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3 Tips to making minor keys sound MORE minor

Ben Chan

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Published: March 22, 2015 at 10:25 AM [UTC]

Hi everyone!

I made a new YouTube video discussing this topic and would love to hear your thoughts, professional or otherwise. It's something I've thought about a lot lately as I've been teaching my 3 violin students.

Please let me know what other observations you have about minor keys, or major keys - or anything else that's related! Thanks!


From Stephen Brivati
Posted on March 22, 2015 at 11:01 AM
that was nice! I love this concerto. Its one I learnt as a kid so it will always stick in my memory whereas yesterday is already lost in the mists of time.
I am probably a little extreme because intonation is so personal but I would actually take your minor playing even further. The repeated Fs at whatever pitch must be absolutely consistent to set a framework in my opinion. So I would experiment with how flat one can tolerate the first finger. Should we follow Auer`s advice and actually have the first finger touching the nut (Now there is extremism for you). I also felt very slightly that your c# at the end of phrase rounded things off in a very elegant way. That is one way of doing it but my perverted sense tells me that if the c# is kept sharp its kind of annoying and keeps the senses on edge for the next section. I like a more stressful approach in this opening but then I do have a bald cat.
I have recently been experimenting with the exercise in Fischer`s Warming up where one deliberately pushes the envelope with similar intervals in order to stretch the range of motion of the ear, as it were. It is interesting that the very talented young player on his demo DVD is actually unable to go to extremes until Simon encourages her a bit. But I think this idea of learning what we can and can`t do may be as important as learning to play fourths , fifths and so on perfectly across the violin. I am a very strong advocate of scales in sevenths from an early stage in which the seventh pushes way, way up towards the octaves. I think young players ears need to be exposed to the actual possibilities of the violin sooner and in a more principled way.
You great video is a useful contribution.
Many thanks,
From Ben Chan
Posted on March 22, 2015 at 11:42 AM
Hi Stephen,

Thank you for this very articulate response! I really liked your comment about the C# - I hadn't really thought about it that deeply, but if kept consistently slightly sharp, you're right that it would maintain a more "strained" mood overall.

Makes me wonder just how bald is this cat in the made-up story! :)

I'm now very curious to read up more on Auer's 1st finger theory, too. He was my great grandpa in my teacher geneology tree, so he must have some good advice for me personally!

Great stuff!

From N.A. Mohr
Posted on March 22, 2015 at 2:45 PM
That was very nice! And timely (for me)...thanks!
From Stephen Brivati
Posted on March 22, 2015 at 8:09 PM
Hi Ben,
it`s really interesting to compare various ideas of how this opening can be tuned and they are all good. For me, prior to a cup of coffee and bowl of cat food, Heifetz has the most nuanced ideal intonation . It`s not like he is following a set of rules about playing in the minor but rather his incredible sense of the relationship between notes and the overall line stands out. He isn`t everyone`s cup of tea and indeed, for many young people, I think he is just out of fashion. But when you really listen to what he is doing there is something just slightly superior about what he is doing at this very deep level. Issac Stern is very close to my ideal as well and then to my surprise a violinist I almost never listen too (my bad) Rachel barton Pine has a -very- clear key intonation concept.
At the less extreme end of the spectrum is Ida Haendel who interprets things in an absolutely exquisite, low key way. You sort of reminded more of this approach. But in her case the cat is sitting and reflecting on the sins that caused his hair to fall out in the first place. Wonderful playing.
Sadly I couldn`t find Gitlis in this concerto but if you listen to his F# minor then there is real hard core minor key note bending. Fantastic!
I think with talented students one might make these kinds of comparisons and (tongue in cheek) ask them to play a scale in the Key of `Heifetz` or `Rabin.` Or perhaps not....
But i think it might be interesting to jump across to something like the d minor Allemande and maybe some Mozart by the same player and see if they do anything differently.
From Ben Chan
Posted on March 22, 2015 at 11:39 PM
"But in her case the cat is sitting and reflecting on the sins that caused his hair to fall out in the first place. "

Haha, awesome :)

Thanks for the wealth of information you've provided here - it gives me specific sources to check as I continue to ponder on this concept of tuning to accentuate mood. It's a very fine detail that requires a high level of pitch sensitivity, but it's also very rewarding for me as I advance my own playing.

From Paul Deck
Posted on March 22, 2015 at 11:41 PM
I was taught that the third should be "sad" in a minor key and "bright" in a major key. These are meant to be intonation adjustments. I think that's one value of Flesch arpeggio sequences is that you play the one right after the other. The issue of the seventh is more subtle, but the way I think about that is that if you play the "harmonic" minor, the scale takes on more of its intrinsic character if the one minor 3rd interval (or is that an augmented 2nd) between the 6th and 7th is a little wider than it would be in equal temperament, and that suggests a higher seventh. Is that off-base?

It's interesting that a number of the most popular concertos that young students seem to perform (Vivaldi, Accolay, etc.) are in minor keys but I'm not sure this concept is often addressed at that level. The third always features prominently in the opening theme, that seems to be a matter of compositional necessity that you see also in Bruch, Mendelssohn, etc.

I agree with Buri about the F's ... it's like the intonation limbo -- how low can you go?

From Ben Chan
Posted on March 23, 2015 at 5:39 PM
Great observations! I've also heard that the 7th should be raised towards the octave, which creates more tension in the mood. Scales are really very important when fine-tuning your intonation because in order to bend pitches, you really need to demonstrate mastery over the absolute pitch centers first, in my opinion.

I'm really liking this conversation so far!

Posted on March 23, 2015 at 8:59 PM
So much of expression is done with the bowing techniques, not just fingering and intonation. This is demonstrated beautifully in this video, but not mentioned orally. You took it beyond sad, through sorrowing, to anguish, mostly with the bow. But you are right, that really feeling the music makes the emotion show, way beyond mere technique.
From Ben Chan
Posted on March 24, 2015 at 11:39 AM
Thank you for pointing this out. I will definitely remember to mention the bow speed aspect of minor playing when I discuss this next time! I appreciate your comment!
From Michael Sanchez
Posted on March 25, 2015 at 6:29 AM
Very unique presentation Ben. I think changing anything intentionally to give more interpretation to music is great. I applaud your very consistent shifts at the beginning of the piece. I'm going to experiment with that F Natural and B Flat and see if I can also get the same interpretation. Look forward to speaking with you on Saturday!
From Bart Meijer
Posted on March 25, 2015 at 9:45 PM
That was impressive, Ben!
On a less serious note, I was irresistibly reminded of this video. Enjoy!
From Mark Doroshkin
Posted on March 27, 2015 at 5:35 AM
I always used to think I had a peculiar ear; I used to think I had perfect pitch, but now I realize it's something between perfect and relative: I can sing A, tell if it's at 440 or 442, 443 (I prefer 442/443 range), but at the same time; equal temperament sounds really out of tune to me.
It's not completely relative, because if I really shut off my emotions, then the equal one sounds much more in tune.
I think, for me, it depends on the emotion I get from the song; if someone really happy is playing something sad and minor, it's probably not going to sound good...
Pretty much what you were saying, but it's almost as if playing it without emotion makes it sound out of tune.
Just my two bits.

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