Master Class with Giora Schmidt and Brian Lewis

June 3, 2015, 11:05 PM · A little surprise greeted us for the last master class in the Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies: a change of teacher!

With Paul Kantor unable to teach due to temporary illness, Giora Schmidt agreed to teach the master class, with just a few hours' notice. While it was a disappointment not to see the wonderful teaching of Paul Kantor, Schmidt hit it out of the park, teaching with a style all his own, combining frank assessment, deadpan humor and a lot of empathy for each student. What a treat. Since Schmidt had to leave early to catch a flight, Brian Lewis taught the last student of the day. Also a treat!

First on the program was Takumi, who played the first movement of the Paganini Concerto, a piece that he had very well in hand.

"You can play it, don't worry," Schmidt said. He wanted Takumi to be a little bit more expansive -- "you're very much in the fiddle all the time."

One way to open up is to loosen the bow hand, to make the wrist and fingers "as floppy as you can," Schmidt said. "Make it feel like the bow is going to fall out of your hand." In fact, Schmidt took his bow and had Takumi simply shake out his right hand, just to feel that floppiness.


"Once you learn the notes in the music like this, then what? This is part of 'then what' -- you have to let go," he said. Likewise, the slow parts can be more cantabile, operatic and slower. One way to look at it is this: The difficult parts are all "inhale," and the lyrical parts are the "exhale." "You can relax here," he said of one lyrical part, "sing it out!""

In the opening of the Paganini, Schmidt advised him to catch the bows for the highest notes, then when the theme arrives, "move along," to keep the musical momentum going. In another place, Takumi was playing two fermatas in a similar way, and Schmidt said not to do both of them the same, but to pick one of the fermatas to be longer. Takumi tried it, and Schmidt asked the audience, "Do you like it?" and we all did.

"So listen to the feedback from the audience," Schmidt said, "don't just apologize."

Next, Valerie played the Allemande and Double from Bach's Partita No. 1 in B minor, with a fairly modern, legato approach.


"The double was wonderfully imaginative," Schmidt said, "but for me, the Allemande was a bit funereal." An Allemande is a stately, courtly dance, but "I didn't feel like you were courting someone else." He wanted her play with more rhythmic character, to give it "a little bit of that wonderful charm you had in the double."

More specifically, "see if you can make a few less pit stops when getting through," he said. She tried playing with less lingering, helped by a couple of well-timed snaps from Schmidt to keep her moving forward. It made for more cohesive music.

Played like that, "we're dancing with you, and that's what you want," Schmidt said. "We've got to be a family when we play Bach, otherwise it's too scary." The Allemande has both triplets and dotted figures; Schmidt said to sustain the triplets more, while really feeling the air, the "daylight" as he said, in the dotted rhythm.

At the very end of the Allemande, the last note should carry through the Double that follows; not literally, but in the way that it suspends the audience and directs their attention forward. He was happy with the way Valerie did it in the end; "You held the audience completely; that's exactly right," he said.

We then heard from Léo, who played the last movement of the Tchaikovsky Concerto. He played with great energy, and some tension.

"You've got to let it go -- because you're exhausted," Schmidt said. "You play with wonderful fire and drama. I would love more ease and light-heartedness, and I daresay, lifting the corners of your mouth," which made Léo smile.

In the introduction, the rhythm may have been a bit too perfect, Schmidt said, suggesting that he needed a little more rubato. "Don't push through it just for dramatic effect, it's dramatic enough." He also wanted him to try it without vibrato.

No vibrato? Léo asked.

"Yank it out," he said. "Right now it's molto nervosa. Before we put it up, we need to take it out." He also wanted him to stop blocking the lefthand motion with a high thumb; "if you release the thumb, you open up the possibility of a much greater variety of vibrato."

As Léo played the beginning more calmly, his sound changed for the better.

"We all feel more at ease as audience members," Schmidt said. "We feel like you're about to tell us something, but you're not grabbing us by the lapels. You're welcoming us. Welcoming us is as important as showing us how strong you are."

Schmidt also talked about the fast spiccato (off-the-string) that runs throughout the movement. Is it manual, or is it automatic? That is what Léo said he was thinking about after first playing the piece. Schmidt suggested a greater lift at the beginning of these passages. "You have to lift it to drop it, that's the manual part," Schmidt said. "Then it becomes automatic."


The conscious lifting before launching into the fast spiccato seemed to help a great deal when he tried it.

"You just need to open a door in your brain, and then you can do it this way all the time," Schmidt said. Use the bounce in the stick to make it happen -- "that's why we make bows from this wood that's an endangered species -- they use the bouncy wood."

Schmidt wanted him to really go for it. "It's about courage," Schmidt said. "That's what the practice room is; it's the laboratory to build courage."

Léo tried it again, with more ease in the spiccato and better sound.

Schmidt stood smiling, in the corner. "Freaking awesome, man."

Léo, by now, was lifting the corners of his mouth, with ease.

Next we heard the first movement of the Brahms Concerto, played by Elena.


"You play with wonderful power and strength," Schmidt told her. He suggested backing off on the "sostenutos" -- the sustaining of notes.

"The magic is in the releases," he said. In fact, the first pages of the solo part contain one long release: "he writes the mathematics, right in the music," from six notes to a beat to five, then four, three, two, and then we get the tune. He asked her to "be much freer as you come out of this; you're playing with maybe too much importance. It's like flowing water, over rocks.

As for the tune itself, "what can help is to slow the vibrato slightly," he said. The fiddle does the work and the right hand just glides, and for this melody there should be no "dead notes" that have no vibrato.

Also, resist waiting at the end of every phrase -- "I need to get an idea of where you're going. I'm getting impatient!" he said.

She tried it with a little more color and vibrato, with less waiting, and it was quite exciting.

"You feel it, as an audience, when the player has that inner inertia," Schmidt said.

For the last young artist of the day, Brian Lewis stepped in to teach Elli, who played Ernst's "Last Rose of Summer." She played with a powerful sound and assurance, keeping the feeling of a slow song despite the flurry of fast notes and technical madness all around the melody.

The piece, dedicated to Antonio Bazzini, is based on a tune called "The Young Man's Dream," to which the words of Thomas Moore's poem, The Last Rose of Summer, are traditionally sung.

The composer, Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst, "loved to copy Paganini," Lewis said. In fact, he stalked him a little, Lewis said, renting a hotel room next to Paganini's just to listen in on his practicing.

Lewis had Elli play the theme by itself so that we could hear it in unembellished version, and of course she played it beautifully, with style and expression. Lewis emphasized (more for our benefit in the audience than for Elli's, I believe) that it's important to know exactly what the theme is, as it gives us a better sense of rhythm for the variations.

"Have that kind of simplicity in the statement of your theme, so that even with all the technical folderol, you can keep that quality of simplicity to the melody," he said.

Lewis also talked about playing chords, and the importance of keeping a circular motion in the bow. He and Elli demonstrated, first using their right hands (without bows) to "pet the Great Dane," in large circular motions, and then repeating the motion in smaller circles -- petting the big dog, the dachshund and finally, the little chihuahua.


The piece has a passage with a pizzicato melody line that pops out from running arpeggios -- great practice for lefthand pizzicato, Lewis said. He recommended a book by Ruggiero Ricci (Left Hand Technique, I believe), that has drone scales and left hand pizzicato exercises.

In all, the symposium offered us the chance to see the teaching styles of six teachers from around the U.S., all with their own way of teaching. What a treat! Please check back for more on Starling DeLay; in the next week, I'll be posting about the seven pedagogy sessions, which were about things such as right- and left-hand technique, approaching the Tchaik concerto, Kreisler pieces and more.

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June 4, 2015 at 11:18 AM · Good grief! How old is that student who played the Ernst? That piece is impossible. It's just wonderful that we have these talented young people and great masters like Schmidt and Lewis willing to share their expertise so warmly and freely. Must be nice to have skill worthy even of their criticism!

June 4, 2015 at 01:32 PM · Ellie is 13 now. (I think). She is ridiculously talented! Look up her videos on YouTube.

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