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.

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.

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.


What is Reading?

You are reading now, yes?

Did you pause to consider the question, form an idea, and possibly even a response?

This is reading words.

What does it mean to read music? This is different, yes? Reading notes, you don’t pause to consider, or do you? Reading notes, you produce sounds, imaginary or auditory, and anything else? Let us consider.

“Reading” music can signify different meanings in different contexts to different people. Here, I will define three meanings: deciphering-reading; performing-reading; and sight-reading. I create this clarification as I have been in conversations with others about “reading” music, and it turned out that we each referring to entirely different processes.

The first kind of “reading music” is deciphering the symbols on the page and turning them into musical gestures. Similar to seeing the letters C, A and T, identifying them and their sounds and connecting them into the word CAT and the mental image produced, deciphering music is the process of identifying the note pitches and values, along with other symbols (dynamics, tempi, bowing, etc . . .), and realizing this as sound in the imagination (known as audition), or using the movement of the body to produce sound in time with an instrument. Pausing to consider the interpretation of the various symbols and their relations to each other is an essential part of this kind of “reading music,” as the musician figures everything out, including how to physically transfer this information to her instrument and into sound. This process typically occurs in the practice room, and may also be referred to as “learning” or “preparing” or “practicing” the piece. Beginners might do this slowly with simple music, elite musicians might do this quickly with very complex music. The basic process is the same: “reading” what is on the page and figuring out the tricky parts until the piece (or section thereof) can be performed (alone or for others) fluidly. Personally, I don’t call this reading. I call this deciphering, and I am relatively fluent at this task.

The second kind of “reading music” is performing the symbols on the page, using your body (or auditory imagination) to transform the printed symbols into fluid sound. Performing can be for others, or one’s self, in public, or in private, an entire piece, or only a portion thereof. The point is, you pick a starting point and use the printed music to cue you through to a chosen ending point. And rather than seeing notes as discrete units, music is made through the connection of notes to each other. To me, this type of reading music is what I am referring to when I refer to reading music, and I’m not particularly good at it. Unlike reading words or deciphering notes, any sort of pause is anathema during performing-reading, as pause destroys the intended music by breaking the continuity of sound. Some people can move from deciphering-reading to performing-reading with ease. Personally, I struggle mightily with this transition, and have heard that this is not uncommon for adult learners.

The third kind of “reading music” is sight-reading. Self-explanatory, this is looking at printed music that one has never seen before, and simply playing it through. Sight-reading is a learnable skill, and some musicians are super good at this. Personally, I’m stuck at the level of “Twinkle, twinkle,” or thereabouts. But I do practice sight-reading daily and am showing improvement.

In summary, it seams to me that “reading” is the interpretation of symbols to some other end. One can read words and notes, both discussed above. One can also read braille, or body language, not mentioned above. Between reading words and notes, the two primary differences are, first, that pausing is integral to the reading of words, and continuous, even forward perception is integral to reading of notes; and, second, that reading words results in mental ideas, whereas reading notes results in physical action and sound.

I took the time to think all this through because I have been in a number of conversations about reading music in which it became apparent that I and my collocutor were referring to very different activities. It took me a while to figure out what those differences were. The process of defining various types of reading has also compelled me to identify and articulate my own music reading difficulties, so that my teachers and I can address them and improve my musicianship.

A final note which I’ll have to address in a separate essay: I assume that reading and processing words, which I am very good at, occurs very differently in the brain than does reading and processing notes, which I am not very good at. I’ll attribute these ability differences to the fact that my brain has decades of experience at reading words, and only a few years experience at attempting to read notes. It would follow that my word-reading processor is dominate, and that it interferes with my note-reading processor. In fact, this is what it feels like is happening internally, and it would explain why I struggle so to read and play music.

This begs the questions: Exactly how plastic is the human brain????? Especially later in life? Can I modify my neurological processors so that I can learn to read and play music fluently on my violin? And if it is possible, what is the process be to accomplish this change????? And how do I discover this process?????
Copyright 2018, All rights reserved.


Reading Problems

Reading linguistic words and reading musical notes are two fundamentally different activities with two entirely different outcomes. Reading words results in mental ideas (Dony has animals!), which lead to further ideas (Is this on a farm?).Reading notes results physical action (Right arm bow-stroke! Left hand fingering!), which leads to sound (Ringing “C”?). Pausing the eye at commas, periods, unknown vocabulary, is inherent to the process of reading words and forming ideas. Continuous forward eye-motion is inherent to reading notes, to render the on-going pulse of music. The neurological process of reading words can be fraught, think dyslexia, and so can the process of reading notes. Personally, while I have no issues reading words, I have come to notice a number of difficulties reading music. Here are some of them:

My eye does not physically scan continually forward across the staff at a continuous rate. It pauses at anything it doesn’t quickly recognize, as it might in reading a sentence. Encountering an uncomfortable notational figure, my eye may try to loop back over it seeking familiarity. In a familiar piece, my eye might lag behind the notes being played. If my eye has paused, and muscle memory has carried the phrase forward, my eye will frantically scramble looking to catch up. Any of these erratic actions interfere with the essential forward momentum of the music.

Aside from eye-motion, as if failing to distinguish between the letters “C” and “G” (is that COT or GOT?), sometimes I can’t identify a note in passing: they look too similar to me on the staff.  Associated with this issue is a visual illusion of the staff is shifting up or down behind the notes, so a D can change into an F, or vice-versa.

Reading problems interfere with making music, as they typically cause me to freeze mid-play, and the pulse stops, and the sound stops, and the music stops. Everyone who has ever worked with me has noticed the problem. “Just keep going. Don’t stop.” is the predominant instruction. This is like taking someone who has never seen snow to the top of a ski-hill and telling them “Just keep going. Don’t stop.” What they would end up doing would hardly be called skiing.

Reading problems also cause me intense anxiety. When I go to play a piece that I’ve studied well, I know reading mistakes will crop up randomly, interfering with the performance. I can’t seem to practice my way out of them. It is like cooking in my too-familiar kitchen and today I can’t remember where the salt and the bowls are, and tomorrow I can’t remember where where the butter and the knifes are. So each time I start to cook I know I’ll forget something, but I don’t know what that something will be.

If there is a dyslexia of reading music notation, I have it.

In the world of reading-words instruction, there is an abundance of research and pedagogy to mitigate reading difficulties cause by neurological mis-processing. Does any such research and pedagogy exist for reading-notes? My guess is no. Typically, people who fail to progress at making music learn to quit trying, or drop out. I find this sad, and I refuse to capitulate. If there are best practices for alleviating note-reading difficulties, I hope to find them. In the meantime, I continue to practice and explore and see what I can figure out on my own.
Copyright 2018, All rights reserved.


Dream Abandoned; Dream Pursued

 I cried myself to sleep last night.

I always wanted to learn to play a musical instrument, ever since I was a child, to become a musician. I tried piano and guitar, and experimented with others. I took lessons when I could and took classes. I practiced. I joined choirs. As an adult I had some success with voice. Yet, despite the desire and effort, nothing happened.

Reading stumbled, fingers stumbled, always. Internally I knew something essential was missing, some disconnect existed. If there was opportunity to perform, I could see the boredom on listeners’ faces. My conveyance was empty, always.

After five decades of trying and failing I said to myself, “Kate, this door will not open. This is not for you. You don’t get everything you want in life. It is time to move on.” My yearning laid to rest.

I cried myself to sleep last night.

A few years later, on a whim, with zero expectation, I tried messing around with a violin that had been lying around the house. This violin chose me.

It has been seven years now. I practice every day. I finished Suzuki Book IV. I stand in recitals. I sit in an orchestra. I formed a string trio. I have a new violin and bow, both by master craftsmen.

When the violin chose me, I asked myself, “Is it possible to change one’s self? Is it possible to change how one thinks and exists?” For that was what I would have to do in order to learn to play.

With the guidance of several remarkable teachers, some long term, some short term, and a symphony of supportive friends, with ibuprofen throughout the first year, and hours and hours daily of practice, with dogmatic perseverance and high aspiration, with seemingly imperceivable steps: the essential something is being found, the disconnect is fading. I am learning that one is not necessarily confined to live within the box of one’s life. That it is not easy to get out, but that it can be done.

And while lying in bed in the quiet at end of day, I remembered playing through Haydn’s Divertimento with my trio, how we kept the tempo and didn’t stop, how I could read the music and always knew where we were, how we would breath together and cue each other, how the sound of our harmonies pleased my ear, and yes we were under tempo and yes we have a lot of improvement to do, but we played it, together.

I had felt the coordination of my eyes and hands, I had felt the momentum of the continuous sound, I had felt the connection with my partners and the music, I had felt the path to expression being laid; and I felt such fulfillment from obstacles overcome and such anticipation of achievement to come, that tears of joy reigned and I cried myself to sleep last night.
Copyright 2018, all rights reserved.