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July 2008

Shadow Pictures

July 31, 2008 04:42

Practicing from 10:30 to 11:30 p.m. is not the greatest time of day. But it's quiet, a little surreal.

I'm still doing vibrato exercises with the scroll against the wall. Long notes in a scale until my wrist gets tight or 3 minutes passes, whichever comes first. Sometimes I look at the pictures on the wall of the rec room while I'm standing there with the scroll against the wall, the velvet blanket from my case wedged between them for protection.

We have 5 collages on this wall that have been made by our former au pairs, all 19-20-year-old young women from Germany. They stay one year, usually between Gymnasium (high school) and university. The first one started the tradition and gave us a collage as a going-away gift. They've gotten bigger and more elaborate over the years. One scalloped the edges of every picture she cut out with special scissors. Another labeled hers "My Year in Boston," 2005-2006, with star-spangled, red-white-and-blue lettering. From the first of the 5 collages to the last, I can watch my kids grow up, my son from babyhood, my daughter from when she was younger than my son is now.

My farmer's market performance with my daughter got rained out, rescheduled until late-August. There were massive thunderstorms all day that day. The weather has been kind of freaky all summer. While it may not mean anything, I imagine signs of climate change anyway. Is Boston becoming more tropical? Will our future au pairs make different collages--fewer sunny pictures of kids at the pool, fewer pictures of painted snowmen? My violin teacher is having a terrible time with chiggers--small biting mites--in her car and in her apartment. When they bite, she has a bad reaction to them of swelling and redness that affects her playing. She is now resorting to throwing away a bunch of beloved possessions and clothes to get rid of them. I didn't know this area of the country had a problem with chiggers. I'm not even sure I've ever seen a chigger. My teacher said they've come up to more northern climates in the past 10 years.

This has been a difficult week all around. A friend passed away last month, but I only found out about it last week. She was only 44 and had two young kids. We had phoned and emailed last fall and talked about getting together and I never followed up. I got distracted by various family issues, work, and the rest of life. I hadn't even known she was sick. Another acquaintence's husband also passed away two days ago. He was diabetic and had suffered several strokes, but he wasn't that old either. And he was a beautiful poet. He won a poetry award that now he won't be able to receive.

With the vibrato, I was in a bit of a hurry. I put the scroll against a blank wall instead of near the collages, and I saw a shadow picture of my left hand on the wall. It looked kind of like a vibrating playboy bunny, with a big ear sticking up and another one out to the side. I put my fingers down closer to the fingerboard, in a more arched shape. Some of the tension goes away. The vibrato is better. The 3 minutes are more than up.

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Local Food, Local Music

July 16, 2008 03:54

I'm on YouTube after all! The Belmont Farmers' Market revamped its website this spring, in time for opening day in June, and they included a blurb about last year's community performers.

This clip starts with 2 of the kids who performed last year playing Bach and ends with me, playing "O Sole Mio." It has me labeled as a violinist, even though I'm playing a viola.

These kids, and another girl my daughter went to see a couple weeks ago, inspired her and she asked if she could play too. So, my daughter and I are planning to play again next week. She only has about 10 minutes of music, mostly duets with me, but she's quite excited about it. I wrote a B part for the viola to accompany her on "Home Sweet Home" and "On the Road to Boston" in the Easiest Fiddling Book that Laurie Niles recommended we do for the summer. If she actually goes through with it (still not a sure thing, given her past experience with performance), she will get a gift certificate from one of the merchants.

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Scales, sheepishly

July 11, 2008 08:27

I've been on vacation for a little while, without my instrument, but while I was gone I was thinking about scales.

Before I left there was a blog in which someone posted how he practiced scales, "one hour to warm up," went through an extensive range of keys and bow patterns, and I asked him in a comment what his goal was with that plan. I said I would find trying to follow such a plan confusing and boring. And maybe frustrating. I then left town and computer access before I could see the answer, and when I got back and checked, the blog was gone and my question with it.

I had already fretted a bit, as I was climbing the sand dunes at Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore, that maybe I had come across as obnoxious and ignorant with my question, as another internet crackpot. Sometimes questions like that are perceived as loaded, or really are loaded. And the fact that I used the words confusing, boring, and frustrating was probably not a good sign. I didn't mean that *he* was being any of those things, but that probably wasn't clear either. Anyway, scale guy, whoever you are, sorry, I didn't mean to be critical or snide, even if I sounded that way. It was about me, not about you.

The question, however, is still bugging me, internet crackpot or no. Scales are recommended to pretty much everyone, pretty much all the time, and I assume rightly so. They really must whiten, brighten, and cure the common cold, if you know what you're doing. But sometimes the advice seems rather indiscriminate, or perhaps it assumes some prior knowledge or intent that most people have, that I missed or about which I am particularly dense.

In particular, scale advice that starts with one scale and tells you to do a particular set of exercises, often quite a lengthy one, and then follows with "now do the same thing for all the keys/scales" seems especially daunting and difficult to parse. I can certainly imagine how this would take an hour a day; honestly, attempting anything like that would probably take me several hours, and I'd lose my place before I got beyond G major.

I feel like this is something I need to discuss with my teacher, but I need to get smarter first before I bring it up with her. I own several scale books and there are notes and dates written in them to suggest that I've done them, but I can't say my scale study up to now has been very profitable, or very memorable for that matter.

My teacher in high school had me buy the Hrimaly Scale Studies for Violin. I still have it. Although it is largely lost in the mists of time, I remember him saying something like, one fingering will work for almost all the scales, except for G and A. For all the others, you can start on 2 and use the same fingering, if you learn it well. He may not have actually said this, because it sounds kind of silly to me now, but it's what I remember. Because I also remember my next teacher, in Germany, being horrified by that idea. She thought you needed to learn different fingerings for different scales and told me to buy the Carl Flesch scale system instead. I still have that one too.

My teacher at Caltech was okay with the Flesch and he picked out several exercises from it for me to do, which I did. It looks like I did mostly C,G,D, and A major, based on the dates written in the book. My first viola teacher said I should get Flesch for viola, so I have that too, and I read out of it now when I'm practicing scales on viola.

I tend to do scales in 2-3 different keys every practice session. Three octaves without vibrato just for being able to do the three octaves, for trying to recognize all those ledger lines in alto clef, for intonation, for shifting, for left thumb placement. I've also been trying to "hear the note in my head" before putting the finger down. And to put each finger down straight and clear and correctly the first time without adjustments. Two octaves with vibrato with the scroll against the wall for vibrato. Stop when/if the vibrato gets tight. This takes 10-15 minutes and then I'm ready to move on. Sometimes I do a scale in the key of the piece or etude before the piece or etude rather than lumping all the scales together. This seems like more than enough, especially given my limited practice time which is only about an hour a day, sometimes less.

I'm not sure that this is true, but I think my current teacher may think that I'm more advanced in the scale arena than I actually am. She thinks, for example, that I can play 3-octave scales from memory, and is surprised when I drag out Flesch, pages marked with easy convenient post-it notes--C,G,D,A and so forth, in order to play the one she asked for. When I have played scales for her, she has always had something extremely helpful and interesting to say about it, so I am thinking this is an avenue I should pursue further. I've already asked if I need to get another scale book besides Flesch and she said no this one is fine. But other questions come to mind, like "how many keys does it make sense to do this in?" and "what about all the other bowing and arpeggio exercises in there?" and "how hard should I work on memorizing these scales?"

Since I don't have "an hour to warm up" on scales, and Buri says that's a warm up of death anyway, how can I use the 20 minutes per day that I realistically have to spend on scales most effectively?

What I think I am doing currently is, identifying issues that need work in pieces and orchestra music and then doing scales focused on these issues. So, I need work on loosening up my vibrato--do it in a scale. I need work on hearing notes in my head and putting my fingers down correctly the first time--again, do it in a scale. This seems like a good, if maybe somewhat incomplete, answer to that question.

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