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Orchestral Violin Practice Challenge – Week 2

I was aiming to get a video out each week, however it’s not going to happen this week. Things have cropped up where I am not in the stage where I’ve got enough footage, nor enough time to edit a video, that I think I will just aim at putting a video out every couple of weeks. But I still want to hold myself accountable, so I will provide a written update of my violin practice progress here.

Changing Tactics with my Violin Practice

Following some feedback from a Reddit thread where I posted my video, there was a suggestion to take some time in my violin practice to focus on my technique, particularly my scales and my shifting. They suggested that I look at Nathan Cole’s New York Philharmonic Audition challenge series, which was very enlightening. I took his 2 hour violin practice break up as the basis of my own practice for this week. This included introducing the first three pages of Schradieck, Kreutzer 9, and Dont 6 as my studies, a focus on vibrato and trills for technique, and a big section of work on my scales every day.

Violin Practice leads to Tiredness and Exhaustion

A man sitting at a table, looking out the window, looking tired and exhausted.
Photo by Andrew Neel on Pexels.com

This week saw my violin practice go backwards in many ways. I only had three days of actual practice out of the seven, with another day where I had a piano trio rehearsal but didn’t spend time practicing. The other days saw me being excessively tired, and just not wanting to practice. My son has been coming into my bed at night, and so it’s been quite common for me to be waking up around 2-3am, and not getting back to sleep. Even as I’m writing this I’m feeling tired. My other son came into bed around 2am, and while I did get back to sleep, I’m still feeling tired.

The other side of the equation – which is linked to my tiredness – is exhaustion. When I was practicing with this new schedule with a huge focus on technique, I found my body getting tired a lot quicker. My muscles were working a lot more than they were used to, and as such I didn’t complete the schedule once. This might mean that I need to think more about how I structure my practice as I build up into it – instead of 2 hours with a ten minute break, perhaps I should do an hour in the morning, and an hour in the afternoon. Or 4 half hour blocks. Given my current limitations, that might be more achievable than the solid two hour block. My body will be fresher, and my mind will be more focussed.

Physical Therapy

The other thing that I’ve been contemplating is that my body isn’t really ready for two hours of practice. I jump in and practice, but I’m not giving myself any preparation. I saw a composer on twitter suggest finding some benefit from adding in some stretches, particularly for his legs, as he is sitting most of the day. The stretching was increasing flexibility, and strength in his body, and allowing him to focus more on the task at hand, and not on the stiffness in his body.

The book, "Violin - Six Lessons with Yehudi Menuhin", features a picture of Yehudi Menuhin playing his violin on the cover.

I borrowed from the library a while ago Six Lessons with Yehudi Menuhin. I had an idea for a video of following these lessons and seeing how my playing improved. However, the first lesson starts with a number of stretches, one of which is a Yoga pose that I wasn’t confident of my ability to pull off. But given how my body is feeling, I am wondering if it might be worthwhile adding these exercises into my daily routine, warming up and building up the muscles in my body so that I can have greater stamina in my practice.

Practice Log

So Here’s my violin practice log for this week.

8/1/21 – No practice

9/1/21 – Piano Trio rehearsal (2 hours). Playing the Schubert and Saint-Saens piano trios.

10/1/21 – First day utilising Nathan Cole’s schedule. Practiced C Major scales from Flesch up to and including thirds, Schradieck pages 1 and 2 at 60BPM, Vibrato Work (From Simon Fischer’s Basics), Kreutzer 9, Mozart Concerto, Dont 6 and some trill work. 80 minutes practice in total.

11/1/21 – Same as the day before, but using A minor scales, with a focus on the one string scales and arpeggios, getting smooth shifts. Also did 10 minutes on the Bach St Matthew Passion excerpt, before exhaustion got the better of me. 90 minutes practice in total.

12/1/21 – I completely missed that this was a palindrome day, until just now. I only completed the first half of the practice today – E major scales, Schradieck, Vibrato, and Kreutzer 9.

13/1/21 and 14/1/21 – No practice.

Focus for next week – introduce some warm up stretches to get the body ready to practice. Break up practice more, with an aim for more days of practice, and completing the routine. Focus is still on technique, particularly on shifting. Instead of the vibrato and trill work section, introduce specific exercises from Basics on shifting.

Catch up on Week 1

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Criticism: Deal with it well by being in the right mindset

I would be surprised if there is anyone who deals with criticism well. If someone actually likes being harshly criticised for work that they did, I’m sure other people might have some concerns about that person’s psychological profile.

An image of two people, one filled with ways to give harsh criticism, and the other filled with the effects that criticism can have on our self image.

Criticism is something that we deal with on a daily basis. Whether it’s our own self-criticism or the criticism of a teacher or trusted mentor, or if you’re someone who releases your creative work to others, then you can be criticised by random people who may or may not have any concern for your mental well-being.

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Orchestral Violin Practice Challenge: My goals for the next two years

One of the things I absolutely love about playing the violin is playing orchestral music. I love the variety of repertoire that it brings – from Bach Cantatas to Tchaikovsky Symphonies, Bizet’s suites, and modern, cutting edge compositions. Orchestral playing, and the violin practice that goes with it, is constantly interesting and challenging.

Rehearsing with the Bendigo Symphony Orchestra

When I was going through my Bachelor of Music, I loved orchestral playing. I even did a research project on what was required to win an orchestral violin position in an Australian orchestra. But my playing was never at the stage where I could consider applying for an audition, let alone winning that audition.

I went away from music for a few years, but now I’m back – currently studying to be a High School music teacher. I’ve got two years of study to go, so I’m setting myself a goal.

In two years, I want my playing to be at a stage where I could feel confident in applying for an audition. I’m not going to say that I’m going to win that audition – but to borrow a line from a hit musical, “I want to be in the room where it happens.”

What’s required?

So to start with, let’s look at what’s required for an Orchestral Violin audition.

First, you generally need to have two violin concertos prepared. These are broken up into two categories. The first is a Mozart Concerto – by which they will either specify, or at least expect either the Fourth concerto in D Major, or the Fifth concerto in A Major. The second category is either a Romantic or Twentieth Century concerto. These have a bit more flexibility in them, and do allow for a bit more choice, but most audition panels would be expecting to hear the Tchaikovsky or Sibelius Violin Concertos.

Then you are required to play some orchestral excerpts, which allows them to see how you might fit in to the individual stylistic playing of the orchestra. Over the many years of orchestral auditions, there have been a number of excerpts that have proven themselves to be required more often than others. As a result, even though you may not get a list of required excerpts until the audition is announced, or even closer to the audition date, you can still prepare these excerpts knowing that it is likely they will be included.

Reviewing where I’m at now

When I consider my own playing and my own repertoire that I know at the moment, there are a few things that are missing. I’ve learnt the fourth concerto by Mozart, and I refreshed it in 2020. However, I’ve not really learnt any of the major romantic concerti. And while my head knowledge remains relatively fresh, a lot of my technique has slipped. And if I’m to seriously tackle the Tchaikovsky concerto, then I need to address the weakest part of my playing – my double stops.

Difficulties ahead

A Bendigo Symphony Orchestra chamber music rehearsal

When taking on any challenge, it’s important to note the things that can get in the way, or make it more difficult. Firstly, I’m heading into full time study this year, which is no easy feat on its own, but my studies will see me be required to complete three month-long practicums – two this year, one next year. That will take up a lot of my time, and mean that finding time for my violin practice will be difficult. Secondly, I have three kids, one who is diagnosed ASD, and one who is undergoing diagnosis. As such, there are a lot of appointments and therapy sessions to attend to. And while this is an important challenge to me, my family will always come first.

As such, I’ve come up with a plan for my violin practice that I feel is achievable despite these time constraints, however, it will still enough of a challenge that it will stretch me. I’ve divided it up into semesters, but in other words it means the first half of the year, and the second half of the year.

The Goal

Semester 1Semester 2
2021Polish Mozart 4
Learn Mendelssohn
Technique focus on Double Stops
Excerpts: Bach St Matthew Passion; Beethoven Symphony 2, 3 and 9; Mozart Symphony 35 and 39
Polish Mendelssohn
Learn Mozart 5
Technique focus on tone production
Excerpts: Brahms Symphony 1 and 4, and Variations on a Theme by Haydn; Elgar Enigma Variations; Prokofiev Symphony 1; Shostakovich Symphony 1
All 2021Kreutzer and Fiorillo Etudes
2022Polish Mozart 5
Learn Tchaikovsky
Technique focus on intonation
Excerpts: Prokofiev Symphony 5; Rimsky-Korsakov Scheherazade Solos; Strauss Don Juan; Tchaikovsky Symphony 4 and 5; Bartok Concerto for Orchestra
Polish Tchaikovsky
Technique focus on bowing
Excerpts: Mahler 3 and 5; Prokofiev Romeo and Juliet Orchestral Suites; Strauss Ein Heldenleben (Solos) and Der Burger als Edelmann (Solos); Tchaikovsky Swan Lake (Solos)
All 2022Rode and Dont etudes

In terms of the amount of violin practice I am able to do, I am aiming to do two hours of practice a day. While that might be a bit of a stretch some days, so it might only be one hour, but that is the aim.

Do it once and do it right!

One of the things that I am really trying to focus in on is learning the right way. So I will also be really looking at my practice techniques, utilising resources such as Practiceopedia by Philip Johnston (no longer in print), Youtube, and others, to improve my practicing and make it as effective and efficient as possible. In time, I’ll be sharing these in my weekly videos as I share what I’ve been working on, how I’ve been working on it, and how well it has worked.

I’m excited to see what this program will be able to do for my playing. Similarly, I am looking forward to what it will do for my teaching. In conclusion, I hope you’ll be able to join me for this journey by subscribing to my YouTube channel. But for now – I need to go and practice.

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Practice Technique – Blocking

This is the start of a new series where I’m going to highlight a practice technique in each post. I know that as a teacher, I often don’t have time to go into specific techniques of how to practice. This is because there is so much to get into during the lesson. However, learning how to practice is just as important as learning how to play an instrument. In fact, it might be more important, as you can take the skills you learn in how to practice over to different instruments. Today, we are looking at a practice technique that I think most people think of when they think about music practice – blocking.

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The Lark Ascending

A type of Lark that has ascended up a tree.

Today is Remembrance Day, or Armistice Day – the day the guns fell silent in World War 1. And I thought it fitting to look at this incredible piece of music by English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams – The Lark Ascending.

Temmick's Lark - a small brown bird with a light white belly and black patches across its face.
skřivan růžkatý (Eremophila bilopha, Temminck’s Lark), Jordánsko

The Lark Ascending was first composed in 1914 for violin and piano. However, due to the outbreak of the war, it was first performed in 1920. During this time, at the age of 42, Vaughan Williams volunteered for military service. He joined the Royal Army Medical Corps as a private, where he drove ambulance wagons in France and Greece. Commissioned as a lieutenant in the Royal Artillery in 1917, Vaughan Williams saw action in France from March 1918. Vaughan Williams brought home an emotional toll from the war. He lost many friends and comrades, including composer George Butterworth. Butterworth was shot by a sniper at the Battle of the Somme, buried on the battlefield, and his remains never recovered.

The Lark Ascending reworked

Vaughan Williams stopped writing music during the war years, and after the war took some time before he felt he was ready to write new works. It was in this time that he reworked some of his previously composed works, and the reworking of this piece for violin and orchestra is the result of this time. First performed in 1921, it is this version that is the more famous version.

First Performances

Marie Hall gave the first performance of The Lark Ascending. Vaughan Williams had written and dedicated the piece to Hall. She gave the premiere of the violin and piano version in December 1920, and again with the orchestral version on 14 June 1921 at Queen’s Hall, London with the British Symphony Orchestra. An early performance Holst’s The Planets dominated the program. Holst started writing the Planets in 1914, and its completion seemed to be affected by the war. Marilyn Cooley writing of the first movement, Mars, said “there’s a truly visceral sense of horror; what must have seemed like the end of the world to those who experienced The Great War.” At the time a music critic for The Times newspaper wrote that this performance

“stood apart from the rest as the only work in the programme which showed serene disregard of the fashions of to-day or of yesterday. It dreams its way along in “many links without a break, and though it never rises to the energy of the lines “He is the dance of children, thanks Of sowers, shout for primrose banks,” the music is that of the clean countryside, not of the sophisticated concert-room.”

Music Critic in The Times, 15 June 1921 (likely H.C. Colles).

The Planets contrasts the spectacle and the visceral horror with quiet introspection. In contrast, The Lark Ascending is tranquil, and promotes the hope of peace that was longed for after the war.

Sheet Music Editions: Oxford (preface by Michael Kennedy), Oxford Full Score, Oxford 1926 edition, Eulenburg Study Score.

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Wirrangintungiyil – Eric Avery

It’s NAIDOC week in Australia. During this week we celebrate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture as a vital and important part of Australian culture. There is a strong culture of music in Aboriginal culture. In their beliefs, they talk about songlines. These are the paths across the sky and sometimes the land that mark the route followed by creator-beings during the Dreaming. As such, it is unsurprising that there is a group of musicians who are breaching the gap between traditional Aboriginal music and Western Art Music. These artists use this new medium to share their stories and culture. Today, we are going to look at one of these such artists, Eric Avery.

Eric Avery – Indigenous Multi-disciplinary artist

people woman street motion
Photo by Travel Sourced on Pexels.com

Eric Avery is a Ngiyampaa, Yuin, Bandjalang and Gumbangirr artist. Firstly, in his formal training, he trained in Dance as the NASIDA Dance Academy. Then, he had a mentorship at The Australian Ballet. Finally, to round out his formal training he studied a Bachelor of Music at the Australian Institute of Music. As a result, He combines his skills on the violin to perform classical music and create new contemporary music. For example, His compositions express his Koori (NSW Aboriginal) heritage. He also works with his family’s custodial songs, reviving them and continuing the age-old legacy of singing in his tribe.

Today, I want to showcase two of Avery’s compositions. Firstly, there is a work entitled Galinga (water song). Galinga is an incredibly emotive piece. It incorporates Avery’s native tongue with traditional violin playing and looping textures. The resulting piece creates a rich tapestry that evokes a babbling brook.

Finally, In Wirrangintungiyil, Avery performs with his father on Didgeridoo. In it, Avery utilises a healing lullaby that he learned from recordings of the King Family. Avery talks about how utilising native languages has been transformative and healing for him in reclaiming his culture.

ABC Classic FM has a fantastic page highlighting a number of stories and performances around Indigenous performers and composers for NAIDOC week that is well worth checking out.

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Top Five Modern Violinists

Following up from yesterday’s post about the top five historical violinists, today we have the top five modern violinists. These are the violinists that if they come to do a concert in your town, you should do everything you can to get to see them. These are the ones that you should be watching and listening to for the best quality recordings of today. And these are the ones that I just prefer to listen to. Let’s get into it.

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Top Five Historical Violinists

There are many brilliant violinists around today, and tomorrow I will share with you my five favourite modern day violinists. But all of these violinists are built on the shoulders of the greats who came before them. The Romantic Period of Western art music (1830-1900) produced the greatest violin compositions. However, it is in the 20th Century that the best violin performances dominated. These giants still influence modern thought and stylistic interpretation. Today I want to share with you my five favourite Historical Violinists. And thanks to the wonderful world that is YouTube, we have live recordings and performances of all of them.

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Holy Song of Thanksgiving – Beethoven’s String Quartet number 15

In the spring of 1825, Ignaz Schuppanzigh, an Austrian violinist, was engaged to perform the premiere of Beethoven’s latest string quartet, written some 15 years after his last quartet which premiered in 1810. Schuppanzigh, with his quartet consisting of Karl Holz on second violin, Franz Weiss on viola and Nikolaus Kraft on cello, gave the first performance of this piece on 6 November 1825, and whilst reports said Beethoven was not pleased with the performance and blamed Schuppanzigh, the quartet would go on to perform the two other quartets that were commissioned by the Russian Count Nikolay Galitzin.

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