In lieu of a longer holiday post, here’s some violin tunes…
Practice Logged: 231 hours + 35 minutes
A less-than-obvious challenge has been mounting over the last few months of my musical education and yet it was something I could not wholly articulate until a few days ago.
In fact, it was another project and the effort to create a backing track for my running video that drew attention to the notion in my mind.
I recorded ten minutes of footage of my run, and edited it into a first-person “let’s run” video.
I recorded a ten minute narration track and overdubbed that into the video, creating a let’s run “vlog” video.
And then it occurred to me to record ten minutes of gentle violin music and to layer that at about 20% volume into the background of my let’s run vlog video.
The running footage was solid. The narration turned it into something (I think) interesting. The violin made it unwatchable.
It’s not that I played wrong (or as the title of these posts implies, scratchy) but just putting the notes in the right order does not good music make.
I didn’t think much more of it until my recent lesson when, having nailed the fingering for a Bach Musette to about 95% consistent perfection, my teacher basically said: “you’ve got the notes down, now you just need to make it sound good.”
There is a science of making music, and it comes down to chords and timing and harmony. But there is also an art to making music, and it comes down to drawing the emotion and feeling from the technical pieces. As Karin put it, it’s why listening to a middle school band drives you crazy: they may get most of the notes, but the music is largely functional.
Thus, the not-so-obvious (or maybe it is completely obvious) challenge that I start to face in this process of learning to play this instrument. I can read music. And I can turn all the lines and splots of ink on my sheet music into sounds by holding the right strings on my violin. But is it actually music? More vitally, is it good music? And how do I take all those sounds and make it into good music if it isn’t already?
Maybe the challenge is obvious. The solution probably isn’t.
Practice Logged: 180 hours + 50 minutes
Over the weekend I passed the ten month mark of learning this silly instrument.
There was a chain of events that correlates with the last year of my life, and may or may not have some causal connections to why I took up the violin. Every year in July we go on a big group camping trip with some friends from (let’s say) University-ish. There are days at the beach, campfire treats, and ever-growing children to be entertained.
Last year we drove back from camp as usual, picked up the dog from the kennel (she was never a good camper so we boarded her instead) and promptly discovered that she was quite sick. What followed was a week of vet visits and big decisions and hectic family changes, and the last seven days of my pup’s life. I spent the following few months trying to redefine my own normal, and in that time (among other things) decided that the new normal included playing a musical instrument.
Sparkle passing was not the cause of it, but it may have correlated with some of the opportunity the cleared the weeds to a garden of musical re-education.
One year later, full circle, we packed up the truck and drove out to the campsite and…
Well, a year had gone by: bigger kids, but mostly the same: fire pits, and cast iron meals, and sandcastles on the gloppy-lakeside-beach. Except I had been playing the violin for ten months (the quality of that playing up for debate, but playing nonetheless) and (after a bit of online chatting and research) had opted to bring my instrument on the adventure.
Long story short, the annual camp happened anew and in the mix we played: Mr. C brought along his guitar (because I was bringing my violin) and a new camping tradition seems to have been hatched. We are long-yet to see if it survives into a multiple-year ordeal, but for three nights we welcomed the sunset with some jams around the campfire. The songs were mostly simple, singalong-type music, but we filled the evening air of our little campsite with something that could be called music.
It’s not much, but I guess that’s (maybe not the whole, but part of) the point of learning this thing: to play for others, and to bring a little light to dark places, even if those places are just the haunted gaps of heartbreaking anniversaries, lightly-noted but not ignored or unnoticed.
Practice Logged: 156 hours + 10 minutes
Something has clicked.
Call it muscle memory. Call it internalization. Call it payoff for over a hundred and fifty hours of practice across what will be nine consecutive months as of next week. But something seems to have clicked.
I don’t want to imply in the slightest that I’ve mastered this beast of an instrument, that I can play better than I can, that I’ve stopped the learning process and that I’ve somehow become a violin master. Far from it.
Instead, those notions and feelings and frustrations of plodding across a level plateau for the last four of five months, feeling that progress, if any, has been slow and almost immeasurable or imperceptible, somehow that feeling has been eased and thrown a big juicy bone.
I’m far from good, but I’ve sensed over the last month that I’m better.
I’m not missing the strings as much as I used to, not inadvertently bumping a neighbouring note in an effort to play another.
The scratching, squealing, cat-torture-sounds are increasingly rare.
The taped-on faux-frets I added nearly nine months ago, bits of masking tape marking the finger positions, have fallen off over the last couple weeks, worn by finger oils and a million micro-nudges by the digits of my left hand and I realized that I’m just fine without them, the fingers somehow knowing where they belong on the board.
I can actually play music that sounds like the song it is supposed to sound like.
And better, I can sight read other music and it has feeling and a hint of grace even on only the second or third play through.
Weather notwithstanding, I would never had hinted at public performance a few months ago, but I’ve been practicing with the windows open in the heat of the spring and I’ve yet to hear a complaint from any of the neighbours. I even felt a bit of honest remiss at not thinking to bring the instrument to the mountains this past weekend. I could have stood atop a craggy rock and played for the passing runners. And I think I might have actually felt okay with that. Epic even.
This violin is not mastered, but about seven months ago I asked a not-so simple question right here on this blog: when do I get to call myself a “violinist?”
As in, when do you go from someone “learning the violin” to someone who “plays the violin”? When do you go from someone learning to someone doing, in general? When do you cross that threshold? When do you define yourself as someone who (tho still forever learning, refining, enhancing your skills as you bank more and more hours at that task) can label themselves a ___blank____?
I don’t have a perfect answer. I’m not sure I’m quite there yet. But I’ve been feeling more and more comfortable telling people that I play this beast without the caveat that I’m still very much a student.
I’m in the pupal stage: No longer a caterpillar… but not yet a butterfly.
I’s usually pretty tough to objectively judge the quality of one’s own playing, but it’s a good sign that while at my lesson after playing through one of my practice pieces, one that I’ve been working on for about a month now, Minuet 3 by Bach in fact, my instructor suggested we (finally) move onto another piece because that one is (apart from noting a few string bumps and scratches) pretty much “performance ready.” I’m not sure I’m performance ready, but I guess that’s a sign of progress, right?
Day: 182 (6 months!)
Practice Logged: 116 hours + 15 minutes
If I hadn’t been tracking so diligently I think it might have caught me off guard, because today is (already!) the six-month anniversary of the day I cracked open the case of my violin and first put bow to string.
Yup. Six months.
Do I have any mind-blowing insight into this instrument which I’ve been studying for half a year? Can I pluck your heart-strings with tales of musical epiphany? Will my twenty-six weeks of musical interluding convey a deeper meaning upon your life.
But probably not.
If you’ve been following along with this blog over those six months, listening to the random recordings I’ve been sharing (an effort that’s on pause for the moment for the benefit of more focus on my actual lessons and techniques) you’ll know that I’ve shared a few observations over that time: the effort, the mentality, the culture… at least the little bit that I’ve noted so far. The violin is a challenging instrument. Every time I pick it up to practice, a number that is now well over a hundred hours worth of thirty-minute-sessions so do the math, I find something new to enjoy, new to frustrate, new to love, new to make me question every minute of those many, many hours devoted to playing this thing in my already cluttered and busy life.
Some random violin facts, and a snapshot of my six-month progress…
I still get a sore wrist from spending all day at a keyboard then switching to this inverted, twisting, upright finger-board posture. I do finger-crunches at my desk for about twenty minutes every day. It’s helping with finger strength but not really anything else.
I’ve acquired enough muscle memory that if my instrument isn’t placed just-like-so under my chin within a tolerance of a millimeter or two then my aim on the strings is likewise off and I revert to sounding like a dying cat.
My brain still struggles with the synchronization of my bow to my fingers, meaning sometimes I’m playing twice as many notes as I should. Every other note, roughly, is just a de-synced one and it sounds like terrible noise.
I’ve been working on my stage fright, which is –as it turns out– a real thing that messes with my head because my ability to play decreases measurably (anecdotally) when I’m in front of my teacher, a camera, or anybody really. It’s like that singing frog from the Bugs Bunny cartoon… no really… it sounds good when you’re not watching!
Apparently I can’t count. I suck at counting. I need to count better. I’m playing too fast. Or I’m playing too slow. Or I’m rushing my rests or I’m not doing something that is apparently involving counting and numbers and beats. I have no rhythm or pacing or something. I’m not sure how to fix this, except maybe strap a metronome to my head…. or go back to kindergarten for a few months.
I take a break from my classically-tilted lesson music by playing fiddle music. That should tell you where I’m probably headed with this thing.
I’ve found a kind of mechanical, foundational joy in doing scales. But that means I’m weird. No one likes scales.
I’ve been fortunate enough that I can blame the weather for staying inside and practicing my violin versus going outside to run. But spring will be here in a matter of days and the cold weather will make me frequently choose between how to spend my free time. Sadly I haven’t learned any improved ways to manage my limited time.
I still record a bit of video once or twice a month. I just don’t post it. I assume there’s only so much scratchy violin noise my handful of fans will tolerate.
I think I am actually improving.
I’ve started to mentally categorize my efforts to learn the violin into four groupings of music: (1) the student music, including all those short little foundational pieces that I play because they are part of my lessons and because they teach me technique. (2) the popular music, including the random “101 Disney Hits” and the “Film Songbook” sheet music collections that I play because they have piano accompaniment or because they are fairly simple and impress people who are eavesdropping on me practice. (3) the advanced violin music, like the Paganini Caprices which I’ve seen in these thick wads of paper that are more notes than white-space but which I haven’t bothered even thinking about yet. (4) the fiddle music which is on a equally technical but alternative fork from the advanced violin music, but which has some naturally built-in flexibility allowing for some leeway in the skill level required to make it sound passable. I’ve been letting my attention sway into the fiddle music zone lately, if only because it seems like the ultimate path I’m aiming for with this instrument. It also seems as though the type of thing where a handful of memorized songs, played modestly well, could fill a half an hour, give or take, of air time if I’m ever in one of those situations where, violin in hand someone says… “Well, then? Go on. Play.” In that vibe, I spent a few good hours memorizing some fiddle riffs over the last weeks.
I’ve been doing quite a lot of pondering lately on the topic of mindfulness.
Y’know, mindfulness… “a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment” (quoth the dictionary) or also known as a way of steadying the flutter of an overly active brain.
Some people perceive mindfulness as a kind of spirituality-light, or an offshoot of meditation. Many people who do yoga, for example, I’ve been given to understand practice the stretching exercises because it has the parallel benefit of relaxation and mindfulness mashed into a physical kind of sport. A number of years ago I tried Tai Chi, which became a kind of slow motion yoga meets Kung Fu thing.
Other folks seem to skip the whole effort and just douse their grey matter in chemicals, like ethanol or tetrahydrocannabinol …which having only really dabbled in the former and feeling like I understand how these might act as an easy-quick fix for a too-busy mind, I personally think they lack the long term payoff of actually earning inner peace. It’s a cheat.
I think mindfulness could probably benefit many people, but then I also think there are likely those of us with busier brains than others, or at least some minds are more apt to flutter from the parasympathetic conditions of the real world. Some people are just enough out of sync with the vibe of the norm that a good balance is trickier to find. The crazy universe bothers us more. The stupidity pokes parts of our brains that don’t get poked in other more aligned heads.
So I frequently seek some balance and clarity in various thought-out methods of my own.
I’ve been writing for years about the benefits of running and mindfulness. I love running with friends, but when I go out for a solo dash around the neighbourhood there is a meditative benefit that I perceive despite being difficult to quantify in any meaningful way. I just… feel… more balanced after six klicks through the streets. It’s not sitting on the floor cross-legged and ohhhhming buddhist-like chants, but it is a kind of vacated awareness, the mind given a half hour’s break from anything besides moving legs and avoiding obstacles. There is a quasi-zen quality to a peaceful run.
I’ve been doing quite a lot of pondering lately on the topic of mindfulness because I’ve been having fleeting moments of mindfulness-like clarity that are emerging from something new in my life: playing the violin. As I write this I’ve logged nearly a hundred hours of focused practice on the instrument, which is enough for me to say that I’m starting to feel a certain level of confidence on the instrument. I’m not ready to do any major public performances, no, but I am acutely aware that my practice time has become divided into two distinct forms: the times when I am focused on learning and the times when I am focused on playing.
To be clear, there is a big, thick fuzzy line blurring any obvious distinction between the two kinds of practice time… but there is now a line where there had once just been a blur. So, when I am playing to learn I focus on technique, hone my time on repeating short segments to get them as close to perfect as my beginner violining skill will allow, and devoting the mental cycles of my brain to improving my playing. But, when I am playing to play I focus on the music, ignore minor mistakes and start to lose myself in the flow of notes and the feeling of the sounds I’m creating, and my mind is freer to drift into those meditative spaces.
When I just play to play, and it is still a fleeting and rare experience, I’ve started to taste the fringes of that same kind of mindfulness that I’ve been able to find in a solo run. That is obviously very cool, and I’m sure I’m not the first to notice this (though I never felt that way about the saxophone because it was always a bit of effort to play either for school or when I dabbled as an adult for fun.) In fact, I’m pretty sure there is probably epic literature on the subject of music and mindfulness somewhere. It must be a thing that musicians achieve, maybe even consistently, after picking up an instrument and playing for hours. Why else would music be such a integrated aspect of our culture?
The other night I played for an hour. Just played. I ignored the stuff I was supposed to be practicing (hopefully my teacher isn’t reading this and judging me right now) and I just played some of the “fun” sheet music I’ve collected over the last five months. Just played. Lost myself. Let my brain wander. Then looked at my watch and realized an hour had gone by and the storm between my eyes had calmed a little bit.
If that’s not mindfulness I don’t know what is.
Even Karin seemed impressed. I’d been in the basement playing the same six bars of music over and over and over and over for half an hour, and she peeked over my shoulder and said something like “wow, that is pretty technical, isn’t it?” I was practicing my song, Gavotte from “Mignon” by Thomas as played by this dude, who is not me, on YouTube. It’s my “Cold Winter” project: learn to play this two page technical beast. Lots of fancy little frills to make me a better player (not that it’s a particularly high bar at the moment) like switching between strings and staccato, trills, tenuto, and some pizzicato. I guess what I’d say: if you want to know what it’s like to learn the violin, watch the YouTube video from 0:09 seconds through 0:26 seconds over, and over, and over, about a hundred times, and then imagine that among those hundred times, imagine that it sounds good approximately once. Then repeat the next night, and the night after that and the night after that… and then realize that you love every minute of it.
About fifteen Christmas carols on a violin.
Music, Magic & Cats
Very likely something with the words “Christmas” in the title.