As the year 2010 comes to a close, Robert and I thought it would be fun to look back on some of the top stories of the year on Violinist.com. We have assembled here a list of the top blog posts and threads of the year, based on page view data.
Interestingly, they covered a range of topics. In current events, Clara-Jumi Kang won the Indianapolis competition; Sarah Chang attracted a lot of attention with her problems in Detroit, and people expressed concern surrounding suicide of teenage violinist and Rutgers student Tyler Clementi. Top interviews were not just with the "usual suspects": Attracting the most attention were Dutch violinist Janine Jansen talking about the lesser-played Britten Concerto; American violinist Dylana Jenson talking about her long search for the right violin, and injury-prevention specialist Diana Rumrill giving us advice about keeping healthy. V.com readers also were interested in talking about violins and violin technology, with top threads about PI Infeld strings, looking for violins and a lively discussion about a new kind of violin bridge.
Photo by Denis Ryan Kelly, Jr.
So here are links to the top interviews and threads of 2010, enjoy!
Here are the top blog posts:
Here are the top discussion threads:
I've played Handel's “Messiah” a lot of times, but this one was pure joy.
Every year, the day after Christmas, Bill and Judy Sloan of Los Angeles hold a big Messiah sing-along at their house for their musician friends – and they have some amazing friends. (This year it also included a reporter and photographer from the LA Times, apparently!)
I got to know Bill at the Indianapolis International Violin Competition this September, where his 1714 Stradivarius and 1742 Guarneri del Gesù were featured in some experiments as well as in a audience taste test of modern vs. historic violins. Bill is a urologist who both plays the violin and makes violins, and Judy is a professor of law who plays the piano and is a mezzo-soprano.
Bill called me up last week and invited me to come to their house at 4 p.m. on the day after Christmas, for the Messiah, and bring my fiddle! So of course I did. It was no trouble figuring out which house was the Sloans' – as I climbed the hill, I could hear trumpets, then violins, violas and cellos, then singing... His home was filled with musicians. Bill told me that I was one of a handful of people he actually called this year – the other 60-plus musicians simply showed up, having come in years previous and knowing where to flock and when.
I found myself in familiar company, with friends I've played with before and Frank Fetta conducting, and wow, did it feel good.
I put my violin case in a bedroom to the side of the larger living room, then I made my way through a forest of chairs and music stands, where my friends Vera and Tamsen beckoned me to come sit with them in the first violin section. I sat on a wooden chair with a pretty cover, reading from a wooden stand. By the end, we had three violinists at our stand and Tamsen was standing! About a dozen sopranos stood over my shoulder, and Judy Sloan sat at the grand piano behind them. On the wall next the piano was a Chagall depicting a violin-playing horse, and directly behind us was a captivating photo of the young Heifetz – who actually played in this very house on occasion.
Conductor Frank Fetta stood in front of the fireplace, backed up to the point where his ponytail kept catching in the decorations. The trumpets sat right behind the first fiddles, so just imagine the choruses: trumpets sounding, professional singers singing in full voice, a string section, piano...so much sound coming from this little room!
While many of life's endeavors involve uncertainty, tough decision-making, the potential for ugliness and conflict... the Messiah is a sure thing. It's one of the most dependable and pleasurable kinds of projects that life can present. Why? Because a musical genius named Georg Frideric Handel laid out exactly what we are to do. If we follow the music right in front of us, then Hallelujah! We get more than two hours of beauty and joy – and fun!
With an army of reliable instrumentalists and vocalists who voluntarily showed up for all the right reasons, that's what we got. After every aria, the room burst into applause. Sometimes we played the same piece twice so that two singers could have a chance at it.
The Messiah has – depending on which version you are using – some 53 total arias, choruses, recitatives and interludes. Not all are regularly played at concerts. We played a few of the lesser-played ones. And we played the Hallelujah chorus three times!
And after the music: lox and bagels from our hosts. Thank you, Bill and Judy Sloan, for a beautiful evening!
I love to play duets with my students.
A discussion thread earlier this week, Should Teacher Play During Lesson? has me thinking about the subject. I do believe strongly in the power of playing together, and in the occasional demonstration, when talking is not getting the point across.
Some of the most cleverly composed yet playable violin duets on the planet are the 44 Duets by Béla Bartók. A pair of sisters, Angela and Jennifer Chun, recently released a recording of the duets, downloadable on iTunes or on Amazon.
These duets – short little works of genius – are featured prominently in The Doflein Method, a five-volume set of books that I highly recommend for violin students (and teachers), particularly Book 3, which helps greatly in solidifying second, third and half positions.
In fact, Bartók wrote these duets specifically at the request of Erich Doflein, who wanted to include examples of then-contemporary composers in his books, which were first published in the early 1930s. One of my colleagues from Europe told me that the duets, which are usually sequenced from easy to difficult, were actually written in the reverse: Bartók kept submitting his duets to Doflein, who would pronounce them too difficult for the beginner, "Easier!" he kept saying, until he had what he needed. Nonetheless, most of them appear in Books 1 and 2.
Doflein went to the trouble of commissioning duets from living composers because he wished to combine technical study with musical and stylistic study. Erich and Elma Doflein express this intention beautifully in their introduction to the books: "This is training, but not as on the athletic field – it is rather a journey through many lands of music, and the music of many lands....The music of our own time was also to be represented. Distinguished composers declared their readiness to cooperate and to provide examples of their art for the single stages of the course. We owe to Béla Bartók, Paul Hindemith, Carl Orff, Matyas Seiber and other composers many pieces and studies which form an important component part..."
The Dofleins had some seriously talented collaborators, here!
These pieces are written by master composers, written specifically for two violins, not arranged from some other instrumentation. They stand whole, tiny little masterpieces to train the student. The Dofleins interspersed these pieces with music written by Mozart, by Baroque composers – even a few non-metered chants.
I delight in a student's first encounter with a Bartók or Hindemith duet, and the opportunity that it affords me to speak about the period of time and its music. Very often the piece sounds very "normal" and innocuous when the student is learning his or her part over the course of the week -- but add the second voice at the lesson, and it's a whole new story. "It sounds different, doesn't it? A little dark, maybe a little depressed," is how the conversation often goes. I like to hear their ideas about it. I explain to them that these pieces were written during an actual Depression, between two World Wars, when music took this turn for a while to the atonal. You can argue with me here, that maybe I should talk about Bartok's interest in folk music. But what tends to strike the student is the strange tonality and asymmetrical rhythms, which they hear neither in traditional classical music, nor in the music that they get from Lady Gaga and iTunes.
That said, I do wish there were a modern-day Erich Doflein to leverage the efforts of some of the great composers of today – the 21st century – to write something to train young fingers, ears and minds, something a young violinist can play in the company of his or her teacher.
I'm not a composer, but as a writer, I do know that the most difficult piece to write is the short one – to put a whole world of an idea through a prism and make it understandable to the newcomer, the youngster, the student. Who would like to write the short, modern violin duets for beginners? Send them to me, I'll put them in order and make the book.
A few weeks ago I cleared out an entire day for something very dear to a violinist's heart: spiccato!
Barbara Barber – teacher, violinist, pedagogue, editor of the Solos for Young Violinists series – taught a two-day workshop in Pasadena, hosted by the Pasadena Suzuki Music Program. I attended the day called "Splendid Spiccato," a lecture that she also gave at the Suzuki Association of the Americas convention last year.
You may be asking, what exactly is spiccato? Even those well-versed in violin-playing can quibble over this one. Literally, it means “detached,” but certainly, it is a bouncing bow stroke. Into this category falls a number of more refined strokes: piqué or jeté (pricked), ricochet (thrown or dropped), sautille (fast springing), flying spiccato (all on the up-bow or down-bow), and the list goes on.
So what is the secret to the elusive bouncing bow, how does one teach control over a bow stroke that is governed in part by gravity?
As Barber said, "A good spiccato begins in Book 1." In other words, it all starts in a beginner's bow hand. Why do we teachers insist on the curved thumb, pinkie curved on top of the stick, middle fingers hugging the stick, softness in the knuckles? This is one of the very big reasons. (For more reasons, I've compiled a list at the bottom. Feel welcome to add.)
Barber uses a metaphor that works well with kids – and I tend to think adult students are not above a good metaphor as well: "Octopus fingers." She uses those squishy toys you can buy at Target to help students practice getting the right feel, with soft, flexible fingers. The student holds the squishy toy, the thumb tucked under, and practices rotating at the wrist, both sideways and up and down.
As early as Book 1, Barber is teaching a modified collé stroke, in which the student rests the bow on the A string and the teachers helps him/her go “wiggle wiggle,” moving from just the wrist, cultivating flexible fingers and knuckles. This moves into something she calls "jellyfish detaché," a very small stroke using just fingers and no arm, in the middle of the string. The next step is more of a real collé in the lower half, combined with a brush stroke. If you want to get into the metaphor of bow-hand as paintbrush, Barbara said to think of a big, fat, new paint brush. You can slap your right hand across your leg like a floppy paintbrush, to get the feel of this.
"I like to stand behind the student with both of our scrolls facing a mirror when we are working on the jellyfish detaché, collé, spiccato, and other strokes," Barber said. "The student is usually shorter than I am and can 'shadow' my bow hand by seeing mine and his or hers in the mirror."
Cultivating the right-hand finger flexibility generally requires much practice and repetition, and it usually takes months, maybe even a year. Adding the bounce is icing on the cake: start with a ricochet, "bounce the bow like a basketball," Barbara said. You can try a pure vertical bounce in middle of the bow, at various speeds. Then add that jellyfish detaché hand motion (the horizontal element), and you've got spiccato.
Of course, all this distilled wisdom is just that. In practice, one must take time and use the repertoire to repeat these strokes until they become as easy as walking. If you use the Suzuki books, a student can play review pieces such as “Perpetual Motion,” using “jellyfish detaché,” etc. Barber also provides many opportunities in her six volumes of Solos for Young Violinists books which I have used for some time to supplement the Suzuki repertoire. The upper Suzuki books contain predominantly Baroque music, so in order to allow a student to practice spiccato techniques, one needs to find supplemental material that has Romantic pieces and other works that use such techniques.
It's best to begin learning spiccato techniques well before the repertoire requires it, Barber said. The student who is just beginning to learn spiccato while learning the Mendelssohn concerto will likely hit a brick wall, pretty hard.
Why do students sometimes get extremely rigid in their playing? “I believe it starts with foot charts,” Barber said. In other words, the same mentality that would have a child glue his or her feet to a chart, produces a stiffness in the entire player. It's important to stay moveable and flexible – as long as the child isn't running all around the room. Confining a small child to work within a taped-off “performance square” would be better than requiring him or her to stand exactly on a chart at every lesson.
I'll add: even terminology such as “bow hold” has its effect. There is no cast-in-stone “bow-hold,” it's really a fluid and flexible “bow hand,” which looks different at the frog than it does at the tip and adjusts to bumps in the road and the requirements of different bow strokes. It's better to think in terms of the roles each finger plays, and we can break down the beginner bow hand in these terms, if it helps. The following are some ideas that aren't directly from Barber, but I was thinking about them as a result of her workshop. I hope they help in thinking about the bow hand.
THUMB: Why should a beginner have the “bent thumb”? Because the thumb needs to be flexible, and most often in a beginner, if it is not bent, it is locked straight. So we ask for a bent thumb. When it is locked straight, it creates a complete lack of flexibility in the hand. Of course, when the bow is down at the tip, the thumb is straighter than it is at the frog. But the thumb should never be locked straight.
PINKIE: The pinkie rests curved, on top of the stick. The pinkie holds up the stick when the bow is horizontal, allowing the other fingers total flexibility. If the pinkie is around the stick, it cannot hold it up, and the other fingers stiffen, as they to take on the weight of the bow. If a player tries to lift the bow and place it at the frog, the bow will come down with a crash, if the pinkie is incapable of holding the weight of the bow. Likewise, the pinkie should be curved because the other alternative tends to be: locked straight. It is possible for the pinkie to lift the bow when locked straight, but then it does so with a complete lack of flexibility and control, and the player may feel at risk for dropping the bow.
INDEX FINGER: It does not hook around the bow, but rests on the stick. The index finger both serves as a guide for bow direction, and it also transmits weight into the bow when needed. Hooking around the stick can lock up other fingers and inhibit various kinds of bow strokes.
MIDDLE FINGERS: These hug the stick, providing stability while staying flexible. Sometimes students like to sit the middle fingers up on top of the stick. This is because the middle fingers are trying to help the weak pinkie finger in lifting the bow. If this is the problem, you need to strengthen the pinkie. Another problem with the middle fingers sitting atop the stick is that the player will have less control over the bow; they are always at risk of slipping off. Train the pinkie!
Is continuous billy-goat vibrato the new wave of the future?
So you may be wondering, what is going on with this Anna Karkowska business? For those of you unfamiliar with the phenomenon, a few months ago a Polish violinist named Anna Karkowska released a recording called “Virtuosity,” with the London Symphony, with works by Paganini, Sarasate, Wieniawski and a new composer named Robin Hoffmann, in which she plies every piece with extreme-amplitude vibrato, what my college professor would have called “hysterical vibrato” – before he threw his cigarette at me and told me to leave.
The hyperbolic promotional video, in which a parade of legitimate-seeming violinists rave about her unique sound and put Karkowska on a pedestal next to violinists such as Oistrakh, Milstein, Accardo and Szeryng, went viral immediately, zipping across Facebook pages with comments like, “This is a joke, right?”
The recording was no joke, and strange as it seems, the promotional video seems to be genuine. The recording was done with the London Symphony, which does occasionally hire itself out for special projects. Karkowska even seems to have some legitimate training, having done a stint at Juilliard.
The videos that have followed are tongue-in-cheek: The Vibrato Showdown, in which the speed of her vibrato is statistically compared to that of Oistrakh and Heifetz; and Lord of the Vibrato - The Fellowship of Anna Karkowska, in which a group of vamped-out violinists gather as their leader dangles a cigar from his lips, describing “esoteric homeopathic vibrato technique,” and debuting the “Vibration Chamber Soloists” in which everyone plays with extreme vibrato.
Why is everyone so ruffled by all of this? Are we a bunch of uptight violin police, intent on squeezing everyone into our stuffy little box of proper violin-playing?
No. Certainly, we all have some specific ideas about how we play repertoire, but this is not what offends people about the Anne Karkowska stunt, however it was funded, and why-ever the persistent publicity.
Violinists tend to take music seriously. You have to be pretty serious, to put in the kind of hours that it takes to produce a beautiful tone on the violin, to get the fingers to fall precisely on the right pitches, to acquire the manual dexterity, to learn the repertoire, etc.
Music is a form of expression: gesture, line, feeling...one puts all the elements together in order to say something meaningful to another human being. A long, quiet line may sound like an elegy; music punctuated with rhythm may feel like a dance; a tremolo can be a shiver; a lift in the bow might be a breath suspended. We use every hard-won bit of technique to express something.
Extreme vibrato is a technique, for sure. Jazz musicians and rock musicians use it for a number of effects, for example, to imitate the distortion on an electric guitar. It's just one of many techniques.
So what happens when you lay one technique on everything? Music becomes static. Karkowska's playing in this recording is like static on a television, turned up full-volume, in the middle of the night, when everyone is trying to sleep. Jangled nerves. Paganini, Sarasate – are these pieces about hysterical, jangled nerves? No. The music generated here can not be considered art on any level.
But the theater of it all, now that's art! I liked the comparison to Spinal Tap, or Waiting for Guffman. Look at all the publicity she's generated – could she have done so any other way? People are making videos, sending videos of her playing, writing columns and blogs and having discussions. Whether this was just the runaway result of an orchestra hiring itself out to someone they didn't really know and waking up after the publicity reel came out, or it was some kind of intentional play to get publicity, it's been an entertaining ride.
Sergiu Luca, 1943-2010
Concert artist and violin professor Sergiu Luca died Monday night in Houston from complications of bile-duct cancer. Luca held the Dorothy Richard Starling professor of violin position at Rice University's Shepherd School of Music, where he had taught since 1983.
Born in Romania, Luca was nine when he debuted with Israel's Haifa Symphony, according to his Nonesuch Records biography. After studying in England and Switzerland, he came to the United States and studied with Ivan Galamian at Curtis and debuted with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1965. A performance of the Sibelius Concerto with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic brought him to the television airways, and thereafter he played with major orchestras the world over. He was a pioneer in the field of period-instrument playing and founded a number of chamber groups and series, including the Chamber Music Northwest summer festival in Portland, Ore., and Context, a period-instrument group based in Houston. Luca is survived by his wife, Susan Archibald, and their 4-year-old daughter, Lily, according to the NY Times.
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Russian violinist Nikita Boriso-Glebski, 25, won first place in the Jean Sibelius Violin Competition, which concluded last week in Helsinki. He won €20,000 in prize money, as well as an additional € 2,000 for the best interpretation of the Sibelius Violin Concerto. Second place (€ 15,000) went to Finnish violinist Petteri Iivonen and third place (€ 10,000) went to American violinist Esther Yoo, 16. American violinist Nancy Zhou, 17, of Texas, won € 1,500 for the best interpretation of Kaija Saariaho's "Tocar"; and American violinist Emma Steele, 20, won € 1,000 for the young talent award. The Sibelius Competition, founded in 1965, is held every five years and open to contestants younger than 30.
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A number of stories this week emphasized the dire straits of classical music: a New York Times story featured the dismal employment situation for classical musicians; a Denver Post story has us Hanging by a Thread, illustrated by a picture of a violin with strings askew, bridge flown off, everything gone haywire. And then the news just keeps turning up bad, like the Louisville Orchestra filing for bankruptcy.
No doubt, we have problems, but let's stay calm. The employment situation is no more dismal for classical musicians than it is for real estate agents, journalists, teachers, construction workers, car workers, you catch my drift. Certainly, we will need to find new ways to make a life in music, and they will involve a lot more entrepreneurship, but fortunately, things like CD Baby, YouTube, social networking, all help make this possible.
And as for the other question, is classical music irrelevant? No. Does YouTube make people just want to sit at home instead of seeing concerts? Hardly. But certainly it's time to leave the long, constipated 20th century behind and evolve. The Internet and YouTube are the very tools that will help us disseminate the best of our musical history and bring it to those who will build on it, so that art music can evolve in the direction of cultural relevance. Young people seek authenticity; they can tell better than anyone what has been auto-tuned, what has been CGI-ed, what is "fake." No pandering: show us the good stuff and let us go with it.
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Here is an interesting interview on NPR, Weekend Edition (12/4) with William Harvey, a Juilliard-trained violinist who is now teaching violin at the National Conservatory in Afghanistan. He is also writing a violin method book based on Afghan folk melodies.
You can do anything on the violin, if you just break it down, step-by-step.
This seems to be London-based violinist Simon Fischer's operating philosophy, and he's given us quite a lot of instruction about exactly how to break things down, with his well-loved pedagogy books Basics and Practice, and The Violin Lesson coming out in the spring. Simon is a professor at the Yehudi Menuhin School and the Guildhall School of Music, and he writes a monthly column on violin technique which appears in The Strad magazine.
Now he gives us a more: the visuals to go with the theory. His new DVD, The Secrets of Tone Production includes detailed descriptions of specific exercises for improving tone, as well as footage demonstrating how to do them, working with students of various levels. Also, the introduction, called "Knowing Your Instrument," has some of the best explanations I've seen of how the violin works: the physics of sound, the way the tension works with strings, soundpoints for different strings, exactly the way the bow hair sets a string vibrating, even the difference between a high-frequency and a low-frequency scratch.
Here Simon answers some questions about his DVD, about his approach to tone, and about some of the common issues that violinists face on the road toward creating a beautiful tone.
Laurie Niles: You've written three books now on violin technique, what made you decide to do a DVD?
Simon Fischer: I’ve wanted to make this film for about fifteen years. The exercises are the purest, simplest and most immediate way to work on sound production, and they are simple to demonstrate. So they are perfect material for a teaching video. Everybody should know these simple exercises, and the question has been how to get them out there.
The film has basically arisen out of a workshop I have given many times over the last twenty years called ‘The Tone Production Class.’ It has usually taken about two and a half hours, and with just one violin student acting as the guinea pig. It starts off with them playing something for thirty seconds or so – anything, even just a slowish two-octave scale in first position. Then we go through all the principles and facets of tone, and I guide them through practicing four or five of the exercises.
To finish, the student plays the same two-octave scale, or whatever it was they played at the beginning. The difference in the tone is always quite extraordinary. In most cases, it is like witnessing five years’ worth of improvement in two straight hours. Everyone can tell the difference. It’s not just a question of the student perhaps being unsettled at the beginning of the session and more comfortable at the end after being in front of the audience for all that time. There is a certain extraordinary sort of culture that immediately enters the tone quality after just a short time of doing these exercises. They truly are magical, and the effects are noticeable so quickly and easily.
Every time I have ever given the class, I have thought how it should be filmed and made available for far more people to see than are ever at any of these events, even though sometimes there have been audiences of over a hundred at a time.
In fact, years ago I used to occasionally think about training up a group of teachers in these exercises and sending them out on tours of every school and music department in the UK, so that every single string player and teacher could get to use them. But of course the logistics of such a huge, nationwide operation were always enough to stop me in my tracks immediately. And what about all the other countries? Slightly more practical to put it all on a DVD and send that out instead!
Laurie: How is this DVD different from "Basics"?
Simon: Well, all of the exercises on the DVD are in Basics, but there are all kinds of other stuff in the Tone section of Basics as well. If anything, the content of the DVD follows the Tone Production chapter of my new book, The Violin Lesson (scheduled to be released in the spring). When it came to that book, the question was: what to offer that was not already covered in Basics and Practice? The answer quickly was clear: the content of the Tone Production Class.
So by the time it came to deciding to make the film, I was able to use the Tone Production chapter out of The Violin Lesson as the basis for a script. Of course, written text and the natural spoken word are necessarily different, so this was only a start, but it fulfilled the original idea of making the Tone Production Class into a film.
However, on film I could coach students on other instruments, so the DVD has ended up as a sort of super-deluxe version of the original class. That is also why it has ended up at over four hours.
Laurie: Do beginning violinists tend to have different tone problems from advanced players?
Simon: I love the story about the great cellist Pablo Casals. He had a not-very-advanced amateur student, and one day a friend of Casals asked him, ‘Pablo, you can teach anyone in the world, why do you teach this man?’ Casals answered, ‘Because from him I learn how to teach the advanced ones!’ In other words, the problems are all the same as you go up level-by-level, but they get smaller and smaller – until they are so slight they are even hard to spot. When we see it in a beginning student, we see an enlarged version that is easy to understand. When it comes to tone production, all we have are three variables: control of speed, pressure, and soundpoint. We are all in the same boat when it comes to the challenge of being able to control these three factors so that they remain even.
By the way, Casals is an interesting subject in this whole realm of tone exercises. He is often held up as the definitive musician who did not ever merely play his instrument, but always made music. It is true that when he played the cello, it was as if the instrument was in parentheses, and he was in a musical world beyond the instrument. He is the hero of those who decry technical practice, and who maintain that such work, divorced from music, is unmusical practice which will make you play unmusically in the end.
But the joke is that Casals himself practiced the Pressure exercise that is featured on this DVD (Exercise 3)! There is a whole chapter of Casals in the book, String Mastery: Talks with Master Violinists, Viola Players and Violoncellists by Frederick H. Martens (New York, 1923). In it, Casals says: “I believe in daily technical exercise. I practice scales, repeated notes, trills in different rhythms; and as to the bow I use special exercises for the point, frog and middle, as well as exercises in strength-inflection, to accustom the bow-hand to finely marked differences of strength and pressure.” Exercises in strength inflection? That’s the pressure exercise, which is known amongst cellists who studied with Casals as ‘the Casals exercise’. Of course Casals practiced bare technique!
Laurie: How can you tell the difference between tone problems that come from the player, and tone problems that come from the violin? At what point would you tell a student he or she needs a better violin, or would you?
Simon: I certainly do often suggest to students that they get a better violin. This does not always mean a more expensive one, but a different one. What is important is to have enough ‘room’ in which to make all the different colors you want, from light to dark and from light to heavy, and for the instrument to have enough responsiveness and enough sound. It is no good if there is too low a ceiling in any of these things and there is just no further you can go.
If an instrument is boxy, in the sense of weak bass and dull treble, or if it just doesn’t have enough sound or resonance, there comes a point where you just have to concede that the player is doing everything he or she can. One of the most unfortunate things is when someone is working ten times harder than they should need to, and if they had a more responsive instrument they could get the same result with half the effort and in half the practice time.
But responsiveness is not only or always a matter of price. There are plenty of expensive instruments that are harder to play than cheaper ones, or that seem to have less ring. One of my students has a not-terribly-expensive violin, and if you play a short third-finger D on the A string, exactly in tune with the open D, the note rings on afterwards for so long, it is quite astonishing. I am almost jealous. In fact, what is really astonishing is the extent to which expensive or cheaper violins can end up sounding exactly the same when heard from a distance. Often violins become ‘neurotic’ for one reason or another. Of course I am joking, but one definition of 'neurosis' is when one part of the organism is at war with another part of the same organism. In other words, there is an internal conflict going on. And when a violin – whatever the value – is properly set up, it responds to the lightest touch, it is resonant and free, it really rings and sings. But when the bridge or soundpost is not in the right place, or the tail gut is too long or short, or if the nut (the ridge at the end of the fingerboard at the scroll end) is too high or low, there is a feeling of ‘conflict’ in the sound. You can sense the violin fighting against itself. Fortunately, violins are easier to adjust than people are!
By the way, the length of the tail gut seems to be one of the great secrets of setting up a violin that even violin repairers sometimes do not take into account sufficiently – i.e. a fraction longer or shorter completely affects the responsiveness of the string to the bow, all other things being equal.
Laurie: Did you struggle with tone, as a student? When did you first realize the importance of this aspect of playing the violin? When did you first realize the importance of teaching this aspect of violin playing, and the best way to do so?
Simon: No, I didn’t struggle with tone at all. I thought that that area of my playing was all naturally fine, and that what I had to build was a reliable and virtuosic left hand. But I didn’t know what I was missing.
Some of these exercises are mine – in the sense that I am sure someone else must have done such things sometime somewhere, but I have not come across them. But the main ones, and the speed/pressure/soundpoint basis of them, were what I learned from Dorothy DeLay, with whom I studied, starting when I was 23. The assistant I worked with in my first year with Miss DeLay was Masau Kawasaki, now for many years on the faculty of Juilliard himself. He was extremely good at explaining and demonstrating these exercises, too. And his excellent tone on both the violin and viola was evidence of their good effect.
My initial reaction to the way my sound improved after the first couple of weeks in New York was one of feeling very cross, to put it mildly, that nobody had shown me these exercises before. I was very grateful to Yfrah Neaman, who I had just studied with for five years, for his musical influence and much else besides; but it was almost upsetting, when I thought about how hard I had worked, and imagined how things might have been, had I known this approach to sound production.
A couple of days ago I received an email which said, ‘I have received "The Secrets of Tone Production" DVD and am very pleased with it. The exercises are so simple it makes me wonder why the various violin teachers I have had over the years never thought to mention them.’ Exactly. How many times have I heard that same comment over the years, either when I have taught these exercises to individuals or in classes. And it was my reaction as well!
To me the tone exercises are a perfect example of the ‘Acres of Diamonds’ story. There are many versions of it, but basically the point is that diamonds in their natural state do not look like the glittering, cut and polished jewels that you see in the jewelry shop. In life we so often do not see something of value because it does not look the way we expect it to look. String players have this unfortunate tendency to want to play music all the time and can easily miss the benefits that work like this can bring. I call these exercises ‘million-dollar tone exercises’ because they truly are worth a million dollars.
As to teaching them, since I first came back from America they have been my not-so-secret weapon that I have shown to, and used with, every student I have ever worked with. And I always return to them many times with the same students. There is no easier or quicker way to help them.
In the early days, when I was teaching at Wells Cathedral School in the 1980s, I sometimes used to teach the exercises all day long. I had eight students, and each got one hour. Each lesson was like embarking on an entirely new journey. For me it was simply endless fun, the way each student got more and more un-forced, glowing resonance out of their instrument. However, it is not necessarily quite as much fun for someone else who happens to be in the vicinity. At Wells, the room I taught in was directly above the secretary’s office. I remember that at least twice, probably in the summer when the windows were open, she came upstairs and begged me to do something else because the one note was driving her crazy.
I often give long lessons that are actually the complete Tone Production Class but given to one student. After 30 years, I could give one of these lessons in my sleep, but for some reason they remain forever new. However many times you experience them you look forward to the next one. Every time there is always something that comes up, some new way of expressing or doing something, that feels like a great discovery, and then you look forward to the next session, just so that you can do or say this new thing again.
The way I teach the exercises that Miss DeLay taught me (numbers 1, 3, 4 and 5 on the DVD) has always remained the same, i.e. exactly as she taught them, and herself was taught by Galamian, and he by Capet. I haven’t changed a thing. In fact, sometimes I have said to students when we have been working on these exercises, ‘You want to know what it would be like if you were a student at the Juilliard School having a lesson from Miss DeLay? Like this!’
Actually, I have changed one thing. In recent years I stress far more – in fact, all the time – to imagine that the one note of the exercise is in a piece of music – in a solo piece, or a quartet, or whatever. Then the playing always becomes completely different, and infinitely more sensitive. You shouldn’t do these exercises in a detached, unmusical, intellectual, mechanical sort of way, but always expressively. One of the sections of the film is called ‘Playing musically’.
As to the note, in the film I stick to just one, for reasons of consistency and comparison as the film progresses. But of course in the end you need to do the exercises in each of the twelve areas of the fingerboard, i.e. low, middle and high positions on each string.
Laurie: Once a violinist or string player has mastered the correct way to practice these exercises, how often should he/she do them, and for how long? Every day, forever?
Simon: They are the best warm-up exercises, so looked at from that point of view they could be done many times each week, forever. It is worth occasionally spending a whole day’s practice on them. You feel the benefits for weeks afterwards.
Coming back to Casals, he once said ‘Intonation is a question of conscience’. In other words, if you have a strong conscience and a shop-keeper gives you one penny too much in change, you give it back because to ‘steal’ one penny feels the same as taking much more; and if your musical conscience is really strong, if you play a note only a fraction out of tune you cannot accept it.
Very good, but why did he say this only in relation to intonation? Surely quality of tone is also a matter of conscience, as is phrasing and expression and all the rest! So for how long should you practice these exercises? Who can say? How beautiful a voice do you want to have?
Again, the key is the attainment of evenness. There is no such thing as perfection, when it comes to performing a piece of music. There is always further to go. But when it comes to sustaining one note on a stringed instrument with a bow, or going heavy-light, heavy-light etc., there is such a thing as perfection. I’ve always liked to say that these exercises are like an endless well of the purest spring water: however much water you take out, there is always more to take, whenever you want.
Laurie: Once a person has practiced these exercises and is feeling more confident about their tone, do you have any pieces that you recommend to practice the application of tone production principles? (Big-tone pieces? Change-the-lane-on-the-string pieces? Fill the hall even though you are playing piano? )
Simon: No, not at all. There are four categories of practice: exercises, scales, studies and pieces, so the tone exercises are basically in the first group. However, you can apply them to notes, phrases or even whole passages in the repertoire, and then they become an essential practice method throughout all of your practice. This area, applying the exercises to regular practice, is what the Tone Production section of the Practice book is all about.
Laurie: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Simon: My hope is that over time this DVD will help to make these exercises truly become an ordinary part of everyday string teaching. Ever since my student days in New York, it has been a strange thought to me, that there are literally millions of violinists and other string players all over the world who are all only a couple of hours away – i.e. 20 minutes each day for a week – from an entirely different experience and level of playing their instrument. It all consists of such simple steps.
Once again, the holidays have arrived, and the gift-giving season is upon us. Here I have assembled a list of some of this year's finest offerings from violinists, including recordings, DVDs and some sheet music. Please feel free to add to this list in the comment section!
Why should you consider giving – or asking for – a music-related gift? For one, it will help keep you inspired about your violin-related endeavors, to hear a beautiful recording, to receive tickets to an inspiring concert, to have new sheet music, to receive useful equipment, etc. Your friends and relatives might look to you as being the "expert" on classical music, and the gift of something like a recommended recording from you just might help another person start on the path toward appreciating classical music.
Also, you are supporting musicians and keeping music stores afloat when you buy recordings and other music-related things. Even if you don't see anything that excites you on this list, I hope it helps you think about the idea of asking for a music-related gift or giving a music-related gift: attending a concert, buying a CD from a local musician, asking for a musical gadget, instrument, sheet music you've always wanted, donating to an arts organization, etc. (To that end, a portion of each purchase made after following any links below which go to Amazon.com will support Violinist.com.)
Julia Fischer: Paganini: 24 Caprices
James Ehnes and the Philharmonia Orchestra with Vladimir Ashkenazy: Mendelssohn Violin Concerto and Octet
Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker, Berliner Philharmoniker, with Simon Rattle
Sergey Khachatryan: Bach Sonatas and Partitas
Hilary Hahn: Higdon and Tchaikovsky Violin Concertos
Philippe Quint: Paganini: Arrangements for Violin & Piano by Fritz Kreisler
Maud Powell Favorites, Rachel Barton Pine and Karen A. Shaffer
The Dueling Fiddlers: Rock Violin
Scott and Lara St. John and The Knights orchestra: Mozart
Antal Szalai: Enescu Violin Sonatas
Dylana Jenson: Shostakovich and Barber Violin Concertos
Time for Three: Three Fervent Travelers
Regina Carter: "Reverse Thread"
Anne-Sophie Mutter: Brahms Violin Sonatas, the CD and the DVD
Gil Shaham with the Sejong Soloists: Haydn Violin Concertos, Mendelssohn Octet
Anne Akiko Meyers: Seasons...Dreams...
Frank Almond: Portraits, Elegies
Misha Keylin with the Slovack Radio Symphony Orchestra: Vieuxtemps: Fantasia Appassionata Ballade Et Polonaise
Stefan Jackiw: Brahms Violin Sonatas
Takako Nishizaki: Suzuki Evergreens
Brooklyn Rider: Dominant Curve
Simon Fischer: The Secrets of Tone Production
Steven Greenman: Stempenyu's Neshome
The Nigel Kennedy Quintet: Shhh!
Manor House String Quartet: "I Saw Three Ships" Christmas CD
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The Recording Academy tonight announced the nominees for the 53rd Annual Grammy Awards. In the classical categories, violinist Julia Fischer was nominated for Best Instrumental Soloist Performance for her recording of the Paganini 24 Caprices.
Here's our interview with Julia from October, in which she talks about her recording of the Caprices.
Also nominated for Best Chamber Music Performance were Isabelle Faust & Alexander Melnikov for "Beethoven: Complete Sonatas For Violin & Piano."
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American Suzuki pioneer John Kendall is recovering from a stroke he had on Nov. 23. We all wish him well!
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Management of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra has canceled two additional weeks of concerts in the wake of last week's failed negotiations to end the eight-week musicians' strike.
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Public voting on the top 15 finalists begins today at YouTube.com/BigBreak and ends on December 14 for Big Break, sponsored by From the Top and Carnegie Hall. The Big Break’s grand-prize winner, selected by the public, will appear on an upcoming national radio broadcast of From the Top on NPR with host Christopher O’Riley. The grand-prize winner plus several runners-up also will perform at a Carnegie Hall Family Concert on April 9 in Zankel Hall, produced in partnership with From the Top and hosted by Mr. O’Riley. Big Break winners will be announced on or after December 15.
The Big Break finalists are:
Follow Violinist.com's coverage of ASTA 2015 from Salt Lake City!
Laurie Niles is from Pasadena, California. Biography
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