Some Violin Stuff, and My Ear

Now that I have journeyed through five Maia Bang theory books, my violin teacher is giving me a break of sorts. She told me to pick up a copy of some Junior Festival pieces (ordinarily played by five year olds) and we will now be concentrating on style.

I have to admit, my style is still stilted and stiff. I am not one with my instrument. This week marks the fourth year I’ve been attempting to play, and I still cannot vibrate. It’s the classic case of not being able to do several things at once, at least, not on the violin. Ask me to answer the phone, drive a stick shift and drink a cup of coffee while cruising FM radio and I can do that. Vibrate and play the correct notes while doing so – um, no.

The other thing she wants me to concentrate on is dynamics, or getting different sounds out of the instrument. I’m a weak player. My idea of dynamics is pianissimo and more pianissimo. (This means very quietly in music lingo) No matter what I do, I cannot play loud. I also cannot distinguish when I’m playing softly and more softly.

I think my problem stems from having a violin right next to my left ear. All of my noises sound the same. This might be why I can barely make out when I am playing sharp. I always play sharp, I never play flat. Unlike my son, the talented Mr. Demonic Jr., I am not blessed with perfect pitch. I can sing out the first couple of notes of Mendelssohn’s Wedding March and know that it’s G-G and C, but beyond that, I’m clueless. My electronic tuner gets a bigger work out than the violin does.

Since this is my four year anniversary, I’m trying to re-evaluate my goal. At first, it was to play with my family and others. My family dislikes playing with me (at least Mr. D does); and when I play with my son, he’s constantly correcting my sharps and counting. My teacher doesn’t think I’m ready to play with other people.

I might quit, but don’t think I will. My teacher is making plans. Her husband is older than just about anyone I know (she was a former student, and a child bride) and currently in a nursing home. When he is gone (which might be ten years from now when he’s 102), she is going to sell everything and move to Maine, where the rest of her family is. When she moves, I’ll look for a different teacher.

In the meantime, I will take one small step forward and slide back two steps. That’s how it is with me and violin.

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Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

Today, I’m going to write about my last violin lesson.

Perhaps I should preface this post with a little history. I’ve been taking lessons for a little over three years now, with a very nice woman who plays semi-professionally. Her husband is a retired concertmaster of the local symphony (a major name symphony), and even though he’s very elderly, he still plays a little and has a few students too. I like this set up, because if my teacher is sick, he can step in. I practice (most days) at least thirty minutes a day, sometimes much more than that. It just depends on my schedule and what’s going on in the house. My husband, who minored in piano, plays regularly (but he won’t accompany me) and my daughter plays the flute (she, too, thinks I’m unworthy as a musician). So in between one or the other yelling at me that my music sounds more like two cats having a fight, I have to find time to practice.

You would think that after three years of lessons I should be able to play fairly well. According to my son, who is majoring in piano at a major conservatory (see, I’m surrounded by perfectionists), I still play off-tune, and I still can’t count worth a darn. He knows this because he IS the only one who will play with me. When he was here at Christmas, we exhausted the entire Christmas repertoire. Even though I’m perfectly awful, he still likes to accompany me. He’s actually a very humorous accompanist, but that’s another story.

Most of my lessons are very informational. Much of the time, my teacher and I get along well. She’s only made me cry once, and that’s because I was so frustrated at my total incomprehension that it was the only thing I could do. At my last lesson, I felt the same level of frustration once again. I avoided tears by playing really stupid and sidetracking her to another problem of mine. I can’t remember how I did it, but I’m getting good at deflecting her frustration and saving my own face.

For one thing, my teacher thinks I should be able to know the notes. I have a confession to make. Before taking up violin, I was a frustrated guitar and piano player. As an adult, I took lessons for both, but could not comprehend reading music. I fault my parents, who provided us with musical instruments but were too poor to provide us with lessons. I taught myself both instruments and played by ear. Reading music didn’t make sense to me until I took up the violin. I am able to read the notes on the lower part of the scale now, but for those ear-piercing high notes, I’m left to guess.

The other thing she thinks I should be able to do is vibrato. Vibrato pretties up even the most mundane pieces. It makes an F major scale sound like the fluttering of angels’ wings. I have been trying unsuccessfully for two years to vibrate. I dream of vibrating. I practice it daily. I’ve found instructional videos online but even that hasn’t helped much. I’m finally able to do a very baby one, but only on one note. I can’t do it on a real piece of music, or even on a scale.

There are some lessons where I leave thinking I made two steps forward and one step back. This might have been one where I went one step forward and two steps back.

I went home and did something I never, ever do. I tried to figure out a piece (New Harmony Waltz) by ear. After having concentrated so hard on learning to read music, I found that I failed to do this miserably.

I guess it’s back to the salt mines.