Brian Lewis Master Classes

July 1, 2007, 5:00 PM · Continuing on with my notes from Sound Encounters . . .

"The greatest musicians are those with the fastest ears" — Brian Lewis

In addition to my own master classes with Brian Lewis, I was lucky to have time to observe several other violinists play for him. Here is a summary of his advice on various pieces:

Bach E Major Preludio
One of Brian's most important suggestions for the Preludio (and for solo Bach in general) is to thoroughly study its architecture. He recommended looking for patterns and numbering them 1, 2, 3, etc., and using those sequences as the foundation for dynamics and phrasing. That way you always know you're going and where you've been. Another comment Brian had on the Preludio is that the faster you play it, the closer (and easier to hear) the harmony changes are. A faster tempo also allows you a little more freedom to take time where appropriate. While discussing Bach he also brought up the concept making a tempo chart. Whenever you learn a new piece, it's a good idea to listen to your recordings of it, and using a metronome, write down the tempo of each artists. This then allows you to compare the interpretations of different violinists and gives you a general range of how fast the piece has traditionally been played.

Barber Violin Concerto, Movements 2 and 3
In addition to playing the first movement of the Barber for our group violin repertoire class, I listened to master classes on the last two movements. One interesting fact that Brian kept bringing up in relation to the Barber was the that it was premiered by American violinist Albert Spalding. Brian highly recommended Spalding's autobiography Rise to Follow, which I had never heard of but am now itching to read. (Brian was also proud to say that he owned Spalding's very own travel trunk). As far as the actual concerto goes, Brian had some beautiful pictures for the opening of the second movement. A general way to imagine the beginning, he said, is like waking up in the glow before sunrise — that lazy, comfortable, half-conscious, stretching kind of atmosphere, which then changes suddenly at the Piu mosso as the sun clears the horizon. Brian also told his own personal story of what this passage reminds him of. Once while on tour in Australia, it just so happened that his birthday fell during that week. So, for a birthday present to himself, he decided to go watch the sunrise over the ocean at a beach in western Australia. He went to the beach while it was still dark, and happend to run into a group of senior citizens who met there regularly to swim in the mornings. Then invited him to join him, so he did. An elderly couple led him out bit by bit into the freezing water as it was still dark. There he stood shivering in the blackness until they told him to dive under the water, and then emerge on their signal. Brian dove, and the moment his head cleared the water, the first blinding ray of the sunrise hit the top of the water, bathing the ocean in light. Whenever Brian plays the opening of that second movement, he imagines the beginning as the cold, dark ocean until the sunrise emerges at the Piu mosso. Quite a story, eh? Brian's other main advice for this movement was simply to enjoy the gorgeous theme on the g string at the Tempo I. Keep everything really connected, and just go for it, and don't feel afraid to take time on notes or shifts that you especially love. He also suggested paying very close attention to the orchestra/piano part when phrasing in Barber — arrival points often come when there is a special harmonic change in the accompaniment. For the third movement, Brian offered the idea that "spicatto is legato that is off the string." He suggested playing on the string to practice, and then when you do play it off, to keep the bowstroke long enough for a good, healthy sound throughout the movement. He also emphasized good posture, because keeping the violin consistently held up helps balance the weight of the bowstroke, resulting in less work and more evenness.

Bruch Violin Concerto, Movement 1
There's a certain "tradition" at Sound Encounters that always makes me smile — if you see a violinist tuning not her A, but her G string to the piano, it's a tell-tale sign that she's about to perform the Bruch Concerto. This tuning method is Brian's suggestion whenever playing Bruch with piano since it makes the prominent sustained G's sound more in tune with the accompaniment. (On a side note, have you ever tried screaming into a piano? One year when I myself played this concerto for Brian, he had us both yell into the piano to see how much the strings vibrated and hear how resonant it was. Laughter aside, he was trying to get across how carefully we should listen to our intonation when playing the piano). Anyway, in this particular masterclass, Brian suggested inventing characters to go with the different sections of the piece — the more detailed the description, the better. Male or female? Old or young? Body type? : ) etc. Then, after re-playing the section with that character in mind, you can analyze exactly what you changed in your technique, such as different vibrato, bowspeed, or sounding point. You should not only know what character you want, but how to create that character. Alternatively, he said, you could ask yourself what color a certain passage should be, or what texture. Is it dark, or light, transparent or opaque, hard or soft?

Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, Movement 3
One of Brian's key points for this movement were relaxation and good intonation. He stressed feeling flexible, and taught several stretches he recommended we do before playing, including one where you swing your arms in forward and backward while bending up and down at your knees. One particular spot in the piece that requires relaxation is the large run with the flute on the first page. He said it should be played with "forte bows, but piano fingers." Brian also noted that E major is one of the most difficult keys for violinists to play in, and recommended practicing E major scales in drones with open strings. As you play the scale, try to adjust any out of tune pitches in a single bow — don't keep retaking or sawing back and forth until it is in tune. This forces you to develop a faster ear and gives you more realistic practice for the kind of intonation adjustment needed in performance.

Saint-Saens Violin Concerto No. 3, Movement 1
Before going into the specifics of this concerto, Brian gave a little background to the composer. Saint-Saens wrote this work shortly after the deaths of his two children and a separation from his wife. Though nothing in the piece refers explicitly to those tragic events, Brian thinks the second movement sound like a lullaby for Saint-Saens' children, and the dramatic theme of the first movement may have been triggered by the composer's emotional state during this period. Brian also wanted us to know that the metronome markings in this concerto are from Saint-Saens himself, and not an editor, and noted that the piece was dedicated to Sarasate. Then, delving into the music itself, Brian really wanted the opening theme to be strong, with clear accents, bow-speed energy, and appassionato vibrato. He said it's okay to have a bit of a hard "k" sound at the beginning of each note, because you wouldn't be able to hear that over an orchestra. While we're on this subject, I can't resist digressing a bit . . . have any of you heard the words that you're suppposed to sing to Saint-Saens No. 3? A bass teacher (of all people!) told me about this at Sound Encounters this year. They go like this: "Oh my God I'm scared . . . that I'm never going to hit this note!" I have to admit, that really cracked me up. : ) Anyway, back to "serious" topics of interest . . . Another of Brian's very helpful comments on this concerto was to keep track of all the expressive markings, especially with the lyrical themes. Saint-Saens give very descriptive instructions for how he wants the various sections played: espressivo, dolce, tranquillo, etc. Following all these expressive markings really adds a layer of beauty to the piece.

Sibelius Violin Concerto, Movement 1
I'm not as familiar with this concerto as some others, so I can't terribly specific here, but I still have a few interesting notes to pass along. Brian pointed out that Sibelius wrote in metronome markings that are actually slower than most violinists today play this concerto, particularly in the third movement. So he recommended seeing what tempi Sibelius actually called for before simply copying recordings. Brian's main technique comment was to play most of the octaves near the end fingered as 1-3 rather than 1-4 to give your hand more stability (although, of course, you should always use the fingering that works most comfortably for your own hand.) Also, octaves should always be played with at least 60% of your bow weight on the bottom note and 40% on the top. (He said you could even do as much as 70% / 30% in some cases). This always helps octaves sound more in tune.

Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, Movements 1 and 3
Again, I am simply not familiar enough with this concerto to give more detailed notes, but I'll do my best. : ) One thing Brian stressed in the Tchaikovsky is to use "simple rhythm." For example, you should try playing the opening of the first and third movements a few times with no rubato, just to see the rhythmic architecture before you decide where to take time. In the first movement when there are long runs, Brian recommended using vibrato and bow speed to accent high points, rather than taking time. This makes things much simpler when you play the concerto with orchestra. For the third movement when you come to the ascending double stops near the end, he suggested that you know exactly what the shift patterns are. It sounds simple he said, but knowing exactly when to shift and when to stay will simplify your life. : )

Whew! I didn't realize how much information I picked up from these classes until I typed it all out. And I even left some things out! Hopefully some if this is useful you y'all . . . I'm sure as I keep expanding my repertoire I'll be glad I kept all these notes. : )


July 2, 2007 at 02:02 AM · Wow, that is some set of notes! I knew you are an ocean of knowledge ;-) Do you remember who played the Saint-Saëns? I wasn't aware that anyone was working on it.

July 2, 2007 at 02:04 AM · Haha, my violin teacher in Germany had alternative wording to the opening theme of the Saint-Saëns that went something like:

"Life is such a b****... because I'll never hit this pitch"


July 2, 2007 at 04:02 AM · A fantastic blog, Ruth! Thank you for being so attentive and sharing all this with us.

July 2, 2007 at 10:54 AM · Haha, wow I didn't realize the opening of Saint-Saens had such a bad rap. :) The girl who played it at SE was Janet Carpenter — we were paired together in the same hour.

July 2, 2007 at 11:50 AM · These are really great, insightful notes. Thanks for sharing.

July 2, 2007 at 12:40 PM · Taking good notes like these is becoming a lost art. You'll be so glad you have them years from now.

July 3, 2007 at 12:35 AM · Great notes. I've learned a lot from them. Thanks so much for sharing.

July 3, 2007 at 04:36 PM · The quote is great! I remember him telling us that...

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