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Master Class with Lorenz Gamma at Metzler Violins

Laurie Niles

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Published: November 11, 2015 at 4:32 AM [UTC]

"You should be the boss of your own vibrato."

That is what violinist Lorenz Gamma told Antonia, 11, who was playing "Meditation from Thais" by Massenet at a master class last week at Metzler Violin Shop in Glendale, Calif.

Gamma, who teaches violin at California State University at Northridge and California Institute of the Arts, touched on a variety of ideas in the master class, including cultivating different speeds of vibrato, the nature of Baroque music, how to use energy yet stay accurate and controlled, and producing an "A-1 sound" using arm weight.

Antonia, 11, already knew how to do vibrato, but mostly at one speed. Gamma suggested that she was ready for the idea of different colors, different speeds of vibrato. He showed her four different ways of practicing vibrato: very wide, relaxed and easy, fast and narrow, and wild-fast. (I liked this approach for a young student, as opposed to using a metronome, which can get overly complicated and distracting.) Here he demonstrates the four different ways for practicing vibrato, and has her try them:

Gamma also encouraged her to use more bow, for the quality of sound. "It doesn't necessarily mean playing louder," he said, "it simply means breathing more air into the phrase."

Gamma had the chance to talk about Baroque music when a student named Saren played the first two movements of Handel's Sonata in D major. Gamma began by talking about the spritely second movement "Allegro," which Saren had played with speed and intensity, mostly on the string.

Lorenz Gamma and Saren

To keep Baroque music on the playful side, "we have to be careful how much energy we give each note." That may mean playing a little lower in the bow, even off the string. The notes can sound tough if the energy and intensity comes out in the form of forceful bowing.

"We can take that excitement and put it into the phrasing -- then we have Baroque music," Gamma said. Of course, Handel does not necessarily give a lot of instructions about phrasing -- very little is in the score, "so this is all up to you to decide."

Throughout the movement there are several fast bariolage passages that serve as accompaniment to the melody in the piano (or harpsichord, or orchestra). "We have a lot of little notes," Gamma said. "We might think they aren't as important, but they are. You want to clean up your little notes as much as you clean up your long notes." In other words: They have to be perfectly in tune, despite the fact that they go by quickly and serve as accompaniment. "You just have to talk to your fingers so they go in the right place."

Those 16th notes also need to have musical shape. "Never play the 16ths in Baroque music as if they were part of an etude -- and don't play etudes that way, either!" Gamma said. Even a Kreutzer etude should be flexible in tempo and beautiful, with a polished tone. "If you go beyond a certain speed limit, it becomes a technical exercise," he said. "Allow yourself to slow down a little, smell the roses."

Gamma suggested a nice fingering for this infamously awkward place:


Going back to the first movement "Affetuoso," Gamma reminded us that in the Baroque period, vibrato was considered an ornament, to be used judiciously rather than continuously. "I'm not saying that you shouldn't use vibrato, but when you do, you can tone it down a bit," he said. When you use less vibrato, "then your bow becomes the primary tool for making music."

Next, Abigail played the first movement of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, intense and fiery, with a fast and wide vibrato. Gamma first advised her to keep control of the tempo and energy, so it doesn't snowball into something dangerous that gets beyond control.

"Play with just as much daredevil energy, but not...danger!"

Mendelssohn, considered an early Romantic, still has some of that Classic-period cleanliness, so there won't be as much rubato in it. Gamma had her play a difficult passage slowly, with no vibrato, in order to get clarity and precision. As that became more controlled, he had her add the vibrato and energy back. It definitely made things cleaner.

Alexandra, 20, played the first movement of the Prokofiev Concerto No. 1, and Gamma worked with her on sound production.

"If you give Picasso two tubes of paint, he's going to say, 'What can I do with this?' He needs buckets of paint!"

In a similar vein, we need buckets of sound! That is the reason for cultivating an "A-1 sound" as a starting point. "Start with a lot of sound, and go from there," Gamma said. Here is one way that Gamma described, to set your bow hand and arm for effortless big sound:

"Sometimes it's easy to lose that A-1 sound, then you have to re-establish it," Gamma said. Be sure to bring the violin up "and keep it up, so that your bow knows where the violin is."

Afterwards Gamma answered questions, and he talked about having started violin at age five, with his father, a physician who was an amateur violinist, as his teacher. At around 16, a different teacher suggested that he start practicing seriously, about three hours a day, which he found to be "excruciatingly long." He said it was not until he was 19 that he decided he wanted to take music seriously, and not until he was 22 that he began studying music at a university. He finished his doctoral degree at age 34. So in many respects, he started late and studied for a very long time.

"The question is not how old you are," he said, "but how seriously you take it."

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