We violinists and string players can be a high-strung bunch, shaped as we are by the pursuit of an art that demands perfectionism, monastic devotion, constant self-criticism, rigorous physical training -- and then utter confidence and ease before a crowd with high expectations.
It's no wonder that it's just not that easy for us to chill out. But chill out we must, if we wish to return to the heart of our musical purpose: human expression. This is one the most interesting parts of the mission of the Heifetz Institute, which I'm visiting this week in Staunton, Va. In order to encourage maximum expression in music students, the Institute offers communication classes such as voice, drama, public speaking, movement and more.
On Tuesday I dropped in on a class called "Freedom of Expression," taught by Chic Street Man, a Seattle-based singer and guitarist who regularly gives workshops on breaking barriers to expression.
The students had been taking these kinds of communication classes for more than four weeks, working with various teachers, and they were pretty open to these out-of-the-box approaches. As for me, my attempt at sitting invisibly in the corner did not last; I wound up participating too.
Chic first asked that we each sing our name, then the group would sing it back to us. "This is about letting go and being yourself," he reminded us. He didn't want people to just use two notes to sing their name, he wanted something a little more interesting and maybe even elaborate. "Make it difficult for them to sing back!" he said. People did really interesting things -- "Carmen" sang her name to Bizet's "Carmen." Both "Ben" and "Jane," who already had short names, sang them in a short way. "Skye" sang just one note, very high up. Others were long and elaborate. I tried to sing "Laurie" to the first few notes of Kreutzer 2 (when in Rome), but I think I wound up sounding like a startled frog.
Next he had groups of two people stand at the front of the room and conduct a conversation, using just one or two words. For example, the first two people could say only the word "okay" to each other. In another group, one person could say, "please" and the other could only say "sorry." Then: "why" and "because"; "here" and "there" -- you get the picture. Below is a video of me trying this exercise with Skye. We could only say "who" and "you."
Simple, isn't it? It's interesting how many permutations there are in these interactions: they could become heated, dissolve into silence, get loud and insistent -- many possibilities.
Next was a game called "Not Getting Down." One person had to act something out at 100 percent energy, and when their energy started dropping (which takes about five seconds), anyone could interrupt, saying, "Freeze! You're not getting down!" and then take over the drama. They started by acting out things, like taking a shower. Then they got out their instruments.
The idea was to go "onstage' and play anything, it just had to be at 100 percent energy. Then anyone could interrupt with "Freeze, you're not getting down!" At first, they were reluctant to interrupt. Each person seemed somewhat marooned on stage, trying to think of something to play, maybe something they were practicing. After a few people played serious pieces, one person played "Twinkle Variations" with outsized drama. Everyone laughed. "Freeze, you're not getting down!" They slowly began to hit a groove.
A cellist played a piece meant for violin, "Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso"; then a violist played an exaggeratedly stiff and stilted version of Bach's G minor fugue (C minor on viola, yes?). A violinist launched into the Rococo variations for cello. One of the more reluctant students took the stage, and as he played, students started plucking the accompaniment. That powered him on a bit more. A cellist started a Bach Prelude; then another cellist interrupted and continued from the same place, then a violist continued it from there. A violinist sat down, positioned her fiddle like a cello and ripped into the Dvorak cello concerto. Another violinist played a passage from "Hora Staccato," positioning the bow upright between his knees, holding the violin sideways and somehow staccatoing the instrument downwards. A violinist ran up and started the Bach Double, then a whole crowd joined in. In a moment of complete role-reversal, a violinist took the stage and played the orchestral introduction to the Mendelssohn concerto, inspiring the students in the "audience" to start the solo part. Eventually, the entire "audience" was improvising things like "Amazing Grace" and "Ode to Joy," together, while the person "on stage" took pencil as baton and conducted, literally directing the audience.
By the end of class, everyone's genie seemed well out of its bottle!
* * *
As I walked into the main building after the expression class, I happened upon a chamber group that was about to walk into a coaching session with Emerson String Quartet violist, Larry Dutton.
Chamber coaching with Larry Dutton = Wow!
So I sneaked in to watch. The six young musicians were playing Tchaikovsky's Souvenir de Florence.
He was good-natured and down-to-business. They accomplished a lot, and quickly.
"You don't have to play fortissimo all the time; let this stuff pop out," Dutton said, trying to allow the important voices to get through the sometimes-thick writing by Tchaikovsky. Also some advise on fast notes: don't bunch them up in order to just get them done -- "don't let it collapse, fill out the rhythms."
I smiled when he implored the violinists and cellists to "give the violas a chance, please!" (Wouldn't that make a great bumper sticker?) He meant for them to back off when the violas had the melody, that "there's got to be a clearing of the sound."
In one solo passage he told the violist that "you could use more expensive fingerings," meaning going up on the same string for a note and just doing a little more with the fingerings to create color in the music.
Tchaikovsky wrote a great many (too many?) crescendos in this piece, Dutton observed, and "I'd love to hear the details in here, more than just getting louder. Don't over-crescendo."
In a nutshell, Dutton was helping them clear the fog away in order to let the details emerge, and it certainly was working well with such responsive and accomplished students.
* * *
I also dropped in on a quartet coaching with Daniel Heifetz, the founder and artistic director of the Heifetz Institute.
The quartet was playing the first movement of Schubert's Quartet No. 1 -- sort of auditioning to play in next week's performances at the Institute, which is holding 41 public concerts over its six-week term this year.
The piece was in excellent shape (what a treat for me) but Heifetz told them he wanted them to bump it up to the level of artistry.
"You're playing the dynamics, but it needs more of the reason behind the dynamics," Heifetz said. For example, when you play an inner part, there's no biding your time until you have something more interesting to play. Those voices need urgency and mystery.
And soft passages still need intensity. When playing pianissimo, one can't simply drop to nothing as you might do in orchestra playing.
"In chamber music or solo playing, you find a silver thread of a sounding point, and that pianissimo carries to the balcony," Heifetz said. "I don't want to sit in the audience, snoring, while you play nice chamber music; I want something magical."
He had them sing their parts. "I firmly believe that when you feel it, when you have it in your ear, when you can sing it, then your technique will almost automatically do what you need to do, when you are as advanced as you are," he said. "The best thing you can learn from me is not how to play the piece, but how to think like an artist."
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