2009 Starling-Delay, day five: Master Class with Chee-Yun Kim

June 24, 2009, 6:53 PM ·

Things were falling apart, and we all knew it.

It was that wicked Fuga from Bach's Sonata No. 2 in A minor. "Wicked" is my adjective, but I feel it's justified. I've studied it; tried to play it. This fugue begins innocently enough, with a spritely, dance-like little theme, but it goes on for five convoluted pages – convoluted for both fingers and brain. It's a labor; a labor meant to sound like a lark.

The audience of violin teachers and performers at the 2009 Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies at The Juilliard School were undoubtedly aware of these considerable challenges as they listened to student Meredith play this piece. When she faltered toward the final pages, hands working through memory slips, willing her way to the end, I think most of us understood acutely what this was like for her.

As did violinist Chee-Yun Kim, who was teaching the masterclass on this last day of the symposium. Chee-Yun acknowledged the obvious after she had finished playing: that it's extremely difficult to memorize this piece. For that matter, Bach in general can be extremely hard to memorize.

Chee-Yun Kim and symposium young artists
Chee-Yun Kim and three symposium young artists

"I struggle to memorize Bach," Chee-Yun said. "Until this year, I haven't played Bach for an audience. Some people have amazing visual memory – I don't. I used to memorize Bach just walking down the street," but with something as complex as this Fuga, or the Chaconne for that matter, it takes considerable effort to memorize. After all, it's a confusing piece. "It's a conversation," Chee-Yun said. "Couldn't we just have two violins playing one fugue? That would be so much easier!"

But it's possible to do it, and Chee-Yun offered a concrete suggestion: "Sit down with staff paper and re-write it," she said. Write in fingerings, articulations, dynamics, everything. You can have the violin with you, but you will be writing it from memory. "It's a commitment," she acknowledged. "As you do it, think, 'I'm going to own this piece.' Once you write it down, you will feel like, 'I know this piece, I WROTE it!"

Chee-Yun's ability to turn a potentially devastating moment for a student into a hopeful and inspiring learning experience speaks to her devotion to teaching – and her devotion to continued learning.

In fact, the night before her master class, we got to hear Chee-Yun play both the Kreutzer Sonata and that Bach Chaconne – the one she said she had only recently started playing in public. It was beautiful – I put down my pen and just listened.

Chee-Yun is a native of Korea, having moved to the States at age 13. She studied with Nam Yun Kim in Korea and with Dorothy DeLay (among others) at The Juilliard School. Today, Chee-Yun teaches at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

More than a year ago, I spoke with Chee-Yun, and it was clear to me then that she was driven both by a deep love for teaching, and for continued learning. Something we had agreed on was the fact that musical learning does not stop, once one graduates with a music degree. "I’ll be learning things about the violin until I drop dead," I had said.

"That’s the kind of attitude that one should have," Chee-Yun had said. "The ones who think that they know it all – that’s the start of their downfall, the beginning of their end. You have to look at things from almost a child’s point of view. You have to be fascinated with every note that you play; fascinated with every piece you come across. That’s what I always tell my students, that’s the way I feel."

Those words did indeed match her way of teaching; I could see during the master class how she works with a student to bring him or her back to that place of wonder and discovery.

For example, another student, Angela, played the last movement of the Mendelssohn, and Chee-Yun brought her back to the bridge between the second and third movement of the Mendelssohn, the "Allegretto non troppo." It's the transition that gently wakes the listener from the slow and contemplative second movement, before advancing on to the springy third movement.

Chee-Yun asked Angela what she thought about during that transition.

"Party time!" Angela said.

Chee-Yun agreed, and spun a little story: a shy, Cinderella-type girl is just walking in to the ball, when the prince catches her and asks, "Why don't you dance with me?" But she demurs, "No, I don't really know you." He asks again, and she still says no, but she's beginning to be charmed by his attentions. When he asks a third time, she says, "Well, maybe..." and he gets very excited about it and eventually leads her to center stage. Then, the trumpets announce the dance: the third movement.

"I love the idea of creating a story," Chee-Yun said. It's one way of keeping the music alive and having something to communicate with the audience.

"Most of the time, 80 percent of the people in your audience don't know the piece; they are just there to enjoy themselves," Chee-Yun said.

She pointed out that the last movement begins "scherzando" – a joke. She wanted a lighter spiccato ("It was a little too heavy – maybe the prince was overweight?")

She also suggested bringing the audience along rather than grabbing them with an aggressive sound.

"I'd rather they come to me," Chee-Yun said, "instead of just shouting out immediately." In other words, tone it down, but keep the energy.

She described the third movement as being little silver drops on a black canvas, which actually also happened to describe the dress Angela was wearing. "You are a really pretty girl, pretty dress – speak to the audience," Chee-Yun said.

She pointed out a commonly overlooked detail: That in m. 9 (and in every subsequent instance of this repeating figure), there's no dot on the first slurred-in eighth notes; the dots only begin afterwards. So those are smooth, even deserving of vibrato.

As Angela played, Chee-Yun stood off the stage, gesturing gracefully, almost like a conductor, in a charming, "I'm-rooting-for-you" kind of way: expectant, attentive, as though she were serving it up to her.

Chee-Yun also offered a series of images for Stefani, who played the Chausson "Poeme" beautifully and fluidly.

"This music tears my heart out," Chee-Yun said. "When I'm sad, the world around me slows down – the air seem so thick. You just want to stop everything and be sad. Can you slow your vibrato way down?"

From letter B, there is a solo part, "You're all by yourself – you have no idea what note is next. Be hesitant, sad, not so sure, not moving so fast," she said. "I felt like you knew where you were going."

Chee-Yun sang quietly, the first notes, "ah..oh..eeee..ah...Time stops – thick air, darkness – I will tell you how I feel..." she narrated. Chee-Yun continued as Stefanie played this quiet passage, "take your time," Chee-Yun said in a tiny voice, "take your time, beautiful..."

Chee-Yun talked to another student, Stephen, about the third movement of the Tchaikovsky concerto, which comes in like lightning, with the orchestra generating all kinds of energy until "the orchestra throws the ball to you," she said. "You have to keep that energy going." Tchaikovsky took care to write a lot of instructions in the music, so "actually do the things he wrote!" she said. That means paying attention to when it's slurred, not slurred, dots, no dots, sp – surprise!

Another student, Aysen, played the Bach Chaconne – the piece Chee-Yun had played the night before – and Chee-Yun liked it. She said she didn't have much to say.

It made me think, what a funny continuum we're on, teacher and student. Who knows more? Who is the performer and who the teacher? Who taught Heifetz? And yet what came of his students? What if everyone at this symposium at Juilliard, all these students and teachers and players, met each other at the same age, say, eight? Or how about 38? Or 23? Or 53?

What will it be, that we do today, that shapes how one student will play later? How that student will one day teach? It's heartening to see a much less abusive way of teaching emerging. Really, we all need to work together to keep this music continuing, and to keep our spirits up for that battle.


June 25, 2009 at 12:15 AM ·

Her level of teaching and performing is at such a high level, we just have to marvel.  I think about my lessons with her every single day of practicing and performing.  

Well-written article.  Bravo, Chee-Yun!  :)   

June 26, 2009 at 11:56 PM ·

Writing about a piece to facilitate memorization is a great technique. But in addition to writing it out, with all dynamics bowings and articulation, I'd add: analyze it, formally and harmonically.

Also a good memory technique is to count and number the phrases. It works!

July 1, 2009 at 12:52 PM ·

Your so lucky to have a world-class violin virtuoso to as your teacher. Chee-yun was the very first violinist to inspire to be a concert violinist........love you Chee-yun Kim.....God Bless

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