Very Happy Practicing Indeed

I'm having one of those amazing days where my viola feels like an extension of my body, and everything is simply WORKING. After waking up and making coffee, I unpacked my viola and started with some simple warm ups to get the blood flowing. After about 20 minutes I was ready to delve into repertoire. I didn't keep track of when I started my practice sessions, but I'm pretty sure that I've already worked for a good 3 1/2 to 4 hours today!

See, I have a recital coming up in three weeks (Thursday 26 Feb, 7:30 PM in Sursa), but due to unfortunate and unforeseeable circumstances, Lori Rhoden is no longer able to perform with me then. I found this out a few days ago, and have been thinking about how to handle the situation. While postponing the recital is an option, I don't want to bother Lori right now with scheduling issues, plus the hall is almost totally booked for the rest of the semester. I could probably find a different pianist and perform the program as originally planned, however, I was truly enjoying collaborating with Lori and hope that she'll want to play with me in the future.

So perhaps I could change repertoire? 

This is awfully ambitious to do three weeks out, but I started looking at pieces I've played in the past, and have come up with a plan. There's still the possibility that I'll postpone or cancel the recital, but after today's practice sessions, I actually think I can do this. I haven't figured out the program order yet, but if everything goes according to plan, I'll perform the Hindemith Solo Sonata Op. 25, No. 1 as well as the Reger Solo Suite No. 1. Libby Crawford and I have been talking about performing the Rebecca Clarke Duo for Viola and Clarinet, and she's going to come over shortly and we're going to read through the music and see what we think. Having just started looking at the viola part, it will definitely require some work, but I love the music so am inspired to get it together. 

What's fun about the Hindemith and Reger is that I am currently teaching both pieces to my various graduate students. So while I have not performed the Reger in a few years, and the Hindemith in almost a decade, the music and required techniques are quite familiar in my mind.

The only time I performed the Hindemith was on my Master's recital, back in 2005. It is a very difficult work, and even though I started teaching it last semester, I have not REALLY looked at it since '05. So this has been a very interesting morning, because I'm finding that the piece is not nearly as difficult as it was 10 years ago. Perhaps that shouldn't be surprising, but it is informative. I am finding that many of the hints I had written in the part when I was learning the music are no longer necessary, and that is quite gratifying. The incredibly taxing fourth movement isn't as bad as I remember it either-- granted, it is still very much under tempo. But it's refreshing to see that all of the work I've put in over the last ten years (and more, of course) is so tangibly paying off. 

Now, don't get me wrong. I know there's a chance that I will not be able to pull together a program of this magnitude in so short an amount of time, but given today's amazing practice sessions, I am hopeful that I will be able to.

Very happy practicing indeed!

Reger Revisited: Tea Party 2014 (actual tea, not politics)

Shortly after moving to Muncie, I was invited to join the Ball State University Women's Club. I went to their first event and decided to join. I also joined one of the clubs within the group, the Tea and Travel group, where ladies get together and drink tea, eat sweets, and chat. It's been fun. I thought it would be a good way to meet people in the community, and it has been!

A few weeks before my Fall recital (back in October), there was such an event, and I told the ladies of my upcoming recital. One woman came, and sent me a very nice email a few days later. Then, out of the blue a few weeks ago, she wrote to me again and said she was hosting the next Tea and Travel event, and said, "I would really enjoy you sharing your musical talents on your viola with us.  It would be great if you would play one or two movements from the Max Reger Suite No. 2 or a couple of pieces of your own choosing." With such an invitation, how could I refuse?

I haven't practiced the piece since performing it last in Brazil in October, but dusting off the cobwebs hasn't been as difficult as I thought it would be. Of course I've been doing some slow practice and fine-tuning of a few finger-twisting double stops, but on the whole, the piece is miraculously still in my fingers. And the most surprising part, honestly, is the really hard parts (the ones marked with big Xs!) are really quite fine! I guess all of that practicing before my October performances is still somewhere in my muscle memory.

I think it'll be fun to play this little house concert. It's not the kind of performance I usually do, and I think it will be a nice change of pace from the more-formal, more-stressful recitals to which I am accustomed. It's also nice to know that someone out there enjoys my playing, and if I can add a little sparkle to her tea party, I am very happy to do so. :-)

Happy practicing!

Dr. Sander

Today Dr. Amber Sander graced the Ball State violists with her presence! Amber is a friend of mine from Texas (we were working towards our doctorates at North Texas at the same time), who is an incredible pedagogue and musician. She's one of those people whose brain you want to pick all the time, because she really think about everything in-depth (not only music-related things), and if you ask her something she doesn't know, she'll RESEARCH it and come back with lucid, well-educated answers. She's phenomenal.

She's not a bad violist, either. ;)

Her visit began with a lecture-presentation on Karen Tuttle's Coordination method. She explained the background and some basic concepts of the method, and had all of us try out a few things with our instruments. Coordination is a very interesting method, in that it is different for everyone. I studied with three Coordination teachers, all of whom studied with Karen, so my Coordination is a melding of these three main influences, among the other teachers I encountered and my own discoveries over the years. Dr. Sander's Coordination is similar to mine, but with different words, explanations, gestures, and written symbols. 

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Many of my students have been exposed to some of these ideas already (as a result of working with me), but it's always good to hear the same thing said in a different way, and to get confirmation from an outside source that your goofy viola teacher isn't so goofy she doesn't know what she's talking about! (In case any of you out there don't know, I am rather goofy. In a serious-about-viola kind of way.)  :)

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After the lecture, we moved across the street to Choral Hall for the masterclass portion of Dr. Sander's visit. Two of my students played, and I am so proud of them. It's not easy playing in front of your peers, your teacher, AND a guest artist on repertoire you're still learning, but they both were wonderful, and Dr. Sander helped them with techniques and musical ideas. What a treat!

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Overall, I think my students got a lot out of Dr. Sander's visit-- I know I did. It was a wonderful reminder and overview of the method that changed and spurred my musical career, and I'll be revisiting the basics next time I practice... happily.

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Practice makes perfect: Shifting 101

I am having a lazy, yet productive Sunday so far. After waking up without an alarm (bliss!), starting laundry, and eating breakfast, I started to practice. I'll be playing with ISO again next week, and wanted to be sure I had any tricky spots identified and fingered before the first rehearsal. We will be performing Dvorak's 7th Symphony, which is simply my favorite Dvorak symphony. I can't wait to play it with such a great ensemble! We'll also play Brahms' 2nd Piano Concerto, with pianist AndrĂ© Watts, which will be amazing, I'm sure!

After going through the Dvorak, I finally got around to grooming Tula a bit. For weeks now, she's desperately needed to have the hair between her toes trimmed, and around her eyes and mouth. She's not a big fan of the trimmer (I think it must tickle something awful!), so it's not a task I'm fond of doing. But I got it done, and trimmed her nails, and finally she's not slipping all over the floor anymore... though she is still quite fuzzy everywhere else, to keep her warm during this cold spring!

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After lunch, I started practicing again. I'm working on the Franck sonata, the second movement. And here's the truth-- If I break difficult passages down enough, I truly can fix and perfect them. I just spent approximately 25 minutes on three measures. Yes, three (very difficult) measures!!

When I began breaking down these measures, they looked like this (since I fingered them back in December).

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Then, as I isolated the problems, my music looked like this.

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The bracketed notes are my shorthand for identifying trouble shifts. Not all shifts need special attention, but in this set of measures, most of them do (it's not having an E string that truly makes this passage devilish). The shift that's circled is especially difficult, as the high F# requires a completely different hand position than the D from which I'm coming before. Therefore, those two notes got a circle. I don't often use circles, as they can be vague-- but if you don't use a circle for everything, you have a better shot of knowing why you circled something! And the X at the start of the line helps me quickly find a spot in the music that needs extra attention, so if I only have a limited amount of time to work, I can easily isolate trouble spots. This is a much more effective practice method to always starting from the beginning and addressing issues as you work forward (which seems to be a common practice technique among younger students-- hint hint!).

You'll also notice that not all shifts have a shift mark (the little line going up or down, like on the first note of the second measure). For some reason, the two shifts that I marked with the little dash were especially tricky, and my brain didn't recognize the finger marking (the number) as a shift. By marking the shift with a little line, I gave myself an added reminder that I need to move my hand.

So in these three measures, there are seven shifts, four of which needed extra attention. I practiced each shift separately (by going from note to note and back again-- practicing shifts in both directions-- under a slur, so you can hear what's happening) MULTIPLE TIMES. It's not enough to get a shift correctly once-- you must drill it until you get it right at least five times in a row before moving on. I work in different rhythms and speeds, always being cognizant of my hand position (i.e. is my entire hand in 5th position, or only my first finger?), until I am confident in the shift. Then I'll add a note or two on either side of the two shift notes, so that I am working into and out of the shift. So now I'm playing four-to-six notes, with the two shift notes in the center. Once I'm happy with those notes, I'll add a few more, which in this passage leads to another shift-- which means I start the process all over again on the new shift, before trying to incorporate two shifts that are a few notes apart.

In this way, by identifying, isolating, and practicing specific problems, I was able to play these three measures MUCH cleaner than when I first starting working on them. I know the passage is not yet secure, so the X will remind me to spend some extra time here next time I work on this movement.

See? Productive practice, even if I didn't get through the entire movement.

Happy productive practicing!

Improvising

Back in October, I played with the Muncie Symphony Orchestra during Muncie Art Walk, a really fun event that showcases artists and musicians in venues throughout downtown Muncie. After the short MSO concert, I wandered around, with my viola on my back, of course, and ended up in a little art shop that was having a reception. They also had a guitar-playing singer providing really excellent music for the event. I was enjoying listening to him (and eating the free food! Yum!) when he took a break and called me over (instrument cases are a great conversation starter). Turns out Bryce Taylor remembered me from BSU new faculty orientation. He works in the psychology department, but the reason I stuck out was that I'd gone to North Texas... as had he. So we struck up a conversation, exchanged cards, and eventually I went on my merry way.

A few weeks later, I got a really wonderful email from him that included:  "I did listen to some of your performances on your website.  I am not well-versed in classical music but you play beautifully, very expressively.  I would love to have you play on my first CD that I will be putting out in the next few months."

Shortly before I moved away from the Dallas/Fort Worth area, I had started playing on recording sessions. It's a very different kind of work than orchestral, solo, or chamber playing, and I really enjoyed it. I didn't have an opportunity to do it in Lubbock, and thought my session days were over. So I was delighted by Bryce's email, and we started a long chain of communication that has culminated in my recording with him. We had our first "real" session yesterday morning.

What's a little scary about it, is that Bryce is a true singer/songwriter, in the sense that he plays and sings what he feels. He writes out the lyrics, but not the notes!! So it's been a very interesting experience for me, because I am improvising to his pre-recorded songs. Aaaah!!!! Yes, that's my classically-trained-fear-of-improvisation coming out. I'm pretty darn good at playing music that is written down on a page... but when asked to play what comes to mind, I get scared. What if I play I wrong note, or something that sounds bad!? 

But Bryce is so warm and appreciative of my efforts, and it's not as scary as I thought it would be. We got some pretty good material for one of his songs yesterday. We'll meet again next week and work on another song. It's such a different experience than what I'm used to. I feel my "square" classical brain expanding just a bit, and it's exciting. I think the finished product will be most excellent.

Happy practicing!