Fortunately, the great thing about Helen is that she not only has high standards, but she is also very kind and human. At my last lesson I felt comfortable enough to just be honest and say that I had had a hard time figuring things out, and we spent our time writing down in detail all the steps I need to take to, for example, learn how to make a smooth bow change. All this seemingly very basic effort, in turn, made me realize that because I have had incredibly detailed teachers, I have never had to really figure things out for myself and understand the feel, look, and sound that I want to achieve. So this road block for me probably appears bigger than it is, because I don't trust that I have the total capacity to overcome it when I have, in a way, had things relatively easy. I have certainly worked hard, but I am trying to learn a new way to work--of really being aware and hearing and seeing things as objectively as possible--to get to the next level, and for a while it's a bit mind-boggling. I hope this is a new skill I'll be able to learn in the coming months, rather than something that right now seems so intimidating.
I just finished my second viola lesson this morning with Helen Callus. She is simply one of the most amazing teachers I've had the privilege of studying with. She is extremely intuitive, intelligent, and unrelentlessly demanding, in a kind way, of her students' highest possible potential. One of her gifts is being able to find a metaphor for virtually everything--a vivid picture that is common to human experience and describes exactly what to do with the sound. I'm working mostly on the Bach 5th Suite, and we've spent a lot of time on the first note: how it immediately sets the tone of C, and furthermore C minor--it's something dark, old, and evoking death. The phrasing I'm doing just on that first note is to establish the sound solidly from the very beginning, then a swell in the middle, and a decay at the end. The picture Helen conjured up was that of a firework: the initial boom, then a blooming of light (or in this case sound), and a dying away.
We've also been able to discuss a lot more the main issue I'm having and how to work through it. She sees that right now I have two ways of playing--either I have a shopping list of things to do mechanically (flat hair, slow bow, arm weight, or whatever), or I forget all those things and play artistically, or with what she calls emotional intent. But I have a hard time seeing how the two link together and being able to play with intent without getting carried away and losing core and focus to the sound at points. Thus along my development there have been some bubbles in my technique that I now have to go back and really hone before I'm able to play with both intent and security. By far the most pressurized situations, probably for any musician, are recording sessions--those times when you're expected to do a take, nail everything perfectly, and squeeze in some originality and expression as well. It's like doing two things at once--driving a car and talking on the phone (which I am terrible at), and being there 100% for both things. Or (this one's strange, but it works for me) driving a car and comforting your friend in the front seat next to you who's just lost a loved one in a car accident. You have to be able to convey true empathy for your friend and give him your full attention while still being fully in control of the car so as not to cause another wreck.
I feel relieved and reassured that Helen is able to give voice to the things I'm struggling with in my playing right now. She's incredibly articulate and communicative equally as a performer and a teacher, and every lesson I feel like she uncovers more layers.
(By the way, I highly recommend her CD, "A Portrait of the Viola," featuring music by British women composers. It's available at amazon.)
I believe this link will take you directly to the audio file.
One of the most memorable highlights of this past week was a piano masterclass with Joseph Kalichstein. There were only four piano students at the programme, all at a very high level, and they all got lots of time and personal attention in the class. Mr. Kalichstein knew just what to say to each student, and was demanding and kind at the same time. In particular I related to one student who was trying too hard to find something special in every note, or as Mr. Kalichstein put it, "walking in a garden looking for special orchids without seeing the beauty in the commonplace flowers." This is how a lot of my tension is created when I play--trying too hard to be artistic and exercising unnecessary muscles as a result. Mr. Kalichstein also did chamber coachings while he was visiting (though as I was not in a piano group, I unfortunately did not get to work with him), and performed in an amazing concert of the Schumann Piano Quartet with Mr. Zukerman, Steve Dann, and Amanda Forsyth. That concert was rounded out by an incredible performance of Bartok 5 by the Orion Quartet that garnered a huge standing ovation.
I arrived home in Chicago a few hours ago, and have since worked out all the logistics, if you will, of the rest of the work I have to do this summer. Very rarely do I come home from a music camp motivated to keep in shape, but at this point in my life I feel I have much to improve with my playing. By far one of the most inspiring aspects of the programme was hearing my peers play, and being moved by and motivated to rise to their level.
To this end, I have surprised myself by writing out the following plan--first a list of all technical things to focus on while practicing, and then an actual practice schedule. It may be difficult to stick to every day, and I'll have to take into account getting back into viola shape pretty soon, but as with intonation, if you don't aim for perfection, you never get as close as possible. It makes me feel much better to have everything written down; tonight I also changed to a flatter chinrest and experimented with some shoulder pads. I think have narrowed it down to the Play on Air Crescent shape and the Super Sensitive Thin, both from Shar. With my neck, I definitely don't need a thick, tall pad, but I do need some kind of support so I am comfortable keeping the violin up with just my chin. Already I feel better with my setup!
Things to Practice:
-sharps and flats. closer half steps. exaggerate notes that are important harmonically.
-slowly AND speeding up. without AND with vibrato.
-stand tall. practice on chair periodically, then try to recreate the same physical feeling on the ground.
-violin further out on shoulder and broader, especially on upper strings.
*bow arm = bank account. practice Zukerman concepts
-low wrist and knuckles
-in and out! bow direction. on up bows, move in and back right away with elbow.
-bow grip: index finger closer to others. curl fingers and don't lock, especially the 3rd
*STOP moving for now
-only horizontal movement: in and out to help the bow
*Roughly follow Ribeiro "Summer Technique Strategy" (a sheet he photocopies for his students every summer)
1. Scales and Arpeggios (45 min)
*Scales: Ribeiro's 3-octave major and minor, Galamian 4-octave for intonation and SOUND PRODUCTION
*Arpeggios: Galamian 3- and 4-octave for intonation, SHIFTING, and SOUND PRODUCTION
2. Double-Stops :-O (30 min)
*Flesch (all keys, Nos. 6-12) and Sevcik Op. 1 Part IV
-select exercises that focus on one interval each day (8vas, 3rds, 6ths, 10ths, fingered 8vas...)
3. Etude/Solo Bach (45 min)
-Pick one Kreutzer/Dont Op. 35 etude or one movement of solo Bach and practice as a purely technical exercise for SOUND PRODUCTION
-Apply different bow strokes: detache, martele, spiccato...
4. Repertoire (2 hr)
-Practice Shostakovich Concerto (or Beethoven Concerto, or Bach C Major Sonata...) for at least one hour as a technical exercise, forte, with flat hair.
-Then practice for one hour experimenting with adding colors and expression through technical means: changing vibrato or bow speed/pressure/contact point/division/etc.
To bed so I can try to start putting this into action tomorrow!
Violinist.com is made possible by...
Discover the best of Violinist.com in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews.