I’ve always been fascinated by the Queen Elisabeth Competition. Unfortunately I wasn’t fascinated enough at a young enough age to actually take part in it! But I’ve followed from a distance ever since, and not only because it’s perhaps the most prestigious of all the international contests.
When else in your life do you get to learn, and perform, a brand new piece in just one week?
That’s what the twelve finalists have to do, once they make it past the semifinal round. They move from their regular accommodations to the Queen Elisabeth Chapel (a castle of sorts), where they remain secluded for one week to discover and prepare a piece commissioned specifically for the competition! It’s a quarantine, really, with no mobile phones allowed, and certainly no visitors who might assist in their preparation.
Of course, the outcome of the competition doesn’t depend entirely on the performance of the commissioned piece; there are many other selections in the finals. But from talking to various laureates of the competition over the years, it seems that learning the new piece occupied most of their brain space. It was as if they had to surrender their weapons at the Chapel door, and survive only through their wits and the clothes on their backs!
I wondered how I might go about learning a piece in just a week. What skills would I need to have in place first? What strategies would let me learn not just notes and rhythms, but musical thoughts? How could I quickly get everything in my fingers, and be sure that it would stay with me under pressure?
Summer plans in ruins
So starting this past winter, I turned an idea over in my mind: what if I could help violinists all over the world to learn a brand-new piece, all at the same time, in just one week? That way, I could test my ideas about how it might be done. I had no idea what the piece might be, or who would write it, but I couldn’t get it out of my head.
Then, shortly after the new year, it hit me: the Olympics! The Olympic Games were scheduled for Tokyo in the summer, and I could put together a violin Olympics to run alongside them. Instead of just one new piece, I could put together a whole slate of “events”, each with its own challenges!
Of course, we all know what happened since the new year, and not just to the Olympic Games. By mid-March, with all the LA Phil concerts canceled, along with every other performance on my calendar, I hit the “violin wall.” It may have happened to you too.
For about two weeks, I couldn’t look at the violin. I certainly didn’t have any extra brain space for an Olympics project, with the kids at home 24 hours a day. Besides, how could I lead a worldwide competition if I didn’t even feel like opening the case myself?
The timeless technique of Bach
Then, Bach saved me. Looking around online, I see that I’m far from the only person to be inspired by Bach this season. But going through his six Sonatas and Partitas, week by week, I was reminded just how many of the same techniques apply to those pieces as to Mozart. And to Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Paganini, Stravinsky… really, any violin music from any era.
I started putting on paper the different areas of technique I needed to draw on week by week in the Bach: in the right hand, things like bow speed/pressure/contact; arm levels for string crossings; accenting different parts of the beat; and many more. In the left hand: working within the hand frame; integrity in shifting; double-stops; trills; and of course, many more.
As long as I kept these areas generally in shape each week, I could handle whatever Bach piece might come along. There was still much to discover in all of these amazing works, but at least I could get my hands around them quickly enough.
No Olympics, but the Violympics
In a way, that “weekly technique plan” brought me back to the Olympics project. I had a name now: the Violympics, of course! And I had a mission: to break the summer up into two-week units, each of which would explore a few of these can’t-miss technical areas. I decided that each two-week unit would be a Violympic event.
And true to my vision of the Queen Elisabeth competition, each event would end with a special challenge: to learn, and record, a surprise piece in just five days!
I’m happy to say that the Violympics are now a reality, and they will run for twelve weeks starting June 1. But before that, I’m testing out the five-day concept next week. I’m calling it the Violympic Trials, and there will indeed be a brand-new piece to learn and perform.
Since I couldn’t find anyone else to write it, I did it myself! It’s called (what else?) the Violympic Theme, and I recorded it yesterday just to make sure it’s playable. That’s the piece I’ll be handing out to anyone who’s up for the challenge.
Actually, the Violympic Theme is more like twenty pieces in one, or perhaps one of those “Choose Your Own Adventure” books. I’ve written passages that can be played with great virtuosity, including thirds, long sul-G lines, fingered octaves, fast arpeggios, you name it! But any of those can be replaced with simpler alternatives, all of which I include in the music. So just like in the Queen Elisabeth Chapel, you come as you are to meet the new work.
I’ll be appearing live all next week, Monday through Friday, to help whoever wants to learn the piece with me. There’s already a great community gathered, waiting for the big reveal on Monday.
If you want to hear a preview of the piece, I’m playing it in the background during the video below.
And here’s how to join the fun:Tweet
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