That my fingers are not nearly as flexible as, say, a six year old who is trying to learn the violin.
(Or the trouble with being a reformed saxy guy.)
I’ve been logging my time and officially (see: previous post about obsessive spreadsheeting) and apparently I’ve been playing the violin for ten hours.
Does that make me a violinist?
I can play about six songs, one well…ish, and I know two scales: A Major and G Major. And… well, that’s about it, to be honest.
Ten hours. I mean, I do actually know people who have been on longer runs.
a little bit serious about learning this thing
Now, I am taking my lesson progress as a good sign. I’m pushing through the loosely defined curriculum at a breakneck pace. While I’m neither a music instructor nor am really very familiar with the difference between teaching a kid to play an instrument versus teaching an adult to play an instrument, I have gleaned a few insights after my second violin lesson. First, my instructor seemed surprised that I’d actually taken the instrument out of the vehicle at all between lessons, let alone that I’d practiced. When I said, yeah, about seven hours this week, his eyes got really big. Like dinner plates, or like a cartoon character whose eyes pop out of their head when someone hands them a piece of paper with a bunch of $$$ signs written on it.
His holy shit moment was that perhaps I was, maybe, perhaps, just a little bit serious about learning this thing.
My holy shit moment was that perhaps most adult students are phoning it in… I mean, at least bring it in the house between classes, y’know.
So instead of thirty minutes of just playing and the kind of guided practice sessions I’ve been expecting, imagining, thinking that these lessons were going to be, my lesson instead turned into a lot more talking than playing, a walkthrough of the half-dozen techniques I need to focus my practice on this week, a quick demonstration of each, and a short chat about what the purpose of said technique might be for the benefit of my future playing. That’s right: I got homework.
I need to teach my fingers to bend and react
Additionally, I learned that the comfortable and easy way I’d worked out of both touching the strings and holding my bow were not wrong, per se, but if I ever wanted to play anything more advanced than Twinkle Twinkle Little Star I would need to teach my fingers to bend and react in a way that, apparently, they’ve never needed to do before, ever, full stop, period, the end.
I’m watching you left pinky, I know what you’re up to over there. Yeah, I’m talking to you.
A bit of an aside?
See, I can play songs considerably more advanced than Twinkle Twinkle Little Star on this beautiful little alto saxophone I have sitting in the house. I don’t play very often. Maybe I should have played more, but years of school band left a sour taste in my mouth and I’m probably repressing something. But either way, playing the saxophone has this important finger skill associated with it, a skill that has become second nature after decades of intermittent practice: the more holes you cover in the brass tube the deeper the sound becomes. Your job is push air through the brass tube and firmly, often with a good strong bit of pressure, cover a variety of holes to change the sound coming from the end of that brass tube. That’s it. In fact, you have buttons on a saxophone whose sole purpose is to press groups of other buttons and help you cover more holes than would otherwise be possible with a mere ten fingers. In other words, I’m really good at firmly using all my fingers to play progressively deeper sounds.
my poor brain is not wired properly
This may seem like a small thing, but the violin is exactly and precisely the opposite: light touch, relaxed grip, and one finger on the strings. You should never have two fingers on the same string. Occasionally you can keep a finger on a different string if you’re going back to that string in the next few notes, but otherwise, they should be hovering quietly and precisely a quick, short distance above the string ready to tap lightly down and… see, I’m quickly realizing that my poor brain is not wired properly to comply with this new way of doing things and it’s going to take a lot of focus to rewire it that way.
So, ten hours of practice has been enough to learn to play a few rudimentary songs… rudimentarily… and to learn the seventeen different things I’m doing functionally to make a noise that sounds like a note erupt from the violin. But apparently not technically well.
And if you ever see me absently doing finger yoga while out for a run, or coffee, or waiting for the bus, it doesn’t actually count as practice, but it probably should.
Miss C, needing to practice for twenty! whole! minutes! on her piano, is off on her own tickling the keys for variable-minute segments of quasi-quality practice from inside the office where the piano now lives. These short stints of focused repetition of her music is punctuated by a short pause, wherein she traipses out to the living room to ask, “has it been twenty minutes yet?” This is followed by a sigh and a grumbling return to the keyboard when it is revealed that, no, it’s only been eleven minutes, go finish your practice! On the other hand, her father picks up his (still newish and novel) violin and retreats to the basement. There he opens a computer, his phone, and two music books onto various surfaces. Violin propped to his shoulder he promptly loses track of the time for nearly two hours as he tries to get some random music he downloaded from the internet to sound vaguely how it should actually sound. There is something to be said for impassioned curiosity to succeed, I guess.
If only because it has a haunting violin part, I’ve been listening to ‘Something Wild’ by Lindsey Stirling quite too much.
I made my wife pretty happy last night.
Hold up… and get your mind out of the gutter.
Actually, after spending many years playing her piano as a soloist, and still finding little success in recruiting a (willing) duet partner in Little Miss C, she googled up the accompaniment music to some of my violin practice exercises. I was assigned some basic scales and a single song in my first violin lesson, and was squeaking them out from a floor away following dinner. After (yes, I’m tracking it, remember) logging about four hours of introductory and very beginner practice time with my new instrument over the course of the last few days, I am (surprisingly?) able to scratch out a pass-able rendition of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star (and some other vague strings of notes resembling songs.)
My solo practice time didn’t last.
Since the first of my lessons are all going to be based from the widely-used Suzuki School method, the accompaniment sheet music was neither difficult to find online or play.
Had you driven past our house last night around 8pm you could have spied into the upper office window and seen a grinning Karin merrily tapping away on her piano and her poor husband standing behind her trying to keep up on a so-new-it-still-smells-of-varnish violin.
It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t terrible either.
As for lessons, I don’t feel completely out of place. A little. I mean, not completely. Lightly… weird. I’ll get over the lingering doubts pretty quick, but… y’know.
So I sat in the music school lobby (feeling like a parent missing their kid) but waiting for my first lesson to start. While I warmed my chair a stream of kids came and went. There was one other girl in her, let’s say, mid-20s, who seemed to be there to study piano (I’m assuming since she was only carrying sheet music), a bunch of parents, and then this old guy who was still a over-dressed from his office job and playing on his iPhone while he… oh, wait… that was me.
The thing I discovered about my first thirty minutes of structured instruction, however, was simply that learning a new instrument is probably going to be less difficult than learning that first instrument.
Yeah, the violin is very different from a saxophone. But (a) I can already read music, and in the proper clef, which is how many starting players spend their first year (b) I know that while I don’t have perfect pitch, my sense of pitch is better than I would have realized, and quite important on an instrument with no visible note markers or other strictly articulated ways to hit the exact sound you’re trying to make and (c) while YouTube is not a teacher, the crowd-sources didn’t give me terrible advice: a couple dozen hours of instructional videos was not wasted time and the theory I learned staring at my computer screen seems to have snowballed into a pretty good theoretical foundation that most kid-students would likely spend the first year cramming into their little noggins.
In short, less than three days after tearing the bubble wrap off of my newly delivered violin I was able to scratch out a rough duet with my wife, a musical lady who has probably been seeking some kind of musical renaissance in our house for a few years now.
The kid, on the other hand, locked herself in the bathroom with her iPod and headphones… but she’ll warm up as I get better.
You’ll need to excuse me for a few weeks while I get the new-giddy-excitement of starting a new instrument out of my system. I should really be writing about the New York Marathon in less than seven weeks –and I will– but I’ve now officially distracted myself with an expensive piece of wood and string. Less than twenty-four hours later I realize that my first big challenge isn’t going to be reading music (which I can do) or finding notes (which is going to be tough, but mentally) but instead manipulating my 40-year-old digits into new and convoluted positions. I picked up a grip & hand exercising gadget at lunch, so with a mouse in one hand and my Grip Master TM in my other, hopefully I’ll speed up my ability to actually manipulate my fingers across the strings.
So, this musical instrument may have arrived on my doorstep yesterday. I will admit I’ve been a wee bit excited at the prospect of having it in my hands and I may have read a dozen websites and watched about 20 hours of YouTube video in the last couple weeks about “what to do when you get your new violin.” I unpacked it, set it up, spent about an hour tuning it, and mucked around playing random notes. After about an hour of just making pointless sounds I figured I may as well do something more productive, so I learned how to play exactly one song (though not especially well): Twinkle Twinkle Little Star screeched through the house for the better part of the evening. My wrist, which has discovered a new way of twisting as I reach for the strings, is sooooooore this morning.
I have this crazy idea.
My ideas, they are all of them a little crazy, I know. So I’m told. The small ideas tend to be harmless but then occasionally I get a really big, all-consuming crazy idea that nets me more than just strange looks and sidelong glances from various people in my life.
I will pause and note that distance running was my crazy idea once, too, not so long ago. Then I trained, lost a bunch of weight, and ran a couple marathons and now people know me as that geeky guy who runs half and full marathons. I write blogs about it. It’s not all that crazy anymore.
And speaking of running, I used to run with a guy (he got injured and went AWOL on the running) who had a crazy idea about painting. He didn’t seem like a painter-type. Retired blue-collar dude with a heart of gold, but more of a puttering around the yard with a beer type. You never would have thought of him as fine-artistically inclined or even tilted in that general direction: but then suddenly we were seeing him post photos of his canvases on Facebook. And then we all went to his gallery show and shook his hand. And now, apparently and last I heard, he’s moved to Vancouver Island to pursue inspiration for his art. Not a crazy idea anymore.
Perspiration. Inspiration. Purpose. Drive.
Crazy ideas can stop being crazy after a little work …I think …is what I’m trying to say, especially if those crazy ideas take purchase in an inspired mind and are methodically pushed forward by grit and hard work. Perspiration. Inspiration. Purpose. Drive. Whatever.
So, I have this crazy idea. A new-ish crazy idea. It’s a crazy idea that’s been brewing in my head, mostly quietly for the better part of four or five years. It’s an idea I haven’t actually written about because (a) it really was just this pipe-dream of a crazy idea and (b) it seemed like something I would never even try because of the perceived cost of time, money, and energy.
I tried to ignore it. Get over it. Push it out of my mind.
But then I saw this 40ish milestone approaching, thought of my painter friend, have been doing some (well, a lot) of my own philosophical reflecting on life and pondering the question what, who, why, why-not, or wherefore do I want myself to be when I’m striding towards 50? Because that guy and those are skills are things, to be honest, I needed to start honing a long time ago, but (better late than never?) there’s never a better time to start then now, particularly when now is right around a real-life marker: like the turning of the old odometer over to a new decade.
feeling it flickering in the winds of life, threatening to get snuffed out
Plus, I keep thinking about this idea, pulling it up to the surface of my mind, and knowing damn well if I don’t pursue it with anything short of a good, solid attempt I’m going to regret it. I’ve been bumbling it over and over in my head, almost to the point of obsession, and feeling it flickering in the winds of life, threatening to get snuffed out but then ultimately stand there as a burnt out signpost of something not failed, rather never even attempted.
So… I ordered a violin. Really. Four strings with a wooden neck and all the parts in between. It is supposed to arrive this week.
It’s not an expensive violin. I do understand that owning high quality violins can be a bank-breaking hobby, one making, say, home ownership look like a frugal side-investment. Instead, I did a bunch of research, read numerous reviews, sampled a variety of sources and (digging into my private fun-munny slush fund) bought myself a new mid-level student-grade instrument —a Stentor II Student 1500— packaged with a bow and some of the basic necessities. I also bought some books. Some music. A mute (so that I can hide in the basement after Claire goes to sleep and play away without waking the whole house.) And I’m officially, today, starting down the –I’m given to understand– long and squeaky path of learning to play this classic stringed beast.
And as for motivation? How do you solve the inescapable problem of finding the time, resources and energy to keep at this? I go back to my running adventure and how I weaved it into my hacked mind and cross-pollinated with my other skills and interests: writing, goals, tracking, and public accountability. I’ve created a spreadsheet. I’ve set some personal (based on research and my currently-limited understanding) ability targets.
Oh, and I signed up for some actual, real, in-person lessons. I start this coming week.
I don’t intend on making a fool of myself.
And then a lot of public accountability: in fact I’m giving myself ten years. It’s a timeline. A solid, realistic timeline. In ten years, November 2026 (save the date) on or around my fiftieth birthday, I’m going to host a performance. Me plus some music. Playing. The scope is still way out of mind, but will reflect the effort and the caliber of whatever I achieve in the coming decade… but I don’t intend on making a fool of myself.
I’ll be blogging this little adventure, of course. I’ll probably try recording some video, too. Documenting the process all the way. Explaining my ups and downs, managing the struggles of what I’ve come to understand is one of the more difficult instruments to master.
I don’t expect to master it. But maybe, just maybe, I’ll become proficient… hopefully. It’s so crazy, it just might work.
Friday night we poked our noses into the Jube for a concert.
Being 2016 we get a lot, if not most, of our entertainment off the net. Netflix and Youtube, which means invariably we’ve discovered the various talents of one electric violinist, Lindsey Stirling, whose latest North American tour brought her into the city this past weekend.
Claire was excited, bursting at the seams for her first “real” concert.
A real concert…
Which meant security, and merch, and noise, and bustle.
Which meant a warm up act.
Which meant a way-too-late night for that particular kid.
Which meant that about an hour into the show, and well past the nearly-nine-year-old’s bedtime, she was leaning against her mom and barely able to keep her eyes open despite the thumping and pounding bass-driving dubstep beat of the concert playing on the stage in front of her.
Which was fine. (She was starting to get a whiny-little restless anyhow.)
So I let her sleep. Whatever. She’d seen a good chunk of the show and the act was getting into the deeper cuts anyhow. I was leaning back in my chair, enjoying the show, getting into the sound and the pounding music, eyes bouncing between my snoozing daughter and the show below.
It was about then when the drummer, arms in the air, began nudging the crowd into action as he started a rhythmic clap. This was quickly taken up by the audience and soon it echoed through the auditorium: Clap… Clap… Clap… Clap…
I turned to look at Claire, who without any indication that she was anything but deeply asleep, sat bolt upright in her seat, clapped exactly five beats along with the crowd, eyes closed but in perfect time to the thundering noise: Clap… Clap… Clap… Clap… Clap… and then promptly flopped back to her mom’s shoulder and slept for another ten minutes.
We amused her with the story on our drive home. Guess what has been a running joke in our house for the last few days… sleep clapping? Is that a thing?
While painting the nursery, I packed up the saxophone into it’s case and stuck it in a corner for a few weeks. When I pulled it out to play on Thursday I was greeted with an unpleasant surprise: the mouthpiece had turned from an ebony black to a kind-of turd-shaded brown, and reeked (and also tasted) like sucking on a dead rat.
I Google’d, and sure enough there is a maladie that overcomes old woodwind mouthpieces that causes them to suddenly, and quickly begin to oxidize, leech sulfur, discolour, and stink up the house. Also, despite a long list of “remedies” for the situation, the ultimate consensus is that nothing really fixes it but the purchase of a new one.
I suppose I should be glad I got eighteen years out of my current one. I just wish they were a little cheaper than a hundred bucks.