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September 2008

The Hard Stuff

September 30, 2008 03:59

As principal of the 1st violin section I've been feeling much responsibility for learning orchestra music this fall, and so my viola has spent the month of September in its case while I get to know my violin again.

For the most part, switching back has not been a big deal, except for something my teacher pointed out, which is that I'm tending to play too heavily and lean too much on string crossings. Sometimes I'm trying to pull sound out of the instrument as if it were a viola, when a lighter touch is really what's called for.

What this observation has done, moreover, is gotten me to focus more on the bow arm and hand than I have in the past. And I don't always like what I hear: in fact, these days it seems like I'm always ending up in the wrong part of the bow for doing what I wanted to do. And then a frantic journey from, say, the frog back to the tip ensues, with accents in all the wrong places. I don't think that this is evidence of halcyon days of pre-viola bowing bliss, from which I've sadly fallen. Rather, I think it's evidence of having moved from ignorance into experience.

Right now I seem to have two kinds of problems on string instruments: things I can't do, and things I forget to do. Most of my playing life I've concentrated on the things I can't do, like octave leaps from G to GGGG! on the Eing. I'll work this shift over and over, I'll do repetitions, I'll discuss Brian's blog with my teacher. Sometimes I nail the shift, sometimes I don't. The percentage varies, and (hopefully) increases over time. But there's never a question of forgetting to do it.

Whereas getting in the right place in the bow is different. It's something that, if I pay attention and plan ahead, I can do correctly on the first or second try. But the trick is remembering to pay attention and plan ahead, and not move on, thinking "oh, that's easy, I can do thaaaat, let's get to the hard stuff" too soon.

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Learning Bit by Bit

September 19, 2008 10:27

In addition to Tchaikovsky's Capriccio Italien, for our November 9 concert, we are also working on Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 5, "Reformation." Unlike my experience last year, where prior familiarity with the William Tell Overture got me out of the viola section and into the first violins, I've never played either of these pieces before, and didn't know the Mendelssohn even to listen to before this.

Many have commented on the ease with which pieces learned in one's youth can come back, years later, in contrast to pieces one learns as an adult. Joshua Bell was quoted very succinctly last year on this point in the Washington Post:

"Also, the older I get the harder it is to learn, particularly by memory. I don't like using music for concertos but I may just resign myself to all concertos I learn now. ... because anything I learned as a kid, I can drop it for 15 years (and) I can bring it up again and it will be right there. But things I've learned as an adult, you have to keep drumming it back into your head again."

I experienced this phenomenon first hand last year, when I was playing Beethoven's Egmont Overture with the Arlington Phil. We were "sightreading," and I hadn't seen the 1st violin part since ~1982, when my high school orchestra played it. But, as I turned to the last page, the Allegro, I felt a familiar sense of excitement building. I was sitting in the same seat of the same section as I had all those years ago. I was even playing the same instrument. The last page of Egmont is not trivial. It's fast, and in my excitement and the flood of memories coming back, I even pushed the tempo too hard and rushed. But, as I settled into it, it soon felt to my fingers as if the intervening 25 years hadn't really passed.

As I mentioned, the sightreading didn't go quite as well this time, for obvious reasons. But I feel like being contrary anyway and questioning the conventional wisdom that aging and getting older are the whole story here. Because when I think back to how I learned Egmont, there's a big difference between what we did then and what we're doing now. In high school, we rehearsed every weekday, from 7:45 to 8:25 a.m. We broke Egmont down into small pieces and went over it in lessons. My teacher counted with me the leger lines to the high A triplets, he went over the intervals as I learned them shifting down and back up. We sang the intervals, we learned, as a group, to get them in our ear. We methodically put it back together again.

Of course adults don't have that kind of time. We have more repertoire to get through, more concerts to play, and fewer rehearsals. We also can't--and don't want to--get away with playing only one or two movements of a major symphony, something else that we did in high school.

But there are aspects of the approach that you can adapt on your own, like breaking the piece down and learning a movement, or part of a movement, at a time. I'm also rediscovering how helpful it is to listen to a piece of orchestra music and know your part well enough that you can just go over it in your head while you're listening. I know that's partly how I used to be able to learn fast passages of running 8th or 16th notes. I had the fingerings and notes memorized and went over them in my head at odd times of day (or night). And when I heard the piece as a whole, my brain would just play my part automatically for me, whether I had the instrument or not. It also helps you not get lost during long measures rest.

That process seemed to be a little easier when I was younger, perhaps, but is far from impossible now, and maybe it just seems harder because I don't have Mr. Thomas there in front of me anymore, writing everything on the blackboard. Now I write down what the conductor says, since blackboards seem to have gone the way of the typewriter and mimeograph machine.

Mostly, what I need to do now is slow down, break it down bit by bit, look, and listen. And wonder what will happen again when/if, 25 years from now, I have the good fortune to play the Mendelssohn again.

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From Lows to Highs

September 11, 2008 18:27

I’ve experienced more than my share of the common anxiety dream where I show up at an exam without having studied, or I find out the big paper is due and I forgot I was even taking the course.

I imagine the violinist’s version might go something like this: you walk into an orchestra rehearsal, the first of the year, after playing and practicing the viola all summer. And the conductor asks you to play violin. And, guess what, you are sight-reading the first violin part of Capricco Italien. And, oh, by the way, you are the concertmaster.

But wait, that wasn’t a dream. That was my first orchestra rehearsal last week.

I’m playing in the Arlington Philharmonic Orchestra, a community orchestra celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. I played in it last year as well. The repertoire is wonderful. We accompanied an amazing young violinist, Pei-Wen Liao, last year on the Beethoven violin concerto. And we premiered a modern work for chamber orchestra and chorale, Michael Veloso’s “Executive Orders.” I enjoy working with the conductor, both personally and for the music he picks. Arlington is the town just north of Belmont, the town where I live. The rehearsals are convenient. This orchestra basically has it all—all, that is, except auditions for string players.

Anxiety dream or no, sight-reading the first violin part Capriccio Italien is a humbling experience. That piece also has it all. “All” in this case meaning lots of climbing the Eing (not to mention the Ging), ricochet bowing and other bowing challenges, crescendos at the tip, 32nd note runs, fast pizzicato, key signatures with flats I had forgotten existed, and a tempo marking of Prestississimo.

But honestly, I think this may now have set the record for the most fun I’ve ever had at an orchestra rehearsal. Kind of like the Egmont Overture that we played last year, or the William Tell, this piece makes you feel powerful. It makes you feel like you can right wrongs and fight the good fight. It makes you want to get up in the morning and listen to it on the iPod while riding the T to work.

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September 9, 2008 10:57

I got a letter from the LSO in my mailbox at work today. This letter informed me that I was regretfully "not chosen" for either the "substitution roster" or the "Category 3 list of substitutes." I do not even know what Category 3 is, but any way you slice it, it is not good news.

As time went by without word, I had figured that no news was probably bad news, but it's still a bit of a downer to have it confirmed.

But, at least the orchestra that I *am* playing in is doing some really great stuff. So I'll sleep on it tonight and blog about that instead.

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