I tried, spectacularly unsuccessfully, to sing along to a crooner-type song which I was also playing on the violin. I now have a new respect for people who sing and simultaneously play an instrument.
I picked up a sheet music collection of Level 2/3 holiday favorites… 175 of them. It literally takes me an hour and a half to play through the every piece in the collection that, which now that I say that isn’t really that long for 175 songs, is it?
What do you think? 14 months into this little experiment…
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: 231 hours + 5 minutes
A less-than-subtle mix of new priorities has turned the rare moments in the day that I would have once called a “personal life” into a blur of bustling activity over the last two months.
This school year launched with a ferocity that caught all of us off guard, the days tick-tocking past with a busyness that is peppered with extra-curricular obligations that we are all privileged to be part of, but leave us blinking in wonder each and every Friday evening that the week spared hardly a moment for pause.
I’ve been attempting to fit in a dutiful running training schedule, but (until I signed up for a few races again last week) the accountability to finding my feet on asphalt is only as strong as my personal resolve.
On the other hand, in the last few months my violin lessons have manifested with a new kind of focus leaving me to fill every captured bit of free time to fill them with scales, etudes, and repertoire, all of it part of an effort to quasi-measure my progress in the form of a mock exam.
I may have written on this topic before, but if not then this: music exams are an important part of measuring the progress, growth, and ability of a musician towards their knowledge of their instrument, musical skills, and aptitude in combining the two… if said musician is a student or has some actual interest in pursuing music as anything but an eclectic hobby-slash-mid-life-crisis.
For me, an actual exam would be all but useless.
I’m not seeking to quit my job and play the violin professionally.
I’m not getting academic credit for my eloquence with a bow.
It’s unlikely that I’d ever need real credentials to join any band, orchestra, or to sit on a street corner busking.
Thus, pursuing the effort to practice for, pay for, and sweat it out for a real leveled exam may be fun or interesting or even a worthwhile pursuit. But since my instructor was interested in staging a mock version… well, that’s probably good enough to give me a sense of my own personal progress, for nothing more than my own personal interest — and to give me a powerful motivation to be making scratchy violin sounds in the basement instead of running or writing or doing all my other hobbies.
And then to write about it here, of course.
My practicing time has been filled with learning the scales, etudes, and repertoire for violin level 3… except when it’s not. Except when I’ve spent forty-five minutes here or an hour there playing through some of my Christmas music.
Tis the season for something, after all… even something besides never-ending Bach. Bach is good, but … priorities. Priorities!
Now if only I could figure out a way to practice in my truck while I’m waiting to drive Claire home from dancing my week might not seem quite so harried.
I’d like to have fined tuned a wicked vibrato. It’s a violin thing.
Practice Logged: 202 hours + 5 minutes
So, here we are: One year later.
We live in a very odd sort of world, don’t we?. Every day many of us go online and actively try to create this illusion that we are accomplishing great things. We post images of our kids. We brag about our vacations. Link to maps of the places we’ve run or hiked or biked. We snapshot dishes of food that we’ve cooked, or ordered, or found in mysterious places on crazy vacations. We showcase art that we’ve written or drawn or knitted or captured with a lens or built out of supplies from the hardware store. We tell stories about our work and lament about the fleeting opportunities for play.
We post it online to …what? Maybe to justify our days here.
And then, of course, we ignore the fact that everyone else is doing the exact same thing… mostly because to pat someone else on the back for an accomplishment, big or small, permanent or fleeting, physical or mental would be to admit that we (a) recognize the effort but (b) haven’t bothered to do that thing ourselves.
So then we post even more online and even more we attempt to justify all our days, days spent efforts of varying voracity towards often trivial goals. And more people ignore each other. One-up each other. And on… and on…
I guess I’m trying to say that I understand if you’ve stopped paying attention to my many justifications.
I tell stories and post complex essays on weird topics.
I brag about running too much… or too little.
I post photographs of my family and our vacations.
I’ve recently started peppering the internet with my little doodle cartoons.
And, of course, I’ve started documenting this violin thing.
Which brings us to now… here we are: one year later.
One year ago today I cracked open the case of my violin for the first time, and for the first time picked up the instrument with an intent to play it. I’d hardly so much as held one previously. I’d never drawn a bow across one’s strings. And I certainly had never owned one or played one.
In that year I’ve taken lessons almost weekly.
In that year I’ve learned how to tune, re-string, and clean this delicate contraption.
In that year I’ve purchased a dozen different books of music in a dozen different styles.
In that year I’ve studied scales, positions, vibrato, bowing, intonation, double-stops, pizzicato, staccato, dynamics, timing, and slurs.
In that year I’ve carried my instrument on the train, across bridges, into the wilderness, through the city streets, in a snowstorm and hidden from a summer downpour.
In that year I’ve tried music from Bach through Gaga, styles from classical to bluegrass, songs that are slow and melodies so fast I can barely move my fingers that quickly even when they are not required to do so precisely as well.
In that year I have played for family, while camping, alone in my basement, online for videos, in a room full of strange seniors to a room full of friends, in time with my wife on her piano to keeping time for a guitar, and of course in the second floor studio where I take my lessons.
In that year I have answered the question: when can you call yourself a violinist? Answer: you just kinda know when you know enough to say it aloud…
And I’ve done much of that online, documented, recorded, posted for all of my readers to see, or hear, or even watch. It has maybe not so much justified it, but it has added to the illusion that I’m accomplishing some great thing. Thus today starts year two. It may not be much of an accomplishment, and maybe you’ve already stopped paying attention to my continued justifications, but I’ll write on… play on… for whatever simple purpose that might hold.
(Tuned? Get it. It’s a violin joke.)
Practice Logged: 192 hours + 25 minutes
Feeling: Summer Split
It being summer, and my life adrift on the effort to (a) produce a brand new web comic and (b) not spend any more time in front of a computer than necessary, I’ve not written much here lately. Yet, I have been keeping busy, despite what seems to be a summer lull, and part of that busy-ness has been in the form of a new kind of focus to my violin practice.
In fact, on the 13th of this month I reached the 11th month of my study with this instrument. Which means, in now less than a month I will be legimately able to claim a year of experience…. hithertoo only claimed as “about a year” when asked by casual inquiry on the subject.
The new focus is a refinement of my effort to find a kind of methodical, deliberate approach to my learning. Figure out what needs work, then hone in on that and move the needle towards improvement.
That said, I’ve taken August off. I cancelled two of my lessons early in the month due to other commitments, and my instructor cancelled the other two due to his vacation, and so four weeks of lessons turned into a kind of unplanned summer break, if only from formality.
I’ve been playing, and playing with a kind of deliberate effort to refine specifics.
I have picked six pieces of varying style and difficulty that it is my goal to memorize. This is pure vanity. The ability to pick up the violin in the absense of sheet music and play a few songs seems like a skill worth pursing.
I have been learning vibrato. One short bit of my daily practice has been officially handed over to tuning the weird, quivering sort of muscle memory required to gently but rapidly waver the pitch of the note in a way that adds depth and richness to the sound. It looks effortless from the outsite, but it is the violin equivalent to scratching your head and rubbing your belly… while reading music.
I have been strengthening my pinkie. I wrote about this earlier, but I’ve devoted a measure of time to this each day for the last month or so and the results are seemingly showing. My pinkie is by far the weakest of my fingers, but he’s actually contributing to the team these days rather than fudging it from the sidelines.
And I have been doing my scales. No one loves scales, but they are the building blocks of everything else and I can feel their benefit in my playing in the form of a confidence bent towards a better tonality and measure of my speed in hitting the string in the correct place.
Eleven months of playing this instrument. As an adult learner it is unclear how to judge my progress. By the standards of a beginner, I am mostly compared to kids who have a different approach both in technique and emotional investment. Compared to my peers, I struggle to find an equivalency of the proportions of style, time-investment, self-versus-formal instruction, and honest of reporting. So, I just judge against myself… and look for measures that I can sense: a stronger sound, a richer tone, a more confident ear, and just the exponential ability to play for the sake of playing. My destination may be unknown, but the journey continues to keep me entranced.
Aside from our fictional adventures in the wilderness last week which was encoded in comic-strip form over on This is Pi Day, we actually had a fairly average camping trip last weekend.
Campfires, s’mores, tie-dying t-shirts (and socks) and time down by the lake.
I got to try out my cast iron waffle iron and (though it took an hour and a half to cook breakfast for seven people) it was a resounding success.
We built a slightly insane sandcastle and were the envy of the beach.
Chris and I serenaded the crew with our mediocre music skills, I on the violin and he on his guitar.
And we avoided getting rained on by mere minutes, having packed up the truck, closed the tailgate and only then felt a few raindrops.
I don’t think camping is nearly as relaxing as an adult as it was as a kid –the never ending setup, cooking, cleaning, and organizing– but it definitely was a nice break.
A photo gallery follows… noting that the best photos had clear pics of my friends’ kids so those will not show up here.
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: 176 hours + 30 minutes
I lately stumbled across an interesting practice idea on one of the violin/fiddle forums I’ve been frequenting.
It’s not a complex or revolutionary idea. But sometimes the simplest things work the best. (Sometimes they utterly flop, but that’s a different post.)
One of the other noob violists on there was explaining how s/he had drawn up some practice cards. They had made up little index cards with a ten-by-ten grid sketched on it. Each square on the grid represented one play-through of a song they were attempting to learn. When they filled the grid (with 100 play-throughs) that was considered… well, they didn’t really elaborate on that part. The goal was 100. What they did after that was unclear. Played it proficiently, I suppose.
I copied the idea, but then in regular crazy-obsessive style put my own spin on it.
First, I skipped the whole index card thing and used my design skills to make a little printable sheet (4 to a page) that I could print and cut and use.
Second, I’m upping the ante. Rather than just a play-through, I’m only counting the play-through as colour-in-the-circle worthy if I complete it with three or fewer obvious mistakes.
Third, and this is where blog readers might care, I added an end-game. When I reach one hundred successful play-throughs, then and only then will I record the song as an audio track for this website. Y’know, rather than just playing a few times and blurting out a recording with no rhyme or reason. So… you have that to look forward (?) to I guess.
My first selections (and here I’ve got a perhaps rule addition one-point-five in that I’m only using this for my so-called “fun” music) include “The Log Drivers Waltz” and “O’Canada“… because yeah, I’m actually gonna learn to play that second one with some level of proficiency and re-post it. I’ll be adding another two or three in the near future, but I want to make sure I’m building a worthwhile repertoire rather than just practicing ad nasuem every dumb song I find.
It’ll take a few weeks to hit that hundred mark though. A hundred is a lot more practice than you might imagine.
Practice Logged: 165 hours + 15 minutes
I’m taking it as a compliment, I guess.
To be clear, I’m not looking to actually make money on my videos. I upload them to YouTube and I’ve turned on the monetization feature because… well… just in case. If some of the garbage I upload happens to go viral, I wouldn’t want to have missed out on a few grand of advertising green.
That does mean, however, that whenever I upload a video the YouTube bots swing into action to ensure that I actually own the content I’m uploading.
And usually it’s never a problem.
So I record this video this morning:
…and I leave to take Claire to her art class and go for coffee.
And that’s when the email arrives on my phone.
Maybe I recorded a cover of something.
Maybe I overdubbed some audio into my homebrewed video.
They are not super-specific about what little snippet of me pointing a GoPro at my face for two minutes while I play upon my scratchy violin a song I learned just last week.
But whatever, YouTube has told me that it was good enough to summon the copyright demons to wrap their tentacles around my video and slightly restrict my ability to reap those sweet, sweet viral video dollars (should that happen to materialize.)
If this happens repeatedly, eventually I might get a little more frustrated. But for now, YouTube thinks I good enough to be treading on the toes of some actual recording artists, and I’ll take that as high praise.
Practice Logged: 162 hours + 0 minutes
Nine months of playing have led me to various conclusions, not the least of which is that I made a good decision in buying myself a violin last September.
I’m not sure why nine months seems like a milestone. Maybe it’s because other great things I’ve done in life have taken about nine months: like training for a marathon or having a kid (albeit that was mostly in an assistant role for me).
Nine months ago I wrote a cryptic explanation about why I was planning on investing a few thousand dollars and few hundred hours each year to attempt a mid-life crazy. It was a singular chance. It was a moment of temporary opportunity, a space of transition when doing something big and bold could be slipped through the cracks of a life in upheaval and change, and when everything settled back down, when the crazy of losing a furry friend and the blur of a draining work-life and a house and neighbourhood in flux, flustering the mind into a chaotic whirlwind of never-ending exhaustion, when all that landed and the pieces recrystallized into something resembling calm, the violin part would seem less crazy, the music would be a constant that was just there almost as if it never wasn’t.
And while that might be an ex post facto interpretation, it holds. Life hasn’t completely settled. The shaken snow globe has mostly stopped shaking, but the little snowflakes haven’t all settled in their final positions. There are bits swirling in the dome yet to flutter down upon the scene. There is still an unfettered energy driving against the inevitability of gravity.
But the music is there. It’s almost a normal thing.
So I tell myself, and it seems as true as anything else in my life these days, that I made a good decision in buying myself a violin last September.
Thirty minutes each day, sometimes less, sometimes more, but averaging one half hour has resulted in over a hundred and sixty hours of practice. On some days scales, etudes, or methods ring into the air with varying degrees of confidence. On others, it is me poking randomly through an ever growing collection of sheet music, playing favorites, sight-reading new pages, or struggling through patterns of notes that are obviously well above my skill level. Some days feel as though I should put my hat on a street corner and busk my way to a new living. Other days I’m keenly aware of every scratch as my tired fingers fluster to keep time with my bow.
But the music is there.
The violin –or rather, the violinist– is improving, if only in increments measured at the scale of individual neurons.
For the last few days I’ve been squeezing in between my “official” practice a mediocre attempt at learning the ultimate violinist cliche piece of Pachelbel’s Canon in D. I’m not quite as good as the guy in this YouTube video — no comparison, actually — but the noise that was gurgling from my instrument was a passable rendition of the exact same music that wouldn’t send an audience running with their credit cards to the Earplug Emporium… at least up until the 1:45 minute mark.
Nine months! Nine months ago I was squeaking out Twinkle Twinkle at roughly that same quality. Now, nine months later I could probably avoid completely embarrassing myself as background music at a wedding. A little bit embarrassing, but not completely. (Perhaps a video in a week or two?)
That’s progress. That’s midlife crazy. That’s a decision devoid of regret. That’s the new normal.