Jul 1, 2008

a lesson

Yesterday, in the sweltering heat on the 6th floor of the old Steinway building, overlooking the Boston Common, I had a violin lesson. Just a regular one. But if you've never taken a violin lesson, it's certainly not obvious what that means. Many people have asked me, over the years, what exactly happens during that hour-and-a-half. You already know how to play the violin, they point out, since you've been playing for 17 years. You already know how to read music. Don't you just have to practice now? Other people wonder if I learn some brand new note each time I go - say, an E-flat 3 octaves above middle C. Or maybe I just go for interpretation advice - play this note quiet, this one long, this one angrily, and so on.

The reality, of course, is very complicated. Because the violin is complicated. And because music is complicated. There are technical challenges to tackle, and the better you get the more there are (you never get to stop practicing the basics). And there's the huge emotional challenge of making a piece of wood speak.

So... in case anyone's interested, the following is an annotated description of my lesson. It will, of course, be full of technical descriptions that are bound to be terrifically boring if you don't play the violin. That's ok. You don't have to read it :)

At the beginning of my lesson, we chat about what's been going on in my life, and how things are going in general. I find it's easier to be honest about my life in a violin lesson than anywhere else. The sense of rapport and trust with one's teacher is critically important. There's unusual potential for a meaningful relationship too, since private music lessons mean that the student will spend about an hour each week as the sole beneficent of the teacher's attention. I ask about his upcoming performances, and about the summer camp he founded. We talk about my grandfather's death.

I start with scales. A-flat major, 3 octaves. I play the whole scale with 1 note per bow, then 2, then 3, then 4, and then he stops me before I get all the way up to 16. He compliments me on improving my shifting. It's better, but not quite there. I have a tendency to let my left wrist flop backwards a little bit when I shift, instead of keeping my wrist completely straight. The difference between "correct" and "incorrect" is so small that I can't actually feel it, so I stand in front of a mirror for hours and practice the correct movement. The wrist must stay straight, but the forearm must also rotate clockwise. And the fingers must bend. Ok. I'm keeping that in mind.

He says that he can hear all my string crossings (and that's not a good thing). There are two reasons for this. First of all, I am picking up the last finger on the old string *before* putting down the first finger on the new strings. The timing is a few milliseconds off, and it makes a difference. I must leave the old finger down until the new note has sounded. My right elbow is also a problem. When you move from a low string to a higher one, the weight of your right elbow should aid, and when you move from a high string to a lower one, you should hold your right elbow aloft so that it doesn't make the crossing difficult. I play the scales again, thinking of my left arm in the shifts, trying to keep my fingers loose but firm, keeping the old finger down until the new note sounds, making sure my elbow is assisting the shifts. He says it's better, but my tone is not yet liquid enough. My notes sound portato, not cantabile. In order to achieve a truly connected sound, I have to use the weight of my entire right arm to my advantage. I play the scales again.

We move on to arpeggios and thirds. He says that when I play upbows, my right shoulder hunches up and forward. I have to keep it down, but loose, so that the rest of my bow arm doesn't become tense. My posture, too, comes up. I've got all kinds of posture problems. I used to lean heavily on my left hip, which caused my entire torso to twist. I've mostly fixed that problem, but I still tend to twist my neck up and back, and my back is still too bent. I concentrate on keeping my head centered and down, and my back straight.

A discussion of intonation comes up. Intonation is no simple matter. For one thing, there are LOTS of tuning systems. Pianos are "even tempered", meaning that the frequency of a note must be multiplied or divided by the 12th root of 2 in order to get the next and previous pitch, respectively. This mathematical tuning is convenient for pianos, but doesn't work for violins. This is because the harmonics produced by any given note are, of course, pitches themselves - and they do not correspond exactly with the notes dictated by the 12th root of 2 rule. Close but no cigar. Therefore, if you play a note, and a third above it, where the third is dictated by the 12th root of 2 rule, it will sound out of tune, due to the harmonics of the bottom note not corresponding with the top one. On a piano you don't notice much, but on a violin, it sounds awful. So on the violin, every note you play must be tailor-tuned to match the other notes you are playing. If you play a G and a B at the same time, you'll have to play the G higher than the even tempered pitch in order to get the third in tune. But play a G and a D, and the G must be lowered again. The list of adjustments you must make is enormous.

We spend a while talking about the Bach Sonata #2 for solo violin, and the tuning issues it presents. I go through the piece, playing one note, then hearing the next note in my head before I play it.

At the end of the lesson we talk Mozart 4th violin concerto. I need to work on my bow distribution. In preparation for this, he gives me a number of exercises to do. I must play long, slow notes while sliding my bow between the bridge and the fingerboard, keeping it perfectly parallel to the bridge. It's supposed to make me more aware of my contact point. I'm also supposed to practice playing in a pattern: 4 notes to a bow, then 1 note to a bow. WITHOUT slowing down. This teaches bow control.

Finally we talk about how Mozart's violin concertos really harbor an element of opera. The key to playing them well is to realize that although there's only one solo violin part, that one violin must speak all of the operatic roles. The player has to be a quick-change artist, changing character and voice every time the concerto demands a new "singer".

The elevator attendant says to me, as I step in to the old-fashioned lift, "Rictor must be a very good teacher. Everybody always comes in to the elevator looking happy!"

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