Category Archives: Practicing

Bach thoughts

The weekend absolutely flew by! I was mostly working though Louie and I did get to enjoy a nice (but hot) bike ride along the Riverfront Trail on Monday morning.

I’m just popping in for a quick blog post. I know many of you are eagerly waiting to hear more about my travels, and I will, I will tell you!

But not now because I am still busy scheduling and rescheduling students, and mostly busy practicing for an upcoming recital/concert on October 2.

I’m performing Bach’s C Major Violin Sonata for the first time ever, and I’m totally overwhelmed and stressed by this. I’m playing from memory, as one must…at least that’s how I feel about it. The fugue is ridiculous and amazing…I remember the first time I ever heard it (I believe on a CD while I was in high school) and I was blown away by, how could music be like that? It was nothing like I’d ever heard before.

There are 3 Sonatas and 3 Partitas for Solo Violin by Bach, and I’ve performed most of all the other ones except for the C Major (Sonata no. 3), so it was time. And this concert is in a big church, so it will be very nice for Bach.

The thing about solo Bach is…well, there are millions of different ways to perform it, so there’s the fact of deciding how I want to play it, while worrying (and I know I shouldn’t but I do) that any other musicians in the audience will be judging me for playing inauthentically or NOT in the style that they think it should be. Plus worrying about memory and intonation and all of that.

And I’m doing all of this mostly for free. I teach and play gigs and weddings, but most of the “serious” concerts I play are basically for free. I do often get a small stipend, but when you consider all the practice and rehearsal that goes into them…not that I’m complaining, but just telling you.

It’s kind of ridiculous, except those are what I live for! Those concerts are WHY I play the violin, why I insist upon making a living doing this, and why I teach. Especially why I teach, so that my students can appreciate and love a piece of music as much as I do. And if I didn’t surround myself with music all the time, I wouldn’t be the musician I am.

If you aren’t a musician, or if you aren’t crazy this post might not resonate with you, but perhaps you can all appreciate the feeling of worrying about what everybody thinks while just really doing something that you care deeply about that takes up a lot of work…not for financial gain, but simply for yourself.

I do hard things because I can. I look forward to performing, I look forward to being done performing, and knowing that I did something difficult, something challenging, something that might seem pointless (I mean, really, how many times can one play Brahms and Bach and Beethoven…but really, the answer is an infinite number of times, and not everything we do with music has to be new and different and sometimes it can simply be something we love and if that’s the same thing that hundreds of other violinists loved, and maybe even played better, music isn’t a zero-sum game…)…

And what I sometimes forget: maybe somebody in the audience will hear the fugue for the first time, and they will be amazed and changed, just like I was. Just because hundreds or thousands of violinist have performed it, not everybody has heard it. There are people in the world who have never heard Dvorak’s American Quartet, or Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, or perhaps (less likely, but perhaps) Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.

I’m not even sure where I’m going with this, except that I feel better having written it.

My Violin Practice

Before I start, in case you were worried, Mackenzie (my dog) is doing much better! She came home Monday evening and was still a bit swollen in the face, but by last night most of that swelling was down.

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Onto the topic of this post, which occurred to me AS I was practicing.

There are always articles being written on practicing. How to practice, how best to practice, practice mistakes to avoid, how not to practice, and more. We are told to practice with a purpose, to have a plan, to have accomplishments and objectives. I posted an article on facebook just yesterday about how to “optimize your practicing.”

Lately, however, I’ve just been making violin practice a thing that I do during the day before I teach. I pull out music I’m trying to learn, music I’d like to learn, etudes to sight-read, music I’m teaching, and I just start practicing.  Sometimes I’ll play a piece I hear on the radio, sometimes I’ll spend a hour on scales. I just do what I feel like and make sure that if there’s a piece I definitely need to work on, that I get to that one enough.

I have made decisions over the past few years to include practice time into my daily schedule. I don’t practice every day, and I take weeks off over vacations, but I no longer overschedule myself with work to the point where weeks go by without proper practice. Once you know how it feels to be playing well, you don’t want to lose it, and in fact, you want to continue to improve.

I’ve been thinking practicing quite a bit. Many of my students don’t practice often enough. And the fact of it is this: it’s generally not that they practice inefficiently, or wrong, or badly. It’s that they simply do not practice regularly. A student who practices regularly will be better than one that does not.

And that’s the attitude I started taking to my own practice in the last year or two. Oh, and did you see what I called it? My own practice. I read a friend’s Facebook status once referring to “his violin practice” and I thought of it just like people refer to their yoga practice. It’s not about goals or accomplishments. It’s about the process. The process of getting out the violin, tuning, and then beginning to play. And doing so regularly.

Here’s my general advice: if you are struggling to get into a practice routine, don’t worry about doing it right or wrong. Simply do it. Start. There is no wrong way to practice, except NOT to practice at all.

Sure, starting at the beginning of your piece and playing through to the end, up to speed, totally ignoring mistakes…might not be the most efficient use of your time. Unless you have the issues of making mistakes and stopping all the time. For every list I read of how not to practice, I can often think of a reason to ask a student to practice that way! (I’m a contrarian, and I detest people giving expert advice which is actually just advice from their personal experience.) So go, get your violin out, and practice.

Or whatever it is. If you want to create a habit: running, eating healthy, being kind to strangers, don’t worry about the best way. Just start doing it regularly. The rest will fall into place.

Lots of good stuff happening

I figured that it was fitting that the Brahms Piano Quintet was on the radio as I drove home from quartet rehearsal this morning (yay, we are finally back to regular rehearsals!) since we are working on getting booked to perform it in the spring.

It’s the time of year for planning and preparation—lots of practicing and putting things on the schedule, slightly less actually doing them, as I keep writing about here, though from day to day things actually end up feeling quite busy. We’ve had a lot of stuff going on with the pets lately and various vet visits for diabetes, thyroid issues, and now fleas…so that takes up a fair amount of time! I know I don’t always use my time the most wisely, but I know that I am not alone, or there wouldn’t be so many quasi-interesting things to read about on the internet!

So, since I last blogged quite a lot of fun things have happened, and lots of teaching and practicing and rehearsals as well. (One with a didgeridoo player!). I’m holding pretty firm at 37 students right now.

Friday night we went for Mexican food (this is pretty standard, if not Thursday, then Friday, or both) to a place I love called Lilly’s. They have great food, tasty margs, and a little salsa bar with lovely decor. I got a picture of the fiddle player.

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Sorry, it’s a little blurry. I didn’t want to be obvious about the picture. Terrible blogger!

I played with the Metropolitan Orchestra of St Louis over the weekend. They rehearsed at the First Presbyterian Church of Kirkwood where I have played many times, but I’m always impressed by the stained glass!

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Saturday we went to the Symphony and saw Josh Bell play Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole. Totally weird piece for somebody to be playing, but it was a very enjoyable performance. This was the first of our subscription series and we liked our seats.

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At intermission they were giving out free champagne for a toast by David Robertson. We ran into quite a number of people we knew as well and had a very nice time overall.

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After the concert we had a few chocolates that Louie’s mom had brought us from her recent trip to Spain (sadly we were not invited along, ha!).

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We almost felt bad eating them! They were, however, delicious.

Sunday ended up being filled with some cat/vet issues and our hopes to go for a short hike were spoiled. That’s okay—this weekend is our backpacking trip and I’m sure it’ll be fine without a practice hike. Luckily all the pets are doing, well….better now! and are fully medicated. Poor guys.

And then Monday I was going to do my long run (9 miles) but my knee was (is) acting up and I decided to rest instead. I hate bailing on long runs especially, but I realized since it was hurting just to bend it walking (who knows what happened) I should rest it. I’m hoping to be back to running Thursday morning but I won’t push it. I know how this goes! It’s the same as how it’s often smart to take a day off of practicing violin when my wrists hurt rather than force through and end up in more pain. That lesson took a long time to learn, but I’ve mostly learned it now…mostly!

And now I’m listening to some music on spotify—listening to a CD I own actually. My old teacher, Bill Preucil, playing with the Cleveland Quartet, Beethoven Op. 59 #1, and I’m feeling like I am such a lousy violinist! I must try to feel inspired rather than depressed 😉

September was flying by but now it’s not

However, this week is going decently fast, as weeks tend to do. This morning I was pretty lazy but thus far I have at least washed and dried a load of laundry (fascinating!) and practiced. I also ate half of a grapefruit and it was delicious. (That wasn’t all I ate.)

I woke up feeling really stressed out, but things are better now. Sometimes I get stressed out when I have to send emails that are basically just me sticking up for myself. Sigh. Everything turned out great, because all of us women ARE told that we need to stick up for ourselves more and stop using vocal fry and saying “sorry” and “just” and then our lives will be great just like the men’s lives. I do find, however, that when I stand firm that people tend to respect that, so maybe some of the articles are correct. And the rest should stop telling women how to act more like men and consider that maybe, just maybe, we like the world that we exist in and want the whole world to be like our world, and why should we have to change when men don’t have to? But I digress. As usual. Sorry.

All that being said, I am often afraid to stick up for myself, for fear of making people angry. And when I do, and it turns out well, I feel like a real person, a real adult. And then I think, hey, gimme another 37 years (that’s my age, FYI) and I’ll have this whole adult thing DOWN.

Wednesday is my lighter teaching day this fall. I have only 4 hours of students and there’s even a 30 minute break in that segment, so that’s mostly why I was lazy today. I was tired and needed a day to relax a bit. I’m on my third cup of coffee and it’s simply fantastic. I wrote just fantastic first but then edited it since we ladies aren’t supposed to say just anymore. (I’m assuming we still need to be pretty and smile in public though, right?)

This is where ordinarily I would insert a cat picture! But I don’t have any available to me that you haven’t already seen.

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Oh whew, there we go! Old cat pictures that you’ve forgotten that you’ve seen!

So, tonight I am going to make tacos. I have tofu, sweet potatoes, onions, and queso fresco, plus Trader Joe’s Green Salsa. I can turn that into something delicious enough, I’m sure. Taco Wednesday!

I had a million thoughts when I sat down to blog, and I still do, but most of them are even more boring and unsuitable than what I’ve already typed! It’s a hard balance between writing enough that my blog feels somewhat personal, and sharing too much (for a variety of reasons.)

Practicing wise, I’ve been working on: Beethoven Opus 59 #1, Bach Partita no. 1 for Solo Violin, and a variety of Etudes, including Gavinies and some stuff I’m going through to review for my students. I also practice scales regularly enough—I have a system where I play all the 3 octave scales in a row, going up chromatically, and then all the arpeggios (Flesch) going around the circle of 5ths. I learned to do this at CIM while studying with Linda Cerone, and it’s a valuable skill. If I ever have students advanced enough I will make them do the same! After performing last Saturday night one of the guests asked me how much I practice each day. I’m ashamed sometimes to admit that it’s often closer to an hour than it is any more than that…some days none at all, other days closer to two hours, but that’s where I’ve been for some time. In the past years I’ve practiced much more, (and also much less), and I find that this is a good amount generally for where I am and the amount of repertoire I need to be learning. If I have more performances/pieces to learn at once I make the time for more practicing, but for general maintenance and only a few performances coming up, 1-2 hours is plenty. How about the rest of you? If you are a professional or semi-professional musician reading this, how much do you practice these days?

And on THAT incredibly boring note about practicing, I shall go. I need to practice a bit more before my first student!

Purple Violin Case

I recently had a birthday.  One of the things I really wanted was a new violin case, so when my mother offered to help me get one, I went to the internet…and found a purple violin case! It’s the same model (basically) that I had before. Initially I had wanted to avoid the model, since the buckle had broken and I felt that it hadn’t really been that long (8 years?) but after reflecting on the cost of the case ($200), the cost of the instrument inside (not saying that here ;)), and the amount of times I opened and closed the buckles each day (several), I decided it was a very cost-effective and necessary investment…for my parents to make. (I would totally have eventually bought one myself, but HEY it’s easier this way right? THANKS MOM AND DAD!)

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Isn’t it beautiful? It’s made by Bobelock and is their fiberglass half moon case with puffy cover. It’s really beautiful and I love it. (Matches my stand too 😉 )

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I moved all the important stuff over, leaving behind a pile of broken pieces of rosin and a boatload of paper clips.

I’ll be the snazziest one at gigs now and all the cool kids will be jealous of me.

Thoughts on Practicing

You can’t write a blog for your readers. Firstly, I don’t have any regular readers except (I believe) my mother. Secondly, whenever I ask a simple question, like, are there enough cat pictures in my blog, I get really different answers. (Ranging from: lady, you are crazy and need to find a new hobby to ALL CAT ALL THE TIME).

But I’ve had some questions over the years about professional things like auditions and practicing the violin, and I thought I’d ramble about practicing a little bit today.

While I was preparing for the Symphony audition the other month, Chris wandered into the room and commented on my practicing style—(this is normal for us—we give advice or comments occasionally)—that it sounded like I was just playing and that I wasn’t really working on something in particular. Really that’s the big issue I have: I am a terrible practicer.

I never really learned how. I’m lucky enough that I pick things up fairly well fairly quickly, and none of my teachers growing up ever taught me how to practice properly (I’m not necessarily blaming them as possibly I simply ignored their advice), and then in college probably none of my teachers realized I didn’t really know HOW to practice. Plus, (and this is the truth) I generally dislike practicing. Like most of my students, I greatly enjoy PLAYING THE VIOLIN and greatly dislike the arduous yet necessary task of PRACTICING THE VIOLIN.

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These are two vastly different things, and I do my best to try to help my students learn the difference. Practicing is something that should not be enjoyable to listen to. I try to teach my students that it’s okay to play through their piece once, but then they need to figure out what went wrong and why (the younger ones I mark this for them). If you’re missing a shift, repeatedly, then you need to isolate the problem, slow it down, break it down, and REPEAT REPEAT REPEAT until you don’t miss that shift. (The famous saying: don’t practice until you get it right, practice until you can’t get it wrong.)

The issue for me comes when I’m approaching the same piece again, for perhaps the 13th year in a row, and I know exactly where the problem areas are…and those problems are always the same problems. Thinking back (on the Nutcracker Overture) I didn’t spend enough time isolating the problems, and really working them, and I learned something really fundamental about arm and elbow motion and angles in the week leading up to the audition…I had never consciously thought about the movement of my left elbow as I shifted, and it was brought to my attention, and I didn’t have enough time to really work it out.

It’s hard, as an adult who is often performing the same pieces again, to approach a piece with new eyes. Often you see the piece with tired eyes, and simply repeat the same mistakes. My students complain that they are tired of a piece after a few weeks or months, and while I often try to respect that feeling, I also try to show them WHY we are still working on the piece, and how they haven’t mastered what they need to master before moving forward. And then if they are a Suzuki student, it’s not as if they won’t be reviewing that piece for a long time anyway!

(I know this isn’t a cohesive post about practicing. I just wanted to give some thoughts about it. )

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The other challenge is making the time for practicing. I tell my students that even ten minutes every day is a better thing that a few hours once a week. Yet when push comes to shove, I will cram my practicing, or skip it entirely, or “warm up” for a rehearsal by playing a scale with a student…completely ignoring all the hopefully good advice I am giving my students. 

I was joking with a friend the other day that I was trying to become more zen-like in my approach to life, and “live in the moment” more and be more conscious, and all that. Now, I was joking…mainly…but it occurred to me just now (in the moment!) that that is probably the best way to practice. I know I say a lot of things and then forget, but I shall try to remember this the next time I am preparing for an audition: to practice consciously and mindfully, and to dedicate as much brain power as possible to my work at the time. 

Thoughts? I hate writing a post and trying to sound like an expert. I’m definitely not. I play well, and I practice badly. I would play better if I practiced better, that’s for sure.

I should follow up writing this blog post with a good violin practice session but I’ll probably just end up wasting time reading stuff until it’s time for work. Oh well.