Friday, October 11, 2013

New Strings, Old Habits

I put new strings on my viola last night (at long last), and this morning I had a little bit of time to break them in. Instead of doing the normal three-octave scales that use all four of the strings, I decided to break in one string at a time. My mind, ear, and hand went to the Taffanel-Gaubert tetrachord exercise that I used to play on the flute every day for at least 15 years. Perhaps even 20.

Like all students of Julius Baker (and all students of students of Julius Baker), I began every day with this. It was a kind of mindless meditation, where my fingers just "did" (I really had no idea what the names of the notes I was playing were, nor did I really stop to consider what the configuration of half and whole steps actually was), and my main concern was the feeling of my breathing and the uniform quality of the sound I was making.

I began on the D string, and went all the way up, shifting with a different finger for each repetition, and changing the number of repetitions I would keep in one bow occasionally. I have always said that the flute was kind of like a violin (or viola) with one string, and the challenge of playing the flute is to use the air and the tongue to manipulate the natural color of the pitches in order to get variety.

My breathing started to get very deep as soon as I began, and I noticed that I could use my deep breathing to allow tension to slip away from my left hand and arm as I played the notes that I could generate without thinking. There was time, due to the repetitions, to consider my bow changes, and there was time and "head space" to consider the quality and process of my shifting.

The strange thing for me is the physical relaxation response that results from playing the same series of pitches on a different instrument. How I wish I could communicate with another flutist (one who studied seriously and played at professional level) who switched to violin or viola and plays at a professional level on his or her new instrument.

I used to do these exercises on the alto flute too (which is pitched in G), so I imagine that all sorts of alto-flute-related sensations will come to mind when I do these exercises on that string, now that my D is broken in. It's funny that doing this exercise on the A string doesn't bring flute sensations to mind for me, but doing this exercise from Marcel Moyse does.

Well, it's time to go and break in my G string.

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