November 2006

The Freedom to Choose

November 30, 2006 16:21

Last night I was listening to Elman playing the Mendelssohn and Lalo. Pretty erratic rubato, but I don’t think we are ever going to here the likes of such a sound ever again. Just swept me away.
One of my favorite experiences is taking lessons from a completely new Alexander Teacher. Of course the basic principles are going to be there, but you never know where they are going to come from. It’s fascinating. One teacher I found very helpful talked about how the problems violinists (musicians in general) have actually start during the process of getting set up for practice... It isn’t a question of warming up, or stretching or similar. He showed a simple comparison to illustrate the point. Walk across the room and pick up an object such as a pencil. Walk across the room and open your violin case. What is the difference? In the latter case, all the baggage of years of misuse of the self is triggered before we even get the instrument out of the case. It is almost always true that the quality of breathing is markedly different. This does not have to be so. Then one enacts a habitual misuse of self when opening the case. Typically the player bends over, the head drops down and back crushing the top of the spine and `Bob’s yer Uncle,` optimum playing conditions have been and gone without a flicker of protest. What this teacher told me about was how FM Alexander talked about `Choice points,` in our daily lives. At these moments, such opening a violin case, we can choose to stop and consciously regain good use of the self.
In many ways this highlights what I find is one of the origins of most problems in violin playing. Violinists tend to talk about `a difficult shift,` or a `vibrato problem,` or `this passage is hard to get in tune.`  But the real problem is usually directly traceable to misuse of the self, which means the head has dropped back and down, primary control has gone and the system is desperately trying to compensate for this sudden initiation of tension by tensing else where, typically in the hands. A strong clue to this is watch the scroll of the violin. If it dips a misuse is usually occurring. The solution is actually quite simple:  one simply stops just before the point where the problem occurs and thinks `I feel ease in the neck as my head gores forward and up and my back expands.` Unfortunately, If you haven’t had Alexander Lessons then this instruction cannot be carried because ones beliefs about what one is doing are still controlled by our habitual patterns of misuse. In essence we kid ourselves because our body –always- prefers what one has established as habitual over something new.The hands of an AT teacher are the means of breaking this vicious cycle. However, this does not mean that a `non- Alexander lesson` player is stuck. They can center their awareness on the base of the thumb joint, and perhaps more importantly the base of the first finger. One releases the tension. The whole feeling of the hand changes. After that the problem has a very strong tendency to disappear.

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Playing what`s there versus complacency.

November 28, 2006 18:46

I never seem to write blogs about my personal life. Probably the reader couldn’t handle the sex or violence… I know I can’t ; )
A blog seems to spring out of nowhere when a number of initially unrelated elements suddenly coalesce into a whole which compels me to write. In this case it was the following: an interview with a conductor recommended in the featured blog; another blog about interpreting tempo indications; some very interesting preparation of the Grieg Elegiac Melodies Opus 34. for string orchestra; a CD performance by the Berlin Radio Orchestra and an upcoming concert that includes the Blue Danube as one of the works.
I’ve forgotten the conductors name, but in the interview he talks about how he played for a long time both violin and then viola in the Vienna Phil and started his conducting career at the late age of thirty one! As a result, when he works with orchestras (he has spent time with the Swedish Radio Orchestra) he spends a great deal of time on very detailed aspects of the performance such as what kind of vibrato the strings are using. This was doubly interesting for me because I had just been complimentary about the Swedish Radio Orchestra string section and somewhat rude about their wind on the recent Hilary Hahn recording. Could it be that having an avid string coach as a conductor cause our colleagues at the back of the orchestra to be a touch left out? Anyway, clearly the man is into the finer details of performance.
Then recently I heard the Berlin Radio Orchestra recording of Shostakovitch ten which I have practically lived for the last few months and what struck me about it was that in spite of the fine sound there was –very little- of Shostakovitch`s actual dynamic markings. It was all kind of loud and busy, and ultimately totally unsatisfactory. Only a few weeks before I had been working on the Grieg with one of Japan’s best conductors (Komatsu) and he really tore the orchestra strings to pieces. But not only the strings, he pointed out that conventional performances very often ignore the fact that Grieg`s original markings suggest a –slower- tempo for the second piece and that it requires , as a consequence , greater depth of anguish than the first. Typically it is played in a more flowing and graceful style as though seeking to remind us that Grieg was a `light weight` composer – aside from the piano concerto of course. It really is true that one has to play what is on the page. This ties in with the other blog questioning whether one should pay attention to the slightly different wordings of tempo indications. A resounding yes.
And now I have this blasted concert with the Blue Danube which I have heard played so badly here I figured it was time to explore why. So I copied the music and marked every single dynamic with a green highlighter pen. Its quite stark to see the issue of dynamics visually highlighted, a technique I insist my students indulge in regularly. I don’t know what the players expect to get from my direction this weekend, but one thing’s for sure: they are going to play what Strauss wrote however long it takes. Time to get out of the blasé mold and into giving a piece of music its true worth by following the composers directions to the best of one’s ability.

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It was the best of CDs, it was the worst of CDs

November 24, 2006 18:05

I sup pose today is a bloggy blog kind of blog. Out for a determind stroll yesterday and accidentally fell into a music shop. There didn't seem much to do in there except go shopping so I bit the bullet and bought the new Hilary Hahn CD of Paginini and Spohr and one of those historic recordings of an octogenerian Casals, the dude from the Hungarian quartet and some old geezer on the piano playing the Mendelssohn Trio and cello odds and sods at the white house .
That Hahn recording is truly a major addition to the recorded repertoire. Worth every penny. Some of the most original and beautful playing on disc in this repertoire. I don't think anyone has played the double stopping in the first movement more perfectly or with greater clarity. I also found the opening one of the most personal and arresting statements made in this cocnerto for a while. Not just, stand by to be amazed, but more, okay everyone, you can see I can play this standing on my head but also get ready for a perfomance where I am going to think about what I am doing damn hard.
From a critical perspective I did think ther ewere a few down sides. The firts question that sprang to mind is why is , on this evidence, easily one of the top few recording artists in the world, not being recorded with the best possible orchestras? I thought the strings of the Swedish Radio orchestra were warm sounding, and very competent, no doubt due to the influence of my long lost Swedish offspring. But the wind, especially woodwind, were both sloppy and significantly out of tune in the introductory section. Could this also be due to the influence of the Swedish Watersprite himself? Who knows? I also think the orchestra is set too far back from an acoustic perspective. Perhaps a cover up was in progress.
Having not enjoyed the introduction of the first movement I do have some personal resistance to Ms. Hahn's overall conception of the first movement that spoilt it for me. That is, she has worked so hard to express the cantelina passages to the nth degree between all the fireworks that these respective sections fluctuate wildly in tempo. Overall, a sense of coherency is lost to some extent.
I can't check out bar number s or anything here, but there is a phrase that ends with a high harmonic e that Ms Hahn seems to finish then for no musical reason whatsoever bangs out a huge ugly accent. Maybe an example of slight musical immaturity but it did cross my mind that a sloppy engineer might have patched together something and Ms. Hahn was not present to check out what was going on.
My other minor quibble was in the six eight secrtion of the first movement. I think the richochet bowings are slighhglty more effective if played very strictly in tempo. The Hahn version sounds a little rushed me. In my opinion this section performed by Kogan has more clarity and force for me.
One things for sure. It isn't boring. Alas, the same could not be said for the historic recording of Casals which had so many horrible noises I shall probably donate it to a worthy cause.
Happy Thanksgiving,

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Forget about slow learning. Have a beer.

November 21, 2006 16:25

An interesting thread on slow vs. fast learner leaves me pondering this mysterious thing.
Some times I think it is useful to notice the language we use and how it pigeonholes ourselves and other people. Perhaps the use of this particular dichotomy is detrimental in two ways, at least that is all I can be bothered to think of right now.
First, in using such a negative frame of reference we pull ourselves down and set up a situation of `end gaining` such as I described in the previous blog. Our mind set becomes one of `I want to learn a piece as fast as ------------ (insert name of famous violinist) or `I wish this piece was in a finished state.` A great deal of this issue actually needs to be pulled apart in terms of what is meant by finishing a piece. In a sense a piece is never finished, one is never satisfied. But, perhaps the criteria is not only a satisfactory performance in public but one that reflect the best of ones capabilities at that time. This latter criterion is interesting because it’s quite possible to have a good player giving a performance that satisfies an audience but who is actually lazy in some sense and hasn’t tapped into anything like their real capabilities. Such players are often unsuccessful in the long run.
Second, by insisting that there are `slow learners and fast learners,` perhaps we tend to disguise an aspect of the purpose of practice which may be as important as `learning` an actual piece. That is, the purpose of practice is, if I select an arbitrary number for the hell of it, 50% learning music and 50% learning how one learned the music most effectively. If you like it is a meta-cognitive view in that thinking about how we learnt something is an integral part of skill learning.
The implication of this idea is very strong. It suggests that not only is the `fast/slow` learner dichotomy false, but that if one practices with a view to improving ones practice, the rate at which one learns pieces should also increase without any conscious effort.
Perhaps one could talk in terms of efficiency of practice and then work on increasing efficiency on a daily basis. From this perspective the most inefficient practice is simply that where one is not paying attention to what one is doing. In other words, since one has no idea where the specific error is or what -kind- of error, there is absolutely no point in repeating the passage ad naseaum is what most of us do when we are tired or unfocused. The answer to this problem is really very simple:
1) Every problem occurs on a specific note or between notes.
2) Every problem is either intonation, rhythm, tone or expression.

Only after exploring these points can one begin to apply specific strategies.
Then one might spend some time at the end of the practice sessison reviewing which particular strategies one used and how effective they were. At the beginning of the next session it might be worth reviewing this and making decisions about whether to start with those spots or run the whole piece or whatever. Decisions can then be made about which stategies work for you and which are less effective.
Efficiency is also concerned with finding out who you are!
Of course there may occur ceilings every now and again with certain pieces but even that is fairly meaningless. Because it took a long time to learn a particular piece in no sense means that all other pieces are learn with the same struggle. It worth remembering that even the greatest players have struggled with certain pieces. What makes them great is they never try to classify themselves in any sense.
Rather, like the alcohol challenged, one takes things one day at a time.

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Endgaining Practice?

November 20, 2006 16:31

A few more idle thoughts on Alexander Technique. In spite of the diversity of approaches to this method (?) now floating around, all Alexander teachers have one single concept as the basis of the work they help their clients to begin: primary control. This is the most efficient relationship between head, neck and back. Any teacher who moves away from this is no longer practicing Alexander Technique. This is no small point, since the deeper one gets into the technique the more diverse/philosophical and experimental it is possible to become and I have seen both teacher sand teacher trainees lose sight of the underlying premise in the process. If they are committed to working with other teachers, attending seminars and the like they are usually yanked back to the basics of the Technique at some point, but it can be a rude shock.
Having said this is the underlying premise, there are a few other concepts integrated with this that raise AT to the level of a deep art rather than a helpful party trick. Of these, one of the most important is endgaining. I had been learning about this for some time, but the point where declarative became procedural knowledge was in a Buddhist style meditation session. At that time I was on an Alexander Technique retreat on a mountain directly adjacent to Japan’s Mount. Fuji. Apart form the all day sessions of AT a pre breakfast meditation was on the menu. The tiny wooden chapel it was held in was beautiful and through a huge window we could have an uninterrupted few of Mount. Fuji at its most splendid. Unfortunately, or not, a –very- large bumble bee entered the room at the same time as us. As the teacher talked it alternately thundered around our heads and played Bartok`s concerto for orchestra on the window. After a while the teacher stopped and smiled. He then said `You are all now endgaining. All of you are wishing that this bee is gone. In other words, you are wishing for a present reality in which the bee is not present. However, that wishful reality is not real, but your act of wishing makes it the unreal reality you are now occupying. In other words, you are not actually present in the present.`
For me that was a big light bulb going off. Finally I could feel what endgaining was. We do it all the time of course. Simple mundane actions like not undoing our shoelaces when we get home because we want to save time the next day. Except that the next day we lose the time because ewe have to bend down, undo our laces , stick our finger son the back of our damaged shoes and so on…And violinist are the worst endgainers of the lot. The wish to play like -------------- (insert the name of any famous violinist) is a major block to being present with our own playing. During practice how often does one have a generalized wish `that this sounds good.` Or if I play it again it will sound `better.`? Moving into those realities we don’t actually listen to what we are doing at all.
Why do we actually practice? Is it to `get better` which is a reframe of the idea `I want to be better than everyone else and as famous as ----- (insert name of famous violinist)? Or is it because one simply wants to pay attention to a particular passage and notice what one is doing, non-judgementally? The difference is qualitatively very profound.
One of the simplest ways to improve is to bring ourselves into the real present during practicing by noticing the way or body feels. This morning I had an interesting experience with this. I was practicing one minute bow strokes and thinking `What would happen if I worked on where my body is now instead of straining and stressing to play a stroke for one minute?` So I paid attention to the sole of my left foot. Then my right, comparing the sensations, then my left calf and right and so on, all the time doing the slow bow stroke. Within seconds there was a small release of energy in my left toes. Interesting, I had been storing up unnecessary and unhelpful energy in tensed toes while trying to do this bow stroke. Even more interesting, I had been keeping an unfocused awareness of how the bow stroke was going as well. The moment I began releasing that tension in the legs and feet the bow speed slowed dramatically. I didn’t count that precisely but the stroke went on for about a minute and a half.

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Geminiani and the odd couple

November 12, 2006 16:21

apologies to all the people I have recommended looking in the archives for the `Geminiani Chord Position.` I did a quick search myself and cannot find much there unless its buried under a pseudonym from sheer embarrassment.
The `chord` is basically two setting of the hand using all four fingers. The first setting, the `easy` one is , starting from the g string, f1-aflat, f2 f, f3 d, f4 b. the reason this is easy is the hand is in what is called an open position. From this position one can do a variety of useful exercises. A simple one is to slide up the instrument as far as is comfortable while keeping the same spacing. Do this 12 times everyday. The fingers rest on the surface of the strings. To strengthen fingers one should practice `lifting` them. They drop onto the string and therefore do not require much training for the down action. Practice one finger at a time in a slow tempo but with a rapid lift. Various rhythm patterns can be used .These are well exemplified in `The Daily Dozen` by Dounis which I believe can be downloaded from this site. The bow is not used for these kind of exercise which are often called `silent exercises.` One can also experiment with various finger combinations going up and down or simply varying the finger pressure on different fingers without lifting the fingers.
The closed hand position is much more difficult. The fingers are placed with the same spacing on the reverse order of strings. It is important to wiggle the left wrist about to eliminate tension here and find the most comfortable position for the hand. The same exercises can then be repeated.
One does not generally use a bow for this kind of work. The key points are total relaxation, especially of the base joint of thumb and first finger. Plus, rapid lifting irrespective of the tempo. The fingers can actually be lifted slightly higher than normal but you must retain the curved shape. The movement is from the base joint.
Different topic, but I find my taste in listening and judgment has really changed over the last twenty years. (Thankfully...) I couldn’t help feeling a little surprised by the violence of the reaction against Ilya`s use f the expression finding Szeryng `amusing.` In spite of the reverence and respect we do and should hold for our predecessors sometimes going back to those old masters can provoke reactions of discomfort and I could imagine very well, a kind of amusement. Reason I was thinking of this is I have been going through Handel sonata recordings since o have a couple of students working on them and enquiring about recordings. Started with Manze. Very well researched, musical etc. etc. Much to learn. Just the tuning of A415 is just too low for me. I can’t hack it. But I immediately followed that with a recording of Grumiaux (the f major). If there is a recording one could point to and say `yes, that is the most beautiful demonstration of perfect violin playing around,@ this would be a contender. The damn thing is utterly flawless. bow control, evenness, vibrato, wonderful fruity sound, tastefully phrased.
But, for the first time ever I thought this kind of flawless twentieth century intensity sound -utterly- ridiculous with a harpsichord tacked on. For sure, it must have been a big first step in the evolution of performance practice for this generation of glorious players, but after a struggle the most apt simile I could come up with was something like this. Imagine you are looking at a bold, dazzling canvas by Van Gogh or Kandinsky. It is situated near a window and outside the rain is gently vibrating on the window. Not only is the color different but the medium is different. That was the effect for me of the bold beauty of Grumiaux and that odd little harpsichord noise tinkling in the background.
Amusement, perhaps not. But very uncomfortable.

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Buying an (old) bow

November 5, 2006 23:30

Couldn’t help myself . All this talk of beautiful bows and I realized it was time to change my ways. The good old stiff Nurnburger just wasn’t cutting it any more.
No money of course, but of to ye old violin shop. A morning spent trying bows is my idea of heaven.
I’d specified bows between 500 000 and 1 000 0000 yen. For convenience I will call the former 5000 thousand dollars and the later ten. Anyone who wants to get a better sense of Japanese prices can do a more precise conversion. The new shop I went to shocked with its huge collection in this range. Good old bows have been few and far between of late. Started at the top with an Ouchard are 12 000 dollars. When I test bows I always start with a forty second bow stroke. Any good bow will do this really well but my reason is more that the kind of tone it produces tells me a lot about the character of the bow itself. I then move onto Kreutzer no 2 at the heel. If the balance doesn’t feel like I will move on fairly quickly. If its okay I play the most complex bowings from Mozart concertos. If that’s okay I do Bach. If that’s okay I play excerpts from all the movements of Wieniawski two and finally the Mendelssohn.
The Ouchard was sensitive and well balanced but seemed a little whippy to me. Later I tried an Ouchard school at 5000 dollars and found this trait to be much more pronounced. Useless for me as I need fairly strong bows. Then I tried a Millet at 12 000 and from the first I thought this was the one. I kept it next to me for comparison. A Sartory produced brilliantly crisp articulation in small bowings but didn’t feel very flowing to me. A very heavy gold mounted Pecatte seemed oddly clumsy and I passed fairly quickly. A bow by Lotte at 8 000 dollars was one of the most perfectly balanced and elegant I have every tried. I would have bought it on the spot except it was , for some reason, not inclined to produce a very explosive martele attack. I couldn’t find a single weakness in that beautiful stick and the only conclusion I could come to was that she was a well bred female bow that didn’t favor expletives. I was really sad to put that one down. At this point I felt that there was a distinct shift in `grade` as it were. Two bows stamped Mirecourt going for 6000 apiece seemed to me to be stiff but in an unhelpful and counter intuitive way. At the same price a Hury was well balanced and produced a good sound but seemed rather fat and plodding compared to the great bows I had just tried. A little like playing in treacle. My immediate reaction was it would make a very good spare.
So that’s it. I took home the Millet for a week, but to be honest , if you can`t evaluate a bow over a couple of hours then it probably isn’t the one for you. Played it in orchestra and was grinning from ear to ear. Fantastic sound cuts right through the strings. Does anything I want with ease. Like driving a Ferrari. Maybe one day I will get to do that!
I suppose the reason I am noting approximate prices here is that the experience was exactly the same as every time I have tried bows over the last thirty years. That is, you get what you pay for. The quality of a bow sets it in a price range and although there may be great disparity between bows according to type within that level that is clearly where they belong. Go up to the next level and even if you don’t like the bow it is superior to the preceding one. I have to confess I have never seen any evidence that one can turn up a substantially cheaper bow that plays better than a top of the liner. I can only attribute this kind of anecdote to a quirk of the individual player. Nothing wrong with that of course , but it is interesting. I wonder if I don’t have any quirks….

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