Sunday, October 22, 2017

It's chaos; be kind.

The title: a friend just vagueposted it on Facebook, attributed to Patton Oswalt. I should know who Patton Oswalt is, but I don't, actually. I don't know precisely why my friend posted it but I have an idea. The idea below is not it.


The difference between "you couldn't manage to do the assigned etude" and "you're having trouble with the assigned etude; let's figure it out and fix it": this is the difference between a good lesson and a bad one, a good attitude about lessons or a bad one. How I would love to walk into a lesson and feel like I deserved to be there, like I could really play my instrument (or was well on the way, anyhow). What makes a good student? The ability to listen, to differentiate between what you hear and what you want to hear? I have that, to some extent. And then you try different things until you get the sound you want to hear? That, I don't have - not nearly often enough, anyhow. Some (most? all?) kids just do stuff without thinking; they "get it", they are the talented ones, they don't need to read extra books and do extra drills and walk around the neighborhood flexing their wrists or waving a stick like moving a bow. They don't sweat about walking into yet another lesson unable to perform a little children's etude. They just Get It.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Two obsessions

Yeah, I'm back. Miss me?

Lately I am obsessed with two things. One is hand frame. This comes from the Sevcik shifting exercises My teacher's been giving me. I've been shifting for years but not (apparently) with any idea of what my hand needed to look like once I got where I was going. The teacher has always said shift to a position, not to a note. I can mostly shift to a position (or up/down some number of steps, if I'm not thinking of the position), but the hand frame is only a guess, and I just throw the other fingers down and pray. The Sevcik is all in one key, so I have started thinking about how my hand can be prepared for all the notes. For example, if I am in 2nd position on the D string, what are the notes (in F major) and how must my hand be? When I take walks in the evenings I turn these etudes over and over in my head. And over and over.

The other obsession is connectedness, and for the second time in this entry I have initially spelled it "connected ness" (i.e., disconnectedly), which is a Freudian slip if I ever heard one. In most of what I'm working on at the moment, I want all the notes to be connected. Especially when going from up-bow to down-bow. It has to sound like the same note, or slurred notes; the dynamic has to match; vibrato cannot stop. I can't do these things. I often forget to make my bow hand loose and supple at the transition, so I get a small (or big) hole in the sound. For some reason I cannot fathom, I often stop my vibrato as I get close to the frog; this is a doubly bad habit because a slight increase in vibrato might help smooth out a bow change, so here I am shooting myself in the foot. (My vibrato is currently not controllable enough to increase at will, but that's another story). My left-hand technique is so sloppy that I can hear consonants in the notes I play. Even slurs have internal notes that begin with Ls, Ds, Bs (or BLs). Or maybe it's the right hand; maybe I am unconsciously changing the bow speed just enough to make it bumpy. It's driving me nuts.

I have been spending a lot of practice time lately on these two obsessions, trying to figure out what's happening, experimenting with fixing it, sometimes just noting that it seems really important and I am spending a lot of time on it. Am I mis-spending the time? I haven't fixed the problems yet, so maybe. It takes away from other things I "should" be practicing, so maybe. But then again, this might be something I live with for a while without fixing, but still something good can come of it.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

waving the white flag.

I am supposed to go to chamber music camp on the 28th of this month. I got the music assignment in late May and have been working diligently since then, but I'm just overwhelmed. Today I tried playing along with a super-slow recording of one of the pieces and...pffffffft. Although this camp assigns groups/music based on placement videos, I'm afraid these pieces are really over my head. There are some really good musicians in the groups, and I am terrified I'll ruin it for them (and generally terrified to play so poorly).

I have been practicing this stuff hours and hours every day. I feel guilty when I'm not practicing. I wake up in the morning to a sense of dread: I must practice. But it will never be enough. Nobody practices this much with so little result; I am sure of this. It's a lot of stress, mentally and physically. Heartburn, tightness in the chest, sour stomach, poor sleep, loss of appetite, headaches. Poor focus, brain malfunction, dread.

I have brought the music into lessons, shoving aside more lesson-worthy subjects, only to get shrugged shoulders and "ok, what do you want to do to fix this?" or "nobody expects you to play as well as you expect yourself to play" or some such. The one thing I've not heard from any teacher is "this is not above you; you can do this (or some semblance of it)". They say nobody doubts you like you doubt yourself, but I'm not so sure.

I've been going to this camp for a couple of years, but I have never before felt this apprehensive about it. Yes, there is almost a whole month left to work on the pieces, but I am not optimistic. I am on the verge of cancelling out, even if it means losing money I've already spent. This is supposed to be fun, and because I am the way I am, I've turned it into a job. A very stressful, not very fun job.

Thursday, June 22, 2017


I have good practice days and bad practice days. Today was not so good. It was also the day I decided to treat the Brahms to some "random, interleaved" practice: I would play each movement through without stopping to fix anything. 5 times. Randomly, throughout the day. Oh, brother, it sucks so bad. I mean miserable and then some. I ended up racing through the pieces because I just wanted to be done with them. I hate doing this, especially at this stage of learning (will I ever learn them any better, I wonder), but I figure if I really hate what I hear, I'll change it. But, ugh. I still have three more iterations.

Just to pour salt into the wound, while taking a walk I listened to a recording of a recent lesson. It was the lesson that prompted the "special needs" comment the other day. Again, ugh. "Special needs" notwithstanding, that man has the patience of a saint.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017


A very few sips of rye can work such wonders. But it doesn't last too long, and defies being-chased-after, and it's not good for me anyway.

Today did not start well. I ran. 8.5 miles, under 10min pace (which, for me, these days, is an accomplishment). But I hated people and this country and the government and people and myself and people the entire time. Came home and had a leisurely breakfast/lunch, put off starting to practice as long as I could. Once I did start practicing, it didn't go poorly. I kind of decided not to be so rigid today, not to stress over camp music, not to commit mentally to 5 hours of practice after which I would assess my playing and determine that I don't sound like someone who practices 5 hours a day. And then hate myself. No, not today. 

Later, I had rehearsal. Arrived just before the sky opened up. Played better than last week, though still not well. We went over and over a section that we hadn't yet covered, that we all asserted we didn't know and were just sight-reading, but the other people are so much better at sight-reading than I am. They were actually learning and getting better with each run-through, whereas I was just making mental notes to go home and learn it better. I would actually see a clump of notes on the page and just think, "no, not now, I'll learn it at home, don't want to risk reading it now." Yikes. Thank god I am just the second viola. Hopefully they were all listening to themselves, and if they were paying attention to the group as a whole, they didn't hear the viola.

Regarding the country: I'm almost done. In yesterday's special elections, Democrats consistently lost. The people have spoken; they got what they wanted. The majority is happy with an idiot monster in charge. In this country, the majority opinion rules and we all must abide by it. I hope I outlast him.

Regarding people: I crave solitude more and more. The thought of having to speak to people - in person, on the phone, whatever - makes my chest feel tight. I really don't know what to do about this.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

special needs.

It's been a long week, capped by a 7-hour stretch at the rockshow last night, and I am tired. Today I was going to let myself be tired: I'd take a day of from running, practice before my viola lesson but maybe not so much afterward, and start hitting it hard again tomorrow. 

The lesson didn't start off well; due to time constraints I've been working on small sections of music, and the teacher seemed to zero in on things I hadn't practiced. I fumbled, got flustered, fumbled more. My tired brain threatened to stop processing written music. Gradually things righted the end of the lesson, he remarked that he was glad to have a student like me, especially one with "special needs" due to my age and circumstances. He said it's taught him a lot about teaching. He then added that he hoped that didn't sound demeaning. I know he often doesn't articulate well, so who can really say what he meant, but...sigh. I don't want to have special needs. I want to have the same needs as anyone else. 

I really hope I can let go of this remark, or at least not chew on it very long. It shouldn't change the course of anything. If I suck, I suck; if I can learn, I will learn. But I don't want to waste time feeling miserable about it.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

notes from my first paying gig.

(This was not classical music, but a tribute show in honor of Paul McCartney's 75th birthday. So, some Beatles songs, two as a string quartet and three with a rock band). Getting there at 5 for the soundcheck that didn't happen and then hanging out until nearly 11 does actually result in a non-warmed-up performance. All the vibrato that had been flowing out of my hand all week seemed stoppered up again. There was no opportunity to tune to each other, and my tuner app picked up all the ambient noise of the bands playing onstage, and wasn't reliable. So, I was really out of tune. Also, we stood instead of sat, which didn't really matter to me but was just an unexpected thing, and my poor vision made me stand way back of the other string players (to see the music) and I accidentally poked one of the violinists with my bow. Also, there really wasn't room for 11 people on the stage. Also, certain frequencies really came through the monitor and others not at all. But really all you can do is just smile through it all and try to look like you're having a good time. Because sometimes you are.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

this ain't the summer of love

Brahms, Borodin, Borodin. Brahms. So much romantic music I will need an astringent. Oh, and some Beatles. Lordy.

I am consumed these days with musical have-tos: pieces I have to learn for camp or for the weekly chamber music thing or for my first (and likely last) paying gig this coming Saturday. It never feels like learning when I'm doing it, but some of it sticks, and then I surprise myself the next day. Of course, there are many days where I can't seem to play my way out of a paper bag.

That's all there is. The rest, I don't want to deal with. The state of politics in this country has started to make me feel physically ill. I'm not exaggerating.

Monday, May 29, 2017

tomorrow is another day.

A week has flown by since...well, since a week ago, when the last of my obligations were done and I could spend time starting on the new obligations. Namely, the four extremely lovely and difficult pieces I have to learn for camp in seven or eight weeks. This music is hard. Did I mention it's hard? I don't have the first idea how to go about learning the pieces. I've spent time listening to them so I know how they go. I have a pretty good idea of the exposed/difficult bits, and there are many - so many that if I decided to focus on just one each day, I wouldn't come back around until the following week. I don't even know if it's a good idea to focus on just one piece each day because what if I forget during the intervening three days? And what about integrating those hard bits into the whole? Someone on suggests playing through so slowly you can hardly stand it; this is supposed to get the music in your fingers and keep you from learning bad habits.One night last week I stretched a 10-minute piece into almost 20. It was neither easy nor all that fun.

Whole thing, bits and pieces, extracurricular drills...I don't know what to do, really. Today I had my last lesson with the teacher who goes away for the summer. He gave me a cliff-notes version of the Brahms which will be very helpful, but after a night of fruitless practice I realize there were more questions I should have asked. Meanwhile I fight with my viola and spend 30+ minutes on two bars. I have waking anxiety dreams about not being prepared. My teacher says I should try to enjoy this (I think he means both camp and the prep for it), and he's right, but yowza. I sound so bad right now, and I can't seem to get organized.

Friday, May 19, 2017

the summer will not be long enough.

Music assignments for camp came out today. I was assigned a Brahms sextet and a Borodin quartet, one of which I know, both of which are beautiful and waaaaaaay over my head. My first thought was that they mixed up my videos with someone else's. I know both cellists in the Brahms and they are just amazing. Some more sleuthing turned up a conservatory grad and some (high school and college) people who seemed to be very serious musicians. And they will be stuck with me.

Oh, god. What were the camp people thinking? Whose videos were they watching, thinking it was me? I wish I could ask my teacher to write and tell them: "Look, she plays out of a children's etude book; her recital piece is very simple and she can't even play it properly." One report card like that would right things.

I was really expecting simpler stuff: a concerto grosso, or something with a tacet viola part, or some quirky minimalist modern music, or maybe an early Mozart or Haydn quartet. And I realize that had I been assigned really simple stuff, I wouldn't have been all that satisfied. But these's not that I don't want to work on them. It's just that I don't know if I can pull it off. The reason this camp publishes music assignments 2-3 months in advance is that they expect you to learn the pieces so well that you can handle whatever the coach wants you to do to make it musical. I don't know if I can even learn these by late July. The other people will find out, but they will be stuck with me.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

this strange and mournful day.

Today is the birthday of my dearest friend ever, the one who jumped off a bridge in 2006. He would have been 52 years old. I think about him every day.

Today France voted for the non-fascist Macron and against the fascists Le Pen. Some hope, finally, this year.

Today marks a just-about-a-week since my dearest (living) friend's husband died. There will be a memorial service on Friday. I hate memorial services with multimedia slideshows meant to commemorate the dead. To me, these presentations seem as manipulative as tv commercials, and what's worse, they are public. The slides summon memories, but you don't get to savor them at your own pace. You're at the mercy of the showrunner, the curator of grief, and if you're not careful, you're liable to find yourself bawling in a room full of acquaintances. I wish I felt differently about this.

Today I had a good music lesson with the teacher who comes to my house. He liked the etude I picked (from Palaschko Op.55) and made some suggestions that a) were really good and b) were within my reach. I really needed a lesson like that.

Later today I worked on some stuff for my other lesson tomorrow. That teacher has me in a children's etude book which - I discovered to my great dismay - is too hard for me. I spent part of the evening on this stupid maddening Frere Jacques derivative, and the rest of the evening wondering what the fuck I've been doing for the past eight years, how ridiculous I must have looked, how that teacher must be laughing at me. Or cringing. He lowers the bar; I sink to that level, or just below it. I dread tomorrow's lesson because I'm afraid I will lose my shit.

Today I received an email out of the blue from someone I never knew well but who developed a big dislike for me around 25 years ago when we were young. The email was basically an acknowledgement and an apology, and it came as a big surprise, really the least-expected thing I can think of.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

it's not about me.

My dearest friend's husband died this week after a brief illness. Rather, after a few months of mysterious, worsening symptoms, he was diagnosed with cancer and died ten or so days later. It was a shock and yet not a shock, but yes, a shock. My friend is heartbroken. I can do nothing for her.

Another friend's longtime partner/boyfriend/etc up and left this week. He was a hoarder, and his hoarding was at least part of the reason for his leaving. My friend, who would never ask anyone for anything unless she really, really needed it, asked her friends to help clean up/dispose of decades' worth of junk and trash so the city won't fine her. Today about a half-dozen of us went to her house and carried, shoveled, broke down, swept, dragged several truckloads of crap. It felt like picking through the life of someone who had died. I thought about their life together (which I know almost nothing about) and wondered how my friend felt about it all. I thought about my other friend whose husband just died.

None of this is about me, but I am incredibly sad.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

solitary confinement.

I have started practicing in the back room, away from the computer, phone mostly ignored except for the stopwatch function. The climate is yucky (hot/humid+hyperactive window AC) and the floor is sloped enough to make standing uncomfortable after a while. The windows are covered by heavy curtains. I love it. It's my prison cell, my solitary confinement. I go back there with my glass of water and my cup of tea and my viola and just work and work and work. None of this work has manifested itself in my "public" viola playing but it might someday.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

fail better.

A really lousy night's sleep can be detrimental. I've been getting cramps in my legs and feet more frequently lately, and last night I woke up several times to spasms in a particular foot muscle I'm never even aware of until it cramps. Two knives stabbing, left and right, at the same time. Not good for sleep. I dreamed I told someone about the cramps, then woke up and realized I hadn't. 

It's hot again now, summer for real, so running is less fun. Even less fun when you're tired after a lousy night's sleep, and depressed after a lousy night. Even the inaugural new shoe run didn't help. I spent 3 miles thinking about the mistakes I made last night, how ridiculous I must seem, how unfair it is that all my hard work (heh) is for nothing, could I actually be getting worse, maybe I need to quit orchestra until I learn to play better, ugh, everything is terrible...stopped the watch at 3 miles and walked home, still thinking bad thoughts. 

Saw a post from a facebook acquaintance who is obviously manic depressive, and I was reminded that my "problems" are very, very small. Yes, they are. Yes, they will fade from the front of my consciousness, and I will stand up straight and start tilting away at those windmills again. But for now I can only wait for this to pass.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

world's greatest string orchestra concert of Spring 2017

reasons I don't like orchestra:
 - I don't have the patience to sit through rehearsals where I mostly just wait while the other sections play.
 - I don't have the discipline to practice on my own.
 - Even when I do practice, I don't get enough time in rehearsal to see/hear/feel how my part fits in with the other sections.
 - The viola parts are usually trivial and/or dull.
 - When the viola parts are interesting or challenging, I don't practice enough/don't get enough playing time in rehearsal/don't get enough integration with the rest of the orchestra.
 - I don't like sitting in front, especially when there are ringers/pros in the section. Who sit behind me. 
 - It's easy to develop bad habits, and it's also easy to fall back on them all.the.time.

This comes on the heels of my personal worst concert in 5 years or so.  I didn't look at the music at all the past two days, and I really felt unmoored. I was just reading, for the most part. Which probably made no difference at all, because the parts were mostly boring, we hadn't spent much time on them in rehearsal and there were very few violas anyway, so I figured we wouldn't be heard well, if at all. But, it turns out, we were somewhat audible, and I really hate being such a weak link. So, it remains to be seen whether I will play in any orchestra next term.

I've spent quite a lot of time and energy on music since September (when I retired), but I suspect I haven't spent wisely. If there are benefits to be had, they have not yet shown themselves.

Monday, April 24, 2017

the past week

has been a roller coaster. I keep the phone on me at all times except when running. Every minute could bring a text or a new post in the mass facebook message. Miracles. Nightmares. Disasters. Love+Light and tiny little heart emojis.

I am tired. Running, worrying, constant standing (for practice) have taken a toll.

Late last week I was somewhat happier with my playing, but over the weekend it faded, and today I am not. My blossoming little vibrato faded away. My hand frame relapsed, and I'm back to curling my fingers up. My re-dedication to making-a-beautiful-sound has not yet given me any good habits; I have to think about every last thing I do on the viola, and it's like a chenga game, or a juggling act. 

In lessons I asked to go back to basics and so we did; I am doing scales and long tones and Sevcik, and my etudes are from a childrens' book (as the teacher keeps reminding me). As simple as this is, I still managed to get the first etude completely wrong, and I played it as a march instead of the singing, legato thing he envisioned. For some reason this bothered me more than any mistake would. Even my musical instincts are bad.

Monday, March 27, 2017

If Kafka wrote stories about clowns

...that's what our current government is like: Kafka stories about clowns.

My little lymphoma dog is back on chemo after a neutropenia-induced vacation. She's tolerating chemo well, but that may be the prednisone she's still on. It makes her hungry all the time. She who has been underweight her whole life is now a tank.

My best friend's husband is very ill.

The overuse injury (thank you, Simon Fischer and Nathan Cole) I flirted with last week seems to have settled down.

Otherwise, I feel well physically, better than anytime in the last couple of years. I'm able to run a bit over 50 miles a week, mostly slowly but sometimes a little brisk. I sleep well.

I still haven't recorded the audition pieces, and I am stressed out about it. I was supposed to record today, but I bailed on it. I wasn't ready and I knew I would get very frustrated if I tried, and I just didn't want to deal with that. I have already missed one deadline and am about to miss a few others, and it's my own damn fault for picking these pieces that are over my head. Why why why? Even I know that for auditions you're supposed to pick something that's sort of easy and then polish it; you're not supposed to bash through something that's so far beyond you that you (and everyone listening) are on tenterhooks waiting for a flub...Every once in a while I remember it's only music, and of course I'm not going to sound very good, and if I want to go to a camp I need to make these recordings and not think too hard about what I really sound like and look like. But, sigh. It's sooooo god-awful. He said I should play that fluffy Nardini duet and something from Suzuki 3, and he was right.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

on the bright side: TIL

Today I learned that wrist vibrato is initiated by the wrist, and the fingers go along for the ride, so to speak. The fingers have to be flexible so they can stay on whatever note but still let the wrist and hand move, but the fingers don't start the the vibrato or keep it going. That would be like the tail wagging the dog.

Why do I say I learned this today, when it's only what every teacher + every article + every book + every video + Simon Fischer and Nate Cole and all the rest of the stringplaying world have been telling me for like 8 years? I've been focusing on vibrato for the past several weeks, going back to basic drills and trying some new ones. After all this time, I finally have enough coordination to actually watch what's happening while I listen. So after all these years I finally put two and two together and learned what I already knew.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

I don't know what to make of anything.

My little dog friend has lymphoma and though the docs say the chemo is helping, I think I see her fade a bit each week, sometimes each day. During her chemo-break she also stopped prednisone and almost immediately started feeling and acting sick. One more week off chemo and back on prednisone, and she's a hungry little puppy again. But I have started taking hunger to mean health, and food to mean a cure, and this is a mistake. She's hungry because prednisone makes her hungry, and if she had half a brain she'd be asking me hey, why are you doing this to me. She's always been a picky eater, and it almost seems wrong to stuff her full of food and think yay, she's cured. She's not. And even when (if) she starts chemo again, there's 4 or 5 more months of it. She's so sweet and so dumb. She doesn't know what's happening to her.

Today the so-called president went crazy again for the umpteenth time, accusing his predecessor of "having his wires tapped" (quotes courtesy of the prez,and it sounds like "having your tubes tied"). The guy really is crazy, and the fact that he manages to remain in office makes me despair.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

taking a cue from our fearless leader

Yesterday I had an absolute disaster of a music lesson, with the teacher pulling no punches about my awful readthrough of a piece last week, then insisting I play it there in the lesson. The things he harped on - beautiful sound, excellent bow control, rich vibrato, to name a few - weren't things I'm good at. And they really weren't things I'm good at when I'm rattled and self-conscious about my playing, like when someone has just told me how bad I sound. Like yesterday. I didn't cry, but I almost did. It is a disaster when a grownup person cries (or almost does) at something as trivial as a music lesson.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

mundanities in the face of global terror.

At string orchestra rehearsal yesterday evening I was the only violist. One violist let us know beforehand she'd be absent; the others simply didn't show. We did no review, just forged ahead in some of the pieces. I had practiced. but not to the extent that I could come in and just be the entire section. 

I did not handle it well. Sandwiched in between robust healthy violin and cello sections, I couldn't find a way to play that wasn't either too-quiet or super-crunchy-loud. I started to worry that I would forget how to read, and lo and behold, I forgot how to read. I made a lot of mistakes, felt I never got the chance to fix them, got more and more tense at each mistake, bolted as soon as rehearsal was over. Basically I played as poorly as 5 years ago, was mortified at every mistake, just dug myself into a hole. I played so horribly. It felt like everyone was thinking "god, what is she doing here, she's terrible". I am so embarrassed.

Before rehearsal, the conductor (who is also a violist) and I read a duet by Michael Kimber that was based on Hindemith's Trauermusik (which I had never heard of until two days ago and which I was now very smug about having made its acquaintance). There were people milling about the rehearsal room, and I worried about playing something so weird-sounding. Someone even announced she wanted to look over my shoulder while we read; like a good sport, I said "ok, fine". I goofed it. Even though I had practiced a lot, played with a recording, even read it with a former teacher a day ago, I goofed it last night reading it with the conductor in that room full of people getting ready for rehearsal. The conductor said "are you really sure you want to use this for an audition?" I said yes, but after the rehearsal I have new and serious doubts. Who the hell do I think I am, that I can play something like that?

48 hours ago I was happy about playing for my former teacher, who said my playing on a particular piece was like night and day (from when I first started working on it). Now I am back to feeling like a hack or an impostor or a head case, or all of these. I know I will feel better soon, maybe even by tomorrow. But this is unpleasant.