Starling-DeLay Day Five: Kurt Sassmannshaus' violin master class

June 2, 2007, 11:36 PM · NEW YORK -- Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music Violin Professor Kurt Sassmannshaus has created 175 masterclass videos for, and frankly, I've always wanted to see him teach, live.

So I was pleased to be able to attend his masterclass (live from New York!) on Saturday, during the last day of the Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies at Juilliard.

Professor Kurt Sassmannshaus works with Violinist Miran Kim at Paul Recital Hall

Sassmannshaus told me it's okay to call him Prof. S., so Prof. S. he will be, from here forward in this article.

Prof. S. taught five students at this masterclass, and I'm afraid I'm just going to have to tell you about every single one. As the masterclass went on, I came to trust his sense of honing in on one or two main issues that were especially relevant to each student's overall playing. It reminded me of one of Suzuki's best admonishments to teachers: focus on ONE THING in each lesson.

Sounds easy. It's not.

I'm reminded of a story Simon Fischer told in one of his fun tangents during his lectures this week: the story of the underperforming nuclear power plant. A specialist is called in to see why the plant was underperforming. He arrives, wearing his white lab coat, holding a clipboard. He takes notes, looks around, then marks a huge "X" on a readout sheet. "Replace this equipment on this machine," he says. Instantly, the plant's production goes up; the problem is solved. The specialist sends a bill for $10,000. They question him, "You were here for only a few minutes, and you are charging so much, could you itemize your costs?" The specialist sends them another, itemized bill:

$ 100: time spent
$9,900: knowing where to put the "X"

First up was Caroline Goulding, 15, of Cleveland, playing the last movement of the Tchaikovsky Concerto, an extremely polished performance. Her instrument looks a little big for her, I thought, and I also thought most of her expression came from the left hand, that the right hand and arm was perhaps working too hard.

Prof. S. told her "first of all, this is excellent, it will stand up to any orchestra."

Then he noted that sometimes the violin tilted down during playing. "If the violin is tilted over, you are battling gravity for your spiccato," Dr. S. said. If the violin is flat, gravity actually helps. "It has a tremendous effect on the psychology of the audience as well; you look tremendously confident."

He then focussed in on right-hand flexibility by working on her colle stroke. First he had her put her hand on a table (okay the side of the piano), pointing the fingers down 90 degrees. Then she curled her fingers up, then straighten them back down. The wrist stays flat and doesn't move. Next, he had her try the same thing in the air, then the same thing, holding the bow on the string. "No wrist!" Then, he had her put the bow on the string and with a clean click, lift the bow off, using just her fingers for the horizontal part, and the arm the vertical part. He suggested she could try Kreutzer etude seven with colle.

After this very meticulous lesson on colle, he had her use the stroke at the beginning of the movement. After she tried it, he asked her what she thought.

"It makes it cleaner and clearer," she said.

"The colle helps us articulate," Prof. S. said, "it replaces power that comes from the arm, which is slower."

He also told her to switch the contact point and go to the middle of the bow for the sautille starting at the Tempo 1.

For the sautille, "once you have it on the string, the harder you press, the higher it jumps," Prof. S. said.

"How do you get it to the middle, though?" she asked.

"Very quickly!" he said. "You work your way there."

Next in the masterclass was Stefani Collins, of North Carolina, who played the Ciaccona from Bach's D minor Partita -- a rather daunting (and exhausting) piece.

"So this is one of the longer pieces in this book," Prof. S. observed, after she had played the whole movement. To help her get a handle on what was going on in the piece, he used a metronome to clock her tempo in two places. At the beginning she was playing at 48 beats per second. Then she played at measure 65, clocking in at the rather accelerated pace of 66 beats.

"As the piece gets rhythmically more interesting, you speed up a bit," Prof. S. said. Every eight to 16 measures comes a slight shift, or increase, in tempo. Then at m 77 comes a release, a slowing down. This pattern of acceleration then return to the original tempo occurs in each of the three major sections of the Ciaccona and is actually part of the architecture of the piece, he said. Her job is to be aware of this.

Also, "Bach didn't give us any dynamics," Prof. S. said. "I would ask you to write a dynamic in every two bars or so if this were a lesson and I'd see you again."

He told her that she was close to reaching her goals with the piece, but "I think if you make a plan, you will reach them better. The more you plan, the more you get what you want."

Sirena Huang, a student at Juilliard's Pre-College Division, played the first movement of the Dvorak Concerto. Prof. S. spent much of her lesson helping her focus on the orchestra part, and how to make her part fit rhythmically and dynamically.

As many teachers have done this week, Prof. S. invoked his former teacher, Dorothy DeLay, to help explain things: "She would ask, what is the most important job of the soloist on stage? It is to make the conductor happy. He is the only one who has the power to hire you again!"

During an entrance in which the orchestra would be particularly loud, Prof. S. said "you almost want to wait until all that ringing disappears, but we can't do that," he said, then for the laugh, "We're not singers!"

In another spot he asked her, "What do the wind players do then?" Not sure. "They don't play. They count. So you have to keep the rhythm there."

As for projecting the sound over the orchestra, "we need to rely on articulation rather than more sound, because on the violin the more sound is not available."

Miran Kim, 17, of Juilliard Pre-College Division, played the easily-recognized Paganini 24 very well.

"When it comes to becoming a real virtuoso performer, I always compare it with a sprinter," Prof. S. said. For a sprinter to improve his time in the 100-meter dash from 16 seconds to 11 seconds is work, but not a huge deal. To go from 11 to 10.2 seconds takes more work. If you want to go down to 10 seconds, you have to drop your AP classes. And to shave off just a few fractions of a second, down to a world record, it has to be everything do you. You do nothing else.

This, he said, was the next level, and it's a lot of work.

Specifically, it's a lot of work on intonation. Prof. S. described three kinds of intonation: Pythagorean, Just (based on the overtone series) and Tempered. I'm not even going to try to describe this! But let's just say that an "E" in one system does not match an "E" in the other, and "the difference is not subtle," Prof. S. said.

"All 1/2 steps are not created equal," Prof. S said. Dorothy DeLay simplified it somewhat, she said that "if the notes have the same name, the half step is wide."

For the intonation work, Prof. S. set the metronome to 40, noting, "I always threaten my students I will call Seiko and make them make a metronome that does ONLY 40!"

For the first two bars of the Caprice she did the following on the metronome beats: play note - wait a beat - hum the next note - wait a beat - play the next note....

It's very technical work, but "if it's not in tune at this tempo, it won't be in tune fast," he said. And indeed, it was not completely easy for her to get every single note in tune, doing it this way. He suggested she go through the entire Caprice this way. "In other words, I've just given you six weeks of work," Prof. S. said. But "the instrument requires it."

"In a competition, intonation is the only thing the judges will agree on," he said. "Nowadays there are plenty of people out there that can do it, and you have to be one of them."

Next came Thomas Huntington, who played the last movement of Saint-Saens Concerto No. 3. For him, Prof. S. was mostly concerned with speed.

"I've spent more time slowing people down than speeding them up," he said. The human ear can only hear so much, and sometimes fast notes are too fast to register with the ear. If there are more than 11-12 notes in a second, the sound begins to blend for the audience. If the hall has a 2-second echo, "You can have a lot of notes swirling in the hall at once."

"If you play something very clear, it sounds fast," he said. "If it's fast but sloppy, people will say, 'ehh, maybe he's talented.'"

He also mentioned harmonics. Though we tend to blame the left hand when harmonics go wrong, "95 percent of the time when something is wrong with a harmonic, it's the bow." That is because the harmonic actually cuts the string in half. With no harmonic, just an open string, the string would vibrate widest in the middle of the string. When the string is cut in half, the location where the string vibrates changes, to the two quarter points. Thus the bow needs to be drawn right next to the bridge, or it is in danger of cutting of the vibration."

Dr. S. gave everyone some good lessons in technique, not just how to do it, but explaining the mechanics of how it works and why it matters. A nice way to wrap up the Symposium.

Caroline Goulding, Prof. S. and Stefani Collins

Coming over the next few days, after I actually get some sleep: a bit more Brian Lewis and Bob Duke, a photo gallery, and talking with students and teachers who attended this Big Party to Celebrate the Violin and Dorothy DeLay's Legacy.


June 3, 2007 at 04:47 AM · I am absolutely loving these posts, Laurie. Thank you!

June 3, 2007 at 11:59 AM · Ditto on the posts. I saw Caroline Goulding on Martha Stewart a few months ago and recently on From The Top, Live from Carnegie Hall. She is a delightful young lady with the cutest personality.

June 3, 2007 at 12:42 PM · I cannot begin to say how grateful I am to be reading these excellent posts!

June 3, 2007 at 12:49 PM · Laurie, one more 'thank you' borrow a cliche, reading these posts is definitely 'the next best thing to being there'...

June 3, 2007 at 01:08 PM · I had a chance to study with the good professor for awhile until my intense flight schedules stopped the lesons. He is a magnificient teacher worthy of the accolation he receives.

Laurie, thank you for these wonderful reports.

June 3, 2007 at 01:32 PM · Thank you so much for covering this symposium, Laurie. Sometimes I use articles such as these in my school district, where the vast majority of students will never even have the luxury of a private teacher. It is a real privilege to have your work, and the internet, as an aid to teaching violin in a poverty-stricken area.

June 3, 2007 at 02:59 PM · terrific posts, Laurie. this is some of the best stuff ever put on

June 3, 2007 at 04:17 PM · Very enlightening, thank you.


June 3, 2007 at 04:25 PM · I really enjoyed the practical, down to earth advice offered by Professor S. Professor Sassmanshaus is a very wise person who has a deep understanding of violin technique and its practical applications. He is also a fine violinist. I had the pleasure of giving masterclasses to many his students last year, as well as having the pleasure of playing with him a movement of a Spohr duet for his interpretation class. It was a wonderful experience.

Ben Dominitz

Chamber Music Alive!

June 3, 2007 at 05:35 PM · I'll have to look and see if Prof. S. gives recitals. Cinci is just a short swim upriver from here.

June 3, 2007 at 11:52 PM · He does actually have a special tutorial up on ;)

June 5, 2007 at 03:50 AM · I, too, think Prof. S is a great teacher, and I've wanted to see him teach in person. You've come very close to giving me that opportunity, Laurie. Thanks so much for this blog and the others in the series.

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