Tag Archives: violin

Some thoughts on hearing

More ear problems

This week it turned out that although I may have had catarrh, my ear is definitely blocked on the outside too. So I’m going to make an appointment as soon as possible to have it syringed.

The blockage got worse early last week, so on Thursday I found myself at a rehearsal with a left ear which was significantly more deaf than it had been for the concert which I recently described. I’m writing about it because although it was extremely unhelpful for playing, I found the reasons for its being unhelpful quite interesting. They’re suggestive about the way hearing works in an orchestra.

The difficulty

Of course, as at that concert, it was hard to judge my playing volume. That’s not at all surprising. But also, it was much more difficult to play in tune, which led to some thoughts about how I normally do this.

Obviously if you can’t hear another instrument you can’t play yours in tune with it. But that wasn’t the difficulty; I could hear the other instruments, but couldn’t easily make the fine adjustments needed to home in on the required pitch to blend with them. I’m not sure whether the problem was that I was hearing my violin from a distance, out of the “wrong” ear, or whether it goes further and the lack of binaural hearing was the obstacle.

I don’t believe that merely hearing how far your pitch goes up or down will guarantee that you’re in tune with other instruments. For one thing, for mathematical reasons, the required pitch of a note can vary according to context, and there’s a continual conflict between the pitches which provide smooth melodies and those which provide clean harmony. (The theoretical difference can be quite large: a fifth of a semitone or even more.)

How do you tune your instrument at the start of the rehearsal? Ideally, like this: the oboe plays an A; you play an A on your instrument, quietly enough to hear the oboe you’re tuning to, and you adjust the pitch until the sound of your instrument blends in with that of the oboe.

Hearing, blending and intonation

If two notes which are nearly but not quite in tune with each other are played together, one hears beats: pulsations in the volume of the sound. This is because the sound waves from the two instruments get in and out of synch with each other. When they’re in synch, the sound is louder; when they’re out of synch, they cancel out and the sound is quieter. The more nearly in tune the two are, the slower the beats; when they’re completely in tune, the beats disappear.

What I mean by “blending with the oboe” is that you can’t hear any beats between your instrument and the oboe. Furthermore, at least with a violin, if you play it very quietly, you can no longer tell which is you and which is the oboe; your sound disappears into that of the oboe.

On tuning at the start of the rehearsal, it was clear that I couldn’t judge this blending very easily. I had, however, tuned carefully to an electronic tuner which indicates the pitch visually. Why couldn’t I hear it? Partly, I think, because I could hear everyone else tuning just as loudly as myself; but maybe also because of another phenomenon I’ve noticed, also to do with beats.

It’s well known in acoustics that if two pure notes are played simultaneously, a third one can be heard along with the other two. For example, an A at 440 Hz played with an E at 660 Hz will produce an A an octave down, at 220 Hz. Its frequency is the difference between the two being played, and it’s the result of the beats I was talking about earlier. They simply happen fast enough to become a musical note themselves.

When playing two notes at once (unaccompanied) on a violin, I can normally hear these “difference notes” surprisingly loudly. Some people have trouble hearing them at all; I think that’s probably because they’re listening in the wrong place. I realised this several years ago. The third note doesn’t sound as though it’s coming from the violin. It sounds as though it’s coming from just inside the ear. Which is, in fact, where it’s generated. And I experience a feeling of actual vibration in the ear. That’s where you have to listen for it.

How do you tell whether your tuning is blending with the other instruments around you? Again, it seems to me, by hearing beats, though you might not be conscious that that’s what you’re doing. The feeling of shrill dissonance when a note is horribly out of tune is actually the feeling of hearing beats at a particularly unpleasant speed.

I think what was missing, with my blocked ear, was the sense of sounds interacting in my ear. Instead of feeling pressure vibrations, I simply have a sensation of slight pressure from the blockage.

So my scientifically untested hypothesis is that playing in tune in an orchestra depends not just on hearing pitches from a distance, but also on the physical sensations occurring in the ear as the different sounds arrive and interact.

And I might not have realised that without a blocked ear! But now I’ve realised, I’m looking forward to having normal hearing again.

Creative cycles

If you read this regularly, or read back a few pages, you’ll know that I’ve recently come back to blogging here after quite a long break, and that there’s been a mini-flurry of posts. You can read them below!


A while ago, an online artist friend wrote in her blog that she’d decided to try to draw something every day, to practise her art skills. I was immediately attracted to the idea of trying to write something every day, maybe for this blog, as a similar useful discipline. But then I hadn’t the energy for it and the idea foundered.

Then I re-read her post the other week, and was encouraged to have a go. My flurry of posts ensued.
I believe in encouraging the encourager, so I mentioned to her that she’d encouraged me to start writing again. Her reply was along the lines: “Well actually… Yes, I really ought to get back to doing that.. I’m not doing it at the moment”.

Another online friend, a clarinettist, had had good intentions of practising every day. She wrote in her blog about feeling discouraged at not managing to do it. (She also wrote very encouragingly about being encouraged by me! Thank you.) And as you know if you’ve read below, my violin practice lapsed over Christmas…

How many of your New Year resolutions took the form “I will [insert idealistic ambition of personal perfection] every day”? Did they succeed?

I very much doubt that they did, but I’m not sure this is a bad thing. Reflecting on my own situatiion and the experiences of my fellow bloggers, I found myself thinking about the idea of creative cycles.

Learning, rest and cycles

I think any creative activity is in fact a learning process. Musical performance is included in this, by the way, because you have to create your particular style of playing. You’re always trying to develop and move forwards…

But learning is hard work for the brain. It doesn’t like concentrating hard on one thing indefinitely; after working at something new, it likes time to assimilate what has been learnt. If you play an instrument, imagine this scenario: one day, you go to a long rehearsal, or you do some intense practice at home. You work hard at it. When you stop, you’re definitely ready for a rest… Next day, when you practise some more, you don’t want to work on the same piece again, so you practise something else. Or you do try to play the same music, but seem to be having an “off day”. Or, more likely than not, you have a day off from playing, but the music you were practising is still going through your head. You find yourself unconsciously whistling tunes from it as you do other things. A few days later, you play the music again. You find it has improved a lot–while you weren’t working on it. Your practice told your brain what was required to play. Afterwards–most likely while you were asleep, if the suggestions of recent research are right–your brain set about “reprogramming” itself to achieve what you’d fed into it.

It does seem that most of the improvement happens between practice periods, not during them. That’s one reason why it’s a bad idea to force yourself to practise the same thing for hours on end, expecting it to become perfect as you practise. When your brain says you need to stop, you need to stop.

I think something similar might apply over longer timescales. Maybe we shouldn’t expect to keep our self-promise to do a particular activity every day–or even every week. Maybe it’s not even desirable that we should. (Or maybe our needs in this respect vary from person to person.) Each activity needs rest periods. A particularly long, intense period of one activity might need to be followed by a particularly long and complete rest from it. This might actually be healthy and not a failure on our part at all; it might be the success of recognising the way of working that enables us to give the best results.

Solo musicians whom I’ve met generally say that they like to learn the notes for a piece, then put it aside for several months before coming back to it. Then they’re ready to work on getting it ready for public performance. Slogging away for ever isn’t necessarily the best approach. In fact I’m pretty sure that for any creative activity it’s entirely the wrong one. (On a smaller timescale: I wrote the bulk of this post a week or so ago. Then I left it, and now that I’ve come back to edit it, the process feels a lot easier than it did then.)

I’m interested in a lot of different things–that’s probably obvious from my blog posts. But with most of them I’m never happy unless I involve myself in them in some depth. I’ll buy a textbook on a subject and study it. I’ll try to find out what the “professional” approach to it is. I’m interested in music, mathematics, computer programming, writing, and so on. Well, I can’t do all of those at once in the sort of depth I want to. Typically I’ll immerse myself in one of them for several months. Then I come to a natural point where it feels like time to do something else. I take a break from the activity I’ve immersed in, and immerse myself in the next one. So each activity happens in cycles, interspersed with the others.

The most important activities never quite go away, though. For example, there’s no time in the last twenty years when I’ve not been playing regularly in at least one orchestra. But there have been times when I was working hard at improving my violin technique, and others when I simply did what was required to prepare for the next concert. Those times haven’t been ones of musical inactivity, though: I’ve had the sense of using and consolidating the technique that was previously worked on. A period of learning followed by a period of consolidation.

So that’s how it seems to work for me. If you’re involved in any creative activity, do you have a similar experience of it going in cycles? I’d love to hear from you.

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.

Enjoyable concert: full rehearsal and concert day

I wrote the previous post after the first rehearsal. We had a second rehearsal on Friday night (with the choir and the full orchestra: Wednesday was just strings), and then a final rehearsal on Saturday afternoon, with the concert in the evening.

Friday rehearsal

The main thing that became apparent at the Friday rehearsal was that the orchestra seating was going to be very cramped. This is quite uncomfortable for a string player. The reason is probably quite obvious: you need to be able to move the bow freely without either jabbing somebody with the sharp end, poking them in the ribs with the blunt end, knocking anyone’s music over, or damaging the bow by hitting an immovable object such as a stone pillar with it. And you want to be able to sit at an angle which allows you to see the conductor, the leader and your music, and which also allows your “desk partner”–the person you share a music stand with–to do the same. And THEN you want to accomplish all this without getting a stiff back from sitting awkwardly.

Everything seemed fine until the cellos said they hadn’t got room to play. Obviously something had to be done about this, so we all moved a bit thereby sharing the discomfort out. Now we were all short of about an inch of space compared to what we needed, rather than the cellos each having a foot less than they needed. We shuffled around into carefully crafted positions which just about made playing possible. I remarked that an inch of movement in any direction would prevent me playing. Everyone else seemed to be in a similar situation. All the chairs were in exactly the right position and woe betide anyone who moved them…

Then the alarming announcement: during the first half of the concert, it would be necessary to completely dismantle the string section after the first piece, to make room for a piano. Then, after the piano had been finished with and trundled off again, we would have to restore the seating and play our string piece. Things like this add considerably to the stress of a concert! So I was rather apprehensive about how it would work out. (I once had the experience of playing the whole of Suk’s Serenade for Strings without being able to see the conductor at all, at a concert in which the wind players performed a piece on their own directly before ours, and moved all our seats around in the process.)

Dress rehearsal

The Saturday afternoon rehearsal was good. The choirs sang well, their improvement from the day before was quite noticeable, and they seemed likely to improve even more by the evening. The orchestra’s playing was good too. But the leader–remember I was sitting with her, at the front–had got a bad cold and a cough which was threatening to become uncontrollable. And she had lots of solo passages to play. So it was quite worrying that she had to leave the rehearsal several times in search of drinks, cough medicines and so on. What if the cough got out of control in the concert and stopped her playing at a crucial moment? Who would play the solos? Very possibly me, but whereas she’d spent time at home practising them to make them sound wonderful, I’d be sightreading them, during the concert…!

I’m sure people in audiences just go along and listen to the music, unaware that all this stuff is going on!


In the event it worked out fine. Katy was full enough of cough medicine and heaven-knows-what to be able to play without disruption, and somehow managed to be full of medication without her brain clouding over; the solos were absolutely beautiful, and our performance of the Vaughan Williams Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis seemed to take off–and miraculously, we did in fact manage to get our seats close enough to the original arrangement for us to be able to play it. And it was interesting hearing the original Thomas Tallis hymn–the one used by Vaughan Williams as the basis of the Fantasia–sung by a small choir at the back of the church before we played the actual piece.

It was quite a varied concert: music for big choir and full orchestra, for strings alone (the Fantasia), for choir and organ, for small unaccompanied choir (the Tallis hymn), and for solo singer and piano. (The solo singers were the baritone and soprano who would be singing in the second half for Fauré’s Requiem.)

So I enjoyed the concert, but was also very relieved when the first half was over, with all its potential sources of unwanted excitement. And judging by their response, the audience did too. The prolonged silence after the end of the Requiem before the applause started was a good sign; if the piece is performed well the audience like to enjoy the closing silence for a while before clapping. That’s very unnerving for the performers: it feels as though actually, they may never start clapping. But the enthusiastic applause then started, and we knew it had gone well.

And then off home, exhausted.

Enjoyable concert: string rehearsal

Last night I went to the first rehearsal for a concert I’m playing in on Saturday. This is another nice event: it’s a mainly-choral concert which happens once a year. There is a small orchestra consisting of invited players, and a very good choir which I think consists of invited singers. (Well I’m assuming they’ll be good; last night was a strings-only rehearsal, but this will be the third year I’ve played and they were excellent the first two times.)

The music (for us) is

  • Vaughan Williams, Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis
  • Fauré, Requiem
  • Vaughan Williams, Towards the Unknown Region

though probably not in that order.

I’m not sure how well-known Vaughan Williams is outside the UK, so perhaps I should say a little about the Fantasia (and then give you a Wikipedia link or similar when I’ve looked it up). In this country it’s regarded as the string piece of all time, really (unless that place belongs to Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro). It was originally written to be performed in, I think, Gloucester Cathedral and it is written for string orchestra, a second, smaller string orchestra of about 8 players (seated well away from the main one), and string quartet. Just strings. In the original performance the string quartet was again seated separately, but we’re playing it the usual way: the leaders of the string sections stay in their normal seats and play solo for the quartet bits. We’re not playing it in a cathedral but we are playing it in a large parish church which isn’t much different from a cathedral and has just the right acoustics.

It’s a lyrical and very English piece, which uses everything from the sound of a quartet on its own to the lushly orchestrated sound of the whole string orchestra playing as loud as they can… Actually, around 18 months ago I had the opportunity to play it at an orchestral study day (just for strings) where we had an orchestra of about 60 string players; now that was quite something.) The second orchestra typically feature as an ethereal sound in the far distance, which continues after a climax from the full orchestra or which precedes a dramatic entry by everyone. The piece is based on a hymn setting by the Renaissance composer Thomas Tallis, and a small choir will sing the original from the back of the church before we then play the Fantasia.

For this concert I’m sitting at the front of the first violins, next to the leader. I hadn’t known this or maybe I’d have looked at the music a bit more, because it means that I have to lead the orchestra in the sections where she’s playing solo as part of the string quartet. But I’ve played the piece before, so that’s OK. Anyway I digress. Her comment about playing the Fantasia after a summer of non-playing was “It’s like a nice hot bath”–which it is, really.

Towards the Unknown Region was a new piece to me. As I feared from the title, it did, towards the end, ascend speedily to heights on the violin which are unknown to many players… I ought to have a look a that section before Saturday. There’s about half a page of it.

And yes, the Fauré is the same piece as in the conducting course (see Opening the Envelope and How the conducting course went), but in a different version: this one has a full violin section. But it’s still a viola extravaganza really; we only play for a few of the movements, and then when we do play we often feel as though we should try to sound like violas. 😉

There’s another rehearsal tomorrow, then the concert is on Saturday. I wasn’t really in the mood for rehearsals and concerts yet, but this should be good. 🙂