Orchestral Excerpts Master Class with Violinist Nathan Cole at Sounding Point Academy

June 10, 2023, 10:07 PM · For years, violinist Nathan Cole's friendly and informative video tutorials and online classes have provided welcome help to violinists all over the world. But what a treat it was to watch him live and in-person, last Tuesday for a master class at Sounding Point Academy at the Colburn School in Los Angeles!

Nathan Cole Sounding Point
Violinist Nathan Cole (center) with (L-R) Natalie Boberg, Will Thain, Zulfiya Bashirova and Haekyung Ju at Sounding Point Academy at the Colburn School.

Nathan gave a master class for about 75 young violinists from all around the U.S., as well as the Sounding Point faculty, about a subject he knows well as First Associate Concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic: orchestral excerpts.

Working with four Sounding Point students who already were playing their excerpts extremely well, Nathan gave tips and pointed out fine details that could help push them to that elite level required to win major auditions. And while he was diplomatic and quick to acknowledge strengths, he glossed over nothing and was very direct about exactly what could be improved.

The class started with a classic: Don Juan - the first page, first-violin part for Richard Strauss's tone poem that has become a staple of the violin audition repertoire.

Don Juan

Violinist Will Thain played the excerpt, by memory.

After he played, Nathan pointed out that "this situation is a lot like a real audition," playing onstage, with the silence and the pressure of the audience. (The only difference is the absence of a screen!)

And an audition is a lot like a competition, "you prepare a lot, and then you are judged by a small sample size of what you prepare," Nathan said. Knowing that you'll have such a limited chance to impress - that means that every second counts, a lot. Especially when it's the first impression.

"The beginning was the worst part - it took a few seconds to settle in," he said. "It would be even better to hook in people right at the beginning."

Nathan, who has served as a committee member on many an audition panel, had a little trick for making those very first notes sound great.

First, Nathan had Will play the beginning slowly. Then he pointed out, "it's only going to be a little bit faster than that." As someone listening to the audition, "I'm not going to know your tempo until a little later," at least until the second measure.

Nathan demonstrated, playing the 16ths just a fraction slower - could we tell it was a little slower? Not really.

So it's okay to play those first 16ths ever-so-slightly slower, then really set the tempo in the second measure. But if you do that, you have to make it count.

"Now that you are giving yourself more time, you have to make the most of it," Nathan said. Use more bow, play every note absolutely in-tune, and make sure every single 16th is audible.

Nathan Cole and Will Thain
Nathan Cole and Will Thain.

One way to practice it: pretend the first note is a downbeat. In fact, it helps to practice grouping the 16ths differently, placing the beat on different 16ths.

Moving to the sixth measure, Nathan said to "make the string-crossing really radical."

"The most important step is actually identifying the problems" such as out-of-tune notes, notes that aren't sounding properly, rhythmic irregularity, accidental dynamics and accents, etc. We have a human tendency to stop hearing such things after repeated practice. In other words, the more familiar you are with a piece, the less you are aware of your own flaws in playing it.

Nathan related an older-but-wiser story about his younger self, working on a familiar piece that he felt was well in hand. He delayed recording himself until right before the performance. Of course, the recording would just to confirm how wonderful the piece already was sounding - or so he thought. Playing back the recording, he was unpleasantly surprised to find quite a few things that needed work. "I don't do that any more!" he said.

More advice for Don Juan, in measure 6, imagine that every last note of each triplet is actually a pickup to the next triplet.

In the end, "we need the full-tempo version to feel slow and easy," Nathan said. It helps to convince yourself that it is easy - even to say to yourself in the practice room, "This stuff is easy for me!"

Skipping to the bottom of the page, the second-to-last line: those triplets should start from the string, with a crisp sautillé. Stop the bow before the shift, and before starting the sautillé notes from the string. For left hand precision: try practicing these passages all slurred.

Will had a question: what can one do for a whistling E string? (The question of the century!) This was happening for him in the scale passage at the end of the page.

Nathan had a number of solutions:

(BTW Nathan has an entire video on Don Juan on his Youtube channel; click here to check that out.)

Next was a set of excerpts from another Richard Strauss tone poem: violinist Zulfiya Bashirova performed solos from Ein Heldenleben - "A Hero's Life." And who, by the way, was the "hero"? Strauss claimed that it was not about himself, but...

"It's totally about him!" Nathan said.

The solo violin represents the "Hero's Companion" - his wife.

"She has some really severe mood swings, so we have to embody that," Nathan said. He was very attuned to any scratchy or pressed quality in the sound (and let's just say, an average listener would not have heard this), and he told Zulfiya that this should never be accidental, but to "make sure you save any scratch or press for when it's in the character of the music."

He also talked with her about vibrato.

"Make vibrato such an integral part of your sound that they could not exist without one another," he said. "So have the vibrato come to life with the sound, not before." In a nutshell, he was saying not to vibrato before the note started.

They also talked about a place with a slide up to a harmonic, way up the fingerboard. (Didn't have the music with me, but I believe it was before rehearsal 24)

Nathan joked about section violinists taking bets on whether or not the concertmaster would get the harmonic on the first try...

So here were some pointers on getting a harmonic like this: "Let your finger ride like it's on two rails," between the string and the fingerboard. Then instead of coming off, come in. Keep the finger on the string, until after the bow comes off, not before.

About down-bow ricochet, if it needs to be louder: give the bow more horizontal motion, then it will be heard better. Use flat hair and throw it down harder.

He told her that rehearsal 29 was her best moment, "if you can channel that tenderness into other moments."

Nathan Cole and Zulfiya Bashirova
Nathan Cole and Zulfiya Bashirova.

He also talked about how to work on passages that have a big last note, and there are a number of them in this piece. His advice was to start by playing that ending note, really well, then work backwards.

"I practice from the end, so I have lots of chances to play my best end note," he said.

For a change of pace Haekyung Ju performed two excerpts: the "Scherzo" from Mendelssohn's "Midsummer Night's Dream" and the "Scherzo" from Schumann's Symphony No. 2 (Penciled at the top of my own part: "like a machine, with accents" - !).

Fast and even bouncing bow strokes - spiccato and sautillé - are required for both excerpts.

Starting with the Mendelssohn, Nathan's first advice was to really count the long notes and rests to make sure that they get their full due.

Also, dynamics are important: the Scherzo is marked "piano" at the beginning, then at letter C it is "pianissimo." How can you make every note audible at these levels, and how do you achieve that difference between p and pp?

For the pianissimo passage, bounce the bow closer to the string, using less bow. To achieve quiet string-crossings, have the arm at the level of the DG double-stop, so it takes very little arm motion to toggle between the two strings.

"You have such a great piano," he told her, but he wanted to "shrink" that a little more to get down to pp.

Nathan Cole and Haekyung Ju
Nathan Cole and Haekyung Ju.

He asked her to try playing it even closer to the fingerboard - right at the border of the fingerboard. "Does that feel safe enough?" he asked. It's a little harder to get a good bounce there, but Haekyung was able to do it, and it really changed the sound color.

If it's not exactly possible to go all the way down to an orchestral pp in an audition, "at least you can change the type of sound there," Nathan said.

A few other tips: try recording the excerpt, then when listening back to it, play the metronome along. Nathan said that no human will be perfectly synchronized with a metronome with such a playback, but it can show you the trends - helping you identify where you tend to slow down or speed up.

He also shared that one of his non-violinist colleagues had a pet peeve about this measure:

Mendelssohn Scherzo

Why do we violinists always go up on the G string for the second F, thus making the two Fs sound so different in color? Well, there's a reason; it's so we can be there in third position for the next little group of 16th notes. However, Nathan said he saw his colleague's point when it came to how it sounds, so he now plays that last "F" on the D string and shifts to third position right afterwards, on the E natural. It all works just fine.

On to the Schumann Scherzo...Nathan advised starting the sautillé stroke from the string, making sure that the first three notes (the pickup) are all off the string. It can help to play this excerpt with all open strings, to really master the bow stroke and string crossings.

And about the many string crossings: "You really need to listen to the first note on the new string, and make sure there are no accidental double-stops," he said.

For the part marked "forte," just stay on the string. But when you are just shaping (doing a crescendo), to make it louder "use more bow horizontally, but don't put it on the string."

He said to make sure the tempo doesn't wander, and that she should start it at the fast tempo where she eventually wound up.

He had a few tricks for working on a consistent tempo: use the metronome and put it on other parts of the beat. Try slurring all the notes, for the left hand. And also try doing a triplet on each note - this allows you to play the bow stroke and string crossings as fast as they to go, while slowing down the left hand.

Next, Natalie Boberg played the infamously awkward beginning of the Finale from Mozart's Symphony No. 39, an excerpt full of fast string crossings and bowings that alternate between slurred and separate notes.

For this one, Nathan emphasized the conservation of muscle use - the smaller the muscles, the better. You need your upper arm only for the string-crossings, otherwise much of the motion can be sent into the forearm and hand. He observed that using too many muscles on the bow side will inevitably find its way to more muscle tension on the other side (the violin side).

At the speed of this excerpt, it's mostly forearm, and the fingers should keep a pretty firm grip on the bow, without a lot of finger motion. Allow the forearm and hand to move together, and keep contact point fairly close to the fingerboard.

Nathan Cole and Natalie Boberg
Nathan Cole and Natalie Boberg.

He also talked about the balance in the bow hand. Leaning toward the index finger, it creates a consonant sound, leaning toward the pinkie it lets up the pressure. Nathan said that in this case, the balance should be even: 50 percent index finger, 50 percent pinkie.

As far as the complicated string crossings are concerned, "think of them as groups of double-stops," so that the arm is going between two double-stop levels (GD and DA) rather than three separte string levels (G, D, A). There's an etude for that! (Practice Kreutzer 13, the one that sounds like the Prelude in Bach's Cello Suite No. 1.)

He wanted her to take a little off the core of projection when playing the excerpt - use less pressure, and bring more "air" to the sound.

In the end, he said, winning an audition is about gaining the trust of the committee. If they choose you, it means they trust and believe that you can fit into the section. And also...

"It's a major decision," Nathan said. "They are trusting that if they pick you, you will be a good colleague - for 30+ years!"

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June 11, 2023 at 03:10 PM · Oh please please please tell us that this master class has been archived on YouTube. Please!!!

June 11, 2023 at 04:51 PM · Paul, this master class was at Sounding Point Academy, a two-week workshop for young violinists at the Colburn School, so the focus was on those students participating in it. You can find plenty of videos at Nathan's Youtube channel if you want more, or sign up for one of his classes.

June 11, 2023 at 05:27 PM · Oh well, we can always dream. :)

And I did his first Violympics course, that was quite good.

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