Violin-playing in real life (or “why after 50 years I still can't play the Bruch G minor”)
I recently went though a pile of my old diaries dating from the 70's and 80's – was that busybody really me? An absorbing full-time job, 2 or 3 hours a day spent commuting, two evening orchestral rehearsals each week, regular sessions with piano and string quartet, concerts almost fortnightly. All that and a social life too!
Conspicuously missing from my activities was any time spent practising the violin. Technically I'd become virtually stuck at a level not far above that when I left school. This was occasionally commented upon by string coaches, e.g. “You do realise you shift position all wrong?”; “You don't use your little finger, do you?” (this was unfair; I often use my little finger).
However, while my technique stagnated my sight-reading improved out of all recognition, I learned to play while listening to and watching everything going on around me and became deeply absorbed in the chamber music repertoire. For a while jobbing with various local orchestras and choral societies became a useful source of pocket money. I got to play in the Royal Albert Hall, St Paul's Cathedral and in both concert halls of the South Bank and finally (this is still about 1985) found a good seat in one of London's best amateur orchestras. I was 35 - you know what happens next.
My point for discussion is this, if you're a dedicated striver that's great – more power to your elbow – but there are other ways for amateur violinists to enjoy music-making than bashing through Bruch in the bedroom.
I know exactly what you mean, I have been playing since I was 9 yrs old and am 59 now, I could play the Bruch easily when I was 20, but not now, too many years of getting better as an orchestral player and no time practicing. Add to this the aging process, arthritis ( well a bit anyways) and put life in the mix and you have exactly what you describe.
I know what you mean, too. I started playing when I was 6 or 7, could just manage to play the Bruch when I was 20. But by then I had decided to put my energies into studying literature. I am now 76 . . . As an amateur I played in some community orchestras, but eventually got frustrated with practicing difficult scores to be performed only two or three times. I had a busy academic career to deal with. Learning the first violin part for Borodin's Symphony #2 sticks in my mind as the point where I began to think I needed to try something different. So I went over to "traditional" music, and now I spend more time fiddling in a Cape Breton group that performs regularly in a pub. Some pieces in this repertory are as challenging as as a Bach partita, while others are quite simple, and it was a surprise to discover rather late in life that I could learn the traditional music easily by ear, and even to improvise. Not something that was encouraged for classical violinists in my generation, but it's the most musical fun I can imagine at this point in my life. The company is excellent, too, and there are no hierarchies for age or skill.
I'm not so concerned about Bruch, but I sure would like to be able to play more of the quartet literature. If pounding away at Bruch (or Kreutzer, etc.) will get me there, then I'm willing to do some of that. For a while, anyway. I've decided to coast on whatever skill I have when I hit 60. If that decision is made for me before then, well, so be it.
*sigh* You basically have described my adult music life. And yet, like Paul, I'm at the point of wishing for more. It's a tough habit to change.
I've played the Bruch several times - in the cello and violin sections of various orchestras. At my time of life, together with being a violin late starter (post retirement), that must be the best I can reasonably hope for!
An important benefit of learning the Bruch is that, when anyone asks you about your "level" on violinist.com, you can say you're at the "Bruch Level." You see, the Bruch Level is marginally higher than the Mozart Level, and higher still than the Accolay Level, and much much higher than the Seitz Level or the Rieding Level.
That puts the matter in a nutshell.
Hey Paul, what pieces are similar in difficulty to Bruch?
I have always thought Bruch is just another concerto until I joined v.com. What is the big deal?
From this thread one thing led to another and I ended with this video. Totaaly related and hilarious.
Just to rewrite Paul slightly, if you're 17 or 18 and you're at the Bruch level, play quartets instead!
Bruch is often the "gateway" concerto to the professional Romantic concerto repertoire. If you can play the Bruch well, you can handle a substantial percentage of the repertoire played professionally in the concert hall / recital hall, including most chamber-music 1st violin parts.
I get that. What I meant was why do we need to divide people ( haves and have nots) this way? To become a “good” violinist, one has a long way to go even after “the Bruch” is solidly in the bag.
Enjoyed the video, Carlos -- thanks for that. Very funny. Id' be happy to jam with those guys anytime!
I think to go from Bruch G Minor to Last Rose is much much farther than from Bach A Minor to Bruch.
Just because you CAN play a romantic concerto (all the notes, in the right order) doesn't necessarily mean that you or anyone else will find the experience musically satisfying. I suspect the satisfaction for the player is in the process rather than the result, while the satisfaction for the listener is..? I frankly can't see the point in setting oneself "levels" of this sort unless your extra expertise is applied to repertoire which you may actually get the chance to play in public or in ensemble to a standard which is recognizable as music. Of course, that's just me talking!
Would you guys say that Saint-Saens is of similar difficulty to Bruch?
I realized many years ago that the demand for me performing a violin concerto like Bruch was much smaller (or non-existent) than the demand for me playing chamber music or orchestra. So I stopped practicing violin concertos and focus on chamber music instead. This is music I love to play and when working with the right people we can get to a level where a performance is appreciated by the audience. As an amateur it is very difficult to find an orchestra who would let you play the solo part of Bruch. Even a second rank orchestra would probably hire a pro for that.
I recently heard a “star” student perform one of the gateway pieces. It was obvious she needed to go back and learn the piece slowly.
I should clarify that when I say "Bruch level", I mean that the piece is played well -- i.e., at tempo, in tune, with good tone, and a stylistically appropriate interpretation. Such a student won't sound like a professional soloist (or a fully-developed artist), but they should sound comfortably in command of the instrument, and the performance is pleasant. I am very aware that many students scrape through Bruch at a marginal level -- we've seen quite a few videos along those lines here on v.com over the years -- but a strong argument should be made that those students are playing inappropriate repertoire.
Thanks, Lydia. It is crazy fast.
“I should clarify that when I say "Bruch level", I mean that the piece is played well -- i.e., at tempo, in tune, with good tone....”
I like this post. It's very life is more about the journey than the destination.
Steve, your initial point (i.e., there are many ways for amateur violinists to enjoy music-making) is so obviously true. What I find interesting is what might be behind the need for this discussion. From your title, there are the fact of Bruch No.1, age, and "real life", whatever it means. Like Michael, said, if we treat violin playing as a journey, whatever and however one decides to explore, it's entirely one's own concern.
David, sure -- at least at the intermediate level and beyond. At the beginner stage, skills are still emerging. In some players that turns into advancing without improving, leading to harder and harder pieces that continue not to be well-played.
OP, I happen to be one of those who works only on solo repertoire (solo Bach, standard concertos and etudes). There are only so many hours in a day and I would rather spend my three hours on music that I enjoy and that would make me a better violinist.
Each to his own. I prefer chamber music and I think practicing a string quartet part can be just a good tool to become a better violinist as practicing a concerto. And on top of that I get to practice playing with others, adapting to them and understanding my parts role in the piece. I would probably never get that opportunity with a concerto. I do play some solo repertoire and sonatas and small pieces for violin or viola and piano.
I was a bit over-forceful in expressing my view, but it had the desired effect! I'm grateful to hear it partly echoed by Bo and Michael, and equally glad to hear the contrary opinion from David. But yes, Yixi, we all have our own unique mix of experience, ambition, circumstances and opportunities. My prescription is actually a description of most of my musical friends and colleagues and I can see might not apply in more sparsely populated parts of the globe!
I agree. I had a hiatus of almost two decades, when I played very little. When I came back to the violin, in my mid-fifties, after a serious health crisis, I took lessons from an experienced and excellent teacher to try to recover my technique. Making the best of my time, though, was what mattered, with the changing horizon as one grows older. What I wanted above all was to play Bach well, and especially to master as much as I could of the Sonatas and Partitas. And some of the other other baroque, classical & romantic repertoire. I enjoyed some community orchestra work but my interests began to shift. As for chamber music, I love it, but in my circles, & not being a professional musician, it has been difficult to find other people with a similar interest, and the time available. Since I'd always had a strong interest in folk music and "traditional" music for violin, it was was easy to find a ready place in open sessions and fiddle groups. It felt good to drop some of my embedded classical prejudices. I believe you can learn a lot and develop as a musician as you grow older, if you're willing to move laterally, learn new directions, and don't stay stuck on mastering the great romantic and modern concertos. I'd like to try more jazz.
*Complete* musicality is very different than having a basic level of musicianship. :-)
"Complete musicality" of course is nonsense - I meant to imply that in the context of an audition there are important musical skills - those that relate to ensemble playing - that can't be judged from the performance of a concerto movement. That's why I believe most professional orchestras apply a probationary period to new recruits.
Oh Steve, a concerto is part of an orchestra work. That is, when a concerto is properly learned, we need to know what orchestra (or piano) is doing just as much as our own part unless it comes to Cadenza. This is the case in performebce,masterclass and auditions. Sonatas too are in fact chamber music because without working with a pianist, we are not properly learning the piece.
Well, teachers generally dictate to students how a piece should be interpreted, so students treat it like details to work on. So how do students actually learn to interpret music properly themselves?
Yixi, that's absolutely how it should be, but is it always? I expect most of us have participated in performances where the soloist blasts through the piece as if the orchestra wasn't there. I also know from personal experience that not all professional orchestral players (of the older generation, i.e. mine!) are good chamber-musicians. In recent years we have the example of elite, handpicked orchestras of which the reviewers often write that they play symphonies "like chamber music". The last time I saw they LSO the thing that impressed me the most was the uncanny way the string-players moved together, with minimal direction from the conductor.
Ella - Interesting. After learning the notes and dynamics, my teacher encourages me to interpret the work for myself, then we discuss from there if it makes musical sense or not. They call me on it if I'm going too much or too little, or not phrasing things correctly, or getting muddled about where the phrase is going. I end up spending A LOT of time on each piece "for an amateur" but... when I complete a piece it feels more like mine and less like "what my teacher told me to do" because I understand what is happening. Seems that I'm in the minority with my teacher-student circumstances?
I believe that many principal player auditions include chamber-music in the final round.
If a teacher is unable to instil in a student, over a period of time, the ability for the student to analyze their own playing, identifying problems and their solutions for themselves, then I feel there has been a failure somewhere along the line, not necessarily on the part of the teacher, of course.
I agree with you Trevor! That goes for anything, not just violin.
Steve, it's true that not all professional orchestral players are good chamber-musicians. But in every community orchestra I tried, it shows right away who has worked on "Bruch level" reps and who hasn't. Right now I'm (someone in her late 50s) in a conservatory orchestra playing with all young musicians (some are majoring in collage music performance). All of them are playing at advanced level. I have to say that the joy to play with them is something I've never could imagined in any community orchestra or chamber group. My point is, we enjoy music more as we become better musicians, which means hard work. As one of my old teachers used to say, why should anything be easy? In other words, if it's not hard, we are not learning. But then again, not everyone wants to be a lifelong learner. That's ok too.
One of my teachers gives me great suggestions, but gives me some freedom in interpretation as well. Another teacher, on the other hand, seems to be more dictative, though I'm totally free to ask questions. I guess we all feel situations differently.
Some of my favorite recordings are simpler pieces played by Heifetz. They are so expressive. I quite agree that it feels like too much emphasis is placed these days on playing the violin fast. In some cases I feel like it stiffles the piece. I was reading recently about how two greats played one of these concertos that we consider a standard for soloists, at quite different tempos, one fast, one slow, but that they were equally expressive and compelling. I wish I could recall the specifics but my memory is horrid. (Lol, I hope it wasn’t here.)
Jane expresses my feelings perfectly. Little "easy" pieces played well can be just as much a joy to the player as hard pieces played, and much more of a joy to the listener. And the repertoire is so wide I feel it's an opportunity wasted to always bring out the old favourites that everyone has heard played better. For 30-odd years I've had a regular annual concert date with piano, and the composers we've played in our 10-minute slot include Coleridge-Taylor, Cui, McEwen ("Scotland's greatest composer") and Percy Miles, as well as lesser pieces by greater composers. I love researching the vaults of IMSLP to find pieces which have never received commercial recordings (no competition) and spend hours trying to get them to sound as well as I possibly can. Yixi, it isn't easy and I'm still learning, but at 68 I know and accept the limitations of my fingers.
Steve, now I understand where you come from. I agree with you. Sorry if I sounded disrespectful in my earlier posts.
Not at all Yixi - just the legitimate cut and thrust of debate!
Michael, if you are like me, you were probably much more sensitive to your playing and demanding of yourself than your counterparts. In plain English, you probably sounded better to your ensemble than to yourself.
I've never been able to play the Bruch, not as a teenager and not now. I have friends who can play the big romantic violin concertos and play them well; I'm not, and never have been, part of that group. Perhaps it's just not my niche--I don't listen to violin concertos for fun, either, and it was never a dream of mine to play one. On the other hand, after a long break from playing in grad school and when my children were young, I have steadily improved as a chamber and orchestral musician throughout my 40s and early 50s, and become a violist in that time too. I'm going to play my first solo concerto ever with a community orchestra (Telemann viola concerto) this spring at age 52. It's not technically difficult but everyone I've played it for has recognized that it is a beautiful piece. It's one of the few concertos that moves me emotionally the way orchestral and chamber music does. It seems to me that one of the pleasures of getting older is that you can decide that these rankings and hierarchies and categories that the rest of the world wants to impose on your musical life are just so much noise, and ignore them.
My sole experience as a concerto-player was about 20 years ago in Brandenburg 4. The orchestra was conductorless and the responsibility of directing (getting them all to start together in the same tempo) was such that it left no brainspace for nerves. Went like a breeze!
Michael, I'm interested in hearing more about your arrangement of the Telemann. Why do you need to arrange it beyond what's already out there? Another nice thing about it is that even as written it's not too difficult for a decent amateur group. But it's only for strings, which can make the wind players feel left out :-(