Personal Video Critique (Bach Adagio)

April 13, 2017 at 10:22 PM · (Video URL at bottom of post!)

Hello all:

I'm about to take my first lesson in about 10 years, and in preparation for that I've been trying to prepare a "sampler plate" of excerpts so the teacher can rip me a new one properly. I've only had a few days to do this.

Some of those are the 1st pages of Sibelius, Rondo Capriccioso, Bach Sonatas, etc..., as well as a million different scale variations.

Anyways, I recorded the Bach Adagio from Sonata 1 today in the hopes of watching myself with an objective eye, and thought perhaps some of you might be willing to rip me a new one as well. Try to keep in mind I've only been looking at this for the past few days.

My observed critiques:

No "breathing room" between notes and phrases (I had practiced this in a dead room, so I'm playing more fully than necessary in my echo chamber living room).

Rushed... didn't realize I was rushing during recording.

Nervous. Shaky, tense bow. No breathing.

Very loud... though this might be due to camera mic.

Very little freedom in the rhythm.

Pretty much no dynamics.

Out of tune.

Using too much much vibrato, especially to cover up mistakes.

Anything I missed?


April 14, 2017 at 01:28 AM · Erik, thanks for posting a video link. There are a lot of good players on, and they can sometimes be a tough crowd. I appreciate those with the courage to post a link.

The text of your post really lowered my expectations, so when I watched the video I was pleasantly surprised. For having only worked on this a few days, I think it's quite good.

I heard a handful of intonation errors, which you are already aware of. In general, your intonation is good, so I'm sure the errors will work themselves out, should you choose to continue polishing the piece.

You have a good tone. It would be nice to hear more contrasts, not just in terms of volume, but also timbre. For instance, some of the softer passages could be played with lighter bow pressure, closer to the fingerboard.

I noticed that your left pinky is quite straight when dropping other fingers. Perhaps this indicates tension in the left hand? My teacher recently showed me a simple exercise in which I gently tap adjacent strings with the non-playing fingers of my left hand. If you feel that left hand tension may be an issue, maybe this will help you too. (Left hand tension may also arise from the neck, shoulder, thumb, or playing finger(s). There are several exercises in Basics to help with these areas, depending on the source of the tension.)

Your bow seems to be consistently angled with the tip closer to the fingerboard. Perhaps you are doing this on purpose, as the lower strings generally sound better on soundpoints 4 and 5, while the upper strings sound better on soundpoints 2 and 3. I can't say that this angling of your bow is detrimental to your sound, but if you feel a need to change it, you could make an adjustment by practicing in front of a mirror.

I didn't really detect rushing (as you mentioned in your post), but I do think there are spots where you could choose to vary the tempo (in either direction) for expressive purposes. Similarly, I think you could use your vibrato more intentionally, varying its use (and its width) with an expressive goal in mind.

Overall, I found this performance to be fundamentally sound, and if you were to practice this movement for a couple of weeks, I think it could be excellent.

April 14, 2017 at 02:05 AM · This is a gorgeous piece and I haven’t heard any violinist doesn’t love it. However, a common mistake in my view is that it's played way too freely with the rhythm by many. You think you had very little freedom in the rhythm? I feel you are too free with the rhythm. I'm not saying you should play mechanically, but the freedom of rhythm has to fit within each measure. So try to stick to the rhythm as written; play the piece musically by working on color, dynamic and tone production from the bow, rather than varying the tempo. Like what Jason said, you are using vibrato to sing and this won’t work for Bach. Try to produce pure and juicy sound from the bow. I suggest you play it without vibrato to get the best sound you can with your bow. Once happy with that, then add a bit vibrato and see how much better it becomes.

April 14, 2017 at 03:10 AM · Nice playing overall. I personally think you could vary your sound more and use more bow at times when the sound was slightly choked. Intonation was quite good. I noticed some tiny bloopers.

April 14, 2017 at 03:40 AM · I definitely agree about varying the sound more, Ella. After I recorded this video (my first time recording this after the 3-4 hours I've practiced it altogether), I realized how boring and monotonous it sounded from a distance. Still, I wanted to post the video pre-fixing so I could get everyone's opinion while it's still imperfect!

Definitely solid advice so far from everyone. Keep tearing me a new one.

April 14, 2017 at 12:32 PM · More than anything else, after having looked at a couple of your Bach videos, I would recommend paying close attention to the rhythm and the pulse, and to the implied phrase structure created by the harmonic progression. You really want to do this with a metronome until the correct rhythm is set in your head.

In general, your sound and articulation choices are also very romanticized. For modern performance practice, there should be more detachment to the bow-strokes.

April 14, 2017 at 01:58 PM · Well, that's pretty good going for someone who hasn't had a lesson in 10 years and only prepared the piece in a few days!

My observations are, much like everyone else's, about rhythm and interpretation.

I have the exact same problem playing slow solo Bach as you do in this piece. I end up losing touch with where the pulse is, and as a result, end up with a slight sense of "seasickness" as every beat is a different length to the one before. I think that is what you are doing here.

I'd second the suggestions everyone else is making about practicing with a metronome. Of course, you are at liberty to add fermatas, commas, rubato, and to do things like interpret demi-semiquaver runs so they are something like triplet-quintuplet rather than even-8s, or any number of other things - however you have to do that from a basis of being able to play it straight accurately.

I would also I would suggest you play senza vibrato and try to focus more on bringing out the bass line. (You can add in the vibrato in places again for effect - or even throughout, if that's what you really want - afterwards)

April 14, 2017 at 04:23 PM · Overall pretty nice! Its at the point where I can enjoy listening to it.

I agree on the posts earlier on and have nothing to add there.

But what I definitly think is, that putting the violin up would improve your bowing and therefore sound heavily. It would also be easier to vary the sound, because your bow will not go towards the finger board during the note.

April 14, 2017 at 04:42 PM · Regarding Rhythmic Pulse: It's interesting, because I was diligently counting internally while playing and practicing this piece, although I admit I never hit the metronome phase. I was trying to keep the rhythm internally without being obnoxious outwardly about the pulse, as I figured this is an Adagio and therefore shouldn't have palpable downbeats. Probably what ended up happening is I strived so much for a purely continuous sound with almost no breaks in volume that I ended up going way too far in that direction and now it's an amorphous mass of strung out notes (although I would argue that my tempo is reasonably consistent if you listen carefully!). A telling example of what happens when I prepare a piece with no direction from an instructor, and why it's the right decision for me to be taking lessons again (despite being a teacher myself for quite some time now, although on a lower level).

Definitely way too much vibrato. I've been doing mainly romantic stuff in the past few years when I DO practice, so I think that's carried over to my Bach.

Now, regarding interpretation, I think this is an interesting point of contention: I have heard from many sources that Bach is to be played with minimal vibrato, fairly strict counting, and predictable stylistic choices based on what was popular in his lifetime, but I've heard from many other sources that Bach's writing was intended to be played freely, depending on how the player sees the notes coming together. Since Bach wrote so few actual specific marking in his manuscripts, his notes can't really be compared to the notes of later composers who were VERY specific in what they wanted (as in the 1st page of Sibelius, where there is a diminuendo/crescendo on practically every note).

(As a disclaimer, that is not me defending my personal performance, as I can certainly agree that it's best to get something down in a strict way before we add interpretation).

EDIT: I listened again and my tempo is definitely way off.

April 14, 2017 at 04:52 PM · Not only Bach, every baroque composer did note less than modern composers. But there were common decissions musicians new about and vibrato in a modern way was non of it. Also rubato will always be very small and on the one you have to be on point.

To understand bach i suggest lending a baroque bow and play a baroque violon without shoulder rest. That helped me a lot

April 14, 2017 at 05:50 PM · Just a baroque bow (a good one) is going to make you very promotes the smoothness that supports Bach's liquid flow. IMHO. I love my baroque bows.

April 14, 2017 at 10:28 PM · Also, rule of baroque (generally):

However simple the wroting, the more rubato and freedom you can take.

Bach even wrote in trills, so any rubato should be on the subtle side, and you should alter no more than a few notes here and there (or not).

For ex: the famous Corelli Sonatas are the main notes. Corelli would always improvise them differently each time, with varying rubato contained to each phrase, adding scale runs and patterns below the written note, adding trills etc. :)

Also, practicing while holding the bow higher up like a Baroque bow is very helpful. While doing so, be sure to let the weight of the bow dictate the sound (no even up bows). This will get you in the non-vib bow expression much more easily (which includes using a floaty slower bow arm that sinks weight into the string, like pushing against a cheese grater).

April 15, 2017 at 03:29 AM · I know so many people reclaiming that holding the bow there makes it feel like a baroque bow. I totally dont feel it if I try it!

April 15, 2017 at 06:15 AM · Erik - yes, that's very much the problem. Baroque composers knew their work was going to be interpreted by whoever performed it. Some of the interpretation was probably unspoken rules that every competent performer knew (what the pulse of a sarabande was, for instance); other aspects more personal to the performer.

To my mind, as this piece is very much a written-out improvisation, there is plenty of scope to play with the rhythm (Whoever improvises strictly in tempo? Anyone?) - but without losing touch with the pulse.

re Baroque bows - I own one and find it very helpful to interpret Baroque music. However, I find using a Baroque bow far less insightful for this movement than much other repertoire. Much repertoire (especially dance movements) is written to make use of the natural dynamics and articulation of the bow. To me this movement, being improvisatory, and with important bass notes unhelpfully coming on an upbow, suggests the opposite.

April 15, 2017 at 06:45 AM · Altough I think that especially the sonatas and partitas have a lot more instructions written than most of the other pieces he wrote. That was highly exerimental music at this time!

April 15, 2017 at 12:42 PM · I agree with Marc on the holding the bow higher up -- I don't feel it as at all more similar to a Baroque bow.

April 15, 2017 at 01:34 PM · I think it's a pretty terrific performance, given you haven't been playing or studying much for ten years.

Of course things can be bettered, but that's always the case.

April 15, 2017 at 05:17 PM · Actually, the OP is a professional, so he's been playing this whole time, but hasn't taken lessons since ten years ago.

April 15, 2017 at 08:17 PM · Yeah I've been playing, but only in the context of teaching. I basically haven't done consistent practice of any sort in 9 years. Although, I do squeeze in a few hours every month when I'm feeling inadequate. The main reason I'm taking lessons again is because I don't have enough self discipline to practice on my own :)

I would call it accurate to say that I haven't been playing or studying MUCH for ten years.

April 16, 2017 at 10:30 AM · Bravo for having the courage to face your limitations and to work towards surmounting them despite already having a professional profile. I didn't watch your video because as a lesser player it wouldn't be appropriate for me to critique it, so "your limitations" is abstract in this context.

April 16, 2017 at 10:41 AM · Hm, I also like to critique the worlds best players recordings. Is this inapropriat?

April 16, 2017 at 12:45 PM · It is inappropriate if you feel it is. Would you have gone up to Heifetz after a concert and told him that this or that could use some improvement or that his interpretation of Bach wasn't quite up to your own standards?

Now, it might be that you have a greater sense than I do on this point, so I leave that judgement up to yourself.

April 16, 2017 at 02:56 PM · If Heifetz asked for critique I would tell him what I liked and what not. He would have been able to put it in context and know that his overall performance was world standard. I dont think he suffered from low selfesteam. If he wouldnt ask I would just be there amazed and dont say anything about it. (Sadly I only know recordings)

Of course I will never walk to a musician and tell him it was a pain to listen to, even if I felt that way! I am not mean, at least I dont think I am.

April 16, 2017 at 03:17 PM · Heifetz did have an assistant with whom he listened to recordings.

April 16, 2017 at 04:35 PM · The OP did ask for criticism. I don't think it's disrespectful to offer commentary even if you're not an advanced player -- or for that matter even if you don't play the violin at all. You might not be able to be as precise in describing what you like and don't like, but your input can still be valuable.

April 16, 2017 at 05:27 PM · I certainly wouldn't be insulted if a less experienced player mentioned critiques (assuming I asked for them, as in this context). Of course, if one doesn't have any criticism, it's always good to provide encouragement instead, since critics are easy to find throughout the world, whereas encouragers are more rare. One of the main issues I had with many of my teachers early on is they literally never once told me I did a good job. As a teacher, it is your main job to find solutions to problems, but it's almost as important to tell the student what they did RIGHT that week. This helps direct them towards better quality practice in the future and - even more importantly - fuels their encouragement with continuing.

April 16, 2017 at 06:04 PM · Erik, I am only an amateur, but I think it is quite good. For me intonation is the most important in violin playing as I think it drives pretty much everything else. I must say, like someone else wrote above, that your intonation is actually quite good, just here and there small glitches which is typically just because you have not practiced it up to performance level. Just two small things that I think have not yet been said above (this is a great forum). First, about rhythmic consistency: Stephen Brivati has written on this forum that in Bach you have to mind the elephant, meaning that you can be free between the beats, i.e., fill in runs of 32nd notes as you please, but when the next beat comes you have to be there. Second, about too much vibrato. I personally can like a Bach performance with a lot of vibrato (if done tastefully) as much as one sans vibrato, or everything in between, as long as things are self-consistent. But in your case you have phrases in which you heavily vibrate but then one or two of the notes in the phrase are double stops which you do not vibrate at all. That comes over as inconsistent. Anyway many thanks for sharing and all best wishes.

April 16, 2017 at 11:56 PM · I can't imagine Heifetz being seriously interested in my opinion of his technique or even musical interpretation, although he might even have asked in context in politeness or for some other reason. He might have had a real interest in the audience's grasp. In a recent concert, the Philharmonia Quartet Berlin gave me a clear impression that they weren't interested in applause in itself, or criticism for that matter, but were in the audience's understanding and appreciation of the music.

The OP has asked however, and has shown even more courage and grace in accepting criticism from amateurs, who can make the worst critics. I hope not to prove the point, despite feeling strongly that criticism should be applied to the self before others, as there's a natural tendency for the reverse.

I watched the video while reading the music; listened to a couple of professional recordings doing the same, and them tried to play some of it myself. I think Erik's approach to it is fine and consistent with its spirit, and I enjoyed the intensification towards the end. I did not find variances in tempo to be significant or distracting. It's not a dance, and to me fitting within the bar lines is not critical here. When I tried to play it, by the time I had a couple of notes of the triads nearly correct and the third one in place, I would often lose my place in the music entirely, let alone the bar. And I found the chords and melodic progression to be more important than the metre, which, given the complex subdivisions with trills and chords thrown in I took more like strong suggestions. The rhythm of the music as written is lost in any case at the first contact of the bow to the string (as the chord is played broken).

I did however try to make the chords and notes be in tune, and think that given a choice of playing the note in time or in tune, I would strongly prefer the latter. Given an infinite amount of time, I think I could play it in tune, except the double-stopped fifths combined with another stop which I might not be able to hit. Working on it further, I think I'd focus on learning the chords, memorizing them, and playing in tune, leaving some of the 'runs', trills, and timing for later.

Again, kudos for trying to improve at this point and opening yourself up to criticism in the process. Thank you very much for giving me the impetus for trying this beautiful piece. I enjoyed my own attempt, and probably proved in the process how terrible we can be at self-criticism.

April 17, 2017 at 01:06 AM · Listening critically to another player, even -- perhaps especially -- someone better than yourself, can be a great learning experience. It's analytical listening -- what works and why does it work? what doesn't work, and what's the root cause?

I really like the fact that the major violin competitions now generally offer video of all the rounds. Gives you some idea of whether or not your opinions jive with the jury and/or audience.

April 17, 2017 at 04:39 PM · As someone who is used to being the best player in the room (in other words, a teacher), it can indeed be difficult to open myself up to criticism. But I figured if I want to get better, I need to pop my bubble first to allow new information to come in.

My first lesson went better than expected. I went in fully prepared for him to tell me I shouldn't be playing at all, let alone teaching (this has been my experience with the overly-harsh string world from youth). But he said I was better than he had anticipated, which, considering my initial expectations, feels like a great compliment. For now we're going to tackle something like 2 pages of the Mendelssohn per week as well as 2 movements of a Bach Sonata and, of course, an hour or more of scales per day.

April 17, 2017 at 04:47 PM · That's great news about your first lesson. Sounds like you're on the right track.

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