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Violin Blogs

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

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By Mendy Smith
April 15, 2014 17:58

About seven years ago I performed this elegie. It was my first public performance as an adult, and one that still breaks my heart to this day.

I had about a month to prepare. After much thought, this was the one I chose, but I had limited it to just the beginning of the piece. I knew I couldn't play it in its entirety, but it was appropriate given the circumstance.

Why the Vieuxtemps? Well, it tells a story of love, life and all its tribulations. The two voices traverse the range of experiences and emotions one would see in a long life filled with both joy and sorrow. Of all the pieces that I considered, this was the one that spoke best of my grandfather's life. This was the one to be played at his funeral.

Now, seven years later, I feel that I can finally (and literally) turn the page to finish playing his elegie.

Once that page is turned, your eyes are immediately turned to what is to come at the end. It is a daunting series of notes for an amatueur, let alone trying to figure out how to go about phrasing something like this.

None the less, this is what I'm setting out to do. It is about time that I finish what I started seven years ago.

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The Week in Reviews, Op. 27: Julian Rachlin, Augustin Hadelich, Arabella Steinbacher in concert

By Robert Niles
April 15, 2014 15:46

In an effort to promote the coverage of classical music, each week Violinist.com brings you links to reviews of notable violin performances from around the world. We'd love to hear about any recent concerts and recitals you've attended, too. Or just tell us what you think about these reviews!

Julian Rachlin performed the Stravinsky on the same program as the London Philharmonic premiered Górecki’s Symphony No. 4

  • The Financial Times: "Anybody hoping for a repeat of the Third Symphony’s numinous halo of sound is in for a rude awakening."
  • The Guardian "Those who know and love Górecki's Third Symphony, the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, may find the posthumous Fourth a tougher nut to crack." and "Charged by the soloist with tension and energy, (Stravinsky's Violin Concerto) provided the evening's most memorable music-making."

Augustin Hadelich

Augustin Hadelich performed the Mendelssohn with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra

  • Cincinnati Enquirer: "In a field of many rising stars, Hadelich stands out, not only for his stunning technique, but also for his refreshing individuality."

Gil Shaham performed the Korngold with the National Symphony Orchestra

  • Washington Post: "Shaham has a way of making everything sound delightful; I have a weakness for his meltingly sweet tone, which sounds like a throwback to the 1930s."
  • Communities Digital News: "Sunny violin soloist Gil Shaham gave the concerto a light and lively reading, although he seemed slightly troubled on occasion by something going on with his instrument Thursday evening, particularly in the opening movement."

David Russell performed works by Brandenburg at the Faculty & Friends Concert at the University of North Carolina Charlotte

  • CVNC: "…we achieved lift-off when violinist David Russell strode onto the stage as DeMio's partner in the B minor Sonata for violin and harpsichord."

Vadim Repin Shostakovich's Violin Concerto No. 1 with the Novosibirsk Academic Symphony Orchestra, and without a conductor, as Valery Gergiev was stuck in New York

  • Siberian Times: "'If our Novosibirsk Academic Symphony Orchestra was not the highest possible artistic level, I would have never have taken that risk.' Repin hailed the concert as a 'musical feat'."

Arabella Steinbacher performed the Dvorak with the Philharmonia Orchestra

  • The Guardian: "...the most substantial piece of this enjoyably idiomatic evening was Dvorák's deceptively imposing but essentially affable and liltingly rhapsodic violin concerto, which Arabella Steinbacher delivered with sweeping, if occasionally steely, charm and some irresistibly incisive phrasing, especially in the coruscating swirl of the finale."

Jin Suk Yu performed the Sibelius with the New World Symphony

  • South Florida Classical Review: "Soloist Jin Suk Yu showed himself a considerable virtuoso. From the icy, lonely opening through the burly fast passages on the violin’s lowest string, it was clear he had a real feel for Sibelius’ strange Nordic world, as well as the technique to express it."

Bella Hristova performed the Beethoven with the Des Moines Symphony

  • Des Moines Register: "Bella Hristova…conjured a clear sound and thoughtful phrasing from her 359-year-old instrument."

Kristin Lee performed the Fung with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra

  • The Pioneer Press: "It's a wild ride of a piece, and Lee was astounding throughout, coaxing all sorts of unexpected sounds from her violin as the music careened from high and haunting to rapid and raucous to shimmering to angry."

Michael Ludwig performed the Korngold with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra

  • The Buffalo News: "He didn’t merely play this concerto – he just about danced it."

Christian Tetzlaff performed the Dvorak with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra

  • Chicago Tribune: "But a soloist who believes wholeheartedly in its merits can bring it off convincingly, and that's what the brilliant German virtuoso did on Thursday."

Renaud Capuçon performed the Schumann with the London Philharmonic

  • The Guardian: "…it is tempting to hear the concerto as an embodiment of Schumann's mental decline when he wrote the piece in 1853. Capuçon's way of playing it – clipped and precise yet seemingly locked within his own world – enhanced this view, but (conductor) Saraste's unwillingness to grip the orchestral structure made for a more diffuse rendering than this problematic piece deserves."

James Ehnes performed Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 2 with the Philadelphia Orchestra

  • Philadelphia Inquirer: "Ehnes, sometimes a reserved player, gave the third movement a little less passion than it deserves. But he has the gift of subtlety. And charisma. In the first movement, his lovely lower register achieved great presence even without volume."

Calin Ovidiu Lupanu performed Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1 with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra

  • Charlotte Observer: "Soloist Calin Ovidiu Lupanu, the CSO’s concertmaster, set the tone in the concerto from the start: tenderness and beauty, no matter how aggressive the music became."

Isabelle Faust performed the Berg with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra in a tribute to the late conductor Claudio Abbado

  • The Guardian: "Never flamboyant, keenly uncompromising, she was a favourite performer of Abbado's, and little wonder."

Simone Porter performed the Barber with the Albany Symphony

  • Albany Times-Union: "The piece gave Porter a chance to showcase her technique – from long soaring lines to double stops, to frenetic fast passages in the last movement."

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MICCA Gold: A High School Orchestra Goes to Festival

By Karen Allendoerfer
April 15, 2014 08:24

The weather was dark and rather depressing; the Winter that Would Never End was still with us. But it was time for the high school music ensembles to go to the MICCA (Massachusetts Instrumental and Choral Conductors Association) festival. Back when I was a kid in New York State, it was NYSSMA. (What is it with these double-lettered abbreviations?) My daughter, a 9th grader who asked me not to embarrass her, plays the violin in the school orchestra.

Now that I have a vehicle that could technically be called a minivan, I became the official cello chauffeur, driving behind the bus. I've known a few conductors that refer to these as "celli" but I don't think that's right. I think it's just plain old "cellos."

We drive 20 minutes to another local high school, one whose auditorium has been renovated more recently and has better seats than ours. Beforehand the orchestra has a chance to warm up in a back room. I sit with the other chaperones in the very back, behind the last stands of 2nd violins. Although I've been the concertmaster of an orchestra of adult volunteers for a while now, this position back here still feels in some way more familiar, more like where I belong. Childhood memories--all those old NYSSMA festivals--have staying power. If my old German factory violin could talk, it would have even more stories to tell. It was around 150 years old back when I took it to those NYSSMA festivals. Thirty years later, with a few more dings and scratches and closing in on 180 years of age, it's in the hands of my daughter at MICCA.

From the way back here, I'm struck anew by the power of a massed string orchestra, especially in the low register. This high school has 4 bassists and a minivanload of cellos (my high school orchestra, by contrast, went through at least one year of only a single cello player). One of my daughter's good friends plays the bass: she's a petite girl, a little shorter than I am, and uses a 3/4 size bass. In fact, 3 of the 4 bassists are average-height girls. The 4th, a boy, is the only one playing a full-size bass. They go through tuning their low strings to each other, until it's one unified rumbling.

The orchestra is playing a couple of pieces from last week's "spring" concert for the competition. One of these is an arrangement, for string orchestra, of the 4th movement of Dvorak's 8th symphony, a piece I played last fall with the Arlington Philharmonic. My daughter and I had a similar convergence a couple of years ago with Grieg's "Hall of the Mountain King." That time their arrangement avoided most of the 7th position screeching of the original. This arrangement is more ambitious, but it still divides the 1st violins into 1a and 1b sections. Violin 1b doesn't go up as high, I found out at my daughter's lesson. And at one point, I heard her walking around the house singing bom-bom-bom . . . ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-bom . . . you know, that woodwind part that the violins are playing accented duples against. Violin 1b got that too.

This school year my daughter has sat all over the violin sections (well, except for the front of the firsts). She is near the front of the 1b's for this concert. In the fall she was in the back of the 2nds, and for the last concert of the year the firsts are re-unified, and she's in the back of them. As I'm sitting there watching all these kids, I decide again that this policy of rotation of seating between and among sections is a good thing. They've had the same concertmaster and section principals all year, which I think is good and appropriate (and this concertmaster is clearly headed for great things), but everyone else gets a chance to sit different places and with different people for each concert. The orchestra is a cohesive social group, while there is always going to be some unavoidable teenage drama, overall they get along well and reserve the competitive attitude for other schools, not for their friends.

After the warm-up they play in the main auditorium, while a smattering of parents, the band from their high school who is playing next, and a group of adjudicators watch and listen. It was my second hearing of this performance in about a week, and this one was clean and impressive like the first one in concert. It's maybe a little embarrassing, but mostly a matter of pride, to admit that the Belmont high school orchestra is better than the adult orchestra I play in. (Certainly they have a more skilled concertmaster.) What they don't have anymore is that whine of shaky intonation that characterizes many student orchestras at the beginning levels. They started to lose it sometime in middle school and now it's completely gone. Instead their tone is rich and full; the impression of power that I got in rehearsal remains on stage. (Mentioning this to my daughter afterwards, she said, "well, some people fake it, and S--the concertmaster--plays really loud").

After the concert and judging, each groups gets a master class with an orchestra educator from another district. Theirs was an enthusiastic and energetic professor who directs an ensemble for non-majors at a local university. At the end of the session, he stopped and asked them, "don't quit music." He said that in the ensemble he teaches, with its literature majors and engineers, the walk across campus to the music building is sometimes the best part of their week. Nobody told me that in so many words when I was a kid, but I believe it.

The judging results in medals for the different ensembles. All the gold medal winners are entered into a lottery to play in Symphony Hall. As it turns out, the orchestra did win gold, but then did not win the lottery. I was a little relieved, honestly, because my daughter had another commitment the same weekend that would have been hard to get out of--but it would have been a potentially once-in-a-lifetime experience to play in Symphony Hall. The Wind Ensemble did win gold and did play there last Saturday.

Congratulations to all!

Beautiful Music: Belmont High Ensembles Garner Highest Honors

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The Path of Least Resistance

By Stephen Brivati
April 14, 2014 15:06

Although I don't deny the value of Sevcik Op. 1 (it is a classic) and his ouvre in general I think this kind of work is misleading on occasion.

Sometimes the path of most resistance can be useful but at other times the ratio of effort to result is just wrong.

The quite understandandable misunderstanding sevcik tends to create is that if one covers every possible pattern that the fingers may make then when we meet them in music we will automatically do them. This is nonsense. There are actually a small number of fundamental patterns that the brain can learn easily from which slight deviations are simple because one has a clear framework , but this is not the same thing at all. the first person to really clarify this as 'modern' violin technique was Robert Gerle in a rather old book now called 'the Art of Practicing.' He demonstrated how learning I think 12 basic patterns lead to complete mastery of the fingerboard. The patterns don't just occur on one string. The spacing remains the same but the fingers are on different strings so one is able to play all manner of double stops using awareness of these patterns.

Gerle's ideas were taken to the next level by Drew Lecher who used to post blogs regularly on this site. In his Manual of Violin Technique, he demonstrated how one could focus on one single pattern (say, bcde on the a string) and do a whole range of fundamental exercises -using only this pattern-IE finger strengthening, velocity, vibrato, shifting, double stops and bowing exercises to name just a few.

By keeping only one pattern in the mind yet covering the whole gamut of technique for a few days or a week or whatever, the pattern is absorbed naturally and will be recognized automatically in pieces. One does of course practice on different strings...

The book also includes some of the most efficient and interesting double stop exercises I have ever seen. the level is completely at the discretion of the individual player. Lecher only provides the framework and the player chooses how far up the fingerboard they wish to go, what key or pattern they wnat to use, what kinds of bowing and so on. This is another reason why the approach is superior to things like Sevcik: you learn to think for yourself.
I often recommend this book to adults who are short of time. When Drew wrote this book it was largely with the idea in mind that working through the standard course of etudes , even with judicious selection, takes an awful lot of time that adults in particular may not have. Thus the book takes the essence of technique and presents unique exercises that should be done only for a short space of time working between pieces and all the fun stuff.
Not only is it incredibly efficient compared to the way one often ends up laboring through sevick (it really does correlate much better with how the mind works) it is actually a lot more fun.

Best wishes,

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Technique Books

By Kate Little
April 13, 2014 16:13

These are technique books that I use:

I acquired them at various times in the last 2-1/2 years, and use them for various purposes, but not all at once.

Scales Plus! by William Starr was my very first technique book, purchased along with Suzuki Book 1. I used it for most of the first year learning single and double octave scales in first position, and associated finger patterns. It also has sections on shifting, 3-octave scales, arpeggios and melodic minor scales. Everything is pretty much in 4/4 time with quarter notes. The book is not comprehensive, and does not include all keys. Nor does it include scales with double-stops or varied rhythms. This is a fine book for an adult beginner.

School of Violin Technics by Otakar Ševcik was my second technique book. After about a half year of study, I found PDF of it on the internet and took a page of it in to a lesson and asked if I could do more of this sort of stuff. I use Part 1 – Exercises in the First Position. My Schirmer edition has 42 pages of about 50 measures a page of every possible finger-pattern that you could imagine, except for the fact that there is a Part 2 to this beloved series. After 1-1/2 years of working on exercise 1, page 1, measures 1 – 36 (all on the A-string), I have recently moved on to exercises 2, 3 and 4, which are basically the same thing on the D-, E- and G-strings. Work with these exercises is slow and meticulous, helping me find and coordinate small muscles of the left hand and fingers. This takes considerable time and patience for an adult with an under-utilized (from a violinist’s perspective) left hand, but without this sort of exercise and attention the hand will not develop the skill needed to play well.

Fingerboard Geography by Barbara Barber was designed to supplement Suzuki curriculum, and is targeted at a young audience. It uses big print and a color-coded presentation of finger patterns. This book was my introduction to “frames” for the left hand finger patterns, a helpful concept. The pre-song preparatory exercises can be helpful. None of my teachers assign me anything from this book. I use it independently for supplemental exercises.

Sixty Studies for the Violin by Franz Wohlfahrt addresses a wide range of fingering issues, but in contrast to Ševcik does so in melodic, musical settings. Wohlfahrt exercises can feel more satisfying than the austere Ševcik.

Scale Exercises, in All Major and Minor Keys for Daily Study by Carl Flesch is, like the Ševcik and Wohlfahrt, a product of late-19th/early-20th century violinistic thinking. All three are thorough to the max. If there is a permutation or combination to be done, these guys hand it to you. For the contemporary student used to skimming the surface of everything on the internet, the depth of technique which these volumes ask you to explore can be intimidating. On the other hand, the student up to their challenge will emerge atop the heap.

Melodeous Ddouble-Stops by Josephine Trott is my newest technique book, picked up last month on the advice of a respected (and sometimes respectable) violin-teaching-friend who said his students like it. The book is another oldie but goodie. Working on exercise #1, I am finding the book well recommended and am looking forward to continuing to use it to develop double-stop technique.

In addition to the above, I have various technique volumes by Constantine Dounis which I use to develop finger agility and precision; as well as a number of independent exercises from teachers (or made-up by myself) that address elemental aspects of bowing, intonation, finger speed, rhythm, shifting and double-stops.

I will try to get to a future post discussing how I employ all of this material.

(Here and on Facebook readers have also recommended technical studies and etudes by Edmond Agopian, Vladislav Blazhevich, Jakob Dont, Constantine Dounis, Federigo Fiorillo, Simon Fischer, Ivan Galamian, Pierre Gavinies, Robert Gerle, Jan Hrimaly, Heinrich Ernst Kayser, Rodolphe Kreutzer, Drew Lecher, Jazues Fereol Mazas, Niccolo Paganini, Enrico Polo, Pierre Rode, Henry Schradieck, Hans Sitt, Robert Starer, Joseph Szigeti, Eugene-Auguste Ysaye, and the Jack Benny theme song. Everyone has their favorite. Please feel free to leave a comment describing yours.)

(P.S. As has been noted by readers, many of the technical studies are available for free online. However, if you have a local music seller and you can afford to support the business by purchasing music from them, please do so. They are probably supporting music making in your community.)

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Are Some Musicians Better At Being A Soloist Than Playing In An Ensemble?

By Desiree House
April 13, 2014 09:52

I have always enjoyed listening to orchestral and chamber music. I love the way musicians in chamber groups are able to hold their own when playing their parts as well as communicating (musically) with each other. As a music major, I do not have a choice to play only solo works, only chamber or orchestral music. I have to do it all. The problem for me is that I am not good at performing in an ensemble. I hate playing with other people. It is too distracting. I prefer playing on my own. I feel as though I come alive more when I am playing alone than in a group. My tone sounds different from everyone else's tone. My rhythms do not match. Even my bow feels different, as though it is not a part of me. My instrument feels alien to me and I don't know what to do with it because I am trying to blend with other people. This is not easy for me. I seem to march to the beat of my own drum and when I have to play with other people I seem to loose a big part of my soul as a player. My playing becomes dead and I am not as loud as everyone else. Yet, when I am playing a solo piece, I receive so many compliments from people about my "big" sound and "beautiful, unique tone". It does not matter how hard I try to be as loud and confident as everyone else in orchestra and chamber, I just can't seem to do it. I have read several anecdotes about famous musicians, such as Jacqueline du Pre, and their issues with not measuring up as orchestral or chamber players. This led me to wonder whether if some musicians, no matter how talented they are, are just better as soloists or playing in ensembles. Is that my issue? Does anyone know of famous musicians who were better as soloists or performing in ensembles? I would really like to hear their stories because it will help me with self-esteem issues I am having as a musician. My lack of talent as an ensemble player has caused me to wonder if I should even continue playing.

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V.com weekend vote: How are your math skills?

By The Weekend Vote
April 11, 2014 14:27

While music and violin-playing certainly draw on our imagination and artistic sensibilities, they also require a lot of mathematical thinking.

In fact, I've heard a number of people state that musicians tend to be good at math. But is that true? And if so, does the study of music improve one's math skills, or are mathematically-minded people simply more drawn to music?


How is it for you, are you better-than-average at math, average, or is math just not your subject? And what is your opinion on the matter?

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The Absolute End of the Old vs. New Debate. (probably)

By Stephen Brivati
April 10, 2014 21:10

Definitely (not) the last word on old versus new violins.
I`m good with violins. As a youngster buying my first good instrument I lined up a wide selection of instruments in exact order of value without any reference to the price labels. Annoying to the parent who then had to get the expensive one. Then I got my first copy of Hill`s book on the `Life and Work of Stradivari.` Couldn`t really understand the text but every time I looked at one of those color plates I felt like I`d been punched in the gut. Still have the same feeling when I see a great violin including those by Burgess et al. It`s almost painful. So why would there actually be any real difference between a great modern maker and a Stradivarius? Well, here are some not so interesting life experiences of mine.

Visited Kyoto`s most famous white stone zen garden. Accumulated ki (chi) made my hands swell up dramatically.
Visited a tunnel in Okinawa where hundreds of Japanese soldiers committed suicide together. Atmosphere so painful it took days to get back to normal.
Visited my healer friends home and where no creature of any kind is ever killed. Air seems fresher, more alive than other houses.
Witness friends dog with cracked vertebrae healed by a week of energy transmitted through the hands. No touching. Before and after x-rays verify.
And so on...

So what happens in a concert? A soloist is an entity through whom music flows; someone who seems to have activated substantially more than 5 percent of the brain; someone who is so deeply in touch with the sounds of the universe that just one note can resonate within thousands of people at a time so they vibrate in tune with it. Someone who, by some arcane mystery, seems to have reached back into the past and pulled it into the present so that a dead composer returns to touch us with his energy and mutter `Shoot. Did I really write that?`
With all this magisterial energy flowing around does a violin really sit on its arse saying `well, I like being rubbed but actually I`m just here for the ride. You guys go ahead and enjoy your party?` I don`t think so. As a living breathing entity it makes like Bruce Lee and absorbs what is useful to its very core. So a violin that has repeatedly had this experience in the hands of Paganini, Heifetz, Kreisler, Ysaye et al. Has within it a life force that a great soloist feels and responds to, making them stretch themselves to find more. To see what is really there. Evoking in them treasured memories of past concerts and adding new ones.
Contemporary instruments have not yet been fully exposed to this ascension although they make very clear that is where they are going. So in 100, 150 years time the instruments of the great modern makers will be the Stradivari and Guarneri we all yearn for. Bit frustrating for the maker not to see the full fruits of their art which is why reincarnation becomes necessary. This explains why violin makers are instinctively not serial killers or bank robbers. If they subsequently reincarnate as dogs they will not be allowed in concert halls to see their children in full bloom. Way ahead of their predecessors I suspect...
If you don`t quite get this I can assure you I was told of it by by an all powerful deity. She is in the second row on the left of the photo , the one in the pink tutu.

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On Being A Natural (not)

By Karen Rile
April 10, 2014 16:56

perpetual motion

Dear Readers, 
I'm back from a mid-week journey to New York where I watched my youngest daughter perform in a terrific production of playwright Mac Wellman's postmodern version of Antigone. I've got a column in the works on letting go, but it's not quite ready, so I'm offering instead this essay, which appeared first, in slightly shorter form, in the Philadelphia Inquirer on December 2, 2012.

Me, I want to be a natural. I want to show up at the first class and discover I have a knack for whatever it is we’re going to study-- pottery, Japanese calligraphy, racquetball, oil painting, flute. I want to be the one the teacher praises and the other students look up to. I don’t mind work -- as long as it comes easy, with guaranteed results. But, as it turns out, I’m usually the class dunce, or at least that’s what it feels like as I struggle to keep up after the going gets tough. Eventually I quit, loathe to spend precious effort on what could be a mediocre outcome.

Sound familiar?

But my four daughters turned out differently. They don’t think about talent, because it’s beside the point. Like the proverbial tortoise, they make slow-and-steady strides in disciplines that are difficult for them, eventually surpassing more gifted hares. They weren’t born this way. Their approach to learning came about as a lucky accident.

When they were little, it seemed like a good idea to expose them to a smorgasbord of opportunities, so I encouraged them to dabble in this and that. Gymnastics, t-ball, dance, science museum classes-- the usual lineup of Saturday kiddie activities. When the oldest was in kindergarten, she had a whim to play the violin, so I signed her up for lessons at the neighborhood Suzuki school. I thought it was cute: the little wooden instrument with its old-fashioned varnish smell, and all the children standing in a line, squawking away at “Lightly Row”, just enough off-pitch to sound comical to my ears. Some musicians I knew warned me that “no great violinist has ever come from the Suzuki tradition.” Fine by me-- I wasn’t looking to raise a violinist, just a well-rounded kid.

Gradually, inexorably, and for more than a decade, those violin lessons took over our lives. The younger one wanted to copy everything her big sister was doing, and soon we had a two-year-old strutting around with a tiny violin case, like a miniature Mafioso. I was pregnant at the time, so the baby learned her Twinkle Variations in the womb. As soon as that baby could talk, she, too, demanded a violin. And so it escalated, until we were juggling four weekly private lessons, four group classes, and hours of parent-assisted practicing every day of the week. The house was littered with various sized violins. I learned to play piano with my hands behind my back, so I could keep an eye on their posture, and accompany them as they practiced. Those Suzuki melodies drove me crazy. I’d wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat with “Gossec Gavotte” stuck in my brain on endless loop. At the time, I wasn’t even sure why we were doing all this, only that it seemed crucial in some way I could not define.

Let me be clear: my family was not naturally suited for immersion in the Suzuki method. We’re not joiners. My oldest, an inquisitive and highly verbal child, asked so many questions during lessons that her teacher suggested we have her tested for ADHD (we declined.) The little ones had meltdowns in group class, or refused to open their instrument cases at their lessons. They did not exactly embrace the idea of daily practice. You might wonder, what three-year-old does? But, from the impeccable behavior of the other children in group class, I would have had to say: plenty. Of course, the coterie of families who participate in these programs is self-selecting: they tend to have bright, docile children with nimble fingers who enjoy practicing repetitive tasks. We, by contrast, struggled.

But we stuck it out. They practiced every day, and, lo and behold, progressed. Two of our four turned out to be musically gifted and before long were shuttled out of Suzuki to hard-core classical violin teachers. The baby, now age six, was so in love with music that she was practicing for hours every morning before school. Her new teacher put her on a steady diet of dry 19th century études to reform her technique. This difficult work she embraced with joy, because the habit of daily practice and steady incremental progress had been ingrained in her from infancy. I doubt that she or I would have had the heart to steady that rigorous course without the foundation that had been laid out for both of us by our accidental immersion in the Suzuki world. She’s now a violin performance major at Juilliard.

Flash forward twenty years from that first Suzuki lesson, and three of my four kids have put away their violins in favor of other pursuits. But those early lessons stuck. All four have had the courage to embrace long-term, large scale projects outside the realm of their formal academic training. Each of them credits their Suzuki days for engraining in them the habit of patient practice that has seen them through the long, slow development of mastery.

Sure, talent matters. Talent is the difference between good art and great art, between proficiency and virtuosity. But talent matters a lot less than we tend to believe, and talent alone is rarely enough to get by. In our culture, we have Romantic notion of the artist as a formidable, congenital genius. Obsessive focus on talent alone creates a hobbling anxiety of failure. How many of us are discouraged from trying because we were told we are “tone deaf” or “can’t draw a straight line”?

So forget about talent. If I had a nickel for every parent who told me that their own kid was a “natural” at music, dance, or whatever, but never got anywhere because he didn’t like to practice, I could take everybody out for lunch. Teach your kids to practice. Practice something difficult and complex, where the rewards come slowly over time. It doesn’t have to be music, although music is perfect because it engages body and mind on so many levels. And it doesn’t matter if they’re naturals; the lesson’s more profound when they are not.

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Upon a Melody and a Gaze ~

By Sondes Ben Achour
April 10, 2014 14:57

I wrote this short poem after an exquisite chamber music concert in Tunisia ... A blend of Bach, Vivaldi, Saint-Saens and Gardel begot these lines ~

Upon a Melody and a Gaze ~

The touch of a string

The birth of a note

A sigh ..

With the sway of his bow

You forthwith know

How it feels to fly ..

A lingering haze, a helpless smile,

My heart and I

Blissfully drunk

Deliciously sunk

In the blink of an eye

Bitter-sweet gasps

Blithe waltz in Adagio

The heart cries “Oh My!”

Notes faint and die

The whole world shrunk

With a look of his eye …


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