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Violin Blogs

Violinist.com members may keep personal journals on the website. Violinist.com's editor selects the best entries for the column below. Links to all other recent blog posts may be found in the column on the right.

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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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Your teacher can profoundly impact your progress (and you are your own best teacher)

By Michael Fox
March 2, 2015 18:40

When I was taking violin lessons in college, I had a few stressful weeks trying to perfect a particularly awkward shift and finger pattern high on the E-string. That note required a lot of practice time trying to get it in tune – practicing one measure of an etude again and again until it started to feel somewhat comfortable. Yet, even when I felt close in my own practice times, I would go to my lesson full of nervousness, profoundly missing the shift and getting discouraged at my lack of progress.

Around the same time, some friends of mine invited me to be a part of a one-gig band that would blend avant-garde classical composition with thrash metal. In other words, we would perform one 20-minute “song” filled with as much discordant and loud noise as possible. Since there really wasn’t any pressure to play any real “notes” in the traditional sense, the 20 musicians on stage for this experiment could basically try anything in a radically judgment-free space. My thought was that probably more fun to be on stage then in the audience, but in fact we filled the room with friends, who listened attentively and screamed and applauded wildly. It was one of the more safe and musically affirming environments I’ve ever experienced, and at some point, I decided to try to incorporate that high note giving me so much trouble. And I nailed it. Ironically, the one time that being in-tune didn’t matter was one of first times I felt able to play the note in tune.

Hearing from other music makers and friends has taught me that I’m not alone in this, in being profoundly influenced by the encouragement or discouragement of those around me. Your playing can improve significantly simply by relaxing and building up your confidence level. But yet, often our level of comfort is profoundly impacted by the behavior of others around us, a quality I often attribute to illusive “vibes” that I don’t understand, yet am profoundly impacted by.

Psychologist Robert Rosenthal made some fascinating experiments looking at how our expectations can shape someone else’s performance. He told a teacher in a classroom that he had administered a special test showing that certain students were on the brink of becoming exceptionally intelligent. The catch was that in fact, there was no such test – he had simply drawn names out of a hat and falsely claimed they were exceptionally gifted. Shockingly, the students falsely marked as brilliant started to perform significantly better then their peers. This was a very surprising and strange result, which Rosenthal attributed to the ways a teacher’s expectations shaped their interactions. When a teacher assumed students were capable of more, he or she would engage with them in a such a way that supported better learning. In subtle, subconscious ways, what we believe about someone’s ability influences how we interact with them. This in turn can send an unseen but powerful signal that can powerfully influence our students’ or colleagues’ abilities.

That is why, as a teacher, I always seek to be confident in anyone’s ability. In spite of the many challenges of playing the violin, I believe it is a skill that everyone can develop – and so I always strive to hold on to the belief that every student has the potential to become a great violinist. The student can sometimes be hard on themselves, but it was hard for me too, at first, and it is only by keeping at it that things begin to get easier.

Even more powerful then what a teacher can do, are the thoughts we carry in our own head – in truth, you are your own best teacher. A truly great musician strives to play every note in a “zone” of mindfulness, confidence, and honest evaluation, but the inner voice of self-doubt, distraction, or “going through the motions” can get in the way. I only meet with students for an hour every week, at most, but you are with yourself – your own body and your own thoughts all the time. So the best way to for me to nurture your musical development is to help you encourage and teach yourself.

There are two false ways of hearing yourself that can get in the way of this careful, attention to our playing. They represent extremes, two false mental approaches to music making, both of which can distort our ability to truly hear ourselves. They are:

A) Underestimating your awesomeness – scrutinizing every imperfection and flaw, every squeak or anything that doesn’t measure up to our vision of perfection, in a stressful mental state that can easily leave you feeling discouraged and hopeless. Getting to a “good” violin sound often takes a really long time, with multiple steps along the way. If you think only about the end result, you won’t see the small improvements your making along the way.

B) Overestimating your awesomeness – Not recognizing pitfalls and problems with the music, ignoring ways the rhythm or pitch may be less then precise, or things that can be added to a piece to make it more interesting or with more emotional weight. Everyone makes mistakes sometimes, but a musician who is truly empowered to play freely is always striving to play with intentionality – so that technique facilitates playing what’s really in your head.

Some of us are more included to struggle with one, some of us less likely to see what is good, others less likely to see where growth needs to happen. I have had students who, every time we go through a piece, end by making a horrible face of disgust, even when their playing is improving. I have had other students who seem deeply proud of whatever they play, and seem impatient or confused when I point out issues with their pitch, rhythm, or the shape of their hand that still needs attention.

In either case, the answer is to listen deeply to what’s inside your own mind, the voice in my head that invariably speaks up after playing. I seek to ask myself “Am I gravitating towards noticing the positive or the negative aspects of this performance?” and then try to focus on whichever voice I am neglecting. I recommend occasionally making recordings of yourself, and then listening carefully to make sure your pitches and rhythms are really as correct as they seem in your head.

Sometimes I struggle with getting too wrapped in my playing – taking things so seriously and so personally that I “need” to be perfect. Admitting I made a mistake can sometimes bruise my ego – and this can be a really dangerous block, because it makes me oblivious to the ways I still need to improve. I find it really helpful to “prepare” mentally, as well as bodily, by closing my eyes and breathing slowly before each time I play, telling myself that any imperfect notes are not an indictment on my worth as a human being, but merely a challenge I am more than capable of meeting.

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Masterworks and Mindblowers

By Stephen Brivati
March 2, 2015 02:40


There seems to be a a fairly large body of opinion responding to the "Zimmerman Strad Problem," thread that is not very predisposed to classic violins. I have to admit the strength of opinion expressed surprised me a little, although I can't afford either so it doesn't affect me much!

Personally, I can understand and sympathize with the position of the pro-modern camp. There certainly are an awful lot of over-priced old violins out there that are not a patch on their modern relatives and yet have the mystique of name associated with them. Often to such an extent it seems that we can be blinded as to their true merits and relative value.

However, from another perspective, it doesn't seem unreasonable to me that those soloists using the absolute creme del creme of Guarneri or Strad find something in those instruments that makes them different from an exquisite and highly reliable modern. It is certainly true that these instruments often fail to prove superior to the listener in blind tests.

ZimmermannHowever, I am not sure this is the point. Great players like Zimmerman are, I suspect, much more finely attuned to something powerful and elusive in these instruments than the average player/listener, and it acts as their muse. Maybe it comes from a combination of age and the daily touch of a succession of great artists. I have no idea. But I do believe that this quality is real and it must be tangible enough to the greats that they are still willing to spent a number of years searching out the best possible way of playing such an instrument instead of playing on one of the many superb modern instruments now around. Of course, I have no rational basis for any of this but that is the privilege of blogging. 100 years down the road the instruments of Burgess et al will, in my opinion be the new Stradivari. Shame nothing is going to survive global warming.....

It's been a great week for finding new "stuff" on Youtube. My mind has been blown so often I sometimes feel totally discombobulated. Where to start....

Best find of the week was, without question, Gitlis playing the Adagio movement of the Bartok solo violin sonata. Gitlis doesn't seem to get mentioned much among the pantheon of great violinists for some reason. Maybe he just carried on a bit too long in a world that has far less tolerance for error and absolutely personal interpretations. Or maybe he did just a few too many concerts without practicing because he just didn't care. Didn't care in the nicest possible way. He is such a profoundly original and cosmopolitan artist it seems he needs to live to play rather than the other way round. On form he had one of the most terrifying techniques on the planet. Listen to the Bartok and weep. Then go to his Wieniawski Cappucino Valse in E major and look at the fast twitch up bow staccato. That's how it should be done!

Still on a slightly insane note but hidden behind a refined facade listen to the great Zimmerman playing the Bruch.

It's one of those performances that raises a rather interesting question: For most of us, playing what Bruch wrote with a few minor violinistic tweaks is the best we can do. Zimmerman quite unselfconsciously chooses to use bowing, phrasing or what not that suits his musical intent even when it differs (?) with what Bruch wrote to a considerable degree. Is this anti authenticity, or just simply that Zimmerman is such a great violinist he knows better than the composer how this piece should be played? For me he reinvents this work so it was almost like new to me. I had to go away and experiment with what he was doing. I leave it to you to decide.

Some of my favorite Bach is the accompanied sonatas. I have been frustrated by them for years as a player and a listener. There are many great performances by player of the past, the best of which may, to my ear be Szeryng. Then there are superb modern /authentic performances by Manze and the like. However, neither of these extremes has every completely satisfied me and I had just about given up until I stumbled across Mullova's version.

The great lady once again manages to synthesize the old and the new in a satisfactory way and I cannot recommend searching these performances out strongly enough.


(Here also, is her Chaconne:

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V.com Weekend Vote: Should young soloists borrow a Strad, or buy a modern?

By The Weekend Vote
February 27, 2015 09:17

Events of the last week would seem to demonstrate how fickle arrangements can be, when one is borrowing a fine instrument such as a Strad.

I certainly feel for violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann, who had to give the 1711 Strad he was renting back to the German bank that owned it this week, right before his concert series with the New York Philharmonic. The bank is trying to sell the instrument and Zimmermann had the first option to buy, but by all accounts they priced it some million dollars higher than its already-sky-high valuation that was around $5 million.

Frank Peter Zimmermann
Photo by Klaus Rudulph

Young violin soloists face no small dilemma, when it comes to procuring a fine instrument. Should they borrow (or rent) the very finest instrument possible, knowing that it can be withdrawn at any moment from a sponsor, or that they might be asked to fork over millions of dollars to buy it at some undefined point in the future? Or should a soloist pass up on the chance to play an instrument like that, and instead invest their money and spirit in finding a modern violin that will live up to expectations and carry a much more reasonable price tag?

The simple answer is "get a modern, they're just as good." It's too simple of an answer, though. I've spoken to far too many experienced violinists to believe that there's nothing particularly special about the Strads and del Gesús -- to play one during the crucial beginning of one's career is to have an instrument that will inform your playing and sense of aesthetic for a lifetime. It's a special experience that just might be worth the possible pain of a bad break-up. Plus, you may wind up with a kind sponsor who just lets you use it for your entire playing career.

Or not! It gets very, very ugly, and soloists describe losing their beloved instrument like "losing an arm," one becomes so attached. Certainly, it is like losing your voice.

How would you advise the most promising young soloists today to handle the instrument dilemma?

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We Can Be Our Own Worst Enemy.

By Stephen Brivati
February 26, 2015 19:52

violin stringsWe are our own worst enemy.

Of all the Alexander lessons I took related to violin playing, I think the most meaningful for me was one in which the teacher (not a violinist) stopped me at the exact moment before I was about to pluck the violin out of its open case. "Think about how you would walk across the room to get a pencil. Compare that with the excitement you are feeling now and observe how it is affecting you, even though you are essentially doing the same physical act. In life we have 'choice points,' where we can stop and observe what we are doing and consciously use ourselves better. So instead of leaning over in that habitual way and grabbing the instrument willy-nilly, stop and feel the ease in your neck, as your head goes forward and up and you back widens etc…."

(One can perhaps see a little of the same kind of idea in Zukerman’s master class at the RCM where he tells an advanced student to always pick up the bow with the left hand and the violin with the right.)

Anyway, the significance of this during practice should never be underestimated. Currently there is a very interesting thread concerning tension in practice of Kreutzer No. 9 going on. When a serious and committed player like the OP in question works on this kind of etude, it is very common that excitement and determination work hand-in-hand to keep the practice sustained for twenty, thirty minutes or even an hour, especially when working on different rhythms and bowing patterns. Of course this is a virtue, but it is not a good idea. First of all, one is keeping muscles in a semi-contracted state for a long periods, so they may actually become more stressed than they should be. Rather like working on a computer with short-range focus and not stopping every ten minutes to allow your eye muscles to re-elongate on an object in the distance. Secondly, one is almost invariably practicing in tension. The violin happens to be like that……

If we start thinking in terms of 'choice points,' then we can stop every ten minutes and make a conscious reevaluation of our total physical state. We must have a checklist of questions. :

  • How am I standing?
  • Have I been holding my breathe? (Ten minutes is quite an achievement)
  • Is my bow hold ok?
  • Is my right thumb tense?
  • How about my left thumb?

I am not giving a complete list here but there isn’t actually that much to observe. Then take some time to reset yourself; visualize yourself completely relaxed; take mental stock of what you are actually trying to achieve and whether a change of course might be more useful, and so on. If necessary, set a timer to go off every five or ten minutes until one gets into the habit of doing this.

Hopefully, this way of thinking about how we use ourselves during practice will lead to greater productivity and less damage in the long run. After all, I still want to be serenading my sweetheart and annoying my cat at 90.


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Chamber Music Master Class with Arnold Steinhardt at USC

By Laurie Niles
February 26, 2015 14:50

It's not surprising to see in person that violinist Arnold Steinhardt has a way with words.

Steinhardt, who is a professor of violin and chamber music at The Colburn School, University of Maryland, Bard College and the Curtis Institute, also does a great deal of writing. He has his own blog called In the Key of Strawberry, and he has written two books, Indivisible by Four: A String Quartet in Pursuit of Harmony, about his journey as first violinist in the Guarneri String Quartet (which disbanded after 45 years in 2009); and Violin Dreams, more generally about his life as a violinist.

Steinhardt's gift for description was on display during a chamber music master class Friday night at the University of Southern California, during which he coached three student chamber groups for an audience of about 50. Smiling as he spoke, Steinhardt offered his suggestions with clarity and appeal, in language both efficient and richly meaningful.

The first quartet set the bar high, with an energetic performance of the first movement of Mendelssohn's String Quartet, Op. 44, No. 2. It's a movement full of fast unison runs, and their playing was satisfyingly on-pitch, in time, and marked with awareness for one another.

USC quartet with Steinhardt
Arnold Steinhardt (center) with quartet members (L-R) Eunghee, Benjamin, Chloe and Mann-Wen

"You really captured the essence of this piece, the emotional intensity," he said after their initial performance.

He suggested to the first violinist that her sound in the opening would have "more spin" if she could use more bow. He did not want to change the volume, just the quality of the sound. "If you use more bow, the sound has more wings," he said. In another passage, he wanted a note emphasized, but not with an accent. "Could you give it a little more of a heart pang?" he said, suggesting the use of vibrato rather than any change of bow stroke.

He asked the first violinist to really go for a high note, and when she overshot it, he applauded the effort. "You took a chance and you went for it, and I think that's really important," he said. He quoted Heifetz: "Practice as if the whole world depends on it; perform as if you don't give a d*mn."

In order to get a little more volume from the second violinist, Steinhardt reminded her that "you're two yards back from the first violin, so you have to push just a little harder."

He suggested that it's possible to change color by changing strings, so plan fingerings accordingly. "You don't have to work hard to change the color if the string has done it for you," he said.

He advised them to "work harder in clearing the thick texture." The density of Mendelssohn's writing offers a challenge: in order for the important lines to emerge, one person needs to get louder while the rest get softer. "How much do you want to be out of the water?" he asked. "You are only this much out of the water," he said, holding his hand like a waterline, up to his nose. He lowered it to his chest, "You want to be a least this far out of the water. Take a chance in doing too much," he told the cellist. "Too much" ended up being just right.

Steinhardt noted a place in the cello part, where Mendelssohn puts a "fancy curlicue" on the second iteration of a repeated figure -- "put a little rubato on it so that it sounds like you are improvising it, like you got tired of the first way and just made up something," he said.

For an ascending flourish in the first violin, he advised her to play it with a little more flair, referencing one of our more showy violinist-composers: "put a little bit of Wieniawski in Mendelssohn!"

Next, a trio performed the first movement Ravel's piano-violin-cello Trio in A minor, an atmospheric and mercurial piece, ranging in texture from rumbling low chords to icy-high harmonics. I must add: it was really a pure pleasure to hear every one of these accomplished student groups perform. They'd already achieved a high level, and then they responded to Steinhardt's suggestions wholeheartedly, with immediate effect.

USC trio
Playing the Ravel Trio, with (L-R) YuEun, Dawoon and Coleman

For this piece, Steinhardt focused on staying true to the composer's tempo markings. "If it's too slow all the time, it gets to be formless," he said. Though it's not necessary to time everything exactly to the metronome marking, it is important to obey the relationships between the various tempo markings. "It's so gorgeous, the temptation is to play it slowly," but it needs motion. "Keep the flow, even though you want to pick a few daisies here and there. Don't pick too many daisies," he said. He focused on where to move forward and where to hold back in the movement. And here's a little trick: speed up just a bit before a place where you are supposed to slow down. "If you have a ritard coming up, it's more interesting if you move a little into the ritard," he said. If the composer asks for a long slow-down, be sure to start the passage fast enough so that the slowing will not feel like dragging. "You have to cook up your own recipe here, but it has to have fluidity," he said.

Another quartet played the first movement of Beethoven's String Quartet No. 11, Op. 95. As they played it, something seemed a little disorganized to me, despite good playing. What was it? Steinhardt identified it easily: it needed more speed.

"If you pick a tempo that's not quite right, no matter how well you play, the tempo ends up being your enemy," he said. This movement should be "bubbling," he said, but at a slow tempo, it gets too note-y. At a faster tempo, "even if you play it badly, it's going to sound pretty good. It's going to be a lot easier to capture the essence."

Sure enough, a faster tempo tightened the music and improved the overall effect.

His other suggestions were about balance: the beginning of this movement has all four instruments playing in unison, and when this is the case, it's not necessary to dig in quite so much. "You can cool it a little," he said, "otherwise the danger is that you are going to lose your good sound."

Steinhardt with violinist
Steinhardt offers a suggestion to violinist Roberta

In places where the violins play in octaves, the lower octave should really sing out to balance the voices, as the higher octave will automatically sound louder because of its favorable range.

When it comes to pressing for sound, the cello and viola can press and still sound nice, but "if you two press," he said to the violins, "it's going to scream!"

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The Week in Reviews, Op. 71: Alina Pogostkina, Augustin Hadelich, James Ehnes in Concert

By Robert Niles
February 24, 2015 21:09

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.

Alina Pogostkina performed the Beethoven with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

  • The Scotsman: "Runnicles’ shaping of the Beethoven Violin Concerto was completely at one with soloist Alina Pogostkina, who breathed fresh flavours and natural musicality into this well-worn masterpiece."
  • Herald Scotland: "In short, Runnicles is a conductor who matters, with a band which, 30 years ago on the periphery of things, is now absolutely central to music in Scotland. And if that assertion needed demonstration, it was all there on Thursday, with the most delicate, exquisite account I think I've heard of Beethoven's Violin Concerto which, in the intimately-expressive hands of soloist Alina Pogostkina, and the masterly,unhurried, close-up-and-personal care of Runnicles and his ultra-responsive SSO players, was like chamber music, drawing you into its thinking. It was quietly and undemonstratively heart-stopping in its beauty."

Alina Pogostkina.png

Augustin Hadelich performed Lalo's "Symphonie espagnole" with the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra.

  • The Patriot-News: "This is his third concert with the HSO, and the next time Hadelich visits the Forum, you will hear me screaming Beatlemania-style from wherever you happen to be....The orchestra provided as lush a foundation for Hadelich's performance as Michelangelo Antonioni provided Monica Vitti when he lit up the Aeolian Islands with her smoldering grace in "L'avventura." I mean it was sexy, and the end knocked a gasp out of me."
  • The Sentinel: "Soloist Augustin Hadelich proved conclusively on Saturday night that his spellbinding command of the violin has only gotten stronger since his last visit to Harrisburg in 2010."

James Ehnes performed Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

  • The Boston Globe: "Canadian violinist James Ehnes gave a measured, laid-back reading, offering mystery rather than intensity. His encore, the Largo from Bach’s Third Sonata for Unaccompanied Violin, was sublimely elegant."
  • The Boston Musical Intelligencer: "I have long admired Ehnes’ playing from his recordings so jumped at the opportunity to hear him live. He did not disappoint. It was as elegant as ever. Ehnes was sheer perfection."
  • Boston Classical Review: "The presence of Ehnes’s violin tone in the large hall seemed as intimate as chamber music, as he effortlessly projected the finest details of Prokofiev’s fantasy-like score. In the piece’s central scherzo, the violinist dazzled with scorching scales, left-hand pizzicato, slashing martellato, and fast, whistling harmonics, all without losing his impeccable cool. Ehnes received, and deserved, the biggest ovation of the night."

Philippe Quint performed Bernstein's "Serenade" with the Grand Rapids Symphony.

  • The Grand Rapids Press: "Quint grabbed the audience by its lapels and refused to let go, announcing his arrival with noble authority before stepping back for a more childlike and playful romp and a series of technical hurdles he made seem rather effortless. His ringing, singing tone, and rock-solid intonation made for a mesmerizing, serene, fourth movement while navigating rocky waters. His athletic performance of the snazzy finale captivated Friday's audience into prompt standing ovation and two curtain calls."

Ilya Gringolts performed the Harris with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra.

  • The New Zealand Herald: "conductor, orchestra and soloist positively relished the very symphonic thrust of this writing. There was no lessening of tension in the faster sections, either, marked by unfailingly idiomatic writing and an almost Stravinskian sense of propulsion. After 20 minutes, a journey had been taken and resolution achieved, as Gringolts gave us his final exquisitely whispered gestures."

Gil Shaham performed the Berg with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

  • Philadelphia Inquirer: "Gil Shaham was soloist, only sometimes achieving full intensity. He had a habit of pivoting between facing conductor and concertmaster, which might have had an intra-ensemble purpose. But it also meant he was sometimes turning his body to eclipse his own sound."

Ji Won Kim performed the Tchaikovsky with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.

  • The Sydney Morning Herald: "Violinist Ji Won Kim drew audience approval for her admirable display of technical facility, secure intonation, fluid bow and a beautifully expressive canzonetta. Kim's performance grew more assured with each passing minute, yet the marriage between soloist and orchestra was often uneasy, threatening to derail in a fast-paced finale."

Karen Gomyo performed the Pintscher with the National Symphony Orchestra.

  • The Washington Post: "It’s an able and impressive piece, sending Gomyo, who is capable of fine sound, fingering in nervous skitters across the strings and finally dying out with the windy sound of tuneless breath, a bow scraping not strings, but the wood of the violin. But I was less taken with it than I’ve been with other Pintscher pieces, however glad I was that the orchestra committed to showcasing the work of an important artist."

Roman Simovic performed the Glazunov with the London Symphony Orchestra.

  • The Telegraph: "The soloist Roman Simovic had a delightful sweet-toned lyricism, and an easy, smiling virtuosity. It was just what was needed to reveal the charm in this somewhat earnest, solidly-crafted piece."

Midori performed the Schumann with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

  • ArtsATL: "Even with the orchestra backing off on volume, as they did, Midori’s solo violin had difficulty cutting through. It doesn’t help that Schumann’s music in this instance is not all that interesting or engaging in the first place. Not the best vehicle for Midori, thus disappointing."

Ning Feng performed "Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso" in the Los Angeles Symphony's Chinese New Year Concert.

  • Violinist.com: "He played...with beautiful expression, agility and character."

Daniel Szasz performed Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons" with the Alabama Symphony.

  • ArtsBham.com: "As thunder and lightning, a hunt with howling dogs, and a virtual aviary unfolded, Szasz contributed supple and sensitive solos."

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

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Galamian's Principles

Galamian's Principles of the Violin

Long one of the standards for violin teachers and students, Ivan Galamian's Principles of Violin Playing and Teaching offers both principles and practice exercises to help develop violinists of all ages and abilities. This new edition includes a foreword by Sally Thomas.

Get it now! In Paperback | For Kindle

Arnold Steinhardt

Master Class with Arnold Steinhardt

Smiling as he spoke, Steinhardt offered his suggestions with clarity and appeal, in language both efficient and richly meaningful.