Good thing she's recording this, because it's one highly technical program, I thought, reading the jacket of Bella Hristova's new CD, Bella Unaccompanied.
What a list: The Red Violin Caprices (five of them) by John Corigliano; "Arches," a five-movement solo violin work by contemporary composer Kevin Puts; three of Astor Piazzolla's Tango Etudes, Milstein's "Paganiniana Variations"; and the entire D minor Partita by Bach, which, of course, includes the epic Chaconne at the end. (Emotionally speaking, I'd argue that performing the Chaconne is a rather exhausting act in itself.)
Also, every single piece in this line-up is for solo violin -- completely unaccompanied. One would really have to be able to hold an audience in thrall to pull this off. Then I realized, she actually did play all this in a live performance, after she recorded it!
Photo credit: Steve Riskind
Well, it's not so surprising. At 27, Bella Hristova has an impressive list of achievements: just last month she received a $25,000 Avery Fisher Career Grant; she was First Prize Winner in the 2008-09 Young Concert Artists International Auditions; First Prize at the 2007 Michael Hill International Violin Competition in New Zealand and a Laureate of the 2006 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis.
Perhaps more importantly, she plays so beautifully. A few weeks ago I spoke to her over the phone, and we talked about how a solo violinist practices for a highly technical program, the beauty of Bach and Bartok, and much more.
Laurie: This solo program that you've recorded and also that you have played in recital -- I'd be exhausted after the first Caprice, probably. Tell me a little bit about how you stay in shape for playing all these very technical things. In other words, how do you practice?
Bella: I do scales and arpeggios every day that I practice, though I do take days off. I do them from the Galamian book: four-octave scales, all the three octave arpeggios, starting from G going to G. (Galamian's sequence takes one through some nine sets of arpeggios per key, based on various chords) It takes me 15 to 20 minutes to do all the scales and arpeggios. But the reason I like the Galamian arpeggios so much is because they are not just the typical arpeggios. They force you do know the relationship between your fingers really well: whether you have to stretch a half-step here, or a whole step there, and all of those things with the string crossings. That helps tremendously, with anything, but especially with a challenging technical program. I've also done some Dounis exercises, where you shift in thirds or fourths or sixths.
I also do a lot of slow practice. I think maybe 70 percent of my practice is slow practice, to get the muscle memory and to get to know the distances between the notes, especially in fast passages, so that when I do get it up to tempo and I do play it fast, I really don't have to think about the notes.
I actually had an amazing thing happen to me in concert: I had a memory slip, but my fingers kept going. My brain turned off, and I thought, 'Oh no, where am I!?' But my fingers kept going. It was in a really fast passage, in the Saint Saens D minor sonata, in the last movement. It all happened over maybe two seconds -- but it was amazing!
Laurie: You must have been so tremendously well-prepared! How long do you practice, typically?
Bella: I've always tried to do the most efficient practice that I can because I don't -- how to say this -- I don't love practicing!
Laurie: I don't think anyone does.
Bella: But I really try to stay focused -- not practicing with the T.V., not practicing and spacing out, but really paying attention to what you're doing. It really depends on the repertoire that I'm playing, but I would say I practice between two and four hours a day, probably around three. And I think I've always practiced about that much. When I was at Curtis, there's a lot of playing. So some days I would be playing maybe 12 hours a day, but I might not get any time to actually practice.
Laurie: Have you ever had to deal with injury, and how do you prevent that?
Bella: When I was at Curtis, I had some tendinitis problems, and I think it came from not warming up properly. I think that stretching before you start playing and after is very important, and then doing slow scales. I'm a scales convert -- I used to not do scales. Now, I feel like I can't play if I don't do my scales; I mean, we're athletes! People don't run a sprint or a marathon, without being warmed up. Even after my scales, I don't feel quite ready to play a concerto; I start with the slow practice and then I slowly work it up. I just want my muscles to be nice and warm.
I have a theory as to why violinists need to warm up more than, say, pianists. It always amazes me how pianists don't usually have a piano backstage, and then they go out and play. I think we need to warm up more because we have to balance a very thin string right in the middle of our finger. It's a much finer set of muscles that we use for that.
Laurie: When you think about it, the target practice there is pretty amazing.
Bella: Exactly, it's a target, and it's so precise.
Laurie: It's so precise, and at the same time, it's not even fixed in space. It's on our shoulder, with our heart beating, with our hands moving. It's kind of a crazy instrument, isn't it?
Bella: Our hand is in a very unnatural position.
Laurie: Our hands and our heads…it's crazy. On a different topic, I've really been enjoying your CD. Aren't there a lot of permutations of the Red Violin music? How did you come upon the Caprices?
Bella: Yes, there's a Red Violin Chaccone, which is played with orchestra in the movie. The Red Violin Caprices also appeared in the movie, as solo works. And now there's also The Red Violin Concerto, which is the longer version of the Chaccone, also with orchestra.
Laurie: I like these quite a lot, the solo Caprices.
Bella: I love them! They're more varied, and very effective.
Laurie: Did you ever talk to John Corigliano?
Bella: I have met him, and I gave him a copy of my CD, and I received the sweetest e-mail back from him; he was very complimentary about my playing. It was really, really touching.
Laurie: How did you find the "Arches" by Kevin Puts?
Bella: I had played Kevin's Violin Concerto in Grand Rapids, and I really, really liked it. When I came up with the idea of making an unaccompanied program, it was really centered around the Chaconne, that was my inspiration for the whole program. I knew I wanted to do the Red Violin Caprices, and I knew I wanted the Paganiniana by Milstein. I thought, wouldn't it be great to have something else by a young, living composer? I knew Kevin had a solo work, so I emailed him and asked about this piece. He sent me the music for "Arches," and I thought it fit really well with the program. His first variation is actually inspired, in part, by The Red Violin Caprices. The first variation of The Red Violin Caprices is the scene where the young prodigy, Kaspar Weiss, is made to practice faster and faster, until he just can't play any faster.
Laurie: Doesn't he drop dead or something?
Bella: I don't remember that! There's a lot of death in the movie.
So Kevin's inspiration for his first movement of "Arches" was also this scene. The movement starts very melodic, a little Appalachian in character, and then he increases the note values and he also speeds up the tempo gradually. The whole first movement gets faster and faster and faster. So I thought it would be a nice transition, after the Corigliano, into the Piazzola and before the Milstein. I knew I wanted to end with the Chaconne, and with the Bach. And when I performed the program, I played an encore, but I just played the Bach Sarabande, because I don't think anything goes after the Chaccone. It's such an emotional piece for me, and you kind of feel drained afterwards.
One neat thing also: the program starts and ends on the exact same note, on D just above middle C.
Laurie: How long have you been playing the Chaconne? It seems like that's one of those lifelong works.
Bella: It definitely is. I learned it while I was a student at Curtis, about eight years ago. Every time I've played the Chaconne, whether I'm practicing it or performing it, I get this overwhelming feeling that if there was one piece of music I had to choose to play for the rest of my life -- I could only pick one -- it would be the Chaconne. There are many pieces of music that I love, but I don't get that feeling about any of them. I think every human emotion is represented in the Chaconne: there's triumph, there's sadness, there's happiness, there's worry, anxiety, tension. There's incredible tenderness, and there's a sense of loss, also, in some parts. For me it's an especially moving piece.
Laurie: Let's rewind to the beginning, where were you born and what made you start playing the violin in the first place?
Bella: I was born in Pleven, Bulgaria, and I started playing the violin when I was six, because my mom wanted me to. I wanted to play the piano -- but my mom wanted me to be a violinist, so I started playing the violin. She played the piano and she was a choral conductor. My father was a composer, so I was around music from a very early age.
I started lessons, and my first public performance was six months after I started playing. I played a very small piece called "The Little Duck," but it was in Bulgaria's biggest hall, with a live audience of maybe 5,000 people and a T.V. audience of many more people; it was broadcast in Italy.
Laurie: Little duck, big audience! How did you get such a big audience for "The Little Duck"?
Bella: (she laughs) I don't remember! It was a big festival in Sofia (Bulgaria).
Laurie: At some point, you must have had to decide that you wanted to do it, not just your mom.
Bella: It's been very gradual. I love the violin, I love it so much. And I moved (to the United States) when I was 13 to continue my studies. I was sort of an exchange student, and I lived with a host family and had private lessons. While I was in Michigan I met Ida Kavafian, and I came to Curtis to study with her when I was 17. And obviously, if you come to Curtis, you know that this is what you are going to do. But I think, after I came to Curtis, that's when it really became about me, that this was for me and not for my mom. It's such a nurturing place. I can't say enough praises about Curtis.
Laurie: It seems like Curtis Institute would be a pressure-cooker, but actually a lot of people seem to feel that it's very nurturing. What was Ida like?
Bella: I've learned so much of what I know from Ida and Jaime Laredo. Those are two of my heroes; I owe so much to them.
Ida was a wonderful teacher. She was very picky, and she focused not so much on technique but on knowing how to do things in the most efficient technical way possible so that then you could focus on the music. I learned so much about how to make smart fingering choices from her, and to make fingerings for the phrase that are still convenient. Or maybe not-so-convenient! But if they work for the phrase, then you sacrifice a little bit of convenience. I think she just taught me to think like a musician and a violinist, instead of just like a violinist.
Laurie: What did you feel you learned from Jaime Laredo?
Bella: Jaime was very much about the big picture. I would play through a piece, a concerto or a Bach -- then go back to the beginning and play through it again, but he would tell you things and stop. He sort of expected you to know the details. He might be different with younger students, who go to him for their college degree. I went to him after Curtis, for an Artist's Diploma, so for me it was really like polishing everything that I'd already learned.
Laurie: How did you like IU?
Bella: Different, very different from Curtis. As nurturing as Curtis is, once you're out in the 'real world,' like IU, you go from 160 students to 40,000 students. Instead of being able to walk into an office and get your ID, you have to go to a different building and it's a machine -- they say everything is online but I couldn't find anything online! It was overwhelming at first. But I went there for Jaime, and that made it all worth it. And I really grew to love Bloomington and Indiana and when I moved back to Philly, I miss it every now and then.
I took a jazz dance class there. I could not do that at Curtis! I was very uncoordinated!
Laurie: That's hard to believe!
Bella: Different coordination!
Laurie: What would you like to tackle next?
Bella: I would love to do another recording project. My idea with "Unaccompanied" was to create a recital program around a masterwork for the violin, which, in that case, was the Chaccone. I would love to do another program like that, maybe around the Bartok Solo Sonata.
Laurie: What intrigues you most about that work?
Bella: I feel like I'm from that part of the world; maybe it intrigues me for that. Also, when I won the competition in New Zealand, I did a winner's concert tour, and the Bartok Solo Sonata was on the recital program that was chosen most often. So I got to play it night after night, and my interpretation evolved. I thought, 'How great would it be, to create a program around that?'
I read a book about Bartok called The Naked Face of Genius: Béla Bartók's American Years by Agatha Fassett. It's out of print, but I highly recommend it. (Fassett) writes it as a friend. It's not a musicology book; it seemed like a novel, it was so easy to read. It was so sad to read about Bartok at the end of his life -- he was not very well-off. I think he was quite sick, and that's when he wrote the solo sonata, for Menuhin. He received something like $1,000 for it. I just think it's a great piece of music, I'm really drawn to it. I'm drawn to the technique of it and to the music, and I'd love to design a program around it.
Laurie: Tell me about this Amati violin you're playing. I understand it's a 1655 Nicolò Amati violin, once owned by the violinist Louis Krasner. What is it like to play it?
Bella: I love the Amati violin, and I'm so lucky to have it. I've had it for almost 10 years now.
Laurie: Sometimes people say that the older violins are harder to use, or they don't project as much, but listening on this recording, it seems like it projects very well, actually.
Bella: This instrument has a huge sound, and I've really learned how to use it over the last 10 years. I've been told that, for any violin, but especially for an Amati, it has a really, really big sound. It definitely carries in halls. I don't know if it's harder to play; it's definitely more temperamental than a new violin -- if there's too much humidity, if there's not enough humidity! (she laughs) But I take it to Tarisio in New York, and they do wonderful work on it whenever it needs work. So I think it's in really good shape. I like my strings on the high side. I use Vision Titanium Solos. I find that with slightly higher strings, right around 4 and 6 mm on the G and D, I can dig more without hitting against the fingerboard, and I think I can get a bigger sound that way.
Laurie: Does that involve just having a higher bridge?
Bella: Yes, but then in the summer, when it gets too humid, the neck can drop, and then the strings can get even higher. Then it's actually uncomfortable to play.
* * *
BELOW: Bella Hristova plays (live!) for the 2013 Avery Fisher Career Grants ceremony, May 15, 2013. Program: John Corigliano: "Red Violin Caprices"; Ástor Piazzolla: Tango Etude No. 4; George Gershwin: "It Ain't Necessarily So" from "Porgy and Bess" (Arr. Jascha Heifetz), w/ Noreen Polera, pianist. Includes interview with Robert Sherman. (Her album, "Bella Unaccompanied" is available on Amazon and on iTunes.)
Vibrato gives our playing color and character, and yet it's one of the more difficult violin techniques to learn and teach.
"This is the most unnatural thing we do on the violin," said violinist Shakeh Ghoukasian, who taught a violin master class at Metzler Violin Shop in Glendale, Calif., last Friday evening. A longtime violin teacher, Shakeh is also Dean of the Nevada School of the Arts and principal second violinist in the Las Vegas Philharmonic.
"It's a humanly impossible action that we're expected to master," she said. "You hear the sound, you want the sound, and you don't want to do it."
And yet, you must; and to do so, you (or your students) may need some physical training. It's all a matter of conditioning the muscles, Shakeh said.
"It's a very athletic process, but we don't think of it that way because it's so minute," Shakeh said. Yet there are so many physical exercises we can do to condition and refine those muscles.
It all starts with getting a feel for the basic physical motion in the wrist and arm. For this Shakeh recommends using a shaker -- which can be a box of Tic-Tacs, a pill box filled with coffee beans or dry rice, or something else that makes noise when you shake it. Below, Shakeh demonstrates how to do the shaker exercise:
Most people can handle the shaker exercise, but "the minute we put the violin up on the shoulder, everything goes out the door," Shakeh said. So there are a few more exercises that can help ease your transition from shaking Tic-Tacs to shaking your hand while also balancing a violin on your shoulder, placing your finger precisely on a particular note and drawing a silky-smooth bow.
For example, vibrato should not cause one's left-hand position to completely fall apart once the shaking starts. How does one retain a good left-hand position when doing vibrato? First of all, the thumb will serve as kind of an anchor, remaining in its normal place. But it's a rocking anchor. Below, Shakeh demonstrates exercises for getting a feel for the role of the thumb.
To take this thumb exercise a step further, one can bring the fingers over the fingerboard. You won't actually plant any fingers down, just keep shaking from the thumb and then gently move the fingers over the fingerboard, even rubbing the strings a little bit.
The next step is to try this same motion, but to set a particular finger down very gently. Again, this finger will not be down solidly as of yet; instead, it will rub the string, or possibly between strings. Shakeh uses a small felt square to practice this motion, which is like "polishing" the string.
Still using the felt square, one can narrow the vibrato motion, making that little "polishing" sound shorter and shorter and varying the speed of it.
It's important to practice vibrato while standing and to keep your good posture, with the violin well-balanced on the shoulder (whether you use a shoulder rest or not!). Below is an exercise Shakeh showed us for getting the feeling into the wrist:
Another step involves adding the bow, and this brings to mind a saying that one of my teachers used to bark at me: "You must divorce your hands!" This is difficult for a number of reasons: 1. Both hands are connected to the same brain. 2. In this case, the violin hand must jiggle and shake while the bow hand directs a smooth, gliding motion. Sometimes, a vibrato beginner tells the left hand to vibrate, and the bow hand decides to get jittery and tremulous as well. Here's an exercise to practice separating those motions:
A good vibrato also requires loose finger joints, and that is something you can practice, away from the instrument. Here is Shakeh's exercise for loosening the finger joints:
In general, in the left hand, there are three contact points with the violin: the thumb, the base knuckle (on the side of the hand, at the base of the index finger) and the finger tip. For vibrato, we keep the contact with the thumb and fingertip but slightly -- just very slightly -- come away from the base knuckle, to allow for the motion.
In general, the best policy for delivering the good pitch to your listener's ear is to vibrate below the pitch. In fact, it's really the only acceptable way to vibrate, Shakeh said. If you vibrate above the pitch, the note will sound sharp. If you vibrate around the pitch, the note will sound like a drunken goat. If you vibrate below the pitch, the listener will hear the proper pitch.
Once the vibrato is coming together, you can try putting the scroll against the wall, or against someone else's hand, to stabilize and help support the violin. Then put each finger down, and feel a sense of hanging from the fingerboard.
As your vibrato develops, you can also practice different numbers of oscillations per second, to give yourself a range of vibrato speeds and widths.
"There's no quick cure for vibrato," Shakeh said in conclusion. "Just like you can't be an Olympic athlete all at once, vibrato will take time and practice."
At the end of the class, Shakeh showed us a number of ways that different artists use vibrato, comparing their use of vibrato in one piece, "Leibesleid," ("Love's Sorrow") by Fritz Kreisler. Here are some links, check out these widely varying uses of vibrato!
"Liebesleid," played by Fritz Kreisler (1926)
He's still doing that -- and more. Now my fellow Northwestern University Music School alumnus is even further into Rock 'n' Roll, having started a new band called The Weight and also a Kickstarter campaign to "help these West Virginia-based twang-rockers record a debut EP."
So I e-mailed Adam to see what's up!
Adam: Yes, Russell and I continue to duel. We've been doing a lot more corporate shows lately, and we've been experimenting with some cool new toys (two loopers and a few interesting effect pedals). Great thing about TDF (and Pianafiddle, my other touring show), is that you can do two, three, or more different shows that serve different audiences. Pianafiddle plays well to arts centers. TDF plays well to corporate events, and it seems my new band, The Weight, does really well for large, live audiences that like to dance.
Laurie: How did this new band come about, and what is the basic idea behind it? What kind of music are you drawing from, and are you writing all the tunes? How does that work?
Adam: This new band kind of just happened. I met an amazing singer, Morgan Cornwell, who also happens to be a phenomenal pianist/keyboardist and who also just happens to be a great song writer. Next thing I knew, we had written 20 original songs that heavily integrate rock violin. We brought on a bass player and a drummer that are both premium, touring musicians, and things started to move kind of quickly. The music is a real mix of things: rock, blues, bluegrass, even a little alt c-c-c-c-country. The writing is fun, but whats really fun is playing in a band that can get 1,000 college students on their feet and dancing. I'm hooked.
Laurie: Have you worked with voice before, and is it any different?
Adam: If the singer is great, working with voice is no different than working with any other instrument. Especially since everything is mic'd and amplified, if your sound crew is good, everything kind of just works. Morgan is a killer singer, and since we write together, things run pretty smoothly.
Laurie: If I've been doing mostly classical music, how do I form a rock band? Will I be handicapped in any way, because I've always done classical, and how would I overcome that?
Adam: That's a great question. First off, classical is a great start. It means you have learned to play in tune, practice well, and have a good grounding in basic form and structure. (Rock music is awfully similar to baroque music, actually.) As for forming your band... HA, you just have to jam with people until you find something that works.
Laurie: Was it hard to set up a Kickstarter? Have you done it before, do you recommend it?
Adam: This is my first Kickstarter campaign. You'll notice we aren't asking for all that much money. It's not really just about funding our project, but more about sharing what we are doing with more people and giving them the chance to team up with us and make something cool. I for one think there needs to be MORE violin in the pop and rock world. And so far, it looks like many people agree and are chipping in their hard earned $$ to see where this goes.
Setting up the Kickstarter was pretty straightforward, though there's always hoops to jump through any time you do something "official" like Kickstarter. Of course, the reason KS is so well respected is that they vet every project. Like I said, hoops and maybe a little red tape... but worth it, in my opinion.
Laurie: When are you going to write a book of rock etudes? :)
Adam: Rock Etudes? What Laurie, you want to publish it? I think it's time for v.com and I to team up, run a Kickstarter, and get that book written and published! :-)
* * *
Interview with LA Phil Assistant Concertmaster Nathan Cole: Online Teaching and Preparing for AuditionsJune 19, 2013 14:57
Let me get this straight: If I'm preparing an audition, I can play my excerpts for, and get pointers from, the assistant concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, without leaving my living room?
Wow, thanks, Internet!
Online violin lessons certainly have evolved, with new technology better enabling the one-on-one exchange needed for learning violin skills. And online teaching is attracting some big players, for example, LA Phil Assistant Concertmaster Nathan Cole, who at age 35 is among the youngest members of that orchestra (though older than its conductor Gustavo Dudamel, 32!). Last fall he joined the online music school ArtistWorks as its first classical violin instructor.
"This is not primarily a substitute for face-to-face lessons, because that's going to have its own dynamic that you can never replicate," Nathan said of the online lessons. Of course, if someone is geographically isolated and has no access to a violin teacher, "in those cases, it is a substitute. It's that or nothing, for them. But everybody makes improvements. It's been really exciting."
Here's how it works: you pay to join Nathan's Online Classical Violin School, and that gives you access to several hundred videos that Nathan already has made, including a staggering 69 videos about orchestral excerpts, which include his performances and lessons on each. Other videos are about etudes, repertoire and basic violin skills. Then, there are "video exchange" lessons, in which a student submits a video, then Nathan makes a video reply. Everyone's video exchanges are available to the whole studio, so you can watch other people's lessons, which may be relevant to the piece or lesson you are learning, or submit your own.
Let's say you are working on one of the most common orchestral excerpts that is asked at auditions: the first page of "Don Juan," by Richard Strauss.
"So, practically speaking, if someone's working on Don Juan, and they're a subscriber to my site at ArtistWorks, then they have my eight-minute lesson on Don Juan, they have my solo performance, my performance with a piano reduction, and the piano track by itself, if they want to play with that," Nathan said. "Then, of course, they can post their own video of themselves playing Don Juan, and I send them an exchange. But even before all that, they can look at the other students' exchanges, who've done Don Juan."
And this guy can play orchestral excerpts -- he won the LA Phil job, after all. Check it out this iPhone video of Nathan with pianist Hugh Sung, in the ArtistWorks studio in Napa, Calif., recording a violin/piano version of the Smetana's "Bartered Bride" (which is so difficult and so often butchered by violinists, we frequently refer to it as the "Battered Broad"):
This major teaching project grew from Nathan's desire to create online lessons about orchestral excerpts. Before he even knew about ArtistWorks, "I had put together a little series of videos on the Schumann Scherzo excerpt -- a performance, and then also breaking it down a little: how to practice it, that kind of thing," Nathan said. "I had the idea that I was going to do this for all the major excerpts. But by the time I finished the Schumann Scherzo, it was two weeks of my life, gone! I was glad I did it, but I thought, realistically, how many more of these can I do? So I put it aside."
"Then I read an article in the LA Times about ArtistWorks and how people were learning various instruments -- jazz guitar, electric guitar, percussion -- with this online system," Nathan said. "Anybody could join, and they would studying with these great teachers -- names that I knew in the bluegrass and rock world. I thought, 'Hmmmmmm…'"
"So I went to this site and I looked at some of their sample lessons, and the quality was just stunning," Nathan said. "I thought, 'Who's paying for this? How do they have the multiple camera angles, the really great sound and everything else?' I decided I'd call them up and see if they'd thought about doing this with classical. They were way, way ahead of the game. I called just in time. They looked at what I'd done on my own and decided, if you're that enthusiastic about it, then we want you." As of now, he has about 60 students through ArtistWorks.
Nathan grew up in Lexington, Kentucky, where he started at age four with Suzuki teacher Donna Wiehe of Lexington Talent Education Association. Both of his parents are musicians -- flutists, and "I guess there were a lot of musicians in our family," Nathan said. "We have a picture from the 1800's of maybe three generations, in front of the farmhouse, and my grandfather's grandfather is holding a violin. He was the town fiddler, I guess, in western Pennsylvania."
Nathan's grandfather was a flutist in the Philadelphia Orchestra, and he taught both of Nathan's parents in college.
When Nathan was a child, Lexington was brimming with Suzuki groups, as were many towns in the Midwest -- in places like Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio and Kentucky, Nathan said. "Lexington had probably seven or eight major Suzuki studios, which is a lot for a town of only 150,000 people. My teacher had something like 80 students. There were really healthy group classes and seminars, and so it was natural to start on the violin."
"I remember very clearly, some of the first group classes: when we had the Cracker Jack box with the ruler taped to it, and the cardboard part of the coat hanger," Nathan said. "I remember opening the Cracker Jack boxes, and getting the real violins. I really have only happy memories of that. I think it's awesome; I love the Suzuki method.
As was typical in Suzuki at the time (and it's much less so now), he did not read music for the first four years. His parents took it upon themselves to teach him music reading, when he was eight. "But those four years of learning everything by ear, just imitating and repeating, were very valuable. There's a reason (Suzuki has) lasted this long and been so successful; that's how people learn."
"I did book recitals probably for at least five of the books -- one of which is on Youtube!" Nathan said. That's his seven-year-old recital, with music from the first three books. He finished the Suzuki books by age 10 and moved on to his next teacher.
It was around then -- when he was a teenager -- that he actually started teaching, as well: tutoring other kids on pieces he'd already played.
And when was Nathan's first audition?
"I'm thinking, youth orchestra," Nathan said. "Seating auditions." Those required preparing two pieces, to play for the conductor before the season started. "That just felt totally unfamiliar. You get this xeroxed page of music, and it has more sharps and flats than you're used to, and all these strange markings and maybe your teacher's never heard of this piece, or if they've heard of it, they don't want to deal with it!"
His first major audition was during his fourth year at the Curtis Institute, when he auditioned for a spot in the Philadelphia Orchestra. "Even though it was just down the block, I really felt like I was stepping into unknown waters," Nathan said. "I did what I'd seen some other people do: prepare the excerpts, practice a lot, of course, and play some mock auditions."
"Then stepping out onto that stage in that huge hall, alone, that was…the very opposite of comfortable," he said. Instead of asking for him to play his solo, they started straight in with the Don Juan excerpt. "I did advance to the semi-finals, but when those came, I realized how many holes there were in my preparation. They asked for the cadenza of the Brahms Concerto, and I had kind of treated that as an afterthought. It was prepared, but not prepared to go against the people who were going to win that audition. And I had some creative fingerings for a couple of the excerpts that, if they came off, were going to sound great, but if they didn't come off, they were going to sound amateurish. They didn't come off. Now that I've sat on the committee side of so many auditions, I can imagine, I would have been shaking my head behind that screen, thinking, 'What is this person doing?' There's no way I would have voted for that playing!"
Since that time, he's played more than a dozen professional orchestra auditions and landed some dream-gigs: for example: the Chicago Symphony, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and Los Angeles Philharmonic.
What is key to winning an audition, big or small?
"First is preparation, which sounds simple -- everybody wants to prepare, everybody tries to prepare," Nathan said. But after that Philadelphia experience, "I understood: I have to be ready to play every bar of every excerpt and all solo works, starting in the middle, wherever -- under uncomfortable conditions," Nathan said. "So I tried that out quite a bit."
He also had received some key advice: "Show them who I am," Nathan said. "In other words, rather than trying to imagine myself playing in such a way that people would like me, just play the way I play. Do my homework, of course. But play the way I play, and expect that if that's what they're looking for, then I'll get the job. And I felt much freer."
By now, Nathan has also sat on the jury for many auditions. What kinds of mistakes do people make?
"To be frank, far too many people show up that really have no chance of winning the job," Nathan said. "I don't think it's helpful to go to an audition that you don't think you have a chance of winning. Not everybody agrees with that. But I think there are better ways to help your playing, better things to do with your time." For most violin auditions, only about a third of the people trying out wind up being seriously eligible candidates. "It's such an investment of time and usually money. To go into it with no chance -- that's tough. If you do very many of those, you won't want to audition any more, and that's unfortunate."
How does a person know what orchestra is appropriate for them?
One idea, he said, is to check with websites like myauditions.com, where people talk about who won which audition. You can also check on orchestra websites, to see who won recent auditions, then look at samples of their playing on Youtube. "Look at how they play, and if your first reaction is, 'Wow, that's way beyond where I am,' then why put yourself through an audition?" he said. "If your reaction is, 'Wow, they're really well-prepared, but I think I want to throw my hat in there,' then do it. If you're studying with a teacher, then ask your teacher's advise. But I think a lot of people either get no advise, or they believe that any audition is just going to be good experience."
As for the actual playing: "Rushing is maybe the most common problem," Nathan said. "And I can tell, a lot of times, when that's due to nerves. But sometimes it's just due to bad habits. It's easy to get into the habit of rushing if there's nothing or nobody telling you that you shouldn't. And then, there is inconsistency of intonation. A good orchestra section has to be made up of people that have some kind of common reference, so you have to demonstrate that at the audition." In a nutshell: the most common problems are rhythm and pitch.
Switching gears, what is it like to play first-desk in the LA Phil, literally right under the wildly popular and dynamic Gustavo Dudamel?
"It's so great, and I get to sit close to him all the time," Nathan said. "Everybody knows about his energy and his passion, but it's also his commitment, his work ethic. It's not just random energy, it's really directed, really focused. There's no slacking off -- professionally I can't slack off, but also, I wouldn't want to: I'd be letting him down, letting my colleagues down. We're all there, focused on the task."
"There's no off-podium persona for him," Nathan said of Dudamel. "I was just reading an article on Roger Ebert, who just passed away, and someone was making that point about him: that he really lived movies and art; he thought about those things all the time. And with Gustavo the same applies: this is what he does, this is what he loves.
And what kind of instrument does Nathan play?
"I'm lucky to play one of the orchestra's Stradivari, the 1729 'Jack Benny,'" Nathan said. "It's wonderful: I love playing it. The instrument that I own is a Vincenzo Postiglione from 1910. They're very different -- obviously one is affordable and the other isn't! But I've been lucky, this is the second Stradivari that I've gotten to borrow long-term. It's a real education -- about listening to the character of the sound rather than insisting on creating a sound from scratch all the time. There's so much ring that can build up in an instrument, if you let it. It's true for all instruments, but especially some Strads. As most people probably know, some Strads don't like to be pressed at all. Fortunately, the Jack Benny is very easy to play and it's agreeable to lots of different styles. But once I listen to the sound of the instrument, my playing is more interesting. And then that translates to when I play on something else, too."
* * *
BELOW: Nathan Cole plays Enescu Sonata No. 3 for violin and piano, with pianist Alessio Bax July 8, 2012 at the Mimir Chamber Music Festival in Fort Worth, TX.
"It's time," said Ronda Cole to her former student, Bach specialist Katie Lansdale, handing her an unmarked urtext edition of the Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin by Johann Sebastian Bach.
Ronda, violin mentor to many, meant it was time for Katie to write her own edition of the Bach. But was it? Is it? Will it ever be? Certainly she has the expertise, but for Katie, "I enjoy the inquiry as much as I enjoy the answers," when it comes to Bach.
Katie Lansdale talks Bach with a Starling-DeLay participant
Katie has been inquiring for a long time and has become a go-to expert on the subject. (Certainly we'd all eat up any edition she would write.) A faculty member at the Hartt School in Connecticut, Katie recorded all the Sonatas and Partitas in 2001 and has performed the complete solo Bach works in concert more than a dozen times throughout North and South America. She gave several classes on Bach at the 2012 Suzuki Association of the Americas Conference, and this year her Bach expertise was featured at the 2013 Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies at The Juilliard School.
Bach has so many layers -- not like a three-layer cake, but more like the dozens of layers in Baklava (Bachlava!), she told us at Starling-DeLay. "It's like Silly Putty -- it picks up the imprint of the person playing it," Katie said.
Katie asked the class to come up with words to describe their favorite pieces by Bach, and here are our words: complex, clever, joyful, tranquil, counterpoint, spiritual, majestic, sublime, serene, intimate, reverent, reflective, grounded, divine.
Then we came up with a list of words to describe Bach's Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin: profound, comprehensive, intimate, scary, emotional, vulnerable, subtle, personal, intimidating, exhilarating.
Notice anything different about these two lists? Though we seem to love and admire the works of Bach, violinists tend to describe the Sonatas and Partitas as "sublime," but also as "scary" and "intimidating" and "vulnerable." How can we get past this feeling, to that feeling of boundless inquiry and lifelong curiosity that Katie seems to feel?
"I feel that the solo Bach should be just as listenable and joyful as all your favorite Bach pieces," Katie said. The word "Baroque" literally means "pearl," and we should take delight in each pearl, and in the fact that no two pearls are the same.
Part of the key is to simplify the music, to get down to its elements: melodic phrasing, a feeling of dance, sound production and harmony change. "The swing is the thing, even in slow Bach."
When we play these Baroque works that were made especially for the violin, it's helpful to get into the swing of things with a Baroque bow. Katie asked one of the young artists at the Symposium, William, to try playing with a Baroque bow. (It was his first experiment with this kind of bow!)
"This is one of the best teachers we can have," Katie said, showing us the bow. Its camber is slightly convex, and it naturally makes a certain kind of stroke, which people call a lilt, or a smile, or a scoop. In other words, each stroke has a natural decay to it, because of the shape of the stick.
One way to get a feel for this, in the absence of an actual Baroque bow, is to lower the violin from your chin down to the crook of your elbow and play a few strokes.
Baroque bows were "not made for muscle-y chord-breaking," Katie said. This is something to keep in mind, when you are tempted to break chords in an aggressive, 2-string + 2-string manner. Also, violinists did not break chords downward (upper string to lower string) in the Baroque era -- just try that on a Baroque bow, and you'll see why.
But that doesn't mean we can't do those things. Here are a few of Katie's guidelines for breaking chords downward: first, you must do it with no noticeable rhythm. (No "Hungarian snap"!) Second, be sure to keep the chord in the mood of the piece, so it doesn't stand out.
Sometimes this music gets quite complex, for example, in m. 55 of the Sonata III fugue, where the bassline comes at the bottom of a series of triple- and quadruple-stops. Galamian, and others, advise the rather difficult solution of breaking the chords downward. Katie suggests breaking the chords from the bottom, but putting that bassline ON the beat, with the rest of the chord coming after. Though we nearly always place the top note of a triple-stop on the beat, the ear will hear the bassline better in this case if we put the bottom note on the beat.
Another solution is to arpeggiate chords.
"We can arpeggiate more than we think -- the ear doesn't even hear it that way," Katie said. This works particularly well in soft and slow passages.
Another thing we can do is go straight to the source: Bach's manuscript. And what about those Galamian fingerings and bowings, that are so different from Bach's? And the early- and mid-20th century recordings, that are so Romanticized?
"Galamian wrote this edition for a reason," Katie said, "these are very good solutions," particularly for those new to Bach: Galamian's bowings and fingerings allow you to do it. "What I take from the old recordings are wonderful qualities of nobility and heart," Katie said. Using a Baroque bow doesn't take away those qualities, it just requires using different techniques such as accents, tempos and treatment of harmony.
Exploring Bach's original, for example, in the "Adagio" from the Sonata No 2 in A minor: it's interesting to see the bowing that Bach wrote vs. what so many editors, including Galamian, wrote in later. Editors tended to add a lot of slurs in this movement, where few are written. It can help to practice the top line, the melody, with Bach's bowing. Then, find a bowing you like, one that really makes it a melody, and apply the pulsing bass to that.
How does one come up bowings, in Bach? "We don't need a treatise to tell us what is intuitively clear to us," Katie said, but here are four general rules for making bowings in Bach.
1. It should sound like the articulation that Bach wrote. How do you know what Bach wrote? Look at the urtext, or look in the back of the Galamian edition of the Sonatas and Partitas, where Bach's manuscript is printed.
2. The rule of the down-bow: down-bows should come on emphasized beats
3. Convenience bowings. For example, if you have to dive for a lower string, it's easiest to go up-bow, then dive on the down-bow.
4. Phrasing bowings: Arrange the bowings in a way to get the phrase shape that you want. For example, if you want a crescendo, or to de-emphasize the end of a phrase, or to emphasize one voice over another, etc., choose a bowing that will help that to happen, over one that works against your phrase. (For example, a huge down-bow on the last note of a phrase is usually a bad idea).
It gets even more complicated though. How about a fugue for three voices, on one violin? There are three of them, one in each Sonata. How about the longest fugue that Bach ever wrote for any instrument? That would be the C major fugue from Sonata No. 3. When Katie asked us for words to describe the fugues, we came up with: journey, vocal, conversation, choral, intellectual, argumentative, interactive, fun, transformative, structural, stressful.
How do you build skills for tackling the fugues? Katie suggested first playing other pieces from the S and P's that have double-stops and voicing, such as the Gavotte en Rondeau from Partita No. 3 in E major; the Tempo di Borea from the Partita No. 1 in B minor; and the Minuets from Partita No. 3 in E major.
Next, get out your colored pencils and do some analysis of the fugue. Trace the themes and motives in different-colored pencils.
In talking about a fugue, "I use the analogy of a family argument," Katie said. When that second voice enters, it has "pugnacious energy," Katie said. (I pictured my sister, interrupting me at the dinner table. With pugnacious energy!) And not only are there different voices in these fugues, but those different voices have different personalities. It's up to us to make sure they don't all sound uniform.
Of course, playing all these voices at once, whether in the fugues or other movements of the Sonatas and Partitas, involves playing on more than one string at a time -- double, triple and quadruple stops.
Katie pointed out that "to play on two strings instead of one takes no more pressure -- it's just an angle of the bow. It takes no verticality."
Playing double-stops should not strain the hand. You can relax by rolling the elbow back a bit, by doing some vibrato to loosen the hand, and also the "drumstick" test: have someone squeeze that fleshy part of your hand where the thumb attaches. If it is stiff, that means you are squeezing too hard with your thumb. Don't squeeze with your thumb!
And then, once you can actually play the chords, you have to make sure that those chords don't get in the way of the thematic material, or melody. For example, in the Adagio in Sonata No. 3, "This can be a very hypnotic movement," Katie said. "We don't want the chords to get in the way of that."
Also, with so many notes per square inch of manuscript, one has to be able to discern the forest for the trees.
For example, in the "Loure" movement of the Partita No. 3 in E major, "too often when a student sees this, they make it into a cantabile aria," Katie said. But really, it's a dance, and the beats are bigger. Beware of death by dotted rhythm!
In fact, thinking in terms of bigger beats can also help a great deal in all three of the fugues, which can all be thought of as having a meter that is counted in two.
More about beats in Bach: The D minor partita has a "Sarabande" for its third movement. Though teachers and dictionaries will simplify a "Sarabande" as being a dance with emphasis on the second beat, it's not a completely accurate picture. "It's really that beat two has a certain, dignified quality."
Bach was most famous in his life as an improvising pianists, so it is a little ironic that his music would be viewed in any kind of rigid way. He also had 21 children -- "There is no way he was without a sense of play, with all those children!"
When speaking to students about solo Bach, we should be careful not to scare them or to make the works of Bach sound too lofty for mere mortals to play. "We have to be aware of what message we give our students," Katie said. "Please don't pass on any fear or stress about these pieces." Imagination and heart are allowed -- are welcomed! -- in Bach. "Use a vocabulary of freedom, and you can give your students a gift for life, if you give them Bach as a world of discovery."
Josef Suk is not the household name that Antonín Dvorák is, but he certainly wrote some great pieces.
This year in a pedagogy class at the Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies at The Juilliard School, violinist and University of Texas professor Brian Lewis taught us the "Four Pieces" for violin and piano by Josef Suk, a Czech composer whose mentor (and eventually father-in-law) was Dvorák. I had never heard these pieces, but Brian had this music, its history and pedagogy in our heads and fingers by the end of two classes.
A bit more about Brian: He earned his Bachelor and Master of Music degrees at Juilliard, where he was a student of Dorothy DeLay. In addition to teaching this class, called "The Musical Gems of Josef Suk," Brian is the Artistic Director for the Symposium. His mother, Alice Joy Lewis, is a Suzuki teacher, and Brian grew up with the Suzuki method, even traveling Japan for lessons from Shinichi Suzuki.
And now about Suk: the Czech composer Josef Suk (1874-1935) studied with Antonín Dvorák and became one of his most beloved students; in fact, he married Dvorák's daughter, Otilie. And here's another fun fact about Suk: toward the end of his life, he won a silver medal at the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles (back in the days when the Olympics held Art Competitions) for his work, Toward a New Life.
His son was also "Josef Suk," as was his grandson, the violinist Josef Suk (1929-2011).
The "Four Pieces," composed in 1900 by the elder Josef Suk, are in the public domain, so you can download them from IMSLP, or you can buy a published version. "I try to encourage my students to buy their music and be building a library," Brian said. "They should also buy full scores of concertos they play."
Suk's "Four Pieces" are fun to play and not too hard to learn. Brian said that they are probably around Suzuki Book 8 level, with the exception of the "Burleska" movement, which is a bit more challenging. I'll describe each of the "Four Pieces" briefly to you:
Quasi Ballata is listed first in these four pieces, though Suk did not actually assign the pieces numbers, implying that they could be played individually. The title means "like a ballad," and indeed it sings, gently at first. The second section is a passionate outburst, then the last section is like a ghost of the first, muted, mysterious and a little spooky -- in the end, it ascends and floats away. This piece brings up issues such as bow divisions, vibrato and vibrato pacing, as well as shifting.
Appassionato is fast and quirky, with slightly displaced rhythm. The middle slows to a tranquillo section, written in mixed meter (3/2 + 4/2). It's a good piece to gently introduce a student to the idea of music in mixed meter, Brian said, as it's an easy mixed meter.
Un Poco Triste -- "a little sad." This one might have been my favorite; at least it was most stuck in my head by the end of the week. Brian described the first six measures, "We climbed all the way up the mountain to ask the guru one question," and we'd better put a little vibrato on that question. "Vibrato is like musical highlighter -- and it can un-highlight something if we don't do it." Phrasing is key in these movement.
One of the first things we might assign a student to do is to listen to various versions of these pieces. When it comes to listening, "we need to utilize the technology that our students use now to help them," Brian said. "We must adapt to it." That means YouTube, Spotify, iTunes, maybe CDs -- many young people have never seen a cassette or LP!
A few recordings of the "Four Pieces": Josef Suk, the 20th c. violinist, made an excellent recording of his grandfather's "Four Pieces," and you can download that version, with pianist Jan Panenka, from iTunes. There are also recordings by Itzhak Perlman (called Bits and Pieces) and by the early 20th c. French violinist, Ginette_Neveu from 1938, which I present to you here, via Youtube:
Brian also recommended doing something that his teacher, the late Dorothy DeLay (founder of this Symposium) did: have students write a short essays on their current pieces. If students do the research, then "our students are doing the active part of finding the information," Brian said. "It's not like they need to write term papers, just a paragraph."
Another thing Dorothy DeLay recommended was memorization and frequent performing. "After you've performed a piece 50 times, then you begin to know it," Brian quoted her saying. She believed that the three most important aspects of a person's playing were sound, left-hand technique, and imagination. "If you had good imagination, you had arrived!" Brian said.
How to get bring out that "imagination"? You can think in terms of color, character, story…even cheese.
"I once had a student who really liked cheese," Brian said. "So in the music we had the mozzarella section, the cheddar section -- this is what worked for that student."
On any given note there can be five instructions in the music: fingering, bowing, note, dynamic and articulation.
"Our goal, as teachers, is to be very organized on behalf of our students," Brian said.
One question to ask, when approaching a new piece with a student is "What is the character of this piece? What is the character of this composer's work in general? What is the character of the phrase at hand?" Boil it down to one word, and write the word in your music.
"Watch words are words we write at the top of our music to remind us of the character," Brian said. Be intentional about creating this character.
"Fingerings and bowing are like clothing -- what looks good on me may not necessarily look good on you." Since we all have different body types, we'll all have different ways of working this out.
We spent much time playing these pieces during the class, Brian even had a pianist, Pamela Viktoria Pyle, come in and play through one of the pieces with us.
"One of the greatest things you can do for your studios is to have a pianist that they can rehearse with," Brian said. "Playing with piano is essential for us to learn the harmonic centers, so we can hear it come together," and violin students should study the piano part. Not only that, but if you can get students playing together (piano and violin students), "it's that collaboration that builds camaraderie."
Brian also emphasized the idea of repetition. "There are a huge number of similarities between what Dorothy DeLay said and what Suzuki said," Brian said. For example, they were both major proponents of review and repetition; memorization and listening.
"Develop an ability and make it a part of you," he emphasized, you really have to get the skills into your fingers, not just think about it. Below, Brian speaks more on that idea:
Obviously, all these things require a great deal of practice, and that means turning off the cell phone, turning off the texts, turning off Facebook notifications, etc. etc.
"As teachers, we have to deal with new technology," Brian said. In his studio, "if your cell phone goes off during your lesson, you are dismissed immediately."
It's important to teach students to "control your technology, not to let it control you," Brian said. "The best practice I do is when I structure it and write down what I need to do."
This is Michael McLean, and he's a Bachaholic:
Michael is a composer, violinist and pedagogue who teaches at the Colburn School in Los Angeles. His compositions have included tangos, solos for young violinists, pieces for young ensembles as well as a violin concerto called Elements, which was recorded with violinist Brian Lewis and the London Symphony Orchestra in 2006. More recently, he just finished a viola concerto.
Michael's lecture at the Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies at The Juilliard School was called "Bach to the Basics: An In-Depth Look at the Compositional Genius of Bach's Solo Works for Violin."
Why do we want to look more closely at the Six Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin by Bach -- these epic works that Bach wrote for unaccompanied violin?
"This is the nicest car you're going to drive in," Michael said of the Sonatas and Partitas. "To really access the full potential of it, you have to get out and take a look under the hood." That means harmonic analysis, rhythmic analysis, textural analysis, phrasing, voicing….
Confession: Words like these can cause me anxiety. Suddenly I'm back in college theory class, blood pressure rising as I stare at a manuscript, straining to understand that this series of notes actually traces the inverted dominant seventh chord of the subdominant key of the relative major of the submediant key...
But look at Michael. Music theory appears to make his very soul glow.
"Listen to this chord!"
There must be something cool about it. Happily, in his lecture, Michael presented his musical analysis to us in a way that was almost impossible not to understand. He made us sing, had us play, showed us the chords in the music, played recordings of the pieces, played versions of the piece arranged for organ…
We started with the first movement of the first Sonata, the Adagio in G minor:
Bach G minor Adagio
I've played it for many years now, but I still remember my thought, when my teacher assigned it to me: "Are you kidding, I'm supposed to figure out THAT?"
Michael simplified it a great deal. He pointed out that, in Baroque music, the music is not going to travel to a terribly distant key. "In C major, you aren't going to get to F# minor in Baroque music." Most likely, you'll flow through the keys built on the first six degrees of the scale (though not likely in that order): I, ii, iii, IV, V and vi.
The G minor Adagio pictured above, is really like a chorale, when boiled down to its harmonic essence. One can think of this Adagio as a prelude to the second-movement fugue that follows it, and this is true for all three of the Sonatas: the first movement is a prelude to the second-movement fugue.
The G minor Adagio has a descending bass with improvised chords above it. To illustrate, he had us sing the bassline, which you can see in the video below as the bottom line of of the four lines, the violin part being on the top line. (Please forgive me for the fogginess at the beginning of this clip. The video begins in the second measure of the piece, and the first chord you hear is the third beat of the second measure. The music focuses around bar four. I was juggling violin, camera, notebook, brain…sorry!)
Michael has generously offered us a copy of his analysis and reduction of the Adagio, shown above. Click here for the PDF. (Thanks, Michael!)
"It's basically descending, step-by-step," he said of the bassline. If you take away all the ornamentation and fill in the other lines, which he calls the upper and lower treble, you get that "chorale" kind of feel. Below, Michael has the class play his "Reduction" of the Adagio from solo Sonata No. 1 in G minor.
"This is highly ornamented music, over that structure," he said. "The voices continue throughout -- it's not random." Knowing this harmonic structure, one can see that, for example, m. 9 is a huge harmonic arrival, a cadence in D minor, the dominant. At m. 12 comes a deceptive cadence; instead of cadencing in E flat, Bach sets up a diminished chord that eventually leads to a cadence in C minor in the next measure. At m. 14 is a recapitulation of the beginning, in the subdominant. Michael laid them over one another, with the beginning on the top line and the recap on the second line -- check it out!
One can kind of hear this, but if you really look at the music, the recapitulation goes on for nine measures, in a very parallel fashion, all the way to the end of the piece. "This is the exact same music!" Michael said.
Pointing out these fairly simple cadences and repetition of melodic material can be a way to open the discussion with students about music theory.
Michael also talked about the next movement of the G minor Sonata, the fugue. He had us listen to the organ version of the fugue, which is actually in D minor. "When you see the organ part, a lot of the voices are filled in," he said. In the violin version, because of the limitations of the instrument, many times the voices are implied instead of actually played.
And speaking of D minor, Michael also talked about the "Allemande" that is the first movement of the D minor Partita (No. 2) -- the one that ends in the famous Chaccone. The Allemande is a German dance, and in this movement we deal with the issue of "voicing," when our one violin is made to play in two or more different voices. It helps to do some analysis to figure out which are the separate voices, and even what the character of each voice seems to be. Michael took it a step further by dividing us into two groups and having us sing these voices with words. (After you hear this, you might be able to guess why we're all fiddle players instead of vocalists!)
We also looked at the Andante that is the third movement from the Sonata No. 2 in A minor -- a favorite for me.
"It's basically a melody with a pulsing bass line," Michael said. "Bach does not always have to be complicated -- he was a great tunesmith." The dynamics in this piece are determined by the shape of the melodic line, getting louder in ascending passages and quieter in descending. Bach does create some drama by changing the pace of the harmonic rhythm, that is, how long one stays on any given chord. He slows the harmonic rhythm for a hemiola in m. 6, heralding a cadence. "It's like coming to a red light," Michael said, you slow down before you come to that stop, which is the cadence. At the second ending, that ever-present pulsing in the bass line actually stops, to hold the cadenced note for three full beats. Michael said it was as though "Bach is taking a walk in the garden, he sees something beautiful, and he stops."
The melody is important in this movement, "but the bassline is driving the car," Michael said. "The melody is just along for the ride -- in a very pretty dress!" We can nudge along areas of harmonic interest along the way -- such as those cadences and hemiolas, and this is how "theory can help us make some musical choices."
And how can we not talk about the E major Preludio? This is the first movement of the Partita No. 3 and one of the most-recognizable of the Sonatas and Partitas. But did you know that Bach also transcribed it for an orchestrated organ version, complete with trumpets, timpani and instruments that I can't confidently identify?
"I love it!" said Michael -- several times -- as we listened to this version in class.
Here are a few theory points to note: the underlying beat pattern emphasizes the second beat (just look at the first measure!) The piece begins with a two-octave sweep going down, then the first six measures are repeated in the inversion (the register is reversed). Bach also works on many rhythmic levels, if you look carefully at m. 29.
Also, harmonically: from m. 39 through 51, "He's really working that dominant a long time," Michael said. (If you must know, he's talking about the dominant of C# minor, which is G# major. Once we arrive at the a big cadence on C# minor in m. 51, we go to A# which goes to B which goes to G which goes to A, which we can at least say is the subdominant of E, right? Then, somewhere in there a miracle happens, and eventually end up on an B7 chord and that directs us back home, to E major. Hey, I'm catching the spirit, that was fun!)
The third movement of the same Partita (No. 3 in E major) is the "Gavotte en Rondeau."
"Here, the Rondeau is used structurally as a device to build a greater sense of tension and release as we flow through the movement," Michael wrote in the notes he gave us. "Each subsequent section moves further away from the home key and displays increasing complexity, with each return to the home base of 'A' a different experience, having a heightened sense of resolution."
That says it well, but what brought it home to me was his more real-world metaphor: Let's say Michael lives in Hollywood, and he drives across town to visit me in Pasadena. No big deal, he's home for dinner. The next time he leaves home, he drives five hours to San Francisco. Quite a trip! When he arrives home, he's pretty glad to be home. The next time he goes away, he flies all the way across the country to New York. He's far from home! He spends a while there, and when he gets back he really feels that sense of having returned. But the next time, he goes all the way to Argentina. What fuss, he needs his passport, has to go through security checks, eats completely different food while he's there, meets new people -- when he gets home, he looks at home in a whole new way.
That's the "Rondeau" for you!
If you are more curious and "if you want to really nerd out on Bach," (many of us do), here is a book that Michael McLean recommends: Bach's Works for Solo Violin: Style, Structure, Performance.
After these lectures, a good number of people asked Michael if he could please do a harmonic analysis like this of ALL the Bach Sonatas and Partitas and perhaps have it published and sell it to all of us? I'll add to the chorus, Pretty Please? Perhaps someone with expertise in the publishing world could contact Michael and offer to help with that end of it?
When violinist Odin Rathnam came to study with Sally Thomas, he had to start all over again with his bow arm.
His elbow was so high, "it looked like a dog peeing on a fire hydrant," he laughed. And his energy was also completely out of control, which was a problem.
In violin playing, "emotional feeling that does not manifest as expression through the instrument, manifests as tension," he said. You can emote all you want up on the stage, but it won't translate into music unless you exert some control over your instrument. "If I am the victim of my emotions, how can I manipulate yours? We are in the business of manipulating emotions."
Ivan Galamian was a master of control.
"Most powerful is he who has himself in his own power." -- Seneca
That's from a plaque which hung on a wall at Meadowmount, the summer music school that Galamian founded. Odin's teacher, Sally Thomas, Professor of Music at The Juilliard School since 1961, was a student of and assistant to Galamian. She wrote the introduction to the latest edition of Principles of Violin Playing and Teaching, which, happily, is now out in paperback.
Like the quote above, the best violinists have their playing under their own power. But it takes time, work and training. "Your most talented students are the wild ones -- the wild stallions," Odin said. "But they can't win a race without training." He said it took him 40 years to truly assimilate what Sally Thomas taught him, but now those lessons, based on the principles of Galamian, are the ones he teaches his own students.
Sally Thomas was in the audience last week, when Odin taught a pedagogy class called "Lost in Translation: Demystifying the Principles of Ivan Galamian in Practical Application" at the Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies at The Juilliard School
Sally Thomas and Odin Rathnam
"Galamian was primarily a speech therapist -- he taught a language, the language of the bow," Odin said. "Galamian's genius was to discipline the production of sound. He could demonstrate something artistic very simply and physically." And with that discipline and simplicity comes control.
One part of that control, for the bow arm, involves a relaxed arm, starting at the shoulder. This involves relaxing the deltoid muscle. We tend to think of this feeling as "arm weight." Below, Odin describes this concept:
Keeping that weight in the bow arm, one uses the right hand to manage the bow. Believe it or not, the motions required of the bow hand can be boiled down to five actions, which were at the crux of Odin's lesson. Here they are, with brief descriptions of how to do them:
Five Actions of the Bow Hand (based on Galamian principles). The actions can be "active" or "passive." Passive actions form the springs and cushions, active ones articulate the strokes.
1. Horizontal Motion of Wrist and Fingers: Hold bow vertically, hair facing you, and set the bow on your left hand. Then raise bow off hand, with just fingers.
Below, Odin demonstrates these five actions:
For example, No. 3, the Pivoting Motion, is used when catching and releasing the bow. If you say "Pah!" you must purse your lips in the moment before saying it. "Pursing your lips is catching the string," Odin said. Catching the string involves pivoting the bow into the string, and it must happen before the bow stroke. "If you catch the string, the note is there for free." Softer notes actually require more articulation, more "catch," in order to be understood. Think of it this way, when you whisper, you have to articulate your words better, to be understood, than if you were speaking in a normal or loud voice.
To demonstrate No. 2: Vertical Motion of the Wrist and Fingers, we looked at a string-crossing exercise, Exercise No. 4 from School of Violin Technics, Book 1, by Schradieck.
"You are basically in one plane with your elbow, but you are crossing with your fingers and wrist," Odin said. String crossings also require an awareness of No. 5. Relationship of Bow to Thumb. If the bow thumb is locked straight or the bow hand is holding too tight, the bow will simply roll over when crossing the string with fingers and wrist. One has to be able to roll the bow stick with the thumb during the bow stroke, to keep the bow hair flat when reaching for the lower string.
"The thumb is different than the other fingers," Odin said. It's easy to see which is the base knuckle for the other fingers, but where is the base knuckle for the thumb? It's the wrist! "That means, if you lock the thumb, you lock the wrist. If you lock the wrist, you lock the elbow. If you lock the elbow, you lock the arm!" (I know an old lady who swallowed a fly, perhaps she'll DIE!) No wonder we hound our students not to lock their thumbs!
And being double-jointed does not change that. Odin knows; he's quite double-jointed himself. "It's not a curse, and it's not an excuse the lock the thumb!" he said.
Another place where the wrist can help is when going from a down-bow to an up-bow. "God gave us round joints, and Stradivari and Tourte gave us straight lines," Odin said. It's up to us fiddle players to find a compromise.
Galamian talked about bowing in a "figure eight," which is really more of a feeling in the hand and arm than a literal "figure eight." In order to bow in a straight line, during the down-bow, the bow has the feeling of going out. At the change, the hand drops slightly, with the wrist coming up slightly as elbow closes, dropping inward for the up-bow. This smooths the bow change and helps keep the bow perpendicular to the string.
When practicing, instead of trying learn large amounts of music all at once, break the music into smaller actions. Practice making those actions perfect and relaxed, "and the brain will solve the rest," Odin said. "You have to think of little perfect actions -- laying bricks."
As you lay those bricks, aim to "speed up your preparation time and slow down your action," Odin said.
If you make a mistake, figure out the reason -- there's always a reason. "If you can't figure out why you made that mistake, then you are bound to repeat it," Odin said. "The moment you make a mistake, I can always trace it to something you did in the moment before the mistake." Find what that was, and you'll find your solution.
The best way to measure the results of your work on the violin is by your own comfort and the musical result. "If it doesn't make you feel comfortable, if it doesn't sound right, than all this is just something brown and steaming and sitting in a field," Odin said.
We played a bit of Kreutzer Etude No. 2, a very common one for which Galamian recommends the practice of many rhythms. Odin said this etude can be used to practice just about anything, "Just plug in the rhythms!"
"Mr. Galamian had this incredible patience, but persistence," and so did Sally Thomas, Odin said. "I would say, 'When can I play Paganini 1?' She would say, 'When can you play in tune?'"
We also looked at a piece by Veracini called "Allegro in A Major" (From "Largo and Allegro"), a piece that he said is a good preparation for Kreisler's Praeludium and Allegro.
This piece has many string crossings, and he recommended being sure that the bottom note speaks, and also getting rid of any noise between notes. Also, don't over-energize chords, keep them calm so they don't crunch.
On the second day of Odin's lecture, he showed us these ideas in practical application, working with a student, Fedor, who played the first movement of Lalo's "Symphonie Espagnole" for us.
He talked about bringing the bow very close to the bridge for clarity when playing the very high note in the introduction of the Lalo.
"It creates emotion, but you don't have to feel that emotion," Odin said of that note. It's more important to concentrate on building a structure for playing that note -- so your audience can feel it -- than to feel it yourself. Control the sound, in the context of time, and in doing so, "give yourself a calming factor. Keep your gestures within the context of the music."
And when it comes to creating those gestures, set up earlier and execute slower. Do NOT set up late and execute fast!
In passages with many string crossings, it's important to know which strings you are on and how long that will last, so you can make a plan. One way to ingrain this in your bow hand is to practice the passage on open strings.
All these ideas are simply tools, so when you are using them to create a gesture, "Don't leave our artistry at the door," Odin said. "Keep your artistry above your technique."
"I call what I teach my students 'knowledge,'" Odin said. "When they use it to solve problems or create expression, it's 'wisdom.'"
Odin, who is left-handed, also warned against using vibrato for every bit of expression. "Make the sound with the bow," he said. As Sally Thomas once told him, "Don't put responsibility in the left hand that belongs in the right."
As you build these skills, you build your virtuosity. Virtuosity, Odin said, is a lot more than fancy, fast playing. It is "the fanatical application of a limited set of values or virtues to every aspect of a given task," he said. "The greater the number of virtues, the more virtuosic the player."
So build your skills and learn to control when and how you use them. "Galamian control," he said, "It works way better than Inderol!"
What could be better than a gathering of violinists, during the spring, in heart of New York city? Here are some scenes from the Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies at The Juilliard School, to bring you there (or bring you back!).
With more than 200 violinists from 32 states and 14 countries, the Starling-DeLay staff wanted to make a collage that represented us all. We each were asked to bring a little something from home, and here is the masterpiece they created! If you squint and perhaps put on your glasses, you can see my little postcard from Pasadena on the left, under the "2013"!
Symposium Artistic Director Brian Lewis works like crazy, helping to run this event and also teaching several pedagogy classes. He's also a Violin Ninja:
This year I stayed in the Juilliard dorms. Yes, they are dorms, with cement floors, shared showers, etc. but they have great views, and I always meet new friends in the suite! (I also heard people playing quartets in the suite across from us!) Here I am with suite mate, Roberta:
Who doesn't love the food in New York? I had everything from pizza to sushi, and here I am at the Ed's Chowder House across the street from Lincoln Center, with my fries and mushroom chowder. Yum!
My goal in any city is to find the good coffee, and I found a nice place called Aroma Espresso on 72nd St. Better yet, I had coffee with longtime Violinist.com member Caeli Smith, who also happens to be an undergraduate at Juilliard.
Eventually we all had to say goodbye, and here are some pictures of violinists and musicians who were at the final reception. Below, collaborative pianist Pamela Viktoria Pyle, Symposium administrative director Rob Ross, and young artist Marié Rossano of the Curtis Institute:
Richard Riss of Piscataway, New Jersey, sports his cool violin tie while chatting with Thomas Wood of Wooster, Ohio:
Here I am with Eric Tsai, 16, of Alabama, one of the young artists who played in master classes and recitals throughout the week.
Brian Lewis chats with Lisa Lee of Bellmore, New York; Dianne Pinner of Greenville, South Carolina; and Joanne Cohen of Moorhead, Minnesota (L-R).
Did we get a little over-tired and punchy? Perhaps. Here I am, after the Symposium, with my good friend from Denver, violinist and teacher Arlette Aslanian. We were feeling inspired in front of the American Ballet Theatre sign at the Metropolitan Opera House. I might just stick to the violin!
Check back for more this week from Starling-DeLay: Odin Rathnam on Galamian pedagogy; Michael McLean on Bach; Brian Lewis on works by Josef Suk; and Katie Lansdale on Bach.
Every now and then I need to be reminded of what elevates violin playing to art, and violinist William Preucil did just that on Friday in a recital with pianist Elizabeth Johnson at Paul Hall at The Juilliard School, as part of the Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies.
Preucil is a consummate musician, with decades of experience as a concertmaster, chamber musician, soloist and teacher. He is the Concertmaster of the Cleveland Orchestra and Professor of Violin at the Cleveland Institute of Music. I overheard several Symposium participants in the audience -- teachers and performers themselves -- say things such as, "What a privilege to hear Bill Preucil play live!"
Indeed it was. His recital opened with Handel's Sonata in D Major, a popular piece that many violinists study, with its placement at the end of Suzuki Book 6. (Incidentally, Preucil recorded the CDs for the most recent revised editions of the Suzuki violin books; his father, William Preucil Sr., recorded the CDs for the viola books.)
Preucil made me hear the Handel anew, despite my own over-familiarity with the piece, having played, performed and taught it for some 20 years. With pure intonation and elegant articulation a given, he sculpted the music into a finely detailed yet cohesive work. I enjoyed the end of the first movement, where he let a musical question hang in the air, then answered it with the timing of a master storyteller. He plays like a violin native, which, of course, he is.
He played the "Adagio Appassionata" by Bruch with drama yet control, old-world Romantic slides and dead-center high notes. What art, with every note considered. When he played the Dvorak Sonatina in G Major, Op. 100 I noticed his wide range of dynamics, with dozens of gradations between pp and ff.
Last was the Violin Sonata in Eb major, Op. 18, by Richard Strauss, and though I know better, I nearly had to be restrained from clapping after the first movement -- the ending was so exciting. Later, in the next movement, he seemed to be able to create silence from music, how does one do that? I had the feeling he was laying all those beautiful details of music-making over a solidly built frame -- don't worry, nothing could go wrong. I didn't worry (rare moment for me), and it was like a trip to the spa, a cleansing of the musical soul. Teachers -- and the room was full of them -- need to hear this kind of playing from time to time. He had an instant standing ovation upon finishing, and when he took his seat to play an encore, we were seated and silent just as instantly. He played Tartini's "Adagio," then after we begged with more clapping for another, he played Kreisler's "Tempo di Minuetto," a piece of music with dignity and warmth.
William Preucil, with his parents Doris and William Sr., who attended his recital
How often do you get to hear the wisdom of someone who has sat in the concertmaster chair, heard hundreds of auditions, played as a chamber musician, played as a soloist and also taught at the highest level?
Bill Preucil is all that -- with a staggering amount of experience, both playing and teaching the violin. Concertmaster of the Cleveland Orchestra since 1995, he also was concertmaster of the Atlanta Symphony for seven years, and concertmaster of the Utah and Nashville Symphonies. And he is a chamber musician, having performed as first violinist in the Cleveland Quartet for seven seasons. Currently he is Professor of Violin at the Cleveland Institute of Music. He started violin at age five with his mother, Doris Preucil, Suzuki pioneer, and went on to study with some of the 20th century's greatest violinists: Josef Gingold, Zino Francescatti and György Sebök.
Having treated us to his artistry as a performer in a recital the night before (more about that in a separate blog), William Preucil took the stage at Juilliard's Paul Hall on Saturday to teach a master class to five young artists.
Throughout the class, he emphasized the idea of listening closely and creating long lines in music. He was also full of great metaphors -- and funny faces!
First up was Ji Min, who played the first movement of Mozart Concerto No. 4. It's a piece that she -- and all of us in the room, no doubt -- knew very well.
It can be tricky to pull off. Technically, it requires pristine intonation and articulation. But musically it can be a problem, too. "There are some difficult things about the way he wrote it," Bill said, and it's very easy to get too much emphasis on the beat, taking away from a longer musical line.
It's important to examine this question: How do you make certain notes sound more important? Three ways: you can make them louder, give them extra vibrato, or make them longer. In Mozart, it's all too easy to make too many notes into important notes. When practicing, watch which notes are louder, which notes receive extra vibrato, and which notes are longer. It should all be intentional.
Ji Min was occasionally falling into the trap of playing last notes too long. "You just love them so much you don't want to let them go," Bill said. But that can make them too important, and it can break up a longer line.
"One of the things that makes us love Mozart is that he had such a wonderful understanding of human emotion," Bill said. Knowing that he was a composer of operas, "sometimes it helps to think in terms of opera -- something that is purposely over-dramatic, and with a story."
For example (here is where you can get out your Mozart 4 score, dear readers): at m 49, the music goes back and forth, "like two people having a conversation," then at m 52 "they grab hands and run up the hill."
Also, leaps from low to high notes can be more dramatic. "Using timing, you can make them more spectacular, more gymnastic, without ruining the rhythm," he said.
He asked, what is the most important note at m 70, a place with a sequence of rests and 16th notes? After letting Ji Min toy around with emphasis on this note and that, he announced, "It's the note you don't play!" The rest -- where the orchestra plays and you don't -- is actually the most important. Your part has to bounce off theirs.
Back to our Mozart 4 score: m 115 starts a happy section, followed by sad. Or to turn it into an opera scene: At m 115, we have a girl picking flowers :). But then at m 117, the girl is kidnapped! :o Or, maybe at m 115 we have two servants sneaking a kiss in the closet :). But at m 117, the master opens the closet door and discovers them! :o Either way, it's all followed by a chase scene at m 126.
Bill demonstrated quite well simply with his facial expressions -- happy; sad; searching, with eyes darting back and forth. He could probably do an entire master class without saying a word, just using facial expressions!
Ji Min asked Bill, how do you fix old, deeply-ingrained bad habits in pieces that you might have learned when very young? (Mozart Concerto No. 4 is such a piece, as it is in Suzuki Book 10 and so a fast-moving student might reach it at quite a young age).
"One of the more advanced things in music is this idea of not having too many beats," Bill said. As you become more musically mature and aware of those long lines and phrases, you can also become more aware of how to create them with intention. You can also become aware of this when listening to other music by the same composer.
For the Mozart cadenza, he advised that she "play it like you're not sure, like you're making it up," he said.
He pointed out a note that she was overemphasizing then he asked, "Did you know you were doing that?" and she answered, "Not consciously."
"A teacher's major function is to be a set of ears that is not attached to you," he said. A teacher can show you how to listen, so that eventually, you will be able to listen in a way that helps you get rid of those unintentional, not-conscious things that get in the way of the music -- on your own.
For example, "Don't be careful on the run, then knock the last note. Trust yourself -- make it a gesture," Bill said.
Next was William, who played the first movement of Fauré's Sonata No. 1 ("Allegro molto").
As in Mozart, Fauré's music can get lost in the details. The way it's composed, with so much repetition, can give it a measure-by-measure feel. That can get in the way of making longer phrases.
"Tempo can help you do all of that," Bill said. The tempo Fauré marked for this movement is almost impossibly fast, quarter=152. (Note: A fellow audience member had a score marked slower, quarter=120. This must have been an editor's intervention. Just know that some editions already mark it slower than Fauré's original tempo request.)
"He marked it incredibly fast -- I'm not saying it should be played that fast," Bill said, "but it gives us a clue as to the nature of the melody and sound, that it could be airy, not grounded. It's busy, it's moving -- it's not getting stuck."
William tried it with more abandon, and wow! He could pull it off at quite a clip -- I found it rather exhilarating!
"That accomplished what I asked for," Bill said with a smile, "the trick would be to play it not-as-fast and still accomplish that."
How? Well here's what he told William, but we might all wish to write this down and put on the wall next to our music stands: "Any time you're going to make the first note in a measure important, ask yourself, 'Should I be doing this?'"
"And I wouldn't pick a daisy every two bars," Bill added, "I'd wait and pick the daisy at the end."
Bill said that sometimes a dynamic marking in this music is actually more of a request for a change of color.
Gloria played the first movement of Poulenc's Sonata I for Violin, and her energy on stage was immediate and intense. That's probably because Poulenc actually marks this "violent"! Preucil wanted her to make more of the play between F and F# that Poulenc features heavily in the beginning of this movement.
He also asked her to be more aware of a habit of starting the vibrato later on in a note. "That's a good trick, but just once in a while," he said. "Some notes are going to be okay without vibrato, too." He also wanted her to work on being able to connect notes with vibrato.
"Listen to your vibrato, and not all the other beautiful things you are playing, and then your brain will send the message to your fingers and you will fix it," he said.
Marié played the first movement of the Barber Violin Concerto.
She was clearly committed to this piece, and I found her playing satisfyingly in tune and enjoyable, like she was just spinning silk the whole time. I wondered what anyone could add to what she was doing. But Bill -- seasoned concertmaster -- shared his helpful perspective on how to feel the orchestra part when performing as the soloist. For example, when the solo part creates an interval of a second against the orchestra's part, listen for and enjoy the way those notes rub against one another.
He asked, in one part (in the score, rehearsal no. 4) that it be less driven, more like "you've prepared the practical joke but it hasn't happened yet." One place has a rather startling four-octave jump into the stratosphere -- "don't forecast that."
Marié with Bill Preucil
Photo: Nan Melville for The Juilliard School
He even had some ideas about how to hold the extremely long note at the end: be aware of the harmonic changes in the orchestra, and illustrate those changes for the audience by changing the color of the note just a little.
Last but not least, Elli, 12, played the entire first movement of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, which is still famous for its dedicatee pronouncing it "unplayable." Not for Elli.
Photo: Nan Melville for The Juilliard School
Sometimes a teacher will hear only the first half of the Tchaik in a master class, but this was the final performance of the Symposium, and Bill let her play the entire gargantuan movement. Small person, big music. It kind of spoke for itself. What could he possibly say, after such a feat?
Well, not much, but he did offer her a few ideas, without having her play any more: "Tchaikovsky could never resist sneaking a little ballet music into his pieces," so keep that style in mind. It helps to listen to other music by a composer -- his symphonies, his chamber music, and that gives you ideas about how to play the concerto.
More entries: May 2013
Violinist.com Editor Laurie Niles went to Austin, Texas to cover the Menuhin Competition 2014, watching some of the world's top young violinists. Read her ongoing coverage.
Laurie Niles is from Pasadena, California. Biography
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