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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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The Real Deal: Paul Bartel of Cincinnati's Baroque Violin Shop

By Laurie Niles
July 31, 2014 11:22

Paul Bartel, owner of Cincinnati's Baroque Violin Shop, doesn't actually have an office. In fact, he barely needs a desk.

That's because nearly all the time, "I'm at the bench, or out in the schools, recruiting students," Paul said when he spoke to me last week at his shop, Strad in hand.

Paul Bartel

Paul, along with his three sons, runs an impressively large stringed instrument operation, with some 10,000 stringed instrument rentals, a considerable online and in-person shop and a wholesale company. They operate from a historic two-story brick building in northern Cincinnati, complemented by several large warehouses across the street. Bartel also is the founder and board president of the Wyoming (Ohio) Fine Arts Center, a nearly 20-year-old center that offers programs music, visual arts and dance for students of all ages in the Cincinnati area.

Baroque Violin Shop

I did say "Strad" -- Bartel owns the real deal. The instrument serves as his own model for excellence in construction and sound, and he shares it with generosity, allowing students and customers to play it in order to get that sound in their ears and using the instrument in demonstrations at schools.

As is often the case with the long-lived, the fiddle has a lively story. A circa 1680 Stradivari, complete with papers from Robert Bein and Charles Beare, for years the instrument was known as it is listed in Herbert Goodkind's Violin Iconography of Antonio Stradivari, as the 1698 "Eckstein" Strad, named after a London jeweler who owned it. "For a very long time -- about 150 years -- that's the way it passed through all the violin dealers," Bartel said. But before Bartel purchased it in 2007, Robert Bein evaluated the instrument and concluded that the label had been falsified to set it closer to a "Golden Period" Strad. Based on its early-model mold, the instrument was actually made by Stradivari around 1680. Based on papers from Hill, it earliest traceable owner was a 19th-century Parisian judge named Silvestre. Subsequent owners included cellist Martin Lovett of the Amadeus Quartet, who purchased the instrument in 1966 for his wife, violinist and teacher Suzanne Rozsa. (This is Bartel's second Strad; up until 2005 he owned the 1703 "Lady Harmsworth" Strad, which is now part of the Stradivari Society's collection.)

There's the history -- but how does Bartel's "Eckstein-Silvestre-Rozsa" Strad sound? I was thrilled to have the chance to find out, by playing it when I visited.

Eckstine Strad

He keeps the violin in beautiful condition, and the sound is smooth, like its honey color. I found I had to ride the sound, not drive it; to back off and play without force. It has a sweet sound that carries easily; it doesn't sound loud against the ear. The instrument is physically light and fit my hand easily.

I'm certainly not the only person familiar with this instrument; it's well-known locally, among visitors to the shop and among the thousands of kids across the Midwest who have seen Bartel's recruiting shows in schools, where he both plays the instrument and allows kids to play it.
A graduate of Miami (Ohio) University, Bartel started his career in the public schools, as a high school orchestra director, before his "hobby" of violin-making took over some 42 years ago. But that urge to teach has apparently never subsided; during the first two months of every school year, Paul goes to two to four schools every day, playing for 300-400 fourth through sixth graders at a time, to recruit students on behalf of school music teachers in the area. He also plays for kindergarteners, to recruit for Suzuki teachers.

Bartel brings an electric violin and the Strad to his recruitment shows. "They're mesmerized," he said of the students, "they just sit and listen." He starts with the electric violin, making funny sounds and telling stories, and he ends up on the Strad. He plays familiar music from movies, like Hedwig's Theme from Harry Potter. In fact, for that song, he tells the kids that there's one note that sounds so out-of-place, the first time he heard it in the movie theatre, the note made him lean over. He leaned so far, in fact, that he spilled his popcorn on the person next to him. Then he plays the tune again, demonstrating that note by leaning sideways and having the kids do the same. "They learn to lean on that dissonant note," he said.

By the end of his shows, the kids are moving to the music -- "I tell them, this is what music makes you do."

Paul sees school string programs striving, particularly in places such as Texas and Michigan, where he said that "the music programs are on steroids!"

"The level of teaching has gone up, and it all starts with good teachers," Paul said. It also requires a commitment from school administrators, not only for the money, but for time during the school day for music. He can say from experience: "If they make the kids come in before school for beginning strings, the program is dead."

He also teaches three classes on instrument maintenance and repair at the annual Ohio State University String Teacher Workshop run by Robert Gillespie, author of the ubiquitous method book used in schools across the country, Essential Elements for Strings. In one of his classes, Bartel teaches teachers how to set up sound posts. "It might cost $15 - $30 to set a sound post in a shop, but it takes me 10 seconds," he said. During the class, "at first, it's like hearing popcorn," with all those sound posts popping out, "but after 45 minutes, everyone is proficient in setting sound posts." The classes also include instruction in rehairs, bridges, cleaning and touching up stringed instruments -- crucial fixes that can nonetheless prove financially impossible for a school district.

His shop does such fixes for schools at a deep discount, but sometimes the work is like "meatball surgery," he said: cracks, fallen sound posts, broken bridges, you name it. Teaching teachers the skills to do some of the basic repairs is very helpful, as most shops don't have the time for that.

When it comes to the instruments that his shop sells and rents, they are predominantly Chinese, with the finishing touches and maintenance done at the shop.

Lee Griffith
Lee Griffith touches up an instrument at the Baroque Violin Shop

"Right now, China dominates the world for this, and they're doing a great job -- if you get the good stuff," he said. A lifelong student of good construction vs. bad, Paul said that he sets high standards for the specs required of the products they have made in China, and he's been developing lines for retailers who sell them under their own name: instruments, cases, strings, carbon fiber bows and more.

The game has simply changed. Twenty years ago, dealers rejected all Chinese-made instruments as being of inferior quality. But as Chinese know-how increased, some of "those cheap Chinese violins got really good," particularly the handmade ones, he said. One has to set and enforce standards for quality, workmanship and materials used, and that makes all the difference.

"A cheap violin made by a machine is still a cheap violin made by a machine."

* * *

BELOW: Paul Bartel, in a 2010 video from Cincinnati.com, shows his passion for the violin by bringing music to children. Producer: Stacy Doose.

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Helping Students and Parents Enjoy the Competitive Journey: Part IV, Competition Etiquette

By Amy Beth Horman
July 31, 2014 06:08

This is my fourth installment in this blog series designed to help me get ready for another year of competitions in my private studio. I hope others can relate and that it gives them new insights and ideas for their own studios and challenges.

Click here to read Part I, The Application Process, Part II, Managing Expectations, and Part III, Preparing for Final Rounds.

This blog details the need for good competition etiquette before, during, and after the event.

You’ve found yourself chosen for an advanced round of a competition. You have done your practice, prepared your program, and are brimming with a myriad of emotions, some that completely contradict one another. Sound familiar? It does to me! They say people in extreme circumstances shouldn’t be judged on their behavior; but for a competition, it’s almost a given, right?

Not only will my students be judged for their playing, but they will also be remembered for their behavior before, during, and after the competition. And believe me, it sticks.

I try to do most of the communicating with the competition administrators on behalf of the parents and students before the event itself. I email with specific eligibility questions, ask for additional venue details, and just generally getting everything in line. These competition organizers are deluged with emails from parents and even with the best attitudes, parents can seem as if they are asking for special exceptions or allowances. Having the student do it is even worse in my opinion. It is great to teach the kids to be independent and take care of their own responsibilities (I am the mother of three kids myself!), but in this case they are nervous and generally not seasoned at writing a professional email. In addition to this, an email from the student can come off as a manipulative gesture – you wouldn’t refuse the request of a talented young artist would you? I have formed relationships with the competition administrators at least regionally by now and they know my intentions are only to enable the students to play at the best of their ability. They also respond to me far quicker and sometimes more bluntly because they know that I appreciate a quick and clear response. No need for niceties – just give it to me straight! Many times when a parent has emailed and gotten no response for weeks I can get the same questions by email answered in under an hour. They recognize my email, know my background and can feel free to send a quick response. This serves everyone. And in some cases, it allows us to get back to practice!

Lest anyone feel I am overstating things, I feel I must point out that in the last ten years parents communicating with competitions or administrators has actually cost our studio quite a bit. I have one competition and one administrator now who have made a request that I be the only one to communicate with them! Parents are prone to ask questions on their own and are generally very involved at this level. It’s only natural. They drive to lessons, schedule rehearsals, help take care of the instruments, and arrange their entire family’s life around events. They have invested a lot and genuinely want only the best for their kids in a hyper competitive field. In the smaller festivals or opportunities their kids had as younger players, they did all the communication on their own so it doesn’t occur to them to do differently. But their actions, while well intentioned, are then connected to the studio and everyone in it. It is surprising how long an unfavorable impression can last. In one case, I am still repairing relationships years later for all of the students here. Even I was surprised by both the aftereffects of this one communication gone wrong and the “staying power” it seemed to have on those in charge.

Fortunately, our current parents seem happy for this slight degree of separation. It eliminates confusion for everyone and maintains a good overall studio relationship with the competition for years to come. More than a few times last year we received great performance opportunities through the competitions after our kids were awarded prizes. These opportunities were not through the competitions themselves but the administrators that ran them. I like to think that our streamlining communications with them was helpful in this. In the end, the squeaky wheel does NOT get the grease. In my work as a soloist, I saw a similar reaction from conductors. Low maintenance and clear communication paired with a great performance gave me a much higher success rate at getting asked back a few seasons later.

During the competition itself there tend to be etiquette questions surrounding warm up rooms, time on stage, stage deportment, and talking to other competitors.

I suggest that students try and “lay low”, finding a private place to warm up if possible, avoiding socializing until after the event. Time on stage is essential and my experience has taught me that people will overstay their time. If you are not vocal about it, you will lose your time to try out the hall. I advise students to know their assigned time for this and stick up for it without overthinking or apologizing. Knowing a hall’s acoustics is crucial. If you have no time to try out the hall and are lucky enough to be on the second half, I advise sitting in on part of the first half to witness the challenges and benefits of the hall so you can use this to your advantage.

During the competition itself, the students need to be totally comfortable with stage deportment. How to stand, acknowledge a pianist, and greet or thank the judges is all part of being a seasoned performer. Even the walk from backstage to the center stage is being observed. These things matter! Students who are more new to this set of actions are seen as “green” and even if they play brilliantly, would they be able to do it again? Looking inexperienced on stage suggests you are and given that most competitions are offering a performance opportunity, this won’t bode well to the judges. Practice proper stage deportment at home, in rehearsals, and in all performance opportunities so it looks like second nature.

I advise against socializing with other competitors during the event itself. I think this is too risky because of how easily one can get drawn into heated discussions about other competition results, teaching methods, or how this person played here or there. The music deserves our full focus on the day of a performance or competition and everything else can wait. It might feel like forever to a young person competing but competitions only run a few hours!

After the competition is done and the results are in, I urge all competitors to approach juries whenever possible to ask for comments and thank them for their efforts. It is not easy to be a judge and they sometimes deliberate quite a bit before making a decision with numbers right on top of one another. Just because you won second place doesn’t mean you couldn’t have taken first on a different day. In my past as a judge, the prizes I awarded didn’t always line up with who I thought had the most potential. Certainly no judge should ever be challenged on his or her decision. And no matter how dissatisfied students or parents are, the results should never be questioned with competition heads.

After the awards are given and people are finally relaxed, I think students should congratulate each other and feel free to socialize and relate to one another. Even if they don’t agree with the results, they know that everyone there has worked countless hours and deserves their chance to shine. It’s time to relax and they will likely continue to see one another in final rounds for more events. It is so validating for kids like this to know others just like them. Even across studios I feel they have so much friendship and support to offer one another.

Stay tuned for the last installment of this blog series: Carrying the Experience Forward.

* The photo above features student Lily Honigberg performing the first movement of the Barber Violin Concerto in the Army Orchestra Young Artist Finals.


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The Ostrich and Badges By Bea

By Carmen Lasceski
July 30, 2014 21:35

For many years now my case has been home to a very special occupant other than my bow and violin. This valued item is non other then my ostrich badge. The ostrich first came about during a lesson in my university days, when after failing to correct a mistake that was repeatedly pointed out to me, and which I was well aware I was making, my teacher informed me I was being an ostrich. She told me that by pretending my mistakes didn’t exist and ignoring rather than fixing them, I was sticking my head in the sand and leaving my rear exposed and sticking up in the air for the whole world to see. Needless to say the story stuck with me, and after retelling it in a chamber music rehearsal the following day, one of my friends decided to draw ostrich badges for my teacher and I. Ever since, the badge has held a proud place in the lid of my case, an excellent reminder to never leave my backside exposed.

 photo IMG_0619_zpsa27f0910.jpg
The Ostrich Badge

While the meaning of the ostrich badge is quite clear to me, I have discovered it does not translate to my younger students as easily. They simply cannot comprehend my apparent dislike for the ploomed creatures, and in an attempt to understand ask, “Why do you hate ostriches?” For one of my students however, the question that came to mind when viewing the ostrich was, “How old was the person who drew that?” I explained the story to her, and as we continued her lesson we worked on a piece that she loved to rush. I pointed out the rushing to her, as I had for the previous weeks, and I told her she was being the Road Runner, and if she didn’t slow down she would run right off the cliff.

The ostrich and the Road Runner must have made an impression on her, because she came back to present me with an anti-Road Runner badge that she had made. The next week I when I corrected her bow hand, I told her to make sure her fingers stayed in place and didn’t fly all over while she was playing, “no flying fingers”, I said. After that she came back with an anti-flying fingers badge. The following week I corrected her on her use of dynamics, and sure enough, she came back with a pro-dynamics badge. Her only request was that all her badges be displayed in my case next to the ostrich.

So now my case is home not only to the ostrich badge, but also Badges by Bea. Bea’s badges have become the subject of as much conversation as the fabled ostrich, however, I find their translation is much more immediate. Often my students look questioningly at the new additions, and after finding out the meaning, smile and fix their flying fingers, slow down to avoid rushing and observe most of the dynamics on the page.

 photo IMG_0616_zpse968e8f4.jpg
The Road Runner Badge

 photo IMG_0616-1_zps0531595d.jpg
The No Flying Fingers Badge

 photo IMG_0615_zps400d2e54.jpg
The Pro Dynamics Badge

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Creating Enthusiastic and Independent Practicers: Making Practice Less Stressful for Parents

By Claire Allen
July 30, 2014 18:47

I know that as hard as my kids work in the practice room, their parents are working harder. And that's why this post is dedicated just to the parents - because practice should be fun for them, too! Here are my suggestions for lowering your stress levels and adding fun:

1. Record your student's lessons. This can solve a lot of problems about "What the teacher said." There won't be any argument, because you can simply watch the lesson back and find out exactly what the teacher said! This also will help you catch details that you didn't in the lesson, and it may help your child evaluate themselves more objectively by watching their lessons from the outside.

2. Take notes during lessons. As a teacher, I've observed that my young students who remember the most are the ones whose parents supplement my practice charts with their own notes. After all - parents know their children far better than I do. They know the little detail which I will take for granted but that they know their kids will forget, they can clue into a new way of explaining things that is particularly effective, or a subtle change in their child's mood that I might miss. This will also help you have a record of the lesson at home.

3. Read the book Helping Parents Practice, by Ed Sprunger. This book is amazing and my parents who have read it and used the techniques have found it to be invaluable in helping them understand the nuances of practice as well as how to help their child navigate the violin.

4. When you're setting up your child's practice area, make sure to include a comfortable chair for yourself - somewhere you will enjoy sitting. Add your favorite pillow, a comfy throw, and anything else you want to make this a warm and inviting environment for you.

5. Stock your favorite blend of coffee, tea, or beverage of choice and sip on it slowly while you practice with your child. Pick a music themed mug or just a mug that you like. I confess to using this one on occasion when I teach...(Disclaimer: I stole this idea from the Ed Sprunger book. It's seriously THAT good!)

6. Schedule practice as part of your day. I would estimate that 80% of practice stress for parents comes from struggling to fit violin practice into a day full of work, wrangling kids, and errands. If you know that practice will come as soon as you get the kids home from school and before you make dinner, you'll be much less stressed.

I know some of this seems like more work for parents, not more fun, but I promise that incorporating these ideas and strategies into your violin routine will make for less stress overall. If you know you have reliable records of the lesson content, a scheduled practice session, a great place to sit with your favorite beverages - and these great suggestions (Creating Enthusiastic and Independent Practicers Parts One, Two, and Three) for helping your kids enjoy practice more, then practice will be much more fun and much less stressful for parents!

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Creating Enthusiastic and Independent Practicers: Making Practice Fun for Students

By Claire Allen
July 30, 2014 05:41

What you do in the practice room matters. As a teacher, I see an endless array of scenarios and levels of practice. I have one student who routinely practices 5 days a week and is always prepared. She's very consistent. I have other students whose charts say that they practice every day but retain bad habits and sloppy playing despite countless lessons correcting them. Practice is where it all happens, and I have some tips and resources to suggest both to make your practice more effective and more fun.

1. Ask your teacher how specifically to practice a trouble spot or a certain technique. Maybe you can take a short video during your lesson so you can see just how your teacher wants you to do it. Watch the video at the start of your practice session to refresh your memory. It can be frustrating if the only instruction in your head is "Just practice it!"

2. Use a chart to organize your practice. It helps to see all your goals and assignments in one place - and it also helps you track your accomplishments. It feels good to check off an item on your to-do list, and for the busy student, the chart can also help you rotate your practice assignments if you don't have time to practice every item on the list every day. You can also get super creative with your chart. Use stickers, special pens, or create your own to personalize it and have fun!

3. Pick out a fun timer to guide your practice. Decide how long you're going to practice an item on your practice chart and then have the student set the timer. This is another small way that the student can feel they have a choice and control over their practice! The parent is dictating the practice, but the student can pick the item, pick the amount of time, and set the timer on their own.

4. Use something tangible to guide your repetitions. One tried-and-true method of doing this is to line up three pennies or three small candies on one side of your music stand. For every good repetition, you move one item to the other side of the music stand. For every not-so-good repetition, nothing moves. Once all three items are on the other side of the stand, the practicer gets to keep them! You can also use counting beads for this!

5. Introduce an element of chance. Use regular dice to determine how many repetitions the student will do - again, that element of control. If your child has an uncanny ability to roll 1's, use two dice and also make it an addition game! There are also special music dice you can get which have the names of Suzuki pieces on them, key signatures, notes, and more to help you study and learn in a fun way!

6. Activity books and interactive games. There may be days when the violin just isn't coming out of the case. We all have them. If you can't get your child to open their case, see if you can get them to do a page in an activity book such as Freddie Fiddle or play an online game related to music.

7. Bribery. I am not against bribing my students to practice, and I certainly don't judge parents who use rewards as motivation. I do have two guidelines for bribery, though. The first thing is that the student absolutely has to earn it. Have them set the goal with you, create a chart to track it, and then follow through. If their goal is to practice for seven days in a row and they only practice five, you can point to those empty spots on the chart and say "We didn't make it this week, but we can try again next week." Don't give them the reward unless they complete the goal to the letter!

The second thing is that rewards should be music related. Maybe they'll get a special cake of Magic Rosin, or a new recording to listen to of music by a famous composer. Maybe they'll get a new book such as Peter and the Wolf. Maybe you'll buy tickets to a concert that they want to attend. Our goal is for our students to love music and to be skilled violinists - so bribing them with more tv or iPad time most likely isn't going to be motivating, since that's something they'll end up getting anyway. This should be something that they'll only get from practicing.

See the original post on my website (with links to a Pinterest board with fun practice tools!)

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The Week in Reviews, Op. 41: Tasmin Little and Isabelle Faust at the Proms

By Robert Niles
July 29, 2014 11:20

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.

Tasmin Little performed the Moeran at the BBC Proms

  • The Independent: "Little’s playing had poise and purity of intonation, but it was curiously passionless, and she didn’t project her sound to fill the hall; up high, she was barely audible."
  • The Guardian: Tasmin Little shaped the solo part beguilingly, though, and brought a real warmth to the lingering fade of the finale, but a bit more backbone ought to have come from the orchestra, and that might have defined the outlines of each movement more precisely.
  • Listen to the concert, via the BBC! Part 1, Part 2

Isabelle Faust
Photo by Felix Broede, courtesy the artist

Isabelle Faust performed Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 2 at the BBC Proms

Gabriel Prokofiev's Violin Concerto, performed by Daniel Hope, makes its world premiere at the Royal Albert Hall tonight (1:30 pm ET)

  • BBC.com: "Prokofiev says he wanted to convey a broad picture of what was happening in 1914 - a year he describes as 'the end of the old world, the old ways, the old hierarchies.'"
  • Daily Express: "'...I think I have finally found my own voice as a composer and I hope people can hear the Russianness in my music,' (Prokofiev) adds. 'My grandfather composed music that has a dialogue with the public and that’s what I want to achieve.'"
  • Listen live on BBC Radio 3, or follow the links for the rebroadcast... Part 1, Part 2

Gil Shaham performed the Britten with the National Youth Orchestra

  • The New York Times: "Mr. Shaham brought glowing sound, subtle shadings and effortless technique to his performance."
  • New York Classical Review: "The first thought that comes to mind seeing over 100 teenagers dressed in red pants, blue blazers and white shirts on the stage of Carnegie Hall Tuesday night, was: 'How can anyone think classical music is dead?' There’s never enough money — there never has been — but money is neither alive nor musical. These kids were there to play a concert of classical music, and a good number of them, if not all, will continue playing classical music through their lives."
  • The Boston Globe: "Shaham has the subtle technique to project the harrowing intricacies of this score, but his feeling for this music’s larger expressive arc, its grammar of burning tension and release, was less apparent, so the concerto even in his capable hands never really added up to more than the sum of its parts."

Joshua Bell performed the Bruch with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra

  • Chicago Tribune: "...his account of Max Bruch's First Violin Concerto was unruffled and pleasingly worked out, with not a bit of rough tone or heightened tension. Few would call it distanced, but a difference was noticeable between Bell's lacquered perfection and Conlon's more shaded orchestral contribution."

Dmitry Sinkovsky performed works by Vivaldi with the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

  • The Age: "Sinkovsky is the real deal: a passionate and adventurous musician with a slightly overwhelming array of talents."

Did you attend a concert in the past week? If so, please tell us about it in the comments. Please support live music in your community by attending a concert or recital whenever you can!

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To Practice or not to Practice While Vacationing: That is the Question

By Shauna Kaske
July 28, 2014 14:14

It's always difficult to decide whether or not to bring the violin to a week of stress-free vacation that comes around only once or twice a year. Usually, when I travel to Florida or Nashville, I opt out and leave the precious goods behind, but when I was given the opportunity of a lifetime to spend a month of the summer in the south of France- (the first time in my life it was a major vacation that did not involve musical reckonings) I was torn. Lately, with all the trouble musicians have been enduring with airports and their bows, I was especially nervous (on my way back to the States I had to catch three separate planes, and once again go through security). It was going to be the only time as of yet where I would feel like work was not my first priority.

My trip was spent on the breath-taking and incredible landscapes of Cassis, where we went kayaking and snorkeling in the lagoons. We spent a week in Paris, and then later a weekend in Barcelona, but aside from the time spent in Paris and Barcelona, I was able to miraculously set aside time to practice nearly every day.

I think every musician deserves at least one week of the year off, where they're not intensely performing in the orchestra pits, or practicing for countless hours a day. So, I let myself enjoy the beautiful sights that are Paris and Barcelona, but I was also able to nourish a different side of the music that sometimes busy musicians don't have time for: I was able to sit back and watch others perform.

One day, after buying our lunch from a bakery and heading to a park, we ditched the park when we saw a violinist playing on the steps of the Musée d'Orsay. We listened to him for about an hour, playing gypsy music- so different from the classical training that I am accustomed to. It pleasantly surprised me how many people sat on the steps and watched the violinist, and most sat for a long period of time.

Another day, we we lucky enough to snag seats to a fabulous concert in one of my favorite venues in the world: Paul Rogers playing the Vivaldi's Four Seasons at the Sainte-Chapelle church in Paris. He lived up to the virtuosity of the piece and we sat mesmerized, listening to the vibrant sounds of the strings in the glowing world-famous stained glass chapel. I left enchanted.

While in Cassis, we journeyed to a nearby town and watched a pianist play Beethoven accompanied by orchestra in the hills. Every concert was magic.

I fulfilled my dream of visiting L’Opéra national de Paris, or the opera house of Paris, and merely taking a tour left me astounded by the beauty of it. To get the chance to play music in what seemed to me, a sacred place for music, was every musician's dream.

Sometimes, the classical scene in the U.S. is a bit worrisome, with the orchestra lockouts becoming more and more common. What was refreshing to me, as a young musician, was to see the fervor that people felt about music in Europe.

To attend a concert in the Musée d'Orsay, people lined up outside as early as two hours before the show, and when we finally did make it inside, we could barely see over the sea of people in front of us.

I was fueled by the atmosphere, the charm of the music scene over there. One day, while walking near the River Seine in Paris, where there are always small stands lining the sidewalk, I spotted an old score of the Lalo concerto, which I just happen to be currently studying. Of course, I had to buy it.

Yes, we climbed the Eiffel Tower and went to the Louvre, but it was all these "little elements" of the music that made this trip so memorable to me.

Occasionally, life throws you these little signs that you should keep doing what you're doing.

Whenever I wasn't practicing, I was able to relish these moments of music and beauty. It gave me perspective because maybe one day, I can travel with my music. It gave me hope, and sometimes that is all one needs to get back on their practicing grind when they return home.

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Expressing Individuality in Faculty Recitals

By Penny Kruse
July 28, 2014 11:06

One of the things I have enjoyed most about teaching at Bowling Green State University College of Musical Arts is planning and performing my annual faculty recital. I feel fortunate to have outstanding faculty members who are eager to collaborate. As a violinist, I always have a running “bucket list” of pieces that I have never played and want to learn. In addition to performing with members of our piano faculty and my other string colleagues, I have programmed works on my faculty recitals that include clarinet, trumpet, harp, and narrator. Some of the pieces on my “bucket list” are war horses that I want to add to my repertoire. Others may be something that I stumbled onto on the internet or browsing in a music store in Australia!

Last year when a doctoral pianist told me how much she enjoyed my faculty recital, she said, “It was so YOU!” I knew exactly what it meant, because my repertoire choices reflected much of my personality. I included a beautiful work by Rebecca Clarke, Three Pieces for two violins and piano. Having grown up with my older sister also playing the violin, I always think I know the entire repertoire for two violins or two violins and piano. However, musicologists continue to discover works that have not been published. These beautiful pieces by Rebecca Clarke fall into that category. Having heard them on a recording, I knew I had to play them. I had a new violin colleague last fall and so it was a wonderful way to include him in my recital program.

Another piece on my recital, Ferdinand for Violin and Narrator by Alan Ridout and text by Munroe Leaf, was something I stumbled onto surfing the web, curious if there was anything written for violin and narrator. This humorous piece is based on the children’s story of Ferdinand the Bull. Geoff Stephenson who teaches voice and musical theater at BGSU was more than a willing and enthusiastic conspirator. Such fun to interact with Geoff and hear the audience laughing at a violin recital! If interested, you can watch our performance on YouTube.

My repertoire selections also reflect my current interests. One year I performed works by all women composers. Having attended a performance of Blue Man Group, I wanted to find a way to break down the division between the audience and the performers. I wrote first person narratives on each of the composers. I had female members of my studio stand up with only a flashlight and speak the narrative before performing each selection.

So what will I play this year? This program may be the most atypical to date. Of course there is a piece from my “bucket list.” I will play Jennifer Higdon’s String Poetic. Higdon is a BGSU alumna. I will also play a piece that I have performed many times throughout my life and one of my dear friends played it at my wedding, The Lark Ascending by Vaughan-Williams. The second half of the program is when I will step outside my comfort zone. First, I will play A Night in Jakarta by New York composer David Snow for 5-string electric violin and recorded sound. I first performed this piece at BGSU on a Halloween concert, the fall after I had convinced my department chair to purchase an electric instrument. A large number of my violin students coming to BGSU already owned an electric violin.

For the first performance of David Snow’s piece, in keeping with the Halloween theme, I dressed up like Mark Wood! I do not know what I will be wearing in September, but I will not be hiding my identity this time. The violin I will be playing is a Mark Wood Stingray that he has autographed. The next piece will be Improvisation on a Bach Prelude for Solo Violin and Loop Pedal by Christian Howes. In July 2013, I attended Chris’ Creative Strings Workshop. I am taking baby steps in learning to improvise. Once again, I convinced my department chair to purchase more equipment, including the looper. At string conferences, I attend any sessions that deal with looping. Playing this piece in public involves a large leap of faith in electronics that I do not understand, as well as freeing myself from playing what is written on the page. Keep in mind, I have spent many years practicing to perfect the art of playing what is on the page. The final piece on my recital will be Adam DeGraff’s arrangement of Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven. When I was in the Kansas City Symphony, I was hired to play concertmaster for the re-emergence tour of Plant and Page. We rehearsed without the band to a CD, playing what we call footballs, whole notes that sounded quite beautiful. Our naiveté was revealed when we approached the deafening sounds of the arena. We did not play in every song. There was no conductor and I was a fearful leader. The presence of sound shields was comical. One piece seemed to run right into the next one. We could not even tell if we were supposed to be playing. Though this felt and still seems horrifyingly embarrassing, I do not think the audience noticed or cared. If you had told me then that I would one day play Led Zeppelin on a Faculty Recital, I would have declared you insane!

Yes, I will be stepping out of the comfort zone, but I will also be having fun. I hope the audience will as well! Wednesday, September 3, 8 p.m., Bryan Recital Hall, Moore Musical Arts Center, Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, OH. Also streamed live on the web at http://www.bgsu.edu/musical-arts/college-information/media/live-streaming.html

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Helping Students and Parents Enjoy the Competitive Journey: Part III, Preparing for Final Rounds

By Amy Beth Horman
July 28, 2014 06:19

This is my third installment in a blog series intended to help me gear up for another competitive calendar in my private studio. As I reflect on what has worked for us, I hope it sparks some discussion with other teachers who have similar challenges. Click here to read Part I, The Application Process and Part II, Managing Expectations.

This blog centers around the invitation to be “in the arena”! You are in the finals! Nothing is more joyous than getting phone calls from students as they receive this news. I was actually able to deliver this news to someone last year and it was thrilling for both of us. The students work incredibly hard and the process for some of the larger pieces spans an entire year of preparation. Being recognized in this way is indescribably validating and rewarding for all involved. Happiness all the way around! But now what?

First we celebrate by announcing studio wide and take a moment to catch our breath. Then a new exciting phase of preparation begins! I divide this preparation for final rounds into three categories - mental prep, musical prep, and studio networking for moral support. Of course their violin playing has to be on point. But in addition to that, their heads have to be in the right place, and their support systems should be called in to cheer them on.

In our studio, over the course of the last few years, we have accumulated personal accounts and files on our regional competitions and even a few national ones. As a student completes a final round, I request that they answer a small list of questions detailing their experience. During the competition itself, I task the parents with taking simple pictures of the halls, practice area, warm up rooms, even parking and nearby facilities. I offer this folder of info to the finalists and their parents each year so that they can familiarize themselves with the unknown – their venue, the orchestra and conductor if applicable, the stage, and the facility. Sometimes we might have a testimonial or two about the organizers themselves if they are incredibly organized….or the opposite! Even pictures of what previous finalists have worn can be helpful. What color is the concert hall or the drapes? Is the stage elevated? What kind of piano is there? If we are new to the competition, I email the organizer and ask similar questions politely and collect information for the whole studio so we don’t have to ask it twice. This is undoubtedly an exciting time. You can see it in their faces as they walk in for every lesson. The students are starting to visualize themselves on stage and playing their best.

Having said all of that, if I have learned one thing in the past several years with kids in the final rounds, it’s that you can always expect the unexpected no matter how prepared you are. Even with a file of things to familiarize them, you can always count on a fluke to enter in there somewhere. I can’t protect them from that. The best I can do is to tell them to be ready for it and smile as they see it. I compare it visually to an elf entering the room. He is like an extra variable meant to put you even more on your toes, and strengthen your resolve. We are covering the rest so thoroughly that my hope is that this will reserve some coping energy for whatever surprise the universe has in store for them.

The musical preparation and practice is different for each child. If they are still adjusting to performing their work on stage and it is “in process” we might schedule another practice performance through the studio. I try and form an ideal schedule of lessons and rehearsals specifically tailored for each of the students as soon as they are announced as a finalist. If we are blessed enough to be playing with orchestra in the finals, I shoot their full score up on a wall using a projector in their lessons to help them visualize and quiz them. We even rehearsed their concerti movements with arrangements for string quartet and a conductor last year. I was delighted to find area players were happy to volunteer for them to simulate the need to telegraph. They even got a sneak preview to challenges in transitions or the allowance for rubato. And of course we record lessons, rehearsals, prep concerts and take notes to apply to our work. Rinse, lather and repeat!

When I was growing up and competing, finalists weren’t friendly with one another, sometimes even within the same studio. Last year we always had multiple students in the finals together. One competition even had three of our kids together in the finals so we found ourselves communicating a lot for common questions, strategies, and scheduling with pianists. I loved seeing the kids get closer even in the planning stages of the final rounds. They had been in enough studio events together outside of competitions to get to know one another and friendliness prevailed. In one competition, I watched my students fist bump one another as one walked off stage yielding to the other. In another, I saw two of them snapchatting each other and giggling. I realized as I witnessed it that this is something I always want to nurture and encourage in my studio. Anything that helps this feeling of being one with their classmates is so golden and they all play better for it. By creating common opportunities and opening up rehearsals, they were able to celebrate each others’ strengths and genuinely root for each other in that final round. They saw the placement of prizes shift and swap around as the competition year went on and celebrated each others’ victories knowing they were all sharing the stage.

Over the past many years we have accumulated a nice following for our students through events we host. There is a good amount of networking between youth orchestras, teacher organizations, and other studios. We also all participate to maintain a strong online community and this contributes to the kids feeling supported and encouraged. Between school orchestra, youth orchestra, family, friends and church, there is a virtual fabric of support that is truly palpable. So last year one thing I started doing to celebrate the announcement of finalists was to invite this studio following to the live final rounds. The finals are exciting and full of great talent. I also invite the rest of the studio. Many students who attend are not competing yet but will be in a year or so and they are very inspired just watching the process with a classmate involved. Frequently the finalists themselves have their own troops to call in. I then get the privilege of getting to know them as well. Celebrating the final round as an achievement in and of itself helps reinforce the idea that being “in the arena” is winning already and whatever happens after that point is icing on the cake. I want the finalists to feel the warmth of people who have seen them grow both as musicians and also as people. They have rooted for them all along in all of their separate circles and share a sense of pride for all they have accomplished. We have a quote we use in all of our programs in the studio which reads “the development and success of an artist is always connected to the support of their family and community”.

I hope that by preparing them in all of these ways I am not only helping them experience something empowering for each event but that I am also contributing to them managing this on their own one day. They have so much to offer through their music making and I believe preparation often gets lost in a practice room. By employing all of these methods of preparation, they are honoring every part of themselves and each other.

Next in this blog series: Competition Etiquette, and Carrying the Experience Forward.

* The picture above features student Sean Yongjoo Lim with quartet musicians Gavin Fallow, Christian Simmelink, Howard Van Der Sluis, Steven Honigberg, and conductor Joel Lazar preparing for the Landon Symphonette String Competition Finals.
Joel Lazar is currently the conductor of the Washington Sinfonietta and the Symphony of the Potomac.


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Practice Attitude

By Kate Little
July 26, 2014 08:39

One way to track violin practice is with a simple checklist of tasks. For the weeks of Wednesday, July 16, through Tuesday, July 29, mine looks like this:

Not all tasks are checked off every day. This is because, with 14 elemental technique exercises, 2 scales, 3 technique books, 3 review pieces, 2 repertoire pieces, fiddle bowing technique and 3 fiddle songs, 3 aspects of viola, and 3 musicianship exercises, it would take about 8-hours to practice everything, and I simply do not have 8-hours a day to devote to practice. Therefor, on any given day, I have to pick and choose what I will practice, depending on how much practice time is available that day, and what needs are most pressing.

My checklist indicates that priorities tend toward technique over repertoire. In fact, about 2/3’s of my practice time is devoted to basic exercises. For example: Last Thursday the first hour was spent simply bowing open strings in various ways to develop clear, consistent and (hopefully) beautiful tone. Quality of sound is the heart of playing violin, and if I’m not going to work hard at this, why should I even bother trying to learn?

The next 45-minutes were spent on exercises from Schradieck and Melodious Double Stops. Here the emphasis was on intonation, intonation, intonation. This is the second priority after tone quality. I work hard at pitch accuracy every single day, for, my songs will never be songs if not played in tune. They’ll just be a mess.

After lunch, an hour devoted to 2- & 3- octave G-major scales, and a Wohlfahrt exercise. The emphasis is finger preparation, agility, speed and precision, working to offset the ravages of age. Perhaps it is easier for a child to learn these things. However, my physical therapist says that with time and effort I can accomplish the same, so I am determined to put in the time and effort.

Finally, time for music. Since the previous week had emphasized fiddle tunes and review pieces, I worked on the repertoire from Suzuki Book III. They were rusty from lack of daily practice, but returned quickly to better-than-before: progress that I credit wholly to the solid daily emphasis on fundamental technique.

Do I find all this technical work boring? No way! Continuously searching for inabilities, exploring ways to correct them, listening for nuances of sound and establishing their physical expression: this all makes for satisfied curiosity. Practice is not stale repetition. Practice is prolonged and focused study: Do I like what I hear? What is wrong? How can I fix it. What level of nuance can I discern? This is the crux of progress in the skill of making music, and it is exhilarating.

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