Practicing on weeknights

You know, I have the hardest time practicing on a new instrument on weeknights. I’m stressed out, tired, and sometimes want a snack. I am happy to sit at the piano and noodle around or practice, because I know how to play that one. Any of the others, the ones that I’m basically no damn good at — the single-note ones where I need to just relax and stop trying so hard — are a total loss on weeknights.

I can play a piano to relax, although even then I still prefer to play it when I’m already in a fairly relaxed mood. I will pick up needles or a hook when I’m nervous or stressed out to just channel the nervous energy into something useful, but the piano is my happy island. I like to keep it that way. It’s not where I go to work off worries.

The other instruments are just much more sensitive to impatience and stress because I’m still at the level of making a decent noise on them. I keep thinking, “Okay, I need to gain ground here,” instead of just relaxing and making a noise. I am at such a low level on them that I have no ground to gain.

Ergonomics and the viola

I wish the thing didn’t require me to hold such a goofy, cocked-up posture to play it. That’s a big advantage to the piano; you just sit at it. It’s ergonomically pretty low-impact. The viola requires one to hold a position generally not held by anyone but a shoplifter after being apprehended by a cop who knows aikido. 😛

Past, future, and NOW

Every time it stops being “now,” I get lousy on the viola. Every time I start thinking, “I did that already, I’ve got that,” or “I have to plan ahead for learning X,” it gets screechy and messy. The only time I am any good on the thing is when I pick it up and just concentrate on what I’m doing there and then. I guess this is part and parcel of not being “native” in an instrument.

Funky-shaped violas

Oak Leaf Viola

Iizuka Viola

Gasparo da Salo Viola

Hybrid da Salo, modern — This particular luthier is named Anne Cole, and she’s such a magnificent maker. Her instruments are real works of art, science, and joy.

Pellegrina Viola — the only one that honestly makes me shudder, but hey at least it’s innovative. That whole website has some real squinters on it. They’d be fun to try.

Hutchins Vertical Viola

My little chola

Violas: Making people go, “Dafuqizzat?” since 1600.

Telescopes and microscopes

You may have already encountered this old short film by Ray and Charles Eames, called Powers of Ten. It’s fairly well-known (or was a few generations ago), and despite being a bit out of date it still sends a pretty strong message of the effects of adding or removing a zero from a number more eloquently than I’ve ever seen.

It occurred to me that the first half of that movie was a good metaphor for the pianistic/organistic view of music, and the second half for a single-note instrument view.

The big advantage of a piano of course is that you can play the whole piece yourself. Coming from that background and learning a single-note instrument (sorry, but double stops and arpeggiated chords don’t count) really highlights a massive shift in musical worldview required to make that change. The piano lets you see — and more importantly, implement — the whole musical structure of a piece at once. You can’t be ignorant of music theory since our definition of that is pretty much “whatever your left hand is doing.” (Feet are included for organists, I think.) It still surprises me to hear Rachel Barton Pine remark while talking to George Bellas on an old podcast about music theory that “I don’t really need to know any of that junk.” (It was a casual comment, so I’m sure she has more delicate ways of putting it otherwise.) In a very interesting masterclass of hers that I found on YouTube, one of the young students was a teenaged boy who sounded absolutely wonderful, and who had no idea in what key a certain section of “Zigeunerweisen” — the piece he was playing! — was.

My viola instructor (also a violinist and an excellent player on many other single-note instruments) once had to pop out of a lesson he was teaching to verify with me that the relative major for Cm was Eb, and that it had three flats. I remember feeling a little bemused that he had to check.

Once when I was playing something in GM that modulated to DM, I got punked by the fact that what was a perfectly good A just a second before suddenly sounded sharp. (I’ve remarked on this before.) His characterization of this was that it was a fourth below the next open string, so that’s why it had to move down. My characterization of it was that I had modulated into a new key, and what was a ii had now become a V, and had to move down.

I also recall playing one of those short, cute excerpts of something in C by Bach in Suzuki v1 and just shooting out, “I’m in F here,” or “Yeah, this part’s in Am.” Being a pianist gives you that real sense of where you are in a piece, a bone-deep self-evident awareness of the parts of a piece that you aren’t actually hearing, and the roles that each note plays in various scales. That’s kind of what music theory is, for a quick-and-dirty definition.

That’s the first half of that movie — the telescopic view, where you zoom out further and further and further. Pianos are telescopes. You zoom out until you see it all. We seek larger and larger details and relationships.

Single-note instruments are microscopes. They give you a view of music that is closer to the second half of that movie, where you zoom in to find structure. Each note can not only have its color changed, but changed while you are playing it. There is structure within a note. Start close to the bridge, and move gradually to the fingerboard, and the note gets whispery. Start soft, then get louder. You can actually insert microscopic structure within the notes.

This is why I think that people who start on one and move to the other are befuddled sometimes. It’s very hard not to pick up a viola, as a pianist, and feel a sense of loss — as I said in the previous post, it can feel as if someone’s lopped off your left arm and three fingers off your right hand. (Not quite as bad on a viola as on a violin since you can at least get down to that low C. But still, you lose everything in the bass!) I sometimes feel like I’m sitting at a piano with two fingers on my right hand and a stump where my left arm was and thinking, “What the hell am I going to get done like this? I can’t play music like this!”

I’ve gradually started to force myself to think differently, but it takes conscious effort to not pick up a microscope, look into it, not see any galaxies or planets, and go, “This thing’s broken!” (From the time I was a child to this day, I’ve liked the first half of Powers of Ten much more than the second.) I’m guessing that single-note instrument players think the same thing when they sit at a piano — they sit down and think, “I can’t do anything with these notes! What’s the point!” They look through a telescope and think, “What happened to all that DNA I was looking at before?”

Obviously, I find satisfaction in it even if it’s only the purely muscular satisfaction of learning to do something new with my hands, or else I wouldn’t still be working on this. But for now … well, it’s still a bit strange, and I am carried forward more by the tactile, physical sensation of the instrument that by any real musical satisfaction. I think most of that will continue to come from piano+viola arrangements and thinking of the accompaniment I’m hearing in my mind as I play.

Got a ghetto viola, and more piano stuff

I may or may not have mentioned this previously but I’d have to go back a page to see, and I don’t feel like it. Anyhow, I got a seriously ghetto 5-string viola that I am currently in love with. I call it my little chola because it knows the world thinks it looks trashy and it doesn’t care because it thinks it looks hot:

Smaller, lighter, much more comfy

Smaller, lighter, much more comfy

Narrow lower bout

Narrow lower bout

Decent wood

Decent wood

It’s a cheapie Chinese trade fiddle that I got off of eBay because I finally got sick of struggling and being completely unable to get anything accomplished. Despite my constant sense as a pianist when I pick this thing up that someone amputated my left arm and three fingers off my right hand, I still seem unable to stop messing with it, so I just sort of bowed to the inevitable. It’s from Song Tieling, the Emperor of VSOs — I bought it in the white and had to sent to Don Rickert, who seems to have become my official luthier, who sort of disassembled what he got and put it back together as an actual viola. These things tend to be composed of decent pieces of wood that are stuck together in the shape of something vaguely resembling a viola, and he pops them apart, tunes them up (regraduates the belly, reprofiles the fingerboard, etc.), and reassembles the bits into actual instruments. Apparently, it took him quite some time to pop the belly and the fingerboard since Song doesn’t use hide glue and instead uses what Rickert called “surplus adhesive from the Chinese air force.” It’s good wood though, so thankfully their fiddles can be put to rights by an adventurous, creative luthier. If anyone’s interested in trying one, I’d recommend not getting a finished one from Song, though. Get one in the white that can be redeemed.

Major advantages:

  1. The narrow lower bout means that I can use a violin shoulder rest (a Bonmusica), which fits my quite narrow shoulders like a glove. You know how people are always saying, “Don’t clamp down on the instrument — just let the weight of your head hold it in place!” With the wrong chin and shoulder setup, you can’t do that — but I can do that now.
  2. The chin rest is so comfortable it feels like it’s not even there.
  3. The E string (not my favorite string; I can’t handle that noise for more than a second) means I can play more scales without shifting.
  4. The geared pegs mean I can tune it in about six seconds, and even tune it while bowing.
  5. The weight! It weighs almost nothing, I’m serious. It’s glorious. Part of that may be the hollow scroll, which I love.

Major disadvantages:

  1. Other string players think it’s trashy looking.
  2. I’m concerned about finding a luthier who won’t spit on it, and it does need a better bridge, to be honest.

Between the lighter weight, the shorter string length, and the narrow lower bout enabling me to use a shoulder rest that works, I am able to play for periods of time I would never have been able to manage with Stevie the 16″ viola (you can see the relative sizes in the top picture above). I cannot overstate that enough: I could do almost nothing on Stevie. I couldn’t even play a C Major scale twice without feeling like I was going to die. If I played for more than about two minutes and finally cried uncle and put the thing down, I would stand there stiff and sore and have to sort of readjust myself to having dropped that weight.

With the chola, I play for 15 minutes at a time — and I could go longer — and the second I take it off my shoulder and put it down, it’s as if it was never there. I really still can’t get over it. It’s like taking ankle weights off. It’s amazing.

And because of this, I can stand there with a stable, comfortable instrument on my shoulder that isn’t sliding all over the place or making my neck seize up and making my arm throb, and actually work on problems. I can close my eyes, focus on a relaxed scroll hand, and gently “drop” my fingers into place exactly as my old viola teacher instructed me to, on the pads and not the tips. I can reach a high-3 without getting disoriented, both because I’m not straining for it and because the lesser weight allows me to relax while playing. I can do a scale over and over and over and over slowly and with patience, enjoyment, and satisfaction because I don’t have a finite (and very short) amount of time to work on something before I have to put the thing down. Because of this, my intonation — and my desire to work on it — has improved enormously after one damned weekend. I even have the beginnings of a controllable, comfortable vibrato on my first finger, exactly as you’re supposed to do it — loosen and then rock the first knuckle back once per bow, then twice per bow, then three times, etc.

Actually, I should talk about that process since most of the people who give vibrato advice online have been doing it since they were tiny kids and hence can’t really recall how they learned it. As an adult beginner, I can probably better explain what’s going on and where any confusion lies. (For starters, you NEEEEEEEED a good, comfortable, and stable chin and shoulder rest setup or else it’s not going to happen, along with a very relaxed hand. They are steps zero and one on the path to vibrato.)

I just can’t say how happy I am with this thing. Even having that blasted E string there is nice because it moves the strings I’m really interested in back a bit so they are easier to see. 🙂

Regarding piano stuff, after finishing an album’s worth of music, I immediately got sidetracked into writing piano variations on themes from “Rodelinda,” and so I’ve been doing that instead of really working on recording my stuff. I’ve got three variations on the opener to “Pompe vane di morte” so far in swing, jazz, and schmaltz styles. (We’ll call that swing, jazz, and romantic styles.)

So yes, been busy and thanks to now having an axe that I can actually cope with, I will be busier.

Okay, a LITTLE more information

I am still arranging Haendel opera works. Currently working on my third arrangement of the sinfonia that introduces “Pompe vane di morte.” The first was a swing version, the second a jazz one. The third is a schmaltzy, easygoing one that is made of rainbow-colored unicorn poop and fairy farts. Very cotton-candy flavored.

And I still continue to struggle with the viola, though much less so since I got a shortie. I have found that working on alternating between high-3 and low-3 with boring, slow-motion scales up and down each string while focusing on being relaxed works well.

Still around …

Still writing, arranging, working on getting a decent high-3 on my new SHORT viola. Yadda yadda … Still not overwhelmingly interested in posting, so down periscope once more.

I know I’ve said this before, but …

It’s bothering me that I keep coming back to one reason why the piano continually pulls me away from the viola:

I cannot fathom putting that much effort into something that only makes one note at a time. I’ve said this before, I know.

I love the sound of the thing. I can certainly get a 15″ instrument that would make my life easier, or a 14″ octave fiddle that would allow me to go deeper and yet play something smaller. And I adore the idea of playing something portable and more expressive.

But, there always seems to be a small part of my brain that does the doggy head-tilt when it regards these devices as simply oddball stochastically evolved machines for making one sound at a time of a particular, completely arbitrary character. And I can’t shake that conclusion, no matter how much I’d like to.

I wish I could find a full universe in a one-note-at-a-time instrument. They are smaller, lighter, and infinitely portable. They are buskable in a way that a piano isn’t — although the idea of buying a Yammie Portable Grand would make even taking a long weekend vacation infinitely more bearable for me. To be able to take a nice few days in a beach house without stewing and fidgeting for want of a piano would be glorious.

But at any rate, no matter how hard I want to shift it, that inevitable brick in the punch bowl* — that I can’t find enough interest in one note at a time — doesn’t seem to want to move. I seem to really love the abstract structure of what I’m creating almost more than the thing itself, more than the sounds. It’s more musical algebra than arithmetic, algebra being the underlying structure of arithmetic that’s left when the individual numbers are removed.

I think I’ve just got to let myself be a pianist.

I wonder what it is about single-note instruments that can attract so many people. My old viola teacher was one of those sorts — violin, viola, trumpet, saxophone, clarinet, and probably a few more I’m forgetting … and he was very, very good at all of them. Really good. Clearly, there was something there for him where he was able to find a universe of structure and detail in each individual note that satisfied him. I simply cannot do that. I can’t find enough interest in the character of the sound itself to sustain me. It’s multi-voice or nothing. (The only one-note-at-a-time instrument that I think I truly do love is the voice.)

I think of music as a sort of three-dimensional tinkertoy in space (hell, I think of everything like that: music, math, languages, everything). The tinkertoy shape itself is the abstract structure of the music, revealed by the notes placed at the vertices. Pianos, because they can create gobs of notes at once, can build awesomely complex structures, revealing them by placing the pretty but relatively uncomplex mass-produced notes at the points. Single-note instruments can only place one note at a time and are hence much more limited in the complexity of the structures they can build, but those notes are the most glittering, perfectly polished jewels you can imagine, sparkling away at the vertices of that tinkertoy. I guess it depends on what you find more beautiful, the shape of the tinkertoy or the gems stuck to its vertices. For me, it’s undoubtedly the shape. I don’t anticipate that other pianists will automatically agree with me; the instrument is huge, and has many facets that can appeal to many people for all kinds of reasons.

The longer I do this, especially writing, the more I seem to regard a piano as just a big typewriter. And the beauty of the ideas written in the pages of a book doesn’t depend on the beauty of the font. You want a book to be readable and minimally attractive, with a nice font well-suited not to tire the eye but beyond that, anything else isn’t overwhelmingly necessary. A good book can certainly be an artistic item in itself, but Edgar Allan Poe’s poems are just as beautiful even if you’re reading a cheap purple mimeograph from the 1970s.

I say this with some mourning.

And let’s face it, the piano also has the unparalleled advantage of not totally effing up your body six ways from Sunday while you play it. Ergonomically, it’s a dreamland compared to almost any other instrument. That’s also a big problem with me and that damned viola as well — wanting to just settle into the sound and play something a thousand times because let’s face it, I love falling into that sort of repetitive thing for relaxation — and being defeated by the fact that I simply cannot hold my arm in that position for long enough to let that happen. With the piano, I can just sit there and go over and over and over, trying things slightly differently each time, just letting myself relax with each repetition. Single-note instruments ask so much from the body, and for such a thin broth in return. Pianos ask comparatively little, and give back so much more.

* This is a Robin Williams metaphor. Almost. Be glad I bowdlerized it. He didn’t say “brick.”