April 2010

Boring bowing, boring Haydn.

April 20, 2010 21:46


well, I’ve posed the question rhetorically before but a blog gives me he right to be as boring as I wish so I am going to wonder abut it again for my own amusement...
Why is it that when we ask who the great composers are the usual answers will probably include Beethoven, Mozart, Bach et al. with Haydn only being mentioned as an afterthought , if at all?   I don’t have an answer to this question and it may just be personal taste as much as anything,  but I find in Haydn’s music as many beautiful melodies, extraordinary explorations and imaginative experiments as in the other greats.   Sometimes I think it is easy to forget that he was alive and kicking in Beethoven’s time and must have both influenced and been influenced by him.  One of Haydn’s most glorious symphonies is no. 99. If you don’t know it it is well worth spending listening time on as well as throwing up some interesting technical problems.  Playing this kind of work really puts some very subtle demands on an orchestra that is guaranteed to pull their standard up. It’s interesting that Mehta spend a great deal of time on Haydn symphonies while building up the Israel Philharmonic which has one of the best string sounds in the world.
The other day I was coaching a youth orchestra in this work and was very struck by some of the issues being raised.  While rehearsing the Minuet and trio I was as surprised as ever by how little attention is paid to identifying the essential character of a particular passage or phrase hereb in the music training of Japan.  If it sounds more or less in tune and together at roughly the tempo of the latest recording then that’s `good.`   Actually it was quite badly out of tune in just one aspect but that seemingly unimportant detail was robbing the whole first section of its drama.  Both Haydn and Mozart often create dramatic moments by contrasting the same notes with different accidentals in close proximity. (This is a strong feature of Mozart concerto no.4). These notes must be well in tune to make the point and it is surpassing the difficulty people often have in changing the shape of the end of the finger to the degree necessary in expressing these kind of contrasts.  In a broader sense it was clear to me that the Minuet had a rather serious, official perhps even militaristic quality and that the Trio segued into the major requiring great lightness and elegance.  It’s as though there is a rather stuffy ball in which the local officers club is standing up to dance first and then some elegant and ethereal ladies try to tease them into being more light footed and joyous.   Rather like a Viennese Waltz versus a musical parade ground. If this contrast can be established the humble Minuet and Trio which is so typically given short shrift even by professional orchestras/conducters who neglect to get beneath the surface, then a major musical statement is created.   Unfortunately the youth orchestra in question understood the point but were unable to get what was being asked for.
The reason for this was simple and one of my great bug bears of my  life other than prune shortages.   There has been a tremendous trend over the last half of the twentieth century to equate `good bowing` with evenness.   This is itself not true (Casals pointed out that there is a down bow and an up bow and they have different musical functions) and has also promoted a kind of bowing which I call `hooked` in which the bow is stopped and then restarted so that two notes are played in one stroke with a space in between.  This supposedly eliminated the problem of a long note one a down bow followed by a short up which necessitates a faster lighter bow stroke to get back for the next long note.   
The first problem I have with this is that tonally there is a some difference between the upper and lower part of the bow. It is a slight but important difference in timbre. Secondly it has led to the neglect of a fundamental bowing skill (getting back to the start point on a shorter note) which used to be widely and skillfully practiced by older players.  Indeed, if one checks out the Doflein method one can find this exercise taught very early on which is a wonderful thing. In his way they play interview Michael Tree of the Guarneri Quartet recommended practicing scales with one long down and a fast up striving for no accent. Such work build up a very skillful bow arm. But not only is there a tremendous elegance and musicality in this kind of bowing , there is also a whole slew of possibilities for retaking in the air which are missing.  These are outside the purview of today’s playing much of the time which strives for `even` rather banal  playing which looks sort of cool as the bow speed is kept constant, divided neatly into three parts or whatever and the easy way out is used to move serenely from one end of the bow to the other.  With such `modern` playing the Haydn Minuet mentioned above and similar music is doomed to flat sounding performances without character or lift.
This may be one of the reasons why the full potential of Haydn’s joyous music is not realized and its failure to be viewed with as much interest as it should be.

8 replies | Archive link

Response to previous blog responses

April 10, 2010 19:45


sorry. The computer is not uploading comments so I posted as a brand new blog......


> Since kanji is simply Chinese characters, it will be helpful if you learn Chinese as opposed to learning Chinese characters as part of the Japanese language.

Interestingly that is Heisig`s main point.  The Chinese start learning Japanese with a major head start over their western counterparts because they can already write the kanji and attach a meaning to them.   The Heisig system does just that in the first stage of the process when no actual Japanese is used in the work,  although presumably elsewhere one is studying the spoken language like crazy.  I don`t actually use this very restrictive  approach so much because I know many of the kanji from a receptive point of view (not writing ) and automatically say them in Japanese in my head.   But the Heisig approach has makes it incredibly easy to remember how to write any and all of even the most difficult kanji without errors (contrary to my usual posts) and it amazes Japanese people when I show them how a complex kanji such as demolish is simply a pile of earth (rubble) shards of glass like needles shooting into eyes of demolition men unless they wear a top hat with a large brim and a large protective scarf which is wrapped around the body like a sari.  Or dream, in which one simply puts flower petals on ones eyelids to relax into slumber,  crowning a perfect evening.  Put all the components together in a bright visual image and one only needs to write it once for basic fluency practice.  After that it is unforgettable and I can actually recall and write them faster than many Japanese people simple because they have to utilize more abstract processes to pull up an image of the kanji even though they know and can use the actual word it represents far more fluently and idiomatically than me, a non-native.


>I'm always intrigued by the problem of what it means for something to be hard or difficult to learn to work with. A lot of things most people consider hard can be easy for me and vice versa.


My argument is actually with the word itself. I think it should be if not banned, at least castrated.   It has so much negative connotation and is used far too freely.  This has been a bug bear of mine for years in my main field of child language education.  There is a strong cultural tendency to describe things as difficult in Japan  and  teachers of all subjects at all ages use it very freely all the time.  Partly I think it is to do with saving face.  If one describes English as difficult then having spent twelve years failing to learn to say nothing more more than `How are you?` `This is a pen` is rather less embarrassing.    I cannot count the thousands of times I have taught something like a new song in English to young children with te teacher whingeing in the background `difficult,  difficult.` In my more gung ho days I would politely ask the teacher afterwards ot explain to me which aspect of the song they felt was difficult since the children could sing it with gusto even before they had heard it all the way through and showed by gestures that they had clearly understood it.  These days I am more patient....

In the music business we use it far too frequently, creating unconscious redflags in our students minds as they learn pieces with us that can adversely effect performances for many years to come.

Of course there is no question that things lie on a range of simple to difficult and if something is actually beyond someone`s capabilities then it is `too difficult.` However,  modern learning theory concerned with optimizing the process actually uses the word challenge more often and I think this is far more satisfactory.  All learning must contain an element of `challenge@ in the sense of being something the student cannot currently do. Yet it must not be defined as difficult,  simply a new level that the student will be challenged to reach and supplied with the tools to get there.


>Kanji or Chinese characters look intimidating, but the rules are in my opinion much clearer than English grammar.  I tutored Chinese to a number of western adult students, and what I’ve found is once they’ve acquired certain amount of rules (such as radicals for phonetic and semantic functions, number of ways they can be structured into a character, and the order of strokes when you write), adults learn very quickly without using the type of repetitions that the native speakers have to go through when they are little.

Exactly. I take a lot of care with stroke order and the moment I find a kanji slightly off looking I check that first and it is almost always the problem. Its amazing how a minute direction change can effect the whole balance and expressiveness of the kanji.


>Carrying a little dictionary around wherever you are to get regular quick check can be very helpful, like having a 24/7 available tutor. 


It@s amazing how much they have changed.  Th one I bought fifteen years ago used a cartridge and seemed to actually wheeze and whir as it searched when I unearthed ir recently, aside form going through new batteries every two days. The new one i bought is a thirdof the size, twenty times faster and has five or six Chinese and Portuguese dictionaries added as well as texts on classical Japanese.  old sayings,  history and the like.  Its quite astonishing!




 >But some languages - Japanese and chinese, and Hiungarian for that matter - well apart from knowing that they are a language, I have no idea of the bits that make up the whole.  I can't discriminate anything when I hear a native speaker of that language. 


That, to my mind is the significance of the Heisig system which ensures one is writing very quickly.   In a similar vein,  as a language teacher of young children,  I have frequently fallen afoul of the authorities because of my insistence that language learning at elementary school level consists of four skills.  Ever since elementary English has been taught (actually it isn`t officially yet)  everybody from the ministry to the boards of education through head teachers and teachers has always whined `no reading no writing.` Basically they are remembering their experiences of junior high school English study in which one wa forced to write pages and pages of the same word over and over again like Chinese water torture.  The fact that this learning procedure failed miserably has been used to damn reading and writing at a younger age.  I have always written the target sentence(s) on the blackboard without saying anything about them or drawing attention to them in the early grades.  Young children with their natural need to know `setting` quickly learn to decode and as I write more complex stuff on the board in the final grades they read it aloud automatically.  During walkabout type games observers of my classes say they are very puzzled as to why the students are remembering and using small grammatical words such as and,  the,  a ,  an when this does not happen in other classes they visit. he reason is simply that young kids do discern the number of words they are supposed to be saying from the written sentence on the blackboard and that trigger a memory of the sound as it was practice during the preparation of the game (as speaking practice only).

My own experience has been that I have tended to approach my comprehension of Japanese (spoken) by getting the gist and nothing more.   I can do this pretty well but my hearing and processing did become fossilized and much of the input remained fuzz.  For example, for many years I have been listening to students saying`nantokabumfluuffnottyburp wakaranai` with a puzzled look on their face when something is beyond them and because this is the highest level of communication required in class to indicate a problem and work on a solution I never queried intellectually the rest of the sentence although I could have done so quite easily.   Having become so engrossed with the written language recenlty i very son discovered via the kanji cocndrned they were saying `Wake ga wakarani`  ,  essentially `what you are saying is gibberish to me`;)  And from there I quickly built  up schema for that kanji as it isused in many other expressions that I have used for years in conversation without realizing.  By knowing the kanji my ears are very much sharpened to the correct pronunciation.  Surprisingly,  I also discover that young Japanese e often have very sloppy or even incorrect pronunciation (as in the English speaking English I suppose) simply because the context makes the meaning clear and further effort is not felt necessary at some level.



>Can you follow a conversation between native Japanese speakers, even if you can't converse that well? 

Yes,  quite easily although a subject I am unfamiliar with would throw me. I do actually watch Japanese animation in the original. The subtitles are so radically off most of the time it makes a mockery of the movie....

 >And how does a keyboard with Japanese characters work, if they don't use a 26 letter alphabet?

They use three other alphabets,  HiraganaKatakana and the Roman (sort of) so you just punch in those sounds and a selection of kanji flash up on the screen from which you chose the one with the meaning you intended.  You might get a list of twenty kanji combinations,  all with the same sound and it is not uncommon for teachers to call out to a colleague `which one of these is the one I want....` (Sorry, Corwin already covered this.

 >I hadn't made the correlations Brivati-sensei has made with violin playing. 

What has interested me is that by constantly stimulating my imagination to create colorful and often obscene stories on a daily basis the actual sound of my violin playing has changed quite considerably.   That would be a whole new subject of discussion.

>Japanese is easier I think as 100 million plus Japanese people know how to read but some smaller fraction can play the violin. 

The logic is impeccable.

>I'm curious as to how the study of kanji has also made such a huge improvement in Mr. Brivati's fluency in typewritten English!  Not a typo in the whole blog!

was on vacation when I wrote it.....








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Learning the violin is NOT difficult!

April 8, 2010 17:18


Well, it’s been a while since I have posted anything of a decent length or responded to posts but I am still here. The reason for my absence is that I finally decided to get serious about the Japanese language.   I’ve lived here for twenty years and although I studied a fair amount in my first few years,  other fields of education got in the way and I ended up just drifting along and getting by.  It isn’t really a decent way to participate fully in any society being functionally illiterate so I really got to work over the last few months.  During this ten day spring vacation I learnt 500 new written characters (kanji) on top of those I had already picked up in daily life. This is a heck of a lot!    Consider that most Japanese people only use about 1200 in their daily life and that of the more or less infinite number in existence the number designated by the National Language Commission of the Ministry of Education for everyday use (presumably this translates to`literacy`) is about 2000.  
I have to confess one of the reasons I have never learnt the kanji properly is that the Japanese have only one concept of teaching them: the relentless repetition of them over and over while very young and going into one’s teens.  Furthermore, there is not actually any systematic breakdown of components and intelligent ordering to facilitate learning by ensuring new kanji contain components of what is already learnt, a constant source of amazement to me.  Thus, when a foreigner tries to study kanji in Japan most of the teachers and materials use this mind-numbing, soul destroying approach.  Unfortunately, like mindless repetition on the violin, it simply doesn’t work for adults. I needed to be involved in the process, to learn the components one step at a time and reconstruct each kanji using imaginative images and stories.  That is how I learn best and fortunately I was familiar with a radical book/approach by a foreigner (Heisig) which works in just this way.  However, since the book only teaches individual kanji I had to search for what else I needed to get the whole experience.  (Imagine learning the violin only by studying Basics. One could be very good at individual techniques but never be able to play a line of music in any coherent sense).  So I do three other things. Firstly,  I go around shops memorizing words and sentences on the many signs and posters and immediately checking the meaning on a very high speed electronic dictionary.  Then I write the words down and hunt out dozens of sentences for each word from the dictionary and write them down in a notebook.  I reread these sentences aloud to my cat every night before I went to sleep. Second I listen intently to every conversation I hear in the school staffrooms I am in and immediately find the words in my high speed dictionary, writing them down in the same way. Finally, I read and read and read aloud everyday. (This is akin to what Flesch called the Performance time` of one’s practice).  Of course, when I stumble on a word I don’t know out comes the dictionary and five or six more sentences go in the book for nighttime reading and cat torture.    
By these means I experienced what I call the `tipping point` when one has built up sufficient grooves that seeing a completely unfamiliar kanji one automatically breaks it down into its component parts and in doing so not only automatically memorizes it but more often than not gets the general meaning.  Prior to this one has to go through basic stages of learning the components well. I used to call this `cutting the grooves` but although that analogy is easily understood it is so far removed from more modern research on learning I have dropped it.  Recent research suggests that the degree of learning is understood in terms of the degree of myelin build up around mental pathways. In the same way,   in violin playing, once the components are in place new music becomes a simple process of recognition and `Bob`s your uncle!` Unless someone chucks the Schoenberg at you for sight reading of course….
A number of things have interested me about the way I have taught myself.  It is generally found to be unacceptable, in a polite way, to most Japanese, especially teachers.  They see me writing essays in kanji and wonder where the repetitive writing practice went but I can’t show them the inside of my head.  Plus, they often say `wow, kanji are really difficult aren’t they ?` in a very sympathetic and concerned way. At this time they are remembering the struggle they went though in their youth to master their own written culture and I can sympathize with it but I disagree completely.   There is a fundamental difference between `difficult` and `takes time` which is simply not given enough thought.   Learning to read at an advanced level and write complex essays in Kanji was not difficult for me. Yes, It was very hard work and yes, it took time. No, it wasn`t difficult.
 I found my own way! A way in which I worked systematically and carefully and –had fun- all the way. Difficult didn`t actually enter the equation.   So engrossing has this become that during the vacation I sat down everyday in my favorite coffee shop, started working and came out of my study  zone after –five- hours -every time.- The time passed just like that and felt great. After those five hours there was no mental stamina left and the body wanted to stop.  Fair enough, but those five hours weren’t difficult in the sense of struggling with something I really didn`t understand.
Violin playing should be exactly the same. It is –not at all- difficult.  One learns in simple steps, sensibly chosen and explained by a competent teacher.  Little by little, the discrete tools we acquire cohere into an integrated technique at your given level.  This pool of ability expands globally like a puddle until one has it under control at which stage one can say the lifetime journey into masterworks independently of a teacher has truly begun. One is one’s own teacher. Never let anyone tell you it difficult.  It just takes a little time and a lot of thought…….



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