DENVER - One of my former teachers, Jim Maurer, is retiring as violin professor and chairman of the string department of the University of Denver (DU) after 35 years at the school. So I flew to Denver yesterday to spend some time with Jim and his wife, Jackie.
DU's Lamont School of Music has changed, beyond recognition, since the days when I took violin and Suzuki pedagogy lessons from Jim. Its new home is a $77 million, state-of-the-art facility that any music school would envy. Lamont's new digs include a 1,000-seat auditorium, a 240-seat recital hall, an 80-seat recital salon, a recording studio, 85 new pianos, classrooms with high-speed Internet, teaching studios that have different acoustical settings so you can sound like you are in a recital hall, cathedral or other setting, "virtual" practice rooms that have the same acoustical controls and 30 regular practice rooms.
It was designed in part by acoustical specialists Kirkegaard Associates as a series of freestanding buildings separated by two-inch acoustical joints to minimize sound interference between rooms.
One feels a kind of reverence simply from the size of everything: the high ceiling of the atrium next to Gates Auditorium, the huge orchestra rehearsal room, the view of the Rocky Mountains from the "rose window" in the student lounge. It gives a dignity to the school of music that it did not have before.
This morning I practiced in one of the top-floor practice rooms. In it was a new upright Boston piano and bench, a window for light, a chair, a wooden ledge for belongings, a large rectangular mirror, a nice music stand, electrical outlets, lights and a trash can with a new liner. I had the sense that this building would not let me down; it was giving me everything I needed and then some.
During the afternoon, students and faculty heard from a candidate for the violin professorship that Jim Maurer will be leaving. Linda Wang, currently of the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif., played a short program which included the Brahms Sonatensatz, the fugue from the Bach C major Sonata and the Sarasate Carmen Variations. She played with ease and poise, showing depth with the Bach and nailing all the insane technique in the Carmen variations. She seemed happy to be playing, and when she gave a masterclass directly afterwards, she seemed happy to be teaching. She listened to a student's rather ponderous Bach Chaconne, and told her in a sympathetic and smiling manner that "You're kind of looking at every tree in the forest," then she proceeded to help her find a new vantage.
But this was not the only fine violinist I heard at DU today; in the evening, Jim and Jackie took me to see Vadim Repin in recital with pianist Nikolai Lugansky in the 1,000-seat Gates Auditorium.
Again, I was impressed by the hall itself, a grand place with burgundy seats and wooden balconies, with wooden panels placed for maximum acoustic efficiency. Even the paint on the walls of this hall was applied with acoustics in mind, a brownish, metallic, non-porous paint designed to bounce sound rather than absorb it.
I'd never heard Vadim Repin, the Siberian-born advocate of new music. He had a bold presence, taking the stage to play. He began the program with the Bartok Rhapsodie for Violin and Piano, then played the Schubert Fantasia, the first note of which was quite arresting. There was such a stillness to it, a true contrast to the trickling notes of the piano part, with all its trills and motion. When the tempo speeded up for the second movement, everything was so satisfyingly in sync, with the violin and piano definitely in dialogue.
After the intermission, Repin announced that his part for the scheduled "Fratres" by Arvo Part was lost (somewhere in the Baltic Sea, he joked) and so we must settle for the Bartok Rumanian Folk Dances, which everyone seemed happy to do. One hears this piece played so often as a student piece; Repin confirmed that it is a piece of art. He played it with elegance and nuance. The dreaded movement of all harmonics came off like the ghost it surely was intended to be, completely transparent and without a trace of that base note peeking through. The last movement was very bouncy, a great wild ride.
The Franck Sonata followed. Repin played the piece from memory, and pianist Lugansky played with wonderful energy. This piece requires so much ebb and flow, and they achieved it. I noticed, in the last movement, that Repin can make an awful lot of use out of very little bow, yet he also has great ease in using full bows.
In the last movement Repin and Lugansky together nailed every tiny complexity of rhythm, to wonderful effect. The rhythmic drive and precision made it so satisfying to hear. The audience rose to its feet immediately after the Franck, and Jackie leaned over to let me know, "They never give a standing ovation! This is rare!"
I'll have more to write about Jim and his career soon. But for tonight, here's one tip: Put the University of Denver on your map, everyone!
My kids sat side-by-side, peering into a fountain lined in deep blue tile at the entrance to the Huntington Library and Gardens, a sunny place on a March day in southern California.
“I'm going to throw in my shiny penny,” said five-year-old Brian, producing the 2006 penny he had found back in the rose garden.
“I want one too!” said 8-year-old Natalie.
“Okay, okay, we can all make a wish,” I said, producing a penny for each of us.
I took my penny, made my wish, and threw it in.
The kids held theirs in their fists. They were looking at the other coins that had been tossed into the fountain, trying to read the dates.
“Look another shiny one,” observed Brian.
“You know it's a total waste to throw your money in a fountain,” Natalie advised. “I mean, what happens to it?”
“I think they give it to charity,” I said. “It's only a penny. I think a wish is worth a penny.”
“I'm keeping mine,” Natalie said.
“Yeah, I'm keeping mine,” echoed her brother.
“Oh come on!” I said. “If the penny helps you come up with a wish, it's worth it!”
But they wouldn't budge. They saved their little pennies. I guess their mother is too old for waiting on wishes, or saving pennies!
I've finally gotten everything under the metronome for this April's LA Philharmonic audition. It's been two years since the last one, and I figured it's time to go meet up with 200 of my favorite colleagues as we all vie for two available chairs, one in the first violins and one in the seconds.
It's a monster list, and yet not so bad. A good number of the excerpts are quite standard, with just enough obscure, somewhat mentally taxing ones thrown in to scare away the casual auditioner. They're asking for a Mozart concerto first movement, a romantic or modern concerto (they list options) first movement, and then 19 excerpts from 12 pieces. It takes about three hours to play it through.
I'm playing on a nice fiddle, and it all sounds fine. I'm ready. I figure they will like it or not, come what may. I'll just do my best. Whatever the result, I'll be in mighty good shape when it's over, with all this practicing!
I think that the younger you give children a basis for understanding classical music, the better. It's like reserving a little space in their brains, someplace where they carefully will store anything they discover in the future about the topic.
This is one reason why I'm thrilled that the first-grade teacher at my kids' school asks me every year to help her teach a unit on classical music, even though neither of my kids currently is in her class. If it helps these kids lay a foundation for appreciating classical music, I'm a very happy musician.
Today she wanted me to talk about Baroque music, as she had taught them about Vivaldi, Handel and Bach.
I brought in the Gagliano violin I've been borrowing and informed them that it was actually a rather enchanted violin, that I don't even know what has been played on it because it's 150 years old, older than my grandmother, and great grandmother and great-great grandmother.
I played a bit of "Spring" by Vivaldi, since they had been informed that The Four Seasons was one of his most famous works. I also played a little of the last movement of the a minor concerto, many will know it as the fifth piece in Suzuki Book 5.
Then I decided to give a shot at teaching them the concept of Baroque ornamentation.
"Let's all say 'ornamentation,'" I instructed. After they said it, I asked, "So what is an ornament?"
A boy raised his hand, "It's a decoration on a Christmas tree!"
"Exactly," I agreed. "And just like you can make a plain Christmas tree fancy with ornaments, you can also make music fancy with musical ornaments."
"This," I said, "Is the plain green Christmas tree with no ornaments on it."
I played the beginning of the Vivaldi A minor last movement.
"And this is what it's like with ornaments on it,"
So I skipped to m.30, the fancy version of the beginning, and just played a few measures.
I think they understood! I did it again. "See, so here's the plain tree again. And...here's the one with ornaments."
Seeing my opening, I thought I'd take a shot at "bariolage," and I played the first page of the Bach E major Partita, with all its fancy string crossings. "Now everyone say the word, 'fugue,'" I continued, explaining that it's pretty amazing to be able to have three different voices sing three different things at the same time on the violin, but Bach was an amazing guy. I played a bit of the fugue from the C minor Sonata. Mrs. Walker had already taught them the word "melody," so I just separated out the voices to show them all that was going on at once.
What good kids these were!
They wanted to take a look at all those black dots on the page, and fortunately I had my Bach with the original manuscript copy in the back.
"So this is actually Bach's writing," I explained. "Do you know why he wrote so much all on one page?"
I think every single one of those 20 kids took a stab at that one, and I was inwardly amused that no one got it right. Scarcity is not that common a concept to these kids, sweet as they are.
"They just didn't have very much paper back then. They had to really use what they had!" I explained. Then I read what it says on the inside of my book:
"After Bach's death, much of his glorious music was neglected, even forgotten. The manuscript of the six sonatas and partitas for solo violin, in fact, was discovered in 1814 in St. Petersburg among a stack of old paper destined to be used as wrappings in a butter shop."
"That means," I explained, "That they were going to take it and use it to wrap butter in."
I guess our most beloved music, even the most powerful work of a genius mind, has always held to the real world with a tenuous grasp.
May these children grow up and not relegate it to butter wrap!
My five-year-old son, Brian, just informed me that a group of leprauchans apparently invaded his classroom during the night, overturning tables and chairs and leaving only their small green footprints and a trail of green glitter. They had to clean up after the little pixies and write them a note.
This confirmed something I've been suspecting all year long: Brian has one of the world's best kindergarten teachers: Mrs. Bacher.
Mrs. Bacher's classroom sits literally in the shadow of the school's best-known and most-requested kindergarten teacher, Mrs. O. Mrs. O has been teaching kindergarten for about 20 years and is known far and wide for her experience and competence. The school office is overwhelmed every year with more requests than they can honor, that children be placed in Mrs. O's room. In fact, we made that request ourselves!
On the other hand, Mrs. Bacher has been teaching for only four years. She speaks openly of the lessons she learned during her first year of teaching, which was also the first year of our school's existence. She is so modest and calm, and she makes it look so easy, that one can forget the challenge in coralling 20 five-year-olds for all-day kindergarten.
The other day I was in the class, helping staple rainbow clouds to hang from the ceiling. The kids were sitting quietly, and she was calling on them to randomly identify numbers on the board. When someone got it right, Mrs. Bacher said, “Silent applause..” and the kids waved their little hands in the air, in support of each small colleague.
The room can be full of noise and six different activities, but when she dings a bell, they all stop what they are doing, put their hands on their heads and stand in silence. She then instructs them in a whisper.
One day a new boy who spoke no English could not stop crying. While managing the rest of her class, she did her best to calm him down. She wrote his name on the board, said it, pointed to it and put a star next to it. “See, we are happy with Yeshan!” He still wasn't too sure, so she didn't let go of his hand.
At the end of each day she puts in the same tape of songs, and by now they are so used to them that they sing, in both English and French, as they clean up the classroom and stack the chairs:
“Four hugs a day, that's the minimum, four hugs a day, not the maximum...”
Teaching is such an art. And it takes a while for a new teacher to receive recognition for a job well-done.
One of the most important possessions to a violinist is...well, his or her violin!
Today Robert and I were putting our heads together about how to improve our Luthier Directory, and we thought we'd enlist all of you to help.
Luthiers are the people who make our violins and keep them in good repair. The directory has both violin makers and dealers. We put our Luthier Directory online at Violinist.com in September 2004, and at this point we have 208 luthiers from 24 countries listed. I've been receiving good feedback from luthiers, that the directory is really helping people connect with them.
Our plan is to redesign the Luthier Directory in the next month, but we'd like your help as we decide what features to include and improve.
For those of you who are searching or have searched for a violin and are using the Internet to help: what is the kind of information you are looking for? How could the listings best help you in your search?
And for luthiers, our first priority in the redesign is to enable each luthier to edit the entry for his or her own shop, and also to provide a way for people to e-mail you directly through the site. We will let everyone know how to “claim” their entry when the redesign is complete. Currently, the only way to edit your entry is to e-mail me, which you can do by clicking on my name
In addition to having the information listed that appears now, we'd also like to add some premium features for luthiers who would like to include more information in their listing. Our question to you is, what kind of extra features would you want? You can either leave your comment or e-mail me with suggestions.
So close, and yet, so far.
Yes, this evening during the Academy Awards, I was right there in Hollywood!
...Six blocks away from the action, playing a rehearsal in the cold and acoustically challenged rehearsal room at the Musicians' Union. Our personnel director couldn't make it; he actually was playing at the Oscars.
“I actually just came from the Oscars,” joked a colleague. “I won Best Stand Partner.”
I replied that I, too, had just returned from the ceremony, as I was a presenter this year, having won Best Stand Partner several years back. See, this is how I looked. I, of course, had to present first, because it was very important to me to make it to my New West Symphony rehearsal.
I mean, Hollywood glamour is okay, but I love this group and we were playing really cool music. We rehearsed the Hindemith Symphonic Metamorphosis. Hindemith. See. Now you really are jealous!
A great many of my students thrilled me today with their strong efforts at practicing. One student has practiced 60 consecutive days, and many others have long streaks going, too. So I wanted to share the secret once again, which I discovered when confronting my own practicing woes with my 5-year-old son:
The 21-Day Program.
Here is what to tell parents, to tell students, maybe to tell yourself: It takes 21 days to form a habit. You must practice 21 days in a row; if you skip a day, you must start again from one. For the first 21 days, it is possible that you will meet with resistance. Just work through that, and keep doing it anyway. It helps to find a time during the day that works, and try to keep consistent with that time. But even if the time varies, don't fail to do it every day for those 21 days.
After the 21 days, you have formed your practice habit. Your child (or you) will expect to practice, will want to practice. Your child, or you, will be...
Addicted to practicing violin.
The resistance will be very low, and in fact you'll all feel more upset about not practicing than about practicing.
Once you create the practice habit, then feed the addiction. It just builds on itself. Practicing causes you to get really good at playing the violin. Then, all you want to do is practice.
And practice and practice!
I'd like to update everyone on David Ewart, the LA violinist whose family survived a tragic house fire just before last Christmas.
There is now a website that gives updates on David's progress, and the progress of his family members. The site also has a place where people can donate money to help the family, as everything was lost in the fire.
Violinist Bruce Dukov, a friend of David's, told me that the most useful kind of donation would be one that is given on a monthly basis, to provide some kind of regular income. Any donations are a great help!
The website reports that as of Feb. 27, David "has very limited mobility in his hands because of the contractions that the skin goes through. This is currently affecting his ability in terms of practicing the violin. It is a very big challenge for him, and although he is dabbling at the violin, it may take a few more months of extreme effort than desired. Rehabilitation is a huge challenge. His target date is to play decently by April 30th for the Cowboy Music Festival. If anyone can do it, it's David, that's for sure!"
Here is another special request that David's friends put out to the world on the website, and maybe it's something we can help with:
"David, a professional violinist in LA had several violins, bows and a viola in his home on December 20th all of which were lost as a result of the tragic fire. This unfortunate loss included several bows by Sartory, Hill and Nurenberger and a fine Italian violin by Jannarius Gaglianus, made in 1765. Anyone who knows David, knows that the music continues to live in his heart, his soul and his spirit. He can't possibly keep it bottled up inside - his music must be shared with not only the community...but the world. If there is anyone who might have a Jannarius Gaglianus violin in their possession, would they consider letting David use it to share his beautiful music once again? It would be a most amazing blessing if we could help to reunite a masterful violinist with an instrument worthy of his talents."
Luthiers? Private collectors? Violinists?
Also, for people in the LA area, there will be an "Evening with Jay Leno" to benefit the family at 7:30 p.m., March 23, at Hart High School Auditorium, 23825 Newhall Avenue, in Newhall, Calif. Tickets are $50 for general admission and $100 for VIP. Tickets can be purchased through the mail. Send a check plus $1 for postage handling to: Imagination Station, PO Box 220983, Newhall, CA 91321.
Again, we send David and his family all our best wishes.
Hear more from the world's top violinists in The Violinist.com Interviews: Volume 1, which includes our exclusive conversations with Joshua Bell, Sarah Chang, and David Garrett, and others, as well as a foreword by Hilary Hahn.
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Laurie Niles is from Pasadena, California. Biography
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