Master class with Danielle Belen - Starling-DeLay 2023

June 2, 2023, 10:20 PM · NEW YORK - The great Renaissance Italian sculptor, painter, architect, and poet Michelangelo reportedly once spoke a truth about his artistic process that has lasted through the ages: "The sculpture is already complete within the marble block, before I start my work - I just have to chisel away the superfluous material to discover it."

Violinist Danielle Belen brought up that quote in a master class last Saturday at the Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies at The Juilliard School. (Note: I'll be bringing you more write-ups from the classes at Starling-DeLay, as well as a conversation with Itzhak Perlman, but this was the last master class!)

Similar to Michelangelo - violinists have to keep chipping away until we find our way to the essence of the music we are trying to create. But "we have to be willing to deal with this huge chunk of marble!" she said. It's heavy and formidable!

Belen, who was the winner of the 2008 Sphinx Competition, has been associate professor and full-time violin faculty at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance in Ann Arbor since 2014. She also runs Center Stage Strings, a summer program she founded in 2010, when she was just 25.

On Saturday she worked with five students, helping them get to the core whatever technique might help open up their playing a little more, whether that was sound production, vibrato, set-up, timing or coming up with fingerings that made it all easier.

To start the class, Calvin Alexander performed the first movement from Franck's Sonata, a beautiful performance with well-calibrated dynamics, if a little quiet, and solid playing on the notoriously difficult piano part from Evan Solomon.

Calvin Alexander and Danielle Belen
Calvin Alexander and Danielle Belen.

Belen started by calling for applause for Solomon - "without our piano collaborators we are nothing - you better be nice to them!"

Indeed, over the five-day symposium, both Solomon and pianist Pamela Viktoria Pyle had the relentless task of performing dozens of different pieces in five separate three-hour masterclasses as well as two student recitals, alternating between 12 students - all playing high-level violin repertoire. Throughout, both were sensitive artists who were well-prepared and supportive of Symposium's overall environment of exploration and learning.

Belen started by helping Calvin find a way to play "piano" but to still produce a sound that is present and resonant in the hall. Right after his performance, she asked him how he felt about his performance.

"I'm trying to shape longer lines," Calvin said, "but I"m struggling to find more expansiveness in my quieter dynamics."

Belen said the key might be in the way he warms up back stage. Usually, she said, violinists tend to warm up backstage by playing a little softer than they would onstage, checking spots, etc. But Belen recommended actually warming up with a much fuller sound. "It's not going to hurt you to over-play, and in fact that is what I do backstage before a concert," she said.

She compared it to an ice skater cutting a track in smooth, new ice with the skating blades. Once this track is cut, the skater will be able to glide through it later with ease. Similarly, if one "cuts" a very large and extroverted sound backstage, then it is possible to stay on that track when on stage, but actually pull back and "glide" with it - still keeping that full and resonant sound.

And a dynamic like "piano" has to be taken in context: "If you really commit to the 'piano' character, you can get away with playing louder," Belen said. In the Franck, a marking of "piano" must be interpreted in in the context of being the soloist - "'piano' playing in orchestra is completely different," she said.

Belen had him try playing in an exaggerated way, with "the biggest sounding point and the widest vibrato."

She then talked a bit about vibrato - she wanted him to play more on the pads of his fingers so that he would widen his vibrato - "I want you to access a little of the lower oscillation," she said.

"The greater artist you become, the more you have to pay attention to your mechanics - it's important that these things are just happening," she said. "I don't think you need to practice vibrato much, but practice it some."

One typical vibrato exercise is to oscillate to a metronome - two oscillations per beat, then four, six, eight, etc. Instead, Belen uses bow distribution to measure the oscillations for a similar kind of exercise, gradually increasing the oscillations. She demonstrated for Calvin, and he was able to accurately count the oscillations: 12 in a bow, then up to 32.

If you can explore all this backstage - the big sound, wide vibrato, etc. - "then you get to go out on stage and do less" - that is, you can relax while still producing a good sound.

She had him try it again, "crush-y and overboard and slow."

"That's a pretty darn good 'bad sound!'" she said when he was done. Another thing happened when he did this - Calvin, who had been playing with quite a lot of body motion - moved far less this time, while playing. "Did you notice? Your knees were stable," Belen pointed out. She said that there is a time and place for body movement while playing, but not all the time. "Sometimes your movements are louder than the colors coming out of your violin," she said. Less motion can be better.

She sent him backstage, with instructions to play one more crush-y, overdone version, then to come back on stage and play again, in performance mode.

When Calvin performed again, the sound was indeed more focused and present, and he played with less movement, while still remaining relaxed. Success!

Next, Serin Park played Amy Beach's "Romance" for violin and piano - a piece that - coincidentally - participants at the Symposium had been studying earlier in the day with director Brian Lewis. (More to come on that!) Serin played with a beautiful vibrato, after the performance Belen again acknowledged the pianist, this time Pamela Viktoria Pyle - "Thank you for your beautiful playing all week!" she said, as everyone applauded.

Serin Isabelle Park and Danielle Belen.

Belen focused on finding improvements with the sound that Serin was producing, and she started by examining possible issues with the instrument. For example, how old were the strings? For someone who plays quite a lot (as in a music student) - strings will need changing as much as every four months. She had changed them pretty recently. For the bow, she recommended paying attention to how tight it is - in this case, tightening it a bit more.

Another issue that can dampen the sound: too much rosin build-up on the instrument itself. In the case of Serin's violin, there was a lot of rosin on the fingerboard and wood - "all around where the sound comes out," Belen said. We don't think about this making much of a difference, "but it can be night and day," she said. "The vibrations are being affected." There were also four fine tuners, as the violin has difficult pegs, but this again adds "extra junk on the violin."

Belen also wanted Serin to hold the violin flatter, for better tone production. She recommended experimenting with chinrests: depending on how you hold the violin, a center chinrest can help you hold it flatter. She thought this might be the case for Serin.

"A chinrest is $45 - you can put it on, take it off," decide on another one, if it doesn't work. Getting your set-up right - the chinrest and the shoulder rest - "is a balancing act." There are so many possibilities - the platforms, the sponges, the balloons! "The truth is, it all kind of does matter, and tinkering around can make a difference."

Belen let Serin try her own violin, which has a center shoulder rest, which did allow her to place the violin flatter.

"When it's an appropriate time, throw on a center chin rest and give it a whirl for a few days," Belen said.

When it came to the "Romance" by Beach, Belen recommended showing the rests, and also being more choosey about glissandi - using them less often. "When you do too many slides, we start to ignore them all, and then the money ones don't come out," she said. Also, "adding a slide to a small interval can sound like a mistake."

Next in the master class was Ravel's Sonata for Violin and Piano, with Tianyu Liu performing the first movement with pianist Pamela Viktoria Pyle. Earlier in the week, Randall Goosby had performed the same piece and commented that this movement plays "on the inherent incongruity of the violin and piano."

Tianyu Liu and Danielle Belen
Tianyu Liu and Danielle Belen.

That is especially true on the last page (in the violin part), in which the violin has a slow "cantabile" part in 3/4 set against a busy piano part in 9/8. Pitch-wise, Belen said to really tune in to the piano, "like you're playing double stops."

They also worked on a part of the first page that wasn't together, and the culprit was all the technical considerations, namely shifts and bow changes. For example, taking away one of the shifts allowed Tianyu to find where to fit in with the piano part, then he was able to add the shift back in and still keep the parts aligned.

Musicians face a similar task, working to streamline our technique and interpretations so we can express the essence of what we are playing. "But we have to be willing to deal with this huge chunk of marble!"

Next Bobby Boogyeom Park played the second movement from Sibelius's Violin Concerto in D minor, with pianist Pyle. Both violinist and pianist had a similar energy that worked well together.

Sibelius double stops mvt 2

After his performance Belen observed to Bobby that "you kind of go somewhere else when you perform - in a good way."

She also talked about the fact that Sibelius had wanted to become an accomplished violinist and had some personal turmoil over never reaching that goal - "Yet his legacy was this violin concerto - one of the best we have."

She brought to his attention the double-stop passage in this movement, which has triplets in one voice and duplets in the other:

He had simplified it somewhat, but "there is a lot more complexity in there," she said. It is important to really hear it and play it the way it is written.

Bobby Boogyeom Park and Danielle Belen
Bobby Boogyeom Park and Danielle Belen.

She also talked about vibrato: we generally vibrate up to the proper pitch, and we think a lot about that pitch being "in tune," but we really spend no time thinking about or practicing the lower pitch in that oscillation. "So flip your ears upside down - treat that lower oscillation like it's a real tone," she said. That awareness will strengthen your vibrato, "then when you play, your sound has wings."

To conclude the master class, Sory Park performed the first movement from Mozart's Concerto No. 3 in G major - also playing a well-crafted cadenza that she had written herself, and playing it with a lot of conviction.

Sory Park and Danielle Belen.

"I love how extroverted you are, you are really giving a lot to your audience," Bélen told her after performance. And of her cadenza, "I like that you are so committed to your own ideas," adding that sometimes students are a little shy about playing their own cadenzas.

She also help her simplify some shifts and work out some passages, noting that "if something keeps bothering you, then you've got to make a change."

Danielle Belen with 2023 Starling-DeLay Symposium Student Artists
After the class - Danielle Belen with the 2023 Starling-DeLay Symposium Student Artists - LR: Iris Shepherd, Ellen Hayashi, Jaewon Wee, Maxwell Brown, Danielle Belen, Sory Park, Claire Arias-Kim, Serin Park, Bobby Boogyeom Park, and Calvin Alexander.

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June 6, 2023 at 12:00 PM · At the risk of seeming repetitive, may I say that these reports on the Starling-DeLay Symposium masterclasses have made interesting reading.

My attention was particularly drawn to the moment when ‘Belen started by helping Calvin find a way to play "piano" but to still produce a sound that is present and resonant in the hall.’ I recalled the leader of a very famous quartet telling me that as a young violinist he heard Oistrakh from the back of a very large hall. Backstage, he asked David Oistrakh how he managed to play so quietly. The answer was something along the lines of “I never play quietly! I only give the impression of doing so.”

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