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Laurie Niles

Brian Lewis on expressive and Bravura playing

June 13, 2007 at 5:45 AM

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."

From Natalie Palina
Posted on June 13, 2007 at 1:01 PM
Great things Laurie.
From Robert Berentz
Posted on June 14, 2007 at 9:49 AM
There is a "melody" in each one of us. How well do we interpret and feel and play our own song. Do we let the "band" dominate us, go with the flow or do we hold on to and exercise our own way/individuality.

How we live our lives will show in how we play our music.

Are our lives written in stone or the fleshy tablets of our hearts? Great article.

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