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April 2009

Why Your Thinking Must Change

April 30, 2009 20:18

Very curious times we’re living in.  So many potent and unfortunate agendas being pursued in the world, and the majority of us caught in the middle just wanting to ‘live, and let live.’

In any case, thanks be to violin playing.  It is to me as the harp was to King Solomon.

This morning I realized something on a pretty profound level – over my lifetime of playing I have wasted a great deal of time.  Yep, and the reason for this is simple.  In the past I did not understand the following concept near fully enough.

One must change one’s thinking in order to change one’s playing.

Bearing this in mind, I shudder to think how common it was for me, in my earlier days, to repeat and repeat passages with little or no change in what was going on between my ears. 

Mind you, I did have SOME idea how to do things back then.  And my body, being younger, was more willing to deal with what inefficiencies – bad habits – I was blind to.  Bottom line, I managed to get along fairly successfully, by most standards.

Yet I always had the sense I was coming up a little short.  And my way of addressing this feeling was frequently by turning to more repetition.  More practice time. 

In recent years I’ve gotten a little smarter.  Like surface rainwater filtering through layers of soil to a great under ground aquifer, this concept Milstein raised with me many years ago has slowly but steadily sunk in.

Today I feel as though I’ve reached the aquifer laying deep beneath the parched land.

And it all rests with our power to visualize.  Improvement is about casting the net of visualization on new waters. 

What a teacher can do is give you some useful ideas.  He or she will point you in specific directions that are likely to bear fruit. 

In my courses this is what I have sought to do - for beginners, intermediate, and advanced players.  At the very least they stimulate your thinking. At best they lead the way to quantum leaps in your effectiveness on the instrument.

All the best,

Clayton Haslop


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What's In My Other Hand

April 22, 2009 18:17

A couple days ago I had a nice chuckle on a recording session courtesy of Joel McNeely, a fine composer just finishing up the score for ‘Tinkerbell 2’; a little direct-to-disc film for Disney animation. 

We were just about 5 minutes away from the start of the session, and I looked up from my warming up to see Joel and his orchestrator on the podium comparing batons, you know, balancing them inn their hands, rolling them back and forth in their fingers.

Immediately I was transported back to the late seventies, watching an old Garrett Morris routine from Saturday Night Live.  He had concocted something called ‘the Conductor’s Club’ for the show.  It centered around a very odd and nerdy group of wannabe conductors who met weekly on the Upper West Side. 

Aside from conducting to recordings they would sit around and discuss the merits of various batons, and the proper way to criticize woodwind intonation.  It was hilarious.

Now, I happened to study conducting from a Leon Barzin pupil by the name of William Kettering.  And not only did we frequently conduct to recordings, I think of Bill as the quintessential Upper West Sider – I believe he spent several years there whilst studying and teaching at the Manhattan School of Music.  I met him in LA in the ‘70s. 

What a conductor indicates with a baton a string player must produce on his or her instrument with a bow – something many conductors would do well to consider whilst flailing their limbs through space at us.

Not only that, the cute, delicate, little thing you see many a conductor flicking around is mighty hard to see from the back row of the violin section.

So when it comes to leading an orchestra, my advice is - be bold.  Wield a stick that people will not require binoculars to see, and draw it through space such that string players – 50% of the orchestra – stand a chance of making a good effect by doing something similar on their instruments.

If you want to see an example of what I’m talking about do a search for Arturo Toscanini on YouTube and watch a master at work.

Now, Toscanini was a cellist.  He knew a thing or two about using an arm to draw a tone out of a string instrument.  And he knew how to hold a baton to draw a heart-stopping tone out of an orchestra.

In fact, when I think of my bow-hold I think of Toscanini holding his baton.  The touch is light, the fingers are alive, and the digits work as one unit, hardly moving.

All the best,

Clayton Haslop

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Today Is A Gift

April 11, 2009 11:38

A few days ago I was in the car passing by cacti for several hours.  Beautiful and statuesque they were – I’m talking about the great Saguaros.

All of a sudden, quite out of the blue, a billboard flashed across my field of vision.  It read, ‘Today is a gift.  That’s why it’s called the Present.’

What a thing to see, in the middle of the desert, at 80 miles an hour.

Now I’ve been carrying it around for the past few days taking it out and admiring from time to time. 

This morning it found its way into my practice session. 

You know, playing the violin has a lot to do with telling YOUR story at this moment in time.  Maybe everything to do with it.

Stories usually answer questions.  And depending on the kind of question you ask - you get a different kind of story. For instance, ‘what am I feeling?’ will to a very different tale than, ‘where would I like to go?’

Yet, in the end it does not matter much which question(s) you address in your practice.  What really matters is how completely you bring yourself to the task.

All the best,

Clayton Haslop

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When Tchaikovsky Rules

April 6, 2009 21:48

Been thinking further about the importance of getting it right where violin study is concerned.  You see, once you’ve used ‘the studies’ to put yourself to rights with the instrument, the rules of engagement do change quite a bit.

The repertoire is, in fact, full of studies.  Many smart professionals have identified and committed to memory the passages important to maintaining and developing his or her skill set. 

And these excerpts will vary, depending on what the player is focused on.  A soloist, for instance, may want to keep his up-bow and down bow staccato in top form, and he knows just the Wieniawski and Sarasate passages that are useful for his doing so. 

An orchestral player, on the other hand, will not have much use for that skill, and yet has a keen interest to keep her spiccato razor sharp. 

She might have several ‘Scherzo’ movements memorized, and ready to go at all times.

Yet to make these choices intelligently, one needs a background.  When the inexperienced or young player spends too much time in repertoire he can get seduced by the musical content and the discipline that comes from conscientious scale and etude study falls by the wayside.

That’s not to say a student should spend all his or her time in Sevcik either. 

Real music is full of nuance and unexpected turns.  A diet of technical studies alone is like an exercise regimen consisting solely of lifting heavy weight. 

Nope, you gotta engage with real music right on through, to be a complete musician. 

And you’ve got to get out and engage with the world as a music-maker if you want to experience the whole enchilada and be counted as a real performer.

Pretty satisfying indeed, when it all comes together just when you intend for it to.

All the best,
Clayton Haslop

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Why Sevcik Rules

April 3, 2009 08:56

When I met my wife, Tania, a number of new things came into my life.  One of these was an appreciation for figure skating.  And when you think about it, figure skating has quite a bit in common with violin playing. 

Holding an edge whilst gliding across an area of ice is a remarkably apt analogy to edging a bow and drawing it across the old cat-guts.

Now, if you know anything about the process of acquiring skill on blades you’ll have heard of something called ‘school figures.’  As a matter of fact until some 15 years ago they were a part – though rarely seen part – of every skating competition.

School figures are graceful circles, figure eights and such traced and then retraced on the ice by skaters.  Skaters were judged on matters of form while skating the figures and their conformity to the shapes on each iteration.

When school figures went out of competition many in the skating world thought a certain purity and style in the sport was also lost.

The same may be said of violin playing, though in place of school figures I would be talking about scale study and double stop study. 

Today many violinists learn their stuff on a diet too rich in repertoire – especially repertoire that is above their head.  A diet deficient in the vitamins and minerals that come with technical studies.

Much of the time it’s not the students fault.  Many teachers either don’t appreciate the real value of these tools or lack the creativity to bring them to students in a way that is interesting and at the same time challenging.

As a young man Nicolo Paganini was able to sight read a very difficult concerto put in front of him to test his supposed violin mastery.  And as a result of his dazzling success he was given ownership of a Del Gesu violin. 

Now let me tell you something. This is certainly not the sort of mastery that comes from a willy-nilly approach to violin study.  The kind that skips from song to song, piece to piece, student concerto to major concerto in a heedless rush to satisfy a teacher’s, parent’s or student’s ego.

I’ve seen the result too many times.  Young people showing up to university slashing away at the Brahms, Beethoven or what-have-you with no clue what utter noise pollution they’re ‘creating.’

Yet it needn’t be so.  There is a beauty, a purity, even a meditative quality that permeates the space around who exercises his or herself, with full awareness of proper form, on the double-stop studies of Sevcik.

And the results from this kind of practice inform every piece of music that person is likely to pick up.  There’s an evenness, a sureness, a ringing-ness that emanates from such a player that sets him apart. 

She’s the one of whom people say, ‘I could listen to her play all day long and not tire of it.’

Best Regards,

Clayton Haslop

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