"Everything we teach needs constant surveillance."
This is what Almita Vamos told a group of Suzuki teachers on Monday at a teaching workshop at The Colburn School in Los Angeles. I think I'd like to make an embroidered plaque with this phrase and nail it to my studio wall, where I can see it always.
"I throw a lot of things at them at once. If I see they can't take it, I back off," Almita said. She might give an advanced student 20 things to correct or consider at a lesson; they'll go home and fix maybe three -- and this is all right. "It's not a fast process."
Bodies change, habits change, and a teacher must patiently persist. And persist and persist.
About 20 Suzuki teachers enjoyed a day of Almita's teaching during a workshop presented by the Suzuki Music Association of California. In the afternoon, many stayed for a master class presented by The Colburn School, with both Almita and Dr. Roland Vamos, who presided over a demonstration of exercises from his new book, Exercises for the Violin in Various Combinations of Double-Stops. The married team both teach currently at Northwestern University and often share students between them.
Persistence was the quality I most noticed in Almita's teaching. Somehow it didn't seem like nagging or judgment, but she made her points and did not back down.
"Your sautillé is not quite getting off the ground," Almita told one student at the morning masterclass. The student was working on the last movement of the Tchaikovsky Concerto, which has quite a lot of sautillé (fast, bouncing bow stroke). What makes for a good sautillé? The hair of the bow is actually on the string, but the stick does bounce, she said. One achieves this with loose bow fingers, slight down-bow accent, and fingers going up and down. And, "If the thumb is not curved, then everything locks."
This student was achieving a passable pseudo-sautillé, with her bow thumb locked straight. Almita didn't buy it; she insistently brought it to her attention: It's not really bouncing. Even after she had moved on to a new subject, she returned as needed: It's not really bouncing; make it bounce. And she demonstrated, often and well.
Sometimes Almita was a mirror of what she wanted the student to do. While the student was playing or preparing, she would move her hand to demonstrate a bow movement, or mime a dramatic entrance for Mozart. Without words, her movements got the point across and changed the student's approach, right on the spot.
"Having the technique and not using it doesn't make a lot of sense," she said at one point. In other words: do it, and do it now. Then keep doing it. If you know how to hold the bow correctly, do it. If you know how to bounce it, bounce it. Don't wait, start the good habit now.
For a student playing the Lalo concerto, she advised that "you don't move the bow until it touches the string." This creates a better-sounding and better-controlled attack than if one hits the string from the air.
Almita also spoke about vibrato: "Once you learn to vibrate, your search is not over," she said. "You have to refine it." When the bow does something, the left hand often should respond with a change in vibrato. This includes vibrato in Bach. "Saying that vibrato is out of the question in Bach is not necessarily historically correct," she said. That said, one must temper it. "When you use too much vibrato in Bach, it's hard to hear the purity of sound." For example, the costumes in "Gone with the Wind" work nicely for a movie about a certain time period, but such clothing would not likely go over well at high school. One has to consider the times, consider the style. You don't use a Tchaikovsky vibrato for Bach.
On the subject of shoulder rests: any difference in the sound is not enough to justify throwing away your shoulder rest, if your rest makes you comfortable. "It depends on your body," she advised, adding that she has many chinrests and shoulder rests at her studio, and they experiment until the student is comfortable.
In the afternoon, four young students from The Colburn School played for Almita. I was impressed by her sensitivity to the role of a student in a masterclass setting; to paraphrase the kinds of things she said to them: you are a good violinist, thank you for being our guinea pig, much of what is said is for the audience, please take away anything that will benefit you.
Colburn student, Thompson, plays Vieuxtemps Concerto No. 5 for Almita Vamos
A student named Geneva played the first movement of the Tchaikovsky Concerto, and Almita described her thoughts about the concerto's introduction. She likes adhering to the written rhythm, rather than playing with dramatic rubato, as many performers do. The message is simple and straightforward: "Ladies and gentlemen this is an introduction, there's going to be a beautiful melody, please sit down."
She asked the Geneva, and all of us, to consider thinking of the last beat of that introduction as a pickup to the melody that follows. (This puts me on my head a bit, having heard it differently for so long, but harmonically it really works!)
Almita seems to find different angles and solutions to our common and well-studied problems on a regular basis. Working with a student named Melodi on the first movement of Mozart Concerto No. 5, she suggested starting the Allegro Aperto up-bow. Scandalous! Actually, I'd first seen this when Almita's student, Sphinx Competition winner Alexandra Switala, did it in the Sphinx Finals Concert in 2011. It's a solution that preserves Mozart's original bow divisions (check the Urtext, it's quite eye-opening) and it works beautifully -- well worth going against our 200+ years' worth of entrenched "tr-editions," yes?
In the end, one has to make judgment calls; nothing is a 100-percent-of-the-time solution. If an aspect of your own teaching method is going well, or if a student is doing something that works, there is no need to change it, just to adhere to some official method or pre-planned process.
"When you see sloppy playing," she said, "that's a sign that something should change."
* * *
Another part of the master class with the Vamoses was devoted to a demonstration of the exercises in
The book is appropriate for students who are already familiar with three-octave scales and who have done some work on double stops, such as Barbara Barber's Scales for Advanced Violinists and/or Josephine Trott's Melodious Double Stops. The exercises are for advanced players; if they seem insurmountable, you (or your student) may not be ready for them.
"When kids first start doing this, they are very tired," said Colburn teacher Aimee Kreston, whose students were demonstrating the exercises. "It's very difficult to do all seven exercises when you first start out."
In fact, if you do too much, "you're in deep trouble and you can hurt your hand," Roland said. "Go gradually and allow your hands to develop."
With that in mind, Roland has some warm-up exercises he suggests that students do, before they even attempt to do the exercises in the books. The book comes with a DVD with the warmups, and also, here is the warmup, demonstrated by a student, Geneva:
The exercises themselves include seven combinations of finger exercises, in seven positions. Here is an example of one of those sets of combinations (officially, Number 6, I do believe), also played by Geneva:
"If you can do all seven of those combinations, in seven positions, then you have a pretty solid command of any double stops you'll come across in the repertoire," Roland said.
Almita reported that one of her students said, "I feel so strong!" after doing the exercises -- the best kind of endorsement!
The winners of the 2013 Sphinx Competition in Detroit were announced Sunday. Congratulations to all participants!
A broadcast of last Sunday's Finals Concert, featuring the Senior Division winners performing with the Sphinx Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Anthony Elliott, will be available on demand at the Detroit Public TV website after Feb. 24.
Here are the 2013 Sphinx Competition Laureates:
Sometimes music from a film is what makes a person fall in love with violin music -- and Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti is all about making people fall in love with violin music.
Her newest recording, released this week in the United States, is called The Silver Violin, and it features "music that was either written for, or used in, film, and everything had to be originally featuring the violin," she said. It also includes the sunny and appealing Violin Concerto in D, Op. 35, by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who was primarily a composer of film music in the early 20th century.
© Decca/ Simon Fowler
"Film is often people's only exposure to purely instrumental music; almost all forms of popular music today involve voice and words," Nicola says in "The Silver Violin" liner notes. "As a 21st-century classical musician, I am trying to discover where classical music fits into people's lives and how best to expose them to it. Making the connection through film seemed an obvious and effective link, and when I began researching, I soon found it musically fascinating."
In fact, she's turned up some gems by composers who are well-respected in the classical world, such as Shostakovich and Mahler, and mixed them with works by some of the most-respected film composers who are working today, including Academy Award winners John Williams and Dario Marianelli.
I spoke with Nicola over the phone several weeks ago about her film music concept, which comes after recent albums Italia (2012), which featured Baroque music, and a recording of the Bruch and Tchaikovsky (2011). She is 25 now, and still playing the 1717 Gariel Stradivarius, on loan from Jonathan Moulds.
The movie idea "all originated from the idea to record the Korngold concerto," Nicola said. "I wanted to record that for a long time. There's a physicality about it that I enjoy so much, and I think it's a great piece, an unusual piece, and a piece that can have the potential for a certain level of relevance to people who are not seasoned classical music listeners."
"I just thought this was an opportunity to really go to town with a concept," Nicola said, "and it's a concept that focuses on the medium of film. I set about trying to come up with a sound world, with a criteria that was specific enough to give a true connection to all the pieces we would choose."
So far, her idea of reaching out to a wider audience seems to have worked: Though it is just being released this week in the United States, "The Silver Violin" was the United Kingdom's best-selling classical album of 2012 and was named iTunes Best Classical Album of the Year for 2012.
"For an album that has probably 15 minutes of Shostakovich, 12 minutes of Mahler, 40 minutes of Korngold -- your average person would not know of those names, or of those composers," Nicola said. "For that much substantial music to be bought into by such a wide crowd in the UK is definitely a big success, in my book!"
One of the more modern pieces on the album is the "Concertino" by Howard Shore, from the movie "Eastern Promises."
"That one was very easy to choose, because I was actually asked to do the soundtrack for this film!" Nicola said. "Many people have commented on that particular score -- from the most high-brow classical music buffs to just my friends and cousins. It just has such an identity to it. It really evokes something that sticks with people, that grows on people."
In March, Nicola will start her Silver Violin tour, which will take her to nine cities across her native Scotland, and to Indianapolis, Montreal and London.
While she hopes that film music will attract new listeners to the genre, film music also has the potential to appeal to the violinist as well. Well-made film music can round out a recital, and it can also serve as a motivational piece for a student. As Nicola said, when it comes to inspiring a student, sometimes having an interesting piece with modern relevance "can make all the difference in the world -- it can literally be the difference between someone continuing or stopping."
With this in mind, I imagined a book of sheet music, with Nicola's black-and-white, movie-starlet style picture on the front, and with the violin film music from her "Silver Violin" album inside. Alas, this does not yet exist! So I've created a kind of online version for you: a list of the works Nicola recorded, and where you can buy and/or download them on the Internet. Here you go, and have fun!
John Williams: Main Theme (From: Schindler’s List, 1993)
Erich Wolfgang Korngold: Tanzlied Des Pierrots (From: Die tote Stadt, 1920 opera; first filmed in 1983)
Carlos Gardel (arr. John Lenehan): Tango, Por Una Cabeza (From Scent of a Woman, 1992)
Dmitri Shostakovich: "Romance" (From: The Gadfly, 1956)
Erich Wolfgang Korngold: Violin Concerto, 1945
Nigel Hess: Theme (From: Ladies In Lavender, 2004)
Dmitri Shostakovich: Andante (From: The Counterplan, 1932)
Dario Marianelli: My Edward & I (From: Jane Eyre, 2011
Howard Shore: Concertino (From: Eastern Promises, 2007)
Gustav Mahler: Piano Quartet in A minor (From: Stutter Island, 2010)
Dmitri Shostakovich: Five Pieces for Two Violins– I. Prelude (From: The Gadfly, 1956)
Erich Wolfgang Korngold: Marietta’s Lied (From: Die tote Stadt, 1920 opera; first filmed in 1983)
Nicola Benedetti speaks about film music, and plays:
"We are so glad you will be playing violin at our wedding. One thing: can you play 'Can You Feel the Love Tonight' by Elton John?"
If you've played a few weddings, you've probably had a few requests like this: for a pop song that you may or may not know, for which you definitely do not have the music. (Is anyone old enough to remember "You Light Up My Life"?) While the violin repertoire gives us all kinds of wonderful music that is perfectly suited to weddings, people still have their favorite pop tunes that are special to them, or special to their relationship. This is okay, and I think we should try to accommodate such requests.
One of my students, a bit too young to have negotiated the whole wedding-gig circuit yet, was asked to play in a wedding, and she was struggling to figure out how to pull off "Don't Stop Believing" and "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling." She'd be playing on a seaside cliff in Malibu, outdoors, no pianist.
In helping her figure this out, I thought I might share some ideas for my V.com friends who are asked to play weddings. (I welcome your wisdom and advice, as well!) The two challenges I'm addressing here are: having no accompaniment, and being asked to play an unfamiliar pop or folk song.
In an ideal situation, an accomplished and flexible piano or organ accompanist can help you put together something with minimal (or no) rehearsal. Also, in an ideal situation, you have a roof over your head and you are asked to play something you know really well, or at least you have the music for. It's also nice if you can be hired as a quartet, which allows you many options for music.
But you might be hired (or asked) to play all by yourself, with no accompanist. In this situation -- now please don't get mad at me for this suggestion -- I advocate taking advantage of modern technology.
At most weddings, though there may be no piano or organ, there is usually a sound system. You'll have to do some inquiring, but you will likely be able to hook up an MP3 player, a CD player, or maybe just your iPod, so that you can play an accompaniment track. (Or you can just bring your own boom box, if things are really minimalist!) You can do this for classical music you are playing, as well as for pop music.
Here's the thing to google: "vocal accompaniment tracks" or "violin accompaniment tracks." You can use such tracks to accompany your standard classical pieces, and you can use such tracks to accompany pop music requests.
For example, here's one such site, with piano accompaniments to standard, mostly classical, violin pieces: Piano-Accompaniments.com Or, you can often find something fuller. For example, I wouldn't mind playing Schubert's "Ave Maria" to this accompaniment track, and here's the matching violin sheet music part in B flat, free from IMSLP.
Important note: make sure that your sheet music is in the same key as the accompaniment track!
Now, how about those pop tunes: Elton John, Celine Dion, Lady Gaga? These probably require that you read a vocal part and find a "vocal accompaniment track." Fortunately, the range of a violin is well-suited for vocal parts, and if you are in the mood for some fun, you can do a bit of improvising once you get the basic song (or not!)
Here are a few examples, to get you thinking:
EXAMPLE 1: Elton John, "Can You Feel the Love"
I did some Googling, and I found this CD accompaniment track. Of course, they assume you are a vocalist who does not read music, so they give you a version with someone singing, plus lyrics. If you want to play by ear, you can work it out, But since most of us do read, you also might want to find some sheet music that has actual notes. A quick check with the piano tells me that this is in B flat, so after some googling, here's the sheet music. This is all pretty quick and downloadable, but in this case, the track and the music cost a total of about $16. You should pass this expense on to whomever is hiring you. (If you play a lot of weddings, you might find yourself simply having a standard fee for playing any piece that is not part of your standard menu of wedding tunes).
EXAMPLE 2: "Don't Stop Believing" by Journey (or Glee)
First, you'd need the Journey version; the Glee version is a four-part vocal score (it's pretty cool, I must say, if you have a barbershop quartet you can use this version!) -- I digress..
Here is a vocal accompaniment track for "Don't Stop Believing" (I'd recommend the instrumental version without backing vocals). I had to use the word "karaoke" a few times in my search! Of course, people usually do not use sheet music when singing karaoke; they use a lyric sheet and summon the notes with alcohol-enhanced courage. So you must find the vocal sheet music, and here it is, easy to find by searching "sheet music" and the name of the song.
EXAMPLE 3: "When Irish Eyes are Smiling" -- traditional Irish tune
In some ways, traditional tunes presents more of a challenge, because they tend to be available in a lot of different keys and styles. I would seek out accompaniment that sounds good to you, and that is acoustic (not all synthesizer, if possible). In the case of "When Irish Eyes are Smiling," a search brought me to a flute version, with sheet music as well as an accompaniment CD. Nice that it was all-in-one! (I haven't heard this CD accompaniment, though, so I can't recommend it 100 percent.) Flute versions can also good options for a violinist, as they tend to be in the same range, though you will likely need to be comfortable playing a few things in position.
* * *
I hope that gives you some ideas for how to accommodate requests for pop tunes at weddings and other occasions, and also how to cope with a situation in which there is no accompaniment. I welcome your ideas as well!
"He was the best violinmaker and restorer of the 20th century" -- this is how many in the violin-making community viewed Carl Fredrick Becker, who died Wednesday in Chicago at the age of 93.
Born in 1919 in Chicago, "Carl was a brilliant man who could have done almost anything he wanted to do," said New York violin maker Charles Rufino, who worked for Becker for nearly four years during the early '80s. "During World War II, he became a pilot and was such a fine pilot, they kept him here as a trainer of other pilots. He had offers from the airlines to become a pilot -- a pretty glamorous, well-paying job in the '50s. And he said, 'No, I thought about working with my father and making the instruments up at the lake, and that was more important to me.'"
Carl was born into violinmaking; his father, Carl G. Becker (1887-1975), was a prolific and well-respected luthier who worked for the Chicago firm, William Lewis and Son. The younger Carl started apprenticing with his father at age 16, making cello ribs. The two went into business together in 1968, when they founded Carl Becker and Son in Chicago, in a multi-level building on Belmont St. that served as the family's shop as well as their home. (The shop now is located at 30 E. Adams St., in the Chicago Loop.)
"If you said to Carl, which is the better, you or your father? He would have always said his father was the better," said British luthier and violin dealer Charles Beare, retired director of the London-based J & A Beare. "But I've always thought, from his work, that (the younger) Carl was actually the very best violinmaker of the 20th century -- anywhere. You get differences of opinion on that, but for me, the best of Carl was the best we ever got between 1900 and 2000."
Carl Becker made his first violin in 1948. After that, he made nearly all his instruments in collaboration with a family member, said his son, Paul Becker, who, along with his sister, Jennifer Becker, also is a violin maker. "He made only 13 violins and violas by himself," Paul Becker said. "All the rest are in partnership with mostly my grandfather, and then also with me and my sister -- about 800 violins, violas and cellos, total." Two of his grandchildren, Stephanie Jurewicz and Vada Becker, also apprenticed with him and are luthiers.
"He was responsible for uplifting the quality of our instruments," Paul Becker said. "His hand, my grandfather always said, was much better than his own, and felt that dad was responsible for making the finest instruments."
The late violin dealer Geoff Fushi, of Chicago-based Bein and Fushi, owned two of the instruments that Becker made on his own, one which Becker made specifically for him. Fushi prized them greatly, said Fushi's daughter, Suzanne Fushi, who said that her father always trusted her to get the Strads, Guadagninis, Amatis out of the safe, but "when it came to, 'Go get my Becker,' he instructed me on how to carry a violin: 'Pick it up by the neck, have your hand on the bottom, take your time, don't rush around any corners…'"
Much of Becker's violin-making occurred at the family's secluded cabin in Wisconsin, by Lake Pickerel, where he worked in a studio over the garage. (It's also where he practiced one of his favorite pastimes, muskie fishing.) But the instrument-making was a part-time endeavor -- weekends and evenings, and in the summers. His time in Chicago was devoted to repairing and restoring violins.
"He was a wonderful restorer, and he was painstaking," Beare said. "He would always be on the side of the violin, or whatever instrument he was working with, rather than on the side of the people he was working for. It was always the violin that was important."
Carl Becker worked on many very famous and valuable violins, violas and cellos, including the Lady Blunt Stradivari violin, which was sold in June 2011 by Nippon Foundation for a record price of $15.9 million.
"Carl could take the most intractable problems and solve them," Rufino said. "It was like watching someone try to untangle a big, tangled knot of string: Carl would just stick his hand into the problem, lay a firm grip on it, and follow that string to the end. Then he'd turn around and go in the other direction, until it was all in a neat bundle."
"He had boxes and boxes of little jigs he had made, and he worked with such incredible sensitivity to preserve," Rufino said. "In restoration, he would bend over backwards, tie himself in knots and go to astonishing lengths to preserve the original maker's work."
For example, in restoring the Muntz Strad of 1736, which Stradivari made when he was 92, Becker had to address some wear on the corners of the violin. "Anybody else would have just cut off the worn corner and replaced the wood with a new piece of wood," Rufino said. "Carl went through this elaborate process of slicing the thickness of the wood and pulling the original wood up, higher and higher -- it's almost impossible to describe."
"He took Stradivari and analyzed it better than anyone has, as far as translating it from Stradivari's work to his own," said Jim Warren of Kenneth Warren and Son violin dealers in Chicago. Warren bought one of the last violins that Becker made.
"Carl was like Violin Yoda," Rufino said. "Carl had a sort of Platonic ideal of a violin, which did not exist in space-time. You cannot have the perfect violin, but you can have an idea of a perfect violin, and he would just compare the reality that was in his hands to that perfection."
"He saw the violin as an engineering problem," Rufino said. "He taught me to see the violin as a question of the distribution of tension." If you redistribute that tension, the instrument will sound different. The secret to adjusting an instrument lay in manipulating the pressure of those strings: by changing neck angles, by changing specific points about the fingerboard, adjusting the sound post, adjusting the bridge.
"He also came to it from a very human point of view: the violin is a musical instrument that only has value when it's played by a musician. Carl's entire focus was: make it play great, and make it comfortable for the musician. There's an awful lot of arcane knowledge that goes into making an instrument comfortable."
"The supreme gift of Carl's work was that he had a mastery of line that was so elegant," Rufino said. "Carl loved ballroom dancing and was an excellent dancer -- all the ladies at any function wanted to dance with Carl. If Fred Astaire had been six-foot-three and a violin maker, his name would have been Carl Becker. His work was supremely elegant."
His patience was legend, "Carl Becker would have driven St. Francis to insanity, he was so patient," Rufino said. "Time did not exist for Carl. He didn't care about time, he cared about doing a job perfectly. His work was of exquisite delicacy and sensitivity."
In restoring the famous "Lady Blunt" Strad, the violin "had developed this spontaneous dimple in the middle of the back, a little dent -- these things sometimes happen. He wanted to push it out to restore the arching." And he did it -- over a period of six months, applying a little bit of pressure each day. "He described to me, how he made these little mini bass bars that would put a very light pressure on the dent, pushing it out. He would dampen it very lightly with water and apply the tiniest bit of pressure." In the end, he fixed the dent, without endangering the integrity of the violin; "He didn't have to heat it or do any kind of destructive or threatening thing. This was the way he worked, all the time."
Carl Becker did not reserve his patience only for the finest instruments on the planet; he also gave his full attention to the instruments of professional musicians who came from all over to have their instruments repaired and adjusted.
"He was a polite, deliberate, considerate, soft-spoken man in a field with its share of sly, self-important fast talkers. My no-name violin never sounded better than it did than it did after a few minutes in his hands," said Rick Lohmann, violinist and teacher in Santa Fe, N.M. "It still has the bridge he made for it over 20 years ago. He came the closest anybody ever did to identifying the maker. I always breathed a sigh of relief as I walked up that narrow old staircase on Belmont St., knowing that whatever tonal glitch was haunting my violin, it was about to be solved."
"He would work until 3 in the morning on someone's adjustment, to get it right," said Paul Becker. "He did that regularly, and he did it without question. He connected with people one-on-one, one at a time."
"Carl was generous and warm-hearted with everyone who shared his love of violinmaking," said violin maker Gregg Alf. "Although our violinmaking styles are different, we were able to connect as colleagues with mutual curiosity for the profession we love. Carl's approach was very methodical, extremely well thought out. No part was left to chance. Carl was a a true gentleman, generous with his time and knowledge. When he took on an apprentice, it was with the true spirit of helping them grow, both as a maker and as a person. I think many young makers will remember sitting beside him, his OptiVISOR ('Becker checker') lowered, while discussing the finest details of their instruments."
The list of luthiers who learned from Carl Becker is long and includes: Raphael Carrabba, Charles Rufino, Thomas Immel, Sebastian Zens, Sam Zygmuntowicz, Michael McMahan of Australia; Glenn Bearden, Whitney Osterud, Michael Reis, Michael Lochner, Peter Beare, Eric Benning, Vada Becker, Stephanie Jurewicz and Jonathan Woutat.
Becker worked on stringed instruments for some 76 years, and "he experimented and tested himself every day, all through his life," Paul said. "He always advanced violins, from the day he started until the day he died. The very best instruments were the last ones he produced, and he was in the middle of making two violas when he passed away."
"I expect he's up there in heaven, grilling Stradivari about one thing after another," Rufino said. "'Why'd you make those fiddles so thick at the end of your life, I don't understand it!'"
Carl Becker is survived by children Paul Becker, Carol Henderson, Marilyn Becker and Jennifer Becker; eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Memorial services will be August 10, at a venue to be announced.
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