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Review: Gil Shaham Performs Bach's Six Sonatas and Partitas at Disney Hall

By Laurie Niles
March 30, 2015 23:22

Watching Gil Shaham perform Bach's six solo Sonatas and Partitas for violin in Disney Hall in Los Angeles on Sunday night felt like witnessing a new chapter in violin history. Aside from displaying the astonishing athleticism and mental stamina required to perform all 32 movements live and by memory, Shaham also turned these familiar works on their head. Most violinists make concessions in Bach, based on the constraints of technique, but Shaham has reached a level of mastery with these pieces that allowed for a great deal of experimentation. On Sunday (as in his new recording), he went for a wholesale re-thinking of speed, from the setting of basic tempos to the fitting of embellishments into impossibly tiny spaces of time.

Gil ShahamShaham's performance was accompanied visually with original film scenes by New York-based filmmaker David Michalek, whose subjects -- dancers, still-life arrangements, the flapping of bird wings, a face, kids playing the violin -- were captured in a state of high-def super-slow motion, revealing every intimate detail of their expressions and motions. Fascinating spectacles, sometimes these visual elements aligned with the music, and other times they seemed to compete. Shaham's high-velocity playing, tremendous energy and big-hearted expression drew most of my attention throughout the concert.

Like taking a spin with a race car driver, following Shaham was in turns exhilarating and disorienting. The new set of tempi turned many of the movements into very different-feeling music from what has evolved as "tradition" in the last century. Of course, the Bach Sonatas and Partitas were not neatly handed down to today's violinists, from one generation of performers to the next. They were left largely forgotten and unplayed for more than a century: completed in 1720, they weren't printed until 1802, and even then, they weren't widely championed until Joseph Joachim took them on in the late 19th century. In other words, the tempos that we take for granted today were set by performers far removed from Bach and his time. Certainly that has been changing with the advent of period performance; at the same time, it's made us all a little overly obsessed with what is "right."

When Shaham spoke to Violinist.com about his exploration of these works, he mentioned the disparity between the tempos typically used by violinists for the solo sonatas and partitas and Bach's other Minuets, Sarabandes, Fugues and the Chaconne from Cantata 150, which are typically played faster. He wondered, why not play them at those tempos? One reason has to do with Bach's impossible demands. How do you play on four strings at a time on the violin? How do you perform a three-voice fugue on a violin? How do you play a melody over a thrumming bassline, on a melodic instrument? For some time, people thought these works were academic exercises, something theoretical, not really meant for human beings to play as written.

We've come a long way; but make no mistake, this music is as hard to play as it ever was. How did our hero Joachim fare, those many years ago? Here is Bernard Shaw's account from 1890:

"(Joachim) played Bach's Sonata in C at the Bach Choir Concert at St James’s Hall on Tuesday. The second movement of that work is a fugue some three or four hundred bars long. Of course you cannot really play a fugue in three continuous parts on the violin; but by dint of doublestopping and dodging from one part to another, you can evoke a hideous ghost of a fugue that will pass current if guaranteed by Bach and Joachim. That was what happened on Tuesday. Joachim scraped away frantically, making a sound after which an attempt to grate a nutmeg."

The fugue to which Shaw refers above is one of the longest and complex fugues that Bach ever wrote, and it appears in the third solo Sonata. On Sunday, Shaham nailed that fugue like I've never heard it in live performance, with clarity in every voice and precision of pitch and placement. The fast tempo served to align the voices; it solved the problem of rolling chords and jumping strings by putting them closer together in time. This was also an instance where the filmmaker's vision aligned well with the music: a mesmerizing spray of water droplets slowed nearly to a stop. The audience, which had finally stopped clapping between movements, couldn't resist clapping after this extraordinarily well-executed fugue. The preceding "Adagio" had ended with spellbinding intimacy, a mood that Shaham captured more than once on this long journey.

Indeed this set of works, three dance suites and three sonatas, constitutes a far-ranging musical journey when played as a whole. As Shaham said from stage, "this is the closest thing violinists have to a holy book."

Arguably the most sacred scripture in our "holy book" is the "Chaconne" from the D minor Partita. Twentieth-century performances of the work tend to proceed like a dirge; Shaham played it like a dance. Instead of moving with majesty, as is the tradition, it moved with a different center of gravity: arpeggios became shimmering chords, new through-lines became perceptible, gestures changed. It was extremely artful, and it brought new light to this important piece.

Shaham also experimented with decoration -- when a movement was repeated, he embellished it the second time (following Baroque tradition). The second sonata's "Andante" has what sounds like a heartbeat that continues through the movement, underneath a melody. Somehow Shaham managed to decorate this melody, even displacing the melody's rhythms while still keeping that underlying heartbeat completely steady. The final Partita also provided plenty of repeats, which he embellished in a joyful, playful way, sneaking in little flurries of notes, quicker than a tickle.

When it comes to Bach, people don't necessarily want to change their ways or augment their tastes. Certainly, people don't have to embrace Bach anew, but Gil Shaham's live Bach cycle was a revelation and a joy to witness.

Laurie and Gil Shaham

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Teaching Adults -- Problems and Solutions -- ASTA 2015

By Laurie Niles
March 30, 2015 06:40

Adult students can be transformed by learning to play a stringed instrument, but they require some special consideration by teachers.

Elmhurst College teachers Susan Blaese and Edgar Gabriel spoke about this topic at a lecture at the American String Teachers Association conference in Salt Lake City earlier this month. Both have many years of experience, teaching adult beginner and intermediate string students.

They defined "adult learners" as anyone age 24 and older who is either starting to play an instrument or resuming after a period of years (not those who continually played since childhood).

Susan Blaese and Edgar Gabriel
Susan Blaese and Edgar Gabriel both teach groups of adult students

Gabriel said that, during his early years of teaching adults, he noticed a trend: "They would quit, right when they were starting to get good!" About a dozen years ago, he started teaching adults in groups, and he's been happy with the results. "In groups, they stick around longer," Gabriel said. "There's a camaraderie, and they don't quit."

Adults have certain challenges: life gets in the way of practice routines for them. They may have arthritis or other physical conditions, and vibrato can be difficult to attain. They also often have unreasonable expectations; they want immediate results.

But on the other side of it, adults stand to gain much from studying violin or another stringed instrument. Gabriel pointed to studies by Dr. Nina Kraus of Northwestern University that list some of the advantages of studying an instrument as an adult: improved overall hearing, improved ability to distinguish voices in a crowded room and improved memory. He said that his students have told him that their doctors said that playing the violin would help their arthritis.

He described the case of one adult student who had lost her ability to do mental math, due to severe injuries from a car crash. Seven years of therapy did little to help with this skill, which affected her ability to measure distances, understand speed limits, do recipes and balance her checkbook. She had nearly given up when she started playing the violin. As she said in a video, "I didn't realize that some of my mental math skills were coming back," but after several years of violin, she found that those skills were growing. "Now I feel like I'm completely normal." Her skill level on the violin, as shown in the video, was still at a beginning to intermediate level, but the benefits to her brain function were immense.

Blaese, who taught in public schools for 33 years, now directs a group at Elmhurst College called Varsity Strings, an orchestra consisting of music majors playing their second instruments, and also adult students. Gabriel and Blaese did an informal poll of their adult students, and they found that those students felt that learning an instrument gave them increased flexibility, confidence, relaxation, sense of purpose, improved vision, better auditory memory, increased enjoyment of music, exercise for the mind and importantly, new friends. They reported that they liked going to rehearsals better than they liked practicing alone.

What are some of the challenges for adults?

For one, "adults don't want to hear any bad sounds right away, but the kids don't care." No beginner sounds good on the violin, but many kids will saw away happily, largely unaware or un-judging of the sound. Adults have the awareness already.

"I made a rule for my adult students," Gabriel said, "if anyone says anything negative about their own playing, they have to drop a dollar in a bucket."

Gabriel also recommended that if you are teaching adults in a group, they each should have their own stand. "I've tried to get them to share; it doesn't work." Also, with adults, "you have to get them to play, right away," they won't go for a month on a cardboard violin.

Gabriel-chairTo teach adults how to hold the bow, Gabriel said that he shows them how to make a bow hand, then he tells to do it every day, but in the following rather unconventional way: sit in a chair with an arm rest and watch television, keeping that proper bow hand, with the bow sticking straight up. They simply need to spend time with their fingers in that formation, around the stick.

When it comes to holding the violin, he said that he does the first lesson standing up, but he's also more inclined to allow an adult student to sit for subsequent lessons. He does use tapes on the fingerboard, and shoulder rests, depending on the student's needs.

Blaese said that with adults who may have conditions like arthritis, "you have to be super-observant and let them play for a while any way that they want to. Try many set-ups, and don't give up. It takes a lot of effort -- don't expect that they'll look right, right away." Eventually, they'll get there, but it just might take more time.

Some of the repertoire they recommended for adult students includes: Wohlfahrt Easiest Elementary Method for Violin; Fiddlers Philharmonic by Dabsynski and Phillips, The O'Connor Method Books 1-3, Solos for Young Violinists and Violists by Barbara Barber and any middle school orchestra arrangements that grades 1-3 level (and they recommended classics, adults don't prefer "pop" style).

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Larry Shapiro: 70 Years Young

By Shauna Kaske
March 27, 2015 14:47

I wrote this article for the Butler Collegian and I thought anyone in the Indianapolis area might be interested in going! It's right on Butler's Campus!

 photo Larry-Shapiro

Larry Shapiro, the first official full-time instrumental music professor on Butler’s campus, has been teaching here for about twenty-eight years. Over 70 years old, Shapiro said he plans to keep teaching well into his 90’s.

Shapiro began playing the violin when he was just six years old.

“Sixty-seven years later and I’ve almost got the hang of it,” Shapiro joked. “I chose the violin because it was the hardest, and I was right.

“My house was always full of classical music, it was natural to me,” Shapiro said.

Although he was a natural-born musician, Shapiro went through a typical youthful rebellion.

Shapiro started out as an English major at Columbia University. He refused to play the violin for a couple years. Soon, he left and went to play tenor sax in a dance band in Dallas.

He returned to New York and met his wife of over fifty years, Ashley.

“That was when I realized I couldn’t live without it,” Shapiro said, referring to his violin.

Although Shapiro was a little behind when he first started out because of his hiatus, his talent did not go unnoticed.

Shapiro soon dropped out of Colombia and attended the noteworthy Manhattan School. People would call Shapiro after seeing him play, begging him to play for them. He was an original member of the American Symphony, as well as assistant Concertmaster of the New York City Opera.

Shapiro, however, has not always had it easy. A car accident a few years back left him and his wife, Ashley, with severe injuries. Unfortunately, Shapiro suffered a shoulder injury that he is still recovering from today.

As of late, Shapiro underwent cataract surgery for both eyes because he could no longer see the music.

Because of this, Shapiro had to move back his recital to March 31 to have sufficient recovery time.

But he won’t let anything stop him now.

Shapiro said he likes to associate a theme with his recital programs, and this year the theme will be “Musical Bonbons,” or short musical compositions that he thinks are treats.

Shapiro has gathered ten works from Mozart to Gershwin, even including a fiddling tune that he prepared himself.

“I play from the heart, rather than from the head,” Shapiro said. “Music is the closest thing to a religious experience, and I am so honored to be able to learn my living this way.”

Shapiro said he believes music is more eloquent than words. Music, in his eyes, has the power to transform lives.

Kim Busic, one of Shapiro’s students, had nothing but sincere words to say about Shapiro.

“Mr. Shapiro has inspired me to become a better violinist and musician,” Busic said. “His knowledge of the violin is like no other violin teacher I have had. Without some of the philosophies and techniques he has taught me, I definitely would not be the violinist I am today.”

Being here for almost thirty years, Shapiro has watched Butler University evolve.

“I have watched Butler University over 28 years to transform itself into something extraordinary. I was the first person ever to be appointed to a full time musical instrument position,” Shapiro said. “The university continued to support that position with similar full time positions and I’m just happy to be a part of what is such a great music school. The entire campus has been transformed.”

Still, Shapiro believes that there is one thing about Butler that makes it stand out from every other institution that he has taught at.

“The thing I value most is that it’s the most nurturing place I’ve ever been a part of,” Shapiro said. “The faculty cares so much about the students. I was a tumbleweed for many years, and when I came here it felt like home. And I’m just getting warmed up.”

Larry Shapiro will give his yearly recital at Eidson-Duckwall Recital Hall on Tuesday, March 31 at 7:30pm.

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V.com weekend vote: Have you participated in graded music exams in your area (as either a teacher or a student)?

By The Weekend Vote
March 26, 2015 23:15

Many students find motivation in taking graded repertory exams, though these are not as commonplace in the United States as they are elsewhere.

Music Exams

Here is a list of some of the most common music exams, and where they take place:

There are other music exams, and some are more localized. I welcome your additions to this list!

Have you participated in a music examination program (or more than one)? Are they motivating for you or for your students? Are they a waste of time that interferes with other learning? Please share your thoughts on the subject!

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ASTA 2015

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