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.

And Now, A Post About the Violin

As some know, I have been studying the violin for three and a half years. I’m not sure I have made much progress. According to the rest of the Demonics, I’m not much better than I was way back when.

Mr. Demonic doesn’t want to play with me. He thinks I practice scales too much. He plays the piano, but I have to beg him to accompany me. Ms. MiniD played the flute, but now that she is 18, she has fulfilled her obligation to music lessons and playing music, and she has retired. Mr. Demonic Junior, starting his fourth year studying piano at a prestigious West Coast Conservatory, says I still can’t count worth a darn.

This leaves me with my teacher. She’s nice enough, and competent enough (her husband was 1st violinist at our local symphony before he retired about 30 years ago), but I never see any of her other students. We also don’t have any opportunities to play in front of others, which I thought was helpful for my own children.

I’ve now progressed to 6th and 7th position, which means I am way, way, way high up on the neck of my violin. If I thought the instrument was tough before, now it’s practically devilish. It’s taken me two months to do four pages of exercises. Part of my problem is that my elderly brain is not able to comprehend a lot of this all at once. I know what’s right, but making my fingers do it is nearly impossible without hours of practice. The other thing is that I only have an hour or so a day to practice. I wish I could do more. (When I go on vacation, I bring my violin and find I can practice for hours at a time.) Being old, I’m also not as fearless as the little four year olds I know who can play circles around me.

My teacher speaks quickly. I am great at puzzling looks, so she takes the hint immediately. I know what she is saying, especially when it comes to relating my fingers to each other, but it seems to take me forever to put the theory into practice.

You can teach an old dog new tricks, but you have to be prepared to outlive him.

Dreaded Double Stops

My violin lesson was yesterday, and that particular lesson was another case of “two steps back.” I’m of the opinion that maybe if I skipped every other lesson, I would be congratulated and patted on the back always. Of course, I’m a glutton for punishment, so I go every week, and risk being dressed down as a result.

I’ve always had a problem with double stops. (Double stops means striking two or more strings at once with your bow.) I don’t know why. I have an etude book full of them, and I still can’t do them with any skill. I’ve been playing (if you can call it that) my violin for over three years, and you’d think (or my teacher thinks) I’d be able to do at least the simplest double stops.

As a guitar player, I was always able to strike at least three strings at the same time. Heck, they call that “strumming” the guitar. Of course, I couldn’t read music back then and compensated for my lack of sight reading ability by only strumming. Plus, it’s easier to strum with a pick than it is to try to maintain a melodious double stop with a long narrow stick with one end in horsehair.

Now that I can read music, it takes me a while to cypher where my fingers should go on which strings and why. Because of this, I will sometimes pause ever so slightly just before the double stop in order to find my place. Doing this makes for a choppy performance.

If a piece has a passage with double stops, I work almost exclusively on those. I can play single notes just fine. It’s those damned double stops that drive me nutty.

I can’t figure out if I have a psychological aversion to double stops, or if I’m physically unable to do them. My inability could be the result of skinny arms and weak wrists. Or my brain could be working too hard. I tend to over-analyze everything.


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.

Some Non-Descript Updates

1. It’s really cold. No, I mean, really cold. Think of your freezer. It’s colder than that outside.

2. I’ve decided to name our Kittycat “Max.” Now that we know she is a he, we are all looking at her/him differently. Max fits his general temperament. He’s nuts. He’s smart. He’s a little lion in a kitty tuxedo.

3.  I’ve decided that black and white movies from the 40s are the best. I’m sort of watching one now. I say, sort of, because I’m not paying attention to most of it, and only glancing up when something happens. It’s Gaslight, with Ingrid Bergman. Ingrid is just ready to be “gaslighted” any time now. I might have to break away for that.

4.  I’ve been on a sort of a diet and exercise program for a few weeks. It’s not really a diet, per se. I am eating cereal when I feel hungry. Or fruit. I’ve cut back red meat to one day a week. Of course, only one cup of coffee per day. Since the temperature (see #1) is so cold, I’m doing lots of green tea. I’ve found I haven’t really missed the bad food. I haven’t lost any weight (from the exercise, which has been just walking or elliptical machine) but I haven’t gained any, so that’s a plus.

5. Spring can come any day now. I have plans to expand a piece of my yard into an Asian garden. I’m thinking of all the rocks I’ll have to move and all the sod I’ll have to dig up. I’m thinking that it will take me about two months of heavy weekend work to complete. The sooner the better. My daughter graduates from high school in  May and that doesn’t leave me a lot of time once the snow melts.

6. I still suck at the violin. I’d better go and practice now.

Positive Reinforcement, Fear and Doing it All

There are several things that can be said about me. The one that seems to fit the best is an old adage “Jack of all trades, master of none.” (You may change the name to “Jill” if it makes you feel better to be gender-specific.)

When I first heard this, back in my youth, I thought it was rather sad. To me, it spoke of a person who could do a lot of different things, but none of them very well.

My, my, how time has changed perception.

Now I’m rather proud to have the “Jill of all trades” distinction. After all, it means I can do lots of things. At this time of my life, I really don’t care if I can do them to perfection, I just want to do complete the tasks with a modicum of ability.

In my youth, I used to write. A LOT. When I grew up, there was only three TV channels and radio. No MTV, no 24-hour news, no movies on demand. Writing was an outlet for me. It was pretend. It was an outlet to exploring feelings and a way to report on my world, which I thought was pretty bleak and abnormal.

Then, of course, comes adulthood. Maturity means being able to provide for oneself. Writing (and drawing and painting) took a back seat to making a living. After that, comes family. You can’t just leave your family to fend for themselves while you go off and try to create.

During those years, I did it all. Put up siding. Painted houses. Hung wallpaper. Stripped oak moldings and refinished wood. Raised children. Sewed their clothes. Sewed my own window treatments. Learned to knit and crochet. Learned to really cook. Gardened. Dug up lots of dirt using only a shovel. Moved boulders with my own bare hands. Tended orchids. Took photographs for my business. Learned to use the computer. Designed books and catalogs. Learned Peachtree and became a bookkeeper. I found out I was damned good at customer service on the phone. Learned to play the violin. Kept an assortment of pets. Learned to be brave in the face of bugs. Concentrated on my siblings and dad. Made lots of friends online.

It’s only been in the last year or so that I’ve returned to my first love, writing. It’s been slow, an excruciating learning experience. I’m thirty or so years behind. I’m shy about it. My family knows what I post online, as in that forum, I use my real name. I blog here every day. For the other, more heart-gripping writing, I’ve been keeping that under lock and key. I’m afraid to take the plunge and let others read what I think of as my “baby.” I’m not ready to let the public in, just yet.

Yesterday, I decided to post something for serious critique. I need to know what that’s all about. It was something that I worked on seriously, but it’s not my “baby.” I can afford brutal comments on it. Immediately afterward, I received a phone call from an online friend. She is a published writer. We had a lovely conversation. She hasn’t critiqued the story yet, but she did offer some positive comments.

I was buoyed by her words. Some of my fear has subsided.
I’m ready to forge on.

Why I Don’t Bring My Violin To Work

I was asked by a co-worker today why I don’t bring my violin to work.

There are several good reasons. To begin with, it’s very cold outside, and my violin is a newer one. The slightest change in temperature causes the strings to go out of tune. This used to be a major problem, until I bought myself a digital tuner. Now I am much better at tuning my instrument, although not much better.

Another reason is that I’m not very good yet. I don’t want to subject the masses to my terrible playing. I sound much better when someone accompanies me, but I don’t have much of an occasion for that to happen. My husband won’t. Ditto for my daughter.

I think I need to find some new people to play with!

Anyway, a violin is not a good thing to bring to the work place. I can see a possible worker’s compensation claim if I ever decided to play here.