Master Class with Joan Kwuon

May 31, 2017, 10:52 PM · The "big picture" might have been the focus of the first master class at Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies, but violinist Joan Kwuon got down to the details in her master class on Wednesday.

Kwuon, who has taught at Juilliard, is currently a faculty member and head of the violin department at the Cleveland Institute of Music. With a smile and a gentle manner, she spoke in beautifully-worded descriptions about both music and technique, often demonstrating on her own violin to back up what she was saying.

The class began with a performance of the first movement of the Sibelius Concerto by Haeun Moon, 15. Kwuon praised her excellent intonation and lyricism, asking if she had ever played this piece with orchestra -- Haeun had not. Nonetheless, it's important to think about the orchestra part, to "imagine what that sound world is like and how the violin will fit in," Kwuon said.

She had Haeun work on some of the most lush parts of the movement; the big G-string moment in the second theme, and also when the theme appears in octaves. She told her to use her breath for confidence, power and presence.

Joan Kwuon and Haeun

She also emphasized flexibility in the bow fingers. "We're dealing with a lot of moving parts on the violin," Kwuon said: the string moves, the bow stick moves, the hand moves. There is balance and resilience in the bow, and the right-hand fingers must give way to that.

"If you hold the bow tightly, you are relying on all large muscles," Kwuon said. You want use the finesse of the small muscles, and the support of the larger muscles.

She also encouraged Haeun to fully control the phrasing.

"Sometimes, because we're comfortable on a certain note, we want to vibrate," Kwuon said. That can cause an unintentional shaping of the phrase. Instead, the performer should control the shape of the phrase, with intention.

Kwuan also used images to help Haeun get to the frog: "Imagine the bow wrapping around the string as you get to the frog," she said.

Next Enrique Rodrigues played the Chausson "Poème," a performance that warmed up as it went along. When he was finished, Kwuon said that she wanted him to find the touching quality in this piece, right from the beginning. She described the piece as rhapsodic, tragic and fragile -- "those qualities can be much more vivid, and you can feel much more involved in delivering that message."

Joan Kwuon and Enrique

For example, the very first note that the solo violin plays: "That B-flat is its own world," she said. "It can be more decisive, and also pensive -- we shouldn't know what's coming next." She suggested preparing for the note by inhaling and then playing the note just after the exhalation.

She suggested that breathing can help with bow changes as well. "Bow changes are so key, so interesting, so descriptive," she said. "As you change your bow, make sure that the breath is still circulating." There is a recording of Nathan Milstein performing the Chausson Poème in which you can hear where he breathes, and that can be very enlightening. The upshot? "Breathe as you're changing the bow," she said.

She also wanted more drama -- "show how the harmony changes, how the bow changes." Be aware of dramatic meaning behind the disharmony of a tri-tone; or the energy and intensity of a trill. And "when (Chausson) says something twice, we can't color it the same way both times."

String crossings and bow hand flexibility were the focus of Kwuon's work with Jiyee Ahn, who played Wieniawski's "Polonaise de concert, Op. 4," which is full of such issues.

Joan Kwuon and Jiyee

Jiyee played the piece with great skill and character -- but also with what appeared to be a locked bow pinkie. Kwuon wanted her to use more finger motion in the bow hand, for both string-crossings and chords. Kwuon asked her to try some off-the-string bow strokes at the frog to get that going, but the pinkie appeared to remain straight, which somewhat thwarted the movement of the other fingers. If the solution is a wholesale change in bow hold - that might require a longer-term work.

Strauss Shi played two short works for solo violin: the "Allemande" from Bach's Partita No. 2; and Paganini Caprice No. 14. They first worked on the Caprice, a short caprice which is a kind of fanfare in chords.

Joan Kwuon and Strauss

"Certain chords create more interest than others, and I don't hear the hierarchy," Kwuon said, "so show it!" Though there is little time for vibrato on these notes, it still helps to feel a "need to sing" in the fingertips, she said. The chords need to go somewhere dynamically, which requires restraint so that they can grow while keeping their quality of sound.

The piece has a lot of double, triple and quadruple stops that require some left-hand contortions. She described base knuckles of the left hand as being "almost like an accordion" -- if you can release them, then you can get more freedom to reach notes.

For his Bach, she asked him to make sure that the leading tones were not too high -- in D minor that meant that the C sharps were not too sharp. "You're sacrificing some of the harmonic integrity" by playing them on the high side, she said.

When playing a solo work by Bach, being the only instrument onstage, "we're creating a world and a presence," she said. "Listen for the sound in the hall." The "Allemande" combines duple and triple figures and the musical line meanders -- "see if you can enjoy all the little direction changes," she said.

Last was Kenneth Naito, who played the first movement of the Brahms Concerto. As with all the student artists, he performed his piece with polish, precision and obvious immense talent. Nonetheless, it seemed to need a fuller vibrato and bigger sound. Kwuon asked for more drama at the solo violin entrance -- "I think everything should be expanded."

Joan Kwuon and Kenneth

Brahms did not play the violin, and so there is a certain kind of awkwardness to his writing for the instrument. Again, she emphasized using the breath to get to the top of a phrase, using the bow fingers as shock absorbers and avoiding a fixed or rigid bow hand. Another thing she said was to make sure that certain runs did not just sound like "a bow stroke," but that they have a shape.

She left with some words about sound: "It's important to have a personal attachment to what your sound is," she said. Once you make that connection, then it has to come through your hands. Exploring a range of possibilities helps create that concept of sound for a student. "The more varied repertoire that a student plays, the more that helps their sound."

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June 7, 2017 at 12:51 PM · Good to read these comments,but there is no video of these masterclass?

June 7, 2017 at 07:16 PM · No, there is not. Sometimes you just have to go to the event!

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