Last Saturday, my 12-year-old cellist son and I played for a garden tour in Palo Alto. He’s going to be on tour with his school orchestra during his teacher’s regular recital in a couple of weeks, so this performance, also organized by his cello teacher, was like a mini-recital for him. He played 2 movements from the Vivaldi cello sonata in A minor that he’s been working on, and it went well.
The two of us also played a duet. It was movement from a real cello-violin duet, not a cello-plus-mom-fakes-the-B-part-while-attempting-to-read-bass-clef-on-a-viola duet like we’ve done occasionally before, and it was written by a composer I didn’t know, J.G. Albrechtsberger. Austrian composer, 1736-1809. Yep, just what he sounds like: between Bach and Mozart.
I practiced the piece on my own, too, probably more than my son did. And during the garden party, with the exception of my muffing a chord at one point, the performance seemed to go quite well. My son and I are suited to playing together. We follow and listen to each other well, and seem to have the same ideas about when and when not to ritard, without having to say much aloud. People complimented us.
My husband recorded the performance on his phone, and afterwards, I listened. I was generally pleased and proud, especially of my son’s playing and how well we played together. But as I listened again, another, less comfortable, realization dawned on me: my son’s intonation is now better than mine is. The cello sounded fine, but in the violin part, I heard it, an old nemesis: that annoying high-pitched whine.
Untrained ears, including mine until relatively recently, might not even be able to identify what, exactly, is wrong with it; there is just something about that sound that telegraphs “adult amateur” and “keep your day job”. In fact, I used to think that it was my student-level instrument and bow, the sound quality of a phone camera recorder, and something about my right-hand bowing or left-hand vibrato technique, that made me sound that way when I played the violin.
I was eager to improve any and all of those things. At one point I even wondered whether it was a problem that I had with the E-string and with the violin in general. I took up the viola, with its rich chocolately tone, partly to get away from that E-string whine.
But my last teacher, in Boston, identified that sound immediately as the result of my “going sharp” in pitch. I was surprised, and skeptical at first. I didn’t hear it as a pitch problem. I could barely hear it at all while I was playing, and even if I thought something was “out of tune,” I couldn’t say whether it was sharp or flat. I could only identify it after the fact, in recordings.
Over the years, working with an electronic tuner, and with a drone when possible, recording myself, and having my teacher gently point it out at lessons, I started to be able to recognize when I went sharp on the E-string, and be able to fix it. And my intonation improved.
So this was disappointing. Maybe I’ve been playing so much viola lately that I’m out of practice listening to the violin, and old problems are creeping back.
In fact I have been playing a lot of viola lately. I am playing viola in my next orchestra concert, “Music of the Night.” (I even got to sight-read the viola part to the first movement of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Woot!) And, I have filled in a handful of times for the violist in a chamber group playing Schubert’s cello Quintet in C-major. That is an amazing piece. I didn’t know it, had never heard it before I sat down one evening after orchestra rehearsal to sight-read through it, violins to my right, cellos to my left. And me. One outnumbered viola. But that read-through went surprisingly well. It went well enough that I fell in love with the piece, and I came back to do it again the next week. Then it turned out the regular violist was out for the rest of the year, and so I brought the music to my teacher to look at some of the hard parts.
This part, in particular, is tough, especially to read on a viola. The accidentals throw me, the fingerings throw me harder. It’s played at a fast tempo, pianissimo, and up against one of the most beautiful violin melodies in the string chamber literature—so it needs to be lovely, perfectly timed, perfectly in tune, yet unobtrusive. I had so far achieved only the last—unobtrusiveness–by employing a technique my teacher calls “creative tacit.” I listened, kept my place, played the notes I could play, and let the others go. I wanted to do better.
So, I brought it to my lesson. I had some fingerings I had worked out, and my teacher helped me with others. One fingering that she changed had me “just” moving my third finger on the D-string over to the same position on the A-string.
“No, don’t pick it up! Just move it. Move your elbow.”
“What?” I move my elbow when I’m on the C-string on a viola, or the G-string on a violin, to make sure I can reach, but otherwise, my elbow stays put. Doesn’t it?
It turns out no, it doesn’t. And, in fact, if you move your fingers from the D to the A without moving your hand and elbow to be under the A string too, you are likely to go sharp as you move to the higher string. I didn’t believe this at first. It felt really weird to move my elbow back when I moved over to the A-string. It felt weird to play that way.
“It only feels weird because you’re not used to it,” my teacher assured me. She gave me some exercises to do to at the beginning of each practice session to get used to moving my elbow to be under my fingers, no matter which string I’m on.
I’m a little overwhelmed when I leave the lesson. I’ve been playing the violin on and off for 40 years and had a number of very good teachers, and not one of them ever brought this up before. Then I think about my propensity to go sharp on the violin E-string. Could the fact that I don’t move my elbow be contributing to it? I’m not sure, but after a week of practicing, I think it’s likely. It keeps surprising me how everything is connected: violin and viola, Schubert and Albrechtsberger, intonation and tone, mothers and sons.