Tag Archives: practice

Audio illusion: the accelerating metronome

Here’s an experience I had a few years ago while practising to play in Smetana’s Bartered Bride overture. As I remember, I was playing in the second violins at the time.

The music

The main feature of the overture’s opening is that each violin section has to play a long, continuous stream of very fast semiquavers for the first page or so. (Probably this applies to the other string sections too.) Since  players of other parts have to fit their semiquavers to them when they join in, the music can hold together only if they’re played accurately in time. Accuracy is essential.

This is a dangerous situation: the natural tendency of a stream of equal notes is to rush, and they’ll rush even more if the player is feeling a bit panicky about playing them. In an amateur orchestra it’s likely that at least some players will be tempted to experience such panic. And once any rushing starts, it won’t be unaimous: everyone will accelerate differently so they’re no longer playing the same notes at the same time.

This kind of rushing is contagious, too. So all a passage like this really needs in order to risk disaster is for one player to start rushing and a few others nearby to lose their nerve. It’s a very short step from that to total chaos.

The practice

So this was one of those rare cases where it was a good idea to practise with a metronome. (Normally this is a bad idea; it leads to a mechanically rigid tempo, which in most circumstances is unmusical.) There were two main aspects I had to practise: (i) learning the notes and fingerings well enough not to stumble over anything; (ii) keeping the tempo absolutely constant.

So I practised with a metronome, considerably below tempo at first, and increasing the speed very gradually. (The aim in this sort of practice is to repeat the experience of getting the notes right until you can do so at full tempo—not to repeat the experience of getting them wrong and of being forced to play too fast. Otherwise you’re training yourself to get them wrong, not to get them right.) Eventually I could play the entire passage, up to speed (with a little extra left over for comfort) and in time.

Practising like this involves quite intense concentration on very short timescales: listening to hear whether each note is coming out correctly, paying attention to the feeling in the fingers as they either automatically go to the correct note or try to play the wrong one, keeping the bow stroke metronomic, watching out for any hint of stumbling, and so on.

The illusion

But what was really interesting about these practice sessions was what happened once I stopped playing. Within a few seconds, I had the impression that I could hear the metronome speeding up. In fact it seemed to be accelerating quite dramatically. So much so that if it had been a fellow player in the orchestra I’d have thought they were rushing quite badly. I estimate that the apparent increase in speed was around 15%–20%.

But of course the metronome wasn’t suddenly speeding up; it’s a highly accurate electronic one, and all that had happened was that I’d stopped playing notes on the violin. Yet it was almost impossible to believe that the metronome wasn’t accelerating. I could hear it going faster and faster.

I interpreted this as my perception slowing down, now that I was no longer concerned with what happened from one tenth of a second to the next. It seemed as though my mind had sped up in order to play the fast music, and was now returning to its normal pace.

I wonder whether this is one of the reasons musicians have to train themselves not to rush when playing fast music. If your time perception changes so the music feels much slower than it actually is, you’ll have no idea that you’ve sped up. It’ll feel as though you’re playing at just the same speed you were all along. As musicians we have to learn what kinds of passages are prone to rushing, and how it feels not to rush. Often this involves playing at a speed which feels as though it’s definitely too slow, or making a conscious effort to slow down—while in fact playing at exactly the same speed.

I was reminded of all this today when a friend tweeted a link to this article about an experiment on mindfulness meditation. This form of meditation emphasises awareness of the present moment. The research found that the meditation made time appear to pass more slowly for the participants, in a way that sounds very similar to what happened while I was practising. And maybe for similar reasons: focusing on the current moment as a meditation exercise, and focusing on the current note being played as a practice exercise, seem to me to involve exactly the same focus of attention, even if the mental state involved isn’t identical.

In any case it was fascinating to be able to witness my own sense of the passage of time changing over the course of a minute or so as I came out of intense practice mode.

The urge returns

No appetite

Some readers will know that I started this blog quite soon after my father died in June 2008. I had been using Twitter to keep friends informed about the progress first of his health, and then of our funeral plans, and after a while I felt the need to start a proper blog.

I think every bereavement is different and each person is affected by it differently. In my case, my energy for playing music was greatly reduced; it simply felt like emotionally the wrong activity. I dropped out of a number of concerts, reduced the number of amateur orchestras I was playing in, abandoned some violin lessons I had been having, and took a break from my usual amount of playing.

The feeling when I tried to play was that the playing was trying to use the same mental and emotional resources which were being used on adjusting after the bereavement. So the energy wasn’t really there, and any energy that was there was needed for that.

As the months passed, I gradually felt able to do more playing, but its nature was basically to agree to play in something, then do the minimum practice required to play adequately. Nothing that involved pushing myself to practise hard.

A dream

Just over a week ago, something happened. I had a dream, in which a number of us were at some kind of party at the house of my violin teacher (who I also know through orchestra). Maybe it was an after-concert party or something. In the dream, it got to about 5 am (it was a good party!) and the teacher said “Tim, do you fancy a violin lesson? … I could do one at 8 o’clock today if you like”. I said that the idea of having one soon sounded quite good, but that I really thought it was time for me to think about going home and getting some sleep rather than staying up even longer in order to have a lesson.

Next day, back in the real world, it got to about 9:30 pm and I felt a strong urge to practise my violin. Well not exactly an urge—more a hunger or a need. A need which had probably been brewing for a while, but which I’d not really been aware of until it came out in the dream.

Hungry again

So I got my violin out. For about an hour, I practised some Sevcik exercises then a Rode study, quite intensely. Then I got out the Bach Chaconne—which I’d worked on before my father died but not played since—and played through it to see how much of it I still knew. (Answer: I still know most of it, but it’s not as fluent and there are places where I now stumble which were fine before.)

Yesterday and today, I again had the desire to practise, and did about 1½ hours each time. And last Tuesday, playing for a Messiah concert, I found myself talking to one of my fellow players about what aspects of technique I’d like to work on if I book a lesson or two.

Is the energy beginning to return? Maybe. It’s about 18 months since I last felt this way, so I think it may well be a good sign. Will I book a lesson? Maybe. I’ve already got as far as texting the teacher to ask what she charges these days.

Violin surprise

As I mentioned, I’ve not had as much energy for things lately. That has particularly included violin practice. I didn’t play at all between Dec 20th (my last concert before Christmas) and Jan 3rd (the day before what should have been my first rehearsal of 2009).

So when orchestra rehearsals started up again last week, I was expecting my playing to be rather rusty, and to have quite a lot of work to do to get myself going again. But something interesting had happened. Certain aspects of my technique–in particular, “bow contact” and string crossings–appeared to have significantly improved during the break, without me having done anything other than not practice.

Let me explain the history of my playing. When I began, around the age of 9, I was basically self-taught. This is not a good idea: lots of things have to be got right from the beginning in order to avoid problems later on. When I joined the school orchestra at 12 or 13, I started having lessons. Then at university I was able to have really good lessons, with a teacher who could show me how to set about undoing my numerous bad playing habits. And for the next “few” years I worked on doing that, with the help of various violinists from the past such as Carl Flesch (via his pair of books The Art of Violin Playing).

At the beginning of last year I had a few more lessons, with a view to taking a proper performance qualification (a diploma in violin performance). Plans for that were overtaken by events and I never took the exam, but I now had had some new aspects of technique to work on and continued doing so until June. Then came my father’s death, and several months of not really feeling like playing. The enthusiasm is just beginning to come back now.

My task before the lapse was to try to replace some old playing habits with new ones. Any player will tell you that if they don’t play for a while, when they start up again they feel as though their bodies have “forgotten” how to play. For example, you send instructions to your fingers and they don’t respond properly. What seems so have happened in my case, though, is that the break has helped my body to forget the old aspects of my playing which I was trying to get rid of anyway, and what has come back is the new version which I was working towards. It was a very nice surprise, and completely unexpected. It’s as though working on my new playing style is a move vivid memory than using the old one. It really has become a lot easier to play in the way I was aiming for.

I’d be interested to hear from anyone else who’d had a similar experience of several weeks’ non-playing helping them to improve.

Opening the Envelope

Sitting in a nice nearly empty and quiet library. People still seem to insist on using the computers in pairs who then sit next to me, but at least the pair next to me is a quiet one.

Anyway: yesterday I finally got round to Opening The Envelope…

What envelope? The one with the music in which needs to be practised by Friday.

Sorry, what music for Friday? What are you on about? Talk sense, man!

The event

Friday is interesting: I’m leading a small orchestra, for a conducting course. It’s part of a week-long event for singers and choir conductors. Both the singers and the conductors come in three flavours: Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced.

On the last day of the course, the Advanced conductors have the scary task of conducting a piece for choir and orchestra. Bear in mind that these are choir conductors and that conducting an orchestra is a substantially different skill. So, we’re here for them to practise on. And we’re allowed to abandon usual orchestral etiquette and answer the conductors back, tell them why their beat was difficult to follow…

For an orchestral player it’s all quite fascinating, because usually, we simply follow the conductor with more or less success and play accordingly. At the conducting course we get to discover why some conductors are easier to follow than others, and we get to compare and contrast different conducting styles. And we discover that sometimes the things that go wrong in our own orchestras are actually the conductor’s fault. It’s brilliant! And what’s more, they pay us for it!

But we have to be nice to the victims conducting students because for most of them it’s their first experience of conducting an orchestra, especially one that answers back, and they’re quite nervous. Get it right and great fun is had by all, including the students.

The envelope

Anyway, I opened the envelope. Looked at the music. Sightread most of the music. Took 20 minutes. It’s all pretty straightforward and it looks as though all I really need to do is to write a few fingerings in one of the pieces.

I was worried about having to do this after six weeks of non-playing (see earlier entry), but it was obvious that any deficiences in my playing were the result of needing to get warmed up a bit rather than any Nasties in the music. My right arm seems to have made friends with the violin bow again, but my left hand was tensing up a bit. So I spent the rest of the practice session doing some Sevcik finger exercises and practising keeping my fingers as relaxed as possible.

I suppose I now need to include a health warning post about how to practise finger exercises, but that can wait until I feel like writing it. In the meantime: Don’t practise them incessantly and with tense fingers, since that’s the opposite of what they’re for and has the potential to give you RSI and the like if you keep it up.

Violin practice

I really must do some. As you can see, I’ve procrastinated by putting up a blog post about procrastination 😉

Haven’t really played for about six weeks and I have to lead a small orchestra on Friday. Hope I still know how a violin works!

Later: Well the first thing that happened was an unpleasant surprise. I’d evidently put the violin away in a hurry the last time I played–which was at a friend’s leaving party–forgetting to wipe the rosin from the strings. And then six weeks’ hot weather had stuck it on very firmly. I can’t say how unpleasant it is trying to play with sticky strings.

So, out with the surgical spirit. This cleans rosin off amazingly well, using up a chunk of practice time, but see warnings

Finally, practised some three-octave scales, on a very medical-smelling violin, to try to calibrate my fingers. Reassured that my left hand still knows how to play; a bit disappointed that my right arm seems to have forgotten that it’s supposed to be friends with the bow. But that’s fine. I’m sure they’ll have made friends again by Friday.

Warning 1: surgical spirit may be good for removing rosin but it’s also good for removing violin varnish; I’ve met several teachers who have at one time or another had a pupil get the wrong idea and make the discovery. Keep it well away from the body of the violin. It’s OK to use it to use it on an ebony fingerboard; that’s unvarnished to start with. Not sure about cheaper fingerboards; I think they’re stained to look like ebony, and the surgical spirit might dissolve the staining.

Warning 2, which is less obvious: surgical spirit should just contain methanol and ethanol. So several months ago I assumed that if I went to buy some, that’s what I would get. Well, It Ain’t Necessarily So: I had a choice between Surgical Spirit Ph. Eur. from Boots, and Superdrug Surgical Spirit from Superdrug, where I went first. Out of curiosity, I checked the ingredients, and saw: “Castor oil 2.5%” in the Superdrug version. Castor oil!!!. Definitely not what you want on your violin strings. So check the ingredients.