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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.

Top Blogs

The Week in Reviews, Op. 50: Nadja Salerno Sonnenberg, Augustin Hadelich, James Ehnes in Concert

By Robert Niles
September 30, 2014 10:36

In an effort to promote the coverage of live music, each week Violinist.com brings you links to reviews of notable violin performances from around the world.

Augustin Hadelich substituted for Hilary Hahn and performed the Beethoven with the Dallas Symphony

  • TheaterJones: "He was profound without being pompous in the first movement, lyrical without sentimentality in the second, and playful without trivialization in the final rondo."
  • D Magazine: "Hadelich was substituting last night for an injured Hilary Hahn, and I did find myself mentally comparing his stoicism to her easy charisma, but he managed some extraordinarily beautiful moments in the piece’s last two movements. At his best, he drew a fantastic range of sounds from his instrument."
  • Dallas Morning News: "Hadelich took a moment to settle into the Beethoven, but thereafter he delivered as exquisite, as generously expressive a performance as you’ll hear anywhere. His 1723 “Ex-Kiesewetter” Stradivarius has an extraordinarily sweet but slender tone; Hadelich treats that as an asset, cultivating breathtaking pianissimos and finely polished passagework."

Nadja Salerno SonnenbergNadja Salerno-Sonnenberg performed Shostakovich's First Violin Concerto with the Oregon Symphony

  • The Oregonian: "...her playing was fierce and mercurial; one second she might seem as though howling at the moon, the second grabbing you by the lapels and whispering urgently in your ear. At the same time, her technical abilities have only deepened — the feeling of near-mayhem she expressed came from exquisite control."

James Ehnes performed the Korngold with the Baltimore Symphony

  • The Baltimore Sun: "The concerto's refined lyricism could not ask for a more eloquent advocate than James Ehnes. The violinist's seamless technique, sweetness of tone and poetic instincts had the music soaring and sighing to compelling effect."

Joshua Bell performed the Glazunov with the Pacific Symphony

  • Orange County Register: "Bell gave it a fine reading (the piece, he said, is relatively new to him), cogent and disciplined in his phrasing, secure and scintillating in his pyrotechnics."

Rachel Barton Pine started playing the Mendelssohn with the Valdosta Symphony Orchestra. Then the power went out...

  • The Valdosta Daily Times: "'The audience was delighted when Rachel Barton Pine stepped out of the darkness with her violin, backlit by a few overhead emergency lights,' said Haley Hyatt of Valdosta, who was in the audience. 'She spoke to the crowd, and launched into an impromptu second concert which included a piece by Paganini and other selections. The audience cheered with delight.'"

Pinchas Zukerman performed and conducted Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5 with the National Arts Centre Orchestra

  • Ottawa Citizen: "Zukerman seemed as comfortable and at ease as if he were in his own living room, and he set a mood that was all elegance and calm, unruffled refinement."
  • ConcertoNet: "Zukerman conducted and was violin soloist in a performance both interesting and imaginative but which didn’t quite work."

Tianwa Yang performed the Brahms with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

  • MusicOMH: "Upon entering the fray Tianwa Yang quickly established her presence through precision of attack, gainfully meeting the challenge of unifying the grand melodic gestures with the intricacies of passagework, often played with a graceful mezzo-piano tone that made one want to revel afresh in the concerto’s many details."

Lindsay Deutsch performed the Khachaturian with the Cape Symphony

  • The Barnstable Patriot: "Violinist Lindsay Deutsch played with such verve, passion and athletic skill that the audience broke into applause after the first movement."

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

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Laurie's Violin School: Don't Tolerate Impossible Pegs!

By Laurie Niles
September 29, 2014 11:23

Do you have impossible pegs? Does your student have impossible pegs?

Don't let that situation stand. It's important to have very high standards when you tune your violin, every single time you play. There's really no "almost" when it comes to tuning your violin. There is "in tune" and "out-of-tune." If you play on an out-of-tune violin, nothing else will be in tune. It's as simple as that!


When pegs stick or slip, then tuning the violin becomes a constant struggle. I know, from personal experience; as a high school and college student, I had terrible, ill-fitting pegs. I fought the battle every time, but not everyone is willing to do so. I finally had my peg-box rebusched, a labor-intensive operation for the luthier and an expensive solution all-around. (It turned out that I had four completely different pegs, all somehow jammed in there over the century-long life of my little German fiddle.) With four new pegs lodged in holes that fit them, it solved my problems with that fiddle.

But there are other solutions you can try for impossible pegs, and not all of them are expensive (though some are!)

First, see if you've installed your strings correctly. Traditional pegs stay in place simply by being wedged into the holes made for them. If they aren't wedged in enough, they can slip. When you tune, you can push the peg in as you turn it, to make sure the peg is staying wedged in. (It doesn't work to push in the peg after you've turned it, you have to push it in as you are turning it.) Also, when you install your strings, wind them up against the peg box, and this also has the effect of wedging the peg inward. Of course, if you push too hard or wedge the peg in too tight, then the pegs get difficult to turn. In that case, unwind the string and re-roll it, making it a little less tight against the peg box. (See the pink-threaded "D" string, right)

Secondly: see if your pegs are lubricated well enough. If they are sticking and clicking, they may need lubricant. Peg compound (or "peg dope," as many refer to it) is widely available and not too expensive. It looks like a tube of brown lipstick, and one tube lasts forever (as far as I know). To use it, take the string off and take the peg out. Draw a little "lipstick" onto the two places where the peg rubs up against the holes in the peg box. Put the peg back in and turn a few time to spread it around, then put the string back on.

For a more homespun solution: instead of "peg dope," use dry soap for lubricant and baby powder for friction. Don't get fancy with the soap; use something simple and fairly unscented like Ivory. Again, remove the string and take the peg out. Rub the dry (I repeat DRY!) soap onto the areas where the peg rubs against the holes. Then put the peg back in and turn it a few times to spread it around. Then take the peg back out and apply a thin coat of baby powder over the areas you've "soaped," re-insert the peg, and re-install the string. I like this solution a lot and find it to sometimes work better than the peg dope. My luthier in Denver used to do this, and very often I'd see that little dusting of baby powder when I got my fiddle back from him! (By the way, when you have a string off, this is a good time to clean the fingerboard. You can clean the fingerboard with alcohol, but don't get alcohol on any other part of the fiddle. I use pre-packaged alcohol mini-swabs, the kind you would find in a first-aid kit, because they are less likely to drip than something like a cotton ball. I rub the fingerboard clean then immediately wipe the alcohol dry with a tissue)

Pegs still impossible?

Put fine-tuners on all your strings. This solution requires getting over age-old directive that if you have a full-sized violin, you should have only one fine-tuner on the "E" string, and all other strings should be solely peg-tuned. This is fine, if you have well-fitted pegs and can tune your string to the finest fraction of a cent with the peg. But what if that is very difficult? This can be a bad situation for an adult beginner or a young student who has just graduated to a full-sized violin and is still getting the hang of tuning. They can get it close with the peg, but when it's just a little tiny, tiny bit sharp, and that peg doesn't want to settle in between, then the student gets very tempted to just leave it. The whole struggle takes up valuable practice time and has the student heaving in frustration before even playing a note. It can be very frustrating to the student in situations that require fast tuning: at orchestra, before an audition, etc. So invest $15 in a set of four fine tuners. You can easily install them yourself, Shar tells you how, even. I'm sure other stores have such helpful videos as well. I just helped a student install her own fine-tuners and I'm looking forward to the added control she will now have over her violin. This doesn't preclude peg-tuning at all; it just gives you the extra ability to get the pitch within a finer gradation.

And finally: planetary pegs! Made by Wittner, Knilling, they can expensive to install, but they transform the pegs into something a bit more like a guitar peg, and way easier to use. I welcome feedback on these. A few of my students have them, and though they have made it far easier for them to tune, the main problem seems to be that they are geared, and sometimes it's hard to stop the pegs between gears and thus get the precision. I don't know if this is a problem with the brand or with the installation, because it's not always the case. Some planetary pegs are completely smooth and do not seem to have this problem at all. And it's not just students that benefit from these; Elizabeth Pitcairn installed Wittner planetary pegs in her "Red" Strad!

So I hope that these ideas help you find a solution to difficult pegs, and please share any ideas or suggestions you have on the matter. Whatever your thoughts about any of these ideas, don't tolerate impossible pegs! Do what you can to ease this situation for yourself or for your students.

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Violinist.com Interview with Jinjoo Cho, 2014 Indianapolis Gold Medal Laureate

By Laurie Niles
September 27, 2014 15:00

There certainly was a lot of buzz about five of the six finalists in the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis being Korean, but frankly, first-place laureate Jinjoo Cho considers herself a Clevelander.

"It's where I'm from, really," Jinjoo said, speaking to me before the IVCI's closing ceremonies last Sunday at the Scottish Rite Cathedral in downtown Indianapolis. She was born in Seoul, South Korea, "and I'm proud to be Korean. But I kind of identify myself as a Clevelander."

Jinjoo Cho
Photo by Violinist.com

Jinjoo, who is 26, came to Cleveland 12 years ago for her violin studies, and she doesn't really feel the need to leave.

"Musicians tend to love big cities, -- I guess there's work and they like to be busy," Jinjoo said. "But for me, I can't focus if there's activity around me. I need a quiet life. I don't need variety of food all the time, I don't need variety of friends all the time. I have a very close group of friends, like about four, that I hang out with all the time. I guess it has a lot to do with growing up in the suburbs in the Midwest.

"(Living in Cleveland) lets me look inward, which is so important to me, personally, and musically," Jinjoo said. "I happen to love the attitude that the Midwesterners generally have towards music and the style of music that they go for. It's very humble and generous, rather than trying to be glamorous and showy. It's less about self-promotion; it's more about being selfless for the sake of music. I think it's actually the right attitude to approach music. So I'm a bit of a Midwest snob, I suppose. We haven't got a lot of those, so I'll take the torch!"

At the Indianapolis competition, Jinjoo placed first of six laureates, and she also won special prizes for Best Performance of a Romantic or Post-Romantic Concerto; Best Performance of a Bach Work; and one of three Best performances of the Paganini Caprices. (The other laureates were Tessa Lark, Ji Young Lim, Dami Kim, Yoo Jin Jang and Ji Yoon Lee; here is a list of all prize winners.)

Jinjoo's big win at Indy was not her first, she also won first prize at the 2006 Montreal International Musical Competition, 2010 Buenos Aires International Violin Competition, Schoenfeld International String Competition and the 2005 Stulberg International String Competition. She earned her Bachelor and Masters of Music degrees from Cleveland Institute of Music, and attended the Curtis Institute. Her teachers have included Paul Kantor, Joseph Silverstein, Pamela Frank and Jaime Laredo.

Jinjoo said that when she started playing the violin at the age of five in Korea, there was nothing particularly profound about the decision. It was just one of her activities, along with swimming and speed-skating. At the time, lot of little girls were taking violin lessons in Korea, she said, and the reason was simple: Sarah Chang.

"There was a local Suzuki program in Korea, and my mom asked me if I wanted to go, because all the kids in the neighborhood were going there," Jinjoo said. "There was a huge boom after Sarah Chang and Hanna Chang -- I'm kind of the Sarah Chang kid. After she became famous, she came back to Korea to perform, and everybody started playing violin, in the same way they're picking up figure skating right now because of Yuna Kim There was a huge boom, and everybody was doing Suzuki. It was something that (parents) had fantasies about: these glamorous musicians who travel all over the world. They showed documentaries about Sarah Chang -- 'Aspen! Oh, Aspen's so beautiful.' Dami, Yoo Jin and I are sort of at the end of that boom. And I would say that Ji Yoon and Ji Young are a little bit farther away from that."

Jinjoo still returns to Korea frequently. Is violin more of a thing there, than it is here?

"Not necessarily. I feel like we have a good audience here and there," Jinjoo said. "I do think people study violin more intensely, from a younger age (in Korea). I think that here, in the United States, talent is such a big fantasy. 'She wants to play the violin, but if she doesn't have talent, then she can't do it. So she has to prove herself before I invest in her.' But the attitude in Korea is more like, 'I'm going to make my child talented, ' or, 'Of course she's talented, that's a given.' It's not an easy instrument for a child even to just hold. So if you're doing it, you're already talented, why are you questioning that? I think Korean parents have enormous faith in their children, especially in their early development, and they invest their everything from a very early age."

So do parents push their children harder in Korea?

"I can't speak for everyone because I wasn't in everyone's household," Jinjoo said. "But in my family, my mom tried hard to make me practice. It was more about work ethic and owning up to what you're given to do, rather than the violin itself. It was about trying your best and doing the best you can, whatever you do. It's hard to balance, and some people fail and some people succeed. Who knows the right way to bring up a child, there's no answer. But I know for a fact that, once I decided that this was going to be my life. my family did everything they could to help me. Even in the moments when I said, 'I want this, but I don't want to practice' -- we all do that. And a lot of parents say, 'If you don't want to do it then you don't have to do it.' But the question is, are they rejecting the goal, or the momentary work? It's kind of like doing homework: nobody wants to do homework, but everybody wants to do well in school. I don't know any single child who doesn't want to do well -- they might be hiding it, but they all want to do well at something."

Jinjoo's longest-term teacher was Paul Kantor, whom she met at Aspen in 2000 and studied with until 2012. "I had a lesson with him, and it was love at first lesson!" she said. "It was just very instant. I knew, within five minutes, that I was going to be his student. I'm a bonafide PK child." Of course, that means different things to different people, because Kantor is highly adaptable to different learners, she said. "You hear a story about Mr. Kantor in a lesson from a different person, it doesn't sound anything like the Mr. Kantor I know. He is able to pull out many different sides of the human being in himself to get the best in us, and to (help us) approach music in a very sincere way. It's all about sincerity with him, and just playing from your heart."

Jinjoo also has studied for two years with Jaime Laredo at the Cleveland Institute. "He knows when to stop saying things,' she said, "he catches it right away when I'm getting too much in my head. 'Stop, and just play,' he says. And that's been so helpful for me."

For the Indianapolis competition, she, like all the other competitors, had to prepare a long list of repertoire. For her it was: the Grave and Fuga from Sonata No. 2 by Bach; Sonata K. 304 by Mozart; Caprices 4 and 11 by Paganini; Berceuse in D by Fauré; Sonata No. 1 in D major, Op. 12 by Beethoven; Fantasy for Solo Violin by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich; Sonata No. 1 in F minor by Prokofiev; Carmen Fantasy by Waxman; Violin Concerto No. 5 by Mozart; and Violin Concerto by Korngold.

What was her favorite?

"Probably Prokofiev F minor -- that's such a unique piece of music," Jinjoo said. "No other violin sonata is like it. It's different even from other Prokofiev pieces -- very dark, twisted, but at the same time, there is a certain kind of tortured beauty in it, and I think it speaks to the essence of what it means to be human."

How does one prepare all that repertoire and get in the right frame of mind for such a major competition? She said she doesn't have a system specific to preparing for competitions, but it's more of an overall approach

"Once you've hit mid-20s, you kind of figure out how to practice for you," she said. "It's not really a system that's adjusted to the competition, but it's a system that you apply to yourself, in preparing for anything. I know what my weaknesses are, and my strengths. So you kind of balance them, and that's a big part of the process. I actually didn't have that much time to prepare this time because I spent the summer doing a chamber music festival. Most of it, except for the Korngold, it's the rep I've played many times before."

She'd only performed the Korngold once before the competition, and with music. But she liked the idea of playing something that was a little bit different.

"It's like movie music, and I love movie music, especially the old Hollywood movie music," she said.

In the future, she'd like to keep performing as much as possible, and also to continue exploring her new passion for chamber music. "I'm more in love with it now than ever," she said of chamber music. "I wasn't one of those born-to-be-chamber-musicians, but recently, with exposure and experience, I've been getting to the core value of it."

* * *

If you wish to hear Jinjoo Cho's performances at the IVCI, here is a link to the archived performances of Jinjoo, and of all the contestants.

Jinjoo playing
Photo by Denis Kelly

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A Parents' Guide to Conservatory Auditions

By Karen Rile
September 26, 2014 14:55

pumpkin white background
It's that time of year again, people! College application season.

Last year, just as I started writing a weekly parenting column for Violinist.com, one of my own kids began her grad school conservatory applications. It was, as they say, déjà vu all over again. Except this time she I got to sit back and watch from the sidelines, which gave me time to contemplate the process, and to write.

For those just beginning the journey, here is an index of the 24 columns. The topics are by no means exhaustive (although they may be exhausting—audition year is a long, hard road.)

I'll add more chapters this year to the develop the series further, but for now, here's a good start. I'm interested in knowing your questions, as well as any topics you'd like to read about. You can contact me directly through this site by clicking on the mail link beside this article. Or leave a comment at the bottom of this post.

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V.com weekend vote: Which tunes work best for busking?

By The Weekend Vote
September 26, 2014 09:48

london buskersJosh Bell is not exactly doing the same thing next Tuesday as he did eight years ago -- he's giving a performance at the Metro station. But he's not busking incognito.

But what if he were busking? What if YOU were busking? How do you get a crowd to gather around, and how do you actually make money at this? I'm specifically wondering what kinds of music work best in the busking scenario. I've assembled a list of tunes that loosely represent different kinds of music: classical, bluegrass, movie/musical, jazz or folk/gypsy. Pick the one you think would work best, and then share with us what other tunes you think play best for busking. I welcome any busking stories, too!

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Joshua Bell Returns to the Washington D.C. Metro

By Laurie Niles
September 25, 2014 11:41

Never say never --

It's been nearly eight years since Joshua Bell made $32 busking at a Washington D.C. Metro station and made history with the story about it in the Washington Post, which won reporter Gene Weingarten a Pulitzer Prize.

For a while there, it looked like Josh wasn't chomping at the bit to return to the subway station again, but at 12:30 p.m. next Tuesday he'll be back at Union Station, Washington D.C.'s Main Hall for a free performance sponsored by the Washington Post. Josh will perform a mini-concert with works by Mendelssohn and Bach with nine YoungArts alumni: violinists Mariella Haubs, Kevin Hu, Keir GoGwilt and Clare Semes; violists Bradley Parrimore and Devon Naftzger; cellists Brannon Cho and Anna Litvinenko; and bassist Zachary Ostroff.

Josh and YoungArts
Joshua Bell rehearses with YoungArts alumni musicians - Photo by by Karen Goodman

The group were all part of an HBO documentary called Joshua Bell: YoungArts MasterClass in which the young musicians traveled and performed alongside Bell for nine days, including rehearsals at Josh's Manhattan home; performing at London’s Limelight rock club; and watching his recording session of the Bach Violin Concertos with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. (The documentary will air October 14th (7:30PM ET/PT); and the Bach recording, called Joshua Bell: BACH, comes out Sept. 30.)

"The YoungArts alumni I am bringing to Washington offer a perfect example of what can happen when you invest in music education,” Bell said in a press release. "My dream is for music to play a part in every child’s life in this country and the best place to start is keeping music in the schools."

Here is a sample from Josh's new CD, enjoy!

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what I learned about teaching from a hamster...

By Michael Fox
September 24, 2014 16:53

A few days ago, my wife and I became the proud owners of a very adorable longhaired hamster, mostly not by choice. A neighbor knocked on our door and handed us a shoebox of the adorable but feisty creature, telling us she had too many animals and was looking for a nice home for this one. We said yes, even without having any idea what we were doing. I quickly became enchanted by how she looked up at me with big black eyes, her nose moving up and down rapidly as she explores her surroundings. We re-named her Hildegard, to honor the great medieval composer, artist, writer, and all around amazing, creative soul St. Hildegard of Bingen.

Anyway, it turns out that hamsters are nocturnal creatures, so her playful movements and insatiable curiosity subsides each morning, so she spends most of the time during the day curled up in a ball sleeping in the corner. A couple days ago, she did wake up in the middle of the day and start approaching her half-empty food dish. I lovingly gave her more food and was once again enthralled with her somewhat clumsy stretching as she then went for the water bowl. In a fit over how adorable this was, I reached my hand in the cage and tried to stroke her back. In a gesture that seems obvious in hindsight, she pushed my hand away and turned over. I tried to rub her belly, and then – ouch! The cute fur ball, named for a twelfth century nun bit my finger!

Now obviously, Hildegard was not being mean, and did not bite me out of maliciousness. I was bothering her when she wanted to go back to sleep, and she was trying to communicate this in the only way she knew how. If I had decided she was being “bad,” and that I had to punish her, it would have accomplished nothing but damaging the relationship and trust I was trying to build. I simply had to learn a new rule – don’t bother the hamster when she’s sleeping.

I mention this because it shows a very important principle I’m starting to realize in teaching – the importance of honoring a student’s perspective, and clear communication in the learning process. Just like my new hamster friend, children and adult beginners often have a better grasp on their abilities then we give them credit for. We ignore or stifle this ingrained ability at our (and our student’s) peril.

The goal of teaching is not to break down a student and recast him or her in my own image, but rather, to be a guide, helping them walk down a path in such a way they recognize that they have really made it this far by themselves, not because I carried them. I, as a teacher, don’t want to be viewed as above my students, but rather, I want to listen to you carefully, honoring and shaping your own intelligence and creativity to do what makes sense to you.

I remember as a young beginner sometimes seeing my teachers as these god-like “experts” who would tell me everything I had to do to achieve mastery, but I quickly realized that the majority of how I made progress was actually up to me. Simply being told how to hold the bow or what notes to play was not enough, I had to spend hours practicing, and figure things out for myself. I needed the guidance of someone more experienced then me, but I also needed space to struggle through music on my own, so the knowledge became my own, not only my teachers. I would not have stayed in music if I was primarily externally motivated (trying to please my parents or teachers), but I had to learn how to become internally motivated (doing music for my own sake, out of love for it.)

Thus, today, as a teacher, I consider it essential that I listen to my students. Different people have different tolerance levels, and I am continually trying to strike a balance so a student feels challenged, but not discouraged. This means cultivating a climate of mutual trust, being always open to feedback, free to move at the pace that works for you, discovering new ways of practicing and understanding a concept until it finally “clicks.” Particularly with younger students with short attention spans, I have discovered that little good comes out of forcing them to play a song or exercise “one more time” after it’s clear they’re bored and unable to concentrate on it anymore. Instead of berating their lack of discipline, I find it works far better to honor the cues they’re sending, tell to practice it this week, and go on to a new activity or song.

For this reason, I personally have no hard and fast rules for or against things like using tapes as temporary frets to let a student know where to put the fingers down. For some, it may get in the way of learning to find the correct pitch by ear, but for others, it can be extremely helpful in developing muscle memory to know where the fingers should go. Everyone learns a little bit differently, and my job is to respect that as I figure out what is the most helpful for the areas in which you need to grow. Just like in my budding relationship with Hildegard the hamster, methods will only take me so far. To truly be a part of the mentoring and empowering process of teaching, you must listen to the mind of the one being taught, and spend all your energy lighting their fire.

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Personal Pep Talk

By Karen Allendoerfer
September 24, 2014 13:24

If there is one thing that reading and writing blogs has taught me, it's that what inspires people is very individual, and very personal. What makes one player want to run to the practice room makes another one want to run the opposite direction.

I had a wonderful summer. The last two weeks of it were a fascinating and active trip to Hawaii.

I didn't bring my violin. In fact, when I got back to orchestra rehearsal the Wednesday after Labor Day, I hadn't played the instrument in 3 weeks. And if I want to be honest, I hadn't practiced seriously since the MITSPO concert in July.

Which brings me to my first difference from many other players. Usually I think a 1-week break is a positive, inspiring thing. I don't practice every day even in the best of circumstances, and after a week I might be a little rusty for 5-10 minutes, but within the first practice session, it usually comes back.

Three weeks, though, is another story. Where I notice rustiness after a week is mostly in the left hand: my fingers are slow, not as flexible, more easily tired. After 3 weeks, it's affected the right hand too. Once in that first rehearsal, in the middle of Schumann, my bow just fell off the string. I don't know why, or how. Yuck. I guess if I felt that way after a week off I wouldn't even skip that much time either.

For the fall concert, our orchestra is playing Robert Schumann's 3rd Symphony. Again. We played it back in 2009. I had to look it up; I've been in the orchestra long enough now that the years are starting to run together. Back then, I remember reading about Schumann's madness, his stay in a mental institution. His suicide.

Sometimes I think I can hear this, feel it impending, in the 4th movement. Back in 2009, I blogged about an ironic printer's error in my part: "The Music Says 'Die!'" Here comes another Halloween.

So this September--rusty and out of practice, playing something old but new, something "feierlich" from the caverns of the mind of a deranged and brilliant genius--I've been feeling a little in need of inspiration. Some people find inspiration in goals--in setting them and achieving them. And I have to admit, that's not really me either. Goals, at least big ones, tend to discourage me as often as not, to bring on the bad kind of perfectionism and the associated procrastination and unhelpful comparisons. Since my blog about Gretchen Rubin's Abstainers and Moderators, I've been reading a little more of her work and adding some Scott Adams.

I think I'll blog more about these writers in the future, but for now I've been exploring the idea of goals vs. systems that Adams articulates. The idea, as I understand it, is to put a system in place that doesn't require willpower or focus on a goal to move forward.

Whereas when I read about goals I tend to feel like I'm reading a foreign language, the language of systems speaks to my relationship with the violin. I have a number of systems for practicing, some of them are weird, some are not.

1. The foam ear plug. One part of the system is to wear a foam earplug in my left ear most of the time while I'm practicing. With a foam earplug I can hear the sound muffled through my left ear, and normally through my right ear. I started doing this after talking with a long-time member of my orchestra who is 85 years old. She is almost completely deaf in her left ear, but not her right. She attributes this to having had a violin directly under her left ear for much of the past 80 years. While I don't know if this is the cause of her deafness or not, I was concerned enough to try out an earplug while I was practicing and see if I could tolerate it. I'd also like to be still playing when I'm 85, and I'd rather not sacrifice my left ear's hearing to do it.

This earplug had some completely unexpected benefits, the main one being that it makes my playing sound much better to me when I'm practicing. It cuts out 90% of the scratchiness in tone and most of the weird overtones and buzzing and freakiness that I sometimes hear on the E-string (especially when I play the note B), enabling me to just focus on pitch. It makes my violin sound richer and smoother. I enjoy listening to myself practice more and can practice longer because of it. I played a scale for my teacher with the earplug out and the earplug in and she said she noticed a difference: she said I sounded more confident and played more on the "center" of the pitch with the earplug in.

2. Simulating performance conditions as much as possible. So, if I'm practicing orchestra music, I move the music stand over to the left, put it down lower than I'd like, and sit to the right of it, far enough away that I have some trouble seeing some of the accidentals. This is how I have to sit in the orchestra. Then I start playing, and I pretend the conductor is in front of me, the way she would be if I were rehearsing. I look up at her, down at the music, up at her. I may have to get a picture of her to put on the wall at home so I don't get distracted by what's going by the window outside, but this is still a system in progress.

3. The violin wall hanger. I have discovered over the years that taking the violin and bow in and out of the case is a pain in the neck and is actually a barrier to my practicing. Ugh, I have to find a place to put the case and then unzip and unlatch it. Ugh, I have to tighten the bow. Oh, geez, now I have to put on the shoulder rest too. Sounds a little ridiculous, I know, but the String Swing violin wall hanger is actually pretty cool.

4. The iPod. This has recordings to listen to while I'm exercising. It also has tuner and metronome apps. While I know that electronic tuners are controversial to some people, I find a tuner useful in the way that a metronome is useful. They're both systems of a sort, external ways to remind your internal sense of timing or pitch how they're supposed to be doing things. Reality checks for when you're alone and your teacher isn't there to point out that spot where you're rushing or dragging and don't even realize it, that spot where you're overshooting a shift or have learned to hear the interval too narrow or too wide. They're faithful buddies that tell it like it is, without value judgement or snark.

I guess I have goals for the Schumann. They might be to play it better than I did in 2009: to really feel the 1st movement in 1, to get more of the notes, to learn to see the majesty of the Cologne cathedral, rather than the composer's fear of eternity, in the 4th movement; to not lead the violin section astray; to watch the conductor as much as possible.

We are also playing Mendelssohn's "Hebrides" Overture, also called Fingal's Cave. That piece is fun to play, and so I think that's my goal for that piece too: to just have a blast. This means being able to play those 16th notes well enough and fast enough to actually enjoy them, so, hello metronome. Hello earplug. Hello violin hanger.

My 6th grade son plays the cello. This year he was asked in school orchestra to pick someone who was his inspiration. All the other cellists picked Yo-Yo Ma, who is a perfectly fine choice. My son picked his mom. That makes me feel like I am doing something right.

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The outcome of the Indianapolis was not a scandal, but the reaction to it might be

By Laurie Niles
September 23, 2014 23:37

Having spent a week in Indianapolis watching the finals of the 2014 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, I'd like to share my thoughts on the competition, and also on the "controversy" over jury members having former and current students in the running.

IndyFirst: the laureates were the violinists who deserved to win. One could quibble with the order among the very top finalists, but this would be a matter of taste. The whole competition was as triumph for excellence in violin-playing, and the violinists who consistently played best through all rounds were the ones who won. There was nothing fishy about the level of their artistry. A great number of extremely good, even great, violinists did not win prizes or advance to the finals. That was because of an abundance of talent at this competition.

The contestants were asked to prepare more than two hours' worth of music. Much has been made of a few bobbles that lasted a few seconds. In live performance, it is not unusual for even the finest violinists to bobble a note, misplace a shift, or suffer a memory slip. Nonetheless, there was less of this happening in the finals of this competition than I heard in the last few competitions I've attended. The perfect-note standard for live performance is perhaps the symptom of our scoured-clean recording world. For those who have an eighth-grader's take on judging technical level and artistry, they can find plenty of material to make seconds-long videos of bobbles and mistakes from just about any violinist brave enough to post a truly live performance on the Internet. Might be hard to find with Heifetz, but I bet someone could do it.

The point is that, unless those slip-ups are so frequent as to be a distraction, they don't matter in the larger scheme of two hours' worth of playing. Certainly they show how nerve-wracking the situation of a competition can be, but one slip doesn't get at the overall artistry, intention and technical level of the player.

As far as the integrity of the judging, Indianapolis's system of rules for its competition is beyond anything I've ever seen at any competition anywhere. IVCI already had an extremely detailed policy in place with regard to jurors who have students participating in the competition. In fact, it could be the IVCI's very transparency that allowed its detractors so much ammunition. Every participant's current and past teachers are listed plainly, right under their names in the program. The program also describes the detailed process by which a jury member who has students in the competition would vote. If a jury member has a student in the competition, that jury member does not vote on his or her student, in any round. In other words, they do not submit scores on their own students, at all. (Read the rules online in the competition program. The "scoring procedure" is outlined on page 37.)

A jury member's ability to either submarine or greatly inflate the scores of other contestants is also very limited under the IVCI's system, due to the fact that all scores are recalculated to a common statistical distribution to equalize each juror's score distribution in relationship to one another. Additionally, all scores are reviewed by John MacBain upon submission. (John MacBain designed the computer scoring system used by the IVCI, and you can watch a full interview with him about that system on the Violin Channel.) "Should there be any blatant irregularities; the process is in place to immediately alert me of any anomalies," said IVCI executive director Glen Kwok. "Fortunately, I have never had to experience this scenario." Beyond that, jury members are barred from speaking to any of the contestants for the duration of the competition, which means there is no "coaching."

Jury members grade each violinist after each performance using individualized scorecards, Kwok said. On the card is a place for the “Overall Performance Score” followed by scores for special prizes such as “Best Bach, Best Mozart, Best Beethoven," etc. Jury members may keep all the scorecards until the end of each round so that they can recalibrate scores as they go along as they feel is appropriate. At the end of a round, jury members sit collectively in the jury room to finish and/or finalize their scores before submitting them to Kwok.

"There is absolutely no discussion," Kwok said. "We literally physically collect the bottom half of their scorecards. I then give the cards to our mathematician and inventor of our scoring system, John MacBain, who enters the scores into his computer with the assistance of our auditor, Alerding CPA Group. Alerding CPA Group then issues a letter stating 'We certify that we have observed the counting of the preliminary scores of the 9th Quadrennial International Violin Competition of Indianapolis. The 16 participants advancing to the next round are as follows:' The entire process is audited for complete accuracy and transparency. No one knows the results until the auditor issues the formal letter to me and I announce it first to the Jury."

The "controversy" over the IVCI happened, perhaps not-so-coincidentally, right after the finalists were announced. A lot of people were surprised that Stephen Waarts did not advance to the final rounds, based on his excellent performances in past competitions, particularly his first-place award at the Menuhin Competition earlier this year. He's an excellent player destined for a fine career. Directly following the announcement of the finalists, his teacher, Aaron Rosand, contacted the columnist Norman Lebrecht, as well as the editor of the Violin Channel and me, seeking an outlet for his displeasure over the judging at Indianapolis. Particularly, he wanted to point out the relationship of several judges to students: among the finalists, three were former or current students of juror Miriam Fried and one was a student of Jaime Laredo. Those relationships were neither a revelation nor a secret revealed; they'd been listed in the program and known all along. Because of the high-level system in place for dealing with these potential conflicts-of-interest, jury members took the job, knowing that their students could still enter the competition.

Nonetheless, the fact of their connection proved fodder for Norman Lebrecht's story about the finalists, which began in this way :

"It was brave of the judges at the International Indianapolis Violin Competition to pick an all-women final line-up. Braver still to agree that five of the six finalists should be Korean. Heroic, when half of them are students of one of the judges, Miriam Fried (who must have recused herself from the selection). Now, if these stats look a tad unbalanced, please note that 27 of the 40 selected entrants originated from South Korea, China, Japan or Taiwan. How did that happen? Are we to believe that almost 70 percent of the best young violinists are now bred in the Far East? Or is it that teachers in Korea, China and Japan have learned to work the system, grooming their candidates to pass the entry level? Are any of the entrants, for instance, receiving state or corporate subsidies that are not available to European or North American contenders? The imbalance is so blatant at Indy 2014 that official clarification is required."

He missed on one possible explanation: that these candidates actually played best.

It is true that Miriam Fried did not vote in the final rounds, due to the fact that half of the finalists were current or former students. Jury member Jaime Laredo did vote on five of the six finalists, recusing himself from voting on his student in the finals. IVCI director Kwok describes the reason for this in this way:

"The decision to ask a jury member to recuse herself had nothing to do with online comments or public opinion. (Miriam Fried) was asked to recuse herself entirely in the Classical Finals and Finals simply because of the unprecedented scenario that three of the six finalists were her students. When a person can only vote on three out of six people, the scores cannot provide substantive meaning from a statistical standpoint because there are not enough scores. Therefore, the fairest outcome for all six was for her to recuse herself entirely, which she fully agreed. In Jaime's case, there was no reason for him to recuse himself beyond his own student. He only had one student so he could still effectively vote for the other five people. It would have been very unfair to the five kids if he could not add his opinion to the votes of the rest of the jury."

In other words, having Fried vote on only three finalists while the other jury members voted on five or all six would have skewed her distribution of votes under IVCI's scoring system to the disadvantage of the finalists she did not rate as the best. So, to be fair to them, she could not vote on any, and she removed herself from the jury for the finals.

Is it unusual, for jury members to have students in a competition that they are adjudicating? Not in this competition, and not in others. The only difference seems to be this competition's transparency and very direct policy about it. (And of course, all those Korean women in the finals.)

"In nine competitions, it is not the first time that there were three students or former students of a jury member in attendance, but it was the first time that three students of the same teacher advanced all the way to the Finals," Kwok said. "In order to have a jury of the caliber at the IVCI, they are selected as much as three years in advance of each competition. To make a jury member resign within the last six months of the competition just because their student made it past the screening round would be a grave disservice to the competition. Few people of the artistic level that the IVCI seeks to have on our jury are available for three weeks, on six months notice."

"Lastly, why should a violinist have to sacrifice his or her career by not being able to enter one of the most important competitions in the world (I am not speaking about Indianapolis only, but all the most important competitions) since they do not occur every year?" Kwok said. "Timing is everything, and in the case of 'The Indianapolis,' which is only once every four years, it can make a huge difference. With strict safeguards in place, there is no reason why a student of a jury member cannot enter and win fairly. If people think rationally, they must realize that when there are nine jury members and one person recuses himself or herself, the violinist must win the votes of the other eight in order to win."

What happens now? Norman Lebrecht, for his part, came up with a quota plan to "rectify" the situation of all these Korean women having too much success. From his blog, he proposes:

"1 No judge shall have taught any student within the past two years.
2 Contestants must disclose all past teacher relationships.
3 Contestants must disclose any previous contact with any of the judges.
4 No more than four students shall be admitted of the same nationality.
5 No more than 60 percent of contestants shall be of the same sex.
6 A judge who recognises a contestant from a previous competition must withdraw from the round."

It's not a system that would work in the United States, and here's why: The United States Supreme Court has rejected strict racial quotas since its Regents of the University of California v. Bakke decision in 1978. The Court has accepted the consideration of race in decision making to favor "underrepresented minority groups" (Grutter v. Bollinger, 2008), but it consistently has rejected straight-up quotas, such as in Ricci v. DeStefano (2009), when it declared that a city fire department did not open itself to "disparate-impact liability" when it promoted white and Hispanic firefighters who outscored Black applicants on a management promotion test. The Court most recently affirmed its "strict scrutiny" standard toward quotas last year in Fisher v. University of Texas, where it declared that any consideration of race must be "narrowly tailored."

Lebrecht's proposal is not narrowly tailored to bring underrepresented minority groups into the world of elite violin competition. It is aimed at *denying* previously underrepresented groups (women, Asians) the representation that they enjoyed in this one competition.

This is not a situation such as the Sphinx Competition, which is limited to contestants of color, and was born of a mission to help underrepresented groups. Once you open a competition to all, under U.S. law, you can't impose strict racial quotas on the outcome. Given abundant Supreme Court precedent, any competition in the United States that adopted Lebrecht's "standards" should expect to be sued, and to lose that suit, at potentially grave financial cost to the competition.

In conclusion: The fact that six finalists were women is not a scandal. The fact that five were of Korean descent is also not a scandal. The IVCI created an elaborate system for scoring that allowed jury members to serve even if their past or present students were in the competition. The fact that the IVCI's system could not accommodate the situation of one juror having so many successful students exposed a weakness that they would do well to address before the next competition.

I understand that some will still argue that having a juror that has some relationship to a contestant is a problem, even if that juror does not vote on the contestant. But do we want to have juries with no active teachers? If we do have active teachers, do we then want to disqualify all their students from entering a given competition? A system that bars all past or present students of jurors would open a whole separate line of problematic ethics, as would one that dismisses jurors whose students successfully enter. It's not a simple problem, and this is why the attempts to solve it have not been simple, either. But in the case of the IVCI, I believe that those attempts have been made in good faith.

* * *

Tuesday on Violinist.com, a young reader posted a blog in which she reported that this year's IVCI first-place laureate, Jinjoo Cho, had expressed a desire to share the 1683 "ex-Gingold" Strad she's been given to play for the next four years with the other laureates. It would seem that our younger generation is not only profoundly talented, but generous and community-minded as well. I think Josef Gingold would have heartily approved.

Photo by Denis Kelly

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The Week in Reviews, Op. 49: Joshua Bell, Midori, Pinchas Zukerman in concert

By Robert Niles
September 23, 2014 11:05

In an effort to promote the coverage of live music, each week Violinist.com brings you links to reviews of notable violin performances from around the world.

Joshua Bell performed the Bruch with the Richmond Symphony

  • Richmond Times-Dispatch: "He plays with an infectious passion that always serves the music and, even as he displayed his own fabulous technique, he was a true partner with the orchestra."

Christina Astrand performed the Gade with the Chicago Philharmonic

  • Chicago Tribune: "Gade's Violin Concerto (1880) makes no secret of its musical debt to the composer's mentor and colleague, Felix Mendelssohn, although this melodic, well-made piece also breathes the robust romanticism of Max Bruch. The soloist plays virtually nonstop, and the gifted Danish violinist Christina Astrand addressed its lyrical bravura with full-blooded dedication and sensitivity."
  • Chicago Classical Review: "Christina Åstrand has won plaudits for her recording of her countryman Gade’s concerto, yet the Danish violinist’s performance overall proved more competent than inspiring."

Pinchas Zukerman
Photo courtesy the artist

Pinchas Zukerman performed the Beethoven with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

  • Baltimore Sun: "The poker-faced Zukerman has a way of establishing musical authority right from the first notes. That he did here. He produced a big, even muscular tone that easily filled the space. There was occasional grittiness in that sound, but it never interfered with Zukerman’s communicative, seemingly spontaneous phrasing, his ability to bring out the concerto’s noble character."
  • The Washington Post: "... rather than coasting on the hum-along melodies, Zukerman offered an introspective reading, allying a sense of rapt concentration with innately musical phrasing. At times, the violinist’s inward approach and exploration of subtle nuances came at the cost of rhythmic tension and continuity. The rewards, however, were considerable, particularly in the poignant contrast between the playful and elegiac strains of the score."

Rachel Barton Pine performed the Barber with the West Virginia Symphony

  • The Charleston Gazette: "Barton Pine was excellent at balancing the romantic impulses of opulent melody with the modernist strokes that subvert them. She also had blazing technique in the fiery, yet opulently colored finale."

Midori performed the Brahms with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra

  • Democrat & Chronicle: "...the celebrated violinist Midori gave a performance that was completely devoid of ego and self-promotion, instead tapping into the inherent genius of the composer's engaging themes and mining the virtuosity that is so prevalent in the music itself. It was as if Midori had found a safe haven of creative expression within the voice of her violin and was able to communicate most honestly and earnestly."
  • Rochester City Newspaper: "Midori often seemed hardly like a star soloist at all, and in this work that's a compliment."

Alissa Margulis performed the Brahms with the Royal Northern Sinfonia

  • The Journal: "The piece kicked off as it meant to go on, full of fizz and fire, and Margulis delivered a performance full of energy and confidence."

Not every performance takes place in a concert hall. Augustin Hadelich performed "America the Beautiful" in Manhattan Federal Court last week, as he and 80 others were sworn in as U.S. citizens. Congratulations, Augustin!

  • Classicalite: "'Augustin's rendition was so beautiful it brought tears to my eyes,' said Robert Katzmann, the U.S. Circuit Court judge who conducted the ceremony."

Finally, in case you missed it, Violinist.com editor Laurie Niles was in Indianapolis last week and reviewed all the final performances in the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, as well as a performance by 2010 IVCI Gold Medalist Clara-Jumi Kang:

Please support live 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.

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