Written by Laurie Niles
Published: May 5, 2015 at 2:37 PM [UTC]
It's an old Billy Joel lyric, but it fits most of us violinists all too well. We obsess on our mistakes and can barely concede our successes -- and where does that leave us, in performance?
So imagine a teacher who can make us see both things clearly -- now that's a gem.
Such were my thoughts, watching violinist Danielle Belén teaching a master class last week at Metzler Violin Shop in Glendale, Calif.
When Danielle described a student's strengths, she did so with genuine regard for the student's abilities. When she addressed a student's problems, she did so with clarity and immediacy -- and solutions at the ready.
The crowd of about 40 people at Metzler were happy to see Danielle, who had spent many years in the Los Angeles area before she recently became an Associate Professor of Violin at the University of Michigan. She remains on faculty at the Colburn School and also runs a summer music camp in Three Rivers, Calif. called Center Stage Strings.
For last week's master class, she worked with three high school students from the Los Angeles area. First up was Maeve, 17, who played the lyrical first movement of the Barber Violin Concerto.
Danielle first commented on the excellent control that Maeve had over her vibrato, correctly guessing that she had worked on it with the metronome in the past. "That's a huge asset to you, that's already in place," Danielle said. She then also correctly guessed that Maeve had not played the piece before with piano. She encouraged her to always rehearse with piano before a performance, and also to play off the score and really know the other part or parts, so that there is no confusion in performance.
Danielle suggested that the Barber is a Romantically-inspired piece, and thus it's all right to slide the fingers in certain places. She compared a good slide with ombré hair or an ombré skirt, which gradually fades from one color at one end, to another color at the other end. When you slide from one note to another, it starts out "not quite real; it's fuzzy, then it becomes very real."
To try fading one note into the next, sliding from a first to a third finger, she had her place the first and third fingers so they were touching each other, then slide up the fingerboard, letting up the pressure and subtly switching along the way from the first to the third finger.
When a baseball player slides into second base, she asked, does he or she bend the knees or extend the leg? The baseball player extends. That said, the same principle applies to sliding fingers: flatten the finger slightly, get on the fat of the finger, pitch the elbow around and slide. "That gives you room for error," she said. The more adept you get at it, the less likely you'll be to miss the note.
She also took the opening of the concerto and asked Maeve to focus on the notes that need vibrato and that need time, or "rubato." "Barber wrote a lot of music for voice, and this is singing, to the max," she said. "What note needs lingering?" she asked.
One way to discover what needs lingering is to know the intervals between notes -- which ones are unexpected, and lean on those interesting notes.
As a cure for a locked bow thumb when doing spiccato, Danielle suggested practicing spiccato "every day in your scales. It's kind of like abs -- if you don't work out, even one day, those muscles get weak." She demonstrated almost a collé stroke, but from the air. "I really think of it as if I'm shooting an arrow," from the bow, using all fingers. Aim for ringing, quick and intentional-sounding strokes (not the kind of bouncing bow that sounds like an accident).
Next, Jaimee, 15, played "Polonaise" by Wieniawski -- a very virtuosic piece.
Danielle first complimented Jaimee on her up-bow staccato, asking her if she'd been working on it long, or if it came naturally. "This bow is just really good with up-bow staccato," Jaimee said.
"Trust me, it's not the bow."" Danielle said, giving Jaimee full credit for her good technique.
They then worked on a difficult run, with fingered octaves. Whenever music presents a roadblock, Danielle said, it helps to mix things up a little.
"Start fresh," Danielle said, "Do a different fingering, or a new bowing." It's okay if it's different from what your teacher recommended, or even from what you will ultimately do in the end. Practice something different for a while, and then when you go back to your original, it tends to be easier, better and stronger.
"We have to listen to our teachers, but that doesn't mean you can't experiment," Danielle said. "Experimentation is key."
Danielle asked Jaimee to play the octave run with no fingers -- on open strings. Then they worked a nice crescendo into the open strings.
Once the bow arm was moving fluidly, they added the fingers, and Danielle asked her to resist the temptation to squeeze at the top -- "you don't have to press the strings all the way to the fingerboard, let it be fuzzy," she said.
In performance, "the bow needs to be your savior," Danielle said. The bow arm can stay loose and relaxed, even when the left hand has to negotiate difficult things such as fast double-stops and octave runs. "Then when you perform, you just think about the bow," Danielle said. "It's all too easy to clamp, so talk yourself out of it."
Danielle then focused on vibrato width -- and how very wide we can make it.
"Wide vibrato is volume," Danielle said. In a good vibrato, the pitch oscillates from the intended pitch downward. How low does the pitch go? As wide as a full half-step, she said. What is the percentage of time that we spent on that lower note? 50 percent.
"Half of our sound is on that lower pitch," Danielle said. "So listen to that bottom note -- love it and crave it!" The widest vibrato is reserved for the thickest string; in the case of the violin, the G string.
A wide vibrato requires really flattening the finger -- Danielle showed us a string indentation in her own finger that went all the way past the knuckle. Impressive! The hardest finger to vibrate, she said, is the first finger, because of its angle and placement as the last finger on our hand. She recommended practicing a very wide vibrato on long notes, to strengthen and widen the motion.
Christine, 16, played the "Preludio" from Bach's Partita No. 3, a piece that is challenging for many reasons, one being that "there's no hiding," Danielle said, "no moment to rest or breathe."
To create more variety of dynamics and color, Danielle suggested lowering the center of gravity on her bow, from playing most of the piece close to the tip to playing more in the middle, especially for louder passages.
This piece has a great many string crossings which require "blocking" and "bridging." Danielle defined "blocking" as keeping a finger down while others are in motion, and "bridging" as holding a finger down on both strings, in fifths. Blocking and bridging are techniques that prevent the little whistles and extra notes that poke through when fingers are scrambling around the fingerboard, lifting from one string to get to the next. Danielle suggested playing passages as double stops -- very loudly -- to nail down the motions of the left hand.
"I would go through this whole thing and play double stops everywhere," Danielle said. "Turn it into the Brahms Concerto, and it will be easy to relax it back into Bach." It's much more difficult to play with strength and volume; once you have that strength you can back off. But if you practice small and light, you won't be building the strength needed to do all this fingerwork with accuracy and solidity.
Having worked several years ago with Christine, Danielle noticed a big change in her bow hand, which had gone from being stiff and locked to being strong and flexible. Danielle wanted to give her a public thumbs-up for this accomplishment. "You should have taken a 'before' and 'after' picture," Danielle said, "It's the equivalent of losing 300 pounds!"
Mixing things up a little also helps in Bach. She suggested, just as an exercise, changing the fingering of the opening of the Preludio to 4-3-4-2-1-2 etc., all on the E string. It requires putting the fingers at different angles and trying new things.
Then when you go back to the old way, it will be much easier.
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