Chee-Yun and Basics

January 24, 2015, 2:31 AM · Greetings,

Chee YunThis week I`ve been looking at Chee-Yun masterclasses and performances. She is a terrific player with a gorgeous sound and tremendous musical sense. I watched three teenagers being taught by her and was very impressed by her ability as a teacher. However the masterclasses themselves probably didn't reveal as much as one could wish for since it seemed to me that she was in a slight dilemma: a masterclass is not a setting in which one begins tearing down an unknown student's technique and yet that clearly needed to be done with two out of three of these young players at the most basic level. As a result I think Chee-Yun found herself in the position of having to just briefly mention the most basic weaknesses (core of the sound, vibrato control etc.). Anything more than a simple suggestion was not really possible.

But the problems of the participants did, in my opinion, raise some very important points. Clearly those players not only had talent, but had worked hard on their major concertos. And it's pretty impressive to be getting through the Tchaikovsky and Bruch at pre-college level, I suppose. But what we saw was to my mind a classic demonstration of the failings of the teaching profession on all continents, which is letting down talented kids like these, through no fault of their own.

I believe this is linked to the following issue. Traditionally violin study has revolved around scales, etudes and pieces (some people started doing songs for some reason, but I have never understood that....) The average talented kid who plays in a good youth orchestra and may or may not go to music college will play scales badly, do a limited number of etudes without knowing exactly why and learn progressively more difficult pieces according to their potential while retaining the same fundamental flaws in the Tchaikovsky that they has in Nardini, Accolay and Kabalevsky.

The reason for this is that violin study actually revolves around exercises, scales, etudes and pieces. The problem is that the majority of teachers don't actually know that many exercises other than the handful they got from their teacher (which may be extremely good). And yet, if I had to choose only two out of four of the above it would be exercises and pieces, hands down. That is why when Simon Fischer published his groundbreaking work Basics ten or so years ago the teaching profession really no longer had any excuses left .

What exercises do is save time. They get to the core of the problem or provide an intense focus on one issue, in a way that many studies don't. And that is how we work best: Short, focused work on one thing. Very often, the exercises in Basics are played on open strings. Again, this enables them to be more focused than etudes because we are only worrying about one thing at a time. That is why I have frequently suggested in a number of forums that teaching exams at music institutes require a working knowledge of Basics. Had the students at that master class been given tone production exercises, intonation exercises, vibrato exercises and so on, in very small doses from an early stage they would not be being held back as they are now by simple things like being unable to use the lower quarter of the bow.

The power of exercises has also created a potential revolution in adult education and late starters. Those players can now build up quickly and easily any aspect of their technique without the help of a teacher who may not even want to be bothered by them. Sadly I often meet resistance to the book by members of this group who feel a little over-whelmed by its apparent density. (Actually its extremely clear and simple.)

Aside from complete beginners, this need not be the case. Slow, careful study of the tone production, vibrato, tapping, finger patterns or whatever exercise will automatically feed into your general playing, perhaps without you realizing it, until suddenly people start complimenting you.... An adult beginner who approaches Basics slowly and thoughtfully in the same way they might learn a new computer program for their job will not only know more about the fundamentals of playing but actually be more competent in performance at their level than those hapless teenagers who, through no fault of their own, will probably never know how good they could have been or how badly they have been let down.


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January 24, 2015 at 02:37 PM · Thank you for posting this article; you have made some excellent points.

As for "Basics", how would you recommend using that book? Start at the beginning and do one exercise a week (day/month/whatever), or pick exercises relevant to whatever I am working on at the time? You made the analogy of learning programming languages from books; as an adult who has done just that, I have found it more beneficial to start at the beginning and go through *every* exercise, because learning "just what I need to know" of a language leads to not knowing that language very well. Maybe it's different with viola, though.

January 24, 2015 at 06:50 PM · Thank you Buri for your blog, and Karen for your question. I'm in this group of adult beginners that should benefit from Fischer's Basics, but I don't know how to tackle it. What's overwhelming about it for me is maybe the realization that so little has been mastered and everything else still has to be learnt. So whenever I feel courageous and open the beautiful book, I have no idea where to start or what exercise to pick. Of course, the stack of Fischer books on my piano (I bought all of them following Buri's recommendations) looks quite decorative and impressive ;-).

January 24, 2015 at 07:38 PM · Greetings,

the stack gets rather heavy after a while.

For me, the simplest way to tackle Basic is just one step at a time, staying in the moment. there is no pressure to finish it.

I was comfortable with doing one exercise from the right hand an done form the left until I got fed up with it , gave it a small tick and moved on. So one is clealry working at differnet speeds in each section of the book. Some exercises left me cold , but those that excited me I made a note of and added them to my daily to do list as I went a long. Once I had completed the book in this way I knew what I needed from it (I took notes a swell) and could then go back and work use my core exercises. This wa sa very long process that took a number of years, but noone ever said playing the violin was a quick job.

An alternative approach is to pick one exercise from each basic section and move through those one at a time. That would increase your work load quite a lot though.

At the same time as doing this appraoch one could simply pick an aspect of ones playing you want to improve such s vibrato and work through the exercises in a slow and thoughtful way, no hurry, and watch your teachers eyes pop out!

If I really had to recommend stuff from this book (which is daft because everyone is different) it would be the following:

Exercise 255 before the practce of any piece in the -key- of that piece.

The Vibrato Section- all!

The Tone production exercises.

Forearm Rotation.


Key Bowing Exerxises.

I could kepe adding but the exercise becomes pointless.

One small point is to understand the distinction between awareness exercises and basic exercises. the awareness stuff just needs to be be looked at briefly and then dusted off -very- occasionally. It adds to our deeper understanding of the instrument but does not require extensive practice. Basics and the other books teach us how to think and fele about the instrument.



January 24, 2015 at 10:25 PM · Buri,

Thank you for the information in this blog and your descriptive commentary. As an adult starter, I frequently bump up against personal shortcomings that just won't fix themselves; and I have had difficulty figuring out how to use Basics. This has been very helpful.

January 25, 2015 at 04:00 AM · Thanks very much for the suggestions on how to use "Basics". Now, if only I could add another hour to the day...

January 25, 2015 at 06:48 AM · Hear, hear!

January 25, 2015 at 06:01 PM · I found this very interesting to read as it reminded me a lot of my own time as a student. I started playing the violin relatively late (15) and had problems finding a teacher that would take me on (they all said I was too old to learn the violin!). So I taught myself with the help of a friend of mine who was already playing.

When after a year I was already able to play I found a teacher to take me on and I brought my violin book with me. I was looking for someone to teach me the basics thoroughly. But after hearing me play she dismissed the book and gave me a Vivaldi concerto to play "You're already too good for this!". Instead of giving me etudes and scales she gave me just pieces to play.

A few years ago I changed teachers and had a depressing experience. He basically said my technique was so bad it would've been better if I had never learned to play the violin and he could teach me from scratch. He probably had a point! I never actually learned any technique! The year with that teacher was utterly unproductive and it made me quit the violin for three years.

Now, having started again and having read a lot before getting back into practice I have changed my approach to practicing. I do scales and have added a few more technique books to my collection and must say they do wonders. If only I had known this earlier...!

January 25, 2015 at 08:19 PM · Thanks Buri. Question for you (or for anyone who might know...)

What is a "Masterclass"? I keep seeing it as an "event" that students want to play in, yet the variability in how advanced a student is, to the approach by the teacher, to the goals and breadth of the instruction. Is it called Masterclass because it is led by a "master"? Or is it because the student is attempting to "master" something? Or is the student supposed to have mastered something? How does it differ from a "lesson" or a "coaching session"? I know it appears to be something good to add to your bio.

Then when you look at bios, some people state that they were "in" the Masterclass. Does that mean you were in the room and you can put that in your bio? Or does it mean that you were selected to attend? Or did you actually have to play?

January 25, 2015 at 11:13 PM · Greetings,

I will discuss this issue in a new blog either today or tomorrow. I menat to answe rhere but it took longer than an hour to read;)



January 26, 2015 at 02:46 AM · Buri, what is the difference in your view between a piece and a song? For example, in which category would you place Kreisler's Liebesfreud?

January 26, 2015 at 02:57 AM · Hi,

in case we get confused, the new blog wil be about basics not masterclasses. Sorry.

For me a masterclass has two possible meanings.

One is a one off event , possibly but not necessarily at a venerable institute, in which a renowned teachers hears students and give sthem advice. The kudos attached to it i sgenerally because the competition to be allowed to play is often extremely high. It is assumed that you are the best of the best and therefore woorthy of this masters advice. There are more open, low key master classes but thes ewont cut much ice on a cv althouhg every little helps.

The second kind of masterclass is similar but is longer and is more like a course. Again it supposedly involves a very high level teacher and the teaching may be more or less regualr. The point is that you have to play in front of everyone and each player learns from the other.

What is actually said din a masterclass is a tricky subject we can debate for ever. In theory it is supposed ot be a time when the presumed artistic power of the master in question, combined with a few pithy words can bring a talented student up to a whole new level. I cite an example of this in mt last blog where I mention Vadim Repin and a young man playing influx and round carpriioso by saint Seand.

In general teachers try to avoid changing something simply because it is not the way they do it. For example, one wouldnt advocate and then begin training a new bow hold on stage.

If the suject of the class has been somewhat agreed before hand, I the aspllication of tone exercises, then the sesison may be more technical. I am also in agremeent with Simon Fischers position that a player can be asked to do very essential tonbe building exercises and the like to show quick improvement in a performance. I dislike sesisons where the master states something like vary the speed of your vibrato but offers no solutions if the student does not actually possess the ability to do this.

Hope this clarifies rather than confuses,


January 26, 2015 at 02:58 AM · My love life is to fraught to explore that question.

except its not a song



January 26, 2015 at 05:46 PM · I like Chee-Yun's playing, and I thought that she was helpful for the students in the masterclasses of hers I have watched, but to me, she is too eager to play in the classes. It seems like she demonstrates, and then the student is supposed to do the same, but I don't get the sense that the understanding behind it is there. I think that if she held back a little more and asked the students things that would allow them to come to certain conclusions, then they would have a better basis for executing whatever was asked. Instead, there are times where she is almost interrupting the student working through an instruction to show them.

Contrasting with the Repin class that was posted, I think he got more from the student by asking for concepts rather than doing a bunch of demonstrations (and that whole thing about him being out of practice definitely helps with the young player's confidence).

And for Basics, maybe I'm just lazy, but I seem to get a lot more from having my teacher explain concepts for me and making sure that I understand it in the lesson than by reading that book, which seems kind of overstuffed.

Anyways, my two cents!

January 26, 2015 at 10:09 PM · On the masterclass question I love this from Lauries blogging about the Straling Delay symposium. Just search for Starling on this site...


I think I see why living-legend violinist Itzhak Perlman isn't wild about traditional master classes. "I don't like proper master classes," Perlman said. "The actual goal is for someone to sound really bad, then you say something, they sound great and everyone claps." Instead, Perlman has some fun with the format, playing more of a game with the students, a bit like the class he gives in a video you can find on his website. How many different ways can you play a piece? It's at least one way to start the conversation about violin playing without making a victim of your student. Read more...

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