A Masterclass with Ray Chen

February 26, 2017, 8:48 PM · If Ray Chen weren’t busy making a name for himself as a superb violin soloist and social media sensation, he could probably have a career as a dancer. He has some killer moves. On Sunday morning, he was hopping, tip-toeing, and twirling all over the Thalia Theater at Symphony Space in Manhattan, while giving a master class to the studio of Elizabeth Faidley, a violinist on faculty of the Manhattan School of Music’s pre-college division.

Ray is a funny guy – and physical comedy is a big part of his style. He used physicality to emphasize his musical suggestions, while drawing bouts of laughter from the audience. He was warm, encouraging, and generous to the students, who ranged in age from 8 to 18.

Ray autographs Mia Robart's Suzuki book. Photo credit: Miran Robarts

The thirty-five students who participated received bite-sized master classes – each student played a short excerpt, and Ray taught for about five minutes, giving every young violinist of the studio a personal interaction.

Some of the younger students mumbled their self-introductions, as could be expected with shy 8 and 9 year olds. Ray underlined the importance of speaking with conviction and making yourself heard. “The performance starts as soon as you go onstage,” he insisted.

Ray is big on accessibility. While addressing the smaller kids, he sometimes took a knee, or bent to match their eye level. “You can’t just play for yourself – you have to play for others,” Ray told 9-year-old Nicolas Lin, who stood at about half of Ray’s height. “You’re here to share your joy!”

Alicia Li, 8

The importance of sharing was a recurring theme of the class. “You have to know the difference between playing soft, and playing only for yourself,” Ray told another student. “Am I really allowed to show off? Yes, you are! You might think it feels like showing off – but to the audience, what we see is a performance.”

As 10-year-old Ethan Chia played an octave slide in the Vitali Chaconne, Ray interrupted: “Doesn’t this part make you wanna go like – THIS?” He dropped to one knee and slid, violin sky high, face ecstatic. I think he could give Lindsey Stirling a run for her money.

12-year-old Beverly Lauring played deBeriot’s 9th concerto. Ray discussed finding core in the sound: “When you have a little bit of resistance from the instrument, but the sound is still beautiful – that’s when you’re doing something right. If you’re just kind of skating around…my mom has a word for that. I can’t remember exactly what, but she says something about noodles. No noodles!”

Ray helped Nivi Ravi, 18, find a more rhetorical quality to the first movement of the Tchaikovsky concerto. “This is a Russian fairy tale – you need to tell a story.” He demonstrated with a glowing, dream-like sound. When he arrived at the D major theme, he said, “This part is ‘once upon a time’.”

Nivi played one particular note longer than the score indicated. “There are pauses in music…but only when you’re not playing!” Ray instructed. “You should wait only long enough for the color to change.”

Nivi Ravi, 18

Ray’s goofy demeanor helped the students relax under pressure. He took the hand of 8-year-old Leandra Wyrick, and ducked to perform a twirl under the arc of their joined arms. Then, he had her do the same. “Things can’t get weirder than this, right?” he laughed, and when Leandra played again, she produced a more focused tone.

Ray had some practical advice to offer: “If you’re working on a shift, all you need to practice are two notes. That’s it! The same is true for bow changes,” he told 14-year-old Chelsea Lu. Ray offered a useful tip to 16-year-old Noah Steinbaum, who played some of the first movement of the Mendelssohn concerto. Ray didn’t want Noah to press with his left hand. “I’ve found that if you want to relax one hand, you should focus on the other hand.”

All students are told to relax, but that's something easier said than done. “Relaxing doesn’t mean flopping around. It means trusting yourself,” he told 16-year-old Coco Mi, who performed the third movement of the Sibelius concerto. He also shared a practicing tip for thorny left hand passages. “You should ‘refresh’ every few notes.” Practicing in small groupings of notes, he encouraged her to find “checkpoint” notes – “so that if anything happens, it doesn’t affect what follows.” Coco tried his suggestion, and the passage soared with ease.

Nicholas Abrahams, 16

Ray helped Juling Wang, 13, find musical integrity through rhythm in the third movement of the Bruch concerto. Ray emphasized the importance of recording yourself in order to hear errors. “We don’t notice our mistakes, because they’re habits. For us, it’s always been this way, so we don’t know any different!” said Ray. “Fixing a habit is very, very difficult. In the beginning, you have to remind yourself every 5 – 10 seconds. When you think you’ve fixed it, you better check again!”

Cameron Baumann, 18, played an excerpt from the first movement of Vieuxtemp’s 4th concerto. “How do we play the way we want on the first attempt?” Ray asked. “Feel the comfort of the violin. The music will support you – it’s like a pillar you can lean against.”

Though the class was nearly three hours long, the time flew by, with Ray providing charming and wise insight at every turn. After the class, the crowd spilled onto the sidewalk outside of Symphony Space, and Ray crouched to autographed programs and sheet music for his adoring fans.

Ray with members of Elizabeth Faidley's studio.

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February 27, 2017 at 01:50 PM · thank you, and nice to see you back on this site!

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