Musicality and the Love of Violin

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I remember loving violin when I was younger. 15, 16, 17, 18, on into college.

Did I try to weasel out of practicing? Of course. I think most teenagers do that, even if they love it and are serious about it. Sometimes you just need a break. Or want a day off. Or get tired of repeating the same thing endlessly, which is what it takes to learn a violin piece or technique really well.

But I used to be excited about my music. I spent hours each day listening to my piece, studying it, and practicing it. I would listen to multiple recordings, find something I liked, and try to imitate it in my own playing. Then I would listen to others that I also liked, but that conflicted with the other recording, so I’d practice to combine the two to make it my own.

I would often spend an hour working on one passage. Sometimes it wasn’t even technically difficult. I’d take a slow passage that I loved and work on it until it sounded exactly the way I wanted it to. I went through a period where I needed visuals to aid my musicality, so in those cases I’d spend almost as much time creating a story to go with the music as I spent physically practicing. During that time, once I had my story or my image worked out, I’d play it over and over in my head while I practiced. That’s how I brought out the phrasing I wanted.

Eventually, I didn’t need the visuals anymore. I could just feel how I wanted the music to sound and make it sound that way. I suppose that marked an improvement in my musicality. I still listened to recordings to get an idea of what I wanted to do, but I didn’t have to do it as much. I didn’t have to follow along in my music marking ideas while I listened ten times in a row. I remembered the ideas after listening once or twice.

This is a process needed for solo music and chamber music, though with chamber music a lot of the ideas are worked out in the group, rather than individually. When I was in the graduate string quartet program in grad school, my quartet would spend as much of our rehearsal time discussing phrasing as we spent playing the pieces. That was a necessary part of putting the music together.

The process is not necessary for orchestra music. The musical ideas that come across in orchestra music are not the ideas of each musician, but of the conductor. All I have to do as an orchestra musician is learn my notes, bowings, and dynamics. There isn’t much else to it.

When I was in school I practiced solo, chamber, and orchestra music all the time. I was required to do all three types of playing. However, since finishing school I’ve only been doing orchestra music. I haven’t had an opportunity to do much chamber music, and practicing solo music has been too much strain on my neck considering that I have to keep it in relatively good shape for the times I have orchestra.

I think that limitation in the type of music I play, and the lack of any need to practice phrasing and musicality, has contributed to my disinterest and disillusionment with violin. I don’t dislike playing exactly, I just dislike the playing that I’m doing. There’s no creativity involved anymore. There’s no improving my technique. It’s all about learning my notes really well so I can be an effective cog in the orchestral machine. There isn’t much joy to be had in that.

I used to love playing in an orchestra, too. The experience of making music with 80 other people can’t really be matched by solo or chamber playing. It was overpowering, amazing, and magical. I think maybe after doing it for 16 years, though, some of the magic is just gone. Whatever I felt playing in orchestra before has faded away. I still feel it sometimes, but it’s so rare that it doesn’t begin to make up for the times that I just don’t care about it.

I am starting to wonder if I could have the same experience, but enjoy it more, by attending an orchestra concert instead of playing in it. For the first time in my life I’m considering quitting orchestras entirely. I never thought I would want to do that. It isn’t that I hate playing in them. I’m not even always indifferent. I just think that if I didn’t have to worry about being in good physical shape for the 20-hour rehearsal weeks I have for orchestra, maybe I could actually get back to practicing solo music again. Get back to being creative, to phrasing and planning, which would maybe make me care about it again. Maybe even help me love it again.

I could practice for real, like I used to. Not just learn notes for rehearsal. I could work on trio music with my husband and Raine, and maybe even get some trio gigs. I think what I need to care about violin again is that creative work that’s a part of learning solo and chamber music. Not murdering my neck during orchestra weeks would probably go a long way toward improving my enjoyment of it again, too.

Anyway, those are the thoughts I’ve been having about violin lately. I don’t want to quit entirely, but my neck is giving me so many problems that I have considered it. I think what I’d rather do is quit the playing that hurts my neck the most, stresses me out the most, and makes me indifferent to playing. Which is orchestra playing.

I still need to think about it some more. It’s a huge step. I haven’t been completely out of an orchestra since I was 14 years old. I might regret it. I might not. Who knows. But if I do regret it, the time off from orchestras will be just what my neck needs to allow me to prepare an orchestra audition. There’s no possible way I could get back to that level right now. My neck is too messed up. But if I didn’t have orchestra rehearsals all the time, maybe I could get my neck to a better place so I would be able to play for real again.

I think that’s what I want most from violin right now. To get back to real practicing and real playing, so that I can care about it again.

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One response to “Musicality and the Love of Violin

  1. I think orchestra is somethign that needs to be done with more personal types of playing. Cause you’re right, the practicing process needs to have that sense of creativity and fulfillment. I’m finding that now as I (re) start practicing. I hate practicing for auditions like a robot zombie face. I love working on music.

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