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!

Day 30 – October 30th – Sister’s smile

Today started off Skyping with my little sister, who I haven’t spoken with in three months! It was absolutely wonderful to chat and have a virtual tour of her new house, and I felt ready for just about anything that Trevor could throw at me in class.

As it turned out, I got off quite lightly today. Nothing is perfect, least of all my playing, and before coffee time Alyssa was required to give me a 20-minute ‘lesson’ on practising long notes in tune. However, it seemed that Trevor intended it as a pedagogical experience for both of us for various reasons, and it helped me to clarify a really key point: what sounds the best for me doesn’t sound the best out in the audience. We experimented with bending the note up and down, increasing and decreasing resistance in the air column. Trevor pointed out that the sound we tend to aim for is the point at which resistance is equal to air pressure, thus creating a harder, ‘purple’ sound. However, by closing off less of the embouchure, we reduce the resistance but maintain the same air pressure, thus achieving more of a ‘yellow’ tone that is more penetrating and, importantly, has harmonics that are more in tune. So step one is finding this tone, and then step two is practising long notes with a diminuendo from ff to pp.

As today was the last lesson of the month, Trevor wanted to check on those who’d been issued with recorders and the traverso, but Shannon and Chin Ting had forgotten theirs and were sent running home (a half-hour walk!) to get them. Luckily Dot persuaded Trevor to go and pick them up, but I think the point was made and all will be careful to do their extra homework in the future!

I’m counting my performance of the Griffes Poem as a success. It certainly wasn’t perfect, and I was actually ticked off and told that I “hadn’t practised” the fast bit. However, I got through the first page and a half with Trevor only making stylistic comments, and was complemented at the end of them for my new-found expressiveness. This week, I’ve been trying to worry less about getting everything ‘right’ in my class performances, and more on simply communicating my love for music. It seems to be paying off, and hopefully I can add to that more correct notes in the fast sections of the piece next week.

We finished off the evening at the ‘Old Dairy’ (I live in the ‘New Dairy’), where Chin Ting and Yi Yin made dumplings. It was nice to cook and eat all together, and I made a note of Chin Ting’s vegetarian dumpling recipe because they were yummy!