Guest Master Class with Stephen Shipps at the Colburn School, 2016

November 10, 2016, 11:26 AM · I knew I was in for an evening of high-level playing as well as high-level conversation last week at the Colburn School's Zipper Hall, when I came to a master class that University of Michigan violin professor Stephen Shipps gave for students of Robert Lipsett. Several years ago I'd watched Shipps give a guest master class to the same group, and his teaching combined history, technique and performance guidance in such a seamless and helpful way, I had catch it again.

Lipsett and Shipps
Robert Lipsett, left, and Stephen Shipps. Photo by

Just listening to Lipsett's students is a pleasure in itself; one often finds them in the top ranks at various international competitions and among the new soloists to hit the stage around the country. Former students include soloists, concertmasters and teachers such as Robert Chen, Sheryl Staples, Danielle Belen, Leila Josefowicz, Lindsay Deutsch, Jennifer Frautschi, Elizabeth Pitcairn, Steven Copes and many more.

You can see how it was a formula for an enjoyable and enlightening evening! Here are some of the highlights, with students playing Lalo, Beethoven, Wieniawski and Bach for Shipps.

Lalo's "Symphonie Espagnole" was up first, with Madi Vest playing the second movement, the playful and rhythmically quirky "Scherzando." When she finished, Shipps took a few minutes to put into perspective this piece that so many young violinists play.

"We think of Lalo as a student piece, and it's not," Shipps said. "It's a major-league concerto. It's a true workout, and you have to be in great shape to get all the way through this piece."

The late Cleveland Orchestra conductor George Szell liked to use the second movement of the Lalo for conducting auditions; Shipps' former teacher, Josef Gingold, was Szell's concertmaster and thus was called on to play it dozens of times on such occasions. Why is the movement such a test for a conductor? One reason: Rhythm.

"How does a conductor give an offbeat?" Shipps said. "Rhythm is the key, in this movement. We have to know when the notes are on the beat, when they are off, and when they are in the middle." The movement is full of detailed maneuvers, accents in funny places, hemiolas and abrupt changes. "Since it's complicated, it has to be steady." That steadiness will allow the conductor -- or pianist -- to keep everything in sync.

Shipps also encouraged Madi to use the lower part of the bow -- the part so close to the frog that it may feel a little uncomfortable.

"Force yourself to go to the frog -- nothing will go wrong. You're not going to drop your bow, trust me," he said. "If you don't use from the balance point down, you don't have the power to get the sound to the back of the hall." One might be worried about making a scratchy sound, so close to the frog. "You're going to have to allow yourself to scratch at first," he said.

Also, it's not necessary to get the shoulder involved in the action of the bow arm. In fact, it's even counter-productive.


"You can lift your elbow without your shoulder," he said, noting that his teacher, Sally Thomas would just whack his right shoulder down if he started hunching it up. ("1970s Juilliard!" he quipped.) The point is that "the muscles are not connected."

He also warned against getting too serious -- it's hard music, and you have to concentrate to play it. And yet, if the performance is mostly a picture of serious concentration, then the message is lost. "This is delightful, fun music," and the performance must convey that.

Next Blake Pouliot played Beethoven's Sonata in Eb major with pianist Hsini Huang -- two sensitive musicians who performed well together. Shipps started by complimenting Huang's command of the piano part with its relentless runs: "This was some flawless piano playing," he said. He also suggested that Blake stand more behind the pianist because "you want to be able to see her hands at every moment -- you don't want to make her look up." He said that when Franco Gulli played Beethoven sonatas with his wife, pianist Enrica Cavallo, he stood very far behind her, and they were so in-sync with each other that "it was uncanny to see them play."


He wanted Blake and Hsini to line up their playing more, and he also requested more "charm."

How, exactly, though, does one make it more charming? Shipps talked about the 20th century violinist, Fritz Kreisler, certainly one of the most charming players of all time. What was his special formula? Again, it had to do with rhythm. When people listened to Kreisler they relaxed and tapped their toes. "Kreisler's secret was that he had the best rhythm of anybody," Shipps said.

Shipps also talked about changing the mood for this section:


"This is late-Beethoven coming to visit, just for a minute," Shipps said. It requires a little more transparency, and a change of mood, until it returns to the familiar opening theme.

Next was a showcase of wonderful technique when Aubree Oliverson played the first movement of Wieniawski's Concerto No. 2. Let's just say, her up-bow staccato was jaw-dropping.

Shipps talked about the fact that Wieniawski Concerto No. 2 used to enjoy wide popularity, with orchestras scheduling it in regular subscription concerts. That's no longer the case. "It's gone out of the standard repertoire in the way that it used to be," he said, "but it's still one of the most important pieces for us to play. It's also beautiful orchestra-writing, and audiences love it."

It's also full of technical challenges for the violinist, who has to overcome them to an extent that the music can emerge.

"We can't make good music if we're worried about what is coming next," he said. When your technique is good, you can stop worrying. For example, her octaves were well in-hand, so it was okay to let go. "Don't try so hard, just throw it away," he said.

He also talked about pronating the bow hand, a rotation of the hand which is a little like the motion you'd use to turn a doorknob counter-clockwise.


That puts weight into the string, so if you pronate the bow hand while traveling to the tip, the sound will stay steady instead of getting softer, as it would naturally do going to the tip, where there is less weight.

Next, Maddie Vaillancourt played the Largo from Bach's Sonata in C major, a piece with long and lyrical lines.


Shipps talked about the modern bow, designed around 1820 by Tourte and Viotti. "The problem is the balance point," he said. That's where the bow bounces best for spiccato -- but "that is also where it will bounce during long bows," he said. The bow is designed to bounce there, so that's no big surprise.

But it can feel surprising when you are going for a long and smooth bow and you get a little bounce. "When our bow bounces, we think oh no, we're nervous!" and that can start a cycle of anxiety. But in all likelihood, "you are just in the wrong part of the bow," Shipps said.

What is the cure? The cure is not to change bow direction at the balance point (that spot just below the middle). Though it feels like a "safe" place to change, it's the worst. Instead, go all the way to the frog. "It's going to have easy, beautiful sound there, and if it scratches a little, it's okay," he said. During the melisma at the end of that movement he encouraged her to "just hold the audience in your hand."

After students played, Shipps and Lipsett talked for a while about history and Heifetz -- Heifetz being ever-present because he taught Lipsett's teacher, Endre Granat and because Lipsett teaches in the Heifetz studio, moved piece-by-piece to Colburn from Heifetz' estate. But who taught Heifetz? Leopold Auer was his teacher, but he always refused to take much credit for his most famous prodigy, Lipsett said. He told a story about Auer being interviewed about his students and speaking at length about all of them, except for Heifetz. At last, the interviewer had to bring it up, what about Jascha Heifetz?

"He was not my student," Auer said, "He was a student of God's."

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November 10, 2016 at 08:30 PM · Did you mean E flat major Beethoven Sonata?

November 10, 2016 at 09:12 PM · I did indeed, Helen, thanks for the catch! All fixed now.

November 11, 2016 at 03:21 PM · "He also talked about pronating the bow hand, a rotation of the hand which is a little like the motion you'd use to turn a doorknob counter-clockwise. That puts weight into the string, so if you pronate the bow hand while traveling to the tip, the sound will stay steady ..."

Is pronating the bow hand the same thing as "pressure"? :)

November 11, 2016 at 05:15 PM · Paul, it is, and it isn't. The subtle physicalities of playing the violin remind me a little bit of yoga, where instructors will say patently impossible things like "breathe into your fingertips" and yet somehow it makes the student do something helpful. When you tell a student to put "pressure" into the string, that wording can be bad news, causing much more general tensing of muscles, up the arm and into the shoulder. Sometimes we want to rotate from the shoulder to get "pressure." All that tensing is unnecessary and often has to be undone because it causes injury and inflexibility. "Pronating" the hand is a rotating from the wrist joint, allowing the rest of the arm to be flexible and un-tensed. In the end, probably "pressure" and "weight" and "pronation" all come from the index finger, even if you are tensing a bunch of unnecessary muscles in addition. But isolating the most effective muscle + movement and finding a way to help someone picture it is helpful.

November 11, 2016 at 07:41 PM · If the only thing that mattered was the force applied to the string by the bow, then yes, it would be the same as "pressure" - but as Laurie said, what is going on in your shoulder/arm/wrist/hand/fingers as a side effect of how you produce that "pressure" is important. You could hold the bow like a hammer and apply the same pressure! Most other bow strokes would suffer, though.

November 13, 2016 at 03:12 PM · Buenas aclaraciĆ³n la del maestro, en todo sentido

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