Wednesday, December 25, 2013

notes for two violas

Back around Thanksgiving, I tried out a viola I liked. I mean really liked, but both my present and former teachers warned me against falling in love with the first nice instrument I tried, so I sent it back.

The shop handling that viola graciously offered to send it to me again so I could compare it with the Stopka. It arrived a couple of days ago, and I've been playing both the instruments, trying to be as objective as possible. It's hard not to love having such nice instruments to play on, though, and the fact that I have begun calling both violas by nicknames does not speak well to my objectivity. Anyway, some observations:

The non-Stopka is 1/8" smaller than the Stopka, but very easy to play. This could be because it's strung with Dominants, which I dislike, but which are pretty low-tension (should I buy this one, those strings are coming off immediately). Or it could just be that the size and shape suit me. The neck is small and easy to get around. To my great surprise, I am just fine with the low, side-mount chinrest it came with. I have a long neck and sloping shoulders, and usually need a super-high chinrest (like the Kreddle, or SAS), but not with this instrument, for some reason.

The non-Stopka has a nice tone, though somewhat thin compared with the Stopka. Again, this could be the strings. The A string (Larsen) starts to sound especially weak above 4th position. The dynamic capabilities are such that even I can get nice piano and forte out of it.

I recorded myself playing a 3-octave C major scale, slow and legato, on all 3 instruments (Stopka, non-Stopka, and my viola). The only recording device I have is my phone, which sucks, but I tried to minimize variables so all three recordings would suck in the same way. I was very surprised: even on that crappy recording, the Stopka got some of those tones I like so much. It sounded better than the non-Stopka and better than mine, but not tons better than mine (well, except for those wondrous tones. But my viola came closer than I thought it would). Which makes me wonder if it's worth the asking price, which is tons more than what mine cost. I also wonder if I will be able to coax nice dynamics out of it, like the non-Stopka.


Tuesday, December 24, 2013

I pulled the trigger

Interlochen opened up their online registration for adult chamber-music camp. I hemmed and hawed and wondered if I should wait on other camps to open their registrations, then finally went and registered. What the hell. I've wanted to go there since I first heard about it, and if I don't go then I'll always wonder about it. It is a slightly scary thing, but it's all the way next August, plenty of time to practice and grow brave.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

up and down

First, the down:

Running's really taken a dive lately. I finished the 7-7-7-7-7-7-7-7-7-7-7-7-7-7... phase last week. Nothing hurts, but I'm really, really slow and really, really bored. No motivation whatsoever. I took Tuesday off, ran 6 miles Wednesday and Thursday mornings, quit at 4 miles Friday. Saturday and today I didn't want to run at all, so I didn't. I am planning to run tomorrow, but damned if I actually want to. I hate being so slow, but I don't want to try to run faster either. I'm not sure how to get over this - I've been running for 12 years, and I've never not wanted to.

Now, some ups:

After messing with the chin rest yesterday, this Stopka viola is my friend. My dear, dear friend. He feels so comfortable that I don't even think about what he feels like anymore, only what he sounds like. And he sounds nice.

For months I've been doing this vibrato exercise (metronome @60, place finger, wobble 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 times per beat, do it with all 4 fingers) that's supposed to help me develop a vibrato and also control it. I have kind-of developed a vibrato, but I don't much like it and I certainly can't control it. Today I did the exercise like always, then for the hell of it played some consecutive notes on one string (like E-F, or E-F-G), trying to keep the vibrato going. Lo and behold, I could start the note vibrating right away! And keep it vibrating right up until I went to the next note (which would start vibrating right away!). And vary the speed of the vibrato just a tiny bit, for emphasis. This sounds like such a tiny thing, but for me it's huge.

And a middle: I decided I really want to go to chamber-music camp next summer. I'm interested in several camps but none of them were accepting applications yet. Until today - Interlochen has opened up their online registration. This is scary. They don't require an audition, but they do ask for a self-assessment (using ACMP's rating system). I am probably a C, on a good day; maybe by next August I'll be a C even on a bad day, who knows? But this is scary because now camp isn't just a wish anymore, but a real thing where I have to present myself and say "hey, look at me! I want to go to your camp!" And what if they tell me I'm not good enough, either beforehand or (worse) once I get there?

Saturday, December 21, 2013

minor miracle

Today at my lesson, I told my teacher about the week's struggle with the tryout viola. He mentioned that it seemed to sit up higher than my viola, so after I got home I changed something on the chin rest to make it sit a little lower (thank you, Kreddle!) and voila! a much happier viola, and a much happier violist.

Another thing he mentioned was the the bridge seems too high. This could be why the C string is so ugly and hard to play in higher positions.

And have I mentioned that I strongly dislike Evah Pirazzi strings?

Friday, December 20, 2013

you are not so smart

(The title of this post comes from a blog called I've never read, but I love its name)

I've been trying out this viola all week and for some reason it's taking a lot of time and effort to get used to it. I keep fiddling (ha) with the setup. The infinitely adjustable Kreddle actually makes it worse, not better, because it's infinitely adjustable and I keep fiddling with it. But I haven't found a comfortable setup yet, at least not as comfortable as I have with my own viola. This is a new experience for me. I've played other violas before, of course, but have never been so aware of physical differences and their effect on how I play (and, consequently, on the sound). I thought this was very strange until I remembered this had happened with some basses, where they took a lot of getting used to, or else I just wrote them off as unplayable. I suppose you can get used to anything if you work at it long enough. But I feel like practice this week has been a wash.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

more notes

On the Stopka, the distance from the nut to the "regular" first finger position seems greater than on my viola. This throws me off a little, and I find myself lapsing into some old bad habits, like pressing too hard with my fingers, pushing my left wrist out, holding the neck in the web between my first finger and thumb. Lots of things I worked hard to fix, now broken again. I guess I can get used to whatever instrument I have, but oh, I'd made such progress on these little things! I'd hate to see them go down the tubes.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013


My teacher has suggested I start taking notes on the violas I try out, because it's next to impossible to have all of them here at one time to compare and contrast. So here goes:

little, old viola: it's little, it's old. It's pretty. It makes a surprisingly big sound for a little guy. The D and A sound nice ("creamy," my teacher called it) but the G and especially the C have a bit of shoebox-stuffed-with-newspaper sound.

Stopka: built this year, never owned. Nice sound; last night when my teacher played it, a few notes here and there had such a perfect clear dark viola sound (like a vibrating column of cordovan-colored light appearing in pitch-black dark) that it was like a pleasant punch in the gut, if you can imagine a pleasant punch in the gut. It was nice to realize that this viola was capable of making such a sound. Whether or not I can make it make that sound is another story; it's not the easiest instrument to play. The slightly shorter string length (compared to my viola) is enough to throw my intonation off if I don't pay attention, and my hand frame has gone away, and this leads to left-hand tension as I try to get my bearings, and I get sore/tired more easily. The C string is just about impossible to get a sound from in higher positions (not a happy thing when Scale of the Week = E major sul C). I'm not sure if it's the strings or the instrument or just me. I have to play really near the bridge, very heavy, but not achingly slow.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

I hate shopping

I've been sort of thinking about buying a nicer viola, and a string shop sent me a couple to try, including one I liked a lot. I took the violas over to my teacher's after work today. He doesn't like the Stopka one as much I do, and now I don't like it as much either. In fact, I am back on the I-don't-deserve-a-good-viola train. He told me how his high school arranged a surprise fundraiser to buy him a viola to take to college, how he didn't have a good viola until grad school, how he didn't buy a really nice viola until he'd been playing in the orchestra for many years. And here I am, frazzled from work and unable to get through a scale I've played a million times. wondering who the fuck I think I am, thinking about a nice instrument. Bleh.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

480 kinda-related notes

We're having weird, changeable weather ahead of a cool front, and even though I have no scientific proof, I can feel an effect on my body: little aches start to ache big, and new tiny aches sprout like little flowers. Even though I haven't been practicing any more than usual, my left arm has become a temporary mess, from my shoulder all the way down to my fingers. This did get in the way of practicing today, and I got frustrated with my sound (I'll wager the viola itself has fallen prey to the weather too), not a good way to be on a day I really needed to practice. I kept going, though, and eventually things started to sound better. By the end of the night, my arm was on fire, but the etude that previously sounded like 480 kinda-related notes had begun to resemble music.

Friday, December 13, 2013

work harder not smarter

Sometimes I wonder if I could be using practice time more wisely.

At the end of every day, I am sore and tired, but I don't know if just putting in hours is enough.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

today's happy accident

Just saw a friend's facebook post in which he said he felt blessed. What does that mean, to feel blessed? We are all so lucky to be alive, in this world, in this place, on this planet where life has sprung up and some species have evolved to the point where they are aware of their environment, and seek to document it, and even change it.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

there is never enough time

I am literally too tired to play another note, but I can think of at least 8 things I didn't get to today.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

new strings!

When I played bass, I hated the sound of new strings, and only changed them once a year or so. But I just put a set of Warchal Brilliants on my viola, and I am in love :-) It's the first time I put new strings on it since I bought it, and god only knows how old the strings it came with were. This is the first time I've tried Warchal, too, and I really like them a lot, at least after 24 whole hours. I have had to force myself to stop playing twice already tonight.

Sunday, December 1, 2013


5th day running 5 miles. Felt fine, though I am slow. 2 hours later, after practicing viola (standing) a while, if I thought about it real hard, my hamstring felt tight. 2 hours and 20 minutes later I had forgotten all about it.

Practicing went up and down, but ended on an up. Some things sounded better and some things remained stubbornly awful. One drawback to a long interval in between lessons is that I feel obliged to practice my lesson stuff, but it's now for 3 weeks instead of a week. I get bored. I can't detect any (consistent) improvement and then I get more bored. I either try something new or wander off-track entirely. Today, I did both. Eventually I dragged myself through the program for Tuesday's concert, then sat down to waste time online. Some people from the adult starters facebook group had posted recordings of themselves, and one recording had such a beautiful continuity and vibrato that I had to get up and start playing again - I wanted to sound like that, and to sound like that, I need to practice. So I ended up playing the entire Telemann viola concerto plus the first movement of the triosonata we are working on, with more vibrato than I thought I had in me. I'm talking (almost) continuous, exaggerated, big stout vibrato. Because I still can't play the fast movements very fast, I put vibrato everywhere in those too. My teacher would have been proud (actually, he would have laughed). Of course, I had the practice mute on because it was late, but I discovered that the practice mute is an excellent source of courage. 

These last four days of no work/all practice have take a physical toll. My shoulder, my hands, even my jaw hurts. Tomorrow I go back to work and back to fewer practice hours per day. I needed this weekend to end on an up, and I'm glad it did.

Why I love Simon Fischer

When I was four or five, I started playing music. When I was six, I discovered how cool languages are. When I was nineteen or so, I was lucky enough to discover, before it was too late, how wonderful math and physics are. Since then, I've always walked an unsteady line between two ways of thinking; I was much weirder than my engineering-school professors and classmates and (later) bosses and colleagues, and to my music friends and teachers and colleagues, I'm probably a little too black-and-white.

I first heard about Simon Fischer via articles and discussions on, and I was intrigued enough to buy his DVD on tone production, as well as his book The Violin Lesson, which I am currently obsessed with. I know that in string pedagogy there is a concept of breaking things down into their smallest possible components, but this guy takes it to a high art. He's able to explain the causes of common and not-so-common problems in very concrete terms, and he's just as concrete about suggestions on how to fix those problems.  He does all this with the utmost calm and confidence, and optimism too - it's as though he really wants you to succeed. He'll say things like "It's all quite simple, really - by [doing whatever he's currently talking about] you will see significant results very quickly" and he's right (about it being simple, and about how easily the problem can be fixed). But there's not even a whiff of hucksterism. He's not trying to sell you anything (you've already bought the book anyway); he's just giving you insight into learning, and the tools to fix problems. After that, you're on your own.

But what's huge - and what really resonates with people like me - is his idea that there is no magic that transforms mechanics into music: the art is the physics, and the physics is the art. There is no separating the two. I draw the bow across the strings, and Esther Apituley draws the bow across the strings; does it sound the same? If not, it's because we are not drawing the bow across the strings in the same way. But if so, it's because we are drawing the bow across the strings in precisely the same way, and to some extent that "way" can be described so that I can try to duplicate it. Maybe it can be said that the "art" is knowing how to execute the appropriate "physics," again and again, on demand. But Simon Fischer's teaching makes the mechanics more understandable and more accessible to more people, and as they (we, I) acquire a better understanding, they (we, I) can then go on and apply that understanding to music, and possibly make some art.