The name Cesar Cui is probably vaguely familiar to most violinists. He wrote a very well known encore the precise name of which I have, or course, forgotten that appears in the Heifetz encore books among other places. Oriental something or other. There is a wonderful Elman recording to boot, another great violinist who should be studied by all. He has written many works for violin, including a very good violin sonata of which a recording by Kogan is still currently available, coupled with Mozart of all things!
Reason I mention him is that I find him not only a superb composer in general but someone who has a great feel for the violin and a certain probably unintentional knack of writing in a very pedagogically useful way. I have been using one of his set of short pieces for some time and would like to introduce and comment on some aspects of them over the course of a few blogs. If you don’t have the music then guess what? You can download it for free from IMSLP: Cesar Cui- `Six Bagatelles for Violin and Piano.` If you don’t have a copy then reading on is largely pointless ;)
What I love about these charming short little movements (bagatelles, in fact) is that they are of, as I stated above, powerful pedagogic value . However, the value is not so easily defined as merely technical. Rather the music itself leads and as a consequence a students technique advances unobtrusively but surely. The pieces are about the same level, perhaps somewhat easier than the Dancla `Aires Varies` of which number one is very much standard repertoire. Of course the degree of difficulty resides in what one demands of the students. You can play it in first position of plat it in fifth! (kind of thing). I’m going to jump straight in with number four in this blog because it is a favorite of mine. It’s `A la Mazurka.`
I ask a student to research what a Mazurka is and listen to as many as they can find on youtube. I stress that not only should it be violin but piano and indeed as many other instruments or combinations as possible. Make a note of what they find and listen to and we talk about it at the next lesson.
I hand them a copy of the music and ask them to prepare it from memory for next week. I may not ask for all of it depending on the level of the student. We talk about how one might go about memorizing such a work. Through a process of questioning I elicit simple things like the key and then ask them to note the phrase lengths. With a few exceptions there are very clearly defined four bar phrases of material. I help the student discover that many of these phrases are actually identical or although they are transposed the actual relationship between the notes (IE patterns) is identical. By means of this observation the student is able to see that there is actually very little to learn. We also discuss key changes and chord patterns. Students may work on the piano but not use the violin this week.
Having mentally mastered the structure and sound of the work we talk about some technical aspects of practicing with the violin.
In the first four bar phrase we discuss how the mind must have a clear image of exactly what each individual finger is doing in each chord and how it moves there from the previous chord. For example, the second finger moves from the a string to the d and g together in the second chord. It is not in the third but must remain poised above the d string for the fourth chord. The analog versus digital concept of Mr Haslop is discussed in detail here. In the next four bars we discuss the technical basis of two musical demands: a crescendo over two bars (increase bow speed) and a transition from legato to spiccato (How to work through the bow).. We might discuss how the relationship between the first and third finger changes from a minor third c# to e to a major third ato c# and how this different spacing changes before the shift is made in slow practice so that it will occur naturally during the shift.
The next four bars is a repeat of the opening. The student then notes that the next four bars begin as the second phrase a fifth lower and the crescendo begins –earlier requiring a precise difference. The student compares fingering choices of going up the a string or staying in first position. The small chromatic section in the third bar invites a discussion of sliding versus `clean` fingering.. These kinds of passages are also good for developing independence of left and right hand. The bow plays sustained notes on the g string while the left hand plays the scales. Bar seventeen onwards gives one the option of moving into the fourth position (b18) so that the subito piano of the next phrase can easily be taken on the a string..
The four bar phrase beginning b25 has a jump from a third position b up to a seventh position a. Keeping the first finger down on the a string (the preceding note) helps to provide stability in the big leap which is a relatively high technical demand out of the blue. For less advanced players simply keep the passage down one octave. The very high ending of the piece can be similarly modified.. The four bar pizz passages provide excellent training for orchestral work and pizz in general. Study the difference between keeping the left hand finger down (long pizz) and releasing the pressure (shorter). The last two bars provide an example of left hand pizz and harmonics. Only two of each and simple enough. Start them young on these…
A great deal of attention should be paid to contrasting dynamics when preparing this piece. That is part of the fun! The rest is self explanatory but introduce the idea that doing a passage in the same way twice is the rocky road to boredom. Thus although bar 5 of the third section of the work is identical to a phrase in the first section where it was in fourth, this could be played in first for a different sonority. The student is then made aware that the reverse is also possible and that they need to start really listening and making decisions about the kind of sound they want at a specific moment.
I suspect one of the worst areas of hidden tension is in the base joint of the left index finger. It`s certainly true for me. One of the give aways is a certain amount of extra twitching in the little finger , even if its only a very small vibration and remains poised nicely above the string in a good curved shape. The problem is one may not be too aware of this extra motion because of practicng too fast. Slow things right down and really pay attention to that finger and then try and see if relaxing the left index finger helps. It is also useful to seek out cases where you can keep the fourth finger down while playing on other strings. One might for example, do the Basic left hand pattern practice from Drew Lecher`s book keeping the fourth finger down on a higher string until needed. This wil promote finger independence, too.
The only teacher teacher I know who has made a few public references to the (big) toes is Mimi Zweig. These last few months have been very painful as I struggle to induct my crappy old body into the core essentials of Aikido. There are certain things I was unable to do for a long time. One was knee walking, the other kneeling with toes curled under. My big toes were so weak and unused to being curled with weight on them I had to sit in a hot bath for hours and work on easing them into the groove. It was a source of amusement to read in Godo Shido`s classic books on Aikido that the big toes are the central source of energy, balance and vitality for the whole body in Aikido (IE life). Makes me wonder how I played the violin before and also calls to mind again the great David Oistrakh who, unlike the Pobble, clearly had all his toes in excellent working order. I wonder how many other violnists could really benefit from a little fancy footwork....
In the mean time I was enchanted by the perfection of this Aikido article in relation to anybodys dreams and joys of learning the instrument at any level:
A great teacher once said to me that the science of violin playing is in the left hand and the art I the right. Not sure I am completely convinced by this dichotomy but it does serve to remind us that left and right hand deserve at a bare minimum fifty percent of our attention each. This will then vary in proportion on a case by case basis.
This being the case I wonder how many of us actually neglect the right hand(arm, whatever) to a considerable extent during our technique building practice? I suppose it’s the nature of the beast, intonation being such a bugbear, that we should focus on the left hand. Plus there is something, somehow more immediately gratifying in play a scale of some sort than an open string, or maybe not….
The result of this imbalance of attention does in some cases lead to a practice routine in which one does scales to begin with, probably dutifully beginning with a slow easy one and building up to fiendish double stops without really paying more than cursory attention to the bowing. Of course this problem is alleviated to some extent if one follows the principles laid out by Flesch (and later Galamian) of combining bowing and left hand. But, somehow I think bowing still gets short shrift. It may be helpful to address this issue directly for a month or so by beginning every days practice with pure bowing exercises.
A useful resource is Drew Lecher`s book but one might set up a very good routing using exercises from Basics or (gasp) a combination of the two. Something like the following.
1) Spider on a stick (recommended for pros as much as beginners….)
2) Up and down finger action from Basics.
3) Short notes in lower half using only fingers.
4) Colle in all parts of bow.
5) Thibaud exercise. (Down at point, up at heel using colle)
6) Pulsing exercises on one string.
7) Exercise in planes (Drew or Basics)
8) String crossing exercises- both detache in all parts of bow and long slurs.
9) WB martele.
10) Speed and sp exercises from Basics.
Alternatively one might use soemthing like Casorti. These are just a few possibilities. No need to take more than 20 minutes or do any to excess. But if one gets the bow arm into a grove it may that the scales that follow (in itself something of an ambitious jump) may be much more beautiful and much more inspiring a as result.
Bowing is common in Japan,
been doing a lot of work on scales recently. One thing I have noticed which interests me is that even on simple one octave scale and arpeggios with no position change there is no faster way to warm up my hands. I can play things like the accelartion scale exercises up to extreme tempos and my fingers actually remain cold for some reason. The key factor here is in the degree of mental involvement. I practice the very simple scales in order to have absolutely perfect action in the fingers without any tension. Then I am really focused on keeping all possible fingers down for as long as possible and the final factor is preparation of the fingers on an adjacent string ascending and below the current finger descending. If I am paying 100% attention to these things then the amount of energy focused on the hands makes them extremely hot within a very short space of time.
One of the biggest flaws or difficulties with scales for many people is preparation of the first finger when ascending so it is useful to practice this daily. At the same time, the note preceding the new note must be kept down until after the new note has sounded. Auer stated that this was the secret of legato in violin playing. In descending scales although it is pretty much the same thing I think the significance of finger preparation is a little different. It is here that it is vital to have a mental conception of the whole pattern of the fingers. One cannot place a lower r finger silently and then when it is its turn to sound –slide- it into where it should actually be. That is the basis of an extremely faulty technique and actually quite common.
All this work on left hand unfortunately may lead to another problem. The secret, in my opinion, of a good tone is the ability to draw he bow through the air without dipping it in either direction up or down. It is amazing how common this is even to a small degree. I suspect what tends to happen when one begins to focus on the left hand aspect of scales mentioned above the bow arm automatically drops, or the bow dips in accord –with the finger preparation-. If this is a habit then the mental energy required to correct this may be considerable in the initial stages. One of the best exercises for the problem and playing in general is the independence of bow arm exercise advocated by Simon Fischer in Basics. One plays long tones on the g string and plays the left hand as written while sustaining the g string bow stroke. The technique should be applied to all etudes and piece son a daily basis. Even doing this once on a three octave scale (the lower notes will sound of course) will markedly improve the delivery. One can of course bow any string one likes and do the fingering. This is advisable.
Quote for Yixi et al:
The basics are only a guiding principle,
Your strongest posture is the one that fits your constitution.
That cannot be taught to you,
You have to find it for yourself.
It is not a question of widening your stance or narrowing it,
If the truth be told.
But, people will do what is comfortable for them,
So, If you allow them to, they will just make it up for themselves.
That is why, you must always return to the `Basics.` (Small Fischer joke....)
This is what is important.
(Shioda Gozo- Yoshinkan Aikido)
as I have noted before, my cat hates the sound of the violin to the point of pathology. Indeed, I only have to unzip one side of the case and his head shoots up, his body goes rigid and glares at me with a depth of hatred I have never seen bettered on a human being. Then he runs screaming and howling out of the room.
Anthropomorhism aside, he has clearly been studying my Aikido texts while I am out and he recently defeated me at a level only a sixth dan would understand and be able to control. As I tuned the violin he looked at me impassively in a curious state of no mind. There was no energy to feel. As I begin to play he turned sideways in a seated position (Tenkan- the essenc eof Aikido) and did a breakfall onto my feet so he was lying on top of them, back to the ground legs fully extended and pretending to be alseep. I played a few more notes, but what could I do? I put the violin in the case and scratched his tummy as he carried on gently snoozing.
The little swine has become a master!
In the meantime here is a perfect description of how to become a good violinist from a martial arts writer:
Enter to win Leonidas Kavakos' recording of the Brahms Violin Concerto.
Stephen Brivati is from Gifu City, Japan. Biography
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