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Violinist.com Interviews: Vol. 1

Our exclusive, one-on-one interviews with 27 of today's best-known violinists, including Hilary Hahn, Joshua Bell, Sarah Chang, David Garrett, Anne Akiko Meyers, Maxim Vengerov, and others.

Violin Blogs

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

Top Blogs

Goals vs. Processes

By Yixi Zhang
April 22, 2014 16:55

Are you goal-oriented or process-oriented? I used to be the former kind until I noticed the pattern of my emotional ups and downs; I was never entirely happy with my achievements and feeling greedy. Slowing I started to realize that if I don’t enjoy the process of my pursuit, I will never be happy.

Obviously, not all processes can lead to happiness. The process of smoking leads to bad lung and bad companionship. A process of undisciplined daily practice will quickly bring me boredom and deterioration of my playing.

What I am talking about is a productive process, which has build-in mechanism that not only will guarantee success but it will also be enjoyable in its own right. To me, such process must contain goals that can be carried out and even replaced by a sound system. For example:

I want to be able to play the Mozart violin concerto #4 by the end of this year.

1. Objectives: Play all the notes in tune and in tempo with good tone, musical and stylistically correct.
2. Strategy: details on what I will do to practice each day and how to get the help from my teaher to achieve these objectives more efficiently.
3. Performance measures: concrete numbers are preferred so my success will be quantifiable (e.g. week 1: page 1, play all the notes in tune, quarter note at 60bpm).

You may say, we are doing this all along so what's the big deal to write a blog? If you are doing this, congratulations! But I believe it is useful to have a rational account of something we are doing right and something is worth pointing out:

First, I think there is a danger in focusing too much on the goals. Goals can be short-sighted or unrealistic. They are always future-oriented so the success of which is neither entirely predictable nor within our control, also the satisfaction of achieving goals is often short-lived: “So I’ve done this, what’s next?”

On the other hand, the beauty of a good system as I outlined above is that, because of this disciplined approach, each step we take is reassuring and confidence-building. You know you are getting something big down the road so moments of obstacles and plateaus don't stop us but only enrich the journey.

Goals can be movable targets as we improve but a system is constant so long as it works. We often hear beginners saying they just want to be able to play some songs and they’ll be so happy if they could do just that. Once they have reached that point, many of them usually look for more.

With a sound system, we are safe even when goals start to slip; in fact, goals are not even necessary if each step of the system is working: by following a system, we can live a life in a monastic way, and wisdom, spiritual enlightenment and character building are just a few additional benefits to the violin practice.

This blog is inspired by Scot Adam’s book "How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life", specifically, by the chapter called “Goals are for losers. Systems are for winners”, detail of which can be found in his blog , check it out if you are curious but don’t want to read his entire book.

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The Week in Reviews, Op. 28: Anne Akiko Meyers, Hilary Hahn, Regina Carter in concert

By Robert Niles
April 22, 2014 14:51

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

Anne Akiko Meyers. Photo courtesy the artist

Anne Akiko Meyers performed the Bates with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra

  • Chicago Tribune: "The music is cannily tailored to Meyers' musical personality, and it put to the test her ability to draw floods of sweet tone and shape the quasi-bluesy and jazzy riffs from her priceless fiddle. She passed the test splendidly."
  • Chicago Classical Review: "Meyers performed with a sweet tone, fitfully overdoing the vibrato, and made much out of the main lyrical theme that later morphs into full silver-screen luxuriance. She also brought daunting fire and intensity to the virtuosic closing section, which provided the requisite fireworks, garnering an instantaneous standing ovation by the audience."

Hilary Hahn performed in recital with pianist Cory Smythe in Albany, NY

  • Times Union: "Her sound is always solid, sometimes warm, though not particularly radiant. The descriptors that keep coming up are thoughtful and intelligent. Maybe those adjectives should apply more to interpretation than to sound, yet there's a smart integrity to each note she plays."

Augustin Hadelich performed Previn's "Tango, Song and Dance" with pianist Joyce Yang and guitarist Pablo Villegas

  • Washington Post: "Hadelich is a lovely, sunny soloist with a warmth and sparkle in his playing that translates to his stage persona. I can well understand his desire to explore different and perhaps more immediate ways of connecting with the audience. This performance wasn’t quite it, but it certainly offered some great music-making."

Regina Carter performed for the Symphony Center's jazz series in Chicago

  • Chicago Tribune: "Carter, however, remained the centerpiece of all of this, her violin giving voice to songs reflecting the convergence of cultures that built American music from the start. You could hear African-American chant, traditional Scottish and Irish melody and much more in this repertory, Carter slip-sliding around pitches and improvising on dance rhythms much as our forebears once did."

The Takács Quartet performed works by Bartok

  • Violinist.com: "The combination of these players and this repertoire made for what was probably my favorite quartet performance to date."

On the pop beat, Lettice Rowbotham is causing quite a stir on Simon Cowell's Britain's Got Talent show

  • UTV News: "Described by judge David Walliams as 'the poshest contestant we've ever had on the show,' Lettice wowed the panel by performing a medley of current tunes on her violin."
  • Hello! Daily News: "After her audition Simon Cowell said: 'Lettice, not only are you brilliant, you have a fantastic personality as well, you are one of the people I am going to remember coming away from this.'"
  • Metro: "The 24-year-old impressed the BGT judges on Saturday night’s show but it would seem she and Cowell may have crossed paths before now."

And on the book beat, Mayra Calvani reviewed Laurie Niles' The Violinist.com Interviews: Volume 1

  • BlogCritics.org: "In one word, this book is: fascinating. If you love listening to violin music, or are a violinist yourself, you’ll relish the inside information into the lives of these incredibly talented soloists and their ups and downs as they travel the world and make personal sacrifices in order to play live concerts, sometimes as many as a hundred or more a year."

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The Most Difficult of the 100 Days

By Kate Little
April 21, 2014 23:43

Some days finding time, space, and energy to practice was easy. Some days it was not.

At a weekend gathering of the Women, Food and Agriculture Network at the Des Moines Airport Holiday Inn, the accommodating staff allowed me to use a conference room (at no extra charge!) from 6 to 8 am. Iowans are a nice people.

Getting up at 4 am to drive 935 miles from Salt Lake City for Thanksgiving in Fremont County, Iowa, did not leave much time at the end of the day. But I did manage 45 minutes between unpacking the car and going to bed.

Watching 3 to 4 films a day at the Sundance Film Festival left me reeling at the end of the week, and while practice still happened daily, it was reduced to only 30 minutes.

The day we had to fell a dead tree, and cut and stack it for firewood left my arms numb from the vibration of the chain saw, and back sore from hauling wood. This form of sawing wood did not count as practice, so out came the violin at the end of the day.

Trickiest was the February day I was flying BOS > MSP > BZN. Originally scheduled to arrive home after lunch, leaving the rest of the afternoon for practice, a snowstorm in New England shut down flights east of the Mississippi. Agh! I got stuck in Minneapolis, rebooked on a flight to arrive at 12:30 AM the next day!!!!! But practice-every-day means practice-every-day, so I swallowed my pride, found the most-alone corner of the MSP airport that I could, took out the mute (which I’ve learned to travel with), and chose a few fiddle tunes to work on, which I figured would be least offensive to innocent bystanders. It turns out I attracted a (very) small audience. People get desperate for entertainment when airport stranded.

Practice-every-day developed my self-discipline, and I made noticeable strides in technique. My family saw my commitment, and became much more accommodating. (“Would it be helpful if I cooked dinner tonight, Mother?”) Best of all, I learned that practice-every-day is not the onerous enterprise that I once thought it to be. I no longer ask myself if I feel like practicing today. I take it as a given that I will, and ask myself when & where & how. And then it’s done.

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100 Days

By Krista Moyer
April 21, 2014 19:56

A number of the members of the Adult Starters group on Facebook decided to attempt the 100 consecutive days of practice challenge. Many of us finished today, myself included. Practicing for 100 consecutive days wasn't the hard part for me. The most difficult part was duration. I had determined that, for myself, I could only count practice if it was at least 45 minutes, and listening didn't count.

In all honesty, 100 days of practice netted me very few benefits because I was already consistently practicing each day. I think that it would have been a more beneficial exercise if it had been 100 days of focus on an aspect of playing. How much better at vibrato, or double stops, or dynamics would I be if I spent 100 days doing at least 15-20 minutes of just that? Or even 30 days, really?

The best part of the challenge was the camaraderie. We used a shared spreadsheet on Google docs. Even if we didn't mention it, everyone could see who was still playing along. Some folks measured the time they spent in practice and were surprised. A few stepped up their game. There was a bit of attrition. Overall, it was a lovely exercise.

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18 Real Life Expectations AS a Working Musician

By Michelle Jones
April 21, 2014 13:15

So you want to be a working musician?

Unless you are a statused musician to a stable employer such as a local Theme Park, Broadway show, symphony, school, studio or anything like these that have actual W-2s, benefits, etc., you can expect the following as a freelance musician (in no particular order):

1. Unstable income. We have feast or famine seasons in the entertainment world. Saving and budgeting are essential to survival.

2. Inconsistent schedule. We work most weekends and holidays. Gigs happen any time during a 24-hour period, and you have to be as well rested as possible between gigs. A regular sleep schedule does not exist for the working musician.

3. Varying equipment needs based on the job. I have to go over a checklist for every event, as each event is unique. Do I have the right books? Music? Instrument? Clothes? Stand/lights? Wireless units? In-ear monitors or stage monitors? Are they providing FOH? Am I playing with others? Am I playing with tracks or a click?

4. Multiple W-9s in January each year. Tax season stinks for musicians and entertainers. It’s tedious and time-consuming. Be sure to pay your taxes quarterly to avoid an annual huge tax bill. Find a good entertainment accountant to help you avoid unnecessary expenses and taxes.

5. Boxes of receipts, mileage logs, and equipment and maintenance expenses. (See previous item.)

6. 20,000 to 40,000 miles driving a year. Be sure to have a working, reliable vehicle for transportation. I strongly suggest AAA membership that covers you the farthest distance from home.

7. Repetitive use injuries to your body. Even on a budget, you have to give your body the proper fuel it needs to do its job; fast food is NOT real food. Get regular physicals and take vitamin supplements. Do the proper stretching before and after each gig and practice session to avoid injury.

8. Countless texts, e-mails and phone calls. Let’s hope you get these as it means you are in demand and working!

9. Temperamental people (especially in the wedding and meeting planner industry.) You have to learn how to roll with the punches and try to be as prepared as possible.

10. Living in your car. Okay, so maybe not “living” in it 24/7, but I have most of my everyday essentials in my car, including extra performance clothes, food, water, toothbrush, first aid kit, etc. All of my electronic devices have charging cables specifically for the car, and I make sure I have AAA in the event of an emergency. I definitely sleep/nap in the car if given the opportunity between sound check and showtime. (See item number 6 above.)

11. A different “office” every day. There is no “desk” or “locker” to keep your stuff. You go to a different location every day. Sometimes, there is a green room with food. Sometimes, you have a great view. Oftentimes, you are changing in the car or bathroom, and your case becomes your “desk” where you keep family photos, mementos, and emergency supplies.

12. “Freebird,” “Brown-Eyed Girl,” “Stairway to Heaven,” “Devil Went Down to Georgia,” and other such popular requests from people. Hey, at least they recognize you’re a LIVE person and not pre-recorded BGM! You’re also not a DJ, and your library may or may not include such songs. My advice is to learn at least a little bit of each (a verse and chorus) so that it will satisfy their request and keep them happy. Depending on the situation, you could say that you’ll play it for $20 or something like that. You don’t want to do that in a private event or corporate situation as it is considered soliciting gratuities and that is usually a terminable offense and can ruin your professional reputation. Still, having an extensive repertoire that get used beats playing the exact same music, every day, multiple shows a day for months or years on end. I have always had respect for those musicians in the pits on shows and other regular engagements as they must have the patience to deal with the redundancy of the same music every time. Maybe the sacrifice of artistic freedom is their trade-off for the stable income and hours.

13. Instrument and equipment emergencies. Figure out what problems you may encounter and be prepared for them as best as you can. I often take TWO instruments to a gig, especially when they are expecting the electric violin. In the event of a power/frequency issue, the acoustic will work regardless. It’s the backup plan. I definitely take two bows and extra strings for my violin. I take extra cables, batteries, and a whole list of other extra things as a backup plan. Again, my car often becomes my storage closet while on a gig.

14. Upset family members/spouse/significant other. When you are a working musician, you keep crazy hours, travel frequently, meet lots of people (including stalkers), and work most times when your family wants to spend it with you (like holidays and weekends.) This is true especially if those family members have “real” jobs. You are rarely home for a regular bedtime, let alone a regular dinnertime. If you have children, let’s hope your spouse/partner is available to keep them on a regular schedule since you won’t be able to do that.

15. Days off and office hours. As our days off are scattered (let’s hope you’re working that much), people think they can reach you any day, especially during the week. Since Monday through Friday are work days in the “real world,” people think they can contact you anytime during the week between 9am and midnight. They think midnight because they know you are a musician and probably keep late hours anyway. Then they think they can contact you on weekends for the same reason. Basically, if you want a day off, turn off your phone and your computer and take it. Change your voice mail message. Post notice on social media. Whatever works for you. Just remember that contractors tend to go down their lists and will keep calling until they reach someone. It’s a double-edged sword, so tread carefully.

16. Last-minute changes/additions. Again, irregular schedules are the norm. (See items 2 and 9.)

17. Piles of black laundry. Since most musicians wear black clothing for almost every gig, it can be days or even weeks between loads of laundry. Make sure you have enough clean shirts, hose/socks and undies for at least two weeks. Also make sure most everything is washable and does not have to be sent to the cleaners. This is important anyway if you are touring, as you will likely not have time to do wash between shows and travel schedules.

18. Upset neighbors. You are coming and going at all hours of the day and night, and practicing whenever you can. I strongly suggest practice mutes, and remembering not to slam car doors too loudly if not during “normal” hours. It’s important to try to keep peace with your neighbors, especially if you want to ask them kindly to not mow their lawns or use loud machinery before 10am each day.

I know that this list is incomplete, and I encourage you to comment and add your own challenges. Yes, there are a lot of sacrifices we make as freelance, working musicians. But just as freedom isn’t free, freelance does not mean working for free, either. It means more personal responsibility, more dedication, more education (about business, networking, technology, and things other than just music), and even more patience as you try to make it your career. I love my freedom to do what I love every day! And I am so blessed that my family understands, accepts and especially supports these challenges of my career choices. For me, this is my key to happiness. What’s yours?

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4 Decisions About Violin Studies, and How They Guide My Practice.

By Kate Little
April 20, 2014 18:24

I want to enjoy listening to my own sound.

This first, fundamental decision was made shortly after beginning violin studies. No squeaky squawky beginning violining for me! Based on my teacher’s initial lessons on bowing, I created an open-string bowing exercise that involved all sections of the bow, different bowing lengths and speeds, and varied sounding points, and practiced this exercise daily on all strings, listening carefully for nuances of sound and working toward the most beautiful that I could muster. This exercise opened every practice, and lasted from 20 – 40 minutes, depending on the evolving daily objective. As the sound from the simplest type of bow stroke improved, complexities were added one at a time – string crossings, stroke types, double-stops – and were always practiced in every possible permutation and combination of bow position, length, speed on all open strings, and always seeking clarity, evenness and resonance of tone.

After 2-1/2 years, I am reasonably satisfied with my tone production for the time being, and while continuing to use the open-string exercise daily in a shortened version, the primary focus of elemental practice time has shifted to intonation. As I did with bowing and tone quality, I have assembled a set of simple exercises to hone my pitch accuracy as finely as possible. In any given practice session, working with tone quality and intonation takes up the first 30 – 60 minutes of practice. From there I go on to scales, technical exercises, and repertoire.

I’d rather play simple tunes well than complex tunes poorly.

This decision has had multiple ramifications. I work a lot on the intricate physical mechanics of playing the violin, as the more intentional and precise my bodywork, the better control I will have in creating sound and music. Using principles of physical therapy, I push hard on my physical limitations to increase capability, particularly dexterity and agility of the left hand. I do not advance quickly through technique books or repertoire, giving myself time to work on pieces. And, most importantly, while continuing to work on new repertoire with my original teacher, I have found a second teacher with whom to re-learn repertoire incorporating all the technique gained in the past two years. This project started a few months ago with “Twinkle, Twinkle” and is progressing at about one song per lesson.

Not content with paying just for fun or just for myself, my goal is to play well enough that others would like to hear me play.

The essence of music is communication, and I would like to eventually play well enough to do this. But what is the measure of success? Audience that seeks out music does so because it evokes some desired personal reaction; something has been communicated to them through the music. So, if I eventually have audience that wants, even asks, to hear me play, it is a safe bet that I am communicating musically. (Relatives and friends who just want to be supportive, while appreciated, don’t count.) But how good do you have to be before people seek out your music? I’ll hazard about as good as a professional musician. That’s a tall order.

No body of pedagogy exists for training a beginning adult violin student to the level of a professional, so I’ll have to forge a path myself.

This takes imagination, clear-headedness, focus, and direction. It means thinking outside-the-box, and experimenting with ways of learning. It means listening to all advice and opinions (you never know where you’ll pick up a golden nugget of information); but dis-regarding the bulk of it, which is inside-the-box and has no means to account for my goals. It requires independence and confidence and commitment. It takes time. Lots and lots of time.

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Takács, by gosh!

By Graham Emberton
April 19, 2014 14:46

Time to confess... I had never heard more than snippets of a Bartok quartet before this week. Shameful, I know. However, I had the absolute pleasure of hearing his second, fourth, and sixth quartets on a recital recently given by the Takács Quartet. I don’t think I could have gotten a better introduction to these works than through a performance from this group. The combination of these players and this repertoire made for what was probably my favorite quartet performance to date.

I obviously can’t comment with particular authority on these works, but my lack of knowledge allowed me to enter the recital with very fresh ears, which was exciting. This layman’s biggest takeaway was the vast sound spectrum Bartok imagined and the Takács convincingly shared. I’d had a reading assignment recently on the Bartok quartets (I chose not to supplement this homework with a decent listen, tsk tsk) in which the unusual effects he used for the strings were described in tedious great detail. Well, you can write about pizzicato, col legno, and sul ponticello ad nauseum, but you have to actually hear it to realize that these are indeed special sounds. The Takács took pizzicato to a whole new level, creating sounds I’ve never experienced before. My favorite was a slowly rolled quadruple stop pizzicato (plucked near the bridge?) from the first violin that sounded like someone opening a creaking door. Bartok gave specific instructions for some of the pizzicati (the famous snaps, for example) but I’m sure the Takács invigorated the notation with their personal interpretation. Throughout the recital I was fascinated by the shifting soundscape, alternately folksy, frenetic, eerie, tender, mournful… take your pick of adjective, chances are you’ll hear it in a Bartok quartet.

A bonus of attending live performances is that in addition to the aural component you also get the visual experience. In the case of a gyrating soloist this can be a drawback, but not so in the case of the Takács. They all moved quite a bit, and it always seemed to be in the service of the music. I was especially captivated by how fun they made it look; first violinist Edward Dusinberre seemed to have rollicking good time in the upbeat movements. Of course they made their movements in mesto sections appropriate too, such as when Geraldine Walther turned towards the audience at the beginning of the sixth quartet to share the intimate viola solo. (Incidentally, Carnegie Hall recently uploaded several YouTube videos of the Takács Quartet presenting at a workshop. Here, Walther advises the Attacca Quartet to physically move to show the character in the third movement of the sixth Bartok quartet.)

If like me you haven’t yet gotten to know the Bartok quartets very well, I think a recording (or performance!) by the Takacs Quartet serves as a wonderful initiation.

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V.com weekend vote: Have you studied the Paganini Caprices? How many have you studied?

By The Weekend Vote
April 18, 2014 10:54

After posting the interview with Ilya Gringolts about the Paganini Caprices this week, I received an e-mail from a longtime V.commie:

I had a typo. Plus some personal advice, "Start practicing the caprices. Just do it."

PaganiniSounds like a Nike commercial, sheesh! And anyway, I thought Ilya was letting me off the hook with the whole idea that I probably won't get anywhere anyway with these Caprices anyway. When I had resolved to learn them some years back, I was advised to start with a challenging one, how about No. 4? I worked and worked, but man that was a tall mountain. Are they all like this? My struggle with No. 4 might have reinforced my feeling that the caprices were simply insurmountable and just not worth, well, the heartbreak.

My friend assured me they are not all quite as bad as No. 4, and working on them is indeed worth it. "Since working through these monsters, my chops feel so great. Everything feels easier. Everything," she said. "It is steamed broccoli for your chops."

Hmmm. Streamed broccoli? My chops probably could use some roughage.

So which one should I start (over) with? And also, have you studied the Caprices? And how many of them have you studied? (The numbers in the poll refer to how many caprices you've studied, not to the number of the actual caprice).

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Talking About Talking Practice

By Karen Rile
April 17, 2014 23:01


A few months ago I attended a reading by a friend of mine who was on tour promoting his latest novel. I brought my personal copy of his book to the event for him to sign. Good thing, because it turns out that I needed to follow along the printed text to make out what he was saying. He rushed and stumbled over his own sentences as if they were unfamiliar to him. His enunciation was a disservice to his stylishly crafted prose, and I was dismayed to think that some in the audience might dismiss his writing because of its poor delivery.

Later, over coffee, he admitted that he does not like to do live readings. No surprise there: many of us writers are uncomfortable reading our work aloud. A writer's relationship is with the written and printed word; our relationship with our readers is quiet and indirect. The last thing on our minds when we are writing is that someday we'll be marched onto a stage and forced to perform it in front of an audience.

And yet we must. Interacting with the public is part of the business of being a writer, or any kind of artist. My friend confessed he's dreaded public readings ever since graduate school, when his mentor told him that he was the best writer he'd ever taught—and the worst reader. "I try to go slowly, but I'm so anxious; I hurry for fear of running out of time."

The idea suddenly came to me that maybe he should take a few sessions with an acting coach. I probably wouldn't have thought of it on my own, but my youngest daughter is a theater student, and I recently learned that her acting teacher sometimes coaches writers to help them develop vocal, physical, and emotional techniques for reading their work aloud in public.

My friend didn't think much of this suggestion. In fact, I'm afraid he was insulted. "I've worked very hard at becoming a better reader—and now you're telling me to take acting lessons!"

I asked to describe his practice method.

"Practice? I don't practice," he said. "Why should I?"

"You never read your work aloud except during the actual readings?"

"Never. These are my words. I wrote them. I don't need to practice."

Well, I need to practice. I know that I cannot rely on "trying very hard" during the moments of performance when my adrenalin is high and my head is filled with distraction.

Every time I do a reading of my own work I prepare by rehearsing the passage with a timer running. I note in pencil which words to emphasize and when to take a breath. If I don't practice, then in the pressure of the moment, I'm liable to twist and contort the very passages that I've fussed over for days to get right on paper. If I don't practice, I'll read too quickly; I'll swallow the ends of my sentences. I'll not give the pauses needed for the reader to savor my words. After I practice, I record myself and play it back—always a mortifying experience. My voice is too high. Those awful regional vowels. Then I go back and practice some more. It is a miserable, time-consuming effort. Maybe I'll never get good, but I do get better—enough.

A few weeks before her senior recital, the dean of my violinist-daughter's conservatory asked her to take part in a pilot program in which students would speak from the stage to audience members. My daughter was happy to participate, as she was already planning to speak during her recital. In preparation, she met with faculty to discuss her ideas for her speech, wrote it, memorized it, and then submitted a video run-through, recorded on her laptop computer.

The first ten drafts of the recording mortified her: "I keep saying 'um'. My voice is so high-pitched." Finally, she uploaded a draft, got some feedback from the faculty advisor, and then practiced her talk some more. On the night of the performance, she walked out on stage with confidence—and promptly spotted, in the second row of the audience, a long-time friend who'd flown in for the concert from Nashville without telling her. Without missing a beat, my daughter acknowledged her friend's surprise appearance, and continued with her speech. She was able to be gracious, and to make an extemporaneous adjustment without being thrown off because she was prepared.

This summer, after graduation and before she goes off to her chamber music festival, she's planning several sessions with her sister's acting coach to work on her speaking skills. I credit her college's administration for recognizing how crucial it is for musicians to be skilled at verbal communication, both on- and offstage. Maybe in the future they will consider integrating speech training into the curriculum for instrumentalists. And even if they don't, it's up to the individual artist to take active responsibility for her self-presentation. Even when that means getting out her comfort zone and exploring the techniques of a complementary discipline.

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Violinist.com interview with Ilya Gringolts: Paganini 24 Caprices

By Laurie Niles
April 17, 2014 11:08

When I spoke with Ilya Gringolts before he was to serve on the jury for the Menuhin Competition, I was very interested in the fact that he had just recorded all the 24 Paganini Caprices last November.

After all, here is someone who won First Prize in the 1998 Paganini Competition, also having received special prizes that year for being the youngest-ever competitor to be placed in the final and the best interpreter of Paganini’s Caprices. What is his take on these wickedly difficult violin works, 16 years later? Certainly his new recording has caused a bit of a stir, as it casts these much-recorded and studied works in new light and does not easily fit the old aural grooves.

So while I was in Austin to write about the Menuhin Competition and Ilya was there serving as a jurist, we sat down over coffee and talked about the Paganini. These days he is Professor of Violin at the Zurich Hochschule, and an International Fellow at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. We spoke about his history with the Paganini Caprices, the limited value these works have as a teaching tool, and also about the importance of consulting an urtext edition when preparing them for performance.

Ilya Gringolts
Photo: Tomasz Trzebiatowski

Laurie What is the first Paganini caprice you ever learned?

Ilya: I think it must have been 13, one of those easy ones, maybe 16, 14, those three, they kind of came in succession; I was 11 at the time. I actually picked those up at the same time as I picked up my first Bach, the first four movements of the D minor Partita.

Laurie: You started with the D minor, wow.

Ilya: My teacher thought they would be a good place to start; I kind of understand. It's straightforward, more straightforward than the others.

Laurie: How long did it take you to learn all the Caprices?

Ilya: It's a project that was on my mind for a long time. I didn't have a time frame; I took it bit-by-bit, very slowly. I would learn two or three Caprices a year, just practice them. I wouldn't even necessarily play them in public, it was just training. The first time I played them live in one concert was not until one week before the recording, and some of them, I just played for the first time right before the recording. Which is not to say that I didn't know them, because as I said, it was always on my mind and I always practiced them in kind of sessions. It's not like I would devote a period of time to just learning the Paganinis, there were always other things, overlap and so yes, it was a long-haul project.

Laurie: So maybe three caprices a year.

Ilya: Something like that. But I wouldn't say that I even thought of it like that; I didn't make any plans. I would take a caprice and practice it and then put it aside and then take another one, that's how it worked, for years. Until I thought, well, finally maybe this is the time.

Laurie: What do they do for a person's playing, to learn these?

Ilya: Not much, actually. There are a lot of things that are more useful.

Laurie: Really?

Ilya: Yes. Any etudes that you could practice: Rode, Dont, you name it; they're more channeled towards improving technical facilities, because they're written for that. Paganini is not written for that.

Laurie: They're not pedagogical.

Ilya: No, not at all. I'm convinced that there is a higher kind of musical agenda there, that (Paganini) is after.

Laurie: Really? Because some people don't think so, they think they're just sort of fluffy technical pieces.

Ilya: Well, I think that's the wrong approach. For me, they are a bit like Schumann character pieces, or Chopin. You don't play Chopin to improve your technique. It's rather when you've already got your technique and everything is in place. Then you play Chopin. Because then you can use your technique for a higher purpose. You don't hone your technical skills on that stuff. They're just too high a level.

Laurie: There are a lot of people who play them who don't really get to that musical level. Like me. I don't even play them. I've tried but given up!

Which was the hardest one to figure out, musically?

Ilya: There are a few that are very challenging in many ways. Interestingly enough, they're all from the first set of 12. There are actually two sets of six -- he composed six, six then 12. The first 12 are so much more demanding and so much more complex than the next 12. It's incredible, it's almost like they're two different composers. If you just analyze it harmonically, they're so imaginative, and so experimental, the first 12 -- with some exceptions, like No. 9, which is rather straightforward. But the rest of them, you have modulations that take you to all sorts of keys within two minutes. It's not very typical for the beginning of the 19th century, actually. We're talking maybe about the beginning of Romanticism -- then it sort of became normal. But this was written in 1816-17, this was before Schumann wrote a single note, or Chopin for that matter, or Liszt. Beethoven was still in his middle period. It's actually pretty amazing. So we're dealing with something pretty new here, breaking new ground.

So I would definitely say No. 4 is a big problem to solve musically, just to sustain the form. Finding a common tempo is very difficult because obviously you have your kind of lyrical part and you have the virtuosic part -- there's no tempo change. It should be about the same tempo. And you see that in many of his caprices; he's quite meticulous in pointing out if there is a tempo difference or not. So in those that he doesn't write anything, you should really try to find a common tempo. (You should treat it) like something you would do in a Beethoven Sonata: you wouldn't play the middle section of a scherzo or a minuet at a different tempo, unless it says so. So it's the same. I think these pieces should be treated with that same kind of German meticulousness, because they're more German than Italian.

Laurie: Oh really? What do you mean?

Ilya: They stand out, in that the whole bel canto part of it is not really present, unless you are talking about kind of a gimmicky interpretation of it, like in No. 23, where you would just kind of parody it. This is not a real "bel canto" -- to me it isn't. And it stands out from his other works as well.

Laurie: He did a lot of opera transcriptions…

Ilya: He did. And everything else -- you take the concerto, for example, that's clearly kind of Rossini, Bellini-infused music -- which makes it, in a way, less original and actually less valuable, in a way, too. I mean it's fun…

Laurie: A little more derivative.

Ilya: Yes. It's not instantly recognizable as Paganini; it doesn't have its own sound world. But the Caprices do. And the whole genre, the small character piece, that's very much a Romantic thing. The Romanticism started in Germany; it started with Goethe and Schiller and all those people. There was no Romantic music in Italy at that time; and there wouldn't be until Verdi.

So that's something that Paganini, as a traveling musician from his early years, would have been exposed to.

Laurie: I didn't know that bit about the first two sets of six being quite different from the last 12, did he compose them over a long period of time?

Ilya: Well, about 3-4 years. But no one really knows, it's sort of speculated, when he wrote them. They were published in 1820, so would be safe to say that it was a few years before that, that he was composing them. He never played them in public.

Laurie: Never?

Ilya: No. They are inscribed, "Alli Artisti," or "For the Artists." So they were dedicated to the artists, and he never performed them himself. Which, again, sets them on a pedestal, in a league of their own.

Laurie: I wonder what he meant.

Ilya: I suppose it means someone who can give them justice, not just technically, but really make -- not make anything out of them because they are the way they are -- but just really do them justice, musically.

Laurie: Just to play them the way they're written is a pretty monumental task.

Ilya: That's right. But I think, again, you treat them without any patronizing, just like you treat a Mozart Sonata. And it starts with selecting an edition. People just don't care what edition they play Paganini from. You just get your International Edition fare, which ..

Laurie: I have Ricordi, I think.

Ilya: That's nice, but you're definitely in the minority. I'm hearing, now at the (Menuhin) competition, so many Paganini caprices that were learned from the wrong edition. There were only about two people who played from an urtext edition. And there is the Henle, which has been out for 20-something years!

Laurie: And just this year, Barenreiter also came out with an urtext of the Caprices.

Ilya: The Henle has been out since the end of the 80s. I was preparing for the Paganini Competition in '98 and I had the Henle; it had been in the market for a while. That's the edition that's been directly copied from the manuscript; you need to look no further. It's right there.

And there are so many differences. There are a lot of performing traditions that have kind of molded themselves into these works and found their way into later editions -- and lots of mistakes, too. Some are first-edition mistakes that were copied throughout. We're talking, really, about wrong notes. Just wrong notes, all over the place. And, of course, the bowings -- stuff like that.

At this point, most people would not play a Mozart Concerto from an International Edition or even Peters -- they would get their hands on the Henle and the Barenreiter. It's not a question of money, it's a question of mindset. But somehow people don't think about it as much when they play the Paganini; they think it's just a circus piece -- just learn my craft and go and perform it -- that's not good enough.

Laurie: So you can tell, when you hear someone performing these, if they're not using the urtext.

Ilya: I know where all those wrong notes are.

For example, there are about five or six wrong notes in Caprice No. 1 alone. Then you go to No. 5, and there is this bowing that people have kind of heard about, but no one is really sure what it is, in the middle section. I think about 99 percent just play it spiccato throughout. The middle section is this perpetual mobile kind of passage, which is written in a bowing which is three notes ricochet, one note up. That's the bowing throughout the middle section. Some people choose not to do it because they think it's difficult, which it is, although I personally find it easier than playing spiccato for two minutes straight -- I find that more taxing. But there are also a good chunk of people who have no idea it even exists. When we were listening to it (at the competition), there was one contestant who played that Caprice with the right bowing -- I was very happy about it, did a great job. But in the jury there were some funny looks, like…

Laurie: …what's she doing with the bowing?

Ilya: Exactly. Someone asked me, 'Is this really the way it is written?' So that awareness is not really there yet. If we have people so high up in the field who -- they've played that before, but they're not aware of the urtext. So there's that kind of wall which has to be broken.

As far as the urtext is concerned, the manuscript is out, it's not like there are three different sources they're combining, I think there's only one source. The question (between using Henle or Barenreiter) might be, how they edit it, the fingerings they provide.

Laurie: You said that you started learning the Paganini at the same time as you started learning the Bach. How do they measure up? Does the Paganini do something for the violin in a similar way that the Bach did something for the violin?

Ilya: Do you mean in a historical sense?

Laurie: I guess in a historical sense; we think of the Bach as having done something for the violin that really hadn't been done before...

Ilya: That's definitely the case with the Paganini. I think that contemporary music as we know it, with all the wonderful sound effects that they're using now, most of it is inspired by Paganini in some way. He used the violin as a kind of an orchestra, to parody all the other things we hear in nature and in life: birds singing, the harmonics, the double harmonics, the pizzicati …all the sort of stuff that had actually been used before him, but not to the same extent, and not for the same purposes. If you look at people like Locatelli, he was even more ground-breaking in purely technical terms, but he wasn't a musician of the same caliber of Paganini, his music never grows to those heights. (Locatelli) never used those effects for a higher purpose, unlike Paganini, who did.

When I perform, I like to combine Paganini Caprices and for example, Caprices by (Salvatore) Sciarrino (1976) or by (Jörg) Widmann. They wrote works for solo violin that are directly inspired by the Caprices, and in Sciarrino's case they are called Caprices, too, and that combines perfectly with the Paganini because you really see the connections, in the same way that you can combine Bach and Ysaye, or Reger and Bach, and you can see the connections very clearly. Or Hindemith and Bach. Actually pretty much everything and Bach!

Laurie: And you've also played the 24 Paganini Caprices alone, as a cycle, all in one concert.

Ilya: You feel like an athlete, preparing for (that kind of) concert. Recording is one thing, you can take your time and -- recording anything is a relaxing experience because you're in control. Or at least, you can make it a relaxing experience; you don't have to, but you can, you're in the driver's seat.

Playing (all 24 Paganini Caprices) in concert is another matter. It's stressful and very taxing for your body and mind. Lots of concentration, and actually, it's very difficult to practice as a run up to a concert. First of all, you have to practice much more than you usually do, just because it's so much material. But secondly, it's a kind of a balance between slow practicing and running things through endlessly, to make sure you've got the stamina for it. But once you play things through, you're kind of done for the day. It's hard to plan.

Laurie: Do you teach the Paganini Caprices?

Ilya: Sometimes, but again, I don't prescribe them to fix technical problems. If I have a student who is already at the level that could allow him or her to play Paganini, and let's say that they're preparing for a competition and they're required to play Paganini, then I'll teach it.

I don't really encourage it, so much.

Laurie: You don't, why not?

Ilya: Well, because if they're at that level, they'll play it anyway, and then I'll teach it. If they're not, they won't help them get to that level. So I'd rather give them something that would help them first to get to that level.

Laurie: What if you want to get to that level? What kinds of things would be prescriptive to get to that level? What do you need to see in place in a student, to feel they are at that level?

Ilya: I think the age of the student is important. If you have a master student that doesn't have that level, frankly it's going to be hard to get there. The muscles are much less responsive at that age. It really requires a kind of a routine from an early age. I would say a bachelor student could still do it, with the right mindset.

To me, there are actually more important issues. You have to be realistic, you have to know what each student is geared to do and what they want to do. Because playing Paganini Caprices is not a given. It's not obligatory; it's not necessary to survive; you don't need it to get a job. So for a lot of people who want to get a good orchestra job, for example, it's better not to even go there. I mean, why? Why the heartbreak?

There are so many great fiddle players that actually struggle with these things. Why? For what?

Laurie: They're just too hard to play! (Said with drama and heartbreak)

Ilya: They are very hard to play, that's exactly what I mean. They're incredibly taxing on every level. I have a great student now that is preparing for a competition, and she plays No. 2, and she does a great job with it. I'm happy to consult her on whatever issues she might have, musical as well as technical. But otherwise, I have more important agendas for my students. For one thing, you have to learn to play Mozart Concerto convincingly. That to me is a hugely difficult task, and it can take a lot of time. And then of course there are also all sorts of other problems to solve. So to me, teaching Paganini is not a priority.

Laurie: How about the other side of "Why the heartbreak?" Obviously, you decided to do it yourself. Why?

Ilya: For one thing, I really love those pieces. It takes a while and yes, it is a bit masochistic. But I find them so special, musically. They're great fun to play, after all.

* * *

To sum up what is available, as far as Paganini 24 Caprices urtext editions are concerned: In addition to the Henle urtext edition of the caprices, Barenreiter just published its own urtext last December. And if you'd really like to get authentic, you can find the composer's manuscript on IMSLP. (Does anyone else find that a little amazing, all those tiny notes, in Paganini's hand?) Here also is a link to the Ricordi edition, which I was only able to find on UK Amazon, but perhaps some European members have more ideas about where to find that?

* * *

Ilya Gringolts plays Caprice 24 live in February 2014, at sala Verdi del Conservatorio di Milano:

Ilya Gringolts plays (part of) Caprice 1:

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