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Learning How to Play as an Individual

Daniel Broniatowski

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Published: December 25, 2013 at 8:58 PM [UTC]

Violinist PlayingMy dear readers,

Today’s article is not going to be about wedding music, music lessons, or my company, Maestro Musicians.

Rather, I simply wish to speak to you from the heart about my experience as a concert violinist. It is my hope that you can take my principles and apply them to your own life in any way that resonates (no pun intended!).

I am currently preparing for a big concert which will take place in Newton on the Sunday evening of March 30th. This is a concert of Jewish-inspired music by composers of various cultures and creeds. As I learn new and relearn old repertoire, I can actually see myself developing as an artist. For a musician, this is not new. All professionals see this, but I would like to try and share a piece of my world with you by describing the challenges of learning a very unknown piece which was originally written for cello and later transcribed for violin. The name of the work is “Eli Zion” by Leo Zeitlin (1884-1930) and it is transcribed by the famous Jewish violinist Joseph Achron (1886-1943).

Eli Zion translates in English as “My G-d of Zion”. It is a VERY slow piece which is marked to be played at quarter note = 40 beats per minute. This is the slowest speed many metronomes will go! On top of that, the first section is entirely on the violin’s G string. This is the lowest sounding string which is also the most uncomfortable to play. It requires that the violinist make all kinds of decisions as to how to play in the most relaxed way possible while still capturing the intensity of the piece.

But wait! We’re not done yet – The second half of the piece is a huge challenge due to the fact that it is comprised of double-stops (that is, two notes at the same time) throughout the entire section.

So how is one to deal with these challenges? What does a violinist do when he or she is at the peak of his or her technique but still finds sections awkward, due to the composer’s demands? The more I play, the more I understand that the answer lies in a dialogue between Mr. Zeitlin and me. Only after we have established that our dialogue is on sound footing can we then turn it around and present our finished product to you, our audience.

In order for me to interpret what I believe Zeitlin wanted you to hear, I have to take into account my own unique physiology and also, my own inner voice that tells me how to play each phrase. Zeitlin was the composer but I am the interpreter. My obligation is to stay as true as possible to his ideas while executing them tastefully and meaningfully in the way that I see relevant and fit.

What this means is that there might have to be some changes made to the score. Purists might scoff at me for saying this but as a living and breathing human being playing a “dead” score, it is up to me to bring it back to life in the most convincing way possible.

So here’s what I’m doing so far:

1. The tempo of quarter note=40 is playable but the music just seems to disintegrate. It can’t hold together or, I humbly admit that it is beyond my capabilities. Yet, in staying true to the spirit of the piece, I wish to only play a bit faster, perhaps quarter note = 46.

2. Next, the fingerings (most likely made by the famous violinist Leopold Auer (1845-1930) who further edited Achron’s transcription) need to be changed to suit my unique anatomy. I, like most violinists, always did find it hard to use vibrato (that’s the waving motion we make with our hands) on the higher portions of the G string. This is not due to bad technique but due to the inability to reach. Often, the solution is to just change the fingering. The goal is to have a continuous expressive vibrato (or as continuous as possible) throughout the long, slow phrases. The freer one feels to vibrate, the more control he or she will have to vary the speed and intensity, which is one hallmark of meaningful expression in violin playing.

3. Another very important element that can require change involves deviating from the bowings in the score. When playing slow tempos on the G string or slow tempos with double stops, there is only so much one can vibrate in a given length of bow. As a result, the sound can be too soft and vibrato too tight. Yet, smooth and unheard (or virtually unheard) bow changes are key and again, sticking to Zeitlin’s ideas are of paramount importance.

So these are just some glimpses into the life of an artist. Every professional musician reaches that point when they transition from “technician” to “artist” but in reality, technique and artistry will always go hand-in-hand.

Enjoy your journey through music, wherever it takes you!

Daniel Broniatowski, D.M.A.
Maestro Musicians Academy, Boston
Parent tested, Child approved

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