December 2006

Getting together

December 24, 2006 21:29

if one is havng trouble with getting things together with the piano the first thing I think one has to do is make sure one`s own house is in order. Practicing with a mm is a fundametal part of a musician`s practice. But, it is also a very double edged sword and if we don`t recognize that this machine should not be dictating the ebb and flow of music that we feel we can get into real difficulties. It is also very common to have people practice so that they land on the beat at the right time, but the notes in between are not at all rythmical in relation to the whole. In this case the mm is actually reinforcing poor rythm!
One way round this problem is to use a very slow mm beat and practice to a beat that covers, for exmaple a whole bar (yu need a DRBeat mm). If you are getting ther e too early or too late then you can go back and find out where the irregularity is in the larger chunk.That is a completely differnet kind of mm practice.
The question of rhythm and tempo has been on my mind a great deal recently because of two very closely occuring experiences I had. I was acting as cocnertmaster for an amateur orchestra last Saturday and they began rehearsing with the Andante Cantabile from the Tchaik string quartet. From the beginning it felt rocky and it was clear that the of breathing and moving as one (entraining) was not well known, but also evey time the strings came to a 16th note chunk in both this and the subsequent work (1812 overture)the notes were somehow not together. The cause wa s clear enough: the players had not had drilled into them the necessity of subdividing and counting 16th notes like crazy during all the long notes.
The day after a student came to me with the first movement of the Handel f major sonata. It was sort of okay but lacked a basic sense of pulse in the opening bars. I asked her to establish the tempo she wants to play by looking at the faster passages. Then establish a beat by letting the 16th notes creating the pulse. Then count herself in and breath on the up beat while mental subdividing. As she played she wa s to continue subdividing in her head. I also asked her to work on it by playing the long notes divided into 16th notes .
It really is important to try and practice pieces with this work on mental (and physical) subdivision going on. The opneing of the Handle d major sonata is also often weak because there is no clear pulse from the up beast before the first bar and during the 8th note rest. Many students don`t start thinking about the 8th note pulse until the have started palying and they stop during the tied half notes. As a result the music dies. Somehow the tension is lost.
When you are wortking with a pianist your first responsibilty is to make sure -you- know the piano part.You must have a very clear concept in your head of what the piano is actually doing in your own private practice time. Then as you play together you are lsitening really closely and just trying to feel the music with the pianist. If you cannot get things together then pracitc eslower but with greta precision and speed things up, using a metronome if necessary until you both have a sense of -what the music should sopund like- in perfect ensemble. Another thing to work on is identifyying -exactly - where the problem is. It is not helpful and can be very frustrating if you rehearse using comments like `we are not together between x and y.` Keep working at it until you have identifed on exactly which notes the problem is occuring. If you follow this procedure then the act of focusing may well be enough to resolve the problem.

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Doing it with Dounis

December 20, 2006 21:49

Japanese students and adults alike frequently bemoan their inability to use English after so many thousands hours of boring grammar explanations and examples of communication that never go beyond a single sentence.So one of the things I enjoy doing at my middle school is turning student lose in the computer room to research a famous person of their choice and write about them , the subsequent essay being constructed with me and then transferred to a poster for the whole school to read. This necessitates students working with dictionaries which always leads to hilarious mis translations. My favorite of the week comes from the students who chose Thomas Edison. Two of them had honed in the quote `Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration,` (or something like that.) Alas, use of a Japanese dictionary seems to convert this to `Genius is 1 percent thinking and 99 percent flashing.` Time to get those cookies out again….
On a more violinistic note, I like use and recommend a great deal of different kinds of technical material to the different levels of players who wander in the direction of rice field. I was thinking about these because of a couple of recent v.commie postings about `building` or even `rebuilding` technique time in private practice. In many ways I think this kind of thinking is a little bit of a dangerous road that players and teacher shave tended to go down in recent years. Tat is, making a very sharp distinction between technique and music. In many ways this approach is efficient but I always have in mind Auer`s comment that it is nuance that makes any note worth playing in the first place. That being said, I think one of the best all round books a university or early twenties technical session (or anyone else for that matter ;) ) is Dounis: the Artists Technique of Violin Playing. There isn’t that much information out there anymore about this somewhat elusive pedagogue. Not sure if the one book about his idea sis still in print, although you can buy his complete works via The Strad book department. Likewise, the players who can talk knowledgeably about him, even second hand through the teaching of a cellist (!) whose name I can’t spell are somewhat few and far between. Although they do pop up on this list occasionally. It was s one of them who commented that although the Daily Dozen (a self explanatory and very helpful warm up routine) is fine it is not in the same class as The Artist’s technique. That has had me considering what aspects of violin technique the AT (Artists Technique not Alexander) highlights and develops so well. Could they be isolated as a serious of useful maxims which are known but oft forgotten during our daily rush to cram in practice and end gain at any cost?
Well, the first thing Dounis does is critique our tendency to leap into scales (an advanced collection of techniques) without preparation. That is clearly an important rule. Then he begins with an exercise that that has always struck me as rather extreme as an opener, involving a two octave slide on one string to get the notion of guiding finger chugging along. Nonetheless, one might add to this guiding finger idea (no leaping) the point that moving up and down comes from the elbow opening and closing (until the higher positions ) and this is well worth constant review. It’s very easy to over focus on the fingers. It also provides a perfect exercise for working on the idea discussed in depth by Menuhin in his book on the violin that one creates space with the shoulder back for an upward shift and vice versa. This can usefully be consciously worked on. Furthermore, one cannot go into the stratosphere unless one has a clear mental conception of where one is going. `Fly me to the moon` has to be engineered. Finally, such a radical shift of position involved an equally radical change of sound point and concomitant bow speed and weight. Thus form just the first exercise one might keep in mind the following for starters:
1) Scales are not for starters.
2) Don’t jump, slide.
3) Makes space with your left shoulder.
4) Move from the elbow.
5) Don’t let the violin move around as you shift.
6) Visualize where you are going.
7) Hear where you are going.
8) A left hand exercise is a bowing exercise and vice versa.

I’m always a little puzzled that his next exercise which is arpeggios of a similar distance on one string are called `for intonation.` Personally I think the first exercise should be in tune as well…
Following this big set is a half page exercise which a novice might be excused for not noticing. Dounis refers to it as rounding the bow, which just means a smooth crossing from g to e string for more long shifts. But I have used this little exercise in a number of different ways. One can, for example, practice three different kinds of shift to get to the highest note in each phrase: the classical or French(implied by Dounis), the Russian and the combination shift.
Then we get to the `dreaded` independence of finger double stop exercises. Here the rule about bowing should be called to mind. But these exercises are often practiced 100% wrongly which is why they have earned the reputation for being hard and causing injury. Being 100% wrong means that almost all players I have seen try to play these with an instinctively stiffened hand. It takes a great deal of mental control and patience to STOP/THINK/ relax the neck , shoulder, base of thumb, base of first finger, BEFORE practicing this exercise in any way shape or form. But if you do this then the hand feels open and free and a wonderful sense of ease occurs. The stretches and extensions may not be fully accessible to small hands but they feel really good to work on. You can choose to make this either a very nice or very tense exercise. If you choose the latter your technique will suffer. One usually finds it helpful to break them down into the relevant actions before combining them. If the mind has a clear understating that one finger is moving laterally and another vertically the technique improves very rapidly. Thus we get the maxims:
1) Complete relaxation of the thumb and fist finger allows easy stretching and extension.
2) Think ten time s, play once.
3) Break a problem into component parts
4) And… practicing 7ths improves your intonation!

Dounis advises us to follow these athletic exercises with a real relaxer. Further, V.commie was lucky enough to have an explanation of how Dounis advised practicing this exercise through the good offices of Brian Clage. To whit, the scroll is supported on the mantel piece., the thumb stays exactly where is in the beginning position and the higher note ornaments are played by mowing the hand with the thumb as anchor. This exercise develops immense rapidity in shifting. It also has the advantage of loosening up the hand swing which helps with vibrato.
Once one finally gets to the double stop exercise there is not that much left to say. I would personally like to see more work done on just using the same two fingers rather than alternating 13/24 straight away. The most useful approach to practicing probably is playing only one of the two stopped strings and listening very intently to intonation. It goes without saying that the key should be changed continuously.
Time for a siesta I think,

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The Beethoven- Mind before Mutter....

December 14, 2006 16:17

For some its Bach, for others the Beatles, for me, Beethoven is the music I always come back to. Of all his works nothing has haunted me more than the violin concerto. It`s an itch you can’t scratch, a melody out of nowhere, a thought for the end of time.
And it still poses the unanswered question as to why it is at least for me, the benchmark of a true artist. I think it took this concerto (recorded with Munch as opposed to Toscanini) to bring out the absolute best of Heifetz. Where he showed once and for all the depths he really was capable of, perhaps, said rather tongue in cheek, if he had been burdened with less technique. I have heard many of the great players live in the Beethoven, including Campoli, Goldberg, Szeryng, Milstein, and a glorious Nigel Kennedy before he discovered grunge as a means of self expression. But the performance that stick in my memory with the most tenacity is by a `lesser` name: Manoug Parikien. He played with such ease, such lack of pretension and warmth and musicianship it was uncanny. Interesting that Parikien was a long time friend of Szigeti with whom he played a kind of game of posting the most eclectic fingerings possible for various concertos- rather like postal chess. No surprise that a great interpreter of the Beethoven should be so close to someone who lived the work with such totality. Its unfortunate the current available video of Szigeti in the work is the master so far past his best with a very slipshod orchestra.
So how does one go about learning this work? A question recently posed on the discussion list. For me, the first priority is recognizing the organic nature of this work. A successful Beethoven is not so much a well learnt solo part played with orchestra as the sum of the parts equaling the whole. I think that as far as is humanly possibly ones practice should be accompanied by an open score at all stages. That the process of learning occurs simultaneously with what the orchestra is doing. For example, it is easy to think one has mastered the long trills from 205 just by playing them through a couple of times. But what is the orchestra doing? What questions does this pose about minute inflections (or the absence of them) or changes in speed or finger pressure that make the difference between sevcik and music? Only the whole will tell you.
This relates to the single greatest danger for violinists: the absolute complexity and awkward nature of the instrument, difficulty of bowing etc leads a player to use reverse feedback. That is, instead of imagining what one wants, one listens to what one plays and works on that product. So our incompetence leads our imagination. In the Beethoven that isn’t going to cut it. The initial and long practice stage should, in my opinion, be concerned with having a clear idea of the longer shapes of the passage sand how they work with orchestra. We have to let go of our prediliction to think `technically.` Oh, its Friday morning, I’ve only got three days left to prepare `the octaves` before my lesson on Monday. This presupposes that one has enough technique to be able to sight read most of the notes for the first time. Anything less and one should perhaps be thinking about some more preparatory stuff;)
What then, is one looking for in this broad preparation of the canvas? Nobody has ever spelt this out with greater clarity than Auer in his book on violin teaching. In the length (perhaps lengthiest ) chapter on nuance he points to Beethoven as the teacher of nuance to us all through the quartets , Trios, symphonies and violin sonatas. A knowledge of all of these is another example of the organic nature of Beethoven - the concerto is a part of a whole that includes the oeuvre. It needs to be considered in context. Auer identifies three factors that make notes worth playing at all: dynamics, timbre and tempo, the last of which subsumes rhythm. What makes the Beethoven concerto one of the most potentially violent (in a psychic sense) of his master works is the sheer number of dynamic markings. And yes, he meant them all. One reason this concerto is occasionally described as bland is simply that is the way it is often played. To do what Beethoven actually wrote, even in just the opening prior to the violin entry is a Herculanean task that even the best orchestras sometimes fall down on through over familiarity. The player who is beginning the task of exploration should be asking first and foremost, what is the dynamic here, where doe sit come from, where is it going? Not concerned with technical polish of the nth degree. And this question cannot be answered without reference to the score. Nor canquestios of timbre be answered without references to the score. Not questions like `which fingerings works best?` but `which instruments am I playing with?` become primary.
If Clinton played the violin instead of the saxophone he would have had an appropriate maxim for every time he picked up this work on his desk:
`It`s the mind, stupid. `

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Giving directions, but not to old ladys.

December 11, 2006 19:47

To continue a little with Alexander Technique talk. The way we think and talk about ourselves and our lives shapes our experiences to the nth degree. IE a positive thinking and acting person will have a positive and enjoyable life and negative the opposite. About the only memory I have of one of the few days I ever went to school in my youth was reading a book called `Walkabout,` in which a brother and sister end up in the Australian Outback and are helped to survive by an Aborigine boy. The Aborigine accidentally sees the girl naked and in response to her scream believes he has to die, which he does. Perhaps we like to think of this as typical of primitive cultures but it isn’t so far removed from a great deal of today’s behavior and it starkly demonstrates the power of thinking.
For example, when my mother was dealing with cancer a well meaning doctor told her quite precisely when she was going to die.
Alexander technique invites us to give the body `directions` in order to regain our natural use of self and enjoy a happier, healthier more effective life. There are two kinds of directions, `primary` and `secondary.` The primary I have mentioned din some detail on many occasions. This is the `primary control.` In order to use it well we begin with the help of an Alexander teacher’s hands to follow these directions:
1) Feel ease in the neck.
2) The head goes forward and up.
3) The back lengthens and widens.

These directions must be followed din sequence or they will not work. The other vital points are 1) that they are not a physical movement. Any attempt to physically move the neck or more typically the head is useless. It correlates more to a wish. 2) The wish for forward and up movement must be located in the correct place at the top of the spine which is located by imagining a rod passing through the brain from the soft points below and behind the ears. This is the center of the body. In general , people think this spot is at the back of the neck which is why they are er, wrecked.

Of course Alexander discovered this by trial and error over many years but most of us don’t have this time or skill so there is little choice other than go to an Alexander Teacher if we really want to work on this. But I also think that considering the secondary directions can be of a certain amount of benefit even though they cannot really operate well without primary control.
The secondary directions are to do with letting go or letting stretch two areas of the body. They may well not be adjacent. Some people might find it useful to experiment with this by playing the violin as one would normally for a while without changing anything, Then put everything down and work through the following directions. Tell your body to do this.
1)I allow my shoulders to release away from one another.
2) I allow my left shoulder to release away from my right hip, and my right shoulder to release away from my left hip.
3) I am allowing my hands to lengthen away from my shoulders.
4) I am allowing my hands to widen as my fingers lengthen.
5) I’m letting my pelvis move freely, tilting back more.
6) I am allowing my knees to soften and bend slightly.
7) I am allowing my feet to spread on the ground as my toes lengthen.
8) I am allowing my lower jaw to release from my ears.

Now try playing again and see if you find anything different.
Finally, if you like freebies you check out the Strad Magazine Site. You can down load the Ehnes cadenzas to the Mozart violin concertos and an interesting solo violin piece by Mostras which I think I am going to learn.

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Up we go. Or perhaps not.....

December 10, 2006 18:33

It’s a pity that one only sees occasional comments on this list about upward energy direction. A recent example was a very interesting discussion/ explanation of how Mr. Zuckerman manages to produce a sound on chords that dwarfs other players by integrating upward movement of the instrument/counter-pressure of the strings as a percentage of the overall action. Others sometimes talk of how the strings contact the bow hair upwards rather than pressing down with the stick. That makes a huge qualitative difference to the sound as well. One of the most disturbing sights I see in Japan, even with pretty good orchestras, is that while attempting to maximize sound production on chords and various loud crashes player swill typically drop the instrument. Logically this is completely useless and the sound is invariably crushed and ineffective. The problem is also exacerbated by an ingrained cultural tendency to bow. For those of you not familiar with some Japanese traditions, a child will from the moment it can take a shot at walk being to learn bowing by having the head repeatedly pressed down by the parents at regular intervals.  (Anybody who wants to claim that is another of my looney theories is quite welcome to contact the conductor Mr. Komatsu, of considerable more stature than myself, who mentions this problem quite frequently.)
I have come across a couple of very fine Alexander teachers who talk in terms of gravity and anti-gravity energy working in tandem. Marie Francois, who runs Teacher training seminars all over the world, once asked a group of trainees I was sitting in with which part of the body supports what when performing the apparently simple act of standing up. This teacher loves to throw curveballs and after getting mumbled responses along the lines of `well the primary control is working and then our upper body is supported by the legs ,` (not unreasonable since a lot of this kind of work consist of getting the skeleton to function as the engineering marvel it is from the bottom to top) . After things degenerate into an embarrassing silence she asked everyone to try standing up thinking in terms of the legs as the base for the whole body. After that we were required to stand thinking in terms of the upper body (with good primary control) supporting the legs. It isn’t that hard to do and the difference is astonishing. Another of my favorite teachers (Rose Marie thingummy- Switzerland) rams the point home by producing a model of a spiraling double helix.
How this relates to posture etc. is that as humans we are always conscious of the force of gravity pulling as down but have lost awareness of the counteracting upward energy that suspends us. Same thing as Chinese philosophy and exercise systems which include exercises which give equal weight to being pulled down to the earth and simultaneously up to the heavens. CF texts on Tai Chi Chuan among other things.
The more I teach the more I find that the actual mechanics of violin playing are not that hard to get across and the origin of the problem is in misuse of the neck. I have one student who I know is stuck in a terrible mess in her personal life and cannot move out of it. The physical manifestation is her having great difficulty in standing with her weight evenly distributes on the soles contact points. It is so far back into her rigid spine that she balances on her heels and her toes leave the ground. Interestingly, in terms of the Chinese medicine system of classifying people she is markedly `metal` in make up which is also characterized by great difficulty in moving on once one is `stuck in a rut.` (Once metallic people are galvanized into action they are unstoppable…) This particular student plays quite well given the taught ness down her body , intonation spot on, uses the whole bow in a straight line very freely, has awareness of sound points and instinctive phrasing- pretty good for someone who started six months ago. However, she needs to move on from where her life is and how she uses herself to progress to a significantly higher level. Usually I can use my hands to help a students neck become free and the body to shoot upwards, but this lady’s neck was like touching an iron bar and any verbal reference to it make sit even more rigid. As an experiment I suggested she forget about feeling ease in her neck, which obviously couldn’t be approached directly, and release the tension in her eyes. That was astonishing. Her neck let go, her body lengthened upwards and she played the violin like an angel for a few minutes.
Ever on and upwards,

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Jim and Max.

December 7, 2006 16:15

This blog is inspired by Jim Hale, the 52 year old `nothing is gonna stop me, ` Milstein wannabe.
First though I have been wandering in and out of Paginini concerto recordings for a while now, motivated by that superb recent release by Hilary Hahn. Since these days I am making forays into post 1950 violinist (heaven forbid) I thought I might as well take the plunge and buy Mr. Vengerov`s recording. It`s always nice to find a cheap CD too….
I was just a tad less than enthusiastic about the Swedish Radio Orchestra in the Ms. Hahn recording but Mehta and the Israel Phil. Are beyond reproach as far as I am concerned. Precise, brilliant and macho playing at its very best. Wonderful! Oddly enough this almost seemed like a weakness after a while, especially concerning the last quality. You see Mr. Vengerov is also (fairly) precise, brilliant and macho and it actually started to give me sensory overload.
Mr. Vengerov`s playing fascinates me. If ever someone was given a most wonderful, abundant gift from the Gods it was him. He has a capability for finding depth of sound and beauty on the instrument that I don’t believe anyone else can do right now. He just kept finding more and more on notes that no other player would have the energy or chutzpah to explore and expand. It makes no difference what he is playing; it is all taken to the max (with almost pristine precision, as befits a true virtuouso). However, there have been on occasion polite suggestions that this huge talent left Mr. Bron`s care too soon and I can see where they are coming from. Actually, I don’t quite agree. I have this odd little idea in my head that he could have usefully gone to someone else for a short time like Szigeti (a few years too late) or Milstein. Reading his biography it seems he got/gets his most recent artistic sustenance and stimulus from conductors such as Baremboim and the cellist Rostropovich, neither of whom would be bringing a shooting start back to earth just a little for more contact with the violinstic ground. More concretely, there is for me, just a lack of repose in his playing which would elevate him all the higher if he could find it. Perhaps as part of this issue there is one quite sloppy feature of his Paginini which dragged it down for me. In the last movement s lyrical themes he cuts notes lengths very willfully to my ear.
Anyway, with Ms. Hahn and Mr. Venegrov, Paginini is finally represented on disc in the ultimate degrees of Yin and Yang.
As for Jim, he wrote in his blog that his teacher wisely kept him  on open strings for two months. That was interesting to me because I have two different approaches to starting player depending on whether they are adult or children. (Childish adults are a different ball game of course;)) With children I use the Adventure sin Violin land book which keep bow work back for quite a while left hand is well set up and basic finger pattern established though singing etc. With adults I not only use primarily open string but I insist they learn to use the whole bow very quickly. This is not standard in many of today’s approaches but is actually advocated in the book `Fundamentals of Soviet technique` as it helps to get the back and arm muscles working well together from the beginning. It takes a bit of patience and sometimes extra supervision but once its working its really exciting .. I have students of three to six months using whole bows, half bows any speed and they just sound great when they start on the Doflein pieces. I think the freedom in bowing also helps to keep the left hand more relaxed because those adults are not having any trouble with finger patterns or playing in tune. I suppose the difference is that children need music straight away. They aren’t going to tolerate bowing exercises like the first book of the Auer methodology week in week out without having some fun making music with tunes they know. Adults on the other hand, have a great tolerance for superficially boring stuff as long as the goal is clear, they can understand what they are doing and a clear improvement is visible from week to week. Sometimes I look at players in amateur orchestra here struggling to get anywhere near the heel of the bow and just think how much more they could have enjoyed the violin if someone pushed them to use the bow fearlessly from end to end from the beginning.
Go Jim!

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