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Tuesday, September 14, 2010


Having plowed my way heroically through that enormous literary biography of Charles Dickens, I decided to turn to lighter fare, and read Gerald Elias' second detective novel, DANSE MACABRE. Elias is a professional violinist, Associate Concertmaster of the Utah Symphony, former member of the Boston Symphony First Violin section, and the author of two murder mysteries whose main character is an irascible old blind violinist named Jacobus. The novels, needless to say, are filled with string instrument arcana [write about what you know about].

Somehow, the combination of reading the Elias novel and the completion of a variety of tasks that I had been attending to [the eleventh edition of a text book, etc.] produced an unexpected shift in my internal emotional economy. Two days ago, I did something I had not done for more than two years. I opened my viola case. The first thing I discovered, to my astonished delight, was that my viola was still in tune. I decided, very slowly, to return to the viola, trying to recapture some of the limited facility I had acquired in eight years of serious study and practice, and then perhaps seeing whether I could find like-minded amateurs in the area who wanted to play string quartets.

After tightening my bow and adjusting the chin rest, I tried playing a C major three octave scale, very slowly, one note on each long drawn out bow. I reminded myself to lighten up on the bow, allowing the sound to emerge naturally, rather than pressing too hard. I played the scale, up and down, several times, trying to improve my sound when I shifted to the third position on the D string. This accomplished, I decided to try a little game that I used to play to relieve the boredom of scales.

I put a new battery in my electronic metronome and set it for the slowest possible speed. Then I played the three octave C major scale again, one note on each bow, timing each bow stroke. up or down, to coincide with two ticks of the metronome. When I was satisfied with the sound, I started again, playing the same scale at the same bow speed, but this time two notes on a bow. This has the effect, of course, of doubling the speed at which I play the notes. Now I repeated the scale, with three notes on a bow, but with the bow moving at the same speed. This is a trifle tricky, because when you do this, you are playing three notes against two ticks, but it is not too hard to hear, or feel, in one's head. This was still slow enough, of course, so that actually playing the notes was no trouble.

Next came four notes on a bow -- an easy one because you are simply doubling the rate at which you play the notes -- two notes each time the metronome ticks, four notes on a down bow followed by four notes on an up bow. Fives, however, are really tricky -- hard to feel or hear -- and I cannot say I did too well matching the bow changes to the metronome ticks. I played all the notes, five on a bow, but I kept playing a little too fast or a little too slow. Sixes, on the other hand, are easy, because basically you are playing triplets, one triplet to each tick, two triplets on a down bow and two on an up bow.

Sevens, like fives, are very hard to coordinate with the metronome. They are also a little hard to count, but I cheat. I count a triplet followed by a four, then I change bows. If you play only quartets from the classical period, you never ever find yourself counting sevens, so that is all right.

Eights are getting to be pretty brisk, four for each tick of the metronome. In classical music, four-four time is quite common [indeed, it is called common time -- see the death bed scene in AMADEUS with Mozart dictating the great Requiem Mass to Salieri --at one point, Mozart says to Salieri, "common time"], so counting comes pretty naturally.

Nines are actually easy. You are playing three triplets, and it is rather like waltz time. One-two-three one-two-three one-two-three. By now, the notes are going pretty fast, so you have to be quite sure of what you are playing, in order to concentrate on the counting.

Tens, like fives, are hard to coordinate with the metronome. Counting them is a matter of counting five twice, but I have an edge. When I do my morning power walk, I very often count the number of paces from one point in the walk to the next [a pace being left-right], so I am quite accustomed to counting by tens.

Elevens are the most unnatural number in the entire sequence, but there is one really nifty thing about elevens. An octave has eight notes, [C D E F G A B C], so you would think a three octave scale would have twenty four notes, but the last note of the first octave is also the first note of the second, and likewise for the second and third, so there are really twenty-two notes in a three octave scale, and twenty-two is exactly twice eleven. That means that on the way up, one down bow and one up bow is all you need to complete the entire sequence. [On the way down, there are twenty-one notes, because you do not repeat the top C].

And so we come to twelves, which are sets of four triplets. These are really easy to count, although the breaks between up bows and down bows are not natural, as with elevens.

Finally, I finish up this little game by playing the entire run going up on one bow, and the entire run coming down on another. [If I try really hard, I can actually play the whole six octave run, up and down, on one bow, but it sounds godawful. I do not have the kind of superb bow control required to make that sound like music.]

Yesterday, I did the whole thing all over again, this time with a C-sharp major three octave scale. Today I will do it with a three octave D major scale. I will keep progressing up by half-tones, day by day, until I have played all the possible three octave major scales.

Now, here is the neatest fact. In a one octave chromatic scale, there are exactly twelve notes [C C-sharp D E-flat E F F-sharp G A-flat A B-flat B]. So, if you match each note to a different number of notes on a bow, you can on the same day play a series of twelve major three octave scales, each using a different number of notes on a bow. When I was deep into my study of the instrument, I used to do that as a kind of mental test, keeping track simultaneously of the speed of the bow, the intonation of the notes, the key signature of the scale, and the number of notes on a bow. If you do this, you end up reacquainting yourself each day with every note on the instrument that you are ever going to have to play. It is a way of saying "Good morning" to the viola.

1 comment:

Ioannis said...

Pretty nifty routine, professor!
I'll try that with my cello, with which I also recently reacquainted myself after a couple of years of letting it go out of tune in its case. All the best!