Sunday, August 15, 2010

All dressed up . . . to be here now

Towards the end of my life as an aspiring professional flute player, I would often experience the musical equivalent of being "all dressed up with nowhere to go." I practiced diligently, and though I could play the repertoire rather well, to a point, it was never really satisfying. I always imagined that playing for other people, on a very high level, could give me the kind of satisfaction that seemed to be missing from my personal experience playing the flute, but it never quite seemed to work.

I often found it difficult to play phrases that made sense on the flute. When I recorded myself practicing, I would often find that I wasn't holding notes quite long enough to make phrases sound satisfying (why couldn't I hear them while I was playing?). Getting from point A to point B in a piece of music never seemed to involve the closest distance between two points, and there seemed to be nothing I could do about it. I certainly had practice strategies (many learned from string players), but I couldn't seem to overcome my problems with bridging the gap between what I heard in my head and what came out of my instrument.

I remember talking with Joel Smirnoff back in the early 1980s (it was when he was in the second violin section of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and a few years before he started playing in the Juilliard Quartet). He told me then that he always knew exactly the way he sounded, and that he never needed a tape recorder to verify anything. I always coveted the ability he had to hear himself clearly, in real time. I thought it would have to be kind of a supernatural feat for me to actually hear myself, to actually experience my own satisfying music making, in real time.

I finally can.

It has taken me a good 17 years of violin and viola playing to build a technique equivalent to what I had after playing the flute for five. I have worked like crazy to build up enough string technique to play the music I want to play, and all that practicing is finally paying off. I can now make it purposefully from point A to point B in a musical phrase. What is most interesting is that I don't need any kind of outside validation in order to believe it or appreciate it. I also have more "space" to pay attention and take in the "now." The satisfaction is mine, and I can share it if I choose to.

Some of this new-found sense of experiencing the musical "now" has to do with simple age and experience, but I also think that a lot of it has to do with violin playing (and viola playing) itself. Practicing seems to clarify the "now" and "here" that exists physically in string playing (it only seems to exist conceptually in wind playing). There is real distance involved with getting from one place to another on a string instrument. Shifting is a spacial experience that involves getting from point A to point B in space as well as in time. Measuring the fingerboard with your fingers involves dividing up physical space, and bowing involves complicated measurements of space and time (that eventually become unconscious, like the motions involved in walking).


Anonymous said...

Hello Elaine,
I am also a flutist player and I've begun learning to play the viola for two years now (so I don't have your technical level on this instrument :-)). But I'm not a professional player.
Practicing the two instruments, I'm beginning to see/grasp, yet it was still a bit confused in my head, what you describe in your article. I have the same feeling that practicing on a string instrument involves more physical sensations than a wind instrument where everything comes from your mind, your imagination.

David Wolfson said...


First of all, congratulations on your achievement!

I've never played a stringed instrument, but I have played both wind instruments and keyboard instruments.

To me, the major differences are in how involved the whole body is. A wind player, like a singer, is making music with her breath. On a keyboard, you're making music with your whole body if you're doing it right, but the visceral connection is much harder to find—especially if you're playing a synthesizer, where the instrument doesn't vibrate you back.

Elaine Fine said...

Perhaps you have to live in both worlds in order to truly understand. Your post about the different personal responses you have to the sound coming out of your instruments (in French) is quite interesting.

Elaine Fine said...

It's funny David. Not being a proper keyboard player, I have never really felt the presence of my whole body when playing the piano. I always think of it as a more of a tool and less of an instrument when I play it. I wisely leave pianistic music-making to others.

Thank you for mentioning the lack of connection "connected" with playing a synthesizer. I always wondered why I feel like they are simply "note machines," even with my limited physical involvement as a keyboard player.

I feel far more of a connection with breathing when I play the violin or the viola than I do playing the flute or even the recorder. Perhaps it is because it is possible to breathe during phrases on a string instrument. For a wind instrument, or for the voice, air is like currency: you have to make it, save it, spend it, and then make it again. For a string player (and for a proper keyboard player) air is a luxury to enhance expression.

With double reeds there is a sense of resistance that is built into the instruments, and there is also resistance on with recorders and single reed instruments. With the flute you have to make your own. Some people make too much, and get a reedy sound, and some people make too little, and get an airy sound.

The resistance-spectrum on the violin is far different from the resistance-spectrum on the viola, and it has everything to do with register, dynamic, location of a pitch on the instrument, and conception of sound. Sometimes I feel like playing the flute is like playing on only a single string of a string instrument!

Joel Smirnoff said...

Hey Elaine;
Joel Smirnoff writing here - how the heck are you, Elaine?
Well, the audacity of me for saying that I really knew my own sound - gosh!!
As for strings vs. winds vs. piano, etc., the grass is always greener and playing more than one family of instrument is a big plus. You know that I ballet and modern danced seriously for awhile and, though it didn't help the violin fit under my chin (my neck seemed to be getting longer and the symmetry created by ballet certainly didn't help violin pretzel stance), it was determinate in my perceptions of movement and coordination.
However, I was always a wind and timpani freak, celebrating to this day the unique achievements of Saul Goodman (timpani NY Phil) and Phillip Farkas (1st horn for Reiner/Chicago).
I should never have been a violinist, but somehow "muddled through."
Bravo to you on your wonderful blog bigtime!
Hugs, Joel

Elaine Fine said...

Welcome to my blog Joel! Boy am I glad that you ended up being a violinist. I bet you had no idea that a small observation, perhaps embedded in a somewhat-unrelated conversation, could mean so much.