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The New York Times had an interesting Sunday Dialogue this week: Is Classical Music Dying?
I'm not entirely thrilled with the way the question is cast, I mean, Are Newspapers Dying?
But never mind, I'll take a stab at the question, which asks us to consider this particular article, in which the writer argues that the younger generation "must be weaned away from the cacophony of rock and the neon glitter of 'American Idol'-type TV shows. Instead of dragging children to concerts, where they squirm with boredom, rent some old movies featuring soundtracks of classical music…"
I'm sure more than a few people, young and old, would take exception to that. I also don't think it would work.
If there is a problem with the "younger generation," it is something that is not their fault: many received no musical education because it has been routinely cut from the curriculum in schools across the United States. They never had the opportunity to play in an orchestra or band, or to sing in a choir.
Perhaps a better way to frame the problem is not that classical music is dying, but that musical literacy is dying. And yes, it is possible to sing a song or even strum a guitar to a pretty high level without it, but musical literacy actually improves ALL kinds of music, not just classical.
What is musical literacy? It involves fluency on an instrument or with the voice, the ability to read music, and a basic understanding of music theory. At higher levels, it involves a knowledge of things like the physics of sound and harmony; the ability to compose melody, harmony and fugue; an understanding of various instruments, etc.
The best pop musicians, the best songwriters, the best guitar players -- they tend to be those who can read music, understand chordal progressions, have a high level of technique on their chosen instrument (including voice), and have overall discipline regarding their art. They also consider their art to be an art, recognizing its depth.
No doubt, people can press a few buttons on a synthesizer and make a "song." But that doesn't make an appreciation for a song, it doesn't make them understand why one thing works and why something else doesn't work. People who are musically literate tend to lose their taste for music that uses the same two chords for the entire tune, or a melody based on three notes, or a long improvisation that never changes chords, etc. They see through "autotune." They aren't satisfied with the stagnant nature of a synthesizer sound. There are many subtle things that make music a success or a failure, and I daresay they are a mystery to most people.
The best way to engage kids (for that matter, anyone) in classical music, and also to enable them to recognize good music in any form, is through participation. Teach them to play instruments or to sing, and start very young. Provide opportunities for older people to do this as well. Taking children to a couple concerts or renting some old movies does something, but not much if it's not part of an overall music education program. We teach people to write when we teach them to read, and we have them read and study many, many books. We don't just read them a good story out loud and then congratulate ourselves for "exposing" them to good literature.
"Weaning" people from rock 'n' roll is ridiculous and unnecessary. We don't need to wean people from any kind of music -- we need to engage them in it.Tweet
I hope everyone had a good Thanksgiving (and I suppose Black Friday)! I certainly did. I guess since this is my first Thanksgiving on this site, I'll go ahead and describe how it was. On Wednesday (of last week), we went to my grandparent's house in Indiana, and I brought along my violin. Because it was only Thanksgiving, I only brought my Solo and Ensemble piece (Vivaldi's Concerto in G Minor) and a binder chalk-full of sheet music from various classical composers, video games, movies, and some of my own work. It was fun just playing through a few things from there, although I didn't use it much. And although I didn't bring my orchestra binder, I played a few Christmas tunes as well. On Thursday, I had my instrument out from about 1pm-8pm, playing off and on and enjoying the feast. I also plucked out a few tunes for my 1-year-old cousin, which was cute. :)
Yesterday at 6pm after putting up some Christmas decorations outside the house, I was feeling a bit 'Lord of the Rings', so I brought out my violin Lord of the Rings book which contains a play-along CD that I used. I did a video of part of my short session, and even though I kinda failed keeping time in a couple measures, overall it was alright and sounded fine. Just thought I'd mention this. :P
And now it's Monday morning! I'm all set for a good day of school - and preparation in orchestra class for our Prism concert. I have to play four times (Thursday and Saturday at 6pm and 8:15pm), but it should be pretty fun!
Thanks for reading!Tweet
On behalf of myself and Laurie, I'd like to wish all our Violinist.com readers a very happy holiday season. I also hope that you will join me in taking a few moments to thank some of the others who help make this online violin community possible.
They're the businesses and institutions whose financial support allow Laurie and me to publish Violinist.com, and for Laurie to bring you all these great interviews, tips and blog posts. As you do your holiday gift shopping online over the next few weeks (or as you compile your wish lists), I hope that you will consider these violin shops, schools and retailers first - to thank them for the support they've given this community.
You always can find the complete list of current Violinist.com sponsors on the right side of any Violinist.com page. (They're over there now, under the "Holiday Shopping" header this month.) If you'd like to find out a little more about many of our long-time sponsors, please visit our Business Directory page, too. You'll find expanded listings, links, phone numbers and addresses for many top violin shops and gift retailers on that page.
Laurie and I are always thankful for your time and attention in reading Violinist.com, and we hope that you will join us in thanking those businesses who help us pay the bills that keep this community open and welcoming to violinists around the world, 24 hours a day and 365 days a year. Thank you, again, and happy holidays, everyone!Tweet
Speaking with the Baroque violinist, teacher and specialist Stanley Ritchie about his book, Before the Chinrest made me think of an obvious question: Would I ever consider going without a shoulder rest?
I think the shoulder rest would be the first thing to go, before the chinrest, if one were to start shedding these aids for holding the instrument. Ritchie no longer uses either one, and this all started when he became interested in the Early Music movement.
The answer for me is, perhaps I would do so if I were embrace Early Music and period performance, which does sound like great fun. (I mean, look below at Tafelmusik -- those people are having fun!) The other answer for me is, I'm pretty much what I am, and I play with a shoulder rest, without a lot of pain. It works, and it's unlikely that I will change things! I think that this might have been more of a possibility, if I'd tried it as a young student!
I'm curious about your thoughts! If you already go without a shoulder rest, just vote "yes," and also share with us your thoughts and experiences. If you are seriously considering it, vote "yes" as well. If there's no way you see yourself going without a shoulder rest, vote "no," and also share your thoughts!
Shoulder rest-less people having fun (the Canadian-based Early Music ensemble, Tafelmusik):
I am a Suzuki violin teacher. But I'm also a writer. I've enjoyed writing since high school but I didn't really start publishing my work until late 2010. Even then I only really considered writing to be a sort of hobby. I wrote when I felt like it. Which meant that sometimes I would have really productive months and sometimes weeks would slip by without a word written.
Now writing, just like playing the violin, is a craft. It takes both time and effort to hone your skills. As my writing projects/ideas started to pile up I realized that if I wanted to start seriously making a steady side income from writing, I was going to have to start approaching writing not as a hobby but as a business.
Which meant I had to start thinking about how I was using my time. When I first started I wrote in my free time. Free time is kind of a vague concept. I think if we're honest with ourselves we actually have lots of free time but the only time it really registers with us is when we're bored. Yes, bored. Where you're sitting on the couch thinking, "Wow, I've got the whole house to myself and nothing to do, might as well write/practice." Technically, sipping coffee while browsing the Internet is free time but it doesn't register because we're not bored.
So then I got to thinking about focused time. If I have a finite amount of time to write, it would make sense to try and sit down and write when my brain is focused. I'm very much a night owl. I've always been like this. When I was tiny I used to stay up late watching Perry Mason with my dad, I never understood why other kids made such a big deal about staying up until midnight on New Year's Eve and most of my students have come to expect emails about upcoming recitals at 2am or so.
But even though I am focused at night, this is not necessarily the most productive time for me. Usually if I'm going to spend time with my boyfriend or see friends/family, it's going to happen in the evening. Which is fine. I want to visit with these people. But it's time that's not free for writing.
Which has all lead me to the idea of productive time. If I am going to really hone this craft, it's not enough to just find a time of day where I'm focused and awake. It must be productive time. Which is why I usually write now when I first wake up and am sipping morning coffee. I have actually scheduled a block of time on certain mornings to just sit down and write for an hour. It's part of my weekly routine.
While I am maybe not the most awake during that hour, it doesn't matter to me because it's a really productive hour. I can get a lot of writing done and if I happen to have some more free time later in the day, even better!
So the purpose of this post is not to brag about my wonderful and productive schedule. It's just to point out something that I've learned about myself in the process of figuring out a skill that I have not yet mastered. Between my own playing and what I've seen happening with students, I think there are definite parallels here to practicing the violin.
When practicing is something that is put off to "free time," it never gets done. Trust me. It may happen when you're first starting and you're excited about your instrument but as soon as the going gets tough there will be a million other things you can think to do before working a tough passage of music.
This inevitably leads to a feeling of guilt/frustration once you realize that you've showed up to lessons for months now without having practiced. You say this has got to change all you have to do is find a time when you're focused! When practicing with young musicians, when the child is focused is usually the number one priority for the parents. Practicing has to occur in the morning or they just get too tired after school.
But is time when the child is most focused the most productive time? Just because the child is alert doesn't mean that the siblings aren't running around the house causing ruckus and there's the pressure to finish practicing before everyone has to leave for school. This makes the practice session almost completely pointless because no quality work was really put into the instrument. Everything was done in haste.
Which means that concessions have to be made. First, you have to make the time for practicing. It won't happen on its own. And second, you have to factor in the entire picture. Being slightly less alert is totally fine if it means that 100% of your mind is focused on the task at hand. It means that the work you do get done sticks with you.Tweet
This morning, I got up early, made a pot of french-pressed coffee, fed the cats and sat on my back patio enjoying the unusually warm autumn morning.
Later, I made a quick stop at the grocery store to pick up a few items I forgot to get yesterday, thanked the clerk for working that day, went home and practiced for an hour or so.
It didn't sound much better than a cat screeching, so I packed it up and headed over to my aunt & uncle's house along with the 'extended family'. They aren't related by blood or marriage, but by bonds formed by people helping people. We ate more than what is considered healthy, and summarily plopped down on various chairs to digest our meals.
Except for me, one little girl and my uncle. Instead, we found ourselves in front of my uncle's keyboard. My uncle found the rhythm button and set it to a Latin beat and cranked up the volume. I began to teach the little girl how to play a simple scale and played an accompaniment an octave and a third below her.
She looked at me, I looked at her and we both smiled. It didn't matter that neither of us were pianists or even spoke the same language fluently. We were making music. Simple, but music none the less.
“Every person is important. It doesn't matter whether you play the violin, the flute, the cello, or the drums; you're still part of the orchestra.”
In a “white sheet” (a system where by members of the orchestra can communicate with Mr. Zander) written a few weeks ago, an anonymous person stated that the orchestra lacks camaraderie. Now, I found this news to be particularly interesting, as I recently had just written a white sheet commenting on the already high level of camaraderie in the orchestra; the person later commented that he felt everything had changed for better. I’m sure many musicians can remember their younger years in youth orchestras where you barely even said two words to your stand partner. The youth orchestra these days is far different. Oftentimes, you spend a great deal of time not only with your stand partner, but with your section mates and the rest of the orchestra. It is now commonplace for youth ensembles to embark on concert tours in the summer. For many people, by the end of a tour they have made friends for life. This growth in camaraderie becomes especially important as an orchestra approaches a concert. Our concert, however, is no ordinary concert. Not only is it a debut, but it is one of the most highly publicized youth orchestra concerts that I’ve ever seen. I hear radio announcements every day, and I have seen two articles regarding the concert in the Boston Globe. With over 1300 tickets already sold, our program of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, The Elgar Cello Concerto with Alisa Weilerstein, and Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben is highly anticipated.
A poster outside of Symphony Hall in Boston
Now, with only three days and two dress rehearsals to go, I believe that the orchestra’s level of camaraderie is completely different. Though I can’t say that I know every person in the orchestra on a personal basis (I would certainly love to), I still feel that we are growing together. I know every single person is excited for the upcoming concert, and the enthusiasm that we all share brings us together. One of the reasons why I think BPYO shows so much potential is because we all feed off of each other’s enthusiasm. If everyone feeds off of each other's passion, it becomes a continuous cycle that spills over to the audience, and makes them just as excited. As an orchestra, we clearly are never at a lack for enthusiasm, and in a piece like Ein Heldenleben, that is so important. But it seems to me that there is a side of BPYO that is slowly becoming apparent, the part that lives and strives together, that supports its members, that laughs and plays as a tightly-knit community, and that comes together as one entity whenever the occasion calls for it. We can support our soloists (with the help of the young, fantastic guest conductor, Rafael Payare) when the time calls for it, and we can come together, all 110 of us, to create absolutely pristine moments when the music calls for it. This phenomenon is what I believe the youth orchestra is about. This is why, at times, youth orchestras become just as dazzling as the Berlin Philharmonic. Audiences can tell when an orchestra loves music, members, and life. This however, can only happen when we are all contributors to the greater cause that is the music.
The orchestra during a preview concert
This shaping of a young group of musicians doesn’t happen overnight. It took many hours of rehearsals, sectionals, and getting to know each other to turn 110 young people into a good youth orchestra. We certainly had good guidance, especially in our sectionals. Notable musical leaders such as the famed violinist Adrian Anantawan, and the renowned bassist, James Orleans have helped out with our rehearsals. Oftentimes, we have five or six people in the room, each giving input to both the musicians, and to Mr. Zander. Many of the musicians are from the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra. At El Sistema in Venezuela, the students receive sectional coaching regularly. Many believe that the trick to a good youth orchestra is having sectionals as often as full rehearsals. I believe that the sectionals certainly paid off as everyone at the very least knows their notes (which is a feat in and of itself for Ein Heldenleben). The sectionals, however, enable us to play more together as a section and help us get to know each other more. Even the infamous rehearsal 94 came together much faster than anticipated. Furthermore, one of the “perks” in being in the youth orchestra, is each member gets a free ticket to all Boston Philharmonic concerts. In the past two months, many of the players have seen Strauss’ Don Quixote (which was written at the same time as Ein Heldenleben), Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony and the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto no. 2 with George Li, one of our future soloists.
Maestro Zander and George Li after the Boston Philharmonic concert
Though all of these elements play a large role in the overall success of our performances, I believe it is the love of the music and opportunity which brings the orchestra together to create such wonderful experiences. To put it mildly, we all (both orchestra and coaches) love Ein Heldenleben. The excitement that we all share for this piece is not transitory; we come every single week, completely fired up and ready to play. I for one never thought I would be able to play Strauss until I was older.
I don’t really understand why I love Ein Heldenleben so much. In terms of the orchestral repertoire, it is a piece that is not played that often. In my teacher’s fifteen years with the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell, they played the piece once. It’s a long composition that only has one major pause (happening between the first and second movement); not only is it demanding on the players, but it is demanding on the audience as well. A forty-five minute piece without a break can be a lot to take. Of course, no one will disagree that the grand and heroic opening, spanning three octaves in the noble key of E flat major is addicting. When I was younger, I would listen to the piece in the morning just to fire me up for the day. There is, however, so much more in the piece than just tales of a hero fighting off his enemies. Some of the most beautiful writing for strings occurs in the movements where Strauss quotes his other works. It’s truly uncanny how Strauss weaves previous melodies into this one greater movement. Previously independent of one another, these quotes become counterpointal, creating one larger beautiful melody. And of course, there is always the beautiful love scene depicted on the violin. Now, I love the violin; so the fact that Strauss essentially put a small violin concerto in the middle of a grand symphonic poem is genius. Oftentimes, the violin’s capricious yet seductive solo line seems transcendental in nature; when the final note of the solo violin finally comes, the high E flat, it seems as though all is right with the world, as after such a monstrous piece--full of love, loss, heartbreak and battle--the composer finally returns to the tonic, the noble key of E-flat. It is hard for me to explain in words how lucky I feel to play such a piece, and I think I can speak for much of the orchestra in saying that we are so grateful to Mr. Zander and everyone at the Boston Philharmonic for giving us this once in a lifetime opportunity-to perform one of the greatest works in the orchestral repertoire at one of the greatest concert halls in the world. In an interview on the radio, Zander stated that it meant the world to him to conduct the youth orchestra in Beethoven, Elgar, and Strauss. It means the world to us as well.
Have you been secretly wishing to shed both your shoulder rest and chinrest? Here is your friendly, expert guide: Baroque violinist and Indiana University Professor Stanley Ritchie, in his new book, Before the Chinrest.
For me, Professor Ritchie's book read like a novel, fully delivering on its cover's promise to reveal the "mysteries of pre-chinrest technique and style." It has that air of revelation, with each page putting a new historical spin on ideas I've taken for granted my entire musical life. Even if you (like I) have no intention of ditching your chinrest or shoulder rest, the combination of history, practicality and sheer love for Baroque music is both enlightening and inspiring. No skimming; I read it fully, with a pencil in hand, and left it full of marks and notes.
Ritchie argues that he has gained a profound sense of freedom in going without the chinrest and shoulder rest. In fact, that sense of "freedom" is also what made him embrace the Early Music movement, which was just making its way from Europe to the United States when he discovered it in the 1970s through his colleague Albert Fuller, to whom his book is dedicated.
Before he "went Baroque" (I couldn't resist), Ritchie was a successful "modern" violinist. Born in Australia, Ritchie graduated from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music in 1956. He then studied in Paris with Jean Fournier; then in the United States with Joseph Fuchs, Oscar Shumsky and Samuel Kissel. He went on to serve as concertmaster of the New York City Opera in 1963, then associate concertmaster of the Metropolitan Opera from 1965 to 1970. In 1970 he joined the New York Chamber Soloists, then in 1973 played as Assistant Concertmaster of the Vancouver Symphony until 1975, when he became first violinist in the Philadelphia String Quartet (in residence in the University of Washington in Seattle). He joined the Indiana University School of Music in 1982 as professor violin, and has served in that capacity ever since.
Last month I spoke over the phone with Ritchie about how the Early Music Movement changed his life, about playing without a chinrest or shoulder rest, and about how his book clears up some misconceptions people might have about Period Performance.
Laurie: What made you want to take up the violin in the first place?
Stanley: I was born in New South Wales (Australia), in a farming community where there was no live music of any kind. My mother used to listen to the radio, so I was always listening to classical music -- even though it was canned. But she wanted me to have music lessons of some sort. When I was seven, my parents took me to the city for the first time, and as we were walking down the street in the city, I saw a violin in a shop window. I pointed at it and said, "I want that!" They discussed it and said, "Well, it's cheaper than a piano…" So that was it!
I took violin lessons at the local convent, the only place to take violin lessons. I had eight years of ladies all but one of whom knew nothing about the violin at all!
But why did I take up violin and make it my life? When I graduated from high school, I had a scholarship that would have taken me three years at a university, undergrad and everything. I stood on the grounds of the university with my mother, looking around me, tossing between going there, or to the Conservatorium to take music lessons. I chose the Conservatorium for two reasons: A, I was scared of the university, over-awed by the whole thing. And B, subconsciously, I think, to please my mother! That's how I became a violinist. (He chuckles) Not driven from the age of three to be the greatest violinist in the world!
Laurie: How old were you when you started, then?
Stanley: Almost eight.
Laurie: What made you fall for Baroque music?
Stanley: I guess the seed, the germ of it, was planted by a question that always appeared in a written exam we had to take to graduate (from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music): "What is meant by 'style' in music?" And so we thought about it. Whatever we came up with, at least we began to think about it.
Then I came to the United States several years later, in '59, to the School of Music at Yale. I thought about doing a master's degree, then decided it wasn't the kind of thing I wanted to do…But one course really got my attention, that was 'Performance Practice' -- a term that I'd never heard before. I took the course, which was taught by the late David Kraehenbuehl, who was a wonderful, wonderful professor. He really opened my eyes -- all of ours -- to the difference between certain things we took for granted in performance style, and what might have been the truth.
At that time, I was listening to the music of (Heinrich von) Biber, a late 17th-century German composer whom I'd never heard of before -- we all thought violin music started with Corelli! (He laughs)
Ten years later, after I'd finished my studies, and after I'd free-lanced in New York and played with the New York City Opera and the Met, I joined a chamber group called the New York Chamber Soloists. The harpsichordist was Albert Fuller, who had been teaching at Juilliard for 40 years. We were concertizing, and one day, on the way back from an out-of-town performance, I said, "Albert, I'd really like to know more about Baroque music, could we get together and read a sonata or two some time?" And Albert grabbed me and said, "When?" -- because nobody had ever asked him that before, no free-lance violinist in New York at the time would think such a thing. When we got together, he said, "Do you know what they're doing in Europe now? They're tuning their violins a down half-step down, they're putting on gut strings and they're playing with old bows." I said, "Why would they want to do that?" And he said, "Well, why don't you try it?"
So I tried tuning my violin a half-step down. And there I was, using a modern bow on loose strings -- it was not the greatest fun I'd ever had. Still, he was very persuasive. I had an old Tyrolean violin in the closet that wasn't being used, and we found someone to convert it back to its original condition. And so, I finally had a Baroque instrument -- well, a little hybrid: it was late-17th century instrument, with classical fittings, and borrowed a Dodd bow from Jacques Francais and had Bill Salchowmake a copy. This was 1971.
Laurie: Had you taken your chinrest off at this time?
Stanley: Yes. I took it off. I had already managed without my shoulder rest, by putting some sponge or foam rubber or something on the back of the instrument. That gradually condensed over a period of six months. By the end of that time, I didn't need a shoulder rest any more. And then the idea of going without the chinrest came.
I remember meeting Gustav Leonhardt after a year or two of playing Baroque. Of course I was still making a living playing modern violin, because you couldn't playing Baroque violin. He spotted the mark on my neck -- and he said, "Ahhh, you mustn't play with a chinrest!"
Laurie: Do you still use a shoulder rest for modern playing?
Stanley: I don't need it. When I'm playing modern violin I hardly even use the chinrest now.
Laurie: There's a raging debate about shoulder rests that happens from time to time on Violinist.com. People get almost moralistic and crazy about it.
Stanley: Not using either, all I can say is this: people use shoulder rests because they feel that they need it. But I had a student who is well over six feet tall, with a long neck, and who is now a very successful concertizing Baroque violinist. He doesn't use a chinrest or a shoulder rest, and what he does is quite amazing. So it must be possible for anybody to do it. As I say, I'm much shorter, I'm a good six to nine inches shorter than that man, and it's probably much more comfortable for me. It depends on the physique of the individual, and also someone's ability to relax: not hold onto the violin or shoulder rest as though it were a clutching blanket. A lot of people raise their shoulder under the instrument, they're so afraid of dropping it, which is exactly what one should not do.
Laurie: It sounds like you have to change your technique to make it work properly.
Stanley: Absolutely, of course.
Laurie: If you ditch your shoulder rest and your chinrest and you don't change the technique...
Stanley:…it's pointless, because the instrument is going to be clamped like a vice. The whole point of playing without the chinrest and keeping your shoulder down is so that the instrument can resonate like a bell, whereas if you raise your shoulder, you're clamping. As long as the instrument is in contact with the shoulder, there is a certain dampening effect.
Laurie: People have all kinds of crazy ideas about the period performance movement. As a pioneer in this movement, what kinds of misconceptions would you like to clear up for people?
Stanley: I, for one, am not a flag-waving evangelist about this. I do it because it feels much more natural to me, and I think that's what it should be about: trying to make music in the most natural way. After all, the period instrument and early instrument movement has reached all the way into the 20th century now: from before Mozart, all the way up to Wagner and Mahler.
One of the misconceptions might be that it's very snobbish or elitist. I wouldn't doubt there are people who are that way, but as a movement, its purpose is far from just trying to be better than everybody, but ideally to find out for oneself how music was approached at the time it was written. Any music. All music.
Then of course, there are all sorts of misconceptions such as: you mustn't vibrate when you play Early music. That is utter nonsense.
Laurie: The kind of vibrato that you describe in the book sounds like a really subtle kind of vibrato, but it is vibrato. I guess we can just clear that up right here: Was vibrato used in Baroque music?
Stanley: The misconception about vibrato is that you don't vibrate when you play Baroque music. This is only true in (Baroque) orchestral music, you don't do it in orchestral music. Nor should a cellist who is playing continuo vibrate, because it confuses the pitch, and it makes the music expressive in the wrong way.
But on the other side, there's the idea that constant vibrato is the way to play. I don't know when this idea started -- well I have an idea, it was sometime in the '20s when it became more general practice. And that is demonstrably incorrect, stylistically. We have lots of evidence, not only from what Leopold Auer said, but others as well. Besides, in performing parts from the 19th century, you can find where they would vibrate -- it was like any other ornament. I always say to people, constant vibrato is similar to trilling all the time. If you trilled on every note, people would think you're crazy. If you vibrated all the time in the 17 and 1800's, people would think you were crazy!
Laurie: So vibrato was more like an ornament.
Stanley: Oh very much so.
Laurie: Plenty of teachers tell their students: the more vibrato, the better. They tell them to develop a continuous vibrato -- maybe you need that for the Bruch?
Stanley: One of my colleagues certainly insists on it! He doesn't like to hear the violin played without vibrato. And he's somebody I respect very highly. One person, one musician, we really don't see eye to eye on this subject.
Laurie: What made you decide to write this book, to put it all down?
Stanley: It started, actually, with the sets of exercises that are at the back of the book. I had developed those exercises over the years for teaching intonation, and one of my doctoral students decided to use Sibelius to write them out. So at first, I wrote some annotation and started to write a few things down about how to use the exercises -- then some ideas about intonation and left-hand technique. And I put it out, desk-published it, as something called "The Violinist's Lefthandbook."
The next step was writing something for the right hand and exercises for the bow, and I called that "The Violinist's Righthandbook." Then a few years ago I had a sabbatical, holed up in a nice little village in Northern Italy, and set to work putting it all together and adding and introduction and a chapter or two on interpretation. Essentially, it's a distillation of my teaching methods. It's certainly the direction I've taken my students over the last 30 years. They've taught me; it's what I've learned from them that I've put down in this book.
Laurie: I think people get very intimidated by all the rules of Baroque music. For me, even just thinking of the Treatise by Leopold Mozart is intimidating. People think: if I play Bach, I don't know what people will say about it, because I don't know if I'm going to follow the rules right.
Stanley: That's one of the side-effects of the whole movement; there's much more interest about the way they played Bach. There's so much more information out there now, than there was when I was a student. If people are at all curious, at least questioning the things they've been taught, there's a lot to find out. Curiosity is what got me into Early Music.
Laurie: It seems to me that it's possible to be pretty free, once you know some of this stuff.
Stanley: Absolutely. It's liberating, that's one emotion I really experienced when I took up Baroque violin. After playing so many years professionally as a violinist, I found playing Baroque violin akin to driving a sportscar. I felt physically liberated, and then eventually as I became more used to it, expressively liberated.
As for rules, I think we are saddled with at least as many rules in traditional classical upbringing.
That's one nice thing about 17th-century music -- there is no tradition that you can feel you're breaking. Therefore, when we approach music that's new to us, music that is not handed down by the traditional classical establishment, we feel we can experiment, try different ways of interpreting.
I always tell my students, the last thing in the world that I want you to do when you come out of here is be a clone of me. I want you to come out of here finding your own way, asking questions, and putting it all together for yourself. Too often, when I hear people playing, they seem bound to a tradition, to the way their teacher taught them, and lacking spontaneity.
Laurie: Wasn't there a lot of improvisation in Baroque music, anyway?
Stanley: Absolutely. But it's something that's not taught any longer, and sometimes people are even discouraged from doing it, in modern training, which is terrible.
When I first started improvising, I was playing a Corelli Sonata using the 1713 edition's embellishments, which may or may not have been Corelli's. I tried those, and then, after a while, I thought, 'I don't like that one: I'm going to change it a little'; and, "There's nothing here: why shouldn't there be something similar?' And so on.
But the art of improvising is not something that just happens -- it's learned, too. One of the greatest improvisers today is Robert Levin, the pianist, who improvises Mozart concerto cadenzas. He's not improvising in the sense of making it up from nothing. He's tried many things and has a storehouse of different possibilities. As he goes along, he chooses one from here, one from there, and so on, and puts them together. Jazz players' improvisation is a learned skill. They're not just doing it off the top of their head.
I sat in for a couple sessions of Dave Baker's jazz improvisation course, and it was amazing -- it's just very complicated. He's a wonderful teacher, but it was much too fast for me!
There were books on how to improvise, certainly, from the end of the 16th to the beginning of the 17th century, showing you how to get from one note to another, and how many different ways, on one page, you can go, say, from E to F: about 20 different ways to get there.
Laurie: So they were certainly doing it 400 years ago.
Stanley: Oh my gosh, yes!
Laurie: I think we have a misconception about that as well!
Stanley: Sometimes we feel as though we know everything because it's the 21st century. I suggest we've forgotten an awful lot! For example, the 18th century people could teach us quite a lot about intonation. When you open Francesco Geminiani's 'Art of Playing on the Violin,', the second thing he does, after the first page, is chromatic scales! We're raised, as modern players, on equal temperament, and on so-called 'expressive' intonation. But, as Geminiani demonstrates, when you play pure intervals, you realize that F-sharp is actually lower than G-flat. A-flat is higher than G-sharp. I talk about this in my book. You can really figure it out pretty easily by using pure intervals.
We have to use pure intervals on the violin. However, to do so, we must play on strings tuned in narrow fifths, we have to. So people are confused because, using 'expressive intonation,' you're taught to push sharps up and pull flats down -- this is what I call horizontal intonation. But when playing in a string quartet or orchestra, this kind of intonation doesn't work. One has to use pure intervals, or vertical intonation, in order to be in tune with other players. Every interval's out of tune on the piano except the octave: as string players we don't have to play that way.
Anyway, the overall misconception that I'm talking about is the idea that people back then didn't know as much as we do.
Laurie: Baroque music can even be kind of dissonant, with some really interesting harmonies.
Stanley: Oh yes, tremendously. Musicians at that time were much more aware of dissonance and consonance and their significance than we are today.
Laurie: In the book, you say that there is no such thing as unaccompanied music.
Stanley: Well absolutely. When you are playing unaccompanied music, you are your own accompanist, and so you're playing the bass-line. In other words, you can extract the bass-line from any unaccompanied piece. This is relevant when we talk about breaking chords, as I do in the book. In the book I talk about different ways players break chords. When you are playing unaccompanied music, you are your own accompanist, and so you're playing the bass-line. If you break the chords before the beat, then the bass note comes before the beat. But the bass IS the beat! How would you feel if your accompanist on the piano were a little bit ahead of you all the time?
Laurie: It sort of puts you out at sea, rhythmically.
Stanley: And when you place the bass note on the beat, it actually makes a chord easier to play: you don't have to rush to get the other notes.
Laurie: The sense of time is a fascinating thing in the Bach unaccompanied. People forget, you're not on the metronome, you're not on the clock.
Stanley: Rubato is something that was talked about by Frescobaldi, in the preface to his Toccatas, in 1615. He said you must let the music go forward, then fall back, and wait, and so forth. So the idea of rubato in music is ancient; by the time Bach came around it was at least 100 years old. Rubato is a very Baroque concept, it's not something that happened with Liszt…
Laurie:…or Fritz Kreisler or something.
Stanley: One of the things we lost, we've forgotten in our training, is that it's not only possible and desirable, to be free in this way, but it's also a type of expression. Rubato is a way of making the music more flexible and more natural.
One of the important things that the Early Music movement has done is to raise awareness of the rhetoric, the declamation, and the affect, or emotional message, of each piece -- and each part of each piece. For example, let's take Bach. When you're playing the unaccompanied pieces from the original, or from an urtext, there are no expression marks -- none is written in. But they're really all there: in the harmony. Yes, there's rubato; yes, there's punctuation; yes, there's hesitation. They're all there, if you are aware of the significance of the harmonies: where something finishes, where something starts. There are places in Bach that are ambiguous, too, which you could read one way or the other. That's the nice thing about much of his music: you don't have to play it the same way twice.
'Tis the season for many rehearsals and concerts and many hours of practicing. It is very easy to develop overwork injuries so don't forget to take breaks and stretch. The cold weather encourages those muscles to tighten up so stay warm, dress warm and stretch. Take care of your body because you need that body in great shape to get through the season. Stretches are also good for mental health. Take time to breathe through the stretches and center yourself. Enjoy the video and Happy Holidays:)
Violinist.com Editor Laurie Niles is in New York to cover the biennial event at The Juilliard School, including classes by Brian Lewis and Sarah Chang.
Violinist.com has not reviewed, and does not endorse, the content of any of the articles below.
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