EDITOR'S NOTE: This blog was written with the assistance of Diamond Zetty and Anna Mitchell, both violin majors at Virginia Commonwealth University.
One of my favorite events of the Menuhin Competition just went up on the Menuhin Competition YouTube channel: masterclasses with the competition judges.
BELOW: Masterclass Block 1 - Angelo Xiang Yu, Alf Richard Kraggerud and Pamela Frank & Howard Nelson:
This is where we all get a little slice of inspiration and technical know-how from watching others in what is essentially a private lesson, but in public. Masterclasses have been included in the competition line up since 2004, when the competition started traveling to different corners of the world every two years. According to Gordon Back, Artistic Director of the Competition, "Yehudi (Menuhin) was always interested in encouraging young talent and giving these young players opportunities to learn and grow," and the masterclasses featuring the young competitors do just that. Since the masterclasses were originally scheduled to take place at Virginia Commonwealth University, I have asked VCU students to act as reporters for the online classes. Here are previews and links to the 2021 Menuhin Competition Masterclasses.
From Diamond Zetty, rising sophomore violinist majoring in music education:
The first block of the Menuhin competition masterclasses were incredibly insightful and diverse in fixing the problems that leave many violinists frustrated in practice. Many issues in our playing are beyond the notes on the page. Creating the tone and feeling we want as musicians sometimes forces us think outside of the box to find solutions to our problems and these masterclasses did just that.
Angelo Xiang Yu coached the Menuhin contestant Eric Chen on the importance of phrasing in Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3 in G Major, I. Allegro. There are so many opportunities in this movement for phrasing and intentionally setting the tone of each phrase. Something that struck me as a player was the concept of 'enjoying the flight," i.e that not everything in a piece needs to be rushed or played with an intense drive. Angelo Xiang Yu encouraged Eric to take time on each note and let each note have a chance to shine in beauty.
Alf Richard Kraggerud coached the Menuhin contestant Emily Shehi on Ysaÿe’s Solo Sonata No. 5 in G major. In the masterclass, the importance of the whole body position was discussed since small things in our positioning can make such a big impact on our playing. I was very interested in the concept of how the weight of our feet impacts the way we play. Alf Richard Kraggerud asked Emily to try an exercise for weight distribution when standing. This is something that many of us don’t think about in the practice room.
Pamela Frank and Howard Nelson went over the importance of shedding tension when playing and how tension can hurt the overall sound of the instrument and make the player feel tired. Menuhin contestant Kayleigh Kim played Recitativo and Scherzo by Kreisler. Frank and Nelson addressed a lot of her issues with tension and fatigue in the bow arm and left wrist. Something I found to be a very interesting remedy for this problem, suggested by Pamela Frank, was to use a music stand to keep the scroll of the violin up and encourage looseness in the left hand and arm.
BELOW: Masterclass Block 2 - Angelo Xiang Yu and Pamela Frank & Howard Nelson:
From Anna Mitchell, rising junior violinist majoring in music education:
The second block of masterclasses of the day featured brilliant performances by senior competitor Maya Anjali Buchanan and junior competitor Shannon Ma. Jurors Yu, Frank, and Nelson returned for a second round of coachings.
Maya began the second block with her performance of the first two pages of Dvorák’s Romance in F minor. Yu began his coaching by advising Buchanan to listen to some speaking in Czech -- since Antonín Dvorák was Czech himself -- and incorporate some of the emotion that the Czech people had experienced historically into her own playing.
Yu also gave Buchanan some great notes for phrasing, noting that she should allow the littlest notes to speak clearly and to decide her bowings based on the phrasings she wanted to create, not the other way around. "Almost like a boat, there’s a swing rather than stop," Yu said. "Let the phrase decide what kind of bowing you use instead of letting the bowing decide what phrase you’re choosing."
Yu encouraged Maya to take another look at the orchestral score that accompanies this piece and take note of details such as tritones in order to create even more exciting phrases and diversify the colors in her playing even further. Yu asked her to vibrate each note to the very end, recommending that Maya maintain the strength of her vibrated notes throughout each phrase.
Overall, I really enjoyed this portion of the block featuring Maya and Yu. After receiving just a few coaching notes from, the change in Maya’s already-brilliant playing was notably more sophisticated, and I admired not only Yu’s brilliant tips, but Maya’s adaptability and warmth in her playing, as well.
The second half of this block began with Frank and Nelson asking junior competitor Shannon Ma her reasoning for joining them in today’s masterclass, since they specialize in dealing with performance injury prevention. Shannon noted that the year prior, she had dealt with tendonitis in her left wrist, which she attributed to either overplaying or not stretching properly. Shannon also noted that she deals with a lot of tension while she plays, and that her neck in particular gets sore after a rigorous practice session.
Following this brief discussion, Shannon leapt into her performance of the Presto from Bach’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in G minor. A discussion regarding how to use one’s body in the most efficient way ensued, in which Shannon revealed she has danced for years and is frequently told to "keep her shoulders back and down."
One idea Frank and Howard suggested to help Shannon relieve tension was talking while she played in order to help lighten her physical approach. The two asked her questions about what she’d eaten for breakfast that morning while she played a few simple scales, and Frank commented afterwards that Shannon’s vibrato had become much more relaxed and fluid. The pair had Ma play a few scales a second time, this time asking her about movie genres she liked. The change in Shannon’s vibrato was even more obvious this time, and Frank and Nelson recommended that she incorporate this simple exercise into her daily practicing routine.
Next, Nelson asked Shannon if she ever looked back on videos of her playing and noticed any unnecessary physical actions. Ma noted that she thought that her head was locked too far in one direction, adding that she also likes to have her ponytail swish around behind her while she plays but noting that it "probably adds to the tension."
To remedy this, Frank recommended that she try to transfer the feeling of the swish of her ponytail to her right hand so that it would be filled with the same energy her hair carries while she plays, directing the energy specifically to the outermost part of her fingers while relaxing the rest of her hand. After playing the end of the Presto one more time, Shannon agreed that her playing felt much more relaxed, but mentioned that when she tries to make her motions smaller, she feels like her playing didn’t look quite as exciting as it did before.
Like the first half of this block of masterclasses, I really enjoyed hearing both Shannon’s playing and the coaches amazing tips. I really admired how invested Ma was in her initial performance! As she began playing, you could see her whole body light up with the spirit and energy of the piece, and I really admire her strong stage presence. As a violinist who also struggles greatly with tension, I was able to pick up lots of tips from this session that I’ll be able to implement into my own playing, and I’m very grateful I got the chance to check this block of masterclasses out!
BELOW: Masterclass Block 3 - Angelo Xiang Yu and Alf Richard Kraggerud:
Here are my own observations for the third block of masterclasses:
Yu was very detailed in his suggestions for bow mechanics when he coached Emma Meinrenken on the Adagio of Bach’s Sonata in C Major. His starting point was a musical suggestion, to bring out the bass line. He provided specific technical advice on exactly how to accomplish this - by slowing the bow down on the G string, and aiming for an airier E string sound utilizing bow speed, since "the human ear is so good at capturing the soprano voice".
He worked in great detail on the aspects of the golden triangle - speed, weight and contact point - to help Emma produce a truly beautifully phrased Adagio. The mechanics of string crossings, different options for arpeggiating chords, and use of vibrato within a phrase will all be useful in our own practice.
Alf Richard Kraggerud worked with Hannah Song on the Adagio from Bach’s Sonata No. 1 in G minor. Bow speed was once again front and center of the lesson, starting with managing bow speed at the change of direction to avoid unintended bumps within the phrase.
Kraggerud introduced many little "tricks" and exercises that can help achieve voicing within a chordal texture and achieve more efficient and relaxed bowing technique. As a teacher, my favorite quote from the class has to be: "Understanding is undervalued. When you understand, then it is easier to know what to do."
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We are so lucky to be able to learn alongside all of the brilliant violinists through these classes. I am reminded how much we all gain by dedicating ourselves to the study of violin playing for a lifetime. In the words of Yehudi Menuhin: "Music coordinates mind, body and spirit."
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