Master Class with Francesca dePasquale - Starling-DeLay 2023

May 24, 2023, 11:26 PM · NEW YORK: Posture, rhythm and energy - these were a few of the topics covered in a master class Wednesday by Francesca dePasquale, as part of the Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies at the Juilliard School.

Violinist and pedagogue Francesca dePasquale.

DePasquale teaches as a faculty member at Oberlin Conservatory of Music, Juilliard Pre-College and the Heifetz International Music Institute. She is a graduate of Juilliard and Colburn, having studied with Itzhak Perlman, Catherine Cho and Robert Lipsett.

In her master class she focused on finding the most ergonomic and tension-free way to play, harnessing the energy of performance, and zooming in on details such as rhythm and articulation to affect the larger musical picture.

Twelve-year-old Maxwell Brown took the stage first, with a wicked-fast performance of the third movement of Wieniawski's Concerto No. 2 in D minor.

I'd actually seen Maxwell play an entirely different type of music -- at the ASTA Conference in March, when he performed a fancy fiddle tune at a master class with Darol Anger. Max and the other participant (cellist Marco Melendez) proceeded to improvise a jam together with Anger - already showing some great improv skills that many seasoned violinists don't have.

In the Wieniawski on Wednesday, Brown's thrill-ride speed appeared to cause him no stress, nor did it force any compromise in his accuracy. His ease and joy were contagious.

Maxwell Brown and Francesca dePascuale
Maxwell Brown and Francesca dePascuale.

Still, dePascquale was able to find ways to help him keep reaching for more. She wanted a little more clarity in the small transitions within the music: bow changes, shifts and string crossings. The key in making them more clear has to do with focusing on the notes before every transition.

"We are often focused on where we want to go, but we need support for the notes that come before a transition," she said.

She also wanted to focus on the slower parts of the movement, asking what the character of the music was there. He responded that it's deeper and richer.

"I think we can find a sound that encapsulates a deeper feeling," she said. To do that, she suggested focusing on his vibrato, and specifically, using more of the pad of the finger when vibrating. Playing more on the pad of the finger "allows more flexibility in the knuckle joint" and thus a wider vibrato, with more richness and vibrancy.

She also showed Brown an exercise for the bow arm, to help feel its weight.

Brown placed the bow on the A string, and she told him to "imagine the weight of the elbow is at the contact point, and that a tiny Max elbow is living right there." She wanted him to feel the weight of the arm, into the stick, and he gave it a good effort. "The minute that we raise our elbow to press down, we actually get less sound," she said. Feeling arm weight helps make things as ergonomic as possible.

Next, Ellen Hayashi played the first movement from Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 1 - which has many characters: haunting, then edgy and aggressive, then ethereal...

DePasquale asked how long Hayashi had been studying the piece, and she said she'd studied it before, then came back to it recently.

"I love second studies," dePasquale said, "It's great to come back to a piece and to have that foundation."

Ellen Hayashi and Francesca dePasquale
Ellen Hayashi and Francesca dePasquale.

DePasquale told her that "I enjoyed the sweetness of your sound," but with so much color and character in Prokofiev, "I wouldn't be afraid of some sharp edges."

First, though, she wanted to work on the lyrical opening, paying detailed attention to the rhythm - specifically every subdivision within every beat.

"Even though we are talking about the larger picture, I'm asking you to grab a magnifying glass," dePasquale said. She had her find every eighth note subdivision by playing the long melody line with the same slurs, but portato - with a little bow pulse for every eighth note. In fact, Hayashi played it this way twice, the second time with the aim of "keeping it in that pianissimo dream state."

Then dePasquale had her play it without pulsing all the subdivisions, instructing her to "imagine, as you are crafting your sound, that you are supporting all those small subdivisions."

The result was very rhythmically precise - and musically satisfying.

Then dePasquale asked her to "project, not with density of sound, but with shimmer."

When seeking to get more power in the sound for other sections of the piece, dePasquale suggested that Hayashi "feel more support from the right arm and how it plugs into the back. Try to feel like the swing of the arm is coming from back here," she said, pointing to her shoulder blades, "not from the muscles in the shoulder."

Hayashi played a passage while concentrating on feeling the motion this way, and "your sound grew!" dePasquale said. "I felt like I added Miracle Gro to it!"

Bartok's Violin Rhapsody No. 2 was next, with violinist Sory Park. It's a noisy and rhythmically complex piece, and dePasquale conceded that it is not always easy to make sense of it, musically.

DePasquale suggested exploring smaller gestures, for example in the opening statement, she wanted her to "gather the smaller notes" in a more deliberate way. To do so, she advised "scooping" the bow at the tip for more inflection.

Sory Park and Francesca dePasquale
Sory Park and Francesca dePasquale.

In a different passage, one in the upper register, dePasquale asked Park what she could do with her vibrato, to capture the shimmer - wider or more narrow? Park agreed it should be more narrow. The effect was a more contained sound, and dePasquale liked this.

"We need those moments when you are drawing the listener in to you, rather than always giving so generously," dePasquale said.

To practice getting a more marcato quality in another passage, she asked Park to imagine that the right hand has a mouth saying "ta ta ta ta.."

All these details help clarify the many different kinds of articulations that Bartok requires in this piece, which essentially is based on folk tunes. Without bringing out those details, "a movement like this can turn into grinding out sound, which is exhausting for you, and for your audience."

Next Iris Shepherd performed the first movement of the Sibelius Violin Concerto, with strong, muscular playing and good clarity and projection.

"I enjoyed your grounded confidence," dePasquale said, "I totally trusted you to guide us through this journey."

Iris Shepherd and Francesca dePasquale
Iris Shepherd and Francesca dePasquale.

With that kind of solidity in hand, dePasquale said that she can let go and "trust in that confidence more and move through gestures and phrases with more flare."

In other words, playing with security should not cause a sacrifice in the quality of the music.

In parts of the cadenza, dePasquale also talked about envisioning the right and left arms as a pulley system - the right arm swings in motion with the bow, initiating the left to move into a shift.

In a passage of many fast notes in the cadenza, dePasquale focused on which notes Shepherd was lengthening for phrase purposes, cutting back on some of those to create longer lines.

She ended with some lovely advice: "You have that inner artist, so bring it to every note you play."

To conclude the master class, Kaycee Galano played the second-movement Scherzo from Shostakovich's Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor. It's a driving piece of music, sinister and unrelenting.

After her performance, DePasquale first asked Galano, "How was your energy?"

Galano said her energy felt higher than she wanted it to be. DePasquale asked if it was her internal or external energy that felt too high, and Galano said it was internal energy. Then she asked where in her body she had that feeling, and Galano pointed to her stomach.

This whole exchange might seem to some like it was getting into strange realms, but I think more and more musicians are acknowledging the need to become aware of how the body feels during performance, and then how to cope with that.

Kaycee Galano and Francesca dePasquale
Kaycee Galano and Francesca dePasquale.

DePasquale said that sometimes, when a performer is feeling too much energy, the response is to try to tamp it down. Instead, she suggested "getting a container for it." Find a place to put it. For example, transfer that feeling from the gut to the legs.

"Maybe some energy even goes down into your Shostakovich shoes," dePasquale said. (Galano was wearing some nice platform sneakers, perfect for the workout that is the Shostakovich Scherzo. "Shostakovich shoes" has the sound of a new fashion movement for us fiddlers...)

All this to say: when you feel that kind of energy, and it feels uncomfortable, you can transfer it and you can release it.

"Everything is energy," dePasquale said, she encouraged Galano to allow the energy to circulate through the body more.

With this in mind, Galano played part of the piece again. Afterwards, dePasquale asked how she felt.

"I felt more free," Galano said.

"Did it scare you?" dePasquale asked.

"Yes!" Galano said.

When one gets tired, it might be necessary to derive energy from the rhythm, or from the orchestra (in this case, piano, played by Evan Solomon).

They also worked on keeping an an open posture during shifts. Shifting to a very high position can cause a closing-in of posture. DePasquale advised keeping the shoulder blades back during this kind of shift and retaining that open posture.

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