Master Class with Laurie Smukler

May 28, 2015, 10:52 PM · When Laurie Smukler finished teaching her master class Thursday at the Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies, the audience full of teachers clapped -- and clapped, and clapped and clapped.

Originally from Cleveland, Smukler studied with Ivan Galamian at Juilliard and was appointed to the faculty of The Juilliard School last fall and also is on faculty at the Manhattan School of Music, Mannes College of Music and Bard.

Smukler had a way of engaging with students, eliciting their point of view on the subjects she raised. She then administered a mix of action and encouragement that led to immediate results. She often told them what she observed in their playing, asking, "Did you want to do that?" When the answer was "yes," she helped them do it better. When the answer was "no," they worked on making a change.

The first piece we heard was Walton's violin concerto, a piece less famous than the composer's viola concerto but always a treat to hear. It was played by Ashley, who showed solid control and a range of playing in this piece, from high-volume doubles stops to just an intimate thread of sound. The last note seemed like all air, a real feat of control.

Laurie Smukler-Ashley

Smukler began by asking Ashley how she would describe this piece. Dreamy, she said. "I wonder if the dreaminess could get more fervent sometimes," Smukler said.

Smukler set about accomplishing this by focusing on Ashley's shifting: putting more energy, volume and confidence into those places when the music requires a shift to a high note.

"There are a lot of shifts in this," Smukler said. "I think you missed one in the whole thing, and just barely." The music in between two notes can be very potent -- "Walton's intervals are filled with emotion."

They worked on increasing the sound during shifts, rather than backing off on the high note. Also, sometimes Ashley would lean backwards when shifting to a high note, which actually functions to make the bow weaker at the tip. Instead, she asked Ashley to take the bow and "power straight down through your abdomen" for that big landing on a high note.

In one part of the music, the mood changes to something more optimistic when the note change to F sharp. Smukler asked: Does your finger feel optimistic? Does your bow hand feel optimistic?

"I know it's weird to say, but it does matter -- a lot!" she said.

Smukler talked about being tentative for big shifts. "You're a little scared, even though you never miss it," she said. Ashley tried it again, this time with better confidence. But Smukler wanted more. "I still hear just a hair of you saying, 'Did I get it? Okay, now I can vibrato.'" She advised her to bring all the other fingers with her on the shift rather than extending just one. "Now all your friends are there with your third finger, it helps."

The last shift went very well, and Smukler commended her. "That's real passion! Do you like that? I do, too!"

Then came an astonishing performance by Elizabeth, 12, of Paganini Concerto No. 1, first movement. To say that her playing was beyond her years is an understatement; the high-level demands of this piece -- 10ths, ricochet, double-stops, chords, up-bow staccato -- poured from her violin with ease, and yes, with solid musicianship.

As with the student before her, Smukler interviewed Elizabeth for a little bit before going into any teaching points.

Laurie Smukler-Elizabeth

Since Elizabeth was executing all the pyrotechnics accurately and without tension, they decided to look at some of the more lyrical sections. Laurie worked with her on holding the musical tension before orchestra entrances, and about evoking emotion or changing the mood during a change of key.

Next was a change of pace, with Beethoven's Sonata No. 3 in E flat major, Op. 12, No. 3, played by Angela and pianist Evan Solomon. As with many pieces by Beethoven, it's pretty piano-centric, and Smukler took issue with the fact that Angela played the piece by memory. When playing a sonata or other chamber music, "unless you have a partner who is playing by memory, don't play without music," she said, bringing over the score, rather than just the violin part, to put on the music stand. "It's a sign of respect for your partner, because it's not your show." Even if you intend to play by memory, "at least put the music on the stand."

That said, Smukler complemented Angela on her intonation and the character of her playing. To take it a step further, Smukler wanted her to integrate everything she was doing more with the piano.

"I feel like you know that you're accompanying, but it doesn't sound any different," Laurie said. "There's a way to play supporting material in a supportive, interesting way."

Smukler directed Angela's attention to Solomon, at the piano. "Do you feel like you're playing his part? Are you singing it?" Smukler asked. "This is what we do in chamber music: we play everybody's part -- emotionally, and almost physically." They played the introduction several times, with Angela lengthening the first note and trying to feel the piano part more.

"Do you feel a little happier?" Smukler asked Angela. "You seem happier." This was an interesting thing to observe in a masterclass, but it seemed quite true. Working on Smukler's ideas seemed to have cheered Angela up, and then when Smukler acknowledged it, she seemed to relax and cheer up even more.

Laurie Smukler-Angela

Smukler mentioned an interview she'd seen with Perlman, where he talks about drumming the fingering for parts of the Tchaikovsky, not with his left hand, with his right, and even doing so while holding the bow. She suggested that when walking around the grocery store playing your piece in your head while drumming fingers (admit it, we all do this), to drum the fingering with the right hand rather than the left, to get that sense into the right hand.

Smukler asked Angela to play a passage, but to be thinking about feeling the lefthand fingering in her bow hand as well. Angela did so, with good results. "That's exciting!" Smukler said, adding rhetorically, "Would you like to play that way?"

Even when the violin just has repeated accompanying notes, those notes should take the dynamic and musical shape of the melody notes in the piano part, or at least acknowledge an awareness of those things. She emphasized experimenting and listening -- "If it doesn't sound good, there's always a way to fix it."

Next was Enrique, 13, who played the Polonaise de concert in D Major, Op. 4 by Wieniaswki. It's a piece with a lot of string crossings, for which he was very accurate and kept the violin stable. Smukler worked a lot with him on making a crescendo through the string crossings by increasing the bow length with each one. They practiced this by slowing it down and really attending to bow length.

Smukler also spoke about playing in tune (which Enrique did well): "Intonation is about sound. Good intonation rings better," she said. "We need to play in tune, not to be better people, but to sound good."

They also worked on a slower part, high on the G string, striving to connect the notes. "Can you feel this finger aching for that finger?" she asked, referring to the finger down and the one that would go down next.

To close the class, Felicity played the last movement of Concerto No. 3 by Saint-Saƫns, with great intonation and speed.

"You have a lot of energy," Smukler said. Sometimes that extra energy equates to extra muscle use. "You have to decide what muscles you need to use to do what you do." Smukler said she was using more muscles than needed, and that was causing tension.

She observed that Felicity also was thrusting her head backwards during big shifts to high notes. She suggested pushing the vioin forward, into the bow, instead, and to have a sense of both thumbs coming together.

Again, she emphasized feeling the music in both hands. "Do you always feel like you're making the sound with both hands?" she said. "Concentrate on that; feel it in the palm of this hand, and in the palm of that hand."

Violinists sometimes tend to play from the upper torso, she said. It helps to have a broader awareness of the body, including the whole torso and the legs supporting it. "We use the small muscles for articulation," she said. "We use big muscles for strength and energy."

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May 29, 2015 at 07:15 AM · "Intonation is about sound. Good intonation rings better," she said. "We need to play in tune, not to be better people, but to sound good." - I LOVE this quote! Hilarious!!

May 29, 2015 at 03:56 PM · thank you for that excellent report Laurie! so we can all learn from it!

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