How to learn the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto

January 6, 2008 at 05:11 AM · Does anyone have specific suggestions for how to learn the Mendelssohn violin concerto first movement? My niece is playing it and my sister asked me for suggestions. I don't feel like I learned it properly back when I played it and was hoping there were others who had some good ideas for how to practice it.

My first thoughts would be to do the basics: click exercise, scales and arpeggios, open strings, octaves and thirds, scales on the E string to get through the first page, something amongst Schradieck/Sevcik probably. I figure there's probably a Kreutzer or two that's setup perfectly for the purpose. But since I never really learned the piece properly before, I feel like I'm only guessing at a good approach.

Replies (40)

January 6, 2008 at 05:28 AM · I would suggest getting an excellent teacher to give our niece suggestions about how to work on this.

January 6, 2008 at 06:59 AM · Changing teachers is not really an option for her right now. But I'd still like to help if I can. It's turned into quite a family affair as my brother, a pianist, is going to be her accompanist.

Besides which, I am curious how people approach this piece for when I decide to pick it back up. It is an incredibly beautiful piece of music.

January 6, 2008 at 07:37 AM · Tell your brother to get practicing, too; I've heard otherwise excellent pianists really fumble up the left hand part.

January 6, 2008 at 01:16 PM · I suggest learning Mozart 4 and 5 well before tackling Mendelssohn.

January 6, 2008 at 02:53 PM · Do you mean e minor? My daughter is learning that piece right now. As far as I can tell she isn't doing anything particular other than spending a bit more time on her weaknesses. It's exciting that your niece will be accompanied by her uncle. Have fun!

Ihnsouk

January 6, 2008 at 02:21 PM · i think this piece is not necessarily technically dazzling, but to play it well, with a good understanding of what goes into the playing and what should come out, is quite difficult for a beginner. to make it more difficult to play well, everyone knows it or thinks so...

January 6, 2008 at 03:58 PM · Ihnsouk, Yes, it's the e minor, not the lesser known d minor concerto.

Al, Kevin, I agree that the whole piece, but especially the first page especially is so exposed, that it makes for quite a musical challenge. And it is what it is, she is playing the Mendelssohn - I don't feel like I'm really in a position to try to influence a change in repertoire.

I imagine it's a difficult piece to diagnose because it's played by so many people at such a variety of levels of play. I would be very curious to hear how a professional might approach it, and attempt to interpolate downward from there.

Bill, your comment is excellent, but unfortunately won't be applicable in this particular case. My brother (the pianist) is very talented and never practices until maybe 3 days before playing. Then it usually comes out spectacularly. It doesn't always contribute to good ensemble playing, however. :)

January 6, 2008 at 05:05 PM · hey, I just finished learning it a little while ago. Here's one tip; figure out what tempo you want it to be. In the Francescatti version, he added a comma to make "allegro molto appassionato" into "allegro, molto appassionato". In the original version there was no comma. So, nowadays, people thoink of it differently. Perlman and Shaham play it like "Allegro", and Bell and Hahn play it like "Allegro Molto". It's your choice.

Some other tips are: Make sure the first page (opening statement) of the concerto is as close to perfectly in tune and as musical as you can make it. If you don't have the phrasing, and intonation in that first statement, people won't listen to your for the rest of the 10-11 minutes of the concerto.

Another tip is to make sure your cadenza is well thought out. Don't copy another person's recording, because many people do that nowadays. Take the first part of the cadenza, with the three similar parts of arpeggiated chords and runs, and figure out what mood suits each one, and play it to your style. Make sure they are not all the same!

January 6, 2008 at 05:38 PM · hey Brian, thanks for your suggestions. Always good to hear from you.

Do you have any suggestions for supplementary etudes or accompanying technique that would be helpful? You're very very right about the opening - I've heard some dreadful first pages of the Mendelssohn that absolutely ruined the rest of the piece, even when well played afterwards. What means did you use to get good intonation in the opening? I'll ask the phrasing question too - although that seems more a matter of taste. Did you practice rhythms to gain smoothness through the runs after the first page? Any thoughts on how to get it to sing, and the flying spiccato section would be much appreciated as well.

January 6, 2008 at 06:17 PM · "Do you have any suggestions for supplementary etudes or accompanying technique that would be helpful?"

All three octave E, C, and B scales. I'd also recommend doing double stop scales (thirds, sixths, octaves, fingered octaves, and tenths). I think too many students are introduced to top tier repertoire before learning the scales.

"You're very very right about the opening - I've heard some dreadful first pages of the Mendelssohn that absolutely ruined the rest of the piece, even when well played afterwards. What means did you use to get good intonation in the opening?"

Listening to the intervals, also comparing all the primary notes (E,A,D,G) to open strings and harmonics. If the notes don't match, they're not in tune. One way to really find an in tune B-natural (opening note) is to play a perfect forth between the open E and the B an octave lower from the starting note, then once the forth sounds in tune keep the lower B and play an octave between that B and the starting note (an octave higher). Once that is done properly, you have found the true starting pitch.

January 6, 2008 at 09:37 PM · Thanks for the suggestions Nate. I was also thinking that Kreutzer 11 and 14 would be helpful for cleaning up the shifting. Seems like for the thirds sections, doublestop scales in thirds would be sufficient, or perhaps there's a study that would also be helpful? Probably some double-stop open strings there to make sure that the string crossings are accurate and the tone is good.

It took me awhile, but I finally remembered why tenths were relevant - the flying staccato section - very important.

Obviously, all of this work has to be done properly, which is another question entirely.

January 6, 2008 at 10:04 PM · Hey, Terry. Nate gave some good suggestions. I have one other thing to say that I forgot to mention: keep the rhythm steady! Many musicians make the concerto hard to listen to because they change the tempo so many times. Make most of the piece, except the cadenza and the slow second themes, around the same tempo as the beginning.

As on working on the intonation, this is where you try some techniques of mine that are totally long, boring, and annoying to do. Get a sound recorder, and record a small section of the piece very slowly. Make copies of the page you are working on, and highlight any notes in the playback that are out of tune. Keep doing this. Although it is timetaking, it works well. Repetition is a lesser-working alternative that may fall apart in your performance, but do that with the sound recording.

As for the phrasing, you're right. It is mostly taste. I cannot tell you how to phrase it. but here's a tip. Go with the ups and downs of the phrase. Also, look at the writing throughout the piece, the <, the > the tempo markings, etc. These will make your rendition of the Mendelssohn clean and beautiful.

But, although I wrote a lot on how to practice it, playing it with feeling is the most important of all. Play and have fun; I've seen too many a performance of this piece that is technically sound but with no feeling.

January 6, 2008 at 10:18 PM · Mmm, I just love this concerto. I really can't add too much to the previous comments, which are all excellent practice suggestions. I just have 2 brief ideas:

1. Patience, patience, patience. I worked a good year on this piece. It requires a lot of slow, 'boring' practice at first to get the intonation and runs decent. Mendelssohn also has this . . sound. It just, takes time to let it ruminate I think. Such a profound piece.

2. Echoing what Brian just wrote, this piece requires a lot of musical conviction. How many other violin concertos are marked "Allegro molto appassionato" ? Even though it's not as explicitly romantic as, say, the Tchaikovsky, (and certainly requires a different style) it is definitely a romantic concerto and needs to have that kind of emotional passion behind it.

January 6, 2008 at 11:57 PM · Well said, Ruth. Well said.

As for your saying that you cannot describe the "sound" the concerto needs, I think I an shed some light on that. The concerto needs to sound like you're singing it. The piece cannot sound like a violin. It needs a full, beautiful tone that mimics the human voice.

January 7, 2008 at 12:50 AM · Thanks Brian and Ruth both.

A question for anyone out there. I keep mentioning Kreutzer and fishing for either a resounding compliment or scathing rebuke. :)

Are there applicable etudes that go well with this piece? How about Dont?

Terry

January 7, 2008 at 12:49 AM · Sorry, Terry. I'll give you some Kreutzer to chew on for this piece.

Do #8, #11, #12, #23, #24a, #25, #32 (Good luck with that one ;-) ), and #33 and 34. Those, although there are a lot of them, will help tremendously.

January 7, 2008 at 01:01 AM · Brian, OMG! That's awesome. This is more than a good start. Maybe my niece, Rachel, who is 15, can find a way to fit some of this in. There's not a whole lot of time - the competition is in April. She's not really looking to win anything, just to enjoy the experience.

All of this makes me really want to pickup the Mendelssohn too, right away! Unfortunately there's only so many hours in a day.

If you have any other thoughts, please pass along, and thanks for all of your suggestions.

Terry

January 7, 2008 at 01:23 AM · Give Rachel my congratulations for playing this piece. The concerto really is great. What's stopping you? If you want to learn in, go for it! You can probably do a great job!

January 7, 2008 at 02:26 AM · Things are pretty busy right now Brian. One of these days I definitely will! Thanks for the encouragement and good suggestions. I'm working on Beethoven 59 #1 with my quartet, and taking care of a little daughter, so my plate's kinda full. :)

I will definitely pass along your best regards to Rachel. :)

Terry

January 7, 2008 at 11:01 PM · Greetings,

juts my opinion but I think somehting has gone a little squiffy thinking wise if one is searching for etudes and exercises to facilitate learning the Mendelssohn at the same time one is learning it....

My reasoning behind this hopefully not too dismissive sounding assetion is simply that if one is going to play the Mendelssohn or other such works at the pinnacle of violin art one should be ready for it. I have come to believe that teahcers are, in general, misleaidng students if they treat such pieces as stepping stones on the road of tehcnical development. This is not to say that one shouldn`t attempt works a little beyond one`s capabilities every now and again to kick start advance d technique, but all too often, especialy with the Mendelssohn, this translates into a crude and technically shaky performance that has the dubious effedt of leaving the player unable to work on it at an artistic level at a later date. In essence it is ruined for that person. There are plenty of works of immense pedagogic value of similar difficulty that a student could usefully work on and not lose sight of the artisic difficulty involved. For example many pieces by Vieuxtemp.

Getting back on track, always a strain for me, none of this means one should stop working on basics while learning this concerto. Scale practice and general etude work never stops. Getting more specific than this is not so helpful in the cas eof etudes in my opinion. Scales may be slightly differnet. For example, if one is having trouble with the bowing in the opening of the cadenza then pracitce scales using that bowing.

But to my mind it is really mnore a case of apply pracitc emethodology to the concerto itself. IE if you want to play the Mendelssohn then practice the Mendelssohn.

I would suggest one of the most useful techniques to work on the first movement in general is stop/start fast/slow practice. In other word, instea dof just practicing triplets slowly and building up speed with a metronome practice a smaller chunk at speed that overlaps a specific problem and then stop. If the size of the chunk is sufficeintly small the ear/brain should be ableto assimilate what is happening and modify things accordingly.

Another useful appraoch is to play one note in tempo. Then add the next. Then the next. This is similar to above and helps one to identify exactly where a problem is in a run or whatever.

I aslo recommend players spend quite a lot of pracitce time in this work working on discoordination of the hands. That is, begin an arpeggio stirng crossing passage on the g string and a sthe left han moves over the strings upwards the bow stays on the g string doing the corretc bowing. There are endless variations on this kind of work. The bowing might be done on the e string only for example.

Cheers,

Buri

Incidentally, on the first page the gs in first/second positionn on the e string are usually sharp...;)

January 8, 2008 at 12:24 AM · Pray! A lot!

January 8, 2008 at 12:31 AM · Everyone works the first page to death but the real dazzling parts are all the triplet passages in the next couple of pages. Since playing triplets can be a real doozy for the right arm practice those smartly.

I suggest playing them slowly and pausing between EVERY string crossing until your arm really gets used to the kinesthetic motion. This way you can avoid messy string crossings.

I also suggest using a metronome and playing the triplets using the Galamian scale rhythms. All scale method books have their use and I find the Galamian method is superb for building strong rhythm in both the left and right hand. This really helps troubleshooting your weaknesses and makes for very even passage work.

Mendelssohn, such a favorite. Good luck!

January 8, 2008 at 01:35 AM · Lots to respond to here Buri.

First, I haven't heard my niece play in 5 years, so I'm really not sure what her level is. I'm inclined to believe she's not ready for the Mendelssohn. But before getting too embroiled in family politics, my sister chose to influence the situation. Her teacher suggested either Mendelssohn or something like the Vitali Chaconne.

Now I'm inclined to think that the Vitali might be closer to what is her level, but I didn't really know for sure. My sister pushed the Mendelssohn hoping it would inspire my niece.

After sending this thread to my sister, she could be backing off on pushing the piece, and maybe even the competition entirely. IMHO, playing a warhorse concerto should be the desire of the player, not the parent. Now my sister is far from a stage parent - she's not hoping her daughter goes to Juilliard - she just wanted to challenge her daughter.

I'm not sure what was occuring in full but my niece wasn't getting any etude or scale work, other than, "just play your scales"

But it seems to me that working on etudes at the same time as working on pieces has a lot of benefit, as you have suggested. Can one really play just one piece for 3 solid months and nothing else? If for no other reason than to break the monotony the work on etudes and scales would be helpful, wouldn't it?

So in short, I see your point, but it is an unusual circumstance. My sister needed to see the fullness of what would need to occur to play this piece properly. Since I didn't play it properly 25 years ago, I didn't feel like I was in a position to provide a reasoned explanation why it may/may not be a good idea.

January 8, 2008 at 02:13 AM · Greetings,

Terry, hopr you weren`t offended. I was adressing I hope the veyr narrow issue of what etudes one could link to a specific concerto. As far as the wider issue of playoing only a piece for thre emonths, I think thta is a very bad idea. Scales and etudes are part of a balanced diet. In violnistic terms it is somewhat like eating only protein for thre emonths or whatever.

It is not necessarily the case that your neice being pushed ot learn the mendelssohn is a bad thing. These things ultimately always have to be evaluated by the people cocnerned. Its just that I have both experienced and seen so many times teachers pushing talented kids ot learn major works and completley neglecting the basics , assuming that a cursory `make sure you practice scales ` (what scales? How? etc) is adequate advice for a young and talented kid. And if etudes or some kind of tehcncial work is not being done there is probably a problme of some kind thta requires further reflection.

All the best,

Buri

January 8, 2008 at 03:07 AM · Not at all Buri. I just felt like I needed to chime in and explain the situation a little better. Your points, as usual, are excellent.

January 8, 2008 at 03:24 AM · When I started to learn the Mendelssohn, I started on the second movement first.

As far as scales and etudes, the Flesch scales are good because they are so all-encompassing. You'll get the fingered octaves, sixths, thirds etc that need to be practiced.

Good luck!

January 8, 2008 at 03:15 AM · Yes, Amen to Buri, as usual. :) Many of those suggestions are similar to once my own teacher gave me while learning that piece.

Oh, and just a thought:

"Everyone works the first page to death but the real dazzling parts are all the triplet passages in the next couple of pages. Since playing triplets can be a real doozy for the right arm practice those smartly."

I totally agree that the triplet passages need a lot of attention, and are certainly dazzling. But I think the reason that people spend so much time on the first page (in addition how challenging it is to get the intonation and octaves and proper singing sound) is that the music in that first page is really the heart of the concerto. Mendelssohn is virtuosic and dazzling for sure, but that virtuosity is always, always at the service of the poetic, musical soul of the piece, not vice versa. Mendelssohn is never virtuosic for its own sake, unlike some violin concertos. So well-written . . . I hope I can play it again soon.

Sorry to ramble on so. I can't help it where Mendelssohn is concerned. I do believe it's my very favorite concerto. At least my favorite of anything I've learned so far. :)

January 8, 2008 at 03:32 AM · P.S. Also found this older thread on the Mendelssohn you might find helpful:

http://www.violinist.com/discussion/response.cfm?ID=7311

January 8, 2008 at 03:41 PM · Ruth,

Didn't mean to imply that the first page is not dazzling! I just meant that more attention is given to advising someone on the first page than what comes later, that's all. When I first played it all I practiced was the first page and the rest was sloppy until I really focused on the piece as a whole.

I remember sitting in youth orchestras (and some professional ones unfortunately) where people warm up using the opening of every concerto possible, Mendelssohn, Bruch, Tchaikovsky, Paganini, etc. So tacky haha.

January 9, 2008 at 03:32 AM · Marina - yes, I know that's what you meant, and I definitely agree that the entire movement needs attention, not just the first page. I was just musing on reasons for WHY some people spend so much time on that opening (My teacher certainly did with me). I DO think it is vital to the piece to get that first page, but you're right, focusing on that to the exclusion of the rest of the concerto is not a good idea. :-)

May 18, 2012 at 04:26 PM · This is a quite old discussion, and I'm certain that your niece has already performed her Mendelssohn by now... but just in case you are still wanting to go back and learn the piece i would highly recommend using the analytical studies specially written for this concerto by Otakar Sevcick...

It is a very specific set of exercises for every phrase of the three movements

I hope you find it useful

This is the link from imslp

May 18, 2012 at 04:27 PM · http://conquest.imslp.info/files/imglnks/usimg/c/ce/IMSLP92000-PMLP189293-Mendelssohn_exercises.pdf

May 19, 2012 at 04:51 PM · Thanks Daniel for the link! It's a good reference, although the fingerings he suggested aren't all that helpful but the thinking behind makes sense. One reservation from me is following it religiously can kill the living soul out of you and turn the whole piece into a bunch of notes and dynamics but no Mendelssohn:)

May 19, 2012 at 07:20 PM · Yixi, exactly. That's why I use those Sevcík studies as a how-to-make-my-own-exercises book, nowadays. That makes them applicable to works never processed by prof. Sevcík himself.

Anyhow, if you want to change the fingerings in the Mendelssohn, you would need to change the exercises as well.

May 19, 2012 at 08:26 PM · The best way to learn the Mendelssohn Concerto is to have your mama bribe you with a Capuchin monkey. I learned the concerto in a week and my parents had to get me the monkey! That monkey was crazy..sometimes he would escape into the trees with our Amazon parrot and the fire department would have to come and get them down!

(I am now against wild animals as pets..very cruel..but back then I didn't know..I was only 7)

May 20, 2012 at 09:57 PM · Bart, I find the nice thing about Sevcík's studies is they arer pretty logical and once I've figured out his system/pattern, I could apply it to my own practice routine without looking at the studies again. His Mendelssohn fingerlings are pretty weird, don't you think?

May 21, 2012 at 12:47 AM · Daniel,

Much has happened since my niece was going to learn the Mendelssohn. She actually never did it. :)

The Sevcik books are quite good. I worked on the one for Wieniawski Scherzo Tarentelle and thought it was excellent, although I had to be careful since it was a bit mind numbing. At a certain point, it was really neccesary to go back to the music, as people like Buri and Yixi suggest.

Terry

February 2, 2013 at 09:24 PM ·

December 22, 2015 at 03:15 PM · There is also this resource that Lara St. John has put together with her teacher Joey Corpus:

http://learningfromthelegends.com/instruments/violin/mendelssohn

Her edition (with fingerings) are free for download, and the DVD shows her approach to the piece. It also contains a piano accompaniment track to practice with.

December 23, 2015 at 05:14 PM · "Much has happened since my niece was going to learn the Mendelssohn. She actually never did it. :)"

I know it's an old post, that's still the funniest thing I've read on this site in a longe time!

But just a general word IMHO: students are forever begging (or their parents or someone else) to learn pieces over their head. In fact, this very situation happened to me just recently, when a father came in before the lesson and practically begged me to let his son learn the Mendelsshon, even though it was way over the boys head. Situations like this can be a real slog, as every note and shift and fingering has to be discussed, practiced in the lesson, rediscussed the week after...and all to the detriment of other material and time. I think if there were a poll of even us trained professionals as to how much time WE would need spend working this concerto into reasonable shape, it would turn out to be a large block of time.

One of the biggest causes of poor progress in the talented students who have come to me has been just this phenomena: they were pushed (or allowed) to pursue repertoire for which they were not ready. A great example: spicatto. You don't just "do" spicatto--you have to learn it properly from the ground up, starting from a proper bow grip. Most advanced repertoire has spicatto, so it's a deal-breaker. So every minute spent hacking through a piece for which the student isn't ready means a minute not spent on more valuable stuff (like spicatto).

So if someone else were to ask "how do I learn this piece" I'd say they're not ready.

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