I’m nearing the end of my first full term of a new orchestra. The concert looms, but that’s another story. On the whole it’s been great, both new and familiar. Some things never change – not practising enough, swearing to yourself at each rehearsal that you’ll never come unprepared again and then still not practising enough, not looking at the conductor as often as you should despite constant reminders – but a few things have definitely moved on. The kit has improved significantly for a start.
Take music stands: I remember spindly, unstable metal affairs that toppled over if you breathed near them, and had fiendish screws that lacerated your fingers. These days stands are lighter and yet more stable, they fold up more easily and slide neatly into compact little bags with handles, the screws are either made of plastic or encased in it (altogether more finger-friendly) and, rather charmingly, they come in all the colours of the rainbow.
The cases have changed too. Anyone who has played their instrument regularly in the past decade or so has, very sensibly, invested in something a bit like this:
(with thanks to Caswells Strings)
i.e. something relatively weather-proof, padded and with a strap that can be slung over your shoulder leaving your hands free (and a handy pouch for music). If you enter ‘viola cases’ into google images these days, you have to scroll down quite far before you come across anything that looks like mine, and scanning the orchestra last week, my case was definitely in a class of its own (not in a good way). A fellow viola reassured me that mine was endearingly retro, but quaintness might have to give way to practicality before long, if only so that I can pick up more than one bag of shopping on my way back from rehearsals.
If you really want to improve, that is. I put this question to my viola teacher whose response was “whatever you can manage” and then, when pressed, “ideally, an hour a day”. A bit daunted, I sought solace on one of my favourite sites, Pay the Piper, but it told me more or less the same thing: 15 minutes ‘well-organised’ practice per day for every two grades of progress (so 15 minutes for grades 1-2, 30 minutes for grades 3-4 etc). I wouldn’t know what grade I’m at now, but based on the fact that the last music exam I took was grade 7, I ought to be doing about an hour a day at least 6 days a week.
At the risk of sounding a bit whiny (and obvious), it is incredibly hard to find an hour a day to practise once you’ve factored in small children, work, washing, cooking, the occasional bit of socialising, not to mention the mundane business of eating and sleeping. (There is also the small matter of blogging to fit into the equation, which explains why I’ve been a bit quiet these past few days).
I haven’t been keeping track of my practice time so far but will tot up the minutes/hours this week – and it’ll be interesting to see how far I fall short. In the meantime, if anyone has any suggestions for how I might squeeze an extra hour or three out of each week I’d be most grateful.
A friend of mine has recently started having tennis lessons, and seen his game rapidly deteriorate as a result: his instructor has been trying to get him to hold his racket the right way, and he rarely manages to do that and hit the ball at the same time.
I’m in a similar predicament. As I mentioned before, I recently learnt that I’ve been holding my bow wrong for years. I’ve always held it in a vice-like grip, my thumb nestled in the crook (never reaching the pad where it’s meant to sit), and my little finger jutting straight out to the right like it’s in a splint. I’d also been using the bow a bit like a saw, pressing down against the strings rather than letting the weight of my arm and the bow do the work. So that’s all wrong, which, with the benefit of hindsight, seems glaringly obvious. This is how it should be done:
– Your thumb sits on the pad and stays bent
– All fingers should be arched into a (relaxed) flexed position, with the middle finger opposite the thumb
– Your (relaxed) fingers should remained arched for a Down Bow and then naturally elongate for an Up Bow
This site explains it fairly clearly, or, better still, watch this nice little 3-minute tutorial from Itzhak Perlman.
The trouble is, now I know how it should be done, my musicality, like my friend’s tennis game, has gone out of the window. Hopefully it’s just a matter of time before it becomes second nature.