I haven't heard of too many violin master classes that had to be moved to a larger venue because elementary-school children and young teens were clamoring to get in, but that's just what happened earlier this month when world-class violinist and social media phenom Ray Chen came to town to teach a master class at the Pasadena Conservatory of Music in California.
Working with students ages 11-18 for an audience of 150, Ray brought that cartoonish humor that his fans see on social media, along the musical sophistication and attention to detail that have made him sought-after soloist and international competition winner.
The first student to play for Ray was Eddie, 11, who played the first movement of Haydn's Concerto No. 2 in G.
Ray talked about follow-through with the bow: when a baseball player hits a ball with a bat, the bat keeps going. Similarly, "keep the bow going to make the note ring as long as possible," he said. It's a subtle difference, but it really allows the music to breathe.
Ray also talked about creating character in Haydn, whose music is constantly changing from one kind of emotion to another. Without the character, things start to sound robotic. He talks about it here:
Ray also explained that traditionally, cadenzas were improvised, and so "you have to make us feel like you are improvising."
Next was Albert, 13, who played Meditation from "Thaís" by Massenet.
The danger in a beautiful, slow piece such as this, Ray said, is that it can get boring for the audience. For this reason, you have to add a little fire: move the bow a little more, keep the vibrato going.
It also needs to keep moving, in its slow way. To feel the motion of this piece, imagine being on the moon, where you can stay in the air longer than you can here on Earth, he said. "There's not as much gravity on the moon --everything is a soft landing," he said. Ray coached him through various phrases.
He talked about making a high F# bigger -- to make it bigger, widen the vibrato and flatten the fiddle.
"When you play on the E string and you need a boost, always angle your violin back," so that the E string sits on top and can ring out. "The wider your vibrato, the more stress your instrument can take," he said, and that means you can apply more weight to the bow.
Once you learn how to create more power in the sound, then it's simply a matter of learning to control it.
Also, with every "ahhhh" moment in the music (as in that "B" highlighted in the excerpt from "Meditation" to the right) there must be a tense moment before it. "Tension and release -- that's how you capture people's hearts," Ray said.
Sara, 17, played the first movement of the Mendelssohn Concerto, and Ray wanted her to bring out the feeling of passion and longing in the opening. How to describe passion to this room full of kids? Well, most of us can get pretty passionate about our favorite food, especially when we're really, really hungry...
He also talked about having a bow hold isn't too high, a bow hold that uses the fingers actively for suspension. Bows have a tendency to tremble, "my bow trembles as well," he said, "but I'm keeping it calm with my fingers, which act as springs."
Anyone who has played the Mendelssohn knows about the infamous octaves passage on the first page -- it's nothing to shy from. In fact, "you have to go a little ballistic at moments like these," he said. Play near the bridge and bring them out. Also, whatever kind of fiddle you have, know its maximum capacity and learn to use it.
Last to perform for Ray was an excellent quartet (with a number of members from this year's junior division gold-medal quartet at the Fischoff Chamber Music Competition) who played Mendelssohn's String Quartet Op. 44, No. 3.
When they concluded, Ray said he had little advice for them after such "kick-butt playing" -- then he proceeded to dive into a great deal of technical nitty gritty!
After the master class Ray treated the audience to a question-and-answer session during which he spoke about taking risks in performance, the nature of confidence, his musical upbringing in Australia (at which point he let his Australian accent take over), and about how to practice, even if you don't like it. Here is that full Q and A:
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