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Paganini's Pencil!

By Stephen Brivati
March 3, 2015 23:52


The other day I stumbled across a rather disconcerting web site claiming to be a specific school of violin playing that had inherited the secrets of Paganini. Said site was generously giving them all to us. All this is done with quasi-dramatic backdrop, voice and so on. In point of fact, the violinistic advice given wasn't bad at all, except the so-called "Paganini bow hold" owed a lot more to the protagonist's rather stubby fingers than any real secret. There actually wasn't anything there that isn't standard teaching practice. If you want to know the secrets of Paganini you'd be much better of reading Ricci's book on technique.

PaganiniOne of the things that made me burst out laughing was the discussion of how a big secret was practicing the right hand with a stick or pencil. An advert then flashed up on the screen for a pencil company and it was stated that "the x school of violin playing has been using these pencils for over a hundred years." Paganini for pencils, or is it the other way around?

Having calmed down with some stewed prunes (another of Paganini's secrets) I did get to thinking about how we can enhance and extend our practice time away from the violin with a little thought. For example, when I first went to college I was advised by my teacher to carry a pencil around and practice finger movements when I am on a train or whatever. So it dawned on me that what was useful then is still good now. Even with my limited resources and time, I can do really useful practice away from the instrument. Not only straightening and bending the fingers, but dropping the hand from its neutral straight-ahead position and letting the fingers extend. Then raising it above wrist height and contracting the fingers. Then there is windscreen wiping, or rotating from the elbow. Actually I much prefer this with a pencil for young players anyway. Or how about just stretching out the arm in a down bow further than normal and then doing an up bow further than normal so your range of movement is increased?

After a week of this doodling around I could actually sense some improvement in my bowing.

It seems to me that there is a great deal we can do, with or without Paganini's Pencil, to improve our playing, even if we are busy adults with only a few minutes to spare or doing a boring job like train crossing guard. Of course, in this day and age, everybody has a keyboard, but I don't recommend using that for bowing exercises.


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The Week in Reviews, Op. 72: Benjamin Beilman, Frank Peter Zimmermann, Julia Fischer in Concert

By Robert Niles
March 3, 2015 16:15

In an effort to promote the coverage of live violin performance, Violinist.com each week presents links to reviews of notable concerts and recitals around the world.

Benjamin Beilman performed the Higdon with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

  • The Philadelphia Inquirer: "As a piece of major talent, Beilman's playing spoke for itself. Even those who heard him when he was a Curtis Institute student or a member of Astral Artists' selective roster might have been startled by his polish and power in Higdon's 2008 work (being given its first Philadelphia Orchestra performance here). An ode to Curtis, where Higdon once studied and now teaches, the first movement uses the 1726 in the school's Locust Street address as a point of departure. This is a piece of alternating extremes, intense expressivity and speed-demon virtuosity."

Benjamin Beilman
Benjamin Beilman. Photo by Giorgia Bertazzi

Frank Peter Zimmermann performed the Sibelius with the New York Philharmonic (on a loaned Guarnerius del Gesù, after the lease ran out on the Strad he'd been playing).

  • The New York Times: "Mr. Zimmermann, backed by Mr. Oramo and the inspired orchestra, powerfully conveyed the quizzical crosscurrents in the music. And the finale, which, on the surface, seems a rustic dance, here sounded modern and wild, with the violin fixating on obsessive rhythmic riffs against the swirling orchestra."

Julia Fischer performed the Brahms with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

  • Boston Globe: "There was plenty to appreciate in Fischer’s streamlined and nimble account, dispatched with a technique that is a marvel of precision engineering."
  • Boston Classical Review: "Julia Fischer’s performance in the solo part Thursday was impressive from start to finish. Her tone, though not the biggest, was wonderfully clear and well-produced in all registers and dynamics, and was a strong presence in the hall. Even though Dutoit didn’t hold back in the concerto’s symphonic-style exposition or the big tuttis that followed, Fischer’s entrances were so arresting that one hardly noticed the steep drop in volume."
  • Boston Musical Intelligencer: "She is a dynamic even athletic concert artist, bending backwards and forwards even lifting the bow off the strings as if having shot off an arrow."

Nicola Benedetti performed works by Vivaldi with La Cetra.

  • The Telegraph: "The energetic moments like the storm in Summer were astonishing, passing by in a hurricane of rapid notes. More winning were the moments when the players could show off a jazz-like flexibility, like the one in Autumn when Benedetti threw a phrase and the orchestra caught it with perfect grace."

Alexander Kerr performed the Barber with the Dallas Symphony.

  • Dallas Morning News: "He brought a fetching illusion of spontaneity to the concerto’s opening, as if dreamily trying out different phrase treatments, then dispatched the perpetual-motion finale with utter authority."
  • D Magazine: "Kerr, conductor Foster, and the orchestra successfully captured the beautiful intimacies and the sweeping, Brahmsian climaxes of the piece, with Kerr providing a serene, nicely controlled reading of the solo part."

Ilya Gringolts performed the Harris with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra.

  • National Business Review: "Ilya Gringolts performed with a total focus on his instrument with no ostentatious display. His restrained approach meant that the emotional urgency of the piece was conveyed purely through his total control and mercurial playing. He brought a sense of introspection to his playing as though he were the creator as well as the player of the work."

Tamsin Waley-Cohen performed the Bruch with the Brighton Philharmonic.

  • The Argus: "Stephen Bell, the conductor, had forged a strong partnership with the violin soloist, Tamsin Waley-Cohen, to produce an affectionate, but still noble, account of this favourite."

Henning Kraggerud performed Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5 with the Hallé.

  • The Guardian: "Kraggerud has a mischievous, slightly chaotic stage presence and prefaced the work with a surreal spoken riff about poor dental hygiene in 18th-century Vienna causing horn players to retrain as violists. An encore provided a rare chance to hear Mozart’s sublime alternate version of the central adagio, forming a unique, four-movement concerto with a beginning, two middles and an end."

Xiao Wang performed the Sibelius with the M.S.M. Symphony; Juilliard and the Manhattan School of Music Play Strauss’s ‘Ein Heldenleben’.

  • The New York Times: Mr. Wang, the violinist, was also wonderfully clean in the Manhattan’s School’s Sibelius, and he made the most of its expressive opportunities. Scarcely less impressive than the soloists were the orchestras’ concertmasters, each entrusted with those extended, amorous solos that weave in and out of Strauss’s “The Hero’s Companion.” The Manhattan’s concertmaster, Matous Michal, was terrific throughout the program. And Wyatt Underhill of Juilliard presided and played as if he, like Mr. Guzelimian, were glancing next door at the Philharmonic, aware of its vacancy in the position of concertmaster. With a few more years and a little more experience, he could be thinking such thoughts.

Viktoria Mullova performed the Brahms with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.

  • The New York Times: "In the Brahms, the soloist Viktoria Mullova's work was nuanced but tentative, as if she were still thinking through period performance's implications."

Karen Gomyo performed Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5 with the Florida Orchestra.

  • Tampa Bay Times: "Karen Gomyo...demonstrated with aplomb how technical brilliance need not be flashy when it serves purity of tone and the expressive elegance of a musical phrase. In Mozart, that's harder than it looks. Gomyo's telling of his Fifth Violin Concerto was eloquent and sublime. I might go buy another ticket just to hear it again."

Anne-Sophie Mutter performed the Brahms with the San Francisco Symphony.

  • San Francisco Chronicle: "Mutter’s artistic thumbprint has always been a certain ferocity in her playing, which gives even the most lyrical music an edgy quality. It’s an attribute that her most ardent fans find invigorating, but that can also lend a certain stridency to her performances."
  • Examiner.com: "Anne-Sophie Mutter('s)...approach to technique was, at best, variable and (her) expressiveness was sadly limited."

Akiko Suwanai performed the Beethoven with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.

  • The Guardian: "The soloist was Akiko Suwanai, a fine, refreshingly straightforward player. There was nothing contrived or affected about her performance; a few swoony phrases in the slow movement were her only indulgence in an otherwise beautiful, poised, utterly musical performance."
  • The Telegraph: "The soloist Akiko Suwanai played the piece with a radiantly lofty and pure tone, but Karabits seemed oddly disengaged from her, so orchestra and soloist weren’t always in perfect accord."

Daniel Szasz performed Piazzolla’s “The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires” with the Alabama Symphony.

  • ArtsBHAM: "(Szasz) played with warmth and sensitivity, appropriately gritty in spots, ever relishing Piazzolla’s rhythmic buoyancy."

Please support music in your community by attending a concert or recital whenever you can!

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Not Just a Teacher

By Kelsey Zachary
March 3, 2015 11:33

I'm in need of some words of wisdom here. I have a really fantastic group of students who would make any teacher proud. I love their enthusiasm and humour and fresh perspective, but what can you do as a teacher when enthusiasm transfers over into perfectionism to the point of being almost damaging? I've noticed more and more that kids at younger and younger ages are beginning to get so upset when something doesn't go perfectly right away.

There's always some degree of counseling that comes into your role as a teacher and it's a privilege (and big responsibility!) that parents trust you to shape and mold their kids young minds. I'm sure many of us have had a teacher or two who hasn't exactly lived up their jobs in the most positive of ways but it makes me think about what we can do to be better equipped to be prepared for a student who's a perfectionist, or a student who struggles with a learning disability or a student whose just lost a family member or one of the more difficult circumstances I've encountered over the years, a student who comes from an abusive home and uses their lesson as an escape and safe place. How can we be better equipped to be not only the educator but the mentor and the counselor that our students sometimes need and to be able to be sensitive to their situation or circumstance ? If only teaching was as simple as 2+2 = 4 .

And now a momentary departure from conundrums of a music teacher.

I had hoped to be finished knitting my ongoing sweater project by now but between bein g sick, out of town and being distracted by a couple other smaller knitting projects I've fallen off the bandwagon a little bit. I'm back on the band wagon though and I'm determined to finish it this week. Maybe I'll penalize myself a starbucks for every day over schedule I go? Why oh why does ravelry have to take up so much of my time surfing through patterns. I'm pretty sure if I determined to make everything in my favourites list that I'd have more than enough patterns to keep me busy for a lifetime. Oh well...... I've been make a steady dent in my large yarn stash since Christmas so I am at least keeping good on that promise to myself so far! I've included a peek at one of my more recent projects that I've completed for your viewing pleasure.

Kelsey's knitting

Now back to your regular programming.

The past couple of years I've been trying to motivate students to practice more. Kids are exceedingly busy these days running back and forth from soccer practice to English tutoring to skating lessons nevermind schools seem to be piling on more and more homework. So how do you get kids to practice when they are already so overloaded that even though they might enjoy playing and enjoy lessons they are too beat to practice at the end of the day.

My strategy the last few terms have been different kinds of practice challenges. The first one I tried was an in studio practice competition. I hung a large white board and all the students names were put on the board and each week that they
practiced a star would be placed beside their name. At the end of the term, the student with the most stars beside their name received a prize (my choice was a gift card for Vancouver's popular "Kids Books" bookstore). The 2nd term I tried a practice challenge, I wanted to do something to keep things interesting, this time it was a 70 day practice challenge. They had just over 70 days to practice 70 days (i wanted to alot a couple extra days in case kids got sick or needed a play day) If they somehow didn't think they could practice that much or missed a day, they could feel out bi-weekly music quiz sheets for extra credit that were geared towards teaching them a bit more about the music they are learning. Again, we did a small prize system to try and help motivate and spawn some friendly competition. It seemed to work! I was surprised how many kids actually succeeded at this!

This most recent semester which is a bit shorter and is just coming to an end I decided to try something a bit different yet again and to get in on the competition myself. It was a "can you beat the teacher?" practice competition. The kids had the entire semester to practice more than I did in only a couple of weeks. I took my shortest practice days to make it a little more challenging for me to keep up too! Anyone have any recommendations of what I should do for my next practice challenge that begins the last week of March after spring break is over?

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Laurie's Violin School: Searching for the Patterns

By Laurie Niles
March 3, 2015 09:34

"Let's strip out all the other notes and practice just the scale in this little passage," I advised a student who was playing Mazas Etude No. 25.

She looked at the page intently for a long minute, smiled, and laughed at herself. "I didn't even realize there was a scale in there!"

mazas 25

One repeated note, but it's basically a scale.

It's easy to miss that kind of thing, especially if you aren't really looking for it. I've missed some whoppers. For example, one day in the relatively recent past, I was doodling distractedly while listening in on my son's piano lesson. The holiday season was approaching, and his teacher was instructing him on what was a new piece of music for him at the time. "Play just the first eight notes," she said.

Joy to the World

"What is it?" she asked, after he played it. I thought to myself, "It's 'Joy to the World,' he'll know that." My son paused for a moment, then brightly said, "A D-major scale!"

Wait, what?

I had to look at the music. I'm not even kidding! I had to sing the solfege in my mind: Do, ti, la sol, fa me re do.... I'd been singing that song since I was a toddler and playing on the violin it almost as long -- hundreds, if not thousands, of times. And yet this was the first time in my entire life that I saw that line for what it was: a descending scale!

So it's not surprising to me that students, while wrestling with fingers and bow and trying to make one note to follow the next, often fail to see the scaffolding on which the whole thing hangs -- those basic structures at the heart of any musical composition: scales, arpeggios, sequences, patterns, melody, harmony. Yet finding the basic structures can simplify it a great deal, making the music easier to learn, master and memorize.

Sometimes the thicket of notes gets pretty dense, and that structure can be hard to find. But it's in these cases that having that structure can really make the difference. Take, for example, this (really fun!) passage from Kreisler's "Praeludium and Allegro."


To the outsider, it sounds like a virtuoso barrage of notes. But the insider learns pretty quickly that this is a fairly simple series of sequences that actually lays pretty easily on the fiddle. There are many different ways to dissect and practice this little monster but to see a basic shape, start by looking at the top line, which I've conveniently circled in red: first is a pattern of three descending notes, and we get a series of five of these inching upward. After that is a little transition. Then we get a pattern of three notes that go down a step and then skip a third -- that happens seven times in a row in a descending series. Then another transition. Then four-note pattern that basically goes down a third, down a third, up a step, in a series of four, after which it all transitions in a descent to the next section.

That's just the basic structure. To really understand the passage, get rid of all the open E's. Pair each circled note with the note before it and make it into a double-stop (they are all basically sixths). Play the whole thing this way, as double stops. I've left out the fingerings, but you pretty much just crawl up and down the fingerboard, using the same fingering (more or less). Once you can play it all as double-stops, you are pretty much good to go.

How does one find these things? In violin playing, you can look for things like that "open E" in the above passage: a pedal tone or a pattern that repeats without much change. If you eliminate those notes, what is left? Usually the moving notes are left, and then you can see what you have: is it a scale? The melody? An arpeggio? This is what you need to practice or analyze, for better understanding.

Certainly, there is music that does not conform to any obvious pattern or set of patterns. (Check out original violin part in the opening John William's "Hedwig's Theme," heaven help us! Do you have examples?)

But quite a lot does, and for that music, a little detective work can make something that seems pretty foggy and confusing come into clear focus.

What are your strategies, when you come to a passage that is a big thicket of notes? How do you find the patterns? And what do you do, when there is no pattern?

* * *

For fun, here is Itzhak Perlman playing Kreisler's "Praeludium and Allegro" in the style of Pugnani, which contains the above passage at 3:52:

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