"Being a lazy violinist with your body is important, because it allows us to play comfortably."
This is what Dylana Jenson told Edward, 9, at a master class last Friday at the Pasadena Conservatory of Music in California.
Beyond being a violinist who won a silver medal in the International Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow at the age of 17 and studied with the great violinists Nathan Milstein and Josef Gingold, Dylana Jenson also has made a place for herself as an expert in playing without pain -- and without a shoulder rest. Her ideas about playing without the shoulder rest are strongly held, and they certainly rattle the status quo. (In fact, she occasionally has dived straight into the controversy and has advised Violinist.com members on their issues involving pain and shoulder rests.)
But there is a lot more to her teaching, beyond the shoulder rest issue. Friday's master class showed her to be an engaging teacher who can clearly articulate technical musical and concepts. In working with three young students, she raised a wide range of topics, including creating a pain-free set-up, finding the long musical lines in Mozart, and understanding vibrato's relationship to expression.
Dylana began the master class with her own performance of the Vitali Chaconne. What a treat, to hear this piece -- played so frequently by students -- played by an artist! (She overcame, with admirable poise, the challenge of a pianist who was sight-reading.) And for the record: her own playing certainly shows no signs of physical strain, nor does her technique suffer without a shoulder rest! She was spot-on and full of wonderful energy.
For the master class, young Edward, mentioned above, played an excellent and musical performance of the first movement of Vivaldi's Concerto in A minor. He stood tall, with violin high -- many would find his position to be textbook-perfect. But in this upright posture, Dylana saw the potential for future strain.
"You are really young, and your body will let you do a lot of things," she explained to him. But just because you can do something does not mean you should. We don't need to be contortionists to play the violin. That said, the world seems to encourage us to hold our violins uncomfortably, and in ways that strain us.
"My mother was always telling me to hold up my violin," Dylana said. But the violin should not really be pointing up; in fact, it's all right for it to point down a bit. Likewise, the elbow should point to the floor, not be awkwardly pushed to the right. Sure, your elbow will need to come over, to reach certain notes, but not all the time. "When you have to, bring your elbow over. Do it, and then get it right back."
Furthermore, the shoulder rest is not something you need. She had Edward try playing without it.
"When you first take off your shoulder rest, you almost have to hold your violin pointing to the floor," Dylana said. This will give you the feeling you need, of connecting with the violin.
She named some famous "rest-less" violinists: Jascha Heifetz, Pinchas Zukerman, Nathan Milstein, Isaac Stern, Anne-Sophie Mutter and Ruggiero Ricci.
She told us that once, just to prove a point, Milstein played a Paganini Caprice, holding is violin at his middle, not even up to his chin.
Playing without a shoulder rest "is a wonderful way to play, but it feels funny because the violin is slipping," she said. It also changes your technique. For example, "the thumb is like a snake," it crawls all over the place, as it is also holding up the violin. (Ruggiero Ricci wrote an entire book on this.) And every time you go into third position, you need to crash into the violin.
"The first week without a shoulder rest is really difficult because the body wants, visually and physically, to go back to what it's used to," she said.
But the decision to go without a shoulder rest is a serious one. It's a decision that requires a commitment to changing your technique and making it work, she said.
"Only do it if you want to do it," Dylana said. "If you don't think it's the most important thing in the world to do it, it may not work."
Next came Cameron, 16, who played the first movement of Mozart's Concerto No. 3 for Violin.
Dylana first asked that he make the opening chord of the piece very clear.
"We hope (the chord) will sound well and go out, but make sure we hear the bottom (notes) of it," she said. "It has to be a nice, big chord, 'Hello! I'm here!'"
She also emphasized connecting with his sound, feeling the contact with the bow.
"The sound coming out has a kind of haziness to it -- you have to hear every note, that's the reality of it," she said.
It's also easy to fall into the trap of playing the music of Mozart in short phrases instead of longer lines. "It feel like you're cutting the phrases in little curtsies," she said. "Too many endings!"
One way to produce a longer line is to use our musical ideas judiciously. She quoted some wise words: "You can have anything you want, but you can't have everything you want."
In other words, do less, she said. You may have many musical ideas. In fact, you may have a musical idea -- and then decide not to use it. For example, "I like chocolate very much -- sometimes too much," she said. Yummy though it is, sometimes you just don't eat the chocolate. "That's what I'm talking about! Do the phrase, but don't do too much. Make it beautiful." Then when you do something special, it will seem special. If everything is special, then nothing is special.
Our final performer was Christine, 18, who played Vieuxtemps Concerto No. 5, from the cadenza through the end. Christine was doing well with the technical acrobatics required for this piece, and Dylana focused on musical expression.
"What is vibrato for?" Dylana asked Christine and the audience.
To make a beautiful sound? This is what a lot of people believe, Dylana said. But it's more than that: "Vibrato should do something, not just make a beautiful sound."
The first step in deciding where and how vibrato should be used is to try practicing without vibrato, Dylana advised.
"It's hard!" said Christine, who found that she had to adjust her fingers a lot to achieve perfect intonation without vibrato during a slow passage.
"Sometimes we use vibrato to fix our intonation," Dylana said. "If you are always using vibrato when you are practicing, then does your finger really know where to go?"
Another issue, playing without vibrato, is that the bow becomes even more important: "Listen to the quality of the sound -- if it gets gritty or restricted, do something," she said.
Once the passage was sounding good without vibrato, "now add vibrato," Dylana said, "but only where you want it. It's that chocolate issue again!"
Once you decide where to add vibrato, you also have to decide the intensity. And the bow shouldn't always respond to the intensity of the left hand. "Maybe it's just warm and fluttery, the beginning of something," Dylana said. "Choose, and be open to these very special moments and bring them out -- don't back off.
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