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Yixi Zhang

Menuhin Competition: Masterclass with Joji Hattori, Vice Chair of the Jury

April 13, 2012 at 9:06 AM

BEIJING -- At the Menuhin Competition, the competitors who are not going forward into the next round get to play in masterclasses and receive individual jurors' feedback. I've been watching those masterclasses for two days! Even though the junior finals are going on right now, I’ve got so many notes to type out and so little time, I’m sitting in the hotel, listening to the live stream and writing this blog, instead going to the concert hall.

Each class had four to five players who took turns playing for the teacher. Because everything had to be interpreted back and forth between Chinese and English, each class was 2 ½ hour long. I attended four classes, taught by Joji Hattori (Vice Chair of the Jury), Dong-Suk Kang, Pamela Frank (Chair of the Jury) and Henning Kraggerud. My masterclasses blog will be broken down to two to three parts.

This blog will focus entirely on Joji Hattori’s masterclass.

Joji Hattori

Hattori is a very engaging speaker, and he timed his class very well. He started with some general advice on what young violinists should keep in mind:

1. From the start, don’t forget to do things other than playing the violin.

2. Students 18 years or older must have the skills in chamber and orchestra as well as the knowledge of the composers and their history.

3. Don’t neglect simple things such as how to tune the instrument. He often heard young competitors tuning the pegs that badly needed some lubricant. Make sure the violin and strings are in the right condition for performance/competition.

4. The most important thing is to learn how to practice.

These are his Rules of Good Practice:

Rule #1: Play no more than 20 minutes each hour. The other 40 minutes should be spent thinking. He told parents that if you hear your kid playing one hour nonstop, you know immediately he is wasting his time.

Rule #2: If you get a note wrong the first time, the second time you must play it perfectly. This is how you do it. Say, a big shift. The first time you hit the wrong note, stop. Without the bow, just measure the distance of these two notes by watching the LH movement and plucking to hear the note. Repeat until the shift is correct, then play.

Rule #3: Practice 15 minutes, take 5 minutes off (or take half an hour if you want to), then practice another 15 minutes, so on. If you are tired, absolutely stop and rest.

5. Technique:

a) A lot of technical problems are caused by the asymmetric nature of the instrument, but violin can be treated as a symmetric instrument by twisting the left wrist so that the hand is parallel to the fingerboard without bringing in the elbow, as often suggested. He demonstrated this by holding both fists up and moving a bit like boxing match, then turned the right fist into a bow-hold hand and the left fist into an open hand, twisted a bit to be parallel to the violin fingerboard.

b) The bow should not be pressed, even at the tip. He held the bow steadily in the air and moved the violin from the tip to the frog to make an even sound. See! No pressure at any point is necessary. The point is that you should feel that you are always holding the bow, rather than putting it down on the string and resting it there. If the violin is knocked off by a bullet, he said, you’d still have your bow in your hand.

6. The summary of what he said to the five students who played for masterclass:

a) From early on, every student should learn to be a good musician, not just a good violin player. Whatever melody you play, you must imagine some kind of text to go with it.

b) The first contact of a piece, you shouldn’t play it on the violin. You need to sit down with a cup of coffee and pencil in hand, use a piano if you can, to analyze the piece: the bowing, fingering, how it should sound and what is the mood or atmosphere, etc.

c) With Bach solo pieces, don’t play them like etudes. Fast notes should be broken down to chords. Make sure you are clear about where each phrase starts and ends. You can hear a chord by only playing every first note in a group of notes, and mark phrases accordingly. Improper division of phrases will lead to harmonic problems. The 16th détaché notes should be played like separate legato ,and use more bow to make them sound better. Volume is not important in Bach solo, as after 10 bars, all that people can hear is dynamics, rather than volume.

d) Unlike another teacher you will see later in my blogs, Hattori is against body movement, especially when playing Bach (although when he was performing the Mozart last night at the Jury Concert, his body was not still!).

He left some a few minutes for a short question period, and one question was about Bach and dances. He modified his earlier point about keeping the body still, and he said that in some movements, such as the Gigue and Courante, the body can move a bit.

From Paul Deck
Posted on April 13, 2012 at 3:32 PM
I must say that the judges are giving a great deal of themselves to be having these masterclasses for the eliminated competitors. Their names are not familiar to me but that surely reflects my own ignorance only.

I always have to wonder whether advice that is given to an essentially "finished" violinist in his or her early 20s is really applicable to a normal ten-year-old Suzuki kid.

For example: "Rule #1: play no more than 20 minutes/hour. The rest 40 minutes should be thinking."

I think the ratio of thinking to doing increases with time. As a chemistry professor, this is what also I see in the development of a strong scientific career.

Also I don't know how that rule works with this:

Rule #3: practice 15 minutes, take 5 minutes off. How do you play only 20 minutes an hour when you are practicing 15 on 5 off. I do understand that practicing does not equal playing but I'm having trouble establishing epitaxial alignment of these principles.

Yixi, your coverage of this event is so thorough and scholarly that I wonder if you could assemble all of your writings on this finally into a book. In the world of chess there have been many successful books that have covered specific tournaments, not just the games but also the personalities and some of the intrigue. From what I have read so far, this would be easily within your grasp.

From Laurie Niles
Posted on April 13, 2012 at 3:49 PM
Thank you for your dedication and blogs, Yixi, it's wonderful to be able to know what is going on there in Beijing!

From Scott Cole
Posted on April 13, 2012 at 5:07 PM
"Rule #1: Play no more than 20 minutes each hour. The other 40 minutes should be spent thinking. He told parents that if you hear your kid playing one hour nonstop, you know immediately he is wasting his time."

Sorry, but I don't think this is realistic until one is a mature artist. There is simply too much in the way of muscle and nerve development that has to take place, and 20 minutes can't cut it. Thinking about practicing only works when you really know the fingerboard, and much of the early years (when you don't know the fingerboard precisely) are spent in target practice. If you require a student to practice one hour per day, they'd have to really spend 3 hours according to the above. A younger student is very unlikely to just think for 40 minutes about their music. If a parent says "stop playing and think about your music for a while" the student will likely tweet, text, or nod off. I know I would.

It's also just math: if they have, for example, scales, double stops, etudes, and a concerto, one hour a day of actual playing is simply not going to cut it. Personally, I find myself slipping if I don't get at least 2 hours of actual playing. I start losing bow control, brain-finger immediacy, and muscular limberness.

His advice should really apply to one who has a fully-developed technique and is working on a memorizing and musical game plan. I'm not sure how a parent would be involved at that point.

From Yixi Zhang
Posted on April 14, 2012 at 12:54 AM
@Paul: Thanks for your kind words. I believe these masterclasses are primarily targeting at the advanced young players and their parents. And I think you are absolutely right about the increase of thinking/playing ratio over time.

As for the Rule #3, I should have made it more clear, but what he meant (I think) was not just play 20 minutes straight and then think for 40 minutes. Rather, it is 20% of the practice time should actual playing and 40% is time for thinking and figuring out the problems. So, give and take, for each 15 minute practice session, you’d be spending 10 minutes figuring things out without playing. I don’t think this is such a crazy idea. It’s very much like having my violin lessons. My teacher doesn’t make me play for a long time with all the little issues unnoticed, she’d stop me immediately if something is not right and work with me to see why it doesn’t work. She’d make me experiment it a bit to get it correct right there. Practice at home should be like taking lessons from oneself. Especially when I learn a new piece, I’d spend more time thinking and trying to get little basics right. This approach means playing time should be mostly spending repeating the right notes, at least the notes sound right to one’s own ears. By the time I've learned the piece, I should have repeated all the right things for good chunk of time already. Am I making any sense?

@Laurie: I can’t thank you enough for getting me connected with the team and for your spiffing up my drafts. You’ve turned my little trip into a life-time experience.

@Scott: sorry maybe I didn’t write it clearly, the practice rule didn’t say you only practice one hour, but it’s about a ratio: 20 minutes per hour during practice is actually playing. Also note his 15 minutes per practice session rule, so a kid should on average spend 10 minutes per 15 minute-session solving the problems without actually playing and 5 minutes playing. His method of correction, if works, the kid will spend no time repeating the wrong notes and all the repetition time will be spent on playing the right notes. If the kid practices 2 hours/day, he would be playing (mostly the right notes) for 40 minutes/day.

@SY Chao: Well, considering him as just another violin player is a bit much. lol. He was very popular among the students and parents here judging by how jam-packed his masterclass it was and the audience’s participation. Whether you like his playing or agree with his opinion or not, the fact that he is the vice chair of the jury, his advice means something to many of young violinists and their parents, wouldn’t you agree? By the way, thanks for your excellent translation of Xuyao’s article on the competition at my previous blog! I think you should post it as a new blog if you want more people to read it.

From Y Cheung
Posted on April 14, 2012 at 1:43 AM
@Yixi: My sincere thanks to you for the excellent reports.

@SY Chao: The best teachers are not necessarily recording artists. I have never heard a recording by Dorothy Delay or Ivan Galamian.

From Margaret Mehl
Posted on April 14, 2012 at 8:12 AM
Thanks for a great blog, Yixi!
I'm a little surprised at the disparaging remarks about Joji Hattori. Admittedly, I don't know an awful lot about him either, although the name was familiar to me. However, given the vast numbers of outstanding violinists and teachers worldwide, surely the fact that one hasn't heard a name before isn't a good reason to dismiss the violinist outright? Hattori is certainly not a nobody, and basic information about his career is no further away than a Google search and a Wikipedia article.
Whether one agrees with his advice is another matter. People learn in different ways, and we all have to learn to listen to advice, evaluate it critically and determine whether it works for us.
There are many problems with music competitions and lack of transparency may well be one of them, but the problems rarely seem to be with individual jurors.

Best wishes,

P.S. I observed Henning Kraggerud give a masterclass in Bergen, in the Ole Bull year 2010 and thought it was great, so I'm looking forward to the report on him! M

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