting to work on his note reading skills, he mentioned the desire to read Bartok's Microcosms. "Funny you mention that," I said, digging through the file cabinet. "I just so happen to possess a copy of his first volume, and it's the very thing my teacher prescribed to me to help my own note reading skills." He took it home and returned it a couple of weeks later. Handing it to me after rehearsal, he noted, "Your teacher sure had you write in your book a lot. How old were you again?" Let's see... "Hmmm, third grade? Eight, I guess."

Curious, I sat down at the piano with the dog-eared, yellowed copy and reviewed.

Ah yes, third grade. At eight years old, I still sucked my thumb and wet the bed. My parents fought a lot. They were getting ready to split up the following year (though they are happily back together to this day), and every time they argued, I thought it was my fault. I thought maybe if I could quit wetting the bed, everything would be okay, but no one can explain to a third grader that such notions are fallacious and should be disbanded, because a third grader doesn't even realise that's how she feels, and even if she did, she wouldn't express it.

The piano was a vehicle to a magical world, and I enjoyed it the same way I enjoyed unicorns and fairy tales. I was quite advanced for my age, and sought out pieces that were way over my head, like arrangements of "Run for the Roses" by Dan Fogelberg, because I was obsessed with horses. Though my fingers had to stretch to reach octaves, I tackled them painlessly, driven by an intense passion to fulfill my dreams.

Unfortunately, my technique had become quite sloppy. My teacher, an older woman who loved gabbing about her experiences with various musical productions and had difficulty writing, assigned me to the Microcosms to wean me from my "crutch", which was this: I could play everything by ear. She assigned Microcosms, abstract pieces in various modes and challenging tonalities, to force the note-reading issue and improve my sight-reading skills. Handing me the pencil, she had me write my own prescription for the following week, regardless of spelling errors. Reading now through the pages, I can recall my weekly assignments in sinking chagrin.

She had me play it forward. On day two, I played it backward. Day three, I played it upside down. Day four: upside down, backwards. And then we took them and transposed them up a half-step, or down a whole step. Repeat ad nauseum.

I remember, she had this large stuffed animal, a beautiful dragon, perched on her piano. No one put it in my head, but I got the notion that if I played my assignments and practiced hard enough, she would give me that dragon as a reward.

And so I practiced. The pieces, written in various "ecclesiastical" modes, left me searching for some sort of familiarity, which was being denied. My Western musical upbringing had accustomed me to major and minor sceneries only, and without Do as my home base, I felt lost. I needed to go home, like a toddler needs a security blanket. Searching for it, I couldn't find it. The demand for notes that held no purpose other than to learn notes became overwhelming. "Meaningless! Meaningless!" I cried.

She never did give me that dragon. Unrewarded, I quit.

3 replies


November 15, 2011 03:11

I was supposedly listening to the world's ugliest music. Mathemeticians used the same prime number theories that developed unpatterned pings for sonar technology to remove any sense of pattern from composition. All 88 keys were systematically used, but in a way that none of them created any semblance of pattern, in interval or rhythm. Yes, it takes up a specific amount of time, is composed of tones, is performed on a stage, and can be replicated.

But is it music? When I listened to it, I thought about how I was feeling. Did it conjure up any particular emotion? None that I could think of, really. It didn't really remind me of anything, either, and usually, music reminds me of something or gives an impression: it has shapes, colors or tells a story, perhaps. This piece definitely lacked plot. No conflict or tension could be resolved. The only way you could tell it was reaching the end would be if you were to to count all 88 notes in anticipation. Each note spoke as its own entity, unassociated with the surrounding notes, sometimes spaced sparsely, and sometimes in groups.

I took a walk with George, exploring ideas as the snow squeaked under our feet. The unpatterened notes, could they perhaps remind me of stars? Stars appearing one by one in the night sky? But even the stars appear in order of brightness, so not exactly. Does it have any shapes? If anything, I'd say the piece in its entirety had the shape of... flat. Okay, so flat, but was it textured? Like this snow? No. It was not smooth; it was scumbled, like these tire tracks--but tire tracks repeat patterns.

Is unpatterned music really ugly? Lacking shape, color, feeling and patterns it may have been, but ugly takes you in a direction, away from that which is beautiful. If they wanted to create the world's ugliest music, they would have to do away with the beautiful elements. They would have to change instruments, because even a single note on a nice piano holds a certain amount of beauty. An ugly piece would need to be performend on an ugly instrument, like one of our summer camp's clunkers. And secondly, they would need a work crew kid to play it, because the current performer evidently has skill. Skill is a thing of beauty.

I thought about work crew kids banging on clunker pianos in the dining hall while I was trying to bake during the summer. Their music was much uglier, mostly because it usually consisted of multiple people banging away at once with no apparent skill or desire to create a musical phrase whatsoever. No, they seemed hell-bent on destruction most of the time when they sat at the keys and pounded. I would say unpatterened, but if you closed your eyes, you could see elbows and fist shapes in the note clusters, and often the banging had a rhythmic sense to it. The chaos had authorship, in the form of the untrained, abusive fingers and limbs of work crew kids.

Then I thought about the one camper a few years ago who had a mental disability. (I'm not sure what it was, exactly.) He loved to play the piano, and although his version of playing consisted of grabbing random notes all over the keyboard, he did it in such a way that they soothed the soul and set the listener in a trance. George and I would sit and listen in serenity, and I had to reconsider my inclination to judge music's value by its brilliance. His was valuable because it so intimately connected us with the expressions of his soul, which had its own element of beauty.

Each of these examples contains a sort of human thumbprint, and although not very musical, they still revealed something about the one playing, and so it communicates to the listener. So, music is partly defined by its ability to communicate. Birds, for example, make music because their phrases are repeatable, consist of specific tones, and are used to communicate (i.e. territorial ownership, courtiship).

Though unpatterned music didn't communicate anything to me, I couldn't charge it with ugliness. Its meaninlessness set a neutral scape that begged my mind to go in search of the shape of music. Bouncing off ideas and examples, it came back to me with a clearer picture than before I'd listened to it. Suddenly, in revelation, I stopped in my tracks and laughed out loud. "Amazing, George! Simply amazing!" Could it be mere coincidence that this piece, composed using the same principles used to create sonar, caused my mind to grasp in the darkness and achieve a better scape of music? I don't think so.

Prime number theory strikes again.

9 replies

Full Circle

November 13, 2011 23:21

(After much introspection, I located the website with his email address, composed my thoughts, and sent the letter. I hesitated before posting this publicly, but thought it worth sharing, just in case there are any students out there who have ever been turned away from their violins as a result of much-needed chastisement. Likewise, if any teachers out there have been the one responsible for delivering the reality check in a student's musical career, this letter is for you. Lastly, I wish to make public acknowledgent because I feel I owe that to my teacher.)

Dear Professor Ma,

I decided to contact you because, although I only studied the violin with you for one year at the University of Oklahoma (1993-94), the things you said and taught me come to mind and teach me new things even to this day.

I grew up in Tulsa, and began the violin in 6th grade through the public school, taking private lessons only briefly before choosing to major in violin performance. When I came to you, I had little foundation on which you could build, and you told me a lot of harsh truths about my playing. I wasn't emotionally prepared at the time for the reality check I received from you, nor was I able to understand your advice or commit to the hours of practice it would take to get where I wanted to be. Honestly, I didn't believe that it was even possible, which was why I quit my major. (That decision haunts me to this day.)

You told me I would come back years later wanting to learn, but by then it would be too late. I've never forgotten those words. I didn't think I would ever want to pursue the violin again, but nine years later, I matured enough to pick it up and try to learn all that you had instructed me.

I'm 36 now. I live in Alaska. I run a music studio of 32 students, play with the Anchorage Symphony, and gave a public recital last fall featuring Brahm's G Major Sonata, Beethoven's Spring, and Sarasate's Caprice Basque. The violin is my passion and joy again, and though I do regret not sticking with it through college, to this day, I gain from your wisdom. I use your instruction when I practice, and also when I teach. My lessons are full of recountings of, "My old violin professor used to say..." And every time I have to sit down and tell the cold hard facts to one of my students about their goals and practice habits, I think of you. That's why I decided to write. I wanted to thank you for giving me proper instruction and let you know that I appreciate the time I had with you. You knew what you were saying.

I hope you are well, and I'm glad I was able to track you down after all these years.

Emily Steele Grossman

7 replies

It Kisses My Strings

November 12, 2011 22:25

My dog Ben and I walk to the top of the hill by our house to get the mail every day. The sun peeks low through the branches as we go. Usually, I let him carry the contents of the mailbox home, but not today. Today, I clutched a little box tightly into my parka and half-jogged back down the hill to the house. It's here! Baker's rosin is finally here! You have to sign up to get on the wait list for their fresh batch, and they only make it when the trees are in season. (A large part of me wants to keep it hush-hush because I want them all to myself, but Mamma taught me not to be selfish.)

Wiping my bow from its previous rosin application, I swiped a few strokes across the hairs and gave it a go. The review?

Baker's rosin kisses my strings? But yes, that's exactly what my spiccato felt like! All the crackles and hisses in my tone that I thought were technical issues went away, just like that. It is sooo romantic! I'm in love...

9 replies

Wishes and Horses

November 12, 2011 01:18

Thank God for my core of faithful, hard-working students who come to their weekly lessons prepared to show off their progress. Were it not for them, I would give up altogether and admit defeat as a failed teacher. As much as I absolutely love teaching, even the positive lessons can be emotionally draining. It takes a lot of energy to see into a person's needs and find ways to meet them in a 30-minute session. But those few who didn't prepare for their lesson this week, who came with nothing... My last three lessons today, all siblings, did not practice, for all their various usual reasons. The oldest one told her mom as they waited in the living room, "Maybe we shouldn't have come at all; she sounds so happy in there, and I don't want to bring her down..." As we headed back to the studio, she told me she'd be fine with reviewing scales all hour.

"I understand that sometimes life just gets out of control, and there's nothing you can do about it. But if you really had some time this week, and you wasted it, you're losing your opportunity to rise to your potential." Seeing her eyes beginning to well, I hurried on, "I want you to know that I'm not mad at you, not mad at all, and we can still go and have some productive time together, but not if you're upset, so calm down, cheer up, and let's go." We spent most of the lesson experimenting with arm weight and its effect on tone, picking various weights for various bow strokes. Then some second position scales. For homework, I gave her an arrangement of Grandfather's Minuet from the Nutcracker Suite.

"I really do want to be good at the violin."

"I know you do, but you need to understand something thoroughly right now. You may think you want something, but perhaps you don't realise the amount of daily persistence it takes to get what you want."

Julie looked down at her violin with a sigh. "That's just it: I've never been able to follow through with anything I like. If I were to choose just one thing, I guess it would be violin, but I don't know..."

I sat down on the piano bench and thought for a second. "It wasn't until college that I realised that I didn't want to put in the effort that I needed to put to get where I wanted. At least not at that time. Why, just this morning, I was watching a monumental recording of Itzhak Perlman playing the finale of the Tchaikovsky concerto. It was absolutely breathtaking, but for a moment, I was remorseful and resentful. I wished I could play like that, and I remember a time when I thought I would. But you gotta understand, they don't just get that way by wishing. They made a lot of lifestyle sacrifices and thousands of hours of consistent dedication. So, I look at someone like him, and I simply enjoy his brilliant gift that he is to the world (and take some notes on his bow technique).

"Right now, I don't see myself practicing strategically for several hours a day, and unless I decide that's what I really want to do, then I don't really want to get myself to the Tchaikovsky concerto."

She thought about this as she tucked her instrument away. "Speaking of Tchaikovsky, is there an arrangement of the Nutcracker Suite for violin?"

"That's exactly where I'm taking you, Julie!" I exclaimed. "Here you are, at the beginning of book 4A. At the end of the last book in level 4, your graduation prize is this wonderful arrangement of all the dances from the Nutcracker Suite. See? Look at them--they look hard, don't they? But by the time you get through all these exercises and pieces leading up to it, you'll be ready."

"What happens after level 4?"

"After level 4? You're done with the books. Then we can talk about the real concertos. And all that orchestra repertoire that seems too hard right now will become easy. It's all right around the corner."

The family rounded up their belongings and put their shoes and coats back on. I thought of something that might work. "Tell you what, Julie. Why don't you set up some appointments with your violin, like you would with a doctor. Try an hour a day for two weeks. You can split it up to make it fit. After two weeks, see if you like your violin more or less. Then you can decide if you want to get serious about it." With as much cordiality as I could muster, I ushered the girls with a wave and well wishes into the white and windy night. I do love them.

The house is silent. I am completely empty. I am completely alone. Outside, a blizzard howls. I will watch reruns of Northern Exposure the rest of the evening and disappear.

4 replies

Horse to Water

November 11, 2011 01:51

Student X (name withheld to protect the guilty) sat waiting in the living room as I ushered the previous student to the door. I didn't have to ask as he headed back to the studio; his countenance said it all.

"How'd your week of practice go?"
"Not good at all."
"I know. I could tell. Did you even practice a little?"
"Not even one time? " He shook his head.

He got out his violin as I grabbed his assignment book. Last week's entry read, "Same as last week." This made it two weeks in a row, and has tended to be the norm for this incredibly gifted, yet incredibly lazy high school student. (I paused before choosing that adjective because it sounds so harsh, but there's no other word that fits the bill.) He didn't even try to make an excuse this time. If it was some other kid whose relationship with the violin held contempt and disdain, I would have told him to drop it and called the next student on the waiting list. But here stood someone who wanted a path to gain him access to the musical expression that needed outlet.

I could see he was preparing for the speech. So, with a shrug, I began.

"I feel bad because your wasting your money when you do this. But you're wasting something else that makes me even sadder. What do you think that is?"

"Your time?"
"...Um, my violin?"
"Your lesson slot?"

I felt the intensity of my frustration gain momentum. It balled into my fist, which held my bow. The bow became a finger, and as I swung my arm out, the finger pointed at him.

"YOU. You are wasting YOU."

16 replies

Who Could Ask for Anything More?

November 10, 2011 02:48

Every human being has a sense of rhythm; isn't that wonderful? If your heart beats, and you are breathing today, you are keeping a rhythm, despite your best efforts to shut it out. Not only that, unless you are physically incapable of walking, you have the ability to keep time in 2/4. The next time you walk for a bit, observe the rhythm that your body makes, from the swinging of your arms to the natural nod of your head. Your whole body is measuring out time in predictable segments. To this, you might find yourself spontaneously humming a tune or mentally chanting a sentence or phrase. Walking is a wonderful break-through tool for connecting yourself with this musical pulse that you already know so well. Pick up a skip, and you've got the gist of jigs.

Some of my students like marching so much that they beg me to turn the metronome on and march around the house with them, and so we do. We march to different speeds and count, to two, or to four, and once we're really good at it, we might even clap different rhythms on top of that. Three-four is a little more tricky, but not insurmountable. The legs alternate the downbeat, but this is the same thing that happens with bowings, so it makes for fun discoveries.

Today, after noticing that my normally musically intuitive Hayley didn't even flinch when adding an extra beat here and there to "Trumpet Minuet", I concluded that she had forgotten the underlying pulse. The best way for her to reconnect with the music she was making? We put our instruments down and learned the waltz step. "After all, a minuet is a dance, and this is how you will dance, only with your bow." Big steps for for the quarter notes, singing and swinging until she could feel it with her bow arm, and then when she picked up her instrument again, all the beats were back in the picture.

Right after Hayley, I'd scheduled a lesson with Jaycie, who is learning to slur. "The Bluebells of Scotland" is a 2/2 song, and the bow slurs the notes so that it remains moving to the steady half-note pulse while the left hand creates different rhythms. To get a grasp of this, her assignment had been to say the words of the song in rhythm while swaying back and forth, swinging her arms the same direction her bow would be going. Sounds silly and maybe a bit embarrassing? She nailed the song. I would say effortlessly, but I know Jaycie and the amount of work she put into diligently following the instructions.

The teaching day ended. I sat down at the computer, thinking about my students and the power of movement. ...Too bad for those who are too inhibited to try this stuff out. Some kids are too bashful, and as we get older, the inhibitions increase. After all, when was the last time you skipped?

I loaded the first tutorial video in a series of five provided by Yehudi Menuhin on the art of playing the violin. Eloquently, he demonstrated the necessity of engaging the mind and body in this daunting, experimental journey. In his buttoned collar and tie, he described the freedom of motion and prescribed some whole-body exercises to help the student connect with the motions of violin playing.

I couldn't help but wonder how a prim and proper man would react to marching around the room or waltzing out a rhythm or two. But now he was describing a familiar yoga move, which involved placing the toes high in the air and then laying them over the head, on the floor. He then took off his shoes, lay on the floor, and proceeded to demonstrate. A grown man, of most prestigious nature, lay on the floor and spoke about the wonders of connecting with a most relaxed state. I was in awe of his lack of inhibition.

If an old man in a tie can stick his toes in the air and then place them over his head onto the floor in front of an group of observing students and film crew, no one has an excuse. Everyone can be in touch with music. They only need to lay their inhibitions at the door and move onward. One, two, three, four...

Yehudi Yoga

8 replies

Brain Freeze

November 9, 2011 02:53

The first sub-zero temperatures of winter caught me by surprise. For three days, snow fell at just below freezing, but as soon as the clouds lifted, the heat evaporated with it into the sky. At zero degrees, it took me twenty minutes and ten trips around the house to dig up the expedition-weight thermal underwear from its storage, find both gloves and both mittens, a neck gaiter, wool cap, and two sets of socks, just to go on a walk.

Ben and I like the starry solitude of night, which grows in length, day by day. The lucid tranquility of moonlit snow lets me quietly conjugate and extrapolate my thoughts, uninterrupted. I rehash.

What happened to my mind today? I cleaned the house and organized my stacks of random books, only to fill my first lesson with cluttered absent-mindedness. I couldn't even get my left hand to function on the piano keys as she ran through her Bach. My mind was a huge pile of laundry, unorganized and overwhelming.

After she left, I had a cancellation, which gave me time to regroup, but instead, the voices in my head began to shout with paranoia and self-doubt. "Why can't you play? Why can't you get your act together? Why can't you remember simple things, like today's date and the location of your pencil?" Sometimes, my lack of focus is so bad I take to writing backwards, putting the ends of the words down on paper before I've begun the beginnings. (I've never been good at talking and writing at the same time.) Forgetfulness, randomness, lost items, tardiness, and lack of structure form the setting for most of my nightmares, and today felt much like a nightmare.

I don't know why today of all days... But I do know this: ramble-scumble days when I can't seem to "focus" are also the days in which I'm connected with my best ideas. It's almost as if the mess allows me to reach out of my organized thoughts and find those quirky ideas that no one thinks of. The lesson might have been bad in terms of structured-ness, but it was full of light bulbs and connections.

The rest of the day filled with back-to-back lessons, but luckily, everyone showed up five minutes late, which gave me the false appearance of me having my act together. So in actuality, we were all synchronized. Why the pattern of lateness? A quick deduction led me to the only probable connection: it must be weather related. Winter has arrived!

3 replies

Muscle Memory

November 7, 2011 21:20

Young Katie has been playing piano for six weeks now, and usually practices under the knowledgeable supervision of her musical mother. This week however, mom was out of town, and Katie tackled her songs by herself. I could see right away that she'd practiced one of her pieces all week with a couple of wrong notes. After having her circle the note where she'd taken a wrong turn, I asked her to play it again, and when she saw the circle, stop and pick the correct finger. Back to the beginning. She slowly made her way back to the circled note, and when she got there, I saw her fingers stiffen as she mentally wrestled with the incorrect finger, stopping it before it pressed the key. After a suspenseful pause, the correct finger finally landed, and she finished the line.

"You did it!"
"That was really hard!"
"Did you feel your finger pulling against your brain's commands? You had to tell it not to go, and then tell the other finger to play; isn't that interesting? Almost like it had a mind of its own, huh?" She nodded. "Well, guess what?" I continued, "It kinda does. It's called 'muscle memory.' Yeah, I bet you never knew your muscles have brains! And they learn to do what you train them to do, sometimes even when you don't want them to.

"Remember when you first learned to walk? Probably not. See, when you first made your legs go, you told them, one at a time, to pick up and go forward. But now when you walk, do you say, 'Left leg, lift and land! Right leg, lift and land!' Do you?"

She giggled, "No!"

"They remember that stuff for you, so you don't have to figure it out each time you get out of bed. Here in the music, you taught the wrong finger all week long to play, and then when you wanted to play the right note, you had an argument with that finger to get it to do what you want, because it didn't want to listen to you anymore; it was just running along, doing what you'd taught it to do all week. But don't worry; you will always win an argument with your finger if you try, because your big brain is stronger than your little finger-muscle brain--if you give it time to focus its powers. And then, if you do it a certain number of times the same way, your finger-muscle's memory will remember what you told them and do it without you having to tell it anymore."

Cool, huh? That's all there is to it, simple as training a dog. Yeah, there's a real double-edged sword concerning muscle memory: old habits die hard. It's amazing how, when I pick up an old piece I haven't played in years, I find ingrained in the notes a lot of the same old bad habits I thought I'd cured: shoulder clenching, tight shifts, flat or sharp pitches--all of Pavlov's dogs, right there, just waiting for the dinner bell. If I can manage to hit the override button and use my current level of technical skill, old pieces can be fun to dominate. A lot of times I'll purposefully change the bowings and fingerings to help it along. But what I really, truly love is the fresh slate that I get from sight reading a new piece. You never get a second chance to start out with the right habits.

...Which is another reason why, if at all able, a person starting out on the violin or piano--or any instrument they may like to take a half-decent stab at learning--should try his hardest to start fresh with the right habits, under the advice of a seasoned teacher.

4 replies

To Get to the Other...

November 6, 2011 23:50

I spent most of the day being lazy, staying in from the snow, looking up curious things on the internet, like sloths crossing the road.

The Skinner auction was today, so I looked at what sold and for how much, just to keep up with the times. Tarisio's is in a couple of days, and as I look through the items up for auction, I wonder what it would be like to randomly bid on something I've never played. I've been known to take chances, but picking up something like a Testore at Tarisio would be about as risky as playing in traffic.

I really like my modern Italian; don't get me wrong. But I wouldn't mind having another with an older, warmer tone for chamber ensembles and music from earlier periods. Actually, okay I admit, I have a crush on this one 18th century Flemish violin I played a while ago on one of my trips Outside. I can't stop recalling that golden tone, and I wish I could hear it again, to see if it's as sweet sounding as I remember. I couldn't afford it at the time, and I don't know if I really have enough saved even now, that I could wisely consider stretching for another musical investment. It takes so long to round up the funds, one month at a time. But I hope it's still there when I go out at Christmas so I can spend some time with it again. I can't stand the thought of it being sold before I can reach it.

I don't really need another violin. It's just something I think about on slow winter days, especially during the auctions. Ah, it's probably not that great, anyway...

Okay, why did the sloth cross the road?

10 replies

Star Wars

November 5, 2011 22:39

It makes sense, then, that the Greeks were into both astronomy and music. They studied the way objects in the universe related to one another, and then they studied the way musical pitches relate to one another in the innermost workings of our beings. Try teaching someone who doesn't recognize pitches and cannot match them to begin to latch onto their location and replicate them, first in their mind and then with their fingers on a stretched piece of string, and you may feel like tackling the universe next.

Jennifer used to be a witch, but now she's only just a little bit crazy, which is why we probably get along so well. She first came to me about violin lessons because she needed to feel the vibrations resonating in her chest as she held something that sang close to her throat. (I never thought about that intimate relationship that only the violin has with replicating the human voice; when you rub your bow across the strings, the sound can be felt in the throat and the chest.) The first time Jennifer felt the sound, it brought tears to her eyes. She had always wanted to sing, but had never learned, and claimed she couldn't. So, she wanted to sing with the violin instead.

Every person who comes to me for lessons possesses a certain level of ability to replicate pitches and remember where pitches lie. These are two different, equally important skills: one involves stepping outside yourself and grabbing onto the sound of something in the room and recreating it, either with the voice or instrument, and the other involves being able to mentally keep track of pitch locations and how they relate to each other. This is a completely internalized skill, and involves dealing with the voices in one's head, so to speak.

Whether child or adult, I come across barriers that must be broken before progress can be made. Say, you are someone who could be classified as completely "tone deaf". (I don't believe this exists, by the way, but it gets the point across.) We begin by identifying high or low sounds. Certainly, you can hear the difference between the microwave beeping and a dog's barking. Then, we go through a series of exercises listening to pitches on the piano and guessing which one is higher and which one is lower. I start big and obvious, and aim for 100% success. Then, the tricky part: can you match it? This is where the mind has to latch onto an external stimulation, determine its location, and recreate the sound. Lots of things interfere with this, and the more distracted the mind is, the more difficult it is to do. Distractions can come in the form of cluttered thoughts, lack of focus, other sounds stuck in the brain, general static, or external distractions, like multi-tasking (i.e. moving bow arm, thinking about scroll level, stance, notes on the page, etc.). If you are really not good at matching pitches, it makes no sense to try finding them on an instrument when you have to be thinking about so many other things. Voice matching is the clearest way I can tell if this part of the brain is working, but many students are bashful about singing, which is unfortunate. As soon as the mind experiences stress, listening becomes incredibly difficult. Just recall the last time you had stage fright or had to respond to someone yelling at you, and think about what the "deer-in-the-headlights" sensation does to your reasoning and senses. The overload of being asked to listen and match a pitch when stressed out makes this task difficult. I try not to put people on the spot, but when they opt out of this step, it doesn't tend to get better. If you work with me, I can help you get your voice onto that pitch, and I can help you develop that weak brain muscle so that you can use it on your own at home. Otherwise, you're on your own.

Jennifer has lots of distractions in her life, and I pull my hair out sometimes when I can't get her to put all the conversations in her head aside and focus on what's going on during the lesson. I have a feeling her practice time is equally overloaded, because we can leave a lesson with all the notes in tune, but when she returns the next week, they are all out of place again. Just the simple act of trying to do too many things at once keeps her from noticing her notes are out of place, and since she's used to hearing them there, no mental red flag pops up when she gets off track. And so go the habits. But a couple of weeks ago, she made a drastic change in her practice goals, and suddenly she was beginning to hear where her whole and half steps should be. What did she do?

"I don't want to play my songs for you. I just want to play scales. Can we do that today?"

"Why sure, actually, I'd be happy to!"

Back to square one. Can you match this pitch on the piano with your voice? She was a whole step low. No, clear your throat. Clear your mind. Listen, can you match this pitch with your voice? She was low again. Now she was beginning to stab around randomly, so I stopped her. "Here, if you're not sure, but you feel pretty close, this trick works--I use it all the time when tuning instruments. I drop it out of tune and come back up to it. Do this slowly: drop your voice down, and as you bring it back up toward the pitch--and, if you listen carefully--you will hear the sound waves line up. "Ahhhuuuuummm..." She stopped right when she arrived at the pitch. We worked on this a few times with various comfortable pitches, asking, "Too high? Too low? Just right?" and then introduced the first specific measurement: the whole step. "Okay, this is do-re." I will play these two notes and you see if you can hit both of them. We worked on that (too high, too low, just right?) until she was achieving a high level of accuracy and showing me she knew which way she needed to adjust her voice. Then we picked up our violins. Her next job was to listen to her open string, match the pitch with her voice, remember the space of a whole step by mentally creating the specific sound (no guessing) and making her first finger land where she wanted it. She should be able to tell if it is too high or too low and move her finger up or down accordingly until she is landing do-re on a consistent basis. Not difficult, huh? We are now mentally measuring and recreating sound waves.

What is the shape of Do-Re? How does it make you feel? What does it look like? What does it taste like? How does it relate to your mental structures? When do you know you've found it? And once you can do that, can you tell me about Mi and Fa, and then can you get all the whole and half steps to add up to Do? Once you can do that well, then we can talk about skipping around and keeping track of all the other interval relationships. Hopefully by then, you can keep your home base, Do, droning clear in your mind like the north star, guiding the way. Congratulations, you are now on your way to adding up the constellations and finding your way across your mental musical universe.

Jennifer and I have done this before. I do this as needed with different students. Some were born with a better relationship with their notes than others. For those who are not gifted, they must work, but it's possible to learn. The thing that made the main difference with Jennifer that gained her more progress in one week than during the past year was that she went home and contented herself with studying Do and Re, and then Mi and Fa. She got rid of the distracting paper, the black notes, the moving bow and rhythmic complications. She found the pitches on a keyboard so she could remember when she forgot, and then she worked on connecting with that part of her mind that puts the notes in their place and keeps them there. Most people needing this step in their life are not content or patient enough to stay with this step as long as it takes to get it.

I don't know, maybe they could do battle with astronomy for a while, first.

4 replies


November 5, 2011 01:05

Last week, on a whim, I googled my old violin professor, Michael Ma, under whom I briefly studied at the University of Oklahoma in 1993-94. Since I only took lessons from him for one year, and since he was a primary force in my decision to quit my major, I hadn't kept in touch with him, to say the least. I remember running into him my senior year while accompanying a friend of mine for her jury exam, and he greeted me with, "Ah, Emily Steele, I thought you dropped out of college!" Even four years later, he found a way to sting me with his words. I hadn't, but went on to graduate with a degree in education. At the time I'd told him I was quitting music, he told me that I would come back when I was 28 wanting to learn, but by then it would be too late. So, my sophomore year, I moved on with life and tried to put him and my failed attempt as a musician as far behind me as I could.

Eight years went by. I goofed off in college, broke my heart over a silly boy, earned my BA in education, tucked that little piece of paper somewhere I don't even remember, and then left the state of Oklahoma. I gave teaching a try in North Carolina, broke my heart over some other silly boy, moved to Alaska, and found George. I got married, worked at a variety store, learned how to bake, tried selling artwork, moved back to Oklahoma for a winter, and got a part time job at a quilt shop. George couldn't find work, so, come spring, we moved back to Alaska. He joined the staff at the summer camp as the food coordinator, and I bought a piano and began teaching lessons. During those eight years, I'd wandered aimlessly, but the moment I opened my studio and returned to music, I came home. Tentatively, on a February night in 2004, I wiped the dust off my old fiddle to search for answers, which led me on a musical quest, one that still continues to this day. Coincidentally, I was 28 at the time. The words of Michael Ma haunted me: was I too late?

Michael Ma's curse nagged me when I felt discouraged about a particular fast passage or double stop phrase. I am too old to get this! My brain is too set in concrete to get this! Even so, as I encouraged my own students and showed them how to solve their problems, they revealed all the ways I could solve my own, which were the same problems, only less magnified. In taking my own advice, I made progress just like they did. If I didn't know any better, I'd say I benefited more from lessons than they did, because teaching a skill requires a higher level of problem solving ability, and much analyzation and creativity. But is this possible, to make this kind of progress? After all, I'm too old.

Though nagged by the curse of Michael Ma, I also found myself many a time being visited by words of wisdom that I'd gleaned from my lessons with him. At the time, I was too immature and thin-skinned to take his admonition, and much of the technical advice he gave flew right over my head because I had so little foundation on which to build. But his words logged into my memory, where they would come in handy when I was finally ready to understand and heed them.

Randomly, my curiosity finally brought me back to his figurative doorstep, not to knock, but to take a peek. I remembered at one point he'd moved back to Hong Kong and was playing with a symphony there. Did he still play? I wondered if he was even still alive. I felt a pang at the thought of him disappearing off the map; even though I'd labeled him my enemy, I felt no relief at the thought of his demise. Instead, I felt sorry for him.

But then I read the results: Head of Strings, Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts... 2008 judge for the Yehudi Menuhin competition... Concertmaster, Hong Kong Philharmonic... Oh here's a video of him playing a Mozart duo, #5. I clicked.

The first notes caught me off guard; Mozart's genius struck a deep note in my soul as, simultaneously, I connected with a man whose persona didn't seem to have aged a day since the last I saw him. He wasn't as perfect as my idealized mental icon, and yet the notes grabbed my mind and wouldn't leave me for days. I ordered the sheet music and checked the mailbox daily until it arrived, like a Christmas package.

I practice Mozart's duo #5 at night, and I wonder about Michael Ma. I don't wonder if I proved him wrong. Instead, I hope for something different.

I hope he's proud of me.

15 replies

Juneau Falls

November 3, 2011 22:55

I finally finished the color pencil of Juneau Falls for my granny, by the way. It didn't get done nearly as fast as I'd wanted because my concentration was so limited for some reason. It ran along at its own pace, a little each night after practice time. I plan to take it to her at Christmas time and perhaps get some prints made while I'm out.

11 replies

On the Importance of Blogging and Bach

November 2, 2011 20:38

"So, how did the Bach go this week? What did you focus on, where do you want to start?" Settling back into my chair after our Mozart duo, I grabbed my coffee and a pencil, ready to assist. My student's back was turned as she flipped through the pages of the E major concerto, so it surprised me when she greeted my questions with reddened face and eyes. "I don't know," she stammered, "it seemed okay last week, and then this week, I just couldn't seem to get any of it in tune..." Before I could catch myself, I let out a chuckle, then apologised. "I'm not laughing at you, it's just that I totally relate to your experience. Let me explain: there are two things happening here. No, three."

The Bach E Major Concerto is a legitimately difficult piece. An entire practice session could be devoted to just the opening do-mi-so alone. Knowing what lay ahead, I'd prepared her for the journey with weeks and weeks of Kreutzer #8, E Major scales, arpeggios, and double stops. I added a warning label when I first handed it to her: "Don't be surprised if you feel at some point like you're weeding the dandelions out of a 40-acre pasture." Each week, we took a different section and analyzed the underlying chord structure, pointing out the anchor notes for intonation. I gave her the accompaniment slowly, having her listen to how the parts fit together and where they led. We made progress. Even so...

Three things concerning progress and Bach. One, progress does not come in the form of a straight line. It's more like a series of peaks and valleys, and the ups and downs can vary from day to day, week, to week, month to month, and so on. With persistence, you gain altitude, and you end up stronger than if you'd just gotten better all at once. The mind has so many ways in which it needs to develop, so progress must be cultivated much like a crop.

Secondly, especially with the type of work we've been doing, as our awareness increases, so does our desire for improvement. My student now hears things she wasn't hearing before, and to her, she feels as though her playing has deteriorated, but as the teacher, I can see the steps she's made even from last week to this week, and I'm encouraged. All those mistakes were there before, but now she's really tending to them.

Thirdly, there's something about Bach that makes us want to strive toward some unobtainable perfection. I believe every player should incorporate a little Bach in the diet, because it keeps us honest and humble, and reminds us of the beauty that can be achieved in the world. You can break your heart trying to reach perfection, or you can learn a valuable lesson, and that is that there's joy to be found in the striving, not in the achievement.

It pains me to see my students cry, so after she left, I searched through the blog archives, hoping to find some nuggets of encouragement to share with her from my own struggles with the Bach E Major. What a fun trip down memory lane! Ha, it wasn't that long ago, actually. Ah, she's lucky to be growing like this with so much future still ahead of her. I just can't wait to take her around the corner, so she can see the amazing view that's yet to come.

8 replies

April, June, and November

November 1, 2011 16:36

Quite honestly, I've been unfairly withholding myself from you. But please, understand: I suffer from a disease called perfectionism, which at times can be debilitating. If I can't have it perfect, often times, I won't even start, and once you get used to not starting, you don't bother even to try anymore.

House cleaning, for instance, has always been this way: a place for everything and everything in its place, but once there's one sock left on the floor, the whole house turns into a dump. It's the same with blogging. I tidied my thoughts and formed weekly topics for years in a row, but then I decided somewhere along the way that I was out of clever things to say, and I didn't try. And then I got bashful about my own absence, and then September passed, and now October's gone, too. And if the world ends in 2012, by then it'll be too late!

I could try catching up with everything, but the chore is daunting; it's easier to light a match and burn the house down. So, in order to travel light, I will pick up from scratch and see how far I can go.

I'll make it thirty, be it bright or boring. Apologies for my absence, and I look forward to connecting with you all again.

8 replies

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