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Laurie Niles

Review: Joshua Bell in recital with pianist Alessio Bax at Disney Hall

October 27, 2014 22:54

When one thinks of a "recital hall," generally a 2,200-seat venue does not come to mind.

Yet within the first quiet moments of Schubert's Violin Sonata in A major, D. 574, Joshua Bell and pianist Alessio Bax somehow cast such a strong feeling of intimacy over their recital, it seemed to take place in a living room rather than the capacious Disney Hall on Sunday evening.

Of course, architect Frank Gehry meant Disney Hall to be a "living room for the city of Los Angeles" -- but Joshua Bell knew how to play it that way. The choice of repertoire -- the Schubert, Grieg's Violin Sonata No. 1 in F major, Op. 8 and Prokofiev's Violin Sonata No. 1 in F minor, Op. 80 -- showcased music with fine detail, moments of stillness mixed with the movement, and a nice range of effects for piano and violin. The hall did its job, but so did the performers, arresting the attention of their large audience with their finely focused music-making.

The Schubert flowed like water, with both performers sensitive to one another and well-balanced in their interplay. Did Schubert, writing these pieces as a fairly young man, ever think that anyone would play this music with so much care? They captured the energy of the second movement, the changing moods of the third movement, everything so finely put together.

I couldn't decide if I'd ever heard the Grieg Sonata -- if so, it's certainly not a piece I've heard frequently. The melodious first movement was in turns sunny and stormy, and full of decisive "endings" that don't really end the movement. The actual ending just trails into the sky. The second movement has some folksy passages, skittering spiccato, and the little pizzicato that ended that movement made audience members chuckle audibly. The third movement leaps high, dives low, and Joshua and Alessio were decisive in every gesture, sure-footed traversing this changeable landscape.

After intermission came the Prokofiev, a serious and challenging piece, and here is where I noticed that I was listening to Joshua Bell for the wisdom in his playing. He may have the timeless look of a young man, he may entertain us at times, but he also has the conspicuous maturity of a concert artist that has been at his craft for 40+ years.

The first movement of the Prokofiev feels like a journey over a dark landscape: quiet plodding, with the piano in its lower end. Joshua's vibrato could range from nothing to molto, sometimes in the course of just a note, and his double-stops had reassuring stability. Toward the end of the movement was a shivery effect, fingers running lightning-fast up and down the fingerboard, muted, and illuminated only by long quiet bows. Prokofiev told Oistrakh that he meant this to sound like "the wind in a graveyard," according to the program notes, and indeed it did. "Ooooh," came a spontaneous murmur from an audience member behind me.

By contrast, the second movement was loud, busy and intense. The muted third movement seemed almost French; it had every kind of watery, sparkly, shimmery, wash-of-color effect I could think of in both piano and violin, and Josh's melodious high playing was simply gorgeous. The fourth movement was frenetic, full of energy, then changing, back to shivering in the graveyard in the end. What a journey.

Joshua announced several encores from the stage: Rachmaninov's "Vocalise," which sang easily and was spellbinding in his hands. Then came Sarasate's virtuoso piece, "Introduction and Tarantella," which showed his astonishing precision and well-calculated dynamics.

What a treat.

* * *

After the recital, both Joshua Bell and Alessio Bax came to the lobby to sign CDs for audience members, who formed a nice long line to greet them. Here I am with Joshua after the recital:

Laurie and Joshua

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A List of Established Modern Violin and Bow Makers from the VSA's New Instrument Exhibit

October 23, 2014 14:46

Who exactly are some of the more established modern violin and bow makers who are raising the art of the craft to new level? We hope that the list below can serve as a helpful resource to anyone looking for a fine modern instrument.

Last month during the Violin Society of America's Convention, an entire exhibit was devoted to new violins make by well-established violin and bow makers. Many of these makers have won so many VSA awards that they were no longer eligible to enter the 2014 VSA Competition for makers (Winners of the 2014 Violin Society of America Competition are listed here.)

Called the "New Instrument Exhibit," it featured 120 instruments and bows by 85 makers. Players visited the room all week to test the violins and bows, and they often could meet the maker right there in the room; so it was possible to speak to a maker while testing his or her violin or bow. What an incredible opportunity!

VSA violins

Here is a list of the makers represented in the VSA's "New Instrument Exbibit," all with links to their contact information. I hope you find this to be helpful!

Carruthers
Andrew Carruthers of Santa Rosa

Scott-Alf-Braun
Bill Scott, Gregg Alf and Dennis Braun

Michael Fischer
Michael Fischer of Los Angeles

Skreko Indy
Theodore Skreko of Indianapolis Violins

Zyg and Curtin
Sam Zygmuntowicz and Joseph Curtin

VIOLIN MAKERS

Gregg T. Alf
Pablo Alfaro
Robert Ames
GianCarlo Arcieri
Dimitri Atanassov
Dorian Barnes
Gonzalo Bayolo
David Burgess
Andrew Carruthers
Chicago School of Violin Making
Carlo Chiesa
David L. Chrapkiewicz
Marco Coppiardi
Martin Cornelissen
Thomas Croen
Joseph Curtin
David Finck
Michael Fischer
Ronald L Fletcher
David Folland
Andrea Frandsen
Christopher Germain
Todd Goldenberg
David Gusset
Jonathan Hai
Mark Hollinger
Li Ming Huai
Indianapolis Violins
Feng Jiang
Chris Kiely
Felix Krafft
Francis Kuttner
Christophe Landon
Silvio Levaggi
Zhen Hua Ling
Douglas Martin
Jesse Maschmeyer
Steven M. McCann
Georg Meiwes
Ray Melanson
Thomas Meuwissen
Eduard Miller
Sally Mullikin
Orest Nakonechny
Oberlin Workshop
Phillippe Reynaud
James Robinson
Benjamin Ruth
Andrew Ryan
Julien Schneider
Kelvin Scott
Bill Scott, Jr.
Sigrun Seifert and Joseph Grubaugh
Nathan Slobodkin
Jan Spidlen
David Swanson
Joe Thrift
Stefan Valcuha
Jason Viseltear
Stephan Von Baehr
Marilyn J Wallin
Mark Hough
Ute Zahn
Samuel Zygmuntowicz

BOW MAKERS

Morgan Andersen
John Aniano
Pierre-Yves Fuchs
Lee Guthrie
David Hawthorne
Kwonsu Kim
Rodney Mohr
Evan Orman
Richard Riggal
Steve Salchow
David Samuels
Elizabeth Shaak
Matthew Wehling
Li Xueyong
Roger Zabinski

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How Giora Schmidt found his modern violin

October 22, 2014 14:36

For soloist Giora Schmidt, playing a modern violin is no Plan B.

But coming around to that feeling of certainty was a major education and a long journey. Giora spoke about his experience with modern violins at a lecture on violin quality that took place in Indianapolis last month as part of the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis and the Violin Society of America Convention.

His familiarity with both old and new violins is also probably one reason why he was chosen as one of the 10 violinists who took part in the 2012 Paris Experiment, in which American violin maker Joseph Curtin and French acoustics researcher Claudia Fritz devised a scientific study to compare six old Italian violins to six modern violins.

Giora Schmidt, the son of two professional musicians from Israel, began playing the violin when he was four, and he studied with some amazing teachers: Pinchas Zukerman, Dorothy DeLay and Itzhak Perlman among them. He also played some amazing violins early in his career: a 1753 Milan Guadagnini for about three years, and before that, a 1743 Guarneri del Gésu for about five.

Giora-Schmitt

"You do everything you can to get a loan of something big," Giora said of his early playing days. Playing those fine violins for so many years, "I started to get really educated about the sound," he said. But like every loan, the time comes to an end, and you have to give the violin back. The question is always looming: Get another loan? Sell your soul to the devil to try and get a violin priced at $1 million or more? "I came to a decision, when the Guad had to be returned, that I would seek out the best modern instrument that I could for the concert stage."

When he started looking into modern violins, he was happy to realize that not only was this feasible, it also appeared to have some advantages.

"It was kind of exciting, and it was really eye-opening," Giora said.

For him, one of most appealing features of newer violins is their ability to hold stable in changing environments; whereas violins that are several centuries old are notorious for being difficult to play when they are put under the stress of constant travel. For a soloist who is constantly crossing the globe for concerts in various locations, this is good news. "I can do a concert in the jungle of Brazil or the dryness of Alaska," Giora said. His modern violin "holds its pitch and always sounds good."

He considered commissioning a violin but ultimately felt reluctant about the idea. What if you wait four years for a commissioned instrument and then you don't like it? The one that Giora bought "was available; he already had made it."

And who made that violin? In 2011, after much research, Giora bought a violin made in 2000 by Hiroshi Iizuka, a Philadelphia-based luthier who actually specializes more in violas. Giora hasn't looked back.

"I have concertmasters ask, 'What Guarneri are you playing?' or, 'What Guadagnini are you playing?'" Giora said.

"Everyone who puts bow to the string looks for a different output," Giora said. For him, he really wanted a violin with power on the D string, for things like certain passages in the Tchaikovsky Concerto.

He was pleasantly surprised at the difference in sticker price between an old Italian and a modern. Though he thought he'd have to spend $30,000 to $50,000 to get a fine modern, he spent less.

"I had a budget, and I ended on the low end of that," he said. It seems to be in our violinist genes, he said, the idea that if something is priced high, then there must be a reason for that. In fact, when it comes to fine instruments, there seems to be no correlation between price and a desirable violin, one with a high quality of sound and good playability. (Note: this is not true at the lowest end student violins.)

For Giora, participating in the 2012 Paris Experiment validated his decision to buy modern and bolstered his confidence in modern instruments in general.

"I tried violins priced in the millions that were not as exciting as some of the moderns I played in Paris," he said.

Something he learned from Paris, where they played the violins with goggles on, is that it's easy to be deceived by looks. That gorgeous antique look does not always equate to a good-sounding violin. Sometimes violins are like Swiss cheese, "there are parts you love, and then there's a hole," he said. "Sometimes you just want a nice solid piece of cheddar!"

Wearing the goggles, "I was surprised to see how, within three seconds, you know: absolutely not, or absolutely yes, or you need more time with a certain instrument," he said. "That kind of pre-selection process was something I'd never done."

In the Paris Experiment, the violinists started testing instruments in a small rehearsal room, playing solo. For the next testing session, they moved to a larger, 300-seat concert hall and also had the option of piano accompaniment.

"What we picked as our foremost (in the first session) changed in the hall," he said. Adding piano then changed perceptions further. "I felt some violins were really enjoyable for playing alone, then certain overtones got enhanced or diminished with the introduction of the piano," Giora said.

The question is: Do you want a violin that covers all the bases: playing alone, playing with piano, playing with orchestra? For Giora, the answer was "yes."

"All of that became very clear, and the results for me were astounding," he said. "All of my choices were modern instruments."

Beyond each player's ultimate choice of instrument, the Paris Experiment took down a lot of data on player's specific reactions to every violin, with players rating instruments in six categories: overall quality, articulation, timbre, playability, projection, and loudness under the ear.

"Joseph knew what I would like, based on Paris, and it was spot-on," Giora said. "There was one that stood alone for me, and it was exactly what the data predicted."

The idea that modern violins can hold their own against million-dollar old Italians is good news for those of us who can't afford a million-dollar instrument (99.9 percent of us, would be a guesstimate). It means that "for the next generation there are options of instruments that are exciting and can hold their own against these instruments that have this mystique associated with them," he said.

For Giora, signs of the strengthening interest in modern violins are everywhere. While in Indianapolis, he was pleased to learn that one of the competitors in the Indianapolis competition was playing on a violin by modern maker Gregg Alf. (Kristi Gjezi, performing on his teacher Svetlin Roussev's Alf violin.)

"I would like to see more of these players playing instruments by the great makers was have among us today," Giora said. "They are alive and well, and willing to work with you. It's not a Plan B to play something modern."

* * *

After the lecture, violinist Giora spoke to me and documentarist Stefan Avalos about his violin, going into fine detail about how he has worked with the instrument to produce the sound he wants and demonstrating with the violin:

Video copyright 2014 Stefan Avalos, as part of his documentary, "The Strad Project."

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Comparing Strads and Moderns, with Phillip Setzer, Cho-Liang Lin and the Paris Experiment researchers

October 21, 2014 14:34

How do modern violins compare to the best Strads, when played side-by-side?

One of the most memorable events in Indianapolis last month was when violinists Phillip Setzer and Cho-Liang Lin took time from their duties as jurists at the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis to perform on Stradivari violins and great moderns, including prize-winning moderns from the Violin Society of America's instrument contest, which took place at the same time. Not only that, but violin maker Joseph Curtin and researcher Claudia Fritz, known for their experiments with modern and old instruments, provided context by presenting some of their thoughts and findings during this event, called "Violin Quality and the Paris Experiment," which was as much a concert as a lecture on Sept. 20 at the Indiana History Center.

Phillip Setzer started by performing his own arrangement of the Schubert Song, Du Bist die Ruh, first on the 1714 "Jackson" Strad, then on Setzer's own violin made by Sam Zygmuntowicz, which was based on the Jackson.

Setzer

He played with pianist Chih-Yi Chen. Frankly I was distracted from the task at hand (trying to discern the difference between the instruments) by Setzer's gorgeous playing. Across the board was his sound, intimate and personal in the beginning, and then flowering and growing through the piece. And what a beautiful vibrato, with such loose fingers! In this case, I couldn't help but think, for the audience, the player makes the music. For the violinist, the instrument is the partner, and an artist's opinion about the instrument has to be connected to whether or not it easily makes the music as he wants it. He may have to try harder to produce his voice and his interpretation with one than the other, but the audience may not discern this when the artist is such a fine one.

Following Setzer's performance, Curtin talked about the myths and beliefs surrounding old vs. new violins. "Stradivari and Guarneri del Gésu are, for me, the greatest makers we've known yet," Curtin said. But their legacy of excellence sometimes causes modern violin makers to live under a kind of paternal cloud, hindered by the feeling of a "varnished spruce ceiling" of violin making. "It can paralyze a young maker."

Curtin challenged some long-held beliefs about old violins vs. new. Among them:

1. Violins improve with playing; the longer and better they are played, the more they improve.
2. Any competent violinist can separate old from new violins by playing them.
3. The best old Italians are quiet under the ear but out-project seemingly louder new instruments in the hall.
4. Strads and del Gésus have distinct voices.
5. The sound of the best old Italians have never been reproduced in newer violins.

These beliefs have evolved over time, and "we rely on what great violinists from the past have said," Curtin said. But are they true? "Scientists don't believe or disbelieve, they just want to test this." What do recent "ear-witness" accounts suggest?

Curtin and French National Centre for Scientific Research researcher Claudia Fritz led the controversial 2010 double-blind study that was held in conjunction with the previous Indianapolis competition.

"We agreed there were limits to the study -- it was the first one we did, and we had to learn from it," Fritz said. Curtin and Fritz took the results and the criticisms, and they devised a new study, to be done in a concert hall with top players and more instruments. The "Paris experiment," as they called it took place in 2012 at two locations on the outskirts of Paris, France, with 12 violins, six old and six new; and 10 soloists with international careers. There were two sessions, an hour and fifteen minutes each, and participants were allowed to use their own bows. They played in a small rehearsal hall, then in a 300-seat hall, with reduced lighting and wearing welding glasses.

Claudia-Joseph
Claudia Fritz and Joseph Curtin, who is holding welding glasses like those used in the Paris Experiment

In the concert hall, they were allowed the feedback of one friend, and they were permitted to have the violins played for them, so they could hear them from a distance, not just under the chin.

Their task: to choose a violin for a hypothetical solo tour, next week.

What were the results of the Paris experiment? Well you can look at them in great detail here, on Claudia Fritz's website.

But here is what Fritz and Curtin spoke about in September: First, "the choices were highly individual," Fritz said. Six participants chose new violins, three chose old, and one waffled before choosing old.

Despite many news media headlines emphasizing A Strad? Violinists Can't Tell as the conclusion, this wasn't the main focus of the study, Fritz said. Violinists were not asked to focus on discerning whether the instruments were old or new for most of the experiment; this task took place at the end of the experiment, when the violinists were given 30 seconds with each instrument to guess if it was old or new. The soloists did not guess better than chance-level.

"We did that at the end because we wanted to focus on preference," Fritz said. Certainly, whether the violin was old or new was not obvious to the players in this context.

At the end of the session, Cho-Liang Lin and pianist Rohan de Silva treated us to the "Blues" movement from Ravel's Sonata for Violin, played once on Lin's own 1715 "Titian" Strad, then on the new violin by Collin Gallahue that had just won a gold medal at the Violin Society of America's competition that week. Lin had chosen that violin from among a number of the winning violins: "I loved them all," Lin said. "I felt more comfortable, knowing how to produce the sound on this one," he said of Gallahue's violin. He attributed that comfort to the fact that it was based on a 1735 del Gésu model, so it felt similar to a violin that Lin owns and regularly plays on, a Zygmuntowicz based on the same model.

JLin-Ravel

Of course we in the audience didn't know which violin was which until afterwards; I had the impression that the second violin (which turns out to be the modern) sounded a little darker, but both performances sounded great and I would not have been able to guess which violin was the modern and which was the old Italian. The performance with Gallahue's violin had the added fun of a string breaking in the middle of all the strumming in that movement. Lin had to stop, run back and switch violins, then complete the piece.

Thank goodness there was another fiddle waiting in the wings.

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Laurie's Violin School: What Violin Should You Buy?

October 20, 2014 12:25

Why get a nice violin for your student, if you aren't sure that he or she is "serious" about the violin?

If you enroll your child (or yourself!) in violin lessons, you should be serious enough about the endeavor to try to ensure success, and having a decent instrument is one part of that equation (along with adequate practice time and space, and a good teacher).

All violins are NOT created equal. One can see that just from the price range: about $20 for the cheapest Internet imports vs. tens of millions of dollars for an old Italian Stradivarius. There is a lot in between! Price does not always correlate with the "best" violin for you, particularly when one gets into the $10,000+ range. But below a certain point, a lower price does point to a certain amount of corner-cutting. Anything below about $1,000 for a full-size, and you need to watch what you are buying. Actually, no matter what, you need to watch what you are buying!

First, what's the problem with a cheap violin? If you'd like the long answer, here is the article I wrote about it. In short, if the violin is of bad quality, it's not very fun to play. It's nearly impossible to use the pegs and fine tuners. So it's out-of-tune most of the time. You put your fingers in the right places, and it's still out of tune. You try to use the bow the way your teacher says, and the sound is still squeaky, thin, tinny. The pitch bends. It's not pretty to look at. It smells funny. It feels funny. You try really, really hard to make it sound nice, and it never does, because it's impossible to make it sound nice.

What makes for a "good" violin?

1. Sound. Does it have a pleasing tone; does it respond to vibrato; does it resonate?

2. Fit. For a child, make sure you are getting the right size violin. (Here is more information on determining that.) More advanced students will want to consider: Does it fit your hand? How thick is the neck; can you get around the fingerboard easily? Does it feel particularly heavy or unwieldy? Not all violins are exactly the same shape, so it's important to get the right one for you.

3. Ease of tuning. Do the pegs work? Are they made of plastic or wood? Do they turn easily, or do they stick and slip? Are the fine-tuners metal or plastic? Do they work? Do they appear like they'll hold up under hundreds of tunings?

3. Set-up. Is the bridge set up properly? Is the bridge well-crafted or does it look thick and cheap? Is the soundpost in the right place? This greatly affects how the sound functions. You may need the help of your teacher or of a trusted violin maker to determine this.

4. Composition of the violin. Is the bottom made of maple, the top made of spruce? Is the fingerboard made of ebony or something similar? Those are the basics, and there are variations. But a violin made of cheap, improperly seasoned wood will not sound as good or hold up in the same way.

5. Craftsmanship. Is it made well? Are the seams glued properly? Is the purfling inlaid or just painted on? Is the finish and varnish attractive? Does it smell weird? Sure, some of this is cosmetic. But year-over-year, the sturdiness and beauty of good craftsmanship makes a difference.

How about a cheap violin that is old? Or one that you found in the attic? Keep in mind, when it comes to violins, old is very often (but not always) better than new. Time helps weed out really bad violins -- if it is a truly horrible instrument, people tend not to bother keeping it. You may be able to fix up an old violin and have it sound very nice. You may be able to buy an old violin for cheap, but still wind up having a nice violin. But watch out: you also may have to spend a lot of money to fix it. If the violin has cracks or open seams, you'll need to have a violin maker repair them. You'll need new strings, possibly a new bridge, have the soundpost checked, get new tuners or pegs, etc. So be prepared to pay something for repairs if you want to use the fiddle in the attic, and have a violin teacher or maker look it over and tell you if this will really be worthwhile before you commit.

I hope this helps, and I invite you to add any more considerations to the above list!

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Interview with Samuel Thompson: Weathering the Storm

October 15, 2014 15:22

It's no surprise that Samuel Thompson is fascinated by the way literary ideas mix with musical ones in Vivaldi's "Winter" from the Four Seasons.

Samuel is both a violinist and a writer, not to mention that he's weathered some serious storms. Samuel is the violinist who took out his violin and soothed a weary crowd with Bach during Hurricane Katrina, after he, along with some 20,000 others storm refugees, were trapped in the Louisiana Superdome and later at the New Orleans Arena during the storm. The terror of those nights 2005 took their toll, as did the strange fame that follows being written up in the widely read LA Times account of the storm.

"A lot of it I can't remember," Samuel said to me last week, speaking over the phone from Baltimore.. "Someone described it like a Hieronymus Bosch painting -- and that's the only thing I can say, it was surreal."

In the years since, Samuel has derived strength and inspiration from the constancy of words and the beauty of music. Though he's played the violin since he was a young child and has a Master of Music degree from Rice, Samuel's writing came post-Katrina, encouraged by a violin mentor, Jorja Fleezanis.

"First it was a personal thing, but then it turned into writing about people doing fantastic things, paying attention to some really great things that are happening in the world and in music," Samuel said. "For me, it's been an opportunity to interact."

Samuel Thompson

A member of Violinist.com since 2003, Samuel has been blogging on Violinist.com since 2005 and has written for numerous online and print publications, including Strings Magazine and the San Jose Chamber Orchestra's "Other Notes".

On the musical side of things, Katrina gave him some opportunities. "I'm grateful for so much of it. In one year, I had the opportunity to do things and play concerts -- and consequently meet some amazing people who are doing wonderful things in the world in music, theater and social justice," Samuel said. "But that was also a very strange time, going even up to 2008. I remember thinking, this is great, but at the end of the day, I'm still a violinist, I'm still a musician. I want to make sure that I'm playing well. When it comes to recovery and reintegration, it's been a long road, but I'm finally starting to feel like I'm in a place where I can really do that."

And that's where Vivaldi comes in. On Oct. 22, Samuel will play "Winter" with the Colour of Music Virtuosi as part of the second annual Colour of Music Festival in Charleston, S.C., with other seasons played by other violinists: Brendon Elliott (Spring), Edward Wellington Hardy (Summer) and Charlene Bishop (Autumn). It's one of many concerts and events scheduled during the 10-day festival, running Oct. 17-26, which celebrates black classical musicians in solo recitals, chamber concerts, orchestra concerts, and at the end, a Verdi Requiem. The festival also features many works by black classical composers, past and present.

For Samuel, the upcoming performance is a chance to look anew at a set of works familiar to us all, The Seasons, and to revel in their imagery.

"These aren't concerti, they're more like musical paintings," Samuel said. Though he learned the music years ago, he is discovering it anew and enjoying re-reading the poems that Vivaldi wrote as his own inspiration. "He did such a wonderful job of translating these words into music. The score says, 'Shivering, frozen, amid the frosty snow and biting stinging winds.' When the solo violin comes in at the beginning with the 32nd notes, that's supposed to be a blast of stinging wind. The double stops at the end of the first movement are teeth chattering in the bitter chill. The third movement: walking on thin ice, slowly and cautiously for fear of tripping and falling. If we move quickly -- then it's scales going down, with words in the score, 'falling to the earth.'"

The Colour of Music Festival was founded by Lee Pringle and music director Marlon Daniel, who dreamed for 10 years of creating a festival to highlight the achievements and contributions by black musicians to Western Classical Music.

"Lee did a really great thing, and I'm proud to be a part of this," Samuel said. Events such as this, and the Sphinx Competition, help unite black classical musicians and shine a spotlight on black composers such as Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges, Edmund Thornton Jenkins, William Grant Still, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Fred Onovwerosuoke, Dominique Le Gendre, Nkeiru Okoye, Joyce Solomon Moorman, Trevor Weston and many others.

The festival gives its participants the chance to increase their awareness of historical figures of African descent and to gain a much larger perspective on the scope and significance of black participation in this field. A common reaction: "We didn't know we existed!"

"It is helpful; it's inspiring, There are a lot of people doing a lot of great things, all across the country," Samuel said. "One's eyes are opened to so many things in American history, and world history and musical history and the contributions that so many people have made that we don't know very much about."

That spirit of discovery and exploration -- for all aspects of music -- is what has kept Samuel on the musical path.

"I love the instrument, I love the craft. There is nothing better than being in the lab, being in the practice room, making sure that the strokes are even and that the bow is not skating. What a great feeling," Samuel said. "But what I love about being a musician, even more than I love playing, is that there's always a chance to look at everything with new eyes -- to hear different things, and to go deeper."

* * *

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Laurie's Violin School: Is listening 'cheating,' or the best way to learn?

October 13, 2014 13:59

Listening to good music can accelerate learning like little else.

It's so effective that it almost feels like cheating. Do you need to memorize something this week? Listen to it 10 times and witness how quickly that eases your assignment. Need to learn your orchestra part? Same thing: listen. Need to figure out a new piece? Listen. In fact, some teachers argue that listening to learn your music IS cheating!

Well, it's not. And also, it is. Allow me to explain:

Here's how listening helps: If you look at musical learning as mirroring language learning, listening is absolutely crucial to early learning. Does one learn to read before one learns to speak? No, the sequence goes: one is immersed in hearing language, then one learns to form words, then one strings phrases together while speaking, then one strings together sentences. And after one learns to speak, then....one learns the alphabet, phonics, words, phrases, sentences. Long process! One starts speaking words around the age of one; one reads them around the age six.

That's a long lag time, and usually it doesn't take quite as long in music. But the sequence is instructive, and so is understanding the volume of language that a person hears and internalizes, before beginning to read it.

To have a good feel for various kinds of music, you need to hear it and internalize it as well. That takes a lot of listening. But once the music is in your ear, it is much easier to match pitches, to know when you are playing a wrong note, and even to feel the groove of various musical styles.

When does listening becomes a problem?

I'll tell a story that some teachers may find familiar: I once had a student come to me after finishing the Suzuki books -- she played her solo repertoire beautifully. And she couldn't read well enough to prepare an etude every week or to figure out her orchestra music; she wanted a recording, she needed to know "how it goes."

This is less a problem of listening and more a problem of neglecting reading. It was a criticism in the early days of the Suzuki method, which uses listening extensively, and has been largely addressed by Suzuki teachers, most of whom now start to teach reading very young.

But it's not just Suzuki students who sometimes avoid reading; it's anyone with a good ear. And sometimes the problem isn't an inability to read, it's just neglecting to look closely at the score.

In a recent interview with Philippe Quint, he related an amusing story from his younger days, about learning to play the Tchaikovsky Concerto after having listening to the piece since early childhood. When he finally got to play it, he excitedly learned the whole thing in one week, after which his furious teacher sent him back to the practice room with instructions to stop listening and study the score! So even in the finest players, the ear can't always decipher all, and the score is essential to the process.

Listening may be the crutch that people use when they can't read (or don't), but that doesn't mean that listening itself is a bad thing. It just means that students need to work on reading, away from listening. Listening is not a way to learn reading, reading is a way to learn reading. The early phases of reading require some pain-in-the-neck "figuring it out." Like playing, reading takes practice: one first has to figure things out slowly many times before figuring them out quickly, and to do so without the "cheat" of someone telling you how it goes and carrying you along.

Beyond the reading question is the question of interpretation. Beginners will imitate their teachers and the recordings they hear, just as beginner-speakers will imitate their parents' speech patterns (for better or for worse!) This is a healthy and natural part of learning. But the more advanced student or artist will try to avoid over-listening to any specific recording, so they don't "ape' any particular artist. Listening to various recordings, instead of just one, can help in this regard.

But back to the benefits of listening: I'm convinced (without scientific evidence, I'll admit) that if you are learning a piece and listening to it simultaneously, the sound prompts the brain to work out specifics of fingerings, bowings, string crossings, etc., away from the instrument. Even having the music repeat in your mind as an earworm can prompt your brain to work on the playing aspects as well.

I tend to think that it's a rare student who listens too much these days, honestly. Listening takes time, and in the fast-paced, over-booked, multi-tasking, noisy environment that is today's world, listening is a slow and singular process. So don't take my word for it; try it for yourself. Seek out a recording of your current piece, or the piece your orchestra is playing. Find a a new artist who inspires you, or an alternate interpretation. Listen to the period baroque version, a differently-orchestrated version, or a popularized version. See how listening works on your mind and on your playing.

I welcome your thoughts in the comments below.

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17 replies

Discovering the Heifetz-Handel-Halvorsen for Two Violins

October 8, 2014 14:06

If there is a "Bach Double" for violin and viola -- something fun, popular and compelling in duet form -- it's got to be the Handel-Halvorsen "Passacaglia."

The Handel-Halvorsen balances the violin and viola (or sometimes cello) beautifully, puts both instruments through equally challenging paces, and (unlike the Bach Double) it doesn't even require a piano or orchestra accompaniment to sound thoroughly complete.

But did you know that you can play it with two violins? The great violinist Jascha Heifetz actually re-wrote this piece for two violins, and his version was discovered only recently. In fact, Heifetz' second-violin manuscript for the Handel-Halvorsen sat, untouched, among his effects until the summer of 2012, when University of Michigan violin professor Stephen Shipps and Curtis and Juilliard professor Eric Wen unearthed it while digging through hundreds of Heifetz Collection boxes at the Library of Congress. Heifetz' version of the Handel-Halvorsen Passacaglia, arranged for two violins, is now published and available through Shar.

Last summer I spoke with Stephen Shipps about the Handel-Halvorsen, the newly discovered and recently released edition, and about what kinds of things they found while looking through the Heifetz Collection.

Laurie: Do you remember your first impressions of the Handel-Halvorsen Passacaglia, either from hearing a recording, or seeing it played, or playing it yourself?

Stephen: My first impression of hearing that piece performed was when my teacher in high school played the recording of Heifetz and Primrose, from the 1930s. Also, Gingold's students would get together a couple of times a year and listen to old recordings -- that was before everything was available online. We listened to it while listening to old '78s, and I just remember being floored with the level of playing both by Heifetz and by Primrose. It was also a big deal for us at Indiana because Primrose was on the faculty. He was my chamber music coach freshman year, and then later I had lessons on the piece with Primrose, which was really pretty exciting.

(Here, you can listen to that version while you read:)

Laurie: Does that mean that you got to play it with Primrose playing the viola part, in the lesson?

Stephen: No, I played it with one of his students.

Then, for the last 40 years, I've been performing it! Sometimes violin-cello, but almost exclusively violin-viola.

Laurie: What level of a piece is it?

Stephen: If you play it at the level of Heifetz -- or Perlman and Zukerman, it's just incredible, the way they play it -- if you play it at that level, it's one of the hardest pieces ever written. But young people and students can play the piece. It can work for people who are just starting learning how to play chamber music, or it could work for very advanced professionals. Every level. It's not like a late Beethoven quartet, where only the great professionals can play it. It's a very good teaching piece. There's staccato, there's ricochet, scales, detaché...

Laurie: Tell me about how you unearthed these Heifetz editions.

Stephen: I had this wonderful experience of working with Endre Granat, editing a series of Ševcík books for Lauren Keiser Music Publishing. We did seven of those books, which are available through Shar, and we have one more of those coming to complete that series. In the mean time, our publisher made an arrangement with Heifetz' son, Jay Heifetz, and bought the rights to everything that was unpublished by Heifetz -- print music or manuscripts. After buying the rights, Keiser asked his editors to go through (the unpublished works) and determine what should be published and not published, what would be useful. Eric Wen, Endre Granat and I are the three violin editors for Lauren Keiser, so Eric Wen and I met in Washington and went through hundreds of boxes of Heifetz material.

Heifetz

Laurie: Hundreds!

Stephen: There are approximately 210 boxes of Heifetz material at the Library of Congress -- everything from programs to invitations to correspondence to autographs from Shostakovich, letters from Benjamin Britten -- everything! The whole correspondence about the Walton Concerto is there. We went through it box-by-box and tried to figure out what was there and what was publishable. And first, we found the Handel-Halvorsen, in the version for two violins. The second violin part was a very clearly-written manuscript by Heifetz. It is based on Halvorsen, but it has his own touches.

Laurie: Did you or Endre or Eric know about the existence of this?

Stephen: No.

Laurie: Did Heifetz ever play it?

Stephen: I think it was probably played at dinner parties, but it was never played publicly, that we knew about. But it was a very clear manuscript, dated in 1920, and revised in 1966.

Laurie: Is this version of the Passacaglia with two violins the sort of thing that can be played by violinists of two different levels? Is the second violin part easier?

Stephen: The second violin part is just as difficult as the first violin part, so you need two players who are pretty well on the same level. It's not a first violin and accompaniment at all.

Laurie: Since you've been playing the second violin part, how is it different? Are there different harmonies, actually?

Stephen: Yes, it starts out differently. Heifetz was a very well-trained composer, and very adept at what he composed. He wrote beautifully for the piano as well as for the violin. We forget that there was a whole line of violin-composers, starting with Corelli and going forward to this day. Kreisler, Ysaÿe, Wilhelmj, Joachim, and then Heifetz, not to mention Milstein, did dozens and dozens, and in a case like Kreisler and Heifetz, hundreds of arrangements that they used in their concerts. Of course, it's not so prevalent today; there are very few violinists who do their own cadenzas, their own transcriptions. Joshua Bell is doing his own cadenzas for Beethoven, Brahms and Mendelssohn, which is fantastic.

On a side note, they're not as needed today because people don't play short pieces in concerts any more, they just play sonatas, which has put everybody to sleep, so that's too bad. I'm so thrilled with Hilary Hahn, having commissioned 27 short pieces on her last CD. She's starting to fight back on that, which I think is great. And James Ehnes has made this wonderful statement about the violin recital, and trying to resuscitate it. So maybe this will come alive again.

Laurie: I don't think I've ever heard the original Handel Passacaglia, the piece this duet is based on.

Stephen: It's based on eight bars of a harpsichord suite by Handel (Handel's Suite No. 7 in G minor) and the rest of the piece was put together by Johan Halvorsen, a Norwegian composer. So the Passacaglia that we know of is a Halvorsen piece and not a Handel piece.

Laurie: If Heifetz changed the harmony, was it based on the original eight bars, or...?

Stephen: I don't think he knew the original eight bars; he was (practicing) the old school of changing harmony. As recently as the 1920s and 30s, people would put out editions of the Bach Sonatas and Partitas and if they didn't like a note, they would change a note! It was a different time. He didn't worry about what was in the manuscript or what was original. He wrote what he thought would work, and he does that often, through the entire repertoire, as well. He re-writes things in the Bach Chaconne, in the last page he does things that are different than in the manuscript. He does it because it's more effective. That's fine.

My last teacher was Franco Gulli, and Gulli had a philosophy about Heifetz: that he was the world's greatest violinist for second-class composers because he would make changes to their pieces. Heifetz was a superior talent to all of them.

Laurie: I'm curious about what else was in all those boxes!

Stephen: Well, one thing we found out about Heifetz is, he never threw anything away! It was complete, what was in these boxes.

(The Handel-Halvorsen-Heifetz) became my project. We also found seven or eight short pieces -- Strauss, Rachmaninov, some Fauré -- that had never been published by Carl Fischer. Eric Wen is putting that book together, and it will come out next year. The highlight of that book will be the slow movement of the Rachmaninov Cello Sonata, arranged for violin.

The third thing we found was the manuscript, believe it or not, of the Wieniawski A major Polonaise. It was just sitting in one of these boxes. It wasn't even listed by the Library of Congress -- they didn't know they had it. We brought it to their attention, and we sent a copy of that to Endre, who has put out an edition, based on his work with Heifetz and based on that manuscript. (That edition is available through Shar.)

Laurie: This was the manuscript in Wieniawski's hand?

Stephen: Yes, the original manuscript. It was shockingly beautiful, the handwriting was just wonderful.

Each one of us went through about 100 boxes, then when we found something, we'd look at it together and say, is this publishable or not? There were a lot of things that are just curiosities: letters, contracts, details of Heifetz' relationship with his management, pictures, medals, all sorts of things. It's very complete.

Except for one thing; the one thing that's missing are his parts of all of his most famous concertos. He was, of course, known for the Tchaikovsky Concerto, the Brahms, the Mendelssohn -- these are pieces that he made his career on for a half-century, and those were conspicuously missing.

I asked Endre Granat about that. Granat knew Heifetz very well; he studied with him and they were close friends. Granat said that he probably destroyed those because he was very careful not to let out those secrets, how he played all those pieces, to anyone.

Laurie: Not even to his students?

Stephen: Sometimes the only people who knew were the students. Endre studied with Heifetz, and I think that's going to come next in this project. In Endre's library, he has Heifetz' markings, in Heifetz's handwriting, for some of those great pieces. I think we're going to ask for permission from Jay Heifetz to put those out as well.

Laurie: So to be clear, Endre doesn't have any originals, but he just has what he did with his teacher?

Stephen: Yes, what Heifetz wrote in (Endre's) music, when he studied these pieces in the Heifetz masterclasses. But that has to be approved by Jay, everything has to be approved by Jay Heifetz.

* * *

For your listening pleasure, another recording of the Handel-Halvorsen Passacaglia, this one for violin and cello, with Jascha Heifetz and cellist Gregor Piatigorsky:

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6 replies

Laurie's Violin School: Count the Rests!

October 6, 2014 12:57

Sometimes when a student brings me orchestra music for trouble-shooting, it's not the notes that are the problem. It's the rests!

(Of course, sometimes the problem is with the notes, and that's another blog for another day.)

Trouble with rests points to trouble with counting, and that makes for trouble with sight reading and fitting together in orchestra. It's all too easy to nod off into dreamland during the rests and hope that you'll emerge from the clouds when the music sounds right for your next entrance.

rest-dream

However, the dream-and-hope method is extremely unreliable and leads to stress, especially when everyone in the section has chosen this non-method. It's unkind to your section leader, as well. When one starts missing entrances, this preys on one's confidence and leads to hesitant playing and orchestra jitters. It can infect the whole section; it can infect the whole orchestra. Not good!

One effective way for a student, or anyone, to gain control over his or her orchestra playing and overall ability to count is to start taking responsibility not just for the notes, but for the rests. As with everything related to the violin, counting rests requires practice, and the more you practice, the more this becomes a natural and easy part of your everyday playing. The easiest way to acquire this discipline? Count every single rest in every single measure, even when there are 65 measures of rest. Even when it's a half-measure of rest. Keep track!

And you don't have to wait until orchestra practice to do this; you can count rests in the practice room as well. It might seem like the goal is to fill the practice room with sound, not silence. Counting measures would be a literal waste of time, wouldn't it? It's not. It can form a helpful basis so that your counting does not waver when you are under the pressure of a performance or a rehearsal. This goes not only for orchestra music, but for any kind of collaborative music. There's nothing like putting together a sonata, only to realize that the first time you've ever counted the rests is your rehearsal with the pianist, three days before the performance! (And I do consider this to be something I need to teach my students, who may be playing in a school or youth orchestra for the first time. I am not above standing there and teaching them to say, "ONE-two-three-four, TWO-two-three-four, THREE-two-three-four," etc. "You should know this" is not a teaching method.)

Does this sound "un-musical" to you? Well, that is the difference between listening to music and making music happen. As the discipline of counting becomes more ingrained, you'll learn to "feel" it (while still counting), but when you break it down, creating music is something that happens in time, and you have to learn to parcel it out, just like you need to learn to put your fingers on the right spots, wiggle your hand just-so to create vibrato and draw a straight bow to make a good tone. Making music is not a spontaneous dance, it's a production, one where you have to be right on cue.

So even when your next entrance seems easy and obvious -- especially when your next entrance seems easy and obvious! Get your brain in the habit of keeping track of every beat. You'll soon find yourself to be one of the most valuable members of your orchestra section -- the one who enters with confidence and reliability.

19 replies

Bowmakers and Music Industry Groups Begin to Address the Ivory Import Issue

October 2, 2014 20:53

With new restrictions resulting in bows being held up at customs, or worse, being confiscated, how can one safely travel to and from the United States with a bow that might or might not contain ivory? This was the subject of a panel discussion held at the Violin Society of America (VSA)'s September convention in Indianapolis, which I attended.

"This has had a profound impact for makers of bows, and for players, and it's all happened very quickly," said VSA President Christopher Germain.

Ivory tips

The panel included bowmakers Rodney Mohr, David Samuel and Yun Chin; attorney John Bennett, and League of American Orchestras lobbyist Heather Noonan. They talked about the issue from a number of perspectives, and here is a summary of what they said.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Order 210, meant to protect African elephants from poaching by banning the commercial elephant ivory trade, came out in February 2014 and has had people scrambling ever since. Among its many new restrictions was one that prevented travel into the U.S. with instruments containing African elephant ivory that had been purchased since February 26, 1976. It was amended in May 15, 2014, to allow travel with instruments purchased prior to February 25, 2014 that contain African elephant ivory.

But the new restrictions still pose obvious problems for bow makers, dealers and people who own bows. Bows for stringed instruments typically have a small slide at the tip that traditionally is made from mammoth or elephant ivory. The mammoth ivory is currently not banned, but it's hard to tell the difference, especially for a busy customs official. Even with a bow that meets the standards, how does one comply with these new rules?

Attorney Bennett, who has a background as an environmental consultant who has worked on such issues for 20 years, explained why the ban came about in the first place.

"Biodiversity around the world is sinking, and that reality is confronting the music world for the first time," Bennett said. In 1976, African elephants were put on the endangered species list, and recently the population of African elephants has been declining precipitously. The reason the United States has taken such a tough stand on this issue is twofold: first, to show leadership to other countries; and second, because the U.S. has been a leading market for illegal ivory import.

With Order 210 in place, all importation of African elephant ivory for commercial purposes is banned. Imports and exports of musical instruments already containing ivory are allowed, subject to certain rules, including that the ivory must have been taken from the wild before February 26, 1976, that it has not been transferred from one person to another person in the pursuit of financial gain or profit after February 25, 2014; and that the person (or group) qualifies for and has a CITES musical instrument certificate. At this point, interstate and intra-state sales are allowed, as long as the items with ivory were purchased before 1990, but state laws may change. The Fish and Wildlife Service does not seem interested in regulating mammoth ivory, as mammoth species went extinct thousands of years ago.

Basically, most bow makers aren't using African elephant ivory any more and have not been for some time, Bennett said. Instead, they have been using mammoth ivory. Back when they did use African elephant ivory, it was in very small amounts. So some accommodation for this does not seem unreasonable, as bows are not sold primarily for their ivory content. Mohr said that bowmakers also are trying to find alternative materials that can be used for bow tips in place of ivory, going forward.

A number of bowmakers and music industry representatives have been working to figure out how string players and instrument dealers can work within the new restrictions, and also lobbying for amendments and revisions to the restrictions in order to allow musicians to travel with their legally-purchased equipment.

Because of the new restrictions, bowmakers are getting letters from clients asking how they can travel with their bows. "I knew we had to come up with a form or certificate that would accompany bows so that they could safely travel with them," Samuels said. To that end, the American Federation of Violin and Bowmakers, with support from the VSA, is trying both to influence legislation and to come up with a document that could accompany bows.

Bennett said that the requirements are exceptionally complicated and overlapping. He is advising a coalition of music industry leaders that includes the American Federation of Musicians, NAMM, the VSA and the American Orchestra League, who are working together for a solution and also to influence any regulations in the future that may involve interstate travel.

"Uniformly, we have experienced expressions of sympathy for the music industry," Bennett said about their efforts to work with Fish and Wildlife officials. "There is reason to be hopeful that we can head off some of the problems before they get started," at the state level, for example.

One problem now is that in order to travel abroad and come back with a bow that contains African elephant ivory, one needs something called a CITES permit. Unfortunately, getting one is time-consuming and confusing, and in the end, it's not a guarantee for safe travel. "A reliable system for compliance has not been built by the U.S.," said Noonan.

Some improvements have been made in this realm, though: While musicians at one time were supposed to get a CITES permit every time they travelled internationally, it is now possible to get a "passport" that is recognized in multiple countries and good for up to three years; though the process for getting that passport remains unclear. (This is described on the League of American Orchestras website.)

It's important to know that only limited ports of entry to the United States are designated for people to travel with CITES permits. That means that musicians traveling with any ivory have to travel through certain ports. And just because certain documents and permits and passports exist, that doesn't necessarily mean that customs officials will know anything about them.

So far, most problems have happened with people who were trying to comply with the law. "These are people who tried to comply with the rules, and as they went through the process, they found they hadn't complied to the letter, or they didn't know something," said bow maker Samuels. Many who didn't try, went through with no problems. Traveling groups encountered problems when some people had permits and some did not, Noonan said.

Other countries are also beginning to form laws about African elephant ivory, and so "every country through which you travel will have a different requirement," if you are trying to comply, Noonan said.

The important take-aways:

As individuals: Find out the laws in the countries you travel to and from so that you are prepared, Bennett said.

Collectively: "It's important that we have a unified response," bowmaker Chin said, so that the message that the music industry puts forth to legislators and regulators is clear and proposes workable solutions. If you wish to contact Congress, the League of American Orchestras has set up this page to help you do so. They have also compiled a lot of useful information on this page.

3 replies

Violinist.com interview with Lindsey Stirling: the Scene in the Song

October 1, 2014 10:49

Who is the most visible, most popular violinist in America right now? Without a doubt, it's Lindsey Stirling.

But while millions of fans worldwide flock to her shows and watch her elaborate Youtube videos, her detractors go at her from both sides of the table: What does she think she's doing, making pop out of violin music? What is she doing, making violin music out of pop? Does she think she's a dancer? A violinist? A gymnast? A cinematographer? A composer? An actress? Is she playing dubstep, hip-hop, musical theatre, New Age, or classical? Why, and how, does she bend in so many uncomfortable ways?

Talking to Lindsey, it becomes obvious that she does not think about music in the typical way that a musician might. She doesn't compose a song; she composes a scene. The scene has music, but that's just a small part. It also has movement, light, landscape, costumes, story, theme, dance and scalable dimension.

Lindsey Stirling
Photos courtesy of the artist

Her way of thinking did not win her much credit in 2010, when Lindsey appeared on season five of America's Got Talent. She made it to the quarter-finals and then was epically dissed by judge Piers Morgan. That defeat may have been the best thing that happened to her; she persisted in building and improving on her ideas, and two years later she posted her breakout video, Crystallize, which has attracted a staggering 103 million views on Youtube. In it, she dances through a palace of ice (made by Brent Christensen) while playing her violin in a style that might be classified as easy-listening dubstep.

Now, at age 27, she has released two albums, Lindsey Stirling in 2012 and Shatter Me earlier this year. She's created an elaborate live stage show, complete with dancers, video, costumes and lighting effects, and she is currently in the middle of a 77-show tour of Europe and North America.

Stirling grew up in a Mormon community in Arizona and attended Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah to study filmmaking -- a discipline that certainly shaped her view and prepared her for making videos. I spoke with her over the phone in early September about what the violin means to her, how she conceives of her videos and shows, what classical musicians may be misunderstanding about her, and her recent return to violin lessons at the Colburn School in Los Angeles.

Laurie: Where were you born and what made you take up the violin in the first place?

Lindsey: I was born in Santa Ana, California. My parents loved music, and when I was a little kid, they used to play classical records on an old record player in the house. Also, they would take my sisters and me to orchestra concerts in LA -- they have so many free orchestra concerts in the park, in the convention center. Being exposed to so much classical music, I realized that the violin is the star of the orchestra. Today, kids see MTV -- they see Taylor Swift and Katy Perry, and they want to be them. But I was exposed to violin music, and seeing that the violins have the solos, I thought, "That's the star!" And so it was kind of my rock-star icon: the violinist.

Laurie: As you've gone along, obviously you've done a lot of pop music, did it ever occur to you to switch to guitar or anything like that? What made you stay with the violin?

Lindsey: You know I never did. I begged for lessons as a kid, and it was something I always loved. Rather than giving up on it when I started to get burned out, and I wanted to be more creative with it, to be able to create art and not just play what other people had created. So rather than switching instruments or giving up on what I had worked so hard to do, I just thought, no, I need to make the violin fit me, rather than make me fit the violin.

Laurie: It seems like you have a lot of elements going on to every show that you do. How do you prepare for a stadium show, and how much of it is your vision when you do those big shows?

Lindsey: When we plan the tours, I'm involved in every single piece of it. I talk with the lighting director about what colors I see for certain songs. (For this tour,) I designed the stage set-up: the risers, where the screens were going to be, what shapes there would be. I looked through videos and picked out what kind of video content I wanted to play on those screens. I arranged the set, so I chose the order of all the songs. I helped design the costumes with the designer -- some of them I made myself and some of them I had designers make. So pretty much every single piece of it, I'm a part of.

So I guess I'm basically the Creative Director of the tour.

Lindsey Stirling show

Laurie: You are involved in so many different aspects, how do you know when to delegate? How do you find the people who can carry forth your vision?

Lindsey: That's been the biggest challenge, because the reason I was able to be successful was that I was a do-it-yourself artist. I couldn't get anyone to believe in this vision that I had, I couldn't get anyone to understand or see it. So I had to do it all myself and prove it to people. I'm so used to that, and I love being a part of everything -- but you can't. You can't control everything. Especially in this last year, as things have gotten bigger and crazier, I've really had to learn to trust people and learn to delegate. I can be a part of it, I can give ideas, I can give suggestions, and then I have to let them do it. It becomes kind of a back-and-forth thing: they do the work and then I give feedback. It's been hard to let go, but it's definitely necessary.

Laurie: You must have to have tremendous communication skills, you're not just telling someone what to do but you're also kind of telling them your entire vision for something. That's not always easy to put in words!

Lindsey: No, it's not!

Laurie: How is it different, the process of conceiving a video or conceiving a stage show?

Lindsey: I try to compartmentalize them into two very different things, although sometimes it's fun to try to bring a song to life on stage because people connected with the video. For example, for Crystallize, I played the ice castle video behind me onstage -- without me in it -- it's just the ice castle background. As soon as it comes on, people immediately connect with it, and they're taken back to a memory of when they first saw that video. That was such a huge moment for me and for a lot of my fans. I even made it snow in my first tour, during that song. I wanted to bring it to life for people and make it magical.

Lindsey snow

Other times, I try to divide the two; I want it to be a very different experience when they're listening to a song live than when they saw the video. But there are certain concepts I love to keep. A lot of times I think of the idea for the music video and the live performance in terms of, what do I want this song to represent? For example, I very first started writing a song in the studio and immediately I knew that it felt like pirates to me. So I called it Master of Tides. Right from the get-go, before anything was barely created on the song, I knew that I was going to make a video where I was a pirate captain, and I knew that on stage, I would have my dancers dress up as pirates, and that's the whole theme of the song. They have bows, -- I got really cheap violin bows -- and they're using them as swords on stage.

In the video you have a different kind of creativity; you can do things you could never do on stage. They're the same concepts a lot of times, but just done in a different way. Sometimes it's more theatrical on stage and more fantastical in the video.

Laurie: About how many shows have you done?

Lindsey: Probably about 200 shows in the last two years.

Laurie: It's got to be physically exhausting. How long is the show and how do you keep yourself from collapsing in the middle of it?

Lindsey: It's an extremely physical show. We've got dancers now. At first I thought it would make it easier for me, but it actually makes it harder because I have to keep up with these dancers and choreography as well. But it makes the show so much more engaging, to have all these elements of movement going on. I write music, hoping that it will inspire movement. The show is about an hour and a half long, and there's a small section in the middle where I get to sit down. I have two songs where I sit on a chair and they bring out a piano. It's part of the set that I really need, to catch my breath halfway through and then continue on. But yes, I have to be in pretty good shape. This last tour, I've never been in such great shape in my life as I was at the end of it! We do the show every night, and that's a huge work out. Then we do crunches after the show and I work out on my days off, so it's pretty intense.

Laurie: What do you think that classical musicians most mis-understand about what you're doing?

Lindsey: I definitely take a lot of influence from my classical background and throw it into my electronic style. I try to make it a big fusion of everything that I love, be it classical, be it electronic, be it rock, be it Celtic music. Sometimes my fans will say, "Lindsey's the best violinist in the world!" and I think, heavens no. There are so many violinists who can play far better than me, and I don't ever pretend to be the best violinist in the world and I definitely don't think I am. But I think that it's important for people to realize that I do what I love. I've found a way to make the violin something that kids can relate to, kids who maybe wouldn't normally be drawn to a classical violin. It doesn't mean that it's better or worse, but it's just different. I've never felt like things should be categorized. Just because you're a violinist doesn't mean that you have to play classical music; just because you're maybe shaped differently doesn't mean you can't be a dancer. I want to live my life in a way that boxes don't exist and boundaries don't have to be there. So I hope that people can see that through my music; it's about being fresh, being innovative, and making it fun again. Because I lost my love of it for a little bit, and I wanted it back. I wanted to love it again.

Laurie: What made you lose your love for it?

Lindsey: I'm not sure. I think I just got kind of burned out. I'd been playing classical violin for years, since I was six years old, and in my late teens I just realized I didn't love it, I didn't enjoy it, I didn't want to major in music. I kind of had no desire to do it, and it was almost like a fight with myself: I couldn't give up, I couldn't quit, but could feel it slipping away because I didn't care any more.

I realized, I need to start playing the kind of music that I want to listen to. When I turn on the radio, what am I searching for? When I buy music, what am I looking for? And so I started to get creative with it, and it just made my passion come more alive than it ever was.

Laurie: Do you have arrangements that kids can get at this point?

Lindsey: Yes, I have two books that are cover songs, and then Phantom of the Opera medley, and they all have piano accompaniments to them, and then I also have a CDs that come with them, of a backtrack to play along with. And then for my original music, they come as individual sheet music pieces. Most of my original songs have a backtrack mp3 and the sheet music and piano accompaniment. (Here is a link to Lindsey Stirling's violin sheet music.)

Laurie: I understand that you use both an acoustic and an electric violin, a Yamaha Silent Violin Pro. What can you do with an electric violin that you can't do with an acoustic? What kind of things has it helped you explore?

Lindsey: They have a very different sound. Sometimes I love the classic, beautiful warmth of a wood violin -- that's something you just cannot recreate. With an electric violin, it's an extremely clean sound, so when you do want to put effects on it, it's easier to manipulate and get to exactly the sound that you want. I like different violins for certain songs. I'm so into costuming as well, and it's fun to be able to use my violin as an accessory to my costumes and looks. For example, we had a song where I wanted it to glow in the dark, because my costume and the choreography lends itself really well to glowing in the dark. There's another one where I pull this sparkly violin out of a treasure chest, because it's the pirate number, and it allows the violin to be not just an instrument, but also a piece of the story and the world that we've created through this show. So I've searched and searched for a violin that I could decorate, and you can decorate electric violins, you can do whatever you want with them. I love the Yamaha violin the most, and I think they've put a lot of time into improving it over the years. The (Yamaha) electric that I use now is far superior to my first electric violin, which was a Yamaha back in about 2000. It's amazing, how much they've improved it, and it just keeps getting better. It definitely has the most clean and warm sound, and the least bow noise of any of the electric violins.

Laurie: In what ways did it get better over the last 14 years?

Lindsey: It used to be really hard to do dynamics on it -- a lot of electric violins are like that, they can catch the bow to the string and it just makes a loud sound, amplified. But this is very sensitive to the dynamics that you put into it and the pressure of the bow. Also, it has very little bow noise, which is very hard to get. It used to also just be a very flat sound and now it's got some warmth to it, which is very important for me.

Laurie: When you use an acoustic, what kind of acoustic violin do you have?

Lindsey: I have a Roth violin, it's about 80 years old. I love it, it's a German-made, Roth violin.

Laurie: Do you still use it in your show, or do you use just the electric?

Lindsey: I definitely use it, especially for the middle of the set, where we do an acoustic part. I have to use that wood violin, it's just not the same with anything else.

Laurie: Do you have any advise for teenagers who are deciding whether they'd like to stick with the violin or not?

Lindsey: It's so important to do the exercises, do the scales. The classical music is so great and essential to getting your chops up. But at the same time, I think it's important for kids to reward themselves, to make it fun. For me, it was playing fiddle music. I loved listening to Mark O'Connor; that was almost like my dessert after a meal. I learned and practiced my scales, then okay, now I can learn my fiddle tunes. So whether they want to try playing along with a Katy Perry song or they want to learn a Lindsey Stirling song, I say there's a balance. You have to work hard at the scales and the skills and the classical, but also keep it fun. Join a band, find a way to make it fun, otherwise it is easy to burn out, and that's why people quit.

Laurie: Do you still do some of those exercises now?

Lindsey: I do, I actually just started taking lessons again for the first time in 10 years, and I think it was a wonderful decision. I'm like a rusty car that needs a lot of maintenance! I feel like I'm starting all over again, but I'm working on going back to the basics again. Tuning up!

Laurie: No one is ever to old for that, or ever too accomplished for that.

Lindsey: It's true.

* * *

Lindsey Stirling's cover of the pop song by Imagine Dragons, "Radioactive," with the acapella group, Pentatonix:

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Previous entries: September 2014


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