Grace Notes: Buying a violin

Over the last few years, I’ve started to notice that my violin hasn’t always been able to do everything that I was trying to play. This summer I eventually decided (with some encouragement and help from my parents) to begin to look for a new violin.

I was home for just over two months and so we ended up going to a lot of violin shops in a pretty short place of time. I owe a big thanks to my dad especially, for all the driving and listening to endless violins. Everyone who worked in all of the various shops were great and really helpful, especially as when we started looking I had no idea what I wanted except something ‘louder’. The more violins I tried, the better idea I had of what I actually wanted, so by the end I had gotten pretty good at knowing when a particular violin wasn’t for me.

I am really happy with the instrument I’ve ended up with, and hopefully I won’t have to go through buying another instrument for a long while. But, if or when I have to do it again, there are a few key things that I’ve learnt:

1. It doesn’t matter if you don’t immediately know what you want, the more you try the more you will learn.

2. Don’t be afraid to say that you don’t like a particular violin, even if you think you should. So long as you are polite and just say that that one isn’t for you, you’ll be fine.

3. The best way to really know if the violin is for you is to take it home and try it in a familiar space, so you already know what the acoustics will be like.

4. You don’t have to play pieces to test it, sometimes just playing long loud and quiet sounds really exposes what the instrument is like.

5. Don’t be scared to really play out in the shop. No-one is going to judge you if you miss a few shifts or play slightly out of tune.

6. I found it helpful to keep going back to my own violin, as then I could really get some perspective on how much better the one I was playing on was.

7. Ask questions and find out as much as you can, because then you’ll be able to ask for something similar in the next place you look.

8. I found it really helpful having another pair of ears (my Dad) listening as I was trying them. It was really interesting and helpful to get his opinion about what the instrument sounded like when it wasn’t directly under your ear.

9. Just because a violin is slightly cheaper than the range you were thinking of, doesn’t mean that it’s less good.

After about two months of trying violins, Dad and I were in Scotland, staying with my grandparents before a hiking trip. We decided to have a day in Edinburgh and made a quick visit to Stringers just to see what they had. As it turned out they had a number of violins by a Scottish maker Paul Bowers, one of which I was very taken with. I ended up borrowing it and taking it back to Cardiff, and after another few trial weeks decided I loved it and bought it.

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My new violin!

Having had three weeks back in Sweden playing on it every day I’m still very pleased with it. The difference it makes is astounding and I couldn’t be happier.

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Grace Notes: How music helped me to settle in

I have been living in Sweden for just over two months and I’m now feeling pretty settled and normal, almost like I belong here. Even the language is becoming less of a mystery, and I’m starting to pick up bits and bobs of conversations in Swedish, although I have little to no chance of being able to form a reply yet…

However, I found the first few weeks here hard. Some days would be fine, but others I’d feel very far away from everything and a little lost. This was often because I’d seen a post on Facebook or Instagram from a friend back home doing something that had I not moved, I would be doing too.

Lodging in a flat means that I spend a fair amount of time on my own, and while most of the time I find it refreshing (and it’s nice to be able to put on pjs at 6pm and not be judged), sometimes I wasn’t able to shut off my brain completely and I’d get myself worrying over nothing and then stress out and not be able to get anything done.

The one thing that I found really made it easier though was listening to music. Every day I have a half an hour walk into faculty and I listen to my iPod the whole way. I don’t listen to things I am studying or pieces we are about to play in a concert, but tunes that I know really well and associate happy memories with. It also gave me a chance to really appreciate the beautiful scenery around me and watch the seasons change, without my mind being clouded with things I need to do, or was missing out on.

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Walking home in the summer evening

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Watching the colours change into autumn

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One of the first frosts (it got down to -4, but I’m told it’ll get much colder….)

For me these included tracks like ‘Ziggy Stardust’ by David Bowie, ‘Can You Forgive Her’ by the Pet Shop Boys, ‘Ballad of the Great Eastern’ by Sting, or ‘Comfortably Numb’ by Pink Floyd. These songs change on a daily basis, but if I was to choose a few things to listen to now, it would be the above tracks.

By giving myself that half an hour or so to and from college to shut off, let my mind wander and just get lost in the music, really helped to keep me from going crazy.

Even though I now feel pretty much at home here, I still have my walk and my music every morning and most evenings, and I really enjoy just being able to escape and let my mind wander wherever it chooses.

Grace Notes: Being plunged into the depths of Jazz solos!

In your third year at Trinity Laban, you can choose two classes to go towards your end of year mark. I decided to do arranging as one and jazz as the other . I knew nothing about jazz and took it because I liked the sound and wanted to know more. Although I find the lessons very hard I feel like I’ve learnt a lot about how jazz pieces are structured in terms of chords. This has also helped with my Arranging course.

One of the jazz assessments was to choose a solo and then transcribe and play it from memory. I chose ‘Tiny’s Tempo’ by Charlie Parker and I used the 3rd take. I like this solo because it is  upbeat and the saxophone improvisation wasn’t too unrealistic to play on the violin. We were instructed to learn the head  (the unison tune at the start) and then the solo so you had approximately 3 choruses (all 12 bars long).

To aid with the transcription I used a computer program called ‘Transcribe!’ which allows you to slow down the track to hear all the notes more clearly (without altering the pitch). I started by writing out a rough version and then re-wrote it, to make the rhythms more accurate. Then I had to learn it from memory. Memorising isn’t really my strong point, so this was the most challenging task for me.

I started by taking small sections  and playing them slowly along with the recording, repeating over and over. Gradually I made the sections longer and sped them up. By the end I could play it up to speed and without any music. This was a huge achievement for me, as I managed to memorise the piece in only a week and it wasn’t a standard piece of violin music, making it more awkward to play (as saxophones don’t have to deal with string crossings, position changes, a fixed low G…).

I think the assessment went alright. Nerves got the better of me at first, and I ‘fell off’ the recording, but the second time through I got it. After doing this I’m more comfortable with memorising and I’ve been practicing small memory exercises. If you ever have trouble memorising I’d recommend doing this. Like anything, memory improves with practice so if you aim to learn a few bits from memory (script, poetry, revision, music etc…) every week, you’ll gradually build up the skill to do it quickly and efficiently.

I hope you’ve enjoyed the above track and this blog. Hopefully if you need to memorise anything, the above technique might work for you too.

Grace Notes: How to prepare for a concert with only one day of rehearsal

Last Friday I took part in a concert with Trinity Laban Symphony Orchestra where we played ‘A London Symphony’ by Vaughan  Williams. This was a ‘Side by Side’  project, which meant that teachers and professionals were sitting in the orchestra playing alongside us (in the string sections we had the pros sitting in the number 2 spot). What was most difficult about this project was that we only had one rehearsal as a full orchestra and one 2 hour sectional earlier in the week. I want to share some tips that I found helped me to prepare for this so that I wasn’t still practically sightreading in the concert.

Before you start to practice your part:

  • Listen to the recording so you can familiarise yourself with the work (if you are doing this for an audition and not a concert also research the background just in case you are asked any questions about it)
  • Mark in cues (often having a score for this helps too) by what you hear so that when sitting in a full rehearsal totally lost, you can get yourself back in again.
  • Highlight (always with a pencil though…) the exposed and fast bits so when you have a chance to practice you can zone in on those sections and not waste time practicing slow notes.
  • Listen with a metronome and mark in the approximate tempos so there won’t be any nasty surprises when you get to the full rehearsal (this has happened to me a couple of times and doesn’t make the rehearsal easy going!)
  • Keep listening. It can be really boring sitting and following your part, but just have it on in the background and get in your head through the power of osmosis.

(I do not own this video)

While practicing:

  • Practice slowly with a metronome, and gradually speed up any passages that seem too fast to play at first. To ensure you can really play it, take the metronome faster than you’ll have to do it in the concert and then you’ll be sure you can get it right on the night. You need to be really picky though, as there is no point in practicing mistakes fast. Don’t go up a metronome ‘notch’ unless you are comfortable with the current speed.
  • Don’t be tempted to play all the way through your part. The tunes are fun to play, but they are probably (obviously there are some exceptions) some of the easier bits of the piece. Especially if you only have limited time to practice, make sure you have highlighted what needs work and focus on those sections.
  • Don’t be afraid to write in fingerings. These will help when you get to that tricky bit and can’t remember the amazing fingering you came up with.
  • Play along with the recording (at this instance you CAN play the whole work) and then you get a better idea of where your part fits in with the rest of the orchestra.
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(I do not own this image)

During the rehearsal:

  • Especially if, like in this project, you have a pro sitting in front of you, try and copy how they play phrases and within the section. For example, if (like me) you are a string player, watch for the part of the bow the front of the section are playing in or ask the pro for help with fingering for a difficult passage. (This applies even if you just have a normal section principal as well of course! )
  • Copy in the bowings (or if a non-string player any other markings) as fast as you can. Hopefully the desks in front of you will pass it back, but if they don’t then take it upon yourself to copy in the bowings quickly in your break as no one likes to see bows going in the wrong direction in the concert.
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Trinity Laban Symphony Orchestra (I do not own this image)

Hopefully this has given you some ideas as how to deal with a concert if there aren’t many rehearsals. Apologies for this being so string heavy, I’m afraid I don’t have much authority on sitting in any other sections of the orchestra! I hope some of these tips are useful to you, whatever you play. Thanks for reading and I’m looking forward to seeing you all for my next post!