Violinist.com members may keep personal journals on the website. Violinist.com's editor selects the best entries for the column below. Links to all other recent blog posts may be found in the column on the right.
My first post was about teaching and learning through exploration. The second one was about the O'Connor Method, and how it allows me to do exactly that. Here are two examples.
In this first one, my student Lucas took all the variations of Boil 'em Cabbage Down in books I-III, added a couple of his own variations and together we came up with a fun way to play the whole thing. He got his practice on rhythms, positions, string-crossing, etc. AND had a great time performing this in a recital.
In this next one, Emily started out by re-ordering the sections Soldier's Joy, and ended up creating a whole new version altogether. She came up with the intro, solos, harmonic changes and anything that is not originally in the book. In all honesty, I did very little but letting it happen.
Tension is the issue. Unnecessary tension. Tension that lifts the scroll up to nose level and bow weight off the string. The neck is gripped, fingers are late, and sound is thin. Both violin and viola teachers have commented on the problem for several months. Relax the hand, relax the arm, relax the shoulder, relax the back they both say. The tension always creeps back in: five decades of muscle memory at work. Tunes sound like crap. Sevcik sounds like crap. All I want is one resonant measure.
Ok, so general instructions to my musculature are getting me nowhere. I need to dig deeper to make progress, and start with this assumption: It will be possible to dissolve counterproductive muscle memory and replace it with new effective muscle memory, even at age fifty-three. I just have to figure out how.
Monday practice starts with Svecik, Op. 1, No. 1, m. 1, open A: Pick up the violin and bow. Place the bow on A, allow it to rest in place, feel the weight in the string. Starting with the fingers and thumb on the right hand: scan for dispensable tension, figure out which muscle, and release; repeat this process with the palm and back of the hand, the wrist, the forearm, the upper arm, the shoulder, the back. Oh wait, I’m slumped over. Try for just the arm weight, not the entire body: allow the head to rise up and the spine to suspend below. Feels good. Now check the left side. Dang. The left arm is pushing the instrument up to meet the bow. Put everything down. Shake it out. Start the entire process over. This time, by the time I get to it, the scroll is not quite so high, the grip on the neck not quite so tight. This is progress. Now start scanning the left side. Slowly, thoughtfully, release the grip, release the wrist, release the arm up to the shoulder, release the shoulder, allow the head to rise up and release the back. Ah, the instrument and bow feel in a natural position. Enjoy for a moment. Put everything down. Shake it out. Start the entire process over. This time it doesn’t take quite as long. The bow feels ready for its stroke. Wait. Put everything down. Shake it out. Start it over. Do just this another half-dozen times. Finally, draw the bow. Ooh! That sounds ok. Try all of this another five times or so. At length, the first note rings. Did that take ten or fifteen minutes? I’ve lost track of time. Oh well, fretting is of no use. This may be the only way. It’s time for the second note.
Pick up the violin and bow. Place the bow on A. Scan the right and left sides. Tension is becoming easier to identify and release; the process is becoming quicker. Try placing the left index finger on B, damping the string to the fingerboard. The entire left hand takes over, clenching the neck. The grab reflex is strong. Maybe this is why young children have an easier time learning to play: muscular response is not so deeply embedded and it is easier for them to learn new physical patterns. In contrast, I have to eliminate a lifetime’s worth of physical habits to make way for new processes. Neuro-muscular reprogramming. Perhaps this is the basis of rehabilitation for brain-injury and stroke victims. There are probably articles in the professional journals about how to do this. Maybe this is why everyone keeps telling me that I will never master the violin: compared to a child, I have more work to do and less time to do it in.
Another curious thing happened during the time since I last wrote in October: I fell in love. I know, I'd already previously committed to another, but I guess deep down, I knew I hadn't yet found what I was looking for, and my heart went searching elsewhere for what was lacking in our relationship. Years went by with no luck, yet I continued with compelling persistence. But you can't rush fate, and when the moment is right, you'll meet the One, and there won't be any question about it.
And on 12-12-12, that is exactly what happened. We met in Philadelphia, and it was love at first sound. A 1927 Sannino, he had all the qualities I was looking for, and then some: a crisp and projecting, yet deep and woody thick tone, sensitive responsiveness, great clarity and ease of playing--and something else I can't quite put my finger on, except to call it Magic. As the days passed while I considered our long-term commitment, he and I fell deeper and deeper in love. Our playing chemistry was out of this world; we were already on the same page on so many levels! My throat opened as if to speak, and he stole the words right from my mouth.
But what do you do when you meet the violin of your dreams and he's out of your league? Well, you cry, you pray, you try one thing and then another before you consider dark, criminal behavior, and then, with a little help from loved ones, your dreams come true, and you bring him home.
I own a new violin--or rather, it owns me! January opens a new door, and the possibilities that lay beyond seem endless.
What is your favorite musical period? Mine changes pretty frequently; a moving performance of something from a certain musical period tends to renew my interest in it.
Here are some basic definitions for you (and perhaps your students). Please share what your (current) favorite musical period is, and what makes it your favorite.
For these definitions, I've quoted directly from an excellent article we have on V.com by Liz Lambson, called Classical Music Genres of the Common Practice Periods, which explains three of those periods very well, the Baroque, Classical and Modern periods. I've borrowed her style and added Renaissance and Modern. Feel free to add to (and argue about) these definitions! (Most up-in-the-air is the definition of the "modern" era!)
Definitive Composer: Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina
Other Renaissance Composers: Guillaume Dufay, Josquin des Prez, Johannes Ockeghem, William Byrd, Giovanni Gabrieli, John Dowland
Defining Characteristics: Use of modes, multiple parts, polyphony and independent voices, counterpoint
Performance Style: Use of pre-violin stringed instruments such as the viol (played like a cello, resting between the legs), lute, hurry gurdy
Definitive Composer: Johann Sebastian Bach
Other Baroque Composers: Antonio Vivaldi, Arcangelo Corelli, George Frederic Handel, Henry Purcell
Defining Characteristics: Continuous bass line (basso continuo), use of harpsichord and pipe organ, introduction of written works such as cantatas and oratorios, smaller ensembles with limited or no wind and percussion parts
Performance Style: added embellishments and tremelos, little or no vibrato, trills starting on the higher note
Definitive Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Other Classical Composers: Christoph Willibald Gluck, Carl Philipp Emanuel (C.P.E.) Bach, Joseph Haydn, Ludwig van Beethoven (early works)
Defining Characteristics: short melodies and phrases, obvious cadences, larger orchestra than Baroque, music in sonata form, eventual disuse of harpsichord and introduction of piano, quartet music
Performance Style: light and clear articulation, trills starting on the lower not, modest use of vibrato, more dynamic contrast
Definitive Composers: Ludwig Van Beethoven (transitional later works), Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Johannes Brahms
Other Romantic Composers: Franz Schubert, Felix Mendelssohn, Frederic Chopin, Robert Schumann, Richard Wagner, Antonin Dvorak, Edward Elgar, Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss, Sergei Rachmaninoff
Defining Characteristics: reflective of human emotion and expression; a response to social and political movements; rich and song-like melodies; more modulation and key changes; larger orchestra with more winds, brass, and percussion; programme music and symphonic poems
Performance Style: dramatic, expressive, wide vibrato, dramatic and high-contrast articulation and dynamics, rich texture, virtuosic playing, lyrical and song-like phrasing
Definitive Composer: Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copland, Arnold Schoenberg
Other Modern composers: Bela Bartok, Claude Debussy, Dmitri Shostakovich, Leonard Bernstein, Sergei Prokofiev,
Defining Characteristics: impressionism, atonality, dissonance, syncopation, neo-Classicism, neo-Romanticism, new styles, cross-genre experimentation, use of technology, frequently changing meters, minimalism
Performance Style: extremely variable, often experimental, with techniques such as Bartok pizzicato, col legno bowing, aleatoric passages (somewhat improvised and chaotic), unusual annotation, and more.
Attention String Players!
Learn how to improvise & groove and discover your instrument in a new way.
Former Turtle Island Quartet and Stanley Clarke violinist Mads Tolling will lead a Jazz Strings Chamber Ensemble at Jazzschool Institute in the Spring Semester in Berkeley, CA. It's for intermediate to advanced violinists, violists, cellists and bassists - all ages are welcome. Material covered will include music by Jimmy Hendrix, Stevie Wonder and Miles Davis. Techniques such as walking bass, shuffle bow and "the chop" will all be part of the curriculum.
Classes will commence on Monday, January 28th and will go till mid May. The ensemble will meet every Monday, 4-6pm. It's a two-unit class for credit, and registration is taking place at this time,
Berkeley Jazzschool Institute: 510.845.5373 & firstname.lastname@example.org. www.jazzschool.com
The Jazz School is located at 2087 Addison Street in downtown Berkeley.
I think a lot of us can say the same thing:
We love Baroque music.
I've never had to force myself to love or appreciate Baroque music; it was a passion that came as easily as breathing, and I'm sure there are plentiful others here who've been in a state where Bach is obviously FAR superior to breathing.
There is something beautiful about this era of music. Beneath the seeming simplicity of its works, there are a plethora of brilliant lines and instruments working together in such a way that you almost forget about the time signature. The Chaconne is not in 3/4 time; it's utterly timeless.
Pardon the dramatic tone here, guys, but I really need to vent about this, because it means a lot to me.
I'm a beginner, so I know there's a long road ahead before I can really beautifully play - and possible even comprehend - the depth and genius these works have to offer.
But regardless of age, sex, race, favourite kind of tea, or whether you play an instrument or not, Baroque music has a universal appeal.
Baroque violinist Monica Huggett described gut strings as being somewhat nutty in flavour - simple sounding, but full of depth, and an instrinsic lightness. I think this perfectly describes not only the tone of the gut strings, but of Baroque music as a whole.
A favourite piece of mine is H.I.F. Biber's Passacaglia. When you listen to it, it sounds puritan, fresh, simple; but even listening a fraction harder will open up the more intricate details of the piece.
I have always been able to connect to Baroque music and earlier music in a way that I have not connected to Classical music, or Romantic music. I love them all, but the former has a special place in my heart.
Like in all music, there is a work for all moods. When I'm happy, I love the bounciness and freedom in Bach's Partita No. 2 Gigue, the simple but lovely theme of Charpentier's 'Te Deum' Prelude, or a relaxing piece of Handel.
And then we have the darker works; of course the Chaconne, but the Albinoni-Tomaso Adagio, Dowland's rather melancholy lute works, and - strangely - Handel's Harp Concerto in B-Flat Major. I always cry at the last movement - although perhaps not through sadness.
When I'm in a position where I believe I can do these wonderful works some kind of justice, I would love to arrange some kind of musical evening at my school, with Baroque music quite predominant - if not totally dominant in the programme. Everyone should be introduced to this wonderful music. Even if this is all you take from this rant of a blog - tell the world why you love Baroque music!
One day, I have no doubt I'll be able to satisfy my dream and put on some kind of 'show', if you will, of Baroque music, with some other friends. My music teacher is a pianist, and adores the Bach harpsichord and organ works.
A friend on cello has yet to be convinced.
I'll tear him away from the Elgar and get him some Vivaldi if it kills me.
Thanks for reading. Have a lovely day or night, wherever you might be.
If you haven't seen this video, you've missed out! I'd seen the whole thing a long time ago, and I just "rediscovered it" today. It's a fantastic video that shows, in a hilarious way, just what an orchestra is like. Parts of the video discuss various instruments, both some you may have heard of and some you may not. Others describe various pieces of music - like TV themes and classical music. Just watching it now inspires me to practice, so if you haven't seen it, click the link, check it out, and leave any comments on what you think! Enjoy!Tweet
November 2010, Thanksgiving week, was a Mexican vacation I will never forget. It was the vacation when I broke my left wrist. It was a very strange incident or accident rather. I was walking down some rocky stairs without a railing, hit an uneven step and down I went. Right before the tumble the words came to me "Everything will be all right." I didn't tuck my hands under when I fell - no, I fell right on to my left hand, it stung and my eyes smarted. I got myself up and spent quite a bit of time after the fall in hot tubs.
As soon as I returned to the states, I got out my violin to play to make sure everything was OK. I was a bit surprised to have pain in my fourth finger every time I used it especially past third position. I went to the Doctor and they took x-rays but did not find a fracture. So they diagnosed it as a sprained wrist. As all musicians know this is a very busy time for concerts. I had a very special concert along with my regular Christmas season Orchestra concerts and gigs. December 17, I was invited to showcase myself in all aspects. This concert included my students playing with me accompanying them, my solo playing of Piazolla tango, Paganini Caprice, Bach Sarabande, and La Paloma violin and guitar duet. After all of this I played with two rock bands. It ended up being a three hour concert. I did this with a small brace on my wrist and I was using pain patches given to me through physical therapy. After the concerts were done, I visited my family in Utah and did not touch the violin hoping that with rest the pain would go away. My oldest brother Tom, saw how limited use I had of my wrist and being a volunteer fireman with some knowledge of broken bones he told me my wrist was broken. I told him no, they took x-rays and found nothing.
When I returned to Wisconsin, I knew I needed more tests. I don't remember how, I think it was a referral from my GP, I was able to have an MRI and they finally found the fracture. I had fractured my hamate bone. It is a very rare break and is very difficult to heal. The doctor said I had a five percent chance of healing and a smaller chance to heal correctly. Immediately I was put in a cast. Now remember this is over a month from the initial break and I had played hard on this broken wrist. At this point in my life - music was my life. I knew no other. I practiced at least three - six hours a day, studying with Rachel Barton Pine, performing recitals, working as a orchestral violinist in over twenty orchestras and teaching my private students accompanying them all on piano and here I was with a broken wrist. I was sick. I had to have the cast for a minimum of eight weeks, which actually turned into twelve weeks. I couldn't type, play the violin, obviously, or the piano. At least I could still swim with the cast. I was so glad the cast was removeable this way after I went swimming, I could put on the new cast. I requested two casts so I could go swimming. If I didn't have swimming in my life at that time I don't know what I would have done. There were a few months I couldn't use my arm at all so I found many different ways to swim using the rest of my body for example only kicking, dolphin kicks on side, back and stomach. I was very creative.
I honestly don't remember what I did with my time except for watching youtube videos, reading books on musicians and thinking about what I can play as soon as I could play again. I did a lot of soul searching - I had a lot of time to think and looking back, I needed this catastrophic event to re-evaluate my life.
I was so thankful that I was still able to teach my students. They were what got me through that difficult time. I remember there was a snow day and the students couldn't come to my door. We were all snowed in. I was devastated. What was I to do. It was a very difficult time for me to avoid the depression doldrums. I had to stay positive that my wrist was going to heal - I knew nothing else in my life except for being a violinist.
In February, I was able to see dear friends of mine perform at Carnegie Hall. This was a great diversion for me. In this picture you can see me with my cast. I tried to hide it in all of my pictures and this is the best picture to see the cast.
The cast went all the way up to my elbow. As you can see in this picture my fingers were like jello. I lost all muscle definition in them and they were the weakest they have ever been in my entire life.
At the end of March, I received great news based on a cat scan of my wrist - I was very lucky and my wrist did heal perfectly against all odds. That was just the beginning - I had to go through three months of physical therapy. When I first tried to play the violin it was an impossibility and that is not an exaggeration. I couldn't even turn my wrist to face the violin. I couldn't even hold the violin let alone put my fingers on the fingerboard. It was more painful to turn my wrist to play the violin than the actual break. I practiced very small increments once I could get my fingers to the violin. I had support from other fellow violinists that had more catastrophic injuries than mine. Violinists that I never knew had problems - we were stand partners and they were and are great players. After my injury, I learned that one lost the tips of his fingers with a table saw accident and another had ruptured her tendon and could not straighten her fourth finger. I had no idea until they told me and they only told me to help me. I knew if they could pull through that I could too. By the end of April 2011, I was back playing my normal concert schedule with the orchestras combined with ice and physical therapy.
So hopefully this post will be helpful to other musicians with injuries. Besides stretching every day, I had a few tricks to help regain strength in my left hand. The therapists had me use gripmasters. I started with very small weight and then slowly increased.
I also squeezed different sponges - again starting with easy and increasing the difficulty.
I have used Chinese Balls as well. You want to eventually be able to roll them in one hand without having them touch. The chimes are wonderful for relaxation.
For any pain, I have always found Tiger Balm to work the best for me.
This is the finger strengthening exercise I use with my students young and old.
Please know I am not a physician or a therapist. This is all based on my life experience. If you are having any pain issues please see a physician, chiropractor, therapist etc. Everyone has different issues and different bodies.
Now looking back - it had to happen - I had to break my wrist and have performing completely absent from my life for a short time in order for me to re-evaluate and grow as a person. To climb the next steps in the ladder of life..........
Happy Healthy Practicing
If you found this information to be helpful please subscribe to my newsletter at
and/or to my youtube channel
Maxim Vengerov couldn't be happier to be playing the violin again, after his four-year hiatus from performing, and after the painstaking reinvention of his playing technique following shoulder surgery.
Now 38, Vengerov returns to the concert stage with his world enlarged: more conducting engagements, continuing teaching posts with the Royal Academy of Music in London and International Menuhin Academy of Music in Switzerland, and increased involvement with international violin competitions. During his years away from the violin, he studied conducting, and he also married Olga Gringolts, sister of Ilya Gringolts. (They just celebrated the first birthday of their daughter, Elizabeth.) Vengerov will be in North America this May for the Montreal International Music Competition, which features the violin in 2013. (By the way, applications are due on January 18 -- download an application here if you wish to participate.) Vengerov will conduct the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, accompanying the finalists and then the winners of the competition.
Vengerov was a superstar from the start, beginning his lessons at age five in Novosibirsk, Russia (still the Soviet Union at the time of his birth) with Galina Tourchaninova, then with the great Zakhar Bron. Soon he was winning major international competitions and awards. At age 10 he made his first recording, then proceeded to record just about everything in the violin repertoire. As a teenager, he got to know both Mstislav Rostropovich and Daniel Barenboim, who became friends and mentors to him. He owns and plays the 1727 "Ex-Kreutzer" Stradivarius violin, and he was the subject of the documentary, Living the Dream, which received the Gramophone Award for Best Documentary in 2008.
Vengerov stopped playing in 2007, citing both professional malaise and a weightlifting injury to his right shoulder that had plagued him since 2005. This month he releases his first recording in five years: the recording of his comeback recital on April 5, 2012, at Wigmore Hall in London (available on Jan. 14 in the U.K. and Jan. 29 in the U.S.).
During the holidays, I spoke with Vengerov over phone from Lugano, Switzerland, where he was visiting family. We talked about his mentors in music and conducting, Rostropovich and Barenboim; about his return to violin playing, with physical pain as his guide; and about competitions and his new role with Montreal International Music Competition and the Wieniawski competition.
Laurie: I enjoy your playing so much, and your Shostakovich recording, with Rostropovich conducting, is one of my favorites. How different is it to conduct a concerto, than to play one?
Maxim: I can tell you one thing about Maestro Rostropovich: he may not have been regarded as one of the greatest conductors from the technical point of view; but I made seven CDs with him, and I must say, those recordings are my best ones. And I recorded with many other wonderful maestros who were not instrumentalists. I think it was his great musicianship and also understanding of the violin repertoire, of the stringed instruments, that helped us to build an incredible chemistry that I had with no one else. That's why I think I've inherited this love for accompaniment, to accompany young people, my colleagues. I love to not only accompany violin but also piano soloists. For me, it is a great challenge and a great privilege to be on stage with them.
Laurie: I know that two of your mentors were the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and also the pianist Daniel Barenboim, and both of them are conductors. Did you speak about conducting with them, or mostly about music, or both?
Maxim: Both! Music, conducting, playing with the orchestra…They were my mentors, and sometimes our meetings went far beyond technical issues. Of course, the principal source of our meetings was the music, and what was required to perform Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky, or Brahms, Sibelius, Nielsen….I've recorded most of my violin repertoire with these two conductors, who were also instrumentalists.
Laurie: What kinds of things did you learn from each of them?
Maxim: Slava (Rostropovich) was like a musical father, he was so close to my heart. Again, it was much more that I learned from him than just music, and musical expression. The thing that struck me was his humanity, and he transformed me into sort of a man of the world. Before meeting him, I was just a talented player that loved playing for audiences. We worked principally on pieces by composers that he had met and that he had friendships with. Those were Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Britten, Walton, Stravinsky. Beyond that, we also recorded Beethoven. One of the interesting things, when I came to play Beethoven for him, he said, "You know what, Maxim, I can just feel that Beethoven is trying to say something to me, because I think if you play it like this, he would love it." I asked him, "How do you absolutely know this, that Beethoven would love it?" and he said, "Because I think even the composer was convinced, even it wasn't his way. Even if the tempo is slower or faster than he would imagine, he would enjoy it!" For (Slava), it was a matter of being convinced what Shostakovich and Beethoven and Tchaikovsky was, even if he had not met those composers.
For Barenboim, it was a different approach. He would view a piece of music as an instrumentalist, as a pianist, from the harmonic point of view, from the orchestration, coloring. (Barenboim's was) also an amazing view, completely different from Slava. With Slava, it was this instant connection with the composer, with the soul of the composer. He would tell me, you have to imagine you were Shostakovich, or you were Prokofiev, performing the music. One of the most striking and touching things Slava told me was right at the end of his life, when I met him for the last time in the hospital. He told me that when he met me, I played beautiful Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, and he told me a lot of things about those composers. But Shostakovich, he didn't have to tell me; it was as if I knew this composer when he was alive. And that was the biggest compliment, coming from him.
For Barenboim, the work was written, and that's in the past. He would approach it as if he were re-working and re-writing the whole work from scratch. But I think those were also Slava's qualities, he would take the work and say, "We have to try to reinvent this and make it as if we are doing a world premiere of the Beethoven Violin Concerto," which is actually hard to imagine! How many times has the Beethoven Violin Concerto been performed, since the concerto was written? But he would still find something very personal, something that is personal to him. I learned a lot from this approach.
Laurie: So what do you feel for you, as a conductor, is the most important thing, when working with a soloist?
Maxim: First of all, one has to reach a harmony with your colleague, the soloist.
Laurie: If you can!
Maxim: If you find no harmony whatsoever with the soloist (he laughs) -- that happens sometimes -- because sometimes the soloist doesn't want to or cannot, due to the lack of experience or an unwillingness to connect with you.
There are some players that think: here I am, a violinist or pianist, and you're an orchestra conductor, to serve me. It's a normal approach -- I don't say this as something negative. It's obvious that if we listen to the recordings of Jascha Heifetz of the most beautiful works by Sibelius, Beethoven -- with great conductors, you hear a loud, very present violin sound, and somewhere in the back is an orchestra! (He laughs) That's why I don't say this is bad! It's a matter of upbringing, a matter of habit, how the performer views the music. And some people view it in a sort of horizontal way: a line of the violin, or piano, with accompaniment of orchestra.
Laurie: And so what do you do if the soloist views it that way?
Maxim: Then you just serve your best, to be together and to support the instrumentalist, soloist, and try not to be annoying. For me, to be frank, it's less interesting because it becomes a matter of sport: Can I be together, or can I not be together? You use your professionalism to bring the orchestra at the right (dynamic) level, at the right speed, at the right form of articulation -- and this is what I call a good service to the soloist.
Now, when the soloist meets you and says, "This is how I feel," and "Let's make music together," you discuss a little bit, he or she plays for you, something in the dressing room, and then once you start making music on stage, a harmony has to be reached. You can absolutely disagree with the soloist, but again I should serve the best I can at the moment -- and not be passive, but be active in the accompaniment, to bring out the harmonies to stimulate the soloist to play his or her best. The conductor and orchestra, depending on the piece, provide the rhythm, character, harmony, and the spirit of the work.
Laurie Do you like conducting and playing equally well, or is there one you prefer over the other?
Maxim: It's like saying, I was born in Russia and my mother tongue is Russian. Do I love German, or English, more? I can't say I love Russian less, it's just so different! (He laughs) and I enjoy speaking different languages.
Laurie: How many do you speak, by the way?
Maxim: Well I speak English, fairly good German, not reasonable French. (He laughs) In time, I hope to speak French well! And a bit of others…
For me, violin is my first source of communication with the audience -- no doubt, my first love. But before coming to the violin, I wanted to become a conductor, because my mother was a choir conductor, and I saw her conducting. I sat in on all the rehearsals -- I was singing in the choir. She wanted to become a symphonic conductor, but because I started playing, and I needed her to be with me, she quit her job. She didn't develop the symphonic conducting career that she wanted. My father worked in the orchestra as an oboist, so I visited his rehearsals and watched the conductor who was the principal conductor of the Novosibirsk Philharmonic, Arnold Katz. I really loved his example. He was my idol at the time, when I was three and four. He just passed away a few years ago.
Laurie: So you had this in mind, for a long, long time.
Maxim: Yes, I had this in mind, but then I started with the violin and I was sort of stuck with that! (He laughs)
Laurie: You were so good at it, still are!
Maxim: Quite successfully stuck, let's say. And I rather enjoyed that, throughout my years. And then there came a time when I needed to conduct the English Chamber Orchestra, and so I needed to take some lessons. I didn't, and I still don't, believe that somebody with absolutely no knowledge of conducting technique can go in front of orchestra and say, okay, I can play the violin great, now I can conduct! It also requires some time, to learn the language of the musicians. You have to speak their language.
Laurie: Whom did you study with?
Maxim: I studied at that time with Vag Papian, who was my pianist. Vag was a student of a very important teacher in Russia, Ilya Musin, who was a teacher of Valery Gergiev, Semyon Bychkov, Yakov Kreizberg, and many others.
Laurie: What kinds of things did you learn from him?
Maxim: He comes from the Leningrad school of conducting, which provides great technical basic skills for the conductor. For me, that was wonderful to go through, the studies with Vag. I progressed quite quickly, and I was able to conduct chamber orchestras. Then in 2009, I decided to study conducting on a different level, a more serious level, so I would be able to conduct symphony orchestras. At this time I became a student of Maestro Juri Simonov. He comes from another school of conducting, also from Leningrad, from St. Petersburg. His teacher was (Nikolai) Rabinovich. So Rabinovich was a student of Aleksandr Gauk, Gauk was a student of Nikolai Malko. Malko was a student of Felix Mottl (and Mottl was a was a contemporary of Mahler.) So that is the Russian-Germanic school of conducting.
Laurie: A good pedigree!
Maxim: I'm very lucky, because Juri Simonov provided a phenomenal manual technique of conducting that allows me to show quite a lot of things with my hands, without using a lot of verbal expressions.
Laurie: I'm sure you wind up in front of orchestras with musicians who speak many different languages, but we all speak music, right?
Maxim: Yes. What's important is to be able to express yourself and the way you feel about this music, your interpretation, with your gestures. That's why you need to learn the source of communication: conducting technique.
Laurie: There are too many people who get up there and do some kind of ballet that doesn't really convey a lot.
Maxim: It may work in the short-term, because the orchestra is inspired. Also nowadays, orchestras (are so good), they can play even without a conductor. But if one becomes music director, you need a different knowledge.
Laurie: Do you want to become a music director, one day?
Maxim: I'm not sure I would like to become a chief director of an orchestra, I will tell you why: simply for one fact, because I may have to abandon my violin. (A music directorship) is a big job: to spend at least 15 weeks with the orchestra, to learn all this repertoire each year, to do the administration, to discuss the agenda with the orchestra, to advocate for the right soloist…there's a lot of work, being a music director. And it's not only the conducting -- conducting takes maybe the least time! That's why, I may look for a guest conducting position, which would require maybe three to five times a year somewhere.
Laurie: A regular guest conductor.
Maxim: Yes, to establish a very good relationship with an orchestra. That is what I think, in time, I will be looking for.
Laurie: Now speaking of abandoning your violin, did you ever really do that during your break from performing, or were you pretty much playing the whole time? Are you happy to be back to performing?
Maxim: First of all, I'm incredibly happy to be back on the violin.
When I couldn't play for four years -- it was a very good time for me, actually, because I could study conducting. Otherwise, I never would have been able to devote myself to this learning process. So from this point of view, it was great that I didn't play the violin. Also, it's increased my deeper knowledge in music, not only conducting, but I think I have more colors to my violin playing than before, for the fact that I hear it somehow differently.
Anything we learn and anything we go through in life gives sort of an imprint on your main profession. I can feel now, as a violinist, I'm a different person, and I'm thankful for these four years of time.
But I missed my violin for at least two of the years that I didn't play: the third and fourth years. The first two years were just great -- because I had a good rest! But then I said to myself, "Ooh, I really miss it," and I was looking for a way to come back. It wasn't easy, I must say, it wasn't.
Laurie: How did you do it, how did you come back?
Maxim: I came back because I was lucky to find a good surgeon who performed wonderful surgery on me, on my shoulder. And then I had one year of rehabilitation.
Laurie: I wondered if you had to change your violin technique.
Maxim: Not only did I have to change technique, but I wanted to. It was very natural for me to change technique. I feel much more free with the instrument. Because simply, I was putting too much effort into the violin-playing, it was sort of too physical. Now, I use only what's necessary to produce the sound and articulation -- whatever I need. Now I don't move too much, whereas before, my movements were sort of like a palm tree!
Laurie: When you rehabilitated, did you work with a doctor, or a violin teacher, or both?
Maxim: Totally alone. I had two criteria: First, music. The final result in music, what I wanted to hear, because I have very strong expectations, always, as to how it has to sound. And the second criteria: it had to be as less-physical as possible. So I wanted to achieve the (musical) results I wanted, with as less effort as possible.
Laurie: Did you play repertoire, did you play scales, how did you do it? I can think of a lot of violinists who would love to improve their physical playing to improve their health, but it's hard to know how.
Maxim: I must say that in this way, I was really lucky, because I had had an operation, and I was still in pain when I got out of the operation. Four months after the operation, I had done a lot of rehab, physical exercises, but I still couldn't play. So I had to work with pain, with quite a lot pain, actually. I had to (address the) matter of relaxation in my playing, otherwise I couldn't sustain playing more than 10 minutes.
Laurie: So the pain kept you from overdoing it.
Maxim: Exactly. So pain was sort of my red light. (He laughs)
Laurie: Pain was your teacher.
Maxim: Yes. If I had pain, that meant I was doing something wrong. It's amazing, actually. I realized that if I am in pain when I'm playing, I had to balance it. (I had to use) force, but just enough to get through. And I had to always increase the amount of playing. I started with 10 minutes, then 15 minutes, then 20, I got to an hour. It was quite a long process. Then very naturally, I could see that my movements were more refined than before. I had reconstructed everything, including my left hand, and my position of the neck.... Violin-playing, as anything else in life, is not only about being relaxed, but you have to contract your muscles and de-contract. The relaxation after the contraction is very important, you have to be 50-50. So I was working with this balance for a very, very long time, until I felt absolutely at ease, which is now. Now I feel that.
Yes it's true, I could write a book about this.
Laurie: It would be a very interesting book! Inspirational. It's hard to work back from something like that.
Maxim: Actually, I didn't do it totally alone. My father was my mirror all that time. He helped me -- he was more of a psychiatrist. (He laughs) But I think now my father can -- if you gave him the violin, I think he would start playing now! (He laughs) Although he never touched the violin in his life!
Also, I'm helping a few young people now, who came to me after the operation. I understand their difficulties. I'm actually the one who has gone through it, and I'm a good example for them. Not direct students, but they come to me and I see them regularly.
Laurie: You do teach though, at the Royal Academy in London, yes?
Maxim: Yes. At the Royal Academy, and at the International Menuhin Academy of Music in Gstaad, Switzerland.
Laurie: I've watched an old masterclass video of you teaching and you look like a fun teacher, do you enjoy teaching?
Maxim: Yes, although I must say that my style of teaching is different now, due to experiences I've had, and also my conducting experience, and experiences with viola and baroque violin -- all of these things add to the package.
Laurie You have also been more involved with competitions -- as chairman of the jury for the Wieniawski Competition, and this year you will be working with the Montreal International Music Competition. How did you get involved with the Montreal competition?
Maxim: I've known about the Montreal International Music Competition for quite a long time. It's a wonderful competition, and when the organization approached me, I thought it would be a great honor. Also, with my experience as chairman of the jury for the Wieniawski Competition, I felt this would be wonderful continuation, to be involved with another competition.
Laurie: So you will be both conducting and serving on the jury?
Maxim: We decided that I should not be on the jury after all, because I'm going to conduct in the final round. It's difficult to be on both sides of the fence! (He laughs) So this time I prefer to be with the colleagues, with the young competitors. I know how difficult and challenging it is to perform in front of the jury -- not only that, but to compete among other brilliant young musicians. We have a very good committee, so I'm sure the choice will be made wonderfully, and I trust the competition is going to be at the highest level possible.
I'm very excited about conducting all the finalists. Conducting the violin repertoire is one of my favorite things to do, because I do understand the challenges of the concerto, and I know the difficulties of playing with the orchestra. As conductor, I think I can be of some help to the young competitors.
Many people wonder, why do we need to do competitions? Many young people say, maybe if I can learn a couple of concertos, can get a good PR agent, it will just happen for me! Yes, it might, because with today's media possibilities -- the Internet, TV, all the promotional activities -- you can achieve phenomenal things to promote yourself. But there is something that we forget, by promoting yourself. We sometimes forget about the main reason why we are playing for people. We are playing the greatest compositions -- Beethoven, Brahms, Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky -- they left for us this great heritage. It's as if people go to museums to see Leonardo da Vinci, the great paintings -- we have to deliver these great works, all the concertos, sonatas, chamber music, symphonies, in the best possible way that we can. We have to find very personal approach to them. Every soloist nowadays has to try to say something unique, something personal. Otherwise, if you're playing just another performance of Brahms concerto, why do we need to hear that?
That is the great lesson that Barenboim taught me. I played the Sibelius concerto for him, in a private room with the pianist, and I was very happy about my performance. I felt it was very emotional, good technically -- and he didn't say anything. I asked him, "Maestro, don't you like it?" He said, "Yes, I like it. It's great violin-playing. But I want to hear your Sibelius! I didn't hear your Sibelius." I asked him, "What do you mean, my Sibelius?" He said, "Well, take the score, don't play the violin any more. Just study the score. Tomorrow morning, we have the first rehearsal with the orchestra, and I want to really hear your Sibelius, your discovery, based on your new, detailed knowledge of the musical score."
I spent one whole night with the score of the Sibelius, and I totally re-discovered this work. Of course, the first rehearsal was far from perfect, and even my technique started to lose something because I was more busy with the music. So I went a step back, and after rehearsal I was very unhappy. But Barenboim came to me and said, "Well, I am happy that you have started now."
Why do we need competitions -- we want to hear every young competitor, to compare their interpretations, their souls, their personalities, how each of them views Beethoven, Mozart, even Paganini -- Paganini was a great composer, not only sportsman, as some people view him. And we want to go definitely beyond technique, because in today's society, with all our new technological possibilities, the level of technique has grown. That means the development of the human souls has to be even higher, has to match the technical possibilities.
Laurie: So when you are on a jury, it sounds like you are looking for the kind of thing that Daniel Barenboim was looking for in you.
Maxim: Absolutely. That's why we need competitions. Because we can recognize out of 40-50 players -- we want to find the most developed ones, the people who, in their future, will bring something to our audience, will bring something to the music, will add something to the musical world. And beyond that, even those people who do not pass through to the finals, they will have goals, they will have dreams fulfilled because they were at the competition where the atmosphere was incredible, where the level, not only technical but the performing art level, was fantastic. So they go away from the competition with the souvenirs and new challenges.
Maxim: Inspired. That's what, we need to inspire young people.Tweet
Canada’s National Arts Centre Young Artists Program, directed by PINCHAS ZUKERMAN is now accepting applications for June 2013. DEADLINE: FEBRUARY 4, 2013.
This internationally recognized program draws 70 of the world’s best young musicians to study for three weeks in Ottawa, Canada, June 6 – 27, 2013. Exceptionally talented violinists and violists accepted to the YAP Senior level will have private instruction with Mr. Zukerman and his teaching colleagues Patty Kopec and Grigory Kalinovsky.
The YAP is an exciting, intense program filled with private lessons and a chamber music component of rehearsals and coaching led by a team of prominent chamber music coaches.
Paul Casey, viola has been involved in the YAP the past two summers. He was interviewed as part of a NAC blog series about his experience in the program. Here’s an excerpt:
“AW: You were invited to participate in the 2011 Summer Music Institute* (SMI) Young Artist Program (YAP) as part of an additional ensemble. What was the best part about your experience with SMI?
PC: Having the opportunity to work with all the amazing coaches was so great! Each one of them approached the music from a different angle, so we really saw the pieces from so many different aspects. Since I was in about 4 groups, I had so many opportunities to perform, which is so rare in summer festivals. Also, the musicians that were in my ensembles were pretty wonderful (and super talented), and I still keep in touch with all of them. The cellist who was in my ensemble is actually now my girlfriend; we met at YAP. We always joke that someone over at the NAC is playing matchmaker for us.
AW: If you were to pass on any advice for upcoming participants, or recall one of the best pieces of advice that was given to you during SMI what would it be?
PC: The best piece of advice I heard while I was attending SMI was from Steve Dann, one of the viola coaches. He said that when working with an ensemble, especially short-term at a summer music festival like the Young Artist Program, it is so easy to fall into the trap of disagreeing and arguing with each other about musical choices. He said the best way to approach this is to “just say yes” to a colleague’s musical suggestion. Playing it will often prove him/her to be right or wrong, and it can save so much precious rehearsal time! I think it is important to not only come prepared, to know your music before you go, but it is also so important to approach the process with an open mind and willingness to try things that you maybe think are not such a great idea at the time.”
FOR FULL INFORMATION ON THE NAC YOUNG ARTISTS PROGRAM AND TO APPLY ONLINE GO TO:
For the full interview with Paul, see the link below.
Violinist.com has not reviewed, and does not endorse, the content of any of the articles below.
Can Your Child (or You) Start Playing the Viola without Playing the Violin First?
by Zlata Brouwer
Announcing Violettes 3rd Annual Youth Composition Competition
by Becky Chaffee
3 Solutions if Raising Your Shoulder Rest isn't the Solution to Your Pain Problem
by Zlata Brouwer
Original Film Score Cue for Doctor Who (Take a listen!)
by Joshua Iyer
Please consider supporting Violinist.com by becoming a sponsor, and reaching our dedicated community of violin professionals, students and fans!