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Ruth Kuefler

Who'd have guessed?

July 9, 2007 at 3:09 AM

When I went to camp this summer, some of the best technical advice I picked up came from the viola, cello, and bass master classes I watched. No kidding. I was really impressed with how well these teachers gave suggestions universal to all stringed instruments. When I came home from camp I was actually excited about practicing, just so I could try out all their ideas. Here are some of my favorites:

Jeffrey Irvine, viola

Mr. Irvine was very enjoyable to watch. He has a great way of giving students one or two specific compliments before jumping into the piece with his own suggestions — a quality I always appreciate in a teacher. I saw him work with two young violists on the Hoffmeister Viola Concerto and the Marcello Sonata in G Major. One thing he spent a good time on was using the bow to its full capacity. This means not only being comfortable all the way from frog to tip, but also planning the right balance between bow speed, sounding point, and weight. He said there are basically 5 sounding points on the viola, from right next to the bridge to right near the fingerboard. He suggested experimenting with each sounding point and consciously choosing the right one for a given passage. He also encouraged a faster, longer bowstroke when you need to project more. "Bow speed is destiny!" he said with a smile.

After working on bowing, Mr. Irvine went into some vibrato exercises. You know the usual exercise where you take one finger at a time and rock it back and forth on the string to a metronome? Instead of having the finger planted on the string, Mr. Irvine suggested doing that vibrato exercise in harmonics, setting the finger very gently on the string. If you practice all the fingers this way for several weeks, it can really free up your vibrato. A wide vibrato is essential for any violist, but this exercise would be useful for any string player in need of a freer vibrato.

Richard Aaron, cello

Mr. Aaron has got to be one of the most amazing teachers and musicians I've ever seen. His playing is immaculate and he sets high standards for his students, yet he is extremely personable and friendly, and has a great sense of humor too. I honestly learned enough from him in one thirty minute master class to work on for an entire year or more. One of my friends played the Prelude from Bach's Cello Suite No. 2 for him. The biggest point Mr. Aaron worked on in the class was developing as many ways as possible to practice a piece, so you don't just learn it, you really know it. Here's a summary of his ideas:

1. Play the whole piece in double stops for intonation, smooth transitions, and shifting. While doing this you should pay special attention to your left hand position, making it as relaxed and natural as possible.
2. Practice sections using "ghosting." You do this by touching the strings very lightly and allowing the fingers to sink in gently without squeezing or pressing. The idea is to eliminated as much tension as possible
3. Another way to practice is to play very slowly with a metronome (using soft hands with no vibrato or tension), observing that all joints in the left hand are curved. The purpose of this is to "practice feeling, not reflexes." According to Mr. Aaron reflexes are the first things to 'go' when you are nervous.
4. Try using a metronome set to one click per fastest rhythm in the piece, then slow the metronome down to larger and larger rhythmic divisions. For example, if you started at 200 with one click per eighth note, then you'd do 100 with one click per quarter note, 50 with one click per half note, and so on until you're down to one click for each measure or even every other measure. Mr. Aaron said that many musicians consider metronome practice constricting — this kind of metronome work is actually liberating. It trains you both to develop good internal subdivision and think in larger musical segments.
5. To practice coordination in slurred string crossings, play the passage as if it is in up bow or down bow stacatto (depending on the situation) only, instead of doing one articulation per pitch, do at least 2 or as many as four. For example, instead of slurring open G-D-A-E, you'd articulate G-G-D-D-A-A-E-E all in the same bow. This trains you to use the bow evenly and make clean string crossings. Be careful to have a relaxed bow hold. Actually, Mr. Aaron said that "bow hold" is a poor description, because we shouldn't hold the bow, but rather balance it. So, keep your "bow balance" relaxed as you do this. : )

One final idea he had was that in Bach especially, you should take some time to play a few of the chord progressions on the piano. The chord names aren't important — the purpose is to examine the tonal qualities of the chords, and see how each is beautiful. This will then influence your choice of phrasing and color when you go back to play the piece.

Harold Robinson, bass

In addition to seeing Mr. Robinson teach a bass master class, I was able to play for him myself in my quintet, which was learning the fourth movement of Dvorak's Quintet in G Major (for string quartet and bass). At first I was nervous about playing for Mr. Robinson, who is not only on the faculty a Curtis (along with Edgar Meyer) but is also principal bassist of the Philadelphia Orchestra. However, after meeting him after a recital, I realized what a friendly, down to earth person he is. Here's a picture with bassist Dennis Whittaker, my friend Elizabeth, Mr. Robinson, and me after the recital (which was, by the way, one of the most AMAZING performance I've ever seen in my life. To give you just an idea, Mr. Robinson played Bartok's Romanian Folk Dances — better than most violinists I've heard. No kidding.)


Anyway, during our quintet coaching, Mr. Robinson was really friendly and helpful. Most of his comments were specific to the piece, but he did give one general suggestion which made a big difference. Whenever we had unison sections consisting of small repeated phrases, he told us to back off a little with the dynamics so that we'd have room to crescendo to the end of the passage, giving it more direction.

In the bass master class I watched, the student played Koussevitsky's Chanson Triste (literally "sad song") which I'd never heard but which is a beautiful, melancholy piece. Most of his advice was specific to bassists, but he had one great practice technique which I've found really helpful. In passages with lots of shifting, simply play through slowly, putting slurs between every note. For example, instead of playing BDF, you'd play B, B-D, D-F and so on.

I've been trying to apply these idea in the month since I've been back and am finding them all highly useful. For example, I've been practicing my Flesch octaves using both Mr. Robinson's slurred shifting idea, and Mr. Aaron's emphasis on relaxed left hand technique. I could notice a difference immediately — they're getting much more smooth and in tune. (Oh and speaking of Flesch, did you know Mr. Aaron said that he has has students practice scales for 2 hours every day?? Once they can do that well, they can do anything). I'm using a lot of Mr. Aaron's suggestions in the fifth movement of the Lalo as well, and they're helping a lot. I'm realizing more and more that it's not usually the notes themselves, but what comes in between the notes that is most important. Shifts, intervals, string crossings — these are where I have the most challenges, and if I can make them more smooth and consistent, my playing will get much better.

From Albert Justice
Posted on July 9, 2007 at 3:29 AM
Very informative--thanks. I'll likely use ghosting as it fits in with my posture festival nicely. I liked the slurring for string crossing accuracy a lot too.
From Robert Berentz
Posted on July 9, 2007 at 1:20 PM
Jack is always "in the box" but your article and those who instructed you are "out of the box" and I got a real kick out of hearing your comments.
From Christopher Davis
Posted on July 10, 2007 at 6:31 PM
I'm saving this on my computer, thanks for the advice!

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