Master Class with Ronald Copes

May 27, 2015, 9:57 PM · In a manner both persistent and assuring, Ronald Copes returned to themes of musicality and connection during a master class he gave Wednesday at the Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies at Juilliard. Copes is chair of the Violin Department at The Juilliard School and has been a member of the Juilliard String Quartet since 1997.

He began with Emily, 16, who played the fiery second movement of the Franck Sonata.


"I love your use of colors -- and wonderfully different colors," Copes said. "You could use more of that."

In order to match the violin part better with the piano part that is so important in this sonata, he had pianist Pamela Viktoria Pyle play the (extremely difficult) piano introduction for Emily, in order to show how the piano articulates the music. He felt that Emily's version of the same material was legato, as opposed to the scattered and percussive piano version, and the way to reconcile this was to "enunciate each of the 16th notes, even feeling it in the arm, almost like a nervousness, that gives a little bit of bow speed to each of those notes."

She tried it, to good effect. When he asked what she thought, she said that it makes the music comes out more. "Some of it is projection," he said, "and some of it is giving us a sense that it's in that same character as the piano."

He asked her to keep tighter control of dynamics; for instance, a crescendo lasting one bar should truly only last that long.

At one point he asked her how she could get more intensity on a sustained "A." She suggested vibrato, and he said that she could also do something with the right hand: "When one is passionate about something, one doesn't breath evenly," he said. Use "an unevenness, an irrational quality of bow" to increase the level of intensity.

He also suggested digging deeper to find what in the music inspires the dynamics that are written on the page.

"A large part of what we do is tell stories," Copes said. One doesn't really notice when a good storyteller speaks slower or louder; instead, one receives their words because they are so well-delivered. The same can apply to telling stories in music. "What is it -- in the notes, the harmony, the rhythms -- that inspires the dynamics? Share with us what that impulse is."

Next Elena, 17, played the Largo from Bach's Sonata No. 3. By the end she held the audience's attention so well, the room went absolutely silent.


"You have a wonderful way of pulling us in and making sure we enter your world of musical ideas," Copes said. He wanted her to work that same magic at the beginning of the piece as happened at the end. He focused on her vibrato, asking her to vibrate on notes that add harmonic importance, not simply on notes that are easy to vibrate. Also, "find a way for your vibrato to be a more integrated part of your sound," he said.

She also played Paganini Caprice No. 2 that was so impressive that -- "I'm going to say very little," he said. He suggested she might have an easier time, holding her bow six inches higher, but "what you are doing works." So maybe don't change a thing!

Léo, 19, gave a captivating performance of the Fuga from Bach's Sonata No. 2. This is (if I'm correct) the longest fugue Bach ever wrote and arguably one of the most difficult movements in all the S and P's. Léo played it with ease, accuracy, a nice sweep of the bow. Despite its length, it was unhurried and captivating for the duration. I noticed, also, that Léo plays a 2013 violin made by his sister, Juliette Marillier. Nice-sounding fiddle!


Copes applauded Léo's ability to handle the piece's myriad difficulties; then he had much to say.

"You take your ideas and are very clear about them; you have a strong point of view and strong commitment to it," Copes said. To Copes, Léo's playing felt angry in places, and "you have an artistic arc to it, but you interrupt it more than you probably intend."

"A fugue is difficult to hear, as well as to play," Copes said. "It takes a lot of concentration from us listeners, to be pulled into this logical world." Most mentally taxing are the contrapuntal sections; then the episodes should provide the listener some relief -- "you can play them fairly simply." Knowing the complexity of the episodes is an advantage, but that complexity doesn't need to be brought out in performance.

Copes had Léo isolate different voices of the fugue and play them by themselves, then asked, "If you were in a chamber group, how would you respond to the second voice?" Léo definitely seemed to be feeling things different, playing as if in a chamber group.

"What we're trying to create is a sense that these voices don't defer to each other," Copes said. "A fugue is a chase, and in a chase, you don't say, 'You go ahead.' There is that sense of competition, in a fugue."

He also worked with him on a transition section, making it connect better instead of sectioning it off. "Before, we had what I call an 'orphan phrase' -- it didn't belong to the section before or after it."

Next came an excellent performance of Paganini Caprice No. 1, the one full of spiccato bariolage, played by Takumi, 15. If Paganini can be called elegant, this was.


Copes told Takumi that he could go farther in demanding that the timing fits the music. "It is a technical thing," Copes said. "It felt like you were making room for the left hand, with the right." Instead, it is possible to get the timing you want, without taking quite so much preparation time.

Takumi also played the third-movement Gavotte from Bach's Partita No. 3.

"What is a Gavotte?" Copes asked. Takumi knew that it was a dance.

"It thought you got a lot of dance-like elements, but I'd have a hard time dancing to it." Why? "You stopped a lot," he said. It's possible to delay beats and not make it feel like stopping, as long as the sound keeps going, he said.

"I think about the meter as being fabric; you can stretch this, but you don't want to rip or tear it," Copes said.

Next came the third movement ("Lebhaft") of Hindemith's 1939 Concerto, played by Alyssa, 20. It's a piece that is rarely played, so it was a treat to hear it live.


Copes had some interesting thoughts about the cadenza. He reminded her, "You're improvising this; you've never heard this before." Some parts of the cadenza quote material from the concerto, and the others are meant to be more improvisatory. To help the listener understand this, he advised playing the quotes from the concerto more metrically and the improvisatory gestures with more freedom.

Also, he asked her, "When you end an improvisatory gesture, do you know what you are playing next?"

"No," she smiled.

So, don't give that away, either with physical or musical gestures.

While some teachers lose wind toward the end of a master class, Copes' energy seemed to increase the longer he taught. He remained deeply analytical, persistent and clear, right to the end of the master class, with the last student getting every bit as much attention as the first.

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May 28, 2015 at 08:46 AM · Just awesome.

May 28, 2015 at 09:34 AM · Great text! Do you know if this masterclass was recorded for YouTube or similar?

May 28, 2015 at 12:20 PM · I don't know, but I'll ask!

May 29, 2015 at 11:51 PM · For what it's worth, it's in fact the fugue from the C-major unaccompanied sonata (no. 3) that's the longest Bach ever wrote, for any instrument!

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