A string quartet = a tiny musical ensemble, capable of drama of soap operatic proportions.
Violinist Russell Fallstad ought to know -- he played professionally in one for 12 years. So perhaps it was a cathartic experience for Russell when he was hired as a hand-double and violin/viola coach for the movie A Late Quartet, in which actors Christopher Walken, Mark Ivanir, Philip Seymour Hoffmann and Catherine Keener bring the drama of a fictional string quartet to the big screen. (The movie is currently At A Theatre Near You.)
Russell, whom you may know as half of the rock-pop-hiphop-violin duo, The Dueling Fiddlers, was a founding member of the Fry Street String Quartet, in which he played for 12 years before taking a hiatus from the classical world a few years ago. He's been playing the violin and viola since the age of five, when he started in the public schools in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and he has two classical performance degrees from Northwestern University. Currently living in West Virginia, he is also working on an international online release of a new method for learning music at all ages called the HeartStrings Method, and he founded a music school chain called HeartStrings Academy.
When I heard that Russell had recently worked as musical coach for actors during the filming of the Hollywood movie “A Late Quartet,” I had to get the scoop about what this gig was like!
Laurie: What was your role with "A Late Quartet"? Where did you have to go to do this, and how much time did it take? How did you land this gig?
Russell: We filmed in New York City -- I was there with the Dueling Fiddlers doing shows at Town Hall and Le Poisson Rouge. I originally got called for my hands -- to audition as a hand double for Mark Ivanir. I went to the audition expecting to play, and instead was led right onto the set, where the actors were filming a rehearsal scene. The director and a few violinists gathered around a table, and we all laid our hands down next to Mark's. Everyone pointed at my hands, and they were excitedly saying, "Look at those hands!" I felt strangely flattered because my hands looked exactly like Mark's, and I got the job. It wasn't until later that day when one of the producers heard that I had just retired from a 12-year stint with a touring quartet and that I knew all of the Beethoven Quartets intimately. Since the movie centers around Beethoven's Opus 131 Quartet, they asked me if I would work with Mark as a violin coach, both in private lessons and during filming. I also helped Catherine Keener a bit with her viola playing, and at one point I was helping Yaron Silberman, the director, decide where to start and stop a few performance clips.
It gets really intense on the set when literally hundreds of people are waiting around while the director decides what to do next. I really got into the pressure-cooker aspect of this process, and I think I hit my pinnacle of movie-making at one point, when I jumped up and yelled, "Cut!" and something like, "Let's take it from the top!" I never expected to find myself (however briefly) directing Phillip Seymore Hoffman and Christopher Walken!
Laurie: What was the biggest challenge for the actors, in learning the instruments? How much did they have to learn in order to play their roles? What was your biggest challenge as a teacher?
Russell: The actors' goal was to actually look like they were playing Beethoven Op. 131 in several scenes, and I must say, playing Op. 131 is hard enough for someone who has played violin all his life! The actors took the challenge really seriously and put a lot of effort into learning how to play. My hat is off especially to Mark Ivanir, because he was hired just before the movie began shooting, so while the other actors had several weeks of lessons, Mark was learning how to hold the bow as shooting began! We had a lesson or two per day, for two weeks, and that was in addition to sometimes 14-hour days on the set.
Laurie: Did they have other questions for you, about being a musician, besides questions about how to hold and play the instrument? What are some of the things they wanted to know about?
Russell: We talked a lot about the character of the music and the mood of each particular passage, as well as how the events of the movie might affect the performer's state of mind in this particularly challenging time for each member of the quartet. It was oddly similar to discussing the Beethoven in a real quartet rehearsal! The actors were trying to get inside Beethoven and grappling with its complexity while marveling at its ability to express complex emotions.
Laurie: How do you feel about non-musician actors playing musicians in a movie? You played in a professional quartet for more than a decade -- how accurately do you think the movie portrayed life in a string quartet?
Russell: At first I found it funny because they were struggling so much to play the instruments, and for the string players coaching, it was hilarious at times. But in the end, I think it really worked. The movie really captured for me what it feels like to be in a professional string quartet. The members of a quartet are constantly challenged to give up more of themselves for the good of the group, and the movie portrayed that challenge really well. The movie is about one of the members of a long-standing quartet needing to leave the group, and since I had recently left my quartet, I found myself holding back tears at times when watching "The Fugue Quartet" from the movie grapple with the same thing. It really hit a personal note with me.
Laurie: What is the funniest thing that happened on set?
Russell: Apparently, Christopher Walken said, "We need more cowbell," at one of the rehearsals before I joined the movie. Too bad I missed that (it's a famous line he used in a skit on Saturday Night Live).
Laurie: What did you enjoy the most?
Russell: I very much enjoyed seeing the actors work. Even when a scene would end up being shot over and over again, they kept working at it--trying out different things in each take, and often coming up with a dozen different, yet really moving performances of the same scene.
* * *
"A Late Quartet" uses a recording of Beethoven's Opus 131 String Quartet, performed by the Princeton University-based Brentano String Quartet, which includes violinists Mark Steinberg and Serena Canin; violist Misha Amory and cellist Nina Lee.
Here is the trailer for "A Late Quartet":
The New York Times had an interesting Sunday Dialogue this week: Is Classical Music Dying?
I'm not entirely thrilled with the way the question is cast, I mean, Are Newspapers Dying?
But never mind, I'll take a stab at the question, which asks us to consider this particular article, in which the writer argues that the younger generation "must be weaned away from the cacophony of rock and the neon glitter of 'American Idol'-type TV shows. Instead of dragging children to concerts, where they squirm with boredom, rent some old movies featuring soundtracks of classical music…"
I'm sure more than a few people, young and old, would take exception to that. I also don't think it would work.
If there is a problem with the "younger generation," it is something that is not their fault: many received no musical education because it has been routinely cut from the curriculum in schools across the United States. They never had the opportunity to play in an orchestra or band, or to sing in a choir.
Perhaps a better way to frame the problem is not that classical music is dying, but that musical literacy is dying. And yes, it is possible to sing a song or even strum a guitar to a pretty high level without it, but musical literacy actually improves ALL kinds of music, not just classical.
What is musical literacy? It involves fluency on an instrument or with the voice, the ability to read music, and a basic understanding of music theory. At higher levels, it involves a knowledge of things like the physics of sound and harmony; the ability to compose melody, harmony and fugue; an understanding of various instruments, etc.
The best pop musicians, the best songwriters, the best guitar players -- they tend to be those who can read music, understand chordal progressions, have a high level of technique on their chosen instrument (including voice), and have overall discipline regarding their art. They also consider their art to be an art, recognizing its depth.
No doubt, people can press a few buttons on a synthesizer and make a "song." But that doesn't make an appreciation for a song, it doesn't make them understand why one thing works and why something else doesn't work. People who are musically literate tend to lose their taste for music that uses the same two chords for the entire tune, or a melody based on three notes, or a long improvisation that never changes chords, etc. They see through "autotune." They aren't satisfied with the stagnant nature of a synthesizer sound. There are many subtle things that make music a success or a failure, and I daresay they are a mystery to most people.
The best way to engage kids (for that matter, anyone) in classical music, and also to enable them to recognize good music in any form, is through participation. Teach them to play instruments or to sing, and start very young. Provide opportunities for older people to do this as well. Taking children to a couple concerts or renting some old movies does something, but not much if it's not part of an overall music education program. We teach people to write when we teach them to read, and we have them read and study many, many books. We don't just read them a good story out loud and then congratulate ourselves for "exposing" them to good literature.
"Weaning" people from rock 'n' roll is ridiculous and unnecessary. We don't need to wean people from any kind of music -- we need to engage them in it.
Have you been secretly wishing to shed both your shoulder rest and chinrest? Here is your friendly, expert guide: Baroque violinist and Indiana University Professor Stanley Ritchie, in his new book, Before the Chinrest.
For me, Professor Ritchie's book read like a novel, fully delivering on its cover's promise to reveal the "mysteries of pre-chinrest technique and style." It has that air of revelation, with each page putting a new historical spin on ideas I've taken for granted my entire musical life. Even if you (like I) have no intention of ditching your chinrest or shoulder rest, the combination of history, practicality and sheer love for Baroque music is both enlightening and inspiring. No skimming; I read it fully, with a pencil in hand, and left it full of marks and notes.
Ritchie argues that he has gained a profound sense of freedom in going without the chinrest and shoulder rest. In fact, that sense of "freedom" is also what made him embrace the Early Music movement, which was just making its way from Europe to the United States when he discovered it in the 1970s through his colleague Albert Fuller, to whom his book is dedicated.
Before he "went Baroque" (I couldn't resist), Ritchie was a successful "modern" violinist. Born in Australia, Ritchie graduated from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music in 1956. He then studied in Paris with Jean Fournier; then in the United States with Joseph Fuchs, Oscar Shumsky and Samuel Kissel. He went on to serve as concertmaster of the New York City Opera in 1963, then associate concertmaster of the Metropolitan Opera from 1965 to 1970. In 1970 he joined the New York Chamber Soloists, then in 1973 played as Assistant Concertmaster of the Vancouver Symphony until 1975, when he became first violinist in the Philadelphia String Quartet (in residence in the University of Washington in Seattle). He joined the Indiana University School of Music in 1982 as professor violin, and has served in that capacity ever since.
Last month I spoke over the phone with Ritchie about how the Early Music Movement changed his life, about playing without a chinrest or shoulder rest, and about how his book clears up some misconceptions people might have about Period Performance.
Laurie: What made you want to take up the violin in the first place?
Stanley: I was born in New South Wales (Australia), in a farming community where there was no live music of any kind. My mother used to listen to the radio, so I was always listening to classical music -- even though it was canned. But she wanted me to have music lessons of some sort. When I was seven, my parents took me to the city for the first time, and as we were walking down the street in the city, I saw a violin in a shop window. I pointed at it and said, "I want that!" They discussed it and said, "Well, it's cheaper than a piano…" So that was it!
I took violin lessons at the local convent, the only place to take violin lessons. I had eight years of ladies all but one of whom knew nothing about the violin at all!
But why did I take up violin and make it my life? When I graduated from high school, I had a scholarship that would have taken me three years at a university, undergrad and everything. I stood on the grounds of the university with my mother, looking around me, tossing between going there, or to the Conservatorium to take music lessons. I chose the Conservatorium for two reasons: A, I was scared of the university, over-awed by the whole thing. And B, subconsciously, I think, to please my mother! That's how I became a violinist. (He chuckles) Not driven from the age of three to be the greatest violinist in the world!
Laurie: How old were you when you started, then?
Stanley: Almost eight.
Laurie: What made you fall for Baroque music?
Stanley: I guess the seed, the germ of it, was planted by a question that always appeared in a written exam we had to take to graduate (from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music): "What is meant by 'style' in music?" And so we thought about it. Whatever we came up with, at least we began to think about it.
Then I came to the United States several years later, in '59, to the School of Music at Yale. I thought about doing a master's degree, then decided it wasn't the kind of thing I wanted to do…But one course really got my attention, that was 'Performance Practice' -- a term that I'd never heard before. I took the course, which was taught by the late David Kraehenbuehl, who was a wonderful, wonderful professor. He really opened my eyes -- all of ours -- to the difference between certain things we took for granted in performance style, and what might have been the truth.
At that time, I was listening to the music of (Heinrich von) Biber, a late 17th-century German composer whom I'd never heard of before -- we all thought violin music started with Corelli! (He laughs)
Ten years later, after I'd finished my studies, and after I'd free-lanced in New York and played with the New York City Opera and the Met, I joined a chamber group called the New York Chamber Soloists. The harpsichordist was Albert Fuller, who had been teaching at Juilliard for 40 years. We were concertizing, and one day, on the way back from an out-of-town performance, I said, "Albert, I'd really like to know more about Baroque music, could we get together and read a sonata or two some time?" And Albert grabbed me and said, "When?" -- because nobody had ever asked him that before, no free-lance violinist in New York at the time would think such a thing. When we got together, he said, "Do you know what they're doing in Europe now? They're tuning their violins a down half-step down, they're putting on gut strings and they're playing with old bows." I said, "Why would they want to do that?" And he said, "Well, why don't you try it?"
So I tried tuning my violin a half-step down. And there I was, using a modern bow on loose strings -- it was not the greatest fun I'd ever had. Still, he was very persuasive. I had an old Tyrolean violin in the closet that wasn't being used, and we found someone to convert it back to its original condition. And so, I finally had a Baroque instrument -- well, a little hybrid: it was late-17th century instrument, with classical fittings, and borrowed a Dodd bow from Jacques Francais and had Bill Salchowmake a copy. This was 1971.
Laurie: Had you taken your chinrest off at this time?
Stanley: Yes. I took it off. I had already managed without my shoulder rest, by putting some sponge or foam rubber or something on the back of the instrument. That gradually condensed over a period of six months. By the end of that time, I didn't need a shoulder rest any more. And then the idea of going without the chinrest came.
I remember meeting Gustav Leonhardt after a year or two of playing Baroque. Of course I was still making a living playing modern violin, because you couldn't playing Baroque violin. He spotted the mark on my neck -- and he said, "Ahhh, you mustn't play with a chinrest!"
Laurie: Do you still use a shoulder rest for modern playing?
Stanley: I don't need it. When I'm playing modern violin I hardly even use the chinrest now.
Laurie: There's a raging debate about shoulder rests that happens from time to time on Violinist.com. People get almost moralistic and crazy about it.
Stanley: Not using either, all I can say is this: people use shoulder rests because they feel that they need it. But I had a student who is well over six feet tall, with a long neck, and who is now a very successful concertizing Baroque violinist. He doesn't use a chinrest or a shoulder rest, and what he does is quite amazing. So it must be possible for anybody to do it. As I say, I'm much shorter, I'm a good six to nine inches shorter than that man, and it's probably much more comfortable for me. It depends on the physique of the individual, and also someone's ability to relax: not hold onto the violin or shoulder rest as though it were a clutching blanket. A lot of people raise their shoulder under the instrument, they're so afraid of dropping it, which is exactly what one should not do.
Laurie: It sounds like you have to change your technique to make it work properly.
Stanley: Absolutely, of course.
Laurie: If you ditch your shoulder rest and your chinrest and you don't change the technique...
Stanley:…it's pointless, because the instrument is going to be clamped like a vice. The whole point of playing without the chinrest and keeping your shoulder down is so that the instrument can resonate like a bell, whereas if you raise your shoulder, you're clamping. As long as the instrument is in contact with the shoulder, there is a certain dampening effect.
Laurie: People have all kinds of crazy ideas about the period performance movement. As a pioneer in this movement, what kinds of misconceptions would you like to clear up for people?
Stanley: I, for one, am not a flag-waving evangelist about this. I do it because it feels much more natural to me, and I think that's what it should be about: trying to make music in the most natural way. After all, the period instrument and early instrument movement has reached all the way into the 20th century now: from before Mozart, all the way up to Wagner and Mahler.
One of the misconceptions might be that it's very snobbish or elitist. I wouldn't doubt there are people who are that way, but as a movement, its purpose is far from just trying to be better than everybody, but ideally to find out for oneself how music was approached at the time it was written. Any music. All music.
Then of course, there are all sorts of misconceptions such as: you mustn't vibrate when you play Early music. That is utter nonsense.
Laurie: The kind of vibrato that you describe in the book sounds like a really subtle kind of vibrato, but it is vibrato. I guess we can just clear that up right here: Was vibrato used in Baroque music?
Stanley: The misconception about vibrato is that you don't vibrate when you play Baroque music. This is only true in (Baroque) orchestral music, you don't do it in orchestral music. Nor should a cellist who is playing continuo vibrate, because it confuses the pitch, and it makes the music expressive in the wrong way.
But on the other side, there's the idea that constant vibrato is the way to play. I don't know when this idea started -- well I have an idea, it was sometime in the '20s when it became more general practice. And that is demonstrably incorrect, stylistically. We have lots of evidence, not only from what Leopold Auer said, but others as well. Besides, in performing parts from the 19th century, you can find where they would vibrate -- it was like any other ornament. I always say to people, constant vibrato is similar to trilling all the time. If you trilled on every note, people would think you're crazy. If you vibrated all the time in the 17 and 1800's, people would think you were crazy!
Laurie: So vibrato was more like an ornament.
Stanley: Oh very much so.
Laurie: Plenty of teachers tell their students: the more vibrato, the better. They tell them to develop a continuous vibrato -- maybe you need that for the Bruch?
Stanley: One of my colleagues certainly insists on it! He doesn't like to hear the violin played without vibrato. And he's somebody I respect very highly. One person, one musician, we really don't see eye to eye on this subject.
Laurie: What made you decide to write this book, to put it all down?
Stanley: It started, actually, with the sets of exercises that are at the back of the book. I had developed those exercises over the years for teaching intonation, and one of my doctoral students decided to use Sibelius to write them out. So at first, I wrote some annotation and started to write a few things down about how to use the exercises -- then some ideas about intonation and left-hand technique. And I put it out, desk-published it, as something called "The Violinist's Lefthandbook."
The next step was writing something for the right hand and exercises for the bow, and I called that "The Violinist's Righthandbook." Then a few years ago I had a sabbatical, holed up in a nice little village in Northern Italy, and set to work putting it all together and adding and introduction and a chapter or two on interpretation. Essentially, it's a distillation of my teaching methods. It's certainly the direction I've taken my students over the last 30 years. They've taught me; it's what I've learned from them that I've put down in this book.
Laurie: I think people get very intimidated by all the rules of Baroque music. For me, even just thinking of the Treatise by Leopold Mozart is intimidating. People think: if I play Bach, I don't know what people will say about it, because I don't know if I'm going to follow the rules right.
Stanley: That's one of the side-effects of the whole movement; there's much more interest about the way they played Bach. There's so much more information out there now, than there was when I was a student. If people are at all curious, at least questioning the things they've been taught, there's a lot to find out. Curiosity is what got me into Early Music.
Laurie: It seems to me that it's possible to be pretty free, once you know some of this stuff.
Stanley: Absolutely. It's liberating, that's one emotion I really experienced when I took up Baroque violin. After playing so many years professionally as a violinist, I found playing Baroque violin akin to driving a sportscar. I felt physically liberated, and then eventually as I became more used to it, expressively liberated.
As for rules, I think we are saddled with at least as many rules in traditional classical upbringing.
That's one nice thing about 17th-century music -- there is no tradition that you can feel you're breaking. Therefore, when we approach music that's new to us, music that is not handed down by the traditional classical establishment, we feel we can experiment, try different ways of interpreting.
I always tell my students, the last thing in the world that I want you to do when you come out of here is be a clone of me. I want you to come out of here finding your own way, asking questions, and putting it all together for yourself. Too often, when I hear people playing, they seem bound to a tradition, to the way their teacher taught them, and lacking spontaneity.
Laurie: Wasn't there a lot of improvisation in Baroque music, anyway?
Stanley: Absolutely. But it's something that's not taught any longer, and sometimes people are even discouraged from doing it, in modern training, which is terrible.
When I first started improvising, I was playing a Corelli Sonata using the 1713 edition's embellishments, which may or may not have been Corelli's. I tried those, and then, after a while, I thought, 'I don't like that one: I'm going to change it a little'; and, "There's nothing here: why shouldn't there be something similar?' And so on.
But the art of improvising is not something that just happens -- it's learned, too. One of the greatest improvisers today is Robert Levin, the pianist, who improvises Mozart concerto cadenzas. He's not improvising in the sense of making it up from nothing. He's tried many things and has a storehouse of different possibilities. As he goes along, he chooses one from here, one from there, and so on, and puts them together. Jazz players' improvisation is a learned skill. They're not just doing it off the top of their head.
I sat in for a couple sessions of Dave Baker's jazz improvisation course, and it was amazing -- it's just very complicated. He's a wonderful teacher, but it was much too fast for me!
There were books on how to improvise, certainly, from the end of the 16th to the beginning of the 17th century, showing you how to get from one note to another, and how many different ways, on one page, you can go, say, from E to F: about 20 different ways to get there.
Laurie: So they were certainly doing it 400 years ago.
Stanley: Oh my gosh, yes!
Laurie: I think we have a misconception about that as well!
Stanley: Sometimes we feel as though we know everything because it's the 21st century. I suggest we've forgotten an awful lot! For example, the 18th century people could teach us quite a lot about intonation. When you open Francesco Geminiani's 'Art of Playing on the Violin,', the second thing he does, after the first page, is chromatic scales! We're raised, as modern players, on equal temperament, and on so-called 'expressive' intonation. But, as Geminiani demonstrates, when you play pure intervals, you realize that F-sharp is actually lower than G-flat. A-flat is higher than G-sharp. I talk about this in my book. You can really figure it out pretty easily by using pure intervals.
We have to use pure intervals on the violin. However, to do so, we must play on strings tuned in narrow fifths, we have to. So people are confused because, using 'expressive intonation,' you're taught to push sharps up and pull flats down -- this is what I call horizontal intonation. But when playing in a string quartet or orchestra, this kind of intonation doesn't work. One has to use pure intervals, or vertical intonation, in order to be in tune with other players. Every interval's out of tune on the piano except the octave: as string players we don't have to play that way.
Anyway, the overall misconception that I'm talking about is the idea that people back then didn't know as much as we do.
Laurie: Baroque music can even be kind of dissonant, with some really interesting harmonies.
Stanley: Oh yes, tremendously. Musicians at that time were much more aware of dissonance and consonance and their significance than we are today.
Laurie: In the book, you say that there is no such thing as unaccompanied music.
Stanley: Well absolutely. When you are playing unaccompanied music, you are your own accompanist, and so you're playing the bass-line. In other words, you can extract the bass-line from any unaccompanied piece. This is relevant when we talk about breaking chords, as I do in the book. In the book I talk about different ways players break chords. When you are playing unaccompanied music, you are your own accompanist, and so you're playing the bass-line. If you break the chords before the beat, then the bass note comes before the beat. But the bass IS the beat! How would you feel if your accompanist on the piano were a little bit ahead of you all the time?
Laurie: It sort of puts you out at sea, rhythmically.
Stanley: And when you place the bass note on the beat, it actually makes a chord easier to play: you don't have to rush to get the other notes.
Laurie: The sense of time is a fascinating thing in the Bach unaccompanied. People forget, you're not on the metronome, you're not on the clock.
Stanley: Rubato is something that was talked about by Frescobaldi, in the preface to his Toccatas, in 1615. He said you must let the music go forward, then fall back, and wait, and so forth. So the idea of rubato in music is ancient; by the time Bach came around it was at least 100 years old. Rubato is a very Baroque concept, it's not something that happened with Liszt…
Laurie:…or Fritz Kreisler or something.
Stanley: One of the things we lost, we've forgotten in our training, is that it's not only possible and desirable, to be free in this way, but it's also a type of expression. Rubato is a way of making the music more flexible and more natural.
One of the important things that the Early Music movement has done is to raise awareness of the rhetoric, the declamation, and the affect, or emotional message, of each piece -- and each part of each piece. For example, let's take Bach. When you're playing the unaccompanied pieces from the original, or from an urtext, there are no expression marks -- none is written in. But they're really all there: in the harmony. Yes, there's rubato; yes, there's punctuation; yes, there's hesitation. They're all there, if you are aware of the significance of the harmonies: where something finishes, where something starts. There are places in Bach that are ambiguous, too, which you could read one way or the other. That's the nice thing about much of his music: you don't have to play it the same way twice.
Results are in for the Violin Society of America's 20th International Competition. Members of the society have been meeting this week in Cleveland for their 40th annual convention. Complete results from the competition are all listed on the VSA site.
Here is a rundown for violin and viola:
Gold Medal for Tone & Workmanship
Silver Medal for Workmanship
Stephan Von Baehr & Paul Belin
Silver Medal for Tone
Zhong Qiu Chang
Certificate of Workmanship
Certificate of Merit for Tone
Andrew Carruthers & Chris Pederson
Shi Jin Chen & Shuide Mai
Jeremy Koons & Mike Lochner
Zhen Nian Wang
Silver Medal for Workmanship
Stephan Von Baehr & Paul Belin
Silver Medal for Tone
Christopher White & David Polstein
Certificate of Workmanship
Petio H Kostov
Certificate of Merit for Tone
Shi Jin Chen & Shuide Mai
Zhen Hua Ling
...and in the bow department:
Certificate of Merit
D. William Halsey
Certificate of Merit
..and for those who made a quartet of instruments:
Stephan Von Baehr & Paul Belin
Silver Medal for Tone
Certificate of Merit for Tone
Shi Jin Chen & Shuide Mai
Zhen Yu Liang & Zhi Ling Liang
Do you need a master plan for scales, for yourself or for your students?
That is the aim of British pedagogue Simon Fischer's new scale-studies book, "Scales." The book, which came out earlier this year, is available through Simon Fischer's website or through Sheet Music Plus.
While it includes all the basic one-, two-, three- and four-octave scales and arpeggios, the book lays out a detailed scheme for understanding intonation as well as exercises for building solid shifts and finger motion in scales.
Simon Fischer talks about his own youthful struggles with scales, about how he came to see scales as invaluable, and about the systems he has laid out in "Scales."
Laurie: Do you remember your first scale book? What was it? Did you like the book?
Simon: I remember it well. In fact I still have it: Comprehensive Scale Manual by Hans Wessely, with my name written on the front cover by my mother. I was using this around the age of 10 or 11. The format of the book is typical -- full of black ink.
No I didn’t like it! It was to be avoided at all costs. The trouble with scale books like this is that, even though they provide handy sequences, they basically give you only fingerings. The rest is up to you. If you don’t know fancy ways of breaking things down into smaller units and into their constituent parts to solve the actual problems -- it means you just have to play the scales over and over again. It always took me ages to get round to practicing them, and when I did, I lost interest all too quickly and moved on.
When I was about 14, I was put on to the Sevcik scale book, which is really a compilation of scale-type Sevcik exercises, helpfully put together all in one place. This seemed slightly more interesting, since it was varied. Still, it looked a bit severe, and I was put off, just looking at it. I did practice some of it from time to time.
Then came the Carl Flesch book from about the age of 15. You realize how simple the Wessely is, once you see the double-stops in the Flesch. There are various things that I wish were different in the Flesch. For example, the double-stops that go up and down, instead of once up and once down; and four-octave scales are missing (something Rostal tried to address in editing the new version, but without really succeeding). Nevertheless, it is quintessential.
Still, the Flesch is most useful only for the most advanced players; for everybody else it should be a scale book that you graduate to. How perfect, if within 45 minutes or so, you can play a complete key each day, as Flesch intended you to, covering all the scales on one string, in three octaves, and all the double-stops and harmonics. But who can do that? Who can play them well enough without too many hitches along the way? That would mean playing them in tune, with even sound on each note, with even rhythm, etc. Only the very top level of players can do that. For anyone not so far along the road, it takes too long to play a whole key. Even if you do just a bit each day, it can be arduous and unrewarding work.
What you need are stepping stones across the river, and that’s where scale-studies come in – ways of breaking the overall task down into more manageable challenges. For example: one-octave scales on one string. In my book, "Scales," the actual straight-up-and-down scale is the final stage, after various preliminary building stages. When I watch my students playing the final stage perfectly easily, all I can think is how my attitude to practicing scales might have been different had I had this book when I was a teenager.
Laurie: How was your attitude toward scales, as a teenager?
Simon: I always hated them, particularly the Flesch! I remember standing on the train platform at eight in the morning on my way to my weekly masterclass with Yfrah Neaman at the Guildhall, shivering not just from the Autumn cold, but from fear that I would be asked to play scales, which I had put off practicing all week until finally it had ended up that I had not practiced them at all. As a student, my battle was against tightness and tension. The Flesch just seemed too difficult to play well. Playing music was different – somehow you made it all work however you had to do it. Like most students, for me scales were always something to be put off.
Laurie: What turned you around, what convinced you that scales were worthwhile?
Simon: In the ten years after finishing studying, I spent a lot of time working on basic mechanics rather than on scales -- exercises for tone, shifting, string crossing, intonation, and so on. As part of that work, once or twice a year I would go through a brief phase of practicing scales. Each time, I was pleased to see that they had improved a lot since the last time, without having practiced them at all in between. I would find I could play a scale in thirds more in tune, faster, and with a more relaxed hand, than ever before; but all I had done was practiced exercises in thirds. Four-octave scales would be far easier than before, but only because I had practiced shifting exercises and finger patterns at the top of the G and E strings.
At that time I would rarely ask students to play scales, either. Later, I was pleased to discover that Dounis had had the same approach, also preferring to work on the elements of the scales rather than on the scales themselves. Not that my students did not all have their scale books. When I was first teaching (while still a student in London), I expected my students to do what I had never been interested in doing myself, and so they all had to use the Carl Flesch.
Then in America, I discovered the Galamian scale book, which was unavailable and unknown in London at that time. When I started serious teaching, I used to buy 20 copies at a time (of both the single and double-stop scales) direct from Patelson’s in New York, and had them shipped over to the U.K. at great expense and passed on to my pupils. The Flesch was history.
Then after a few years of everyone using the Galamian (which I never really liked, but which was the most useful book I could find), one day a 15-year-old Czechoslovakian student of mine gave me a present. It was the scale book by Zczislaw Jahnke -- completely unknown then in the West. From then on, the Galamian was history for me.
As it turned out, many of my excellently-trained Polish violinist friends were brought up on the Jahnke. It is a book of scale studies, not just written-out scales. Both it and the Hrimaly, which is similarly an excellent book of scale studies, were the reason I didn’t write my own book sooner. I had decided that in these two books, the job had already been done.
But I still had other justifications for not practicing scales. When I was a student, a friend who had recently won an international competition (and is very well known today) said to me, "If you asked me to play the Brahms Concerto for you, I would be perfectly happy; if you asked me to play a three-octave scale in C major, I would fall flat on my face!" She is a fantastic violinist, I reasoned; so if I don’t practice my scales, it doesn’t mean my career need suffer.
There were also plenty of important players or teachers who, instead of viewing scales as the cornerstone of technique, doubted whether there was any point in playing them at all. So I thought that by not practicing them, but by improving them anyway, I was getting the best of both worlds.
I once asked the pianist Alfred Brendel how he kept his technique in such excellent condition. He was a bit over 70, and I had just heard him, at very close quarters, play a recital with superb technical control. Did he practice scales and exercises? No, he said. He had never played scales or exercises in his whole life. He said he practiced everything from the point of view of musical control, trying to find how to make the music sound as he wanted it to, and all the technique came from that.
The pianist Daniel Barenboim says that practicing scales is positively bad for you, since when you come to a scale in a piece, you might play just a scale rather than music. Though I am a big admirer of Barenboim otherwise, this idea does seem crazy to me. It misses an essential point of scale-playing: that you must play them musically. Scales are full of inner musical tensions and resolutions. I’d bet the same people who play a "scale" instead of "music" would probably play in the same unmusical way, even if they did not practice scales!
So finally, in the last 15 years or so, I began to realize how good it is to practice scales and arpeggios themselves. After all the building work of practicing the elements – shifting, intonation, string crossing and so on – the next step is to practice scales and connect everything into a streamlined whole. There is simply nothing to replace what regular scale-practice brings.
All the previous ideas about saving time by practicing the elements separately are obviously correct, but what I had not fully realized was the benefit that comes into the whole of your playing when you do practice scales regularly. Everything feels easier. Everything requires less practice to get it really good than it would otherwise have needed. You feel in good condition all the time, even at the start of your practice.
These days I regularly work with students on scales, whether or not an exam is coming up! The perfect day’s practice, if you have time, is first exercises, then scales, then studies, then pieces.
Laurie: What did you want to do in this scale book that you felt had not been done before? Are there a few things adopted from other systems as well?
Simon: My book, "Scales," contains everything that is in any standard book, with one- and two-octaves scales as well. Part 3 is a self-contained, normal scale book in itself, with all the usual three-octave scales and arpeggios and chromatics. Part 5 is the same with four-octave scales. The chief rhythm and bowing patterns that you find in the Flesch, or taken to their logical extreme in the Galamian, are there also. It is also naturally influenced or inspired by some of the best features of Jahnke and Hrimaly.
But the truly original feature of Scales, for which I can take no credit since it is not my original idea (though I have added to it slightly), is the way you set up the intonation before you play the complete scale. You begin by playing only the first, fourth and fifth degrees of the scale, then add the others in a particular order. Dorothy DeLay taught scales in this way, as did the great cellist Pablo Casals.
"Scales" is the very first scale book in history to have this setting-up-the-intonation written in to the actual notes of scales, so that the player can read them off the page. It was that idea that inspired me to write a scale book in the first place. Then, with this intonation-structuring as the basis of the book, I was able to add favorite practice methods by incorporating them into fully written-out scales, too.
Laurie: Your scheme for understanding and thinking about intonation in every single key is something I've not seen written out before. How did you come up with this? Do you feel intonation can be taught to someone who has a hard time hearing it?
Simon: A very clever friend of mine spent an entire week number-crunching different frequency calculations to try to see how this scheme worked. It was not that he disagreed with it, but that he couldn’t understand why he liked it, and how it all made such perfect sense to him. In the end, he decided that it was the same tuning system as used by J. S. Bach. I have no idea whether he is correct or not, so this remains only a pleasant thought.
As far as I know, what I have written is exactly what Suzuki or Casals taught: the principle of treating accidentals as ‘leading notes’: sharps lead up, flats lead down, C is a perfect fourth above G, B is the leading note to C, F is close to E.
Of course, how exactly to tune each note – which depends on the key and the context and lots of other things – is another discussion. In playing music, especially with the piano, half the time you have to play completely tempered. Even without the piano, sometimes you don’t want a sharp to be too sharp, or a flat too flat.
I am not the number-crunching type. To me, this simple approach sounds right to the ear, and I have left it at that. If the numbers told me something else, I would still go for what sounded in tune, rather than what the calculations or system insisted was "correct."
As for teaching intonation, I’ve never known anyone who is serious about wanting to improve their playing, whose intonation cannot be improved. So yes, intonation seems very much teachable or learnable. It starts with better listening, and then in having notes to relate other notes to – both aurally and in the feelings of the finger-relationships.
Laurie: Your two-octave scales use all possible finger combinations, so you have three different ways to play the same scale. Why do it this way?
Simon: It’s just a good uniform-intonation exercise. If you use different fingerings to play the same scale, you instantly notice anything that is out of tune, but which you have become used to hearing as correct through sheer repetition of it. Suddenly you realise that a note, which before had seemed correct, is in fact very different from the note you played with the other fingering. The tuning of any note should be an ideal that has nothing to do with which finger is used to play it.
You get the same two-octave scales in the Hrimaly, but not with one fingering after another. In Hrimaly, the differently-fingered scales are in different sections, on different pages, so the uniform-intonation element is unfortunately lost.
Laurie: For what level student is your scale book? Is it meant for the professional as well as the student?
Simon: It is not a book for complete beginners, but then no scale book is. Players who are somewhere between beginner and intermediate level could benefit greatly from three-quarters of it. If you can play any scales at all, then you can play most of this book. For the professional it is a complete must. This book gives you the opportunity to take your playing on to new levels of complete security.
Now that I can practice from my own "Scales," I find that rather than having to force myself to do them, I can’t stop. I have to drag myself off them when I have run out of time -- it is all so interesting! The variety of the material makes you want to keep turning the pages to see what else you might do. Perhaps anyone would feel like that, playing from their own scale book! But that doesn’t explain my friends and colleagues reporting the same thing for themselves.
Also, now that "Scales" is in print, I no longer have to beg, bully, cajole and endlessly try to inspire my students to practice in certain ways. For example, if I were to say, "This is how to set up the intonation in A major. Now do the same thing in all the other keys!" Well, most students just won’t do it. Or, "Practice shifts as follows: now do that on all your scales and arpeggios!" Perhaps one or two of your best students will do this, but the rest won’t. With "Scales," they can just put the book on the stand and play what’s there.
In "Scales," I included exercises for intonation, for timing the shifts, for moving the fingers at greater speed, and so on. I call all this sort of work "written-out, excellent practice." If you just play what is there and improve it – even if you don’t think about it or know what you are doing – you will be practicing scales excellently. Then, when you play the normal scale as presented in parts 3 or 5 (or in any other scale book), you'll notice massive improvement.
Laurie: At what point should a student start doing scales? And at what point can they stop doing scales -- or is this a lifelong discipline?
Simon: Start as soon as you can! Never stop! But for that to be possible, the practice has to be creative and therefore interesting and engaging, not just repetitious. And you need to climb up the ladder of difficulty rung by rung, and not try to jump straight to the top. Again, that is why most players can benefit from a scale-studies book much more than from any straight scale book.
German violinist and pedagogue Werner Scholz, whose many former students populate orchestral positions and professorships across Europe and United States, died on October 10 in Berlin at age 86.
Born in 1926 in Dresden, Scholz could trace his musical lineage to Joseph Joachim, as Scholz was a student of Gustav Havemann, a student of Joachim. Scholz was concertmaster of the Dresden Philharmonic from 1948 to 1951. In 1951, he became assistant and then successor to Havemann in the city of Cottbus (in East Germany), and from 1953, in East Berlin. In 1961, he was appointed professor of violin at the Academy of Music "Hanns Eisler" in Berlin. Scholz also performed as a soloist throughout Europe.
Scholz's life coincided with World War II and the division of Germany that followed it; thus for much of his life, he lived in Communist East Germany. Werner Scholz was concertmaster of the East Berlin Berlin Symphony Orchestra from 1956 to 1974, under the baton of the conductor Kurt Sanderling, who was a close friend of Dmitri Shostakovich. During those years, Scholz maintained a close personal friendship with Soviet violinist David Oistrakh, who conducted more and more in his later years and often stayed with Scholz at his home, when visiting Berlin.
German reunification in 1990 allowed Scholz to open his studio to Western violinists wishing to study with him, including the Chicago-based violinist Rachel Barton Pine.
"After the wall fell, I had the privilege of studying with him off and on during my late teens," said Rachel Barton Pine. "His influence on my playing was profound, in the core German repertoire and beyond. I returned for some lessons before recording my Brahms and Joachim concerto album with the Chicago Symphony, which I dedicated to him. I am so thankful to have known him; he will be truly missed."
Perhaps most notably, Scholz's students went on to successful careers in music as soloists, concertmasters, orchestral players and professors. Former student David Yonan of Chicago did some counting and: 19 of Scholz's students have held concertmaster positions, in groups such as the Staatskapelle Berlin, the Dresden Staatskapelle, the Vienna Philharmonic, the Berlin Symphony Orchestra and more. Fourteen of his students went on to careers as violin professors: Walter Karl Zeller, Antje Weithaas, Wolf-Dieter Batzdorf, Michael Erxleben, Joachim Scholz, Axel Wilczok, Katinka Rebling and Eberhard Felz in Berlin; Peter Mirring and Matthias Wollong in Dresden; Katrin Scholz in Bremen; Sylvio Krause in Rostock; and Olschofka Felix and David Yonan in the United States. Scholz's students won a total of 102 prizes in various international competitions: some of his award-winning students have included Rachel Barton Pine, Wolf-Dieter Batzdorf, Thomas Böttcher, Michael Erxleben, Sabine Gabbe, Angela Jaffe, Peter Mirring, Matthias Wollong, Conrad Muck, Thorsten Rosenbusch, Joachim Scholz, Katrin Scholz, Ilya Sekler, Lothar Strauss, Petra law, Kai Vogler, Antje Weithaas, David Yonan, Song Quiang and Marta Murvai.
As Yonan said, "His legacy will live on in all of us who studied with this great master and warm human being."