Thursday, May 25, 2006

Practicing technique does strange things

I don't quite understand how it works, but after doing my steady diet of a "row" of Sevcik for 26 days in a row, I know that I am a much better violinist. I feel a little bit like I did 30 years ago when I was in the process of "acquiring" technique on the flute. I feel like anything is possible. I feel like there is nothing that I cannot (eventually) do musically. When I am not practicing I think about practicing. When I'm sleeping, I dream about the violin. Last night it was a dream about my grandfather and the music in his violin case.

One interesting difference between now and 30 years ago is that now I can appreciate and enjoy the process of learning. When I was young I had my sights firmly set on the future. I only wanted results, and getting to where I needed to be technically seemed like an eternity. Now that I am older (47 to be exact), it takes far longer to learn something than it did when I was in my 20s, but it somehow means much more, and the process seems to go more quickly.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Old School Practice Technology

When I was in a hurry to gather together as much technique as possible on the flute, my favorite way to do it as quickly as possible was by using Marcel Moyse's Scales and arpeggios: 480 exercises for flute. It begins with the numerical grid pictured here. The numbers on this grid refer to 480 of the most difficult combinations of notes possible. Each combination lasts for about 4 measures or so.

Since I imagine that Moyse, who was a very cosmopolitan musician and teacher, could have gotten the idea for this from the violin technique books of Sevcik, I numbered the exercises in three of my Sevcik books (Shifting the position, Double Stops, and Exercises in the First position) so that covering all three books comes to 480. I pasted the above grid in one of my books, and I do a line every day. It takes about an hour, and I digest all the most difficult aspects of violin technique in four measure "bites."

If you would like a full size image of this grid, send me an e-mail. I'll send you a copy as a PDF.

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Thursday, May 11, 2006

Practice Advice

I'm a firm believer in practicing for an hour, and then taking a break for a while before practicing again in order not to tax myself physically or burn myself out mentally. During one of my breaks I came accross this bit of fantastic practice advice from psychologist Sander I. Marcus.

I guess I'll go and practice some more.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Full of Hot Air

When I teach lessons, the images I use to get students to do something musically usually fade into the air after the lesson is over, but this one I would like to share. A nine-year-old student was working on "Long Long Ago" at her lesson yesterday. When she got to the half notes she simply "checked out," and her attention returned when it was time to play the quarter notes and eighth notes. I told her that the personality of a violinist was "all about" what goes on during the half notes, and I told her that she could breathe in while playing them. Then I got the idea that half notes could be like balloons filled with air, floating upward. She was pretty amazed with the results, and she was able to actually use her breath to control her bow arm.

The breathing in thing always works for me. It is something I noticed years ago when listening to Heifetz play transcriptions of songs. During long notes a singer is unable to breathe because the singer's air is obviously the thing making the sound. When we listen to singers, or to any musicians for that matter, we listen with our bodies, so we react physically to what the musician is doing. What strikes me as interesting when listening to Heifetz's transcriptions, is that music I am used to hearing in one way--with the singer's air creating the sound of sustained notes--I hear a new way, and that way involves breathing during long notes. When Heifetz breathes, I do too, but the sustained note continues and even expands.

The act of breathing deeply causes our bodies to relax. The act of breathing feeds oxygen to every part of our bodies, including our brains.

As a flutist I relied (I guess I still rely on it when I'm practicing the recorder) on breath support for everything, including playing "technical passages." As a string player I use breath support all the time, unless I forget--and then I wonder why things aren't working.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

My Father was Simon Barere

This is the name of a CD on VAI Audio (VAIA 1244 to be exact) that has concert performances of the pianist Simon Barere (1896-1951) interspersed with an interviews with his son, Boris Barere. The person talking with Barere is Jacques Leiser.

For those who do not know him, Simon Barere was a Russian pianist who studied with Felix Blumenfeld. He was famous for playing extremely difficult music at extraordinarily fast tempi, but from the interview on this CD I learned that he did so with very little practice. His playing is thrilling to hear, not just for the speed, and not even for the ease of his playing, but for what he is able to do with the music simply because he can. His recording of the Schumann Toccata, Opus 7, had to be fast in order to have the piece fit onto one side of a 78 r.p.m. recording, but he still takes time to let the music breathe, and sing, and fly. It is extremely inspiring.

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Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Instrumental Mindset: Violin Psyche

It is that time of year again, and I'm spending much of my creative time practicing the violin. All of a sudden my attraction for the instrument has to do with the instrument itself, not just its repertoire. I have been practicing technical exercises: scales, arpeggios, double stops, shifting exercises, bowing exercises, and etudes, and I am actually acquiring some technique. I can finally do left hand pizzicato, and I can now play double stops in tune without relying on mostly luck. I think that all this time I have been spending with the violin has caused me to think like a violinist.

Aside from scales, etudes, and the occasional bowing exercise, I rarely practice exercises involving technique on the viola. Practicing hard technical stuff on the viola hurts my hand after a short time. Most violists spend their practice time improving their sounds, refining their phrasing, and thinking about interpretation. Playing in tune on the viola always has to be taken on a note-by-note basis, while playing in tune on the violin is rather scientific. On the violin a half step is a half step: one finger width. On the viola the notes are just far apart enough to require constant adjustment. A finger width is not always the operative measurement.

The funny thing is now that I have acquired some useful technique, I actually enjoy playing technical passages just for the sake of playing technical passages. It is an eye opening experience for me. This obsession of mine may not last long, but I'm sure having a good time while the spirit moves me.