Performing the Showpiece: Master Class with Fabiola Kim at Sounding Point Academy

June 21, 2023, 11:45 AM · Showpieces are all about technique, but they also need quite a lot of character - and even "attitude"!

That was one of the messages of a master class by violinist Fabiola Kim, in which all three of the young violinists just so happened to perform showpieces.

Fabiola Kim master class students 2023
Master class with Fabiola Kim: (LR) - Bianca Ciubancan, Jolie Rebelo, Fabiola and Zulfiya Bashirova. Photo by Abby Mahler, for the Colburn School.

"I did not really play showpieces during my college years, until I came to (Robert) Lipsett," Fabiola told the 80 Sounding Point Academy students assembled for the class at the Colburn School. Her Juilliard teacher believed in what many might consider the more "serious" fare - "I learned a lot of Beethoven Sonatas!" But showpieces - fun-sounding as they may be - have their own serious considerations.

A founder of Sounding Point Academy, Fabiola also teaches as an Assistant Professor of Music at the University of Michigan's School of Music, Theatre and Dance. She earned her Artist Diploma at Colburn with Lipsett, and before that she earned her Bachelor and Master of Music degrees at the Juilliard School, with Sylvia Rosenberg and Ronald Copes.

Last Wednesday, students performed violin spectaculars by Maurice Ravel, Camille Saint-Saens and Manuel de Falla - starting with Ravel's "Tzigane," played by Jolie Rebelo.

First Fabiola praised Rebelo for a commanding and athletic performance that was reliable and directed toward the audience.

She went on to talk about the introduction to the piece - specifically, knowing what to do with the long notes at the beginning.

Tzigane beginning

"Long notes can do one of three things," Fabiola said. They can increase in volume, they can sustain, or they can come away (decrease in volume).

It's all too easy for this introduction to "sound like a bunch of fragments," she said. "This opening has so much freedom, but it's also all written out."

The key is to think about the sound of the long, held notes, then to allow the smaller notes to give direction to those.

She also talked about sound projection, in terms of being aware of how the bow interacts with the string. Sometimes in an effort to produce volume, we instead produce a "pressed sound," What we really want is something that is loud and ringing.

"Powerful sound doesn't mean pressing," Fabiola said, "powerful sound is maximizing the vibration."

Fabiola and Jolie
Jolie Rebelo and Fabiola Kim.

They also talked about strategy for this passage, starting at No. 8:

Tzigane No. 8

It's full of harmonics and marked "piano," but the idea is to emphasize the non-harmonic notes, which are melody notes. It's also full of string-crossings, and those are easier to do lower in the bow, where there is less motion involved. (The closer you get to the tip, the greater distance your arm has to move to make string crossings possible.)

While much of this piece is complex, there are parts of it that are much more straightforward, for example, here:

Tzigane No. 9

"When it's simple, keep it simple," Fabiola said. This passage has a crescendo to a forte, so you don't want to overdo it, right at No. 9. "We don't have endless range, but we can pretend we do," and we have to use contrast to do so, saving the big bows for the big parts.

The next showpiece of the afternoon was "Introduction and Rondo-Capriccioso" by Camille Saint-Saens, played by Bianca Ciubancan. In my notes I wrote "wowsa, last page was smokin'!" And indeed, she achieved impressive speed!

Fabiola started by talking about the "Introduction" part of this piece - which is sultry and full of slides. But how full of slides do we really want it?

She said it's important to decide and be conscious about what is a glissando, what is a slide, and what should be a clean shift. There should be no unintentional "transportation slides," that is, shifts where there is no musical reason for a slide, but the slide from the shift is left audible.

"We need to practice with such detail that we practice between the notes," Fabiola said.

Bianca Ciubancan and Fabiola Kim
Bianca Ciubancan and Fabiola Kim. Photo by Abby Mahler, for the Colburn School.

In the piece, the orchestra (or piano) part is very simple, and so all the magic is in the violin part.

Intro and RC

Just as an experiment, for practice, Fabiola had Bianca play around with the rhythm in the introduction. First, she had her play it with a super-straight rhythm instead of all this syncopation, getting rid of the 16th rest on the second beat, playing right on that second beat.

Then, she had her continue playing on the beat, but then delay the end of the note, right before the fast notes.

After doing it those ways, she had her add the rest back in.

"What does that rest do?" Fabiola asked.

"It creates a more anxious atmosphere," Bianca said. Playing it both ways made that very clear.

Fabiola said that it can help to simplify the music in the practice room, when trying to express something musical. Get inside what is going on.

This piece also has a lot of different kinds of bow strokes, and "the slower strokes are much more individually controlled than the fast strokes," she said. For example, these strokes are quite deliberate:

Intro RC p 2

But in the final page, the notes go by too fast to control every single one:

Intro RC last page

This entire page is traditionally played off the string, and the key to getting there is that "if you can coordinate it on the string, then it will be very coordinated when it is off."

So first, find a stroke that is actually on the string but sounds off, and play the page that way. Be sure to shape the line, with all its dynamics. Maybe not every note will bounce, but it will sound better if there is a musical line.

The final showpiece of the day was "Danse Espagnole" by Manuel da Falla, played by Zulfiya Bashirova.

The piece is full of ricochet and bariolage and fun fancy tricks. It also has a lot of pizzicato.

"Who here practices pizzicato?" she asked the room, and not too many hands went up.

First of all, "pizzicato can never be too loud," she said. Also, pizzicato tends to come on fairly easy notes "so get all the easy notes to sound beautiful!"

Is the da Falla a super-serious piece? No.

Fabiola reminded us it is a showpiece - something light, with quite a lot of repetition. So a performer needs to grab the audience's attention and emphasize the changes in character that make each repetition sound interesting.

As an exercise, she asked Zulfiya to pause before every character change. She also suggested consciously naming each mood change - then using attitude and show each mood. (An aside, the original meaning of the word "attitude" is your body stance...I think that is ultimately what she was calling for here.)

"Give yourself direction," Fabiola said. Giving yourself direction allows you be conscious and recreate these character changes consistency, when performing the piece.

She also had another idea to help this piece come alive: Look up.

To demonstrate, Fabiola simply looked up at the audience - "It's really powerful - see, people were on their phones, then they stopped!" Everyone laughed.

Zulfiya gave it a try: she played some of the piece and then she looked up - then she cracked up. It made her laugh! But she was looking directly at audience members.

"It's more about where you face your violin - you aren't actually going to look at anyone," Fabiola said.

One has to be like an actor. "Show us the character changes, we want you to present them," Fabiola said, "don't just stare at your left hand."

On her second try, Zulfiya did this more effectively, and the attitude and character started emerging even more, in addition to the expression she was already producing with her excellent playing.

Just like octaves, ricochet and pizzicato, the acting part of performing is a special skill.

"It's something that needs to be practiced," Fabiola said.

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