December 2012

My online violin school launched today

December 12, 2012 18:34

Today was a big milestone in my project with ArtistWorks, as my online school has officially launched. It's been tough recording and sitting on all these video lessons without being able to interact with students, but that changes starting today!

Actually I got a sneak peek at how my school works over the last 10 days, during "beta testing". As you probably know, software goes through several stages of testing before being released, so that any "bugs" can be found. The same was true for my site. I had a crew of about 20 students who tried every link, tested the forums/chat features, and submitted videos for my feedback. That's been the best part of the pre-launch time: seeing student videos, responding with my own video, and getting their feedback about how they're progressing.

What's interesting to me is that one of the founders of ArtistWorks, David Butler, designed the original AOL (it's true!) so he's intimately familiar with how social networks grow. He observed that nobody visits an empty chat room, or even one with 3 or 4 people in it. But once the room reaches "critical mass", say 7 or more chatters, it explodes in size and activity. On my site, the main resource isn't chat, it's Video Exchanges. Each exchange equals a student video paired with my video feedback. So while it seems daunting at first for a student to post a video of herself playing Mozart Symphony 39, she can watch a bunch of Video Exchanges of that excerpt before posting her own. Therefore each lesson (68 excerpts, 8 concerto movements, 2 Bach movements, 17 etudes, 22 fundamental skills) will eventually have a library of past Video Exchanges that all students can watch and search.

I've taught so many live lessons, and Skype lessons, but I'm excited to see how these exchanges will help my students. You give up the "live" aspect, but you get to watch your feedback as many times as you want, for as long as you want. And you get to see others playing and getting feedback on the same piece. That's something I remember fondly from my Suzuki days.

I even mentioned the shoulder rest debate in one of the lessons on shifting! For the record, I mentioned that even though I use one, I've spent two 1-month periods in my life without, where I learned a great deal about the left hand. :)

nathancoleviolin.com is the place to go.

3 replies


Composer's intentions: Enescu 3rd Sonata

December 2, 2012 11:44

Enescu 1st page

I just received a video from the Mimir Festival, of my performance this past July of Enescu's 3rd violin sonata with Alessio Bax. It was fun (but as always, scary) to see a performance as it really happened, as opposed to the memory that I've been carrying around for a few months. Especially when I only get one shot at a performance (i.e. not part of a series or tour), there's a strange mix of pressure and freedom. Pressure since I only have one chance at each bar, but freedom because I might as well go for broke: this is it! You can see the video on YouTube, so here's the first of three movements:

This got me thinking about something else though. Check out that first page of the violin part! Is that music or some kind of secret code? In addition to the "normal" dynamics, we've got bf and pf and some variations; special glissando markings; tons of fingerings; plenty of non vibrato and molto vibrato. That's a lot to process! Enescu did this because he wanted to translate a certain style of violin playing into readable music. Judging from his own performance of the work:

he did a great job! I would never have been able to play in this style without his instructions, at least not without putting an enormous effort into studying that musical tradition. So the obvious question is: am I really playing in that style? And what is "that style"? Is it "Romanian style", as Enescu says on the title page? Or is it really Enescu style?

I certainly can't claim to know the Romanian style, whatever that may be, after studying and playing this piece. But I have played close to a hundred Beethoven pieces. I consider myself well versed in his style! Yet I've often wondered, as millions of people before me have, what Beethoven's personal style might have been. How many times did our student string quartets at Curtis say, "If only Beethoven were here right now!" It was always amusing to me to read that the Guarneri Quartet said the same kind of thing in exasperation. We assumed that his presence would have been a comfort: he would simply explain what he meant by dots, wedges, or a certain "p": was it a crescendo up to, or past, piano?

But what if his presence instead became a nuisance? A distraction? What if, given the chance, he decided to "re-edit" his works along the lines of the Enescu? He might mark some or most of a piece non-vibrato, for example, according to the style of the time. Quartets would forever be locked into his choices! He might mark glissandi, many more than I'm used to playing in his music. He might change half notes into double-dotted quarters with sixteenth rests, to show that he really wanted space in between! Imagine a page of Beethoven, so powerful in its simplicity, marked up like the Enescu. Would that free us to concentrate on interpretation, now that all our problems had been solved? Or would we feel that there wasn't much left to interpret?

None of this is meant to detract from the brilliance of Enescu or this 3rd sonata. This piece could only have been written by a composer of deep musical conviction. And his own performance has a wonderful freedom that sounds not at all constrained by any markings he put into his violin part. In fact, the more I played this sonata, the freer I felt, as if the markings were only logical musical and expressive choices that I had come up with! I even found myself playing with expressive devices that were not in the part, because they "felt" good. When I discovered the discrepancy, I often thought, "would it really be so bad to change that? It sounds great!" Of course that's exactly what quartets struggle with all the time playing Beethoven.

And let's not forget that those markings in the Enescu were, for me, a window onto a new style of playing, one that I would not have fallen into naturally. Perhaps that was the composer's intent all along: once the performer gains wisdom and insight through the specific instructions, he's free to "interpret" once more, and keep only what he likes. Or, like Ysaye, he might have written the notes, markings, and fingerings as a whole. Ysaye cautioned violinists not to change his marked fingerings in the unaccompanied sonatas, as they would alter the sound and effect of his music!

By far, most composers I've worked with personally have been eager to change anything they thought would make for a more effective performance. They've been especially quick to take the suggestions of performers. But few of these composers have been virtuoso performers, and that's what makes this Enescu case so interesting. I'll have to revisit the question the next time I'm fortunate enough to play the piece. And I'll certainly be thinking about it this afternoon when we play Beethoven's 2nd Symphony at the LA Phil!

2 replies


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