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The Virtual Violist: Using Technology to Enhance Technique

The Virtual Violist: Using Technology to Enhance Technique

A few weeks ago I presented at the American Viola Society Festival, hosted by Colburn School, with Nancy Buck, Viola Professor at Arizona State University. The talk was centered around how technology can help us learn and perform music, and it was wonderful hearing everyone’s perspectives on using technology in the practice room. As many of you know, I began practicing and performing from an iPad instead of physical sheet music about six months ago. It was so liberating to not have to carry around a ton of music everywhere, and also be able to read string quartet music from the score with ease. I just wanted to take a few moments to share a brief overview of things I covered in this presentation, with the hopes that it may help or inspire you.

 

“Today’s musicians have a wealth of tools and products for use, with information immediately accessible by the tap of our fingers. The digital age is transforming the speed and manner in which we learn and process information. What is the latest in technology? Is there an app for that? This session will explore the ways to take advantage of available information, and how experimenting with the newest technologies stretches our capabilities beyond playing the instrument itself.” - Nancy Buck

 

I created a poll where musicians could share their own apps that they found helpful - https://poll.ly/#/LOvE4R7Q

Most people use some kind of metronome/tuner app nowadays, as well as Spotify and YouTube. However, (based on the results of this poll + talking to other musicians) not many have explored apps for sheet music or notation. Perhaps another avenue of exploration would be using apps as a means to expand your own personal creativity -or improving your musical skills.

It is interesting to note that the generation of musicians in high school/undergrad today is much more dependent on technology than any previous generation. This makes sense, but when you think about it these people are much more visually-oriented as a result. I think it’s important to acknowledge this shift.

 

Apps I personally find useful:

For each of the following apps, I have included a short tutorial video that shows a few of the features. They are probably boring to watch, but I tried to include features that I covered in the presentation. Feel free to search on YouTube for other tutorial/review videos if you are interested.

All of these apps can be found for iPad. The reason I did this is because the iPad is the most user-friendly and reliable for the purpose of reading sheet music. There are several other options out there, but be wary of any device that uses a hard drive instead of solid state storage -you definitely don’t want a computer fan turning on in the middle of a performance. Also at the time I am writing this, I am not aware of another tablet that can be as large as 12.9” and also have the ability to rotate the image. Disclaimer: I am not an “apple person” by any means, but for musicians it is hard to deny the advantage apple products have over everything else on the market today.

 

Time Guru (~$2)  https://youtu.be/kcOcvb_jkM0

At first glance this may seem like every other metronome app, but what I love about this is the ability to randomly mute the beat. This is so helpful in practicing orchestra excerpts where you want to internalize the tempo. It’s also great because it has the most complex rhythm options I have seen in a metronome app, and with a wide range of sound options. You can also save each of your metronome settings as a preset so that you can come back to those settings later. I like the ability to name the preset the title of the piece or excerpt I’m working on, which makes it super easy.

 

ForScore (~$10)  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-XfwyTpjQTI

This is a very common app for viewing and editing sheet music. I prefer this over other options, because of the sheer amount of things you can do and how easy it is to edit and organize your music digitally. There are multiple ways to upload sheet music, and in a pinch it is great to use the iPad camera with the ‘darkroom’ setting in the app. You can also export your edited sheet music as a PDF file to a cloud service (like Dropbox or Google Drive) and print without needing the Apple Air. 

I really like how you can create set lists of music, and then randomize them. I use that function a lot when practicing (see my blog post on practicing). Additionally you can review how much time you’ve spent on each piece by viewing the ‘dashboard.’ 

There is also a built in keyboard/metronome/tuner within the app which is super helpful. 

     

    Symphony Pro 5 (~$15)  https://youtu.be/5Mfcu7mI4Qk

    I love using this app as my primary way of notating music. It can be used with or without the Apple Pencil (I haven’t found much use for the Apple Pencil outside of this app), and is extremely user-friendly. It’s especially helpful for someone like me... who did their undergrad orchestration project the night before it was due on Finale, and still has nightmares about learning the keyboard shortcuts. I actually bought this app after researching Finale and Sibelius to try and find an affordable version that doesn’t expire after a year. For $15 and continuously updates for free, this was perfect.

     

    Politonus (~$2)  https://youtu.be/aoomRz0P5rI

    This is an extremely basic ear training app, and I am sure there are many other ones available that work well. There are options for fixed or movable ‘do,’ and it’s nice to work on ear training skills away from the viola or on the go.

     

    Clapping Music (Free)  https://youtu.be/3ShGCj08z3c

    This is a free game that came out a few years ago, and is based on Steve Reich’s ‘Clapping Music.’ I found myself getting addicted to this game, and also found myself thinking about rhythm in new and creative ways after trying this out. 

     

    There are quite a few apps out there that can train your brain to think more creatively. They are designed from a neuroscience perspective with the goal of improving brain function. These can be incorporated into a warmup before your practice time, or whenever is most helpful. Some examples are: Luminosity, Elevate, and Peak. I am not sure how effective these apps really are, but I think it’s interesting that there are game apps with the potential to improve the way you think.

       

      The downside of using this technology is that the basic iPad Pro 12.9” with 64GB storage retails at around $800. If you are a student or educator, you can check out the educational discounts. I like the 12.9” screen because it is similar to the size of a sheet of paper, however for your own needs you may not need something that large. I also use my iPad as a laptop with a Logitech keyboard attachment, and as a student this was really important for me. It is my hope that as technology advances and becomes more inexpensive, there will be even better options for musicians. 

      Personally, adapting to using a pedal for page turns was quite unnatural. I consider myself very coordinated, as I’m sure many string players do, but for some reason adding a foot tap was awkward. I am still working on pedal placement and making the page turns not so obvious. I discovered that printing out the music was more helpful for me in the end. I use the iPad to make colorful edits to my sheet music, and practice with the pedal. Then when I wish to perform it, it is simple to print and play from the physical music. This really removed my anxiety of charging the pedal enough / not being awkward with it, but I may change back to performing with the iPad once I am more comfortable. 

      All technology has a learning curve, but don’t ever let a learning curve deter you from trying new things. 

       

      Many thanks to Nancy Buck, who invited me to be a part of her presentation. I learned so much through this experience, and I am very grateful for having this opportunity. 

      Also if you have never been to an AVS Festival, it’s totally worth it. I have only been to this one, and the one before hosted at Oberlin, and both were incredibly motivational and inspiring for me. If you are a violist it’s a great way to network and learn about advancements in our field.

       

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      Let me know what you think! Are there any apps that you find helpful? Did you try out one of these apps, and was it helpful for you? What are some of the challenges you face when using technology? Questions? Thoughts? 

       

      *My statements have not been influenced by sponsorship of any kind

      Practicing + Time Management

      Practicing + Time Management

      Since I began my Teaching Assistantship this semester, I have often felt overwhelmed and short on time. I thought I had practicing down to a science -which I did, but needed at least 4hrs a day to feel like I had made significant progress. This semester on an average day I have about 1.5-4hrs if I'm lucky, before I run out of the mental space to focus. 

      I always have a primary intention with my practice time, and now that is my upcoming recital. With everything I have going on I needed to find a sustainable solution, where I didn't have to rely on sight-reading skills, feel stressed for every rehearsal, then feel more stressed because the outcome was not what I wanted.

      I have done extensive research in the realms of: practice techniques, sports psychology, neuroscience focused on information retention, body mapping and coordination. So I developed a plan for myself about a month ago, and have slowly been shaping it into a system that is much more efficient. I'm still tweaking it into something that works best for my way of learning, but I wanted to share how I successfully minimize the times I feel unprepared.

      *Sidebar: I practiced 6hrs a day before beginning my DMA, and that type of muscle memory development is extremely important. I'm simply advocating becoming more efficient with whatever time is available to you.

      Before I get into the practice time itself, I just want to say that nutrition, developing coordination + body awareness, and getting ample sleep are key to making this work. As my Alexander Technique teacher would say, "your body is your primary instrument, and you use this instrument to play the viola."

      1. I take some time every week to plan out available practice time in my schedule, within reason. I also map out what movement(s) of a piece will be my primary focus each day. Throughout the course of a week I want to have spent time on whatever solo rep I'm working on (for me right now that means covering every movement of my recital program). I plan what to practice based on available time that day, and what my responsibilities are. Once you make the plan, follow through without worrying about other things you need to do. "I have time" is one of my favorite mantras.

      2. I have a "warm-up book" that is every technically challenging excerpt from every piece I am currently working on. It includes parts from solo, quartet, and orchestra music. It's not a real book, but marked sections throughout my music. I am constantly adding and removing excerpts from this. Essentially I practice them in a random order, and don't spend more than a few minutes on each one. I challenge myself to play these passages flawlessly and without tension. I have to think critically and creatively in order to succeed, and so I do this toward the beginning of my practice time. I'll remove a section if I can play it flawlessly on the first try for several days in a row.

      *This method was derived from interleaving techniques that are highly successful in neuroscience studies. If you are interested in this, I would suggest checking out my first blog post!

      3. I practice sight-reading every single day. I put on noise cancelling headphones, take out a piece (or movement) that I need to learn (and haven't looked at yet), and see how far I can get. I then mark difficult sections for my warm-up book. If I run out of pieces, I pull out a viola part from a Beethoven String Quartet and do the same thing. I like to do this towards the end of my practicing or if I'm feeling unmotivated.

      4. When I practice a movement of solo rep, I only focus on the musical aspects (and perhaps metronome work), because I've already practiced the difficult spots. If something isn't working in context, then I might spend more time figuring out what the challenge is and how to solve it. I practice performing sections to see what happens.

      5. I begin my practice time with a scale chosen at random, with the focus on bow technique and intonation. I once had a teacher say that if you can play with perfect intonation in your first hour of playing each day, then it will never be an issue. It definitely helps! I'll also practice a scale after orchestra or a long rehearsal to feel more centered in my own technique, and make sure I'm not picking up any bad habits.

      6. I do score study when I can, and try to listen to as many different recordings as possible. I also try to understand the style of each composer of the pieces I'm working on. If I can understand the composer's musical language, it becomes so much easier to create a successful performance.

      7. I approach my practice time with an attitude of experimentation to see what works and what doesn't, with no expectations. I record myself as often as possible so I know for sure whether or not something worked. I see unsuccessful performances as opportunities for growth, and I refuse to believe in failure. Rather than focusing on the outcome, I focus on the process and this process is ever growing and changing.

       

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      Let me know what you think! Is there a method you have for practicing when you're short on time? Did you try some of my practicing strategies, and how did they work out for you? Questions? Thoughts?

      Violin/Viola(/Cello) Hickeys and How to Heal Them

      Violin/Viola(/Cello) Hickeys and How to Heal Them

      About a year ago I started a dermatological experiment on myself to remove the awful rash down half of my neck caused from practicing. You may remember my instagram post where I shared a few of the products I was using at the time that seemed to help. I did a ton of research and wanted to share my findings here in more detail, because I believe that this information could help others that are having the same problem.

      At one point in our pursuit in becoming a better string player, some of us began developing a hickey-like spot. Most of us just accepted it as a normal result of practicing a certain amount of time. This spot is not a callus. It's usually some type of mechanical dermatitis caused by friction, and is prone to infection because the skin dilates whenever we hold the instrument in a playing position. Sometimes the skin reacts by producing more keratin to protect itself. Reducing the friction, and making sure the surface of the instrument is clean will help. 

      In addition, it is extremely common for string players to develop an allergy to the materials we are constantly exposing ourselves to. I know of musicians who developed allergies to rosewood, ebony, or even rosin, and I myself have developed a severe allergy to nickel. It can sometimes be very hard to tell if you have an allergy or not, because the allergy causes a contact dermatitis reaction. Unless you are a trained dermatologist, you will most likely not be able to tell the difference between mechanical and contact dermatitis (or something else) just by looking at it.

       

      Here is my suggested regimen for eliminating/preventing a violin or viola hickey:

      1. Switch to a plastic chinrest, or use a cloth over your existing setup for at least 30 days. After your skin has cleared up, you can try to reintroduce your old chinrest and see what happens. This is the best way to tell what's going on if you aren't sure what your allergies are, or if this is even an issue for you. You may end up wanting to keep this setup because it will help keep you safe from developing an allergy.

      2. Make sure you are not 'clamping down' when you play. If you need to press down at all with your chin, then you are not playing in the most ergonomic way. You should be able to hold up the instrument easily by using the weight of your head. Video yourself practicing, and see if there is anyway you can play with less tension. Experiment with different chinrest/shoulder rest setups to find what works best for you.

      3. Up your instrument hygiene game. I carry alcohol wipes and clean my chinrest before I play. I personally can't stand using a cloth, so this is an easier solution for me. If you are using a cloth, make sure you always are using a clean one and switch them out regularly.

      4. Treat the infection if there is one. I use a product called ScarAway if I am having a flareup. It's a silicone sheet intended to heal scar tissue. I cut it into a piece that fits over my viola hickey, and only use this when I'm practicing. One piece can last me an entire day.

      Make sure to use a triple antibiotic + pain relief ointment (like neosporin) when you aren't playing, to help cut down on the infection. It really helps with pain and itchiness.

      You could alternatively try something like Dermarest Eczema cream if you're having more issues with pain than an infection.

      I occasionally use a charcoal mask to help draw out impurities and smooth out skin.

      Treatments that are normally for acne can sometimes work really well, but they can really dry out your skin which will make the eczema symptoms worse.

      Don't use products for removing calluses, or try to freeze it off as this will just irritate your skin more.

      5. Don't pick. Give your skin a chance to heal. If it's infected and you try to drain it yourself, you will be pushing just as much of the infection back into your body.

      If you struggle with this step, you aren't alone. Don't be afraid to seek out help if you have issues with OCD or a BFRB. Take steps to eliminate stress in your daily life.

      6. If there is no improvement, don't hesitate to seek out medical treatment. Playing a string instrument is something we obviously want to be able to do for the rest of our lives. If your skin is damaged enough, you may need injections or surgery in order to fully heal.

       

      More information:

      Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fiddler%27s_neck

      WebMD: https://www.webmd.com/skin-problems-and-treatments/understanding-dermatitis-symptoms

       

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      Let me know what you think! Have you struggled with a violin, viola, or cello hickey? Did you try this regimen, or is there a product that works well for you? Are you a cellist that has adapted this regimen? Do you know of any scholarly or medical research done on this topic? Thoughts?

       

      *My statements have not been influenced by sponsorship of any kind