June 2007

Up the California coast

June 25, 2007 23:46

Greetings from San Francisco! Though I've lived in California since 2000, I had not taken the rite-of-passage trip that actually makes me a "Californian": that is, I'd never driven up the California coast on the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH). So the Niles family is taking a week for some important sight-seeing, rest and relaxation.

Yesterday we headed north from Pasadena (Los Angeles, basically), on the famous PCH. Somehow I expected a sleepy and sun-soaked drive along stretches of sandy beach forever, but I was completely mistaken. The Pacific coast is one long string of jagged cliffs, with only the occasional beach. This makes for stunning views of the ocean, but slightly difficult driving, even for a Coloradan who learned on a stick-shift in the Rocky Mountains. A narrow two lanes of traffic hugging the rocky cliffside, the PCH dips and winds, requiring total concentration to navigate.

I wanted to take pictures of these amazing views, but I have to confess to some mild acrophobia. When my children leapt from the car at a rest stop, ran up to the bare edge of the cliff, jumped up on a rock and said, "Take my picture!" I nearly fainted dead over. "G-g-get back a little, okay?" Even with the picture of me and Robert, you can see I'm leaning to the left, because to the right was a straight drop several hundred feet down a rocky cliff to the ocean.

Today we explored San Francisco. We arrived too late last night to see anything, but today I opened my window (at the Argonaut Hotel) to find a great view: the sunny San Francisco Bay, with the ship, the Balclutha, parked right in front of me.

Starting at Fisherman's Wharf, we took a cable car downtown. I'm pretty amazed by a system, built 134 years ago, that runs on cables, pulling these cars up and down impossibly steep hills.

Who on Earth thought of building this town? The sheer audacity of perching these buildings on these hills boggles my mind, not to mention all the engineering that had to go into every floor of every building.

My son (who turned seven on Saturday!) again went nuts with the camera. Among about 200 other things (pixels are free!), he took the picture of me in Union Square with a San Francisco heart.

Tomorrow's destination is Yosemite National Park, another great California wonder that I've never seen. I'll post pictures!

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A wonderful opportunity

June 22, 2007 15:12

It's a small miracle that Brandon Garbot ever started playing the violin at all, much less was chosen as one of the 10 young artists from around the world who played for masterclasses and recitals at the 2007 Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies at Juilliard.

Dave Garbot, Brandon Garbot, and his teacher, Clarisse Atcherson

Brandon fell in love with the violin as a kindergartner at Nancy Ryles Elementary School in Beaverton, Oregon, when one of his classmates gave a short violin performance for his class.

But his elementary school didn't actually offer instrumental music anymore. Though instrumental music had been part of the elementary curriculum, Oregon voters passed a tax limit in 1993 which took away funding, said music teacher Suzanne Gaye.

"Beaverton saw fit to get rid of the string programs in the elementary schools," Gaye said. "In fact, they got rid of all instrumental music at the elementary level."

Gaye is a long-time instrumental music teacher who still teaches in the public schools – now in the upper grades. Because she understood the importance of string players starting young, though, she made a special effort after that funding dried up. She offered an after-school program to children in first through fifth grade at Brandon's elementary school.

At age seven, Brandon was given a choice for after-school classes: violin or Spanish? He picked violin.

Gaye, who also is a Suzuki teacher, insisted that a parent attend the classes, so Brandon and his father, Dave Garbot, came at 4 p.m. every Monday for Gaye's after-school violin program. Brandon's father is a graphic designer, and his mother is a visual artist.

At the end of the year, Brandon's dad approached Gaye, "His dad said, 'I think we need to sign up for private lessons – all he wants to do is play!'"

Gaye gave him lessons for about a year. "He was ready to roll," she said. "I'd give him two pieces a week, and they'd come back memorized."

At this point, she asked another violin teacher, Clarisse Atcherson, if she could take Brandon.

Atcherson, a popular teacher in the Portland area, had a full studio already. She could teach him only once every two weeks. So for a year, Gaye and Atcherson traded off, each teaching him every other week. This did not seem to faze Brandon, or to slow his rapid progress.

"He worked really hard and impressed me," Atcherson said. She cleared out even more time to teach him, and he went full-time with her.

Around the time Brandon became her full-time student, Atcherson attended her first Starling-DeLay Symposium at Juilliard. She started to think about having some of her own students try out for the program, and in 2005, some students applied but did not get in. For the 2007 Symposium, she encourage Brandon to audition, and he was chosen.

"It was a great experience for him," said Dave Garbot, Brandon's father. "We feel very fortunate he was selected to go."

To get ready for the Symposium, Brandon practiced performing as much as possible. Brandon, who is now 13, played two recitals at Atcherson's house, and he also played in the Oregon Music Teachers Association Competition, winning first place.

And what was it like, playing in New York, at Juilliard, for hundreds of teachers with high expectations?

Well, the first time he played, "I was really tight and nervous," Brandon said. But as the Symposium went on and he played more, "I learned to relax myself before going out on stage."

For Brandon's teacher, in the audience, "it's actually like being the Mom or Dad – I knew Brandon was prepared; I knew Brandon sounded great. I was rooting for him."

At his first masterclass with Stephen Clapp, Brandon showed that he had his own ideas about interpretation, breaking away from some of the conventions we use in Bach's G minor Sonata.

In studying the Bach, Brandon had listened to two contrasting recordings: one by Nathan Milstein and another by the Baroque violinist Rachel Podger, Atcherson said. He also studied the score and came up with his own ideas, he said, such as where to take time, etc. This seems to be his pattern, she said.

"Every week he comes to his lesson with new expressive markings in his music," said Atcherson, who also attended the Symposium in New York. "Brandon has an intuitive artistic craving."

"Everything comes from within," said Dave Garbot. "When it comes to practice, he does it himself."

Atcherson appreciated the opportunities Brandon had as a result of the Symposium.

"He got to play for some big-name, wonderful teachers, he got to play in recital, he got to see New York and to see Juilliard," Atcherson said. "It enabled him to connect with some of these teachers who could be a future teacher. Just to get to play for someone like Paul Kantor, or watch Itzhak Perlman teach is a wonderful opportunity."

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Brian Lewis on expressive and Bravura playing

June 12, 2007 22:45

How does one teach musical expression, especially in character pieces like those of Kreisler and Sarasate?

This was a question that Brian Lewis addressed in his last lecture at the Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies at Juilliard two weeks ago.

It involves a lot more than just telling the student, "now play it again, with feeling!"

"Music is hard," Lewis said. "We can play all the right notes and say NOTHING."

How do we make music say SOMETHING? How do we know what to say?

It starts with understanding our own bias, as violinists.

"We often approach things from the melodic line – why? Because God has given us the melody," Lewis laughed.

And incidentally: it's a good thing God gave us fiddles, because check out how badly we all sing:

Actually Brian sings pretty well...

"What makes us individual artists is what we find in the music," Lewis said. Dorothy DeLay said that a great artist needs just three things: great sound, secure technique, and to find something individual in the music, Lewis said.

Finding that something involves much more than a gut reaction. It involves understanding the entire piece, including the piano or orchestra part. It involves finding the character of a piece, understanding its genre and origin. It involves seeing the architecture of the piece: the sequences, and the way it is written.

Talking about Kreisler's "La Gitana," Lewis said, "It's okay for the piano part to be bigger than the violin. The piano part is an equal partner, even in a character piece."

"For example, which is the more interesting part?" Lewis asked.

"Is it this?" Lewis played a sustained "C" from the violin part -- one note.

"Or this?" Lewis gestured to the pianist, who tossed off the Spanish flourish from the same measure in the piano part.

It was so obvious as to be ridiculous, but in the course of playing (well sight-reading, for many of us) the piece, we'd plowed right by that detail.

"I can't recommend the importance enough of rehearsing with the piano," Lewis said. He said that in preparing for a Bernstein competition that he won, he rehearsed 30 times with piano. "We don't want to be one line playing, we want to know what goes on in that other part."

"Sometimes we play inside the sound of the piano, we let that timbre dominate," Lewis said.

Lewis also talked about "Introduction and Tarantella," by Sarasate. The Tarantella, he explained, is a dance.

"It's based on the concept of being bitten by a tarantula," he said. "It might be a dance of death; or, if you dance hard enough, you sweat it out and live."

Again, it's important to know what goes on in the piano part, harmonically, and to understand the structure of the piece.

"We are teaching ourselves and our students how to see the architecture of the piece," Lewis said. "I frequently have my students Xerox their music and number the patterns." Especially in something like solo Bach: they need to see the sequences.

Another factor to consider is "harmonic rhythm," that is, how often the harmony changes. For example, in "Praeludium and Allegro" by Kriesler, "the power of interpretation is in how we react to the harmony," Lewis said. Sometimes in these kinds of pieces, the harmony is resolved in the piano part, and it's important to be aware of that.

Character pieces also often feature fancy technique, such as sautille, shifting, harmonics, chords and left-hand pizzicato. These show-off techniques aren't quite as prominent in the rest of our violin literature as they are in character pieces.

"If I ask you to name 50 pieces with left-hand pizzicato, can you do it?" Lewis asked. We wagged our heads, no. Then we played a guessing game:

"What do you suppose Sarasate was good at?" Left-hand pizzicato! "What was Wieniawski good at? Up-bow staccato, God help us!"

"These composer/virtuosos wrote to their strengths," Lewis said. He recommended a number of books and exercises to help students with these technical feats: Left Hand Technique by Ruggiero Ricci, for example. To practice harmonics, one can play all of Suzuki Book 1 in artificial harmonics. Also Bartok's Rumanian Folk Dances can get a student playing harmonics.. To practice left-hand pizzicato, pieces like the "Last Rose of Summer" by Ernst and certain Paganini Capricci are helpful.

If our students are not technically prepared, "it's because we as teachers have not prepared them," Lewis said.

Lewis talked about the importance of round bow motions, for chords, legato, and even spiccato.

"If we don't have a round motion, it sounds more like we have an ax than a bow," Lewis said. "Why are wedding rings round? They symbolize eternity – we want to think of eternal sound." Spiccato, he said, is simply legato, off the string. "The circular motion will keep the sound ringing in space."

A circular motion also helps with repeated down bows.

"Our students tighten up when they do repeated down bows," Lewis said. The top of the circle is a lot like the top of a roller coaster: full of potential energy. "We are hanging at the top, but we use our power here." If we don't use a circular motion, we don't get that release, he said.

Though "bravura" pieces are all about individual expression, they should start with a thorough knowledge of both technique and of what the composer wrote on the page.

"I would love for this generation of students to be as respectful of Lalo as they are of Mozart and Beethoven," Lewis said, using urtext and really studying what the composer wrote. This is how students can learn to find their individual voices: not by imitating other players, but by learning to interpret pieces for themselves.

"Anything that is unique in the student – we want to leave that there," Lewis said. "That is something Dorothy DeLay did beautifully."

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Starling-DeLay: Robert Duke on practicing

June 6, 2007 22:43

I loved the name of this lecture by Robert Duke at the Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies: "Practice Makes Better, Practice Makes Worse, Practice Does Nothing At All."

How true. When practicing is working, it feels great, But sometimes we seem to be swimming backwards in the practice room – or maybe even drowning. What are we doing wrong?

"There's a mistaken notion that everything is better if you just PRACTICE MORE," said Duke, who has written a book on intelligent music teaching. "More isn't going to make things better."

It all depends on how you practice. Duke suggested that teachers try using one of a students' lessons simply to observe the way he or she practices.

"You will be flabbergasted at the difference between what you think they are doing in the practice room, what they think they are doing in the practice room, and what they are actually doing in the practice room," Duke said.

"We make the tremendous assumption that students are listening like we (teachers) are listening," Duke said. "Often they are not... they are too busy trying to play the instrument."

"We have to let them in on what we hear," he said.

Unfortunately, the feedback we give them can come with a lot of baggage; for example: that sounded "bad." The more descriptive the feedback can be, the better: "that sounded thin to me, can you make it sound thicker?"

"It starts with finding in the student what you really love about their playing," Duke said. Students are motivated by their successes.

"Pieces don't get better all at once. Instead, maybe this little section gets lovely," he said. Once you can show them how lovely one little section can be, they start getting dissatisfied with the parts that are not as good.

What makes learning compelling is being able to see where you can go, and having evidence that you'll be able to get there, he said. If the disparity between where you are and where you are trying to get to is too great, this results in discouragement.

A typical goal in the practice room is: I'm going to learn this piece. Duke called this an "idiosyncratic skill," the learning of one particular piece. A better goal would be the development of "generizable skills," such as physical skills, reading skills, intellectual skills.

This, by the way, reminded me of my little tango with the piano. As a teenager, I was already fairly accomplished on the violin when I went to a well-known piano teacher in my town. He made the assumption that, with my foundation on violin, I didn't need to learn the fundamentals of piano. So he taught me how to play a Chopin Nocturne, a rather complicated one. It resulted in this: I can barely play anything on the piano. But to this day, I can play that one Chopin Nocturne!

Duke said that the "generizable skills" should be at the core of every lesson.

"Teachers who have to submit their lesson plans every week could just make a rubber stamp that says: Lesson plan: beautiful tone, playing in tune, moving efficiently," he said. The lesson plan is the same thing, every day.

How does a person learn, though, and how can we best use our time in the practice room?

It's pretty hard to understand how the brain works, Duke said. "Trying to understand a brain though an MRI is like trying to understand how a TV works using a volt meter."

Certainly the brain isn't like an audio recorder with a blank tape. "We're writing stuff on a tape that has other stuff in it," Duke said, and that new stuff has to be integrated into the old.

One interesting thing about the brain is that, when one learns a physical skill, it can be transferred to another part of the body. Duke gave the example of signing your name on a piece of paper.

"But if I asked you to come sign your name on a blackboard, it would look pretty much like your signature," Duke said. In fact, scientists have found that if you sign with your feet, it still pretty much looks like your signature.

What is remarkable is the fact that these actions require a actually totally different motions, and different muscles. "How did I know how to do that? Those muscles have never done that," Duke said. The answer is that the programing in the brain is not attached to certain muscles.

So how exactly do muscles learn? In music, we know that we tend to learn a motion, and once it is refined, then we repeat it to make sure we have it right. We come back to it later still, to make sure it's still there. Much repetition of the motion is required.

Studies about repeating and refining motions show that the motion is learned best when that motion varied during repetitions, but not as well when the motion is repeated the exact same way every time.

When one repeats motions many identical times, the brain spends less effort and there is less development occurring. But when the motion is changed, the brain has to solve the problem every time, engaging a different kind of thinking pattern.

"It has to do with what the variable practice forces your brain to do," Duke said. Variable practice (changing the way things are practiced) develops flexibility, whereas stable practice (same way every time) requires less cognitive engagement.

Duke also said that muscle movement is more efficient when motivated by an end goal.

"When you see a baby and they want something, over there, their whole bodies move. There's no automaticity in their motions," Duke said. By the time kids start playing the violin, they have automated their motions in a very sophisticated way.

"We disengage that automaticity at our peril, and at our students' peril," Duke said.

Instead, focus on the function of the movement, not the movement itself, he said. Teachers interfere with the natural and efficient movement of body parts by focusing attention on already-automated motions.

In a piano test, students were studied for their efficiency of motion when focusing on different aspects of playing. When focused on their fingers or on the keys, the students did the worst. When focused on the hammers, they did better. When focused on "sound," they were most accurate.

"The focus that was farthest from the body was most effective," Duke said. "We should focus the learner's attention on movement GOALS, to the greatest extent possible."

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Starling-DeLay Day 3: Master Class with Paul Kantor

June 4, 2007 23:34

Another teacher who gave a marvelous master class at the Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies at Juilliard was Cleveland Institute of Music violin professor, Paul Kantor. I saw the first three (of five) students, and I enjoyed Kantor's incisive and level approach.

First was Nadja Nevolovitsch, who played the second and last movements of the Tchaikovsky Concerto.

The Canzonetta movement is lovely, but it has great potential to say... well, nothing, if one neglects to stamp it with musical will.

“This movement has the typical Tchaikovsky problem – he doesn't just say this once, he says it again and again,” Kantor said. Kantor spoke with her about possibilities for expression.

For example, the repeated D's and D trill at the very beginning: “There is great expressive potential in how we treat the repeated notes,” he said. He asked her which D was most important, to which she said the D trill. “Could you make it abundantly clear?” he said.

“I think you need a more complete plan,” he said of the musical decisions. “You could do a little more work in deciding your shapes.

How to decide? Well, “many of the hints to making your [expressive] choices are in the [orchestra] part,” Kantor said. Also, “there are certain choices we make at the very beginning that are very important.” Those choices include what tempo to take, and also a idea of where the high points are in the movement.

“Where is the high point?” Kantor asked. When Nadja went to show him in the music, he said, “I don't want you to show me there, show me with your sound!”

For each high point, “I need a balancing low point,” he said. All the high and low points require variety of articulation, he said.

For the strong opening of the third movement, he suggested a bow contact point closer to the bridge.

“Where you played, the string feels kind of flabby – it can't take your bow energy,” Kantor said. “What changes when you get close to the bridge is that the string feels stronger.”

As she started making it stronger, he asked for even more: “Can you give it more teeth?” he said, pointing to his own.

Next up was Thomas Huntington, 14, who played Saint-Saens Concerto No. 3, the third movement, rather fast. He seemed a bit disconnected from it, and I wondered if it was nerves. (Can you imagine getting nervous for an audience of 200 teachers, at Juilliard?)

Kantor first asked Thomas if there was a trend in what his teacher talks about in his lessons. Thomas said that his teacher focused on energy and expression.

“I think the energy is coming across very clearly,” Kantor said, “I have questions about how you are using your energy. In spite of the fact the composer has put in dozens and dozens of accents, you've added even more. My guess is you've been playing this without the music for a good long time... some of the detail things can fall by the wayside.”

He suggested that, even after having a piece memorized, it's a good idea to occasionally play it with the music.

Also, “the best thing you could do for your playing is not to play so fast,” Kantor said. He applied this to a series of 16th note runs in the midst of a rather lyrical passage at letter B. “What's the feeling of this harmony and these notes to you?”

“It's gentle,” Thomas said.

“The speed pulls it away from what you describe as gentle,” Kantor said. “I'm convinced you are playing it all, but I can't hear it all at that speed.”

He had Thomas play the passage with a stop between each note, using up-bow and down-bow staccato.

The exercise “is a subtle to reminder to your brain that every one of those notes needs energy,” Kantor said.

Miran Kim played next: the Ysaye Ballade (Sonata 3 in D minor). I hadn't heard this played live in a very long time, and to be honest, I just totally enjoyed hearing it. These are the notes I jotted down: “love this piece – so resonant and juicy and big and – just so note-y, so many delicious notes, a glut of them.”

But I was not allowed to enjoy it for long. Simon Fischer, sitting next to me, pointed to the triplet sixteenths in the Allegro and shook his head. This is one thing I kind of hate about the very highest level of analysis: having to snap out of some reverie and face the... sheet music. Having never played or taught this piece myself, I looked at the music for the first time, and saw what he meant.

“The recall of the rhythm is slightly suspicious,” Kantor said after she finished. While the “Lento” introduction is rather floaty, the Allegro provides contrast, and is in strict rhythm. “For me it has the feeling of a march.”

Then Kantor asked her about the very beginning, which soars very high and lands on an A, way in the stratosphere. On most performances I've heard, the violinist takes a bit of time getting up to the top of that peak. In fact, the one time I climbed a 14,000-foot mountain, my leaden and oxygen-deprived body slowed like a barge near the top, but I digress.

Kantor held up the music, “Where does the ritard start?” he inquired of that passage. She looked for where the slowdown begins, and...! It says “poco stringendo”! (That would be getting a bit faster, not slower).

“In being a responsible musician, you have to be true to what the old man says,” Kantor said. “It becomes a somewhat different piece if you follow all the composer's instructions.” The composer's wishes should always be the starting point for an artist's interpretation.

And indeed when one attends to these details, the result is even more satisfying.

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Starling-DeLay: Thoughts on the week

June 4, 2007 12:43

As I sat down on the last day of the Starling-DeLay Symposium, I spotted a fellow V.commer, whom I'd seen throughout the week, Nick DiEugenio. I remembered his eloquent way of putting things and wondered what he would have to say about the symposium.


He thought for a moment.

"The most striking feature about something like this is that the whole event has a certain spirit," DiEugenio said. "Everything together gives you something to think about to renew your approach."

For example, teachers Paul Kantor and Donald Weilerstein had different approaches, but they still worked for the same kinds of results. "They both are going into the same house, but they use a different entrance."

"The theme, for me, has been something Brian Lewis said, that you don't want to be the second of someone else, like the second Heifetz," he said. And that goes not only for how you play and perform, but also for how you teach. "Kantor and Weilerstein both teach at the highest level, but they don't resemble each other in their approach."

I agree. The idea of allowing students to find and develop their own approach ran deep in the teaching of Dorothy DeLay, who started this Symposium in 2001 and who was a mentor to nearly all the faculty at the Symposium. It was very much alive in all her students.

At the center of each teacher's unique approach is one goal: music, played beautifully and humanly, on the violin.

The violin has been analyzed to death for centuries; there are hundreds of methods and treatises written, from Leopold Mozart to Carl Flesch to Ivan Galamian to Simon Fischer. There are thousands of little technical exercises passed from one generation to the next.

It all boils down to one thing: how to fill this very moment in time.

All the methods, techniques, practicing, teachers, training, money in the world won't help you if you can't set it aside long enough to look at a student and say: What is the one thing, now, for this student? Or if you can't stop to hear yourself in a practice room and say: What am I really hearing, and is it what I want? Or if you can't be with yourself in a performance and know: What am I giving to this audience, here and now?

Later in the day, DiEugenio found me again. He had thought even more about the experience of the Symposium, and he had something to add.

"I think it's a tribute to Dorothy DeLay," he said. It's a tribute that so many people who are at the highest level of teaching and playing would come together to share their approach on the violin – and that each approach would be so very different. "I think she spawned all that – by developing these people as individuals."

"It's not just about understanding a template and imposing it on all your students," DiEugenio said. "It's about understanding yourself."

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Starling-DeLay Day Five: Kurt Sassmannshaus' violin master class

June 2, 2007 23:36

NEW YORK -- Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music Violin Professor Kurt Sassmannshaus has created 175 masterclass videos for Violinmasterclass.com, and frankly, I've always wanted to see him teach, live.

So I was pleased to be able to attend his masterclass (live from New York!) on Saturday, during the last day of the Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies at Juilliard.

Professor Kurt Sassmannshaus works with Violinist Miran Kim at Paul Recital Hall

Sassmannshaus told me it's okay to call him Prof. S., so Prof. S. he will be, from here forward in this article.

Prof. S. taught five students at this masterclass, and I'm afraid I'm just going to have to tell you about every single one. As the masterclass went on, I came to trust his sense of honing in on one or two main issues that were especially relevant to each student's overall playing. It reminded me of one of Suzuki's best admonishments to teachers: focus on ONE THING in each lesson.

Sounds easy. It's not.

I'm reminded of a story Simon Fischer told in one of his fun tangents during his lectures this week: the story of the underperforming nuclear power plant. A specialist is called in to see why the plant was underperforming. He arrives, wearing his white lab coat, holding a clipboard. He takes notes, looks around, then marks a huge "X" on a readout sheet. "Replace this equipment on this machine," he says. Instantly, the plant's production goes up; the problem is solved. The specialist sends a bill for $10,000. They question him, "You were here for only a few minutes, and you are charging so much, could you itemize your costs?" The specialist sends them another, itemized bill:

$ 100: time spent
$9,900: knowing where to put the "X"

First up was Caroline Goulding, 15, of Cleveland, playing the last movement of the Tchaikovsky Concerto, an extremely polished performance. Her instrument looks a little big for her, I thought, and I also thought most of her expression came from the left hand, that the right hand and arm was perhaps working too hard.

Prof. S. told her "first of all, this is excellent, it will stand up to any orchestra."

Then he noted that sometimes the violin tilted down during playing. "If the violin is tilted over, you are battling gravity for your spiccato," Dr. S. said. If the violin is flat, gravity actually helps. "It has a tremendous effect on the psychology of the audience as well; you look tremendously confident."

He then focussed in on right-hand flexibility by working on her colle stroke. First he had her put her hand on a table (okay the side of the piano), pointing the fingers down 90 degrees. Then she curled her fingers up, then straighten them back down. The wrist stays flat and doesn't move. Next, he had her try the same thing in the air, then the same thing, holding the bow on the string. "No wrist!" Then, he had her put the bow on the string and with a clean click, lift the bow off, using just her fingers for the horizontal part, and the arm the vertical part. He suggested she could try Kreutzer etude seven with colle.

After this very meticulous lesson on colle, he had her use the stroke at the beginning of the movement. After she tried it, he asked her what she thought.

"It makes it cleaner and clearer," she said.

"The colle helps us articulate," Prof. S. said, "it replaces power that comes from the arm, which is slower."

He also told her to switch the contact point and go to the middle of the bow for the sautille starting at the Tempo 1.

For the sautille, "once you have it on the string, the harder you press, the higher it jumps," Prof. S. said.

"How do you get it to the middle, though?" she asked.

"Very quickly!" he said. "You work your way there."

Next in the masterclass was Stefani Collins, of North Carolina, who played the Ciaccona from Bach's D minor Partita -- a rather daunting (and exhausting) piece.

"So this is one of the longer pieces in this book," Prof. S. observed, after she had played the whole movement. To help her get a handle on what was going on in the piece, he used a metronome to clock her tempo in two places. At the beginning she was playing at 48 beats per second. Then she played at measure 65, clocking in at the rather accelerated pace of 66 beats.

"As the piece gets rhythmically more interesting, you speed up a bit," Prof. S. said. Every eight to 16 measures comes a slight shift, or increase, in tempo. Then at m 77 comes a release, a slowing down. This pattern of acceleration then return to the original tempo occurs in each of the three major sections of the Ciaccona and is actually part of the architecture of the piece, he said. Her job is to be aware of this.

Also, "Bach didn't give us any dynamics," Prof. S. said. "I would ask you to write a dynamic in every two bars or so if this were a lesson and I'd see you again."

He told her that she was close to reaching her goals with the piece, but "I think if you make a plan, you will reach them better. The more you plan, the more you get what you want."

Sirena Huang, a student at Juilliard's Pre-College Division, played the first movement of the Dvorak Concerto. Prof. S. spent much of her lesson helping her focus on the orchestra part, and how to make her part fit rhythmically and dynamically.

As many teachers have done this week, Prof. S. invoked his former teacher, Dorothy DeLay, to help explain things: "She would ask, what is the most important job of the soloist on stage? It is to make the conductor happy. He is the only one who has the power to hire you again!"

During an entrance in which the orchestra would be particularly loud, Prof. S. said "you almost want to wait until all that ringing disappears, but we can't do that," he said, then for the laugh, "We're not singers!"

In another spot he asked her, "What do the wind players do then?" Not sure. "They don't play. They count. So you have to keep the rhythm there."

As for projecting the sound over the orchestra, "we need to rely on articulation rather than more sound, because on the violin the more sound is not available."

Miran Kim, 17, of Juilliard Pre-College Division, played the easily-recognized Paganini 24 very well.

"When it comes to becoming a real virtuoso performer, I always compare it with a sprinter," Prof. S. said. For a sprinter to improve his time in the 100-meter dash from 16 seconds to 11 seconds is work, but not a huge deal. To go from 11 to 10.2 seconds takes more work. If you want to go down to 10 seconds, you have to drop your AP classes. And to shave off just a few fractions of a second, down to a world record, it has to be everything do you. You do nothing else.

This, he said, was the next level, and it's a lot of work.

Specifically, it's a lot of work on intonation. Prof. S. described three kinds of intonation: Pythagorean, Just (based on the overtone series) and Tempered. I'm not even going to try to describe this! But let's just say that an "E" in one system does not match an "E" in the other, and "the difference is not subtle," Prof. S. said.

"All 1/2 steps are not created equal," Prof. S said. Dorothy DeLay simplified it somewhat, she said that "if the notes have the same name, the half step is wide."

For the intonation work, Prof. S. set the metronome to 40, noting, "I always threaten my students I will call Seiko and make them make a metronome that does ONLY 40!"

For the first two bars of the Caprice she did the following on the metronome beats: play note - wait a beat - hum the next note - wait a beat - play the next note....

It's very technical work, but "if it's not in tune at this tempo, it won't be in tune fast," he said. And indeed, it was not completely easy for her to get every single note in tune, doing it this way. He suggested she go through the entire Caprice this way. "In other words, I've just given you six weeks of work," Prof. S. said. But "the instrument requires it."

"In a competition, intonation is the only thing the judges will agree on," he said. "Nowadays there are plenty of people out there that can do it, and you have to be one of them."

Next came Thomas Huntington, who played the last movement of Saint-Saens Concerto No. 3. For him, Prof. S. was mostly concerned with speed.

"I've spent more time slowing people down than speeding them up," he said. The human ear can only hear so much, and sometimes fast notes are too fast to register with the ear. If there are more than 11-12 notes in a second, the sound begins to blend for the audience. If the hall has a 2-second echo, "You can have a lot of notes swirling in the hall at once."

"If you play something very clear, it sounds fast," he said. "If it's fast but sloppy, people will say, 'ehh, maybe he's talented.'"

He also mentioned harmonics. Though we tend to blame the left hand when harmonics go wrong, "95 percent of the time when something is wrong with a harmonic, it's the bow." That is because the harmonic actually cuts the string in half. With no harmonic, just an open string, the string would vibrate widest in the middle of the string. When the string is cut in half, the location where the string vibrates changes, to the two quarter points. Thus the bow needs to be drawn right next to the bridge, or it is in danger of cutting of the vibration."

Dr. S. gave everyone some good lessons in technique, not just how to do it, but explaining the mechanics of how it works and why it matters. A nice way to wrap up the Symposium.

Caroline Goulding, Prof. S. and Stefani Collins

Coming over the next few days, after I actually get some sleep: a bit more Brian Lewis and Bob Duke, a photo gallery, and talking with students and teachers who attended this Big Party to Celebrate the Violin and Dorothy DeLay's Legacy.

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Starling-DeLay Day Four: Brian Lewis teaches Kreisler's 'Gitana'

June 1, 2007 23:10

NEW YORK - When I signed up to go to this Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies at Juilliard, I didn't know much about Brian Lewis, other than that people enjoy his teaching and that he recently made a CD with Michael McLean's new violin concerto and the Bernstein Serenade.

I didn't know he is noted Suzuki teacher Alice Joy Lewis's son, or that he had actually travelled to Japan as a child and studied with Shinichi Suzuki himself. Nor so, so much more, if you read his impressive bio.

But I found that he certainly has a way of enjoying the violin, and sneaking technical work into the lesson by making it seem like a fun game. It suddenly made sense: he is the happy, grown-up Suzuki kid!


On Friday, Lewis taught about expression and bravura, using Fritz Kreisler's "Gitana." Everyone had to dust off the violins that had been sitting at our sides during lessons and master classes, and play some real stuff. We started by listening to an Oscar Shumsky recording of the piece, then we did what I always do when I take out my violin: we played a Galamian acceleration scale.

He pointed out that in the "Allegro guisto e ritmico": "We don't want to accent all the time or we will sound like William Shatner...."

When we came to a section with some ricochet and string crossings, Lewis introduced a series of string-crossing exercises. The exercises had been copied from the notebook of one of Ysaye's students, and "everyday he had his students do these," Lewis said. They start simply:

Then he adds the second finger:

Then he adds the third finger:

Lewis encouraged everyone to "BREATHE! Get that oxygen in your blood!"

The piece had a number of dotted notes, and Lewis gave us a new definition of a dotted note: "A dot means 'not legato.' That's all a dot means. This definition gives you freedom to think, how long could that dot be?"

"In character pieces we can change the length of the dot; we have a lot of freedom," Lewis said. In working with this idea, "we want to do most of our experimenting in the practice room."

He also encouraged the idea of having some fun with the piece: "Is there a place where we can have... eyebrows?"

"Now don't go home and choreograph this with your students," he said, laughing, "it's the feeling of it. Have fun!"

"There's nothing wrong with having dessert," Lewis said. "Dorothy DeLay used to talk about programming as if it were a menu." A good meal might have an appetizer, some meat and potatoes, "maybe one weird dish, like chicken hearts," he said, "and dessert, like a cake or bon-bons."

Lewis said that he was looking at DeLay's comments, from when he played the piece for her in college. "Apparently I was sliding between each and every finger," he said.

Instead of this approach, one has to to decide where to have shifts and slides. DeLay said of shifting, "overshifting is like going 90 mph into your garage. If we overshift, what happens to our garage?" Lewis said.

I liked the way Lewis described the piece's "Allegretto grazioso," and you just have to hear it for this to make sense, but over the music he said, "Hi, I'm Brian, welcome to the supper club, welcome to my restaurant..."

Also, he said that for lift bows, to play "as if we are setting a bird free. We aren't throwing him -- no throwing the bird or kicking the cat, let's just release him!"

Ah, fun. It can be fun!

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Starling-DeLay Day Four: Robert Duke on the nature of expertise

June 1, 2007 21:20

NEW YORK -- I'm glad someone invited wind player Robert Duke, professor at the University of Texas at Austin, to the big violin party.

Duke, who wrote Intelligent Music Teaching: Essays on the Core Principles of Effective Instruction, brought some perspective to this group of experts who are so steeped in violin playing. He spoke Friday morning on "The Nature of Expertise" at the Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies at Juilliard.


When we teach the violin, we need to help our students understand why certain things work or don't work. We need to allow them time, not just to parrot back acceptable answers, but to find those answers and fully explore why they are right.

"Young people who are just starting to teach often can imitate all the things that wonderful teachers can do," Duke said. They can imitate voices, they can tell pithy stories. "But the magic runs deeper than that."

"There are a lot of things that are salient, that are not important," Duke said. "And there are things that are important, that are invisible."

"How do I decide where to focus the learner's attention? There are 50 things you can talk about," Duke said. "Try to find the one idea that makes 30 things better."

A teacher must start with a vivid image of the piece, performed beautifully by the student at hand.

"Many lessons I watch I would describe as acoustic repair," Duke said. The problem is that "this allows the lesson to be determined by what your student presents."

The "good student" is attentive, diligent, inquisitive, skillful, literate, patient, thoughtful, meticulous and discriminating.

"A lot of what goes on in the teaching environment can elicit those qualities," Duke said, "or discourage them."

For example, children tend to be naturally musical and have a sense of inflection and dynamic.

"We teach a lot of that OUT," Duke said.

Also, the class environment can foster an avoidance of finding answers. How a teacher handles a "wrong" answer is very important. "If I don't know an answer, my goal becomes to mask the fact I don't have it," Duke said, "Not to find the answer."

Some kids can learn to get the answers right, without ever exploring why those answers work. "Many students who are really good in school aren't the best thinkers," Duke said.

In music, students need to learn to connect what they are doing to why they are doing it: to communicate with an audience. When they are conveying something in music, they have to convey something TO someone.

"I love teaching writing," Duke said. "Everyone who is a lousy writer isn't writing TO anybody." And why should they? "At school, when you were writing a paper, WHO were you writing to? Who were you explaining it to?" The teacher already knows all about your topic.

"It's amazing to me how much my students' writing changed, once I had them write TO someone," he said. For example: write a letter to your mom about the acoustics of the violin. You'd have to start with, how much does she already know about it? What doesn't she know? What do you need to explain?

Similarly, "when you are playing, who is listening?" he said. "You have to convey it TO someone. When we play music, we want to move somebody. But you have to have the somebody."

When one teaches, one must do it from outside your expertise. It's easy to forget, when something has become such a part of you, that your students need certain details filled in. He gave the example of computer manuals, "written by evil people! They omitted critical information!" If you have a new computer in the box, and the first instruction is "boot the system," how do you know how to set it up?

"Learning is a generative process, not a receptive one," he said. Asking a student to do what you say, "that's just recall and memory. Where learning takes place is where you go home and do something in response to new knowledge."

It's possible, though, to operate at a very sophisticated level of a discipline and still have the fundamentals out of whack. He gave the example of an experiment in which MIT graduates were asked to light a bulb with a battery and a wire. An overwhelming percent of them could not do it.

"If one cannot light a build with a wire, everything built on that concept is faulty," he said. "There are a gazillion things to learn, but they are organized around a few basic things."

Duke talked about a project that compared math classes in the U.S. with those in other countries. The U.S. math class "looked just like my eighth grade math class," he said. The teacher shows how to do something, then gives hands the kids a worksheet and has them do it many times. In Japan, where kids outperformed those in the U.S., children were given one problem, then asked to work on solving it, without an explanation from the teacher. Then the kids worked for 20 minutes on the one problem and later discussed their approaches.

"This noodling around, figuring out and failing is not tolerated in the U.S. -- it takes too much time," Duke said. If you try to cover too much, you will likely give short shrift to important concepts. "You have to do less stuff in more time."

When you intervene to adjust something in a student's playing during a lesson, you must be committed to it. You can't just have them play something several times and give up without accomplishing the goal. "They are going to practice the way you practice them."

"If it matters enough for you to say it, it matters enough that you aren't going to leave it until it's accomplished," Duke said.

In teaching, often a student will do something, then the teacher tries to fix it by simplifying it a little, then having the student try again, Duke said. If that doesn't work, we make it a little more simple, and try again. This can keep going: simplify, try, simplify try. Maybe we do it eight times before it's simple enough for the student to accomplish. Then once they get it, we go back to the passage and have them try again.

During this process, with each failed attempt, “the learner is thinking: wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong....,” Duke said.

“Rather than inch back and then leap forward, we should leap back, and then inch forward,” Duke said. “Leap back to a task that is very accomplishable.”

This doesn't always mean to play something slower. It can mean to play it in rhythms, or to work on the fundamentals of the technique involved. Either way, the student needs to be able to achieve success, there in the lesson.

“How is a student going to do, ALONE, what you can't get them to do in your studio in 20 minutes?” Duke said. “This principle goes across all levels: set them up in a way that they can do the thing we demonstrate.”

Duke's final plea was for violin teachers to let their students learn repertoire that is appropriate to their levels, not to rush them into extremely complex and difficult literature.

"It is often more valued to play difficult repertoire kind of badly then to play easier repertoire well," Duke said. "When repertoire is rather difficult, the good habits float away. I would change juries -- no one could play anything on a jury that they can't play beautifully."

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Starling-DeLay Day Three: Pedagogy session with Mimi Zweig

June 1, 2007 12:50

NEW YORK - Welcome mistakes. Nothing is good; nothing is bad; it's all just information.

I think that was my favorite point made by Indiana University professor and Pre-College Director Mimi Zweig in her pedagogy sessions at Juilliard's Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies.


"If we can put ourselves in a non-judgmental environment, we can play better," said Zweig, with a smile. She actually said everything with a smile, even with the heavy drilling from Juilliard's major construction going on in the background. "Practice correcting mistakes with no stress."

She also pointed out that all mistakes occur between two notes. One simply has to isolate those two notes and then figure out how to get from one to another. Once that is accomplished, "it's a matter of repetition without anxiety."

The best way to start with any student is to make sure they are using their bodies properly for playing the violin.

"Sometimes we forget that our body is involved in playing the violin," she said. "Everything we do with our body has an effect."

And she meant everything. She suggested being aware of all joints in the body: elbow, wrist, knees, knuckles, ball and socket of arm, jaw, ankles, toes.

When a student comes with a problem in, say, the left hand, it is important to look for the one main thing that will correct the problem, not for a million tiny adjustments. A student might have a thumb that is too high, or two low, or other matters of wrong alignment in the wrist. These problems must be targeted accurately before much progress can happen.

"I find it very difficult to move forward with a student if the physical setup doesn't enable them to," Zweig said.

Of shifts, Zweig said, "It's about knowing every part of the way to get there." She compared making a shift to getting to New York: taking the train, then getting to the school, going up the steps and elevator, taking a wrong turn in the hall. The first time took a lot of thought, but now she knows the way.

Zweig spoke about the Kreutzer etudes, putting them the context of a plan for the pre-college student.

"Kreutzer was a genius; these etudes are very well planned," Zweig said. "Each etude feeds to the next etude to the next etude. If we use these in the way he laid them out for us, by the time we get to 42, our students can do anything we ask them to."

For example, Etude 5 can be used for mastering ricochet, which is done at that stage because "you can't do this bow stroke if you have any tension in your hand. Or in your knee, or toe." It helps ensure that the student is not developing a stiff grip on the bow.

Zweig goes through all the Kreutzer etudes on her website, stringpedagogy.com.

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