WATCH NOW: 2016 Montreal International Violin Competition

January 2007

A new feature on

January 20, 2007 01:00

Every day I look at the new people who register on, and I marvel at the fact that they come from every corner of the globe.

I wanted everyone to be able to see this, so Robert used his mad computer skills to create a place along the righthand side of the Musicians page where everyone can see our newest members. About a dozen people sign up every day; this represents only those who have registered as professionals, opted into the Musicians Directory and logged in with their password.

Welcome, new members!

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Pianist Christopher O'Riley Playing in LA Area

January 18, 2007 14:03

The great thing about shameless promotion is, there's no shame in it!


Come see the New West Symphony!

Pianist Christopher O'Riley will play the Brahms Concerto No. 1 in d minor, Op. 15 with the New West Symphony, which will also play The Moldau by Smetana and Borodin's Symphony No. 2.

Performances are tonight in Brentwood, Friday in Oxnard and Saturday in Thousand Oaks. Here's ticket info.

Yours truly is enjoying the chance to play one of the few second violin parts that consistently appears as an excerpt in major orchestral auditions: mm 238-275 in the concerto's third movement.

Not to talk shop, here!

My friend Melissa tells me that O'Riley, who is well-known in the classical world, has been doing quite a bit of crossover work. As his MySpace page says, he's been riffing on Radiohead, Nick Drake, Elliott Smith, Cocteau Twins, Tori Amos, Tears For Fears, REM, etc. So I'm hoping the audience demands a few encores!

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Why an energetic performance isn't energizing the audience...

January 17, 2007 23:36

I wanted to elaborate on that problem, and what teaching pedagogue Helen Brunner had to say about it last week at a series of master classes she gave in Pasadena.

If a performer directs energy outside of himself or herself, the result can manifest with stamping, walking around, swaying wildly, dipping.... Though the acrobatics may be visually interesting, the energy does not come out in the music. Instead, the energy goes into the physical movements of the performer.

Not that performers should stand stock-still; movement is fine, as long as the energy is not misdirected.

Helen Brunner described how to harness that energy by describing something very similar to a tree pose in yoga: from the belly button down is "root energy." The energy goes down and stabilizes your foundation. From the belly button up is "up energy," this is our energy for thinking, doing, and raising us upward.

She said the energy should be centered in a place about an inch below the belly button. She had everyone stand up, root their energy downward, stand up straight, and find the place just below their belly button.

"That's your dynamo!" she said. "You need to keep your energy inside; keep it in your tummy."

That is the place where rhythmic drive comes from, she said. In fact, she has quoted Suzuki, saying that rhythmic problems give you a bad feeling in the stomach, and pitch problems give you bad feeling in the head.

If you are sending energy all over the place, it's very possible you are not rooted, not standing upward, and that the center of your energy is much higher.

And here is a little something about teaching energy, since Helen is a trainer of teachers and spent a good deal of time as a teacher trainee with Shinichi Suzuki.

"Suzuki felt strongly that everyone should do every piece in repertoire (his Suzuki books), but he was open to other things," she said. "He was passionately interested that each person take his principle and make it his own."

What I take from Suzuki's ideas and from Helen's example is this:

There is no one, true method.

If you go looking for it, you will not find it. What you will find, if you look, is your own method. You will find it only when you put your energy into it, and only when you put everything you ever learned into your teaching.

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The way Helen Brunner sees it

January 14, 2007 01:00

I just never can get enough of watching Suzuki pedagogue Helen Brunner teach.

Brunner, of London, came to Pasadena to give master classes and a teacher workshop for our Suzuki Group here, Suzuki Talent Education of Pasadena (STEP).

Helen is the master of crystallizing the elusive teaching point: why someone's energetic performance isn't energizing the audience; how someone can be playing in tune, but not compellingly in tune. She also manages to turn it into a positive experience that has even the most nervous student smiling widely by the end of their chat.

For a girl who got derailed playing the Bach a minor concerto, she said, "One of the most difficult things about this piece is the memory. I call this an NTS piece: "Nearly The Same." Because so many passages come many times in different guises, "you have to put the memory of this piece not just through the EAR system, but also the BRAIN system."

She also advised her to play assertively, to be the soloist and lead the pianist. Helen demonstrated non-assertive playing, with soggy, slow notes. Then she walked over to the piano and leaned against it, dramatically. "No floating on the energy of the pianist!"

After teaching probably thousands of children, she also can thin slice issues swiftly. From one student's quick ear when tuning, Helen forecast that the student's performance of a movement from Haydn Concerto 2 would have the same qualities. Indeed, it was very much on top of the beat and lucid, with a stellar cadenza. In the end, Helen said, "I wondered if you would do the cadenza, but you gave me the feeling you would. It's important to give your audience that kind of feeling."

For another girl, she pegged the student's left thumb clench as a remnant of childhood playing: trying to keep the violin from falling by holding it with the hand. For her she recommended a 50/50 deal between the head and the hand for holding the violin up. The mild torture in the left hand was causing intonation problems. Instead of faulting her for any intonation problems, Helen noted "This girl has brilliant intonation in her head; she just needs to get her left hand working for her."


One of our tiniest students played La Folia for Helen, who managed to translate the concept of expressive intonation into the language of a six-year-old. She noted that the notes D and E were magical, that they rang in a special way. One must not cover the open strings with fingers; one must let them ring. "If I squash my finger over it, I can't hear the open string!" The little girl nodded in agreement. From the way she played, she very clearly understood.

She took it even further; Helen went on to explain that C# was an expressive note – "I love to hear it really high." Producing the note involves putting the second finger very very close to the third. So very tall Helen demonstrated by standing next to the very small girl, very close, "excuse me, I'm a very expressive note," and she leaned a bit her way. The girl smiled big. She got it!

Another boy played with a great deal of movement. Instead of reprimanding him for moving too much, Helen congratulated him for his great energy, and his generous spirit for sharing it with the audience. Then she told him something Shinichi Suzuki had said to her: "He liked the way I moved my feet, but he wished I wouldn't move my shoes..." She advised him to keep his energy inside, in the stomach, right beneath the belly button. "It's a question of directing energy," she said, "Keep all the movement you have, but control it."

While practicing double stops with a boy who was playing the Sarabande by Bohm, she observed that "technique has nothing to do with being musical. Technique has nothing to do with being intelligent." Instead, it is well-developed physical movement. She was helping him find the proper "platform" or plain where the bow touches two strings, as it is different than the platform for either string alone.

At another point during the master class, she had two students dancing a gigue while another student played the Gigue from the Bach d minor Partita.

She advised another girl not to look sideways at her violin when she performs, but to look at it straight on in order to give it full focus and energy.

"Would you marry the man who looks at you sideways when he says he loves you?" she asked everyone. Then she walked around, looking at various people sideways, "I love you!" she said,her pupils in the extreme corners of her eyes. "You just don't trust it, do you?"

But we all know: when she has something to say, Helen looks us straight in the eyes!

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Programming Pag++

January 9, 2007 01:06

Paganini reminds me of a Christmas light display I saw during my holiday break in Celebration, Florida.

My father-in-law loaded the kids, my husband and me into the van then pulled in front of three houses in his neighborhood. He fiddled with the radio dial and explained, "They've got special music going on their own radio frequency, and they've synchronized the lights with the music."

Indeed, the lights along the sidewalk, porch rails, fences and roofs were dancing in perfect time with the music on the radio. Sometimes the lights blinked in unison, sometimes they rolled from one end to the next, sometimes they twinkled or alternated or even changed intensity. And, seemingly, the same lights could blink white, but then in the next minute all red, or all blue, or all green or yellow, or in any combination.

"One guy programmed all those lights," my father-in-law said with reverence. "The first year he did just his own house; now he does the neighbors next to him, too.

"He spends all year doing it. It takes him hours to program just a minute of the show."

I know the feeling.

I've been preparing Paganini Caprice 4; yes, as I near my 30th year of playing the violin, I'm finally getting around the the Capricci. It's doable, but every three-second trick takes hours to perfect. And it's all tricks.

I was trying to learn the entire Caprice to play for my favorite coach, but after trying very hard, I realized that I'd have to reduce my goals to bring anything remotely near to mastery in two weeks (particularly two weeks during the holidays!). The goal of mastering a smaller part actually was much more satisfying than schlepping through the entire thing. I went for it. Set my metronome, did my repetitions. Ten thousand times, says Shinichi Suzuki. Almost there....

"You aren't doing anything wrong technically," he said, after listening to it on Saturday. "You just need to play a LOT of this kind of hard stuff, until it gets easy."

Actually, that was his original wisdom: "If something seems difficult, do something even more difficult. Then the first one won't seem nearly as hard!"

It's true. The chords in a Bach fugue aren't nearly as hard after Pag. 4. Teaching one six-year-old is nothing after teaching 52 of them. Running a mile is nothing after running three, or six.

One day I'll have all my lights blinking in time to the music. Till then, it's a few seconds at a time... just perfect... a few more....

6 replies | Archive link

Happy New Year, from Pasadena and the Rose Parade!

January 1, 2007 15:18

Happy New Year to members and readers all around the globe!

Since the world headquarters (aka my desk) are located in Pasadena, California, I'd be remiss if I didn't give you a little first-hand account of the annual Rose Parade, a longstanding New Year's morning tradition here in the United States. The Parade had bands, floats and other marchers from all over the world, including Veracruz, Mexico; New South Wales, Australia; Taiwan; Oklahoma; Kingwood, Texas; Pulaski, Wisconsin; Butler, Pennsylvania; Kingsport, Tennessee; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Fayetteville, Georgia; Ann Arbor, Michigan; Waukesha, Wisconsin; Glendale, Arizona; and Honolulu, Hawaii.

It happens to occur just three blocks from our house, so we simply walk up to the street and join some friends, who have annually taken measures to reserve a very specific patch of pavement for some 25 years. As soon as we saw the parade starting on T.V. and heard the stealth bomber flying over our house, we knew it was time to head out. The parade actually takes about two hours to arrive at our spot near the end of the route, which is a staggering five and a half miles.

I say staggering because that is what many people are doing by the time they reach us. Note the tired expressions of these band members:


They actually played us something, but some bands can barely play any more after so much marching, and no doubt they are boiling hot in those uniforms, and rather thirsty. Observe the man running water to marchers in the Michigan band!


Even some of the floats are tired; those bird houses for the City of Los Angeles float used to be all standing up, but they had to put them down to go under the highway, and they never put them back up afterwards.


But some still look awesome, like this float for American Honda, which had two dragons with moving heads, hissing at one another.


And some of the marchers are still in good form, like these dancers with the Marching Band of the General Secondaria Escuela No. 5 from Xalpa, Veracruz, Mexico.


My favorite band, though, was the Oklahoma All-Star Centennial Band, which stopped in front of us, then broke ranks and ran to the side, shaking our hands, smiling and saying, “Happy New Year!” We offered them our box of donuts, and several members gladly took a few, downing them hungrily in the several seconds before they marched on.

Happy New Year!


(Read Robert's account on his website, too!)

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