Guest Master Class with Stephen Shipps at The Colburn School

November 14, 2014, 10:52 AM · What do you say to a student who already plays so well?

I found myself thinking about this several weeks ago during a master class at The Colburn School in Los Angeles, as I watched University of Michigan violin professor Stephen Shipps work with the students of Robert Lipsett, who holds the Jascha Heifetz Distinguished Violin Chair at Colburn.

Legacy loomed large over this gathering: besides the ever-presence of Heifetz (whose studio, where Lipsett teaches, was moved piece-by-piece to Colburn), Lipsett's teachers were Ivan Galamian and Endre Granat -- whose teacher was Heifetz; Shipps' teacher was Josef Gingold, whose teacher was Eugène Ysaÿe, whose teacher was Henryk Wieniawski. Different schools, different approaches, but that is the beauty of the guest master class: it shakes students out of their habits and allows them to hear things -- probably many of the same things -- put in a different way.

First was Kevin, who played the first movement of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. Shipps first emphasized having a solid stance when playing. If you go up on your tiptoes when you play, you lose sound, he said. "Involve your heels in making the sound," Shipps said. Though it may sound like strange advice, there is a certain feeling in one's playing and change in one's sound that comes from being rooted to the ground.

He also directed Kevin's attention to the words written in the music; for example (get out your scores, friends) after the first big tutti, two bars after the violin enters, Tchaikovsky wrote, "Molto sustenuto il tempo moderatissimo." In other words, "very sustained, very moderate tempo," or: It should be slower here.

Tchaik score

(By the way, finding that marking, without the full orchestra score, will really depend on your edition. I have two editions, both with piano reduction. My Auer/Carl Fischer edition did not have the marking in either the piano or violin part; my Oistrakh/International edition had the marking both places. In 2012, Shipps, along with Endre Granat, edited a critical urtext edition of the violin part for the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, along with Ševcík exercises designed particularly for the Tchaik that is well-worth studying for this kind of detail.)

"I want some story here," Shipps said, still referring to the same place. He pointed out that Tchaikovsky was a specialist in ballet music, and related that Gingold used to dance around the room to illustrate it. "Easy, easy," he said, as Kevin played this most difficult of passages.

Then they went back to the beginning, where Shipps preached rhythmic faithfulness, and in this place:


"Spin, spin, tell the story! Is it sad? Happy? Happy! Show us!"

Shipps' manner was polite and genial -- and totally unrelenting. Like an unassuming, approachable friend that just so happens to be a bulldog.

We all know this melody:

Tchaik melody

"This is one of those great Tchaikovsky melodies that sounds dumb if you play it straight," Shipps observed. (So true!) Not that Kevin was playing it straight, but Shipps was acknowledging that a little rubato is necessary to make it flow properly.


Playing that melody also requires a fullness of the bow, so to make him think more horizontally with the bow, Shipps demonstrated by holding the bow so Kevin would have to pull for a down-bow, and push for an up-bow.

Next we heard the third movement of the Tchaikovsky from Will, whose playing technique was already excellent. Instead, Shipps focused on bringing greater calm to his stage presence.

"If you've ever seen a Youtube of David Oistrakh playing," Shipps said, "it doesn't look like he's working hard."

In fact, Oistrakh doesn't move much. "It's a strange paradox. He draws no attention to himself on the stage, but you're drawn more to him by what he doesn't do."

"You are a great fiddle player," he told Will, "This is easy for you! It's got to look easy and let the music speak for itself."

He spent the next 10 minutes, hovering close to Will as he played, reminding him, "Make it look like you aren't working very hard," then, "Make it like a science experiment in efficiency," then, "We are in balletland, don't be so serious!" then, "You're looking worried or p---ed, CALM!"

Shipps was like a personal conductor, a very tenacious one, relentlessly getting the point across while also getting Will to laugh.

Youjin then played a Schubert Rondo, and again Shipps went back to the words in the score: "What does 'Allegro giusto' mean?" He repeated the question for the class, but no one (myself included) had the answer for "giusto." Then Shipps told about a Parisian teacher who quit on the spot, because her students didn't know the definitions of the words in the music, specifically of "Allegro giocoso" in the third movement of the Brahms Concerto. ("cheerful, playful.") A general squirmy feeling fell over the class.

"'Giusto' means 'justified,'" he said after allowing the squirminess to sink in. Also: Just, equal, square. And in this case, steady and slower.


She slowed the tempo, that did transform it into something different with new possibilities.

During a short break in the masterclass, Shipps shared that, in honor of Heifetz, he had strung his violin to approximate Heifetz's setup. Heifetz used a Goldbrokat E, pure gut A and D and Tri Color G. (In Shipps' case, he used the Goldbrokat E, Eudoxa straight gut A, Eudoxa wound gut D and Thomastik G Perlon.)

"They're completely impractical!" Shipps said of the gut strings, tuning his fiddle again for about the half-dozenth time.

Lipsett explained why: "When you put straight gut (strings) on your violin, it will go down (in pitch) for five to seven days. Then it stabilizes for three to four days, and then it goes false." Four days max of stable tuning! Though he played with impeccable pitch, Heifetz' violin was always out of tune, and he even had fingerings for open strings for those (frequent, it sounds like) occasions when his strings were out of tune, he said.

Next we heard an excellent performance of the first movement of the Mendelssohn Concerto by Usha, and Shipps talked about how to take this to the next step: performing with an orchestra. He first asked her to imagine playing with the Boston Symphony, and being on T.V., with a cameraman filming. If you move too much, you're out of the frame. "Make all your emotions come out through your bow speed, but not movement," Shipps said.

Also, "I'd be a little stricter" with tempo, he said. "Don't give the conductor too many chances to lose you."

In another spot: "It's gorgeous, but the wind players are going to be mad at you," he said. One has to play in fairly strict time, when playing with orchestra. "Take time when it means a lot to you, but don't take time all the time." It's possible to play in time, but still play in an exciting way.

The master class concluded with Blake playing the final movement of the Mendelssohn Concerto.


The two had worked together before, last time on Carmen Fantasy, and Shipps talked about the difference in performing Carmen vs. Mendelssohn, that one has to have feet on the ground and cool things off for Mendelssohn.

After the class, Lipsett encouraged Shipps to speak for awhile about his mentor, Joseph Gingold.


Here are a few highlights: Gingold was a man with an amazing memory for both history and music -- he could play nearly anything in the violin or orchestral repertoire by memory, he knew all the Opus numbers to everything and he never forgot a name. Shipps said Gingold read the Groves Encyclopedia start to end, and "he remembered the whole thing!" In fact, Gingold once corrected Heifetz about a fact at a dinner party with George Szell. Though Gingold wanted to drop the matter, Szell insisted they look it up, and when Heifetz realized he indeed was wrong, Heifetz physically threw the book at Gingold!

As a young man, Gingold studied with Ysaÿe, and over his three years of study learned a different language every year, Shipps said. Ysaÿe would teach his violin lesson in that language, and then they'd have lunch with Mrs. Ysaÿe and converse in that language as well. Another hard-to-believe anecdote: though Gingold is known as the great violin professor who built a world-class violin program at Indiana University during his 30-year tenure at that institution, the first year he was at IU, nobody applied to be in Gingold's class!


November 14, 2014 at 09:24 PM · Thank you, Laurie. That is a great piece of writing with some great insights. Go Gingold!

November 14, 2014 at 10:03 PM · Nice article. A little factual error: Lipsett did not study with Heifetz.

November 14, 2014 at 11:12 PM · Reading this was like being there! You capture the essence of the class so well Laurie! This was very insightful :)

November 15, 2014 at 01:11 AM · Apologies, corrected. One of Lipsett's teachers was Endre Granat, whose teacher was Heifetz -- my lineage was off!

November 15, 2014 at 05:54 AM · I have to speak up about the fact that plain gut strings definitely have more stability than what is mentioned in the article! 4 days of maximum stability? The strings should stay stable for at least 9 months or so for the A and D and about 1-2 for the E string, provided you don't jump from cold to hot weather or from humid to arid without letting the strings settle.

Just ask Nate Robinson! :)

November 15, 2014 at 06:07 AM · My synthetic strings don't stay stable for four months, so....

November 15, 2014 at 09:06 PM · What I mean is that the strings should hold their pitch for 9ish months for plain D and A, and about 1-2 months for the plain E.

The synthetics do not last 9 months because the winding inside degrades more quickly than the core and ruins the stability of the string after a while. Same thing for the wrap between the winding and core that wound gut has. :)

November 16, 2014 at 08:50 AM · "What I mean is that the strings should hold their pitch for 9ish months for plain D and A, and about 1-2 months for the plain E."

Wow I would love to know what plain gut strings you use. All the plain gut I have tried (Aquila, Damian, Pirastro, Gamut), the e will last about 2 weeks before it breaks, A and D will be unbearably false by 3 months time (if the A survives that long.) Maybe Lipsett exaggerated a tiny bit on 4 days of stable pitch, but I think he's not that far off...I can usually get a week of stable tuning if it's not a bad string, but 9 months?! How much do you play?

November 17, 2014 at 02:13 AM · I got the quote from an old thread where somebody mntiond that they got about that much life out of Savarez plain gut.

Plain gut Savarez A and D last for about 9 months; a plain gut Savarez E about 2-3 months, and a little longer if I'm doing a lot of second violin playing :).

From this thread:

Note that Savarez no longr seems to sell plain gut strings. :(

November 17, 2014 at 04:43 AM · I pretty much believe Lipsett, Shipps and Heifetz on the gut strings! :)

November 17, 2014 at 09:11 PM · How beautifully and faithfully written. Steve happens to be a close friend, and every word is true and right out of the "Shipps Musical Encyclopedia". They guy is amazing isn't he? We have coffee together regularly so that I can learn something more:-)

Thanks for sharing this, Laurie.

November 21, 2014 at 05:55 AM · It was a pleasure and inspiration to see Stephen Shipps teach!

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