September 20, 2007 16:15
One of the great advantages of being a dilettante teacher when I choose to be is that I am free to explore and make connections (or not) between many disciplines, music and the violin without screwing up some hapless student who just wants to survive an institute and get a job. What I have enjoyed most over the years is integrating playing into the overall frame work of Alexander Technique (See Buri`s Studio, Barbara Conable`s website and current thread for explanation). This often raises questions or contradictions the majority of which are resolved with a little thought. Sometimes though, the AT will accurately contradict some very typical statements or approaches to playing at a surprisingly high level and seem to be correct on investigation. An example that interests me a lot is the question of what leads in the right arm. Very often good players (very good players actually) will say that `the elbow leads.` Now that’s kind of interesting. it clearly achieves a desired and effective result. However, I suspect it is more a description of the external aspect of something rather different.
What I mean by this begins with a cup of coffee That’s always a good place to start, especially if its from a good Starbucks. If you are not on an intravenous caffeine drip how do you pick up that cup between each version of the acceleration exercise then what do you do? Does you elbow lead you to that elixir of life. Try it and then clean up the mess. Actually your fingers/hand lead because it is in the fingers that your secondary brain exists and it is these that organize what everything else does. We already take this for granted in the left hand where rigid mantras about wrist and thumb have been replaced in recent years by the notion of organizing the fingers and then working around set up.
The implication of this is quite important I think. Very often students seem to be struggling for a straight bow because they assume that it is something to do with focusing on the arm/elbow/shoulder when in fact all this needs to be organized by attention to what the fingers are feeling and how the hand is moving in space as a result.
Often simply asking the student to notice `what the hand is doing in the air` can achieve a straight bow faster than many other instructions.
The cellist William Conable once explained this to me in a different way by asking me to draw a line on a white board with a marker pen. `How do you keep it straight?` He asked me. The answer he helped me find was that the feeling of the tip of the pen on the paper sends data to the fingers which in conjunction with the eyes correlate everything else. The parallels with the bow hair on the string is obvious I think.
One thing that is not being said here is that fingers need to be very active in violin playing. For some people this is definitely true (the Galamian school is typical) and for others not (Cf Milstein) all and either will do depending on the player. (Personally I work my fingers –really- hard in practice and ignore them in performance) . My point is that one can explore much more deeply and even alter what part of the body is leading, where the mind is actually or should be focused and it is studies in arts like AT that can help us address these questions to whatever degree we wish.
4 replies | Archive link
September 12, 2007 16:26
Here in Japan, and presumably elsewhere, there have been some big shifts in the movie rental/owning business. It use dot be that if you wanted a video for a week you went to a shop and paid a lot of money. Then came DVDs and it way somewhat similar. But something changed and now you can buy DVDs in convenience stores for not much more than the cost of rental and certainly less than taking your family to the movie theater. At first these were old Cary Grant and John Wayne era stuff but now it seems a new movie comes out and goes on sale almost simultaneously.
It also seems that this new source is an outlet for very second rate new movies that are barely worth the energy of marketing in the usual way. I have picked up some very odd ones recently for a pittance. Once such, Scary movie number 3, is made, presumably by the team who turned out all those spoof movies with Charlie Sheen involving planes. It pokes fun at among other many of the great movies of the decade such as the Matrix. It actually does have some genuinely funny moments and since I have nothing better to do today I am musing on why they are funny. How does this team keep churning out stuff utterly lacking in depth that is at times, side splitting?
I think it is an interesting combination of interpretation out of context and enlargement of the norm. An example of the former from a same genre movie:
a) No family?
b) No it’s just me and my bike.
a) Aaaa. A loner.
b) No. I paid for it.
Or the latter: girlfriend a visits girlfriend b who is in the throes of an emotional crisis. B is spooning up ice-cream as comfort food as is standard in developed countries these days. However the tub of Haagen Darz ice cream is about 10 liters in size.
In some senses these things relate to music making for me. The first step in understanding a passage is to play it literally as it is written on the page. But there is so much more to do with context. Where it is situated in the overall structure; what is its mood in relation to the immediate context; what is the mood and character of the piece; what of the context in which the work was written or even the period?
Larger than life? I think this is a question of what people hear as opposed to what we hear. I read somewhere that there has to be something like a ten percent drop in dynamic before the ear registers that a dynamic has changed in apiece of music. Not sure how true that is but as Ms. Delay once said in relation to dynamics and character `you have to hit the audience over the head with a hammer.` The practice room is not the same as being on stage.
12 replies | Archive link
September 11, 2007 18:01
Yesterday I had a great time putting together a very nice piece of work. I copied all of the e-mails in the `secrets` section of Clayton Haslop`s homepage into word. Cleaned them up and printed them out as a book. As I was reading through a number of things sprung to mind incidental to the sheer quality of the work.
First of all what a powerful tool the Internet is for making useful information available to everyone. Concomitant with this is a kind of change in people’s attitude towards teachers in a given field. For people of my age information and advice was earned the hard way. We had to earn the money, travel sweat. Often we had to earn the privilege to be granted information. Now so much is freely available there often seems ot be an assumption that teachers should freely give away their knowledge and resources without a care in the world, almost as though they have no families to support. So we sometimes see people commenting on how great violinists are ungenerous with their help (something I have never found) or I recall in Mr. Haslop`s case him being criticized on some forums for sending out commercials disguised as `violin secrets.` Well of course Mr. Haslop has to make money. More power to his elbow. But read this stuff again and one has to concede this is quite a gift. If you go through the whole lot and haven’t found anything that either inspires you or quite radically helps you playing or both then I would suggest you are the problem. (One of my favorites is great advice for a non-rest user: as you down shift raise you arm to compensate for the natural tendency to lower the instrument. Very important!)
On a different subject, something I have found very striking during my recent work with one of Japan’s best amateur orchestra which is putting on Mahler five. I got into the habit of going early to rehearsals to watch people practice and the noticeable thing was what a waste of time people were doing in the interests of learning the notes. I don’t think I have ever heard a player of any instrument recognize one of the simplest and most profound points that can be made about learning this instrument: any error or problem occurs between two notes.
Instead we hear players recognizing a phrase is not so good and repeating it ad nauseum until they give up. No wonder progress is so slow. It is an all to easy trap to fall into as I noticed myself doing the other day. I was having a little trouble with one of the exercises from Agopian`s `No Time to Practice book.` Basically, the fourth finger is anchored on an f in fifth position on the e string. The fingers then stretch back on the a string and play eff#gagf#f repeat using the following fingers: 12233 mm116 in 16ths. I tried playing it slower, relaxing and all the rest of it, but it wasn’t until I had clearly identified between which two notes the problem lay and practiced that as a discrete entity in different rhythm patterns that I was able to go back to the original and play it correctly up to speed.
We really do have to go to the source of the problem before placing it in context. `About here` just doesn’t cut it.
3 replies | Archive link
September 5, 2007 18:47
In a recent post somebody inquired about how to improve double stop trills in fingered octaves, 3rds etc, for Chausson`s Poeme and the like. The responses were all absolutely first rate responses offering what I would call `discrete solutions` that were basically centered around more and more sophisticated practice. It left me feeling slightly regretful until George Philips wrote about `balance` which began to take things off into an interesting dimension. What I mean by this is that violinists as a breed separate what our hands are doing from the `whole` and the consequences can be awful. I know this from first hand experience of playing difficult pieces throughout my childhood with no attention paid to anything to do with the whole body. As the tensions and distortions became more and more embedded music lost all its joy for me and even though I worked through college I was always in pain when I played and none of the fine teachers I went to had anything much to offer in the way of solutions that would help me. It just didn’t seem to be in fashion at that time…. If I was director of a Music College my program would have all the freshman spending the first three months doing Alexander technique, yoga classes and meditation everyday. Maybe that’s why I haven’t had any offers yet.
Many years later I have redone the way I work and play from scratch and it hasn’t been easy or rather it has been progressively easier. These days I think more teachers understand the totality of violin playing so more students don’t have to go through the years of misery I endured. Think of Kempner`s approach in `Teaching Muscles to Learn,` Mimi Zweig talking about `tension in the toes being a problem` (in fact that is a –major- and very common problem) or Mr. Weilerstein using Alexander based techniques and ideas in his lessons as just a few examples.
Indeed it was through Alexander lessons that I first began to understand how one has to be before even attempting to play anything as complex as the violin and the more deeply I explore this background the more I trace errors and problems to areas utterly outside the traditional `discrete` solutions to technical problems. Indeed, when the discrete solutions produce only slight improvement (they usually produce some) I think teachers tend to subconsciously classify students as `more or less talented..` An unfair and often wildly imprecise classification that is almost certainly echoed in the students mind at some level with a great deal of their practicing and learning being concerned with developing their own system of `red flags.` `Fingered octaves are difficult. I’ve got small hands so I can’t do xyz. I am a nervous person onstage etc..`
The basic physiological premise underlying Alexander technique is that existence of two systems involved in utilizing skills. A primary system which organizes the self (no separation is made of mind and body) and secondary systems which do the skills at the local level. Thus in playing the violin, whatever technique we are attempting, unless the primary organization system is correctly set IE the correct relationship between head neck and back called the Primary Control, it is not possible to perform a skill to maximum potential which is, I think what was being hinted at when balance was mentioned at the beginning. It is traditionally helpful to pick on specific muscles in the hand and say `relax here.` However, this actually sets up tension between a new demand and an old habit that in the long run does more harm than good in many cases. Far more useful is the ability to cut new channels of command to action by working on the whole organism.
I apply this principle everyday in practice. For me, the most useful book of daily technical work is Agopian`s `No Time to Practice` which makes the hilarious claim it can be completed in 30 minutes assuming `no potty breaks.` It’s a hard core book for professionals and advanced students (not till next week Albert) that includes leaping all over the instrument at speed, extremely rapid crossing of bow from e to g string, trilled thirds and fingered octaves, demanding finger independence exercises and so. When I first began using it seriously a year or so ago I fell back into the old patterns I’d learnt of just going for it and letting sloppiness pass. I’d work discretely on the fingered octaves, perhaps slowing the mm in the oft cited and inaccurate belief that simply playing something slower , trying to keep the hand relaxed and speeding it up by increments will improve it ;) until finally I came to my senses and worked on all the exercises in relations to the whole organism. It all fell into place very quickly. As Szeryng once remarked in exasperation `The violin really isn’t –that- difficult!`
However, the moment I hear an error creep in I stop and ask where something is happening that is stopping the technique from working? More often than not it is a slight clenching in the neck or an unnecessary movement somewhere else in the body. Let that go and the world is once more at one with itself.
Bottom line, if you want to be able to do hard stuff take Alexander lessons.
Then work yer arse off.
22 replies | Archive link
September 3, 2007 21:13
What is it about violinists and dynamics?
Around the beginning of time when I was attending the Royal College and we had orchestral training I remember our conductor telling us a story about his wife who was the principle bassoon of the LSO. They had a concert with Boulez who was asking the bassoon section to play pppp, a level she was unable to attain to the maestro’s satisfaction. She came home that night and immediately began designing a new kind of reed. About midnight she began changing her embouchure or whatever bassoonist do and by four the next morning she had got it. At the next day’s rehearsal Boulez didn’t even comment. She had done her job. That was all.
Recently I played a very light gig with an orchestra and twenty koto players. Most of the works were Japanese traditional songs for this combination (mmmmm….) then the orchestra finished up with the Radetzky March, which is as inimitable in Japan as Humoresque and Zigeunerweisen. One of my brighter beginning students happened to be at the concert and she asked why the conductor used a variety of different sized beats and gestures. I explained to her that he was indicating the volume. I showed her the score and the wide range of dynamics, crescendos, dims that the composer wanted. `Oh, ` said my student. `I didn’t hear any of that. It all sounded the same. Loud and exciting, but the same. ` She was correct. It was frustrating for me as guest concertmaster because I take it as a duty to play and influence dynamics yet little had happened. It was a disservice to the music.
As a parallel experience, my town hosted a trio of virtuoso players who happen to teach at the Czech conservatoire. It is an interesting measure of the standard of today’s players that the violinist could be recognized, as a remarkable soloist but isn’t. (I think he played the Bartok concerto with the LSO at the proms a while back). Anyway, I attended four days of open lessons for 8 hours a day, usually being the only person in the audience. All the teenage to early twenty players each of whom got four lessons, brought along the Tchaikovsky, Ysaye, Ravel etc and every time the coach demanded the unaccompanied Bach which really showed up where the player was both technically and musically. And he highlighted the same problem over and over. It seems that even really strong young talents are so concerned to just hit the right notes in for example, the g minor fugue, they pay no attention to putting any dynamics in. The result is really boring. It seems people get really paranoid about playing Bach’s music expressively (not just dynamics) . It’s really sad. I wish, for example, we could get back to Enescu`s maxim that the first theme of a fugue is played piano, add a voice and the dynamic is double, add a voice and jump the dynamic, add a voice and play ff. Even that simple thing would help.
Long live the gamut of volume,
7 replies | Archive link
September 3, 2007 16:32
Had an interesting few months trying a variety of instruments, primarily modern Italian. I have noticed a slight shift in the way instruments are presented to the customer these days. In the distant past they were fitted with either regular Eudoxa or Olive if they were more expensive. Five years ago it was mainly Dominants. Now the majority of instruments try seem to be strung with Evah Pirazzi. This last is not a string I would normally use anyway but I did get the impression they are not the best vehicle for selling very new instruments. One example I tried was a good violin by Collona which wa selling for 13 000 dollars. It was definitely made rather crude and over bearing by the Pirazzi. A more mellow string would I think, have highlighted its other qualities and made it much more saleable. This seems quite a problem for dealers in Japan.
I`ve settled on a ten year old Italian by Di Dario from Florence. IN Japanese prices it goes for about 20 000 dollars which I suspect is not representative of its cost in the USA or Europe. It was fitted with Dominants which worked reasonably well but as I was leaving the shop my eye was caught by a pack of Warchal Brilliant on the counter. The range of Warchal strings is barely known in Japan and I have never seen anyone using them but I thought I’d give them a try. The blurb on the packet said they had the brilliance and power to fill concert halls and the ability to satisfy all the demands of a soloist , or something like that. After using them for three days I would suggest the following:
They are stable but take about a day to play (5 hours) in to the extent they stay in tune. They are obviously a little more slender and not as taught as Dominant. They feel a little nicer to play. The sound is much warmer and more complex than Dominant and reminded me quite a lot of gut. This was a pleasant surprise. Are they brilliant? I don’t think so. They seem rather warm and reasonably bright. Would they fill a concert hall in the way the packet claimed? I am not convinced. I found them more charming than aggressive. The g string has the weakest sound and I think my next combination will be the three upper strings and an Olive g.
In sum, I think these strings are excellent value (very good price) and one of the most pleasant synthetics to play on. They would be a good choice for someone looking for a synthetic that is a little less tense and in your face but doesn’t want to use gut, either wound or plain. I highly recommend giving them a try.
2 replies | Archive link
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