Brian Lewis: Teaching Versatility: The Music of Fritz Kreisler

June 17, 2015, 10:03 AM ·

Brian Lewis class

Do you need a short-term goal? Would you like to practice putting your spiccato, bariolage or other techniques to use? Are you going cross-eyed working on a huge concerto and need something smaller to work on for a while? Do you need a clever but pleasing short piece to fill out a recital program, or simply to cheer you up?

Brian Lewis just might have something for you to play: one of the many pieces for violin and piano written or transcribed by Fritz Kreisler (1875-1962). This was the topic of Lewis's second lecture, called "Teaching Versatility: the Music of Fritz Kreisler," at the Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies at the Juilliard School last month.

KreislerLewis took us through several Kreisler pieces: Andantino in the style of Martini; Minuet in the Style of Porpora; Variations on a Theme by Corelli, Praeludium and Allegro, and Schön Rosmarin. He talked about how to set goals in these pieces, when to give them to a student and how to look at them from a musical perspective. (You can find the sheet music on IMSLP, or there are some nice collections of them.)

A typical approach to any new piece is to play through it, find the difficult spots and practice them -- "don't practice what sounds good!" Lewis joked. Of course, one needs to work out the difficult spots, but one also needs to approach the piece as music, and knowing the piano part is particularly helpful. "Being able to rehearse with piano gives us more information through sound," Lewis said. In these days of easy Internet access to sheet music, we may go to IMSLP and "we're printing out just the violin part, and not the piano part. We have to be careful that we're not becoming one-line players." That means: be sure to also purchase or print out the piano part and get familiar with how both parts work together.

Here is a version of ""Andantino in the style of Martini", played by Itzhak Perlman/Samuel Sanders:

The music contains some obvious repeated patterns, giving students the opportunity to find them and number each time that they appear. Lewis advised teachers to allow students to number these patterns for themselves, to write them in their own music, which will help them remember and understand better.

In learning new pieces, Lewis said that students should listen to recordings, but not to get stuck on just one and not to just copy another person's playing. "Dorothy DeLay had us listen to a variety of people; Not just one, but five," Lewis said. "What we hear is what we play. Find your favorite violinist and look up their Kreisler."

One special challenge in playing Kreisler pieces is that they are about three minutes long -- roughly a tenth of the length of a concerto. "You have to sell us on this information pretty quickly!" Lewis said. One way to do this is to have very nuanced dynamics. Instead of marking dynamics "pp, p, mp, mf," etc. one could mark "p, more, more, most" to keep a crescendo within piano; or maybe "p +" to say soft but with more presence; or "f -" to say, in the character of forte but less.

Lewis recommended "Andantino" for younger students, or as a second piece when working on a big concerto.

"I do have bowings and fingerings that I give to my students, but there are choices," Lewis said. He offers several ways of doing things, then allows the students to choose. If you do that, though, be sure to offer choices that are all acceptable to you -- you don't want to trap the student by offering him or her a choice and then vetoing their choice because it wasn't what you wanted!

In making such choices, "we always start from what the composer writes," Lewis said. With Kreisler, we can see not just what he wrote, but in certain cases, we can see recordings of exactly how he played it. These are not always the same, either. "Do we do what Kreisler played, or what he wrote?" The answer is to do what works for the music and for the student -- sometimes Kreisler's fingers are very idiosyncratic. Another example would be Paganini -- do you use his fingerings? "They don't work for mere mortals, but try it." Those fingerings can give insights, but don't use something that is impossible or physically harmful to someone with different hands.

Do give students at least some starting point; "sending them home with a blank Henle edition and no fingerings is not setting them up for success," he said.

Next, we went through "Minuet in the style of Porpora":

The first part of this piece has all dotted rhythms, and this provides a chance to explain to students double-dotting.

This piece provides some opportunities for teaching the importance of knowing the piano part, which lines up in melodic unison during many parts of the first half, then in the trio, a stream of 16th notes is slurred in such a way to rhythmically match the piano part. Pointing out these things allows students to understand and to feel how the music fits together and ideally, to start seeing these kinds of patterns in future music they study. "The best thing we can teach our students is how to read with musical intelligence," Lewis said. Knowing these things can immediately improve musicality -- "it has nothing to do with practicing, it has to do with analysis." In fact, Kreisler was known to say that practice takes away from spontaneity -- "I still recommend practice, though!" Lewis said.

"Praeludium and Allegro" by Kreisler is a piece that many people play and teach:

The beginning of the piece sounds strong but rather static. There's a reason for this: In the violin part, the entire first line consists of two notes! Brian had us chant this line, and it was kind of a revelation: "E-B-E-B-E-B..."

Praeludium E-B

Thus, when this very simple pattern finally does change notes, to a "C" on the second line, it's a big deal. "Give it a kiss and not a smack!" Lewis recommended.

All those repeated notes in various octaves allow students to work on their pitch memory; "you're really hearing and thinking about the note before playing it." It's also worth pointing out that the piano gives the "Praeludium" a harmonic rhythms; its chordal changes provide the interest.

"Teachers give Praeludium and Allegro too early to their kids," Lewis said. "Every eight measures (in the Allegro) you have to change your skill."

Lewis recommended a piece for learning before "Praeludium and Allegro": Kreisler's "Variations on a Theme by Corelli." In fact, it's cool enough to play at a stadium show, here's David Garrett doing a chamber arrangement (employing live musicians, I'll add):

The point is that this piece takes all those techniques: three-string spiccato bariolage, quick trills, triple stops -- and offers them in a more extended way than does "Praeludium and Allegro."

"We are responsible for setting our students up for success," Lewis said. That means knowing these techniques well enough to play them successfully. A few ways to practice the spiccato bariolage: for left hand, play the notes as triple-stop chords -- "the frame of the hand needs to block out those chords." For the bow, find the balance point, and practice the spiccato bariolage on open strings: D-A-E-A-D-A-E-A, etc. The elbow should move up and down with the changes of string.

One last piece he recommended was Kreisler's Schön Rosmarin -- by this time we were running out of class time, but Lewis talked about this piece extensively in this lecture from 2011, if you'd like more on that.

In conclusion, the short pieces by Fritz Kreisler provide an opportunity to work on specific pieces, and they are delightful for both performer and audience. "There's nothing wrong with having a little dessert in your program!"

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