Practice is frequently a solo endeavor. Our musical success stands or falls on our shoulders. We block out time in our schedules, fight for motivation, and hear our teacher’s voice in our heads to correct our mistakes. Alone, it can be difficult to measure our musical progress.
Performing with a group breaks that cycle. Whether with a partner or with an ensemble, you process music differently and become more aware. Rests you may have skipped during solitary practice are now important. You have to count and properly follow the tempo to fit all parts together. You focus more on musical phrasing. Ensemble practice is also a good way to check your intonation- you’ll hear right away when you’re out of tune! Ultimately, you’ll notice a great improvement in your musical abilities. While solitary practice is a must, ensemble practice is just as important to your musical development.
Have a multi-part piece you’d like to start learning? Interested in performing with a local ensemble? Let me know!
...Or how to protect your instrument!!
As is common for this time of year in Pittsburgh, it seems like we are in an eternal winter. This past week, temperatures have been single digits or below. And while it's no fun to be a person in this weather, it's even less fun to be a stringed instrument.
Yes, this is the obligatory lecture from your teacher about maintaining your instrument in the winter months.
What's the big deal? My violin/viola/cello's in its case so it's fine, right? WRONG! (and I'm not going to just Let It Go). The case, alone, is not enough. The cold temperature and the dryness in the air are the villains here. You instrument is made of wood, which expands and contracts in reaction to both of these. So in the summer, or during a Little April Shower, your instrument is happy. You'll notice your pegs turn with relative ease (though, if it gets too hot and humid, they will stick!), and your strings will hold tune. This time of year, however, you may have noticed that your pegs slip. Your strings are either out of tune, continue to go out of tune, are slack, or they have completely unwound from the peg. Your bow hair is dry and falling out, or breaks easily! In a worst-case scenario, you may develop cracks in your instrument or bow! So what do we do? How can we keep our instruments and bows happy? Other than waiting like Olaf for Summer...
Remember that stringed instruments are Princesses. They are high maintenance and need continuous attention. Treat them like the royalty that they are. The solution? Get a humidification system. This is a device, placed either in the instrument itself or in your case, that will release water vapor while your instrument is securely stored in its case. This will keep the humidity levels within the case regulated, which means that your instrument will remain happy and in tune.
Some humidifiers that I have tried and liked (not an endorsement, not being paid- just have used and had good experiences with):
- Dampit. This is the original humidifier. When you're finished playing and going to put your instrument away, use the Dampit. Soak the green tubey-thing (technical name) for 30 seconds in cold filtered water, withdraw and remove excess water, and place in the f-holes of your instrument. You can play with the Dampit in; it won't change your instrument's sound. Water vapor will release when the case is closed.
- Oasis. This humidifier works on the same principle as the Dampit, but instead of going inside of your instrument, it clips with a magnet to the inside of your case.
- Boveda. This is a new humidification system. The paper pouch goes inside of the felt envelope, which goes in your case... and you do NOTHING. The compound react to the humidity in the air, and will either release vapor to protect your instrument, or absorb moisture to keep your instrument happy in the summer. This is my favorite system, because 1) it does work!! and 2) you don't have to remember to refill anything.
- Humiditrack. This nifty device from D'Addario connects via bluetooth to your phone (download the app) so that you can monitor internal case temperatures and humidity on the go! The biggest problem though, is that it only works when your instrument is with you. A note: you won't need this if you have a thermometer and hygrometer built into your case already.
You should be putting your instrument away in its case after each practice for storage. Even if you have not yet experienced loose pegs and bow hair, it is extremely important that you are proactive in caring for your instrument. One rule to follow: if it isn't good for your skin, it isn't good for your violin (or viola or cello)! In short, if you find yourself constantly in need of chapstick or hand lotion, you need to make sure your instrument is taken care of, as well.
Some other things you can do to keep your instrument happy:
- Don't store your instrument against an outer wall. Even within its case, the cold temperature of the wall against the case can cause internal case conditions to change and negatively affect your instrument. This is also true if you store your instrument in a room that tends to run colder than others in your house. Change your instrument storage location temporarily.
- Practice. Tune your instrument each time. Tuning and playing your instrument help it to acclimate to the air conditions.
- Keep an eye on your instrument. Check for cracks along the top and back plates, as well as the seams. Also check your bow and remember to properly tighten/loosen as you play. Remember to not over-extend your strings when tuning. If a string snaps, or if you notice anything unusual with your instrument or bow, your teacher can help you!
The winter months here are unavoidable. With a proper humidification system in your case, your instrument will continue to sound lovely all year round.
The cold never bothered me anyway.
Wedding Planning Season is upon us! And if you're in the middle of planning, I congratulate you!
Now, I may be a little biased, but I think the violin is the best instrument in the world. I think it should be a part of every wedding. Here are some things to keep in mind (and remember that the following applies equally well to planning music for other occasions):
I look forward to playing for you!
(Photo Credit: Danielle Durbin Film and Photo)
One of my favorite things to do when I am not playing the violin is reading (not to brag, but according to my Goodreads account, as of today, I've read over 380 books in my life!). And when the weather gets awful, I believe the best thing to do is curl up on the couch with a good book. What could be better? Books about music!
*NOTE: the books below can be found at your favorite bookstore. Or on Amazon. This is NOT sponsored content.
**SECOND NOTE: I tried to provide descriptions that are helpful, but without any spoilers. Happy reading!
Below are some of my favorite books about music. Feel free to comment with your own recommendations! I'm always looking for more books!
Violin Music for Every Occasion
It’s that time of year- engagement season! Congratulations to everyone planning a wedding this year! Live violin music can add romance and a personalized touch to your special occasion.
Last summer, I had the opportunity to play for a very special couple during an engagement shoot with Danielle Durbin Photography (https://daniellefilmandphoto.com/).
A Guide to Finding the Perfect Bow.
Now that you have found the perfect instrumental match, you will need a bow to go with!
If violin shopping is overwhelming, bow shopping can be even more. Just as each instrument is unique, so is each bow. A good bow can bring out the best qualities of your instrument. For example, a violin played with two different bows can sound completely different. How to make sense of all of the options?
If you have further questions, consult your teacher. Once you find a match for your instrument, GO PRACTICE!
A Guide to Shopping for a Stringed Instrument
In my humble opinion, shopping for instruments, accessories, and bows is second only to getting a new puppy. I think it has much to do with the fact that, as artists, our instruments are more than “things”— they become an extension of ourself. And, as a (generally) handmade item from organic material (wood), no two are exactly the same. Each instrument has its own personality and identity.
With hundreds of options now available online, it can get overwhelming very quickly. How do we find our perfect musical match?
Below are some steps to help guide you:
1A. Find a reputable seller. This bears repeating time and again: STAY AWAY from Amazon and eBay. While these forums are great for everyday consumer goods and an occasional unique item, the biggest problem with purchasing instruments from these sources is that there is no quality control: instruments sold on Amazon and eBay come from individual sellers. Who could be ANYONE. On Amazon, you will frequently see cheap “packages” for $50-100. You get what you pay for. Frequently, these products are imported from China with no quality check. They are poorly made. For example: I once had a student using an Amazon violin (one of those packages), and the violin literally would not produce sound. The top plate would not vibrate at all. Similarly, instruments from eBay can come in any condition. Many instruments are sold by individuals who have no knowledge of the product they are selling and have not maintained the instrument. The instrument may be missing parts, or have significant internal damage that is invisible to the untrained eye, meaning that you would be lucky to have it produce any sound without costly repairs. A reputable seller can guide you in the right direction for your budget and skill level, and you can rest easy knowing that your instrument is quality.
1B. Know your budget. Instrument shopping can be much like wedding dress shopping for car or house shopping). You know when you are in love. You wouldn’t go into a wedding dress store and try on the designer gown, only to fall in love with it it, if it was out of your budget. You would be heartbroken. The same is true for instrument shopping: you do not look at an old Italian golden era violin unless you are planning to spend millions. It is an extreme example, but it illustrates the point. You are only setting yourself up for disappointment. Additionally, know what you will need- is your budget for the instrument alone, or will you need a bow? What about other accessories: a music stand, rosin, a case, a shoulder rest of endpin stop?
1C. Know your skill level (or the level of your student). This can be closely related to your budget. “Student” instruments, or instruments for beginners, are much less expensive than instruments for intermediate/advanced. If you are a student, you are looking for an instrument that can meet you where you are and leave you room for growth. For a more advanced student or professional, the wrong instrument can hold you back. In short, not all instruments are created equal. Because the mechanics of stringed instruments are based in vibrations, a higher quality, thinner, aged wood is going to give you the best sound. A thicker wood is going sound more muffled. This will get the job of learning done for a young beginner, who is just learning how the instrument operates, and is not yet interested in the nuances of sound and playability that a professional wants and needs. For you beginners, it is also worth pointing out that beginner instruments can withstand childhood bumps and bruises, while teaching proper instrument maintenance.
2. PLAY the prospective instruments. This is a crucial step, and one that can often be overwhelming. Once you have found a reputable shop and know the above factors, the shop assistant can point you in the right direction. They will typically select 3 or 4 instruments for you to play first. A basic 2 octave G major scale will do, because all strings are incorporated. Playing the instruments one at a time in succession will allow you to hear and feel the differences in each. Choose your top 2 and ask for a new group. See if any in the new group stand out. Then play the favorites and continue narrowing. It is often helpful in this process to bring a trusted teacher, friend, or family member along to also listen. Additionally, you can ask either a member of your party or the shop assistant to play the instrument for you so that you can hear what the instrument sounds like to the audience. You’d be surprised at the difference in perspective! For comparison purposes, it is important to use the same bow throughout.
If you are a parent purchasing an instrument for a beginner or intermediate student, and you are not able to have the student try out the instrument ahead of time, that’s ok! Speak with the shop assistant. Describe your student’s lessons, including method book and last piece played so that the assistant can get an idea of where your student’s instrument needs fall, and where their progress is going. Many shops have packages that can be tailored to your student’s needs.
But there’s no instrument store in my area!! Not to worry! Many reputable shops shop across the country and will offer you a trial of 2 or 3 violins at a time in your home. Most shops will send a shipping return label, and allow you to try the instrument for a week. This usually provides time for the student to use the instrument in their weekly lesson and have an evaluation with the teacher. Use the same process of elimination, and if you can’t find a good fit, return the instruments and ask for another batch. You only pay for what you keep.
Once you have found your musical match, GO PRACTICE!
...Or how to practice when you are sad. Or angry. Or just generally not feeling it.
For me at least, it's hard to look at, let alone pick up and play, my violin when I am anything other than ecstatic, focused, and ready to work. The problem is, if that goes on long enough, you end up really really... rusty. Your bow feels heavy in your arm, your violin isn't setting on your shoulder the right way, the strings feel tight, and your left hand doesn't seem to remember what to do. Trust me, I have been there. And recently- with a major life change, including moving to a new house, and the recent events in my city, it's been hard to feel ready to make music.
But as musicians, it's our responsibility. Leonard Bernstein put it best: "This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before."
So how do you do it?
As much as I love classical music now, as and adult and after playing the violin for over 20 years, I have to admit that as a young player, I was...less than enthusiastic. While I was practicing Mozart and Bach over and over, I was envious of my guitar and piano playing friends. It seemed like there was more variety to the music that they were presented, and, more recognizable music. Popular music, even. While the school band played “The Peanuts” suite for an excited audience, the orchestra concerts were always labeled “boring.”
What I didn’t know then was that the violin was much more versatile than I realized. Modeled after the human voice, and meant to fill the part of the soprano, the violin can pretty much do anything that the voice can do. More than that, really, because the violin doesn’t have to breathe. Knowing this opens up a world of additional musical choices. Significantly, playing the violin in a genre other than classical will still require mastery of the same techniques.
Like broadway music but can’t find a solo violin transcription? Use the vocal part. Most vocal/piano books are printed with the vocal line in the treble clef- perfect for the violinist. Further, the vocal line tends to be the melody. These arrangements also work really well for a small recital with a friend at the piano (you won’t need to search the accompaniment part!).
In the age of the internet, pop music isn’t out of reach either. Arrangements are readily available online to watch on YouTube by artists like Lindsey Stirling, Taylor Davis, and Daniel D. They also have arrangements of video game soundtracks. Many of these artists make their versions available to the public with downloadable sheet music on their websites.
Other places to get a variety of music: Hal Leonard publishers puts together books of popular music (pop hits, Disney, artist-specific) with a downloadable background track; websites like Music Notes also provide violin versions of such songs through their app (a note about this- not all songs are available in violin version; I recommend piano/vocal versions or lead sheets in this situation).
The world of music for the violin is vast and diverse. While classical music is certainly enjoyable, it’s nice to branch out every now and again. It’s also a lot of fun to play familiar songs.
As players of stringed instruments, we are always made aware of our origins- of Cremona and the Golden Age, of Bach. Much of the first music we learn is Bach, with our lessons culminating in the great achievement of playing his solo works. In taking the initial steps of preparation for learning Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin, and having always been a fan of his violin concertos, I began to wonder, much like others before me, what the music sounded like “as Bach would have heard it.”