November 2008

A shocking case of eLechertrocution.

November 24, 2008 17:08


Happy Christmas everyone.   It must be Christmas, right? I mean the stores in Japan have been decorated since November 1st;   every convenience store has a giant blow up Santa outside and the only piped music I hear is a constant repetition of `Last Christmas.`
A year or so back I wrote a very cursory review of a new book on technique written by Drew Lecher called `Violin Technique- The Manual.`   (Not to be confused with an old Spanish text called `Violin Technique ^the Manuel.` The latter will only give you a Fawlty technique.
On the back Drew makes quite a strong claim. To whit `You will develop a higher degree of understanding and mastery of the instrument, whatever your level of accomplishment.` Now, I think this is a very strong claim on two counts. First,   it is not just talking about improved playing but actual –understanding- which is a whole different ballpark and secondly he is arguing it works for any level which is not typical of pedagogic material in general. So, after using the materials initially sporadically and now more consistently can I evaluate things and conclude that this has happened for me? If so, how?
The biggest change I have noticed is when I play melodic lines.  Without reigniting any debate about the shoulder rest (in spite of its popularity), I think there is a way of playing that has evolved from this otherwise efficacious tool that is not helpful. That is a strong tendency to keep a lot of fingers in the air. It’s very easy to do with a lot of support.   What I then hear in a lot of younger players is both inconsistency of tone and lack of legato. The former comes from the fingers having to be constantly replace with the correct degree of pressure to produce an appropriate color. The latter concerns one of the great `secrets` of violin playing identified by Auer in his little book: without legato of the left hand (don’t raise fingers until after string crossing achieved) . I think I have always understood this point from an intellectual level, but I notice now that my fingers stay down much more.    And I am talking about a huge degree here. Without doubt the exercises that cause this change began with the idea of keeping fingers 2 and 3 down during octave playing. I did not like this at first and I cannot say that my 1and 4 only octaves were that bad. However, I began to enjoy the feeling after a while and now its what I do.   The other double stop exercises,  paying religious attention to keeping all the fingers down as marked, are improving things on a daily basis. In the process my hand shape has greatly stabilized resulting in greater accuracy. It is the concept of `hand shape` that is one of the great understandings one can get form this book. However,  keeping a lot of fingers down a lot of the time raises another issue- vibrato.
Looking at some videos of recitals form three or four years ago I can see that my wrist oriented vibrato with a small amount of arm worked well technically but tended to occlude the actual center of the note on occasion when playing with a lot of intensity. I have stuck with the exercise in the book for some time and find that my vibrato has shifted the balance from being primarily wrist to more arm. The result is much more centered.   But the crucial thing about the exercise is the development of multiple finger vibrato. I am not that interested in the point that it improves chord playing but I do find that one can have a perfectly expressive and controlled vibrato by keeping 2, 3 or even four fingers down and it sound better in many cases than a hand swinging to a wide degree on a single digit. I suspect this latter habit has a great deal to do with the mistake of thinking that volume/dynamics comes from the vibrato rather than bowing.
I have to confess that when I work through the main exercises including patterns, double stops and shifting in all manner of keys and bowings I don’t really have much interest left in practicing a scale routine. It’s pretty much covered.   Nonetheless, guilt compels me to get out my Flesch scale manual at weekends and go through the routine. Last Sunday I thought I’d shoot for the moon and see if I could possibly play all of it with accuracy and decent sound within the space of an hour or so. I have never done this before because I won’t leave something that is not working well and I also like to apply more rhythms and bowings than Flesch recommends. Plus, I still think there is too much for one day…. Nonetheless, I actually achieved the miracle that day and it just blew me away. That’s quite a big jump of a kind. The increased speed and accuracy in the double stops was the key so I wondered which aspect of Drew`s book had done this since I don’t practice rapid scales. I realized that what I do practice is double stop trills with a variety of rhythms and in all positions especially in 7ths and thirds. That seems the key to me. Running up and down a scale in thirds is cool but actually perfecting a pair and only that pair. Then moving on does, in my opinion develop far greater technical facility than playing a scale in thirds over and over in the style of sevick and hoping it will improve by default (although there is nothing particularly wrong  with sevcik`s  practice method at all).
I haven’t mentioned bowing yet, but I have found that to play the opening exercises perfectly makes very strong demands on ones critical faculties. In particular, working with open strings so much it is important to monitor the visual element of string vibration. Something that sounds okay can be immediately improves by sustaining rather than choking the degree of swing in the string one is achieving.  
So, in conclusion, I would say I have no difficulty in accepting the claim mentioned at the beginning of this blog and hope that people will be encouraged to go deeper and deeper into what this goldmine has to offer. I have just scratched the surface and am already on a roll. Can’t find anything in it for dealing with my loony cat but perhaps later upgraded versions will be more helpful….

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Mystery soloist stuns Buri with not grotty Viotti.

November 10, 2008 20:22


Well, I promised to write a review of an astonishing concert I went to the other by the Leader of the Vienna Philharmonic.  Weird as it might sound I have actually forgotten his name and mislaid the paper with it written in Japanese.   I googled the orchestra and checked out the three leaders but I am reluctant to say it was Rainer Honeck until I see the shaved version.  Will check with colleagues.  In the meantime,  the review.

The leader of the Vienna Philharmonic (fill in space) played a concert at Clarazaal Hall in Gifu City last weekend.  The Hall is that odd Japanese custom of retired music lovers constructing a private hall in the downstairs of their house,  seating around a hundred.  These halls are often beautiful both visually and acoustically. Clarazaal is no exception.

The maestro,  playing on the ex-Viotti Stradivarius,  began with the Bach Sarabande from the D minor partita.  It was a huge,  warm sound from the word go.  And it was minus vibrato for about half the time.  This non-fashionable approach ,  he literally just stops using vibrato for quite long periods,  became a feature of he whole performance.,  contrasting sharply with more modern approaches which use an often  small vibrato continuously (cf Znaider) and mavericks such as Mr. Gringolts who cheerfully play without for whole movements of Bach. The interpretation was very free and expressive and perpetually creamy.  In the Sarabande it was stunning.  He followed with the Chaccone.  Astonishing technique,  sound and musicianship,  but it made me a little uncomfortable,  especially the opening few sections where rhythmic regularity and overall structure seemed to be sacrificed in favor of pouring on the cream on the juicy chords, notes etc.  In the end this made an incredibly impressive performance actually a little unsatisfactory.  Freedom without discipline is not always a good thing. In particular that beautiful pp sustained d major entry was separated from the preceding passage by such a long break it sounded utterly foreign and disjointed.  I cannot recall hearing such a pause before.  Another slow movement from another partita was beautifully played and then Paginini Caprice 24.  Why anyone would do this here I don’t know because it was followed by the Andante from the A sonata…. The Paginini was splayed with tremendous élan and musicianship. It was not flawless,  especially the left hand almost came a cropper in the high chromatic variation.  However,  the overall impression was simply of someone who as a busy professional did not have the luxury to sit down and polish it to the nth degree for the winter season as players of old may have done.  Clearly in an ideal world he could eat this music for breakfast.  Superb,  but why place it in the middle of a hodge podge of Bach?

His last unaccompanied work was Kreisler rRecitative and Scherzo. I guess this was a favorite.  Never heard it better.  The rubato works here,  the technique was flawless and the schmaltzy portamento judged to a tee. He followed with the Kreutzer Sonata. 

It was clear to me that he had not worked much with the piano player on this although two musicians of this caliber can still work miracles together. That this did not quite happen was the fault of the pianist who is one of the most highly rated accompanists in Japan by many.  Not by me on this reading.  Being able to play the notes of the Kreutzer is one thing but also recognizing that the piano part is at least equal partner and dominant on many an occasion is the next step. The third is accept that as the accompanist one should at least try and adapt to the violinists interpretation and concept.  To give an example of how this did not happen,  the soon to be named maestro played the opening in a restrained ,  elegant and slightly meditative way.  Basically this is one end of the Kreutzer interpretation spectrum. The other equally valid choice is to be stormy and passionate. Both work well. However, the pianist must try to emulate the mood set. In this case the pianist took an opportunity to go to an extreme meditation version of the violinist that lost all sense of time and forward movement.  No idea what he was trying to do.   The violin part throughout the first movement was just fantastic. Time and time again the player produced more and more spectacular dynamics until it seemed the place would explode.  Incredible phrasing and technical accuracy although there was a slight `Viennese` (!) tendency to play n the sharp side.  The slow movement was equally impressive but too slow a tempo made it seem a little over long.  More on this in a moment. The last movement found the pianist being especially annoying since he was clearly trying to get the violinist to opt for a faster tempo.    No respect for the basic interpretation. 

The question of tempos in the Kreutzer is tricky but  one of my old teacher told me how Milstein told him of playing the Kreutzer with Rachmaninoff.  The latter insisted on a very light and bubbly approach to the slow movement and then a slower version of the last movement.  In my opinion this makes a lot of sense and I felt had the violinist been freer to set the tempos this would actually have happened.  Nonetheless, it was one of the most spectacular Kreutzers I have ever seen or heard form the violinist’s perspective.

One of the best concerts I have been to .

Afterwards a huge buffet and large quantities of poor quality wine were laid out and I got very drunk,  much to the amusement of everyone else.



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Student turned teacher

November 9, 2008 21:30


One of the biggest barriers to progress in the teacher/student relationship is communication.  To what extent have we understood each other? It reminds me of a demonstration a colleague of mine in the language teaching profession used to do repeatedly at seminars with the same result.  First something would be talked about/explained and then volunteers would repeat what they had learnt and understood from that explanation.  Invariably, what was reproduced  was a function of the individual teachers personal view of the world which created not only a different slant but on occasion a diametrically opposed position to everyone else.
In the violin lesson it is often true that the student may have either completely misunderstood or only picked up certain aspects of what is being suggested or discussed that seem most salient to them. Often the teacher is at fault because they give more information than can be processed at one time. This is actually quite a human error- one uses the same data so often and fluently that it is all to easy to forget the stages of blood sweat and tears one may have gone through to acquire understanding and put into practice a particular aspect of playing.
Something I have been doing in my practice more and more over the last few years is reversing the paradigm.  Not quite sure what that means but I always wanted to say it.  So much more exciting than for example, reversing a dumpster. Anyway, what I mean by this (I think) is that I decide to focus on an issue a student is having trouble with. Supposing that area was for instance, vibrato, I ask the student to imagine that I am a beginner player who has reached the stage of learning vibrato.  I then ask them to teach me the nature and means of vibrato production.  I am quite ruthless about acting the novice. If the student is not articulating a concept well I express lack of comprehension.  If they are explaining something contradictory or in error I will follow the instruction, possibly even exaggerating it until it strikes the student turned teacher.  I try to ask the kind of questions a novice might ask.
By using this procedure it very quickly becomes clear that a student has a strong grasp of some aspect of the vibrato but actually erroneous understanding of the technique in another.  In one case I found the student was very clear about the first joint regulating speed and width but equally convinced that the pressure of the fingertip on the string was a constant in either forward or backward position.  Sometimes there is a conceptual misunderstanding. I find instances of students believing that dynamics come from intensity of vibrato or that it isn’t possible to produce a beautiful sound without vibrato and so on.
This technique has not only proved of great value to me.  I also feel it helps to make students aware of the problems of being a teacher and how hard it is to communicate with clarity.

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Vienna Phil concertmaster talks about his Strad

November 7, 2008 21:37


`But he`s only an orchestral player` whined my student. `Well,` I responded laconically `the concertmaster of one of the top ten orchestras in the world is by default one of the best players around. It`s your loss if you don`t go.`

I was right, and then some. The concertmaster of the Vienna PHil played a recital to about sixty people in a beautiful private hall last night and just blew me away. It was one of the most vibrant, technically perfect and beautiful examples of playing I have heard in years.

Afterwards he talked about his Stradivarus, the ex-Viotti and how it ha d taken him about four years to come to terms with the awkward notes where more bow, or less, or a specific finger pressure was necessary or the sound went dull. `Now,` he said `its not possible to play on another instrument.

It wa s one of the best sounding I have ever heard.



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Who is responsible for motivation?

November 3, 2008 17:13


There are many interesting discussions on this list about getting kids  to practice,  the problems of motivation and practice habits etc.   However,  what I often sense in them is that   an underlying negative perception of children  that drives much of the debate.  That is,  rather than seeing kids as entities perfect in their own way,  at their own level,   we see them (roughly speaking) as `lesser beings` who need disciplinary measures applied in various guises to make up for their lack of hard work which we euphemistically call lack of motivation etc. 

This has the effect of taking the spotlight off what the teacher is doing which is often where much of the problem lies.  As adults we have learnt to set goals,  figure out what needs doing by when and how to work independently.  This learning most often took the form of failing as a result of not being able to do these things initially at an adult level.  It’s  quite a hard way of getting to point b.  However,  what would happen if one tried to remember and respect the students sense of the world which is much more `now` orientated.  Is it possible that they are unaware of the idea of daily practice and its relationships to goals?   Is it a conceptual misunderstanding rather than `laziness`?   

Then one might look at the goals we have supposedly set.  The classic education problem is getting children to learn by an appropriate breaking down of an activity into steps of a relevant level for the individual.. This is a central factor in the creation of what is now called flow.   As adults we often have a clear goal derived through experience and extensive practice that translates into `play me this movement next week.`   But we have somehow forgotten that the child has absolutely no idea what you are actually asking.  Or,  perhaps more commonly,  you have taught them so well to pay attention to details of intonation,  rhythm and dynamic in the lessons that the idea of putting everything together in one go is totally daunting to the child who then makes a brave stab but is overwhelmed by the seeming enormity of the global task set and thus loses motivation.   If the goal is wrong then the motivation will dissipate within seconds. Anyone who has taught kids anything know the truth of this ;)!

This is where I found the practice revolution  book and  web material so helpful.  It is suggested that clear and consistent goals are established at the end of every lesson (the part we most often pay cursory attention to and then berate the student later) that reflect realistically the capabilities of a child attempting to acquire a very complex skill.  The clearer he goal the better. Thus it may be to play a specified passage through at a given metronome mark with correct rhythm patterns by the following week.  If he goal is negotiated between teacher and student so much the better although I recognize that this level of communication takes time to build up.  However,  even planning a week into the future may be way to much for a young child so setting intermediate goals can then be implemented.

Furthermore,  at this point a more helpful role for the parent can then be phased into this approach.  That is,  in order to reach the weekly goal the child may need a secondary goal halfway though the week.  This would be at a lower level than the main goal but en route,  as it were.  The secondary goal is the responsibility of the parent who hears the passage in question ,  perhaps at a lower tempo and minus the dynamics three days after the lesson.  The beauty of this is that the child learns in a motivational was that the days after a violin lesson cannot be spent in relaxation.  Why do kids so often not want to practice after the lesson? Could it be because they get so uptight about having to prepare this global goal in some manner for the lesson that afterwards they just Collapse and take a breather which is a very human response. 



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