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Switching to Viola: The String, Your “Road” to Great Sound!

By Jonah Sirota
November 27, 2015 07:11

Now that we are all set up, with the viola comfortably in hand (or on shoulder!), it is time to start playing, and that means producing a sound, which, as we all know, is simple, right?

It turns out that making a sound on the viola is not hard, but getting the best possible sound out of the instrument takes a bit more attention than it does on the violin. The violin is relatively forgiving--a wider range of bow technique will provide a decent sound on the violin than on the viola. The viola, however, poses some unique challenges. You may be aware that the viola is acoustically imperfect (it sounds like the setup to a viola joke, but it’s true). The violin and cello are sized correctly to resonate the range that they play. The viola (and the bass, in fact) is smaller than it should be to achieve its full acoustic potential. Both instruments would be virtually unplayable if they were the “correct” size. And, as you can imagine, it is in the low range of the viola that this “deficiency” (as some might call it) is most pronounced.

“Wait, wait, wait!!!” I hear you scream, “Isn’t this what gives the viola its distinctive, dark character?! Why would we want to play an instrument that just sounded like a lower violin?” And you know what, you would be right. The particular acoustical “compromises” that allow the viola to fit under the chin are actually a great gift. They allow for a complexity of tone, a sophisticated overtone profile that truly expresses the depth of human experience and varies like a fine wine (?), but ONLY if you can coax these depths of sound out of the instrument.

Imagine, for a moment, that your strings are like roads. The contact point--that incredibly thin centimeter of space where the bow hair actually touches the string--is where the tires of your car hit that road.

viola road

If you've ever driven a really nice car, and experienced the sensation that you could actually touch the road with your hands and feet through the feedback of the steering wheel and the pedals, you will understand how you can actually “feel” that point through your sensitive fingers (both hands!) when you play. And the more you feel the “road,” the more you become aware that each string is not the same kind of road at all.

The A string? A smooth, fast highway. Move the bow and the contact point hums along almost no matter how fast you go. No trouble keeping your “tires on the road,” no trouble following the contours of the route. This road wants to be driven on, and taken at speed. It sings under your bow.

What about the other end of the instrument, the C string? Well now, this one is a different road entirely. It is a beautiful road for sure, wooded, picturesque. But it can’t be taken at 65 mph. It would be dangerous to try! It's a dirt road with a lot of texture and grit, and you’d fly over the rocks and pebbles, without gaining any real footing (and you might even end up in a ditch). But also, why would you want to go so fast on it? This is a road that begs to be taken slowly. Open the windows, smell the flowers, drink in the scenery! And enjoy that sensation that you can still feel the road under your tires, the road is providing real resistance and forcing you to slow down, to engage with it.

It may be a funny analogy, but it’s apt. Of course, as a violinist, you can appreciate that there is a similar difference between the violin’s E and G strings. But on the viola the difference is more extreme. And that matters, because although you can take the C string at “violin G string” speed and attention to detail--and you will get a relatively decent sound—it will be like driving down a pretty country road at 30 mph: you are bound to miss some things that you might notice at a slower speed, that Robin up in the tree, a deer hiding behind a bush. Those are the extra details that make the viola sound its best.

OK, how to actually accomplish this.

First of all, when we speak about getting weight into the string on the viola, it means real weight, actual weight. As in, the weight of your arm. If you’ve never thought about it before, lift up your right arm as if you were about to put bow to string, then have a friend put his or her hands under your arm and drop that weight into those hands. I mean it, drop it like dead weight. Your arm, when you don’t spend extra energy holding it up, is actually quite heavy. (mostly water, you know…). If you can direct that dead weight to the contact point (where the tires meet the road, remember?), that’s a LOT of power available to you with minimal work.

IN FACT, your main job in all of this is to direct that weight to the point where you want it to go. As simple as this seems, that means a couple of not obvious things: first, you need to know where you want it to go, and second, you need to KEEP it there.

So, let’s address each of these in turn. Where do you want this weight to go? You want the weight of your arm to be directed to the contact point that fits the speed of the bow you want to use. Simply put, you have to stay in the correct lane. Just as you shouldn’t speed past a slow truck on the right, you shouldn’t try to pull a fast bow right up against the bridge. What happens? Right, you get that telltale ponticello sound, full of high overtones but lacking depth. (of course, if you’re looking for ponticello sound then that’s exactly what you should do!). What if, however, you slowed your bow to a crawl, and let the resistance of the string close to the bridge tug on your bow as you work to keep a consistent spin in the string? You can get a beautifully alive sound! At a point very close to the bridge, you could get this sound to last for 12-15 seconds or more in a single bow, and there are times that you may want to move the bow this slowly even when you don’t have to. If you want to move the bow faster, then of course you will move your bow further out from the bridge, but here is where you will need to be careful (!) On the viola, you will get some sense of lightness and easy ring out close to the fingerboard with a speedy bow. But that sound, especially on the lower strings, can be too transparent. In a hall, a sound produced out there will create a wash of sound with very little definition and center to it, even though it may sound perfectly good under your ear. Sometimes you will need to go a touch closer to the bridge than your intuition will dictate, because of the acoustic “imperfection” of the instrument. This will mean a slower bow speed and also a sense under your ear of a little more texture in the sound than you may be accustomed to on the violin. Each instrument is different, and you will need to either record yourself at some distance from the instrument or play for a trusted friend sitting a ways away to know for sure, but usually the slight grittiness of a centered sound on the C string will go away only a few feet from the viola, leaving a sound with beautiful richness, depth, and a penetrating quality really necessary to get that register to speak at its clearest. Most violinists switching to viola err on the side of too far from the bridge, not too close. Also, notice that I didn't say that you need to lay huge amounts of weight in the string to play right up against the bridge. You will need only minimal weight to play piano or pianissimo there, but you can still get a beautiful sound.

Now for the other part of our equation, keeping the weight where you want it. The shoulder is our largest bow arm hinge, and it creates a big challenge. Tracking a good sound requires keeping the contact point you want through the entire length of the bow, creating a straight line. But the arc of our arm moving from the shoulder is a curve! We don’t want our bow to curve over the strings at all. So, mathematically speaking, we need to find the counter-shape to that curve in order to end up with a straight line. In practice, this means that in order to play with a straight bow, maintaining a contact point from frog to tip, it will feel as though you are bowing with a slight reverse curve, to counteract the natural arc of the arm. This is the curve that starts at the frog with your right hand balanced to the back of the hand and wrist tilted a bit to the right, and ends out at the tip with the wrist curved to the left (and pronated as well) and the arm stretching out more to the front than to the side. It helps to imagine this curve like a cardboard cutout of a half moon lying flat on the strings with the curved edge constantly hugging the resistance of the bridge throughout the stroke.

Last time we talked about having a setup that allows your viola and your bow arm to both leave the torso at 45 degrees. It is in the moment of producing sound at the contact point that the benefits of this approach become clear. We are able to more easily create this consistent contact point with the instrument slightly in front of us, because our right arm can more easily reach out to meet it while maintaining the “reverse curve” if the instrument isn’t too far over to the left. This setup helps maintain a good “arm geometry,” something that will look natural and comfortable in the mirror. The other elements to arm geometry are keeping your right elbow at the right height for each string so that when you play, your elbow hinge is able to do most of the work (as in a detaché stroke in the middle of the bow, which is almost entirely hinged from the elbow). Sometimes violists drop their elbows too low to be able to use this hinge, thinking that a low elbow level will allow them to drop more weight into the string. If you maintain a bit of structure in your wrist as you play, you should be able to keep your elbow at a good height while simultaneously letting your arm weight drop from the shoulder. The string itself, and your engaged wrist, will hold your elbow up!

One last item to consider as you work to keep a vital contact point is the role of the fingers of the right hand in directing arm weight into the contact point. The string is on a gentle downwards slope from the bridge. If your bow-arm weight is directed straight down, the contact point will be likely to slide “down the hill” away from the bridge sooner or later. But if you use the engaged fingers of the right hand to gently pull the weight inwards, towards the bridge, it will help you maintain whatever contact point you choose. Another way to think of this is that the sensitive fingers of the right hand are constantly feeling and re-discovering whatever amount of string resistance you are looking for (staying on their road!)

The road to good viola playing is paved with… whatever you want it to be! On your journey towards making the viola your own, make sure that whichever road (or string) you happen to chose, that you stay and enjoy the ride! Next time: "Help! I’m tense about my tension!"

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Living with Fifths: The Counter-Intuitive Approach

By Paul Stein
November 26, 2015 08:29

I needed a large dose of counter-intuition to learn how to play fifths. For years I dreaded them, since they were at the top of the list of intimidating double stops, which I already dreaded.

I was trying to remember which violin teacher taught me to be counter-intuitive. I don’t remember anyone telling me to do the exact opposite of everything I had ever done. (Fortunately, anyone who watched Seinfeld remembers George Costanza saying it about himself.) That’s a tricky lesson to learn. While it sounds rather insulting, following George’s advice actually hits the nail on the head.


Of course, not all lessons are so complicated, and a few bear repeating before I explore fifths. For example:

  1. Don’t make the conductor mad. (My violin teacher in high school was also the conductor of the orchestra. Thanks for that lesson.)
  2. Play poker during the break of every rehearsal. It clears the mind and focuses your attention.
  3. Make your bow reflect your ear. Each leads the other; each reins in the other. (The teacher that told me that plays with beautiful phrasing.)

Now, back to fifths:

Plan A: Don’t Do the First Thing That Comes to Mind

Here is what I did when I wasn’t thinking: Put a finger on one of the strings and burrow my way onto the adjacent string. The burrowing was pathetic, and like a weasel crawling below the earth, my finger was making a mess.

My approach to the fingerboard was with a slanted finger, and slanted fingers aren’t very adept at making a strong placement on two strings. Without exception, the finger would slide around and slip under the string. If it was in tune, that was sheer luck. Many times, the undisciplined finger would even pull the string from below. Even then, I’d get lucky 3% of the time and be in tune.

Being a weasel and burrowing under and over the strings clearly wasn’t an acceptable solution. What would Plan B comprise of? How different would it be from Plan A?

Plan B: Mind Games and Free-Association

Learning fifths correctly involved not just doing the exact opposite of what I was doing (whatever that would be!) but finding something different, yet very specific. To find a solution to something that had plagued me for years required lots of random experimentation. I’ve learned to free-associate during this process, to allow my mind to think freely about every mundane or non-related thing that enters my thoughts. This technique of exploration allows the mind to open itself to all possibilities, and to rid it of the same-old, wrong perception of how to play fifths.

Even Thin Fingers Can Play Fifths

After many years of being taught to place fingers squarely on top of each string for single tones, a young violinist is suddenly required to play a fifth. Since this goes against everything he’s ever been taught, it’s natural to want to burrow over and under adjacent strings. It doesn’t help that he has to play two strings at once, a bowing skill that he may not feel comfortable with.

Once I realized what needed to be done, I found myself doing counter-intuitive things.

This is what I do now when I’m playing fifths and consciously thinking:

  1. Place the finger on top of the two strings, in the same square fashion as if I were playing on only one string. I make sure that my hand has moved into a different position, either farther to the left or to the right, to accommodate and acclimate my hand to where the two strings are. Placing the finger squarely means that it is parallel to the bridge and the nut, not slanted or oblique. Fortunately, strings are very close together, and even thin fingers placed on top of the strings successfully create a parallel bridge. Just remind yourself to not place the finger between the strings, but on top.

    (One of the most common errors is that the hand places itself around one string instead of two strings. Tiny increments, measured in millimeters and fractions, make all the difference in the world of the violin.)

  2. Test the quality of the finger being placed in terms of it being perfectly parallel to the fingerboard. If the notes are out of tune, its placement is off. Lift the finger, and try a slightly different angle. Once you’ve used trial and error a few times, it will become obvious which one is in tune. Remember not only how the correct way feels, but also how the incorrect ways feel. You’ll avoid those in the future.
  3. Burrowing and crawling around the fifth just creates haphazard intonation and raised and stretched strings. A far more assertive placement, straight down on top of two strings, brings to mind a quick, firm movement, like a quick reflex without time to second-guess yourself. It is a Neanderthal placement, strong and decisive. It works because the squareness of the finger across the fingerboard has already been incorporated, through trial and error, into the player’s mind.

In case you’re still out of tune after carefully squaring the finger and the hand, the solution is rather simple. Determine if you’re flat or sharp, and make the necessary adjustment while maintaining a perfectly square, Neanderthal firmness of the finger position. With proper alignment, the notes will either be exactly in-tune, or if they’re out -of-tune, both notes of the fifth will be off in the exact same proportion.

Those days of weasling around and under the strings, when one note would be in tune and the other part of the fifth would be off, and then vice-versa ad-nauseum, will be over.

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The Week in Reviews, Op. 108: Hilary Hahn, Isabelle Faust, Jennifer Koh

By Laurie Niles
November 25, 2015 14:44

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.

Hilary Hahn performed the Dvorak with the Baltimore Symphony.

  • Baltimore Sun: "In addition to her usual, impeccable intonation and articulation, the violinist offered phrasing rich in shading and poetic contour. Her tone was wonderfully juicy in the first movement, sweet and delicate in the second; the finale inspired a prismatic touch. I was even more impressed with Hahn's encore -- the Loure from Bach's Partita No. 3. She seemed to hold the packed house rapt as she sculpted the stately dance in extraordinarily elegant fashion."
  • The Washington Post: "Hahn remains one of the greatest violinists in the world. The musical architecture is worked out to the millimeter; the flawless brilliance of her top register dazzles the ear; the rock-steady control of rhythm and accents makes everything seem natural and inevitable, and the cleanliness of her bow arm puts a little sparkle on each note. All of this was fully present in the Dvorak, but there were tiny slips here and there that were uncharacteristic."

Hilary Hahn
Hilary Hahn. Photo © Michael Patrick O'Leary.

Isabelle Faust performed the Berg with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

  • Boston Musical Intelligencer: "...she didn’t put on the flashy, oversized tone of many a violin superstar, but chose a measured tone with a steely core that cut through BSO brass outbursts that have swamped over many a lesser musician. She had technique to burn, making Berg’s fiendishly difficult leaps, rhythmic variation, and frequent triple stopping sound fluid and effortless."
  • Boston Globe: "...the performance of the Berg did not speak with the full lapel-grabbing force this music is capable of mustering. But the evening’s fine soloist, Isabelle Faust, delivered an account whose hushed reveries and cool colors had a beauty all their own."

Jennifer Koh performed the Nielsen with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.

  • The Buffalo News: "There are meltingly lovely melodies and Koh, stunning in a long gown of gunmetal blue, played them with warmth and imagination. Her intonation is wonderful. She can repeat a simple phrase and give it a different mood the second time around. As she navigates quick passages, her head bobs and her hair flies. She even broke strings. Good theater!"

Renaud Capuçon performed Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 with the Cincinnati Symphony.

  • Cincinnati Enquirer: "Capuçon delivered a breathtaking performance of Bruch’s Violin Concerto in G Minor. He played with a big, romantic sound and beautiful line from the outset. The violinist poured intensity into each phrase, often turning to communicate with the orchestra, as if playing chamber music."

Jonathan Carney performed and conducted the Brahms with the Pennsylvania Sinfonia Orchestra.

  • The Morning Call: "One could tell things were going to sound special from the very first movement, as Carney skillfully built up the slow, curvaceous opening gesture into a full-bodied crescendo. Although the pure, compact sound of Carney’s violin could make itself heard when it wanted to, a few phrases got buried by the church’s not-so-ideal acoustics. Nevertheless there was plenty of detail to be heard, and the extended cadenza was masterful, chock full of finely shaped trills and virtuosic embellishment."

Elena Urioste performed the Sibelius with the Tucson Symphony Orchestra.

  • Green Valley News: "Her reading of the Sibelius 'Violin Concerto' was incredibly virtuosic in the allegro first movement, and sonorously heartfelt in the Adagio, where the soul of the piece lies."

Leonidas Kavakos performed the Sibelius with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

  • Philadelphia Inquirer: "It was terrific to hear Leonidas Kavakos in the Sibelius Violin Concerto - it is, in fact, terrific to hear him in anything. That immediately present tone that toggles so easily between secure whispering and secure meatiness was all there. Interpretively, he sometimes failed to go deep, especially in the first movement, whose layers of meaning offer tremendous riches to risk-takers."

Karen Gomyo performed Philip Glass' Violin Concerto No. 1 with the Dallas Symphony.

  • D Magazine: "Gomyo is well-suited for this piece. She plays it with a perfect combination of agility and delicacy. She’s also a great collaborator, blending beautifully with the ensemble and never forcing solo sections into unnecessary showcases of virtuosity."
  • The Dallas Morning News: "Karen Gomyo was as compelling a soloist as could be imagined, dispatching the busy figurations with pizzazz, pinpointing high pitches with laser accuracy."

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

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Violinist Philippe Quint Interviews New Yorkers about Classical Music

By Laurie Niles
November 24, 2015 09:52

In September, violinist Philippe Quint conducted an experiment. He took a microphone out on the streets of New York City and asked about 30 random young people what they thought about classical music.

Philippe Quint interviewing

The results were rather sobering.

His first question was, simply, "What music do you listen to?"

"Out of approximately 30 people interviewed, not one person mentioned classical music as their choice," Quint said. Some of the answers included: hip-hop, rock, house music, dubstep, rap, alternative, R and B, jazz fusion, electronic music, pop, metal, trap music, Bollywood music....

When asked if they were familiar with classical music, many were not familiar with it at all, and some had never heard of the names Beethoven, Mozart or Bach.

"In our generation people don't really listen to (classical music) because I don't know where they would go to hear it," one young woman said. "If somebody gave me a ticket to a classical music concert I'd definitely go, but it's not something I'd think to buy for myself."

Another mentioned that "You turn on the radio, and that's not what's going to come on, you have to really search for the station that is playing it."

The upshot? We have a long way to go, to promote classical music.

"Even though we have folks who are tireless supporters for arts and education, I feel that many, many more must join forces to prevent complete extinction of classical music," Quint said. "Chances are that the kids of those kids I interviewed won't even know that classical music ever existed. That IS scary."

Here is Quint's video, "Violinist interviews New Yorkers about Classical Music":

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Violinist and conductor Joseph Silverstein, (1932-2015)

By Laurie Niles
November 22, 2015 23:15

Violinist, conductor and teacher Joseph Silverstein, former conductor of the Utah Symphony and former concertmaster of the Boston Symphony, died Sunday after a heart attack. He was 83.

Joseph Silverstein

Born in Detroit, Silverstein studied with his father, Bernard Silverstein, a public school music teacher. He later studied with Efrem Zimbalist, William Primrose, Josef Gingold, and Mischa Mischakoff. In 1959 he won a silver medal at the Queen Elisabeth Music Competition and in 1960 was awarded Naumburg Award.

Silverstein joined the back of the second violin section of the Boston Symphony at age 23, moving up to principal second violinist and eventually concertmaster in 1962, serving in that capacity for 22 years. He became assistant conductor, as well, in 1971.

Silverstein came to Salt Lake City in 1983, where he was Music Director of the Utah Symphony for 15 years.

As a teacher, was a professor of violin at the New England Conservatory of Music and the Curtis Institute. He also led the faculty at Tanglewood and was a regular faculty artist at the Sarasota Music Festival.

He played on a 1742 Guarneri del Gesù.

Violinist.com member Nat Little described a lesson with Silverstein: "He told me some old stories about Szerying and things he noticed while watching Heifetz from the concertmaster seat of the Boston Symphony. His main observation about Heifetz was that his left hand never stopped moving.... So from that day on I made sure to vibrate every note. If you listen for this in Silverstein's playing, you will not hear a note go without vibrato. He is very aware of this element of making the instrument shimmer."

* * *

What a sound. Joseph Silverstein performs Bach Sonata No. 3, Largo, as an encore after a concert with the Boston Civic Symphony in March 2001:

And in his capacity as concertmaster, this beautiful solo from Swan Lake:

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Sourpuss at the Symphony; or, how NOT to treat your fellow concertgoers

By Graham Emberton
November 20, 2015 14:26

Let me set the scene for you. I am taking my seat in beautiful Symphony Center, the home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The program features Baroque concerti performed by Pinchas Zukerman and Stephanie Jeong, and is bookended by two Mozart masterpieces. I’m excited! I’ve never heard Zukerman live before and am looking forward to this experience.

Leaning in, I watch the CSO musicians warming up. TAP, TAP. I am poked by someone behind me. “Excuse me, do you have trouble seeing or something?” An older woman asks, a tetchy edge to her voice. “Nope!” I reply. “Then lean back in your seat because I have trouble seeing when you’re so far forward.” “Oh, sorry about that” I reply, and make sure the small of my back reaches the end of my seat. A bit surprised since this has not happened to me before, but I decide it’s no big deal. The first half of the program goes by, performed beautifully by all on stage. It cramps my style to try and sit in one position for the concert, but I’m doing my best.

Tetchy lady’s friend mutters darkly during intermission, “My friend Prissy [name changed to honor privacy] had this exact problem at the theatre last week. Could hardly see the stage.”

Mozart’s Symphony No. 39 begins the second half, and it’s glorious. The music swirls with energy and life, and each movement is concluding with a resonant chord that one can savor even after the musicians put their instruments down. I get a TAP TAP from the woman behind me at some point, perhaps 3rd movement, and I try to remember to lean back again. The last movement commences, and the violins are nailing it (it’s devilish to play) and I nod my head enthusiastically in admiration and in time with the rhythmic drive of this exuberant finale. The program ends and the CSO receives a well-deserved ovation. While I’m getting ready to leave I receive a final TAP TAP from the lady behind me, whom at this point is seriously aggravating me, and we have a little confab.

“Don’t you realize when you lean forward and move your head [she lolls her head about grotesquely] around that I can hardly see the stage? I could hardly see the timpanist half the time! Is this your regular seat?” I’m on the receiving end of a rather withering condemnation from this patron. “I’m sorry about this; I come here two or three times a month and have never had this problem before,” I reply. “Is this your regular seat!?” she demands again. “No, I usually move around this section. I’ve never had this problem before, but I’m sorry I impaired your view today.”


Kitty Catty

This dialogue is absolutely accurate because it’s the sort of thing you replay over and over in your head, wishing you could have said something cooler, or more witty at the time. I think this woman’s behavior was pretty shocking for numerous reasons, listed here in no special order. Hopefully I’m not projecting too much.

  1. She was very rude and positively dripping with entitlement. Don’t talk to people with condescension or venom.
  2. She believed and preached that proper concert etiquette is to sit nice and still. Like a statue.
  3. She was worried that I was a subscriber and was going to mess up her view from then on.

Other issues I found (less objective): she needed an unimpeded view to enjoy the concert (you hear best when your eyes are closed, actually!), and she was territorial about her seat area. On a lighter note, she was, in my opinion, also misguided in her fascination with the timpani, especially since this was a Mozart symphony.

Now, some concessions.

  1. I am 6’ 3’’ and it’s entirely possible that I was blocking a fair chunk of the stage if I moved from the back of my seat. I’ve been an avid concertgoer for about five years now and have never had this issue before, but I suppose there’s a first time for everything.

Ok, that’s it from me.

Some excuses I’ve concocted for her rude behavior:

  1. She was a timpanist in her youth and was giddy at the thought of watching David Herbert perform his craft.
  2. She was David Herbert’s mother and hadn’t seen her son perform in many years.
  3. She just got LASIK surgery and was titillated at the thought of watching every single musician on stage that night without her glasses.
  4. She just donated $10m to the CSO and thought she darn well deserved an unblemished vista.
  5. She is a marvel of modern medicine, and, at 245 years of age, she wanted to compare the CSO’s rendition, particularly the timpanist’s version, to the premiere performance.

But in all seriousness, I’m so glad that it was me who was on the receiving end of her behavior rather than a newbie, because that sort of attitude would have scared me off from attending another performance.

I think concertgoers should absolutely be allowed to lean in their seat to catch every nuance in the music. I think bobbing your head in time to the music is great! It’s catchy, this classical music stuff! A topic for another blog is applause between movements. I think this is fine, except at the end of slow or intimate moments. When your outward appreciation of the music is curtailed and derided by others it makes for an awkward and unpleasant experience. Classical music is dying, we hear all the time. I don’t believe this, but I do think some of the unfortunate and hurtful stereotypes associated with classical music are grounded in truth. Stuffy and snobby beliefs about concert etiquette are something we’re obviously still dealing with, and I hope these can fade away, ASAP.

All right, vent complete, thank you much for sticking with me here.

I’d love to hear your stories, positive or negative, about recent experiences as an audience member in the comments below!

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V.com weekend vote: Can you sing?

By Laurie Niles
November 20, 2015 14:16

I'm guessing some of you are quite good at it, but not everyone is! In fact, it is possible to play the violin very well, yet sing like a frog.

singing vs. playing

But singing is still a part of our education, and it should remain an influence, when playing an instrument that sounds so much like the human voice. We can help our concept of just about any musical line by singing it, even if we are singing it badly!

Recently Los Angeles Philharmonic violinist Paul Stein mentioned in his blog about bow distribution that "teachers should ask the students to sing during lessons, even if the voice is not developed. Someone with a bad voice should be encouraged to sing something resembling the rhythm of the music. This helps create a connection between the origin of the music in the ear, and what goes in and comes out of the instrument."

I do agree that it's a good idea to make the effort to sing, and also to vocalize rhythms.

So can you sing? Do you sing well?

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Bow Distribution and Dealing With the Shy Bow Syndrome

By Paul Stein
November 18, 2015 23:08

I had only one teacher who said, "Don’t think so much when you play." I imagine all of us have heard that at least once. But "not thinking" doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

In fact, in a perfect world, the violinist’s mind would automatically shift from thinking about the left hand one moment, then the bow arm the next. The shifting of concentration would take place with the regularity of a windshield wiper.

I’ve learned the hard way -- by hearing a recording of myself and noticing that my sound isn’t full and rich enough -- that bow distribution can’t take place unless I’m thinking about the bow arm with full concentration. The moment the windshield wiper is swinging to the right, it’s time to observe the bow arm and do whatever it takes to get the desired sound.

bow distribution

First (and Last) Bow Distribution Exercise

Bow distribution can be introduced early in violin training with the simple exercise of three beats on a down-bow and one beat on the up-bow. (In comparison to exercises for the left hand, there are hardly any other bow distribution exercises, except for the bowing variations in etudes, which aren’t particularly musical or inspirational.)

Two problems emerge during this simple, introductory exercise: the long bow doesn’t go far enough to the tip, and the short up-bow doesn’t get back to the lower half. This isn’t so much a problem of the bow arm, but the result of feeling the beats too quickly. Instead, each beat should be allowed to breathe and complete its cycle.

If the bow stops in the middle instead of traveling the necessary length, start the process again, thinking only of the bow arm. You have to have enough intent at the beginning of the stroke to over-ride whatever is stopping the bow from reaching the tip. Natural blockages like the bow stopping unwittingly can be overcome by will power, and then avoided in the future by feeling the length of each beat.

Left and Right Hand Independence

It wouldn’t be difficult to distribute the bow efficiently if you were playing only open strings. But the left fingers can fight with the bow arm, and with one hand going a different direction than the other, the bow arm stop suddenly and cause the bow to bounce. However, there is one way of thinking in which the two hands are more likely to be compatible, and when this blending occurs, it makes both hands move smoothly. This unifying force -- which is capable of guiding the hands naturally -- is the music itself, which guides the bow into gliding and swooping. The music and the ear are one entity, an organic, viable expression which exists to guide and discern.

Every bow distribution is linked to how you hear the music. If you’re mathematically dissecting a measure, the bow may change harshly and abruptly. If you’re hearing the phrase as if you were singing it, the speed and distances of the bowings will feel more natural.

Teachers should ask the students to sing during lessons, even if the voice is not developed. Someone with a bad voice should be encouraged to sing something resembling the rhythm of the music. This helps create a connection between the origin of the music in the ear, and what goes in and comes out of the instrument.

Free and Unencumbered Bow Speed

Knowing the correct bow speed and when the bow is going to change directions takes both artistry and astute observations of space and time. Here are three reasons why the player runs out of bow:

  1. The bow speed never changes from one end to the other. To overcome the inconvenience of running out of bow, the player should recognize there is an ebb and flow in music, and the speed and distance covered can change numerous times in one stroke.
  2. Slurred sixteenth notes use too much bow. Very tiny increments of bow length are all that are needed. It is possible to measure time with a legato bow just as accurately as left fingers do when they drum the fingerboard. Like conductors who learn that all subdivisions can be conveyed in the movement of the baton, a violinist can feel and measure each sixteenth note, even in legato passages.
  3. Bow length is often wasted at the moment of changing direction. Since the bow speed and distance should always be measured, start the bow measuring at the moment of change. Don’t change too abruptly. Instead, finish one direction naturally and completely, then change direction as simply as a saloon door swinging back and forth.

There are two types of bowing that occur during bow distribution:

  1. The bow retains its speed from the beginning to the end of the stroke, and keeps the same speed in the reverse direction. This strong and consistent bow speed is an important component to strong leadership, whereas hesitancy and unwanted speeds create confusion.
  2. In a slow melodic passage, the bow speed, by necessity, varies often, even when the bow is traveling in one direction. The various bow speeds help the sound and phrasing match the inflection inherent in the music. Be prepared to slow down or speed up the bow a little. Music has similar inflections as speech. The big difference between the two is that speech is produced naturally and without effort, while music must be created and manufactured to match what is in the ear. Two things must be trained, the ear and the body’s ability to recreate what the player hears.

Etudes for the Fluid and Flexible Right Hand

The bow arm is the expressive half of the body, and requires different movements for every measure and every dynamic. Unlike the left hand, nothing ever stays the same. Yet most of the Kreutzer, Wohlfahrt, etc. exercises require nothing more than changing bow direction multiple times. One excellent source for learning bow distribution is Melodious Etudes by Doris Gazda, a collection of singers’ vocalises from the 18th century, arranged for the violin. Deceptively simple looking, Gazda’s collection makes an art of strategizing each measure and being ready for anything.

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Violinist Itzhak Perlman to be Honored with Presidential Medal of Freedom

By Laurie Niles
November 18, 2015 14:13

Congratulations to violinist Itzhak Perlman, who will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States' highest civilian honor, in a Nov. 24 ceremony at the White House.

Itzhak Perlman
Itzhak Perlman. Photo by Lisa Marie Mazzucco

Perlman’s medal citation says that "Itzhak Perlman is a treasured violinist, conductor and sought-after teacher. Among his many achievements are four Emmy Awards, 16 Grammy Awards, and the 2008 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. He was awarded a in 2000 and a Kennedy Center Honor in 2003. A native of Israel, he came to the United States at a young age and was introduced to Americans broadly when he appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1958. Mr. Perlman made his Carnegie Hall debut in 1963 when he was 18. In addition to performing internationally and recording the classical music for which he is best known, Perlman has also played jazz, including an album made with jazz pianist Oscar Peterson. Perlman has been the soloist for a number of film scores such as Schindler's List, which subsequently won an Academy Award for Best Original Score. Alongside his wife Toby, Mr. Perlman teaches talented young musicians through the Perlman Music Program. Through his advocacy and his example, he has been an important voice on behalf of persons with disabilities."

Click here for a complete list of the 17 recipients of this year's Presidential Medal of Freedom, which also includes Barbra Streisand, James Taylor, Steven Spielberg, Stephen Sondheim, Gloria Estefan and Emilio Estefan.

It's been a big year for Itzhak Perlman, who celebrated his 70th birthday in August. In honor of that milestone, Perlman released two major box sets:

  • Itzhak Perlman: Complete Recordings On Deutsche Grammophon, a set of 25 CDs from 1968 to 2001 which includes his Berg/Stravinsky Concerto recording with Ozawa; Elgar Concerto with Barenboim; and recordings of the Saint-Saëns, Wieniawski, Lalo, and Vivaldi “The Four Seasons” concertos. It also includes a recording of Bach Arias with Kathleen Battle and Perlman conducting Ilya Gringolts in the Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich Concertos.
  • Itzhak Perlman - The Complete Warner Recordings (77CD), which reunites Perlman's EMI and Teldec recordings made over a period of more than 30 years, including violins concertos as well as Perlman’s commissions from living composers, Perlman’s own commissions from living composers, crossover repertoire such as jazz, ragtime and klezmer, and more.

Itzhak Perlman boxed sets

* * *

Recently I heard an older recording on the radio of Perlman playing the Tchaikovsky Concerto. For someone my age, Perlman's recordings pointed the way, gave us something to aspire to. These recordings and live performances are a product of their time, and times and tastes have changed. But Perlman created enduring and beautiful moments in time (still does!). Here he plays the Tchaikovsky with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

You might also like:

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A solution for teaching and practicing scales!

By Rob Lewis
November 17, 2015 04:06

When I was young I hated learning my scales. I took grade exams and it was the part that I least looked forward to. I can remember my teacher saying ‘your scales are the most important part of playing’. I disagreed! I could practice the pieces all day. It was easier, there was a melody to follow, an accompaniment that put it in perspective and a sense of depth and excitement that drew you in as a young musician. Scales always seemed to be the ‘punishment’ for enjoying the pieces!

SmartScales In Action

I started learning with Selma Gokcen at Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, and she opened my eyes to new ways of practicing scales. Suddenly I was hooked. Everywhere I looked I saw scales; Bach, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky. I got obsessed to the point that fellow students would often ask if I ever practice pieces!

When I graduated I started teaching. No matter how much enthusiasm I put in to my lessons, I still drew a blank as how to inspire young pupils to engage with scales. When you’re 18, you are mature enough to see the parallels between different elements of your practice and the repertoire. However, the 8 year olds I was teaching weren’t playing Dvorak or Tchaikovsky. I found myself remembering when I was their age and thinking, what a shame we have to go through this!

I spoke to Selma, one of the most creative and dedicated teachers on the planet, and she said she had the same problem. I knew if she felt this, then I was in good company! We set about finding a solution. The books with backing tracks always seemed to engage pupils to listen whilst they played and most importantly keep a pulse. They also listen to their intonation, so with this in mind, we wrote a few accompaniments for scales. I was shocked at the result. Pupil’s eyes lit up as they played along to the first jazz accompaniment. A pupil said, “But I don’t like jazz, I want to do one in a hip hop style”. I went home and wrote one. Next week I was challenged to write a tango, the next funk. This pattern continued week after week until I was building up a catalogue for each scale, following the Associated Board of Royal Schools of Music’s syllabus.

Over 2 years I wrote around 300 accompaniments (I didn’t sleep much coincidently!) for every scale and arpeggio, dominant and diminished 7ths, chromatic scales, etc in a variety of octaves for every string instrument. When I got to the end, I realised that there's not a CD on earth that could take this many tracks. An app was the obvious solution.

Smart Scales iPad

I was fortunate enough to reach out to two extremely talented and passionate software developers at the top of their games in their relevant fields, who happened to have a window for a new project. And SmartScales was born - an app for iPad (iPhone coming soon) designed to make learning and teaching scales fun and interactive. The software developers blew my mind with their ability to vary the tempo and pitch, produce a scrolling score and create an app so visually appealing that I would have happily hung it on my wall!

Now when I go to teach, it is hard to get pupils to play their pieces. I urge you to give it a go in your practice or lessons. It’s free to download the try and very modestly priced for purchase thereafter (cheaper than sheet music!). I’ve used it in both individual and group teaching situations. It has also proved to be a great tool to teach improvisation. The huge variety of genres means that pupils can explore scales in any style and experiment rhythmically too.

Not every pupil will be a superstar. There are a million factors internal and external that will get in the way. If we as teachers can make the process of learning scales inspiring and fun, we’ve done our job.

Smart ScalesDownload SmartScales for FREE to your iPad!

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