Day 163 – March 12th – Lambs!

Spring in the woods

Spring in the woods

An extra day of grace due to cancelled class, I did a bit of relaxing and plenty of practice. In the afternoon I took myself off on a long walk down a path I haven’t explored before. It took me across the fields and through some lovely woodland, eventually joining up with the North Downs Way near Brabourne. Though I didn’t spot any daffodils (I think up on the hills it’s still a bit cold) but in the woods could see that things were starting to become very green.

On the way back I visited some of our farm’s lambs – suddenly there are so many! The oldest ones are already out in the field with their mums, and round in the barn there are pens full of them. With the window open, my practice has been accompanied by the call and answer of bleats for a few days now, but I was amazed to see just how quickly the numbers have multiplied. The lambs were gorgeous, white and fluffy with over-sized ears and feet. Most were full of energy, and already eagerly exploring both their new world and each other. For some of them, though, play was all a bit too much and a nap in the sun was more enticing.

DSCN6250I often find I have a really good practice day when class gets postponed, probably because all of a sudden the pressure is released and I can enjoy things a bit more. This morning, I returned to a technical exercise that has been frustrating me – Taffanel and Gaubert-style scales with mordants on the first and third semiquavers of the descents. I’m not sure whether it was the Altès mordant study I’ve been working on, or my greater relaxation, but the exercise has definitely improved. I’m playing it a lot faster, and most of the mordants are clean and correctly-placed – which just makes the errors more frustrating! If I slip up, I can feel my hands tense up in anticipation of another slip, exactly what I need not to do. Most of the problem areas are up in the third octave, where the trill fingerings aren’t second nature yet.

Lots of new families. The numbers are to match the ewes and lambs.

Lots of new families. The numbers are to match the ewes and lambs.

One of my big problems in class of late has been inconsistency of intonation. It’s something I need to fix, but also something that musicians aren’t terribly keen to talk about! Trevor isn’t being very helpful, just telling me to listen more rather than offering any suggestions for practice. While practicing with a tuner and recording myself (I’ve been doing both a couple of times a week) do help, I feel like this area of my playing has got worse since I’ve been here for two reasons. The first is that I’m now using a much bigger dynamic range and being more daring in my playing, rather than playing it safe. The second is that I’m rarely playing with other people, which I was doing a lot of this time last year.

I think one of the things I’m missing is that reference point of others to pitch off, and so have decided to do some practice with drones over the coming week rather than playing with a visual tuner. Rather than beating myself up about it, I need to work on finding a solution even when I’m not regularly playing chamber music.

Tomorrow we’re off up to London for the final Wibb masterclass of our stay, though I’ll try and go to a few more in the coming months if possible. Then it’s back to Hastingleigh for the final whist drive. Time does move on apace!

Bed time!

Bed time!

Day 162 – March 11th – Spring Air

A more positive day today, helped along by the fact that it’s almost warm outside! I went running in a T-shirt for the first time since September, and also had my window open all day. I ran past fields of lambs (must take some photos) and daffodils ready to break into flower.

As for practice…I didn’t start out in a terribly good frame of mind this morning, but that improved with the day. I’ve noticed lately that my finger movements are becoming a lot smaller and more precise, both in technical exercises and studies. Trevor’s Practice Book 6 exercises really show up the finger movements that are hard – I’ll be going along at crotchet =126 no problem, and then all of a sudden one set comes up that really throws me off. Today I did E, F, G and H, and there were fewer surprises that I was anticipating, though still more than I want. Anything involving both an F# and a Bb is a disaster!

I spent quite a bit of time working on sight-reading, which is much better these days. I still tend to play unrhythmically when faced with a slow movement with lots of turns and grace notes, as the ornaments throw off my sense of the beat. I think I need not to focus on the little notes so much, but it’s hard when they’re small and I don’t know what they are.

This afternoon, Trevor emailed to say he has a cold and there’s no class tomorrow. I have to confess I did a little happy dance – the thought of playing the Hue Fantasie on one day’s practice was not enticing! Instead, I spent the last hour of my practice working on Andersen and Altès studies. I’m adamant I’ll finish the Altès book next week – while there’s a section of no. 25 that’s tricky with lots of quick trills, no. 26 is easy. Getting through the whole book will be a nice sense of accomplishment.

Day 154 – March 3rd – Playing Slowly

I can’t admit to having done terribly much practice today, only about three hours. After a gloomy, wet morning, the spring sun can out and was beckoning me outside. I went for a run after lunch, and did the whole loop round to the church, up into Hastingleigh and back to Elmsted. For weeks now I’ve been on the lookout for daffodils, and up in Hastingleigh one or two are just starting to flower. There are great banks of green stalks poised and ready, so very soon there will be a sea of little yellow trumpets. The sights of daffodils evokes really strong memories of my childhood here in England, and I’m excited to see them all flowering again. The others probably think my enthusiasm is a bit crazy!

Rather than play through all the technical exercises at speed, I decided to back off the pace today and work through fewer things really slowly. Trevor always advocates learning things quickly. His preferred method for the Andersen studies is learning small fragments at the correct tempo and then putting them together, rather than learning the notes slowly and then increasing the speed. I can see the logic in this – we’re working on sightreading and musicality at the same time as learning the notes, whereas slow note bashing can often sound rather wooden.

However, today I was playing through technical exercises that I know I can play much faster. I wanted to refocus a bit on sound, and on playing strong, clean notes rather than always sitting on the edge of what I can manage. I wanted to have time to notice things about my playing. The exercise worked; while I wasn’t thrilled by the idea of technical work, I really enjoyed the practice.

What did I notice?

I noticed that my sound, though rather varied of late, has become much bigger. Sometimes I’ve wondered whether it’s going backwards and becoming less focused, but now I think that might be part of the process of it opening out a bit more. I noticed that I’m still tending to cover the embouchure hole more that I should in the low register, particularly when I’m descending from something higher. I think this feels safe and produces something that sounds big from my perspective, but sounds weaker to a listener.

I also noticed that my fingers feel cleaner when I play slowly. I don’t lift them as high as six months ago, nor do I move them about nearly as much when they’re in the air. I noticed that my sensitivity to intonation had improved a lot, thought it’s still not where I’d like it to be. I still tend to think of out of tune notes as having a different colour rather than sharp or flat – which is probably why I often struggle with identifying them as either sharp or flat to correct! However, I also noticed that I’m intrinsically correcting them more, probably because the tendencies of certain notes have been drilled in so consistently!

It’s definitely a different sort of practice to what I’ve been doing lately, and one that I think needs to happen more often. If not here, then when I have some time after Trevor’s course. It’s also much more intensive in its own way, and I found that my concentration wavered after only fifteen or twenty minutes. Plenty to think on!