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Adventures of an ambitious late-starter violist
Scenes from an unconventional musical journey
Topic Rating: 5 Topic Rating: 5 Topic Rating: 5 Topic Rating: 5 Topic Rating: 5 Topic Rating: 5 (61 votes) 
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AndrewH
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December 10, 2023 - 10:14 pm
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I feel a little stuck right now. I haven't played at all since Wednesday because of a left wrist strain that's probably from rolling over on top of my hand in my sleep. Nothing big, just a minor annoyance and I should be able to resume practicing tonight. I also haven't had a lesson since Thanksgiving -- my viola teacher was playing a concert in Iceland the next week and had to cancel this past week due to illness, so I'll end up going a total of 23 days between lessons. But I think the main thing is that I haven't had a particular goal I'm practicing for, other than learning the pieces I'm working on (and they're all big pieces so it's sometimes hard to see incremental progress) and getting my diminished seventh arpeggios and chromatic scales to be more consistently in tune.

I think my trio will probably meet this week, after going almost a month without rehearsing. Our violinist was away on vacation for two weeks, and then had a work trip last week, and at least one of us had a schedule conflict every day of the week in between. We're probably looking at three or four more rehearsals before performing in mid-January, and we'll try to have another coached rehearsal the last week of December or the first week of January.

I do have one music event coming up, which is a holiday music play-along party  on the 17th that several of the string players in my orchestra are organizing. We're just going to get together, have snacks and wine, and casually sight-read holiday music for string orchestra. One of the perks of playing in my orchestra is that I end up knowing people who like to put together this kind of thing once in a while.

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ELCBK
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ad40f4a28b76b22ba502d69fe65ded6d.jpg@AndrewH -

Hope this week went much better! 

Hope you had a productive rehearsal with your Trio! 

Hope you enjoyed the Orchestra String Holiday Party! 

AND, hope you & Persia have a Very Merry Christmas! 

- Emily

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AndrewH
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The holiday music play-along party was fun. It wasn't just people from my orchestra --  people invited their string-playing friends from outside the orchestra. And there was a wide range of levels from lower-intermediate to pro, because several people are teachers and invited their adult students. We played all kinds of stuff: traditional carols, Christmas pop music (someone even brought an arrangement of "Last Christmas"!), and music from Christmas movies, all arranged for string orchestra.

This week was still a slow musical week for me. I didn't have a lesson this week because my teacher was traveling for Christmas, and my trio skipped this week because it was a hectic week for everyone. So I'm just practicing.

I do have more to work on: I printed out the music for my next orchestra concert. The first rehearsal is still two weeks away, but it's a challenging program so I want to get as much of a head start as possible before we start rehearsing. We're playing the Brahms Double Concerto and Bruckner's 5th Symphony. From the average lengths of recordings of the two pieces, it looks like 105-110 minutes of music, so unless we play the Bruckner at an unusually fast tempo it'll be the longest concert I've ever played, and it's all late Romantic chromaticism.

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ELCBK
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December 25, 2023 - 4:55 am
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@AndrewH -

Sounds like it was a really fun party - perfect for this time of year! 

...boy, an almost 2 hour long concert seems a daunting task. 

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AndrewH
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December 25, 2023 - 9:36 pm
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I think of it as challenging but not overwhelming. Brahms and Bruckner can be awkward for strings at times, but they're not the hardest music in the repertoire, except that Bruckner can be a test of endurance.

Most of our concerts are somewhere between 65 and 85 minutes of music. The longest concert I've played so far was about 102 minutes, also with a Bruckner symphony: that program was Beethoven's Coriolan Overture, Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola, and Bruckner's 4th Symphony.

I'm going to handle it the same way as any other orchestral concert program, just starting farther in advance of the first rehearsal because of the amount of music to get through. The key is to find the harder bits that need extra practice. I typically spend 90% of my home practice time on 10% of the music. I don't play through entire pieces when practicing at home, usually I'm working on only a few measures at a time. (Note: this isn't just true of orchestra music, even my solo pieces usually only get one full play-through every week or two.) I might occasionally play through an entire movement with a recording, but I don't even do that until I have a good handle on the notes, because the main purpose is to check how well I know where my part fits in with others.

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AndrewH
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My trio performed the Scharwenka last weekend. No video, but I think it went well, and the piece was well-received.

Again, this was a house concert for the informal chamber music club that I rejoined last summer. They organize two house concerts each year, in January and June, and a “Sonata Day” in August.

Just to give an idea of what other people were doing, the program was:

Handel, Trio Sonata HWV 393, version for 2 cellos and keyboard (complete)
Schubert, Piano Trio No. 2, II. Andante con moto
Scharwenka, Trio for Violin, Viola, and Piano Op. 121, I. Andantino tranquillo
Beethoven, Piano Trio No. 2, II. Largo con espressione
Saint-Saens, Piano Trio No. 2, III. Andante con moto
Borodin, String Quartet No. 2, I. Allegro moderato

The guideline is to limit performances to 10 minutes (a couple minutes over is OK), so except for the Handel trio sonata which was about 9 minutes long in its entirety, everyone played only single movements. Groups ranged from intermediate learners playing music that was a bit of a stretch for them, all the way to highly skilled musicians aiming for polished performances; it's really about providing a low-pressure performance venue with a supportive audience for amateurs with a whole variety of chamber music goals. The audience was just performers and some friends and family -- looked like about 40 people, half of whom were performing.

We’re planning to keep the trio together for the next house concert in June, and hoping to add a cellist to make it a piano quartet because there's much more music for piano quartet than for violin, viola, and piano. On the other hand, if we can’t find a cellist, we might play the Lachner or Reuss trios that we looked at before. There's still plenty of time to decide on something.

On the orchestral front, the first rehearsal happened last week, and the Bruckner is still a real challenge. It’s technically more difficult than I anticipated. Not at all insurmountable, but it will take a lot more practice time than I expected and I’m having to cut back on practicing solo repertoire. Fortunately, we actually have a slightly longer rehearsal cycle than usual: same number of rehearsals, but we skipped a week due to MLK Day, and it means extra time to get the notes under our fingers between the first two rehearsals.

Random side note: thanks to Dave Hurwitz's YouTube channel, I now can’t hear Bruckner’s name without expecting it to be followed by whinnying horses. (He plays the sound effect every time he mentions Bruckner. It's a running gag and a reference to Young Frankenstein.)

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AndrewH
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January 30, 2024 - 10:28 pm
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I'm still neck-deep in Bruckner and, for the first time in several years, I'm not really able to devote practice time to any repertoire other than orchestral music. I even used some lesson time to get help an orchestral part for the first time ever.

I'm glad I spent as much time as I did practicing diminished seventh arpeggios in December, because there's a passage in the first movement of the Bruckner with about half a page of fast arpeggiated figures that are mostly diminished seventh chords. It turns out there are other passages in it that are also very useful for technical improvement: one of the things Bruckner does a lot is transpose by half steps, and sometimes there are also sequences that go up or down by half steps. I'm already aware that I have a tendency to play half steps a bit narrow and those small errors add up over a longer sequence of half-step shifts, so practicing the sequences is making my half-step shifts more secure in general.

See, for example, the passage from the first movement shown here: from the second half of measure 446 through measure 450, there's a major chord figure that keeps moving down a half-step each time, and I'm pretty sure the easiest way to play it is to keep using the same fingering (1-4-3-1) and shifting down a half step. When I started practicing this, I was often finding myself as much as a half-step sharp at the end of the sequence. Remembering to keep my left hand fingers lighter is helping, as is practicing each half step shift on its own. I'm now landing the F-flat (E) in 449 most of the time, and trying to make it more consistent.

20240127_010433.jpgImage Enlarger

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AndrewH
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January 30, 2024 - 10:55 pm
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One more rehearsal clip... I took this because I wanted to check where I need to be more aware of my tempo and/or intonation. This is a fugal passage early in the fourth movement. (And there is one bit late in the clip that needs a lot more practice: the intonation in measures 55-56 goes off quite a bit.)

What the viola part actually reads there:

20240127_010316_cropped.jpgImage Enlarger

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ELCBK
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January 30, 2024 - 11:49 pm
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@AndrewH -

Thanks for providing the notation you are using! 

Helps me keep up with what you are playing. 

Whew! 

Btw, how hard is it to hear yourself play at rehearsals with the noise of everyone else? 

...was just thinking of some videos I've seen, how loud & noisy some fiddler sessions can get - don't know how anyone can hear if they are in tune or not!

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AndrewH
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I think the best answer to that question is: it depends.

My viola is right under my ear, so unless I'm playing very softly, it's the loudest thing I hear. You can hear that in the videos I've posted, because my viola is similarly the closest instrument to the camera. And the parts are written to fit together, so unless it's dissonant modern music, under ideal conditions it shouldn't be too hard to hear whether I'm in tune and in tempo. Of course, we don't play under ideal conditions most of the time.

The better everyone else is playing, the easier it is to follow. It's often hard for me to hear all the errors in my own playing in the first rehearsal. If multiple people are playing out of tune, it becomes a challenge to tell who I'm supposed to be tuning to or harmonizing with. Sometimes, in early rehearsals, I can tell that I'm off but it's not clear to me whether I'm sharp or flat. But as we progress through rehearsals and everyone plays more accurately, it becomes more obvious if what I'm playing doesn't sound right among all the other notes being played, and it becomes easier to correct errors.

The better I know my own part, the easier it is to listen to other parts and watch the baton, because there's more mental bandwidth available to pay attention to them. And knowing how it should fit together (both from listening to the piece and from repetition in rehearsals) also helps.

The space matters: not only external noise but also the room acoustics. We normally play in an auditorium with excellent acoustics, which makes it easier to hear everything that's going on. However, in our first year back from the pandemic shutdown we rehearsed at our alternate rehearsal venue, and we still have occasional rehearsals there on nights when our usual venue isn't available for some reason (e.g. most recently when there was a high school theater production using the space for a week). That alternate rehearsal venue is a very echoey church, where the sound can get quite muddy. It's noticeably harder to play there and follow what the rest of the orchestra is doing.

I can see how casual fiddle sessions might be challenging sometimes: there are people with varying skill levels and varying levels of familiarity with the tune, the acoustics are ideal, and there may be other noise unrelated to the musicians. But it should get easier over the course of the session, as people become more familiar with the music being played.

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ABitRusty
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That looks like alot of work and practice @AndrewH .  Sounds good though and thanks for sharing what youre doing.  Its interesting seeing whats involved.

Youre on to something as far a fiddling in a way.  Its not so much that the music becomes more familiar.. its just that, at least with me, I sorta acclimate to the situation and relax a little more.  Theres just never a known set list for any given night and the music changes depending on peoples moods and who is attending.

Compared to some of the other trad type instruments fiddle is quite.  So if Im comfortable playing a bit louder it can help intonate easier with the other instruments.  If the session is smaller with only a couple of fiddles and guitar sometimes its more difficult for me because Im not wanting to be TOO loud and I really have to listen more intently and try and match volume to my perception of everyone elses volume is. 

I think youre situation can be more nerve racking though.  what i do is participatory type music... youre doing performance type stuff so the stakes are a bit higher if you flub up.  In the end I may be embarrased but in the grand scheme of things probably the worst that happens.

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SharonC
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@AndrewH  Thank you for sharing the clip & the sheet music--great to see an example of a rehearsal like this smile  

Characterize people by their actions and you will never be fooled by their words.

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AndrewH
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February 6, 2024 - 9:59 pm
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I'm surprised it took me until the fourth rehearsal to notice, but now that I have, I can't unhear it...

Go to 18:00 of the video, which is the beginning of the first movement coda.

Does this sound oddly familiar?

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ELCBK
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@AndrewH -

Jeez, you're killin' me. 

Seven Nation Army. 😉

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AndrewH
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Tongue firmly in cheek:

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Gordon Shumway
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AndrewH said
  Also, it’s very likely that our conductor is taking them at a faster tempo than what I played before; he tends to follow Beethoven’s metronome marks, and most conductors tend to take Beethoven somewhat slower. 

  

I may be repeating myself, but I read a strange book by Daniel Barenboim last year. It began as a philosophy of how music was key to everything, but ended as an essay on Middle Eastern politics.

In it he says he often takes Beethoven slower than people like. And Beethoven indeed revised his metronome markings downwards after attending rehearsals because he could hear the music in his head, but he couldn't feel the weight of it.

I've said how my piano teacher refused to let me play to a metronome (and I'm glad she did), but I'm finding it is useful for the violin. The technical difficulties make us slow down inadvertently, but, curiously, I've had the opposite problem with Vivaldi's Spring 3rd movement. Menuhin takes it at 72 bpm, but I have a tendency to speed up without a metronome, thus shooting myself in the foot.

Andrew

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AndrewH
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February 14, 2024 - 7:57 pm
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I tend to prefer the faster tempi for Beethoven; I think Beethoven often makes more sense with a certain urgency.

But my weirdest experience with Beethoven was rehearsing his 8th Symphony simultaneously in two orchestras with different conductors, with concerts two weeks apart, in fall 2018. One was my current orchestra, taking it as close to Beethoven's metronome marks as possible. The other was a different community orchestra whose conductor preferred the slow end of the range of recorded tempi. Even though the notes were exactly the same, it felt like two different pieces. Even though I was principal violist of one orchestra (the one playing the slower tempo) and the bowings were my choice there, I had to use different bowings in the two orchestras because what worked best at one tempo didn't work nearly as well at the other tempo.

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AndrewH
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I've finally mostly recovered from last weekend, which was my big concert weekend. A lot of the fatigue was from not planning my week well enough; I had a bunch of miscellaneous urgent errands on Thursday and Friday before the concert, which led to Saturday possibly being my worst brain fog day in the last six months. Still, I'm clearly in better shape than I was a year ago, because I was able to play the entire concert without losing my place in the music except for about six measures in the fourth movement of the Bruckner, and managed to avoid audible errors. (The worst error I made in the concert was missing two changes from pizz to arco in the Brahms, which is much less noticeable than a mistake in the opposite direction!) So... I could have done a bit better if I were better rested, but it wasn't bad for a concert that would have been a real endurance test even without the brain fog and chronic fatigue. It helped that we didn't run through the entire Bruckner symphony in the morning's dress rehearsal... our conductor described that as "like running a half-marathon before the marathon." Instead, he just tried to touch on all the points he wanted to emphasize from prior rehearsals.

During the dress rehearsal, I set up my phone on a tripod offstage while we were rehearsing the first movement of the Bruckner, and extracted two clips from that. I'm quite clearly visible in both clips.

First, here's 10 minutes of rehearsal, for more of a "behind the scenes" view. There are a couple viola moments very early in the symphony. After a short cello and bass pizzicato introduction, the first bit of melody (at 2:39) belongs to the viola section alone for four measures, then violas with first violins doubling an octave above (from 2:55) for the rest of the phrase. Then, when the first main theme appears (5:31 of the video), it's the viola and cello sections in unison.

And here's the end of the first movement, which I posted on to my own social media accounts as last-minute concert promotion because it was one of the longest segments we played without interruption while rehearsing the movement. Incidentally, the excerpt of the viola part that I attached to an earlier post (#127) includes the first 35 seconds of this video.

 

After the concert, I went out for a late dinner and drinks with a bunch of other orchestra members, ten of us in all. I'm pretty sure it was the first time we've had a big group do that since before the pandemic. Between that and the holiday party in December, it's nice to finally get back to seeing people from the orchestra outside of rehearsals and concerts a bit more, when our minds aren't so focused on the work in front of us.

I took the whole week off from practicing after the concert. The next two orchestra concerts will be relatively easy for me because I've played all the big pieces on both programs before, so that gives me some space to practice solo rep and get chamber music plans figured out.

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ELCBK
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@AndrewH -

That is just too cool!  I love seeing some of what you go thru for a performance! 

Very generous of you to think of sharing it! 

 

@JimandThomas -

Hope you get a chance to watch some of these clips!

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