Studio Class with Ilya Kaler

July 30, 2015, 8:10 PM · Today I had the privilege of watching violinist and DePaul University Violin Professor Ilya Kaler teach a studio class at the Heifetz International Music Institute. Students at this Institute have two lessons a week, plus a studio class with their teacher. So on this humid summer day, 10 students gathered in a fourth-floor classroom with views of grassy hills of the Mary Baldwin College campus in Staunton, Va. They sat along the walls to watch three of their colleagues perform for Kaler, whose technical wisdom for each performer could easily apply to many situations that violinists face in general.

First, Spencer played the second movement of the Dvorak Violin Concerto, a piece he would be performing in concert the same evening as part of the 41 public concerts the Heifetz Institute hosts over its six-weeks program.

Spencer and Ilya Kaler

The first point Kaler made was about the two repeated 16th notes that occur in this phrase:

Dvorak 1

Those two notes need to be equal. It's easy to elongate the second one, and it's also easy to connect the second one into the next note. But it doesn't work, musically. Connecting them telegraphs the next note, thus taking away a certain element of surprise about what will come next. And what comes next is something that changes throughout the movement as the phrase recurs in different ways.

Also, one can make an accidental crescendo there, going up-bow. "The frog is the heaviest part of the bow. Sometimes we have to make a diminuendo going to the frog" and that simply requires more control.

About the various runs in the movement, Kaler advised that "when you have a lot of notes under the same slurs, make sure you are not too close to the bridge, where you can produce a lot of sound debris."

Kaler gave him some tips for the evening performance: "Right when you step onstage, determine the tempo," he said, and do so by thinking of the faster passages. "It's very important to take the right tempo, because it affects your breathing."

In talking about phrasing, he said that different notes in the same bow need different amounts of bow, because if you distribute the bow equally "the phrase has no landscaping."

For the trills, they have be alert, and "you almost have to feel like you are accentuating them with your left hand," Kaler said. Accents are similar. "There is a difference between accents you do only with your hands and accents that go through you like an electric current. You have to feel it with your body."

Kaler also wanted more vibrato in a double-stop passage -- "If you play French Horn you can stop the vibrato, but on violin you have to vibrate," he said.

As the next student, Yezu, prepared to play next, Kaler explained the concept of setting up the left hand position with the Geminiani chord. Basically there are two ways to do it, and here they are:

Geminiani chord

The idea, which comes from Geminiani's seminal book from 1751, The Art of Playing Violin, is that placing all the fingers down in this way immediately puts the thumb, arm and elbow in the correct positions.

Yezu, with pianist Dina Vainshtein (who played for all performers), played all three movements of the Debussy, an intense performance of this mercurial piece.

Yezu and Ilya Kaler

Kaler praised the performance but wanted her to "upgrade your pianissimo a little" in order to play in a hall, otherwise, the lower the notes, the less the audience will be able to hear them.

In the score, we see one thing, which is "a wishful dynamic, the dynamic that the composer has in mind," Kaler said. "The other thing is practicing what we need to do" in order for that to work in real life, in a performance, in a hall. It will necessarily be louder.

Debussy, he said, was surrounded by the foremost French violinists of the time, and their focus was on refinement of sound. "Although color was important, it's a quality of sound that's like the finest fabric."

In one section that is a less strict and more of an effect, he said to "pretend there are no bar lines -- don't tell us how it's written."

For a pizzicato section in the second movement he advised that "like arco, we should play pizzicato from the string." In fact, pizzicato technique is much like arco technique, and the more one can make the arm part of the process, the better. One should never use just the finger, he said.

As many people do, Yezu had a tendency to close her eyes while performing. It may seem like it feels more safe. "You drift into your dreamland," he said, "but I suggest cultivating a more open-eyed attitude." One way to do so is to choose a neutral object to look at. Ultimately, having open eyes "will relax you more onstage; you will be more in control." He also suggested watching the bow, or thinking about bow distribution, or looking at the pianist.

"You have to get busy when you perform," he said. "Not with thoughts like, 'Am I good enough?" but with the logistical problems of playing. While you are preoccupied with that, all kinds of discomfort might disappear."

Next came a performance by Angela of the first movement of Prokofiev's Concerto No. 1, a gorgeous and exciting piece. Angela had me rather spellbound by the end of her performance!

Angela and Ilya Kaler

Kaler had a great "Tip tip" for the beginning of this piece, a melody that seems to spin out like one endless line: "If you want your note to survive, play with full hair to the tip." Every note has to sing, for a very long time. "It's important how notes start, but even more important how they end." That flat hair at the tip fortifies the sound, keeps it going.

This concerto, Kaler said, is well-orchestrated so that the soloist does not have to constantly fight to be heard. "There are always windows of opportunity to be heard," he said. Nonetheless, one has to play out. For example, in this section toward the end of the first movement:

Prokofiev passage

Despite the composer's markings, and despite that the passage is accompaniment, the violinists must play out. The melody is in the flute, in the same range, and so the instruments compete. The violin part has to poke out of that texture. "Imagine your arm turns into a pendulum," he said, "and follow the line. Use full hair. Don't just pretend to be a fly on the wall, you have to actively participate."

Ilya Kaler studio class

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