March 2007

Bell, Brahms and prunes

March 21, 2007 16:15

I think I have a reasonable system of testing artistic level. First you buy a car that has a CD player (these days a lot of Japanese ones seem to have only MD which I find odd…)
Then when I want to evaluate a performance I stick it in on the way to work. If I come close to crashing and have to stop and listen it is a masterpiece. Those are quite rare!
If I arrive at work after twenty five minutes or so get out the car and I can’t remember what the CD was then it’s probably not much good. Most of the rest lie in between but there are some exceptions where the system seems to crash.
One such was a second hand CD I picked up of a fairly young Joshua Bell playing some fairly substantial showpieces: Intro and Rondo Capric., Zigeunerweisen, Chausson poeme etc. It didn’t grab my attention much to start with but it nagged at me between bouts of road rage and I started to pay attention to why it is different. Nothing in your face or manic. Not really a huge, aggressive player but something was good. Eventually I concluded that he really just enjoyed playing the violin. He couldn’t care less what other people were doing, wasn’t going to bust his guts to produce a bigger and better CD than all the rest and let himself improvise quite freely. This improvisation is no to do with notes so much as portamento, bowings and fingerings. He has a natural gift for a huge range of expressive devices or makes them up or whatever and just uses them as the muse strikes him. That’s real talent. Sometimes it doesn’t work, sometimes its just glorious.
Now that’s real violin playing!
In another blog someone posed the question about whether Brahms Hungarian Dance no5 is more difficult than DeBeriot 9 and also noting that only the first movement of the de Beriot had been learnt. There always seems to me to be a huge range of questions associated with the most innocuous questions about the violin and music.
The first thing that springs to mind is something that really bugs the heck out of me: Why do people spend their lives only learning one movement of a concerto? Seems to me half the player sin the world can best be described as one third players. Think of all the time off making babies and eating prunes those composers could have had if they had known their third movements were never going to be played! But it’s also a technical and musical issue. A truly effective way of learning a concerto is to start three movement simultaneously, choosing chunks that are linked and adding more of each movement systematically. In this way the whole is never lost sight of. The last movement of a Mozart concerto informs the first and vice versa. The Beethoven is not three ships passing in the night.
What then are difficulties? What does difficulty mean? I think very often this is best answered in terms of the player not the music. It really only makes sense to ask `what can this person do at this stage? What can they not do? What do they need?` If a person cannot grasp the sense and style of the de Beriot but feels the fire and nuance of the Brahms better then DeBeriot is the problem or vice versa. Of course there are technical issues, but again this is deceptive, There are quite a few staple techniques in the de Beriot. Although they are not all that difficult the duration of them is a difficulty in of itself. The relationship between them, creating meaning with them is a technical/musical task of some breadth. The version of the Brahms I do has much shorter passages of double stops which don’t go that much beyond the DeBeriot except maybe a couple of bars in fingered octaves. It’s shorter so it should be easier right?
Mmmm. I think it was Heifetz who really knew how hard it was to track down every little nook and cranny of a `small` work like the Brahms. Miniatures need to be perfect because there is no time to persuade people to forget your mistakes. I also think the Brahms demands that the student study the repertoire and great interpreters of orchestra and piano, never mind violin. It’s a big job. At the end of the day one cannot offer people a flawed jewel.

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Do sweat the easy stuff....

March 18, 2007 23:09

Has an interesting experience last week. A cellist due to play the Haydn D major concerto came for two hours last week. After I had removed the spike from my neck and been released from hospital I found myself quite intrigued. She was playing it quite fluently from a technical perspective but I felt she had fallen into some of the most dangerous traps that a string player can (after prune addiction). First, I suggested that she had created a mental image of the intonation in quite a number of places which was false by using the instrument itself rather than the mind as primary guide.
Second, she had practiced the technical passages to the nth degree but not the lyrical `easy` melodies in between.
Three, she felt so much pressure or need to play music in entirety she was failing to analyze –exactly- where a problem was which is the only possible starting point for resolving a slightly off sounding passage.
Fourth, one shouldn’t hide impure intonation behind a powerful and intense vibrato.
After we kicked this stuff around for a bit she still didn’t really seem convinced the lyrical melodies needed much work so I told her something Vivien Mackie had been taught by Casals: it is really important to over practice the `easy` passages. When one does this one gets a real feeling of comfort and support for the difficult stuff in between. The brain knows that there is a lot of stuff that one is really secure on and it really supports confidence and relaxation in the trauma sections.
This seemed to make sense to her so she conceded that her work had been perfunctory on the easy stuff so we started there. We started with a very lyrical high passage which sounded sort of okay and I had her slow it down. It was amazingly difficult to get her to stop and check notes against open strings, but once she did she was shocked by how far out she had allowed herself to wander. I also had her play the high themes intone an octave or two lower and again it came as a very painful surprise how far she had allowed herself to believe she was actually playing in tune when she wasn’t. She was also surprised to find that her shifting in these easy passages was the black hole pulling all the intonation awry. It took two hours of murderous work to get her intonation back into the usual high standard I hear from her. When she played through the work from beginning to end everything had improved as a result.
It was a useful reminder to me how self critical one has to be of intonation at all times. One of my favorite exercises, since I am into singing and playing anyway, is to play the one string scales of Flesch. But when you do the arpeggios play the tonic as a drone and sing the arpeggio before you play it. Then play it a couple of times. Very good focusing exercises.

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sub division is good for everything except cream cakes

March 8, 2007 16:56

one of the things I really don`t enjoy is sitting in with a bunch of nervous musicians when there is not much chance of things changing for the better. Convincing a whole group of people en masse that music is , at the end of the day, supposed to be a profoundly pleasurable experience for audience and performer alike; that in the general scheme of things, screwing up is not the end of the world, is not easy.
One of the worst examples I have recently experienced was an amateur orchestra that decided to include a load of Italian arias in a program. They started off with that one from Verdi (?) about father (??- I hate this stuff;)) which is just 8 first violins and 8 seconds playing different note s of a chord and moving exactly together in a rather slow tempo. The orchestra cut the numbers down to four 1st and 4 seconds which mad e things palbably worse. Menawhile, the conducter wa s launching into long winded explanations of Verdi, Puccini, Bellini style in the hope that that would get the teririfed group to play and breathe together. In the end, I suggested we had a coffee break and thought a bit more about the problem. I was too polite to point out to the conducter that the choral/opera style (just what I call it) in which the click occurs at the top of the swing of the stick is rather hard for less experience d players to follow. However, I did manage to persude people to stop thinking about operatic upeats and the like and just sub-divide the beat. Thankfully this solved the problem. Alas, it did nothing for the semitone width , one cycle persecond vibrato of the soprano. She didn`t even have nice buns.
The point however is crucial to playing in orchestra and in general. I don`t think humans are that good at holding a slow pulse except through subdivision so that a faster beat is constantly being felt throughout the body and I believe this should be taught right from the beginning so that it beocmes a habit. I get so tired of new students coming to me to be repaired who have done four or five Suzuki books but just throw up the violin without thought and play the opening of for example, the Handel f major sonata without any rythm at all. Four bars later a kind of pseudo puls e is established by default as they beign to play 8th and 16th notes.
One example of where it can be introduced first externally and then internally is in the sevcik bowing system . Consider opus 2 part one. The exercises are generlaly marked witha mm tempo. This tends to encourage a method of practice that may be counter productive in the long run. That is, the student practices with the mm running constantly. The own internal sense of rythm becomes weakened, rather like continually taking anti biotics. One way round this I us e is to have a studnet pace the room, danc e or whatever at the metronome setting until the speed is internalized. They then say the beat, often sub divide dinto a smaller unit during the rests typically found in no3 for example. But this can be taken further. Instea d of keeping the exericses simple one can practice the simple techniques while introduing complex rythms. Thus in the long rests there is nothing to stop a beginner actually counting triplets aloud or triplets followed by 8th notes or whatever. The teaccher might even add these as an acommpaniament to make these kinds of works more interesting.
The true bonus of subdivision counting is that by utilizing it, especially in long notes, we lose our stage fright. You cannot do two things at once. You simply cannot be afraid and count at the same time.

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