Choteau, Montana, a town of about 500, and an agricultural county of about 5000, lies on the rolling plans east of the rocky fortress otherwise known as Glacier National Park. At this time of year, the hills are golden from drying hay, and dotted with bales of harvest. Choteau is 197 miles from Bozeman, Montana. The drive is mostly on curvy 2-lane state highways, and includes a stoplight in Townsend (population approx. 2000), and a stop sign at the crossing of Rt. 200 (cross traffic @ 70+ mph does not stop!!!!). In a 1986 Volvo 240DL, which drives like a fish tank with no a/c, the trip is noisy, hot, and tiring, but beautiful.
The Montana State Old-Time Fiddlers Association (MSOTFA) holds their annual state competition in Choteau. The contest includes 2 or 3 rounds of 3 tunes each. I learned of the competition a month ago, took on the challenge (for me) of learning 6 tunes in 1 month and playing them all in a single day, and drove the Volvo to Choteau.
Friday night consisted of a street dance, along with competitions in twin-fiddling, anything-goes fiddling, and dance-band fiddling. There was a crowd of several hundred, and I recognized one. A woman named Nancy who I met only the previous Wednesday as a first-time attendee of a Bozeman jam session. She was up on stage for the competition. Chatting with her after, I learned more. Nancy is experienced in the competition circuit, and this year won 3rd in the Adult division, and 1st in Twin-fiddling at the National Oldtime Fiddlers Contest and Festival in Weiser, Idaho. With her guitarist husband, Ray, Nancy also performs in the Gypsy Jazz quartet, Montana Manouche. Clearly, it was not just any ol’ neighborhood fiddler that I had been jamming with on Wednesday.
Nancy quickly figured out that I am pretty low on the experience chart, without wits to even know that I should have an accompanist for the contest, much less an idea of how to get one, or how to work with one, or how an accompanist would be helpful. She took me under her wing.
Between her personal collection of tunes, her subscription service, and Google, Nancy found chord-charts to all 6 of the tunes (some obscure) that I was playing. She set up guitar cue-sheets; took me out of the hall to rehearse before both the morning and the afternoon performances (in addition to fiddling, Nancy plays and accompanies on guitar); explained how to find and rehearse with and pay accompanists, and how to have music ready for them; organized herself and Ray to be on the stage with me twice; and offered thoughtful supportive comments for my playing. All this while serving as accompanist for several others, and waiting for her own performance in the Championship round. (Which she won.) Could there have been a kinder, more helpful, more supportive person to run into?
This is the way it is at the MSOTFA annual state contest. The experienced fiddlers there are inclusive. They want new-comers to enjoy the art. They applaud your meager performance. They draw you into the jam sessions.
And they give out cash prizes, too. 3rd place Adult nets $100. Even when there are only 3 entrants. But the people and the experience were the greatest reward.
Today I had the privilege of watching violinist and DePaul University Violin Professor Ilya Kaler teach a studio class at the Heifetz International Music Institute. Students at this Institute have two lessons a week, plus a studio class with their teacher. So on this humid summer day, 10 students gathered in a fourth-floor classroom with views of grassy hills of the Mary Baldwin College campus in Staunton, Va. They sat along the walls to watch three of their colleagues perform for Kaler, whose technical wisdom for each performer could easily apply to many situations that violinists face in general.
First, Spencer played the second movement of the Dvorak Violin Concerto, a piece he would be performing in concert the same evening as part of the 41 public concerts the Heifetz Institute hosts over its six-weeks program.
The first point Kaler made was about the two repeated 16th notes that occur in this phrase:
Those two notes need to be equal. It's easy to elongate the second one, and it's also easy to connect the second one into the next note. But it doesn't work, musically. Connecting them telegraphs the next note, thus taking away a certain element of surprise about what will come next. And what comes next is something that changes throughout the movement as the phrase recurs in different ways.
Also, one can make an accidental crescendo there, going up-bow. "The frog is the heaviest part of the bow. Sometimes we have to make a diminuendo going to the frog" and that simply requires more control.
About the various runs in the movement, Kaler advised that "when you have a lot of notes under the same slurs, make sure you are not too close to the bridge, where you can produce a lot of sound debris."
Kaler gave him some tips for the evening performance: "Right when you step onstage, determine the tempo," he said, and do so by thinking of the faster passages. "It's very important to take the right tempo, because it affects your breathing."
In talking about phrasing, he said that different notes in the same bow need different amounts of bow, because if you distribute the bow equally "the phrase has no landscaping."
For the trills, they have be alert, and "you almost have to feel like you are accentuating them with your left hand," Kaler said. Accents are similar. "There is a difference between accents you do only with your hands and accents that go through you like an electric current. You have to feel it with your body."
Kaler also wanted more vibrato in a double-stop passage -- "If you play French Horn you can stop the vibrato, but on violin you have to vibrate," he said.
As the next student, Yezu, prepared to play next, Kaler explained the concept of setting up the left hand position with the Geminiani chord. Basically there are two ways to do it, and here they are:
The idea, which comes from Geminiani's seminal book from 1751, The Art of Playing Violin, is that placing all the fingers down in this way immediately puts the thumb, arm and elbow in the correct positions.
Yezu, with pianist Dina Vainshtein (who played for all performers), played all three movements of the Debussy, an intense performance of this mercurial piece.
Kaler praised the performance but wanted her to "upgrade your pianissimo a little" in order to play in a hall, otherwise, the lower the notes, the less the audience will be able to hear them.
In the score, we see one thing, which is "a wishful dynamic, the dynamic that the composer has in mind," Kaler said. "The other thing is practicing what we need to do" in order for that to work in real life, in a performance, in a hall. It will necessarily be louder.
Debussy, he said, was surrounded by the foremost French violinists of the time, and their focus was on refinement of sound. "Although color was important, it's a quality of sound that's like the finest fabric."
In one section that is a less strict and more of an effect, he said to "pretend there are no bar lines -- don't tell us how it's written."
For a pizzicato section in the second movement he advised that "like arco, we should play pizzicato from the string." In fact, pizzicato technique is much like arco technique, and the more one can make the arm part of the process, the better. One should never use just the finger, he said.
As many people do, Yezu had a tendency to close her eyes while performing. It may seem like it feels more safe. "You drift into your dreamland," he said, "but I suggest cultivating a more open-eyed attitude." One way to do so is to choose a neutral object to look at. Ultimately, having open eyes "will relax you more onstage; you will be more in control." He also suggested watching the bow, or thinking about bow distribution, or looking at the pianist.
"You have to get busy when you perform," he said. "Not with thoughts like, 'Am I good enough?" but with the logistical problems of playing. While you are preoccupied with that, all kinds of discomfort might disappear."
Next came a performance by Angela of the first movement of Prokofiev's Concerto No. 1, a gorgeous and exciting piece. Angela had me rather spellbound by the end of her performance!
Kaler had a great "Tip tip" for the beginning of this piece, a melody that seems to spin out like one endless line: "If you want your note to survive, play with full hair to the tip." Every note has to sing, for a very long time. "It's important how notes start, but even more important how they end." That flat hair at the tip fortifies the sound, keeps it going.
This concerto, Kaler said, is well-orchestrated so that the soloist does not have to constantly fight to be heard. "There are always windows of opportunity to be heard," he said. Nonetheless, one has to play out. For example, in this section toward the end of the first movement:
Despite the composer's markings, and despite that the passage is accompaniment, the violinists must play out. The melody is in the flute, in the same range, and so the instruments compete. The violin part has to poke out of that texture. "Imagine your arm turns into a pendulum," he said, "and follow the line. Use full hair. Don't just pretend to be a fly on the wall, you have to actively participate."
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A violin lesson and a drama-improvisation class seem like two very different animals. The typical violin lesson focuses on mapping out sophisticated musical plans and cultivating complete physical control over the instrument. The improv class throws plans to the wind and pushes for completely free expression.
In reality, both are all about the same thing: technique. And we need both kinds of technique to successfully pull off a compelling public performance. As musicians, we understand why a performance fails when it lacks violin technique. But we need to understand why a performance fails when it lacks dramatic technique: it fails to connect with the audience, it fails to seize moments of spontaneity, it fails to communicate the intended expression.
And this is why it's nice to see young musicians studying the art of drama alongside the art of violin performance. I got to see both kinds of lessons today at the Heifetz International Music Institute at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Va.
Let's start with the violin lesson. This morning I witnessed the analytical genius of Indiana University Violin Professor Mark Kaplan, who can identify the pickiest of musical-technical problems and describe their solutions as poetry. The lesson, and my day, began with the extremely pleasant task of listening to student Rachell Wong play the gorgeous second movement of the Beethoven Concerto with pianist Andrew Rosenblum. (Students at this Institute get two lessons a week, one with piano accompaniment.)
After she was finished, Kaplan dove into the score. First he spoke about the meaning of the title of the movement, "Larghetto," which implies a certain lightness -- not quite as slow as a "Largo."
"Most people tend not to do that," he said, "they tend to milk it." He asked her, what does this motif mean?
In a way, it's a textural motif because it's obviously written for horns, he said, though not always played in the horns. The motif repeats many times throughout, but never in the solo part. "It's also a question," Kaplan said. "It seems like a simple tune, but it's not."
The violin responds to that motif with a high filigree, which is marked "dolce."
"Can you go for dolce as a literal thing?" Kaplan said. "Dolce means sweet, like honey. Can you find the honey in your sound?" That might sound like a weird statement to a non-violinist, but we all pretty much know what it means to hit the honey with tone, and they agreed when she'd found it.
He also talked about having the correct kind of sound to fill the space in a movement like this, which is often marked with pleas for quiet, such as "pianissimo" or "diminuendo" or "sempre perdendosi."
"You don't have to pay loud, but you have to fill the space," Kaplan said, getting her to produce a tone that somehow rang widely but did not seem "loud." Throughout much of the movement, the solo violin is responding to the piano (or orchestra) part, "he has the tune, and you're improvising," Kaplan said, "this is jazz, folks!" It has to sound "like you just thought of it, you're going along with it," and it must be shaped to fit the phrases going on underneath it.
"I have an image, that this is a bird," he said of those high-fluttering notes. When he was young, Kaplan said that played the Beethoven Concerto at Blossom Music Center, the partially outdoor summer home to the Cleveland Orchestra. "During the second movement, there was a bird that came in, flying in these big swoops, for the whole movement."
He talked about that part that says "sempre perdendosi," which literally means always getting lost, or disappearing. "You can't start with too little here, or you have nothing to get lost to," he said. He also urged a kind of slowing down in that place - "getting lost is not just dynamic -- it's putting itself to sleep."
* * *
John's improv class began with warming up physically. After a sequence of shaking hands and feet and repeating tongue twisters, they played several games. One was the fairly familiar game of holding hands in a circle, and passing a hand squeeze around one direction, then the other directions, then both at once.
In another game, the students walked around the room, and one person in the room pretended to have a knife, which he had to zing at the first person with whom he made eye contact. That person would "catch" the fake knife, then zing it to someone else. As this went on, John added a "baby," which students had to gently toss around. Then they added an anxious cat....
Basically the games were very right-brained, physical and spontaneous. After several exercises like this, he switched to games for the brain. The first was a word-association game: one person stands at the center of the circle and goes around to each person in the circle, who gives him a word to which he has to respond with the first word he thinks of. It's important, he said, to truly say whatever comes to mind.
"Don't worry about having ideas, having plans," John said. "Your brain is full of stuff. (In improv), any plan you have will go out the window when you work with another person."
Improvisation, he explained, allows a performer to react to the unexpected, and the unexpected may come from other performers onstage, or from the audience. "Because they're watching you, you're the most important person," John said. "It's so weird! But it gives you power." Improv helps you learn how to use it.
* * *
The second class, with Daniel Pettrow, focused on audience interaction. What does the audience want you to do? After a few warmups, Daniel began with an activity that literally forced the actors "onstage" to do the audience's bidding. We split into two groups of five. The first five people, the actors, had to leave the room while the other five, the audience, decided what they should do. The trick was that the audience was not going to tell them what they'd decided, at least not directly. The only way the actors would know if they were doing the right thing is that the audience would clap if they did something right. I was in the audience group, and we decided to make the actors sing the "YMCA" song, with motions. I seriously doubted this would work! How would they know?
"We're ready for your performance," Daniel said, ushering them back into the room. They foundered around, then at one point, a girl raised her arms. We pointed to her and clapped. She turned around like a ballerina, and we didn't clap. Seeing her success with arm-raising, everyone raised their arms. We clapped as their arms looked more like a "Y." This went on, and suddenly one of them must have been inspired by the feeling and just starting singing, "Y...MCA..."
Then we switched. What did they have us do? Leap like frogs!
Another memorable exercise was this one, in which each person got to stand "center stage" and watch the audience watching him or her. It was very powerful, but hard to describe, so I took a video:
It was interesting to be the person standing center-stage. I could definitely feel strong support: people smiling at me, even beaming at me. Not every audience member gave the same level of support; some were a little more tired or distracted.
"They try to make you less awkward," one student observed of the audience. "You notice who's your friend. You get the feeling maybe the audience wants you to succeed."
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We violinists and string players can be a high-strung bunch, shaped as we are by the pursuit of an art that demands perfectionism, monastic devotion, constant self-criticism, rigorous physical training -- and then utter confidence and ease before a crowd with high expectations.
It's no wonder that it's just not that easy for us to chill out. But chill out we must, if we wish to return to the heart of our musical purpose: human expression. This is one the most interesting parts of the mission of the Heifetz Institute, which I'm visiting this week in Staunton, Va. In order to encourage maximum expression in music students, the Institute offers communication classes such as voice, drama, public speaking, movement and more.
On Tuesday I dropped in on a class called "Freedom of Expression," taught by Chic Street Man, a Seattle-based singer and guitarist who regularly gives workshops on breaking barriers to expression.
The students had been taking these kinds of communication classes for more than four weeks, working with various teachers, and they were pretty open to these out-of-the-box approaches. As for me, my attempt at sitting invisibly in the corner did not last; I wound up participating too.
Chic first asked that we each sing our name, then the group would sing it back to us. "This is about letting go and being yourself," he reminded us. He didn't want people to just use two notes to sing their name, he wanted something a little more interesting and maybe even elaborate. "Make it difficult for them to sing back!" he said. People did really interesting things -- "Carmen" sang her name to Bizet's "Carmen." Both "Ben" and "Jane," who already had short names, sang them in a short way. "Skye" sang just one note, very high up. Others were long and elaborate. I tried to sing "Laurie" to the first few notes of Kreutzer 2 (when in Rome), but I think I wound up sounding like a startled frog.
Next he had groups of two people stand at the front of the room and conduct a conversation, using just one or two words. For example, the first two people could say only the word "okay" to each other. In another group, one person could say, "please" and the other could only say "sorry." Then: "why" and "because"; "here" and "there" -- you get the picture. Below is a video of me trying this exercise with Skye. We could only say "who" and "you."
Simple, isn't it? It's interesting how many permutations there are in these interactions: they could become heated, dissolve into silence, get loud and insistent -- many possibilities.
Next was a game called "Not Getting Down." One person had to act something out at 100 percent energy, and when their energy started dropping (which takes about five seconds), anyone could interrupt, saying, "Freeze! You're not getting down!" and then take over the drama. They started by acting out things, like taking a shower. Then they got out their instruments.
The idea was to go "onstage' and play anything, it just had to be at 100 percent energy. Then anyone could interrupt with "Freeze, you're not getting down!" At first, they were reluctant to interrupt. Each person seemed somewhat marooned on stage, trying to think of something to play, maybe something they were practicing. After a few people played serious pieces, one person played "Twinkle Variations" with outsized drama. Everyone laughed. "Freeze, you're not getting down!" They slowly began to hit a groove.
A cellist played a piece meant for violin, "Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso"; then a violist played an exaggeratedly stiff and stilted version of Bach's G minor fugue (C minor on viola, yes?). A violinist launched into the Rococo variations for cello. One of the more reluctant students took the stage, and as he played, students started plucking the accompaniment. That powered him on a bit more. A cellist started a Bach Prelude; then another cellist interrupted and continued from the same place, then a violist continued it from there. A violinist sat down, positioned her fiddle like a cello and ripped into the Dvorak cello concerto. Another violinist played a passage from "Hora Staccato," positioning the bow upright between his knees, holding the violin sideways and somehow staccatoing the instrument downwards. A violinist ran up and started the Bach Double, then a whole crowd joined in. In a moment of complete role-reversal, a violinist took the stage and played the orchestral introduction to the Mendelssohn concerto, inspiring the students in the "audience" to start the solo part. Eventually, the entire "audience" was improvising things like "Amazing Grace" and "Ode to Joy," together, while the person "on stage" took pencil as baton and conducted, literally directing the audience.
By the end of class, everyone's genie seemed well out of its bottle!
* * *
As I walked into the main building after the expression class, I happened upon a chamber group that was about to walk into a coaching session with Emerson String Quartet violist, Larry Dutton.
Chamber coaching with Larry Dutton = Wow!
So I sneaked in to watch. The six young musicians were playing Tchaikovsky's Souvenir de Florence.
He was good-natured and down-to-business. They accomplished a lot, and quickly.
"You don't have to play fortissimo all the time; let this stuff pop out," Dutton said, trying to allow the important voices to get through the sometimes-thick writing by Tchaikovsky. Also some advise on fast notes: don't bunch them up in order to just get them done -- "don't let it collapse, fill out the rhythms."
I smiled when he implored the violinists and cellists to "give the violas a chance, please!" (Wouldn't that make a great bumper sticker?) He meant for them to back off when the violas had the melody, that "there's got to be a clearing of the sound."
In one solo passage he told the violist that "you could use more expensive fingerings," meaning going up on the same string for a note and just doing a little more with the fingerings to create color in the music.
Tchaikovsky wrote a great many (too many?) crescendos in this piece, Dutton observed, and "I'd love to hear the details in here, more than just getting louder. Don't over-crescendo."
In a nutshell, Dutton was helping them clear the fog away in order to let the details emerge, and it certainly was working well with such responsive and accomplished students.
* * *
I also dropped in on a quartet coaching with Daniel Heifetz, the founder and artistic director of the Heifetz Institute.
The quartet was playing the first movement of Schubert's Quartet No. 1 -- sort of auditioning to play in next week's performances at the Institute, which is holding 41 public concerts over its six-week term this year.
The piece was in excellent shape (what a treat for me) but Heifetz told them he wanted them to bump it up to the level of artistry.
"You're playing the dynamics, but it needs more of the reason behind the dynamics," Heifetz said. For example, when you play an inner part, there's no biding your time until you have something more interesting to play. Those voices need urgency and mystery.
And soft passages still need intensity. When playing pianissimo, one can't simply drop to nothing as you might do in orchestra playing.
"In chamber music or solo playing, you find a silver thread of a sounding point, and that pianissimo carries to the balcony," Heifetz said. "I don't want to sit in the audience, snoring, while you play nice chamber music; I want something magical."
He had them sing their parts. "I firmly believe that when you feel it, when you have it in your ear, when you can sing it, then your technique will almost automatically do what you need to do, when you are as advanced as you are," he said. "The best thing you can learn from me is not how to play the piece, but how to think like an artist."
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