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March 2009

Points of Refinement

March 30, 2009 14:11

Once upon a time I was having tea in the middle of one of my coachings with Nathan Milstein, and the talk turned to the issue of scratch.

No, not what chickens do whilst in the pursuit of nourishment; what too many violinists do when putting bow to string.

Anyway, Milstein told me about a time Perlman visited.  He, himself, had asked about this very thing, feeling he ‘scratched’ more than he would like. 

Milstein told me he said to him, ‘you scratch because you scratch.’

Pretty funny, as I think back on it. 

What the master was really trying to say was that on some level an inattention to detail had become habitual.

Fortunately there is a way out of this, and I’ll tell you about it.  But not before I add that Itzhak Perlman is definitely NOT a scratchy violinist.  In fact, at the time I was quite surprised that he would have had any concerns whatsoever on the subject.

Now, scratch happens when the amount of pressure on the string is not matched by an appropriate amount of horizontal bow movement.  Most often it occurs at changes of bow direction, particularly at the frog. 

One of the things I stress from the first months of my ‘Beginners Circle’ course and through every course I have produced on playing the violin, is the importance of keeping the bow moving horizontally and evenly.

It’s one of those things you just cannot take for granted.  And I myself find that I must slow down and go back to school on the specifics of doing this, from time to time, to keep my bow arm scratch free.
Yet there is another big producer of scratch.  It’s the kind of splatting scratch heard when the bow is brought down too forcefully from above the string to create an accent.

I call this a ‘Hack-cent.’

The problem here is one of timing and control.  The timing is in getting the arrival at the string to coincide exactly with the horizontal movement of the arm; of transferring the downward force into what I’d call ‘horizontalized’ force.

In other words, the energy makes an immediate 90 degree turn, the bow stays glued to the string, and the amount of vertical pressure arriving on the string matches the bow speed perfectly.

Now, again, this can be broken down and practiced quite slowly and easily.  But one has to hear there is a problem before a problem can be fixed.  And unfortunately, many players have come to accept certain ‘mannerisms’ in their playing to the point they no longer register consciously.

Yet it's never to late to question every sound coming out of your violin.  To ask yourself, must this scratch, this unsightly bulge, this unvibrated note remain as it is?  Now what am I going to do to fix it?

All the best,
Clayton Haslop

4 replies | Archive link

3 Tips for Your 4 Fingers

March 25, 2009 12:44

For the past week I’ve been getting myself prepared to film the lessons I send out to my 'Allegro Players' subscribers each month. 

Every edition tends to have a theme, which is usually some or other aspect of violin technique. I carry the theme through the scales, etudes and repertoire that make up each month's learning materials.

During the past couple months I’ve focused a lot on getting around the violin.  Most of us would say shifting, yet for me it is quite a bit more.  It’s about coming to understand the fingerboard as a continuum.  Appreciating the subtle movements in the shoulder, upper arm, and forearm as they travel along the fingerboard - providing a stable, consistent base for the fingers to operate from. 

It’s about hand/ear coordination.  And it’s about relaxation.

Today I want to focus on the fingers themselves and the 3 most important things you can do to keep them in time and on target.

Number 1 - the right position they hold relative to the string.  You must have those little sausages out over, and close to, the strings, virtually all the time.  Yes, there are some exceptional situations where, for a specific purpose, I will extend fingers high over the string – usually as a way to stretch, relax, or maximize a feeling of legato in slow music. 

Yet MOST of the time fingers are right out poised over the strings ready to boogey - especially the fourth finger.

Number 2 - lightness.  Many folks use far too much muscle to retain fingers on the string.  Heck, most of the time I’m not even pressing the strings down to the fingerboard, even in first position.

Number 3 - considering ALL the fingering choices.  Again, most folks – and I was guilty of this for years – don’t take the time to find the easier way.  Instead, they either accept the often second rate fingerings provided by the editor or their teacher of 20 years ago, or limit themselves to ones born of laziness or fear.

I was quite lazy about fingerings for many years, until finally certain physical realities set in to rule out inefficient ones for me. 

Now I look for every opportunity to go with the flow of my fingers instead of using my will to overpower them.  And it’s amazing how many choices start popping up where I saw only one or two previously.

And there you have it: the 3 most important tools to make your fingers' job as easy as possible. 

All the Best,
Clayton Haslop

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When a Dot Means Naught

March 24, 2009 13:16

An interesting question came my way a couple days ago.  One of my faithful asked me, "so, what IS the deal with dots over notes? I have a couple editions of Bach that have many staccato indications over notes, yet in recordings I don’t hear any evidence of them."

This is a good question, really, and there is no simple answer. 

You see, articulation marks were virtually unseen in musical manuscripts before the mid-18th century.  Even in the 19th they were a something of a rarity in the manuscripts of many composers. 

It’s not that performers didn’t play staccato, the technique was well known, it was just that it was left up to the discretion of the performer when and where to do so.

However, as amateurism began to flourish in the 18th and 19th centuries, folks wanted to have more direction in manners of interpretation.  And publishers of music were only too happy to oblige; hence editions.

Problem was, they didn’t always agree with one another as to what such things as a ‘dot’ over a note meant.  Nor did many composers as they began adding them to their manuscripts.

Today we generally say that a dot over a note shortens the duration of sound by half it’s specified value – the remaining value taken up with silence.

And for much common practice of the 18th-20th century this works as a decent rule of thumb.  But certainly not always.

In the music of Brahms, the master used dots over notes to indicate emphasis, rather than staccato.  I myself was not aware of this until I brought the Brahms D Minor Sonata to play for Milstein in my early 20s.  In the second theme of the first movement there is a great example of Brahms using the dot this way.

But getting back to Bach, and baroque music in general.  Here I would take anything you see in most editions – urtext editions less so – with a grain of salt. 

When I asked Milstein about some of his slurrings in Bach that didn’t match Bach manuscripts he said, ‘well, I think I’m a better violinist than Bach, and besides, Bach was an improviser.  He would not have done the same things every time.’

End of discussion.

This reminds me of an interview I saw on DVD last night with famed film director, Howard Hawk.  He said that he would play with scenes until they just ‘"work for me."’  So there wasn’t any set formula for his creative process, other than being true to some deeply felt, non-quantifiable aesthetic sense within himself.

This must be true of music making.

For a while 'period practice’ specialists used to criticize Fritz Kreisler for his interpretations of early music.  Yet today you hear period performances that are all over the map.  There is, and never was the kind of a set formula for the performance of music.

If there was, it would be a dead, wooden thing for sure.

And it’s not that I think everyone should turn a blind eye to musical scholarship.  In fact for some this kind of exercise stimulates and enriches creativity.  It’s just that one must not mistake ‘knowledge’ for ‘meaning’, if you know what I mean.

So the bottom line is this.  If your Bach E Major Preludio wants to come off the string now and then, let it.  If not, enjoy playing ‘a la corda’ from top to bottom.

All the best,
Clayton Haslop


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Fiddle Swapping

March 22, 2009 16:39

I'm sitting at my desk with my daughter watching videos of her earlier days.  Pretty cute.

Got a note from a new member of the Violin Mastery clan asking about my violins. Funny thing is, I was going to write about the the acquisition of my first 'concert' instrument today anyway.

For the first two years of my 'concert' career I was very fortunate to have the use of some wonderful violins. The first was a 'golden period' Strad belonging to the great American patron of the arts, Richard Colburn.

This was a short loan, specifically to solo with Neville Marriner and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. Afterwards I was given the use of a beautiful Carlo Bergonzi.  I played it for 2 years, during the time the Los Angeles Piano Quartet came into being.

After that period of time, however, the foundation through which Colburn lent out fine instruments to young players asked for the instrument back.  Once your career was launched, or you were out of school for a year or so, the instrument had to be returned.

So the hunt for a violin and financing began.

After a search for several months, the violin I set my sights on was a Josef Guarnerius 'filius Andre' - he was the uncle and teacher of 'Del Gesu,' the greatest of the Guarneri family.

The violin, and this is in 1982, was priced at $90,000. Fortunately I had the full support of my parents in this, and between them, an aunt, and her little investment group, financing was arranged.

This violin was smooth as silk and even as could be from top to bottom.  And it projected very well, even over a full orchestra, due to the remarkable richness of
its overtones.

Yet, just over a year later, I fell in love with another violin - a Carlo Tononi from 1736.  It had a wonderful richness to its G string, something lacking in the Guarneri. 

And so the buying and selling began.  Until I came upon my present beaut, made by Lorenzo Storioni in 1782. This violin, though not quite a 'golden period' Strad, is about as close as you can get to one, without spending 3 plus million dollars.

I've played on it for 12 years now, so I'd say we've come to be pretty good friends.

In fact, if you tuned into the Oscars recently, you would have heard my fiddle quite nicely during the medley of 'Best Musical Score' nominations.  I performed the haunting violin solo from James Newton-Howard's score to the movie "Defiance."  Funny thing was, whilst playing I could barely hear myself there was so much of the 'band' coming through the headset I was wearing.  Had to play mostly by feel.

I'm sure you have your own 'violin swapping' story to tell. Drop me a note if you have any questions or observations, and I may address them in a future article.

All the best,
Clayton Haslop

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How to Get a Spic-tacular Spiccato

March 21, 2009 21:10

Just got home from a 3-day spell in Tinseltown, where my colleagues and I put the finishing touches on Michael Giacchino’s wonderful new score for the movie ‘Up’. The score truly is delightful, a throwback to the era of Paul Whiteman and the tuneful music of the ‘30s.  Violin solos sprinkled throughout.

Pixar's 'Up' will be coming to theaters near you on May 29.

Speaking of Paul Whiteman.  His orchestra gave the world premiere of ‘Rhapsody in Blue’, back in 1924.  Fifty years later I was privileged to play a recreation of that premier at the Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena, CA.  Would you believe, the concertmaster, Curt Diterle, fulfilled the same roll at both performances.

Anyway, let’s talk about spiccato.  The secret of this bow stroke lies with timing and form.  All too often folks try to force the bow to jump from the string before the real basics are in place. 

As you might imagine, the results are less than spictacular.

The ‘jump’ of a spiccato must happen as a natural result of 2 elements – amount of bow and amount of pressure.  When the amount of these reach the right proportion, bingo, the bow jumps as if by magic. 

If you’re having trouble producing a spiccato you can do nothing better than practice on the string – right around the middle of the bow where you expect it will ultimately bounce the best – with a very concentrated, purely horizontal, detache stroke.  The bow should travel the minimum possible distance in each direction to get a clear tone.

Do this practice until the strokes are absolutely even and dependable.  Once you are there you may begin to experiment with the amount of arm weight you are providing, the amount of bow used, and the location of the stroke within the bow.

Once you find the happy intersect of these three elements, the bow will do the rest for you.

Now, it’s one thing to get the bow bouncing on one note.  It’s another to do it while moving around the violin.  Yet the underlying mechanics are the same; bow speed, pressure, even-ness.

An excellent and challenging etude for this is Kreutzer #2.  Just remember, you must begin with a spot-on, dead-accurate, detache. 

And one further thing.  Once you’ve gotten the feel for spiccato you’ll find you can get it going either from the string or by dropping the bow down to the string.  In either case the jump will be maintained by doing what I’ve outlined above.

All the best,

Clayton Haslop


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