Saturday, July 2, 2016

Oh, now this is just silly

I've been practicing scales on the fiddle. For a couple of days now. Which is not a lot less time than I've actually owned the thing, as it was delivered only this last Monday.

It's about time I introduce my violin. Cecilio CEVN solid-body electric violin in metallic black. Mine is outfitted with perlon-core "Alphayue" strings from Thomastik Infeld. Paid about $130 on Amazon, which is a low price for a stringed instrument and an amazing low price for one of decent quality.

It's wood, despite the spacey appearance. Ebony fingerboard, friction tuners, fine tuners in the tailpiece, standard violin bridge. In fact, if you ignore the holes (and the missing half of the upper bout), it has the same physical layout of a "real" violin in all detail. This is important, because a lot of technique depends on being able to establish a relation between parts of your body and landmarks on the violin.

I'd heard all sorts of horror stories about squeaks and squeals, and I was expecting to have to struggle for a while to get the hang of bowing. Well, clean articulation is still a ways in the future, but for a simple stroke -- I got a good tone the first time I put bow to strings. And after about a week, I'm only hitting two strings/the wrong string when I get tired and lose focus.

Of course in the trade-off, I was entirely unprepared for how complicated and potentially uncomfortable the process of merely holding the thing is. I've found the bow hold without any particular difficulty, but I'm still having trouble with the violin itself.

I also thought fingering was going to be an adventure. The part I didn't know if I could do at all, in fact. Well,  I apparently can. But when you think about it,  I can whistle and sing more-or-less in tune, so it only makes sense that I can hear when my fingering is more-or-less in the right place (and correct it when it is not). The muscle memory for putting the fingers down in the right place to begin with is happening, too. I don't regret at all my decision to omit the crutches of tape or other markings.

What again I did not expect was the almost indigestible confusion over fingering schemes. I was seeing all sorts of strange charts and graphs, all sorts of apparently clever work with numbered fingers and color-coded strings, and none of it was making any sense.

Until it finally clicked. And what's more, it clicked why I was seeing such a complicated mess of what looked like willfully obtuse approaches. See, the assumption in most of the teaching material I was seeing is that you are not just teaching violin, but also teaching the very first instrument, as well as music theory and how to even read music. And teaching it to young people who may also lack coordination.

But I've played piano, and recorder, and ukulele (none of them well, mind you...) The uke, like the guitar, often sidesteps traditional notation by going direct to tabs, short for tablature. Which is basically a drawing of the actual strings with numbers for which fret you want to hold down. The recorder as I encountered it uses standard sheet music, with a fingering chart used to translate the necessary motions of your hands to the desired note.

Both can also be played by ear. I mostly learn tunes by ear, in fact. Which means I'm not really thinking "I need a G# here," I'm thinking "The next tone in this melody is a major fifth up from where I am now." The fun trick on uke and guitar, in fact, is that the strings are different intervals apart, meaning you have to remember how many steps you need to add depending on which string you are going to before you know which fret to use. But this comes quickly.

The violin has four strings each a fifth apart. If you break down the typical violin fingering chart down to the most basic element, you see that each possible fingering position is a half step away from the last.

Um, d'uh. Unless you are doing non-Western music, the half step is the smallest legal definition between available tones. Now, if you look at the chart that gives where each finger should start in first position, second position, etc., you notice something else. The spacing between the fingers changes.

That is to say, between these "home positions" lie either a half step or a whole step. And here's the fun part. Those steps occur in the same pattern as in the two most-used Western scales (skipping for the moment the whole concept of the "melodic minor," okay?)

Oh, but it gets better. If you start on an open string, that home position of the fingers in First Position are exactly the scale tones of a major scale starting on that tonic. And since the strings are a fifth apart, you can play a major scale starting on any of the three lower strings without moving your fingers from that home position.

Just for icing on that cake, the little finger falls on the fifth degree of that scale. Meaning it falls on the same note as the open string next to it (tuned in fifths, remember?)

It all falls together. The reason there are scales is to collect consonant tones, tones that sound good together. Melodic sequences are usually written within the notes of a specific scale. This is why we practice scales; it makes it easier to know which notes are probably going to be needed to play a melody (once we've discovered what key it is in). That's why notation uses key signatures, it allows you to know which notes you will need and makes distinctive (using accidentals and the like) the exceptions. And that's why this system of First Position et al on the violin; it presets your hand to find the notes that are most likely to be called for within a particular melody.

Obviously there is going to be a lot more to that. Accidentals aside, there's the whole thorny matter of temperament. Let it just be said that in actual performance you will be adjusting those finger positions.

Here's another little bit of clarity. Since each string is the same length (their frequency is determined by a combination of stiffness/weight and tension), the same fraction of each string has the same harmonic relationship to the whole. Which means that major third is the same distance up the fingerboard regardless of what string you are stopping. Again, d'uh; guitar fingerboards have horizontal frets. But the way the violin charts is presented obfuscates this simple relationship.

(That, and the nature of the hepatonic scale, in which seven unique notes are used to cover the legal possibilities in eleven distinct tones; so other than Cmaj and its relative minor, no scale -- and no finger position -- goes simply "A, B, C, D." Dmaj, for instance, has two sharps, meaning it goes "D, E, F#," etc.)

Oh, yes. And all that guff about "first position, third position?" It's the same repeating pattern of half and whole steps. All that changes is your fingers move higher up the fingerboard; your index starts where your ring finger had been, etc.

Everything about the violin is a matter of rubbing the head and patting the stomach. And chewing gum at the same time. Everything interacts. The violin is literally balanced between collarbone and the lower joint of the index finger. So you can't refine your position without making sure you are also capable of fingering. You can't practice bowing until you know you can find a repeatable position (because you are depending on, again, muscle memory to set the bow at the right angle to the angle of the instrument).

And you can't refine that position of the fingers, find your home marks by the feel of the thumb and the slight brush against the scroll and so forth if you are going to have to change that fingering position in order to allow vibrato.

So even though all the books say don't you dare even think about vibrato until after you've mastered fingering out to fifth position, I went ahead and attempted it just to make sure I wasn't learning a hold and fingering technique that was going to be a problem for me down the road.

The books also say it will take months -- six months, one of them said -- to achieve vibrato.

I did it today. It took about thirty minutes.

Now, it isn't clean vibrato. It's playing hob with my intonation, and my bowing (already unsteady) is getting downright jerky when I do it. Plus the violin wants to slip off my collar when I do it. But it was also a total success in that it gained me new insights into how my hands and limbs and instrument are supposed to be arranged.

And, yeah. Thirty minutes. I can tell by just how horrible "Twinkle, Twinkle" sounds that it is going to be months before I can actually play anything. But all the basics seem to be there. And discovering them has been -- at least as compared to any reasonable expectation -- ridiculously easy.

(If you want to hear just how bad I sound on my first three days with the instrument, I recorded the experience for posterity, and it is up on my YouTube channel)

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