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Too Many Books Not Enough Precision

By Yixi Zhang
Victoria, Br Columbia
Published: April 16, 2014 at 13:45

Last a few years I've been thinking about when to stop relying on written materials and really learn how to practice. I think might start to get somewhere.

After more than a ten years of violin learning (not counting the 20-year gap in between) and worked with a pretty amazing teacher for the past seven years, I slowly realized that the stubborn habit of wanting to learn everything in a systematic and orthodox way through research and books could be one of the chief obstacles in my approach to the violin and music making.

As a child, I followed my teacher’s advice and practiced diligently and read anything I could get my hands on. As an adult, whenever major problem pointed by someone in my playing (e.g., tone production, intonation, etc), I immediately research and buy books and materials that promise help. I know why I did it. Years of academic trainings and consumerism all have something to do with it. My library is pretty full and the materials I’ve got are all wonderful and helped me a great deal over the years; however, allow me to state the obvious, there is always a gap, sometimes a huge one, between what is written in a text and the extent to which I as can fully apply. The approach of mine perpetuates what is desperation in disguise – the diligence allows the root of the problem unsolved: the lack of surgical precision in diagnosing the problem, breaking it down to the finest detail and quickly fixing it.

Lately there seems to be a lot of discussions around practice less advocated by some very prominent masters of the day such as Pamela Frank and Christian Tetzlaff. I’ve also discussed this issue with some top prize winners of international competitions whom practice no more than one hour/day. I watched my teacher learned and performed Ligeti concerto within six weeks on top of leading a string quartet touring and performing other demanding programs the same time. I’m convinced that some of them can even though some violin god allegedly couldn’t in the past.

How they did it is more fascinating and I hope someday I’ll know. One thing though I’m certain is that, other than special innate talent in music and years of experience these violinists possess, what separates an exceptional violinist to a competent one is efficiency of learning and how they practice. As Pamela puts it, “the way you play is the way you have practiced”

In absence of such talent and experience, I think I could at least try to learn to listen and observe my playing with surgical precision. For instance, when I play a long line of phrase that I have all the notes but the line still doesn’t seem to work, how to spot the exact problematic note, or a space between two notes, as the source of the problem and then find a way to fix it.

I’m not saying learning by research and buying books are wrong; these are necessary educational steps and I’ve learned tons by doing so, but these are also the easiest things to do to get sidetracked. Being a good violinist means we need to always push beyond our own comfort zone and learn to do what are hardest things for us to do. For me, less material acquisition and more surgical precision in practice is one of them, and I'm having fun working on it.


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By Mendy Smith
League City, Texas
Published: April 15, 2014 at 17:58

About seven years ago I performed this elegie. It was my first public performance as an adult, and one that still breaks my heart to this day.

I had about a month to prepare. After much thought, this was the one I chose, but I had limited it to just the beginning of the piece. I knew I couldn't play it in its entirety, but it was appropriate given the circumstance.

Why the Vieuxtemps? Well, it tells a story of love, life and all its tribulations. The two voices traverse the range of experiences and emotions one would see in a long life filled with both joy and sorrow. Of all the pieces that I considered, this was the one that spoke best of my grandfather's life. This was the one to be played at his funeral.

Now, seven years later, I feel that I can finally (and literally) turn the page to finish playing his elegie.

Once that page is turned, your eyes are immediately turned to what is to come at the end. It is a daunting series of notes for an amatueur, let alone trying to figure out how to go about phrasing something like this.

None the less, this is what I'm setting out to do. It is about time that I finish what I started seven years ago.

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The Week in Reviews, Op. 27: Julian Rachlin, Augustin Hadelich, Arabella Steinbacher in concert

By Robert Niles
Published: April 15, 2014 at 15:46

In an effort to promote the coverage of classical music, each week Violinist.com brings you links to reviews of notable violin performances from around the world. We'd love to hear about any recent concerts and recitals you've attended, too. Or just tell us what you think about these reviews!

Julian Rachlin performed the Stravinsky on the same program as the London Philharmonic premiered Górecki’s Symphony No. 4

  • The Financial Times: "Anybody hoping for a repeat of the Third Symphony’s numinous halo of sound is in for a rude awakening."
  • The Guardian "Those who know and love Górecki's Third Symphony, the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, may find the posthumous Fourth a tougher nut to crack." and "Charged by the soloist with tension and energy, (Stravinsky's Violin Concerto) provided the evening's most memorable music-making."

Augustin Hadelich

Augustin Hadelich performed the Mendelssohn with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra

  • Cincinnati Enquirer: "In a field of many rising stars, Hadelich stands out, not only for his stunning technique, but also for his refreshing individuality."

Gil Shaham performed the Korngold with the National Symphony Orchestra

  • Washington Post: "Shaham has a way of making everything sound delightful; I have a weakness for his meltingly sweet tone, which sounds like a throwback to the 1930s."
  • Communities Digital News: "Sunny violin soloist Gil Shaham gave the concerto a light and lively reading, although he seemed slightly troubled on occasion by something going on with his instrument Thursday evening, particularly in the opening movement."

David Russell performed works by Brandenburg at the Faculty & Friends Concert at the University of North Carolina Charlotte

  • CVNC: "…we achieved lift-off when violinist David Russell strode onto the stage as DeMio's partner in the B minor Sonata for violin and harpsichord."

Vadim Repin Shostakovich's Violin Concerto No. 1 with the Novosibirsk Academic Symphony Orchestra, and without a conductor, as Valery Gergiev was stuck in New York

  • Siberian Times: "'If our Novosibirsk Academic Symphony Orchestra was not the highest possible artistic level, I would have never have taken that risk.' Repin hailed the concert as a 'musical feat'."

Arabella Steinbacher performed the Dvorak with the Philharmonia Orchestra

  • The Guardian: "...the most substantial piece of this enjoyably idiomatic evening was Dvorák's deceptively imposing but essentially affable and liltingly rhapsodic violin concerto, which Arabella Steinbacher delivered with sweeping, if occasionally steely, charm and some irresistibly incisive phrasing, especially in the coruscating swirl of the finale."

Jin Suk Yu performed the Sibelius with the New World Symphony

  • South Florida Classical Review: "Soloist Jin Suk Yu showed himself a considerable virtuoso. From the icy, lonely opening through the burly fast passages on the violin’s lowest string, it was clear he had a real feel for Sibelius’ strange Nordic world, as well as the technique to express it."

Bella Hristova performed the Beethoven with the Des Moines Symphony

  • Des Moines Register: "Bella Hristova…conjured a clear sound and thoughtful phrasing from her 359-year-old instrument."

Kristin Lee performed the Fung with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra

  • The Pioneer Press: "It's a wild ride of a piece, and Lee was astounding throughout, coaxing all sorts of unexpected sounds from her violin as the music careened from high and haunting to rapid and raucous to shimmering to angry."

Michael Ludwig performed the Korngold with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra

  • The Buffalo News: "He didn’t merely play this concerto – he just about danced it."

Christian Tetzlaff performed the Dvorak with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra

  • Chicago Tribune: "But a soloist who believes wholeheartedly in its merits can bring it off convincingly, and that's what the brilliant German virtuoso did on Thursday."

Renaud Capuçon performed the Schumann with the London Philharmonic

  • The Guardian: "…it is tempting to hear the concerto as an embodiment of Schumann's mental decline when he wrote the piece in 1853. Capuçon's way of playing it – clipped and precise yet seemingly locked within his own world – enhanced this view, but (conductor) Saraste's unwillingness to grip the orchestral structure made for a more diffuse rendering than this problematic piece deserves."

James Ehnes performed Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 2 with the Philadelphia Orchestra

  • Philadelphia Inquirer: "Ehnes, sometimes a reserved player, gave the third movement a little less passion than it deserves. But he has the gift of subtlety. And charisma. In the first movement, his lovely lower register achieved great presence even without volume."

Calin Ovidiu Lupanu performed Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1 with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra

  • Charlotte Observer: "Soloist Calin Ovidiu Lupanu, the CSO’s concertmaster, set the tone in the concerto from the start: tenderness and beauty, no matter how aggressive the music became."

Isabelle Faust performed the Berg with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra in a tribute to the late conductor Claudio Abbado

  • The Guardian: "Never flamboyant, keenly uncompromising, she was a favourite performer of Abbado's, and little wonder."

Simone Porter performed the Barber with the Albany Symphony

  • Albany Times-Union: "The piece gave Porter a chance to showcase her technique – from long soaring lines to double stops, to frenetic fast passages in the last movement."

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MICCA Gold: A High School Orchestra Goes to Festival

By Karen Allendoerfer
Belmont, Massachusetts
Published: April 15, 2014 at 08:24

The weather was dark and rather depressing; the Winter that Would Never End was still with us. But it was time for the high school music ensembles to go to the MICCA (Massachusetts Instrumental and Choral Conductors Association) festival. Back when I was a kid in New York State, it was NYSSMA. (What is it with these double-lettered abbreviations?) My daughter, a 9th grader who asked me not to embarrass her, plays the violin in the school orchestra.

Now that I have a vehicle that could technically be called a minivan, I became the official cello chauffeur, driving behind the bus. I've known a few conductors that refer to these as "celli" but I don't think that's right. I think it's just plain old "cellos."

We drive 20 minutes to another local high school, one whose auditorium has been renovated more recently and has better seats than ours. Beforehand the orchestra has a chance to warm up in a back room. I sit with the other chaperones in the very back, behind the last stands of 2nd violins. Although I've been the concertmaster of an orchestra of adult volunteers for a while now, this position back here still feels in some way more familiar, more like where I belong. Childhood memories--all those old NYSSMA festivals--have staying power. If my old German factory violin could talk, it would have even more stories to tell. It was around 150 years old back when I took it to those NYSSMA festivals. Thirty years later, with a few more dings and scratches and closing in on 180 years of age, it's in the hands of my daughter at MICCA.

From the way back here, I'm struck anew by the power of a massed string orchestra, especially in the low register. This high school has 4 bassists and a minivanload of cellos (my high school orchestra, by contrast, went through at least one year of only a single cello player). One of my daughter's good friends plays the bass: she's a petite girl, a little shorter than I am, and uses a 3/4 size bass. In fact, 3 of the 4 bassists are average-height girls. The 4th, a boy, is the only one playing a full-size bass. They go through tuning their low strings to each other, until it's one unified rumbling.

The orchestra is playing a couple of pieces from last week's "spring" concert for the competition. One of these is an arrangement, for string orchestra, of the 4th movement of Dvorak's 8th symphony, a piece I played last fall with the Arlington Philharmonic. My daughter and I had a similar convergence a couple of years ago with Grieg's "Hall of the Mountain King." That time their arrangement avoided most of the 7th position screeching of the original. This arrangement is more ambitious, but it still divides the 1st violins into 1a and 1b sections. Violin 1b doesn't go up as high, I found out at my daughter's lesson. And at one point, I heard her walking around the house singing bom-bom-bom . . . ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-bom . . . you know, that woodwind part that the violins are playing accented duples against. Violin 1b got that too.

This school year my daughter has sat all over the violin sections (well, except for the front of the firsts). She is near the front of the 1b's for this concert. In the fall she was in the back of the 2nds, and for the last concert of the year the firsts are re-unified, and she's in the back of them. As I'm sitting there watching all these kids, I decide again that this policy of rotation of seating between and among sections is a good thing. They've had the same concertmaster and section principals all year, which I think is good and appropriate (and this concertmaster is clearly headed for great things), but everyone else gets a chance to sit different places and with different people for each concert. The orchestra is a cohesive social group, while there is always going to be some unavoidable teenage drama, overall they get along well and reserve the competitive attitude for other schools, not for their friends.

After the warm-up they play in the main auditorium, while a smattering of parents, the band from their high school who is playing next, and a group of adjudicators watch and listen. It was my second hearing of this performance in about a week, and this one was clean and impressive like the first one in concert. It's maybe a little embarrassing, but mostly a matter of pride, to admit that the Belmont high school orchestra is better than the adult orchestra I play in. (Certainly they have a more skilled concertmaster.) What they don't have anymore is that whine of shaky intonation that characterizes many student orchestras at the beginning levels. They started to lose it sometime in middle school and now it's completely gone. Instead their tone is rich and full; the impression of power that I got in rehearsal remains on stage. (Mentioning this to my daughter afterwards, she said, "well, some people fake it, and S--the concertmaster--plays really loud").

After the concert and judging, each groups gets a master class with an orchestra educator from another district. Theirs was an enthusiastic and energetic professor who directs an ensemble for non-majors at a local university. At the end of the session, he stopped and asked them, "don't quit music." He said that in the ensemble he teaches, with its literature majors and engineers, the walk across campus to the music building is sometimes the best part of their week. Nobody told me that in so many words when I was a kid, but I believe it.

The judging results in medals for the different ensembles. All the gold medal winners are entered into a lottery to play in Symphony Hall. As it turns out, the orchestra did win gold, but then did not win the lottery. I was a little relieved, honestly, because my daughter had another commitment the same weekend that would have been hard to get out of--but it would have been a potentially once-in-a-lifetime experience to play in Symphony Hall. The Wind Ensemble did win gold and did play there last Saturday.

Congratulations to all!

Beautiful Music: Belmont High Ensembles Garner Highest Honors

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