Master Class with Brian Lewis at SAA Conference 2012

June 3, 2012, 5:56 PM · Brian Lewis is one of those few people who can say that he studied with both Shinichi Suzuki in Japan and Dorothy DeLay at Juilliard. The son of longtime Suzuki teacher Alice Joy Lewis, Brian is now professor of violin at the University of Texas.

Watching Brian Lewis teach is among the world's more enjoyable pleasures, so of course, I had to see his master class at the Suzuki Association of the Americas Conference last week.

He taught four young students from all over the United States.

Brian Lewis
Brian Lewis with Finian, Maya, Serena and Benjamin

First up was Benjamin, from Minneapolis, who played the last movement of Wieniawski's Concerto No. 2 in D Minor. The piece begins with a flourish, a wild race up the fingerboard.

"Wieniawski was a wild man," Brian explained. "He had a girlfriend in every city, he drank a lot of er, milk…he even gambled away his Guarneri del Gesu violin once!"

At the beginning of the movement, he wanted Benjamin to "react to the piano, GO!" Then after the wild race up the fingerboard comes the crest and the descent.

"Have you ever fallen down the steps? Tripped on the carpet?" Brian asked. When you do, it goes something like this, "Ow……Ow……Ow…Ow…OwOwowowowowowow…" Until you get to the landing, which in this case, is that low "A" on the G string.

"Let the bottom 'A' be your goal," Brian said. "The 'A' needs to be the completion of all this virtuosity."

And speaking of virtuosity, Brian has a saying on his wall: "Virtuosity is not about speed; virtuosity is about control." So true!

One of the big techniques to bring under control for this movement is spiccato, which is done at the balance point, plus about two inches. The right hand must be flexible, but "too much flexibility will give us ON the string. Let's have a little more strength in the bow hand," Brian said. Spiccato is simply legato that is off the string.

Brian had him do an exercise, using Perpetual Motion doubles: first play it scrubby and ugly, on the string; then let it go off, and keep alternating between the two.

Next, Maya, 12, from Rapid City, South Dakota, played Paganini Caprice No. 20. Brian's first piece of advise for everyone was to be sure to study an urtext edition (an edition with the composer's original markings) such as Henle, as major competitions are requiring the use of these editions.

A bit of history about the infamous Niccolò Paganini: "He didn't actually sell his soul to the devil, but the story did help him earn some money," Brian said. Paganini's best friend was the great opera composer Rossini, and "they were so famous, they couldn't go out, so they would dress up as beggar women."

He advised that students study all the Paganini Caprices, but "find which of the Paganini Caprices are yours, the ones that you will own your whole life," he said. You only really need two of them for competitions; pick two that suit you, and learn them very, very well.

He said he once played Paganini Caprice No. 5 for the Juilliard teacher Dorothy DeLay, and when he was finished, she said, "Honey, you got 95 percent of the notes." He thought she was complimenting him -- not so! They spent the next two and a half hours combing through the entire caprice, from the last note to the beginning.

Finion of Ithaca, N.Y., played de Beriot's "Scene de Ballet," Op. 100. Brian pointed out the appoggiaturas -- that is, the notes that don't belong. "The notes that don't belong are the fun notes," Brian said. Sometimes they are upper-neighbor notes, coming from above, or lower-neighbor notes, coming from below. In either case, lean on those notes to bring them out.

Serena of Glen Ellen, Ill., played the first movement of Wieniawski's Concerto No. 2 in D Minor, and they talked about the importance of deciding what to emphasize most.

"You keep slowing down on every mountain," he said to her. "You have to decide which mountain you want to have the picnic on."

Also, this movement requires up-bow staccato, and up-bow staccato requires a lot of work. You can still perform the piece while working on this technique, after all, "The audience doesn't know you are working on it." But making up-bow staccato a strong part of your technical tool box is a long-term project. Dorothy DeLay recommended Kreutzer Etude No. 4, "Every day, for one year!"

But it's worth it. "It's through acquiring technique that we become free to make music," Brian said.


June 4, 2012 at 08:45 AM · I'm going to pull this out in case anyone missed it:

'And speaking of virtuosity, Brian has a saying on his wall: "Virtuosity is not about speed; virtuosity is about control." So true!'

Should go on my wall too..

June 5, 2012 at 11:58 AM · @elise

Amen, sister! After all, we are not trying to win the war and kill the violin. Well, maybe sometimes . . . . But, on a good day, we are Making Music, which is worth it all.

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