One of my favorite teachers to watch is Lucy Shaw. No matter that she wasn't teaching the books I was studying at the Colorado Suzuki Institute earlier this month. I just had to see her anyway, having watched her work her magic with students in previous years.
This day she was listening to a student play a lovely Adagio movement from the Sonata in G Minor by Eccles. It was so lovely, I was rather carried off by it, enjoying the accurate intonation, clear tone, nice vibrato, a well-executed diminuendo at the end. Still, it felt a bit murky, somehow out of the lines. I really wasn't thinking why.
Lucy, the owner and director of the Village Violin School in Houston and who is moving this summer to Seattle, smiled at the young lady and praised her performance. "I really liked your intonation, and I'm not saying that to too many people these days," she said. She confessed to being extra sensitive to intonation of late, then declared, "When we play out of tune, it's like adding pollution to the air!"
The young lady could be quite pleased that she did, in fact, keep our wonderful Rocky Mountain air as fresh and fragrant as it started out.
"What's the time signature of this piece?" Lucy inquired with a smile.
Ah, the time signature! This question elicited some on-the-spot research and yielded the interesting answer: 3/2. A rather unusual time signature, especially in student literature. Not only that, but the piece begins with two beats of rest.
"I don't think you felt those two beats..." Lucy said, and her student agreed.
"Have you tried this with a metronome?" she asked. The student had, with the quarter note on 72.
"That's good, it makes you subdivide and be very aware of the beat," Lucy said. But it puts six beats in every measure, and the piece is meant to be felt with three slow beats.
The girl played the piece again, and Lucy conducted on the half note, giving big upbeats.
"Three big beats, that's the first thing I want you to explore with this piece," Lucy said.
At this point she took out the metronome, and my guess was that she'd put it on that big, slow beat, to show the girl how to feel things in three.
She put the metronome on about 72, and simply had her play it about double speed!
"We will start fast with the metronome and slow down," Lucy said.
I'll be darned. In all the years I've played Galamian acceleration scales, I hadn't thought of the idea of a "deceleration" exercise for a slow movement!
The piece was quite brisk-sounding at this pace, and it took the student a bit of an effort to slip into this faster-moving tempo. Then, Lucy slowed the metronome about four notches, and the student played again. Then four more. Lucy conducted along.
"Is it starting to feel like it flows more for you? That is what was missing for me," Lucy said to her.
"You always have to make sure you aren't making your audience feel like..." and Lucy demonstrated, wordlessly loping across the room, hunched over, the personification of "pedantic."
"You know how people can have things implanted, like pacemakers," Lucy mused. "Wouldn't it be nice if we could have metronomes implanted?"
I had to laugh, thinking about writing referrals for students to the Beverly Hills Metronome Implant Surgeon.
The student's assignment was to "eat different tempos and internalize them." I drew a picture of a little guy holding a big fork.
BEAVER CREEK, Colo. -- I'm not sure quite how it happened, but somehow I was swept up in the moment and found myself on stage, with about 75 other believers, pledging my soul to daily practice.
Specifically, I took a vow to practice every day for an entire year.
That's 365 days, in a row. Of practicing, every day.
Helen Brunner made me do it. We were watching the recital hour at the Colorado Suzuki Institute, when about 35 students came to the stage to receive an award.
"These students know how to make a promise, and keep it," said Colorado Suzuki Institute Director Gail Seay. Every one of them had practiced every day, for an entire year.
"Now, if you would like to make this promise, to practice every day for the coming year," Seay said, "I invite you to come to the stage."
When all were standing in a line, Helen asked, "Is that Madison up there?" Madison is a student in Helen's master class qho had played a particularly lovely Mozart Minuet earlier the same day. Indeed it was. Perhaps her practice routine had something to do with her fine playing.
Helen flashed me the look of someone about to take a life-threatening dare.
"I'm going up there!" she said. She hung back for just a moment, then said, "I've got such a good violin, it deserves to be practiced every day."
Before I could blink, she was halfway down the aisle.
Oh geez! I suppose the Italian deserves my daily attention. But...am I the kind of person to go flying up to a stage, to make a vow? Well...
So I did it, I took the pledge along with about 70 other students and teachers. Including Helen, who said her heart was pounding so hard when she walked onto stage, she was sure Gail Seay could hear it.
As I was leaving, in the daze of one who has supposedly found the light, I decided to ask a few of those who had actually lived it, found the true way of practicing.
"I've never missed a day of practice since I was three," said Madison Alan-Lee, 12, of Sherman Oaks, Calif., without a hint of snobbery. She was holding the practice calendar she had received as an award for her accomplishment. "It's just habit now. It's almost hard if I don't do it! Once I almost didn't, when I was sick, but I dragged myself downstairs and played."
Another successful convert was guitar teacher, Andrea Cannon, of Spring, Texas, who had made the vow last year, and kept it up.
"At first I did it because I thought the practice calendar was really cool," Cannon said. "But I love my guitar. It wasn't hard once I made the decision."
Let's hope not!
BEAVER CREEK, Colo. -- Does it hurt when you play?
I returned to the lecture tent at the Colorado Suzuki Institute today to hear Suzuki pedagogue and University of Minnesota professor Mark Bjork address this issue.
Teachers should think well about how they set up their students with the violin and bow. Sometimes this can mean re-thinking traditions or going against the recommendations of former teachers.
"Even though the great teacher so-and-so taught us to do something, maybe we need to do something else," Bjork said. We don't want to set up our students, or ourselves, for future injury.
For example, Suzuki students first learn how to stand, and commonly they are taught to step the left foot forward to achieve the proper playing position. But this position twists the pelvis and back. It might be better to simply put play the feet shoulder-width apart, side by side.
Shoulder tension often afflicts violinists, and it can be avoided by making sure a student is comfortable before attempting to play. Bjork recommended simply straight ahead, turning the head and dropping it. The shoulder and head should not clench the violin.
Excessive finger pressure can lead to forearm tension, and that can lead to carpal tunnel syndrome. Sometimes exercises meant to increase finger strength actually lead to too much finger pressure. When the fingers are pressing too hard, Bjork suggested having students play a harmonic on the notes, then gradually depress the string only to the point where the note sounds. The brain needs to know where that threshold is, so that it can send the proper message to the fingers to press enough, but not too much.
He said that a wrist vibrato tends to be less stiff than an arm vibrato, and that the wrist vibrato should be cultivated first, then supplemented with arm vibrato as needed for dramatic parts of music. Having only an arm vibrato can lead to tension.
An excessively tight bow hold can result from exercises aimed at developing thumb strength. When the bow thumb is gripping too hard, a student can try holding the bow out in front, loosely, then releasing the thumb and letting the bow drop just a few inches. "Find where that point is where it's being held just enough to keep the bow from dropping," Bjork said.
The chin rest and shoulder rest combinations can make a huge difference in a violinist's comfort level. But the same solution does not work for everyone. "There are many different sizes and shapes of people," Bjork said. They have different jaw lines, length of necks, collar bone placement and shoulder shapes.
To have every student buy the same shoulder and chin rests would be like requiring everyone to buy size 9½ shoes. "We are all very, very different," he said.
Injuries tend to happen during changes: when one gets a new instrument, practices extra for a performance or audition, or when one is playing repertoire that is too demanding.
Pain is the body's way of saying something is wrong, and it should not be ignored, Bjork said. "We want to be really careful what we do with our bodies if we are going to use them to play the violin.
BEAVER CREEK, Colo. -- "Why would anybody think Amanda's different than anyone else?" asked Emily, an eight-year-old violin student. "I mean, she's in Book Three!"
Emily's dad was trying to explain to her why Amanda Ransom's family was giving a special lecture Wednesday at the Colorado Suzuki Institute about her journey with the violin. Amanda, 19, has Trisomy 21 (Down Syndrome). And yes, she is in Suzuki Violin Book Three!
The kids at this institute truly see her as another student, like them.
"We found this was an environment where we didn't have to worry about Amanda," said Dave Ransom, Amanda's father. "They treat her like a normal person."
Dave spoke at a lecture tent in Beaver Creek to teachers and parents attending the Colorado Suzuki Institute. He began by reading an essay that compares raising a child with special needs to planning a vacation, and then having the plane land in a different destination, some place unexpected that requires new guidebooks, new maps. A place that has entirely different vistas and attractions, but still a good place.
This was not the positive outlook given them by the physicians who told them the news about Amanda's condition: they were given a bleak prognosis. But as Henry David Thoreau said, "The question is not what you look at, but what you see."
The Ransoms saw possibilities. Amanda's form of Down's means that each cell in her body has an extra chromosome 21. Dave compared it to a computer's hard drive, "extra information makes the body slow down," he said.
While normal children need something like the Suzuki method to help them learn to play the violin, "with Amanda, we had to come up with a method to help her do everything in her life." They could not take for granted the developmental milestones that other children achieve on their own: they had to teach her to turn over in her crib, to sit up, to walk, to speak. They had to pick up each of her hands to teach her to crawl.
The Suzuki Method, which breaks learning into small steps and uses much repetition, fit very well with Amanda's style of learning.
"What works with you guys is exactly what worked with Amanda to teach her the basic milestones," Ransom said. "We knew after the first lesson that Amanda would play the violin."
"People with special needs are just that," he said. "If we put them aside or treat them differently, we are doing them a great disservice."
Ransom showed a 2003 video, in which Amanda plays and sings with her younger sister, Amelia, who plays the violin, and brother, Michael, who plays the cello. The song is "Amazing Grace." They begin with both girls singing a verse to Michael's accompaniment, then all of them play in three-part harmony. At the end, the two girls sing the last line, "was blind, but now, I see."
As the video winds to a finish, Amanda, who has been sitting in the front row and helping her father during the lecture, cues him to stop the tape.
"Good job!" she praises her father happily, when he successfully stops the tape.
Good job indeed!
BEAVER CREEK, Colo. -- I wasn't sure what to expect, studying Mozart concertos as "Suzuki pedagogy."
The last two of the 10 Suzuki violin books are nothing but Mozart violin concerti. Book 9 is Concerto No. 5 in A major, and Book 10 is Concerto No. 4 in D major.
In some ways this is the easiest course I've taken, because it's not new repertoire to me. Much of the rest of the Suzuki repertoire was, having not grown up with the system. The pieces needed not only to be learned, but many needed to be memorized, to the point that one could lead a group of children in playing them.
But Mozart? I first studied Mozart in high school. My most memorable Mozart experiences from that time period were: not getting into youth orchestra as a 7th grader playing Mozart 3 (way too young!), and my parents and sister asking me, after I'd been studying the fifth concerto for something like a year, "When will it actually sound....good?"
I played Mozart again in college, where a whole new layer of detail was revealed to me. Then after college, in the course of doing many auditions, I went to a number of coaches for help with Mozart, only to find even more detail, even more layers. And I've taught it. It's possible to spend an entire lesson on just the Adagio section of Mozart 5.
So in my 10th year of teaching Suzuki violin, my 14th year of teaching, I officially arrive now at the pedagogy course for Mozart concerti. What was this going to be? Would I be told that I must revise my Mozart so as to use the fingerings and bowings put forth in the Suzuki books?
My teacher for the week is Mark Bjork, who is a professor at the University of Minnesota as well as another pioneer in the American Suzuki movement. His mentor was Josef Gingold.
"Mozart was a fine violinist who wrote these concertos for his own use," Bjork said to me and the two other teacher trainees in the seminar. "I think he knew what he was doing."
We spent the next two hours poring over the urtext (unedited edition) of Mozart 5, and also even checking the urtext against a copy of Mozart's original manuscript, which Bjork had procured from the U.S. Library of Congress.
We pondered why certain editions had been edited in certain ways, talked over the differences, discussed performance practice during the classical era, and also the performance practices of the more showy 19th century soloists.
And ultimately, he left us to decide.
For all its reputation as a movement that spits out non-thinking clones, it appears that the goal of this Suzuki pedagogy class will be to show me ways to find the answers on my own, and to encourage me to do so. If one is teaching Mozart, then it's time for that.
In other news, we are pleased to announce our journalism intern for the summer, Caeli Veronica Smith. (You might have read her blog under Alicelizard or Caeli S.) Caeli also has worked as a roving reporter for the syndicated public radio show, From The Top, and as a writer in The Philadelphia Inquirer and Teen Strings Magazine. She will write articles for the front page of Violinist.com, as well as a number of 'Violin Help' articles, starting with a great guide to summer music programs.
Welcome aboard, Caeli!
One of my students is a small, brilliant, but very distractable little genius girl of seven.
By brilliant, she learns everything in an instant, by ear, and rather voraciously. A few weeks into Suzuki Book 2, she pretty much had the whole thing memorized and could play it all, which is to say she could put all the fingers down in the right places at the right time. A considerable feat, but one I'm completely ignoring as we meticulously go through each piece in the book to learn the lesson we need to learn from each one.
By distractable, sometimes these pieces are so far inside her head that she literally drifts off in the middle of playing one. The tone gets soft and whispy, scratchy and small. Her eyes roll to the heavens, and the music trails off. I'm convinced it continues in her head, probably in a perfect version that in no way resembles the noise coming out of her little fiddle.
Now, how can I get a voracious but distractable consumer of music to focus in a few beautiful details? It's like trying to make a hungry food lover to sit down for a sixteen-course meal at Spago, one that requires four different forks for tiny little servings.
"I'm noticing," I told her, "A lot of extraneous noises when you are playing."
She looked at me curiously and furrowed her brow.
"Do you know what extraneous means?" I asked. The puzzled look continued. "It means extra. Weird noises. Like extra notes and scratches. Did you hear them?"
A big smile. Then a strong nod in the affirmative.
"I have an idea. Do you suppose you could play the Twinkle theme with no extraneous noises? I'm going to stop you the minute you play even one extraneous noise, I wonder how many notes you can play before I stop you!"
She looked at her mom and giggled. She was up for the challenge.
Three notes later, "STOP! Did you hear it? Extraneous!" She did. She totally heard it. In fact, she hears absolutely everything.
The next week she brought me the Twinkle theme, and we counted only two extraneous noises, and it was the best I'd ever heard her play.
It's become a new feature in our little list of tasks for each week: review, note reading, new piece, and the "no extraneous noise piece"!
To be or not to be a musician....do you even have a choice?
Perhaps not, if you have that love, that commitment, that...insanity!
Even if destiny leads you to music, you can choose your teacher, and you can choose your college program. But how do you decide?
Recently I chatted with University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) adjunct violin professor Lorenz Gamma, who brings the perspective not only of a violin teacher, but also of a violinist with a wide range of experience as a performer and as a scholar. Gamma, 34, lives in Los Angeles and is originally from Switzerland.
I wanted to know not only what he recommended for undergraduate students, but also how his own training has shaped his career. Here's what he had to say:
Question: What should an undergraduate violin major be seeking from his or her college education?
Answer: I think the teacher of an undergraduate student has a tremendous responsibility, because a student, after his fourth year of undergrad, is considered a professional musician, which he isn't before. To audition for a major orchestra, for example, you need to have a degree of some sort.
As a professional musician, certain things are expected of you. You should have no major problems, such as intonation problems and postural problems. You should have a personal sound rather than being a slave to the instrument. You should be well on your way to coming to terms with who you are as a musician, as an artist and as a violinist. That doesn't mean you're not a work in progress. In fact, probably you are a work in progress until you die. But in those four years of doing an undergrad, you have to get a pretty good idea of those big issues.
Q: What happens ideally during those four years, to bring a student up to that level?
A: The average high school student might come to an undergrad with certain deficiencies in one or the other areas. He might not have ever done any etudes; he might have only practiced the Bruch concerto for three years before coming to school. So the first year or two in an undergrad, I use to fill gaps, often of a general, technical nature. Tricks like spiccato, double stops, and working on vibrato and fluid right and left hands.
But the idea is to have a well-balanced meal in your lessons. You need your protein, you need your vitamins, you need your fat, too. You need everything. And I think you need etudes, you need concertos, you need your Bach, you need a showpiece every once in a while, to become a well-rounded musician. You need chamber music, you need orchestral training.
The reason being, that most musicians will likely end up doing a combination of things for a living. For example, I might now become mainly a teacher, but in the past I've been playing in orchestras, in the section and as a leader, I've started to teach at a fine university, I've been playing chamber music, I've been playing in the studios, I've been playing recitals, I've been playing concertos... so I've done a wide range of things.
If I detect in a student that he will become a soloist, I would concentrate, obviously, on that type of repertoire. If I see that a student comes in with a clear talent for becoming the first violinist in a quartet, having that verve, and that charisma that a first violinist in a quartet needs, and that incredible passion for chamber music, I will concentrate with him on that, too. And if somebody comes in who says, 'I want to become a member of a major orchestra, that's my goal, can you get me there in four years,' we'll work on that. But most people don't have such clear ideas when they start an undergraduate degree.
In those cases where a student's idea of what they want to be one day coincides with their talent to become that, that is when we go for that. Other than that, with 85 percent of everybody else, a well-rounded instruction is the way to go.
Q: How does a violinist plan his or her career path, or figure out what area of music to specialize in?
A: You can't know these things when you are 18. I sure didn't know when I was 18. I didn't know when I was 20, nor when I was 25, nor 30, Now I'm 34 and my life is sort of going in a certain direction. But I've been floating from job to job, too.
Actually it's not a bad thing. It's all part of who I became. I wouldn't want to miss all those experiences. Having played a few Verdi operas, that doesn't only mean that I know how to play Verdi operas. It also means I've been inspired many times by great singers, which will change the way I play the melody in the slow movement of a Beethoven sonata: For example, if you know what bel canto is, it will affect everything else you play.
So you can't really know. Some people will never become a soloist but they sometimes have this unrealistic hope. That's not such a great thing. It's funny how often there is a discrepancy between what people think they will become one day and what really is the case. Sometimes people are also too modest, they think they will be very happy being a section member in Atlanta, and before you know it they are a principal in the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Q: Besides learning the obvious repertoire, what do you like your students to study to improve their overall violin playing?
A: I do believe in the study of etudes. I consider etudes as a sure way to acquire useful violinistic vocabulary. Etudes are designed in ways where they treat one problem at a time. You have an etude for spiccato, for thirds, for Cantilena style, for fast fingers, for trills, it doesn't matter, all these things are violinistic problems, and you take care of them one problem at a time by using well-chosen etudes.
Also, a lot of these etudes were written by people of the Franco-Belgian School. They knew and understood the playing style that was founded by Viotti, the father of modern violin playing. They were his disciples or his students in Paris, and the line goes to Ysaye, Kreisler, Flesch and Galamian! All the virtues in violin playing, they appear somewhere in those etudes. It's like learning a language: You can understand everything in terms of grammar, but if you don't have the words as well, you will never speak it eloquently. And by just chopping away at these etudes, one a week, you can acquire a vocabulary: of motions, of sounds, of phrases and ideas, that you can then apply to your Beethoven sonata.
Another reason I like etudes is because you learn technique away from the pieces, so for example, you don't have to study the Tchaikovsky concerto for two years.
Q: How does one go about choosing a teacher?
A: I think it's very important that the student and teacher audition each other. No teacher is made for every type of student. A trial lesson is a very good thing.
Q: What should a student be looking for in an undergraduate music program?
A: Often an undergrad doesn't know exactly what he or she needs. So what he should find out is, what actually a college degree is about. What does that school offer, or what does that violin teacher offer? Does the teacher do orchestral studies, does the teacher listen to excerpts? Is there chamber music? What is the orchestral situation? What is the situation in terms of master classes? Is there a weekly master class in the studio, where people play for each other?
Q: What about the location of the school?
A: This is something to consider. Big cities have a little bit of a disadvantage of being distracting. If you go study in Bloomington (Indiana), for example, you will practice all day because there is nothing else to do. In LA, that is a little harder. On the other hand, the big advantage of having a big city is we have a phenomenal orchestra here, with great concerts, and also soloists. To have that near is a wonderful thing. I would probably weigh the benefits of studying in a big city higher, in the end, than the disadvantages.
Q: Does the size of the program matter? Some people worry about being "lost" at a big school.
A: It's funny, we're afraid of big places, but big places have lots of people, and you may be more likely to find friends. If you are in a school that has only 50 students, you may not really click with any of those 49. In a school of 2,000 students, I'm sure you will come across some people that you get along with very well. I think UCLA is actually an ideal size. It's not the world's largest school, but it's not tiny, just about right.
Q: Now that you are a college professor yourself, what is it that you are listening for when you audition a potential undergraduate student?
A: I am much more interested in seeing somebody's passion for music and the violin then a cold, technically perfect performance. Because passion lasts longer. You know, we're each a machine, and after a while the oil gets dirty... There's never a guarantee we will play well. But as long as we are inspired, we have a good shot at inspiring an audience, too, and that is what it is ultimately about. If somebody shows that they are serious, and that they feel strongly about something, that's to me worth much more. Of course the musical parameters that we listen for, they have to be on a good level. Somebody who comes and auditions needs to show a general understanding of the music, to have musicality and to have a pretty good technique. But I think that the most important ingredient is that somebody feels strongly about what they do.
Q: Tell me the one best thing you learned from each of your own teachers.
A: I should start with my father, Martin Gamma: Patience -- and enthusiasm. I was five when I started playing the violin...
And from Gunars Larsens, attention to the "correct" mechanics.
Ralph Matson, he was in Salt Lake City, concertmaster of the Utah Symphony. From him I learned how to practice with a metronome, that everything is possible if you just take out your metronome, and take it one notch at a time. A simple but inspiring philosophy!
And then came Franco Gulli, at Indiana University. From him I learned how to be respectful to the music, how not to impose my own personality on everything I play without proper reason. When you would accent a note just for fun, then he would say, 'You know, but this is the end of a phrase, and an accent expresses the beginning...'
After that, I studied with Steven Staryk at the University of Washington. From him I learned how to take an audition; I learned to play excerpts. I won my first audition, and it was great. Now I like to teach excerpts myself, because I kind of know what it's about. There are unwritten rules in auditions, and they are just good to know: wrong accents, slides, tempo fluctuations, that sort of thing.
I probably learned how to put everything together from Mark Kaplan, who at the time was at UCLA, and now is at Indiana University. From him I learned how to be a more complex thinker about music. He's somebody who can really make sense out of a Bartok Sonata, and not just play the notes reasonably well, but actually he knows the architecture and the true inside of a piece. The more complex, the more difficult, the more obscure, the more fun he has finding out what it's about.
From him I learned that, even though sometimes you might think you have found your way to play a phrase, there are 500 other ways to play that phrase. Not only that, but you can reflect that in your playing, that knowledge that you could also play it in 500 other ways. You are just choosing this way in this moment. Tomorrow it might be different. In the end, that's the beauty in all great art: knowing that it is personal and emotional, and that it can be different each time.
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