"Being a lazy violinist with your body is important, because it allows us to play comfortably."
This is what Dylana Jenson told Edward, 9, at a master class last Friday at the Pasadena Conservatory of Music in California.
Beyond being a violinist who won a silver medal in the International Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow at the age of 17 and studied with the great violinists Nathan Milstein and Josef Gingold, Dylana Jenson also has made a place for herself as an expert in playing without pain -- and without a shoulder rest. Her ideas about playing without the shoulder rest are strongly held, and they certainly rattle the status quo. (In fact, she occasionally has dived straight into the controversy and has advised Violinist.com members on their issues involving pain and shoulder rests.)
But there is a lot more to her teaching, beyond the shoulder rest issue. Friday's master class showed her to be an engaging teacher who can clearly articulate technical musical and concepts. In working with three young students, she raised a wide range of topics, including creating a pain-free set-up, finding the long musical lines in Mozart, and understanding vibrato's relationship to expression.
Dylana began the master class with her own performance of the Vitali Chaconne. What a treat, to hear this piece -- played so frequently by students -- played by an artist! (She overcame, with admirable poise, the challenge of a pianist who was sight-reading.) And for the record: her own playing certainly shows no signs of physical strain, nor does her technique suffer without a shoulder rest! She was spot-on and full of wonderful energy.
For the master class, young Edward, mentioned above, played an excellent and musical performance of the first movement of Vivaldi's Concerto in A minor. He stood tall, with violin high -- many would find his position to be textbook-perfect. But in this upright posture, Dylana saw the potential for future strain.
"You are really young, and your body will let you do a lot of things," she explained to him. But just because you can do something does not mean you should. We don't need to be contortionists to play the violin. That said, the world seems to encourage us to hold our violins uncomfortably, and in ways that strain us.
"My mother was always telling me to hold up my violin," Dylana said. But the violin should not really be pointing up; in fact, it's all right for it to point down a bit. Likewise, the elbow should point to the floor, not be awkwardly pushed to the right. Sure, your elbow will need to come over, to reach certain notes, but not all the time. "When you have to, bring your elbow over. Do it, and then get it right back."
Furthermore, the shoulder rest is not something you need. She had Edward try playing without it.
"When you first take off your shoulder rest, you almost have to hold your violin pointing to the floor," Dylana said. This will give you the feeling you need, of connecting with the violin.
She named some famous "rest-less" violinists: Jascha Heifetz, Pinchas Zukerman, Nathan Milstein, Isaac Stern, Anne-Sophie Mutter and Ruggiero Ricci.
She told us that once, just to prove a point, Milstein played a Paganini Caprice, holding is violin at his middle, not even up to his chin.
Playing without a shoulder rest "is a wonderful way to play, but it feels funny because the violin is slipping," she said. It also changes your technique. For example, "the thumb is like a snake," it crawls all over the place, as it is also holding up the violin. (Ruggiero Ricci wrote an entire book on this.) And every time you go into third position, you need to crash into the violin.
"The first week without a shoulder rest is really difficult because the body wants, visually and physically, to go back to what it's used to," she said.
But the decision to go without a shoulder rest is a serious one. It's a decision that requires a commitment to changing your technique and making it work, she said.
"Only do it if you want to do it," Dylana said. "If you don't think it's the most important thing in the world to do it, it may not work."
Next came Cameron, 16, who played the first movement of Mozart's Concerto No. 3 for Violin.
Dylana first asked that he make the opening chord of the piece very clear.
"We hope (the chord) will sound well and go out, but make sure we hear the bottom (notes) of it," she said. "It has to be a nice, big chord, 'Hello! I'm here!'"
She also emphasized connecting with his sound, feeling the contact with the bow.
"The sound coming out has a kind of haziness to it -- you have to hear every note, that's the reality of it," she said.
It's also easy to fall into the trap of playing the music of Mozart in short phrases instead of longer lines. "It feel like you're cutting the phrases in little curtsies," she said. "Too many endings!"
One way to produce a longer line is to use our musical ideas judiciously. She quoted some wise words: "You can have anything you want, but you can't have everything you want."
In other words, do less, she said. You may have many musical ideas. In fact, you may have a musical idea -- and then decide not to use it. For example, "I like chocolate very much -- sometimes too much," she said. Yummy though it is, sometimes you just don't eat the chocolate. "That's what I'm talking about! Do the phrase, but don't do too much. Make it beautiful." Then when you do something special, it will seem special. If everything is special, then nothing is special.
Our final performer was Christine, 18, who played Vieuxtemps Concerto No. 5, from the cadenza through the end. Christine was doing well with the technical acrobatics required for this piece, and Dylana focused on musical expression.
"What is vibrato for?" Dylana asked Christine and the audience.
To make a beautiful sound? This is what a lot of people believe, Dylana said. But it's more than that: "Vibrato should do something, not just make a beautiful sound."
The first step in deciding where and how vibrato should be used is to try practicing without vibrato, Dylana advised.
"It's hard!" said Christine, who found that she had to adjust her fingers a lot to achieve perfect intonation without vibrato during a slow passage.
"Sometimes we use vibrato to fix our intonation," Dylana said. "If you are always using vibrato when you are practicing, then does your finger really know where to go?"
Another issue, playing without vibrato, is that the bow becomes even more important: "Listen to the quality of the sound -- if it gets gritty or restricted, do something," she said.
Once the passage was sounding good without vibrato, "now add vibrato," Dylana said, "but only where you want it. It's that chocolate issue again!"
Once you decide where to add vibrato, you also have to decide the intensity. And the bow shouldn't always respond to the intensity of the left hand. "Maybe it's just warm and fluttery, the beginning of something," Dylana said. "Choose, and be open to these very special moments and bring them out -- don't back off.
Violinist Benjamin Beilman opened the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra's 2013-2014 season on Saturday at the Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena, Calif., with performances of Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major and Lutoslawski's "Chain 2."
Beilman put his own, thoroughly convincing mark on the Mozart, adding a few of his own cadenzas to the traditional ones by Joseph Joachim and tweaking many of the bowings, articulations and technical habits we violinists have collectively formed in the 200+ years since this piece was written.
This concerto has one of the most simple and effective openings in all the violin literature: After a long orchestral introduction, the violin enters on its most friendly note, an "A," slowly tracing "A" major chord as if to say, "I am the most beautiful instrument ever, am I not?" Ben, with his Antonio Gagliano violin (made in 1790, just 15 years after this piece was written) had me in complete agreement on this. Then came a little surprise, a cadenza of his own making, which brought us straight into the Allegro Aperto, which he played with bounce and vitality. Again, the first-movement cadenza was his own, and quite spellbinding.
The second movement unfolded like one long, beautiful silken thread; Beilman was so fully present with his sound, 100 percent of the time. Not one note seemed inadvertent or glossed over. The music of Mozart, even in slow second movements, seldom takes the listener into realm of desperate sadness -- Mozart always rescues us short of the abyss. But Ben milked all the poignancy possible from those few moments when the music peers over the edge. He used Joachim's cadenza here, with its clever (okay, fun-to-play, IMO) syncopated double-stops.
A Mozart violin concerto requires a small orchestra, and that orchestra often is formed by reducing the ranks of a larger orchestra. In this case, LACO already is a chamber orchestra, accustomed to behaving with the quick reflexes and smaller numbers inherent in that kind of group. Add Jeffrey Kahane's sensitive and adept conducting, and this allowed for a keen performance, with the orchestra responding with agility to the performer.
The final movement had great energy and spirit of dance, and the famous switches between the proper Minuet and the snappy Turkish march were well-dramatized.
Happily, Beilman was back right onstage after intermission to play "Chain 2," the 1986 work by the Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski, originally written for Anne-Sophie Mutter.
This is precisely the kind of modern work that many people purport to dread, and yet it was clearly the highlight of the evening; it even earned a standing ovation.
Kahane introduced the work with some words from the podium, explaining Lutoslawski's difficult early life: his father's death in Moscow by firing squad at the conclusion of the first World War, and then the composer's own POW experience during the second World War.
Yet, "He never allowed his music to become autobiographical in any way," Kahane said. Fascinated with Cage's concepts of "aleatoric" or chance music, Lutoslawski experimented with introducing elements of chance into his works. Lutoslawski's "chain" concept involved writing strands, or links, of music that change from one to the other by overlapping, as in a chain. Some sections are ad-lib, within certain parameters; others stay within a strict beat. Of "Chain 2," Kahane said, "Every performance will be somewhat different, yet the sound is controlled by the composer."
What could all this sound like -- a piece that hangs on a scaffold of randomness and freedom?
Well, there was nothing uncertain about it, from the perspective of an audience member. This performance had drama in sound and gesture. It had drive and direction. In certain places, it seemed to fit together like a puzzle, with moments of total precision. Then there were sections of sliding entropy: hypnotic, slow-motion cellos over a weird bell sound; or a section where everyone ascends as high as it seems possible, then stops into stillness. Or a loud mess of atonal chaos, where the conductor gives a signal and it all resolves -- sort of. But it all happened with a great deal of purpose. Meanwhile, the violin is very busy, very dramatic, channeling a great range of gesture and emotion. Like I said, the performance had people on their feet at the end.
The concert was bookmarked with two pieces inspired by different kinds of dance: Beethoven's "Twelve Constredanses for Orchestra" (which includes an early emanation of the melody featured in the finale of the "Eroica" Symphony and other works) and Kodaly's "Dances of Galanta." Both pieces showcased what a lean machine is LACO, steering easily through abrupt changes of mood, sudden tempo changes and a lot of noodley notes. A pleasure to hear this fine group!
It's the perfect Gateway Concerto for getting your friends and acquaintances hooked on classical music: Mozart Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major, K. 219, (“Turkish”).
Played by the dynamic young violinist Benjamin Beilman -- even better! I was pleased to learn that he will perform this very concerto this weekend, right in my current home town of Pasadena, with the wonderful Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. (Concert info if you are in LA: it's 8 p.m. Saturday at the Ambassador Auditorium; then they'll repeat the concert on Sunday at UCLA’s Royce Hall.)
So far I've invited all my students and a few family members. I'm encouraging another friend to bring her elderly mom, and I'm hoping a few people will think about bringing their friend from work who has never attended a classical concert but kind of liked "Amadeus."
Ben, who received a 2012 Avery Fisher Career Grant and recorded the Prokofiev Complete Violin Sonatas last year, just completed a European tour with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and will give a recital at Carnegie Hall in November. Ben spoke to me over the phone last week from Hamburg about life after Curtis Institute, about playing Mozart after living in Germany, and about his Gagliano violin.
Laurie: What have you been up to over the last year since I spoke to you?
Ben: I've been splitting time in between living in Philadelphia and also in Frankfurt, both for concerts, but also last year I was studying with Christian Tetzlaff in Frankfurt. Whenever I could, I would fly over here for lessons.
Laurie: What made you want to study with Christian, and what has it been like? That sounds like a wonderful opportunity.
Ben: It's been truly extraordinary. Entering my final year at Curtis, I was looking at different options for continuing my study; I felt like I wasn't fully-formed as the musician that I wanted to become, and I needed a little bit more guidance. I looked at all the major music schools, especially on the East Coast -- a lot of Curtis kids go to NEC or Juilliard. But I had been intrigued by Christian's playing for a long time, and I always thought to myself, I'd love to spend some time in Germany. Working with Christian seemed to be a great fit.
I first came into contact with studying with him through the Kronberg Academy; they sponsor violin master classes every two years, in the summer, for about a week or nine days. About 150 violinists apply and end up coming to Kronberg, which is a tiny, quaint suburb of Frankfurt -- imagine gingerbread houses, it's nice. So I applied for those master classes, and once I arrived, I auditioned to hopefully study with Christian. I was accepted, and I ended up having three lessons during that master class session. I worked on some Bach, and I worked on the Sibelius concerto. I already felt very comfortable with the Sibelius, but it was amazing because he took a piece that I felt like I knew very, very well and he completely turned it on its head for me. He opened up completely different avenues and ways of thinking. His biggest theme is about sound, and imagination with sound. That was fascinating.
Based on those lessons, I decided I wanted to study with Christian, once I was done with Curtis. So I went through the whole audition process in Kronberg, and I was accepted. We worked together over the last year; I worked with him every six or seven weeks. When I'm in town I'll see him maybe three or four times in a very short amount of time, then I go off and do my things, and obviously he is touring constantly.
Laurie: I definitely know of him as a performer, but I really never had heard of him in the context of a teacher or mentor.
Ben: He has just a handful of students at Kronberg; I think his class size is usually about three students. There's a violinist from Berlin who also studies with him; her name is Hyeyoon Park, and then Itamar Zorman, the top prizewinner at the Tchaikovsky Competition in 2011, also studied with him this last year. So he keeps his class very very small because he has to focus on his own things. But he likes teaching.
Laurie: Do you speak German, then?
Ben: I'm picking it up, little by little! I can order the food and drinks and say very minimal things -- I'm working on it. But I wouldn't say that I speak German.
Laurie: Tell me a little bit about what an American classical musician can learn, just being in Germany? Has it changed your perspective at all?
Ben: Absolutely. For me what was really fun, besides fantastic lessons with Christian, was just getting to know a completely different set of young musicians. In the United States, you grow up with the same musicians throughout your childhood. We go to things like Aspen Music Festival, or, I was an ENCORE kid when it was still around, or Perlman Music Program. Then you go to conservatory with them, and there's something wonderful about being familiar with all your classmates. But coming to a completely different continent, where you don't know those people, is also really cool. I've gotten to play alongside a whole different set of musicians and gotten to know great players that I just had absolutely no idea even existed.
Laurie: Does it give you any different perspective on the history behind the music? I've often thought it would be nice to spend some extended time in Europe, just because that's where a lot of this music started.
Ben: Attending concerts here, I'd say generally it's sort of the same demographic of people who attend the concerts, but there's a different esteem about it. You see more awareness about it around all the cities. It makes sense; for Germans especially, the cornerstone of their musical identity are these great composers that we know and love -- Beethoven, Bach, Brahms. We have Elvis. And of course, we have Gershwin and Bernstein, and those are fantastic, those are our American idols. But it's different if you have Beethoven and Brahms.
Laurie: I'm looking forward to your concerts in Los Angeles; you're performing Mozart Concerto No. 5. Let's talk a little bit about Mozart. What do you enjoy most about playing Mozart?
Ben: Coming back to especially this concerto, there's so much that I hear now through an operatic lens. People talk about it all the time, that with Mozart, everything was about the voice and singing. Somehow this time, it really clicked for me. I've had the opportunity to see a lot of operas in Germany, and I hear a lot of these gestures that he wrote in his violin concertos and his string quartets -- gestures which are absolutely for the voice. And so I guess it's been about diction and syntax for me this time around, in the concerto.
Laurie: Do you have a favorite Mozart Concerto, of his five violin concertos?
Ben: I see his five concertos as a sort of progression. There's so much merit in each one, and it's just impossible to say that one is better than the next. But to me, it feels like the fifth concerto is maybe the most concise in his ideas, and what he wants to say. It's almost more varied than some of the other ones, and that's what I enjoy about it.
Laurie: It seems like you're getting into a routine of traveling and soloing -- do you have any more perspective about it, as far as what this lifestyle is like? People study to be a soloist, but sometimes I wonder if they know what they're signing up for! Any advise for your younger colleagues?
Ben: I have noticed, especially in this last year since graduating from Curtis and being on the road more, that you need to know so much about your own personal limits. You have to make sure that you have a very, very good balance of certain cornerstone ideas: places of refuge and resilience that are completely separate from music. You have to make more of an effort to stay in touch with your family and friends, obviously, when you're traveling a lot.
Also, for a long time, I was getting really stressed about things and I didn't understand what was going on -- then I realized that I needed to go running a lot. So running is another source of refuge and stress reduction for me. Once you're traveling a lot, it's almost less about the actual performances and onstage time as it is about understanding how to feel sated and fulfilled outside of that.
Laurie: Keeping a balance.
Ben: Absolutely. Even something as simple as a time change; a lot of it is knowing exactly how quickly your body can adjust, or what things you can do to help move that along. You need to know which flight to take, what time you're going to get in, how much sleep you can get on the plane, how much sleep you allow yourself the first night, the second night. It sounds boring and tedious, but it makes a huge difference, if you know how to plan that.
Laurie: Have you ever had a situation where you felt like, "Oh, man, I shouldn't have taken the red-eye…"
Ben: (he laughs) No -- I will say, though, the first time I went to Asia… I had a concert in Kuala Lumpur with the Malaysian Philharmonic, and during that trip, I was there for a grand total of maybe four and a half or five days. In terms of travel time, you're close to that anyway; you're at three days, just getting there and getting back. That was one time when I realized that I needed to learn how to get into a system very quickly. I couldn't sleep, and then I slept too much -- it was tough.
Some great advice that I've gotten from of my mentors in the past year is: You need to plan, months and years ahead of time, a complete break from the instrument. Christian says he takes a total of four or five weeks off a year. He'll usually space it out -- two during the holidays, maybe two in the summer and a week somewhere else. His whole mantra is that you have to know how to plan that for yourself, and you need to take the time and resist the temptation to accept a concert offer if it comes in during your vacation time. If they truly want you to come and play with them, or to play in recital, they can wait a year or two.
Laurie: What violin are you playing these days?
Ben: I'm playing an Antonio Gagliano from 1790. I've played it for almost six years, and fortunately, it's mine. I'm paying it off, essentially, but it's mine, nobody can take it away. I'm very, very happy with it.
Laurie: That's a big achievement, if you actually have your own instrument. How did you find it?
Ben: I bought it from Robertson and Sons in Albuquerque. I looked in all the major shops on the East Coast, in Chicago and various places. Ida Kavafian was the one who knew the Robertson's shop; she said, "Hey, since you haven't found anything, let me call my friend Aaron and see if he has anything." So they actually shipped me two instruments: one was a Vuillaume, and the other was this instrument. When you opened up the box, it looked like it was bomb-proofed, I mean they had packaged it so tightly and so perfectly! It's weird to think about an instrument of that value going through FedEx, but they made it work.
And so I played the Vuillaume, and I thought, "Oh man, this is the one, this is great!" I almost didn't even want to try the Gagliano, but after a couple days I said, "Okay, just to confirm that the Vuillaume is the one, I'll try the Gagliano." And I tried the Gagliano and -- Okay, hands down, the Gagliano was the one!
Laurie: Before that, had you had experience playing on fine instruments?
Ben: Yes, fortunately, I'd had the use of a Carlos Tononi for about a year and a half before that; I played a Storioni, I tried a couple Strads and del Gesus in shops but never for an extended period. But I did have some long-term use of a nice instrument.
Laurie: I'm glad you have your own instrument; so many people get it taken out from under them and it's just awful to hear about.
Ben: Besides the idea of having something that you're so close to taken away from you, you also have to then spend however many weeks or months trying to readjust to a new one. So you're completely losing time, every time you borrow a new instrument.
Laurie: Does your instrument adjust okay when you travel?
Ben: Yes, I used to be so finicky with adjustments, and if something sounded a little different the next day, I would freak out and I'd think I needed to take it into the shop. But an attitude that I try to take these days comes from the violist Paul Neubauer, who famously says, "Oh, I don't believe in that stuff; that's just nonsense. An instrument sounds the way that it sounds." I think it's good to sort of trick yourself and think that there's nothing to worry about!
What does it mean, when all your metronomes stop ticking?
That's what happened to me over the last six months or so. First, my miniature Dr. Beat ran out of juice, then never came back to life after I gave it a new battery. This was the little, light, high-tech metronome I bought a few years ago for practicing orchestral excerpts. It was capable of dishing out some 350+ beats per minute, so that if I wanted to account for every single beat in the Mendelssohn Scherzo, I could. I viewed this metronome as an instrument of unusual, even slightly un-musical torture. I didn't miss it.
More distressing was when my beautiful wooden Wittner developed arrhythmia.
I love this old-fashioned metronome. It mesmerizes my students, who are fascinated by all its mechanical features: winding it, moving the weight up and down the stick to adjust the tempo, nudging it to begin, watching it oscillate. It even has an outrageously loud bell to mark measures, if you so desire.
Over time, the metronome went from a steady "tick-tock, tick-tock" to "tick…tock? tick…tock?" to "tick……tock????" To watch the way that stick wobbled and lost its way -- my metronome truly seemed sick. I stopped trying to use it, and it became a nice decoration and curiosity.
This didn't pose a major problem, because still I had my trusty Seiko metronome -- companion to me since high school. I'd accidentally dropped on the floor countless times -- maybe even flung across the room a few times in college. It had taken falls in which it burst open and completely spilled its guts. Yet it kept ticking, with great accuracy. That is, until a few weeks ago, when it stopped. No slow demise, just Boom! No beat. After such a long and robust life, I couldn't blame it.
Finally, I had no metronome, and that's not a tenable situation.
Wanting a quick solution, I went online and bought a cheap metronome, just a simple one with a dial. I had it for two weeks when I dropped it for the first time on my carpeted studio floor and it went silent. Though the light kept blinking, I could not cajole it into speaking again. Ever.
At this point, I started to wonder: what was going on, here? Was there a bigger meaning? What is the symbolism behind a broken metronome? I did some research: My "Feng Shui" book, which talks about the symbolism of various objects in a person's house, advises that having a working pendulum clock with as many moving parts as possible "adds rhythm to a space, making it easier to find your own rhythm." Hmm, does it follow that, if my pendulum stops, I've lost my rhythm? I leafed through my dream dictionary, another source specializing in the symbolism of various objects. "Clock with hands still = death," it said. DEATH?!
Okay, time to fix the frigging metronome problem.
First, I replaced the electronic metronome. I figured, if my old "Seiko" lasted 30 years, I'll stick with that brand. I got a very simple one with a dial, a light and an option to make the beat louder or quieter, higher or lower. Perfect!
Then, to fix my Wittner. (A new one is not cheap!) I was advised to seek a clock repairperson. The first three I called did not seem to understand why I'd be asking them about a metronome. One even said, "Does it have a battery?" Ah, clock stores sell batteries for watches and clocks.
Where's this guy when you need him?
I tried one more number, and bingo! I found him. I drove out to Cal's Jewelers, where I met Eddie, who is a man who knows his craft. Before I knew it, he was disassembling my metronome, shouting out to me from a back room, "Good news, aluminum parts! They won't rust. Just needs a little oil."
In minutes, he brought me a working metronome.
"Oh my goodness!" I said. "What do I owe you?"
Thank you for your time, Eddie. And for giving me back mine!
Laurie Niles is from Pasadena, California. Biography
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