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June 2009

Memorizing the Map

June 29, 2009 15:26

In this round of playing the violin and viola, I've been paying more attention to memorization of pieces. When I was growing up I did almost none of that. My teachers didn't require it and I think that lack was part of a larger educational philosophy of the time that was anti-"rote" memorization and "regurgitation" for many subjects, not just music. I partially agree with this school of thought, in that I don't think memorization is the be-all and end-all of learning a piece. I don't think it should stop there. But, I am starting to think that it should *start* there.

I played a viola recital in April, my first recital in more years than I want to think about, and my first public performance ever of a piece from memory, without music. It was a short piece, a little under 5 minutes long, Rebecca Clarke's "Passacaglia on an Old English Tune." Given what other people manage to memorize--whole concertos, entire symphonies, multiple instrumental parts of entire symphonies--this one little viola part seemed like it should have been a surmountable challenge.  And, I perspired through it without memory glitches, sweaty hands and all. However, the fear of forgetting (if not actual forgetting) intensified the nerves that I normally feel anyway.

Now, over the past month, I've been trying to learn the first movement to Anton Stamitz' viola concerto in D.  I don't have much time.  Soon I'm leaving for Europe and after I get back, it's violin again, Simchas Torah and Franck Sonata, and then the orchestra season starts.   And, unlike Karl Stamitz' viola concerto in D, which abounds even on YouTube, there are no recordings that I can find of this piece.  I've heard it performed once, when I was a teenager in Berlin.  I was in the accompanying orchestra, in the 1st violin section.  While I remember being impressed with the soloist, I have to admit I remember very little of her musical interpretation--so that hasn't been very helpful.  

But what has been extraordinarily helpful has been memorization, even attempted-but-not-wholly-successful memorization.  The repetition required to commit a piece to memory seems to help my intonation, and sound quality, along the way.  Once I've played it enough to know what's coming next, I seem to be able to plan better where my fingers should go, and to listen better to intonation.  I also seem to be able to take another step back, mentally, and listen to and critique the piece the way I might do if someone else were playing.

I was hoping to be able to play the movement entirely from memory at my lesson today.  And although I put in a few daylight hours on both days over the weekend, I didn't quite achieve that goal.  Like other music of its time, this piece has a theme and then development of the same theme later, a 5th up.  I ran into this same kind of thing trying to memorize a Sonatina by Hook a few years ago.  I'd be cruising along and suddenly I'd realize I just kept modulating up, up, up, I'd missed the bridge and I was out of strings.  Or, I'd keep repeating the same passage 3 and 4 times, like being trapped circling a rotary and unable to exit.  So for the lesson, I decided to play it safe and use the "map," i.e. the sheet music.  This time, having the music mostly memorized calmed my nerves rather than making them worse.  I knew what was coming, I knew where the pitfalls were.  I knew where I have blown it, and what I could do when it all came together.  

I was quite pleased with how the lesson went overall.  By now, I've brought my teacher quite a selection of weird music for the viola:  underplayed Clarke, a self-transposed cello Chiacona from the 1630's, now a concerto by Karl Stamitz' underachieving kid brother.  But she said that I had convinced her this was a really nice piece and I should perform it if I could find a venue.  Maybe another continuing studies recital in the fall.  

6 replies

Publicizing a Community Orchestra on Facebook

June 22, 2009 04:33

I mentioned that I recently joined Facebook as an individual and it was something of a time sink.  But I'm enjoying it too, it's nice to be able to discuss little triumphs and annoyances during the day with other friends who may be similarly computer-bound (in different states and even different countries).

Then as I became a fan of different sites, and the orchestra where I play was discussing how to publicize our concerts, it occurred to me, maybe we could use a Facebook site.  We already have a website, and I'm not yet sure what having a FB presence will add.  But, with a friend who has already made several pages, I decided to give it a go. 

It's more complicated than you might think to choose a category.  This is something that FB doesn't seem to have thought out very well.  Orchestras are all over the map when it comes to category:  The Vienna Philharmonic is an "Other business."  The Brooklyn Philharmonic is a "non-profit."  There is an interesting guide to Facebook pages for non-profits available here.  The Lexington Philharmonic is a "Musician."  The Erie Philharmonic is an "Other Public Figure."  And once you've made the page, you can't change (we are an "Other Business" in Arlington).  There's also the issue of a group vs. a page.  Pages have fans, groups have members.  Right now we are a page but not yet a group.  This lets us have fans, post videos and pictures, announce events. 

Philharmonic Society of Arlington
Philharmonic Society of Arlington
Promote Your Page Too

We're just at the beginning, with a few fans.  I'd be interested in hearing about others' experiences.  What has worked for you to publicize your orchestra?

1 reply

POPpers and Balloons

June 15, 2009 15:32

Last week was quite a week.  The last soccer game, the 4th grade send-off, a karate belt test, an open house, two 4th grade concerts, my boss' 60th birthday party, and a case of the flu (not me).  And, the POPS concert.

The Arlington Philharmonic's yearly POPS concert is in the Arlington Town Hall, which is a really beautiful old building.  There is a strawberry festival beforehand and some people eat strawberries and ice cream sitting at tables on the main floor.  Both the chorale and the orchestra perform, separately and together.  My husband had a unique vantage point from the balcony.

The Disney solo . . . turned out to be a little anticlimactic, in a good way.  (It's only 4 measures, after all.)  I was worried about two things:  a shaking bow and going sharp  on the last shift.  So my bow didn't shake much at all, and I did go a little bit sharp.  Not horribly so, but enough so I noticed.  I think that 6 months ago, I wouldn't have noticed, so there's progress.  I can't expect a habit that was 30 years in the making to "magically" disappear overnight.

The last piece was "Stars and Stripes Forever."  Apparently the orchestra does it every year, which means I've done it all of twice now, but it is a lot of fun.  People got to shoot off the remaining poppers that didn't get used in the 1812, and balloons came down from the balconies:

From blog

I won't mention her by name unless she says she doesn't mind, but a violinist I met here on also joined the Arlington Philharmonic for this concert.  It's a great feeling to meet people on the site and then get to meet them in person.

I'm sorry the season is over, but looking forward to summer!

3 replies

Thinking and Puttering

June 14, 2009 05:41

Our POPS concert was great.  For the 1812 we left the howitzers at home and the party poppers we used instead were not too bad on the ears.  Some of the confetti that came out of them landed right on me and hung dangling from my right arm while I was playing the long bridge section that goes from doubled 8th notes to triplets to 16th notes (4-3-2-1, 4-3-2-1).  And I'm feeling like I need to get those pictures processed for the Facebook page, but that's really my husband's job ;-)

This is going to be a weird summer, music-wise.  We're going to Europe for 3 weeks in July, and I just don't have space or time to take an instrument along.  I'm also missing the opportunity to play in the MIT symphony and maybe some quartet opportunities as well.  Furthermore, when I get back, it will be August and it will feel like summer is practically over.  It will be time to start preparing for the next school, church, and orchestra season already. 

After discussing this with my teacher, we came up with a plan of sorts.  Until I leave for Europe, I'm going to work on the rest of the Stamitz first movement on viola.  I want to finish that movement; I was making good progress with it earlier in the year, until violin/orchestra needs came to the fore and I put the viola away.  I have about a third of it to go, and I had some time yesterday to spend on fingering the parts I hadn't started yet.  I now have about half a page left.  Lots of triplets and stuff like that, but it's very tonal and nothing unexpected.  It's also high, but a lot of it is in treble clef, which makes it easier.

After I get back from Europe, it will be time to go back to violin, and by then the sheet music for "Simchas Torah (Rejoicing)" by Ernest Bloch will hopefully have arrived, even with budget shipping.  I found a recording of this piece by Joshua Bell on iTunes.  It's beautiful, about what I expected.  But high.  I also read online that the piece commemorates the end of the Sukkot harvest festival, the end of which is Oct. 11 this year, Columbus Day weekend. 

I emailed the music director about playing it in church.  I have some more thinking to do there.  Our church, being UU, studies world religions and knows a bit about Sukkot.  We did a unit on Sukkot in RE last fall, in fact.  But apparently we just scratched the surface because we didn't talk about the ending holiday celebration of Simchas Torah; looking up this music online was the first I'd heard of that part of it.  Being too superficial is always a danger when learning about another religion's holiday. 

That got me to thinking about music in general and its uses.  There's a long history of people playing and singing Christian-themed music:  the Messiah, all the cantatas.  At some level, for some periods of history, if you don't play religious music, you don't play music.  Its enjoyment can't be limited to followers of that particular religion.

So, as a non-Jewish musician, I don't think it is inappropriate that I learn and play this piece, but I do think it's important that I understand the history and intent behind it.  What do others think about listening to, enjoying, and performing music from religious traditions not one's own?

8 replies

4th Grade Concert

June 10, 2009 04:28

Yesterday my daughter's school had their end-of-year string and band concert.

There are always more kids in the 3rd grade strings than the 4th grade, but this year had a pretty good-sized group in the 4th grade as well.

I got the 2nd violin part for both these pieces and played along with my daughter (she is the first violin on the end) to practice.  She had the notes down pretty early on but learning to come in correctly and stay on her part, especially in Hotaka Sunset, was more challenging.  Then she got a full-size violin in the middle of learning these pieces, which meant she had to adjust the notes again too and learn where they were on the full-size fingerboard.

I'm proud of her.  She seems to have been able to lead the first violins and carry the part on  her own.  Her teacher is there playing the 2nd violin part.

She really has to put the music stand up a little higher!  She is the tallest one in the class and posture is something she has to be aware of anyway.

Noble Dance



Hotaka Sunset

13 replies

The Right to Change My Mind

June 8, 2009 14:28

Today, as usual, I got off the subway at Harvard Square and started the sprint to my lesson at the Longy School of Music. I never have any margin for error on this trip; I leave work at noon, pick up something to eat on the way to the Kendall Square T, get on in one of the middle cars so that I can get off right in front of the escalator, eat between stations, throw out the packaging in the conveniently located garbage can, and then, out into the sunlight for another 10-minute walk.

Today, unlike any previous day, there was a violinist right there on the Cambridge Common between the T stop and Longy. Not Joshua Bell, maybe a Longy student. I heard him play 3 or 4 measures, tentatively, an E-major arpeggio, and thought, hmm, that sounds like the Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso. That piece has been on my mind lately a bit more than usual. Laurie just published a master class with David Kim, and David Kim played the Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso in a recital when he was a senior in high school, and I, a sophomore, went to that recital. That was the first time I’d ever heard the piece, and I loved it. And, I played the Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso myself, a few years later, for the “botched” college audition. A coincidental blogular convergence, and suddenly, one E-major arpeggio and I’m hearing the Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso everywhere.

Well, actually, I am. That is, in fact, what the busker is playing. He’s moved on from the E-major arpeggios into the main theme. I have this fleeting insane moment of fantasy in which I put my case down, whip out my violin, and start playing along with him. But geez, I’m late. I make eye contact, smile at him, and keep walking. If he’s still there when I get out I’ll see if I can leave him some money.

The first thing we do at the lesson is to go over the Disney solo again. I have a couple of ideas for improving things. The first comes from the YouTube clip that a fellow first violinist found and sent me. The soloist there starts down-bow, not up-bow. She sounds good on the video, and I have found that using her bowing is helping me get rid of my bow shakes. I feel more confident starting on the down bow, and later on I break up one of the slurs so that I’m not in danger of getting stuck running out of bow at any point. My teacher is very enthusiastic about this change. She apologizes twice that she “didn’t catch” it before, until I remember that she did catch it before, or at least asked about it. And I had told her, very confidently, that I wanted to start up-bow. I had been working backwards from the last measure where there were an obvious crescendo and decrescendo, using the printed bowings, and it worked out to start on an up. I must have been very convincing, because she didn’t object.

I tell her this. I seem to have very definite opinions on certain things,I say by way of explanation.

I sure do. It occurs to me that the decision to play the Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso for that audition unfolded in a similar fashion all those years ago. I heard the piece once, played by David Kim, and that was it: I was going to play that piece. I talked my teacher into it, and then, I went to Germany and talked another teacher into it. My teacher in Germany also, wisely, had me learn a Brahms sonata “on the side” (a piece that was more suited to my musical needs and abilities and which would probably have been a much better audition choice), but at the time I was convinced, for the audition it was the Rondo Capriccioso or bust.

I wish I had, back then, reserved the right to change my mind. I first heard this piece of advice not about the violin, but about parenting--another topic at least as contentious as whether to use a shoulder rest. The discussion took place in an online parenting group that I am in through my alumni association. A new member, expecting her first child, recently wrote in about her plan to take a year off and then start an internship. She said she was concerned about the decision either way—becoming a stay-at-home parent, or going back to work outside the home. One of the other members wrote that it had helped her to “reserve the right to change my mind. Not just about the work at home decision, but about many things.

Including bowings. My teacher said that it’s better that I came to the decision, and the better bowing, on my own rather than having her just tell me to do it that way. I may have had good reasons for wanting to do what I did in the first place, but I re-evaluated in light of both my own experience (the bow shakes), and advice from others (the YouTube violinist and the orchestra fellow who sent me the clip). The concert is this Friday, and I’m feeling much less nervous.

My teacher and I also spent a bit of time discussing what I am going to learn to play next after the orchestra season is over for the summer. I lamented that it seemed so much easier for me to pick solo music for the viola than for the violin. Viola ideas suggest themselves to me; I have a viola “bucket list” and several pieces that I want to get back to, polish, and perform. But the violin repertoire, for all its vastness and complexity, is harder for me to choose from. We batted a few ideas back and forth and decided that I’m going to look into a Bloch piece called “Rejoice!”It’s in a style like Mendy’s Suite Hebraique, the one she played on the viola for her audition, and that I was thinking about doing. But it is for the violin. It’s not a concerto. It’s technically challenging and I will get more experience climbing around the high parts of the fingerboard. Musically, it’s about something I think I can wrap my head and heart around. It’s something I can play in church.

It was late and the busker was gone when I came out of the lesson. I am not giving up viola, but with my new violin and my position in the orchestra, I want to do more with violin this summer. Get back to it. Get reacquainted. Come home. But I am not sure when, if ever, I will play the Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso again. I finally changed my mind.

4 replies

Levels of Anxiety

June 5, 2009 10:12

I seem to be good at discovering new ways in which anxiety can mess with my violin or viola playing.  As a kid, it was always the same:  cold, stiff hands, especially the left.  I hoped if I could ever get over that, I'd be done with nerves.  But then, at my viola recital this year, in a warm room with warm fingers, I discovered the new excitement of having sweaty fingers slipping off the string.  Now, thanks to Disney Magic, I've become acquainted with right hand/arm bow shakes.  

What's interesting is that I seem to get only one of these at a time, not all 3.  I wonder if it's a progression--solve one problem, get a new one to solve.  And, I wonder if I'll ever get to the end.

4 replies

Pep talk

June 2, 2009 04:16

After getting the new violin, I thought I would feel more settled, not less. 

But I'm hearing things.  Things that go bump in the night and in the middle of Tchaikovsky.  Weird, unpleasant screeches.

My teacher thinks this is a good sign.  "You're going to learn a lot from this violin, it's going to be great for you." she said at my lesson.  We went back to centering the pitch, to thinking from first position.  To using the note before to find your next note.  She understood I couldn't do every scale in the book.

"Your vibrato is less tense, you're not having to work as hard on it either.  This violin catches and brings out your vibrato." 

It's one of those fertile periods where you feel confused and out of sorts and then (one hopes) things come together in a new, better way. 

9 replies

New time sinks

June 1, 2009 04:16

I'd been resisting, but I finally joined Facebook.  It was fellow v.commer and blogger Mendy Smith who invited me.  She hadn't been blogging here as much after she moved to Texas, and I figured she was busy with getting settled in.  But it actually might be Facebook.  You can log on there, look up, and find that 30 minutes have passed without realizing it.

I'm a little concerned about my daughter.  The honeymoon period for the new violin seems to be over, and she's getting spring fever.  She knows her pieces for the school concert, Noble Dance and Hotaka Sunset, pretty well now.  The concert is next week and she's tired of practicing them.  Her private teacher, on the other hand, has given her some rhythm exercises, which she really needs, but she doesn't want to practice them either.  It's either too easy (the school music) or too hard (the rhythm exercises).

I continue to be appalled, and somewhat bemused, by my own intonation.  I can hear it better (or worse, depending on your point of view) on my new violin.  The Disney solo is getting better at least.  The conductor smiled at me and gave me the thumbs up the last time we rehearsed it.  I probably shouldn't be surprised anymore when I check a note with the tuner that sounds "a little off" and find out that it's sharp.  Except if I've been playing in a key with a lot of flats that switches into a key with sharps, or even just modulates for a measure, then it's more likely to be flat. 

A number of these POPS pieces have four flats, or more.  I am not used to playing in those keys.  Especially the low 3's in 1st position and the corresponding 1s in 3rd position, and the 1s in 4th position, tend to be out of tune because I just don't know where they are exactly and I don't shift to the right place.  I've been playing the A-flat major scale,  but only with the fingering in the book, and it only has a few stereotyped shifts.  I think I need to design some kind of specialized shifting exercises in that key so that I have a hope of shifting to the right place more reliably. 

What's frustrating is how small a difference there is between in tune and out of tune.  People always talk about how hard the violin is because it is "fretless," but that seems totally beside the point here.  Frets wouldn't help with this.  The difference is usually less than a millimeter, and the scale of frets is much larger.  I already can get in the ballpark, where a fret or finger tape would get me.  But that's not enough.

2 replies

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