October 2008

Toilet Training?

October 22, 2008 16:32

Because of the way I organize my library I tend to associate different areas of study with different parts of the house. Since my literature my literature on Bhuddism is stacked in the lavatory it will forever be associated with the porcelain and early morning ablutions. Once the mind moves in a certain vein then if you open any book at random related information will almost always pop up. Thus today I opened one of these tomes this morning and it was discussing our over attachment to things and the need to –lighten up- on just about everything because it really doesn’t matter that much.
Well lightening up has been on my mind for a while. One of the many faults of my playing over the years has been using the bow too heavily. A truly beautiful violin sound comes fromm drawing the sound out of the instrument rather than pressing the strings. Whereas in my case this is a technical deficiency I think there has actually been an overall trend towards `heavy` playing with adequate contrast over the years which often makes it a relief to turn to players such as Oistrakh and Milstein (or Julia Fischer for that matter....) and just take a breather.
On a technical note, I find it invaluable to spend at least thirty minutes every day on exercises that isolate sound points and use as much bow as possible. One of my favorite exercises is the pulsing exercise. The importance of working on this relates very strongly to the idea of drawing rather than pressing. One can do a pulsing exercise by adding weight on each impulse or try to avoid this and really focus on increasing speed and keeping the necessary weight increase to an absolute minimum. It is this small but crucial difference that makes the difference between moderately useful bowing work and really learning to lighten up and make the violin ring as much as possible. After doing this kind of work one starts to become conscious of how perhaps one is using primarily an increase in weight to provide musical expressiveness.
The use of variety of bow speed may actually be missing from one’s palette. That is in essence, half a bow arm.

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Straightforward works for me.

October 19, 2008 15:41

probably this seems banal to people who own computers, cordless phones and don`t regard the blackberry as an adjunct to apple crumble, but I still find you tube one of the most astonishing things ever to happen to womankind. If one can be bothered , with virtually no effort one can educate oneself about so many styles of violin playing. It`s instant inspiration at the fingertips.
Here`s a quick run down of what I looked at the other night at a friends.
Started with Kavako and his legendary performance of caprice no5. Found it extremely unsatisfactory except as an exercise in making the jaw hang around the ankle bone. Switched to him playing an arrangement by Ricci of some work by Arriega. The most perfect bowing and intonation . Flawless and rather dull. Jumped to Nel Cor Piu thingummy halfway though. Don`t think there is another playerin the world right now who can play with the absolute robotic perfection of this guy. Looked elsewhere after becoming vaguely bored.
Meandered to a young ASM playing Bach. A lady playing absolutely as she sees fit, perfect tehcnique, huge sound, range of colors and complete musicianship- sort of like Szeryng but much more moving to me. Awesome. If This lady does not record the Bach sonatas it will be a major tragedy. Tried some contrast. Turned to my favorite modern Russian violnist who is always experimenting and growing in odd directions. Clearly influenced by contemporary scholarship and approach his Sarabande floats all over the place dynamically and musically. Didn`t enjoy too much. Tried a wodnerful old German (Austrain?) player not exactly rated with the greats but still widely available on CD for a lot of classical period stuff. Seemed to be a loud hacking approach, especially after the the slightly contrived Russian performance.
Enough is enough. Back to ASM for sheer, straightforward, beautiful music. Cleared my head. No questions asked.

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ASM Bach and Bite. Neither is worse.

October 14, 2008 19:20

Well, I splashed out and bought the new ASM CD after being pressured by Laurie.
Idle thoughts will follow but right now I’m thinking about how little critics manage to say about anything while trying to look knowledgeable. Consider the following from the Guardian I cited on a thread :

>The new piece is nicely complemented by two of Bach's violin concertos, in which Mutter is partnered by the Trondheim Soloists, whose performing style is a hybrid between modern techniques and period ideas: they use baroque bows but on metal stringed instruments.

Metal strings is as misleading as it is inaccurate unless they all use Astrea.

>The results are lively, though unremarkable.
Surely anyone with half a brain could sit down and make some remarks given the content of this disk? Isn’t that his job?

> It's the Gubaidulina that will sell the disc to the composer's admirers.
And was this disc created to sell to Gubaidulina`s admirers specifically? If so, then it is a largely meaningless remark. And what about Bach’s admirers?

I think this last highlights the difficulty of recording Bach these days. First of all there may be some question about the musical strength of these concertos (cf Auer who only rated the slow movements.) Assuming this is a historical blip then I find myself trying to count how many performances I have heard over the years on record, live and from students hacking away for dear life much as I did as a kid. It’s so hard to approach these pieces with fresh ears.
But what about the poor performer? On the one hand we have the epitome of tasteful romance from Oistrakh which is simply glorious. On the other we have the electricity and asceticism of dynamos like Manze at the other extreme. Pity the poor performer who forges their own way somewhere in the middle. Is it possible that deep down our first reaction is to feel they are fence sitting? Does it take some energy to forget all this and just really listen? I confess it did for me. Are these some of the reasons why a reviewer has nothing useful to say about anything?
Anyway, enough rambling. I started with the slow movement of the a minor for three or four run throughs. I love the sound of the opening orchestra. They have a kind of earthy sound which is neither as heavy as modern instruments or nasal (????;) ) as authentic. ASM has this knack of entering and leaving the field of play from nowhere which is just perfect. Here phrasing is exemplary and I swear she can visualize and recreate the sounds of different instruments as she goes. At one point she sounds exactly like an organ to me. There is also an incredibly juicy portamento about two bars from the end which is so perfect it makes the old spine tingle. One the debit side there are three or four moments I found a little ugly. On some of the long notes she uses an extremely wide and slow vibrato which sound like the intention is more of a special effect like a trill rather than vibrato itself. It’s neither subtle nor necessary to my ears.
The first movement has a brisk tempo and the most amazing combinations of different kinds of bow strokes. The more you listen (especially with headphones) the more you can find. Its not highlighted in anyway but the mixing up of strokes is done with the ease only a world class violinist can manage. Quite extraordinary but never inappropriate and miles away from the relentless, ravishing detache so typical of early violinists. One criticism I would have is that the separate 8th notes and first notes of sequences sound a bit heavy or choppy on occasion. Think a little less of this and more attention to the energy of the up beat might have enhanced this performance a little. But it’s a small quibble.
It’s interesting that ASM specifically mentions the use of a baroque bow allows for articulation and speed in Bach’s last movements. I agree that the articulation is their but I cannot personally feel these movements at this incredible speed. Not only does it sound sort of like rumpty-dumpty dum, for want of a better description, but I don’t find the ear has time to appreciate all the complex working of the inner voices at this tempo. I suppose it might grow on me but I’m not convinced yet.
I first listened to the Gubaidulina after a bad hair day at work. It grabbed me immediately but I felt it was too long. It seemed like a piece that would work really well in a concert hall where one could get spaced out rather than in the confines of a small room. After repeated listening I now think it is too short. I’m very addicted to it but I can’t tell you why. The work itself does, to my ear, hint at certain pivotal composers at various times. My subconscious would occasionally flash up not only Berg, but Bartok and The Rite of Spring. Not a criticism, musical influences are universal truisms.
ASM is utterly compelling throughout. It made me wonder about the future of the work though. Who is going to play it? For sure ASM will give it a few airings depending on cooperative management. Maybe another player or two will pick it up. But then what? How do these difficult great works get into the mainstream? As I mentioned before, the disc went on sale in Japan a long time before many other countries. It was also relegated to the bottom of the pile behind the latest over dressed babe playing Kreisler encores and Ziguienerweisen on the harp within a –very- short time frame. Made me feel a tad sad.

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Papering over the cracks

October 13, 2008 16:05

One of the experiences I like best is when something someone says or does strikes you as interesting and then related ideas seem to accumulate around that point. This week I was much struck by a comment in Emil`s interview with his mother. This concerned the advice given by Oistrakh to begin each practice session with a Mozart concerto movement (?) without vibrato. Then I reread an interview with a great violinist called Derek Collier (one of the best recordings of the Paginini Caprices!) who said that the secret of practice was to do it without vibrato even in melodies. At the same time I am thinking a great deal about Clayton`s Haslops system in which one practice with absolute awareness of what one is doing, garnering compete control of the fingers at the analog level. IE it is not a question of high speed but rather having complete control of finger action at any speed, by which means technical facility is more effectively achieved.
The moral of the story I think, is not only that we practice too fast , but that we allow vibrato to cover up a multitude of sins and then wonder why things go wrong in performance. As was also said in the Oistrakh interview: `he was a jeweler who put everything under the microscope.
One might begin applying this kind of thinking in the opening of the Mozart A major concerto. Can you actually hit the opening note dead on in tune without vibrato (1st finger a) or , once you expose yourself do you need to make a minute wiggle to get it right. A useful exercise is to play open a and then remove both hands from the instrument. During this pause imagine the sound of the a and visualize the feeling of it and its position. Now play it. Bang. Is it sharp or flat? Repeat exercise until you have got it 100 percent. Of course one may not do this in a concert- there are plenty of trick for getting ready, but this is the hard core of it. Now observe how you move from a to C sharp. Does the finger move smoothly, slowly and directly, or does it jerk and make tentative little forays. Find out and visualize how you want it to work. Some repetition hits wouldn’t go amiss either. Repeat procedure with third note and then back to a perhaps and play over and over checking these point. Now, if you use the Joachim fingering going down to first position to keep the melody on the e string how is the shift. Is it really smooth and slow as the tempo you are using or does it jerk. Is the a you land on the same as the one you started with?
How is your shift from first position e to 3rd position e for the next phrase? Is the note the same? A great deal of relatively slow and careful rhythmic shifting practice (perhaps using the approach recently recommended by Brian ) may be useful. Working this way it is easy to spend an enjoyable an focused hour or so on just the opening.
Typically I think students tend to just play through this kind of thing over and over with lots of vibrato and no attention to detail. They are not jewelers. But without this basic foundation the vibrato is papering over the cracks in the wall and making performance all the more difficult.

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On adults and amateurs.

October 7, 2008 18:01

over the last few years I have become conscious of a major lack in the music world. These days countries have ageing populations with time and energy to burn (nowhere more so than Japan) and as more and more adults turn to the violin (as they should) there doesn’t seem to be that many places they can go to for gaining orchestral training/experience without being thrown in at the deep end or feeling a little old and out of it. One of my adult students who has been playing for about two years has been so determined to get into an orchestra I eventually had to give the green light even though all the amateur orchestras in this region play really standard repertoire. I’ve got her through the basics by sitting in with her at the back of seconds and explaining what was going on, what to listen for etc. She is going to do really well I think.
The bonus for me is I get to play second violin. I can barely remember ever playing second so it was fantastic for me. Liszt Les Preludes just has some wonderful moments where the seconds have suddenly shine out like a beacon of light blinking over the water then disappear. Tchaik five second violin part is so beautiful. I have to say this is my favorite symphony of his even if it ain`t the greatest (?) Sort of like preferring Beethoven 7 to number 9.....
I have led and coached quite a few amateur orchestras here and boy, do they work hard and achieve incredible standards. However, they do seem to have a few faults in common which I will note in passing in the hope that –conducters- rather than players put more emphasis on them.
First of all, continually strive to use the same kind of bowing and the same part of the bow. There is a tendency here for some reason to sort of shrug and say `everybody has a different body structure.` This is somewhat lazy.
Second, remember that in octave passages between first and seconds the seconds must be stronger than the firsts. Very typical in Tchaik five...
Third, inner voices be aware of when you are accompanying and when being a leading voice. Both may be marked piano but the dynamic and intensity is markedly different.
Fourth, remember that initially the first priority is playing together (assuming intonation is okay). You cannot do this if you are bogged down in your part because of lack of practice. After this comes dynamics (often missing in even intermediate orchestras) then rhythm (patterns within a phrase) and finally the notes. Ultimately you have to get it all.....

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Honest Intonation.

October 2, 2008 16:13

Haven’t aggravated anyone for a while so must be time for a new blog.
Intonation! Casals called it a moral imperative. Milstein stated quite baldly that it is like being pregnant. You either are or you are not. Ricci has complained in articles that kids are not taught to play in tune from the beginning.
I think at least in the early to intermediate stages the whole issue centers around a couple of myths and a fundamental concept of teaching which is rarely taught or actually applied to an adequate degree, if at all. Let’s start with the myths.

Myth one. Beginners cannot play in tune from the beginning. They don’t have a refined ear and it is too difficult so we will try and get things better gradually.

This is nonsense. It may be true that a beginner does not have a refined ear in terms of the violin sound but kids can usually sing in tune well if done regularly. With ear training, singing as an integral part of the teaching process, plus the pace at which technique is introduced being kept under control a beginner can and should play spot on from the start. The only reason a beginner may not be able to pay attention to the natural vibration of good intonation is they are overloaded. It’s simply poor teaching.
If intonation is not established from the start a player can reach an advanced level and not play perfectly in tune and the longer it is left the harder it becomes to correct. When I was at the RCM there was a very talented violinist who won a scholarship, studied with a great teacher , had a great sound and musicianship. However, it was too late for him to develop truly disciplined listening habits although he played the major concertos. After he graduated his career never quite took off and I suspect this is the only reason. The reference to Ricci above continues with him saying that kids who never learn to play in tune play like that for the rest of their lives.

Myth Two. We correct bad intonation or wrong notes by wiggling the finger around. Wrong. We correct by repeating the procedure of a correct note from where it start. IE the finger is raised and dropped in tune, repeatedly. We adjust at high speed in performance - because we have practiced this way-. We do not practicewiggling unless you want to wiggle on stage.

The concept. Anything that we play we learn.
This is so simple and is at the root of virtually all the problems appearing on this site. What typically happens both in a lesson and in private practice? The player hits a wrong note . They may stop and correct it or correct it en route. That is often called practice. Actually it is a waste of time and ultimately a waste of a life! What the player has learnt is a schmeer. They have mastered the ability to hit a wrong note and slide the finger around as well. That is truly skillful!
Unless you play a note correctly a minimum of six times for every error you are not practicing.
If the teacher does not teach this and hammer it home continuously they are not doing their job.
What is the simplest way to correct bad intonation? The repetition hits described by Drew Lecher (and explained by me in a later blog;))) It eliminates the wiggle and makes the student repeat perfect, vibrant intonation over and over until it is habitual. The bonus is a massive increase in left and right hand coordination
I hope and pray that anyone who has written in claiming to have intonation problems will give these ideas some thought. There are no shortcuts but we can at least get on the right road or no amount of prunes will help.

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