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Violinist.com Interviews: Vol. 1

Our exclusive, one-on-one interviews with 27 of today's best-known violinists, including Hilary Hahn, Joshua Bell, Sarah Chang, David Garrett, Anne Akiko Meyers, Maxim Vengerov, and others.

August 2013

What Size Violin Does My Child Need?

August 29, 2013 09:16

What size violin does my child need?

My friend Heather asked me this question, and I realized, a lot of people must be asking the same thing, either for their young beginner, or for a student who has grown a bit bigger over the summer.

Either way, it's important to answer this question correctly. A properly-fitting violin will help ease a student's studies, making the innately awkward instrument easier to handle and hold.

We're actually lucky that violins come in various sizes! An octave on a piano is always an octave, no matter how small the hands attempting to play it! There are seven typical "fractional" sizes for violins, from smallest to largest: 1/16, 1/10, 1/8, 1/4, 1/2, 3/4 and full-size. I'm going to give you instructions on how to measure your child, and then a little chart to determine what size instrument you need.

First, you need to measure the child's arm, from his or her neck to the line on the wrist where his or her hand starts. My youngest student, Mason, 5, will help demonstrate how to measure for violin size:

Measuring Mason

WristHave your young student stand upright, holding out his or her left arm, palm facing up. Gently measure the distance from the left side of the neck out to the line where his or her wrist meets the hand (in inches or centimeters). At left is a picture of that natural line at the wrist, which have I darkened with pen, so that you can see what I mean. You can use a tape measure or a yardstick; I use my home-made "Fiddle Stick," a yardstick on which I've marked all the measurements.

Fiddle stickThe chart below will tell you what size violin is appropriate. I find these measurements to be extremely accurate -- more so than the old trick of having the child attempt to grasp the scroll. If you are a private teacher or a school teacher, you easily can make your own "Fiddle Stick," with a yardstick (or meterstick) and some permanent markers. (If you are feeling like collecting some goodwill karma, make one for your local overworked and underpaid public school teacher!)

Measurements in Inches:

1/16 size: 13 1/4 inches or less
1/10 size: 14 1/4 inches
1/8 size: 15 1/4 inches
1/4 size: 17 1/4 inches
1/2 size: 19 inches
3/4 size: 20 1/2 inches
Full size: 21 1/4 inches

Measurements in centimeters:

1/16 size: 33 1/2 cm or less
1/10 size: 36 cm
1/8 size: 38 1/2 cm
1/4 size: 44 cm
1/2 size: 48 1/2 cm
3/4 size: 52 cm
Full size: 54 cm

GUIDELINES: Always err on the side of getting the smaller violin. It is tempting to get the bigger size, figuring, "Oh, (s)he'll grow into it," but it is extremely frustrating for a child to work with an unwieldy violin that is too big, and importantly, too heavy! You want the child to feel in control of the violin. A too-big violin may actually hurt to hold because of its weight, and it may throw off the mechanics of playing because of its size.

If you are getting a violin for the first time, all the best on your new musical journey! If you are up-sizing, enjoy the new (likely improved) sound of a bigger fiddle!

3 replies

Bach Gavotte

August 28, 2013 11:14

Lara St. John, you make it look so fun!

Step dancer Stephanie Cadman dances five different styles to the Gavotte from Bach's Partita in E Major, played by Lara St. John.

2 replies

Making Music More Accessible - Literally!

August 27, 2013 15:02

A few weeks ago, I took action on my growing sense that my entire system for storing music had to go.

I carefully removed everything inside and on top of the big cabinet that was holding my music hostage and had become too heavy and over-packed to open and use on any kind of regular basis. I stacked the music in piles all over my studio, then removed the contents of two junk drawers. Why does the process of organizing something feel like the very opposite? One has to blow it all apart in order to put it back together, and let's just say that it looked like a tornado blew through my studio.

And that was before I laid the unassembled pieces of the big bookshelf all around the remaining floor space in the studio, so that I could figure out what they were and begin the process of building this thing!

Building shelf

I chose a cube bookcase, with 15-inch cubes, so that even my biggest music would fit. (Hello, Ravel Sonata, why exactly are you so big?)

Completed shelf

I have a lot of music, but even so, I figured that with twelve spacious cubes, I could fit all of it in six cubes or less, leaving six empty ones, in which I could place, say: a stylish vase, a decorative gourd, an empty pot, a statuette of a crane, or a framed picture of my kids…It would look something like this.

HAH! My music took up nine cubes! And the remaining three filled fast, with the gold prize box for my students, music tote bags, and a basket full of things like stand lights, folding music stands, etc.

But no matter. I love it! And now I have a new answer for when a young student asks, "What comes after the Suzuki books?"

Finished music shelves

This! (The Suzuki books are actually on my desk, not in here!)

I did take the advice many of you offered and found magazine files for things like "gig music" or "duets" or "notes from pedagogy classes."

I have to say, this is the best investment of time and money that I've made for myself in a long time. I feel like I have a completely new studio, like I actually moved into a new physical space! With all the music alphabetized and so easy to pull out (or put back in), the possibilities seem greatly expanded. What do I feel like practicing today? I can pull it right out. And the same goes for my students: if we want a different solo piece, or a duet to play with a friend, we can pull out three or four pieces and take a look.

9 replies

Teaching Reading: Music Mind Games for Students

August 22, 2013 21:10

When my son was a little tot playing piano, we took a marvelous course at the Suzuki Institute of Southern California in music reading. It was full of intuitive and engaging games, meant to teach theory concepts to pre-music readers as young as my then-five-year-old, and younger.

These games were part of an evolving program called Music Mind Games. He loved it, I loved it, and I immediately started incorporating little bits of it into my teaching.

"One day," I said to myself, "I should seriously look into this as a teacher!"

Now, nearly 10 years later, the day has come. Suddenly I'm to teach a "Music Mind Games" course for my Suzuki group, Suzuki Talent Education of Pasadena, as my colleague who had been teaching it is on maternity leave. We've been offering this class for just a year as a theory supplement for our Book 1 students, and they have taken to it with tremendous enthusiasm. Not only that, but their reading, solfege and theory skills are getting pretty impressive!

Thus, I found myself last weekend at a one-day "Music Mind Games" workshop, given by Alyse Korn at the Little School of Music in Valencia, Calif.

"Music Mind Games" is the brainchild of Michiko Yurko, whom I've not met but hope to. She clearly is one of the more creative and brilliant people on the planet.

She has come up with some 300 games to help young children learn music reading and theory. For the workshop, we were required to buy and bring $90 worth of materials.

Confession: When asked to buy pricey materials up front, for anything, I go a little cross-eyed and get very skeptical. This better well be worth it! The good news is that you don't necessarily have to buy the materials to play the games. Michiko's Music Mind Games website is an astounding resource, with videos demonstrations of many of those games.

That said, the materials are pretty cool. Especially if you are a little bit OCD. Check out the set-up for a game we played on Saturday:

Music chart

Note the color-coded solfege cards, which match the colored discs. (In this game, they use "G" for "do" because it puts the notes in the center of the treble-clef staff.) The child chooses a square from the big bingo card on top and places a little plastic animal in that square. Then he/she copies groups of eight notes from the card on top to the staff on the bottom, using those little discs that coordinate colors with the solfege cards, which they have lined up in order next to their staff. The games remind me of Montessori, with lots of built-in kinesthetic learning.

When it's all over, those little discs are magnetized, and you can pick them up with a magnetic wand that attracts them like fly paper.

With Cheryl

Wow, neato! (My friend Cheryl and I may have reverted to five-year-old behavior a few times during this workshop.)

Getting serious again, one of the most useful and clever things that Michiko has come up with is a vocabulary to go with various rhythms, and she calls this "Blue Jello." Conveniently, you can find a PDF of all her "Blue Jello Vocabulary" on the Internet. Quite some time ago, I printed out the page of words and hand symbols and placed it on my studio wall.

Sure, this has been done in the history of music-teaching. "Goody Goody Stop Stop," for example. But Michiko has done a particularly good job of choosing simple words that put hard consonants in just the right places and are easy for even extremely young people to say. Take, for example, this video she posted, in which she works with her 2-year-old student, John:

Since my students have known much of this vocabulary since that workshop that I attended long ago, we sometimes just stop when they have rhythm trouble and I say, "Let's just do Blue Jello." It's like fix-it glue: problem solved in a matter of minutes, whether it's elementary reading, figuring out La Folia or working on advanced orchestra music. Here is another video in which a girl named Anna, 11, uses the vocabulary in learning Mozart Sonata K. 330.

In all, I'm very grateful to Michiko for coming up with these clever ways to introduce music reading and theory, so that those who start violin young can also start their reading, right from the beginning!

3 replies

Buried in Sheet Music

August 16, 2013 14:07

I've finally reached the tipping point, with my music-storage situation.

I thought I had come up with a clever system for my sheet music. About 10 years ago, after much research, I bought a large cabinet with two big file drawers and two smaller storage drawers.

Music drawer

The file drawers are deep enough to place my books and over-sized music upright, then in between, I can sandwich various files for xeroxed orchestra music, etc. It's alphabetized by composer (mostly), with hanging files for each composer containing file folders of various works.

Music drawer

This worked quite well -- until I filled all 60 inches of file space. At this point, several things started happening.

1. Every time I opened the heavy, music-laden file drawer, the entire cabinet tipped forward ominously, threatening to spill all its contents, send the items atop the cabinet flying, and crush me beneath. Certainly I could not rummage through these files in search of things, knowing that simply opening the drawer would lead to such a spectacular spill, and possibly grave injury. Sometimes, the drawers would just roll open on their own, as if a ghost was examining my music. I began getting the vague sense that I should keep toddlers and small children well away from the cabinet, just in case there was an earthquake (I live in California after all).

2. Because it was so full, I stopped filing music inside the cabinet. Instead, I started piling music books and copies in various places around my studio: in a wicker magazine basket, in plastic magazine files, and in free-form stacks that filled every appropriate-sized nook and cranny. At this point, the next step might be to start a TV show: "Sheet Music Hoarders."

This whole unworkable scenario evolved over a long period of time. I became so accustomed to working around the scary music drawers that I did not realize the obvious: this was not working.

This spring, I finally ran out of space, and it occurred to me: perhaps I could drop my "clever" system and get a (drum roll) big book shelf instead. The basic book shelf seems to work for most people, and I'm not sure why I was over-thinking things quite so much. After at least three months of thinking, looking around, and procrastinating, I finally just did it. I ordered a book shelf! (Here it is). It has quite a lot of space, and it's basically in the form of twelve 15-inch cubes.

It's supposed to come on Monday. Now comes the simple task of emptying the old cabinet, building the shelves and re-arranging my music into a new system. Then….I will have access to my music! Seems almost symbolic. I'm very excited!

9 replies

Violinist.com Interview with Chris Thile: Bach Sonatas and Partitas, on Mandolin

August 14, 2013 19:34

You can say a lot about violin music with the mandolin -- at least Chris Thile can.

For Chris, there's really no such thing as genre; there's just music. And that's why, as a young bluegrass mandolinist, Chris fell in love with J.S. Bach's Solo Sonatas and Partitas for Violin and HAD to learn to play them. In fact, in our conversation below, he told me that learned to read music, just for the purpose of studying Bach.

Chris Thile

By now he has them well under his fingers, and last week he released his new recording, Bach: Sonatas and Partitas, Part 1, which includes the Sonata No. 1 in G minor; Partita No. 1 in B minor; and Sonata No. 2 in A minor. And yes, he plans to record the rest of them.

I've been a fan of Chris since his Nickel Creek days, and now he plays in bands such as Punch Brothers and Yo-Yo Ma's Goat Rodeo project. (BTW, Ma is a pretty good mentor for unaccompanied Bach as well, as is bassist Edgar Meyer, who actually produced Thile's Bach recording).

Over the phone, I spoke with Chris about discovering Bach, about how the mandolin affects the music, and about a few geeky specifics regarding these works that are at the heart of the violin repertoire -- and clearly in his heart as well!

Laurie: I've really been enjoying this album, for obvious reasons: I absolutely love these pieces!

Chris: I'm glad! You know, I wouldn't take that for granted (he laughs). Y'all have such an advantage, in certain respects, on some of the music! But then, on the other hand, the mandolin -- we share advantages.

Laurie: I was actually thinking about that, especially when I was listening to the fugues. I thought, I'm kind of jealous!

Chris: Mandolin might actually have the edge on the three- and four-part chords.

Laurie: Exactly!

Chris: On the actual contrapuntal stuff, mandolin has maybe as significant an edge as violin does during the lyrical playing. I also would say that violin has the advantage on the perpetual motion playing. The bow almost keeps itself going on some of the really fast, long stuff in a way that the pick just doesn't. The pick, it's just like every stroke, you start feeling like, I keep having to drive this hammer, drive the nail into the board.

But I love talking to violinists about these pieces, because of that very thing: I feel like what's hard for mandolin is easy for violin, and what's hard for violin is easy for mandolin. And of course, it's just as hard for all of us! I can say that maybe the moto perpetuo stuff is easier for y'all, but at the same time, playing fast is just hard. Something like the B minor presto, the Courante double part, that's just a hard piece! And the G minor presto, it's hard. We share a lot of challenges.

Laurie: What was the first one of these pieces that you ever played, and what drove you to want to learn it?

Chris: It was the E major Prelude. The mandolin's advantage on that piece is pretty significant because of the string crossings. Having done it a little bit on the violin, that is some serious work for you guys to get through those -- (he sings the triple-stop bariolage section from the first page). Whereas those strings crossings are just a small flick of the wrist on the mandolin, it's so natural. Then you get those open strings and they can ring, and it's just really pretty. When I was about 16, I felt like that was the perfect thing to tackle on the mandolin. I basically taught myself to read music for that purpose.

Laurie: You did! Wow!

Chris: A buddy of mine, Mike Marshall, played (the Bach Prelude) on the mandolin. I heard that and I went, 'Oh, man, I've gotta get in on that action!'

I started trying to learn it by ear from his version and then I realized, he was taking some pretty extreme liberties on certain parts of it! (He laughs) This was before I knew Mike, actually, so I couldn't just ask him about it. So I got the score, and I got Arthur Grumiaux's recording, which is excellent luck because I'd say Grumiaux's recording is the most mandolin-like of the recordings I've heard. He had such a light touch with these pieces, which is something I love to hear. I kind of oscillate between (Henryk) Szeryng and Grumiaux when I listen to violin recordings of the pieces. I feel like Szeryng's recording is so grounded, and then Grumiaux's recording is so nimble. I love going back and forth between those two guys.

And then just listening to, well, recently, Glenn Gould recordings of the B flat Partita -- my God. And particularly the Courante. The Allemande is every bit as stunning, and the slow movements are gorgeous as well. But the groove that he gets going on that Courante is some of the most infectious playing I've ever heard. Check out the B flat Partita and Gould's recording of that, I just think it's unbelievably beautiful. And the writing, too, it's just timeless. It's every bit as contemporary as it is Baroque, in my opinion.

Laurie: Back to the E major Partita, and I have to confess that it has played a part in my really terrible attempts at the mandolin. Since I know that piece very well on the violin, I thought, well I'll play it on the mandolin. But it was impossible for me! I thought it was reeeeeally hard on the mandolin!

Chris: Well again, there's nothing easy about any of these pieces. And for the Prelude really to shine on the mandolin, you have to have a pretty slamming right-hand technique.

Laurie: You do!

Chris: And it can be very tiring, that's another one where the moto perpetuo factors in -- just the fact you can't slur anything on the mandolin.

Laurie: And speaking of no slurring, I was also thinking about the trills. On mandolin, you have to enunciate every note, don't you?

Chris: That was a fun odyssey for me -- the trills. The trills were always just horrendously awkward, I hated the way they sounded, I hated the way they felt. I started trying to do them more like a violinist, where it would be one pick stroke and then I would be sort of hammering on and pulling off, if that makes sense. With the mandolin, you can't just put your finger there as if it were a normal fingering, you have to kind of slam the finger down with enough force to where the contact actually essentially strikes the string in addition to fingers it. And then the reverse of that is pulling off, which is much easier to get sound, because then the flesh of the finger can basically strike the string sort of harpsichord-style, and you get a pretty serious sound. But I only ended up using that kind of technique on, I'd say, maybe five percent of the trills, maybe 10 at the most. And the rest are picked. I realized that for each trill, you have to have a plan, you can't just trill it. You actually kind of know many you're going to do; you could actually write out each trill.

Laurie: The trills were very thoughtful, and it made me sort of think about it a little more. Sometimes on violin you just kind of do it and you don't think about it much. It's actually a good idea to have a plan.

Chris: The trill is such an idiomatic expression to the violin; it's a beautiful sound, you can toss it off. So often when people who use a pick try to trill, it just becomes this big hairy deal. (He laughs) It's not a decoration, it's like the archway itself! It becomes structural, all of a sudden. And you don't want it to be that, you want it to be this beautiful little flourish. So it was no small task, to try to get those things sounding effortless. There's a lot of effort that goes into that!

Laurie: Was it something you'd ever done before?

Chris: Trill? No, not really. Not before I realized that it was something that needed to happen, because they are in the score. I never do them when they're not in the score. Bach is pretty specific about that. I'd listen to violin recordings and I'd hear people trill where there was no mark, and trill when there was. It seemed to me that with Bach, he wasn't just forgetting to put a trill sign. He would include a trill sign in places where the trill was implicit, like where you would expect one to be there would be a trill sign, and then sometimes where you would expect one to be, there wasn't. If he didn't write it in, I alway preferred the music without it.

Laurie: Did you look at those editions that have Bach's handwritten manuscript?

Chris: I looked at the manuscript, but I mostly used the Barenreiter, I love the Barenreiter. I even like how it feels, how it looks.

Laurie: Did you look at any editions with violin fingerings, and did those work? Or did you have to change quite a lot?

Chris: The Barenreiter has no fingerings in it. I looked at Szeryng's edition, long ago, and just realized that it's just very specific to the violin -- violin fingerings are violin fingerings! I found it really informative to know what you guys were doing a lot of the time, but with the mandolin there are so many options.

As great as an advantage as the bow is over the pick -- bows are better than picks, there's no two ways about that --- but one nice thing, like the consolation prize, is that the mandolin still makes sound when the pick leaves the string. So with a violin, the string still makes sound as long as the bow is over it. But with mandolin, you can pluck the note and it rings as long as your left hand stays on it, and you can be doing new things with your right hand. So for the contrapuntal writing, that can be a pretty significant advantage because you can actually spell out some of the voice leading more completely, where appropriate.

And sometimes I would have to back off. I'd come up with these elaborate fingerings to get more sustained, lush chords, particularly in the G minor fugue. Then I was playing it for Edgar (Meyer) and he said, I feel like some of the rhythmic integrity of the piece is lost, with all this super-legato, chordal playing. And I had to put my ego down for a second and say, you know, you're right. If the piece isn't being propelled forward rhythmically, then what really do you have? So we went back, hit the "undo" button on that one! Again, it's not always the right call.

Laurie: So it sounds like you consulted with some classical-leaning musicians in the course of putting this Bach together.

Chris: Oh absolutely. I love talking music with anyone I run across. I talked to Hilary (Hahn) about it years ago. But Edgar Meyer was the biggest influence on me and the Bach. It's easy for me to relate to him, (to talk about) how fast the movements need to go, with the aesthetic conventions of the genre, and basically how little care he has for the distinctions between things. He's really only interested in the quality of the music.

It's been an incredible thing to be able to talk to Yo-Yo about it over the course of a couple weeks with those boys (in the Goat Rodeo). I've also learned just as much (from other musicians that aren't classical musicians). I feel like my Bach played has been monumentally impacted by the drummer Matt Chamberlain, and by Stuart Duncan, our fiddler in the Goat Rodeo, and by my fellow Punch Brothers….

Bach should be approached as a piece of great music, and everything you do in the pursuit of great music-making, it factors in.

Laurie: Speaking of Punch Brothers, how have your fans reacted to this recording of Bach?

Chris: So far, I think people are into it. I think that people are so much less concerned about genre than we're led to believe. When you hear good music, from maybe potentially vastly different worlds, I think you notice the kinship right away. It's all just part of The Great Music Genre -- it fits into that club. Bach is in there, and to me Radiohead is there -- certainly Bach has more seniority in that club! But I like the Beatles and some of the great Irish fiddle tunes, things like that. You know, I think there are more similarities than there are differences.

Laurie: I have kind of a geeky question for you now: In the B minor Partita, for each of the four dance movements, Bach wrote a "Double." But people rarely play the dance and its double at the same speed. It seemed like you literally did it, is that correct? Did you intentionally try to keep it to the same tempo, and how did you choose that tempo, did you base it on the dance, or on its double?

Chris: It's very gratifying you asked, because a lot of time went into that scheme! We worked so hard on this.

The B minor presents so many challenges. You don't want it to sound like it goes on forever, but at the same time, I'm kind of a major proponent of taking the repeats, because they're there. I just feel like, man, if Bach wrote it, who am I to say it shouldn't have the second repeat? I also used my own experience as a listener to inform that decision. For example, so much of the time Gould doesn't take the second repeat in Bach, and I always wish I could hear that music again. Particularly in the Bb Courante, I really feel like, I'm not done listening to this piece.

But with the B minor Partita, I think my recording is 25 minutes -- those repeats make a long piece, well, really long. And I want it to feel like four movements (not eight), because I think that's the nature of the piece.

Take for example, the Allemande -- where does that want to be? What tempo? There's a huge, huge difference between the tempo people take the Allemande and its double, and that's obviously because the double is just relentless 16th notes, the whole way. If you take it at a tempo that's comfortable for the Allemande, it's lo-ho-hong. So I pushed the Allemande itself as far as it could go, I wanted to see, what is the limit? I played it really fast -- at which point it almost sounded like a joke. Then I backed it off fairly significantly and got it to where I felt like it was still singing and dancing. Allemande is so much easier to do slow; and it's very involved, so it does start sounding like a circus if it goes too fast. I got it to where I thought it was comfortable: it was moving, you could dance to it. Then I started working on the double.

In this Partita, I feel like there's no way that people can hear that the structure is the same, when you take the tempos so drastically differently between the Allemande and the Double. Here's a double, based on the Allemande, and I want people to be able to hear that. The structure is the same, the form is exactly the same. I tried taking the Double at a measured tempo that's the same as the Allemande, but that got monotonous to my ear. So what I did was -- I don't know if you noticed, but (the Allemande double) is the freest, rhythmically speaking, of any of the performances on the record. It's really free, and I used that freedom. I just wanted people to tell, oh yeah this pulse is the same, so that hopefully you still can still sort of sway to the meter, to the rhythmic groove. Then I kind of edged the thing up as it went on, so that it had a little of the urgency that will get you to the finish. And as that edged up, I thought, ooh, I like this. I have to give Edgar a lot of credit for helping me think through some of these things.

Then, in the same Partita, basically what needed to happen next was the contrast between the Allemande Double and the Courante, which is also continuous eighth notes. And so that's where the tempo for the Courante came from: I didn't want to take the Allemande any slower, but the Courante could be faster. I found that it continued to be compelling, when I tried it faster. That created a fairly significant technical dilemma in the double Presto -- but not a musical dilemma. So I felt like well, you know what, I'm just going to slog it through! Get it to where I can play the Double Presto at this tempo because it doesn't sound show-offy to me -- it's exhilarating. It doesn't turn the thing into an encore piece.

Laurie: But it is fast, man! I was impressed!

Chris: Oh well, (he laughs) I wanted first and foremost for it to be compelling, musically. I think it's important for that piece to read as four movements, not eight.

Laurie: Yeah -- it's just hard to do! In fact, I haven't heard it done, maybe ever.

Chris: I didn't want it to be rigidly (in the same tempo) -- although, I love the sound of when Gould decides to be sort of militant about a tempo, I love that. And I definitely did that sometimes. Again, I want it to be danceable, for people to be able to move. I say militant, but Gould is never militant, actually. He can have a pretty strict rhythmic concept of a movement, but he provides contrast, always. He'll always give you moments of repose. I think it would be easy for someone to listen to Gould and think, wow, that's metronomic, when what Gould has really done is dance. You have to be careful about that. A lot of folk music is kind of metronomic, but it's like the metronome of the body or something.

Laurie: Your heartbeat, or your feet stepping.

Chris: It was fun to try and work these things out. That was my solution, I'm sure there are others.

Laurie: Are you going to do Volume II, with the remaining three Sonatas and Partitas?

Chris: Mmmm-hmmm! Absolutely! Give me another two or three years. I have a lot of outstanding recordings and I certainly want to be able to give it my full attention.

* * *

The Bach fugues for solo violin are a revelation, played on mandolin. Here is Chris's live performance a few days ago of Sonata No. 1 in G minor - II. Fugue:

And here are links to the other movements:

Sonata No. 1 in G minor - I. Adagio

Sonata No. 1 in G minor - III. Siciliana

Sonata No. 1 in G minor - IV. Presto

3 replies

Dreaming Big and Spreading the Music: Curaçao Summer Music Camp

August 8, 2013 19:44

To be honest, I'd not really heard of Curaçao until I met Nathania Muñoz last spring in New York at the Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies. Curaçao is the island where Nathania was born -- if you've never heard of it, here's a map for you:


Nathania, 24, moved to the United States when she was eight. Her mother, Soraida Muñoz, had always wanted to play the violin when she was young, but when it never happened, she hoped one of her children would. Nathania's two older siblings took up piano and voice.

"My parents had always played Christian, classical and violin music around the house, and I grew up enjoying it," Nathania said. "One day they asked me if I wanted to get a violin at a music store that was having a sale, and I remember saying, 'Sure, I’ll try out the violin.' I started lessons [in Texas] shortly after my ninth birthday, and my teacher told my mom that I was a natural at the violin."

Nathania Munoz

"I came back to visit Curaçao for the first time at the age of 16," she said. "I thought that I was the only violinist there, since I had known no other!"

She wasn't the only violinist on the island, but it turns out that she was among a pretty small group.

"There are no music majors or studies in music offered in the colleges and universities in Curaçao," Nathania said. "There are some music grade schools, but most public and private schools don’t have any of the music programs that are common in the States, such as band, orchestra, choir and private instrumental instruction. There is a handful of teachers, but not enough to reach out to the wider population of students. Many students that do wish to learn an instrument cannot afford the cost of purchasing an instrument and paying for lessons."

After returning to the States from that first visit back to her native Curaçao, she told her violin professor at the time, Andrea Dawson, about what she had seen. "I showed her pictures of my beautiful island and told her how there wasn’t much classical music there," Nathania said. "She lightly said, 'I would love to visit there. You should do a music camp and invite me!' And that is where the seed for a camp in Curaçao was planted in my head. I never forgot about it, but kept planning it and making connections in Curaçao. That year, too, was when I began to have a real passion for music and wanting to pursue a career in violin."

A few years later she met some string teachers from Curaçao and discovered that there was also a youth orchestra there. She also met a professional violinist from Curaçao, Eric Gorsira. "Over the years he became my musical grandfather and invited me to perform with him several times," Nathania said.

The seed for a music camp in Curaçao continued to grow, and in 2012, "we were able to get sponsors and have the Curaçao Summer Music Camp for the first time -- my dream came true with much success," Nathania said. And true to her word, Andrea Dawson came to teach. That first camp was more of a weeklong orchestra workshop, she said. "With two teachers that we flew in from the States, we had a total of five instructors for 70 students," Nathania said.

This year, after some initial doubt over funding and feasibility, Nathania (with help from her mother) worked to expand the camp, which in 2013 lasted for two weeks in early July, with 60 students ages seven through 21, with all levels of playing.

"This year we flew in six teachers from the States: three were from Middle Tennessee State University (two professors and one student) and the other three were colleagues from Pensacola Christian College in Florida, where I go to school. Our band instructor, Dennis Aalse, lives in Curaçao. All the teachers gave up their time and effort to volunteer and help with the camp." Classes were held at the Kolegio Alejandro Paula (a school), with instruction in strings, brass and woodwinds, voice/choir and piano. They also held sessions in music appreciation, theory and ear training.

"One of the most satisfying moments for me was seeing how eager some of the students were to learn their new instruments and how fast they excelled," Nathania said. "We provided instruments for the beginning students to use during the camp. Some of these students had always wanted to play the violin, but they had never had the opportunity or the money to start off. It was amazing to see how, in just two weeks, their passion for music drove them to excel so quickly."

Under the tree

"We held Music Talent Show Competition the next week, and over 20 students performed," Nathania said. "I didn’t just want to limit it strictly to music,knowing that many students might not be able to perform on their new instruments yet, so it was more of a talent show. We had students sign up for ballet, acrobat, violin, guitar, voice, break dance, DJ, saxophone, recorder, piano, you name it! They performed for the entire student body and our faculty panel of judges. This was definitely one of the highlights of the camp. Winners won small prize and the opportunity to perform in the Gala Concert."

Nathania Munoz

They held two official concerts to help raise funds and reach out to the community: a Music Extravaganza, with performances by the faculty; and a Gala Concert, with performances by both camp students and faculty. "The Gala was so packed that we had to go out and purchase more chairs to seat the audience!" she said.

The whole project involved a lot of fundraising. "Since this project is non-profit, we had to raise funds for the teachers’ plane tickets, housing and accommodation, transportation and camp facilities and materials. There was a small tuition fee for lunch during the camp," Nathania said. They also had some sponsors, including Nathania's parents.

But the results have been satisfying for Nathania.

"Just recently, I was told by a local music store employee in Curaçao that, shortly after the camp, many of our students flooded into the music store with their parents to purchase instruments for their continued musical studies. I was so excited to hear this!" she said. "It just makes it all worth it."

"There is so much hidden talent in Curaçao," Nathania said. "The vision I have for Curaçao is to help grow music education and appreciation of good music and classical music in Curaçao. Music is so powerful. It has the power to affect, touch and change lives. Since learning a musical instrument has so many benefits, I believe it should be regarded as any other academic subject taught in school. In fact, music itself teaches language, math, science, history, coordination as well as many or character qualities and morals such as responsibility, discipline, care and determination. It also helps students to express themselves and grow their self esteem. I can go on and on about why music education is important!

This fall Nathania will return to Pensacola Christian Academy to begin working on her Masters in Music Education for the next two years while also teaching there. "I look forward to more opportunities to keep helping Curaçao in the field of music, and wherever else there is a need throughout the world."

Curacao camp

3 replies

Interview with Augustin Hadelich: Histoire du Tango

August 6, 2013 14:30

Just a few weeks ago, violinist Augustin Hadelich had a crowd of nearly 10,000 people going wild over the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles.

In June, he recorded the Sibelius Violin Concerto and "Concentric Paths," the violin concerto by Thomas Adès, with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and Finnish conductor Hannu Lintu for the Avie record label.

But among these bold achievements is a gem of a recording that he released in the spring, a collaboration with guitarist Pablo Sáinz Villegas that explores the quiet combination of violin and guitar: Histoire du Tango. Who knew, that the guitar fits so authentically as a partner for pieces such as Sarasate's "Zigeunerweisen" and Paganini's "Moses Variations"? The pair also uncovered a "Sonata Concertata" that Paganini wrote for guitar and violin, one of the few that gives both instruments equal roles. And as far as the tango is concerned, the two performed a fiery version of Piazzolla's 1986 Histoire du Tango. The piece was written originally for flute and guitar and traces the history of the tango, from the bordello to the modern concert hall. Manuel de Fallas' Canciones Populares Espanolas, originally written for guitar and voice, is also included.

I was a little surprised to learn that this was not Augustin's first collaboration with a guitarist; in fact, the first one occurred long ago.

Augustin Hadelich and Pablo Sáinz Villegas
Photo: Rosalie O'Connor/ Avie Records

Laurie: Tell me a little about your very earliest experiences of playing violin with guitar.

Augustin I was about seven years old, and I was living in Tuscany on a farm. I'd just been playing the violin for a few years, and a guitarist came to visit our village. He had an arrangement with him of Sarasate's "Zigeunerweisen" (for violin and guitar), so we played it in a performance at the village church there in Italy. I actually played "Zigeunerweisen" with guitar before I ever played it with piano! I feel that it definitely works. In the piano and orchestra versions, there are places where the piano, or orchestra, is supposed to imitate somebody on the guitar, strumming. The orchestra version is the original, and of course, when you play it with orchestra, that is a great sound; it's quite fun. However, when you play it with orchestra, you have to play much more 'in time,' and it limits the kind of rubato you can do.

Laurie: I had not heard "Zigeunerweisen" with guitar! The other piece from this album that I had never heard with violin and guitar was the Paganini "Moses Variations." It gave it a really different flavor.

Augustin Originally, it was written with orchestra. The orchestra parts are all in E flat minor because Paganini played it scordatura. He actually would break the other three strings at the end of the previous piece. Because of the change in tension that the instrument would experience, the remaining string, the G string, would go up a minor third, so it would actually sound as a B flat.

Laurie: No way!

Augustin So the way to play the scordatura is, you tune the G up to a Bb, and then the whole thing is a minor third higher. The problem is, it's horrible to do that kind of scordatura on an old violin; it's really tough on the violin. Also, if you take a G string and you tune it that high, it's going to sound awful because the thickness of the string will make it sound bad. I know people who have done it, who will say you should take an extra-thick D string and put it where the G is and tune it down.

Laurie: And take off all the other strings? Or leave them on?

Augustin I think you should really leave them on -- the soundpost might fall over! Nowadays it seems like a ridiculous thing, but back then, it was more of a circus act. His concerts were these huge events. He probably didn't play the piece in every concert, but when he did, he would find a way to break his strings, or to make a show out of finally being really frustrated and breaking them himself.

Laurie: How on earth did he do that, did he have a razor blade in his pocket?

Augustin He had gut strings, and it's pretty easy to break gut strings. I don't know exactly, but he's one of those artists who would be most interesting to have a video of the performance. All the stories about him are so exaggerated! Imaginations were running wild. Everyone was fainting and people were really hysterical in these concerts, so I wonder how much is really true. But I think he wrote this piece so that there was really no doubt that he was playing it all on one string.

Laurie: Do modern violinists play it all on one string, do you play it all on one string?

Augustin Yes, and it's actually very well-written, I must say. There are moments in it that aren't fun at all, going that high up on the G string. So you have to do it on a violin that doesn't have a big wolf. If it's really wolf-y up there, you can't play this piece, basically. But other than that, considering that it's all on the G string, it actually lies pretty well. Harmonics are useful. I think if you go on the D-string, you hear the color change. I think people would catch you.

But the piece itself is beautiful. It's themes by Rossini and it is totally in that operatic style. All Paganini's music is so influenced by Rossini, and a lot of his showpieces are theme and variations of opera arias that were famous at the time.

The piano part has a very guitaristic pattern, actually. It's the kind of accompaniment you give to other instruments so that they sound like guitar.

Laurie: While we are on the topic of Paganini, I don't think that everybody realizes that he also played the guitar.

Augustin He played the guitar very well, apparently, and then he had a guitar student who was also his lover in some way. From looking at a lot of the pieces that he wrote, I'm assuming that he wrote these for them to play together. She wasn't great at the guitar, so the guitar parts are pretty simple and easy, and the guitar is mostly accompanying. So whenever you play with a guitarist and you suggest playing Paganini together, they're not so excited about the prospect, because it's so boring for them to play a lot of it!

So (Pablo and I) looked through the various pieces Paganini wrote. There are also these small sonatas he wrote, in one or two movements, I think there are two cycles of six, I'm not sure, but there's a ton of stuff that he wrote. The quality of the writing is a little uneven; they're not all equally good pieces. And Pablo (he laughs), he just didn't want to do it!

And then I discovered Paganini for Two, a great recording by Gil Shaham and guitarist Göran Söllscher that they did in the 90s. It's all Paganini music; that's where I got the idea of doing the Sonata Concertata -- it's on that disc, and I thought it was a good piece.

I like the "Sonata Concertata" because the guitar has a major role. It is a real duo; the two instruments are really equal. It's very classical. It's also not what one thinks of when one thinks of Paganini because it just doesn't have any virtuosic fireworks in it at all. But it does have other things that are typical of Paganini: the themes are very Rossini-like. It's basically early Romantic, almost classical, the way that Rossini writes. And he gives the guitar chances to shine. Pablo's sound is very well-suited for it. This was something I was very excited about when I met him, I was struck by the sound, because it's very sweet, very lyrical. Many guitarists, when you listen to them, there are moments when the sound gets sort of metallic, or you hear things, taps and shifts. Pablo's sound is very beautiful and well-suited for this classical music. The Paganini, in soma places, it is like Mozart.

Laurie: How did you meet Pablo, and what is it like to work with guitar rather than piano?

Augustin We first met in 2009 through a mutual friend who was the German consul in New York at the time. He knew both of us, and he kept telling me, 'You have to play with Pablo,' and I said, neeeya, whatever. But then I met Pablo and I got really into the idea. So we did a recital together and we started to make some plans.

What's different about playing with guitar, aside from some of these pieces being music that's never played at all and stylistically different from what I've done before, what's different about playing with guitar is the way the two instruments are balanced. The sound of the guitar sustains much less than a piano does, so it's quite tricky. You have to play things differently. In concert, you can easily cover the guitar -- not a problem I'm used to! With the piano, it's always the other way around. So that's one thing to watch out for. Also, the sound of the guitar decays differently. So if we're playing a chord together, and it's supposed to sound like one chord -- chamber music is always full of places like that, where people are trying to sound like one instrument playing a chord together -- that's where decaying like the guitar becomes important.

What's nice about recordings is that you don't have to worry about balance too much as you play; somebody engineers the balance. You just do whatever feels right to you, but then whoever is sitting there adjusts the levels, which is nice. The guitar never has to force.

Also, I think he had not played with with a violinist before this. He had done the da Falla before, but with a singer. So it was a new experience for him, but it was good fun.

Laurie: I understand you took tango lessons -- were these lessons about how to play tango, how to dance the tango, or a little bit of both?

Augustin Well it's pretty embarrassing. It was in about 2007, and it was mainly my manager's idea: maybe you should start dancing, and it will improve your stage presence -- that sort of approach. So I started taking tango lessons from a tango teacher here, who is also a tango violinist: Leonardo Suarez Paz. Then I discovered later on that he is the son of the violinist who was in Piazzolla's quintet, and he had all these connections to Piazzolla!

But these were dancing lessons, so I was trying to dance the tango, which is very difficult. Later on, when I did actually play tango music, it was helpful to know. Of course, Piazzolla's tangos are not tangos that you're going to dance to in a tango club! But still, the feeling of the steps and the way of Argentinian tango is very fluid. Having tried to do that and practiced that, I must say, was helpful. But I'm not any good at dancing!

As a musician, it's not too hard to understand the rhythm and character of the music; my problem was the actual physicality of it -- I'm too awkward! So I won't quit the violin to become a tango dancer. But for probably a half a year I went for lessons, every two weeks or so.

Laurie: I think it's a great idea. I'm of the mind that violinists should learn to dance minuets when playing Bach, and it would be great if we all knew how to dance a gigue, just get those feelings, even if it's something we're not destined to be great at. It makes a difference in how you feel the music, I think.

Augustin It's harder with the old dances, because we're reconstructing them from written documents. When I was at Juilliard, I took a class on Baroque dances. But I was always thinking, how do they know that these dances looked exactly like that? It's so much more removed. It's incredibly easy with tango, because you can pick so many videos to watch. The tradition is still alive. And a lot of folk music is very easy, for the same reason. With the Baroque dances, there are no videos. But what it does, when you study these dances, is it shows you how the music is structured rhythmically. What are the strong beats? Are the beats all equal? Things like that. If you just look at the score, you don't know those things. But when you study the dance, you learn that in the Sarabande, the second beat has an emphasis. It makes sense, once you know. Or in the Viennese waltz, the three beats are not the same, the first beat is shorter than the others. It comes from the way it's danced, the motion. And you have to do it. If it's really a Viennese waltz, it has to be there.

So if you are playing something that's a dance, it's definitely important to know where it comes from and how it's danced; what's the spirit, the character, the beat.

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Augustin Hadelich - Histoire du Tango:

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