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Laurie Niles

Chamber Music Master Class with Arnold Steinhardt at USC

February 26, 2015 14:50

It's not surprising to see in person that violinist Arnold Steinhardt has a way with words.

Steinhardt, who is a professor of violin and chamber music at The Colburn School, University of Maryland, Bard College and the Curtis Institute, also does a great deal of writing. He has his own blog called In the Key of Strawberry, and he has written two books, Indivisible by Four: A String Quartet in Pursuit of Harmony, about his journey as first violinist in the Guarneri String Quartet (which disbanded after 45 years in 2009); and Violin Dreams, more generally about his life as a violinist.

Steinhardt's gift for description was on display during a chamber music master class Friday night at the University of Southern California, during which he coached three student chamber groups for an audience of about 50. Smiling as he spoke, Steinhardt offered his suggestions with clarity and appeal, in language both efficient and richly meaningful.

The first quartet set the bar high, with an energetic performance of the first movement of Mendelssohn's String Quartet, Op. 44, No. 2. It's a movement full of fast unison runs, and their playing was satisfyingly on-pitch, in time, and marked with awareness for one another.

USC quartet with Steinhardt
Arnold Steinhardt (center) with quartet members (L-R) Eunghee, Benjamin, Chloe and Mann-Wen

"You really captured the essence of this piece, the emotional intensity," he said after their initial performance.

He suggested to the first violinist that her sound in the opening would have "more spin" if she could use more bow. He did not want to change the volume, just the quality of the sound. "If you use more bow, the sound has more wings," he said. In another passage, he wanted a note emphasized, but not with an accent. "Could you give it a little more of a heart pang?" he said, suggesting the use of vibrato rather than any change of bow stroke.

He asked the first violinist to really go for a high note, and when she overshot it, he applauded the effort. "You took a chance and you went for it, and I think that's really important," he said. He quoted Heifetz: "Practice as if the whole world depends on it; perform as if you don't give a d*mn."

In order to get a little more volume from the second violinist, Steinhardt reminded her that "you're two yards back from the first violin, so you have to push just a little harder."

He suggested that it's possible to change color by changing strings, so plan fingerings accordingly. "You don't have to work hard to change the color if the string has done it for you," he said.

He advised them to "work harder in clearing the thick texture." The density of Mendelssohn's writing offers a challenge: in order for the important lines to emerge, one person needs to get louder while the rest get softer. "How much do you want to be out of the water?" he asked. "You are only this much out of the water," he said, holding his hand like a waterline, up to his nose. He lowered it to his chest, "You want to be a least this far out of the water. Take a chance in doing too much," he told the cellist. "Too much" ended up being just right.

Steinhardt noted a place in the cello part, where Mendelssohn puts a "fancy curlicue" on the second iteration of a repeated figure -- "put a little rubato on it so that it sounds like you are improvising it, like you got tired of the first way and just made up something," he said.

For an ascending flourish in the first violin, he advised her to play it with a little more flair, referencing one of our more showy violinist-composers: "put a little bit of Wieniawski in Mendelssohn!"

Next, a trio performed the first movement Ravel's piano-violin-cello Trio in A minor, an atmospheric and mercurial piece, ranging in texture from rumbling low chords to icy-high harmonics. I must add: it was really a pure pleasure to hear every one of these accomplished student groups perform. They'd already achieved a high level, and then they responded to Steinhardt's suggestions wholeheartedly, with immediate effect.

USC trio
Playing the Ravel Trio, with (L-R) YuEun, Dawoon and Coleman

For this piece, Steinhardt focused on staying true to the composer's tempo markings. "If it's too slow all the time, it gets to be formless," he said. Though it's not necessary to time everything exactly to the metronome marking, it is important to obey the relationships between the various tempo markings. "It's so gorgeous, the temptation is to play it slowly," but it needs motion. "Keep the flow, even though you want to pick a few daisies here and there. Don't pick too many daisies," he said. He focused on where to move forward and where to hold back in the movement. And here's a little trick: speed up just a bit before a place where you are supposed to slow down. "If you have a ritard coming up, it's more interesting if you move a little into the ritard," he said. If the composer asks for a long slow-down, be sure to start the passage fast enough so that the slowing will not feel like dragging. "You have to cook up your own recipe here, but it has to have fluidity," he said.

Another quartet played the first movement of Beethoven's String Quartet No. 11, Op. 95. As they played it, something seemed a little disorganized to me, despite good playing. What was it? Steinhardt identified it easily: it needed more speed.

"If you pick a tempo that's not quite right, no matter how well you play, the tempo ends up being your enemy," he said. This movement should be "bubbling," he said, but at a slow tempo, it gets too note-y. At a faster tempo, "even if you play it badly, it's going to sound pretty good. It's going to be a lot easier to capture the essence."

Sure enough, a faster tempo tightened the music and improved the overall effect.

His other suggestions were about balance: the beginning of this movement has all four instruments playing in unison, and when this is the case, it's not necessary to dig in quite so much. "You can cool it a little," he said, "otherwise the danger is that you are going to lose your good sound."

Steinhardt with violinist
Steinhardt offers a suggestion to violinist Roberta

In places where the violins play in octaves, the lower octave should really sing out to balance the voices, as the higher octave will automatically sound louder because of its favorable range.

When it comes to pressing for sound, the cello and viola can press and still sound nice, but "if you two press," he said to the violins, "it's going to scream!"

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Laurie's Violin School: Learn (or Teach) Your Key Signatures in Nine Weeks

February 24, 2015 11:23

If only key signatures felt as logical on the violin as they do on the piano!

The true violin native, who did not take piano first or have music theory instruction at school (and these days, who does?), sometimes has a hard time remembering key signatures without the constant reinforcement that the physical structure of a keyboard provides. C major makes sense as the white-key scale that doesn't require any black keys, thus doesn't have any sharps or flats. The concept of G major seems a little easier to understand on a keyboard, where one sharp means one black key.

To back up, what is a key signature? Basically it's the name of the scale that any given piece is built on. A piece in the key of C is based on the scale of C major, which starts on the note "C."

Violin students, like all music students, need to know their sharps, flats and key signatures. At some point, they just need to memorize them. Here are a few aids to help:


First, you need to know the order of the sharps and the flats. (To be thorough in my definitions: sharps make a note a half-step higher, flats make a note a half-step lower).

Below is an acrostic saying that shows the order in which they appear on key signatures. (Sharps: F-C-G-D-A-E-B; Flats: B-E-A-D-G-C-F). Once you know this order, you'll have an easier time determining which notes are sharp and which are flat in various keys. Here is the order of the sharps and flats:


This saying is nice because it demonstrates that the order of the flats is simply the order of the sharps in reverse, and the saying works the same way.

Why are they in a certain order? Because that is the order in which they appear in key signatures. If you have one sharp, it's F#. If you have two sharps, it's F# and C#. Same with flats: if you have one flat, it's Bb. Four flats: Bb, Eb, Ab, Db. A few tricks: I'm always helped by the fact that the first four flats spell "BEAD." Also, when it comes to which saying I need, (battle ends, or Father Charles?) a flat ("b") looks like a "b" so the first flat is "B." If you use a bit of imagination, the sign for a sharp, ("#"), looks a bit like an "F" -- okay not really, but it doesn't look anything like a "b"!

Now that you have the order of the keys, how do you know what key you are in? Here are some tricks:


C MAJOR: You just have to memorize the fact that the key with no flats and no sharps is the key of C major. That's why those beginning piano students are always obsessing over "middle C."

SHARPS: The name of the key is a half-step up from the last sharp in the key signature. For example, if you just have one sharp, F sharp, the key is one half-step up from F sharp: G major. If you have five sharps, the last sharp is...F#, C#, G#, D#, A#...It's A#, and a half-step up from that is B, so it's the key of B major. I also have a violin-centered way to remember sharp keys: they follow the order of the strings. One sharp? G major. Two sharps? D major. Three? A major. Four? E major. See the pattern? It's the same as the strings on your violin. Five sharps? It's a fifth up from E, so it's B major. It keeps going up in fifths.

FLATS: You just have to memorize the name of the key that has one flat: it's F major. For the other flat keys: the name of the key is the second-to-last flat in the key signature. So what if you have two flats? They would be Bb and Eb; the second-to-last flat is Bb, so it's Bb major. If you have five flats? Going in order, the flats would be Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb. The second-to-last flat is Db, so the key is Db major.

Below is a visual representation of the major keys, called the Circle of Fifths. Why is it called that? Because there is a pattern to the key signatures: every sharp key is a fifth up from the last; every flat key is a fifth down from the last, and then somewhere around "too many sharps" they start crossing over. It makes sense that when you've sharped everything you can sharp, you have the key of C# major, and when you've flatted everything you can flat, you have the key of Cb major. It's come "full circle" from C major, that key with no flats or sharps!

Circle of Fifths


Every major key has an evil twin -- a relative minor key that shares the same key signature. (Maybe it's just slightly more melancholy twin!) The name of the minor key is three half-steps below the name of the major key. If you have the key of F major, the relative minor is D minor. Both keys look the same, they have one flat, Bb. Other ways to think of this: You could also say that the name of the minor key is a minor third below the major key; or simply two notes in the given scale below. (For me, the latter way to think of it is most helpful.)


Let's say your teacher has explained this to you a few (hundred) times, but you still find yourself unsure about what key you are in, or which sharps and flats are what. Or, you find yourself having to stop and work convoluted calculations to figure it out. Should you just stay in the key-signature fog zone? No!

The solution: some simple exercises can help make sense of this while also helping you commit it to memory. Inspired my students' need to drill keys, I created some very simple worksheets to reinforce and practice naming sharps, flats and keys. The first three require writing out the order of the flats and sharps, then identifying some major key signatures. The next three are all about identifying major key signatures; the last three ask for major key signatures, and their relative minor. For all, they have to write out the names of all the flats and sharps in each key. I spend about five minutes of lesson time each week on this for nine weeks, and I send each sheet home with the student, so they can study for next week. After we've done the worksheets, I then forever ask them the key signature of every etude, solo piece, orchestra piece, etc. If they need remediation, we just do it again!

Here are PDF's of the worksheets I've made for my students (home-grown but effective!):

Laurie's key signature worksheets.

Please share your ideas about teaching and learning the key signatures in the comments below!

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11 replies

Frank Peter Zimmermann's 1711 Strad in Limbo

February 23, 2015 10:53

Violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann is scheduled to play the Sibelius later this week with the New York Philharmonic, but it's looking unsure whether he'll do so with the Strad that he has played for the past 12 years.

Frank Peter Zimmermann
Photo by Klaus Rudulph

Under a 2002 contract, Frank Peter Zimmermann has been renting his 1711 "ex-Kreisler" Strad from a now-defunct German bank, WestLB AG. But that contract expired Sunday night, according to Wall Street Journal. Though Zimmerman has a first-buy option, he has said that he is unwilling to pay the price set by the firm now selling the bank's assets, Portigon Financial Services, the Journal said. The violin has been valued at $5.1 million and $5.7 million, but apparently the asking price has been set higher, about $1 million higher, according to Slipped Disc.

What a stressful situation. Here's hoping for a resolution that allows Zimmermann to continue to play the Strad!

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Los Angeles Philharmonic Celebrates Chinese New Year 2015 with Ning Feng and Other Chinese Artists

February 20, 2015 19:21

Happy Chinese New Year!

2015 RamThe Los Angeles Philharmonic ushered in the Year of the Ram (or Goat or Sheep -- there seems to be some confusion!) in a concert called "Chinese New Year: From Tchaikovsky to Tan Dun," with a combination of East and West, classic and modern, predictability and surprise.

A Chinese New Year's concert (there will be two more performances, tonight and Saturday night) was a new event for the LA Phil, which is known for its continuing efforts to innovate and reinvent the symphonic experience. This eclectic concert seemed perfectly fitting at Disney Hall, otherwise known as a "living room" for Los Angeles, a city where classical music lives comfortably alongside movie soundtracks, and where diversity of culture thrives.

Happy New Year!This was a party, and it had the trappings. Big red "Happy New Year!" banners, with the message in both Mandarin and English, stood at various entrances, and ushers wished patrons a "Happy Lunar New Year!" as they passed out programs. Inside the programs were red envelopes, decorated with the golden ram, containing messages or coupons. In the hall, red lanterns hung from the lofty ceiling.

I came out of curiosity to hear Chinese-born violinist Ning Feng perform live, and I was not disappointed.

No -- actually I was a little disappointed, but only because I wanted to hear more! He played Saint-Saens' "Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso" with beautiful expression, agility and character. The "Introduction" sounded quite sentimental on the 1721 "MacMillan" Strad that he plays, and the the mercurial "Rondo Capriccioso" had great ebb and flow. I'm completely envious of his up-bow staccato (which is also on display in this YouTube video) and he also tossed off every other mad task in this virtuoso piece with complete ease and musical purpose. Bravo to the LA Phil woodwinds for their playful soli during the violinist's bariolage accompaniment section.

laurie and ning feng
With Ning Feng, who was signing his Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev CDs, after the concert

Pianist Haochen Zhang made Chopin's Andante spianato and Grand Polonaise, Op. 22 seem easy and inevitable, pouring forth like water. A major highlight for me was cellist Jian Wang, whose singing tone, at once strong and nuanced, brought the audience to a hush for the "Rococo Variations" by Tchaikovsky, a piece full of both humor and beautiful melody.

For pure fun, all three soloists played with the orchestra for Chinese composer Tan Dun's "The Triple Resurrection," a 2013 piece which features quotes from his best-known movie scores such as "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," "Hero," and "The Banquet." Without yet reading the program notes, I sensed that Ning Feng's opening violin solo was a water theme, which beautifully weaves in and out of the piano and cello solos. I concluded that I'd been correct when I heard something that most definitely was a water theme, the actual sound of moving water. How exactly did they sneak two enormous glass bowls of water into the percussion section without my noticing at all? A microphone was trained on each bowl, with musicians swishing their hands through the water to make sounds like a kid in the bathtub (minus the squeals). The surprise of this sound and sight seemed to delight a lot of people, myself included. There was a giant orchestral crescendo that climaxed into: a solo water swish -- definitely original! The piece kept getting better, strings soaring melodically over all kinds of driving percussion and syncopation. The end was met with an immediate standing ovation.

As an encore, the orchestra brought back the same Spring Festival Overture that opened the concert, this time joined by four dancing dragon puppets in green, gold and red, each manned by two gymnasts. They made their surprise appearance in various aisles, then worked their way toward the stage, where they danced, "slept" (their puppet eyes closed) and frolicked to the music. A long orange dragon, held aloft on sticks by some half-dozen people, stretched across the entire length of the floor as it paraded down and across the aisles.

with dragon

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Suzuki Teacher Workshop with Charles Krigbaum

February 18, 2015 12:17

Every teacher needs a little inspiration now and then.

Happily, continuing education opportunities abound for violin teachers, and last weekend I was able to take some time to attend a workshop held at the Colburn School by the Suzuki Music Association of California. Every February the group holds a teacher workshop, in keeping with Suzuki's idea that teachers should also be lifelong learners.

This year, Charles Krigbaum, a Suzuki teacher trainer and the founder of the North Texas School of Talent Education in Plano, spent Sunday and Monday teaching us some strategies for involving parents, making videos at lessons to help with home practice sessions, teaching some specific techniques to young children, and dealing with the business side of having a private studio.

Learning Suzuki violin with a small child is no small commitment, and it's up to teachers to communicate exactly what it means.

"You can't sneak your expectations onto parents, after they've signed up," Krigbaum said.

Parents of Suzuki students need to know their substantial role in their children's music lessons. "Suzuki is not a drop-off activity," he said. After all, beginning Suzuki students are often as young as three years old, so working with this age group requires special consideration. Someone who can't read or write can't take notes, can't be expected to practice on his or her own -- they need considerable guidance!

Parents of young Suzuki students are expected to:

  • Attend all lessons
  • Actively take notes in the lesson (not texting, etc.). Also take pictures and videos when needed.
  • Supervise daily practice (Daily practice means daily -- no days off. If you regularly have days off, then "in the child's mind, today is always the day we don't have to practice!" he said.)
  • Not over-commit their child ("Character is developed by excellence, not by being over-committed," he said.)
  • Understand the importance of listening and then do it ("One hour a day is getting started -- Suzuki recommended five!" he said. "If a student is practicing more than he is listening, he will think the way he plays it is the way it goes.")
  • Practice what is assigned
  • Provide a good-quality, appropriately-fitted instrument
  • Provide practice space at home
  • Not discuss sensitive issues in front of the child

Something Krigbaum said repeatedly was, "Anything that's not going to happen by accident must be planned." It's up to the teacher to plan things and check that the plans are being followed.

Modern technology can help us greatly with practice -- he suggested that parents use their phones to record weekly practice videos with their teachers.

"If Suzuki were alive, there is no doubt that he would have a Youtube channel," Krigbaum said. Krigbaum makes a short video every week, for every student, and he asks that they listen to it at the beginning of every practice session. The video helps them remember exactly what was assigned and perhaps contains a few specific exercises. The video is also a way to make the teacher present at every practice session, and it takes some pressure off of the parents when it comes to enforcing what they are supposed to be practicing.

Krigbaum also did a master class with three young beginners (around age 5) and had all kinds of ideas for helping them to play correctly while keeping age-appropriate. I'll share one that I thought was especially helpful. A girl named Djuna played Bach's Minuet 1 for us, which he followed with some good descriptive praise, "I liked your concentration," he said, "you made this seem easy, and it's not really that easy!" He noticed a problem in her left hand that is extremely common, especially in beginners: a bent thumb that was grabbing the neck somewhat. This common problem can be difficult to fix -- and stay fixed!

"This glob right here is your thumb muscle," he explained to her, pointing to the prominent muscle at the base of his own thumb. "It needs to go down." They found her thumb muscle, then on her muscle he drew an arrow downward, with green pen. "Now make your hand squishy, so I can shape it like Play-do..." and he fixed her thumb on the violin, so that the muscle was pointing down. (It seemed helpful to talk about the muscle, rather than the thumb itself.) It looked great, and she was able to keep it that way. She went over and showed her dad, who took a picture. Then he had her look at his own left thumb on the violin. Is it right? He purposely made it wrong, so she could fix it.

Charles Krigbaum works with Djuna

He asked, "Is my thumb muscle squishy, or is it a rock?" He showed her the difference between a tensed muscle and a relaxed one. Then he had her make her thumb muscle into a rock, but when he tapped it, she was supposed to make it squishy. "Keep sending your hand soft thoughts," he said.

This exercise assigned age-appropriate words for talking about this problem, and it also provided a physical way to fix it -- with some reinforcement, in the future a teacher could simply tap the thumb to make it go "squishy" when the student is tensing.

Of course, the squishy thumb in the violin hand made the bow hand go a bit limp as well, so they practiced trying to stay "squishy" with the violin but firm with the right.

"You can practice any song to practice squishy thumb and strong bow; start with Twinkle," he told her.

Great to have a new idea to help with the ever-present thumb problems!

Another topic that Krigbaum addressed over the weekend was the business of music. He teaches entire workshops on this topic, and after hearing his encouraging ideas, I'd highly recommend them to teachers. Among his ideas: charge a living wage, charge by the month, be clear, raise tuition yearly to keep up with the cost of living, etc. In a nutshell: "Charge enough to make a comfortable living, and get paid the right amount, on time, by everyone," he said, adding, "accepting payments by the lesson is a recipe for poverty." He advises setting equal monthly payments for a set number of lessons (he does 30) from Sept. through May. He recommended keeping in the range of what other teachers of similar background charge, and reminded everyone that "it is not wrong to be paid a salary that reflects your education, skills and worth."

16 replies

Laurie's Violin School: 'Good Job'

February 16, 2015 01:01

"There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job.’"

This is what the sadistic jazz professor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) tells young drummer Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) during a defining scene in the Academy Award-nominated movie Whiplash, by way of justifying his cruel ways as a teacher.

Naturally, I agree. But probably for different reasons than the fictional tyrant of a teacher does.

Photo by Daniel McFadden - Courtesy of Sundance Institute

For example, I do not subscribe to the idea that cruelly eviscerating a person's self-worth will spur that person to practice until his fingers bleed. In fact, on the topic of practicing until your fingers bleed -- I don't view it as the best path to developing surefire technique, sound musicianship and inventive self-expression.

So what's my problem with teachers telling their students "good job"?

  1. It's an empty compliment.
  2. It contains no helpful information.
  3. As people say of the over-use of expletives: "It just shows your limited vocabulary."

You might think I'm joking, but I'm not. "Good job" is discouraging, disempowering, and it turns students into praise junkies.

If a student aspires to a high level of musical accomplishment, he or she needs good feedback from teachers, colleagues and audience. But it needs to be specific feedback, positive and negative. For example: your high D was perfectly in tune and made the instrument ring; your bow thumb is placed correctly; you made that phrase so poignant; you did it the same both times, change it up; accelerate the vibrato there; that moment is so special, hold it longer; soften your hand for the double-stops; you are using too much muscle to go fast; the arpeggios were clean; slow the tempo three notches on the metronome; that decrescendo to niente chilled my bones; make the audience hold their breath by holding the last note as long as you possibly, possibly can. Students need to know what is working and what is not working, and they need the courage and tools to boldly implement changes where needed.

They don't need, "Good Job."

* * *

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Violinist.com interview with Ning Feng: from China to the World Stage

February 13, 2015 00:08

Chinese violinist Ning Feng, 33, has spent the last 15 years winning international competitions and scooping up awards and praise for his playing, but his violin career nearly ended before it began.

At age four, he was rejected outright by a violin teacher before he could learn to play a note, due to the length of his pinkie, which is much shorter than his other fingers.

"They told my dad, 'His finger's too short, there's no good outcome from him learning the instrument,'" Feng said, speaking with me over the phone from Berlin last month. "That would have been quite a pity, if that had been my only chance, that first teacher."

It certainly would have, for a violinist who grew to play with such virtuosity and sensitivity.

The list of awards Ning Feng has won is long: recently named a Fellow at London's Royal Academy of Music, Ning Feng also was a First Prize winner of Michael Hill International Violin Competition in 2005 and in the International Paganini Competition in 2006, having also won prizes in the Hanover, Queen Elisabeth and Menuhin competitions. Next week he will play his debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, performing Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso by Saint Saens as well as a new work by Tan Dun in a Chinese New Year concert. His first concerto CD, featuring Bruch Scottish Fantasy and the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, was released in February 2014.

Feng was born in Chengdu, China in the province of Sichuan -- famous for its spicy food and for being the only region where the wild panda lives. Feng started playing the violin because of his father. "He is a big music lover, and he really loves the violin sound," Feng said. "However, when he was younger, for either financial or political reasons, he was not allowed to study the instrument. In a way, I studied the violin to fulfill his dream."

Though that first teacher nearly derailed Feng's start on the violin, the second teacher proved to Feng that things happen for a reason.

"I couldn't learn violin for a half a year, until my dad found another teacher," Feng said. Because of the first experience, they approached the second teacher with some trepidation. "My dad thought, 'What if this teacher says again, my son cannot learn this instrument at all?'" Fortunately, the second teacher did not see his shorter pinkie as a problem -- "which I think is actually the right attitude," Feng said. "What defines whether or not you can play the violin? It starts out with the fact that you enjoy music. I've known a lot of people who are very successful in their own business; they're not necessarily professional musicians, but they love playing the instrument! And they go to concerts, they love listening to CD recordings. They play a little piano, a little violin on their own, when they have spare time. What's wrong with that? As long as someone has the good will to learn an instrument, people should encourage that."

Even though his father wanted him to play, "I was very lucky, because my parents only wanted me to play the violin as a hobby, so I never had any kind of extreme pressure," Feng said. "My dad never had that kind of ambition, nor did I." His father did, however, wish for him to use his time wisely and not to waste his chance to learn to play well. "He said that time is something you cannot buy, and you cannot get back. Once it's passed, it's passed. Even though he was not aiming for me to become a professional violinist, he told me to make sure that I did not waste any of my time. So I did it seriously and properly."

Ning Feng
Ning Feng. Photo by Felix Broede.

As it turned out, "the teacher whom I studied with in London, (Hu Kun), is actually the son of my teacher in Sichuan," Feng said. "When I was in senior high school, one year before I was going to graduate, he was offered the position as a professor at the Royal Academy of Music. He asked his father, 'Do you have anybody you might convince to come over to England to study?' So everything is meant to be. It was as if I was meant to be rejected from the first teacher, then I was meant to be accepted by my real first teacher. Then everything just happened. I was never hoping to become a professional musician, but somehow it just happened, step-by-step, little-by-little."

After studying at the Royal Academy of Music in London, he studied in Berlin, at the Hanns Eisler School of Music, with Antje Weithaas. "I've always been fascinated with the German-Austrian tradition: Handel, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Schumann, etc. etc. (Germany) was always a place I've wanted to come," he said. Berlin is where Feng currently resides with his wife and young son.

Another place that shaped Feng's development was actually in Canada -- at Mount Royal Conservatory's Morningside Music Bridge program in Calgary. Established in 1997 with the Hong Kong-based Morningside Foundation, the program aimed to provide a cultural and musical bridge between talented students of Chinese and Canadian origin. It now also has a partnership with the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage.

The college and the foundation "came up with the idea of introducing this program to 20 Canadian students and 20 Chinese music students, to put them together for four weeks during the summer in Calgary," Feng said. "We would have private classes, masterclasses, chamber music, and two to three concerts a week, as well as faculty concerts." Feng attended the program three times as a student, and now he goes back every year to teach and perform. "Everybody knows everybody so well now; it's always like a family reunion," Feng said. For him this is literally true; not only has he met many friends and colleagues there, but it's also where he met his wife, Ying Guo, of Beijing. A few of the other successful graduates of the program include violinists Nikki Chooi, Shanshan Yao, Chen Xi and Agata Szymczewska; violists Li Teng and Kalan Porter; pianists Yuja Wang and Jan Lisiecki; and cellists Wei Yu, Ni Tao, Arnold Choi and Tian Bonian.

Exactly how popular is violin-playing in China these days?

"It's actually very popular," Feng said. "Of course, piano has always been the most popular instrument for people to study. However, classical music now has become very common for kids around age five to study -- any instrument." Because a piano is a lot more expensive than a quarter-size violin, "violin can be more affordable and reasonable choice," he said. Violin has increased in popularity in China over Feng's lifetime. "When I was younger, the number teachers that we had was relatively smaller. If you talk about how many people were playing the instrument 20 years ago, and how many people are playing the instrument now, it's definitely much more now than before."

For more than two years Ning Feng has been playing the 1721 "MacMillan" Strad, on loan to him through Premiere Performances of Hong Kong. What is that instrument like?

"Well, to begin with, it's a Strad, which pretty much tells 80 percent of the story!" Feng said. "The violin itself is from a private collector in Hong Kong. It's a very typical, 1721 Stradivarius. It's still the Golden Period, but it's a little late in the Golden Period, about ten years after what we call the peak time. So he made this one when he was 70 years of age. It has a silvery, clean and noble sound, and big power."

Was it hard to get used to?

"In a way," he said. "I think there's a personality in an instrument which actually should match the player. It's like working with a colleague; you have to get used to each style. And of course, there times when both people are good professionals, but they just don't work well together. It's actually the same thing with the player and the instrument; there may be a great instrument, but you just don't like it, you don't get along with it."

As a veteran of the competition circuit, how does Feng feel about competitions?

"For me, a competition is definitely not natural," he said. It's a little like comparing Italian food to Spanish food, or maybe Western cuisine to Chinese cuisine -- you just can't say which is better because they are so different. "However, competitions have existed for 100 years, so there has to be a reason why."

At a certain point, "it's really difficult to say who is technically better than the other -- it's just about personal taste," he said. "However, I did quite a lot of competitions, and there are a few reasons why -- none of them involving winning a prize."

One reason was that it provided something towards which to practice. For some very talented and driven students, school does not require a big enough challenge. "So the first thing is that you will get from entering a competition is a chance to learn how to prepare such a huge repertoire, because in two weeks' time you have to perform three or four times -- different programs. The second thing is that you will get the stage experience."

During their development, "music students face three different kinds of stages: one is an audition or exam in school; another one is the competition stage; and another is the concert stage. In the concert stage, people are spending their time and their money to come listen to you. That already gives the performer a positive: people are here to enjoy what I do, so I'm presenting something nice to them. For school exams or auditions, you are playing for trained professional musicians who are trying to figure out what is not good enough. However, their main purpose is to help the students to improve. So you're okay. But competitions.... I've been a jurist; we are paid, not much, but we are paid to figure out who has done what wrong and take points off. And this, really, is frightening. It's scary!"

"If, mentally, a student or a younger musician can get through this, then everything else will be easy," Feng said. "So this competition stage experience is something I found to be most helpful." It's important for a young person doing competition to recognize that, though you may win at some point, you'll usually lose, just based on the statistics. "This has been good mental training: how you get over the depression and make sure that your soul is not smashed by this kind of unsuccessful experience. You move forward. I think that this is also very important."

"I'm actually encouraging a lot of my students to do competitions," he said, "but I told them, winning the prize is not the reason why you are doing this; you are doing it because there are other good things you can learn."

* * *

Ning Feng plays and talks about his Bruch Scottish Fantasy/Tchaikovsky Concerto Album:

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Laurie's Violin School: Do I have to be in my school orchestra?

February 9, 2015 12:27

"Do I have to be in my school orchestra? I'm way ahead of everyone else and I'm not going to get anything from it."

That could have been me in high school, but it's something I've heard as a teacher, from students and parents, as well.

Music Room

Here's the dilemma: When a child begins violin lessons -- or cello lessons or any instrumental lessons -- at a young age, he or she usually gets a pretty big jump start on the kids who do not begin learning the instrument until fourth-grade music class, or junior high, or high school. Then, when a group of kids finally forms at school for orchestra, most of the kids are beginners. They don't progress quickly because learning in a big class tends to be more difficult than learning in a one-on-one, private lesson.

What is a student going to get, from being in orchestra with students who can't play as well as they do?

Maybe another question is in order: What might the student, who has had the benefit of early lessons, give?

This can be a tough sell. It was for me in high school, when I was required to be in my school orchestra in order to participate in the Denver Young Artist Orchestra (which I believe no longer has the requirement). I wanted to take French, or art. I had to use up my elective on orchestra. I was so mad.

I'll confess, I started my four years in high school orchestra with a pretty bad attitude. I eventually came around, at least a little. And wonder of wonders, I learned quite a lot. Technically, everything was easy, so I experimented liberally, playing things in second position one day, fifth position the next, etc. After a while, I occasionally would work with other kids in the orchestra, in a coaching capacity. When I think about it, those were my first "students." As a participant in my school program, I qualified to audition for "All-State Orchestra," a very fun gathering of kids from all around the state, which I did every year. Eventually, we formed a quartet at school with the section leaders, and we played things like "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" for district events. The choir director allowed me into the alto section of the choir, and mysteriously enough, that year he programmed "Fiddler on the Roof," Mozart's "Laudate Dominum" and a number of other pieces that required a violin solo. (I had a feeling I didn't get in for my singing voice!) When I was a senior, they picked "Oliver" as the school musical; it has quite the nice violin solo, which I played from the pit with a good friend who was "Fagan" onstage. I'll probably remember, on my dying day, a friend from the audience who came up to me after "Oliver," so excited about that violin solo. Though to me it seemed like a pretty regular day in the orchestra pit, it was truly revelation to him, that anyone could play such a thing, in person. It was a revelation to me, that my violin could actually connect me to someone I'd known since kindergarten, in such a new way.

So before dismissing the idea of school orchestra or band, I'd ask you to consider it. Consider that you, or your child, might get something in giving something. You might be able to learn to play a leadership role. You might attract more excellence to your school's program, just by being there. You might learn something about teaching. You might learn about that complicated intersection of humility, confidence and competence. You might bring attention to your art, among people who don't even play.

Certainly, don't put yourself in a destructive situation. But if you find some good will among the teachers running your school music program, I'd urge you to support them in the endeavor -- support them with your participation. You might find some opportunities that surprise you.

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Congratulations to winners of the 2015 Classical Grammys!

February 8, 2015 15:42

Winners of the classical Grammys were announced this afternoon at the Grammy Premiere Ceremony at the at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live in Los Angeles. A special congratulations to Hilary Hahn, who won Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance for her album of encore pieces, "In 27 Pieces." Below is a list of all the classical Grammy winners:

Hilary Hahn
Hilary Hahn. Photo by Michael Patrick O'Leary

John Adams: City Noir
David Robertson, conductor (St. Louis Symphony)
Label: Nonesuch

Charpentier: La Descente D'Orphée Aux Enfers
Paul O'Dette & Stephen Stubbs, conductors; Aaron Sheehan; Renate Wolter-Seevers, producer (Boston Early Music Festival Chamber Ensemble; Boston Early Music Festival Vocal Ensemble)
Label: CPO

The Sacred Spirit Of Russia
Craig Hella Johnson, conductor (Conspirare)
Label: Harmonia Mundi

In 27 Pieces - The Hilary Hahn Encores
Hilary Hahn & Cory Smythe
Label: Deutsche Grammophon

Jason Vieaux
Label: Azica Records

Douce France
Anne Sofie Von Otter; Bengt Forsberg, accompanist (Carl Bagge, Margareta Bengston, Mats Bergström, Per Ekdahl, Bengan Janson, Olle Linder & Antoine Tamestit)
Label: Naïve

Partch: Plectra & Percussion Dances
Partch; John Schneider, producer
Label: Bridge Records, Inc.

John Luther Adams: Become Ocean
John Luther Adams, composer (Ludovic Morlot & Seattle Symphony)
Label: Cantaloupe Music

Vaughan Williams: Dona Nobis Pacem, Symphony No. 4 & The Lark Ascending
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
Robert Spano, conductor
Engineering: Michael Bishop
Label: ASO Media

Judith Sherman
Beethoven: Cello & Piano Complete (Fischer Duo)
Brahms By Heart (Chiara String Quartet)
Composing America (Lark Quartet)
Divergence (Plattform K + K Vienna)
The Good Song (Thomas Meglioranza)
Mozart & Brahms: Clarinet Quintets (Anthony McGill & Pacifica Quartet)
Snapshot (American Brass Quintet)
Two X Four (Jaime Laredo, Jennifer Koh, Vinay Parameswaran & Curtis 20/21 Ensemble)
Wagner Without Words (Ll_r Williams)

Composer Pierre Boulez

For a complete list of all nominees, please see the Grammy.com winner page.

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6 replies

Alan Gilbert will step down as New York Philharmonic music director in 2017

February 6, 2015 15:42

New York Philharmonic music director Alan Gilbert will step down in 2017 after eight seasons, according to the New York Times.

Alan Gilbert
Photo by Michael J. Lutch

Gilbert, 47, said that he wanted to allow a new music director to take the helm before construction -- expected to last two seasons -- begins on a new concert hall in 2019. Gilbert is the son of two New York Philharmonic musicians, violinist Yoko Takebe, and retired violinist Michael Gilbert, and he was the first Asian American to lead the New York Philharmonic. An American and a New Yorker, he studied at both Curtis and Harvard.

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'The Devil's Violinist' with David Garrett as Paganini, Comes to the U.S.

February 4, 2015 16:24

Devil's ViolinistWell, the critics are not being kind so far to David Garrett in "The Devil's Violinist," the story of Niccolo Paganini, written and directed by Bernard Rose and just released last weekend in the U.S.

Yet the reviews are kind of a gas...here is a link to a bunch. Has anyone seen it yet? I think I just may have to. It appears to have the potential to be a camp classic. Be warned, it's "Rated R for sporadic opium huffing and serial fornication..."

Here's the trailer:

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Laureates in the 2015 Sphinx Competition Announced

February 2, 2015 11:14

Congratulations to the winners of the 18th annual Sphinx Competition in Detroit, Mich.!

The Sphinx Competition for Black and Latino strings players provides an opportunity for young musicians of color to compete under the guidance and mentorship of internationally renowned musicians. Jury members this year included: Philippe Quint, Stephen Shipps, Chi-chi Nwanoku, Jeffrey Zeigler, Karlos Rodriguez, Matthew VanBesien, John Madison, and Toni-Marie Montgomery.

Senior Division Laureates:

Sphinx senior laureates

  • First place ($50,000):
    Violinist Eduardo Rios, 19
  • Second place ($20,000):
    Violist Michael Casimir, 23
  • Third place ($10,000):
    Violinist Annelle Gregory, 19

Eduardo Rios is currently a Bachelor of Music candidate at the Colburn School, where he studies with Robert Lipsett his assistant Danielle Belen. At Colburn, he is co-concertmaster of the Colburn Orchestra and first violinist of the award winning Alma String Quartet. The Quartet was selected as the student fellowship quartet for the 2014 Norfolk Chamber Music Festival, as well as the McGill International String Quartet Academy. In Los Angeles, Eduardo is currently concertmaster of the American Youth Symphony conducted by Alexander Treger.

Junior Division Laureates:

Sphinx junior laureates


  • First place ($10,000):
    Violinist Hannah White, 14
  • Second place ($5,000):
    Violist Mira Williams, 16
  • Third place ($3,000):
    Violinist Maria Sanderson, 15

Hannah White is in her fifth year as merit scholarship recipient and member of the Music Institute of Chicago's Academy, where she studies Almita Vamos and Dr. Hye-Sun Lee. She has performed as a soloist with Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, Madison Symphony Orchestra, Sphinx Symphony Orchestra, Oistrach Symphony Orchestra, Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra Senior Symphony, Music Institute of Chicago Academy String Orchestra, Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra String Orchestra, and Waukesha Area Youth Orchestra. She is a member of the Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra Senior Symphony and has played in many other youth orchestras.

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Laurie's Violin School: Two Simple Exercises for Playing with a Straight Bow

February 2, 2015 09:18

"Straight bow!"

My teachers issued this directive at me hundreds of times, and over 20 years of teaching I've told my students the same.

Why is it so hard to play with a straight bow? Blame it on the way we humans are designed; specifically, blame it on the ball-and-socket joints that attach our arms to the rest of us. Our arms were made to move in circles, not in straight lines. In fact, when pulling a straight bow, it actually might feel a little bit like you are making a forward arc as you push forward for the down-bow and retract back for the up-bow. One teacher told me to envision tracing around a plate that is set with its edge at the fingerboard. Of course, don't do that literally, but it's a mental picture that is helpful to some students.

bow straight

My problem, when teachers asked me to bow straight, was that I had no idea how to do so. I'm left-handed and somewhat far-sighted. Looking at the bow made me cross eyed, and thinking about bowing straight while trying to play something complex only left me extremely frustrated.

Yet, bowing straight is important, for many reasons, including having a good tone, cultivating a variety of bow strokes, etc. etc. In graduate school, after I had earned a degree in music, my teacher made me play nothing but open strings for more than a month, to correct my bow arm. It was very simple and yet it was time-consuming work that required concentration. I welcomed this; it helped immensely.

As a teacher I've adopted a number of ideas to help students cultivate a straight bow arm, and I'd like to share them with you. Here they are on video, and below I've described them.

The Dowel Stick

First of all, it helps to know how a straight bow arm feels, because the feeling is hardly intuitive. For this, I recommend going to the local hardware store and investing (about $2.50 or less) in a dowel stick and a small piece of piping that is slightly larger in diameter than the stick. This exercise can be done alone, but it's better if you have a teacher/family member/friend help you. Take the piece of piping and thread it onto the stick. With the violin on your shoulder, have someone hold the dowel stick perpendicular to the fingerboard, over the area where you would normally bow, only hold it several centimeters above the strings. (If you are doing this by yourself, you can hold the stick from behind the fiddle, but it's a little more complicated). Holding the piece of piping as you would hold your bow, move it up and down the stick. Easy as that! The idea is to memorize the feeling, so this can be accomplished through repetition and also concentration: close your eyes and really try to feel the forward motion of your hand and opening of the elbow on the down bow, and the retracting of the wrist and hand on the up-bow.

20 on the Highway

Another exercise is something I call "20 on the highway." It's extremely simple, but then so are sit-ups. The key is to do them every day. To do this exercise, play 20 straight bows on the G, then D, then A, then E strings. The bow must be "on the highway," which means that it is placed between the fingerboard and the bridge and never goes skidding up to or past either one. And you must draw the bow straight -- perpendicular to the strings -- for every bow. To make sure every bow stroke is straight, you can look straight at your bow, look at it in a mirror (the violin strings must be perfectly parallel to the mirror) or have a friend keep track. Again, the trick is that you have to do it every day until you've done it 10,000 times, and I'm not exaggerating. If you do 20 a EVERY day on each string, you will reach 10,000 for each string in 500 days, which is about a year and five months. You will reach 10,000 faster if you do more every day, but I would not necessarily recommend it unless your powers of concentration are exceptional. If you lose your concentration and accidentally play 40 crooked bows, then you've just reinforced a crooked-bow motion, and you defeat your purpose!

Setting aside a few minutes at the beginning of your practice time to cultivate a straight bow is well worth the effort. I hope you find this helpful, and happy practicing!

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Previous entries: January 2015

The Violinist.com Interviews, Vol. 1

The Violinist.com Interviews, Vol. 1

Hear more from the world's top violinists in The Violinist.com Interviews: Volume 1, which includes our exclusive conversations with Joshua Bell, Sarah Chang, and David Garrett, and others, as well as a foreword by Hilary Hahn.

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Arnold Steinhardt

Master Class with Arnold Steinhardt

Smiling as he spoke, Steinhardt offered his suggestions with clarity and appeal, in language both efficient and richly meaningful.