The Charleston Symphony Orchestra has suspended its operations as of Sunday, according to the the Charleston Post and Courier, canceling all remaining concerts in its 2009-2010 season. "Currently, the CSO does not have the operating cash flow to continue to pay its musicians or staff member’s salaries and the organization’s operating expenses," said CSO President Ted Legasey in a press release that is posted on the orchestra's website. "This was a very difficult decision for the Board and we are committed to work diligently to find a solution that enables the organization to continue to serve the Charleston community."
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Carlos Piantini, 1927-2010. Violinist and conductor Carlos Piantini, died Friday in Port Jervis, NY, at the age of 82. A native of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, Piantini was 10 when he first appeared as a soloist and 17 when he went to Mexico to study music. He was the first Latino to play in the New York Philharmonic, where he played for 15 years. He made his conducting debut with the Philharmonic in 1969, with a performance of Verdi's "Requiem." From 1978 to 1983 he served as conductor of the Caracas Philharmonic, and from 1984 to 1994 he served as conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra of the Dominican Republic (Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional). He conducted many orchestras around the world, including the Vienna Symphony Orchestra; National Symphony Orchestra (Washington); the Jerusalem Symphony and the International Orchestra of Italy. He served as the Artistic Director of National Theatre Santo Domingo, where in 2009, the main hall was renamed "Gran Sala Maestro Carlos Piantini." He also served as Dominican Republic's representative to the United Nations from 1972-1973. More recently, he was founder and director of Florida International University's Symphony Orchestra and Orchestral Studies Program.
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Who wouldn't love the kind of review that David Patrick Stearns gave the string quartet Brooklyn Rider for its performance at Philadelphia's Kimmel Center? "The program was a case of 21st-century musicians' simply being well-rounded citizens of a musical world in which Latin and Persian folk cultures, for example, aren't confined to national borders, and French impressionists are as much a part of our world as the era that spawned them." Stearns wrote. "My reaction on Saturday wasn't 'Isn't this interesting?' but 'Isn't this fun?'" The quartet includes violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen (who composed several of the works played Saturday) violist Nicholas Cords and cellist Eric Jacobsen.
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This could be an interesting book: Mother Started It, by Diana Steiner, a compilation of interviews and stories about three generations of American female classical musicians, Elizabeth Levy Steiner, her daughters Diana and Frances Steiner, and Diana’s daughter, Marcia Dickstein. It includes vignettes of the famous musicians that crossed their lives, such as Efrem Zimbalist, Gregor Piatigorsky, Jascha Heifetz, Nadia Boulanger, Leonard Bernstein, and Mehli Mehta.
Let's just say that Benjamin Britten's Violin Concerto is not the best-known on the planet. When I polled our die-hard violin lovers here on Violinist.com, 60 percent of our responders had never heard the Britten, and of the 40 percent who had, most had heard a recording. Only a handful – 5 percent – had heard the piece played live.
I must count myself among those who had not heard the Britten, until I came across Dutch violinist Janine Jansen's recording of it with the London Symphony Orchestra, under conductor Paavo Järvi, released last fall. On the recording she pairs the Britten with the much-played, much-loved Beethoven Violin Concerto, with Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, also conducted by Järvi.
When I spoke with her last month over the phone, she was in Philadelphia to play the Brahms Concerto with Philadelphia Orchestra and Charles Dutoit. I had interviewed Janine about a year ago for Violinist.com, but today I wanted to talk with her specifically about the Britten.
I confessed that I had not heard the Britten until I heard her new recording.
"I think you're not the only one. Unfortunately!" Janine said. She learned it because she was asked to play it with an orchestra in Holland about 10 years ago. "I didn't know it then, either," she said. "I got to know it because I was asked to play it."
She started to practice the piece, to study and play it, and before long, "I was completely in love with this piece," Janine said. "This love has gotten stronger and stronger – I feel so deeply about this piece." Playing it with orchestra, "one experiences the incredible strength of it. You're really giving everything through the whole piece, it's such a tension from beginning to end. And everybody has such an important role to play."
Britten's Violin Concerto is no romp through a sunny field of daisies, but it's also not a wasteland of puzzling sound. It is certainly tonal, maybe like a sad and moody Korngold concerto, with touches of Shostakovich-like elegy. Of course the piece can't be considered derivative of either of those concerti; the Britten was written in 1939; the Korngold in 1945; the Shostakovich in 1947-1948. But they share a certain language of their time – no easy time, at that. It's the kind of idealism that emerges from a broken world, the flower that blooms in a burned-out battlefield.
Though it was one of the first pieces Janine wanted to record when she first started working with Decca six years ago, she did not get her wish right away. "This is not the piece to start with when nobody knows you – they don't know the violinist, they don't know the piece, it's kind of a finished story!"
But in a way, this delay gave her all the more time to get to know the many facets of the music.
"I tried also to program it wherever I could, because I don't understand why this piece is not played more often," Janine said. "I remember one of the first times I played it, I brought it to Birmingham, to England! And orchestra members would come up to me afterwards and say "Thank you so much for bringing (the Britten), it's been 25 years since we played it!' I thought, my God, I am in the UK, no?'"
"In the last three years, more and more violinists are taking up the piece and also really believing in it. Some wonderful recordings have been made of it," Janine said. Added to the first recording that Janine heard of it, by Ida Haendel, are recent recordings by Maxim Vengerov, Frank Peter Zimmermann and Daniel Hope.
Is it a difficult piece?
"It's quite demanding, definitely," Janine said. "There are some places, like the Scherzo, in the second movement, where it's very fast and there are a lot of double stops, and even double-stop harmonics. So it's quite tricky. But of course one practices a lot. Even then, you never know what will happen!" (laughs)
"But it is written so well, it's really an amazing piece to play, even with its difficulties," Janine said. "One doesn't think about it during the performance because one is so taken by the the music and especially, for me, the end of the piece. The whole coda –this is the most impressive moment. It starts like a prayer, but it ends in a kind of scream, it's incredible. Every time one plays it, one can't move afterwards, physically and emotionally."
How do you motivate your child to practice? For that matter, how do you motivate your child to do anything at all?
I was mostly contemplating the latter question when I met London-based parenting expert Noël Janis-Norton about six years ago, when my children were extremely young. I was also contemplating questions like, "What am I doing? What made me think I could be a mom?"
I good friend told me about a five-hour seminar with Noël, and I thought, "Five hours without the kids? Sold!"
That five-hour investment changed my way of thinking and helped me feel much more empowered as a parent, and even as a teacher.
Last month Noël came out with a CD called Calmer, Easier, Happier Music Practice, and she also gave a lecture for the parents in the Suzuki group where I teach in Pasadena. Sure enough, this was a topic of great interest.
So I took the opportunity to chat with Noël: specifically about children and music practice, and her new CD. (BTW if you get the CD, you'll find me in there, talking about using her techniques for teaching!)
Laurie: What is valuable about music practice, in terms of child development, besides learning an instrument?
Noël: Music practice is very valuable for a child’s development in a number of ways. The discipline of having to do something on a regular basis, something that is not necessarily easy and not necessarily fun, helps children develop the important qualities of determination, perseverance and persistence. And the experience of going from not being able to play a piece to being able to play a piece gives children a sense of mastery that results in confidence. And of course if you have a child who has shown some degree of musical talent, you probably want to nurture that gift so that your child can feel the excitement and satisfaction of fulfilling their potential.
One word of caution, though. As clear as a parent may be about the benefits of music lessons and music practice, it is utterly pointless to try and convince your children of these benefits. Whenever we try to convince our children of something, of anything, we are coming from a position of weakness, and we are advertising our weakness. It just ends up sounding like a lecture. Instead of trying to convince or persuade our children, we need to focus on establishing consistent routines and good habits.
Laurie: What are some of the most common complaints that parents have about music practice?
Noël: In my Calmer, Easier, Happier Music Practice seminars, the first thing I always ask parents is how they would like music practice to be different at home. There are three typical complaints.
The first is that parents want their child to do his best and not rush through the pieces. They want him to be more focused and less distracted during practice so that he really makes an effort to remember what he’s been told about what to do and how to do it instead of just plowing through it. The second complaint is that they want their child to be more motivated to practice—to be more willing and less resistant. Resistance can be quite mild, such as a child who dejectedly walks off to practice with some mumbling. Or resistance can be more problematic, such as a child who procrastinates, negotiates, bargains or just refuses. The third concern is that parents want their child to be less upset when he makes a mistake—to be less of a perfectionist. So instead of big emotional outbursts, the child can move through his frustrations more easily and more quickly.
Of course there are other issues with practicing, but these are the ones I hear most frequently.
Laurie: Why would a child resist practicing?
Noël: There are two main reasons why children resist practicing. The first is that they know, from past experience, that there is a chance that their resistance will pay off. For example, they may waste so much time complaining that there ends up being less time available for practicing. And sometimes they can come up with a good enough excuse so that they manage to get out of practicing altogether.
When routines aren’t consistent, kids don’t know what to expect, and this gives them so much more room to resist and negotiate! As I mentioned before, we need to establish habits, and that starts with having consistent routines. Another reason a child may resist practicing is because she is expecting to be scolded or corrected when she plays. If the parent has been in the habit of pointing out what she played wrong instead of noticing and mentioning what she did right, practice will not be a rewarding experience for the child, and she will naturally try to get out of it.
Laurie: Have you seen parents succeed in changing a child's resistance to practice into enthusiasm for practice?
Noël: I certainly have! But let’s define what we mean by enthusiasm first. Enthusiasm for practicing an instrument doesn’t mean that you child is so excited by the thought of practicing that she can hardly wait to do it, just like enthusiasm for school doesn’t mean that children are begging to go to school on Saturday and Sunday. Enthusiasm means enjoyment for practicing and feeling a sense of satisfaction and reward.
Just the other day I was visiting with a family who has been using the Calmer, Easier, Happier Music Practice strategies for five years. I asked the 10-year-old, on a scale of one to ten, with ten being the most fun he could ever have, and with one being the most horrible experience he could ever have, "How would you rate practicing your violin?" He only thought about it for a couple of seconds, and then he said "eight". Then I asked him how he would feel if his mom kept stopping him while he was playing a piece and telling him about his mistakes. He answered immediately, "I’d hate it." Nobody likes to have their mistakes pointed out—not adults, not children.
Laurie: How much should a parent really be involved in music practice, and until what age?
Noël: There are different ways to be involved. Assuming that parents are practicing being involved in a positive, firm and consistent way, you’ll be able to see when your child is becoming more self-reliant and therefore needing you less. And by self-reliant, I mean remembering not just what to play but how to play it.
Some teaching methods, such as Suzuki, require parents to be very involved and others don’t, but I still recommend parents being involved. Sometimes parents think that they should leave their child alone to practice because their child doesn’t want them "meddling" in their practice. Children generally only feel that way when they are expecting to be corrected a lot. And understandably, if parents don’t know a better, more effective way to be helpful, they will tend to correct a lot. But luckily, there is a better way, where parents can learn to reinforce good habits effectively in a very positive way.
So let me address the question of how many months or years parents will need to supervise music practice before they can trust their child to reliably motivate himself to do his best and manage his time efficiently. The answer really depends on how consistently you are putting the skills that I’m recommending into practice. The more you practice these new skills, the sooner your child or teen will gradually develop good, solid habits of time-management, of challenging himself to do his best, of persevering and ultimately of enjoying music practice. The Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting strategies will help your child to become not only more cooperative but also more confident, more motivated and more self-reliant. As you see those qualities developing, you can gradually be less and less involved. The same is true of homework from school. So you won’t be supervising music practice forever and a day. That’s the good news. But you may need to supervise music practice probably for longer than you wish. There is no arbitrary age or grade at which a child can be trusted to be self-reliant and do their best. This is a matter of "stage not age." And stages are the result of training, not just the passage of time.
Laurie: I once had a colleague who admitted to spanking her three-year-old if she didn't practice. Over the years, I have occasionally seen parents berate their child over a poor performance -- or to a lesser extreme, criticize them publicly. It has all made me very concerned about the potential for abuse. If a child is obviously not performing to their potential, how should a parent handle that? What kind of perspective is necessary for a parent who is hopeful that their child will do well in music?
Noël: It is often the case that parents are disappointed and frustrated because they can see that their child is far more capable than what she’s producing. Parents also need to recognize that although all children are not equally talented, they can all improve, and all children can get the satisfaction of going from not being able to do something to being able to do it.
The key to bringing out the best in children is motivating them. The physical spanking you mentioned and also what I call "verbal spanking’, which is the correcting, criticizing and scolding, does not motivate children. Unfortunately, it does the opposite. We don’t want our children to practice out of fear of being punished.
Laurie: When is it appropriate for a child to quit an instrument?
Noël: Parents often ask how they should handle the issue of a child or teenager wanting to give up music lessons. Once parents realize that music lessons and music practice can be transformed through parenting strategies, this issue of when to stop music lessons often fades into insignificance. But if this remains a problem in your family, my first piece of advice is to examine your values, and the values of your partner if you have one, to make sure that you know why you want your child to be studying an instrument. As I mentioned, learning an instrument is not just about learning to appreciate music. That can be accomplished without ever picking up an instrument. If one of your reasons for having your child study music is to teach self-discipline, there are many other ways that goal can be achieved. If your child chose to study an instrument and now doesn’t want to, you may well place a value on perseverance, and therefore you don’t want him to give it up just because he feels like stopping. On the other hand, in some families the value that the parents hold is that this is something that children can decide for themselves. If this is your value, you still have to figure out whether your child is basing his desire to give up on mature reflection, or whether it’s just a whim that he may regret later. Children, by definition, are immature and therefore not capable of a great deal of mature reflection.
The worst reason for stopping music lessons is that the child isn’t enjoying it. That sounds like a heartless thing to say, but what I mean is that if you put into practice most, it doesn’t even have to be all, of the strategies I outline in my music practice CD, your child will probably start enjoying her music lessons and even the practicing. And even if she doesn’t actually enjoy it she will tolerate it without too much angst. This is very similar to how children often feel about school. When children complain about school, we don’t generally entertain the option of their dropping out. For most parents, their values dictate that children and teenagers will continue going to school because the pluses far outweigh the minuses. I strongly believe that the same is true of music study.
Laurie: What are some measures I can take to keep music practice a positive experience for my child?
Noël: There are many things we can do to make music practice a positive experience. I’ll briefly mention three things that are critical for achieving this goal. First, as I touched upon before, having a consistent practice routine, where your child knows when practice will happen each day, goes a long way toward reducing practice resistance. They just get into the habit of doing it then—it is just part of their day.
I also mentioned how de-motivating it can be for kids to have their mistakes regularly pointed out to them. Parents need a more effective way to give feedback about their child’s playing during the practice, and the strategy they need to learn and practice every day is Descriptive Praise. Instead of vague superlatives like "Great job" and "Fantastic playing", they must be very specific and describe exactly what their child did that was good so that the child has useful information about what he or she did well and can do it again. It also shows that the parent really paid attention and noticed what they were doing. They could say, "That was accurate shifting" or "You remembered the bow divisions on that difficult passage" or "Your hard work on the dynamics really shows".
The third thing parents can do to keep practice positive is to use a specific technique that I developed called a "think-through". It is a way of communicating with a child that results in the child not only knowing what to do but also remembering how to do it. It is practically magical when parents start using it, but it’s not how we are used to doing things, so it takes practice. Imagine how much better practice would be if you didn’t have to remind your child what to do or tell them what they did wrong after they played a piece.
Let me share an email I received recently from a mother who used this technique:
"We started with a think through, and I had my son list first the basic body posture checkpoints for beautiful cello playing, then the tricky parts for his current piece. Then he started playing, doing most of the things we talked about. I did not interrupt when he made a mistake, like I usually do. Then when he finished, I checked off each thing he did right, by holding one finger up at a time, until all 10 of my fingers were up. Then I descriptively praised him further on his tippy toe fingers, which he held up even when he went to 2nd position on the G string. He was beaming AND he himself pointed out that his balloon deflated mid way through the piece and he said he wanted to play the piece again, this time trying hard to keep his balloon inflated all the way through the piece! Usually, I'm focusing on the mistakes and pointing them out, at which point my son explodes in frustration, shuts down, and has to be cajoled to continue practicing. This is such an improvement from our usual music practice routine!"
Laurie: Do you have anything to add?
Noël: Yes. I want parents to know that music practice does not have to be a struggle or a battle of wills. I promise you that it will become more and more enjoyable and more and more productive and will continue to improve over time, as long as parents are being proactive—creating consistent routines, using Descriptive Praise, "think-throughs" and a few other skills I share in my CD. As parents, we will never be perfect, and neither will our children, but the more we practice these techniques, the more positive, firm and consistent we will become. Music practice will be more fun and productive and family life in general will become calmer, easier and happier.
Violinist Ray Chen, who took home the gold in the Queen Elisabeth Competition in 2009 and the Yehudi Menuhin Competition in 2008, has signed an exclusive multi-year recording contract with Sony Classical.
An album featuring Bach, Sarasate and other solo works is scheduled for release at the end of this year, with another recording featuring late 19th century virtuoso repertoire planned for 2011. Chen plays the "Huggins" Stradivarius, on loan from The Nippon Music Foundation, and the 1721 Stradivarius known as "The Macmillan," the use of which he won in the 2008-09 Young Concert Artists International Auditions in New York.
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Pinchas Zukerman will serve as music director of the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa for another four years after his contract was extended through August 2015, according to an announcement last week from National Arts Centre. The violinist, who also continues to perform as a soloist, has served as director for 11 years.
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Last week the Musicians' Association of Hawaii Local 677 filed a formal complaint against the Honolulu Symphony, saying the orchestra's management is incapable of reorganizing. In his blog, Rick Daysog of the Honolulu Advertiser quotes David Farmer, attorney for the union: "Their decision first to cease fundraising, then operations and then to announce (and subsequently proceed with) a bankruptcy defies all logic, in light of the fact that no creditor was forcing the issue. (Based) on its history of gross mismanagement and incompetence ... management is incapable of the task of reorganization and a Chapter 11 trustee should be appointed, or, in the alternative, the case should be converted to Chapter 7 or dismissed." The symphony filed for Chapter 11 in December and layed off its 89 full- and part-time musicians.
Here is an article from the Honolulu Star-Bulletin about the complaint. (BTW, observe the headline, "Musicians union slams the symphony's 'brass'" and the lede, "The musicians union contends that Honolulu Symphony management is off key when it comes to running the beleaguered group's bankruptcy case." Cute and clever? I'd say NOT. Attention, purveyors of local news: These are real people, losing real jobs, in your community.)
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The Vienna Philharmonic announced Saturday that violinist Albena Danailova has now been permanently appointed as concertmaster, according to ABC News. It's a major step for the historically male-dominated group, which only began admitting women in the 1980s. Danailova had been serving as acting concertmaster since Sept. 2008. Naturally, V.commies used the occasion to start a contentious discussion. Frankly, it sounds like progress to me. Congratulations to Danailova and to the Vienna Phil.
UPDATE: Looks like we'll have to temper our celebrations: Susan Elliott of Musical America reported in her blog Wednesday that Albena Danailova was appointed permanent concertmaster of the Vienna Opera Orchestra, comprised mostly of Vienna Philharmonic musicians, not of the Vienna Philharmonic itself, as reported by AP, ABC and other news organizations. Maybe not the huge step for womankind we were thinking, but congratulations are still in order!
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Italian musicologist and Violinist.com member Paolo Petrocelli has published a book with the Cambridge Scholar Publishing, The Resonance of a Small Voice. William Walton and the Violin Concerto in England, between 1900 and 1940. The book is a study not only of Sir William Walton's Violin Concerto but also of the violin concerto in general in England, as it developed between 1900 and 1940. It considers the works of Charles Villiers Stanford, Edward Elgar, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Frederick Delius, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Arthur Somervell, Arnold Bax and Benjamin Britten and includes unpublished documents -- letters and essays written by both the composers themselves and by those to whom the concertos were dedicated -- related to the works. Paolo Petrocelli has a violin degree from the Conservatory of Santa Cecilia and musicology degree from the Università Sapienza. He also is the media and marketing manager of the Orchestra Symphonica d'Italia and is the violinist of the indie-folk band, Vinegar Socks.
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Luthiers Joseph Curtin of Ann Arbor, MI, and Terry Borman of Fayetteville, Ark., gave a Guarneri a CT scan last week at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. The fiddle – the 1741"Vieuxtemps" Guarneri del Gesu – wasn't fatally ill, thank heavens. They just wanted to learn its secrets, and Geoffrey Fushi of Bein & Fushi Rare Violins lent the violin, as well as three others, for that purpose. (The Chicago Tribune article mentioned that the "Vieuxtemps" was in town because its Austrian owner is looking to find "another loving owner" for it. Anyone? I'm pretty loving...)
The three other fiddles that were scanned were: a 1742 Guarneri valued at $6 million; an $8 million 1707 Stradivarius; and a 1752 J.B. Guadagnini, valued at $1.25 million. Apparently the two-hour test will reveal every possible measurement, including the density of the wood. Curtin already reported to the Chicago Tribune that the scans proved the woods to be "slightly less dense and lighter" than the norm. Interesting, I always thought the theory was that the wood in the fine fiddles was more dense – not less. Am I wrong?
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How did the London Philharmonic Orchestra get swindled out of so much money – £666,000 embezzled, for an accumulated loss of £2.3 million? This story in the Times Online of London this week goes into some depth about the tenure of general manager and financial director, Cameron Poole, and poses the question, "How on earth was so much siphoned off, over such a long period, without detection? " Criminal proceedings against Poole are still pending, according to the article.
“I just don't get the whole Galamian scale system thing,” a young colleague confessed to me recently at a gig. “But I have noticed this: my teachers who still play in tune, they practice their scales. The ones who don't practice scales don't play in tune.”
I wasn't surprised by this statement. But I did wonder how many people were mystified by the Galamian scale system, so I will share with you what I shared with him.
Yes, I practice these scales, I teach these scales and I highly recommend them. Here's the reason: The Galamian scales not only work the left hand, laying an intonation foundation in every possible position on the violin, but they provide a daily outlet for working on bowing techniques and problem-solving as well.
There's another reason: Galamian scales are what will keep you playing when you are 80.
And another: They will help you avoid injury.
I never met Ivan Galamian (nor do I agree with everything idea he had or edition he made) but I am grateful for the wisdom of his scales, as taught to me by three wonderful teachers and Galamian proteges: Jim Maurer of the University of Denver, the late Conny Kiradjieff of the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music and Gerardo Ribeiro of Northwestern University.
The scales are written out in Galamian's books, Contemporary Violin Technique, Volumes 1 and 2. I will tell you mostly about the three-octave scales, from Volume 1, as this is a good starting point. (This is not to diminish the importance of the arpeggios in Volume 1 and the double- and multiple-stop scales in Volume 2.)
The three-octave scales each begin and end with a turn (for example, G major begins with G-B-A-G before ascending, and it ends the same way). This serves two purposes; First, playing the third of the scale immediately sets the left hand with fingers over the fingerboard, so that you are simply dropping fingers, instead of flying at the fingerboard. Second, it makes the math work – more on that later.
As for fingerings, in general, you can start each scale on a first finger, or on a second finger. I pretty much start them all on a first finger. At first I thought this was a kind of “cheat,” just going up the fingerboard, using basically the same fingering for every scale.
I've come to view it as a brilliant idea. Why? Because mastering scales this way allows the left fingers to learn spacing for every possible position on the violin. Yes, start a Bb major scale in second position, shift to fourth or fifth position, and then to seventh. The left hand learns its mold for each position.
Galamian also came up with the “acceleration scale,” which is a wonderful way to warm up the fingers and mind for practice or performance. Here is how I put into practice: Set your metronome on 60 – a beat per second. Start with half notes, two beats on every note of the scale, breathing deeply, using the full length of the bow, aiming for purity of intonation and purity of tone (no glitches in the bow). Proceed to quarter notes, two to a bow, keeping the free and open feeling and purity in the bow arm. Then: eighth notes, four to a bow; triplets, six to a bow; 16ths, eight to a bow; sextuplets, twelve to a bow. Then for octuplets, switch to three-beat bows and 24 notes to a bow – the whole scale. (This is where the math comes in, those turns at the beginning and end of the scale allow for the maximum rhythmic divisions).
Did you get all that? If not, most of it is written out on page 5 of Volume 1 (the slower tempi are something I do, not written there). It's written out for a G-major three-octave scale, but the idea is to use it for all the scales. The fact that this is an “acceleration” scale is useful; it truly warms up the muscles in a gentle way, strengthening them at the same time.
Scale work is anything but boring, if you are concentrating. Here are a few aims for your scales: perfect intonation; tidy shifting; absolute bow control and purity of tone; rhythmic precision in left hand; relaxed bow arm; full bows, frog to tip; stillness of the left hand; shifting with the entire hand; and the list goes on.
Once you can play a three-octave scale, you can put it in your service for right-hand work. For example, try an acceleration exercise with spiccato. Do you have the control to do one bounce precisely each second? Two? Try it. In some ways, the slow tempi require more control than does the sautille. And by the way, can you control the speed of your sautille? You should. Can you play at that tempo that is between spiccato and sautille? Try six strokes per second. This can be a challenge.
Other ideas: You can play this scale with up-bow or down-bow staccato. You can play it with dotted rhythms. How's your ricochet? Try going up the scale, metronome on, two to a beat, three to a beat, four to a beat. Maybe you discover you have a weakness; for example, in playing Tchaik 4 you find that your pizzicato is weak and out of control. Do a pizzicato acceleration scale. Better yet, do pizzicato in rhythms. Sure, practice the passage, but if that's not doing the trick, you can use the scale for some basic training.
For me, scale time is foundation time for the left-hand, and it's problem-solving time for the bow arm. I don't watch the clock when I work on scales. Sometimes I just do one simple acceleration exercise – five minutes on scales. Sometimes I go through many permutations and introduce something new, and 45 minutes go by before I realize I'm still playing scales. I'm done when I'm done! The problems change depending on what music I'm playing, be it orchestra music, solo music or chamber music. But by using scales to solve these problems, I can simultaneously practice good, foundational intonation.
So yes, practice your scales! And you are welcome to share below how you use Galamian scales; I haven't even touched on the many more ways that you can use these scales and arpeggios. You can also talk about other scale methods that work for you.
Last night I was riffin'.
No, I wasn't in a nightclub, playing my fiddle, though that would have been fun. Instead, I was immersed in an improvisational quilting project that required dropping everything to do this, now.
Robert was puzzled. “What are you making?”
I'd pulled out boxes and drawers full of material, and before me on the floor were leftovers: a piece of flower-patterned denim from a dress I'd made my sister 15 years ago, fleece from a jumper I'd made my daughter in kindergarten and a square of quilt batting. I was studying several strips of material from a recent bed quilt I'd made.
“Can I ask,” Robert repeated, “how that's all coming together?”
I gave him a distracted, glazed-over, slightly manic look. “Um, no.” I said. “I mean, you'll see later. It will make sense.”
“Ah,” he said, sensing a familiar madness. “You're jazz quilting. I'll let you be.”
It was all because I'd bought a pair of sunglasses that day. They didn't come with a case, and when I looked for one, I found something perfect. Perfect, but pricey: $50 – more than the sunglasses! But I wanted it – it was sturdy on the outside, soft in the inside, made with sound stitchery.
Hey, I can sew...
That's how it all began. It ended at 11:30 p.m. with a torn-up living room and a tidy little glasses case – quilted, fleece-lined, made from this and that.
“Jazz quilting” – I like it!
It's been a difficult week for a number of violinists who received notice that they must return violins lent to them by Southern California collector Peter Mandell. Among these violinists is Lindsay Deutsch, who was told that she must return the 1742 Sanctus Seraphin, which she has been playing for seven years, by April 19. "It's a very special violin, it's the best violin I've ever had the opportunity to play on," Lindsay said. "Back when I first started playing it, it was shocking to see how much of a difference it could make how good a violin could be." Without the violin, Lindsay has many concerts to play, but "I absolutely don't have a piece of wood to play on," she said. "I don't know what I'm going to do. It's your worst nightmare come true." She said she welcomes any leads!
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The American String Teachers Association and Coda Bow are taking applications through March 31 for a program in which they will donate carbon fiber bows to string programs throughout the United States. It looks like you need to be a member of ASTA to qualify.
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Haitian violinist Romel Joseph has been released from the hospital, and this CNN story includes some video of him trying the violin again.
And speaking of the Haiti earthquake, the Chiara String Quartet will give a concert at 5:30 p.m. April 2 (Good Friday) at Trinity Church in Boston, to benefit earthquake victims. (Click here for information on the concert.)
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What is a violin? If you have any friends who are clueless about this, The Guardian (UK) put together this little explainer for the uninitiated, explaining, among other things, that "Violins don't have to be sappy and straight-laced. Loving hands can saw out a sound full of blood and rust."
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Have you ever had an "earworm," that is, a tune that just won't escape your head? According to this article in the New York Times, "some people, like musicians, women and the worry-prone, are more susceptible than others." Hmmm, that gets me on three counts. (What is the worst earworm you can have? I nominate this!)
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A singing string quartet? The Real Vocal String Quartet, founded by former Turtle Island String quartet violinist Irene Sazer , does just that, according to a feature in the San Francisco Examiner. The classically-trained foursome plays a mix of African, Brazilian, Balkan and bluegrass music.
At long last, I have brought all our Festivals and Camps Listings up to date on Violinist.com. You should now find, on ALL pages, links that work and dates that are current, with only a handful of exceptions for dates that have not yet been set. I hope these listings will prove useful for both those who are looking for a camp or festival, and for those trying to get the word out about their own.
Deadlines for most of these are rapidly approaching (some are past), so get yourself going if you wish to apply for a camp, festival or institute for this summer.
A huge thanks to those people who kept their listings current, or who brought the listing for their favorite camp/festival/institute up to date. Any Violinist.com member can submit a camp, festival or institute to our listings, and also any member can edit these listings. This is a service we offer for free, for the good of the community, and the more you can help us keep these listings comprehensive and current, the better.
Happy summer planning!
Hold your applause! Or maybe we shouldn't, argued arts journalist Alex Ross, writer for The New Yorker magazine and author of The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, at The Royal Philharmonic Society Lecture Monday in London. This caused quite a stir on Twitter feeds across the land; here you can download the text of his lecture in which Ross traces the history of "The Rule" about applause. "The underlying message of the protocol is, in essence, 'Curb your enthusiasm. Don’t get too excited.'" Ross said, then later in his speech, "I dream of the concert hall becoming a more vital, unpredictable environment, fully in thrall to the composers who mapped our musical landscapes and the performers who populate them."
My thoughts on the matter? Let people applaud, but if there is a special piece that requires silence between music, the conductor can say something like: "Ladies and gentlemen, we always welcome your enthusiasm and applause. In this particular piece, the silence between movements is almost part of the music, so if you will please hold your applause until the end, and I will let you know when that is..."
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More on Haitian violinist Romel Joseph, who remains at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami: the struggle to regain use of his hands will be considerable. When his music building crushed him in the earthquake, his left hand was broken and his right hand was impaled by nails from a wall that had fallen on him, according to The Washington Post. He is not sure if he will play again. "Violins require dexterity," Joseph said to Post writer Darryl Fears. "My hand will heal -- that won't be a problem. Will I play with it? That's a whole different story."
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Violinist Nigel Kennedy will put a 1973 football ("soccer" to Americans) game – England vs. Poland – to music as part of Southbank festival of Polish culture May 30 at the Southbank Centre in London. It might not be the Brits' favorite game in history; England lost, and as the Guardian notes, "The nation went to work the next day depressed and shocked." But as Kennedy says in the same article, "Football brings a lot of people together and music is obviously designed expressly for that purpose. They're also both shared things across all nations." Kennedy, who has lived for several years in, ahem, Krakow, Poland, will play a semi-improvised score with Polish jazz musicians to accompany the screening of the 1973 game.
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The Moscow State Radio Symphony Orchestra is performing in small towns across United States during a nine-week tour, and according to the New York Times, the musicians are making only about $40 a concert, with no per diem or payment for rehearsals. Attention: that's NOT ENOUGH.
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As the Vienna Philharmonic visited the UK last week, Francesca Jackes of The Independent asks why "no other internationally ranked orchestra has so few women and non-whites: respectively three percent and zero per cent. " This article traces the orchestra's weak and ineffective attempts to incorporate women and minorities into their ranks. The orchestra's spokeswoman is quoted at the end of it: "Perhaps women are just not as ambitious as men."
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A picture of a wrecked violin is enough to break my heart, and that's exactly what Polish violinist Jerzy Siwek, 58, has after being attacked by a street gang while busking in an area of south London. His 100-year-old violin was badly damaged and the rest of his equipment was taken.
The awkward nature of the violin can prove more than a matter of inconvenience: it can actually cause physical injury.
Fortunately, one can manage and even prevent aches, pains and injuries with the proper approach -- this is where Washington, D.C. violinist Diana Rumrill comes in. Not only has she been playing the violin for 30 years, but she also has been a physical therapist for ten years. As a physical therapist she has worked at the National Rehabilitation Center and has a private practice called Harmonious Bodies in D.C., exclusively for musicians. She also gives workshops and has some great podcasts on her website, including podcast interview with Alice Brandfonbrener, the great pioneer of performance medicine.
I had the opportunity to pick Diana's brain about injuries that are unique to violinists, how to prevent and treat them, and how to promote overall health in the violinist. Read and be healthy!
Laurie: For what kinds of injuries are violinists most at risk?
Diana: Violinists tend to be prone to back, neck, shoulder, forearm, wrist, and hand pain. This can be from irritation of muscles and tendons, or from compression of nerves. All of these issues can be helped by changing the way you practice to work with your body rather than against it.
Laurie: What specific techniques can help a violinist avoid specific kinds of injuries?
Diana: Learning to have a feeling of freedom throughout the whole body as you play will help with a multitude of issues. This is a middle ground between floppiness (slump-type posture) and bracing and stiffening the body (military-type posture) in which you feel free to move in any direction while retaining a sense of security. Bracing tends to be more of a problem for highly motivated musicians. Finding this balance of just the right amount of muscle tension will not only reduce playing related pain, but will help you play more expressively and freely.
Let’s look at how this plays out in different areas of the body. Maybe you were taught to be a good orchestra player by sitting up with your back arched and your violin raised high. This posture has good intentions, but your back muscles will be working overtime and your shoulder blade movement will be restricted. This eventually produces pain in the back and limits your available bow arm movement.
To find just the right sitting position, first find the bones you sit on. You want to sit centered on these bones. Gently rock back and forth on your sit bones while you release unnecessary tension in your back muscles. Once you find a comfortable middle ground on your sit bones, bring your violin up to playing position with freedom in your arms, leaving your back alone. You should be able to easily look up at the conductor without arching your back to do so.
Another area violinists tend to brace in is the contact with the chin and shoulder rest. Your fingering will be more free, your left arm will get good blood flow and feel relaxed, and your neck will feel better if you think of the violin as a sort of dynamic bridge between the neck and left hand rather than a shelf that the neck clamps on to. The left hand and shoulder/neck can change their balance of support as you play, like a dance, rather than a bridge riveted in place. The front of the chest then can feel open from collarbone to collarbone, leaving plenty of space to move.
Also, be open-minded as to what equipment might help you best. You might be surprised at the freedom a different type of shoulder rest or a middle mounted chin rest may afford if you have always stuck with the same setup. Consult your teacher or a performing arts medicine specialist on available options.
Laurie: How can one practice correctly, in a way that avoids injury?
Diana: First, avoid the idea that repetition equals practice. This is especially important if you are prone to finger or forearm pain. These small muscles get more than enough action in today’s keyboard – centered lives with computers and cell phones. Add in six hours of Bach sixteenth notes and you have a recipe for inflamed tendons, especially with the added tension level that stress brings. This is like trying to sprint a whole marathon!
If you are breathing freely, you are allowing movement to occur as well as sending a message to your body to be calm. This sounds like very simple advice, but one of the most common habits we all have in times of stress is to breathe shallowly or to hold the breath altogether for periods of time.
Maintain an awareness and relaxed visual scan on the room while practicing or playing. Having a narrow focus and staring at music for long periods creates a tendency to tense and brace the eye, neck, and forward-pulling muscles of the shoulders and trunk. Make sure your music is at the proper height so you can see it without slouching or squinting.
Drink enough water to properly lubricate your tendons. The finger muscles are driven by tendons in the forearm, which ride in tendon sheaths. Dry tendon sheaths mean friction and pain. Finish a thirty-two ounce water bottle twice in a day and you’re done.
Use a principle of strength training in your practice, which alternates different types of body stresses to avoid overdoing. Warm up by starting with something familiar at an easy pace. Alternate difficult or faster repertoire with slower or easier. Take regular breaks: walking around the room, drinking water, deep breathing, and gently stretching, every twenty to thirty minutes. Besides grounding you and allowing you to be more present and able to concentrate, your muscles need recovery time out of playing position.
Laurie: What is the best kind of general exercise for a violinist? Are there exercises (outside of playing) that can actually worsen the risk of injury for a violinist?
Diana: Many musicians mistakenly think that because they move their hands and fingers a great deal, that area is what needs strengthening. Actually, the opposite is true!
Musicians need strengthening of the large, torso-supporting muscles of the abdomen, back, shoulders, and hips in order to take the strain off of these small muscles. The wrists and fingers get overworked with the instrument and almost never need additional strengthening work with violinists. Yoga and Pilates classes are good choices. Better yet, if you are unsure where to begin, have a physical therapist work with you to develop a fitness program for you for home or the gym.
Take care of your body. Many musicians weren’t drawn to sports as children, and may find it difficult to think of themselves as “athletes”. However, our entire bodies were designed for movement and won’t work their best without a regular cardio workout. This means exercise that makes you breathe harder and is sustained for a period of time. Thirty minutes a day of walking, jogging, biking, or swimming will do it. Schedule it into your daily calendar, and once you have developed a habit, you will notice that you miss it if you skip a day.
I highly recommend working one on one with an Alexander technique teacher to help you find ways to stand, sit, and play the violin freely and without extra tension. There are resources at www.alexandertechnique.com, as well as podcasts on my website www.harmoniousbodies.com to find out more and to learn how you can work with a teacher in your area.
Laurie: If a musician is already injured, what steps should they follow in order to get a correct diagnosis and treatment?
Diana: If pain or other symptoms do not go away after altering your practice habits and do not subside after a few days of rest, it is time to seek medical help. It is much easier to treat a problem that has been going on for a few weeks than a few months or years! Don’t wait until the week before your big recital to run to your doctor in a panic.
Pain is a signal that something needs attention, and it’s hard to effectively treat pain in a rush. It is especially important to get help if you have neurological symptoms such as numbness, tingling, or writers’ cramp type feelings.
The Performing Arts Medicine Association has a “Referrals” section on its website in order to look up medical professionals in your area who specialize in the treatment of musicians. It’s best, if possible, to see a professional who already understands performers’ needs; if not possible, be prepared to explain the specifics of your instrument and your schedule. Definitely bring your instrument to your appointment, and tell your provider exactly when the problem started, whether there have been changes in your routine or stress level that preceded it, what specific activities provoke your symptoms or improve them, and any other information you have that will help them treat you effectively.
Laurie: Is there anything that needs changing, in the teaching of violinists, to help them avoid future injury?
Diana: Violinists should be taught with a sense of perspective about life away from the violin, a sense of fun and play about music as well as “the serious stuff”, and healthy cooperation with others to help balance an excessive pressure to succeed that ofter precedes unhealthy practicing habits.
Teachers should also keep in mind that every violinist is not appropriate for the same repertoire or the same fingerings. Work with the student’s body type and personality rather than against it.
Laurie: Is there such thing as "too much practice"?
Diana: Yes. Practice that feels like logging hours, mindless repetition of the same passages, and most especially is painful is not helping you physically or artistically. You already have creativity – now use it to come up with ways to help you learn your piece without simply repeating the passage over and over in the same old way.
Here are a few ideas to get you started: Set a five minute timer and play the passage as many different ways as you can in that time – in the style of different artists, with different speeds, bringing full attention to your breathing one time, full attention to your feet on the floor another time, et cetera. Try practicing the passage as softly as you can, without a mute. This helps you develop sensitivity and lets you really hear yourself, and can be a great side benefit of playing when you have to be mindful of disturbing others. Try alternating playing the passage aloud with “playing” it in your mind, really wxperiencing the sound and feel of playing the passage the way you want to do it. You may notice sensations arising during your mental practice that you notice before. For example, you have a sensation of squeezing the violin harder with your shoulder during a difficult part or bowing heavily when it’s not needed. When you notice and correct these during the mental practice, you have a chance to correct them during the violin practice, and you didn’t even have to irritate your tendons to do it!
Today marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of composer Samuel Barber, and his alma mater, the Curtis Institute, has been celebrating the late composer with a series of concerts all over the country played by a chamber group consisting of students, alumni and faculty called Curtis On Tour.
Among the pieces they are playing: the Barber String Quartet, Op. 11. The middle movement of this piece is the music we know as the Barber Adagio for Strings.
"I think if that was the only piece he ever wrote, he'd be one of the greatest composers that ever lived," said violinist and Curtis Institute professor Ida Kavafian, who is the faculty member playing on tour.
Left to right: Kavafian, violin; alumnus and faculty member Peter Wiley, cello; Hyo Bo Sim, viola; Yekwon Sunwoo, piano; Benjamin Beilman, violin. Photographer Jean Brubaker.
"I don't think I've ever gotten through it without tearing up, even in a concert," Kavafian said, "One of the most emotional times I played it was after 9-11, for the firemen who perished. There were some members of the family, and also guys that did survive, or didn't get the call to go down there, who were at the concert. That was rough."
Barber wrote the quartet for the Curtis Quartet, though it was premiered by another group. The current performances of it became all the more poignant because of the recent death of cellist Orlando Cole – "Landy" -- a founding member of the Curtis Quartet and longime cello professor at Curtis.
"Of course (Barber) was very close to Landy," Kavafian said. "Until very recently, I had this dream that this quartet would actually go and play the (Barber) quartet for him. So I was very saddened that I never had the opportunity to do that, although I know that he's coached the piece pretty recently with other groups here."
Barber actually wrote a letter to Orlando Cole while he was in the process of writing the quartet.
Samuel Barber, 1932, as a student at Curtis. He entered Curtis at its opening in 1924 and remained until 1934, studying piano and voice as well as composition. Photo courtesy of Curtis Institute of Music Archives.
"Being his friend, (Barber) was in communication with Landy as he was writing the quartet," Kavafian said. "When he finished the second movement, he wrote this letter, and it said, 'I just finished the slow movement of my quartet today – it is a knockout!' and he underlined "knockout." I think that was probably the understatement of the century!"
Violinist Ben Beilman, who a student of Kavafian and is playing in the Curtis tour, has played the Adagio a number of times before this, including the version for string orchestra, and has studied the Barber Violin Concerto. I asked him what he thought of the music of Barber.
"Barber obviously has this incredible ability to convey emotion. In he first and third movement of the quartet, there's almost a dark veil, occasionally. The violin concerto is a lot more expansive, more exuberant and outgoing. But emotion is the biggest thing that comes to mind; how much he decides to either go all the way – or what he decides to reserve and hold back, which adds even more tension and intensity to it."
"The first and third movements of the quartet are interesting. The first movement is kind of a standard movement to a quartet," Ben said. Then comes the second movement, the huge creative outpouring. After the "knockout" movement – well...
"The third movement is minuscule, it takes maybe a minute and a half to play," Ben said. "My first reaction to that – and I actually said this to Mr. Wiley – 'What happened? Was he late for an editor, was he late for a deadline?' Mr. Wiley kind of thought for a second, then he said, 'Do you really think that, Ben? If you had just written that second movement, how would you follow that with another third movement? How could you possibly imagine bringing new ideas to a piece that already seems complete?' So the third movement is kind of an echo of the first movement, like the last heartbeat after the huge emotional movement that is the second movement."
It occurred to me that it might be a little intimidating for a student to play with a faculty member – particularly the superstars at Curtis.
"It's exactly as you'd expect – it's everything from terrifying to inspiring, and I know it's one of these experiences that I'm going to take with me for a very, very long time," Ben said. "Mr. Wiley was the cellist with the Guarneri quartet, and Ms. Kavafian – together they were members of Beaux Arts Trio. They have tons of experience rehearsing and listening to each other, and it's amazing how quick and how succinct so many of their comments and their ideas can be, to really throw the music into a new level. For a student, that would take a full semester – with tons of coaching -- to solidify."
For Kavafian, it's a unique kind of teaching opportunity.
"As long as I've been here, I've played alongside students in groups," Kavafian said. "I think it's a different and more effective way of coaching – you can say things until you're blue in the face, but if you show it by example, it's very different. And you can also learn so much about rehearsal technique and generosity of emotion in a concert. There have been a lot of performances here in our hall of faculty and students together."
The Curtis on Tour concerts this month not only feature the quartet by Barber – one of Curtis's most famous graduates – but they also feature world premieres of works by two young composers that currently go to Curtis: "Lullaby: no bad dreams" by Christopher Rogerson and "Sonata for Viola and Piano" by Daniel Shapiro.
"I run a festival in New Mexico – Music from Angel Fire – and I bring ten to twelve Curtis students to it," Kavafian said. "For the last five years I've had a composer as one of the young artists." It's important to allow the composers to become part of the musical community and to bring their works to an audience. "Christopher Rogerson was my young composer in residence last year, and Daniel Shapiro is going to be the one for this year."
Curtis On Tour will perform five more concerts in March: one tonight in New York City, then stops in Kennett Square, Pa.; Orono, Maine; Rockport, Maine and Highland Park, Ill. More information here.
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And now in tribute to Samuel Barber, something in his own voice: I hadn't realized that Barber studied voice, in addition to piano and composition, when he was at Curtis. I ran across this 1937 recording on Youtube, of Samuel Barber singing his own composition, "Dover Beach," with the Curtis String Quartet. (You can find the words to the poem "Dover Beach" by Matthew Arnold if you scroll down on this page about Samuel Barber)
Violin playing is a basic matter of proportion and balance.
With all the bowings, fingerings, pitch, tone, rhythm, phrasing and sheer agony that goes into it, just how does one boil violin playing down to that basic matter?
This is the brilliance of London-based violinist Simon Fischer's contribution to violinkind: In his books, magazine columns and teachings, he cuts a path straight to the issue at hand, whether it's wobbly vibrato or out-of-tune scales. Sometimes he even makes the solution seem so simple as to be self-evident -- such is the genius of good pedagogy.
I first met Simon at the Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies in New York in 2007, when he was giving a lecture on tone production. By then he'd already written the two books that many consider essential to any violinist's library: Basics and Practice.
Most recently I spoke to him on the phone about his latest projects: books called The Scale Book and The Violin Lesson, and an epic DVD on tone production. He also has been working on a number of transcriptions, including the Purcell "Chaconne," and he recently released a recording of the Brahms Violin Sonatas that he made with his father, pianist Raymond Fischer.
Simon and Raymond Fischer
Simon has taught at the Guildhall School since 1982, and at the Yehudi Menuhin School since 1997. He also writes a monthly column for The Strad magazine. In addition, he plays all over London, from the studios to the concert stage.
Laurie: How did you get started with the violin?
Simon: My late brother Mark, who was six years older than me, took up the violin when he was nine, so I was three at the time. We lived in Sidney, Australia, and I remember walking with him to his violin class. Pretty soon he gave up the violin, but I wanted to learn. However, my father wanted me to wait.
Simon: He's a professional musician, a pianist, and because of the difficulties of the profession, he was wary of parents who push their children too soon. He wanted to be absolutely sure. What he wasn't taking into account was that earning a living as a pianist is a very different matter than earning a living as a string player. When you play the piano, you tend to spend an awful lot of time on your own. The violin is a completely different world – he shouldn't have worried.
I kept on pestering my parents until I was seven and a half, and finally I was allowed to start violin lessons.
Laurie: How did you end up in England?
Simon: He and my mother both wanted to come to London, so in 1961 the whole family uprooted to here, and here we've been ever since. My father had to start again from scratch in a foreign country at the age of 32 – very, very difficult, especially for a pianist. When I was growing up, he was forever telling me that I was going to enjoy an advantage that he had not had in this country, in that I was growing up here, with my generation, and all of those contacts.
Laurie: So then was he Australian?
Simon: He was born in Australia, my mother was born in England.
Laurie: Tell me about your schooling.
Simon: I was briefly at the Junior Guildhall at 11, where I studied with Christopher Polyblank and Clive Lander. But then at 13, I left and studied privately first with Homi Kanger, then with Eli Goren, then Perry Hart, then Sydney Fixman. It was only when I met Yfrah Neaman, at Guildhall, that for the first time I stayed for many years with one teacher.
I stayed five years at Guildhall. In those days it was a three-year course, and some students just left and started free-lancing. I was offered a full scholarship to do a fourth year, and I thought, why go out to work if I can be paid, in effect, to stay at home and practice and have lessons? That seemed an obvious thing to do. Then I was offered another scholarship to stay a fifth year, and so the same applied. By then, I was teaching myself, really, by watching the fantastic players that Yfrah Neaman had in his class. Yfrah was sitting on the juries of lots of international competitions, and lots of international competition players would come to study with him. The cynic can say that that's because they knew that he'd end up on the jury of the competition they were wanting to do! (laughs) But for whatever reason, he had fabulous violinists studying with him.
Laurie: It sounds like you were soaking it up like a sponge.
Simon: Well, I got terrible shock when I went to Guildhall. When I went to Guildhall, I thought I was the best. And the reason I thought I was the best was because as far as I knew, I was! We're talking pre-Internet days. Today is the day of information, but it certainly wasn't in the 1960s. I didn't even play in the National Youth Orchestra. I won the prizes in the local little competitions in Wimbledon, and I didn't really know anybody who could play the violin at all. I could play anything that was put on the music stand, but people didn't put Paganini Caprices on the music stand, they didn't even put the Bruch Concerto on the music stand! I very easily got my place at Guildhall, nevertheless. Then in my first week at the Guildhall, Mincho Mincheff, the fabulous Bulgarian violinist who had just won the Carl Flesch Competition, was standing there, about five or six feet away from me, playing the Brahms Concerto -- on Szigeti's Guadagnini which had been left to him. I thought, my God, I can't do that, I'd better learn how to!
By my fifth year at Guildhall, I won the top competitive scholarship auditions to go to America, playing the Paganini Concerto No. 1. Also at that time I won the Noel Millidge Concerto Prize at the Guildhall, playing the Bruch G minor with the Symphony Orchestra. I have a recording of that performance that I am very proud of. Two weeks before that competition, I went from London to Aspen to audition for Miss [Dorothy] DeLay, and it was the Bruch that I played to her there.
Then, after I came back from studying with Miss DeLay for two years, over the next few years I had between one and about four lessons with several teachers, including Zakhar Bron, Hermann Krebbers, Igor Ozim, Frederick Grinke, Sandor Vegh, Emanuel Hurwitz and Eric Gruenberg. At that time I was playing some international competitions, though I didn't win any of them – though I did get to the semifinal of the Carl Flesch – doing them partly simply to try to power or force my playing up to new levels. After I was past the age-limit to play competitions, I carried on studying by myself and ended up doing all kinds of nice things, from playing recitals on the BBC, to leading lots of the orchestras here, to playing the Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky concertos with the Philharmonia at Kenwood (London's equivalent of the Hollywood Bowl) in front of audiences of 10,000. I often say to my teenage students who can already play Paganini Caprices in tune and easily, that if I could do what I have done, starting from where I was at the age of 18, they can do anything!
Laurie: Do you remember your first student?
Simon: I remember my first student very well --- two students. I left school when I was 15. Because I was too young to go to Guildhall, I went to what was then called a Polytechnic. I took Music "A" level, kind of the highest exam you take in high school before you go to college. That was a two-year course, and it was a fantastic time. In the second year, somebody phoned to ask if there was somebody who could give two children violin lessons. I was 17, and I was the violinist there, so I was asked. I taught a little boy and girl, 9 and 7, both from Ireland, and I taught them for about two terms, every week, and took them through the associated board exams, Grade 5 and 3. Each took an exam, then the family moved back to Ireland, and I left Chiswick and went to Guildhall. But I used to skip down the road after those lessons. I just loved teaching those kids, it was just the best.
Then, I went to the Guildhall. Seeing Yfrah -- with his master classes there -- the way he was enjoying this whole violin world and this repertoire and all these students, it was this feeling of camaraderie amongst his class. I just looked at him doing that and thought, that's what I want to do. It was as simple as that.
Laurie: You've managed to teach quite a lot, and to continue playing. How do you keep the balance between the two?
Simon: What I've always found is that the teaching improves my playing, and of course my playing improves the teaching. Then I've found that writing about playing improves my playing as well. It has to do with mental rehearsal and mental visualization: When you are practicing something, then you decide to play it in a different way, you are changing your mental picture. Galamian was talking about it in the 1950s and 1960s; he said that all practicing is a matter of training the mind – nothing to do with training the muscles. When you make a change in your practice, you change your mental picture. This is why mental practice is so fantastic. You don't need a violin; you can go sit on a bench in the park and do fantastic work on whatever piece you are playing, There is a catch, though: you have to know what are the images you're meant to be forming in your mind. And there's a limit to it; you can't learn repertoire like that.
Laurie: Was there ever a time when you came across a student who just could not get something?
Simon: You mean have I ever found myself unable to cope with a particular student, can't sort them out? I've occasionally come up against a brick wall with a student, but very rarely. It's almost impossible that that happens.
Laurie: How do you avoid it?
Simon: I'm passionate about proportions, and this is something I got from Dorothy DeLay. I've put this in the Practice Book, and in the Violin Lesson book there's a big new section on this.
The story DeLay told me is simply this: Leonardo da Vinci was asked to go along and inspect an ancient statue that had just been unearthed. When he turned up, the statue was surrounded by a group of people, all talking about it in what today we would call "artsy-fartsy" language. He stood there in silence. Then he got out one of his famous notebooks, and he got out his measuring tools. He measured every angle, every width, every diameter, everything. He wrote it all down and went home.
As a man, he could see the beauty of the statue: the light and the line, the radiance and the expression. But as an artist, he knew that everything he was looking at was the result of certain proportions, and that was the key. Everything is a question of proportions: if you're a painter, if you're an architect, if you're a cook, if you're a designer of anything whatsoever, what you're dealing with is proportions. When you're making yourself a cup of coffee, you're dealing with proportions.
To me, this is the be-all and end-all, it's the answer to everything: Proportions.
Occasionally, you get a student come to you for a first lesson, and they say that their teacher just didn't know how to fix their problems, so they had to move on. Then you look at the student play, and all the proportions are completely wrong: the bow isn't straight to the bridge, the hand isn't round and nice on the bow...you don't know where to start. You think about the previous teacher not knowing where to start, and you wonder, how is that possible?
If you think in terms of proportions, as a teacher, you never reach that stage where you simply don't know what the next step to take with a student is. And as a player, you never reach that stage – you always know what to do next and improve next. If you can improve and refine the proportions, it's just endless.
Laurie: What exactly does this mean, when you are in a room, looking at a student?
Simon: What it means is, that everything technically can be described in terms of proportions. For example, tone production, every sound that comes out of the violin is the result of certain proportions of speed to pressure to distance from the bridge. Spiccato – every sound in spiccato is the result of certain proportions of length of bow to height of bow, with the added ingredient of how much hair you're using. And intonation, in the major scale, it starts whole-tone whole-tone half-step. You don't want a narrow whole-tone for the first two notes and then a wide whole-tone for the second two, they've got to be equi-distant, and that's a matter of proportions. You play an arpeggio, and if you go A C# E, A C# E, A, all the C#s have to be exactly the same, that means the proportion of two to one. It's all numbers, in the end. Vibrato is a question of mixing different proportions of speed and width, and another extra ingredient, how much finger pressure. Every single aspect of playing the physical violin is describable, and in few words, and the language of the describing is proportion.
You can also use proportion to describe music. To describe an accelerando, each note must be proportionately sooner than the previous one. If you make a crescendo, each note must be proportionately louder, and you can gauge and grade these things accordingly. Of course, lots of people think they make a crescendo when they don't, because they don't listen – actually every note is the same volume. But if they would listen – it's just proportions, everything is.
Laurie: How did you come up with your ideas for Basics?
Simon: Thinking in terms of proportions, or practicing with this in mind, you get flooded with ideas for new combinations of actions that lead to fantastic exercises which are entirely original, and yet based on completely sound principles and elements of violin playing. So many of the exercises in Basics are entirely original as a result of this. All the great violinists have played in these ways – but not necessarily knowing what they are doing or being able to explain it to somebody else.
The Basics book and the Practice books are simply the record of all the things I had to learn, in trying to learn how to play the violin. The Basics book started because, after a year or two of teaching in the early 1980s at Wells Cathedral School and continually writing out the same exercises for students in their notebooks, I finally woke up one day and thought, why don't I write it all down just once, photocopy it and hand it to them? Thus the very first Basics book was born, and it was 20 pages typed, on a typewriter. Then I kept revising it and producing better copies of it. A few years later, I bought my first word processor and decided to make a better version of the Basics book. I thought it would take only a week, but it took three months. It went from 20 pages to 50 double-sided pages because I added all the things I'd been doing in lessons and in my practice in the meantime. A few years later, I got my first proper PC, and that was when I thought I'd make the real super-duper Basics book, which then eventually led to it being published.
Basics and Practice books are just glorified lesson notebooks. If you had five years' worth of lessons and if you went to the trouble of writing down everything at the end of each lesson, you'd end up with a pile of hand-written notes. And if after five years you collated them and put them into order and gave them nice bold headings, what you'd end up with would be these books.
Laurie: What are some of the top exercises in the books?
Simon: Many people ask me that, and it is difficult to answer because I always want my pupils to do them all. But the intonation exercise, number 255, is perhaps one to mention. It is simple to prove how good it is: play, say, a three octave scale in A major; then practice number 255 for 10 minutes in A major; then play the scale again. The scale will be very much easier and more in tune. The question is: if you had practiced the scale itself for ten minutes, could you have improved it that much? Normally the answer is: no way. I always like to say that if there is a violin heaven-world, then Dounis, Flesch, Sevcik and all the rest are up there either shaking their fist at me in annoyance - because they did not think of it themselves - or else (hopefully) they are nodding encouragingly.
Then there are the tone exercises. I call these "million-dollar tone exercises," because they are worth a million dollars each. They will be in my Tone Production DVD, which is set to come out in about six weeks. Three or four of these were taught to me by Dorothy DeLay and Masau Kawasaki, the rest are my own combinations out of the basic exercises. But just 10 minutes a day doing these exercises in the first few weeks, then 10 minutes three times a week for a while, then once a week after that (or used briefly as a daily warm-up), is all it takes to utterly transform your tone.
Laurie: Tell me about the recording of the Brahms sonatas that you did with your father, Raymond Fischer. What's it like to collaborate with a family member?
Simon: We played the complete Brahms in Wigmore Hall in 1988 or '89. Prior to that we played them in at least six or seven music club performances around the U.K. Something about those sonatas remind me of my childhood, of my mother. I just love playing them to death, and to play them with my father. We played them in a big concert in Australia in 2004, and that was my first visit back to Australia since I'd left as a child. My mother passed away a long time ago, and so she never lived to see my career unfold in the way that it has. So it's very significant to be playing those pieces in Sydney with my father, as an adult.
As for Brahms, Benjamin Britten said that, once a year he would listen to a piece of Brahms just to remind himself how awful music can be. In the Brahms vs. Berlioz clash at the time, the composer Hugo Wolf, as a young man, wrote as a music critic to make some money on the side, and he wrote that in one cymbal crash from Berlioz you had more music than in the then-three symphonies (he hadn't written the fourth yet) of Brahms put together. This is what he wrote! All I can say is that if these people do not understand Brahms, then what can you say to explain it to them? I just can't be bothered.
Laurie: I actually love Brahms. He's one of my favorite composers.
Simon: Mine, too. The second piano concerto, the piano quintet, the clarinet quintet, the fourth symphony, the second symphony....
Laurie: ...and the first and third as well!
Simon: The first and third! And the fiddle concerto! I have to say I'm not the greatest Benjamin Britten fan...I would exchange the entire works of Benjamin Britten for one of the violin sonatas, any day, without thinking twice about it!
Laurie: Now one last question, I hope you'll indulge me. I know that you've played a lot of studio gigs, and also that you played with Sting. I'm a pretty big Sting fan – what was it like to work with him?
Simon: Yes I did play with Sting. The recording for Ten Summoners Tales took place at his house in Wiltshire -- it's a 16th century mansion that you have to see to believe. I don't remember this, but someone reminded me recently that at one point in the day I met Sting in one the hallways. "Nice place you've got here," I said. (Don't ask me why I said that, but I did.) He looked around thoughtfully, and said, "Yes, and I got it for a song. Well, two songs, actually!"
Violinist Yura Lee, 24, of South Korea, won the fifth annual UNISA International String Competition in South Africa last month, here is an article about it. Her winning pieces included the Beethoven Violin Sonata in D Major Op. 12, No. 1, and the Valse-Scherzo by Tchaikovsky.
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David Soyer, 1923-2010. String players are mourning the death last week of cellist David Soyer, a founding member of the Guarneri Quartet who served on the faculties of Curtis, the Juilliard School and the Manhattan School of Music and taught lessons until two weeks before his death at age 87. Here is the obituary that appeared in the New York Times.
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Forget about having your child listen to Mozart to boost his or her brainpower; you're going to have spring for the actual violin lessons. Apparently, the much-ballyhooed Mozart Effect only works if you learn to play an instrument, according to an article last week in the LA Times.
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Congratulations to violinist Anne Akiko Meyers, who, according to this story about canceling a performance with the Springfield Symphony, appears to be expecting.
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Four concerts next week in Carnegie Hall will feature the various faces of the Kronos String Quartet, which will perform one concert that features of all works by Terry Riley; another concert with electronics and toy instruments; another with an Arctic theme, and then the last concert with Central Asian and Korean artists. The New York Times featured the quartet in an article that goes in to depth about these projects.
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Former Wall Street Journal writer Joanne Lipman described in the New York Times last week how she dusted off her viola to play in a concert to honor her childhood teacher, Jerry Kupchynsky (“Mr. K"), a hard-driving music teacher who brought so many people together, people who still feel their bond of music.
Laurie Niles is from Pasadena, California. Biography
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