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Violin Lesson with Mark Kaplan, and Drama Classes

Laurie Niles

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Published: July 30, 2015 at 4:26 AM [UTC]

A violin lesson and a drama-improvisation class seem like two very different animals. The typical violin lesson focuses on mapping out sophisticated musical plans and cultivating complete physical control over the instrument. The improv class throws plans to the wind and pushes for completely free expression.

In reality, both are all about the same thing: technique. And we need both kinds of technique to successfully pull off a compelling public performance. As musicians, we understand why a performance fails when it lacks violin technique. But we need to understand why a performance fails when it lacks dramatic technique: it fails to connect with the audience, it fails to seize moments of spontaneity, it fails to communicate the intended expression.

And this is why it's nice to see young musicians studying the art of drama alongside the art of violin performance. I got to see both kinds of lessons today at the Heifetz International Music Institute at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Va.

Let's start with the violin lesson. This morning I witnessed the analytical genius of Indiana University Violin Professor Mark Kaplan, who can identify the pickiest of musical-technical problems and describe their solutions as poetry. The lesson, and my day, began with the extremely pleasant task of listening to student Rachell Wong play the gorgeous second movement of the Beethoven Concerto with pianist Andrew Rosenblum. (Students at this Institute get two lessons a week, one with piano accompaniment.)

Rachell Wong and Mark Kaplan
Rachell Wong and Mark Kaplan. Photo by

After she was finished, Kaplan dove into the score. First he spoke about the meaning of the title of the movement, "Larghetto," which implies a certain lightness -- not quite as slow as a "Largo."

"Most people tend not to do that," he said, "they tend to milk it." He asked her, what does this motif mean?

Beethoven theme

In a way, it's a textural motif because it's obviously written for horns, he said, though not always played in the horns. The motif repeats many times throughout, but never in the solo part. "It's also a question," Kaplan said. "It seems like a simple tune, but it's not."

The violin responds to that motif with a high filigree, which is marked "dolce."

beethoven filigree

"Can you go for dolce as a literal thing?" Kaplan said. "Dolce means sweet, like honey. Can you find the honey in your sound?" That might sound like a weird statement to a non-violinist, but we all pretty much know what it means to hit the honey with tone, and they agreed when she'd found it.

He also talked about having the correct kind of sound to fill the space in a movement like this, which is often marked with pleas for quiet, such as "pianissimo" or "diminuendo" or "sempre perdendosi."

"You don't have to pay loud, but you have to fill the space," Kaplan said, getting her to produce a tone that somehow rang widely but did not seem "loud." Throughout much of the movement, the solo violin is responding to the piano (or orchestra) part, "he has the tune, and you're improvising," Kaplan said, "this is jazz, folks!" It has to sound "like you just thought of it, you're going along with it," and it must be shaped to fit the phrases going on underneath it.

"I have an image, that this is a bird," he said of those high-fluttering notes. When he was young, Kaplan said that played the Beethoven Concerto at Blossom Music Center, the partially outdoor summer home to the Cleveland Orchestra. "During the second movement, there was a bird that came in, flying in these big swoops, for the whole movement."

He talked about that part that says "sempre perdendosi," which literally means always getting lost, or disappearing. "You can't start with too little here, or you have nothing to get lost to," he said. He also urged a kind of slowing down in that place - "getting lost is not just dynamic -- it's putting itself to sleep."

* * *

The drama classes came in the afternoon, and I visited two of them: one with improvisation teacher John Gregorio and the other with drama teacher Daniel Pettrow.

John's improv class began with warming up physically. After a sequence of shaking hands and feet and repeating tongue twisters, they played several games. One was the fairly familiar game of holding hands in a circle, and passing a hand squeeze around one direction, then the other directions, then both at once.

Circle with John
Improv class with John Gregorio. Photo by

In another game, the students walked around the room, and one person in the room pretended to have a knife, which he had to zing at the first person with whom he made eye contact. That person would "catch" the fake knife, then zing it to someone else. As this went on, John added a "baby," which students had to gently toss around. Then they added an anxious cat....

Basically the games were very right-brained, physical and spontaneous. After several exercises like this, he switched to games for the brain. The first was a word-association game: one person stands at the center of the circle and goes around to each person in the circle, who gives him a word to which he has to respond with the first word he thinks of. It's important, he said, to truly say whatever comes to mind.

"Don't worry about having ideas, having plans," John said. "Your brain is full of stuff. (In improv), any plan you have will go out the window when you work with another person."

Improvisation, he explained, allows a performer to react to the unexpected, and the unexpected may come from other performers onstage, or from the audience. "Because they're watching you, you're the most important person," John said. "It's so weird! But it gives you power." Improv helps you learn how to use it.

* * *

The second class, with Daniel Pettrow, focused on audience interaction. What does the audience want you to do? After a few warmups, Daniel began with an activity that literally forced the actors "onstage" to do the audience's bidding. We split into two groups of five. The first five people, the actors, had to leave the room while the other five, the audience, decided what they should do. The trick was that the audience was not going to tell them what they'd decided, at least not directly. The only way the actors would know if they were doing the right thing is that the audience would clap if they did something right. I was in the audience group, and we decided to make the actors sing the "YMCA" song, with motions. I seriously doubted this would work! How would they know?

"We're ready for your performance," Daniel said, ushering them back into the room. They foundered around, then at one point, a girl raised her arms. We pointed to her and clapped. She turned around like a ballerina, and we didn't clap. Seeing her success with arm-raising, everyone raised their arms. We clapped as their arms looked more like a "Y." This went on, and suddenly one of them must have been inspired by the feeling and just starting singing, "Y...MCA..."

"Y...M-C-A!" Photo by

Then we switched. What did they have us do? Leap like frogs!

Another memorable exercise was this one, in which each person got to stand "center stage" and watch the audience watching him or her. It was very powerful, but hard to describe, so I took a video:

It was interesting to be the person standing center-stage. I could definitely feel strong support: people smiling at me, even beaming at me. Not every audience member gave the same level of support; some were a little more tired or distracted.

"They try to make you less awkward," one student observed of the audience. "You notice who's your friend. You get the feeling maybe the audience wants you to succeed."

Drama class with Daniel
Drama class with Daniel Pettrow. Photo by

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