Isolating the Forearm

My teacher didn’t like the instability of my bowing. It tended towards crooked (as in not parallel to the bridge), and with the hair on an angle to the string. The resulting sound was thin and reedy. I was usually unaware and unable to correct the problem. He prescribed the following prescriptive exercise on open strings: A simple detaché stroke, using only the forearm.

In this exercise I am to stabilize my shoulder, upper arm, wrist and fingers, and move only my forearm, and only within the range that the bow remains parallel to the bridge. The idea is to isolate a single movement and create a muscle-memory of where the right-arm-and-hand exist in space during this simple bowing motion. 

Isolating the forearm with a detaché stroke.

Arm weight is in the string. Hair is flat on the string. Strings are open. Sound is full and ringy. I do this exercise for several minutes daily, working to (1) develop a physical feeling of where my arm is in space when the sound is best; (2) develop an ability to return my arm to this place when the sound is off; (3) develop a level of comfort such that any other place for my arm feels like a deliberately chosen aberration, rather than a place it ended up unknowingly by accident.

I open every practice session with this exercise, and return to it whenever my bowing goes wonky. I do the forearm exercise before playing a piece. And also frequently before playing each phrase when I break down a piece. I do this exercise a lot, seeking a level of physical ease and comfort and sonic fullness that come automatically. Seeking muscle memory.

The exercise becomes meditative. To add complexity, I add string crossings. At the next lesson my teacher asks for the same exercise, but with a martelé stroke. The position and the motion of this exercise will become “home base” for bowing, out of which all further complexities of bowing will emerge, one simple step at a time.

My Ideal Teacher

My ideal teacher understands that excusing lack of progress or playing ability as “your age,” is a coded way of saying “lower your expectations and don’t try so hard;” that the words are dismissive and disparaging, and undermine passion and pursuit.

My ideal teacher understands that an unattained goal is valued for the progress that it inspired, and that it is never a measure of failure.

My ideal teacher understands an unwavering conviction in the capacity of neuro-plasticity and human growth at all ages and stages

My ideal teacher understands the utility of outsized, aspirational goals; that they can inspire and motivate, and propel a student beyond what is believed possible.

My ideal teacher understands the uncharted paths in adult education, the ones leading toward elite ability, and has curiosity and gumption to seek out those paths.

My ideal teacher understands that the developmental timeline, expectations and methods for teaching a child may not be appropriate for teaching an adult; and that it is incumbent on him or her to research and experiment in the quest of serving an adult student.

My ideal teacher understands the value of disciplined, focused work, yet finds pursuit of the extraordinary an exciting, stimulating, joyful adventure.

My ideal teacher understands that whatever we discover and achieve together lays groundwork for even further attainment by ensuing adult learners.

Copyright 2019, All rights reserved.

Viking Armor for Violin

The warrior’s chest armor at the Viking exhibit attracted my attention. It is constructed from a mesh of interlinked wire circles: each circle about 8 millimeters in diameter, using wire about 1 millimeter in diameter. Before shaping the armor to fit the owner’s torso, before interlinking the loops into a mesh cloth, all of those loops had to be constructed, thousands of them, by hand. The loops are remarkably consistent in size and shape, which means an artisan a thousand years ago had a well practiced and steady hand. I wonder: This artisan, this long ago person unknown to me, what did it take for him to develop this consistent ability? A still environment, repetition, and time. I imagine him on long winter nights in a cold Norwegian cabin warmed and lighted with fire, with little company and few distractions. What else was there to do than to work at and perfect his craft?

A fragment of Viking chainmail armor at the Oslo Museum of Cultural History.

I ponder this as I consider my own violin playing and practice. Before I can play a tune with consistency and beauty, there are essentials that I, too, must master. A beautiful tone from an evenly drawn bow, accurate pitch with precisely placed fingers. While my teachers exhort me in this direction, the time and diligence it will take to master these elements have been difficult to fathom and create. Modern existence interferes: distractions of daily life undermine stretches of undisturbed time; chaotic thinking interferes with focused attention.

Detail of chainmail links. In the year 900, each of these links is forged by hand.

I hold the image of the Viking armor in my mind and remember the person who created it. Sustained focus is a normal human activity, and if he can do it than so can I. It is a matter of creating time and eliminating distractions. I relinquish other pursuits. I avoid media. I say no thank you to invitations. I ask family to leave me alone. I go into my practice room and close the door. I am looking for a still environment, repetition, and time. I begin to bow open strings. My ear inspects every element of the bow stroke. I listen for nuance. I am patient. Am I hearing what I want to hear, what my teacher wants to hear? How long this exercise? 10 minutes? 20 minutes? 30 minutes? How long did my Viking take to develop his expertise?

Eventually I am satisfied and I move on by adding single pitches, exploring their accuracy while maintaining a robust and even sound, seeking consistency. Fine distinctions in sound quality absorb my attention. My curiosity experiments with the physical molding of the sound. Where are my fingers? How is my arm? And so two hours can pass unnoticed until I feel prepared to begin the daily work on my piece.

Detail of 4th Air Varie by Charles Dancla. In the year 2019, each of these notes is forged by hand.

Copyright 2019, All rights reserved.

Fiddle Tunes!

Fiddle Tunes is part of an annual 1-week summer fiddle-festival in Port Townsend, Washington. With 500 or so registered participants, and another few hundred non-registered participants, Fiddle Tunes is many things to many people, and there and many ways to do Fiddle Tunes.

At the core of fiddle tunes are the daily workshops with master players and teachers: When possible, by artists connected directly (octo- and nono-generians) or indirectly (their musical children) from times when tunes passed down orally and locally. At the other end of the artist spectrum are players (typically much younger)  from the hot bands of the current folk scene.  With 30 or so presenting artists, the range of music seminaars offered is broad, and typically includes old-time, bluegrass, Cape Breton, Scandinavian, Celtic, southwestern, Appalachian, and Cajun, among others. 

New England and Cape Breton fiddler Donna Hebert teaching at Fiddle Tunes 2019.

At the morning workshops tunes are taught fast and furiously, early in the week. Participants, even the advanced ones, pick up what they can. By Friday, when everyone is tired, sessions tend toward stories, and artists relay tales about life and music during the depression, or about life and music on the road.

In the afternoon, the artists run band-workshops in their specific styles, teaching tunes to perform at the Friday night dance and at the Saturday morning participant concert. There is always a beginner band for those who have played less than a year. Any instrument is included. They always get the simplest tunes and the loudest applause. Additionally, there are afternoon tutorials for intermediate players. These are small group sessions focusing on particular elements of style and technique.

In the late afternoon there are pop-up workshops ranging more widely in content, and which frequently include singing or dancing or luthier skills or whatever hits a presenter,s fancy.

After dinner, jam sessions kick into high-gear, and as the week goes on they last until earlier and earlier in the morning (thus the falling attendance at morning workshops later in the week). These include slo-jams and fast jams, huge jams led by artist faculty, intimate jams of groups of friends, jams of all musical styles, competitive jams and laid back jams, indoor jams and outdoor jams. The only place where jams don’t are in the dormitories which are designated quiet zones, thankfully! There are also campground jams, which can start around 9-am and end around 6-am. After all, campers need a little quiet and rest, too.

Jams aren’t the only thing going on after dinner. There is also a concert around 7 every evening. And around 10 pm two, yes, two!, dance halls open up: one for couple dancing and one for contras and squares. All concert and dance music is provided by the 60 or so musical staff who tend to mix and match themselves throughout the week, sharing artistry and experience among themselves. Add to all this multiple informal parties, everyone’s invited!, just to hang out and socialize, as if all the music making isn’t enough.

Is there something for everyone at Fiddle Tunes? You bet’cha! Is there too much to do at Fiddle Tunes? You bet’cha! How does one survive this Eden of Tunes? (1) Make a plan. Decide what you want to do, and decide what you don’t want to do, and stick to it. (2) Decide on a daily nap time, and stick to it.

Copyright 2019, All rights reserved.

Voice Works for Violin

Teachers tell me to sing the pitch, sing the interval, sing the motif, sing the phrase; and now play. And so I’ve learned the sound of my violin to be an extension of my voice; that my violin will only ever sing what my voice knows.

With this idea in mind, I sought a place, a community, where I could simply sing. Sing for song. Sing for joy. Sing to expand my musical sense and range. Enter Voice Works, a one week singing camp, some call it a lifestyle, at Fort Worden, a decommissioned-army-base-turned-arts-community, at the tip of the Olympic peninsula just west of Seattle. My choices were reggae, blues, jazz, gospel, Balkan, bluegrass, folk, rounds, harmony, technique, poetry, songwriting, accompanying. 150 people singing for a week. I chose to focus on harmony, Balkan, and gospel.

Jefferson Hamer
Jefferson Hamer leading a harmony workshop at Voice Works 2019

Jefferson (not airplane, not starship) Hamer taught harmony. With guitar in hand, he led a melody in the key of G, Shallow Brown, a sea shanty with spacious chorus. On the fly, responding to the chordal progression, he made up harmonies for alto, tenor and base and had us singing in 4-part in no time. The lesson being that harmony doesn’t have to be static; that we can make it up. Which he encouraged us to do. Without judgment, we listened to each other searching for notes. Figuring out what works best. Voices moving around the melody seeking to make shape with each other.

Eva Salina, our national treasure, taught Balkan songs. Although strophic and with short melodies, each song took an hour to learn. Slavic words can be difficult for English speakers. Melody was also unusual to us, as was the rhythm and the flexible tempo. Ornamentation proved tricky. But when we got the drone just right, the sound was electric, a buzz felt as much a heard.

Dawn Pemberton
Dawn Pemberton (left) with
super-fan Kate at Voice Works 2019.

Gospel with Dawn Pemberton. Oh what a night! A singer of grace and soul, Dawn is also a master teacher. If you had been there, within an hour she would have had you singing a solo part in 4-part, on stage, in a tune you’d only just learned. I witnessed her do this with an entire class. And she brought me to tears with her kindness and encouragement.

As an adult beginner on the violin, many times I’ve had to explain and defend my pursuit and my goals. Discouragement can feel relentless: “You do know that you’ll never be really good at it. You’ll never be a superstar,” is a common refrain, as if this is informative, or even relevant. In response to a question, Dawn did a 180 and went straight to “Of course you can do this. And this is how. And no, there is nothing in your make-up that will prevent you.  You’ll have your own path. You’ll have your own timing. But you can do this. You will do this.” 

This feeling, this attitude, is intrinsic to Voice Works. The approach that everyone has a voice, that everyone can sing, that everyone can shape a life in harmony and lift in joy. This is Voice Works.

Copyright 2019, All rights reserved.

Learning Circles

This is a theory about learning to play a musical instrument. It is a framework for understanding the process; how that process might differ between children and adults; and the obstacles an adult beginner might face. Let’s begin.

There are 3 neuro-physiological systems of the human brain and body basic to playing an instrument: Auditory – the ability to hear and imagine sound; Kinesthetic – the ability to move one’s body to manipulate the instrument; and Visual – the ability to see notes on a page. 

Granted, other human capabilities are also involved, such memory, intuition or emotion, but here we are only considering Auditory, Kinesthetic, and Visual.

In order to play a musical instrument using sheet-music (like chamber or orchestral music), these three neuro-pysiological systems must co-ordinate with each other and work together – they have to have some overlap. 

The process of learning to play a musical instrument from sheet-music could be considered a process of maximizing the overlap between these systems. After all, one has to be able to read, listen and move simultaneously in order to play in an orchestra. The more efficiently one can do so, the more complex music one might play.

So if we take a child who has some minimal amount of overlap and provide said child with all, or even some, of the advantages of musical training – a brilliant teacher, a pre-conservatory program, all-state orchestra, transportation & fees from mom & dad, & etc. & etc. & etc, and if that child has determination and motivation and self-discipline and lack of other obligations, than she may grow up to be an elite professional musician, with her Audio & Visual & Kinetic systems functioning in a highly coordinated manner. (Note again that these are by far not the only characteristics necessary to become a musician, they are just the only ones we are considering at the moment.)

Now suppose the child chooses not to pursue music, and instead over the years focuses attention on other activities, such as sports, academics, or video games. The Audio, Visual and Kinesthetic coordination necessary for making music would atrophy as these systems are deployed to support other endeavors. It could be expected that as an adult, this person would have far, far less overlap, or coordination, between these three neuro-physiological systems than a musician would.

Now, what if that adult, with no musical training, decides to take up a musical instrument to play in an orchestra (note reading required!)? What then? What pedagogy and learning opportunities are available to this beginning adult to facilitate the coordination of their Audio, Visual and Kinesthetic processes?

Copyright 2018, All rights reserved.