Master Class with Ray Chen at the Colburn School

January 23, 2018, 3:46 PM · "It's okay to enjoy music!"

That was one of the many messages that violinist Ray Chen had for the violinists and musicians gathered for his master class Jan. 16 at the Colburn School in Los Angeles.

Ray Chen
Ray Chen, giving a master class at the Colburn School in Los Angeles. Photo by

As was the case at Ray Chen master class I attended several years ago, this one was packed, with groups of people continuing to pour into the 200-seat Thayer Hall throughout the two-hour class.

Chen, an active soloist who was first-prize winner of the 2008 Yehudi Menuhin and 2009 Queen Elizabeth Competitions, is a musician who has created his own gravitational force through his active social media presence, attracting fans both young and old with his humorous style paired with solid advice. While Chen has received a lot of attention for his comedy videos, he also has created some delightful mini master class videos as well as a new series of motivational videos aimed at addressing more serious problems that young musicians face.

Chen's combination of humor, serious musicianship and attention to detail made for an edifying yet entertaining evening.

First came a performance by Daniel Bae of of the first two of Dvorak's Four Romantic Pieces, Op. 75, with Sunhwa Kim playing piano. The first movement is melodious and smooth, the second more emphatic and bouncy. Chen, who sat onstage along with Colburn violin professor Robert Lipsett and about a dozen Colburn students, walked to the back of the hall to listen as he played.

"You have a beautiful, warm sound, and it carried beautifully," Chen told him after his performance. His first request was for Bae to commit to the "beautiful soft moments."

Chen described the difference between a "piano" dynamic in which the sound just "turns off" and something that is more like a stage whisper -- in which the volume is low, and yet everyone can hear what you are saying, as well as the tone of it.

He also urged Bae to follow a feeling, asking him what he was trying to say with the first movement. Bae said that he was trying to convey a feeling of hope. "Could I hear more hope, and less beautiful, big sound?" Chen said. This requires one to think about the nature of that emotion, "for me," Chen said, "hope reaches out."

Chen returned to this notion as they worked on the beginning of the movement, which has a phrase that repeats itself. If both phrases are played exactly the same way, it's a little like someone coming up to you and saying, ""Hi, nice to meet you, have a nice day!" -- then saying the exact same thing again, in a very predictable manner, just a few seconds later. "You wonder, was that "hello" even genuine?" Ray said. In a conversation or human interaction, that would not be normal -- one could not speak as though reciting a line of dialogue. Music works the same way. Even though we might know what comes next, "I'm not worrying about plunging on," Chen said, "I'm discovering each note."

Even the very first note of the piece needs to introduce itself. You wouldn't sidle up to someone, stand way too close and say, "Hi how are you doing?" Chen had everyone laughing by running up to Bae and doing just that. "That's not natural!" he said.

Chen then demonstrated the emotions that he finds in this movement, explaining how to follow the nature of those emotions and how they might play out as music:

For the second movement, Chen urged Bae to think about phrasing, even in passages that are somewhat aggressive or bouncy, and to think of markings such as "crescendo" as signifying more than simply dialing up the volume.

Chen described the bouncier passages as being "playful, like rolls of fat jiggling!" This definitely lightened things up the next time Bae played, and Chen said, "It sounded really joyful!" He then turned to the audience and added, "It's okay to enjoy music!"

Next Fiona Shea played the first movement of Saint-Saëns Concerto No. 3 (with pianist Hsin-I Huang). Lipsett noted that this was her first public performance of the work. It came off as very impressive, well-crafted and tidy.

Chen wanted to talk with her about a moment (at the key change after letter B) that is marked as a "crescendo." That crescendo is less about growing in volume and more about growing in warmth. It's also an increase in tension, then a release.

He also went over a fast passage with her. In order to help give it shape, he suggested finding some "anchor notes" in the passage. The anchor notes are not accents, they are instead simply notes to focus on in one's mind, to help the rhythm and shape of a fast passage (in this case, a passage after letter C in the Saint-Saëns).

Next, Aubree Oliverson performed the first movement of Prokofiev's Concerto No. 2 with pianist Alice Yoo -- this also was Aubree's first public performance of the work -- very fluid, well-learned and not at all lacking in emotional awareness.

Chen wanted to help Oliverson find a better sounding point on her violin. Chen described how he "calibrates" where the sounding point is on any given violin by playing a series of G minor chords. (As he did this, it sounded like rolling around on that first chord of the opening movement of Bach solo Sonata in G minor, a piece that many people like to play when testing violins!)

Chen said he sticks to that chord, "listening for the perfect, maximum resonance, without being forced," Chen said. That means feeling around for the exact right weight, sounding point and speed that will make the instrument fully resonate. Once you have found the maximum resonance, "you know the limits of your instrument," and generally you don't try to go beyond that.

He wanted her to use this information to help get to a "darker" tone at the beginning of the Prokofiev:

After the master class, Chen remained on stage, inviting young audience members join him for selfies and autographs. His line of fans stretched halfway around the hall!

Ray Chen with fans

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January 25, 2018 at 02:24 AM · Ray .. how is my ex Joachim.?? The Stradivarius violin I.mean.. I loved it.. now I do.a.comeback.and.I.will.have thw guasco.Stradivarius of 1708. Love keep up with the good work. Gezalius

January 25, 2018 at 10:00 AM · I'm sure I'm not the only one who thinks public masterclasses are a parody of what good teaching should be. The only effective teaching for something as challenging as playing a stringed instrument is one to one where teacher and pupil know, trust and understand one another. Only then can you get an effective transfer of expertise that allows the pupil to grow musically.

Too often The Master shows off to the audience while the pupil is like a rabbit in the headlights trying desperately to avoid the next onslaught on his or her hard won expertise. It's en exercise in ritual humiliation that is painful to watch and must be damaging to the victim... sorry pupil.

Enough already. 'Masters' please show the humility of a true master and refuse to do them. The rest of us might like to reflect on why we watch and what real musical or didactic value they have.

January 25, 2018 at 07:52 PM · That seems a bit harsh, but I understand where you are coming from. It's important to realize, in a situation like this, that these students are already very, very accomplished and the master teacher is there just to put icing on the cake. I disagree, however, with the idea that master classes serve no function and should be banned entirely. I would argue that both students and audience can benefit from seeing this interaction. Certainly, the pressure is higher, so it's important to choose students who are strong and confident, who will go in with an open mind and not view this as a form of "humiliation," which it's certainly not meant to be.

January 28, 2018 at 06:12 AM · He’s a marvellous teacher.

January 28, 2018 at 06:16 AM · He’s a marvellous teacher.

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