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Laurie Niles

Endre Granat: Prepare to be a Great Violinist

March 26, 2015 13:29

Until it's perfect, you are not practicing. You are only "fixing!"

This was one of the many concepts that violinist Endre Granat talked about in his class called "The Art of Learning Violin," sponsored by Shar Music at the American String Teachers Association conference in Salt Lake City last week. Granat, whose teachers included Zoltan Kodaly, Gyorgy Ligeti, Josef Gingold and Jascha Heifetz, has had a distinguished career in performing, film recording and teaching and is currently based in Los Angeles. Recently he has published new editions of Ševcík exercises and Heifetz arrangements.

Endre Granat stands next to a cardboard cutout of his former teacher, Jascha Heifetz. "But I was taller than Heifetz!"

"Today I'm going to talk about a very depressing topic: practice," said Granat in his opening words. "It never ends."

Pedagogues such as Carl Flesch, Leopold Auer and Ivan Galamian all agreed: it takes about three to five hours of practice a day, seven days a week, to acquire and maintain a high level of technique.

For the teacher and student, this makes for some interesting math: the professor (and often the private teacher) sees his or her student for only one hour a week, or 15 hours per semester, 30 hours per academic year. In a little more than a week, the diligent student practices for more hours than in all his lessons for the entire academic year!

"In just seven and a half days, the student can get even with you!" Granat said. This means that the student had better be practicing well, and it's up to the teacher to "deputize the student to teach herself or himself."

That means knowing how to create a practice routine that uses time most effectively. A good practice routine involves working on technique, scales, etudes and repertoire pieces.

"Don't practice for things," Granat said, "prepare to be a great violinist."

One part of practicing should involve building a toolbox for your technique. "You fill up your toolbox with the tools you need as a violinist," Granat said. This includes left-hand techniques such as scales and right-hand techniques such as spiccato and various bow strokes. Related to this are exercises and etudes.

Why do we promote scales? They are not necessarily fun, but then again, "if you are a doctor and doing a colonoscopy, it isn't fun. But it's necessary!" One should learn three-octaves scales, and double-stop scales in thirds, in sixths, in octaves. That way, when these patterns occur in music, they are well-ingrained in both hands. The same goes for arpeggios.

"Etudes are the transition from scales to repertoire pieces," Granat said. The Ševcík exercises that Granat has been editing with Stephen Shipps break things down as etudes do, but perhaps even more.

Ševcík wrote so many exercises, it's hard to count them all. "It's not what he wrote, it's that he didn't know when to stop writing!" Granat said. He even wrote exercises to accompany the Kreutzer etudes, and those exercises are "even more boring than the original, and that is hard to do," Granat said. Nonetheless, "just because it's boring, don't belittle it, it's useful." Ševcík also wrote sets of exercises to solve just about every technical problem in specific pieces: the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto; the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto; the Brahms Violin Concerto; Paganini Concerto No. 1; Wieniawski Scherzo-Tarantelle, and Wieniawski Violin Concerto in D minor.

Why would someone go to such lengths? Because "at every level, the technique has to supersede the level of the piece," Granat said. "Your technical level should be beyond the level of the artistic demands."

For example, the Beethoven Violin Concerto opens with a tricky passage of octaves. "To practice Beethoven for the purpose of learning to play the violin is sacrilege," Granat said. Those opening octaves are not the time for learning octaves, the time for that is well before one attempts the Beethoven.

Instead, technique has to be at about 150 percent, so that under the inevitable stresses of performance, one is still prepared to perform with ease.

"The music has to be choreographed," every crescendo, every tenuto. All those musical things must be prepared; they don't just come by themselves in the inspiration of the moment. "You have to practice the performance from a technical standpoint."

Practicing is the repetition of perfection. "It is already perfect when you start practicing; up to that point, you are fixing, not practicing." Of course, the fixing might take some time. But the first time you play it and it doesn't have to be fixed, that is your official "first time." Then do 15-20 perfect repeats -- they don't count, if you are still fixing. One reaches a point of diminishing returns after about 20 repeats in a single practice session; to secure things further, one must come back to it later in the day, or tomorrow. And keep in mind, "just because it worked on Monday morning, doesn't mean it will work on Friday afternoon!" Granat said.

One also needs use correct motions when practicing.

"It is generally true, practice slowly, but always with the motion you will use," Granat said. For example, can you jump slowly? No! So one must take these kinds of things into consideration, when practicing slowly. Concentrate on solving the problem using correct posture and motion, then the proper execution. Then, evaluate what you have just done.

"You have to do it the exact same way every time" in order for your technique to be reliable in performance, he said.

So again, how much do we need to practice?

"It has to be every single day," Granat said. "That is the sad truth. There is no shortcut."

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Violinist.com interview with Gil Shaham: Bach Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin

March 25, 2015 21:48

Gil Shaham on Bach: "I think this music transcends everything. It transcends time, and performances, and cultures -- and tempos!"

As they are for many violinists, Bach's Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin have been a lifelong exploration for Gil Shaham, who started playing them as a child and has just released his first complete recording of them earlier this month.

For the project, Gil Shaham outfitted the 1699 "The Countess Polignac" Strad that he plays with gut-core strings and a Baroque bridge, and he also used a Baroque bow. He took about 12 years re-thinking the works before recording them, and the result is a virtuosic, up-tempo interpretation, full of revelations. The CD also includes fantastic liner notes written by former Strad Magazine editor Ariane Todes based on extensive discussions with Gil.

As part of his spring tour, Gil will be giving several performances of all six Bach Sonatas and Partitas, set to a video production by filmmaker David Michalek (including a performance this Sunday at Disney Hall in Los Angeles, which I plan to attend).

Recently Gil spoke to me over the phone from his home in New York. We talked about the staying power of Bach, the agility of Baroque bows, the appeal of fast tempos, and more:

Gil Shaham
Gil Shaham. Photo by Luke Ratray.

Laurie: What is the first Bach sonata or partita that you ever played, do you remember?

Gil: I don't remember exactly. But I do remember being about 12 and playing the B minor Partita, the one with all the doubles. I remember thinking it was so beautiful, and I especially loved the Sarabande. I thought that it was so cool that the violin could play all these chords, that the violin could sound like an organ, or many instruments, or an orchestra.

Bach G minor adagioI also remember seeing the very first page, the G minor Sonata, and really not knowing what to make of it. (both laugh)

There's something about music that, once a composer writes it down, it gets translated into written music, and then you have to de-code it to what it was, and I think sometimes without living in that culture, it's hard to do that translation. The composer has an idea in his head, or maybe improvises it and then writes it down in a certain way, and then we read the music...

Laurie: The Bach Sonatas and Partitas are some of the few pieces where the manuscript is widely available. I don't know if Bach wrote that in his own hand or his wife transcribed it, but it's like a beautiful work of art.

Gil: It's beautiful, yes. The music is so perfect by itself, just looking at it on the page.

I love that part where they add a couple of lines at the bottom of the page -- because paper was so valuable. That's what they would do all the time, just to save paper. It's so different from how we work today.

Laurie: Do you remember which edition you started with? How many do you have by now?

Gil: As a kid, I had the Carl Flesch edition and I had the Galamian. Now I have maybe five or six. When we went to record it, I brought my bound autograph version, an Italian-published, bound copy of the manuscript. But they needed me to come up with an edition, so they brought me a copy of the Barenreiter.

Laurie: Do you read off the autograph, off the facsimile?

Gil: Yes, sometimes.

Laurie: I imagine the way you played it many years ago, when you were 12, is really different from the way you play it now. In what ways do you feel like your interpretations or your feelings about these works have changed?

Gil: I'm definitely playing them very differently today from 15 or 20 years ago. Maybe it's my mid-life crisis, but I'd like to think that now that I have a little more perspective and maybe a little better understanding of what the music is about.

Laurie: Has the period performance movement informed you? It sounds as though you decided to use a Baroque bow -- tell me a little bit about that decision.

Gil: I thought it would be fun to experiment with gut strings, and a Baroque bow and a Baroque bridge. When you use the Tourte bow and the hair touches the string, there's a natural resistance, so that you get this sort of automatic articulation. Whereas, with the Baroque bow -- what Leopold Mozart called the "round bow" -- rather than a resistance, it actually eases into the string. As the string pushes into the hairs of the bow, not only do the hairs not give resistance, they actually give in to it. That produces a very gentle attack, and I love that, I think it's so beautiful. So I'm a little bit addicted to that right now.

Laurie: Before you embarked on this recording, had you used a Baroque bow much?

Gil: I tried it once or twice, but not as extensively as I have in the last few years.

Laurie: Who made your bow, and how did you pick the particular Baroque bow that you are using for this?

Gil: Markus Laine, here in New York, made it. I've known him for many years and he's always rehaired my bow. We started talking about it and he's very knowledgeable. Markus said he used a German bow from around 1730 as his model. And then Adam Crane built the bridge, also made from a Baroque model. They are two people I've known for a long time.

Laurie: Looking at the pictures in the liner notes, they are beautiful objects of art, both the bridge and the bow.

Gil: The Baroque period was such an incredible time -- the Baroque musical explosion. The spirit of experimentation was everywhere, and I find that to be so inspiring. So I thought I could do little bit of experimenting on my own!

Laurie: I've heard that it's easier to play faster with a Baroque bow, do you find this to be true?

Gil: The bow is much lighter and shorter and somehow it seems to go faster. Also, with that kind of soft articulation, you can get a lot of clarity because not every note has a (strong) attack on the beginning.

Laurie: Does it make it easy to do the string crossings, such as in the Preludio?

Gil: I find that it's a very different feeling. The bow's much lighter, and I find that it does go faster.

Laurie: What does the Baroque bridge do for you?

Gil: The curve is a little bit flatter on the bridge, but also it's quite a bit higher. So I found that just putting my fingers down on the string had a completely different feeling. Somehow there were many more gradations of putting your fingers down, which I thought was interesting. I really sort of went back to basics: how do I put my finger down? How do I move my bow? How do I hold my violin?

Laurie: How did you change the way you hold your violin?

Gil: I don't really hold it like those old pictures of the tanzmeisters pulling out their little violins, holding them...But there is something about that, that's much more natural, more ergonomic.

Laurie: Putting it more in front, you mean?

Gil: Yes. When you hold the violin, especially when you go on the G string, you have to take your left elbow and push it to the right, and it's different from holding a lute, or a viol. Maybe a little bit more like that. I like to think my body is looser.

Laurie: When it come to the Baroque bridge, if you are doing Bach in a concert, and then you are doing Barber the next day, do you switch out the bridge? How does that work?

Gil: For a while there, that's what I was doing. I would switch back and forth!

Laurie: And you changed the bridge yourself?

Gil: Yes, well, I invested in a little bridge jack...

Laurie: Wait, a "bridge jack"? What is that?

Gil: I don't know if that's the official term...It's a little thing you put behind your bridge and then there's a little screw and you wind it up or wind it down, and it holds the strings up for you. And then you can take out your bridge and replace it with another bridge.

Laurie: You're kidding me!

Gil: It's kind of fun, right?

So for a while, I was doing that. But then I found out that you can really do everything with a Baroque bridge. You can play Barber Concerto on a Baroque bridge, it works fine. I actually want to play everything with a Baroque bow and bridge, you know?

But now I've gone back to my modern set-up. Next couple of concerts I'll be using my Tourte bow and my modern bridge.

Laurie: And how about the gut strings? What kind of guts are you using?

Gil: I do love the sound of the gut strings, I find them to be richer than the metals.

For a while I was using Olivs, and then for a while I was using Passiones. But then I had a couple of trips where it really was temperamental; they would squeak and they would go out of tune. So for concerts, I've sort of gone back to using the Dominants, just for safety. I have so much experience with them, so I feel like I know what they're going to be like, I know what they're going to sound like. And they adjust overnight.

Laurie: What did you use for the recording?

Gil: For the recording I kept my Jargar E, but I used Olivs.

Laurie: Do you have a favorite, of these Sonatas and Partitas? Or is that a little bit like picking a favorite child?

Gil: It's a little bit like that!

It's incredible how different each piece is. Maybe that's part of why they work as a set. Because it's not clear that they should be a set. Bach himself would pick one movement here and put it there -- the G minor fugue was transcribed, by itself, for organ; the E major Preludio the Preludium Sinfonia to Cantata 29. But maybe, as a set, they really do work. They were published as a group of six and there's certainly a lot of variety between them.

Laurie: It feels a little bit like a trip around the world.

Gil: A trip around the world -- I love that.

Laurie: They really do take you on a journey, a very colorful one, to so many different places.

Gil: There are even readings of them as a re-telling of the scriptures.

I do think that they link up; there's some dovetailing from one piece to the other, one movement to the next.

Laurie: What kind of practice regimen did you need, to get all of these in your hands at once?

Gil: I would say easily, it was the most I've ever practiced. I think I started (preparing) them 12 years ago. I didn't play the pieces in public for a long time. I just didn't feel like I was confident enough to present it for an audience. And people feel very strongly about the music, I feel very strongly about the music. Then I made a concerted effort -- no pun intended -- to play it in concerts. I started each season to play a different one, for the first six years, just sort of focused on one. Then I started playing concerts of just solo Bach. And I just love it. So many other musicians have said it, and it's true: There's nothing more satisfying, nothing more rewarding. There's no greater joy, there's nothing more fulfilling than playing Bach and studying Bach, being around Bach.

Laurie: You said it was easily the most you've practiced, but I don't know how much you normally practice. What does that mean?

Gil: I would go into the practice room and, just to get through the pieces takes a couple of hours. Quite a lot. Some days 4-5 hours, and I'd try to do it every day.

It's true that I play this music faster these days than I used to, and some people have been surprised. Listening to other music by Bach, it seemed like we were playing (the Sonatas and Partitas) slower -- or I was playing them slower -- than comparable pieces from the time. For example, the fugue from the the first orchestral suite, (he sings it, it's brisk), it's not really the same as the tempo that I used to play the G minor fugue (he sings the G minor fugue, quite slow). I thought maybe it should be the same. Or the Minuets, or the Sarabande, or the Chacconne.

A lot of things started to make sense for me at the faster tempos, like notation. Thirty-second notes sounded like 32nd notes. Sixteenth notes sounded like 16ths, "a la breve" sounded like "a la breve." I feel like it swings better now, it makes more sense.

Laurie: The Chaconne sounds really interesting at the speed you played it. It solves some of the problems of voicing it, just to put it at a faster speed.

Gil: Bach did actually write one other Chaconne, which was in Cantata 150, and it's quite fast. If you listen to other composers' Chaconnes, or Ciacconas, they seem to be faster than the way I used to play the Ciaccona.

Laurie: It's already a really deep piece, so to play it really slow can get ponderous.

Gil: Possibly...but I think this music transcends everything. It transcends time, and performances, and cultures -- and tempos!

Laurie: I understand that you will be performing all the Bach Sonatas and Partitas with film as part of your spring tour, including a performance this Sunday at Disney Hall in Los Angeles, which I can't wait to see.

Tell me about this project, it sounds very unique.

Gil: This is something that came about from conversations that I had with filmmaker David Michalek. His films are stunning, beautiful -- I find them to be mesmerizing. (He uses) a brand-new technology of super-slow motion, where he films things at about 1,000 frames a second and then slows them down. It's almost like you're looking at a still-life photo, and then very gradually -- if it's a portrait, the expression changes, or the feeling of it changes. I've always thought that the way he makes his films, the way he uses time, and the way he uses light, was very musical, that it would easily lend itself to music.

As we spoke, we started talking about audiences and their experiences, and more particularly, how audiences today hear Bach differently from Bach's own audience. We talked about the references, how it would feel different for someone like me, who has never danced a bourree in his life, than for an audience of people who danced a bourree every Friday night. Or an audience member who would recognize the Lutheran hymn, Komm, Heiliger Geist, Herre Gott in the Chorale, because they sang in the church ever since they were a little kid. And so we thought that there might be a way to enhance a listener's experience today, when they're hearing the music of Bach.

We had those conversations two or three years ago, and a couple of months ago I saw the films for the first time. There was a group of co-commissioners, the Los Angeles Philharmonic was one of them. So I'm thrilled to be part of this project.

Laurie: How did it work? Did you send him recordings of yourself playing these?

Gil: He had some other recordings, and there were a couple of times when I went to his apartment and played through the pieces for him. We really went into a lot of detail and talked about every page in the score.

Laurie: Is he a musician as well?

Gil: He's not a musician but he's very involved in dance, as he's married to one of the leading New York City ballet dancers, Wendy Whelan. And so I was fascinated, especially when we started talking about the Partitas and the Baroque dances and all the motions and movements involved with that.

Laurie: You'd have to coordinate your playing with his film, I imagine.

Gil: Somewhat, although he does give me complete freedom, which is amazing. So I can be on stage and do whatever I want.

Laurie: Are you watching, while you play it?

Gil: Actually, at first I wasn't going to, but we decided that I should use a monitor. For me, I'm more comfortable because then I can see what my audience is seeing, what people are reacting to.

* * *

From 2009: a live performance of Gil Shaham playing the "Loure" from Partita No. 3

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The Week in Reviews, Op. 75: Pekka Kuusisto, Daniel Hope, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg in Concert

March 24, 2015 11:48

In an effort to promote the coverage of live violin performance, Violinist.com each week presents links to reviews of notable concerts and recitals around the world.

Pekka Kuusisto performed the Sibelius with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra.

  • Seattle Times: "Looking as if he had strolled in off the street, the casually attired soloist launched into the music with a straightforward intensity that had the listeners leaning forward in their seats. There were no showy virtuoso flourishes and no grand gestures; instead, Kuusisto wielded an awe-inspiring technique and displayed a brilliantly thorough command of this challenging score."

Pekka Kuusisto
Pekka Kuusisto. Photo by Kaapo Kamu.

Daniel Hope performed the Mendelssohn with the Savannah Philharmonic Orchestra.

  • Do Savannah: "When Hope introduced the piece to the audience, recounting its unusual history, there was a distinct feeling in the hall that something special was about happen. Three movements and a little more than 20 minutes later, no one doubted that it had."

Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg performed the Mendelssohn with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

  • Philadelphia Inquirer: "Without being extreme or eccentric, the violinist essentially rewrote a good deal of the work's performance tradition. Her opening material was worrisome - tentative and technically not quite under her fingers. But she rebooted with the second theme that established a startlingly more introspective tempo than is customary, and she created a world within a world that seemed almost a portrayal of some specific event in the composer's emotional life. Magic."

James Ehnes performed the Prokofiev with the Oregon Symphony Orchestra.

  • The Oregonian: "His tone in the Prokofiev was silvery but warm and soft, with sweet, swift bow strokes and effortless playing even in the hair-raising central Scherzo."

Gil Shaham performed both the Bach concerti with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.

  • TheaterJones: "He was technically nearly flawless, he imbued new life to the music, and his ornamentation was interesting without being distracting. Tempos in the fast movements were sometimes a bit too much of a whirlwind—the listener barely had time to think and digest. But overall, it was a successful modern interpretation."

Bradley Creswick performed the Tchaikovsky with the Royal Northern Sinfonia.

  • The Northern Echo: "If his opening was almost understated, it served only to accentuate a mounting tension that bubbled over in a sparkling cadenza. His slow movement had an aching beauty and flowed seamlessly to a swirling climax."

Sarah Chang performed the Bruch and Ravel's "Tzigane" with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra.

  • InDaily: "Chang is every inch the classical superstar. Wearing a marvellous evening gown reminiscent of a bejewelled mermaid, she was a huge presence on stage both musically and theatrically....Chang struts and bends and slices her bow through the air like a sabre."

Rimma Bergeron-Langlois performed the Sibelius with the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra.

  • Orlando Sentinel: "Bergeron-Langlois was truly a lone voice on a musical tundra as she generated some lovely warmth over Sibelius's chilly music."

Vadim Repin performed the Sibelius with The Philharmonia in London.

  • The Guardian: "It was a performance of immense technical assurance – Repin didn’t seem to play the concerto so much as own it – but it was also one that remained utterly uninvolving."

Janine Jansen performed the Brahms with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

  • The Sydney Morning Herald: "In the first half, Janine Jansen played Brahms' Violin Concerto in D with fiery force and consummate instrumental mastery; at times possessed, at other times rapt in airy distraction."

Please support music in your community by attending a concert or recital whenever you can!

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Teaching with Pedagogical Props from your Local Store -- ASTA 2015

March 23, 2015 09:32

Who knew that so many useful teaching devices are available for cheap at the grocery, beauty shop, party supply, hardware or crafts store?

With a little imagination, you can turn all kinds of things into teaching props, said William Wassum at a lecture called "Fun Pedagogical Props from Your Local Shopping Mart for the String Classroom" at the 2015 ASTA conference. Wassum teaches at Thornburg Middle School in Virginia.

Students often understand simple explanations or demonstrations, but not always. When the situation calls for a little more imagination to get the point across, "sometimes a prop is a useful thing," Wassum said.

For the class at ASTA, he had filled bags with goodies culled from places like the Dollar Store, Oriental Trading Company and a beauty supply store: rubber balls, dice, plastic eggs, chop sticks, toy cars, silly putty, finger puppets, pens, rubber bands, stickers, yo-yos, Lifesaver candies, egg cartons, corn pads, toothpick umbrellas, plastic animals and much more.

Teacher Kendra Clements looks at the bag full of teaching 'props'

For example, with a little imagination, a rubber bouncy-ball becomes a major pedagogical tool. You can use it to explain the feel of the finger motion in vibrato by placing it under the left fingertip and rolling it on the fingerbard:

William Wassum demonstrates using a bouncy ball for vibrato motion.

Or balance it on the fiddle to get a student to hold the violin higher or flatter:


And here are more props and their uses: Use cards and dice to count repetitions. Roll a tiny toy car up and down the fingerboard, again for vibrato motion. A student can squeeze a Nerf ball to strengthen fingers. Fill plastic eggs with dry beans and use them as shakers, also for practicing vibrato wrist motion. (I have another use for plastic eggs: split them in half and place halves on tips of bows for doing balance exercises like "Up Like a Rocket.")

To practice bow control, a student can thread the bow through a game ring or canning ring, without letting the bow touch the sides. Place finger puppets on the tip of the bow; "I tell them to play as if there was a lion (or a zebra) at the end of your bow!" Wassum said.


Wrap a rubber band around the frog to either hold fingers down or to provide a tackier surface on which to place the pinkie. To keep students from back-swinging their bow arms, hook an over-sized rubber band around the scroll, then hook the other end around the frog, so that when they bow, it pulls their arm forward.

rubber band

Corn pads can be stuck to the bow to show a student where certain fingers go. File folders make excellent and portable foot charts for young beginners. Flip an egg carton upside-down, have the student hold it like a violin, and then the student can "bow" through the grooves to get that straight-bow feel (perhaps with the bow hair-side up, though!).

fiddle strawStick a straw into the violin's f-hole to keep the bow from sliding out too far on the fingerboard. In fact, you can stick the other end into the other f-hole, to create an improvised Bow Right device.

Sometimes a prop helps the imagination even more than it directly helps the arm or finger or wrist. For example, if you give a student a chopstick and tell him or her to pretend it's a wand and to cast a spell, the student will likely perform a certain kind of wrist action, simply because he or she was imagining a wand.

Here was a fun explanation along those lines: We all know that to play a harmonic, just touch the string very lightly. In fact, a teacher might tell a student to touch it as lightly as a feather. But did you know that you can actually make a harmonic sound, using a feather? See it and believe!

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Scenes from the American String Teachers Association 2015

March 21, 2015 14:14

The American String Teachers Association (ASTA) annual conference attracts teachers, performers, students and vendors from all over America -- even all over the world! Here are some scenes from the conference, which Is taking place this week in Salt Lake City.

Salt Lake City is home to one of the most important violin-making schools in the U.S. and arguably in the world, the Violin Making School of America. While walking around the ASTA exhibit floor, I was happy to spot luthier Peter Prier, founder of that school. I also tested out one of his instruments, made in 1971 and based on a 1741 Guarneri model -- smooth-playing and sweet-toned.

Peter Prier
Violinist.com Editor Laurie Niles talks with luthier Peter Prier. She is holding a violin he made in 1971.

During the conference, I kept seeing large groups of high school kids -- that's because 16 orchestras came from all over the country to participate in the National Orchestra Festival. On Friday morning I saw Grandview High School Orchestra, directed by Alison Reifscheider, which had come from Aurora, Colorado to play. (The school belongs to the Cherry Creek School District, where I started violin in the public schools!)

Grandview High School orchestra, from Aurora, Colo.

The students played in Abravanel Hall, home of the Utah Symphony and right next to the Convention Center. The lobby has this stunning glass sculpture:

Abravanel sculpture
Abravanel Hall lobby

Back at the exhibit hall, I found violinist and pedagogue Endre Granat at the Shar booth, then he walked me over to Schirmer's display of his editions of Sevcik exercises and Heifetz arrangements.

Endre Granat
Endre Granat and Violinist.com editor Laurie Niles

I was impressed with Sarah West's colorful display of Magic Rosin. Though each cake is mounted on a decorative base, the rosin itself is clear as glass because she puts no dyes, waxes or mineral oils in the mix, she said. A cellist herself, Sarah invented the rosin because she was looking for something "grippier."

Sarah West
Sarah West and her Magic Rosin

Here is Fan Tao, who invented D'Addario's "Kaplan" strings, which are meant to be powerful, projecting strings with more texture.

Fan Tao Kaplans
Fan Tao of D'Addario

CodaBow is the original carbon fiber bow, and I was pleased to meet one of its pioneers, bow designer and aerospace engineer Jeff Van Fossen. Responding to new travel restrictions imposed by the U.S. government for transporting items with elephant ivory, Madagascar ebony and certain kinds of Mother-of-Pearl, CodaBow has come up with "Global Bow" technology to use on most of their bow models, so that none will contain these restricted items. When owners send in the warranty, they will receive a "materials declaration" for the bow, which can be used when traveling.

Jeff Van Fossen
Laurie holds a CodaBow, with bow engineer Jeff Van Fossen

Late on Friday, California teachers from north and south had a "meet and greet" where we met our colleagues from across the state. Here we are:

California teachers
California ASTA teachers

Saturday morning I visited one of the busiest booths, Yamaha, where many high school students were testing Yamaha Silent Violins and other electronic instruments. Here I am with Jesús Florido and the Yamaha team:

Yamaha team
The Yamaha team

I also dropped by the Southwest Strings booth, and I was tickled to find out that both of the gentlemen at the booth, Joaquin Tellez and Adam Rico, play in a Mariachi band!

Southwest Strings
The Southwest Strings booth, with Joaquin Tellez and Adam Rico

Bohdan Warchal, maker of Warchal Strings, came to ASTA from Slovakia, and here is his family, running the booth.

The Warchal family, of Warchal Strings

Luthier Dalton Potter was kind enough to take a look at my violin, which was getting a little quiet lately. I now know why: it's sick with a split in its center seam. Potter Violins was showing its violins, both full-size and fractional.

Dalton Potter
Luthier Dalton Potter of Potter Violins

And finally, a gathering of the media: Associate Publisher for The Strad, Alison Campbell; me; and Cindi Kazarian, Sales Director at Strings Magazine.

Alison Campbell, Laurie Niles and Cindi Kazarian

NEXT WEEK: Look on Violinist.com for more stories about the ASTA Conference pedagogy sessions!

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Christian Howes Creates Structure for Improvisation - ASTA15

March 20, 2015 21:56

Walking into Christian Howes' master class at ASTA, we found him improvising over his own loops on Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy." (And I'm truly sorry I didn't get the first two minutes on video, it was so compelling, the way he made the loops on the spot and improvised over them.)

Clearly, here is a person who can improvise, but "there are a lot of things guiding that process," Christian told the teachers gathered for his master class on eclectic styles at the American String Teachers Association conference in Salt Lake City. "It's not as simple as just hearing your way through it."

A master improviser has knowledge of conventions of certain genres of music, harmony, bass line, chords, licks, how the song goes, and more. But to the novice improviser, those things can also feel like barriers. To get newbies started on improvising, he strips all of those things away.

Christian HowesChristian, who runs programs called Creative Strings Academy and Creative Strings Workshop, had a small group assembled for the master class, with nine violinists and a cellist. As an icebreaker, he asked them to all improvise, and that he would give them a tempo, rhythm and which notes they could use. Their first task was to improvise only using quarter notes, at one speed, and only on the open "A" string. These parameters seemed rather too narrow for much to happen, but I noticed that they were still able to do a few things: play the quarter notes spiccato, or pizzicato, or legato. Then he said that they could add the note "E" in any octave, and things got more interesting. Then, any note in an A major scale, then chromatic notes. Then, put rests anywhere. Then change tempo, notes, anything you want.

They had gone from the strictest of rules to completely free improv, in a matter of a few minutes.

Why are people sometimes uncomfortable improvising? A few reasons: they feel self-conscious, they are used to following rules, or they are used to playing pieces composed by other people.

Our favorite artists, though, tend not to be those who follow the rules best, those who play fastest, or those who stick strictly to the plan, Christian said. Our favorite artists tend to be those who are distinctive. And to be distinctive, one has to experiment.

"I get so much out of doodling," Christian said. You don't tell kids "this is the technique of how to hold a crayon," instead, you just give a kid a crayon and tell him or her to go.

Having no rules at all, though, can be daunting, as there are simply too many options.

"By giving parameters, this creates freedom," Christian said. Once those parameters are in place, then "creativity is as simple as choosing."

When improvising, one can choose from a number of categories. For example, one category might be emotions: sad, confused, tired, happy. Another could be instrumental techniques: bouncing bows, full bows, double stops, harmonics, string crossings. Another could be musical elements: tempo, style, genre.

As a final exercise, he had the small group try something he calls "Conducted Group Improvisation." For this, he taught them a few simple hand gestures: swiping his hands over his head meant, "free improv," anything goes. Other gestures included holding a note until he cuts it off; assigning notes to his fingers and then playing that note when he held up a finger; call and response; and if he points to you, you play anything you want. He also held up cue cards. With Christian's boisterous spirit guiding the endeavor, it looked like so much fun. I wished I'd been sitting in the group! Here is a taste of Christian's "Conducted Group Improvisation":

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Sphinx Founder Aaron Dworkin named Dean of the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance

March 20, 2015 20:04

Aaron DworkinCongratulations to Sphinx Organization founder Aaron Dworkin, who has been named Dean of the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance. He is the first African-American to hold the position.

The appointment is for a five-year term beginning this summer. He was also appointed as the Paul Boylan Collegiate Professor of Music and tenured professor of strings.

The University of Michigan also recently named Danielle Belén as a professor of violin, and this fall bassist Scott Pingel will join the faculty.

Dworkin, 44, is a violinist with both a bachelor's and master's degree in music from the University of Michigan. In 1996, he founded the Sphinx Organization to help increase diversity in the arts. The Sphinx Competition for black and Latino string players takes place every year in Ann Arbor and Detroit. Dworkin received a MacArthur Fellowship in 2005 for his work with Sphinx.

Dworkin succeeds Christopher Kendall, who served two consecutive five-year terms.

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2015 ASTA Conference Kicks off with 'Piano Guys' Cellist

March 19, 2015 10:37

SALT LAKE CITY — "You have more influence, at a deeper level, than any other teachers."

That was just one of the inspiring things that Tim Lautzenheiser said in a humorous and inspiring keynote address at the 2015 American String Teachers Association convention's opening ceremony, which also included a surprise performance by Piano Guys cellist Steven Sharp Nelson.

Steven Sharp Nelson
Cellist Steven Sharp Nelson with American Heritage Lyceum Philharmonic trombonist, Ben, and violinist, Julia.

The convention will continue in Salt Lake City through Saturday.

To elementary school music teachers, he said, "You are the most important teachers in our profession, if you don't do it, none of us will get to do it!"

Music teachers, he said, are first musicians. When other teachers begin school, often, the music teachers have been there already for an hour an a half, teaching orchestras. When other teachers go on vacations for spring break, music teachers are taking 70 middle schoolers on a special trip. When other teachers take a break from their discipline, music teachers spend their spare time practicing and going to continuing education events like the ASTA convention!

We also enjoyed watching a great performance by the the youth orchestra, American Heritage Lyceum Philharmonic, which played a special piece by Julie Lyonn Lieberman, with many references to the music all students play along the way: Twinkle, Kreutzer, Vivaldi a minor, Bach minuets and more. Two children behind me were delighted, singing along and brightening every time they recognized something!

And as for the surprise appearance by cellist Steven Sharp Nelson, known as the cellist in The Piano Guys, here it is! He kindly gave me permission to post a video of the performance. Here, he joins the youth orchestra, American Heritage Lyceum Philharmonic, conducted by Kayston Brown, to perform "The Five Secrets of Beethoven."

Steven Sharp Nelson also gave a short and moving speech to the teachers assembled at the convention, talking about the difference music education made in his life. Watch it if you need some inspiration!

Keep following Violinist.com, here on the website and on our Twitter account (@violinist), for coverage of #ASTA2015.

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Interview with Julian Rachlin: bows, viola, conducting and more

March 18, 2015 22:42

In early February, violin soloist Julian Rachlin wrote on his Instagram that he was "beyond excited to try out my brand new Benoît Rolland bow tonight with the Boston Symphony. I've been waiting two years ..."

I first learned of Rolland's bows when Anne-Sophie Mutter mentioned in a 2008 interview that she regularly uses one. I thought this would be a great opportunity to talk with Julian Rachlin, and so while he was in Detroit for a concert series, we had a wonderful talk over the phone about Rolland, finding the ideal bow, playing viola, and keeping balance as a touring violinist, violist, teacher and now, conductor.

Julian Rachlin
Julian Rachlin. Photo by Janine Guldener.

Julian, a native of Vilnius, now lives in Vienna, where is where he grew up, from age three. But he's not often at home -- this season he has kept an especially busy performance schedule, with concerts in Europe, Asia, and North and South America, playing as a soloist with some 20 different orchestras. In the fall he will begin his first conducting position as principal guest conductor of the Royal Northern Sinfonia. He also continues to teach at Vienna University and will teach masterclasses at the Kronberg Academy in the fall.

Laurie: What made you start playing the violin in the first place?

Julian: The violin was quite an accident, because I always wanted to be a cellist. My dad's a cellist, and still today the cello is my favorite instrument. I guess that's why I play viola -- it's the closest I can get to the cello, being a violinist.

But the way it happened: the grandparents came home one day with a violin and lied to me. I was two and a half years old and they said, 'This is your cello!' So I started playing violin, holding it like a cello. Then when dad took me to the orchestra rehearsal of the orchestra where (my father) was playing, still back in Lithuania, I saw that what I had at home was not a cello. Then we moved to Vienna and I just kept playing violin, and somehow I got stuck with it."

Laurie: At what point did you take up the viola?

Julian: That was when I was studying with (Pinchas) Zukerman, in 1994.

Laurie: Was it his idea? Yours?

Julian: It was his. He said this would help my violin playing and that every good violinist should play viola. I've been on the faculty of the Vienna University for 16 years, and all my students play both instruments. I believe in that, because I saw the difference it made for my violin playing, and for my growth as a musician, to play the viola, and especially to discover chamber music from the viola part. It's something I can recommend to every violinist.

Laurie: In what other ways has the viola helped your violin-playing?

Julian: Technically speaking, you start understanding more consciously the role and the importance of the right hand, of the bow arm. The bow arm is the most important thing about violin playing -- this is the painting hand. Playing viola as a violinist, you can experiment a lot with the bow arm, and it gives you more possibilities. You learn so much about the speed, about sound colors.

Laurie: In what way is the right hand and bow different, playing viola?

Julian: You need more weight, and the bow speed is different, both if you want to play something condensed, or if you want to use more air, "flautando." Also, the ideal sounding point is farther away on the viola, obviously, because it's a bigger instrument than the violin. But so many violinists, when they want to play something very forte expressivo, they play too close to the bridge, which is a complete misunderstanding. If you want to achieve maximum sound, the last thing you have to do is go closer to the bridge.

Laurie: Interesting!

Julian: It's all about finding the right sounding point and the right angle for the bow, in relationship to the bridge and to the string, and the right speed. It's all about the speed, it's all about saving the bow as much as you can, and accelerating the speed of the bow, without anybody noticing. Very difficult to explain over the phone! In any case, it's very fascinating to experience all of these hundreds of different elements, on both instruments.

Laurie: Do you find it at all difficult to switch between the two instruments? Do you play violin and viola in the same performance?

Julian: Yes, all my recitals are mixed with both instruments. Difficult? Yes. Everything you want to do well in life is difficult! If you want to do something really well, it's never going to be easy. Anything that comes easy -- smells, to me. Even if I want to play just a simple melody, if I want to play it really well -- I would love to eliminate the word "easy" for classical music. This term should not be used. (He laughs) It has to appear easy, once you're on stage. It has to appear as if it's the most natural, easy thing. But it is never easy to achieve that.

tipLaurie: Tell me about your new bow, made by Benoît Rolland. What made you decide you needed a new bow?

Julian: It's not about needing, I have a wonderful modern bow that I've been playing with since 1990, a Daniel Schmidt. I'm a great fan of his. What Benoît Rolland is in America, Daniel Schmidt is in Germany; he's one of the great bowmakers. He was in Dresden. So I have other bows; I'm still looking for a Tourte, and it's my dream to have a François Xavier Tourte.

But I love playing on great modern bows as well, and Benoît Rolland is one of the finest bowmakers, undoubtedly, of today. Because he is a mixture of the great old school of the French masters, like Tourte -- Tourte is his idol, he says himself.

So this (new bow by Rolland) has a soft and buttery feel, when you play it. The bow just dives into the string, and you don't really have to do much, it lies so beautifully on the string. Yet it has this very modern touch; it's soft and very strong at the same time, which I think is the most difficult to achieve in bows. Either bows are extremely soft and you can only play certain repertoire on them, or they are very modern and tight and strong, but then they don't have these magic soft, sensitive colors. Benoit Rolland is one of the very few makers who have worked that one out. He followed the tradition of the great bowmakers of the 19th century, and he has wood. He really is obsessed with bowmaking. He has created a lot of new inventions, he invented this incredible new frog, two years ago, which is in a way, a revolution.

frogLaurie: A new kind of frog?

Julian: It's built in a totally different way; the hair of the bow doesn't start straight; it starts at an angle.

So he is always experimenting; he's not scared of coming up with quite revolutionary new inventions. His mind is full of ideas about how to take the mastery of bowmaking further. He's an incredibly generous human being. When he builds a bow for an artist, he wants to get to know the artist personally, and to get acquainted with the style of the violinist, the violist, the cellist.

He built two bows for me: a violin bow and a wonderful viola bow. He said that he spent a long time listening to my recordings, and he went my concerts. He goes right into the depths of things; he's definitely not a bow maker that will make bows like a factory in order to sell as many as possible; he is a person of highest integrity and he really takes time. It's not a surprise that so many string players have Rolland bows.

Laurie: How can you identify a good bow? What kinds of tests do you do on it, and how do you know?

Julian: It's experience. Certain strokes have to be really comfortable to play. It has to have this combination, that the bow is not nervous, that it's balanced, that you can lift the bow and when you have virtuosic pieces, when you jump from G to E string and things like this. And it's about proportion. People like to ask, how heavy is the bow? But it's not about how heavy or light the bow is in grams; it's not about how much it weighs. It's about how the weight is balanced. You can have a very heavy bow, which, if it is balanced perfectly, it will feel like a light bow. Also, it is extremely personal. So I would be very careful to advise a young player -- what feels right in my hand will most likely not feel right in his hand or The higher the level of the player, the more he or she will also know what he wants and what feels right in his hand.

Laurie: But a Tourte feels good in anybody's hand. There must be a few things that are universal about it.

Julian: Yes. If you hear the overtones, if you can make a good spiccato at the tip of the bow, that's a good sign. Not completely at the tip, but pretty high up. If a bow lies really well -- you have to test how is it to play chords with the bow. How is the spiccato, how does it think, does it have a soul? Does the bow have a soul? How difficult is it to achieve a big variety of colors?

It's not just the instrument. Fifty percent of the sound, in my opinion, is the bow. The beauty of the sound is only half the instrument. The other half is the bow; it's equally important.

(To test bows), just play the same thing, a short passage, and take 4-5 bows. Or have someone else play, and listen in the hall. They will feel an enormous difference: the same instrument, with five different bows, it's like five different instruments. Five different players. An enormous difference.

Laurie: I noticed that you are traveling absolutely all over the place, keeping an extremely busy schedule of performing, teaching, and now conducting.

Julian: Yes, but I must say that I feel totally inspired, totally fresh, although it's my 27th consecutive year.

Laurie: How do you keep your health, when you're traveling so much?

Julian: I choose all my hotels according to the size of the swimming pool. The first thing I do when I open my eyes, five minutes later I'm already swimming and doing laps for 30 minutes. Then I go to the steam, ice-cold shower, and now since last October I've been obsessed with playing tennis. So I'm traveling everywhere with my double case, violin/viola in the left hand, and two tennis rackets and my tennis outfit in the right hand.

So I try to balance it. Of course it's all about music, and about preparation and practicing. I spend hours figuring out the scores, keeping in shape on the violin, and doing the 24 Paganini Caprices -- never on stage, so nobody can hear it. But this is like my workout, to keep in shape on the violin. But I also doing sports. I love to cook when I am home, which is not very often, but when I am at home, I'm a passionate cook. I love to go to the market, and it's kind of a meditation as well. For me, it's important to switch off my mind. It's so incredibly focused on music; it's important to find those times, even if they are little, to consciously also know when not to touch the violin or when not to do anything. It's just clearing your mind on a regular basis and staying curious.

It's about timing and it's about preparation, and it's about knowing your own pace, you're own rhythm. Somebody maybe will learn a new piece in two weeks; I prefer to take a year. It doesn't make me a bad musician; it's not the speed, it's about what you want to say in music, and if you want to say something in music, it's got a lot to do with time. You need to grow. You can't just say, "I will not touch Bach until I'm 80"; you have to touch it, you have to do it. But it's a very long process. It's about sustaining life with music, sustaining it through your whole lifetime, because a lifetime is not enough to discover all the secrets of the great composers.

I was never just classical violinist who just plays Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Beethoven up and down; I love to teach, I ran my festival in Dubrovnik (Croatia) for 20 years, I'm crazy about chamber music. And now I'm experiencing music from a totally different angle by diving into the world of conducting.

Laurie: Do you have a mentor in conducting?

Julian: Yes, absolutely -- my mother (Sophie Rachlin) is my daily conducting teacher.

At first, I didn't want to study with my mother. But when I asked Mariss Jansons if he would teach me, he said, "No, I won't." I said, "Why?" I mean, he's a dear friend, he's like a second father to me. He said, "Because it's not as easy as you think, to go in front of an orchestra and start conducting. If you're really serious about it, you need somebody you can take regular conducting lessons with, and I don't have the time for that. But there is one person who is the only person that I trust 1,000 percent." And I said, "Who is this person?" "Your mum." My mother graduated from St. Petersburg Conservatory in choir conducting, together with Gergiev, Semyon Bychkov and Mariss Jansons and all these great Russian conductors. That was a golden era for the conducting school at St. Petersburg, it was amazing. So I didn't want to take lessons from my mom because my mom is my mom! But then when Mariss Jansons told me to do it, I thought okay, I'll take one lesson.

Laurie: And what did she think?

Julian: She was the one telling me that we should start seriously, and I was saying no, I'm going to learn from all the great conductors that I'm performing with. Then I was so impressed with her knowledge and the way that she teaches -- I continued, and now it's been five years. Of course I also have mentors who are known conductors, people who are regularly very involved in my development: Mariss Jansons, Daniele Gatti, Leonard Slatkin and Donald Runnicles. And Riccardo Chailly has looked at my conducting, has given me tips. Of course I'm using this incredible luxury of being on stage with these great maestros and asking them for their time in between concerts and rehearsals on tour, to get tips and to get information. But I take that extremely seriously, I really want to learn conducting in a serious way.

Laurie: It sounds like you are in very good hands!

Julian: I'm very lucky.

* * *

Here is a brief clip that shows Julian, both playing and conducting from the first movement of the Mendelssohn, with the Israel Philharmonic.

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Green Violin!

March 17, 2015 15:32

MorganHappy St. Patty's Day!

Here's a little video featuring violinist and vocalist, Morgan Weidinger, to put a little green in your day.

Morgan, who is a sophomore at Berklee College of Music in Boston, studies with Darol Anger. Thanks to Adam DeGraff for sending this along!

(She invites everyone to head over to MorganWeidingerMusic.com/free-mp3 for a free Mp3 of this track.)


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The Week in Reviews, Op. 74: Adele Anthony, Carolin Widmann, Holly Mulcahy in Concert

March 17, 2015 12:27

In an effort to promote the coverage of live violin performance, Violinist.com each week presents links to reviews of notable concerts and recitals around the world.

Adele Anthony performed the Nielsen with CityMusic Cleveland.

  • The Plain Dealer: "Beyond assurance, Anthony evinced that much rarer sense of grasping the score entirely, of understanding where every note fits in the larger picture. On top of that she boasted staggering technical ability and a warm tone that filled the space easily and fully."

Carolin Widmann premiered the Julian Anderson concerto with the London Philharmonic.

  • The Guardian: "Widmann proved an exemplary soloist, while the piece itself felt in no way overshadowed by the expertly conducted complete performance of Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloé that followed."
  • The Telegraph: "Anderson (hid) his soloist Carolin Widmann in the wings at the opening, so her first tentative notes were like ‘noises off.’ As she emerged and made her way by degrees to the solo spot next to conductor Vladimir Jurowski, so the piece took shape. That shape was ingenious, and best summed up as ‘looking for an identity, and eventually finding it.'"

Carolin Widmann
Carolin Widmann. Photo by Marco Borggreve

Holly Mulcahy performed the Higdon with the Chattanooga Symphony.

  • Times Free Press: "Mulcahy seemed to meet the musical demands with ease and assurance. Her intonation was impeccable, and she dazzled with the mid-movement cadenza."

Nicola Benedetti performed Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5 with Camerata Salzburg.

  • Herald Scotland: "The challenge with such material is surely in achieving the delicacy and precision necessary without sacrificing expression - a feat she accomplished with assurance and flair."

Vadim Repin performed the MacMillan with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.

  • St. Louis Post-Dispatch: "Violinist Vadim Repin, for whom the concerto was composed, gave a compelling account of a fascinating piece that ranged from the frenetic to the jazzy, from passages with a Celtic feel to Asian influences, with dark, unsettling elements and wild cries in the brass."

Caroline Shaw premiered her violin concerto, "Lo," with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.

  • Cincinnati Enquirer: "In two unbroken movements, the concerto was deeply lyrical and seamlessly constructed....It was consistently imaginative -- fragments of melody came and went, and glimmering atmospheres contrasted against intense sound blocks....The violinist's phrases were haunting, sometimes soaring rhapsodically over busy pizzicatos in the strings or bubbling winds. She performed a delicate, introspective cadenza."

Pekka Kuusisto performed the Sibelius with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra.

  • Charlotte Observer: Kuusisto stood out. He committed at every moment to Sibelius’ music, whether spinning a thread of tone in his opening bars or turning to the orchestra with a smile between solos, absorbing energy for his next entrance....He’s a specialist in new music, and the secret (of course) is that all music was new at some point. The best players can make a concerto from 1905 sound as if it still is."

Augustin Hadelich performed Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5 with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

  • Baltimore Sun: "His tone was sweet, without turning syrupy; his articulation was pristine, but never glib. And he provided fresh cadenzas that gave Mozart's themes all sorts of imaginative dimensions. Note, too, that, in keeping with conventions of the composer's day, Hadelich frequently played along with the orchestra's first violins before breaking into his solos."
  • Washington Post: "Matching the soprano’s exploits was violinist Augustin Hadelich, who had an astonishing solo turn in Mozart’s fifth violin concerto; it was both technically and musically impeccable. As the final sign of his consummate musicianship, Hadelich played his own fascinating cadenzas, daringly laden with double-stops. A nightcap of Paganini’s ninth caprice, nicknamed 'La Chasse,' a further study on double stops, was the perfect finish."

James Ehnes premiered the James Newton Howard concerto with the Pacific Symphony.

  • Orange County Register: "Ehnes, a distinguished Canadian violinist, played the work, surprisingly, from memory. One could imagine a more fiery performance here and there, but I liked the way he played it all calmly, neatly, honestly."

Ilya Gringolts performed Bach’s A minor Violin Concerto with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

  • The Guardian: "Ilya Gringolts was the soloist this time – rather luxury casting for a work that lasts barely 15 minutes, but his playing had enough panache and swagger about it to turn the concerto into a convincing showcase for his virtuosity."

Jennifer Koh performed Scelsi's "Anahit" with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

  • Violinist.com: "Violinist Jennifer Koh gave an energetic and committed performance of "Anahit" by Giacinto Scelsi, accompanied by an orchestra of about 20, led by Dudamel."
  • Los Angeles Times: "The solo violin, led on a transcendent journey by an 18-piece droning ensemble, relies on the intensity of bent tones with otherworldly implications, and Koh made every note mesmerizing."

Please support music in your community by attending a concert or recital whenever you can!

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Laurie's Violin School: Off to the ASTA Conference in Salt Lake City!

March 17, 2015 10:27

This week Robert and I are road-tripping to Salt Lake City for the American String Teachers Association (ASTA) convention. I'm looking forward to taking in some lectures and performances, meeting with colleagues, and also seeing the exhibition hall full of sheet music, teaching materials, instruments, gadgets for instruments and more. And of course, I'll be blogging all about it!

ASTA is an organization for string and orchestra teachers and players, founded more than 60 years ago. The annual convention provides an opportunity for members of the strings community to come together to promote excellence in teaching, to see what's new in string-related products, to find opportunities to collaborate and to devise ways to keep music education thriving.

I'm happy that this year's convention takes place in Salt Lake City, which is home not only to the Utah Symphony and many thriving strings programs, but also to the Violin Making School of America (VMSA), founded by Peter Prier. The VMSA has had a hand in training some of the finest luthiers of today, including most of the top winners in the most recent Violin Society of America violin-making competition and many more.

If you will be there, I hope to see you! I'll be the one scribbling notes and taking pictures. (I'll also have copies my book, Violinist.com Interviews, on hand, and I'll be happy to sell you one and sign it!) Robert (the technical half of Violinist.com) also will be there and available to talk about sponsorship opportunities.

Violinist.com at ASTA 2015
If you are at ASTA, please stop Robert or me to say hello and ask for one of our V.com postcards!

Check later this week and weekend for our full coverage.

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Bruce Dukov's Virtuoso 'Happy Birthday' Duet

March 15, 2015 09:59

A number of years ago I spoke to Los Angeles-based studio concertmaster Bruce Dukov about his outrageously fun arrangements. Well, now he has made a video of one of his most popular ones, "Variations on a Birthday Theme In the Style of Paganini & Wieniawski for Two Violins." (With a little studio and movie magic, he is his own mirror image -- I don't think he's really playing all that "left-handed"!)

I can only hope that he makes videos of his other fun arrangements! And if you want to learn this piece, you can purchase the music here.

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In Mo Yang, 19, of Korea has won the 54th Premio Paganini International Violin Competition

March 11, 2015 15:23

In Mo Yang, 20 of Korea has won first prize in the annual International Violin Competition Premio Paganini in Genoa, Italy.

In Mo Yang. Photo: Neda Navaee

In Mo also was awarded the “Associazione Amici del Carlo Felice e del Conservatorio N. Paganini” €1,000,00 for the semifinalist’s best performance of the contemporary original piece written by Ivan Fedele for the Paganini Contest; prize in memory of Dr. Enrico Costa, sponsored by the Costa Family for the youngest finalist; and prize in memory of Maestro Mario Ruminelli, sponsored by his family for the performance most appreciated by the audience during the Final Stage.

A student of Miriam Fried at the New England Conservatory of Music, In Mo Yang also won first prize at the 2014 CAG Victor Elmaleh Competition; second prize at the 2014 Menuhin Competition; as well as competition prizes at the 2013 Munetsugu Angel Violin Competition and the 2012 Joachim International Violin Competition.

Here is a full list of the winners and prizes:

  • First prize: In Mo Yang, 19, of Korea (€ 20,000)
  • Second prize: Fumika Mohri, 20, of Japan (€ 10,000)
  • Third prize: Albrecht Menzel, 23, of Germany (€ 5,000)
  • Fourth prize: Diana Pasko, 25, of Russia (€ 1,500)
  • Fifth prize: Elly Suh, 25, of the U.S. (€ 1,500)
  • Sixth prize: Dainis Medjaniks, 21, of Latvia (€ 1,500)

Also, Tan Yabing, 24, of China, was awarded the €3,000 in memory of Renato and Mariangiola De Barbieri, sponsored by "Associazione culturale e benefica Renato e Mariangiola De Barbieri" for the best interpretation of Paganini’s Capricci during the Semifinal Stage.

Past winners of the Premio Paganini include Gyorgy Pauk, Salvatore Accardo, Gidon Kremer, Miriam Fried, Eugene Fodor, Isabelle Faust, Leonidas Kavakos, Ilya Gringolts and Ning Feng and many more.

* * *

Here is In Mo Yang's Senior First Round performance from the 2014 Menuhin Competition, in which he won second prize:

  1. J.S. Bach Solo Sonata in C Major, BWV 1005, Largo and Allegro Assai
  2. N. Paganini Caprice No. 1 for Solo Violin, Op. 1
  3. W.A. Mozart from Violin Concerto No. 3 in G Major, K. 216
  4. F. Kreisler Caprice Viennois, Op. 2

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Modern Music: Jennifer Koh, Nathan Cole and Bing Wang perform for LA Phil's Green Umbrella Series

March 11, 2015 13:52

Modern music can make people uncomfortable with its dissonance, foreign musical vocabulary and sometimes-puzzling intent.

But when an entire concert series is dedicated to the performance of contemporary music, a certain shift occurs. The people who attend have chosen to leave their comfort zones, to try something new. This is what I enjoy about Los Angeles Philharmonic's Green Umbrella concerts: the feeling of being in Disney Hall with thousands of people who are prepared to listen with open ears and minds, to something they know will challenge their senses.

Jennifer Koh
Jennifer Koh. Photo by Juergen Frank

Tuesday night's Green Umbrella concert featured quite a few violin soloists: guest artist Jennifer Koh, as well as LA Phil violinists Nathan Cole and Bing Wang. Other featured soloists were LA Phil trombonist James Miller and soprano Charlotte Hellekant. The concert included works by Luigi Nono, Luca Francesconi, Luciano Berio and Giacinto Scelsi.

As expected, the music challenged the ear, questioned convention, and at times defied explanation.

The lights dimmed for Luigi Nono's "'Hay que caminar' soñando" for two violins, leaving violinists Nathan Cole and Bing Wang each in their own spotlight at the center-front of the stage, surrounded with a pool of dim green light (a signature of the LA Phil's "Green Umbrella" concerts). The piece began with quiet harmonics, dog-whistle high, at times reminiscent of the high end of a hearing test. These were punctuated occasionally by soft outbursts, often in a whispery sul ponticello. The tapestry of this did not change much throughout the 20-minute piece. I came to understand that the silence was as much a part of this piece as was the sound; the audience's shuffling, low throat-clearing and a few naughty cell phones were as audible as the music.

The program notes describe the piece as one of many meditations the composer wrote, inspired by an inscription on the wall of a Spanish monastery: "Caminante, no hay caminos, hay que caminar," or "Wayfarer, there are no paths, (yet) you must walk." To that end, the soloists several times walked to other music stands, set up in different locations in the hall. First they walked in silence to opposite corners of the stage, the light changing as the spotlights shifted to follow each of them. They continued with the same static sound, high harmonics with fuzzy-soft gestures. Then they moved even farther away, climbing stairs on either side of the stage until both stood above and behind the vacant, green-lit stage, playing yet the same high-pitched fragments.

The empty stage, low light, feeble volume, thin threads of sound in the highest register played by just two violinists -- all created a feeling of desolation and withdrawal, like standing alone at night on the North Pole, listening for ice to crack. Now and then a creature might scamper across the cold landscape, or an aurora might light the sky, but mostly it was quiet. Remarkable to create such strong feelings of stillness and isolation in a hall filled with several thousand people.

Next was "Animus" for trombone and electronics, by Luca Francesconi. Again, only two people stood on stage: LA Phil trombonist James Miller and Matthew Davis, who operated the computer and sound board that was set out on a black table. The piece began with a windy "whoosh" -- like a rush of air through a giant trombone. In fact, this may have been what it was, the amplified sound of breath through instrument, made to go "waba-waba" with a mute and electronic enhancement. For a long time the trombone produced no notes; only wind and small gurgles -- a sound one might imagine coming from a microphone in someone's small intestine. The trombone sounds morphed into something more pitch-oriented, swirling and growing loud. The musical figures that Miller played seemed to follow him around and change shape and color -- like memories, brought back by Miller's loop pedal. Some "memories" grew menacing as they rushed past, others simply became more colorful. It seemed a virtuoso on-the-spot pairing of live, pre-recorded and looped sound by Miller and Davis. Many in the audience gave the performance a standing ovation.

For the U.S. premiere of "Calmo" by Luciano Berio, soprano Charlotte Hellekant stepped onto stage with bare feet, adorned with jingle bells around both wrists and ankles. She was accompanied by a small ensemble, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. The piece, written after the death of Berio's friend and colleague Bruno Maderna, is an unrelenting, atonal lament, a vocal setting of excerpts from various poems that Maderna had used in his own work. Hellekant gave an impassioned performance, punctuating her long vocal lines with the bells, gracefully placed by waving her arms or by balancing on one foot to kick a pointed toe.

Violinist Jennifer Koh gave an energetic and committed performance of "Anahit" by Giacinto Scelsi, accompanied by an orchestra of about 20, led by Dudamel. This is a piece for those who hear about 24 tones between octaves, rather than the conventional Western 12 tones. It begins with a low buzz reminiscent of truck horns in heavy traffic. With the solo violin is re-tuned to G-G-B-D, the piece plays on the tension of seconds, two consecutive notes played together to create a dissonance, a collision of differently-vibrating sound. Played as double-stops in the violin, these notes also slide to quarter-tones and microtones, the notes in-between that can sound out-of-place to Western ears. The cadenza was an exploration of these dissonant intervals, played as double-stops or brought out in a brittle vibrato. Without anything that could be called a conventional melody, the orchestra slides in and out of sounds that flirt with consonance but always slide into dissonance.

Violinists Jennifer Koh, Nathan Cole and Bing Wang, before the concert. Photo courtesy Nathan Cole.

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The Week in Reviews, Op. 73: Caroline Goulding, Stefan Jackiw, Elena Urioste

March 10, 2015 13:25

In an effort to promote the coverage of live violin performance, Violinist.com each week presents links to reviews of notable concerts and recitals around the world.

Caroline Goulding performed Mozart's Violin Concert No. 4 with the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra.

  • Calgary Herald: "Goulding’s Mozart was grace itself, with the melodies delivered with sensitively and the passagework clear and flowing. Everywhere there was a sense of play and good humour, notable elements of this attractive, modest concerto."

Caroline Goulding
Caroline Goulding. Photo by Lisa Marie Mazzucco

Stefan Jackiw performed the Korngold with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra.

  • Dallas Morning News: " With a silvery tone that just occasionally got a little steely, he supplied dazzling brilliance and bold expressivity. If anything, his dramatic molding of phrases sometimes flirted with excess, and his tendency to rush virtuosic passages sometimes challenged the orchestra to keep up. But this was an intensely committed and brilliantly executed performance, the violin’s first entrance in the slow movement of heart-stopping beauty."

Elena Urioste performed the Beethoven with the New York Youth Symphony.

  • The New York Times: The soloist, Elena Urioste, played with an enchanting, sweet tone and shapely phrasing. There was an unaffected purity and naturalness to the trills that are sprinkled all over the solo part.

Augustin Hadelich performed the Dvorák with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra.

  • Democrat & Chronicle: "When it came to Hadelich's ability to execute the composer's phrases fluidly and with tender tunefulness, the violinist's efforts could not have been bettered. In short, even if Hadelich's interpretation lacked bite at times, he consistently served up tasty melodic morsels."

Natalia Lomenko performed Prokofiev's 1st Violin Concerto with the Bristol Met Orchestra.

  • Bristol Post: "Excellent playing by the orchestra accompanied the superb soloist."

Renaud Capuçon performed the Lindberg with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.

  • The Guardian: "The buzz and gumption of Magnus Lindberg’s Violin Concerto completed the programme, with Renaud Capuçon as a frenetic, searching soloist. He hurtled around his violin, matching the dogged insistence of the Schubert and the brawn of the Beethoven. The SCO didn’t quite muster the work’s filmic expanses, but gave beautifully nimble, lissom support."

Renaud Capuçon performed the Beethoven with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.

  • Edinburgh Guide: "He gave an outstanding performance of the complex cadenza in the first movement and in the middle movement, the Larghetto, he brought out to perfection the sweet melodies Beethoven so often includes in his music. And his playing in the finale was superb, one of the best performances I have heard."

Please support music in your community by attending a concert or recital whenever you can!

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Laurie's Violin School: Searching for the Patterns

March 3, 2015 09:34

"Let's strip out all the other notes and practice just the scale in this little passage," I advised a student who was playing Mazas Etude No. 25.

She looked at the page intently for a long minute, smiled, and laughed at herself. "I didn't even realize there was a scale in there!"

mazas 25

One repeated note, but it's basically a scale.

It's easy to miss that kind of thing, especially if you aren't really looking for it. I've missed some whoppers. For example, one day in the relatively recent past, I was doodling distractedly while listening in on my son's piano lesson. The holiday season was approaching, and his teacher was instructing him on what was a new piece of music for him at the time. "Play just the first eight notes," she said.

Joy to the World

"What is it?" she asked, after he played it. I thought to myself, "It's 'Joy to the World,' he'll know that." My son paused for a moment, then brightly said, "A D-major scale!"

Wait, what?

I had to look at the music. I'm not even kidding! I had to sing the solfege in my mind: Do, ti, la sol, fa me re do.... I'd been singing that song since I was a toddler and playing on the violin it almost as long -- hundreds, if not thousands, of times. And yet this was the first time in my entire life that I saw that line for what it was: a descending scale!

So it's not surprising to me that students, while wrestling with fingers and bow and trying to make one note to follow the next, often fail to see the scaffolding on which the whole thing hangs -- those basic structures at the heart of any musical composition: scales, arpeggios, sequences, patterns, melody, harmony. Yet finding the basic structures can simplify it a great deal, making the music easier to learn, master and memorize.

Sometimes the thicket of notes gets pretty dense, and that structure can be hard to find. But it's in these cases that having that structure can really make the difference. Take, for example, this (really fun!) passage from Kreisler's "Praeludium and Allegro."


To the outsider, it sounds like a virtuoso barrage of notes. But the insider learns pretty quickly that this is a fairly simple series of sequences that actually lays pretty easily on the fiddle. There are many different ways to dissect and practice this little monster but to see a basic shape, start by looking at the top line, which I've conveniently circled in red: first is a pattern of three descending notes, and we get a series of five of these inching upward. After that is a little transition. Then we get a pattern of three notes that go down a step and then skip a third -- that happens seven times in a row in a descending series. Then another transition. Then four-note pattern that basically goes down a third, down a third, up a step, in a series of four, after which it all transitions in a descent to the next section.

That's just the basic structure. To really understand the passage, get rid of all the open E's. Pair each circled note with the note before it and make it into a double-stop (they are all basically sixths). Play the whole thing this way, as double stops. I've left out the fingerings, but you pretty much just crawl up and down the fingerboard, using the same fingering (more or less). Once you can play it all as double-stops, you are pretty much good to go.

How does one find these things? In violin playing, you can look for things like that "open E" in the above passage: a pedal tone or a pattern that repeats without much change. If you eliminate those notes, what is left? Usually the moving notes are left, and then you can see what you have: is it a scale? The melody? An arpeggio? This is what you need to practice or analyze, for better understanding.

Certainly, there is music that does not conform to any obvious pattern or set of patterns. (Check out original violin part in the opening John William's "Hedwig's Theme," heaven help us! Do you have examples?)

But quite a lot does, and for that music, a little detective work can make something that seems pretty foggy and confusing come into clear focus.

What are your strategies, when you come to a passage that is a big thicket of notes? How do you find the patterns? And what do you do, when there is no pattern?

* * *

For fun, here is Itzhak Perlman playing Kreisler's "Praeludium and Allegro" in the style of Pugnani, which contains the above passage at 3:52:

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