My husband, kids and I were setting out on the fourth day of our cross-America road trip, driving east across the city of Cleveland at sunrise. Coincidently, this is also Andrew's city, where he grew up and also studied violin at the Cleveland Institute of Music with Linda Cerone and David Russell.
The clouds lined up perfectly on this morning for a long-lasting sunrise, the kind that seems like those epic paintings in which a host of angels ride down through the clouds on a sunbeam. Minus the angels. Or not: the angelic voices seemed to be supplied in the choral samples of the first track, "Gloria."
I'll admit right here that New Age music is not my first love, but you all knew that about this classical girl. Still, I'm interested in all kinds of music. I find New Age to be a peaceful soundscape in yoga class, and in college I truly loved listening to Pat Metheny, Shadowfax and a few more. This album also has a nice classical bent to it, with the use of some themes from masses, Beethoven's 'Moonlight Sonata,' and a few other things.
But what do I like the most about this particular project? They hired a live violinist to record for it! Of course, as a violinist myself, I understand how a live musician makes a huge difference in the heart and soul of any music. The warm and human sound of a live violin, very much a part of "Transcendence," is irreplaceable. I very often marvel, why would an artist bother to set his work for the record, using the cold, dead sound of synthesized strings?
So in addition to speaking with Andrew, I also put my burning question to composer Sean: What made him decide to use a live violinist, not synth, as so many of his colleagues would do, to record this kind of music?
"I've always tried to be a bit different than the typical New Age artist in my compositions," Sean said. "My last album, Sojourns, featured two soprano performers singing in a more operatic style, which is not typical with New Age. I own the finest violin sample libraries available and could have used them in my compositions, but in my opinion, they cannot touch what an accomplished violinist, like Andrew, can do in regards to emotion in the performance. Andrew's playing is extremely fluid, especially regarding his legato transitions, and that is what sold me on using him on 'Transcendence.' His playing gave real emotion to the album that I would have never been satisfied with, using synth or samples."
Is it a rather big investment, to use a live musician?
"There is definitely an investment using live musicians, which is why not everyone uses them," Sean said. "Besides getting Andrew across the country from his home in Ohio to where I reside in Boise [Idaho], there were expenses in hiring an engineer to set up in the cathedral where we recorded Andrew. I also gave the Methodist church that let us use their cathedral a donation, as it was the least I could do for their generosity in allowing us to record there."
How did you find Andrew?
"My wife and I know the conductor of the Boise Philharmonic, Robert Franz, and approached him on recommending a violinist for my album," Sean said. "I told him that I needed someone who was especially good at very slow, emotional playing. I've worked with violinists before that were excellent at fast staccato performances, but when it came to the slow legato transitions, I wasn't always be happy with the performance. Perhaps I am too much of a perfectionist, but I know what I like. Even though I was initially hoping to find someone local, Mr. Franz recommended Andrew. Once I heard samples of Andrew's work on the Web, I was sold. Andrew definitely contributed to the soul of 'Transcendence.'"
And what about Andrew, who most often plays classical concertos, recitals and the like?
"I was quite unfamiliar with the genre," Andrew said, "but good rock, jazz, New Age and others can speak to audiences just as effectively as classical can. We hear New Age music in many settings: soundtracks, yoga studios, massage parlors, and large arenas."
And how did he feel about transforming the Moonlight Sonata into to New Age?
The parts seem pretty playable; did the New Age genre present any challenges?
"My bread and butter include the Beethoven, Brahms and Tchaikovsky concerti; the Franck, Ysaye, Beethoven and Bach sonatas," Andrew said. "It was like learning a new language, to pull off this genre. In the classical repertoire, you learn from the live concert experience what works and what doesn't. During this recording process, I had to evolve from the mindset of conveying Beethoven to 2,000 people to filling a cathedral with beautiful new age melodies."
Was this done on an electric fiddle, to match the electric vibe?
"No -- the fiddle used in the recording is my own - A Talisse from 1912," Andrew said. "I had the good fortune to play a Stradivarius this summer -- perhaps the next recording project will be on that fantastic instrument!"
This summer's travels have brought us to beautiful Boston, and so I'm going to bring you there, too!
We wanted to see the sights, but my first priority is always to find the best coffee in town. I think I did pretty well this morning, with Thinking Cup -- YUM! Good coffee (Stumptown) and made with much care, plus a stunning line-up of pastries.
Being tourists, we did what tourists do in Boston: we followed the Freedom Trail through the historic parts of the city.
We saw all kinds of neat sights: the Mass. State House; King's Chapel; several historically significant cemeteries and the Old Corner Bookstore -- which is now actually a Chipotle! One of the many lovely historic buildings we saw was the Old State House.
But for me, the most exciting thing I saw was right next to the Old State House: this gentleman, sitting on a bench with his dog, playing the hurdy-gurdy!
I don't think I'd ever seen a hurdy-gurdy up-close. "I had this hurdy-gurdy made for me 32 years ago, and we've been falling apart at about the same rate," he joked. He was happy to lift the lid of the instrument and let me look inside, and even take this picture for you. What a fascinating instrument! It has two strings, and the wheel, which is wound with a crank that you can see on the left side of the picture, acts as a bow. The buttons on the bottom stop the strings.
I enjoyed the music, too: one string acts as a drone and the other has more the melody. For the first song, he joked, "My dog wrote that song!" (No way!) When I told him I was a violinist, he broke into some Vivaldi "Spring" and then a bit of "La Folia" and even some Beethoven Violin Concerto. What a treat!
Here I am on the other side of the United States, having driven all the way from Southern California to Maine, and guess what I heard after breakfast this morning?
Indeed, I expected to be the only guest toting a violin at the marvelous little Bed and Breakfast where I'm staying (Snow Squall Inn) in Wiscasset, Maine. It has only seven rooms, after all!
But actually, Zoe Emrick, age 8, arrived before me, also with her violin. This morning, she was practicing Celtic fiddle music, right outside!
I couldn't help but think that this was fate, so I struck up a conversation with her mom, who told me that they'd traveled from Texas to Maine so that Zoe could participate in the fiddle lessons, step dancing and more. She's planning to participate in a fiddle workshop as well as some Celtic Dancing, which she is also studying.
How did she get so involved, so young, in Celtic fiddle and dance? Her mother said that when Zoe was four, the family went to the North Texas Irish Festival.
"We left with a child who was in love," she said -- in love with all things Celtic!
Zoe said that she always wanted to play Celtic fiddle music, she wasn't really interested in learning classical, so they went on a search for a Celtic fiddle teacher. They were helped by the Traditional Irish Music Education Society, or "TIMES" of Richardson, TX, which has been setting up Irish music schools in Dallas, Houston and Austin, said director Ken Fleming. The group also has connections in Oklahoma City, he said. If people are looking for Celtic fiddle instruction, another source Fleming recommended was TradConnect.com, a community for Irish tradition music.
As for Zoe, after much searching, she found Michelle Feldman at the North Texas School of Irish Music.
Maybe tomorrow she can teach me a few Celtic tunes after breakfast!
Once again I am required to pack light -- very light. I'm driving across the United States with my husband, two teenagers, our bags, and yes, my spare fiddle.
In a Prius.
We're going from Los Angeles to Maine, to check out a school for my daughter. As you can imagine, space is at a premium in our tiny trunk, and the inclusion of the violin was a major concession to Mom (that's me). I dared not express what I was thinking, "What good is my fiddle, without a music stand?" There's no room, even for a folding stand. We barely have room for an extra shoe (much less a shoebox!).
Sure, I can prop up the music against my case, but that doesn't work very well in my fitted case. I'm bringing copies, not bulky books. Copies tend to slouch and fall and even float away. The case does have a small pocket for music, and in one of those "necessity is the mother of invention" moments, I thought up a cheap and workable contraption that will fit in that little pocket with the copies. (If a more elegant solution can be bought, I'll certainly consider it, but for now, I will share with you my invention!).
How to make a (really cheap) portable "music stand":
1. Open the folder and cut the outer sides of the pockets so that they can fold down.
2. The ruler is what will hold the folder open and reinforce the bottom of the "stand." Prop up the folder and open as wide as you'd like it for the "stand." Place the ruler along the bottom and trace the edges of the ruler.
3. Using the ruler lines as a guide, cut two slits across the ruler lines: one slit an inch from the left end and then another an inch from the right end of the ruler lines. To keep the ruler in place a bit better, make some pockets with the packing tape to go across the ruler line. Place a piece of packing tape right over the sticky side just where the ruler will go, so the tape isn't sticky there.
4. If you want, you can make another one of these "pockets" to hold the ruler when you aren't using the stand. (I put one against the inside of the folder, so the ruler can fit diagonally, when not in use)
5. To set up the "stand," slide the ruler through the slits and pockets.
6. Prop the "stand" in your case.
7. Put your music up and play!
8. To move on, take the ruler out, stick it in the folder, fold the folder, and you have a very portable "stand"! To make my "stand" seem legit, I printed out a picture of a real stand and put it in the pocket on the front of the folder.
How do you do that on the violin?
Even some of the best players in the world can't really explain, in detail, what they are doing on the violin, how they are doing it or why it works. But when a student is struggling, or when a student wants to reach a new level of playing, this explanation can make all the difference. Fortunately for teachers and for students, UK violinist and pedagogue Simon Fischer has compiled an entire book of such explanations: The Violin Lesson.
The author of violin pedagogy books Basics, Practice, Scales and Warming Up, Simon has taught at the Guildhall School since 1982, and at the Yehudi Menuhin School since 1997. He writes a regular column for The Strad magazine and freelances in London.
We spoke over the phone last month about his new book, and the question that it begs: Why is it, that many violin students aren't taught the simple things that would immediately help improve their playing and boost their expressive abilities? "Their teacher might be a fantastic player and a fantastic musician, and they might give a fantastic music lesson," Simon said. "But the trick is to find the teacher who gives a violin lesson as well as a music lesson. The ideal violin lesson must be a wonderful music lesson and also a chance for the teacher to immediately identify what needs to be changed about how the student is going about playing the violin. And the change is always so simple to make."
Teaching technique and teaching music are two sides of the same coin, he said. Yet some teachers don't even try to teach technique. One teaching colleague even admitted quite happily that when the student has technical problems, she doesn't know whether to look at the left hand or the right. "So she just forgets about it and carries on teaching them music," Simon said.
In the UK, college students sometimes have to prepare a journal in which they describe the content of all of their violin lessons: what the teacher said, the points that were made, etc. "When you adjudicate a student recital, this journal is put down on the table in front of you, and you're meant to look at it and give that a mark, as well as grade the playing," Simon said. He remembers encountering one particularly exceptional journal: "It was beautifully handwritten, and the teacher's words were marvelous -- wonderful musical ideas and philosophical ideas. It was all about music and expression and contrast. I thought, you could publish this, it's beautiful! This is a real musician who knows about music, passing on his knowledge to his student with great dedication."
The problem was, the student couldn't play. "The student's bow was all over the fingerboard, he was holding the violin at the wrong angle to his body, he was playing not a note in tune," Simon said. "There was no music because he couldn't play the violin!" And those beautiful musical ideas? "All irrelevant, because the teacher wasn't giving a violin lesson as well as a music lesson. The teacher was telling him everything, except what he actually needed to know."
In fact, this sometimes is intentional, with some teachers embracing the idea that teaching technique, or explaining too much, will somehow ruin a student's innate musicality. Simon said that a violin teacher colleague, having read one of his Strad Magazine articles (about bow retakes), admonished him: "Don’t explain! If you explain to students how to play, they will forever be wooden players. The student must ‘just do.'"
"But some students can 'just do'; some can't," Simon said. For those who can't, "if you explain what to do, then if they continue to do it for the short while that it takes for the new habit to become unconscious, then they end up in the same place as those who could do it without knowing how in the first place."
"Suppose you spend 10 minutes of a lesson explaining the idea of thinking about the violin in terms of proportions. It doesn’t take much longer than that to cover the sort of range of ideas that I described in the chapter, The Magic Word: Proportions, from The Violin Lesson (p. 96). Then in every lesson afterwards, that entire 10 minutes is contained in that one word: 'Proportions.' It has become a ‘packet,’" Simon said. "As lessons progress, more and more of these ‘packets’ are accumulated and become the shared language of the lessons. Therefore, as time goes by, the power and intensity of the lessons increases exponentially. This is one reason why the speed of the students’ progress should increase the longer they continue with a particular teacher, not decrease, as is so often the case! "
There is time, in lessons, to explain things. "Let the clock tick on, make the investment! Once you have explained the subject, it is ‘in the bag,’ to be taken out whenever required, and that then takes only seconds," Simon said. "The Violin Lesson is ‘the book of opened packets’ – the contents of the boxes when they are opened up. Sometimes this can take just a paragraph of text (or thirty seconds of instruction in a lesson), sometimes several pages of text and examples and photographs (or five minutes of a lesson) – but once you have got the idea, it is now ‘one thing’ in your mind. Then, in a typical lesson, ten or more of these subjects may come up. Then each lesson literally becomes more and more valuable."
These detailed explanations are what makes this book different from his previous books, Basics and Practice, Simon said. "The Basics book is pure: the actual principles underlying everything else, and I kept it absolutely strictly to that," he said. Practice focuses on just that: the practice techniques used to solve technical and musical problems that typically arise.
"Every musical example in the Practice book comes from real life, either a lesson situation or my own practice," Simon said. "For years, I had a notebook in every lesson, and I scribbled down the music example and what I had just done with a student. So there's a story behind every single example."
The examples and practice techniques filled notebooks, numerous scraps of paper, the back of violin string packets and Simon's daily diary, "just writing down, writing down, writing down -- everything good, everything that worked."
For three or four years, he wrote down everything that helped. "I'd come out of the Scottish Academy after eight hours of teaching and sit down in the taxi or the bus to the airport. I'd immediately have my file on my lap and I'd be writing down things that had come up in those lessons. I’d continue while standing in line for the security search, and then the moment I sat down on the plane I’d begin again. Driving home from the Menuhin School I would sometimes pull over and stop, to write down some idea or method that I had just remembered had come up during a lesson that day. Because although you think you’ll never forget, in fact unless you write everything down, things do get lost. The music examples in the Practice book are like a record of all the pieces that I was teaching or performing in that period."
"Then for several years it was the same with The Violin Lesson," Simon said, "at the end of the day, and between (and often during!) lessons, taking notes of the subject headings that have come up. But more than a record of the lessons, The Violin Lesson is a record of many of the chief steps in understanding that I have had to take myself in my musical and violinistic journey up to this point, as well as the steps my students have had to take in theirs."
Simon has been teaching for about 35 years, ever since he was a student at the Junior Guildhall. He's easily taught more than 1,000 students. This fall he will have some 40 students, between his teaching at the Guildhall, the Yehudi Menuhin School and private teaching.
What is the key to being a good violin teacher?
"A teacher needs to be able to look at a violin student and to see how they could play, at their absolute best, if everything were going for them. That's the picture you have in your mind," he said.
"Walter Carrington, my Alexander Technique teacher, was brilliant," Simon said. "He didn't try to force you in any direction; he could see how you would be, if you were actually in an ideal state, and his hands would just so gently sort of urge you in that direction. It's not the same as saying that what you're doing is wrong; that's something different. His attitude was more like, 'Why aren't you being that, that which you are already? Or that which you could be, if we can strip away all the things in your way?'"
"I'm always telling the students the story about Michelangelo, walking down the same road for 20 years," Simon said. "There was a slab of marble, by the side of the road, that he didn't particularly notice. Then suddenly one day he saw the statue, imprisoned in the stone. He had the slab taken back to his studio, where he chipped away all the bits that shouldn't be there and 'liberated the statue from the stone.' The same goes for the teacher and student: the teacher helps liberate the student from anything that isn't serving him or her, anything that is getting in the way of the student's music."
"Bah!" said my one-year-old daughter from her stroller, pointing at the sky. What on Earth? Ah, it wasn't something on Earth; it was the moon. She was pointing to the moon in the morning sky. Why was she calling it a "bah"? I looked up at the moon thoughtfully. What were her words at this point? "Mama" and "Da." "Bah" -- that was her word for "ball." Ball -- it's round!
"You're right my dear, it looks like a ball. But it's the moon. Moooooon."
"Moo!" she said, pointing at that ball-ish thing in the sky. Still pointing, she looked back at me.
"Yes, that's the moon!" I confirmed. Later on the same walk, she pointed to the satellite dish on our roof. "Bah!" This time I knew what she meant: she wanted the word for that round thing.
"It's round like a ball," I nodded. "That's a satellite dish. Sa-tel-lite dish."
She paused for a moment. "Bah!"
I laughed. "Good enough!"
Children are like sponges, educators like to say; they'll pick up anything. When we look back at our own language learning, most of us don't remember the process. Maybe we know the first word we said, if Mom told us. It seems like we just brainlessly "picked it up." Likewise, people often say that the Suzuki method, with its emphasis on early learning, produces players who are unthinking robots because children brainlessly pick up how to play the violin, without understanding the why and how of what is going on.
But what exactly is "brainless learning"? It's when a child mindlessly imitates his teacher and does the bidding of his parents, who fill him or her up like an empty cup. Except, that's not how it works, ever. Beginning Suzuki lessons involve the painstaking development of many new skills: clapping rhythms, matching pitches, matching numbers to fingers, learning note names, singing, memorizing songs, holding a bow, balancing a violin, placing a finger firmly on a string….By the time a child learns to play "Twinkle," he or she has learned some 45 new skills. Is this process brainless? Why? Because the child didn't analyze and question each of the 45 skills he or she learned? (Actually, in many cases, the child did -- anyone who teaches small children knows this. A three-year-old's favorite question is "Why? Why? Why?")
In early language learning, we "pick up" what we are ready to "pick up," and we speak what we are ready to speak. The two don't always happen at the same pace. We might continue to call the satellite dish a "bah" until the speaking skills catch up and allow us to pronounce a longer chain of syllables and form the more complicated words, "satellite dish."
The same happens in music. A student might hear a professional recording of Paganini's Le Streghe and have this version in his or her head. But perhaps the student's developing technique only enables him or her to play the Suzuki arrangement of Witches Dance -- the same tune, but much less complicated. And maybe it comes out a little stiff around the edges: rigid in rhythm, pedantic in pace, not much vibrato yet, fingers going in the right places only because tapes are there.
This in no way makes the student an unthinking, brainless robot.
Children speak slowly. They mis-pronounce. They over-simplify concepts, and they repeat things they don't yet understand. They read aloud with less expression than Siri. A few hot-shot kids can read aloud at age five with the fluency of a newscaster, but not many.
Yet not one of their efforts to speak or read is "brainless" learning. It's just learning learning. I would argue that the same is true for very young violin students: their learning uses their brains a great deal, and its dependence on a parent is as temporary as is their dependence on a parent for language learning or learning to ride a bicycle.
Perhaps the unique thing that adults like to call "brainlessness" is just openness. Children don't fight learning. They don't look for the "right way" to learn, they just learn in whatever way is presented. Yes, it's a problem if they are presented with bad information and they learn the wrong thing. In violin, you run the danger of learning bad posture habits, scratchy tone, out-of-tune finger placement, a tense hand, etc. But that's not the same thing as learning "the wrong way." If you learned the right thing, there is no "wrong way" to have learned it, and nothing about your knowledge or playing is "brainless."
More entries: June 2013
Laurie Niles is from Pasadena, California. Biography
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