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January 2009


January 30, 2009 06:30

Yes, I need them. 

My new year's plan for 2009, as opposed to resolutions (which I never keep), was to heal the anxiety in my life.  So far I am doing reasonably well:  I am officially no longer the RE co-chair anymore, which is a great relief. I also started again doing push-ups and sit-ups and climbing the stairs every day to the office.  I work on the 6th floor.  I'd been doing that last year but for some reason just stopped.  Then I read in a women's magazine about a woman who decided to do push-ups every day for a month.  That was it, and over time it transformed her attitude about exercise, not to mention giving her more upper-body strength.  Her rationale was, you can do push-ups anywhere, you don't need special equipment, you can do them in your pajamas.  This is my kind of rationale.  It reminds me of Sander Marcus' "3 minutes a day" of violin practice.  No, it's not everything you need, but it is sure better than nothing.

Which brings me to earplugs.  And Dvorak's Slavonic Dance #1, the first violin part thereof.  While I enjoy quite nicely listening to a recording of this piece, actually practicing my part at home is somewhere between sliding down an icy sidewalk and torturing a guinea pig.  For this concert, my orchestra is also playing excerpts from an arrangement of "West Side Story."  Not only do I not get to play my favorite, "One Hand, One Heart," (because of conductor's cuts), but "I want to Live in America" has a whole page of 8va.  That and all those ledger lines bring me right into the, um, belly of the beast.  And the screeching, the SCREECHing.  I want my viola!!!  Anxiety, anyone?

I'm not helpless, I have resources.  My teacher, for one, can talk me down from the ledge.  For "America," she stressed thinking in intervals.  Fourths.  When I play it slowly, I hear the fourths.  And the 6ths.  One of the phrases ends with "EN-BEEE-CEEE," I never noticed that before.  But when I take it up to tempo, the fourths, and the 6ths, disappear, and I just hear an of out-of-tune screechy mess. 

The tuner is helpful here too.  It brings home again how close the notes are up there in the nosebleed section. 

And it's helpful to think in finger patterns.  The Dvorak opening:  E-F-G-G-A-G.  It's the same finger pattern as in first position on the D string.  I want to do a 4th-finger extension to reach the upcoming C.  But I sure wouldn't do that if I were playing the melody on the D string.  Hmm.  But it's surprisingly and consistently in tune that way up in the stratosphere.  Even my teacher is impressed.  She lets me keep the 4th finger extension. 

Last night I was on a roll.  Sort of.  E-F-G-G-A-G.  C-G-G-F-E. C-D-E-E-F-E. G-E-E-D-C.  Over and over again.  Watching the tuner.  The G is not as far from the E and F as my third finger thinks it is.  It is just a step-and-a-half, and a small one.  The shift down on 1 from the E to the C is always flat.  Fix that.  Don't go back as far.  The two 4th finger extensions are very different.  That's probably why my teacher was leery of having me do it for the C.  But for some reason that C is still generally pretty good.  (It occurs to me now, belatedly, that I should have started out this practice session with a 3-octave C major scale or two.  I can do those for a few minutes every day.  Like the push-ups.) 

Remarkably, the tuner sometimes gets confused.  It calls an F-natural a B-flat and vice-versa.  If I play the note long and loud, it will usually correct itself and settle in.  The mistake seems to always be a fifth up or fourth down.  I don't get this.  Overtones?  Admittedly, I don't know anything about overtones.  But I do know it's hard for me to hear pitches up here.  Apparently for the tuner as well.

After a few times through, some of the notes ring out clearly, especially the E's.  It's starting to sound less like an out-of-tune screechy mess and more like the recording.  As my teacher says, I'm "finding the clarity."  My grudging respect for my old violin is increasing.  It is, in fact, capable of playing those notes if I am. 

But when I take a break, my ears are ringing.  This can't be good.  I remember an old thread on about earplugs.  Someone mentioned that an earplug helped them play in tune better, may have even helped a whole violin section play in tune better.  And that they can protect your hearing.  My husband wears foam earplugs to bed every night, a habit he developed when we lived in Brooklyn and has kept up.  He's extremely sensitive to noise. 

I borrowed one of his earplugs and put it in my left ear.  Interesting.  Now, when I play the same passage, it sounds different.  Not muffled exactly, but a little softer and not as cringe-inducing.  Not as sharp (I don't mean pitch, I mean like a knife).  The pitches are, I think, easier to hear.  I'm definitely going to do more experimenting with this.

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Violin Brain Age

January 13, 2009 05:33

In our house we've been playing a Nintendo game since Christmas, "Brain Age."  The cartridge went missing for a week, until my daughter discovered it behind her bed.  During that time off, I realized that I don't need it.  I have my own version.

"Music memory."  Read through Dvorak's Slovakian Dances for the first time at a dizzyingly fast tempo.  You have 15 minutes.  Then 3 hours later, try to reconstruct the entire thing at home.

"Ledger line count."  Watch the ledger lines go by.  Is it a C?  Is it B?  Is it an F-natural this time, or an F-sharp?  Oops, while you were trying to figure that out, everyone else took the repeat.

"Calculations X 20."  Four beats per measure, 20 measures.  Three beats per measure.  Two.  Five.  Ugh, that note at the end sounds terrible.  Is it flat?  Sharp?  Beats me . . . Check the tuner.  Okay, it's sharp.  Four beats per measure, how's the last note?  Sharp again.  Back to the beginning.  Play it slowly.  How does it sound?  Get it in your ear.  Play it again.  20 times.

"Playing Aloud."  Don't annoy the neighbors!

"Good evening" says the little guy on the screen.  "You're a trooper for coming by every day like this."

--With apologies to Dr. Ryuta Kawashima

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January Anxiety

January 6, 2009 05:26

Last Sunday at church, in my daughter's Sunday school class, we each wrote down one thing we'd like to change about ourselves in the new year, and burned the pieces of paper. Thank goodness we did not set off the smoke detector. The kids loved this part of the class: everyone writing down something and crowding around the oven-proof bowl (but not too close). Although we didn't have to share what we wrote with the whole class, I feel like sharing mine anyway: I want less anxiety. I want to both manage the sources of anxiety in my life better and find within myself more constructive responses to stress.

Music, particularly playing my instrument, seems to be one of these more constructive responses. For whatever reason--sound, fit, dynamic range, personal preference--playing the viola accomplishes this purpose for me more than playing the violin does. I set an ambitious goal for the vacation period: learning the first movement of the A. Stamitz viola concerto #4. I did not achieve this goal, but I have worked seriously on the first half the movement and I had the perfect amount of music to play and discuss at my lesson yesterday.

I've been trying to memorize this section and I am almost there. Not quite: there are still short passages where I get derailed or have to slow down to allow my brain to catch up. But I am pleased with how the progress I have made in committing this section to memory has enabled me to focus my attention on creating a beautiful sound. I'm not saying that I've actually created a beautiful sound yet, but I like being able to focus on that, think about it, put my unconscious mind to work on it while I'm doing other things. It reminds me of what Mendy wrote in her blog too, about the advantages of being able to perform without looking at the sheet music.

The Korg tuner also, used in small doses during scales and problematic passages, seems to have done its job in improving the intonation. I'm both gratified and humbled by how closely related the improved intonation is to the "beautiful sound" that I am striving for. Specifically, I'm glad the tuner has helped me identify that problem and given me a plan for fixing it: all this works toward decreasing anxiety in the moment. It shuts up the little voice in the back of my head that whines, ineffectually, "be careful, be careful." My teacher agrees with and enthusiastically supports both of these steps, memorizing the piece (even if I still have the music there for the performance), and using the tuner in small doses. She was very pleased with my progress on the section that I did prepare, and we were able to spend the lesson on the more interesting aspects of phrasing, structure, and sound.

One of the reasons, however, that I've only learned half this movement so far and not the whole thing as I'd hoped, has to do with other things going on outside of my little world of practicing, with what I opened with in this blog: Sunday school at church. Our religious ed program has been undergoing a lot of transition and turnover this year. And I am co-chair of the RE committee, a volunteer job that I expressed interest in before I found out about all the changes coming down the pike. Had I known what I was getting myself into, I'd like to think I would have been sane enough to decline.

What's bothering me most (more than the work itself, which I mostly enjoy when I can get to it, although there is too much of it) is the attitude expressed by some of the people I'm working with that certain tasks, especially organizational or administrative ones, are both simultaneously important and "no big deal." According to this way of looking at things, I'm creating problems and anxiety by "making a big deal" out of it. This attitude seems to be taken by some people in stressful situations as an attempt to decrease anxiety, but I don't think it works at all. It's allegedly very "Zen:" you don't make a "big deal" out of it, but it gets done anyway somehow.

But rather than its having anything to do with Zen, or decreasing anxiety, I am starting to believe that the appearance of this attitude is a hallmark of something being out of balance. It is like being told that you "don't have to make a big deal" out of memorizing a piece, that it will "just happen" somehow. But as with good intonation or a beautiful sound, I don't think I at least can have it both ways: either it's important and I spend time/energy on it and put effort into it--I make at least a medium-sized deal out of it--or it's not important, and I don't.

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