progressing, but slowly

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Two days ago, I got cleared to do three things by my doctor: sleep without my arm brace, drive a car, and put my viola under my chin. All three items were sources of major relief.

Day one of viola: put the viola under my chin and noticed that the should rest did not contact my collarbone. Fist pump! Also noticed that I couldn’t raise my left arm high enough to reach the fingerboard. Sad trombone!

Day two of viola: was able to reach the fingerboard! W00t! Could only reach the upper two strings due to being unable to rotate my elbow far enough under the viola. Meh.

More to come…

learning is hard – and you control how hard it is

I’ve had some learning to do these past few weeks, and more to come. A large part of being a professional musician is having someone come to you and say “play this”. Now, if you’re supposed to hold your viola like a viol, and bow between your left hand and the scroll, then you just have to learn how to do that. The same goes for doing right hand tremolo with thimbles on your fingers and playing a melody with your left hand. Or playing tuned wine glasses with your bow, or a large tam tam with same. As you may have guessed, all of these techniques are featured in George Crumb’s Black Angels for electric string quartet, which I’m performing with the Pyxis Quartet later this month.

A movement from Crumb’s Black Angels quartet. [click to enlarge]

Now suppose that you’re a perfectionist, and you’re also prone to being down on yourself, and you have major league imposter syndrome (raising hand). That makes the learning process doubly difficult. Because I look at a movement of such a piece, and I think, “I should be able to play this, because I am somewhat accomplished”. I then attempt to play the passage, fall flat on my face, and then say “I suck, I am the worst violist in the world, and everyone else can play this perfectly.” I expect to get from zero to 100 instantly, and that is just not the way the world works! So, after an initial (sometimes extended) period of this idiocy, I stop, take things apart, and work methodically to figure out how to do each technique in each passage. Sometimes this is mind-numbingly slow work. When I was working on John Zorn’s The Alchemist (one of the most difficult pieces I’ve ever played) I would spend an hour working on just one or two bars, figuring out just how to choreograph fingers and bow, just so I could get through those bars at barely half of the performance tempo.

The place when the panic really sets in is when I haven’t allowed enough time to prepare before the first rehearsal. Sometimes this is just unavoidable – life intervenes in the best laid practice plans more often than not. I try to tell myself that I’ll work to get as much of it under my fingers as I can, and that the others in my ensemble are likely feeling the same way. Sometimes that’s true, and other times I’m the weakest link in a particular rehearsal. One thing that helps me a lot in these sorts of situations is spending at least as much time doing score study and part marking as I do just learning notes. That way, even if I’m only approximating what’s on the page, I know pretty well what I should be doing, what the other voices should be doing, and how I might fit with those voices.

Excerpt from Black Angels. [click to enlarge]

The main point is that only you know how you learn best, and only you can control how you structure and nurture that learning process. Negative self-talk and impatience only serve to short-circuit the process and lead to a downward spiral of shame and recrimination.

A few more things I’ve learned


Several years back, I wrote a post or two about things that I wished I’d known when I was a younger musician – as a student, freelancing, and the first few years in a professional orchestra. A few more have percolated through my subconscious lately, and these are more about things that I wish that I’d known as I got into the mid-point of my career.

  1. You will rush when you play louder. Unless you practice with a metronome. See No. 2.
  2. Metronome practice only gets more important. This is a somewhat embarrassing fact, but I think that it holds true for everyone. I was playing some audition rep for a colleague a few years ago, and I remarked that it was so hard really evaluate your own playing, and he said that people in orchestras often think they sound better than they actually do because they never make themselves play publicly outside the orchestra. This is so true. We often think, as musicians in our supposed prime, that we are human metronomes and tuners – but we are just as fallible as we always were, perhaps more so. Practicing with a metronome always improves your rhythm. So why not do it? Hubris.
  3. Efficient practice habits will save your bacon. You will have less and less time to devote to practicing as your life becomes more full of, well, life. Being able to think and practice effectively in 15 or 30 minute chunks is essential. Learn that skill early on, or don’t and get ready to suffer.
  4. Play concerts outside of your job ensemble. I touched on this in No. 2, but even if you’re playing for a class of kindergarteners or at a retirement home, you’re putting yourself out there in a way that sitting in the string section of an orchestra will never replicate. You don’t have to sound like Joshua Bell, but it will make you appraise your playing in a much more critical way, and will pay huge dividends with relatively little effort or exposure.
  5. Listen to music, live and recorded, regularly. Having a range of listening experience definitely helps how you work every day. Knowing the chamber music or sonatas of Janacek helps when one plays the Cunning Little Vixen Suite, or his Sinfonietta. You learn the composer’s mannerisms, which helps to develop a sort of shorthand in approaching a piece of music with which you may be unfamiliar.
  6. Playing everyday, even if it is only a brief warm-up routine, is essential. When I was in my 20’s, I would take almost an entire month off (in July) from playing. It was a bit tough getting back to the instrument, but it was doable (and I thought necessary, for my mental health). Nowadays, it is very noticeable when I take even one day off from thoughtful playing. Just showing up at rehearsals isn’t really enough. There needs to be time where you can really hear yourself play, and focus on the fundamentals: intonation, rhythm, and tone production. Even if it’s just a few scales with the metronome and some solo Bach, that really helps you to keep in touch with the basics.
  7. Don’t get complacent. This touches on No 2 again. Don’t think you know everything, or have everything ‘together’. Be skeptical of your own prowess, and always seek to improve and learn. I’ve had conductors chide the section for rushing, and thought to myself “How dare he! I don’t rush!” Sure enough, I’d go home and check the passage with a metronome and find that I was prone to rushing in that passage. Live and learn.
  8. Hear live performances by musicians of abilities close to your own. This is a new one to me, and it took some time to come to this conclusion. We all tend to listen to superstar musicians play (mostly through recordings, and then through live performances when they play with our orchestra), but we don’t spend much time listening to people who are near our level of ability perform (at least not as a soloist or chamber musician). It is a common psychological condition to feel like we’re the only one who struggles with aspects of their playing. In reality, everyone feels that way, regardless of their level of accomplishment. I’ve listened to performances by colleagues that were a bit less than touring soloist level polished, but which proved to be so inspirational to me. These performances left me itching to go home and practice after I got home – in a good way! I was raring to go and try some of the things that I heard them do, and felt musically recharged. Plus, your colleagues will be thankful to see you in the audience. Professional musicians are notoriously terrible about attending concerts that they don’t play!