Have you ever looked back at all the violin music you’ve played, only to discover some giant holes in your repertoire? It happens to me every few years, usually when a student comes in with a piece that I’ve heard a thousand times but never actually sat down to learn myself. Saint-Saens concerto, I’m looking at you!
And it happened again this week when I got around to a project I’d been meaning to tackle for a couple of months. Angela Robertson, a teacher in Texas, had emailed me a while back about making a video on the required etudes for the Texas All-State Orchestra auditions that will happen in October. One by Mazas, one by De Bériot.
No problem, I said. So this past Wednesday, I went into my garage to make it happen. And that’s when I discovered that these were no ordinary etudes!
Maybe I should back up and say that there aren’t really any ordinary etudes. Even the most mundane Kreutzer or repetitive Sevcik holds vast potential just waiting to be unleashed. All you have to do is approach it with the right concept in mind.
From age ten to fourteen, I basically went through Kreutzer, Sevcik, Schradieck, and some of Dont. Then my teacher moved me along to the Paganini caprices and that was the end of my etude work. This was mostly because there were only so many hours in the day, and I was never a monster practicer before conservatory. Every minute I spent on etudes was one that couldn’t go toward repertoire.
But this path also reflected Heifetz’s view on etudes, which he would have passed down to his students, including my teacher Dan Mason. Heifetz had his favorites (named above) and considered the more virtuosic etude books an annoying middle ground: too difficult to build fundamental skills, not difficult enough to stand alone as pieces (as could the Paganini caprices).
So Mazas, Kayser, Fiorillo, Rode, Hrimaly, Gavinies, and De Beriot never saw the light of day in my practice room. Until Wednesday.
Wednesday morning, I opened up to De Beriot No. 20 and did a double take. For an etude, this looked an awful lot like a Paganini caprice! Thousands of high schoolers were supposed to work this up? I saw straight 16ths for two pages, going all the way up the fingerboard. I set it aside for a bit and looked up Mazas No. 23. It was also no cakewalk! There were trills, octaves, and up-bow staccato (albeit the slow version).
My first task was to turn on the air-conditioning in the garage. Pasadena summers are no joke, and if it’s 90 outside, it’s at least that inside my tiny garage! Then add video lights, and you've got a toasty little recording oven. So since I can’t run the A/C while I’m recording, I’ve got to cool things down in advance.
That works just fine when I’ve got notes to learn anyway. So while the A/C blasted, I decided on bowings and fingerings for the Mazas. Bowings were pretty much set, since part of the point of the etude is the repeated staccato strokes, and they’re all up-bow. Fingerings didn’t need too much tinkering either. This etude only went high in a couple of places; it was more of a right-hand study. Once I felt good about my plan, I played it through a few times. Then it was time for a take, so off went the A/C.
There are a number of things to go over before I hit record. First I check my background lights. Since I shoot against a “green screen”, it needs to be lit separately and evenly. I can confirm this on my video monitor if I like. Next I check the position of my own lighting: a large softbox on one side and a reflector on the opposite side to fill in shadows. Next comes the camera, with its memory card and various settings. 4K video chews through a ton of data!
As for audio, you can see in my videos the DPA lavalier mic I attach to my shirt. It picks up both playing and talking. Maybe the sound 4 inches from the violin isn’t ideal, but it’s certainly clear! And I mean crystal clear… you get every scratch, squeak, and squawk. So I try to minimize those. One side benefit of this mic placement is that it's almost exactly what you hear "under the ear". So for a teaching video, students can hear the same kind of focused sound that they should be going for under their own ears.
The walls and ceiling of my garage are all covered with “egg-crate” black foam, to eliminate both reflected sound and reflected light. No green from the screen on me! Of course, that makes the space as dead as a coffin. So for “performance” videos, I give myself a little reverb after the fact. It's just the way most of us are used to hearing music.
The mic goes into a pre-amp, then into my Tascam external recorder. My camera will pick up its own noisy audio track, just so that I can use the waveforms to automatically sync up the clean Tascam audio when I’m done. This would have been a pain in the old days, but it’s a cinch with today’s software.
So sit, focus, roll sound, roll picture… and then wait! Do I really know this piece? Do I want one more playthrough before I roll? I remember that it’s always safer to “record the rehearsal”: you don’t want your best take to be the one you did just before the red light came on!
I should say that I’d decided to record the etudes without any editing. In the first place, these were meant to be teaching videos for the Texas All-State auditioners, and I wouldn’t have felt right showing them a video that wasn’t representative of what they’d have to present. Also, partly due to the immense popularity of YouTube, today’s young listeners are more accustomed to the vagaries of live performance. When I was young, recordings were polished affairs, extensively edited and processed. But now, thanks to video, you can see the biggest stars at their best and, occasionally, at less than their best. It just shows how tough it is to maintain the highest standards!
I set my bow for the first note of the Mazas and there was a crunch…nothing a live audience would hear, but with the mic just a few inches away, it wouldn’t have been a good start to the presentation. I reset for another start. Several lines in, there was a sour note. I stopped, since it wouldn't take long to repeat those few lines.
And so it went for the Mazas, with a harrowing psychological battle happening behind the scenes: how bad was that glitch? Of course, a wrong note near the beginning of the etude was an easy call: stop the take and restart. But two minutes into a two-and-a-half-minute performance? That’s a tougher call to make, especially when you can’t stop playing. It’s something you get used to the more you record, but it never goes away entirely. It adds electricity to the process, and it’s part of the reason I was excited to take on this project!
For the Mazas, the TMEA (Texas) recommended tempo made sense. But for the De Bériot, the recommendation was fast! At 76 to the dotted-quarter note, you’re looking at more than 2 minutes of straight 16ths, any one of which could fly off course at any time. Musically it made sense, but technically it would be asking a lot of the students, especially those who hadn't gone through Paganini before. I knew that I wanted to be conservative with my tempo, not only to make it possible for me to finish recording that day, but so as not to encourage reckless playing from the students!
But even in the low 70s for the dotted quarter, the De Bériot was going to be a task. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to finish it that morning. I resolved to take a break and do a session that afternoon. But when afternoon came, it was approaching triple digits outside. I practiced for quite some time with the A/C on, dividing the etude into parts I could comfortably play and those I couldn’t. I marked more fingerings than I normally would, knowing that I’d need the “safety” numbers in the (literal) heat of the moment.
This was decidedly not my preferred way to work on a fast piece. As I hope to prove in an upcoming video project centered around Paganini, what you want is many small sessions spread out over a lot of time. This was the opposite: big chunks of cramming! I started to waver on my idea of knocking this out in a day, but my home life is busy enough that I knew a day’s delay might turn into 3, then 7, then never! Wednesday was the day.
As I alternated A/C on for practice with A/C off for takes, I could see that De Bériot was going to resist the afternoon. Our two-year-old twins were about to wake from their nap, and my left hand was beat! I’d have an hour or two in the evening after the three kids went to sleep, and I vowed to revisit the De Bériot then.
After the triple bedtime, I put on my third shirt of the day and went back at it. This time I sensed victory, or something close enough at any rate. I started routinely getting through the first page of De Bériot without anything too unpleasant. Then a page and a half. I can hardly describe the agony of getting to the very last line of a clean take, only to freeze at one of the final shifts. My “outtakes”, including some choice words, would have a made a great companion video, if they weren’t so inappropriate for the very students I was trying to help!
At the end of an hour, I had what I hoped would be the take. But before I packed everything up, I thought I’d run it just once more, throwing caution to the winds and going for something with more spirit. I'd compare those last two takes in the morning.
But I had an unpleasant surprise in the morning: the Mazas sounded fine, but it didn’t look fine at all. I had missed something in my video monitor. Let me toss vanity aside and tell you that it was a round patch of perspiration right in the middle of my chest! Once I saw it in playback, I couldn’t look at anything else. I tried to convince myself that nobody else would notice it, but when I showed my wife the video without saying anything, she asked, “was it hot in there?” I knew the Mazas was lost.
I cued up the De Bériot in a panic. If I had to redo that beast also… but luckily, the black shirt I wore (rather than blue for Mazas) hid the evening heat effectively enough. The De Bériot certainly wasn’t perfect, but it could stay. And as for that last take, the more spirited one? It turned out to be the exact same tempo as the other, just messier and with some strangely affected dynamics! It hit the cutting room floor.
Thursday afternoon’s work, then, was to redo the Mazas (which took just a few takes) and to record the “teaching” portions of the videos. Those are almost always one-take shoots, since I know what I want to say and I’m not concerned about little glitches. Now that YouTube can create automatic closed captioning, these spoken-word portions are more valuable than ever. They can be searched, exported, and even translated. The automatic speech-to-text can’t be entirely trusted, of course, but with some editing it does just fine. What big leaps Google has made in the last few years!
Finally, with my raw materials gathered, it was time to have some fun. I don’t go nuts with the video, just some basic color correction. The audio I clean up, although with the mic so close (and the levels therefore so low) it’s very clean already. Working with complete takes certainly has its benefits when it comes to post!
So the last decision I get to make is where I want to “place” myself for each video. With my green screen setup, I can be anywhere! My idea is just to have fun with it, and perhaps to reinforce the theme of each video. I don’t expect people to believe that I’m actually playing on a golf course, or in the mountains. A number of people did ask me, however, if I really recorded my one-minute bow video in a sauna. I told them that it was basically true (that day was another scorcher here in Pasadena)! For these etude videos, I picked a couple of spaces that looked comfortable and acoustically reflective: everything my garage was not. And for the teaching portions, I picked a Texas state flag.
So that’s how these two videos came to be! Below you can see the finished products, and if you find yourself wanting to work on these etudes, be sure to follow this link to download my music. I put my fingerings and a couple of note corrections in there for you.
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