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Sometimes It Pays Just To Show Up

By Kate Little
July 30, 2015 21:52

Choteau, Montana, a town of about 500, and an agricultural county of about 5000, lies on the rolling plans east of the rocky fortress otherwise known as Glacier National Park. At this time of year, the hills are golden from drying hay, and dotted with bales of harvest. Choteau is 197 miles from Bozeman, Montana. The drive is mostly on curvy 2-lane state highways, and includes a stoplight in Townsend (population approx. 2000), and a stop sign at the crossing of Rt. 200 (cross traffic @ 70+ mph does not stop!!!!). In a 1986 Volvo 240DL, which drives like a fish tank with no a/c, the trip is noisy, hot, and tiring, but beautiful.

The Montana State Old-Time Fiddlers Association (MSOTFA) holds their annual state competition in Choteau. The contest includes 2 or 3 rounds of 3 tunes each. I learned of the competition a month ago, took on the challenge (for me) of learning 6 tunes in 1 month and playing them all in a single day, and drove the Volvo to Choteau.

Friday night consisted of a street dance, along with competitions in twin-fiddling, anything-goes fiddling, and dance-band fiddling. There was a crowd of several hundred, and I recognized one. A woman named Nancy who I met only the previous Wednesday as a first-time attendee of a Bozeman jam session. She was up on stage for the competition. Chatting with her after, I learned more. Nancy is experienced in the competition circuit, and this year won 3rd in the Adult division, and 1st in Twin-fiddling at the National Oldtime Fiddlers Contest and Festival in Weiser, Idaho. With her guitarist husband, Ray, Nancy also performs in the Gypsy Jazz quartet, Montana Manouche. Clearly, it was not just any ol’ neighborhood fiddler that I had been jamming with on Wednesday.

Nancy quickly figured out that I am pretty low on the experience chart, without wits to even know that I should have an accompanist for the contest, much less an idea of how to get one, or how to work with one, or how an accompanist would be helpful. She took me under her wing.

Between her personal collection of tunes, her subscription service, and Google, Nancy found chord-charts to all 6 of the tunes (some obscure) that I was playing. She set up guitar cue-sheets; took me out of the hall to rehearse before both the morning and the afternoon performances (in addition to fiddling, Nancy plays and accompanies on guitar); explained how to find and rehearse with and pay accompanists, and how to have music ready for them; organized herself and Ray to be on the stage with me twice; and offered thoughtful supportive comments for my playing. All this while serving as accompanist for several others, and waiting for her own performance in the Championship round. (Which she won.) Could there have been a kinder, more helpful, more supportive person to run into?

This is the way it is at the MSOTFA annual state contest. The experienced fiddlers there are inclusive. They want new-comers to enjoy the art. They applaud your meager performance. They draw you into the jam sessions.

And they give out cash prizes, too. 3rd place Adult nets $100. Even when there are only 3 entrants. But the people and the experience were the greatest reward.

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Studio Class with Ilya Kaler

By Laurie Niles
July 30, 2015 20:10

Today I had the privilege of watching violinist and DePaul University Violin Professor Ilya Kaler teach a studio class at the Heifetz International Music Institute. Students at this Institute have two lessons a week, plus a studio class with their teacher. So on this humid summer day, 10 students gathered in a fourth-floor classroom with views of grassy hills of the Mary Baldwin College campus in Staunton, Va. They sat along the walls to watch three of their colleagues perform for Kaler, whose technical wisdom for each performer could easily apply to many situations that violinists face in general.

First, Spencer played the second movement of the Dvorak Violin Concerto, a piece he would be performing in concert the same evening as part of the 41 public concerts the Heifetz Institute hosts over its six-weeks program.

Spencer and Ilya Kaler

The first point Kaler made was about the two repeated 16th notes that occur in this phrase:

Dvorak 1

Those two notes need to be equal. It's easy to elongate the second one, and it's also easy to connect the second one into the next note. But it doesn't work, musically. Connecting them telegraphs the next note, thus taking away a certain element of surprise about what will come next. And what comes next is something that changes throughout the movement as the phrase recurs in different ways.

Also, one can make an accidental crescendo there, going up-bow. "The frog is the heaviest part of the bow. Sometimes we have to make a diminuendo going to the frog" and that simply requires more control.

About the various runs in the movement, Kaler advised that "when you have a lot of notes under the same slurs, make sure you are not too close to the bridge, where you can produce a lot of sound debris."

Kaler gave him some tips for the evening performance: "Right when you step onstage, determine the tempo," he said, and do so by thinking of the faster passages. "It's very important to take the right tempo, because it affects your breathing."

In talking about phrasing, he said that different notes in the same bow need different amounts of bow, because if you distribute the bow equally "the phrase has no landscaping."

For the trills, they have be alert, and "you almost have to feel like you are accentuating them with your left hand," Kaler said. Accents are similar. "There is a difference between accents you do only with your hands and accents that go through you like an electric current. You have to feel it with your body."

Kaler also wanted more vibrato in a double-stop passage -- "If you play French Horn you can stop the vibrato, but on violin you have to vibrate," he said.

As the next student, Yezu, prepared to play next, Kaler explained the concept of setting up the left hand position with the Geminiani chord. Basically there are two ways to do it, and here they are:

Geminiani chord

The idea, which comes from Geminiani's seminal book from 1751, The Art of Playing Violin, is that placing all the fingers down in this way immediately puts the thumb, arm and elbow in the correct positions.

Yezu, with pianist Dina Vainshtein (who played for all performers), played all three movements of the Debussy, an intense performance of this mercurial piece.

Yezu and Ilya Kaler

Kaler praised the performance but wanted her to "upgrade your pianissimo a little" in order to play in a hall, otherwise, the lower the notes, the less the audience will be able to hear them.

In the score, we see one thing, which is "a wishful dynamic, the dynamic that the composer has in mind," Kaler said. "The other thing is practicing what we need to do" in order for that to work in real life, in a performance, in a hall. It will necessarily be louder.

Debussy, he said, was surrounded by the foremost French violinists of the time, and their focus was on refinement of sound. "Although color was important, it's a quality of sound that's like the finest fabric."

In one section that is a less strict and more of an effect, he said to "pretend there are no bar lines -- don't tell us how it's written."

For a pizzicato section in the second movement he advised that "like arco, we should play pizzicato from the string." In fact, pizzicato technique is much like arco technique, and the more one can make the arm part of the process, the better. One should never use just the finger, he said.

As many people do, Yezu had a tendency to close her eyes while performing. It may seem like it feels more safe. "You drift into your dreamland," he said, "but I suggest cultivating a more open-eyed attitude." One way to do so is to choose a neutral object to look at. Ultimately, having open eyes "will relax you more onstage; you will be more in control." He also suggested watching the bow, or thinking about bow distribution, or looking at the pianist.

"You have to get busy when you perform," he said. "Not with thoughts like, 'Am I good enough?" but with the logistical problems of playing. While you are preoccupied with that, all kinds of discomfort might disappear."

Next came a performance by Angela of the first movement of Prokofiev's Concerto No. 1, a gorgeous and exciting piece. Angela had me rather spellbound by the end of her performance!

Angela and Ilya Kaler

Kaler had a great "Tip tip" for the beginning of this piece, a melody that seems to spin out like one endless line: "If you want your note to survive, play with full hair to the tip." Every note has to sing, for a very long time. "It's important how notes start, but even more important how they end." That flat hair at the tip fortifies the sound, keeps it going.

This concerto, Kaler said, is well-orchestrated so that the soloist does not have to constantly fight to be heard. "There are always windows of opportunity to be heard," he said. Nonetheless, one has to play out. For example, in this section toward the end of the first movement:

Prokofiev passage

Despite the composer's markings, and despite that the passage is accompaniment, the violinists must play out. The melody is in the flute, in the same range, and so the instruments compete. The violin part has to poke out of that texture. "Imagine your arm turns into a pendulum," he said, "and follow the line. Use full hair. Don't just pretend to be a fly on the wall, you have to actively participate."

Ilya Kaler studio class

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Violin Lessons and Drama Classes

By Laurie Niles
July 29, 2015 21:26

A violin lesson and a drama-improvisation class seem like two very different animals. The typical violin lesson focuses on mapping out sophisticated musical plans and cultivating complete physical control over the instrument. The improv class throws plans to the wind and pushes for completely free expression.

In reality, both are all about the same thing: technique. And we need both kinds of technique to successfully pull off a compelling public performance. As musicians, we understand why a performance fails when it lacks violin technique. But we need to understand why a performance fails when it lacks dramatic technique: it fails to connect with the audience, it fails to seize moments of spontaneity, it fails to communicate the intended expression.

And this is why it's nice to see young musicians studying the art of drama alongside the art of violin performance. I got to see both kinds of lessons today at the Heifetz International Music Institute at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Va.

Let's start with the violin lesson. This morning I witnessed the analytical genius of Indiana University Violin Professor Mark Kaplan, who can identify the pickiest of musical-technical problems and describe their solutions as poetry. The lesson, and my day, began with the extremely pleasant task of listening to student Rachell Wong play the gorgeous second movement of the Beethoven Concerto with pianist Andrew Rosenblum. (Students at this Institute get two lessons a week, one with piano accompaniment.)

Rachell Wong and Mark Kaplan
Rachell Wong and Mark Kaplan. Photo by Violinist.com.

After she was finished, Kaplan dove into the score. First he spoke about the meaning of the title of the movement, "Larghetto," which implies a certain lightness -- not quite as slow as a "Largo."

"Most people tend not to do that," he said, "they tend to milk it." He asked her, what does this motif mean?

Beethoven theme

In a way, it's a textural motif because it's obviously written for horns, he said, though not always played in the horns. The motif repeats many times throughout, but never in the solo part. "It's also a question," Kaplan said. "It seems like a simple tune, but it's not."

The violin responds to that motif with a high filigree, which is marked "dolce."

beethoven filigree

"Can you go for dolce as a literal thing?" Kaplan said. "Dolce means sweet, like honey. Can you find the honey in your sound?" That might sound like a weird statement to a non-violinist, but we all pretty much know what it means to hit the honey with tone, and they agreed when she'd found it.

He also talked about having the correct kind of sound to fill the space in a movement like this, which is often marked with pleas for quiet, such as "pianissimo" or "diminuendo" or "sempre perdendosi."

"You don't have to pay loud, but you have to fill the space," Kaplan said, getting her to produce a tone that somehow rang widely but did not seem "loud." Throughout much of the movement, the solo violin is responding to the piano (or orchestra) part, "he has the tune, and you're improvising," Kaplan said, "this is jazz, folks!" It has to sound "like you just thought of it, you're going along with it," and it must be shaped to fit the phrases going on underneath it.

"I have an image, that this is a bird," he said of those high-fluttering notes. When he was young, Kaplan said that played the Beethoven Concerto at Blossom Music Center, the partially outdoor summer home to the Cleveland Orchestra. "During the second movement, there was a bird that came in, flying in these big swoops, for the whole movement."

He talked about that part that says "sempre perdendosi," which literally means always getting lost, or disappearing. "You can't start with too little here, or you have nothing to get lost to," he said. He also urged a kind of slowing down in that place - "getting lost is not just dynamic -- it's putting itself to sleep."

* * *

The drama classes came in the afternoon, and I visited two of them: one with improvisation teacher John Gregorio and the other with drama teacher Daniel Pettrow.

John's improv class began with warming up physically. After a sequence of shaking hands and feet and repeating tongue twisters, they played several games. One was the fairly familiar game of holding hands in a circle, and passing a hand squeeze around one direction, then the other directions, then both at once.

Circle with John
Improv class with John Gregorio. Photo by Violinist.com.

In another game, the students walked around the room, and one person in the room pretended to have a knife, which he had to zing at the first person with whom he made eye contact. That person would "catch" the fake knife, then zing it to someone else. As this went on, John added a "baby," which students had to gently toss around. Then they added an anxious cat....

Basically the games were very right-brained, physical and spontaneous. After several exercises like this, he switched to games for the brain. The first was a word-association game: one person stands at the center of the circle and goes around to each person in the circle, who gives him a word to which he has to respond with the first word he thinks of. It's important, he said, to truly say whatever comes to mind.

"Don't worry about having ideas, having plans," John said. "Your brain is full of stuff. (In improv), any plan you have will go out the window when you work with another person."

Improvisation, he explained, allows a performer to react to the unexpected, and the unexpected may come from other performers onstage, or from the audience. "Because they're watching you, you're the most important person," John said. "It's so weird! But it gives you power." Improv helps you learn how to use it.

* * *

The second class, with Daniel Pettrow, focused on audience interaction. What does the audience want you to do? After a few warmups, Daniel began with an activity that literally forced the actors "onstage" to do the audience's bidding. We split into two groups of five. The first five people, the actors, had to leave the room while the other five, the audience, decided what they should do. The trick was that the audience was not going to tell them what they'd decided, at least not directly. The only way the actors would know if they were doing the right thing is that the audience would clap if they did something right. I was in the audience group, and we decided to make the actors sing the "YMCA" song, with motions. I seriously doubted this would work! How would they know?

"We're ready for your performance," Daniel said, ushering them back into the room. They foundered around, then at one point, a girl raised her arms. We pointed to her and clapped. She turned around like a ballerina, and we didn't clap. Seeing her success with arm-raising, everyone raised their arms. We clapped as their arms looked more like a "Y." This went on, and suddenly one of them must have been inspired by the feeling and just starting singing, "Y...MCA..."

"Y...M-C-A!" Photo by Violinist.com.

Then we switched. What did they have us do? Leap like frogs!

Another memorable exercise was this one, in which each person got to stand "center stage" and watch the audience watching him or her. It was very powerful, but hard to describe, so I took a video:

It was interesting to be the person standing center-stage. I could definitely feel strong support: people smiling at me, even beaming at me. Not every audience member gave the same level of support; some were a little more tired or distracted.

"They try to make you less awkward," one student observed of the audience. "You notice who's your friend. You get the feeling maybe the audience wants you to succeed."

Drama class with Daniel
Drama class with Daniel Pettrow. Photo by Violinist.com

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Freeing Your Expressive Capabilities; and Chamber Coachings with Larry Dutton and Daniel Heifetz

By Laurie Niles
July 28, 2015 22:06

We violinists and string players can be a high-strung bunch, shaped as we are by the pursuit of an art that demands perfectionism, monastic devotion, constant self-criticism, rigorous physical training -- and then utter confidence and ease before a crowd with high expectations.

It's no wonder that it's just not that easy for us to chill out. But chill out we must, if we wish to return to the heart of our musical purpose: human expression. This is one the most interesting parts of the mission of the Heifetz Institute, which I'm visiting this week in Staunton, Va. In order to encourage maximum expression in music students, the Institute offers communication classes such as voice, drama, public speaking, movement and more.

On Tuesday I dropped in on a class called "Freedom of Expression," taught by Chic Street Man, a Seattle-based singer and guitarist who regularly gives workshops on breaking barriers to expression.

Chic Street Man
Chic Street Man. Photo by Violinist.com.

The students had been taking these kinds of communication classes for more than four weeks, working with various teachers, and they were pretty open to these out-of-the-box approaches. As for me, my attempt at sitting invisibly in the corner did not last; I wound up participating too.

Chic first asked that we each sing our name, then the group would sing it back to us. "This is about letting go and being yourself," he reminded us. He didn't want people to just use two notes to sing their name, he wanted something a little more interesting and maybe even elaborate. "Make it difficult for them to sing back!" he said. People did really interesting things -- "Carmen" sang her name to Bizet's "Carmen." Both "Ben" and "Jane," who already had short names, sang them in a short way. "Skye" sang just one note, very high up. Others were long and elaborate. I tried to sing "Laurie" to the first few notes of Kreutzer 2 (when in Rome), but I think I wound up sounding like a startled frog.

Next he had groups of two people stand at the front of the room and conduct a conversation, using just one or two words. For example, the first two people could say only the word "okay" to each other. In another group, one person could say, "please" and the other could only say "sorry." Then: "why" and "because"; "here" and "there" -- you get the picture. Below is a video of me trying this exercise with Skye. We could only say "who" and "you."

Simple, isn't it? It's interesting how many permutations there are in these interactions: they could become heated, dissolve into silence, get loud and insistent -- many possibilities.

Next was a game called "Not Getting Down." One person had to act something out at 100 percent energy, and when their energy started dropping (which takes about five seconds), anyone could interrupt, saying, "Freeze! You're not getting down!" and then take over the drama. They started by acting out things, like taking a shower. Then they got out their instruments.

The idea was to go "onstage' and play anything, it just had to be at 100 percent energy. Then anyone could interrupt with "Freeze, you're not getting down!" At first, they were reluctant to interrupt. Each person seemed somewhat marooned on stage, trying to think of something to play, maybe something they were practicing. After a few people played serious pieces, one person played "Twinkle Variations" with outsized drama. Everyone laughed. "Freeze, you're not getting down!" They slowly began to hit a groove.

not getting down

A cellist played a piece meant for violin, "Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso"; then a violist played an exaggeratedly stiff and stilted version of Bach's G minor fugue (C minor on viola, yes?). A violinist launched into the Rococo variations for cello. One of the more reluctant students took the stage, and as he played, students started plucking the accompaniment. That powered him on a bit more. A cellist started a Bach Prelude; then another cellist interrupted and continued from the same place, then a violist continued it from there. A violinist sat down, positioned her fiddle like a cello and ripped into the Dvorak cello concerto. Another violinist played a passage from "Hora Staccato," positioning the bow upright between his knees, holding the violin sideways and somehow staccatoing the instrument downwards. A violinist ran up and started the Bach Double, then a whole crowd joined in. In a moment of complete role-reversal, a violinist took the stage and played the orchestral introduction to the Mendelssohn concerto, inspiring the students in the "audience" to start the solo part. Eventually, the entire "audience" was improvising things like "Amazing Grace" and "Ode to Joy," together, while the person "on stage" took pencil as baton and conducted, literally directing the audience.

By the end of class, everyone's genie seemed well out of its bottle!

* * *

As I walked into the main building after the expression class, I happened upon a chamber group that was about to walk into a coaching session with Emerson String Quartet violist, Larry Dutton.

Chamber coaching with Larry Dutton = Wow!

So I sneaked in to watch. The six young musicians were playing Tchaikovsky's Souvenir de Florence.

Larry Dalton coaching
Larry Dutton coaches a chamber group at the Heifetz Institute. Photo by Violinist.com.

He was good-natured and down-to-business. They accomplished a lot, and quickly.

"You don't have to play fortissimo all the time; let this stuff pop out," Dutton said, trying to allow the important voices to get through the sometimes-thick writing by Tchaikovsky. Also some advise on fast notes: don't bunch them up in order to just get them done -- "don't let it collapse, fill out the rhythms."

I smiled when he implored the violinists and cellists to "give the violas a chance, please!" (Wouldn't that make a great bumper sticker?) He meant for them to back off when the violas had the melody, that "there's got to be a clearing of the sound."

In one solo passage he told the violist that "you could use more expensive fingerings," meaning going up on the same string for a note and just doing a little more with the fingerings to create color in the music.

Tchaikovsky wrote a great many (too many?) crescendos in this piece, Dutton observed, and "I'd love to hear the details in here, more than just getting louder. Don't over-crescendo."

In a nutshell, Dutton was helping them clear the fog away in order to let the details emerge, and it certainly was working well with such responsive and accomplished students.

* * *

I also dropped in on a quartet coaching with Daniel Heifetz, the founder and artistic director of the Heifetz Institute.

The quartet was playing the first movement of Schubert's Quartet No. 1 -- sort of auditioning to play in next week's performances at the Institute, which is holding 41 public concerts over its six-week term this year.

The piece was in excellent shape (what a treat for me) but Heifetz told them he wanted them to bump it up to the level of artistry.

"You're playing the dynamics, but it needs more of the reason behind the dynamics," Heifetz said. For example, when you play an inner part, there's no biding your time until you have something more interesting to play. Those voices need urgency and mystery.

Daniel Heifetz coaching
Heifetz Institute Founder Daniel Heifetz coaches a quartet. Photo by Violinist.com.

And soft passages still need intensity. When playing pianissimo, one can't simply drop to nothing as you might do in orchestra playing.

"In chamber music or solo playing, you find a silver thread of a sounding point, and that pianissimo carries to the balcony," Heifetz said. "I don't want to sit in the audience, snoring, while you play nice chamber music; I want something magical."

He had them sing their parts. "I firmly believe that when you feel it, when you have it in your ear, when you can sing it, then your technique will almost automatically do what you need to do, when you are as advanced as you are," he said. "The best thing you can learn from me is not how to play the piece, but how to think like an artist."

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The Week in Reviews, Op. 92: Leila Josefowicz, Gil Shaham, Anne Akiko Meyers

By Laurie Niles
July 28, 2015 14:27

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.

Gil Shaham performed Bach's Violin Concerto No. 1 with the Aspen Chamber Symphony.

  • Aspen Times: " Shaham provided extra wattage with brilliant playing in the opening work, J.S. Bach’s Violin Concerto No. 1. The violinist’s usual grace, tonal precision and deft phrasing synchronized perfectly with Kahane’s brisk pace. The unanimity of purpose allowed for delicate moments that breathed between phrases without losing momentum. This is what chamber music is all about, but you don’t always hear it happen with a full orchestra. Audience response was ecstatic. After the fourth curtain call, it seemed as if Shaham might not play an encore. But he responded to vocal pleas from the crowd with the Gavotte en rondeau from the Partita No. 3, a marvel of dextrous technique, sublime phrasing and tasteful elaboration."

Anne Akiko Meyers
Anne Akiko Meyers.

Anne Akiko Meyers performed the Prokofiev with the Eastern Festival Orchestra.

  • CVNC: "Meyers was stunning, from her opening measures through the dramatic summits to the surprisingly tame finale. The concentration was on the music and her realization of it, and in this she was admirably partnered by Schwarz and his resident artists, never once getting ahead of the guest or encroaching on her incredibly beautiful tone, even in the very softest solo passages."

Leila Josefowicz performed Luca Francesconi's Duende: The Dark Notes with the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

  • The ArtsDesk: "Duende, receiving its UK premiere, isn’t really a violin concerto; fearless Leila Josefowicz’s role never dominates, and only twice, briefly, is she asked to do what a violinist usually does – to sing."
  • The Telegraph: "Playing with wonderful virtuosity, Josefowicz commanded a part that scarcely rests and forms and almost constant aspect of the soundscape."

Isabelle Faust performed the Mendelssohn with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra.

  • The New Zealand Herald: "Faust is wary of the expected. The sense of wonder that she brought to the second theme of this Allegro molto appassionata easily held the sentimental at bow's length; a persuasive cadenza had us reflect on what had gone before. She underplayed Mendelssohn's guileless Andante; there was an unassuming sweetness here with darker murmurings in the middle section. In the brilliant Finale, she was earthy, daring even to offer gruff retorts; this was far more than simply a glittering day trip to Mendelssohn's familiar fairyland."

Vadim Gluzman performed the Beethoven with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Veronika Eberle performed Shostakovich's Violin Concerto No. 1 with the Hong Kong Sinfonietta.

  • South China Morning Post: "From the chocolate sound of her first bow stroke, violinist Veronika Eberle immersed herself in Shostakovich's Violin Concerto No 1 and played like a star."

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

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Bach and Bucket Lists

By Laurie Niles
July 27, 2015 21:05

STAUNTON, Va. - Having arrived Sunday in the dark of night on a much-delayed flight from Los Angeles, I awakened Monday to find myself in a town that looks like something from a dream, or a book, or another era, with its red brick buildings, green hills, little local shops.

Staunton, Va. is home to the Heifetz Institute, which is currently in its fifth week at Mary Baldwin College. Before going to any classes or concerts, I had to check out this cute little town, which also has three local coffee shops. (I'm always after the coffee.) Here is a peek down the main street, Beverley:

Beverley Street

The Heifetz Institute takes place on the campus of Mary Baldwin College, and here is one of its many beautiful buildings. As you can see, it sits at the top of a big hill, as do many things here.

building on hill

By the end of the day, the "Health" app on my phone told me that I'd climbed the equivalent of 44 flights of steps!

so many steps

At noon, I saw a concert at the Temple House, a small venue which was packed with about 130 people: groups of older people, parents with children, students.

Temple House

During this year's six-week program, the Institute is hosting 41 concerts, which creates many opportunities for its 81 students to perform publicly. On Monday four students (two violists, a cellist and a violinist) played solo works by J.S. Bach and Reger. The Institute puts an emphasis on communication and public engagement, so each student spoke to the audience, giving an introduction before playing and taking questions afterwards.

I enjoyed all the performances. I especially enjoyed hearing Bach's D minor Chaconne for solo violin, played on viola by Aadam Ibrahim. "On the viola," he explained, "it's actually in G minor." Aadam explained that Bach wrote this piece after coming home from a long trip to find that his wife, age 36, had died and been buried in his absence. Aadam said he sees the first part of the music as the lament of someone aged by tragedy; the second part as the heavenly major section, a reflection of happier times; then the third as a return to the minor key, return to reality, return to grief.

At any age or stage, it takes courage to perform this piece, which most violinists would say takes a lifetime to reveal its mysteries. Aadam, a native violist (started at 5 on viola, not violin first), rode it straight through, and you have to know the road well to do that. The bariolage sections were nicely paced and nicely placed. This piece seems so different on viola; more soft-edged perhaps, but also darker. That shaft of light that shines through the major section just doesn't seem quite as piercing; it's somehow more veiled when expressed a fifth lower on viola.

After his performance, in the course of answering audience questions, Aadam talked about his reasons for learning the Chaconne.

Aadam Ibrahim

During his senior year, he was thinking about his future, and how it might not include playing the violin. Playing Bach's Chaconne was on his "bucket list," and if he was not going to be doing music in the future, he nonetheless still wanted to play Chaconne. And so he began it. Today, at age 20, he performed it for the first time in public. And very obviously, he is still doing music.

Funny what happens, when you choose to go ahead and start doing those things on your "bucket list"!

* * *

Later this week: Look for my blog about an excellent left-hand technique class that I saw Monday, given by Indiana University professor Grigory Kalinovsky.

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Restoring My Violin: Arching Correction, Wood Patch and Bass Bar

By Laurie Niles
July 26, 2015 17:50

When my beloved Gagliano violin was diagnosed with a big opening in the center seam under the tailpiece last spring, I knew that the fiddle was facing unavoidable repairs. Basically, it needed major surgery, involving taking off the lid.

The fiddle is some 200 years old, and most violins don't get to that age without some bumps along the way. It was always clear to me that my violin has seen some rough days; while the back is intact, the front clearly has been cracked and repaired a number of times. This is in no way unusual -- what's more unusual is to find an old Italian in pristine condition -- that is why certain very special fiddles fetch millions. But as many luthiers can attest, even many of the finest Strads have quite a story to tell, once you open the lid: patches, repairs, wholesale do-overs.

I bought my violin in 2006, after falling deeply in love with the sound and after some four months of thinking about it, showing it to friends and experts, and figuring out financing. I had a feeling that one day my violin would need further restoration, looking at the old cracks. The late luthier Peter Prier, founder of the American School of Violin Making, said to me in our 2010 interview that he was only satisfied with a repaired crack when he could look at it and "it has completely disappeared!" I thought it might be nice to make mine disappear a little more, maybe one day. But this widening center-seam opening forced a reckoning sooner than I'd anticipated.

Where do you go, when your beloved and valuable violin needs major work? I thought about taking it to New York, but I live in the Los Angeles area and I wanted to keep it local. After speaking to a number of colleagues around town, I went to a local luthier that I know personally, who has a reputation for excellent and meticulous work: Nazareth Gevorkian, of Burbank, Calif. When I posted this on Facebook last week, someone asked, "Isn't this the luthier who broke Leonidas Kavakos' bow?" Yes it is. It doesn't matter to me, I've known him for years and I trust him. Enough to put the fate of my most valuable and cherished worldly object in his hands! He's extremely skilled and he did a stunning job. There's a reason Kavakos was going to him in the first place! Absolutely beautiful work.

Nazareth Gevorkian and Laurie
Nazareth Gevorkian and me, after the restoration.

That said, putting it in anyone's hands was going to be an enormous leap of faith, not to mention a major expense. A restoration like this necessarily takes time, and I also did not quite anticipate how very much I would miss my violin. It was made better by a very generous gesture by Dr. Bill Sloan, who lent me a lovely violin that he himself made (and I'm going to write a separate blog about this!) But did I ever miss my violin, which over nearly 10 years has become part of me. Now and then I just had to call Gevorkian, knowing full well that there was no way he could be finished yet, to reassure myself that, though my violin was in pieces and without its voice for the moment, it was still "alive." (I defy you to find a serious violinist who does not anthropomorphize his or her violin, at least a little!)

I'm happy to report that now, it sounds wonderful, looks wonderful and just seems more stable. I wanted to share the process that it went through, because it's fascinating. Gevorkian sent me pictures from just about every stage of the restoration, and I'm left gawking at the precision of his work. So here are the pictures, and some explanations:

If you have a crack in a violin, you can't necessarily just glue it shut. In the case of my fiddle, the crack was next to the bass bar, and one side was higher than the other. This required arching correction for the top of my violin, to smooth out those bumps caused by the uneven buckling across the top of the violin. This kind of repair involves taking off the top of the violin, and luthiers do not recommend removing the top very often because it’s such a major operation. When they do take off the top, they want to take a good look to see if anything else needs repairing. Besides the crack, the fiddle needed a chest patch and a new bass bar to fit the corrected shape.

First, Gevorkian had to put a protective layer of very thin aluminum foil over the top of my violin so that he could use it to make a plaster cast of my violin top. The foil was sealed around the edges with modeling clay (green, in this case) in order to keep any plaster from getting on the wood.


Here is a picture of the preparation of the cast. The edges are made of cardboard, and there is some chicken wire to make the plaster cast strong, so it won't crack. You can see the top of my violin, covered with foil, on the bottom of the cast.

prepping of cast

Here is what the mold looked like, once filled with plaster:

mold filled

Here is a plaster duplicate of the top of my violin, which Gevorkian corrected on the cast so that it was ready for the next step in the arching correction process.

plaster duplicate

Below is a step in the arching correction process. The top is placed upside down and clamped over the plaster cast. He did not have a picture of the next step, but I will describe it: once the clamps are in place, a hot sandbag is placed on top of the area that needs correction and left in place to press it for several days. If it needs more pressing, the process is repeated. It usually requires several repetitions to fully correct the arching.

arching correction

In the above picture, you can see two patches on the right, which Nazareth painstakingly removed, then replaced with one larger patch (the "chest patch") with the wood grain going in all one direction.

Below is the fitting of the new patch, starting with a large block of aged spruce.

fitting patch

Below, the patch has been shaved down.

shaved-down patch

Here is the completed patch, with a new bass bar. After this picture he darkened the patch to cosmetically match it with the rest of the underside of the violin top.

new bass bar

Gluing on the top involved 28 colorful clamps. The colors actually have significance, relating to the the instrument's contours. The blue ones are concave, and the red and yellow are slightly convex so that they match the edge of the instrument.

gluing on top

After that he did cosmetic work on the top, cleaning and polishing. Then he set and adjusted the soundpost and made a new bridge. And here is my Gagliano violin, fully restored. Many thanks to Nazareth Gevorkian for such a beautiful restoration.

Restored Gagliano

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Midsummer Greetings: Violin Repaired, Heading to Heifetz Institute

By Laurie Niles
July 24, 2015 16:05

Greetings, and I hope everyone is having a wonderful summer!

Mine just got a lot better, with the return of my newly restored Gagliano violin, which looks and plays better than ever after a great deal of beautiful work by luthier Nazareth Gevorkian of Burbank, Calif. On Monday I will post more details, as I've got some pictures from the fascinating process that was required to repair a center-seam crack, which also required correcting the arching.

Also, next week I'll be in Staunton, Va., to check out this year's Heifetz Institute, directed by Daniel Heifetz. The Institute will be in its fifth week of a six-week program, with about 80 young musicians participating. The program involves the typical music classes such as lessons, chamber music and practice time, but also offers communication classes in subjects such as public speaking, voice, drama, movement, and freedom of expression. The faculty sounds wonderful; next week I'm looking forward to watching Elmar Oliveira, Mark Kaplan, Grigory Kalinovsky, Ilya Kaler, Larry Dutton, Martha Strongin Katz, Robert Vernon, Amit Peled, Matt Haimovitz, and Ralph Kirshbaum. I'll also peek in on some classes by a pops blues artist, on drama and freedom of expression. Watch for those blogs next week!

Happy summer!

Laurie and Daniel Heifetz
Here I am with Daniel Heifetz, at last spring Starling-DeLay Symposium at The Juilliard School.

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'Are We There Yet?' A Vacation Inspired Blog

By Amy Beth Horman
July 24, 2015 15:10

Like last year, as I sit on vacation, I have room to think and ponder the year behind us. This is a welcome change to the hustle of the studio day in and day out as much as I thrive on that energy and love my work wholeheartedly.

I found myself thinking quite a bit about the strategy of getting from one level to another and how in my studio, it is not one size fits all. Often, a student comes to me in the middle of their violin journey and I am picking up where they left off. Sometimes we need to go back together, gather some missed information, or take a detour and discover a few technical elements before we can get back on track. Other times I am teaching them from the beginning, trying to make sure they get what they need from day one.

Inevitably, as things start to really progress, I will get asked questions which can be summed up in the title of this blog.

“Are we there yet?”

This question could refer to starting a new piece, embarking finally on a favorite concerto, the readiness to compete, adding vibrato, learning about shifting….the list goes on. The question itself indicates sometimes a level of impatience. Other times it is just genuine curiosity as to where we are going and how we are doing. Sometimes it is both.

Too often I think students (and parents too) are a few years ahead of themselves when it comes to expectations on literature. Teachers aren’t generally surprised by this. Students have no way of knowing how things should go with building techniques and how one thing leads to another. With very talented kids this is especially commonplace and I can genuinely empathize! I remember wondering when I would get to certain pieces and sometimes it truly didn’t make sense once I started them WHY I was now being granted access. “Wait, NOW we are here?” Then, ironically, there was often rapid fire fears or insecurities along the lines of “Are you sure I am ready?” What a roller coaster!

Once students start to acquire virtuosic technique things can become very exciting. They’ve worked hard for this and the anticipation is powerful.

“Are we there yet?”

Suddenly, in their minds eye, they can almost feel their hands playing giant works. They watch great artists and recognize the mechanics now behind the techniques enough to describe how they are executed. Surely, we must be close! But then from my vantage point, there is still the need for refinement so we find ourselves working on Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven to correct the bow, heighten awareness, achieve supple hands, and refine sound or pitch. This can last months.

I have sensed great tension in the studio over these choices. The pieces don’t sound as readily impressive (they are of course!), they don’t compete as well (such a shame, really!), and frankly the students aren’t ignited by them most of the time. What they really want is to get to that showpiece they have been dreaming of for years now and who can blame them? Sometimes the parents are equally dissatisfied. There are palpable question marks in the room looming over us. How long will this take and what is it offering us? Nevermind that most large competitions require a full Mozart Concerto and/or a lyrical work by a Classical composer in the earlier rounds. It is hard to get students to live inside that reality. Forget that Curtis or other large conservatories require a full unaccompanied Bach Partita or sonata by memory. This is a worry that could feel years away. When big concerti and dazzling showpieces dominate local competitions, it can feel like ambition cloaks the very room we work in. It is disorienting. So how do we re-focus? How about discussing what those compositions teach us as musicians? Or how does learning and performing these pieces yield to a greater ease of technique? But these are more long term rationalizations...

The success of advanced training in my opinion hinges on expertise and trust - sometimes in equal parts. Parents and students won’t understand why we need to learn in a specific order and that should be expected. They don’t have the background the teacher does to fully understand. Having said that, it is human nature for them to want to understand the reasoning behind some of the pedagogy, isn’t it? Especially if it brings dischord to practice and motivation with the student at home. And I don’t mind trying to explain. The problem starts when everyone needs to completely understand to fully support. Sometimes no explanation will suffice because the background to understand is just not there. In these cases, the drive to succeed eclipses the knowledge on deck. Then we have a potential roadblock! Like many teachers, I have had parents leave the studio over this.

In the past, l have felt friction for months while teaching new literature. I could feel the tension from a parent not able to understand its place in the pedagogy. I could feel the detachment of the child, uninterested in the literature at hand. I have found myself growing very frustrated, pained almost, realizing this is the absolute last way I would choose to coach Mozart, Beethoven Romances, or unaccompanied Bach. It is some of the most miraculous music ever written and somehow nobody in the room was as enthusiastic as me! Gradually, as I taught more and more, I realized I couldn’t expect everyone to love the music as I did on a schedule that lined up with their development. I learned to forge ahead undaunted, generating my own kind of enthusiasm. I discovered new things about the works every time I taught them and this helped me stay thoughtful and present. Sometimes we would get lucky and my enthusiasm for a piece enables the tide to turn in the room. Sometimes it didn’t.

I have frequently seen pieces students initially disliked become their favorites. These pieces are generally ones I chose to shine a light on technique that is underdeveloped or needs re working. I like to remind the students that it is unlikely they will like a piece when it makes them sound awkward or unaccomplished and that this is not the composition’s fault. But then, once we resolve the technical issue, that piece becomes special to them. It is the vehicle that helped us to jump over that technical hurdle. Success! Lyrical pieces tend to present a challenge to some of my younger students. Their brains and emotions move so fast and a lyrical work is not stimulating to most of them the way it is to an adult. So we write stories, create characters, draw pictures, use color wheels, anything to keep the creative spirit engaged. After all, it isn’t a bad idea to make a student’s energy slow down or roll differently. Witnessing a very active spirited child spin a beautiful story through a lyrical composition can be incredibly gratifying for everyone, even them!

Our studio parents are some of our greatest allies. They support practice, listening, attending concerts, and fuel the energy behind the learning process that happens 6/7 days a week. Currently, I have the strongest group of studio parents that I have ever had, and I thank my lucky stars for them. We work together and there is a definite team atmosphere a lot of the time. In the end though, I decide on literature and the order and they respect that based on my expertise. Sometimes I will deviate but it is generally to add, not subtract! I am very fortunate that my parents trust me and painfully aware that this has not always been the case.

Now that I have been teaching over 20 years, I have learned to press through these challenges. There will always be some friction as we journey together. I have realized that it is a blessing when everyone is equally excited in the room with the literature we are studying. The ebb and flow of these emotions comes with the territory of teaching. In the end, a violinist’s development is my job and it isn’t always going to be smooth or predictable - but it is always worth it. Because when they ask me, “Are we there yet?” my answer might be “No, not yet.” But the operative word is “yet”.

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Art: What Makes It Great?

By Dorian Bandy
July 23, 2015 08:08

Nearly a year ago, I began my first-ever blog post by discussing the thrill of unearthing "new" old music; fighting against the hierarchy of the Western Canon; introducing virgin ears to the likes of Becker, Westhoff, and Pisendel; and generally promoting the idea that there's lots of great, unknown music out there, waiting to be rediscovered.

To some extent, I've been taught since childhood to accept the idea that greatness transcends genre. With a mother who lived something of a double-life in the '60s and '70s (classical music at Juilliard by day; one of the decade's great rock bands by night), I grew up hearing all possible variations on the theme that "great art is great art". A Sondheim musical can be just as great as a Hitchcock film, a Beethoven symphony, a Dostoevsky novel, or a Chekhov play -- to name a handful of Greats in performative/durational/dramatic media. And, to be honest, I still pretty much agree. I've seen Vertigo probably 25 times, and cannot even imagine being bored by it, any more than I think I could tire of Così fan tutte.

In some sense, this seems a contrapositive variation on Sturgeon's Second Law, with a slight emendation: "90% of the work in every genre is worthless, so, if you're going to criticize anything, don't waste your time (or mine) on anything but the great 10%". If you think musicals are just fluff, what about Sweeney Todd? Some claim that TV shows can't have layers of structural, narrative, moral, aesthetic complexity, but what about Breaking Bad? Note, though, that these (entirely reasonable) statements carry an implicit call to "genre relativism": again, the "greats" can be found anywhere, if only we're observant enough to see their "greatness".

Is genre relativism a bad thing? I want to say no, but I've recently been tempted to reopen the case. Is a great Steely Dan song really as great -- as in, every bit as good -- as a Bach fugue? I'd currently, tentatively, cautiously, suggest that it's not, and I'm quite frustrated with myself for thinking so! Both may be beautifully-paced and brilliantly-structured, but the levels of intricacy are incomparable. Even hearing myself say that, though, my inner genre relativist interjects, outraged, that, wherever intricacy is the criterion for greatness, the balance will tip in favor of Bach. Surely, in its own way, the great rock song can be just as great?

I usually write these posts with a philosophical agenda and strong set of opinions, but here I'm torn between the intrinsic and extrinsic approaches to artistic greatness. And it does, definitely, matter. To those who dismiss these sorts of questions -- juxtaposing pop songs and fugues; comparing the incomparable -- as meaningless and destructive, I respond that life is short. We should always wonder what to play/read/watch/hear/think about next, and whether it's worth it.

These comparisons are also on my mind because I've just finished reading J.F. Martel's new treatise, Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice, a distressingly unhelpful text. Martel got me thinking again about the search for greatness, but his effort to weed out Art from "mere artifice" leaves me cold. Even a hypothetical attempt to take his claims seriously forces us to the absurd conclusion that only two of Beethoven's symphonies qualify as Real Art. Which two? Maybe the Eroica and Fifth? Alas, disqualified: political undertones. The Ninth? Nope, the German onstage band in the last movement smacks of the situational, occasional, "non-Infinite". The Second, Fourth and Eighth? Sorry, no satire allowed. The Sixth? You mean, with those vulgar depictions of bird calls and storms? Only the First (!) and Seventh make the cut. There must be a better way to seek greatness!

Still, having something to disagree with is always edifying. I have a better idea now of what I think Great Art "doesn't not" do. But what does it do? What makes some art great?

I've settled, for now, on: interpretability. This is the ultimate extrinsic answer. Great Art is what you see in it. This appeases the relativist in me, while also acknowledging that something may be out of joint when we grant the great pop song and great sonata equal footing.

This definition is still pretty genre-democratic. There are symphonies (Vanhal comes to mind) which could "in theory" be played in lots of different ways, but in reality only sound decent in one or two of them. If the performer's hands and listeners' ears are tied, I'd have no problem conferring higher greatness-status on the deeply ambiguous, highly-interpretable, tragicomic songs of, say, a Cole Porter.

Thus framed, if we deem a given symphony greater than a song, it isn't about size, scope, intention, importance, politics, age, oldness, or anything like that. The Steely Dan tune may suffer no deficiency of craft or structure. It may simply be a matter of hermeneutic wiggle-room -- that a particular sonority in Mozart can be played in a nearly infinite variety of ways, and as a result, can mean so many different things. (Though, ultimately...can it? Isn't meaning in classical music quite a lot more concrete than we often like to think? For that matter, might "interpretability" itself be a decoy?)

Having mused, I'd be interested to hear other viewpoints. Where is the greatness? Do you agree that it's a discussion worth having?

(Also posted on my personal blog)

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