Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Violin and Writing

My new song on violin, the "Hunter's Chorus" from the opera Der Freischutz, is in 2/4, and has quarter notes, eighth notes, and sixteenth notes.  I'd been practicing it for a week, and when I had my lesson last week, my teacher noticed something, and had me step with the beat, at which point I, too, noticed that I was playing the quarter notes and eighth notes with the same time.  Oops.

The thing is, I'd been practicing wrong for a solid week, so unlike just learning something, I need to unlearn and then learn again.  She suggested some strategies, including working with a metronome. 

The first day I tried it, I had to adjust the metronome about 10 times to find a speed slow enough for me to hit the sixteenth notes.  Let's just say that my speed is rather more dirge like than the allegro the music calls for.  (I'm playing at 55 beats per minute, and allegro is more like 120 beats per minute.)

The sixteenth notes are hard, with bow crossings, and holding a finger down on the D string for one note, then crossing to the open A string for the next, without picking up the finger on the D string (so it has to be clear of the A string, something that's not easy for my fingers).

So, I'm practicing along with the metronome, super slowly, and looking at the music, and while I may be getting the tempo, everything is goes to hell.  My fingers aren't quite hitting where they should, and the bowing's messy.  (I'm also working with the metronome on scales and broken thirds, and they're a little less messy.)

I'm beginning to "get" the time, so at the end of the practice session, I stop the metronome and try to play in time, and everything else improves a bit.  The sixteenth notes aren't as smooth as they should be, but my fingers hit the strings closer to where they should, and the bowing's not quite such a mess.

What does this have to do with writing?

With violin, I'm trying to pay attention to a number of things at once (and that number will increase as I improve, of course): fingerings, bowings, music, time.  It seems like I can really get one or two of those things at a time.  So if I've memorized the music, then I can focus on fingering and bowing much more.  But if I add in being really attentive to time, with the metronome, the fingering and bowing suffer.

Similarly, in writing, students are trying to pay attention to a lot of things, and when they're working on writing about new content, then everything else pretty much goes to hell.  That's especially true if the content is challenging for a given student.  For me, the timing is a big challenge right now.  For a student, Foucault may be the challenge, or partial pressure across a membrane, or describing mouse teeth.  So they're focusing on that hard content, writing in order to understand the content, but also, in our system, often to demonstrate some degree of mastery of the content.

And everything else falls apart, spelling, sentence structure, paragraph structure, it all goes to hell. 

Now, given time and guidance, the student can get the content in order to learn and demonstrate a degree of mastery, and then go back and work on making paragraph structure strong, making sentences work, catching typos.  But that all takes time, and realistically, it takes guidance from a teacher to get them to take that time, and to teach them to see how paragraph structure works, how sentences work, and how to effectively revise those, and then how to effectively proofread.

So that's what I'm thinking about today, as I start classes, realizing that my students are learning hard stuff, and separating out writing for learning from writing to demonstrate learning, and providing time and guidance for paragraph and sentence revision, and for catching typos.

Here's wishing myself a good semester, and wishing those of you also starting today a good semester, and wishing all of you who've been at it for a bit already a continued good semester.


  1. Super helpful and interesting blog post! One of the things that I realized -- only in retrospect -- about my freshman course last year is that I didn't have nearly enough opportunities for writing to learn in a completely grade-free environment, so that's something I'm adding this year.

    1. Thanks! It sounds like you're making a good adjustment for your students!