March 2007

Temperament - An interesting book

March 30, 2007 20:09

I am reading an interesting (and frustrating book) How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony (and Why You Should Care) by Ross W. Duffin. He notes that equal temperament is a hard compromise that spoils the harmony of much of western music and that we need to explore historical alternatives. The book is filled with evidence that the major composers of the past were exquisitely and acutely aware of the challenges of temperament. He argues that strings playing unaccompanied by piano or winds should avoid equal temperament. Interestingly he argues against modern expressive intonation which calls for small leading intervals as contrary to good harmonic sense.

Its interesting to see this now. Teacher has spent some mind-numbing time lecturing me on the fallacies of equal temperament complete with ratios, harmonic principles etc. I am afraid that it is lecturing that has been more endured then absorbed in any methodical way.

Teacher has boiled it down somewhat (and in a way that I can grasp). He says that we should play sharps flat in sharp keys and flats sharp in flat keys. He also requires that the violin be tuned with slightly narrow fifths. This seems quite consistent with Duffin's advice.

While the book has a degree of interest it flows quite poorly. There should be a few more appendices to explain principles and a CD with aural examples would have been enormously helpful. Duffin does refer to some CDs that have some examples.

I did a search on the web and Duffin has published there. Page 5 of this link has some examples including two archaic temperaments that he dislikes, a meantone temperament that he prefers and equal temperament. I admit that ET is what I am used to but the meantone tuning example is pleasing.

You'll need Quicktime installed to hear the examples.

14 replies | Archive link

Viola and Chamber Music

March 29, 2007 19:56

I don't get enough chamber music. In fact I rarely find an opportunity to play any. I lived in Japan from 1982-1988 and I played frequently there. Once or twice I even got to play with some professionally trained players who had chosen careers outside of performing. It was a lot of fun and it whet my appetite for more but it is an appetite that is very unsatisfied. In the intervening years I have played just enough (Mendelssohn octet, occassional evenings playing Mendelssohn piano trios, a few attempts to put together some Brahms piano quartet performances that never really got off the ground etc. ) to know I want to do more

I bought a viola a few years ago thinking that if I could find another violinist/violist we could take turns in a string quartet. But I was just getting a little fluidity in the c-clef when my youngest son took a growth spurt and took over my viola. I am not sure I'll ever get it back.

Have any other violinists had any success with a a violin/viola strategy? Should I buy another viola?

4 replies | Archive link

Audible Shifting

March 22, 2007 20:52

I am in my 50s. I studied the violin as a teenager until 1971. My teacher was a student of Leon Sammetini. My teacher was born in 1923. He once demonstrated how players of his youth played. The most noticeable difference to my young ears was the audible shifts he used. He characterized them as "out of fashion" and obsolete. By then the only audible shifts you could hear seemed to be vocalists performing country music which was the most reviled genre of music in the 1960's.

A few weeks ago I went to a concert of the orchestra at The Shepherd School of Music at Rice University. This is a very fine orchestra of mostly aspiring orchestra players. They played the Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances. It is Rachmaninoff at his most modern but there are some passages that are easily as romantic as anything he ever wrote. It was the most unromantic performance I had ever heard. There was too much playing across the strings instead of up the string. The beauty and projection of the Eing was frequently sacrificed for safety.

When Teacher took me on as a student he introduced me to the playing of Fritz Kreisler and his near contemporaries including Jacques Thibaud (and interestingly, Henri Marteau).

They are not easy to characterize but a consistent feature of all their playing is beautiful (and audible) shifting. Even Heifetz shifts audibly (although somewhat less so than the others.)

I would love to see a return to more audible (and beautiful) shifts but I wonder if we have lost the technique of shifting.

5 replies | Archive link

My very demanding week

March 18, 2007 04:31

My week didn't include violin playing. I spent time with a large group of youth reenacting some early pioneer experiences.

I am the man looking at a log and holding the ax in the picture in this link. Don't ask me what I was thinking. I can't remember. It was the most demanding experience of my life and I didn't (as a chaperone with my wife) do that much pulling.

Pulling handcarts in the wilderness

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March 11, 2007 20:33

One of the first thing Teacher did to me when I started over again eight years ago was to teach me how to shift. There was some obligatory posture work with the left hand that was very important (that I will save for another day.)

But there were three rules that are of profound importance:

1. All shifts are slow. Teacher prohibited sudden jerks of the hand from one position to another. The shifts start near the beginning of the note one shifts from. Usually the shift can and should be heard and if it should not then the shift is covered by appropriate use of the bow.
2. Shift on a finger on a string. No air shifts. This is actually one of his harder rules. I think we are all used to shifting "in the air" on open strings. He forbids it. There is always a finger down on some string that one shifts on.
3. Shift to a position not a finger. This really means that we shift from a finger pattern to another finger pattern. (See Robert Gerle's book on Practicing for an extnsive discussion of finger patterns.

Kreisler's Praeludium and Allegro is a great piece for mastery of some of these shifting rules.

When I was a teenager I worked on Praeludium and Allegro rather vainly.

The "bariolage" passage on the last page was the very devil. I lifted my fingers off the string on every shift. I couldn't hold them down because they got in the way of the open strings. Shift on a finger on a string!

I didn't have any sense of the finger patterns I was moving to when I shifted. My hand had no shape or posture suitable for the position and my fingers were not formed into patterns. Shift to a position not to a finger!

All the shifts were jerky and quick. Slow shifts on this passage of Praeludium and Allegro are not a problem because one always shifts while the bow is on the open string. All shifts are slow!

I won't minimize the other issues I had to deal with. Hand posture is very important in all shifts and particularly in shifts that cross the bout.

Did I mention that Teacher made me ditch the shoulder rest? This was vital for me. I could not have resolved my posture issues while still using a shoulder rest.

I have changed my posture but the rules are still very useful daily guides to solving left hand problems.

2 replies | Archive link

Tone II

March 7, 2007 11:02

I wrote earlier on Tone.

When I was 16 my teacher got frustrated with me and insisted that I started playing with a tone. He wanted a big sound. Something happened and within one lesson my sound changed dramatically. I subsequently remember playing the old chestnut Adoration by Felix Borowski and getting many compliments on my sound.

I incorporated it into all my playing. I thought I had a good sound and continued to feel some reinforcement for that over the years.

There was some nagging doubt. I remember trying to play some lyrical music like the Faure Berceuse or the Kreisler-Gluck Melodie and feeling like it took every ounce of strength I had to make a beautiful sound. I was exhausted after playing these.

But it didn’t really click with me what the problem was. I resumed study about eight years ago and Teacher very early on announced that I didn’t have a tone.

I was taken aback. I had always been complimented on my sound. It wasn’t anything scratchy or wispy. I had been the violin soloist in Bach’s Wachet Auf for a pre-midnight mass concert in a huge church with over a thousand worshippers in attendance. My wife said that it carried beautifully. What did Teacher mean when he said I had no tone?

He told me not to be alarmed. Hardly anyone else had a tone either. Small comfort.

We started out with the 5 minute bow. I placed the bow on the string with absolutely no pressure and pulled it as slowly and lightly on the string as I could. There was only a raspy pinging sound. Teacher wanted me to get the feel of the hair contact on the string. He also wanted me to hear the slip and stick affect of the string. It was clear that each slip-stick cycle resulted in a ping that could be heard at a definite pitch. I could hear it resonate in the violin. In time we drew the bow faster but with the same pressure (none) over the string until a real tone started to happen.

Then voila` -- tone. Overnight there was a substance in my sound that I had never heard before. It reminds me (now) of the old recordings of the strings in backup bands for forties era singers. It is kind of like Kreisler’s sound (although heaven forbid that anyone think that I sound like him).

Suddenly Melodie and Berceuse were fairly easy to play. I am continually making refinements. Originally I played with a very slow bow. This sound was pleasing but somewhat dense. I have gradually learned to speed up the bow for a more focused and penetrating sound. Other improvements came as I studied double stops particularly passages in thirds. I had to learn to relax the right arm so that the tone would ring out. This has had big side benefits for all cantabile playing. My intonation also improved a lot when I started playing this way. There is nothing like better intonation to help one develop a left hand technique.

The downside is that I enjoy modern playing less and less. There is just too much pressure in the sound. To use a phrase of Teacher, the sound (at its best) seems squeezed or extruded. Another major irritation is the toneless unfocused orchestral pianississiimo. Conductors seem to like this gimmick but it drives me crazy. It makes me want to cough loudly.

Not to get too excited. I am still an amateur player, just a better one than I had been.

7 replies | Archive link


March 1, 2007 21:49

Our family visited some friends when I was ten years old and saw some magic tricks skillfully demonstrated by their 14 year old son. He was very good and he didn't reveal the tricks to us so when my brothers and I accumulated a little money we bought a few of them from a magic catalog. Imagine our disappointment to learn that it took real skill to make these illusions work. You even had to control the environment and the audience's viewpoint.

None of us took up magic -- too much work.

Not long ago there was a television show that disclosed some of the secrets in some popular magic tricks. Magic's Biggest Secrets Revealed

A lot of folks were outraged. How dare they reveal these secrets!

The world of violin doesn't have any secrets. Or does it?

Paganini guarded his solo parts very closely we're told. Apparently his Nel Cor variations were transcribed by a very talented musician who heard him play them several times. The violinist Ernst was reputed to have followed him on tour to listen and learn. He only took one student that anyone knows about (Sivori).

Even in our modern times I have heard people say that they have learned the secret of some technique or another. It seems ludicrous on the surface. We all know that no matter what the "secret" is, it will take an immense amount of technique, training, and practice to put it to work. But it does beg a question. If someone truly has discovered a hint or a technique that isn't well known are they justified in keeping it a secret?

Does Art demand that they reveal their insight to others or are they justified in keeping it as a commercial trade secret to enhance their value?

What do you think?

5 replies | Archive link

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