"Dorothy DeLay's mantra was that anyone can be taught anything - if you can figure out how they learn," Cho said at the beginning of the class. Cho, who studied with DeLay, has extensive experience as a soloist, chamber artist, and pedagogue. She has toured the world as a soloist and chamber performer, won top prizes in the Montreal, Queen Elisabeth and Joachim competitions, and was a recipient of an Avery Fischer Career Grant.
Cho went to great lengths to tap into how each student learned, providing a different experience for each of the four young artists featured in the master class. For example, one point Cho offered a student unconventional fingerings she learned from her mentor Ruggiero Ricci; at another she flitted around the stage like a butterfly; and at yet another point she had a half-dozen students doing jumping jacks onstage. Cho's inventive mind and joyful approach created an environment of experimentation and celebration - a nice trick in our often buttoned-up and stressed-out world of classical music.
Jaewon Wee started the master class by performing two Caprices by Paganini - No. 7 and 17. Before she played, Cho asked her how she was feeling about the Caprices. Jaewon admitted that she had been avoiding learning Caprice No. 17 because of its many double-stops. Nonetheless, Jaewon gave an excellent performance, complete with really solid octaves, up-bow and down-bow staccato, and other technical feats required by this music.
Cho praised the way Jaewon stayed present in her performance, and then spoke a little bit about her own mentor, Ruggiero Ricci, who was the first violinist to record all 24 of Nicolo Paganini's Caprices. Astonishing though it may sound, "Ricci used to play all 24 Paganini Caprices every day to warm up - it takes one and a half hours," Cho said. "He had us do that too - to help us gain perspective on these pieces."
In other words, these pieces are possible, and Ricci came up with a lot of technical ways to cope with their challenges. When he demonstrated for students, he would have them look at him from the back, to see what he was doing with his left hand and thumb. And what he doing was rather revolutionary - he wrote two books, Left Hand Technique and Ricci on Glissando. One of his most innovative techniques was a way of pivoting the hand while leaving the thumb in place.
"He would talk about pivot-shifting - shifting all over the fingerboard by pivoting from the thumb," Cho said. She suggested that Jaewon try some pivot-shifting in the Paganini: Instead of moving the entire hand for every shift for the octaves, pivot from the thumb for some of them, namely the octave double-stops that travel to nearby notes - with a range of just a few half- or whole-steps.
After Jaewon tried it, Cho asked how it felt. "This is more effortless," she said.
Cho used this demonstration to remind the teachers in the audience that "if you don't limit yourself to 'this is the right way to do it,' you can have more possibilities."
Cho then had her do an exercise that involved singing the lyrical line that she has to play in octaves. First she sang it while air-bowing, then she sang it while doing just the left hand, then singing it while playing it, and eventually Cho had the entire audience singing the line while Jaewon played it.
"If you are trying to feel present with the violin, try singing, see if you can connect with your voice," Cho said.
At the end of Jaewon's lesson, Cho went back to the topic brought up in the beginning: "Why didn't you want to play Paganini Caprice No. 17?" Jaewon said that she found the intonation frustrating, and that she was finding herself practicing 40-60 minutes on just the octaves, and that caused a lot of tension.
"Practice in smaller chucks of times," Cho said, "and consider taking breaks. When you get frustrated, put down the violin and go for a walk."
For the next student, Cho invited seven of her current and former students onto the stage (including graduate Randall Goosby - who would be playing a recital later) to simulate a studio class and also offer their own feedback. No pressure for Claire Arias-Kim, who now was playing for an audience in front of her, an audience of peers behind her onstage, and Cho! But part of the idea here was to illustrate that this potentially intimidating situation can actually prove supportive, if done the right way.
Cho explained that Dorothy DeLay held small-group studio classes, in which students were expected not only to play, but to provide feedback.
"You learn how to learn, through helping your colleagues," Cho said.
Cho first asked members of the group to suggest some "warmups" (clearly they'd all done this before!) - one person suggested jumping jacks, so they all got up and did jumping jacks. Then they did stretches, arm circles, etc.
After all this, Cho interviewed Claire about what she was about to play - the second movement from the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto - asking about what she was working on in the piece. Claire said she was exploring "singing" more with the violin. Claire played the movement with pianist Pamela Viktoria Pyle, showing a good sense of lyricism and a nice vibrato.
After Claire played, Cho asked her how she was feeling, and she said that her heart rate was up, and she had been trying to balance "what was in or out," meaning her internal sense of the piece vs. what was going out to the audience.
Cho then turned things over to the student panel, guiding the conversation as it went from student to student. It was clear that these students each had experience as the person in the "hot seat" who was getting feedback in this way - and they had empathy for it. All of them praised the strengths in Claire's performance, as well as giving specific feedback and suggestions for future practice.
For example, student Phoebe praised Claire's phrasing, vibrato and sense of spaciousness before suggesting that she "connect even more" with the piano part. Then Cho asked the next student, Serin, for some strategies for connecting, and Serin suggested singing, sharing ideas, body language. The next student suggested using breathing as a guiding tool, and the student after that picked up this idea and suggested that downbows are like exhalations and up-bows are like exhalations, so before a down-bow, breathe in; and before an up-bow, breathe out. The conversation turned to being "grounded," which Cho asked the next few students to define. Bobby said that being "grounded" was being able to count on a reliable collaborator. Randall used the metaphor of tree roots, which are literally "grounded." He also suggested imagining a certain kind of singer - maybe an opera singer, who seems to fill up way more space than they actually do. With that kind of performer in mind, imagine projecting not only into the audience, but beyond it, out onto the street. He also asked her to think where her "voice" might be coming from in any particular part of the piece - is it a head voice? A deeper voice created with diaphragmatic breathing?
When every student had given feedback, Cho said, "Thank you all for investing in Claire."
Cho turned to Claire and asked what her favorite kind of tree was - it was an oak tree. Preparing to play again, Cho asked her to imagine being in nature, surrounded by fire energy, and water and air. "Be your own best oak tree," Cho said. "Feel your roots, let the wind rustle your leaves."
With this, Claire played again and as she did, Cho made motions to simulate that air rustling the leaves, even taking her scroll like it was being blown around, then leading her across the room by the scroll - certainly, this was a moment of being way outside the box! Claire handled it well.
After this portion of the master class, the stage cleared, and Maxwell Brown performed the last movement of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with pianist Evan Solomon, without the student panel present. Brown played the movement at a nice, fast clip, and with a sense of joy about the music.
After his performance, Cho asked him about musical gestures in the solo violin at the start of the piece - what was the purpose of those?
Max gave a thoughtful response - they are in response to and contrast with the trumpet call, they hint at what is to come, etc. etc.
"Tell me, like I was three years old," Cho said.
"You're making it more happy," he said.
Mendelssohn marks them "piano" and "scherzando" - quiet, joking.
"What animal would they be, if they were an animal?" Cho asked.
"A small bird."
"Yellow. Definitely yellow."
Max played the opening again.
"I felt the yellow bird!" Cho said. "It was going though the forest."
She suggested using the elasticity of the bow "to give life to your bird." The bow is a bit like a magic wand, with personality and soul, she said. It bounces better in them middle or upper half, but it doesn't bounce as naturally at the frog.
Then they looked at the passage at m. 714, which is not so bouncy.
"What is happening here?" she asked.
"It's happy, but it's different," Brown said.
"What animal is it now? Is it still a bird?
"No - it's a gorilla," Max said. It's much more heavy in this section - and it's stomping.
So as he played this passage, Max and Cho stomped around the stage like gorillas, smiling all the while.
"You just created your own characters," Cho said, once they concluded playing. When you think of a character in music, it's important to do more than an intellectual exercise - really aim to feel it, in order to capture that in your playing. "Embody the character, live it, see what it feels like."
On a technical note, she encouraged him to use the forearm for fast playing, rather than the whole arm. Speed comes from the forearm, not from the shoulder, and then the wrist is the "finesse center."
Next, Iris Shepherd played the first-movement Presto from Beethoven's Sonata No. 4 in A minor, Op. 23 with pianist Solomon - playing with a lot of focus, force and motion.
"I really appreciate your strong sense of center," Cho said, following her performance. "Beethoven challenges us to be as uncomfortable as possible!"
They first worked on the tricky opening, which involves a grace note in the piano, but not in the violin part. Cho suggested having Solomon give the starting cue, which worked very well - it was more precisely together, with the grace note audible before the beat.
Then they talked about the A-minor mood of the piece - Iris said that she thinks about Beethoven's frustration at the time of writing this - a time when he was going deaf.
"What do you do when you are frustrated? How does it look?" Cho said, then they both made some faces of frustration.
"How would you choreograph frustration, if it was a ballet?" Cho said, explaining that with the notes so well in hand, she wanted Iris to get out of her analytical brain and more into feeling the music, to follow her inner ear, to "dream the sound so your body can follow."
With this, she closed Iris's music. "You know it," she said, "use your inner ear."
After playing this way a while, Cho asked how it felt. "It feels freeing," Iris said.
"What do you look at when you are playing?" Cho asked
"I look at my fingers," Iris said.
"Why?" asked Cho.
"I think it's just a bad habit...
"Not bad," Cho said, "but let's try something different. Try looking sideways, not at your fingers. You know where they go. I'm not saying this is the way you have to play all the time, but you need to build trust."
Indeed, she played very well without looking at her fingers. Iris said she felt reluctant to stop looking at her fingers, because she was afraid of playing out of pitch.
"Why are you afraid of playing out of pitch?" Cho asked.
Then Iris admitted something that a lot of us violinists feel on a pretty deep level: "I wouldn't like myself if I played out of pitch," she said.
"If you play something out of pitch, you played it out of pitch," Cho said. "That is all it is, it's nothing more."
Having already taken away the music and asked Iris to play without looking at her fingers, Cho went even farther in taking away her safety net: "I'm going to take off that shoulder rest -" she said, smiling.
After Iris played some more, Cho said, "It's mostly uncomfortable music, do you feel uncomfortable?
"Yes!" Iris said, and Cho gave the shoulder rest right back. She explained that Beethoven's music challenges us to be "daring greatly," in the words of Brené Brown.
"I want this to come from a more vulnerable less muscular place," Cho said.
She also talked about being aware of the interaction between violin and piano: who is primary, and where, and also knowing how the themes speak, in the language of the piano.
For this, she wanted Iris to play her opening theme on the piano, noting the dynamics, lengths of the notes and the longer quarter-note at the end of the phrase. This led to one of the funnier sights - pianist Evan holding the violin as Iris sat at the piano!
Knowing how that sounds and feels on the piano, one can experiment with bowings and articulations on the violin to make it match.
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Randall, 27, was on home ground - he just graduated from Juilliard this spring with his Artist Diploma degree, having studied with Catherine Cho and Itzhak Perlman. He has played as a soloist with top orchestras, including Cleveland Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, and the New World Symphony Orchestra; and he's given recitals at venues including the Kennedy Center, Kaufman Center and Wigmore Hall. At age 13, he was the youngest-ever participant to win the Sphinx Concerto Competition, then at age 14 he appeared on National Public Radio’s From the Top. In 2018, he was a prize winner at the Young Concert Artists International Auditions. Earlier this year he was awarded use of the 1708 "Strauss" Stradivarius, on loan from the Samsung Foundation of Culture in Korea.
The two young musicians gave a well-conceived recital, with works that complemented each other well: Lili Boulanger's short and charming Deux Morceaux from 1911 and 1914 (not a piece I knew - everyone wanted the music for this one afterwards..); which fit the time period and set up the mood for the next piece, Maurice Ravel's Sonata for Violin and Piano (1920s).
Goosby introduced pieces from the stage, noting that during the first movement Ravel was "playing on the inherent incongruity of the violin and piano." The piece is known for its second-movement "Blues," but it was the third-movement "Perpetuum Mobile" that impressed me the most - such a fast flurry of notes, but these two played it so articulately and precisely together that certain ideas emerged more clearly than ever before for me - like one of those hidden image pictures that looks like a whirl of color, but when you relax your eyes it emerges in 3D.
Introducing William Grant Still's "Suite for Violin and Piano," which has three movements including one called "Mother and Child," Goosby took the opportunity for a moment of gratitude, saying that "I don't think that either of us would be where we are without our mothers - and my Juilliard mother Catherine Cho!" who was in the audience.
They concluded with Beethoven's Violin Sonata No. 9 in A Major, Op. 47 "which you may know as the 'Kreutzer' sonata, but tonight will be known as the 'Bridgetower' sonata!" said Goosby, as did the program.
Indeed, it's quite a story: Beethoven originally composed the sonata for the West Indian-Polish violinist George Bridgetower, who gave its triumphant premiere performance. The two were on track to become great friends, and Beethoven said he would dedicate the sonata to Bridgetower - he even wrote "Sonata per uno mulaticco lunattico" across the top of it. But as good friends sometimes do - they got into an argument over a lady, and Beethoven withdrew the dedication, later dedicating the sonata Rudolphe Kreutzer - the Parisian violinist who wrote us all those etudes - but who never actually played Beethoven's sonata.
On Friday, Randall and Zhu performed like the best of friends - really gorgeous piano playing from Zhu, great energy from Randall, and a playful dynamic between the two of them, especially in the second-movement variations, which made me think of friends walking together on the same path but on different days, at different times and through different seasons. For an encore, they played Jascha Heifetz's arrangement of Manuel Ponce's "Estrellita."
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