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In music, everything is conveyed through sound. Rhythm, intonation, phrasing, style, music– none of this can be detected unless sound exists first. Like clay for a potter, or marble for a sculptor, sound is the material with which a musician creates. And how does she create sound? By spinning it out.
What does this mean, “to spin out sound?"
Think of a thread being spun from a spinning wheel. What are the qualities that a useful thread will have? It will be long, continuous, even, smooth, solid, and without defect. It will be reliable for whatever purpose it is meant. So it is with elemental sound. A good musician can create sound which is long, continuous, even, smooth, solid, and without defect: reliable. How easy is this to do on the violin? Not very.
Typical flaws include crunching, scratching, pitch variation, airiness, gaps: Problems due to tension and lack of coordination in the bow arm. Training the bow arm to create reliable, beautiful sound takes a good ear, good feedback, and practice. Lots and lots of practice. In the end, like anything well made, sound production can be neither mentally directed nor forced. Reliable sound that can be formed into a musical piece is created with a relaxed, well-coordinated right arm that responds seamlessly to musical thought. It happens by feel.
I made my son clap once. Only one time in my three years of practicing have I made anyone spontaneously break into applause. It was for the first movement of the Vivaldi A minor, which I have now been playing for well over a year. For some reason, no matter how well I know the notes, or remember the dynamics and articulations, it sounds flat when I play it.
As a point of fact, everything sounds flat when I play it. My interpretation of music is like a foreigner’s attempt at a language they have read, but never heard spoken aloud. I can’t pinpoint why that is. It’s not as if I haven’t sought out numerous other performances of the piece, or tried every trick in my limited book to emulate the best of them. The musicality is always the part I simply can’t grasp.
Honestly though, during practice I am practicing. Either it’s drilling a particularly troubling section to get the fingering right, checking bow angles in the mirror, or grappling with getting the rhythm just so. Rarely am I playing with the pure intent of being musical. In fact, that is almost never the point of any of my practice sessions.
The other night I was wrapping up a practice session when my youngest son came down for his goodnight hug. Knowing better than to interrupt before I get to a stopping point, he curled up on the loveseat across from my music stand to wait. Noting he was there, I decided not to concentrate so hard on the technical bits and made the effort to relax and try to have fun with it. Suddenly, something clicked. Everything just seemed so easy and I was playing real music. When I finished, my son jumped up and clapped as hard as he could, then ran to give me a hug. “That was the best song ever!” he exclaimed before running up the stairs.
I haven’t been able to recapture that feeling, but at least now I know that I had it once. If it happened one time, it could happen again.
In an effort to promote the coverage of live violin performance, Violinist.com each week presents links to reviews of notable concerts and recitals around the world.
Gil Shaham performed Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1 with the Cleveland Orchestra.
David Coucheron performed Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5 with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra.
Alina Ibragimova performed the Mendelssohn with the Bergen Philharmonic.
Philippe Quint performed the Tchaikovsky with the KZN Philharmonic Orchestra.
Joshua Bell performed the Tchaikovsky with the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra.
Baiba Skride performed the Sibelius with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.
Please support music in your community by attending a concert or recital whenever you can!Tweet
A few years ago, one of my students learned the Joachim cadenzas while learning Mozart Concerto No. 5. They were a good challenge, and I consider them to be classic. Beside that, I'm pretty comfy with those old Joseph Joachim cadenzas. Comfy playing them, comfy teaching them. They are the cadenzas I learned as a child, and they are some of the most commonly-used cadenzas for those works.
But I've decided it's time to step out of the comfort zone.
Now she is studying another Mozart concerto, No. 4, and I thought, why not try something new?
Frankly there are a lot of other cadenzas out there for Mozart 4. To name a few: in the Barenreiter edition we're using, we have Joachim and also Leopold Auer, plus the editor Martin Wulfhorst. With some digging on the Internet and elsewhere, one can also find cadenzas by Eduard Herrmann, Sam Franko, Fritz Kreisler, Ferdinand David, Henri Marteau, Emile Sauret, Nathan Milstein, and Jascha Heifetz. To get a little more modern, there is Robert Levin, plus performers such as Maxim Vengerov, Nigel Kennedy, James Ehnes and Augustin Hadelich.
Have any women written cadenzas for the Mozart violin concertos? The only one I could find was Rachel Barton Pine, and actually, this was the one for which I have the music, because Rachel has made all her cadenzas (for the Mozart concertos, Berg, Brahms, Clement, Beethoven, Paganini...) readily available in her The Rachel Barton Pine Collection. I took a look, and it seemed pretty do-able.
"How about learning a cadenza by a female musician, one who is actually alive today?" I asked my student. She liked the idea, and over the summer, she started learning it. One more thing that makes Rachel's cadenzas accessible is the fact that she played them in her recent recording of all the Mozart violin concertos. A student can listen to the cadenza, played by the very artist who wrote it!
It's going to be a challenge, not just for my student, but for me, to learn new cadenzas at the same time as she does. But I certainly like the idea; I think it brings these pieces alive, to use a cadenza by a living performer. I'd love it if cadenzas written by other current performers were as easily accessible.
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We've all pondered it, struggled with it, reached for it, perceived it in others, and nearly given up and walked away because of the very concept. How can something so, well, perfect be the cause of all these problems? The answer I have found is this: perfection does not exist. We are all told to strive for perfection, but what is the point of striving for something that isn't even there? It's easy to think of the greats as perfect, but no one is. No performance is. No piece is. Nothing is.
Here is why: once one reaches a certain proficiency at the violin (or anything else, for that matter), opinions begin to differ. No two people will be able to agree on what is perfect. All the nuances and personal touches that bring a piece to life will affect different people differently. One may say the interpretation was "perfect", while the other might not like it at all, calling it "bland" or "too schmaltzy". That human part of playing, of putting ourselves into the music, shaping it over and over until something clicks, customizing it, is all very subjective. Interpretation is a truly individual thing.
There is not even such a thing as perfect technique. Different schools of violin technique will argue over the weight of the fingers, the hold on the bow, whether or not one uses a shoulder rest, etc. No matter what, there will always be things that can be improved, if not in general posture and technique, then in specific passages, or changed to better suit an aesthetic or opinion.
I had been turning these ideas over in the recesses of my mind for a while now. I knew for sure that I would never be perfect. Even Hilary Hahn messes up sometimes (and I was truly amazed at that). Real validation of these thoughts about perfection came yesterday in my violin lesson.
I had been traveling for part of the preceding week, and as such had not had my usual three hours per day to practice. I had a huge load of stuff assigned to bring in to my next lesson. I tried to make time for everything - scales, etudes, exercises, repertoire, audition materials, old pieces I was trying to brush up, you name it. I was unusually nervous going into my lesson. I had to do solo Bach from memory, and I knew there were still a couple of shaky spots. I had also done all the main "building" work on the P&A that week, and was a bit worried about getting through it. My Mozart concerto hadn't quite received it's share of my diminished practices. I knew nothing I was bringing in was close to perfect.
I was in for a shock when my teacher stopped me and announced, "it's too perfect!". I had been playing somewhat mechanically, just trying to get all the notes. He made me go back and work through the sections, putting more feeling and phrasing into the music. Internally, I was screaming at the universe. Too perfect? You've got to be kidding me!
This proved to me another point: not only is the stuff of perfection subjective, but the very nature of it is too. It can be seen as a good thing, a bad thing, a neutral thing, or as in my particular train of logic, a nonexistent thing. From now on, instead of trying to be "perfect", I will do my personal best. That may vary from day to day, piece to piece, even venue to venue, but I will always strive to do my best. Not anyone else's best, my best. Beating myself up for not doing better won't get me anywhere. Perfection will never exist, but I will, constantly changing and improving, maturing as a musician and discovering more about myself, my music, and my violin every single day.Tweet
I have to confess that I have some lingering old-world customs in my life, beyond the fact that I play the violin.
Namely, I still read books. Books with cardboard covers and paper pages, susceptible to rips and bends and coffee stains. In certain libraries, you can't even find such books any more; they've gone 100 percent electronic. Yet I love the feel of a book, its weight and its tangible history (who read this very book before me?). I love reading a page that isn't back-lit.
And as changeable as the Internet is, racing forward to capture every second that just happened and discard anything more than a day old, I love that a book is stuck in time. It can only speak from the year in which it was written, with that perspective, untouched by the times that followed.
And so without apology, this summer I took up a book that I just plain missed when it was brand-new: Violin Dreams, by Arnold Steinhardt. It was, in fact, written in 2006, before the financial crisis and before the introduction of the first iPhone, when Facebook was still very young and Ray Chen was still a teenager. Not all that long ago, but still a different time.
Steinhardt, who was first violinist of the Guarneri String Quartet for its 45-year duration, currently teaches at the Colburn School and Curtis Institute. He's also a fantastic writer who writes a blog called In the Key of Strawberry and wrote another book in 2000 called Indivisible by Four: A String Quartet in Pursuit of Harmony about his life with the Guarneri quartet.
"Violin Dreams" is more autobiographical, vividly describing milestones in Steinhardt's life as a violinist. His "violin dreams" are actual dreams, giving us a glimpse of his inner life. Bach's Chaconne (from the solo violin sonata in D minor) runs like a theme with variations throughout his narrative. The book opens with Steinhardt recounting an anxiety dream, in which he tries to perform the Chaconne for a highly critical jury, but, like those dreams when one is trying to run in quicksand, his arms can neither lift the violin nor move the bow, and "only a strangled croak came out of my violin."
Steinhardt describes how, as a young man, studying the Chaconne first frustrates him, then as he matures, the piece opens windows to understanding the greatness of Bach, and perhaps of music itself. Later, Steinhardt performs the Chaconne for the funeral of a dear friend, and then over the grave of Bach's first wife, channeling the grief and emotion that Bach may have felt when composing the piece just months after her unexpected death. The Chaconne also is a prism through which Steinhardt views the evolution of his own playing as well as the powers of his different instruments. The book provides a CD of a 1966 recording of the Chaconne on his 18th c. Sanctus Seraphin, then 40 years later, the same piece on his 1744 Lorenzo Storioni. If you had to ask me which was better, I wouldn't be able to say. The later recording has a maturity of interpretation and beauty of tone, but the early recording has a compelling urgency.
Steinhardt's story allows us to steal a peek at what it was like to work with some of the great musicians of the 20th century: his teachers, Toscha Seidel, Ivan Galamian, Joseph Szigeti; and other great musicians such as Cleveland Orchestra conductor George Szell, cellist Pablo Casals, and pianist Arthur Rubinstein. Steinhardt's relationships with violins -- a Pressenda, Testori, Bergonzi, Seraphin, Guadagnini, del Gesù and Storioni -- are described in chapters titled, "The Dating Game" and "True Love."
"Violin Dreams" also paints a picture of what it was like to be a violinist in the mid-20th century, an era of abundant music education in the public schools, expensive but not 100 percent prohibitively-priced fine instruments, and record deals that actually meant something. Times have changed, for sure. But as Steinhardt describes, a lot about playing the violin, and becoming an elite violinist, hasn't. Mastering the instrument still requires years of intense study, practice, and expert teaching. Performers still must conquer their stage fright. Finding the perfect violin still requires enormous time, patience and resources. Older musicians still face the frustrations of physical decline.
And another thing hasn't changed: the power of music. Bach can still reach across the centuries and heal the soul.
* * *
Here is Arnold Steinhardt's 1966 recording of Bach's Chaconne:
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Hurricane Katrina was one of the most destructive natural disasters in United States history, maxing out as a Category 5 hurricane before doing its worst over southeastern Louisiana on August 29, 2005. Katrina's storm surge caused 53 different levee breaches in greater New Orleans, submerging 80 percent of the city. The hurricane caused an estimated at $108 billion in damage, and the confirmed death toll was 1,836.
Though many fled the city of New Orleans prior to Katrina's arrival, those who remained were forced to weather a ferocious storm and after it, an unprecedented failure of city infrastructure, services and federal response. Those who'd stayed told stories of scrambling to their roofs to avoid the floodwaters that inundundated their homes. Many others sought refuge either in the city's convention center or in the Louisiana Superdome, where some 30,000 people waited out the storm in miserable, overcrowded conditions.
The Superdome is where Samuel Thompson found himself during the storm, with a suitcase and his violin. He had spent the summer of 2005 in New Orleans, preparing for the Rodolfo Lipizer Competition, and he did not have means to leave the city.
"The only truly unnerving thing that I remember was the sheer number of people who were stranded, and the fact that we had no idea when we would leave," he told me recently.
On the Wednesday of that week, he was fortunate to move from the Superdome to the smaller New Orleans Arena next door, with a group of about 100 people.
"It was honestly not until then that we began becoming painfully aware of the magnitude of what had taken place," he said. "There were hundreds of people in the basketball arena, including residents of an assisted living center who were being prepared for helicopter evacuation, a medical triage unit, and many National Guardsmen."
"Those of us in the group that I was with immediately stepped in to help organize the elderly, and at one point someone asked me if I would play something," Thompson said. "I must admit that it seemed an odd request, as there was much to do. So I asked both a National Guardsman and a nurse if I could play a little."
They said yes, and as it happened, LA Times reporter Scott Gold witnessed the scene. Here is how he described it: "(Thompson) had guarded (his violin) carefully and hadn't taken it out until Wednesday afternoon, when he was able to move from the Superdome into the New Orleans Arena, far safer accommodations. He rested the black case on a table next to a man with no legs in a wheelchair and a pile of trash and boxes, and gingerly popped open the two locks. He lifted the violin out of the red velvet encasement and held it to his neck.
"Thompson closed his eyes and leaned into each stretch of the bow as he played mournfully. A woman eating crackers and sitting where a vendor typically sold pizza watched him intently. A National Guard soldier applauded quietly when the song ended, and Thompson nodded his head and began another piece, the Andante from Bach's Sonata in A minor."
"These people have nothing," Thompson told the LA Times reporter. "I have a violin. And I should play for them. They should have something."
At the time, Thompson felt no hesitation and certainly no sense of stage fright; these days he can laugh at the irony: "In the middle of chaos, taking out the instrument and playing all of this repertoire was easy, yet everyone deals with performance anxiety and nervousness in some way when playing under 'normal' conditions."
Thompson's generosity in playing Bach in the midst of such difficulty and disorganization is something that struck a chord; the story circulated widely and quickly. In the 10 years since the storm, Thompson has felt ambivalent about his 10 minutes of fame, which on one hand brought some opportunities, and on the other hand was something he did not wish to have exploited.
"During the first year after the storm, I did receive invitations to play concerts, including one at the New Haven International Festival of Arts and Ideas," he said. "That recital was so beautiful. Conceived and directed by a wonderful man and a dear friend named Peter Webster, it included works by Bach, Ysaye, and Tom Benjamin in black box theatre with photos of Mardi Gras Indians and post-Katrina destruction being projected on a screen behind me. It was at the Arts and Ideas Festival that I met members of Alternate ROOTS. ROOTS is a tremendous organization based in the Southern United States that consists of artists and organizations whose cultural work strives for social justice.
"It was through meeting these incredible people that I joined ROOTS, and through membership in Alternate ROOTS which lead to associations with the National Performance Network. I have met and befriended artists across all genres that are creating thought-provoking and excellent works of theatre and dance, all while remaining aware of issues that affect our society. Three groups immediately come to mind: Knoxville's Carpetbag Theatre, with whom I performed from 2008-12, which is currently touring "Speed Killed My Cousin", a play that deals with veterans' issues. Also, UNIVERSES, a national/international ensemble company that will be presenting their "Ameriville" - one of the most riveting and well-researched stage works about Hurricane Katrina - at Western Michigan State University in October of this year. And third, Jump-Start Theatre Company, a San Antonio-based company that presented "I'll Remember For You," a poignant two-person play that deals with Alzheimer's disease and the challenges faced by adults who find themselves acting as caretakers for their parents.
"In March 2006, I reconnected with a mentor after many years, and at that time she encouraged me to keep writing," Thompson said. "Well, I had no idea that my private musings would turn into a vehicle through which I would interact with the world, let alone one through which I could share that there are people on the ground in our field both within and outside of the legacy institutions who are truly engaging with their communities in ways that are sincere, innovative, and unprecedented. Those writing platforms have included my personal blog, Violinist.com, and writing for the San Jose Chamber Orchestra."
"Since Katrina I have, through following my inner guidance and that of people that I trust as well as taking opportunities that both furthered me and challenged me, started contributing to and participating in the world in ways that I have always dreamed of - including musically, and for that I'm grateful."
Thompson now lives in Baltimore and plays in the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra and the Delaware Symphony. He said he'll probably spend the 10th anniversary of Katrina doing what he is alway doing: playing, teaching and writing.
* * *
One of the pieces Samuel played for storm victims was Bach's Sonata No. 2, Andante. Here is a version of that piece, played by James Ehnes.
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In an effort to promote the coverage of live violin performance, Violinist.com each week presents links to reviews of notable concerts and recitals around the world.
Joshua Bell performed works by Bach and Milone with the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra.
James Ehnes performed the Beethoven with the Grant Park Orchestra.
Julian Rachlin performed the Sibelius with the BBC Scottish Symphony.
Nikolaj Znaider performed the Brahms with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra.
Pinchas Zukerman performed the Brahms with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra
Alexandra Soumm performed Bernstein's Serenade with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Andrew Haveron performed the Sibelius with the Canberra Symphony Orchestra.
Please support music in your community by attending a concert or recital whenever you can!
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It's back-to-school time, and for many people that means back-to-violin-lessons.
Very often, summer represents a break from routine for students, as they take vacations, enjoy time off from classes and explore other interests. Even those who attend summer music programs may feel a disruption in their routine. It might be a positive disruption that involves intense study and progress, but it can be followed by a let-down upon arriving back in the "real world," which doesn't support that intensity in quite the same way.
Setting up (or returning to) a productive practice routine for the school year is one of the most crucial things you can do for your (or your student's) playing. Why? Because progress on the violin thrives on routine.
Whatever your level, whatever your goals, the best formula for steady progress and solid skill-building is quite simple: daily practice. But it will not happen without planning, discipline and persistence. Every day means every day, no exceptions.
The good news is that the start of the school year is a perfect time to work practice into your schedule, along with all those other routines that will come with the season. Here's how to do it: Form a habit. It takes 21 days to form a habit, but these have to be days in a row. If you miss a day, you have to start again. So practice (or motivate your child to practice) for 21 straight days, and after that, you will actually have a habit formed. You will find that you are compelled by the habit to practice, and if you are a parent, you will find yourself arguing much, much less. (Every day, parents, is much easier in the long run than "some days.")
Of course, after those 21 days you still have to make yourself (or your student) practice, but it becomes easier, the longer you feed the habit. The side-effect is that you start playing very well. When you're playing well, it's fun to practice. And the longer your "practice streak" becomes, the less you want to break it. Twenty-one days becomes a month, a month becomes two, then maybe you want to reach six months, or a year! It's a very virtuous circle. I've met students who went for years, practicing every day.
So make your resolution now, while your routine is taking shape for the fall. Make daily practice a part of that routine!
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Anne Akiko Meyers said she was just trying to pose a question, with her controversial re-post of a story by The Violin Channel about the new black and minority Chineke! Orchestra in Europe.
Meyers' post said: "I wonder if you have to be black to solo with this orchestra? #reversediscrimination"
"Quickly, I realized the implications were just so horrible and dreadful that I took down the post almost immediately, about 20 minutes later," Meyers told me this morning, speaking over the phone. "I am extremely sorry. It was a very big mistake and I in no way stand behind that question, in no way," she said.
The post's presence for 20 minutes online was long enough to generate a great deal of controversy -- and for people to get screen grabs. The post has re-appeared on Reddit, Facebook, Twitter and continues to generate heated discussion that went all kinds of directions: some accusing her of race-baiting, others lamenting that she took the post down.
Her desire to get rid of the post was so strong that she started blocking people on Twitter and banning people and deleting comments on Facebook that related to it, she admitted. "It just wasn't about music anymore."
Diversity, she said, is something she passionately believes in. "Music embraces everybody and it should not divide. It embraces and it does not discriminate," she said. Personally, "I have been involved with the Teak Fellowship for over a decade. and have actively supported radio stations, orchestras, music festivals, and medical charities around the world."
"I am completely for any group, it does not matter what color you are, what gender, what sexual preference, as long as you are making music. That's what I'm in this world to do. I applaud any orchestra that is forming to bring music to under-represented groups. It should be an open playing field for everyone who has something to say and who passionately believes in playing music."
She said she wishes the Chineke! Orchestra well.
"I think, if anything, it's really made me aware of the critical nature of this issue, and I really am and will be a big advocate for the cause of promoting greater diversity in music. "
* * *
Should Meyers, from now on, stick to posting cartoons and pictures of cats on her social media sites? Should we all?
I think the answer is no, despite the great difficulty and unease that this incident has caused. Just as failure is inevitable in the pursuit of success, misunderstanding is inevitable on the path to true communication. I think we need to keep working toward communication and understanding.
The issue of diversity in classical music is indeed a critical one, worthy of everyone's consideration, whatever color any of us sees when looking in the mirror.
But the issue is more complex than simply opening the doors and stating that everyone with artistic merit is welcome. Though there may be less intentional exclusion of minorities in classical music than there used to be, there remains a serious lack of numbers of minorities in orchestras, in the spotlight, on boards, in music schools and in audiences.
"The issue of the lack of diversity in classical music is a complex one: because of the historical and current barriers and challenges in this area, the topic has the capacity to inspire passionate, at times, poignant conversation," said Afa Sadykhly Dworkin, President of the Sphinx Organization, which runs an annual competition for black and Latino string players, provides year-round education programs, issues grants and commissions and holds national meetings on diversity in the arts.
"The reality of the matter is such that our field continues to struggle with a dramatic lack of representation of blacks and Latinos," she said. "Truly, for our art form to not only survive but thrive, it must be enriched by the voices of and from the communities in which it resides and serves."
Black and minority musical organizations such as Sphinx and Chineke! are not formed to be exclusionary, they are more what I would call "expansionary." They are formed to provide additional opportunity where a lack of it has existed. Many black artists have told me that a major barrier in pursuing their art was a feeling that they didn't belong, for the simple reason, "I didn't see anyone who looked like me."
When it comes to Chineke!, founder Chi-chi Nwanoku told The Guardian that "my aim is to create a space where black musicians can walk on to the stage and know that they belong, in every sense of the word."
Nwanoku also said that America's Sphinx Organization inspired her, with its undeniable success over 20 years in expanding the number of black and Latino musicians who study at top-10 music schools, who teach classical music and who sit in American orchestras.
"We also now see (Sphinx) alumni beginning to think like entrepreneurs, launching their own community-based initiatives to further the notion of inclusion and giving back to the community," Dworkin said. "Before founding the Sphinx, it used to be rare to see an artist of color solo in front of a major orchestra, and now that happens more than 20 times a year, through our partnerships with orchestras. That's certainly making a big difference."
Expanded participation by minority musicians of excellence, wider options for programming, a force to engage a more diverse audience -- these are the kinds of stated aims embraced by groups such as the Sphinx Organization and Competition, the Gateways Music Festival, Soulful Symphony, Symphony of the New World, Harlem Symphony, The Harlem Chamber Players, Symphony Saint Paulia and more.
This kind of expansion is not going to hurt classical music or musicians. On the contrary, I see it leading to more jobs, more audience, more relevance, more voices advocating our art. Let's continue the conversation by engaging those whose experience is different than our own, whether less privileged or more, and by really listening to each other.Tweet
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