December 2007

A click in time saves...

December 25, 2007 17:55

Greetings,
In my opinion, one of the best exercises in the ubiquitous `Basics` by Simon Fischer is the `click` exercise. One places the bow on the string, preferably with a clear decision about which part and which sound point, and lets weight sink into the string with the bow kept at a virtual standstill. The slightest inflection of the bow to the right (or left for that matter) and the grip of the rosin on the string reaches break point and releases producing a nice click sound which we are encouraged to repeat at a rate of roughly one per second.
By taking careful note of the part of the bow one is using and the sound point , this exercise teaches us the exact maximum weight that can be entered into the instrument in for example, the attack portion of a martele stroke or articulation in general. Not only this, it also has a considerable role to play in communicating with those African tribes still using click languages.
You’d think such an important exercise would become the daily fare of all and sundry but in my experience it doesn’t. Instead it seems to engender frustration and defeat in many. What tends to come out is a big fat nothing followed by a `schmeer` which is actually many such click run together in an ecstasy of over pressing. One fiddles around trying desperately to find the correct `weight` for that elusive ping to no avail. Alas, Basics offers nothing further to help the pingless.
There is one possibility I would like to offer here as my year end swan song. If you have never watched a video of Heifetz playing the Mozart Rondo then do so. It is probably the most perfect lesson in one specific area of bow technique extant, whether or not you like the interpretation blah blah. That is, the relationship between the upper arm and the bow remains unchangingly perfect and this perfect entity of bow arm and body approaches each string at the most perfect level required for that specific note. This question of level refers to the distance between the point and the floor and the distance between the heel and the floor at a given moment. This level issue is absolutely miniscule yet it can make a world of difference. Cellists actually pay more attention to it in my experience. I believe they even refer to two specific schools of sound according to whether the bow is angled higher or lower on the string on one side….Getting back to the click exercises. When one is experiencing the `schmeer` exercise instead of getting hung up on weight adjustment try moving the whole arm and bow as one unit a little higher or a little lower. You might be surprised what comes out!
Happy New Prunes,
Buri

9 replies | Archive link


Bigger is not always better.

December 19, 2007 17:55

Greetings,
One of the many wonderful things I am learning from the privilege of playing in a piano trio is that the often heard suggestion that the cello is an easier instrument (especially for adult beginners ) is not necessarily true. While it is certainly less stressful position wise, I think the left arm position is something that adults have to ease into rather carefully on violin, there are myriad other ways in which the cello is a real pain in the botty. Observing these has been very helpful in clarifying certain subtle points of difficulty on the violin. It is extremely useful to work out things while watching a cellist because the sheer size of the instrument gives the impression of violin problems looked at under a magnifying glass.
Our trio had been pottering around for a while until the last competition we entered when we required to submit a recording of the Beethoven Trio in C minor. The cellist in our group is a very talented semi professional but she has so much other work going just to stay alive she rarely has time to do much pure technical work. Fortunately most of the time her sheer imagination and quick talent gets her through. But after our first play through at the recording session I had to stop and say quite bluntly to her that her intonation in the accompanying figures both in the middle and at the end of the first movement simply was not good enough to make a recording that I would send anywhere. She’s quite comfortable with my general rudeness (probably because I’m not Japanese) so she was quite happy to work painfully slowly with the piano (much of the Beethoven is unison piano and cello- it’s a bugger) note by note. During this process I realized she had inadvertently learned and automated slightly incorrect intonation and it took a lot of intense work at this glacial pace to retune her ears to what the piano was doing. One of the things we all absorbed the hard way at this point was that piano trios must , come heaven or high-water, be in tune with the piano, no matter how out of tune it happens to be…. But I we also discovered a technical fault at the root of the problem which was that on the cello one stretches for a higher note on the same string and this was having the effect of pulling her first finger note up. From this practice she recognized suddenly that this had become a gremlin that had crept into her playing over recent years. Amazing lady that she is, we met two days later and she had resolved it.
But it reminded me that one of the worst intonation faults violinists are guilty of is thinking they are playing in tune but having a different pitch for the same note throughout a phrase. It is very often helpful for players to pick out repetitions of the same note (or at various octave levels) and make sure they are absolutely the same. This would avoid the horrible effect of a player shooting up fast arpeggios and the like using a different tonic or whatever in every new octave range. More consistent intonation on the first page of the Mendelssohn would be nice too.;)
Cheers,
Buri

10 replies | Archive link


Trivial Pursuits.

December 17, 2007 21:24

Greetings,
I had the first rehearsal with piano this morning with the music teacher at my school. We have to do a half hour recital of short works for kids at a number of venues. The lady in question graduated from a medium level music institute has had lessons with the top player in the region and clearly plays quite well with a lot of unrealized potential. However, working on Rubenstein`s melodie in f it became apparent that she is a typical product of the general approach to teaching music, especially piano, in Japan: roughly, the player is rarely instructed in the use of color, rubatos or character. It’s always depressing to come across this when you can sense the player has the potential inside for all this stuff to come out. It was delightful to very quickly find how receptive she was to thinking about the difference in character between the same passage p or pp; about why the two line melody should not be played the same if you want to keep your audience; how long a phrase actually is etc. Thinking about this afterwards, having had to try and articulate both with playing and through singing and gesture what I felt was in the Rubenstein beyond the printed page motivated me to write this blog which has been floating around in a bowl of prune juice for quite a while.
It may well just be me projecting my own foibles, but does anyone get the feeling that violinists as a breed are curiously resistant to learning trivial little vignettes, bonbons or whatever you want to call them these days? Assuming this is sort of the case, I think there are a number of possible explanations. First of all,the great players of the past (Kreisler, Elman, Heifetz , Milstein et al) played these pieces so well it sometimes seems foolhardy to offer up new recordings, and perhaps players are a little afraid to offer themselves up for comparison to Perlman who was still playing these works superbly in recital until extremely recently. Or maybe the influence of musical scholarship, stylistic discipline, not just baroque but even 19th century has led to a questionable belief that these are the sole criteria for evaluating music. Or even, that today’s teaching standards are soooo much higher than before that lesser talents are playing to a much higher level. The result being a whole generation of players who can sort of get through quite a few concertos and believe this is the single criteria for being a famous soloist which lets face it, most of us aspire too. Shhhhh.
Whatever, I have found repeatedly in Japan that programs demanded by presenters are required to have a much higher percentage of `trivial` works than I see in concert reviews from other countries. I initially resisted this simply because the demand was –always- for Zigeunerweisen, Humoresque and Liebeslied- pieces that frankly don’t interest me at all! However, as time has passed I have added more and more nonsense pieces to programs and have learned the error of my ways, my own foolishness.
Starting off by really sitting down with pencil and score and working out what the heck Elman and co.got out of what I had hitherto dismissed as beginner pieces such as the Beethoven Menuett in G, I began to see how these kind of works can help one dig really deep into what the violin can actually produce in a way that learning yet another major concerto tends not to. These kinds of works have become pure gold to me to a) teach myself and b) really discipline my students to work at every fine detail of any work rather than just rattling off another slipshod performance en route (the wrong route) to the Mendelssohn. Just as an example considers the wealth of high level music/technique represented in a simple context the aforementioned Beethoven Menuett contains.
What does con grazia mean? What image (s) motivate the work? What is the opening dynamic? This will influence how much bow you use in the first bar. Is the first bar cresc or dim. Both are musically possible and require different use of bow speed. Bow speed, bow speed, bow speed! C natural followed immediately by c#. Students must understand the technique of diamond versus square shaped finger. What colors do you want in the first four bars? This will dictate the strings you use and the shifts. The shifts have to be worked out and practiced until the nth degree. What Drew was talking about in his blog on shifting- if you can’t hit the guide note every time then you can’t play this simple piece in tune in a concert. Don’t kid yourself. What is the dynamic of the second phrase? Is it louder, softer or the same as the first? Contact point, contact point ! The Trio section- requires a perfect spicatto and the ability to mix legato with it. Musical decisions have to be made about changing the lengths of notes. Typically this work has the whole trio played with the first two notes slurred and then a crisp and relentless spicatto thrown in. Listen to Elman playing it and one suddenly realizes how boring this is. It wasn’t the work that was trite- it was the player. The length and dynamic of every note has to be worked out to the nth degree to express the music- it requires a huge amount of attention to decide how you want this to be and to get it fixed there.
Anyway my final thought on the subject is that however beneath our regard Traumeri, the Swan or Blumenlied is, it’s what audiences still enjoy listening to.
Cheers
Buri


21 replies | Archive link


Two daily bowing exercises

December 16, 2007 16:13

Greetings,
It was very interesting to hear maestro Ricci’s reaction to the question `if you could pick one bowing exercise only, what would it be?` in Laurie`s recent interview. There is, as he so cogently pointed out, no one answer to this issue. However, we do need a daily bowing routine (especially as an orchestral player thwacking through Mahler and Bruckner on a weekly basis…) so it is interesting to consider what is most valuable at any given moment for any individual. I am going to pick two exercises sort of…..
Firstly, for me, I think one of the most difficult aspect of bow control is not so much when the bow is on the string as when it is -in the air.- The fact one is holding a stick at one end ensures not only that it is relatively heavy but that the smallest adjustment of the fingers results in a wild swinging at the tip. This leaves one with the problem of having a gluey contact with the fingers but not gripping or being tense in the arm. One of the best exercise for developing this skill is called the Thibaud exercise. One executes a colle –down bow- at the point and a colle up bow at the heel alternately. It is helpful to watch in the mirror and see exactly what lunatic things ones bow actually does as it moves from one end to the other. This can be quite embarrassing. Having got this sort of okay on one string one might then play the first note on the g string and the next ion the e and so on. And vice versa. This gets much trickier. One trick I am working on (not sure if it is that useful yet) is instead of trying to force the bow to stay in the most ergonomic path in the air by watching it in a mirror one might try cheating and learning it with the bow on the strings first. How to accomplish this?
Try doing a little down bow at the point on the g string. Now use a little more than three quarters of the bow to cross over dae on an up bow. Stop the bow just before the heel for a micro second and then do you up bow. Reverse the procedure. Play almost to the point on a down bow, pause for a micro second and do your down bow and so on. Using this cheat first teaches the bow arm how close to the strings on can stay in executing the bowing for real. There are other permutations. Instead of crossing over evenly one might roll all the way over toy the new string before executing the long bow and then the short for example.
Having mentioned rolling over the strings I would add my second fundamental bowing which I think is a little ignored. (perhaps only by me) This means playing all four strings gdae at the point down one bow and then eadg up bow. The same string crossing as the Mendelssohn cadenza done at the extreme tip. This bowing has the primary movement of the whole arm pumping up and down at the shoulder. It is thus invaluable for releasing tension in the shoulder and developing skill at playing on the correct string plane. Recently I have found that it is this exercise rather than more local exercises such as the rabbit ear bow hold which are highly efficient in stopping students from pressing or forcing tone. This has worked well with a boy of seven and a women of thirty six who is somewhat stuff from her day job with a computer.
I take the ideas behind these two bowings as a single entity by doing string crossings at the heel over all four strings in different rhythms. That combines both the necessity of controlling the tip (somewhat similar to air bowing) and the rolling action.
Cheers,
Buri

12 replies | Archive link


The never-ending Kreutzer

December 12, 2007 16:49

Greetings,
Recently an interesting and important question `(roughly) just how much Kreutzer is enough?` was posted here.
The question gets to the heart of what I think is one of the most important and profound understanding about the nature of learning the violin that there is: from the initial stages to quite a high level (including college for many) the progression is quite linear. One is presented more or less systematically with techniques, scales, etudes, pieces etc and this becomes the way the instrument is conceptualized. However, at some point the realization often occurs that the highest levels of playing often involving a completion of the circle. One goes back to the roots. This revelation often occurs as a result of teaching a beginner when the teacher suddenly realizes they either a) don’t know how they do XYZ or b) in truth, don’t actually do XYZ as well as they had believed!
Taking the specific issue of Kreutzer first, it is useful to take note how the players of the past saw this book. The general layout and material of the book actually suggest quite strongly that in Kreutzer’s day this was a manual for professional players rather than a student’s book of technique. It is interesting to note that Heifetz called this `The professional’s manual,` a comment which had a strong influence on some of the great Russian pedagogues such as Tziganov. In his books Szigeti told about how he regularly asked top competition players to play and improvise on these etudes and they looked at him blankly. Or that he saw the octogenarian player Rose practicing them. In more modern times, Fischer notes that many top players use number 2 as a daily bowing exercise and Clayton Haslop has noted that his Paginini improved as a result of practicing Kreutzer even when not practicing Paginini.
So I think the answer to the question of Kreutzer, once taken out of the linear mindset is that it is a lifetimes daily study, unless you choose to use something else containing the fundamentals of playing as a daily study! There are alternatives that should be explored thoroughly but the most important point is that it really is unwise to drop the habit of etudes ( as well as scales) as a professional. The advantage of teaching is one is constantly reminded that players/composers of the caliber of Mazas, Wolfarht and Dancla really understood the nuts and bolts of the instruments. Taking Wolfarht as an example, in his first book after the elementary duets (in themselves miniature classics of violin technique) there is a fairly short son file type etude (about no 5 I think) that is really hard to play with perfect control. It encapsulates the same kind of challenge that Mazas no1 (opus 38) has. To play that with perfect phrasing and proportions is the work of an artist. It is never finished and the lifetime’s process is actually our art growing. It makes perfect sense to me when a top player says I use the Mazas etudes to keep my technique in shape. I have met college level players who scoff at Mazas but when asked to play number five from the same book with a beautiful seamless detache can’t do it so well. The same problems as Kreutzer no 2 (or so many of the others). Detache is something one spends a life time trying to get more and more perfect.
It is also quite normal to go even simpler which in my case means a great deal of basic open string work everyday (well, about 30 minutes- it just feels like a lot….). Why I mention this is because many violinists are, quite rightly, obsessed with producing a bigger and bigger sound. However, they often go down the misleading path of pressing which creates an illusion of power and very little quality. In reality a huge sound comes from maximum vibration. I began really pondering this only recently while teaching a student the first Dancla operatic theme and variations, of which the first variation is repeated short down bows. I couldn’t get her to stop either pressing or hitting the violin until in despair I asked her to put down the instrument and repeat it a number of times pizzicato observing the vibration of the string and listening to the ringing tone. She was finally able to recreate this sound. So, taking this kind of vibration as an ideal, open string work offers a really clear tool of exploration. An area of technical weakness it really highlighted for me was the question of the plane of the bow arm and bow in relation to the string. This aspect of bowing tends not to get as much mention as the inimitable relations between the big three: sound point, bow speed and weight. However, I have become more and more convinced this is a central issue because of the work I have been doing recently from Drew Lecher`s book. Its only been a few months but the players in my piano trio have commented on a noticeable increase in volume (piano trios have a lot of balance problems) and at a competition we aced a couple of days ago the judges first comments were on how the violin power matched that of the open grand piano in the concert hall. I attribute this solely to having unconsciously learned to pay a great deal more attention to the plane of the bow on every single note of the Beethoven trio we played. It ends for example with three quarter notes on the g string after a 16th note run up to the a string. So the bow arm is in a string position and at the speed it is going it is all too easy to just use a bit of wrist and forearm angle to get back to the g string. No big deal. But if one is actually back on the plane of the g string those notes just explode. It’s fantastic! And the only thing I attribute this change to is working carefully and patiently everyday on such banal practice as two quarter notes and a half note rhythm. G-gd d d-gd g or g (up bow heel) rest e (down bow point) rest…..
You’ve just gotta love this instrument.
Cheers,
Buri

14 replies | Archive link


Is your bow `straight,` or otherwise inclined?

December 6, 2007 18:33

Greetings,
one of the perennial problems for violinists of all levels, as highlighted in a recent thread, is that of drawing a straight bow. An aspect of the problem which forms a topic in of itself is the question `do we actually need a straight bow?` Impetus for this question can arise form watching the greats who on occasion do all manner of not straight things with their bows. Indeed one technique which is feel is the purview of the advanced player is drawing a crooked bow straight. That is, the bow is held at an angle, somewhat close to the bridge but it remains on the same contact point as one moves down it. However, to comprehend the great beauty of a rapid, truly straight bow the violinist to watch is Oistrakh. For example, in the last movement of the Franck (available on the Great Violinists DVD and almost certainly youtube) his rapid strokes are so perfect they are jaw drop inducing. The whole bow martele also used to be ranked as one of the truly important exercises for daily practice by the virtuoso. Now it seems a little out of fashion for some reason. Perhaps this blog will bring it back in…
We all want an easy solution to a difficult problem which is why various external solutions such as the Bowmaster have cropped up from time to time, and I put my personal reasons for not using them on the recent thread concerning this device. After that there are innumerable exercises for checking and supposedly developing the skill in classics like Basics which are worth careful study. We combine these with explanatory aids such as keep rectangle shapes with the strings between bridge and bow.
It’s all good stuff but it doesn’t always solve the problem and the issue itself does, in my opinion open up an area of technique and, I suspect somewhat incorrect teaching that needs a good airing every now and again. The problem is that in spite of the great work of so many individual teachers, revolutionary and brilliant pedagogues such as Paul Rolland, and the influence of studies such as Alexander Technique, we still tend to isolate body part problems from the whole body use. However, without the whole body moving freely and rhythmically changes in technique are in large part frustratingly cosmetic. One consequence of this is teachers rarely talk about upper arm rotation. Indeed many attempt to block it, making the claim that detache (the primary stroke) is a linear contraction and expansion of muscles moving things `from the elbow.` Upper arm movement is frowned upon. It is this separation which is a major cause of bowing crookedly. Linear movement is linear. The body needs to put together all parts as a whole and nothing like the upper arm is ever frozen. It was for this reason that Rolland began teaching detache as a one inch stroke at the balance point executed by the upper arm. Once this initial phase was mastered the student increased the bow length to two inches and executed the stroke with the forearm . The moving upper arm recedes into the background but is very definitely present. Taught this way, using a straight bow becomes routines as a correct blend of curves is present. The straight bow turns out to be a very deep and thought provoking issue.
But, without this little movement detache becomes a stressful exercise over time , even for advanced players. There playing is never as effortless as it could be.
It’s funny how hard we work against the body at times….
Cheers,
Buri

12 replies | Archive link


Stiff wrist? Nonsense. Sort of....

December 3, 2007 16:09

Greetings,
Adam wrote:
>I'm working on the Presto from the 1st Bach Sonata, and having problems making smooth, relaxed string crossings.

First of all I would say try not to let an actually rather vague concept like `I have a stiff wrist` drive what you are trying to achieve on the violin. Decide on what you want to produce. Play. Compare the two sounds. If they are not the same decide what you don’t like and try isolate the precise reason why. IE this b flat didn’t sound. Perhaps when you try again you pause on the b flat so it becomes a more highlighted part of your awareness. It is always the mental model of sound that drives the result.


Very often the reasons why one has problems in string crossing in these kinds of works goes much deeper than just a stiff wrist.
Consider that the musical mind is simply a computer that has to be programmed with correct data in order to recreate what one then rerecreates on the instrument. Like any inputted code to do a certain task it must contain the minimum necessary information in the most efficient order completely free of errors. So with this piece you have to be -utterly clear- about what information you have fed into yourself during practice time. This means going back to two fundamental rules of learning the violin at any level: 1) practice slowly enough and 2) practice the bow arm as much as the left hand.
In the first case, if you practice at what you consider a slow tempo but are -not thinking- you are wasting your time. Slow practice could mean something as intense and focused as setting the metronome to 40 , yes 40!!!! playing a note, pausing for one beat, visualizing the next note during the pause, playing the next note , visualizing and so on. What form does this visualization take? It may be verbal or not but it includes identifying the string, position, finger, pitch, quality of sound and all the -feelings- that go together in producing that sound. Once this level of programming is working then once the space between the notes is reduced the piece automatically goes faster until it is as fast as you could wish for.
As far as the second point is concerned, you need to program the bow with open strings for every phrase of this piece., If the bow arm doesn’t know where it is going, which is true for most people, then all sorts of counter thoughts will run through your mind `Is it up or down, left or right? etc` and it is these thoughts which will create tension in the arm wrist or whatever because it simply doesn’t know where the hell it is going. Incidentally, during this practice, and also during when it is combined with left hand the string crossing should be played as a double stop to practice being close. Again slow practice with visualization.
Another hint is recognizing that when breaking a piece down into smaller units for practice it is not satisfactory to assume that a group of four or six semiquavers is actually a musical unit. It is merely a written unit. The phrase itself may start on the second or third 16th note or whatever. So if you are practicing small chunks of non musical units you are actually creating a disjointed work (rather like Picasso) which will also, in my opinion leads to quite a lot of tension.
Then, instead of thinking of this piece as a problem of coordination see it as one of discordination. We don’t want one hand to govern the other so spend a lot of time doing the correct bowing patterns on for example, the g string, while playing the left hand as it would be. Or bow the e string only but play the left hand all the way trouguh. This is a very powerful exercise.
Finally, never forget that even in a relatively fast piece like this one every note has a musical relationship to the one before it and the one after. By thinking about the shape of the music rather than technique as a means to a musical end you are not completely clear about many problems seem to just disappear for some reason.
Cheers,
Buri

9 replies | Archive link


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