More adventures practising Brahms Violin Sonata No.1

A few weeks ago I started documenting my attempts at mastering the piano part from Brahms Violin Sonata No. 1. You can get some of the background about why I’m doing it in this post and how what my experiences were revisiting a daily practice schedule twenty-one years after the last occasion.

Since then, I’ve noticed some real improvements in my playing and some unexpected developments which I thought might be worth documenting here.

1. We can pretty much play it in its entirety now. Three or so weeks ago me and Abigail got together to play the first movement. What had at first seemed like a daunting prospect and an endless movement suddenly became a lot more manageable, achievable and concise. This was probably because during our most recent rehearsal we had an opportunity to get through the movement in its entirely without stopping (I reckon largely because I’ve mastered most sections at the piano so that I can make a good fist of things).

The psychological effect on both of was remarkable. It felt like we had reached an important milestone and that every other subsequent milestone was far more achievable.

2. There are moments when the music is running away with itself. What our rehearsal also uncovered was something I had totally overlooked. To date, I had assumed that I kept reasonably good time. Not the case. Just a few minutes analysing some shaky ensemble work on the first page revealed that when we both got tense, we both had a tendency to speed up. This was quickly confirmed by starting the beginning of the piece at the speed we’d finished the first section. The difference in speed was remarkable.

3. What is the role of the pianist? I don’t know if I’m right to think this or not, but as accompanist I think there’s a need to maintain an objective eye of what’s going on and, be responsive to the needs of the soloist. Is that right? Is the relationship between soloist and accompanist a partnership with soloist as the dominant contributor and pianist providing support. Or is it more of a partnership or a collaboration, with both musicians contributing to a greater whole? If I’m speeding up without even realising it then that strikes me as letting the side down rather more than not being able to play the notes in the first place.

4. There’s no shame in going slow. I’ve been deliberate in my choice of speed over the past few weeks as a result. Why bother trying to play something up to speed if you can’t? Your fingers are going to tense up, there are going to be all sorts of splashed notes, and there’s going to be a lot of bashing at the keyboard.

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So, given that there’s no pressure on me to play up to speed, I’ve deliberately taken things ultra-slow (like the bit at the end, above). It’s given me an opportunity to identify where the weak spots are in my finger control, where the fingering needs improving and which bits can be avoided because they don’t need much time spent on them.

5. Going slow means you end up enjoying some unexpected moments. Take the section below.  I remember looking at the arpeggio very early on in this process and fearing it (odd given that if you play all the notes together as one chord is as pleasing to hear as it is under the fingers).

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When I played it at speed I realised just how weak my left hand was. The prospect of being able to deliver it swiftly (and in conjunction with the right hand) was way too daunting. As a result, I always fluffed it.

At a slower speed I have got the chance to get accustomed to the feel of the notes in my left hand and give my right hand enough time to ‘join in’ at the end. This combined with some arpeggio and scale exercises (see later) has meant where my grasp of these notes had been quite weak a month or so ago, now it feels firm. That promotes a sense of confidence in that section and, as time goes on, it becomes ever more pleasing to play. Bizarrely, I think this bar is possibly my most favourite in the whole movement as a result.

6. Arpeggios and scales. Who knew they could be so fun?  Whilst playing things slowly I realised just how weak my left hand was in places. It made me think of the gym and what the general advice is for novices like me if they discover that they’re struggling to press a particular weight: get accustomed with a lower weight – practise.

So, taking a break from the music, I reached for my old AB Scales and Arpeggios manual and set about practising some of them as warm up exercises. The difference on the difficult arpeggios in the sonata has been remarkable in a short space of time. I had forgotten the benefits of scales and arpeggios on daily practise.

7. I can turn pages at a slower speed. Turning pages yourself is vital in feeling at one with the work. Being able to do that at a slower speed means you occupy the music in a way that only goes to promote a sense of confidence in what you’re doing. I also find it incredibly pleasing to see a well-thumbed piece of music. There’s love in those page turns.

Well-thumbed, full of hope, brimming with achievement.
Well-thumbed, full of hope, brimming with achievement.

8. Time away helps; too much time away doesn’t. For various reasons (some listed in the points remaining), I’ve not been quite so devoted this week. On the plus side its meant that I’ve returned to the keyboard refreshed meaning that the first time I go through something I’ve mastered it (subsequent run-throughs haven’t been quite so successful). It’s also meant that less time is spent at the keyboard, making that time spent practising far more focussed. That said, there are moments when I’ve felt like the piano has been abandoned. Are there sections, like the one below, which dropped in standard as a result?

Twos against Threes: This has been getting increasingly messy in the past week.
Twos against Threes: This has been getting increasingly messy in the past week.

9. My practice strategy has inspired a similar approach to writing. There was a moment ten days ago when I began to wonder whether the benefits of doing exercises at the keyboard (arpeggios and scales) could be applied to writing. I do write most days anyway and make a point of writing in longhand too, but could doing writing exercises every day have the same effect on my creative thinking as doing arpeggios have on the strength of my left hand in certain circumstances?

So, this week, I’ve embarked on 20 minute writing practise following a variety of writing prompts. Amber Lea Starlife’s Week by Week prompts have been a real boon helping improve levels of self-awareness as well as provide useful personal insights which could be useful in fiction writing. There are elements of self-coaching in the process too.

Shaun Levin’s Writing Maps encourage me to take unorthodox approaches to generating ideas and narrative threads (these are creatively the most rewarding).

Bryan Cohen’s 1000 Creative Writing Prompts propose scenarios as a starting point. Whilst at first these starting points take the initial difficulty out of getting fictional stuff off the ground, the process keeps me close to the end of creative writing I find quite daunting. I suspect this is because at the present time I still have a lack of confidence in my own imagination meaning the outcome of writing something which is pure construction is far less satisfying than with Levin’s or Starlife’s prompts.

10. It’s a bit like school now. Having (nearly) daily practice sessions plus two or three types of creative writing a day, is turning this autumn into something reminiscent of school. I like the structured time afforded by these two different activities (which also happen to compliment one another). I also appreciate the way I can escape into a whole other world relatively quickly, an opportunity I look forward to on a daily basis.

Some thoughts on @FutureLearn’s #FLFiction15

Future Learn – an online self-learning endeavour powered by the Open University – offers a free two-month long course dedicated to writing fiction. I completed it at the weekend. Here are some thoughts about it.

I adored this course. It was totally absorbing and surprisingly addictive too. There was a real sense of community amongst others who had signed up to the course which in turn created a really supportive creative environment. 

By completing a 1000 word short story at the end of the final week, I concluded the course feeling like I’d really achieved. I’m feeling confident too about writing fiction – one of my goals for the course when I signed up. 

The course has helped me feel freer than I did a couple of months ago. It’s reminded me of something I derive real value from, something might present more creative opportunities in the future. I’ve been reacquainted with the joys of self-learning and been reminded of the pleasure I derive from writing. I’ve already started on a couple of other short story ideas and am starting to investigate other creative writing learning opportunities.

Future Learn’s Start Writing Fiction course is highly recommended. 

Half-way through NaNoWriMo 2014

I've only got ten pages into the first of two notebooks for NaNoWriMo. I was intending to have written up this entire notebook by this point in the month. It's going to be an epic novel, clearly.
I’ve only got ten pages into the first of two notebooks for NaNoWriMo. I was intending to have written up this entire notebook by this point in the month. It’s going to be an epic novel, clearly.

I’m working my way through November by challenging myself to do NaNoWriMo – writing 50,000 words of a novel in a month. I’ve tried it in years gone by but let the thing slide mid-way through and then given up. Not this year, it seems. So I’m a bit pleased about that.

I seriously doubt I’ll get to the 50,000 word goal (although to be honest, I’ve got approximately 25,000 words of the novel I’ve been working on for the past 11 years written anyway), but what I’ve been really impressed with by NaNoWriMo this year is my change of heart about writing in general. I thought I’d share some of them here.

1. Setting an amount of time to write every day actually isn’t that difficult

I reckoned early on this year that if I was going to write the novel I’d always threatened everyone I would write, then given my working day, I’d only be able to write for 45 minutes maximum a day. This was later revised down to 30 minutes on the basis that travelling home from work and then getting set up would mean I only had half an hour to spare. And anyway, I just didn’t think I could write for any longer than half an hour in one go anyway.

It was a small commitment to make. It made each session fun because I felt like I’d met my daily goal (regardless of whether or not I’d reach the month-long goal).

2. My half-hour writing session is my daily guarantee that I’ll feel like I’ve achieved something

We all complain we have rotten days at work. In the grand scheme of things I probably don’t. In comparison to a doctor, care-worker or a heart surgeon say. But, sometimes I have good days at work. Sometimes I don’t. What I’ve been impressed with is how I’ve reached a mild state of euphoria whenever I finish my half-hour writing each day. I finish the day thinking “yes, regardless of what did or didn’t happen at work, I’ve written 1000 words today – I’m 1000 words nearer the end of it.”

3. I don’t need to have everything planned out in my head in order to write stuff

I don’t really know why this is such a massive learning point for me. I’ve rarely planned out blog posts in the past. I’ve always trusted myself that I can start somewhere, finish some place else and know that I’ve said something reasonably interesting in between, having stumbled on something unexpected during the drafting process along the way.

I didn’t think I could do that writing a novel. I thought it demanded far more planning at the outset. I was wrong. It doesn’t. Start somewhere and trust in the process. I’ve been amazed at the things I’ve recalled from the very basic of notes.

4. Like research, writing longer-form stuff expands to fill the time available

My writing diary – a rough statement of intent I write each day which outlines what scenes I’ll bash out throughout the month – is stupidly over-optimistic. I’d originally thought I’d have got through the first of two notebooks I’m basing 50% of the book on. I’ve barely got through 10 pages of the first one, 16 pages into NaNoWriMo. I fear this novel is going to be epic.

5. I look forward to my writing sessions

They’re like little daily holidays I don’t have to book leave for with added addiction thrown in.

Always loved writing. NaNoWriMo has just reinforced that.

6. Meditation is really useful to prepare for a writing session

I’m combining NaNoWriMo with a taster programme in meditation. Headspace has been a brilliant resource – a daily companion – in setting me up right before embarking on the half-hour writing sessions. Clears the mind, removing the crap we accumulate throughout the day.

7. Blogs now seem like a distant memory

I went on a creative writing course earlier this year where I introduced myself by saying that I felt like that writing blogs was stopping me from writing fiction, and that it was longer form stuff I really wanted to tackle. Everyone expressed surprise I was even on the course. “You’re already doing daily writing when you write your blog. Haven’t you realised that?”

The daily writing sessions now make me look on blog writing in a different way. They’re still things I want to do, still something I’m proud of and – in comparison to longer form writing – now feel even more achievable in a short amount of time.

8. NaNoWriMo stimulates other ideas 

I expected that concentrating on one thing in one month that I’d get sick of it and yearn for other stuff, getting distracted if I had other ideas. As it stands so far, I’ve clocked other ideas as I’ve had them, made a quick assessment about whether or not they’re relevant to the current project and noted them down in a specific folder for later consideration.

9. Evernote is now my best friend

I’ve used Evernote – for me, the best cloud-based document management system – for a long time. But over the past couple of months its really come into its own. I’ve come to depend on it, helping as it has done to compartmentalise thoughts, ideas and drafts. Move over Microsoft Word, your days are numbered.

10. And what about that New Year goal of writing a short story? 

At the beginning of the year I set myself the challenge of writing a short story. Knew they were difficult. They seemed daunting to me, like going to the gym for the first time in years and feeling intimidated by all the machines there. Now  – armed with a couple of tools I acquired during Shaun Levin’s Creative Writing course I attended earlier in the year – the prospect of bashing a piece of short-form fiction out is no longer daunting, but something to look forward. And, between you and me, I may have not done NaNoWriMo yesterday just so that I could get started on it.

 

All shiny & new (ish)

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Maybe it’s simply because the sun’s out and the garden is looking lovely, but the truth is I’m in an astonishingly good mood.

This isn’t a recent development, although the moment feels right now to document my shift in thinking. Once a blogger, always a blogger. This is in part down to the completion of creative writing course this week, one which has re-acquainted me with some basic skills. 

So, conscious that this blog has suffered a little bit in recent weeks, here are some shiny new thoughts of mine. None will change the world and don’t think for a moment I think they’re groundbreaking. 

1. I don’t set enough time aside for reading

Reading suffers from an image problem for some of us. Some years ago a friend expressed surprise I found it difficult finishing a book. How could I possibly start another book if I had one unfinished in my hand. His judgment was so marked, that I foolishly concluded I probably wasn’t a reader. Another friend during the same conversation expressed surprise that I wasn’t able to finish a book as quickly as he could. How could I call myself a book lover if I took a long time to get through a story?

That’s bollocks, of course. What I notice now that I’m re-connecting with books is how we little time we set aside for reading in itself. A book is often turned to in order to fill in time rather than for the pleasure of reading itself. That seems a shame and if it goes unchecked will be a case of diminishing returns.

2. I have three books on the go at the moment and I’m OK with that

That’s all changed now. I have three books on the go at the moment. Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, Wally Lamb’s I Know This Much Is True and Shaun Levin’s A Year of Two Summers. I like the fact that I can dip into all of these whenever I want. They offer different things and different viewpoints. They’re also different writing styles. Reading all of those things concurrently keeps things a bit fresh.

Like writing, I’ve set aside half an hour each day to read something (other than work stuff), ideally printed, but often via my Kindle. I’m loving it.

3. Mainstream publishing skews the experience of reading

I looked at the Top 20 books on sale in WHSmith last night at Charing Cross station. Yes, they’re the most popular books and might give a suggestion to novices about what to read, but such lists also give the false impression that the familiar is best. Reading ‘off the beaten track’ is slightly more challenging and – for me – ultimately more satisfying. In this way, I think reading could offer me that same voyage of self-propelled discovery that ploughing through Mahler’s symphonies for the first time (effectively) five years ago on holiday.

4. Writing is difficult, but the prize is worth it

During a training course introduction a couple of months ago, the question was asked “What brings you joy?” I answered with “Two things: writing and my garden.” There was a sigh of recognition (at least, I think that’s what it was) when I said it. Saying it out loud was automatic. Like the garden work I’ve thrown myself into this year, writing is difficult because it isn’t an overnight thing. They both demand small repeated bursts of activity in order to get around the negative talk which can potentially block achievement. Nobody ever tells you that when you get underway. Shame.

Knowing you’ve rattled off a draft short story is as satisfying as a warm bath or the knowledge you’ve completed a really thorny task. It is the gift that keeps on giving.

5. There’s a massive difference between writing and publishing

Even if it is difficult, writing is still a pleasure.

Publishing is business.

Don’t get the two confused, otherwise you won’t do anything.

6. Writing is drafting and editing, then more editing

Write something. Anything. Leave it be. Then come back and start playing around with it later. Trust yourself. Nothing happens instanteously. The really satisfying stuff is the complete antithesis to blogging.

7. Classical music has taken a back seat

I’m not entirely sure whether I really mean this or not. Only time will tell. The reality is that I’m switching Radio 3 on less, and the last concert I went to was at Wigmore Hall a few months ago. The coming Proms season might change that, obviously. At the moment, I’m not feeling the classical music love.

8. Blogs are suddenly phenomenally difficult to write

Some people I come into contact with see blogs in negative light. This stems from a lack of understanding or experience. The creativity involved in the process is then overlooked. Sometimes, the line “that seems a bit long”, does make me want to gnaw my own hand off.

That negativity seeps into how I approach writing blogs. As a result blogs now demand great planning and don’t present themselves as an opportunity for near-automatic writing. Some of the joy has bled out of the process. That seems a terrible shame.

9. Career development training courses: some of the most valuable experiences I’ve had in recent years

I may have waxed lyrical to friends and colleagues in recent weeks about this. If you’ve not heard about it then consider yourself very lucky. But, a series of training courses I’ve attended which will (assuming I successfully complete them) enable me to help others develop their own careers has had a profound effect on me. The course so far has increased my own self-awareness to such an extent that I’ve effected real change in my own personal development. I’m really proud of that.

10. Quiet aids reflection

One other experience I’ve had over the past few weeks is discovering what personality type I am.

Others who have been through the same process haven’t necessarily greeted their result positively, but I’ve found the process fascinating. It’s helped me realise that I’m pretty much dependent on ‘quiet time’.

As I think about that more I realise how much at odds that is with working in the broadcasting environment. ‘Selling content’ demands consuming content, and consuming it demands time at the expense of quiet reflection.

Bite off as much as you know you can chew

I had underestimated quite how challenging this creative writing lark really is.

Here’s the thing. Blogging is easy. You have an idea of the audience. You’re sure enough in your own voice. You’re merely reporting on what’s going on.

Sure, you’ve made the assumption that most people are going to be interested in what’s going on in your head. Maybe they’re not. But because you’re regurgitating what you’d normally say out loud, blogging is easy.

Creative writing? A whole other ball game. You write a few things. Spit them out impulsively, randomly. You read them back. It makes you feel all warm and fluffy. All very self-affirming. Nice.

The next time you think, ‘Oh, this is going to be easy. Piece of piss.’ You sit down with the idea you’ve been thrashing around in your head all day long and start typing. And what you discover is that you slowly begin to run out of steam. You want to finish it but you’re low on energy. That you reach a point – a point far further up the page than you anticipated you’d reach – and then stop.

And it’s that point in time when you stop when you risk doing the most damage, both to yourself (I’ve not finished it/I’m a failure/This is too difficult) and to the product you’re working on (It isn’t finished/It was a shit idea/It’s too difficult).

How the hell do you know what is the right amount to bite off and chew? Because it’s knowing that secret which – to my mind – ensures the skill, the product and the interest in the medium is maintained.

Very. Very. Difficult.

Any ideas you might have, gratefully received.