Written by Laurie Niles
Published: September 25, 2013 at 9:05 PM [UTC]
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.
On the shoulder rest topic though, I noticed that she doesn't have a long neck nor the restless violinists she mentioned...
I am no expert and I trust her jugment though I still beleive the shoulder rest matter is really individual.
This is like when I tried to explain my slim finger problems (for vibratos and chords etc.) to my first teacher who had really big hands and was a man. He tried to help the best he could but it's just so different than any issues he could have had!
For certain things, the teacher just can't be in your body and you have to decide for yourself, once older and better informed on what you want to experiment. Many gave up the rest as late teens or adults (perhaps for this reason?)
But I agree with her that the restless principles and playing tension free shoould be taught to all, no matter what they use daily...
The Milstein Paganini caprice story is a good one, and often told by the no-rest advocates, but you would think more of them would give their own demonstration, if a proper rest-free technique was all it takes, and yet we never seem to hear about that :-)
As mentioned in the 2012 thread linked from this blog, I went restless from my first days of playing all the way to 18 -- almost 19 -- y/o. I can play either with or without SR, but I prefer the feel of playing with it.
Although this puts me in the majority, I will staunchly defend the right and choice of any player, seasoned or new learner, who prefers to go restless. I stated my views on this in last April's thread titled "Is a shoulder rest necessary for children?"
Click this link:
However, ever since giving away the rigid shoulder rest in favour of a pliable, relatively small sponge, a while ago, I feel far more stable and comfortable and I will never go back. I could only make this adjustment because I have raised the chin rest with a sponge as well and hope to replace this with the Kréddle soon. I remain convinced that the right chin rest is most important and this is more difficult for those having to fill a large gap. Then again, I never had lessons (or much else) as a child...so what would I know.
it was a very nice enlightening interview Laurie, I thoroughly enjoyed it, great teacher (of course I love my own teacher too so I think I'd have lessons with both of them :D )
Laurie and Dylana, thanks for these wonderful post, thoughts and for sharing this knowledge.
I agree that the issue of playing with ease transcends the support used or not used. It is also true that the kind of things needed for setup may actually change once someone has proper mechanics. In the end, these things are the most important.
Thank you and Cheers!
P.S. "Likewise, the elbow should point to the floor, not be awkwardly pushed to the right."
I have to say that I chuckled with relief reading someone else say/write something which I have so often!
Precisely. The first statement confirms what I felt quite certain of when I asked the question in the 2012 thread. The second statement lines right up with my views on young kids and shoulder rests. If I were a teacher, I would start a beginner without the SR and go from there. Starting a kid on the SR, without first determining whether there is an actual need for the device, makes about as much sense as starting a first-grader on corrective eyewear -- without first measuring the vision and determining whether there is a need for correction.
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