February 2007

Tone I

February 27, 2007 21:15

When I was a teenager, one of my favorite LPs (pre_CD recording technology for the younger ones) was a collection of opera arias sung by the baritone Robert Merrill. When the family was out I would try to sing along. Occasionally my mother (a very well trained singer who had been offered a career) overheard me and gently chided me for trying to force my voice.

Mom tried to give me some lessons but I thought that my voice sounded weak and pale when I did it her way so I gave up on vocal training. Now years later I am beginning to understand what I missed. I didn’t learn very early that big voices are the result of very careful training of the whole vocal apparatus and years of cultivation. You can’t get a big and pleasing sound by just trying to belt it out.

I purchased a new car recently that has satellite radio (XM) installed. Channel 4 on XM is devoted to recordings from the 1940’s. What an ear-opener this has been. The singers all had wonderful unforced voices and the instrumentalists who backed them up play so beautifully. Trumpets, saxophones, trombones and strings all have a very relaxed sound. They play with beautiful tonal ensemble. Every so often there may be a slightly forced sound but it is clear that it intended for a slightly exotic effect and is in no way the tonal aesthetic.

Channel 5 on XM is music of the fifties, channel 6 the sixties and so on up to the nineties. It is really interesting to just flip through these channels in succession. Tone becomes increasingly driven as the years go by. It is very harsh and unappealing.

I have reflected on this and my own musical development since I resumed study with an insightful teacher about eight years ago. From the beginning of my tuition, Teacher has pointed me to great tonal models from the past. I have heard many of the greats of yesteryear including Ysaye, Sarasate and Joachim. But my favorites are Kreisler and Thibaud. There is absolutely no force in their sound. Everything is ease and geniality.

They have become my tonal ideals. As they have, I am less and less patient with modern players. No matter how facile there is just something lacking that makes their playing unappealing. I have a few encore recordings of modern artists that include some of Kreisler’s short pieces. None of them even sound close to Kreisler. Kreisler had the most wonderful double stop sound. It truly sounds like two violins playing. I have found very few recordings by modern artists that include things such as his double stop extravaganza transcriptions of the Dvorak Slavonic Dances, The Old Refrain etc. There are a few of Caprice Viennois but none come close to Kreisler’s tone.

Listening to my forties radio and Kreisler’s recordings show me just how much Kreisler was a man of his time. Times sure have changed..

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Preparing fingers

February 25, 2007 13:10

I think that there is some untapped genius in fingerings that are in old editions of violin music including in orchestra parts.

Last week, I rejoined a college town-gown orchestra that I played in some years ago. Just before I met my current teacher we played The Moldau in this orchestra. Now at least eight years later it is scheduled for the next concert. The last page and a half of this tone poem are quite difficult.

Last time I played it I rejected most of the printed fingerings in the Kalmus parts.

I am looking at it again and I see some smart things in these fingerings that I couldn't have done eight years ago because I lacked the technique and insight to see what was there.


(It came out a bit smaller than expected. The third measure of the example is 8va until the end of the example.)

The above example has a wonderful fingering that is very economical. Starting at measure 383 (the third measure of the example) cover the D and A strings with the 2nd finger. Once you play the high G# with the third finger (or better yet from the beginning) hold the third finger down on the E string for the next four measures including in the shift back to fourth position in measure 384. Keep the 2nd finger down covering the fifth on the D and A strings throughout the passage even through the shift. Essentially the whole hand shifts on a chord through those 4 measures.

The only finger that will move (up and down) is the 4th finger.

Amen to Brivati Sensei's admonition to look for fingers to prepare and hold down. I think that there is a lot of this wisdom implied in fingerings in old editions but if we are unprepared for it it is easy to reject the fingerings and look for something that only seems easier.

Now on to explore the possibilities in the other fingerings in those difficult passages. Any suggestions are welcome.

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February 24, 2007 07:35

I have played more or less continuously since I started playing the violin over 40 years ago but I reached a plateau in my late teens and did not make much progress until I resumed study about eight years ago.

One of the interesting "methods" I have seen is Ruggiero Ricci's work on left hand technique. The major premise of this work is that an advanced left hand technique requires "open" hand position. i.e. the hand need to work (without shifting) in a broader range than a 4th (or an octave over two strings).

Opening up the hand (a work in progress) has had definite benefits.

One of the hurdles I am overcoming is reading consecutive tenths in scale passages.

About ten years ago I picked up the Bruch Concerto No 1 and looked at the last movement. The only thing that seemed really hard was the tenths. I just couldn't discipline myself to move properly from major to minor and back again and my horrible technique soon led to significant pain. My only smart move was to quit practicing (at all) for a while.

Well I'm back and I found a way to learn tenths that takes away the initial confusion (which believe me leads to a lot of tension) and gives a great start to learning tenths.

The basic problem is to plan moves from major to minor and back again. Taking a cue from Joseph Szigeti who says to concentrate on the finger that moves the whole step when playing consecutive double-stops, I devised a notation that has helped me immensely.

In scale passages in tenths I mark every shift as follows:

S the hand moves a half step on both top and bottom
S (circled) the hand moves a whole step on top and bottom
L the bottom note moves a whole step and the top note moves a half step
L (circled) the bottom note moves an augmented 2nd and the top note moves a whole step.
H the top note moves a whole step and the bottom note moves a half step
H (circled) the top note moves an augmented 2nd and the bottom note moves a whole step

These marks should cover any major or minor scale-like passage in tenths. ( (For example the first two tenths passages in the Paganini 4th Caprice have augmented 2nd shifts going up (H circled)

You won't play perfectly in tune with this tip alone but it will take lots of work off the initial learning of the passage and allow you to focus on intonation and fluidity very quickly.

You need to make sure that you start tenths focusing on reaching back for the first finger and not grasping upward for the fourth. (I could write 20 more paragraphs on this).

Once you start getting the tenths with a detache bowing try to play the passage legato. This will boost your fluidity enormously and quickly.

Don't play through pain but you have to learn the difference between muscle burn and pain. Stretching always causes burn but pain (or numbness or tingling) is dangerous and is a reason to stop immediately.

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