Welcome to the official blog of the Highstrung String Quartet!

Monday, March 30, 2009

Taking Responsibility for Their Own Environment

There are moment in my playing, or when I’m listening to others, that I sit back and ask, “Who’s in charge here?” The poor musician seems chained to the music stand, eyes unblinking under a furrowed brow, as they desperately grasp after the phrase. The problem is that the player is chasing the music rather than leading it.

Most of the time, this is symptomatic of an over-ambitious tempo. But there's another, more subliminal issue: we do not understand our role as a musician.

Music was written for us, we were not made for the music. So often the servants of our circumstances --heeding the bidding of our academic masters-- that we, as students, tend to assume the master/slave relationship of our youth is also the relationship between ourselves and our music (music that is usually assigned to us rather than picked by us). Therefore we humbly genuflect before our piece, graciously beseeching it to “go easy”. Then we start and it’s off to the races.

The bigger problem in this common scenario is that the we're not in control of our environment. We need to learn how to reign in the music’s perceived authoritarianism. That takes time. But in order to develop that confidence in my students, I’ve been engaging in a little experiment.

I don’t know if any of them have noticed, by I’ve been placing the music stand on the wrong side of my student at every lesson for a little over a month. For those of you non-musicians: when a musician plays, they need to face their audience, which means the music stand needs to be on their left. So I have purposefully placed the stand on their right side before they come into the room. My goal for this has been to see which of my students are willing to take take ownership (read: responsibility) of their environment and which of my students just take the environment as it comes.

It’s been fun to watch their reaction. Some will waltz up, grab the stand and move it to where it’s comfortable. Others (especially the younger students) will just put their books on the stand and hardly notice until I ask them to move it.

My goal, eventually, is that all of my students will get into the habit of quickly adjusting their environment until it’s comfortable. It’s a small thing, but a start.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Performance Tip #3

Your stand partner doesn’t have the music.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Vaughan Williams imitates...Vaughan Williams

I love Vaughan Williams. I had the great pleasure of working two Vaughan Williams' pieces, Suite for Viola and Orchestra, and Four Hymns for Tenor, Viola and Piano. They are fantastic pieces. But whenever you play multiple works from one composer, you begin to notice what that composer likes. For your enjoyment, here are two excerpts from both works (I've included audio for those of you who can't read music, or refuse to read alto clef). Notice Vaughan Williams begins both pieces with "Up a fifth, up a whole step, down a whole step". Hey, if it ain't broke...

This from Suite for Viola:

Click for Audio featuring Helen Callus on viola.

This from Four Hymns:

Click for Audio featuring Matthew Souter on viola.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Performance Tip #2

Make sure you have your music. Then make sure you have the right music. Then make sure you have the right copy of the right music. Then make sure you have all the pages to the right copy of the right music…

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

"...except where it is necessary..."

I was reading an introduction to alto clef for (I'm guessing) composers and stumbled upon this statement. I nearly fell out of my chair laughing:

"...but the extreme upper notes would preferably be written for the violins except where it is necessary to carry the viola into the high register to preserve continuity of tone color in a passage or where the peculiar tone quality of the viola A string was purposely sought."

Yes, indeed. Unless an extraneous situation dictates otherwise (a.k.a. the peculiar tone quality of the viola A string), let's leave the high notes to the professionals.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Top 10 Practice Tips (Part 1)

[EDITORS NOTE: This is the second entry in a three episode series concerning practice. You can read part one, “Philosophy of Practice” by clicking here. –David]

In the last post, we explored three philosophies of practice. Now, we’ll look at the top ten practice tips. This post will look at the first five. Keep in mind, there are many, many practice suggestions (which I would love to read about, so please post your practice tip in the comments). But these are the ones I heard most often from my teachers to me and from me to my students. Also, these suggestions will be most helpful for the beginner to intermediate player. But it’s a good refresher from those of us who have become lazy in our practice.

10. Scales, scales, scales.
A scale is the easiest thing you will ever play. It’s one note after the other; up for three octaves, down for three octaves. Piece of cake. Which is why it’s the hardest thing you will ever play. The simplicity of a scale quickly displays your mastery or lack-of-mastery of the basics. If you can master your scales, you can play anything. All music is just fancy scales. Master the scales, master everything else.

9. Watch your progress not the clock.
You can always spot a beginner’s piano. The piano bench is pulled slightly away from the keys. A stack of method books rest while one stands dutifully opened to where the student left off. There’s a pencil (if the student is wise), then a metronome (which I love) and a timer (which I hate).

I know this is probably the most controversial of the ten, but I am convinced that students quit because they’re bored, frustrated and/or discouraged. The primary source of that reaction is how much time our art takes. Therefore, I propose we de-emphasize practice time.

Clock hostages are the most unmotivated of all music students. If you practice for an hour and don’t accomplish anything, then you haven’t practiced for an hour, you’ve wasted an hour. Clock hostages know this. So they then conclude that practice or music is a waste of time. Because of this, I tell all of my students’ parents (not the students, just the parents) to not mention practice time. When my students think about their music studies, I want them to think about musicianship and technique, not how much time it takes them. Practicing is hard enough by itself, putting a timer on the project will simply divide your attention between what you’re supposed to be doing and how much time you have left to do it.

Some may object that without a time limit, the student will only practice for fifteen minutes. While I agree not much progress will be made in fifteen minutes, I would like the objector to answer the following question: If a student feels like he has accomplished everything he can accomplish in fifteen minutes, what will forcing him in there for another fifteen do?

While the objector cannot guarantee further progress, I can guarantee it will teach the student to daydream, practice thoughtlessly and waste his practice time. I would prefer to give that student better practice technique, bigger assignments and more challenging material. Forcing a student to “practice” for longer than they think is required completely ignores the root of the issue and goal of the practice.

8. Your brain is for thinking, paper is for remembering.
You won’t remember that bowing. You won’t remember that sharp or flat. Don’t even try. But, thank God, that’s why we have sheet music and pencils. If you come to rehearsal or practice without a pencil, you don’t understand what practice is about. Nor do you understand the limitations of your own abilities. So keep this in mind: Your brain is for thinking, paper is for remembering.

7. Train yourself to read everything on the page.
If you think #8 isn’t for you, you might be one of those “over markers” who circle every dynamic, write in every bowing and have four or five conversations with your stand partner on the back of your Adagio for Strings part. Too many marks on your music wreak havoc on your music reading. If your brain has to cut through mangled knot of superfluous markings, then you’re training your brain to ignore what’s on the music. That is never acceptable. Careful, purposeful markings that you will read every time is what’s needed for successful reading. Along those same lines, use your eraser as well. If a marking isn’t helping, get rid of it.

6. Stop and Think
Most students' practice lives would be much simply if they would follow this two step rule: stop and think.

Typically, when we get somewhat familiar notes, bowings and dynamics, we tend to blow past sudden stops resulting in a mostly-OK performance that isn’t great because of the random glitches scattered throughout the piece.

"Mistakes" trigger an instant, subconscious stop. The problem with the insta-stop tendency is the thoughtless restart that follows. Most students seem to think the only thing worse than making a mistake is not being able to get back on track. This is true for performances and sightreading. It's a death sentence in the practice room.

If we make a mistake, we need to really stop and seriously analyize what is causing the mistake. If we fail to do this, we will be locked in to a stop-go-stop-go cycle of failing redundancy that makes a Windows Vista process seem stable (And all God’s Mac Users said…). The difficult task is training.ourselves out of insta-stopping and into an actual, thoughtful stop.

I cannot tell you how many times a student has struggled with a piece for a week, only to come into a lesson wherein we identify the hic-up, we clean it up and the piece sounds great. But this isn't something special that only happens in a lesson. This is a do-it-yourself process availible to every student at every practice (I could argue that this process is practice, but I digress).

So, when your practicing and get tripped up, don't tolerate the insta-stops. Take the time to really stop, identify the snag, figure out the solution, teach your muscles and then play the section again. If you’ll do this, your progress will soar.

These are the first five. Do you agree? Disagree? I’d love to hear your feedback! Also, if you have a practice tip of your own, please post it. We’re always looking for new ideas!

Saturday, March 7, 2009

It's true.

There is a universal truth about violists that very few people realize. It is absolutely true:

Violists cannot name the lines or spaces of the alto clef.

I'm not kidding. Ask your viola playing friends (for those of you who are curious the lines are, F, A, C, E, G; the spaces are G, B, D, F).

Someone --probably a violinist-- will then ask, "Then how do they read music?" Well, that's a trade secret.