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Kate Little

Dancing for Sound

December 10, 2014 11:19

In the formidable final movement of Beethoven’s 9th symphony, the bass drum enters pianissimo, anchoring the tenor solo. In general, tenors receive sufficient attention. It is the bass drum that interests us today.

Ah, the bass drum. It is huge. One imagines loud, hard pounding. What fun! You gotta big instrument, open wide and swing. But not here. That’s not what Beethoven wants. A gentle heart beat, muffled. within the body of the orchestra. An acute listener hears it distinctly. The sound requires soft mallets with a delicate touch. To watch Eric Hopkins of Utah Symphony play this is to hear him dance. On cat feet, an impulse from solar plexus courses out through his arms to caress the drum skin. Barely audible, the sound rolls quietly through the ear, connected, from Eric to you.

Erik also danced the gongs in the Utah Opera production of Turandot. Surrounded by a frame suspending a dozen bronze disks, his weight shifts, focus pivots, arms ripple, choreographed by the melody. Precise yet relaxed, the ringing tones originate in Eric’s thoughtfully, carefully prepared physique.

Video courtesy of Eric Hopkins

It’s physical. It’s mental. It’s emotional. It’s a personal thing, playing an instrument: An expression of the self. When you hear Eric play, you hear his childhood: his curiosity, his desire, his intention, his commitment. That is what has made his sound what it is today. When you hear Eric play, you hear his life: his joy and his fears. That is what allows him to perform. All of this in the bass drum of Beethoven’s 9th. Dancing for sound. Live. From Eric to you. That’s music.

1 reply

The Orchestra

December 7, 2014 08:12

That compelling sound. That one from which you cannot steal your ears. This sound is not come by haphazardly. It comes from imagination, intention, application. It is built from scratch. And once you got it, you don’t throw it away. It is your identity. It is what draws people to you. It is valuable. And just as individuals can have a sound, so do the orchestras in which they play.

An orchestra’s sound begins with its Music Director and Conductor. This is the person who imagines the characteristics, chooses the repertoire, and crafts the performance. Orchestras are picky in hiring for this position, and rightly so. In professional year-round orchestras this person at the musical helm usually gets paid a lot of money. The organization is paying for the Music Director’s imagination, as well as the ability to translate that imagination into sound waves that will distinguish the city.

In order to accomplish this translation, the orchestra needs a group of highly skilled musicians – the best that money can buy. Why? Because each player needs to have beautiful tone, precise intonation and rhythm, steely performance nerves, collegial attitude, flexible musicality with immediate response, projection yet blend. They must hone their skills daily and be ready to perform optimally with minimal rehearsal.

The orchestra needs a consistent group of permanent musicians, and more is better. Players in a section who work together consistently, who know each other’s musical habits and who adjust to each other, have the opportunity to develop a unique unified voice. The sound of their section is the clay with which the performance is sculpted. Longevity and stability allows the musicians and conductor to develop an intimate working relationship, that in turn allows for prompt translation and accurate expression of the conductor’s musical ideas. A larger number of players gives the Music Director greater choice of repertoire – a Haydn symphony with 21 musicians, or a Mahler symphony with 110. The flexibility to present both in sensitive expression contrasts the delicacy of a brook and the power of a river, all in one concert. The contrast becomes the sound of the orchestra, the sound of the city. A cultural identifier adding variety to the world, giving visitors reason to attend, reason to listen.


1 reply

Slow and Deliberate

December 1, 2014 08:59

I have this photo-copied page of violin exercises. “Schradieck Variations” is the label at the top. It looks like this:

Each line of music contains a different ascending and descending 5-note scale, corresponding to a unique left-hand shape, or “frame.” The first has a high-2 and sounds like “do-re-mi-fa-so.” The second has a high-3 and sounds like “do-re-mi-fi-so.” The third has a low-2 and a low-4 and sounds like “do-re-me-fa-se.” And so on, for a total of 10 different left-hand frames. Practicing these unique scales helps the left-hand adapt to the shapes dictated by different scales, so that fingers can more easily find notes in various keys.

Accompanying the sheet of scales were 2 sheets of finger patterns. Simply “Schradieck” is the label at the top. They look like this:

Each line of music contains a different sequence of fingered notes. The second line is 0123-2323-2323-2320-1234-3434-3434-3431. The twenty-third line is 2024-3034-2024-1014-2420-3430-2420-1410. There are 25 sequences in all, looking similar to many violin exercises composed in the 19th century. (Think Sevcik, Dounis & etc.) Practicing these unique finger sequences helps the left-hand adapt to the variety of patterns dictated by different melodies, so that fingers can more easily find strings of notes.

The problem with these exercise pages is that, taken alone, they limit the development of left-hand coordination. The varied hand-frames (“Schradieck Variations”) are all done with the identical finger pattern (0123-4321), and the varied finger sequences (“Schradieck”) are all done in the same key (A-major). Furthermore, everything is practiced on the A-string and on the A-string only. Given my left-hand deficiencies in flexibility, agility and strength, and an urgent desire to maximize its eventual capability, for the purpose of developing fingering technique, I combined the 2 sets of exercises as follows:

(Almost) every day I pick a different frame (indicated in the top row above) and a different fingering pattern (indicated in the left column above), and work on the combination of these two. Each combination is worked on each string, G, D, A & E. There are a total of 250 (10 frames X 25 fingering patterns) different combinations. Working through all combinations should take a little under a year. By the time I’m done, left-hand coordination should have vastly improved.

Typically I start by singing the indicated scale (some are very tricky), and then the notes in the indicated sequence, to make sure that my inner-ear and voice are accurately attuned. Next, using a tuner for precise feedback, I focus on accurate intonation, working toward unwavering pitch and even tone quality from frog-to-tip and back. This is all done slowly, with one note per bow, typically on the whole note with ¼ = 40 to 60.

After accomplishing what I can for the day in the tone-and-intonation department, I move on to the 4-note slurs indicated in the music, attending to bio-mechanical issues: finger motion - finger strike & release – rhythm – tempo – breathing – relaxation – bowing – physical asymmetry. Depending on the needs of the day and the difficulty of the particular exercise, a selection of technical difficulties from this list are pursued on the A-string. When satisfied, I pursue the same difficulties on the D-, G-, & E-strings, training myself to do everything equally well on every string. Depending on how much focus and time I have on a given day, the Schredieck exercise can take anywhere from 10 to 45 minutes. The work is methodical and meticulous.

Given the inherent stiffness of a 55-year-old hand that had never before played a musical instrument, the slow-and-deliberate method of study has thus far produced remarkable results in increased flexibility and agility. As a point of comparison, when beginning violin studies, I could not play anything in G-major, as my left 2nd finger would not move into a low-2 position. This proved an enormous liability shortly into Suzuki Book I, and was essential to overcome. Schradieck has helped immensely, and is allowing for completion of Book III.

The slow-and-deliberate can be used with any exercises, I just happen to like this Schradieck set for their simplicity, variety and thoroughness. I also find it easier to do this sort of bio-mechanical work with simple exercises designed for the purpose, rather than with excerpts from music. When working with music excerpts, captivating musical ideas can prove distracting from the attention that has to be paid to physical details of the hand. Additionally, for me, Sevcik was too repetitive, Wohlfahrt too complex, Dounis too difficult. However, you might find otherwise, as I might in the future. The good thing is that you can choose whichever exercises best suit your needs of the moment. Slow-and-deliberate can be used with any of them.
Afterthought: Investigation, Attribution, Appreciation.

Wanting to purchase these exercises in a published form with their complete exercise set, I stopped in at Day-Murray Music, a Salt Lake City sheet-music supplier, to visit their violin sheet-music expert. After examining and comparing my photo-copies and the available publications of Schradieck, he concluded that my exercises are partly direct copy and partly modification of (non-copyright) published Schradieck exercises, and they were most probably produced with widely available music composition software for individual computers. I left the store empty-handed, and continue to work with the photo-copied sheets.

These exercises meandered their way to me from acclaimed violinist Rachel Barton Pine. This I know. Whether or not they originated with her, I do not know, and how she uses them with students, I do not know. I do know that I am very appreciative of these exercises. For me, they are the perfect challenge that found me at the perfect time. Thank you Rachel, if you created them, or thank you to whoever did. I love 'em love 'em love 'em!


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