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

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V.com Weekend Vote: Should young soloists borrow a Strad, or buy a modern?

By The Weekend Vote
February 27, 2015 09:17

Events of the last week would seem to demonstrate how fickle arrangements can be, when one is borrowing a fine instrument such as a Strad.

I certainly feel for violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann, who had to give the 1711 Strad he was renting back to the German bank that owned it this week, right before his concert series with the New York Philharmonic. The bank is trying to sell the instrument and Zimmermann had the first option to buy, but by all accounts they priced it some million dollars higher than its already-sky-high valuation that was around $5 million.

Frank Peter Zimmermann
Photo by Klaus Rudulph

Young violin soloists face no small dilemma, when it comes to procuring a fine instrument. Should they borrow (or rent) the very finest instrument possible, knowing that it can be withdrawn at any moment from a sponsor, or that they might be asked to fork over millions of dollars to buy it at some undefined point in the future? Or should a soloist pass up on the chance to play an instrument like that, and instead invest their money and spirit in finding a modern violin that will live up to expectations and carry a much more reasonable price tag?

The simple answer is "get a modern, they're just as good." It's too simple of an answer, though. I've spoken to far too many experienced violinists to believe that there's nothing particularly special about the Strads and del Gesús -- to play one during the crucial beginning of one's career is to have an instrument that will inform your playing and sense of aesthetic for a lifetime. It's a special experience that just might be worth the possible pain of a bad break-up. Plus, you may wind up with a kind sponsor who just lets you use it for your entire playing career.

Or not! It gets very, very ugly, and soloists describe losing their beloved instrument like "losing an arm," one becomes so attached. Certainly, it is like losing your voice.

How would you advise the most promising young soloists today to handle the instrument dilemma?

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We Can Be Our Own Worst Enemy.

By Stephen Brivati
February 26, 2015 19:52

violin stringsWe are our own worst enemy.

Of all the Alexander lessons I took related to violin playing, I think the most meaningful for me was one in which the teacher (not a violinist) stopped me at the exact moment before I was about to pluck the violin out of its open case. "Think about how you would walk across the room to get a pencil. Compare that with the excitement you are feeling now and observe how it is affecting you, even though you are essentially doing the same physical act. In life we have 'choice points,' where we can stop and observe what we are doing and consciously use ourselves better. So instead of leaning over in that habitual way and grabbing the instrument willy-nilly, stop and feel the ease in your neck, as your head goes forward and up and you back widens etc…."

(One can perhaps see a little of the same kind of idea in Zukerman’s master class at the RCM where he tells an advanced student to always pick up the bow with the left hand and the violin with the right.)

Anyway, the significance of this during practice should never be underestimated. Currently there is a very interesting thread concerning tension in practice of Kreutzer No. 9 going on. When a serious and committed player like the OP in question works on this kind of etude, it is very common that excitement and determination work hand-in-hand to keep the practice sustained for twenty, thirty minutes or even an hour, especially when working on different rhythms and bowing patterns. Of course this is a virtue, but it is not a good idea. First of all, one is keeping muscles in a semi-contracted state for a long periods, so they may actually become more stressed than they should be. Rather like working on a computer with short-range focus and not stopping every ten minutes to allow your eye muscles to re-elongate on an object in the distance. Secondly, one is almost invariably practicing in tension. The violin happens to be like that……

If we start thinking in terms of 'choice points,' then we can stop every ten minutes and make a conscious reevaluation of our total physical state. We must have a checklist of questions. :

  • How am I standing?
  • Have I been holding my breathe? (Ten minutes is quite an achievement)
  • Is my bow hold ok?
  • Is my right thumb tense?
  • How about my left thumb?

I am not giving a complete list here but there isn’t actually that much to observe. Then take some time to reset yourself; visualize yourself completely relaxed; take mental stock of what you are actually trying to achieve and whether a change of course might be more useful, and so on. If necessary, set a timer to go off every five or ten minutes until one gets into the habit of doing this.

Hopefully, this way of thinking about how we use ourselves during practice will lead to greater productivity and less damage in the long run. After all, I still want to be serenading my sweetheart and annoying my cat at 90.

Cheers,
Buri.

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Chamber Music Master Class with Arnold Steinhardt at USC

By Laurie Niles
February 26, 2015 14:50

It's not surprising to see in person that violinist Arnold Steinhardt has a way with words.

Steinhardt, who is a professor of violin and chamber music at The Colburn School, University of Maryland, Bard College and the Curtis Institute, also does a great deal of writing. He has his own blog called In the Key of Strawberry, and he has written two books, Indivisible by Four: A String Quartet in Pursuit of Harmony, about his journey as first violinist in the Guarneri String Quartet (which disbanded after 45 years in 2009); and Violin Dreams, more generally about his life as a violinist.

Steinhardt's gift for description was on display during a chamber music master class Friday night at the University of Southern California, during which he coached three student chamber groups for an audience of about 50. Smiling as he spoke, Steinhardt offered his suggestions with clarity and appeal, in language both efficient and richly meaningful.

The first quartet set the bar high, with an energetic performance of the first movement of Mendelssohn's String Quartet, Op. 44, No. 2. It's a movement full of fast unison runs, and their playing was satisfyingly on-pitch, in time, and marked with awareness for one another.

USC quartet with Steinhardt
Arnold Steinhardt (center) with quartet members (L-R) Eunghee, Benjamin, Chloe and Mann-Wen

"You really captured the essence of this piece, the emotional intensity," he said after their initial performance.

He suggested to the first violinist that her sound in the opening would have "more spin" if she could use more bow. He did not want to change the volume, just the quality of the sound. "If you use more bow, the sound has more wings," he said. In another passage, he wanted a note emphasized, but not with an accent. "Could you give it a little more of a heart pang?" he said, suggesting the use of vibrato rather than any change of bow stroke.

He asked the first violinist to really go for a high note, and when she overshot it, he applauded the effort. "You took a chance and you went for it, and I think that's really important," he said. He quoted Heifetz: "Practice as if the whole world depends on it; perform as if you don't give a d*mn."

In order to get a little more volume from the second violinist, Steinhardt reminded her that "you're two yards back from the first violin, so you have to push just a little harder."

He suggested that it's possible to change color by changing strings, so plan fingerings accordingly. "You don't have to work hard to change the color if the string has done it for you," he said.

He advised them to "work harder in clearing the thick texture." The density of Mendelssohn's writing offers a challenge: in order for the important lines to emerge, one person needs to get louder while the rest get softer. "How much do you want to be out of the water?" he asked. "You are only this much out of the water," he said, holding his hand like a waterline, up to his nose. He lowered it to his chest, "You want to be a least this far out of the water. Take a chance in doing too much," he told the cellist. "Too much" ended up being just right.

Steinhardt noted a place in the cello part, where Mendelssohn puts a "fancy curlicue" on the second iteration of a repeated figure -- "put a little rubato on it so that it sounds like you are improvising it, like you got tired of the first way and just made up something," he said.

For an ascending flourish in the first violin, he advised her to play it with a little more flair, referencing one of our more showy violinist-composers: "put a little bit of Wieniawski in Mendelssohn!"

Next, a trio performed the first movement Ravel's piano-violin-cello Trio in A minor, an atmospheric and mercurial piece, ranging in texture from rumbling low chords to icy-high harmonics. I must add: it was really a pure pleasure to hear every one of these accomplished student groups perform. They'd already achieved a high level, and then they responded to Steinhardt's suggestions wholeheartedly, with immediate effect.

USC trio
Playing the Ravel Trio, with (L-R) YuEun, Dawoon and Coleman

For this piece, Steinhardt focused on staying true to the composer's tempo markings. "If it's too slow all the time, it gets to be formless," he said. Though it's not necessary to time everything exactly to the metronome marking, it is important to obey the relationships between the various tempo markings. "It's so gorgeous, the temptation is to play it slowly," but it needs motion. "Keep the flow, even though you want to pick a few daisies here and there. Don't pick too many daisies," he said. He focused on where to move forward and where to hold back in the movement. And here's a little trick: speed up just a bit before a place where you are supposed to slow down. "If you have a ritard coming up, it's more interesting if you move a little into the ritard," he said. If the composer asks for a long slow-down, be sure to start the passage fast enough so that the slowing will not feel like dragging. "You have to cook up your own recipe here, but it has to have fluidity," he said.

Another quartet played the first movement of Beethoven's String Quartet No. 11, Op. 95. As they played it, something seemed a little disorganized to me, despite good playing. What was it? Steinhardt identified it easily: it needed more speed.

"If you pick a tempo that's not quite right, no matter how well you play, the tempo ends up being your enemy," he said. This movement should be "bubbling," he said, but at a slow tempo, it gets too note-y. At a faster tempo, "even if you play it badly, it's going to sound pretty good. It's going to be a lot easier to capture the essence."

Sure enough, a faster tempo tightened the music and improved the overall effect.

His other suggestions were about balance: the beginning of this movement has all four instruments playing in unison, and when this is the case, it's not necessary to dig in quite so much. "You can cool it a little," he said, "otherwise the danger is that you are going to lose your good sound."

Steinhardt with violinist
Steinhardt offers a suggestion to violinist Roberta

In places where the violins play in octaves, the lower octave should really sing out to balance the voices, as the higher octave will automatically sound louder because of its favorable range.

When it comes to pressing for sound, the cello and viola can press and still sound nice, but "if you two press," he said to the violins, "it's going to scream!"

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The Week in Reviews, Op. 71: Alina Pogostkina, Augustin Hadelich, James Ehnes in Concert

By Robert Niles
February 24, 2015 21:09

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.

Alina Pogostkina performed the Beethoven with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

  • The Scotsman: "Runnicles’ shaping of the Beethoven Violin Concerto was completely at one with soloist Alina Pogostkina, who breathed fresh flavours and natural musicality into this well-worn masterpiece."
  • Herald Scotland: "In short, Runnicles is a conductor who matters, with a band which, 30 years ago on the periphery of things, is now absolutely central to music in Scotland. And if that assertion needed demonstration, it was all there on Thursday, with the most delicate, exquisite account I think I've heard of Beethoven's Violin Concerto which, in the intimately-expressive hands of soloist Alina Pogostkina, and the masterly,unhurried, close-up-and-personal care of Runnicles and his ultra-responsive SSO players, was like chamber music, drawing you into its thinking. It was quietly and undemonstratively heart-stopping in its beauty."

Alina Pogostkina.png

Augustin Hadelich performed Lalo's "Symphonie espagnole" with the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra.

  • The Patriot-News: "This is his third concert with the HSO, and the next time Hadelich visits the Forum, you will hear me screaming Beatlemania-style from wherever you happen to be....The orchestra provided as lush a foundation for Hadelich's performance as Michelangelo Antonioni provided Monica Vitti when he lit up the Aeolian Islands with her smoldering grace in "L'avventura." I mean it was sexy, and the end knocked a gasp out of me."
  • The Sentinel: "Soloist Augustin Hadelich proved conclusively on Saturday night that his spellbinding command of the violin has only gotten stronger since his last visit to Harrisburg in 2010."

James Ehnes performed Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

  • The Boston Globe: "Canadian violinist James Ehnes gave a measured, laid-back reading, offering mystery rather than intensity. His encore, the Largo from Bach’s Third Sonata for Unaccompanied Violin, was sublimely elegant."
  • The Boston Musical Intelligencer: "I have long admired Ehnes’ playing from his recordings so jumped at the opportunity to hear him live. He did not disappoint. It was as elegant as ever. Ehnes was sheer perfection."
  • Boston Classical Review: "The presence of Ehnes’s violin tone in the large hall seemed as intimate as chamber music, as he effortlessly projected the finest details of Prokofiev’s fantasy-like score. In the piece’s central scherzo, the violinist dazzled with scorching scales, left-hand pizzicato, slashing martellato, and fast, whistling harmonics, all without losing his impeccable cool. Ehnes received, and deserved, the biggest ovation of the night."

Philippe Quint performed Bernstein's "Serenade" with the Grand Rapids Symphony.

  • The Grand Rapids Press: "Quint grabbed the audience by its lapels and refused to let go, announcing his arrival with noble authority before stepping back for a more childlike and playful romp and a series of technical hurdles he made seem rather effortless. His ringing, singing tone, and rock-solid intonation made for a mesmerizing, serene, fourth movement while navigating rocky waters. His athletic performance of the snazzy finale captivated Friday's audience into prompt standing ovation and two curtain calls."

Ilya Gringolts performed the Harris with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra.

  • The New Zealand Herald: "conductor, orchestra and soloist positively relished the very symphonic thrust of this writing. There was no lessening of tension in the faster sections, either, marked by unfailingly idiomatic writing and an almost Stravinskian sense of propulsion. After 20 minutes, a journey had been taken and resolution achieved, as Gringolts gave us his final exquisitely whispered gestures."

Gil Shaham performed the Berg with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

  • Philadelphia Inquirer: "Gil Shaham was soloist, only sometimes achieving full intensity. He had a habit of pivoting between facing conductor and concertmaster, which might have had an intra-ensemble purpose. But it also meant he was sometimes turning his body to eclipse his own sound."

Ji Won Kim performed the Tchaikovsky with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.

  • The Sydney Morning Herald: "Violinist Ji Won Kim drew audience approval for her admirable display of technical facility, secure intonation, fluid bow and a beautifully expressive canzonetta. Kim's performance grew more assured with each passing minute, yet the marriage between soloist and orchestra was often uneasy, threatening to derail in a fast-paced finale."

Karen Gomyo performed the Pintscher with the National Symphony Orchestra.

  • The Washington Post: "It’s an able and impressive piece, sending Gomyo, who is capable of fine sound, fingering in nervous skitters across the strings and finally dying out with the windy sound of tuneless breath, a bow scraping not strings, but the wood of the violin. But I was less taken with it than I’ve been with other Pintscher pieces, however glad I was that the orchestra committed to showcasing the work of an important artist."

Roman Simovic performed the Glazunov with the London Symphony Orchestra.

  • The Telegraph: "The soloist Roman Simovic had a delightful sweet-toned lyricism, and an easy, smiling virtuosity. It was just what was needed to reveal the charm in this somewhat earnest, solidly-crafted piece."

Midori performed the Schumann with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

  • ArtsATL: "Even with the orchestra backing off on volume, as they did, Midori’s solo violin had difficulty cutting through. It doesn’t help that Schumann’s music in this instance is not all that interesting or engaging in the first place. Not the best vehicle for Midori, thus disappointing."

Ning Feng performed "Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso" in the Los Angeles Symphony's Chinese New Year Concert.

  • Violinist.com: "He played...with beautiful expression, agility and character."

Daniel Szasz performed Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons" with the Alabama Symphony.

  • ArtsBham.com: "As thunder and lightning, a hunt with howling dogs, and a virtual aviary unfolded, Szasz contributed supple and sensitive solos."

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

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Laurie's Violin School: Learn (or Teach) Your Key Signatures in Nine Weeks

By Laurie Niles
February 24, 2015 11:23

If only key signatures felt as logical on the violin as they do on the piano!

The true violin native, who did not take piano first or have music theory instruction at school (and these days, who does?), sometimes has a hard time remembering key signatures without the constant reinforcement that the physical structure of a keyboard provides. C major makes sense as the white-key scale that doesn't require any black keys, thus doesn't have any sharps or flats. The concept of G major seems a little easier to understand on a keyboard, where one sharp means one black key.

To back up, what is a key signature? Basically it's the name of the scale that any given piece is built on. A piece in the key of C is based on the scale of C major, which starts on the note "C."

Violin students, like all music students, need to know their sharps, flats and key signatures. At some point, they just need to memorize them. Here are a few aids to help:

SHARPS AND FLATS

First, you need to know the order of the sharps and the flats. (To be thorough in my definitions: sharps make a note a half-step higher, flats make a note a half-step lower).

Below is an acrostic saying that shows the order in which they appear on key signatures. (Sharps: F-C-G-D-A-E-B; Flats: B-E-A-D-G-C-F). Once you know this order, you'll have an easier time determining which notes are sharp and which are flat in various keys. Here is the order of the sharps and flats:

Sharps+Flats

This saying is nice because it demonstrates that the order of the flats is simply the order of the sharps in reverse, and the saying works the same way.

Why are they in a certain order? Because that is the order in which they appear in key signatures. If you have one sharp, it's F#. If you have two sharps, it's F# and C#. Same with flats: if you have one flat, it's Bb. Four flats: Bb, Eb, Ab, Db. A few tricks: I'm always helped by the fact that the first four flats spell "BEAD." Also, when it comes to which saying I need, (battle ends, or Father Charles?) a flat ("b") looks like a "b" so the first flat is "B." If you use a bit of imagination, the sign for a sharp, ("#"), looks a bit like an "F" -- okay not really, but it doesn't look anything like a "b"!

Now that you have the order of the keys, how do you know what key you are in? Here are some tricks:

MAJOR SCALES

C MAJOR: You just have to memorize the fact that the key with no flats and no sharps is the key of C major. That's why those beginning piano students are always obsessing over "middle C."

SHARPS: The name of the key is a half-step up from the last sharp in the key signature. For example, if you just have one sharp, F sharp, the key is one half-step up from F sharp: G major. If you have five sharps, the last sharp is...F#, C#, G#, D#, A#...It's A#, and a half-step up from that is B, so it's the key of B major. I also have a violin-centered way to remember sharp keys: they follow the order of the strings. One sharp? G major. Two sharps? D major. Three? A major. Four? E major. See the pattern? It's the same as the strings on your violin. Five sharps? It's a fifth up from E, so it's B major. It keeps going up in fifths.

FLATS: You just have to memorize the name of the key that has one flat: it's F major. For the other flat keys: the name of the key is the second-to-last flat in the key signature. So what if you have two flats? They would be Bb and Eb; the second-to-last flat is Bb, so it's Bb major. If you have five flats? Going in order, the flats would be Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb. The second-to-last flat is Db, so the key is Db major.

Below is a visual representation of the major keys, called the Circle of Fifths. Why is it called that? Because there is a pattern to the key signatures: every sharp key is a fifth up from the last; every flat key is a fifth down from the last, and then somewhere around "too many sharps" they start crossing over. It makes sense that when you've sharped everything you can sharp, you have the key of C# major, and when you've flatted everything you can flat, you have the key of Cb major. It's come "full circle" from C major, that key with no flats or sharps!

Circle of Fifths

MINOR SCALES

Every major key has an evil twin -- a relative minor key that shares the same key signature. (Maybe it's just slightly more melancholy twin!) The name of the minor key is three half-steps below the name of the major key. If you have the key of F major, the relative minor is D minor. Both keys look the same, they have one flat, Bb. Other ways to think of this: You could also say that the name of the minor key is a minor third below the major key; or simply two notes in the given scale below. (For me, the latter way to think of it is most helpful.)

WORKSHEETS TO HELP MEMORIZE THIS

Let's say your teacher has explained this to you a few (hundred) times, but you still find yourself unsure about what key you are in, or which sharps and flats are what. Or, you find yourself having to stop and work convoluted calculations to figure it out. Should you just stay in the key-signature fog zone? No!

The solution: some simple exercises can help make sense of this while also helping you commit it to memory. Inspired my students' need to drill keys, I created some very simple worksheets to reinforce and practice naming sharps, flats and keys. The first three require writing out the order of the flats and sharps, then identifying some major key signatures. The next three are all about identifying major key signatures; the last three ask for major key signatures, and their relative minor. For all, they have to write out the names of all the flats and sharps in each key. I spend about five minutes of lesson time each week on this for nine weeks, and I send each sheet home with the student, so they can study for next week. After we've done the worksheets, I then forever ask them the key signature of every etude, solo piece, orchestra piece, etc. If they need remediation, we just do it again!

Here are PDF's of the worksheets I've made for my students (home-grown but effective!):

Laurie's key signature worksheets.

Please share your ideas about teaching and learning the key signatures in the comments below!

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Why is Practice Uncomfortable?

By David Baptista
February 24, 2015 06:45

The last few weeks I have been reflecting on the issue of effective practice. As a teacher of beginners on the piano and violin, I am in a privileged position to understand and verify for myself how one can struggle to apply those same basic principles that we try so hard to instill our students. This obviously presents an opportunity for reflection. Interestingly, most of what I will comment on is as applicable to other subjects (eg math, that I also teach, possibly better than I teach piano and violin) as to violin.

Most practice methods (on various instruments, not only the violin) agree on a few basic principles. Practice should be mindful and goal-oriented (not mindless and undirected); new developments should be always practiced slowly first and only up-to-speed when the foundation has been set; and it is desirable for it to be efficient - not playing material that is already well learned over and over, but rather focus on improving steadly over time by tackling challenge after challenge. And there reigns the principle that in order for correct progress to be made, practice must emphasize and repeat the correct way of doing things, meaning a special attentiveness to flaws and mistakes is required, so that one is not crystalizing mistakes through practice (over time, they become bad habits and are hard to take down).

Now why do our students, and ourselves too, very often not follow this pattern of practice at all? One common pattern is that practice is viewed as a chore. Now, real practice does not feel like a chore at all. Most often "chore practice" is the result of not practicing effectively. If there is no purpose assigned to a specific exercise (eg. a scale), or if the material is already well known and is just being repeated for the sake of repetition, then practice is turned into a chore. Worst of all, into a chore that is of little to no benefit. So when students talk to me of their practice time as a chore, I always take it as a sign that they are probably not practicing in the right way.

Chore practice usually stems from one of two reasons. One, there is no guidance being given as what or how to practice. This can be a failure of the teacher to communicate this information to the student, or, in the case of our personal practice schedule, a failure to plan and establish practice goals. This failure is usually easily addressed: one needs only to formulate a plan. Most teachers or intermediate instrumentalists and above are reasonably able to assess their own or their students' shortcomings and use that to establish practice goals.

The second reason that leads to chore practice, and this is one uncomfortable truth to face, is that it can actually be a way to escape actual, effective practice. It is certainly my case and the case of most of my students. In order to obtain effective practice, following the traits I summed up earlier, one has to act as both teacher and student during the practice session, dividing attention between the material being studied and all other aspects of correct execution and performance.

The mental power required for the undertaking is mentally tasking (no less than playing out a chess game). Repeating often repeated advice, if you are not thinking, you are not practicing. Additionally, it can be frustrating, because even effective practice does not produce immediate results. And as competence rises, the gap between technical level and assessment level can rise too, leading to even more frustration (or in other words: you learn to recognize your shortcomings faster than you learn to overcome them). This is especially true in the violin, where so many variables need to be controlled in order to produce a good sounding note.

This means that there is a latent element of discomfort in effective practice, even for the most enthusiastic. One can definitely learn to enjoy it the same way one can enjoy analyzing a chess game; but it is definitely a taste that needs to be acquired, usually through discipline, encouragement, and of course, past results (a very strong motivator). Autodidacts have it hardest, as the pressure to present the material to a teacher regularly is by itself already a motivator for practice, albeit not a very strong one (depending on the personality). They can also lack the external encouragement given by a teacher (that already knows that a good martelé does not develop in a week of practice, no matter how effective).

Now that I have presented my reflection on why effective practice may be inherently an uncomfortable undertaking, the natural follow-up question is how to make it less uncomfortable, and therefore foster it. I touched a little on the subject on the last paragraph, but I think there is more to it. Naturally different personalities will react differently to practice time. I have found, however, that one surefire way to really dislike practice is for it to be the only contact with the violin. It is somewhat akin to perfecting a perfect meal without getting to ever tasting it. In fact, what I find is that what is called as "practice time" is often a mixture of material being played for enjoyment/contact with the violin plus some scales as a sacrifice to the violin gods. What I propose is that wherever you can, find ways to provide both practice time and a separate time to enjoy and play the violin - be it in an orchestra, a band, a group of students, or even alone. If the time to play and enjoy the violin is separated from practice, then we benefit from both getting to enjoy the violin and play music without the (difficult) practice mindset, and also of justifying the practice time and enabling actual effective practice. In fact, which is better? Playing 50 minutes of violin for enjoyment/contact with the violin in one session, and then dedicating 10 minutes of focused, mindful practice on another session, or a single 60 minute session of a mixed activity that is actually neither and provides neither the enjoyment of playing the violin nor the benefits of actual practice?

Please share your thoughts and comments on the issue!

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Frank Peter Zimmermann's 1711 Strad in Limbo

By Laurie Niles
February 23, 2015 10:53

Violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann is scheduled to play the Sibelius later this week with the New York Philharmonic, but it's looking unsure whether he'll do so with the Strad that he has played for the past 12 years.

Frank Peter Zimmermann
Photo by Klaus Rudulph

Under a 2002 contract, Frank Peter Zimmermann has been renting his 1711 "ex-Kreisler" Strad from a now-defunct German bank, WestLB AG. But that contract expired Sunday night, according to Wall Street Journal. Though Zimmerman has a first-buy option, he has said that he is unwilling to pay the price set by the firm now selling the bank's assets, Portigon Financial Services, the Journal said. The violin has been valued at $5.1 million and $5.7 million, but apparently the asking price has been set higher, about $1 million higher, according to Slipped Disc.

What a stressful situation. Here's hoping for a resolution that allows Zimmermann to continue to play the Strad!


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ME(Z)MORIZING

By Kate Little
February 23, 2015 08:45

How to memorize a musical piece:

  • Take a phrase, as short as necessary but as long as you are capable of, and play it ten-times from memory without mistake. If you make a mistake, start the count over.

  • Piece the memorized phrase into longer and longer groups, each time playing ten-times correctly, before moving onto another segment or adding segments together.

This is the Ten-Times Method, which emphasizes building muscle-memory of note sequences. This method works very well for many people. For me, it doesn’t. Inevitably, I make a different mistake on every play through, and struggle to get my count beyond 1, as was the case recently with the Bach Bouree that ends Suzuki Book III.

My teacher asked me to memorize it (Actually, he said: “Honestly, Kate, this piece isn’t going to get any better until you do memorize it.”), but after a week of no progress, I realized that I hadn’t memorized anything since being confronted with the multiplication table in elementary school, and even that hadn’t gone so well. I had to come up with some alternative strategies.

First, starting with what I know I can do easily: Singing. Turning a 15-hour car ride (Bozeman to Omaha) into an opportunity, it took me 4-5 hours to memorize both parts I and II of the Bouree (essentially using the Ten-Times Method) such that I could enjoy the structure and flow of performing it for myself (and my tolerant driving partner).

Next I turned to analysis. There is a lot one can do even if you’ve never studied music theory: Find phrases and compare and contrast their beginnings and their endings. What is similar and different between them? Look at the middle of each phrase and consider what activity is going on. Look for arpeggios, sequences, runs, neighbor and passing tones, and ask where they come from and go to. What is the shape, color, structure of the notes? the phrases? the piece? Dig as deep as possible, allowing the piece to build meaning in your musical imagination.

Physical memorization is essential, but breaking it into components helps. For a unit, be it a short note sequence or an entire phrase, memorize just the fingering or just the bowing, or just the rhythm. Using a long bow stroke and a tuner, work on pitch precision. In largo, examine the hand’s motion from note-to-note. Listen and develop the sound quality of each note, each lick, each phrase. One-at-a-time, combine these components and increase phrase length.

Once everything is together, turn on the metronome at a slow tempo, something playable from memory, and 3-6 clicks at a time, increase the speed, challenging to hold everything together, first in phrases and building to the entire piece.

Take out music notation paper and transcribe the piece. A real test of memory! Begin each memorization session with this exercise, aiming to get more at each transcription. The parts which are incorrect, work extra hard on those when practicing physical memory.

That is six alternative methods for approaching memorization. Use as many as possible, mixing and matching the strategies, working from as many angles as possible. And remember this: memorization can be hard work, but it can be done. Don’t give up. Just keep looking for what works for you.

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P.S. - KCF volunteered the additional technique on Violinist.com Facebook page: "Also, try segmenting chunks of music into a single word or image, so a 4 page piece becomes only 6 'trigger words' to remember...the trigger word represents long sections of the song. First, break up the song into a story, and then outline of the story with trigger word/images. Usually the transition parts are the hardest to sail through, so that's where the trigger word comes in... keeping the brain on track. It could also be the harmonic structure of the song....whatever a simple image to represent large masses of notes . . . It works for improvising through complex Texas Fiddle Tunes/Jazz as well as Classical Rep." This method, used by champion memorizers, is described in the NYT Magagazine article "Secrets of a Mind-Gamer" from February 2011, by Joshua Foer. (http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2011/02/20/magazine/mind-secrets.html)

P.P.S - MS added this thoughtful comment on Violinist.com Facebook page: "Everybody can memorise! But it does take practice and application! . . . You get quicker at it over the years (yes years not days!) . . . if you've never done it much, be patient with yourself."

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Los Angeles Philharmonic Celebrates Chinese New Year 2015 with Ning Feng and Other Chinese Artists

By Laurie Niles
February 20, 2015 19:21

Happy Chinese New Year!

2015 RamThe Los Angeles Philharmonic ushered in the Year of the Ram (or Goat or Sheep -- there seems to be some confusion!) in a concert called "Chinese New Year: From Tchaikovsky to Tan Dun," with a combination of East and West, classic and modern, predictability and surprise.

A Chinese New Year's concert (there will be two more performances, tonight and Saturday night) was a new event for the LA Phil, which is known for its continuing efforts to innovate and reinvent the symphonic experience. This eclectic concert seemed perfectly fitting at Disney Hall, otherwise known as a "living room" for Los Angeles, a city where classical music lives comfortably alongside movie soundtracks, and where diversity of culture thrives.

Happy New Year!This was a party, and it had the trappings. Big red "Happy New Year!" banners, with the message in both Mandarin and English, stood at various entrances, and ushers wished patrons a "Happy Lunar New Year!" as they passed out programs. Inside the programs were red envelopes, decorated with the golden ram, containing messages or coupons. In the hall, red lanterns hung from the lofty ceiling.

I came out of curiosity to hear Chinese-born violinist Ning Feng perform live, and I was not disappointed.

No -- actually I was a little disappointed, but only because I wanted to hear more! He played Saint-Saens' "Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso" with beautiful expression, agility and character. The "Introduction" sounded quite sentimental on the 1721 "MacMillan" Strad that he plays, and the the mercurial "Rondo Capriccioso" had great ebb and flow. I'm completely envious of his up-bow staccato (which is also on display in this YouTube video) and he also tossed off every other mad task in this virtuoso piece with complete ease and musical purpose. Bravo to the LA Phil woodwinds for their playful soli during the violinist's bariolage accompaniment section.

laurie and ning feng
With Ning Feng, who was signing his Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev CDs, after the concert

Pianist Haochen Zhang made Chopin's Andante spianato and Grand Polonaise, Op. 22 seem easy and inevitable, pouring forth like water. A major highlight for me was cellist Jian Wang, whose singing tone, at once strong and nuanced, brought the audience to a hush for the "Rococo Variations" by Tchaikovsky, a piece full of both humor and beautiful melody.

For pure fun, all three soloists played with the orchestra for Chinese composer Tan Dun's "The Triple Resurrection," a 2013 piece which features quotes from his best-known movie scores such as "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," "Hero," and "The Banquet." Without yet reading the program notes, I sensed that Ning Feng's opening violin solo was a water theme, which beautifully weaves in and out of the piano and cello solos. I concluded that I'd been correct when I heard something that most definitely was a water theme, the actual sound of moving water. How exactly did they sneak two enormous glass bowls of water into the percussion section without my noticing at all? A microphone was trained on each bowl, with musicians swishing their hands through the water to make sounds like a kid in the bathtub (minus the squeals). The surprise of this sound and sight seemed to delight a lot of people, myself included. There was a giant orchestral crescendo that climaxed into: a solo water swish -- definitely original! The piece kept getting better, strings soaring melodically over all kinds of driving percussion and syncopation. The end was met with an immediate standing ovation.

As an encore, the orchestra brought back the same Spring Festival Overture that opened the concert, this time joined by four dancing dragon puppets in green, gold and red, each manned by two gymnasts. They made their surprise appearance in various aisles, then worked their way toward the stage, where they danced, "slept" (their puppet eyes closed) and frolicked to the music. A long orange dragon, held aloft on sticks by some half-dozen people, stretched across the entire length of the floor as it paraded down and across the aisles.

with dragon

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V.com weekend vote: Do you hold your bow thumb bent or always straight?

By The Weekend Vote
February 20, 2015 09:26

There's no such thing as a "proper bow hold."

That's because any "bow hold" we create changes as the bow moves up and down, and we have to let it do so. We try to set up the hand and fingers so that certain mechanics can work, but to describe this set up as a single "bow hold" or "bow grip" is not quite right.

That said, different kinds of finger placement lead to slightly different mechanics, and one of the most crucial fingers in deciding how you cope with that ever-moving stick is the thumb. Is it straight all the time, or does it bend when moving up to the frog?

bent thumbLike many violinists and teachers, I play with, and advocate, a bent thumb. This provides both strength and flexibility in the bow hand, and it requires a strong pinkie, to take the weight of the bow at the frog. Of course, when the bow is far at the tip, the thumb will straighten, but the thumb bends as the bow moves upward and the weight of the stick shifts to the pinkie. It's usually a feature of the Franco-Belgian bow hold.

straightHowever, many players have a bow in which the thumb is straight, even locked, whether at the tip or the frog. This usually involves a high wrist at the frog, and very often the pinkie is straight as well. I would love to hear from those who make this type of bow hand work, because I know less about how the mechanics function in this bow hand, which is more aligned with the so-called "Russian" bow hold.

I have to say, there are a lot of famous violinists who have made rather unusual-looking bow set-ups work, for example:

famous thumbs
L-R: "Paganini," Heifetz, Kavakos, Ysaye

In the above photo (Editor's note, which is a fake! See comments below), Paganini's thumb appears to be pointing up the stick, certainly unusual! It's hard to know how exactly he held the bow several hundred years after the fact, but various drawings and pictures would lead me to believe: rather strangely (perhaps due in part to his Marfan syndrome). This all serves as a reminder: we each have our own physical shape, and so technique will vary.

How do you hold your thumb on the bow? Is it bent at least some of the time, or is straight all the time?

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