Friday, January 21, 2022

Finding Confidence Through Practice

One of the questions that Alan Alda asks his guests during his "Clear and Vivid" podcast episodes is what it is that gives them confidence. I found Penn Jillette's (Penn as in Penn and Teller) answer really resonated for me. He said that practice gave him confidence.

Practice for me is the slow process of setting a small goal to overcome a small difficulty, and acting upon the solution that I happen to have chosen during that particular practice session. If after trying that particular solution I find that the (in my case, most often) musical puzzle is not becoming solved, I know that I have to find another solution.

This takes time. In the case of violin and viola playing it has taken me thirty years to even figure out the questions that need to be answered, but in the process of daily practice my body has learned (very slowly) the easiest and best route to letting the music I am playing sound as well as I am capable of having it sound.

If I hadn't put thirty years and a lot of serious thought into learning to be a string player, I would not have the kind of confidence I have now.

Confidence is different from ego. Confidence is knowing that I can participate in the game of string playing without being the weak link in a section or an ensemble. Confidence is knowing that if I am faced with a difficult passage, I will be able to navigate it as long as I pay attention to what is required to do so. Ego (at least in my mind) is the need to be noticed for what I am able to do. Recognition used to be important to me, perhaps because I got so little of it when I was younger. It has, however, become less and less important now that I have entered my sixties, and the more I feel that my work (both as a player and as a composer) has personal merit for me, the less I care about how it is perceived by others.

I do, of course, want people to use the music I write in order to express themselves musically and connect with other people (other musicians and people who listen to them play), and I don't want the hard work I put into the things I do to evaporate into nothingness.

When I was a young flutist I used to wonder if I was any good. My Juilliard classmates all seemed very confident in the quality of their playing, and the major gripe they all seemed to have (flutists and others) was that they didn't get the opportunities they deserved. I didn't get many opportunities compared my more forthright peers, but I figured it was because I didn't deserve recognition. Deep down I suppose I knew that my heart wasn't in flute playing, though I was trying my hardest not to listen.

I have no complaints about the playing opportunities I have as a string player, although I blush when I think about the audacious musical challenges I chose to face without having the necessary bow control and left-hand technique. I once played the Beethoven "Kreutzer" Sonata and the Brahms D-minor Violin Sonata on the same program, and don't like to imagine the physical discomfort the performance must have imposed on the people in the audience. Fortunately I did not have the ability to make a big sound, and my pianist friend navigated his part with enough gusto to keep the music flowing.

I had to work SO HARD in order to play those two pieces (and just about everything else I played during my forties and fifties). Now (at almost sixty-three) I have the necessary technique and strength, and therefore I have the confidence to play them the way I would like them to be played, and with one tenth of the effort I needed before. For the nonce, though, I can only play them (masked) in my (masked) pianist-friend's living room. But that's really enough for me.

I still get a special thrill from making my way from "can't" to "can," and my daily mindful piano practice is starting to show results. I finally have the confidence to practice while Michael is in the room (while he is doing something else, of course). And my reward for all my practice (I'm not putting the word in quotes because it really is a reward) is feeling a little more confident about navigating my way expressively through piano music, and feeling more connected to the music than I did before I could play without looking at my hands.

Sunday, January 16, 2022

I'm Gonna Walk It With You and Strange Fruit

"Strange Fruit" was written by Abel Meeropol, who is rarely given credit for his work.

Friday, January 14, 2022

The "Think" System

In Meredith Wilson's The Music Man the "think system" of learning to play a musical instrument is presented as an absurd way of learning to play, but if you listen to this interview with Molly Gebrian on the violacentric podcast, you will surely be impressed with her "take" on the importance of thinking (while not playing) when learning to play an instrument. The interview begins about 20 minutes in.

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

My (semi) private menagerie

This April Mel Bay will be publishing the first of two books of scale pieces for solo violin that I wrote around the time I was writing "Weights and Measures." The first book, which can be played entirely in first position (or in the first through the fifth positions on the viola) is called "Scale Tales," because each of the pieces is a musical "portrait" of an animal that has scales. The second book, which will come out later in 2022 is tentatively called "Advanced Scale Studies" (though I wish it could be called "Upscale Tales"), has portraits of twenty-four more animals with scales, and uses the whole range of the violin.

I have made a set of ten musical videos that show the life cycle (sometimes) of the various animals to accompany the music.

You can see videos of the first ten pieces here.

Saturday, January 01, 2022

Cloud Ninth

I put new strings on my violin for the new year, and therefore can now play harmonics that are more in tune than I could in 2021, I made a little video with one of the pieces in "Dancing on the Fingerboard." I hope you like it!