January 25, 2007 16:29
What do you do to get people to play more expressively?
I can understand the frustration of having a student who doesn’t play with feeling, but the truth is, a person without them is dead. it is all in there for any normal person. Anecdotally, there is a well known pedagogue in London teaching at the Academy who told a friend of mine the following: `when Japanese girls come over they often play flawlessly. But I have to wait a few months for them to have an affair and their hearts to get broken before they really start to play...`
Make of that what you will.
My approach is somewhat different. I believe the whole question of emoting is extremely dodgy and one often sees supposedly quite advanced students and even professionals who confuse physical play acting as emoting and can even trick a listener into believing that their playing is emotional. This, to me, is the strongest manifestation of the false consciousness about our playing that the majority of players tend to build up. What the great players have in spades is genuine awareness of what they are doing.
To clarify this let me recount a couple of experiences I have had in Alexander teacher training classes. One time a trainee took to his beloved harmonic and began a very good rendition of some blues. Not bad at all. The instructor did the usual magic of resetting the primary control and bringing the player into the present. The difference was painful. Man, those blues blew me away. The player stooped and was asked `what do you think about that?` He was angry and said so. `You took away my sadness.` This was crazy to us but that was a genuine response. He had learnt to kid himself though misdirection of self.
The same thing happened to me in a master class with Vivien Mackie quite a few years ago. I played a Mozart concerto to a small audience and it seemed averagely okay. Then she worked on my primary control (neck, head back) and had me simply pay attention to that and imagine giving the music to the audience as a present. I thought the playing was okay but felt very empty which I remarked on to Vivien. She suggested I look at the audience. Some of them were crying (maybe it was that bad…). Vivien commented `the first time I heard you play I wondered why you went to music college all those years ago. This time I know. You are an artist.`
What I learnt from this kind of experience repeated over and over again is that when we try and get people to be emotional we are frequently blocking the genuine emotional content which flows through us when we are a vessel for the message. If you like, there is nothing more boring that watching someone cry.
Which still leaves the original problem...
For me the solution is often rather paradoxical sounding. You want more emotion focus on technique. Or rather, focus on nuance through the medium of technique. Nuance consist of dynamics, rhythm and accent. It is well worth reading and rereading Auers chapter on this in his little book `Violin Playing as I Teach it.` Then work very diligently on producing these, especially dynamics. Teach exactly what a graded crescendo means by example and even through the use of the voice. IE have a student say a word progressively louder than a sound. people know immediately what a crescendo is through this medium! A students inability to produce dynamics is a technical limitation in the sense that even if they don’t feel them (not usually true) the block is a specific use of the bow speed, sound point, or whatever. The teacher can really focus on these. Incidentally, a very good way to get students to pay attention to and produce dynamics is simply to ask them to play a piece doing the exact opposite of what is written on the page
Once one has a crescendo or diminuendo in place the question a student has to address is where is it going which leads to a discussions of whether or not an accent (agogig, dynamic or whatever) is necessary and if so, is it to be done with vibrato speed or bow speed or whatever?
Interestingly, because of the time it was written, Auer`s book does not reflect contemporary idea s on vibrato. However, it is an essential part of expressiveness and is almost always left to chance. So much so that the student often acquires the believe that vibrato is connected to dynamics. Not really. It has always seemed natural to me to connect vibrato with intensity. Not the same thing at all. Once this is clarified in the students mind one can pose questions about what vibrato speed and width seems to go best on such and such a note. Are you trying to increase of decrease intensity? If you are doing a crescendo here would you increase or decrease the speed and or width?
Very often students lack the –techncial- ability to vary the vibrato and once they have been shown the one can isolate the factor of intensity IE omit dynamics and practice only in terms of vibrato speed an important technical weakness has been revealed that can be worked on quite mechanically through such means as Basics exercises.
These are all highly technical questions which don’t push a student into the mental corner of thinking they are not emotional enough or are inadequate as a person.
The result of working backwards form end result (nuance ) to expressive (since a piece played with nuance is expressive) is that a student recognizes the nature of being expressive as something they can achieve that is not dependent on their real or imaginary psychological condition which may lead to all manner of complexes.
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January 20, 2007 16:11
a member recently posted the question ‘what are good bowing studies?" Its a huge and interesting question that can be approached from many directions.
The simplest answer would perhaps be to recite the standard list of etudes that , in theory at elates , should make a well rounded violinist. Something like:
Wohlfart- beginners book.
Kayser- very solid basic bowing.
Mazas- more elegant - compliments the Kayser well.
Kreutzer- Heifetz called it the ‘professional’s handbook.’ Use until you die...
Rode caprices- very elegant, Kogan’s number study book above Kreutzer.
Dancla- about the same level as the Rode and very beautiful.
Dont- advanced etudes the key to big concerto playing.
These studies address both right and left so just starting at the right level and working systematically ought to do the job.
However, unless one practices with awareness and a genuine understanding of exactly what is being worked on and why there is nothing more soul destroying than working through etude after etude, week after week with only minimal improvement. This understanding is also useful in helping one make decisions about which etudes not to do- for the right reasons, not because of personal preferences. A book which can most levels of player get a better grasp of what they are doing is Robert Gerle’s Art of Bowing. One of the best books on the violin to come out in years.
This is not the end of the story though. There are also systems and approaches which seek to reduce the amount of left hand work. These may be a faster way of learning a particular technique are important for dealing with specific problems, and daily maintenance once the basic technique is in place.
One such system is the sevcik school of bowing technique.with its 4000 plus variations on basic chords. Flesch was a strong advocate of this system and explained in detail in "The Art of Violin Playing’ how to practice such exercises in order not to become numbed. The two strongest critics of the system I am aware of were Joseph Szigeti who argued that each moment in music is a unique work of art that cannot be prepared for by mechanical exercises. He was very much in favor of integrating development of bowing and stylistic awareness through such works as the Bartok 44 duets (written with a pedagogic purpose, but some of the greatest music around) and the Doflein method which uses just such an approach. Likewise the Ronkin’s in "Technical fundamentals of the Soviet Masters" argue that since the amount of bowings are infinite it is much more logical to learn the 8 basic bowings perfectly and then be able to combine them at will.
Detailed study of the 4000 strokes in sevcik may in fact to ore harm than good. After all, one has to spend some time learning about music and pursue intellectual as well as cultural development...there are basic stroke types of which every violinist should have a clear notion. The others are either derivative variants or have no significant role....
7) dotted rhythm bowing
(Personally I fell omission of colle is a mistake.)
I don’t think either side is absolutely correct on this issue. There are superb exercises in the sevcik that violinists may use their whole lives to sustain and improve technique. Op 2 part four is a personal favorite. But getting back to the basic strokes above, how should one go about learning them? Obviously a good teacher will know how to teach each one clearly and effectively and have an understanding of why they are being taught in a certain order (which varies from teacher to teacher). They must also understand the bowing connection with each other. For example, whereas sauitille originates in detache bowing, spicatto has its origins in martele which can be developed though colle first in many cases.
The bowings can be , and usually are I think , taught through the classic etudes above. However, things have changed a little over the years with books like '‘Basics’ describing in great deal exercises for all these bowings. The question has now been raised as to what extent one does need etudes as opposed to just working on exercises? Personally I think it would be a shame to go too far in the pure exercise direction. Etudes may not be the worlds greatest music at time, but they are music and therefore provide the useful blend of technique and purpose well suite for learning. A piece ay not have enough consistent examples, an exercises fails to serve as a reminder that we are working on something only for a musical end.
Fischer’s ‘Basics’ provide a very concise set of daily bowing exercises derived largely from sevcik that are excellent for violinist maintenance all the way up to something like upper intermediate. After this level the player may want to shop around and it is quite likely that they will return to soothing like the Kreutzer etudes which they may have played through in a desultory fashion in their youth , basically to please the teacher. Kreutzer no 2 can be used in an infinite number of ways to cover the basic bowings mentioned above. What s missing is regular string crossing patterns over three strings. Thus it is equally possible to sustain one bowing technique (and continue to improve it using etude no 13, particularly working at the heel.
Another good manual that many people use, perhaps not so well known is the Casorti which also includes the basic strokes, especially at the heel.
In the end however, after working on the standard etudes, myriad exercises etc. One will begin to make personal choices about what they want to do i a day and make up a routine using the etude that suit the best (often Kreutzer) and a selection of exercises. A typical daily routine on bowing for myself is:
son file- 1 minute bow stroke 15 minutes.
Irregular combination small bowings at heel- Kreutzer no 2. 15min.
String crossing etude- Kreutzer 13 15 min.
Whatever you decide, it is always worth remembering that the art of violin playing lies in the less tangibly rewarding (in the short term)work on the bow arm . If one is not willing to spend a lifetime exploring and refining it then it is probably better to play the piano.
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January 17, 2007 17:21
was inspired to write this blog by Al, who relentlessly practice technique for two hours everyday.
Al, just a thought, but unless you are practicing between four and five hours everyday there is quite a serious imbalance in what you are doing in terms of technical versus musical work. I know that a) you work better than a lot of beginners because of your musical know how and b) every individual is different.
But, there does exist knowledge about practicing, playing, performing in this field which have proven relentlessly correct. One of which is that technique is only a means to an end. Unfortunately this has acquired a somewhat distorted interpretation of: thus the more technical practice I do the better my end will be (not Sharon Stone’s). This is a highly inaccurate interpretation of the idea `the better technique I have the better the end result. `
Where the position breaks down is that when the violin is approached this way technique becomes compartmentalized as something separate from expressing the music inside you. This actually results in inefficient practice. What I think happens is you lose the `highly efficient` processing opportunity of a technique falling effortlessly into place because the mind is actually focused on higher order expression and the subconscious or `self 2` according to the inner game of tennis , is being trusted to do the right thing automatically.
Very often the goal itself can be the means!!!
The other danger of this approach to the instrument is that little by little one begins to see music in terms of a series of technical challenges to be overcome. Once this slippery road has been chosen our long term goals of getting up in front of people and moving them to tears or at least to sling their underpants at you becomes an increasingly elusive goal. How often has it occurred that a less than perfect player has touched you to the very core while a note perfect machine has left one cold and unsatisfied. (A year or two ago I heard a Japanese violinist play the Saints Seans so utterly flawlessly it would have put Heifetz and Milstein to shame. There was so little passion , tenderness or humanity in her playing I wanted to leave after the first page.... )
To be even more concrete , the one factor in playing that really begins to disappear with excessive technical work at any level is nuance, a factor of dynamics, tempo (subsumes rhythm and rubato) and all types of accent. When learning a new piece I strictly advise my students to focus most of all on nuance (especially dynamics) and big picture of interpretation for a couple of weeks before breaking things down in technical terms. The polished result comes considerably faster. The technical approach often ends up in boredom and the half arsed promise to `come back to that piece with fresh ears in a month or so. ` Something that rarely happens....
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January 16, 2007 15:58
Last night I went to see the Philharmonia Quartett Berlin. They played Haydn’s `Rider ` quartet. Mozart no 18 in a major KV 464 and then were joined by Boris Petrushansky for the Brahms piano quintet in f minor opus 34.
First impression was the type of sound. Over time I have acquired a preference for what I condier to be a very distinctive sound and playing style of quartet exemplified by the Budapest, Guarneri and Cleveland Quartets. I tend to be less excited by the silky smooth, highly refined approach of for example, the Alban Berg quartet, superb though they are. The Berlin Quartet is somewhat in the same mould. Elegant and smooth Haydn, fantastic control and not really as gripping as I would have liked. It made me imagine Milstein saying to a highly polished student `Why don’t you play ugly for a change?` Having said that, the slow movement of the Haydn was one of the most beautiful sounds I have ever heard on stage. Such a tremendous range of colors and variety. That was real art. Just that made the whole concert worthwhile.
What is it that makes the Mozart quartets so difficult to pull off? Here was a group of some of the worlds greatest ensemble players with technique up the wazoo and somehow there was a significant divergence of ideas in the first movement to the extent that ensemble -almost - went awry. Actually quite n uncomfortable feeling. The seemingly more difficult last movement (? I forgot)with the cello beginning a rapid 16ths accompaniment the other instruments join in or play melodies with , by contrast, hung together very well. Now that is what would have killed a lesser quartet. The cellist ,Jan Diesselhorst and viola, Neithard Resa, played dozens of the most sensitive phrases throughout the work which in themselves were an absolute joy. Over all however, the performance did not cohere that well. Ah, Mozart…… (son ofa #$%)
Talking to people in the intermission tended dot conform my feeling of lack of bite and contrast. Too much beauty is not a good thing and there was a distinct air of sleepiness in the place.
Thanks , I suspect a great, to the pianist, the Brahms was san electrifying tour de force in which at the various climaxes four our of five players were literally jumping out of there seats. The sheer quantity of sound produced by a group of this size was awesome. (Why not in the first half? Sob)
It was interesting to see how little vibrato was used in the first movement of the Brahms. The first violin in particular was playing `white` a lot of the time with no loss of beauty or effect whatsoever. As the movement went on the e vibrato input increased very effectively. How calculated this was I have no idea.
An interesting aspect of this quartet I felt was that they played as orchestral players rather than quartet. What I mean by this is the body language and movement was that of front desk players working as a team as though there were an invisible section behind each of them. The effect was somehow very different from a longstanding quartet only.
As an encore they repeated the Scherzo of the Brahms. Wished they had the foresight to play another lighter piece. Too much apple pie and cream is hard on the liver.
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January 14, 2007 16:12
Well, the conductor decided to start with the 4th movement of Beethoven 9. So I’m sitting there diligently counting as the single cellist did bizarre things with whatever it is a cellist is supposed to play. The second violinist had fallen asleep I think and didn’t come in at all. Two bars later I played a beautifully articulated and tension packed de, dum across the bar line pp as Beethoven indicated.. The conductor stopped. `Not loud enough.` The second violinist woke up and we went from the preceding two bars. A charming mp, de,dum from Buri. The conductor stopped. `Not loud enough.` We went back and I cam in with a Kreutzer is mf de,dum,. The conductor stopped. Not loud enough. Now I am really pissed. Back two bars. De effing dum using wb martele. `That\`s it. ` said the conductor. `What do I do when its marked FF with an accent? ` I asked. `Play louder,` he responded…..
The question of thirds.
There are a small number of practice methods for learning thirds which are described in most of the literature. However, without understanding the mechanics of what is being done giving scales in 3rds (for example in the Flesch) to students and telling them to `practice slowly and listen carefully,` isn’t going to do much good and may even do harm.
The first thing to recognize is the reason why thirds may be a little more awkward than 6ths and octaves: they occur in the closed hand position as opposed to `open.` That is, in a sixth the lower number finger is on the lower string and the higher on the higher. In thirds this is reversed and to a beginner it does not feel at all good.
Placing the hand in this position for thirds is a wonderful diagnostic tool that may show up a slight error that single notes do not- the hand is often placed too near the scroll and the fingers stretch towards the nose. This is wrong. The fundamental rule is that the fourth finger is curved and relaxed and over the left elbow. Unless this position is correct all the slow practice in the world is useless. In order to achieve this feeling in the hand I advise beginners to practice an exercise which actually breaks some of the rules of third playing albeit briefly.
Place the fourth finger on the g string and adjust the hand so it is relaxed . Having `memorized` the feeling of this hand position place your third finger on `c.` Keep it rounded and balanced. There is no stretch. It is important to keep the space between the thumb and first finger open. While playing this 3rd as a long note silently place the first finger. The third finger must not change shape.. Play the double stop. Take the first finger off. Leaving the third finger on.
Put the fourth finger on.
Remove the third. Keep the balance on the fourth finger.
Place the 2nd finger (stretched back) without changing the fourth finger.
Play the double stop.
No particular rhythm is necessary. Work this way on all the notes of the scale.
Once this is under control one might consider analyzing scale sin 3rds as Flesch himself did as consisting of three parts. I am always amazed at teachers who blithely give out the Flesch scales without bother to explain to students how Flesch himself analyzed and taught scales in 3rds.
A scale in thirds has four basic LEFT HAND problems. 1 and 2) Vertical finger action plus stretch. 3change of position and 4) change of string.
For one month Flesch had his students play only falling and stretching exercises. IE no shifting and only use two strings.
During the second month they practiced only shifting IE 2413 up and down on the same two thirds over and over.
In the third month they practiced only string changing, IE the same two thirds repeated back and forth over changing strings.
Only then were the scales put together.
I suggest one also spend a great deal of time on the following exercise before doing the complete scale everyday. Play only the 13 double stops in a slurred bow, missing out the 24s. In doing this the hand knows exactly where it is going as it is anchored clearly without the mind being confused.
Another factor in the intonation of thirds is the bow! That is, if you are too near the finger board, (very common) the sound will be poor and the string stretched out of tune. String length is also crucial. A third consists of two strings of different lengths. A longer string can take more bow weight than a shorter one so although the difference is small , the distribution of weight is different. One exercise to help you find this is to play a third on a slow long bow UNDULATING between the strings as rapidly as possible as many times as possible in one stroke. After doing this a few times the weight of the bow tends to distribute itself correctly across the two strings.
Finally, remember that the use of two fingers has a strong tendency to promote gripping in the left hand. This must be guarded against at all costs.
All the best,
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January 8, 2007 21:07
Post-winter vacation is not the time for serious thought so just some idle rambles while my brain gets back into gear over the next week or so.
Ended up last year with two touching musical experiences. First I was booked to er, lead Beethoven’s 9th. Apart from some tricky passages in the last movement this is not exactly technically challenging but I prepared as well as I could and rolled up on the day. Was somewhat puzzled and asked the organizer where the orchestra was since I could only see five chairs and a grand piano on stage. `That’s it,` I was told. `Beethoven’s 9th symphony for chorus accompanied by violin, viola, cello , clarinet and a piano. By the way, its going to be broadcast on TV.` Lunacy aside, as we were playing it was astonishing the way the greatness of Beethoven’s music still managed to be so deeply moving.
When I think of Beethoven I always think of the quartets which I heard so many cycles of as a boy (parental fetish I suspect) , always in cold British churches out in the boondocks. Although I have played all of the many times with many different groups of esteemed colleagues I have never been in a situation where putting together and keeping a satisfactory quartet has worked. Its just not compatible with the lifestyle if most music students (somebody always has a lesson) , professionals (someone always has a gig) or Japanese musicians (somebody always has to commit hara kiri….) For me, creating a good quartet takes hour upon hour of rehearsal day after day. I have never quite got the satisfaction from playing quartets `for fun` that I have always hope dreamed of. It only takes one less talented player or hitherto unsuspected personality defect and -poof- the new group you have been looking forward to for weeks mumbles polite goodbyes. Better luck next time….
Our piano trio has been performing regularly over the last few years and this particular genre has less logistical and temperamental problems. However, there is a simple truth about this kind of group- you gotta have a truly outstanding pianist. One who can flip open a Schubert Trio, look at the black notes , twiddle around for 30 seconds while volubly cursing, and then just play. Our first pianist was not quite up to it but her replacement is a superb Geidai graduate who eats fistfuls of notes like I used to chomp donuts before I became a guru of the bowels. Now, although we are constantly working in detail on concert repertoire, we can meet and just play through Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms and Mozart trios as will. It’s bloody marvelous. And this technical freedom to explore has thrown up some of the most fantastic gems of music by Haydn that have just blown me away. I find myself asking again and again, why is it that when we are asked who the greatest composer are Haydn rolls of the tongue somewhere in the top ten if he’s lucky? In the piano trios there is music so exploratory and weird it sometimes feels like one is playing some modern composer, and then there are so many slow movements that are so timeless and beautiful it is like your heart beat is suspended in a different universe (not sure what that means....). I am thinking in terms of a Haydn cycle over the next year or so .
Finally I noticed in a recent discussion a reference to just `playing through` Kreutzer no.2 using the prescribed (or should that be proscribed) bowings. This started an interesting line of thought about the value of such work or not. In Fischer’s book Basics, he mentions that many professional players keep their bowing in shape by playing through this etude everyday in a plethora of variations. But I wonder if this kind of approach has been misinterpreted to some extent. Does it really follow that playing through this etude as opposed to Kayser no1 for example, really does revolutionize the bow arm? Or is it simply that it’s a good brusher upper for already well trained bow arms (which I suspect was Kreutzer’s original plan)?
Part of the problem is that it is potentially very boring and boredom is a warning sign that must be interpreted correctly and acted on immediately. Boredom is our mind’s way of telling us something -very- useful in our practice: our current work is either too easy of too difficult. Effective practice occupies the zone between these areas and we have to develop the skill of nudging our way back into this rather narrow area where the task is interesting and moderately challenging. One way of doing this with the Kreutzer is to consider our goal. For example, it may be that we want to equalize the sound on up bows and down bows or make sure that the 16th notes have equal tonal weight. We can do this by telling ourselves to listen but this task does become boring because it is not precise enough. There is a flurry of fast notes and we have to decide which one exactly was a little unequal and then what? Stop and go back? More often than not we just let it pass because that is the human thing to do. It is perhaps helpful then to do something different with the problem to get it back into the useful practice zone. I suggest working with the accents, they are provided in the Galamian editions as the first 4 variations. Instead of focusing on equality one is then focused on a very clear task of creating INEQUALITY on specific notes. This is the kind of focus the mind can work with very well and it can only be done initially by paying attention which is when work is effective. One can double the potential work by starting up bow instead of down as well. But then things can become more complex if one decides to mix these accents in with the bowing exercises provided. If one does that then a whole slew of new challenges crop up to dispel routine.
But maybe I am getting ahead of myself here. Instead of approaching the etude as something to be played through as a whole, perhaps one can break it down into its constituent patterns first. Thus, if one were to play the first bar the pattern for bow arm without left hand is aeee eeaa aeee eeaa (assuming an open e) which can be isolated and practiced in all parts of the bow and with all variations even before combined with left hand. One might choose to work on only a few bars in this way in a single day so that the etude actually takes a week or so of detailed work to build up. Just like Sevcik!
This kind of work also gives one time to isolate and work on the two fundamental areas of bowing that are frequently ignored completely during the robotic play through approach:
1) The bow moves towards the next string prior to a string crossing.
2) One should take the time to make conscious decisions which unit of the arm is actually doing the string crossing. Is your brain actually confused about whether it is supposed to keep the arm in one place and use the wrist and or forearm or vice versa?
All this is before one has even considered the left hand which always interest me in this etude. When I worked on this piece in college my teacher made me play it in 2nd, 4th and 6th positions. That is completely logical and may well have been what Kreutzer had in mind. It does of course triple the workload. But then we violinists are a diligent bunch, are we not?
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