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Laurie Niles

Pedagogy Class with Brian Lewis: The Musical Gems of Josef Suk

June 8, 2013 at 3:24 AM

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.

Brian Lewis
Photo: Nan Melville for The Juilliard School

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.

Burleska is a fast movement, marked "Allegro Vivace," and Brian said that the late Ruggiero Ricci has the fastest version of it on record. We practiced this page full of 16th notes in a way that made it so easy to learn: Brian had us play in groups of four notes, "which gives you time to read the next group," Brian said. Then every three bars when we came to a scale, play the whole scale. In about 10 minutes, all 100 people in the room were playing the first page with ease. The key is to play each group in a relaxed way, correctly, but rapidly.

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.

Also, one has to decide on fingerings and bowings, and those have to fit each particular performer's hands and style.

"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.
"Give your students choices, but make sure they all work."

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."

Brian Lewis


From William Wolcott
Posted on June 8, 2013 at 2:07 PM
The bit on technology is so very true!
From Cara Taggart
Posted on June 10, 2013 at 9:59 AM
Hi Laurie,
Really enjoying your coverage of the starling-delay symposium- hope i can be there myself in 2 years time.

Can you please explain in more depth the way you practised Burleska????

From Laurie Niles
Posted on June 10, 2013 at 5:17 PM
Hi Cara,

Basically, we did four 16th notes, almost in tempo, then waited a beat, then four more, etc. etc. Until we got to the scale, which, since we can all do scales, we just did the whole scale. It's a great way to practice anything that has a lot of fast notes: take very small sections that you can play correctly, and quickly, but give yourself time in between to correctly read and prepare for the next group of notes.

By contrast, often times if you try practicing a whole passage, you wind up making mistakes and backtracking. So what do you practice? You wind up practicing mistakes! If you put the stops in, then all of your playing time is spent playing correctly, and your thinking time is spent setting that up correctly. When you speed it up, it's all there. All you have to speed up is your preparation time. Hope that helps!

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