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Laurie Niles

Your Brain on Music

July 25, 2014 11:48

Brain on music

Science seems to be supporting us in the the idea that playing a musical instrument lights up every corner our brains. Here is a nicely animated and succinct TED video on the subject, for your pleasure:

A choice quote, beginning at 3:40: "How do we know that all these benefits are unique to music, as opposed to , say, sports or painting? Or could it be that people who go into music were already smarter to begin with? Neuroscientists have explored these issues, but so far they have found that the artistic and aesthetic aspects of learning to play a musical instrument are different from any other activity studied, including other arts. And several other randomized studies of participants who showed the same levels of cognitive function and neural processing at the start, found that those who were exposed to a period of music learning showed enhancement in multiple brain areas, compared to the others."

2 replies

Can't Say Enough about the Violin, in Cincinnati

July 19, 2014 08:25

"Can you please show me the chapter where the lady cut off her finger?" asked a very polite eight-year-old boy, after a book signing recital that I gave in Cincinnati last week.

I'd just read three excerpts from Violinist.com Interviews, Vol. 1, which has 27 interviews that I've done over the years with some of today's best-known violinists. My small friend wanted to go back home and read the whole chapter on that very interesting lady, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, and her remarkable recovery and career. As I leafed through his copy to find the chapter and bookmark it, he added, "I'm going to start playing the violin next school year."


I'm in Cincinnati for the next week or so, visiting my parents and sister's family, and I was thrilled at the opportunity to play some short pieces and read from my book at Christ Church Cathedral's Music Live at Lunch series downtown. (This is my sister's church, and long ago I played in their fantastic Boar's Head and Yule Log Festival, a very unique musical pageant that I just love. My sister, Katie McGuire, a marketing and communications consultant, organized the event!)

The concert was sponsored by The Baroque Violin Shop, which I hope to visit next week (they have a Stradivarius, the Lady Harmsworth -- gotta check that out! I will tell you all about it when I do.)

Laurie reading

Besides reading about Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, I also read about Sarah Chang, David Garrett, Anne Akiko Meyers and Philippe Quint. I also took questions: Did my book represent violinists of an older generation as well? Yes, you can read about Ruggiero Ricci, Elmar Oliveira and Stanley Ritchie. Who was that guy who played on the subway? It's Joshua Bell, and it was in Washington D. C., and he might be ready to talk about other things, after all he's a fine violinist! What makes those million-dollar violins so expensive? Their antique value and their state of preservation...

Laurie performing

For the performing part of this event, I had a wonderful partner in pianist Brianna Matzke, a sensitive collaborator who took a fun ride with me through the Heifetz arrangement of "It Ain't Necessarily So" (first time I'd played this one, very fun!), the "Blues" movement of the Ravel Sonata, and Meditation from "Thais."

I also met longtime violinist.com member Donald Hurd, who teaches in Cincinnati, as well some other teaching colleagues who teach with the Wyoming Fine Arts Center (that would be Wyoming, Ohio!)

As usual, I can't say enough about the violin; get me going and I'll talk all day long! I enjoyed the opportunity to play and read aloud at such a beautiful place and for such an appreciative audience.

"The Violinist.com Interviews: Volume 1" is available in paperback, for Kindle and Kindle apps, and for iBooks.

1 reply

Remembering Conductor, Violinist and Composer Lorin Maazel (1930-2014)

July 13, 2014 19:32

By now you have likely heard that Maestro Lorin Maazel, 84, died on Sunday at his home in Virginia, Castleton Farms, where he was in the midst of his annual Castleton Festival. He died from complications following pneumonia.

Lorin MaazelDuring his prolific, seven-decade career, Maazel, 84, conducted some 7,000 concerts and made around 300 recordings. He held a number of music directorships, including those with the Pittsburgh Symphony, Cleveland Orchestra, Munich Philharmonic and New York Philharmonic.

Born into a family of musicians, he began piano lessons at the age of 5 and violin lessons at age 7. Shortly after that he began studying conducting with Vladimir Bakaleinikoff. Maazel conducted the Pittsburgh Symphony at age 9, and by invitation from Arturo Toscanini, the NBC Symphony at age 11.

He was tireless in his work to the end; according to his personal blog, during 2013, at age 83, he conducted 200 rehearsals and 111 concerts in 30 cities.

We've assembled some videos and links about Lorin Maazel to help commemorate his life. Please feel welcome to post any memories of Maazel that you would like to share in the comments section.

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In 2012, Lorin Maazel told a group of graduating music students: "Keep that light burning. Keep your faith. Don't take yourselves seriously, but take the art we all serve very seriously and accord it the respect and love it deserves." I stumbled across those recent words by Maazel in this convocation address. Somehow these words seem like they are for all of us who wish to carry forward the tradition of music. From Northwestern University's Bienen School of Music's June 2012 convocation:

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Maazel's conducts the last movement of Mahler's first symphony with the Orquesta Sinfónica de Galicia in 2012:

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And some footage from the 1960s: Lorin Maazel plays and conducts the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in Mozart's Concerto for Violin and Orchestra # 3; K.216.

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More links about Lorin Maazel:

Lorin Maazel's personal blog; the last entry is an obituary, but Maestro Maazel's last entry was on June 11.

New York Times obituary

Castleton Festival obituary

Washington Post obituary

Los Angeles Times obituary

NPR obituary

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Get off my case!

July 12, 2014 10:20

After Time for Three's big airplane debacle -- left on the tarmac by U.S. Airways with violins in hand when connecting through Charlotte, N.C. -- I was somewhat dismayed to realized Friday that I was flying the same airline, connecting through the same city!

I was on my way to Cincinnati, where I'll be visiting family and also doing a book-signing recital this week (12:10 p.m. Tuesday at Christ Church Cathedral's Music Live at Lunch, please come see me if you are in the area, it's free! I'll play a little and read from Violinist.com Interviews.)

So was I left on the tarmac? No. Did I allow my nice violin to go with the baggage handlers into the frigid cargo area of the plane where it would be roughly piled in with all the other heavy bags? NO WAY!

But I still had to be very vigilant. I kept my copy of the FAA Air Transportation Modernization and Safety Improvement Act of 2012, Section 713 in hand, ready to proffer if needed.

My large flight from Los Angeles to Charlotte caused me the biggest anxiety, actually. This was a busy flight, and I was in the last of five groups to load the plane. By the time they were loading the fourth group, they began informing those with "oversized baggage" that they would need to "gate check" their baggage -- that is, hand it over to be put in cargo. (Because they charge extra to check a bag, many people avoid checking their bags. Thus, lots of bags on the flight.)

As I entered the tunnel to the plane, a flight attendant pointed to my violin and started to inform me that it would need to go in the cargo. I cut her off with a firm "No."

Get off my case!

I must have had a certain look on my face because she backed off and shrugged, "Well, if it fits."

I placed it in the first bin where it would fit, but this was about 10 rows from my seat. As I took my seat, I realized that there was some room closer to me. To my dismay, when I looked back to where I'd put my violin, I saw another lady violently jamming her big roller bag into my violin case! Shove, shove, jam, jam...Basically, I barged my way back to my fiddle, grabbed it and said, "What are you DOING? " I carried it back to my seat and put it in a closer bin. At least if it's close to my seat, I can keep an eye on others trying to put their luggage in the same bin.

I'm sure I came off as slightly lunatic, but there's just no other way. I can't have someone bashing in my violin case. I can't put the violin in cargo. I actually have no other way to get across the country with my violin other than to fly a domestic flight, and there's no option other than to take it on the plane. Pretty much every other overpacked roller bag on board would have been just fine in cargo.

I flew on a smaller but less-crowded plane from Charlotte to Cincinnati; overhead space was plentiful and so I had no problems.

But there's no relaxing, when traveling with the fiddle!

17 replies

Practice Tips: The Secret to Making Slow Practice Work

July 7, 2014 21:47

One effective way to practice a difficult fast passage is to play it slowly and correctly. But sometimes, after all that slow practice, it doesn't seem to fit back into the music. Why is that?

One common problem with slow practice is the universal temptation to practice only the difficult part slowly, then practice everything else up-to-speed. Here's a suggestion: choose a section larger than just the difficult part, and practice it all at one tempo, keeping all rhythms proportional to the slow beat. That means practicing the easy parts slowly, as well as the difficult ones. Only when the whole section is going smoothly at the slow speed, should you start upping the tempo.

At first, this may seem boring, time-consuming and unnecessary. However, in reality, this is one of the most efficient tricks you can use in your practice. Why? Because you are working out how that passage fits into the whole, and this is essential work. If you practice something many times with a sudden shift of tempo, that shift becomes part of the learned whole, and it does not disappear with ease.

This kind of practice works in all levels of study, and it works just as well for learning pieces as it does for etudes and orchestra parts. To demonstrate, I've made a little video, using a section from"Gavotte" by Gossec (last tune in Suzuki Book 1) as an example. I hope you find it useful in your own practice!

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Interview with Primrose International Viola Competition winner Zhanbo Zheng: Choosing Viola

July 1, 2014 10:30

The viola, with its deep tone, its repertoire that tends toward the dark and contemporary, can be a source of truly inspirational music-making.

Certainly the young artists who performed in the Primrose International Viola Competition earlier this month showed the viola at its finest, and none more than the finalists and first-prize winner Zhanbo Zheng of China.

Zhanbo played with unwaveringly good pitch, beautiful tone and control. His playing was marked by tremendous energy and thoughtful musicality. Zhanbo studies viola with Wang Shaowu at the secondary school division of the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. He speaks mostly Chinese but was kind enough to answer some questions by e-mail, to help us get to know this excellent young musician.

Zhanbo Zheng
Violist Zhanbo Zheng, 17, of China. Photo by Dwight Pounds.

Laurie: How old are you, and how old were you when you started playing?

Zhanbo: I am exactly 17. I started learning violin at the age of 5.

Laurie: Did you start on the violin and switch to viola? If so, what made you want to switch to viola?

Zhanbo Yes, I did, and actually I think viola is really melodious. The viola can show such a beautiful tone, between its high and low register. It also never has a sharpness to its tone. In fact, I passed the entrance examination for both violin and viola before I got into school, but I chose viola. The immediate cause of choosing the viola was that I had heard Teng Li’s playing once, when I was learning violin. After her concert I was totally touched, even a little shocked. I thought, how could this instrument make such various colors? It’s just a little bigger than the violin! Then, I switched to the viola.

Laurie: How long do you practice every day?

Zhanbo It’s less than 3 hours, because of normal classes, chamber music and orchestral.

Laurie: Your playing is very musical. How do you keep it musical, while also working on a very high level of technique?

Zhanbo It’s a complicated problem! The technique, certainly, requires time to practice, but if the music is just in your heart, you make the technique serve your music. My teacher told me that when you practice, you should think what the music should be, rather than what the technique should be.

Laurie:What is your favorite music to play? Is there a piece you are really wanting to learn next?

Zhanbo There are so many good pieces to play, I can’t find ‘my favorite.’ I really hope to play the Viola Sonata Op. 11/4 by Hindemith, that’s amazing! And I’ve also heard several new pieces in this competition, I’d like to try them.

Laurie:What is your favorite thing to do, besides viola?

Zhanbo Watching movies, reading books, running and badminton. In some ways, I can benefit from that for my music too.

Laurie:In your opinion, what is the most important thing you have learned from your teacher?

Zhanbo Prof. Wang Shaowu has taught me a lot, and not just about the music. His daily behaviors and his attitude towards parents have helped me understand how to have integrity and to be respectful to my parents. I believe that daily life has a great influence on one's musical life. And when it comes to music, never let off the problems, even if they’re really tiny, when you treat the music.

Laurie:Do you have anything to add?

Zhanbo I just want to express my appreciation for Prof. Wang, who guided me in music; my parents who loved and understood me always; my school which offered me a great platform; and everybody who has helped me. I could not have won PIVC without all of you! Thanks!

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Previous entries: June 2014

"Delve into the delicate nuances of creativity"

Hilary Hahn Violinist Hilary Hahn offers the foreword to The Violinist.com Interviews: Volume 1, an engaging collection of interviews with some of the world's top violinists, including Sarah Chang, Maxim Vengerov, David Garrett, and of course, Hilary herself.

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