Relatively little is known about the violin before 1600, though the true violin was popular at village fêtes, taverns, in homes, and at aristocratic court functions such as the French ballet, English masque, and Italian intermedio. Its power of rhythmic articulation and penetrating tone was used extensively for dance music. Instrumental music was modeled on forms derived from vocal models not idiomatic to the violin, which was also used to double or accompany vocal parts. The real potential of the violin was not exploited until the 17th century when the Italians wrote sonatas. With the possible exception of Orlando di Lasso, no great composers wrote for violins until Gabrielli and Monteverdi.
The two uses of violins contrast sharply; on the one hand, the undignified and festive use of violins for dancing, (jamming), with no music in sight; and on the other, the serious use of violins for religious or semi-religious purposes, in church, say, with instruments held at the neck and longer bows. The unwritten tradition of improvisation is comparable to the early history of jazz, the violinist being much like the sax player. In the area of dancing, the violins gradually drove the rebecs from court. (See The Rebec Project.)
Violin playing was not considered a lady-like or gentlemanly pursuit; violinists were considered to be a species of servant, and the violin had little social or musical prestige. It was considered a lowly instrument played mostly by professionals. In time, however, it spread through every class. The formation of the "24 Violins of the King," in France, symbolized increased social prestige.
"Virtuous" people (aristocratic amateurs), according to Jambe de Fer (see below) passed their time playing the viol, a family of instruments unrelated to the violins which persisted for 150 years after the violins came into being, and fell into neglect when polyphonic music went out of style. All viols (lira da gamba) were played held downward, larger ones between the legs and smaller ones on the knees, and the bow was held underhand. The violins developed independently.
Though hybrid instruments continued to exist some time after the emergence of the violin, its origins are said to have been the rebec, the Renaissance fiddle, and the lira da braccio. The rebec dates back to the 13th century and consisted of a family of treble (discant), alto-tenor, and bass instruments. It was pear-shaped, and without a soundpost; the neck and pegbox were integral parts of the instrument. There were no overhanging edges, no frets, and the three strings were tuned in fifths. The sound of this instrument is said to have been smaller than the violins, with a nasal, oboe-like quality. The bow was held overhand. The Renaissance fiddle, c. 1500, had five strings, (one a drone), and frets. Shaped like the violin, it had a top and back with connecting ribs, a separate neck and fingerboard, and it was in the soprano register. Close to the violin body outline, the lira da braccio was designed in several sizes; its bouts made it easier to bow then the rebec. Like the violin, it had an arched back and top, overlapping edges, ribs, a sound post, and f or c-shaped sound holes. It had seven strings, two of which were drones.
By a kind of organic, triangulative process between craftsmen, players, and composers, early violins came into existence around 1520 in northern Italy. The 4-stringed "true" violin family was complete in its basic structural features - though not standardized - around 1550. (Jambe de Fer described them explicitly in his Epitome Musical. Lyons, 1556.) The controversy over who invented the first violin is probably not answerable; Gasparo da Saló was a candidate, as were several Brescian craftsmen. It is now generally accepted that da Saló was not the inventor since he wasn't born until 1540. Better candidates are Giovan Giacoba dalla Corna and Zanetto de Michelis da Montichiaro, both born in the 1480s. It is, however, clear that Andrea Amati perfected the form. Similar instruments in France and Poland suggest the far-reaching influence of the Italian Renaissance. Native schools of violin-making existed in Cremona and Brescia, and also in Paris and Lyon; but this had to do with the trade routes (and the silk trade) from Venice to Paris. Changes in the violin after 1600 were largely decorative.
Early violins could be either 1/4" shorter or 1/2" longer than the modern 14" (35.5 cm) instrument. Pegboxes sometimes ended in carved heads instead of scroll. The neck is shorter, projects at right angles from the body, and the fingerboard is shorter (by 2 1/2"), with a wedge between neck and fingerboard. The bridge is both lower and rounder. Open strings were used when possible, and the more yielding hair of the old bow made it easier to sustain triple stops at forte. The modern chinrest was unknown, and the violin was held at the neck; perspiration marks on either side of the tailpiece indicate the chin held the instrument there. In dance music, the instrument was often or usually held lower.
While the Tourte bow rendered the older bows obsolete and of no commercial value (therefore none exist today), the older violins were carefully preserved, though apart from rare exceptions, usually opened and altered with modern fittings, including neck, fingerboard, bridge, bass-bar, sound-post, strings, chinrest and E tuner. Because of the lower tension, the old bass bar was shorter and lighter and the soundpost thinner. Early (convex) bows varied greatly in shape, and the modern frog was predated by various attempted solutions to holding the narrower ribbon of hair in place. The modern Tourte bow, with its logarithmic inward curvature, cannot be pressed too deeply in the middle, or the wood will be scraped by the strings. Baroque bows did not have this problem, though the degree of curvature began to decrease at the end of the 17th century.
Early in the 16th century the advantages of combining from its predecessors the greater sonority, the easier and more efficient playing and tuning, and the more sensible fingering were discovered. The new instruments were easier to carry at dances, weddings and mummeries (theatrical productions including masked figures), and their sound "carried well," which was important for dancing. Many musicians played both old and newer instruments, and technical practices were borrowed from the old.
Though the Baroque violin was considered "beaucoup plus rude en son" (Jambe de Fer, 1556), it was, by our standards, less intense, purer, reedier and more transparent. Gimping, or the practice of using gut strings overspun with fine copper or silver wire, was not practiced until the early 18th century. Strings were gut, (for this reason the G was unresponsive, and seldom used), and gauges were not known, though violin strings were stronger and thicker than viol strings.
Early Baroque violin music, (of which there is very little before the turn of the century, and that in the last 20 years, and not idiomatic), seldom ventures beyond the third position. (The first written music designated with a violin part is that of a Royal French wedding in 1581.) Therefore the usual range was d'-b" or c", (since the low G was seldom used)—the typical range of the soprano voice. Though lute players were encouraged to play "beyond the frets," the short, fat neck of the violin did not encourage playing in upper positions, and made it more difficult to use the fourth finger; the momentary robustness of open strings was not uncommon.
There were no accepted standards of pitch; string players were regularly told to tune their instruments up as high as they would go, (Agricola, 1528) and pitch varied from town to town and even from one organ to another within a church. Nor was there any equally tempered tuning system. There was probably a distinction between harmonic pairs of notes, but it worked opposite to what it is today. (For example, violinists today think of F#, say, as a sort of leading tone to G, and the F# is played higher than the upper enharmonic. The reverse was true in the Baroque.)
Nor was there any standardization in the way the bow of the violin was held. As mentioned above, the violin was held in a more relaxed position while dance music was played on the breast or arm, (hence, the distinction "lira da braccio,") and held at the neck for more serious music. The bow was held in two styles; that of the French — very different than the modern way — with the thumb under the hair and not between the bow and stick, as in the second, or Italian way, which is said to be entirely similar to modern teaching, such as that of Carl Flesch.
The animated styles of dancing and the short bows were made for an articulated style, unlike the "endless bow" idea of modern practice. Vibrato was not continuous, but used as expressive ornamentation. (Our wide and continuous vibrato would have been disruptive.) No fingerings have been found before 1600 even for such simple music that exists. Playing in the higher positions seems unlikely, considering the way the instrument was held in dance music. (From the modern viewpoint, second position is excellent to use, particularly in sequential passages.) However, there was more to violin music than the extant pieces indicate. So much money was spent on fine instruments, and this is not compatible with the idea of primitive instruments and technique. Orchestral and chamber parts were not required to go above the third position, but virtuoso pieces were another matter. Some advance technique may have been lost because it was considered a professional secret.
After 1600, violin players built on the technical achievements of the viol players, and the practice advanced rapidly. Monteverdi's operatic writing included idiomatic sections with comparatively sophisticated technique. After 1610, the advent of the violin sonata, the formative period of violin practice ended and a new technical virtuosity came about in response to an age which produced Galileo, Kepler, Bacon, Descartes, Newton and Harvey. (And anticipated by da Vinci and manifested in the Reformation.) The rise of opera and instrumental forms not subordinate to the voice is analogous to the gradual subordination of religious to secular authority. Musicians were usually lower-middle class, and traditionally from long lines of musical families; socially, the lot of the musician varied from little better than beggar to that of the Royal musicians, who enjoyed fine clothes, salaries, and some measure of security. Even the ordinary musician was protected by unions in both France and England. During the early 17th century, the preeminence of violin making continued in Brescia and Cremona, and Biago Marini of Brescia (1597-1665) was the most important composer of violin music of the time; he and contemporaries such as Dario Castello, Salomone Rossi, Maurizio Cazzati, and Marco Uccellini experimented with purely instrumental forms. The sonata — most advanced of instrumental forms — came from the old practice of doubling vocal parts of a chanson, one of the principle Renaissance forms.
Marini's work is calculated in terms of the violin; the rapid passages fit the hand, particularly in descending or ascending sequences and arpeggios and broken chords involving playing back and forth across strings. Marini used the "stile concitato," predating Monteverdi, and experimented extensively in double - and triple-stops. (Capriccio per Sonare il Violino con tre corde a mondo di lira, Op. 8. ) His scordatura was written at pitch, leaving the player to work out the fingerings. (Most later scordatura works were written in "hand-grip" notation.)
Other special affects of the Baroque were the use of pizzicati like that used in Monteverdi's operas (not called such), the mute, col legno, sul ponticello and sulla tastiera. Harmonics may or may not have been known, and the matter is not settled. Two types of ornaments were used; (a) those with specific names, such as the trill, mordent, vibrato and (b) those which constituted some improvised melodic formulae. The practice of adding passages to the written score was so common that sometimes composers felt it was necessary to add "come sta senza passaggi." Since the demands of dance music were chiefly rhythmic, it is not known if violin practice included ornamental elaboration like the diminutions and passaggi of Francesco Rogniono. (Selva de varii passaggi secondo l'uso moderno. Milan, 1620.)
All of these physical characteristics contributed to a sound which was altogether less assertive, less massive, and more edgy, pungent, and colorful. "Just as the painter imitates nature," (wrote Ganasssi, in "Regola Rubertina," the only detailed treatise on string playing in the 16th century; Ganassi was a professional viol player,) "so wind and string players should imitate the human voice." Vibrato on long notes must have been combined with dynamic nuance, and the messa di voce probably carried over into string practice.
Though if one sees a lot of dynamic markings in a Baroque piece, and it may be inferred that they were put there by the editor, they nevertheless existed from the start of the period and increased in frequency throughout. Performers considered them hints, however, and dynamics are properly used for structural shaping, to delineate the form by terraced fortes and pianos, and to mold the texture within the form. This may cause a built-in echo effect, as in some of Marini's sonatas, particularly the Sonata in Echo for three violins, Op. 8. (Composed in Germany and published in Vienna. Marini was concertmaster to Schutz.) Agogic accents were probably used for expression, but no mention is made of the audible shifting or portamento so usual in modern playing; the practice was that several shifts were preferred over one big one.
Marini's greatest contribution lies in his purposeful adaptation of vocal style to idiomatic violin writing. Affetti Musicali, the title of Op. 1 (1617) may be said to indicate that the affections could be moved (that all-embracing Baroque ideal) by means of instruments alone. The Sonate in d-moll (a sonata for violin and cello with organ or harpsichord) well illustrates the Baroque form, idiomatic composition, and the use of affetti.
The sonata is in three movements: Grave/Allego/Moderate. All three movements are imitative; that is, the slow (and serious) opening (white note) phrases in the cello are answered rhythmically and melodically by the violin in measures 8-11. This imitative faculty is repeated one beat apart in 16th notes (idiomatic to the violin, as they lay so well within the hand and would, I think, be unlikely as vocal exercise), at measures 17, 24 and 26.
This practice is continued in the Seconda part, the cello's opening phrases repeated by the violin in measure 35, 39, 48. Though diminution and affetti may certainly have been included at moments not suggested by the score, they are specifically suggested in this movement by the fanfare-like configuration of measures 59-72. (Dynamic markings are probably the editor's.) How this solo actually was played can only be deduced according to the skill and imagination of the performer.
Movement three (terza parte) is, again, imitative, but unlike the other movements, is in triple meter. Hemiola is used characteristically in measures 75, 90-94 and 100-102. Starting around measure 90, a brilliant, fiery, "concitato" tension is built, culminating in the high c-b-d-b 16th note figure in the violin, measure 95, which calms down slowly in the alternating eighth note-quarter note figures, measures 96-98.
The Baroque ideal is an arch of sound, appropriately well-sustained and well-proportioned. For Baroque music to get airborne, the line must soar. The bow is like the breath of a singer. To quote Donington (p. 88): "Phrases generally go to a peak note, which is often though not always the highest note, and then relax to a note given away at the end. There is the unit; that much, and no less nor more, is the phrase; and it is for our own musicianship to recognize the fact. Nothing in the notation and nothing in the historical evidence, is going to show us the pattern if our own musicianship does not." To achieve this, the modern violinist (with modern instrument) would have to slow down the bow, use less of it, and play into the string with the hair a little flatter and near the bridge. Donnington remarks: it can be done.
Baroque Music, Claude V. Palisca. 2nd Edition. Prentice-Hall. N.J. 1981, pp. 145-6.
The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music, Michael Kennedy. 3rd Edition. Oxford University Press. London. 1980. pp. 608.
Historical Anthology of Music, Archibald T. Davidson and Will Apel. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, Mass. 1950. pp. 30 and 281.
A History of Western Music, (Ninth Edition) J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, Claude V. Palisca. W. W. Norton & Co., Inc. New York. 2014.
The History of Violin Playing from its Origins to 1761 and its Relationship to the Violin and Violin Music, David D. Boyden. Oxford University Press. 1965. pp. 2-189.
The Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments, edited by Stanley Saide. MacMillan Press, Ltd. London. 1984. Vol. 3, pp. 767-773.
The Oxford History of Music, Vol. III. "The Music of the 17th Century," C. Hubert H. Parry. Oxford. 1902. p. 308.
Sonata Per Due Violini Und Basso Continuo (1665). Hortus Musicus 143.l Bärenreiter-Verlag Kassel und Basel. Germany. 1957.
Sonate D-Moll für Violine, Streichbass (Gambe oder Violincello) Und Basso Continuo, Biagio Marini. Hortus Musicus 129. Bärenreiter-Verlag Kassel und Basel. Germany. 1955.
String Playing in Baroque Music, Robert Donington. Charles Scribner's & Sons. New York. 1977.
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June 12, 2014
Book Review: Education and Ecstasy: The Suppression of Genius and Sensibility in the Public Schools
Author: C.M. Sunday
George Leonard (1923-2010)
Leonard, George B. (1968). Education and Ecstasy. New York: Delta Books.
This is a work which in a very interesting way, answers the question, what is the goal, what is the purpose of education?
What should students walk away with after elementary education? Secondary education? Short courses, online degrees? What exactly is it that educators should be trying to transmit?
George Leonard's answer is: "the achievement of moments of ecstasy." (p. 17), and he quotes Einstein: "It is in fact nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry." (p. 231). According to Leonard, "the master teacher is one who pursues delight." (p. 232); "to follow ecstasy in learning in spite of injustice, suffering, confusion and disappointment is to move easily toward an education, a society that would free the enormous potential of man." (p. 234)
The author quotes the work of a University of North Carolina researcher, Dr. Harold G. McCurdy, who studied the childhoods of 20 historical geniuses. He found three common factors:
- a high degree of attention focused upon the child by parents and other adults, expressed in intensive educational measures and, usually, abundant love;
- isolation from other children, especially outside the family; and
- a rich efflorescence of fantasy, as a reaction to the two preceding emotions.
McCurdy concludes that "the mass education of our public school system is, in its way, a vast experiment on the effect of reducing all three of the above factors to minimal values, and should, accordingly, tend to suppress the occurrence of genius." (p. 113) Thus, the underlying thesis of George Leonard"s book is that the public schools in their present form suppress human genius and produce students who are "usable components in the social machine" but "just about finished" as learners. "Only the inefficiency of the present school system and the obdurance of certain individuals can account for the creativity, the learning ability that survive after age twenty-five." (p. 113).
Given that compulsory mass education is an "experiment," educators may well be indicted for breaking the principles outlined in the Nuremberg Code for research involving human subjects:
- The voluntary consent of the human subject is absolutely essential.
- The experiment should be such as to yield fruitful results for the good of society, unprocurable by other means of study, and not random and unnecessary in nature.
- The experiment should be designed and based on the results of animal experimentation and a knowledge of the natural history of the disease or other problem under study, so that the anticipated results will justify the performance of the experiment.
- The experiment should be so constructed as to avoid all unnecessary physical and mental suffering and injury.
- During the course of the experiment, the human subject should be at liberty to bring the experiment to an end if he has reached the physical or mental state where continuation of the experiment seems to him impossible. (p. 114)
This is a book from the '60's era, a time when free schools were being developed; it was published during the same year of the Berkeley "summer of love." George Leonard is an interesting person; he is currently an Aikido master with a school on the west coast. (Aikido is a martial arts discipline). He also continues to lecture and write books. He is associated with Esalen Institute and Michael Murphy.
This is a remarkable, magical book in many ways; the introductory materials tell the story of the author's visit to a traditional, public school, and his psychic interaction with the students there. 'It is an exacting and exhausting business, this damming up the flood of human potentialities.' (p. 1). He talks about teachers being actors:
Retiring behind a psychic proscenium arch, the actor-teacher is forever safe from the perils of education. His performance flourishes. He plays for laughs and outraged looked. Phantom applause accompanies his trip home to his wife and he cannot wait to go on stage again. Assured of a full house and a long run, he knows he critics will be kind. Those who give him a bad review will get a failing grade. (p. 2).
The principal gives him a "little tour around the plant" until, finally, they arrive at a classroom where a "stout maiden" presides, and suddenly
There is a witch in the room. I see her near the back of the fourth row. Dark eyes and dilated pupils are fixed on me now, bold and direct, telling me that she knows, without words, everything that needs to be known about me. I return her stare, feeling that this girl, with an education she is not likely to get, might foretell the future, read signs, converse with spirits. In Salem she eventually would suffer the ordeal of fire and water. In our society she will be adjusted.(p. 4).
Leonard offers alternatives to traditional schools: "Visiting Day, 2001 A.D." and the following chapter, "We Find Johnny," describe a sort of free school on the Montessori model, with computerized learning systems and interactive learning modules. The children at the proposed school are gathered in a grassy area, reading Thucydides' The History of the Peloponnesian Wars, acting out the parts of the Athenians and the Melians. At one point, the children break down crying, several of them sobbing audibly, because they don't understand war. "Don't worry about it," one of their parents tell them, "Anyone who can relive the Peloponnesian War or any war without crying is somehow defective. Something's lacking." (p. 172).
Emotionally, this chapter is the heart of the book. Unfortunately, that date (2001) has arrived, without the changes in pedagogical technique and human sensibilities the author envisioned. Once again, the world has refused to conform to the wishes of some thinker's conception of what the world should be and will become. Leonard's predictions were wrong, I'm sorry to say, though one hopes that some day, the idea of war will become so foreign that young children are overcome with sadness and incomprehension at its reading. Unfortunately, contemporary children are so immune to violence that it is quite unlikely that a reading of any such book would bring tears.
Rather than being an ecstatic, joyous, and lifetime quest, education primarily continues to serve the needs of a society for "reliable, predictable components." (p. 120) The principle purpose is "narrow competition and eager acquisition." (p. 121) Leonard writes of
the male bias of education [and how] in order for young men to bear the conditions of war or colonization, it was necessary that they reduce their imagination and self-awareness to a minimum. Stereotyped behaviors were trained by close-order drill in the classroom. Slogans justified the behaviors. "To die for Rome is noble" said more for Rome than for the Roman soldier's. If it is true that the battle of Watterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, it is also true that some of the players' sensibilities were lost there. (p. 123).
The author postulates that this competition, acquisition and aggression is increasingly inappropriate, given current socioeconomic conditions on the planet, and can be reduced by the schools. I've had this book for many years, and always return to it, in hope and wonder; one can only read or reread a book of this sort as a sort of brace to one's underlying theoretical position regarding education. Whether future pedagogues will manage to replace aggression with ecstatic learning, I would not venture to predict, but I profoundly hope that it will happen.
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June 11, 2014
Elitism versus Popularism in Music Education
Author: C.M. Sunday
Prior to the first thirty years of the 20th century, music education retained an elitist view; at around that point a more egalitarian attitude gained acceptance, influenced by writers such as Whitman, Emerson, William James and John Dewey. These newer attitudes were predicated on the notion that the culture which enriched the upper classes had little significance if it did not serve a function for all. Progressive thinkers felt that too much attention had been given to the education of the bright, that social cohesion suffered as a result, and that education for all would be more appropriate for a democratic society.
If education has a two-fold aim, that of instruction and that of training in good conduct, then an enlightened educator may well have to hold simultaneously two rather contradictory views in order to best serve all their students. Like it or not, herd instinct is an important element in democracy, but contradicts on many levels the personal development of the individual student. This range of possibility is illustrated by the great violin pedagogue, Ivan Galamian, who cautioned that a music teacher must be wary of judging students as incapable of development, since some students are slow developers, and yet, on the other hand, remarked that it was impossible to start a fire "where no
flammable material exists."
A primary conflict in education is that between those who feel that education should serve the aims of the individual psyche versus those who wish education to serve the needs of the communitythe question of whether education should train good individuals or good citizens. In the Hegelian sense, there is no conflict, since there is no antithesis, but in practice the cultivation of the individual mind is not the same as the production of a useful citizen. Dispassionate searching for truth may lead down avenues that contradict an indoctrination aimed at producing future tax payers:
Absence of finality is of the essence of the scientific spirit. The beliefs of the man of science are, therefore, tentative and undogmatic. But in so far as they result from his own researches they are personal, not social. They depend, that is to say, upon what he himself has ascertained by observation and inference, not upon what society considers it prudent for the good citizen to believe.
This dichotomy is mirrored in the conundrum of an elitist academic view as opposed to the methodology and philosophy of Shinichi Suzuki, who developed and founded a school for talent education that teaches violin to very young children. Talent education is based on the mother tongue method wherein infants are exposed to music in the home, consistently and progressively. At age three the child enters the world of the music school, and mother and child begin together to learn the instrument, in the company of a group of children and Suzuki parents. A carefully developed system of group lessons, literature, recordings, and violin pedagogical methods moves the child swiftly to fine violin literature at a very high level. These methods have been Americanized with some success, and are often the basis of string programs in public school, though far from faithful to the original, and thus far less successful.
I cannot emphasize firmly enough and often enough how wrong it is to judge an already trained child and to say that its abilities are due to superiority or inferiority at birth. This kind of thinking should be abandoned. We must put an end to this misconception. There is no telling to what heights children can attain if we educate them properly right after birth. Should we not investigate the possibilities? Good environmental conditions and a fine education cannot help but bring children genuine welfare and happiness, as well as promising light and hope for the future of mankind.
Dr. Suzuki's methods are child centered, and based on the notion that all children are capable of a high level of development, given significant personal attention and intensive training at an early age. This practice works very well, though less so in America where children are far less obedient and parents have far less time to devote to them. This methodology contradicts the notion that certain individuals are gifted from birth; environment, not heredity, is the key focus. Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences is a midpoint, somewhat, between these two views, but does not take into account the great accomplishments that can be garnered by early childhood immersion in an art.
An older, elitist view, is that education based on a desire to create good citizens, if it wisely designed, can retain what is best of individual culture, yet has an inherent danger in that the result might be merely to make the students convenient tools of the prevailing orthodoxy:
There is an idea that rubbing up against all and sundry in youth is a good preparation for life. This appears to me to be rubbish. No one, in later life, associates with all and sundry....In later life a man's occupation and status give an indication of his interests and capacities. I have, in my day, lived in various different social strata; diplomatists, dons, pacifists, gaolbirds and politicians; but nowhere have I found the higgledy-piggledy ruthlessness of a set of boys....If you walk through a farm
d, you may observe cows and sheep and pigs and goats and geese...all behaving in their several ways: no one thinks that a duck should acquire social adaptability by learning to behave like a pig. Yet this is exactly what is thought so valuable for boys at school, where the pigs tend to be the aristocracy.
According to this position, clever children would be spared a lot of pain if they are not compelled to associate with stupid contemporaries. The advantages of schools for clever children are great: exceptional children can be spared social persecution and emotional fatigue, they can be taught much faster, avoiding the boredom of having to listen to materials which they already understand. Their interactions with one another are likely to be fruitful; clever children often feel odd in the general populace.
Thus the contrast between a focus on all children and their inherent capacities and on those few who have, by environment, heredity, or fortuitous birth, developed at different rates than the norm. Children who read a great deal tend to be in this later group, and sympathy for them is expressed by Russell:
The man who holds concentrated and sparkling within his own mind, as within a
camera obscura, the depth of space, the evolution of the sun and planets, the geological ages of the earth, and the brief history of humanity, appears to me to be doing what is distinctly human and what adds most to the diversified spectacle of nature.
Thus a cultured and enlightened educator must tread a path between the needs of a democratic society and a devotion to the best in art, science, literature and human thought. Certainly this is not an easy task, but worthy of effort, since the happiness and welfare of children, of all abilities and from all backgrounds, is at stake.
- Ivan Galamian. Principles of Violin Playing and Teaching, ed. Sally Thomas. Dover Publications; Reprint edition (February 21, 2013) Kindle and paperback eds.
- Bertrand Russell. Education and the Modern World. W.W. Norton, New York. 1932. p. 22.
- Shinichi Suzuki. Nurtured by Love. Exposition Press, New York. 1969. p.
- Russell, ibid. p. 166-67.
- Russell, ibid. p. 11.
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June 11, 2014
Well said and very well written and thought provoking.
June 7, 2014
Three Essays by Scott Slapin
• Violist and Composer
• Slapin-Solomon Duo and Studios
"This is an excellent set of recordings of the Paganini Caprices, performed with great virtuosity and grace. They are inspiring to listen to, and inspire not a little envy within me. He makes it all sound so easy, although we all know otherwise…There is educational value in these recordings as there are many violists who impose limits on what they can/cannot do...My recommendation is that they should be in every violist's library…I am familiar with the Emanuel Vardi recordings, and I would go so far as to recommend Scott, over and above the former…Excuse me, but I have to now get back to practising!!!"
– Julian Fisher, violist in the Journal of the Canadian Viola Society in 2008
"One thing is certain: all viola players will have to hear both: Vardi's because we have always heard our elders rave about it, and Slapin's to remind ourselves that not all great players belong to the distant past."
– Carlos Maria Solare, violist and reviewer, Journal of the American Viola Society (Vol. 25, No. 1)
Paganini, a violinist and occasional violist, wrote the Caprices as technical studies. Some of them happen also to be great concert pieces. Paganini himself only performed a few of them in public, and on violin. Technically, they range from fairly difficult to extremely difficult. To pull all of them off on the violin is already pushing violin and violinist to the edge of what's possible. On the larger, less responsive viola, it is really stretching the limits.
I studied with Emanuel Vardi, the first violist to have recorded all 24. What a stunt! Without his having 'opened the door', I can't imagine I would have attempted such a project. Made in the mid 1960's, Mr. Vardi's recording was still the only one available when I recorded them more than forty years later.
Many work well as concert pieces: Numbers 5, 10, 13, 16, 20, 24 are good examples. William Primrose performed and recorded a few of these (with some short-cuts and a couple with piano accompaniment), and they made a real splash. These caprices have musical appeal. They're hard, but with work, they can be tamed to be compatible with the viola and sound like music to just about anyone. You can hear me playing nos. 3 and 24 on the soundtrack of the Bolivian film Sirwiñakuy, and the film is not about a viola player playing difficult etudes! They were chosen for their musical value.
However, there needs to be some context. An entire book of the most awkward etudes around isn't meant for a general audience. If each caprice is evaluated only as a concert piece, I don't believe no. 8 fares well. Wickedly difficult to keep in-tune, there aren't any great melodic treasures to be discovered, just a lot of scales and double-stops in the most unresponsive parts of the instrument. No. 1 isn't much better, and there are other ones that have patches that are less of musical interest and more of deliberately awkward etude writing. Part of the fun is seeing whether the performer makes it to the end or not!
When Mr. Vardi's cycle was originally released in the 1960's, there was a review in the Saturday Review (Jan. 30, 1965), "With Vardi, one is constantly conscious, and properly admiring, of the effort he applies to overcoming difficulties, but there is, all too seldom, the sense of a total musical feat…one suspects that the results will be stimulating primarily to other viola players."
I think this last line is a fair appraisal of the Caprices as a whole on viola. Those that work well as concert pieces will be of interest to the casual listener, and the rest will be of interest mainly to violists who have studied them as etudes. Rewriting sections in order to transform a difficult etude into a more pleasing showpiece is certainly a valid approach (and a common one when making transcriptions. There's a reason some caprices sound easier on guitar, cello or sometimes viola—they've been rewritten.) For this CD of all 24 however, I chose to leave them as is: the most difficult set of etudes there is for viola. They are simply down a fifth from the violin edition, and within those parameters, I tried to make as much music out of them as possible.
After Mr. Vardi's death in 2011, the American Viola Society commissioned me to write Capricious, a viola trio which references 12 of the 24 Caprices. Capricious was premiered at the New York Viola Society by Shmuel Katz, Ann Roggen and Brenton Caldwell. In 2012 at the International Viola Congress in Rochester, NY; Tanya, Ila Rondeau and I performed it on the final concert of the congress.
• Third Caprice
• 13th Caprice
• 24th Caprice
It's not surprising that one of the very first solo recordings ever made on viola was of Lionel Tertis performing the famous Chaconne from the 2nd Partita. The Sonatas and Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin are well suited to the deeper, more introspective nature of the viola.
Since Tertis's recording in 1925, many violists have performed and recorded various movements, especially from the Partitas. Even some violinists have played them on viola; the only solo performance the great Jascha Heifetz ever gave on viola was of the Chaconne from the Second Partita.
I feel the Sonatas and Partitas are the best solo Bach the viola has. Yes, as a cycle, better than the Cello Suites. The viola is in range and technique much closer to the violin than to the cello (no matter how much some violists may try to distance themselves from the violin.) From my vantage point, it would seem natural, since we have no solo Bach of our own, to borrow from the closer instrument of the two, which is the violin.
As a cycle, the violin pieces need only to be played down a fifth. Everything works that way. As a cycle the cello suites go up an octave, but you have considerable octave leaps and/or key issues in the 6th Suite, and there are some more minor issues around the 5th Suite as well, if you feel that the viola's a-string is not the most beautiful sound tuned down a whole-step.
Bach himself transcribed many of his own works into different keys for different instrumentation—including several movements from the Sonatas and Partitas. (Additionally, There is no evidence that when Bach transcribed and performed music from an earlier era—a Palestrina mass for example—that he was concerned with the performance practices of Palestrina's day or with retaining the original instrumentation.)
But more importantly than all this technical *stuff*, there's the issue of the music. As great as the Cello Suites are, I feel the Sonatas and Partitas as an overall set are simply even greater, more interesting music. Bach, the master of polyphony, clearly felt technically freer with the violin to write more complex works. Whether we're talking about the three-part fugues, the Chaconne, or the beautiful slow movements of the sonatas, the additional lines that are close to non-existant or just hinted at in most of the Cello Suites really add to the beauty and interest of the violin S&P.
Lastly there's the issue of the viola's character and the character of the music's compatability. This is likely the most subjective thing I have to say, but most of the Sonatas and Partitas are very introspective, comtemplative (the opening movements of all three sonatas come to mind.) I think many of the movements gain depth by being played a fifth lower. While I enjoy the Cello Suites an octave higher on the viola, I'm not sure that I look at any of the movements on viola as an improvement or as enhancing their musical character; I tend to see it as just something different.
While we don't know what Bach would think of his Sonatas and Partitas on viola, we do know what Bach thought of the viola. According to one of Bach's sons, it was his father's favorite string instrument. Three years before Bach wrote the Sonatas and Partitas, J. S. even gave up his position as concertmaster of the Weimar Court Band so that he could play viola with the group.
My recording in 1998 was the first complete recording ever made on viola, and I felt so strongly about this set of works on viola, that I recorded them all for a second time in 2006, because I knew we could make a better recording. The Sonatas and Partitas have become over the past century an important part of the viola's history. This is both good for the viola and good for Bach.
There is an ongoing argument in the viola and violin world about whether it’s better to use a shoulder rest or not.
At times these discussions seem fairly tribal. Yankees fans vs. Red Sox fans. New Yorkers vs. Southerners. People who like pineapple on their pizza vs. people who don’t. (Tanya likes pineapple. Feh.)
Each side makes long lists of famous people who play like they do as proof of their superiority.
For a bit of background: I don’t use a shoulder rest, which these days is the exception. I haven’t since I was around twelve years old, when I began studying with Emanuel Vardi. He was 'old school' and didn’t like them.
At this point, it’s just what I’m used to. When I try to play with one, I don’t like the feeling of the viola either being on a sponge or small springboard. I also miss the freedom of being able to move the viola around.
That said, I’m not against the use of shoulder rests, and I think some people are just being snobs about the whole thing.
Whether playing on original instruments with gut strings is your thing or fastidiously adhering to every mark in the facsimile of the composer’s score, the world of Classical music tends to admire *old*. Many Classical musicians like the connection to the past, and playing without a shoulder rest is how it was done in the past.
It’s different today, but just a generation or two ago, there used to be even a little shame in using one. Thankfully that’s mostly in the past, but there are still a few people who are *proud* to play without, and I’m not sure that makes any sense. If you’re more comfortable and play better without, play without. If you’re better with, than use a shoulder rest already. It really has little to do with music.
To go back even further into the past is to realize that the viola was held above the shoulder, and the two didn’t come into contact. This was in Baroque times when there wasn’t a ton of fast shifting or really intense vibrato. So of course there is an even smaller crowd that insists this is the only way to play as well.
I think holding the viola above the shoulder (and therefore with the left hand) promotes good hand position and actually makes certain passages easier, so at times I play this way. For other passages with a lot of fast shifts, I’ll let the viola sit on the shoulder.
Some argue that having the shoulder touch the back of the instrument might mute the sound by stopping the back plate of the viola from vibrating. It could be true on some instruments, but I’ve run side by side comparisons on mine, and people can’t reliably hear the difference.
I’ve really enjoyed reading Sam Applebaum’s The Way They Play series, in which important artists of the twentieth century are interviewed about their technique and habits. One thing that always amused me however was how in one chapter one famous string player is telling the world that the only way to do something is a certain specific way, and in the next chapter another famous string player says the total opposite.
Tanya has her left thumb bent at both joints when holding the scroll, but I can’t because I’m not double-jointed. (She also prefers a shoulder rest and the chin rest in the middle.) People are built differently, which at times the rigid Classical world doesn’t take into account.
The only thing I hope we can all agree on is that pineapple on pizza is really gross.
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Two Essays on the Development of Student Orchestras
Author: C.M. Sunday
For my students and any other interested parties, I have listed below, in no particular order, a few things string students and parents should know. All of the following concerns will not be relevant for younger groups, but are important in the Youth Symphony and then later, in High School orchestra and professional or semi-professional orchestras:
- Never be late to a rehearsal. Early is better. Students should be in their seats and warmed up at least 10 minutes prior to the rehearsal. It goes without saying, never be late to a performance!
- Do not talk during a rehearsal (certainly not during a performance). Sometimes if you're marking parts (bowing, etc.), you may whisper in the sections, but not loudly and better not at all.
- Always position your stand so that you can see both the music and the conductor. You are learning how to play in orchestra, so you will need to develop the ability to watch the conductor, if only out of the corner of your eye, at the same time you are reading the music.
- A note on posture: The best way to sit is centered, with legs slightly apart and feet flat. Women fought for years to be able to wear dress slacks to perform, for this very reason: centered with legs apart promotes breathing and comfort. It's not unusual in professional life to play 10 or 12 hours a day-performances, rehearsals and practice included. Please do not cross your legs, or wrap them around a chair leg. Sit slightly forward and don't slouch as it might in time injure your back.
- Both you and your stand partner can mark the music, but often the inside person on the stand (the person on the other side of the audience), should mark the parts. If you do not have time to mark the parts during the rehearsal, during the break take your part to the first stand and see if you can get the rest of the bowings. Bowings must be consistent within the section; it is up to the first chairs and conductor, however, to coordinate the bowings between sections.
- Always bring several sharpened pencils to the rehearsal. Pay close attention to what the conductor says, and lightly mark the music in easily erasable, black pencil (not red or blue!), and NEVER in pen!! Don't overmark the parts with unnecessary markings.
- Pay careful attention to the conductor and section leaders regarding protocols for entering and exiting the stage, and for acknowledging applause after the concert. The rule is to sit or stand when your section leaders do, unless the concertmaster is individually greeting a soloist or shaking hands with the conductor. Do what everyone else does—and don't forget to SMILE at the end of the concert!
- Follow the leadership of the first stand players, even if you disagree. Be kind, courteous, unassuming, pleasant, etc. Don't gossip. Be encouraging to others. Listen to others in your section and blend in.
- Always practice the parts and be able to play everything well. During rehearsals you may place an * in the margins next to the hard bits, and look at them during your practice sessions at home. More often than not, the musicians who become professional players are those who go home and practice their parts after the rehearsals. (In other words, they care about their playing and performance.)
- If they're available, try to listen to recordings of the pieces you're playing in orchestra, and more than one interpretation. If you can't find the exact piece, listen to pieces by that composer. Best yet if you can find an orchestra score and examine all the parts, so you know where your section fits in. This would be an activity that future composers and conductors would follow; anyone college bound would benefit enormously as well.
- If you're playing standard repertoire, it would be helpful to have a copy of the first violin part (or viola, or cello part) for study purposes, to be placed in your library. Copies correctly marked with good bowings are helpful when you have auditions or unexpected performance opportunities. However, there are copyright issues involved: some works are in public domain, and may be copied, but to be safe, it is advisable to buy a CD ROM with the repertoire, and then print out and mark copies in that way. [*See endnote.] This is an important legal issue that musicians should be aware of; apparently some schools have gotten heavy fines for unauthorized copying of materials. No original copyrighted materials may be copied and used in large quantities for ensembles, without express permission.
- Try to always have your instrument in top condition; carry an extra set of strings, have a mute on the instrument or near you if the part unexpectedly says "con sordino," and be sure your bow hair is in good condition. You may want to have an extra bow if you have passages in "col legno" or if you are performing outside, or in a large venue with very hot lights, like a circus or rock concert. Carbon fiber bows are good for this purpose and will save wear and tear on your good bow.
- Keep your focus up by sleeping well the night before a performance, and eating right: bananas are good for nerves if you get nervous before a concert, though if you don't have a solo there's not much reason to feel nervous, in my opinion. Your colleagues are all there and you have nothing to fear. Enjoy your youth and freedom; when you become professionals, you'll have even less time (and less time for sleep.)
- Enjoy yourself but pay close attention. If you make a mistake, don't let it show by your face or demeanor.
- Regarding auditioning, see "How to avoid being nervous at an audition" (from the Violin/Viola FAQ). I think with young people, especially, you shouldn't stress about it. Just show that you're working hard and you care about your playing, do your best, be yourself, and you'll do fine.
I'm sure there are other things I could mention, but these are the ones that come to mind. I hope you enjoy playing in orchestras as much as I do. When you're immersed in that sound, there's really nothing as wonderful!
1. Balance: There is always a concern in orchestras about balance, so that each section can be heard in the way the composer intended. Depending on the training and sophistication of the group, as well as the size of the string sections and the quality of all the instruments, one of the concerns is that the brass sections don't overshadow the rest of the orchestra, particularly if you have brass players who have formerly only played in bands. It must be emphasized that orchestral playing is sometimes more subtle and more
soloistic than some other kinds of musical experience, and thus careful attention needs to be paid for ensemble playing between the smaller choirs of instruments.
2. Intonation: Players need to be periodically reminded about intonation, as this is affected by the hall, the temperature, the quality of the instruments, and numerous other more subtle factors. Thus retuning is called for, particularly at the beginning of the orchestral musician's training. Casals likened developing good intonation to having a
conscience. What typically happens is that young musicians who have not had their attention drawn to this important factor will, at the beginning of their more professional training, find that it seems as if they are playing more and more out of tune, when in fact what is happening is that they are only just realizing that they are playing out of tune.
3. Rhythmic accuracy: Rhythm is the "soul of music," and generally students will not maintain a very high accuracy unless they have been trained to do so. For example, it is likely that the distinction between dotted rhythms and triplets is not going to be very great, unless this is carefully demonstrated and the teacher insists on correctness.
4. Bowing/breathing articulations:
Articulations are created differently by the different instruments, but the similarities are striking. The stringed instruments are "singing" instruments, and thus should be played with vocal articulations in mind. For the most part, articulations in the strings are created through bowing technique. It is important to get the string sections to understand that their bowings must be consistent, both within their section and with respect to the other
string sections, as well as consistently phrasing in a coordinated way with the non-string sections. This is primarily the work of the conductor, but also of and with the concert master and the section leaders. Decisions about bowings should be made prior to rehearsal, as much as possible, and parts should be marked. See "Sectional Rehearsals."
Responses to conducting gestures must be consistent and reliable in order to produce the required sounds. These gestures include attacks, various articulations (e.g., staccato, legato, passages or notes), cut-offs, dynamic changes, changes in meter, reception of cues, and so on. The success in most of this is dependent on the skills and training of the conductor, particularly the communication of the tactus, and the general musicianship, imagination, and self-discipline. It is really bad form for a conductor to get angry with a
group when they are not producing what the conductor is imagining; mind reading is not one of the required skills in orchestral playing, though sometimes it helps.
5. Orchestral discipline: There must be some strong, overriding conception of each piece, which is agreed upon by the time of performance. The better trained and more professional the group, the less rehearsal time is required. Just like a University is not a democracy but a benevolent dictatorship, so an orchestra is more like an army than anything else. There may be, and often is, grumbling in the ranks, but the leader of the orchestra must lead or nothing can be accomplished. I've seen orchestras fall apart because of lack of respect for conductors; conducting is a very demanding job.
Thus, the respect factor is worth a second look. And not to belabor a point, and at least to some extent with women especially, it is good to let the students know from the beginning that the director has extensive experience in the professional world (if this is the case), a high level of training, and a low tolerance for unprofessional behavior.
6. Seating: Seating is a more important issue than many conductors think it is. I think policy decisions have to be made in teaching situations; are you going to rotate, so more students can get different kinds of experiences—OR are you going to seat students primarily on the basis of your evaluation of ability, in order to get the maximum potential, musicallyOR are you going to consider other factors, such as seniority, good behavior, etc.? And what do I mean by "good" behavior? Are the most musical students the most polite, the least resistant, the more pliable? No, unfortunately not. I think often the best musicians may be the most difficult, but lessons have to be learned about reliability, and sometimes this is going to be the ideal time for these lessons to be learned.
With older groups, it might be helpful to point out what professional life is like for musicians; being on time, being prepared, attitude, etc., can mean the difference between being hired again, or taken off a list—since there are so many good players to choose from, anyway, as a rule, and professional people do not want to be bothered with prima donna behaviors. These are the cold facts of professional life, whether in the musical sphere or elsewhere, and students would do well to be prepared for this.
7. Sectional Rehearsals: These rehearsals are sometimes dismissed as unimportant, but really they are a great time to teach technique, ensemble playing, and to continue the focus on professional behaviors and responsibilities. Graduate students or section leaders can be good resources for leadership during these rehearsals, though that can engender resentment if it's not handled properly. Throughout professional life, there is always some underlying negativity which is based on competition or other negative feelings. Rehearsal time is a great time to demonstrate professional attitudes. Personal issues can and should be set aside for the greater good of producing beautiful music, which is really the point of everything. It is important not to lose this sense of purpose.
8. Motivation: In a teaching situation, the agenda is to impart knowledge, demonstrate or encourage the development of skills, and harness youthful enthusiasm. While I maintain that too many long lectures during orchestra are counterproductive, students as they are developing need to have the experience of knowing the commonly shared cultural information that so many have shared before them; that Beethoven wouldn't take any nonsense from anybody, that Mozart was brilliant and funny, that the world is both larger and smaller than they think it is, and the 18th, or any other century, is not as far away in time as they think it is. Music is a way of rising above the petty concerns of life, a way of connecting with the best minds in history, and of connecting with the world at large. Hopefully, students will develop the sense that playing music is a privilege, and find that working toward a better performance is a positive and enriching experience.
[All other string, wind, brass, percussion, also available]
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June 5, 2014
Cultural Conflict in Venezuela—Music for Youth Orchestra
Author & Composer: Efraín Amaya
"Yara's Dreams" was written for the Shaler's Middle School String Orchestra in the year 2003 while I was the recipient of a grant by Meet the Composer and its Pittsburgh New Residency program. Yara was the aboriginal name given to a very important figure in the Venezuelan folklore, better known as María Lionza. In Venezuela, I grew up with the invisible presence of María Lionza, the daughter of a native Indian chief, something to do with a legend, something to do with a queen, or something magic. There are two pieces of mine, Yara's Dreams and El Sentir de María Lionza that came to be as a reflective response to the socio-political crisis that invades my native country at this time. This is a time of unrest as it was in the time of the Spanish Conquest, when this legend takes place. I wanted to depict the confrontation of two worlds, the Venezuelan indigenous people and the Spanish conquerors. A confrontation that would change both cultures forever.
Multiple versions of María Lionza's legend exist, but nothing speaks of Venezuelan magical spirituality stronger than this popular myth. In a way she represents the unifying element in the different races that blended in the country. Her image fluctuates between that of a Native Indian princess to a more European queen, a queen Mary, the great Mother of God.
"Yara's Dreams" for strings (written for youth or children orchestras):
"Poem 3" for strings (written for youth or children orchestras): Point Chamber Orchestra
- Green Grapes: string quartet version
- Metal Rain: string quartet version, improvisation by Romulo Benavides
- Stomping Monks: string quartet version
A bit harder for kids: "Angelica" for string orchestra (Durata c.a: 6:00) Also gets performed in its string quartet and quintet versions: Dalí String Quartet
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June 5, 2014
Beginning Strings: A Better Start
Author: Emily Williams
For string teachers Suzuki is a revered name, and rightly so, for he contributed much to beginning string literature. In the United States during the '70s and '80s his method and books sparked a national interest in violin instruction. He demonstrated that any child can learn the violin proficiently when given appropriate instruction.
As a child starting violin at the age of four in the '80s I was one of the beneficiaries of the many Suzuki schools flourishing in the US. I benefited by developing a very good ear, as many students do. I even soared ahead of my classmates as I also had natural talent. However, I eventually experienced a downside to my musical education under the Suzuki method; my inability to read music, quickly decipher rhythms, and my poor technique led me to a dead end. In middle school I found a teacher who worked patiently and diligently with me to give me the instruction I needed to fill in the gaps in my learning. It was an arduous road that I wouldn’t wish on any student. This kindled in me a desire to be a teacher so I could teach students the violin correctly from the beginning.
Now, as a teacher I have found that the negative effects that I experienced as a violin student were not my experience alone. Many students today—whether Suzuki trained or traditionally taught—have low levels of technique, musicianship, note reading skills and rhythmic understanding. I have had to walk through the difficulties with many of them re-learning the violin to fill in the gaps, just as I had to do with my teacher many years ago. For students who learned to copy music from a recording or from their teacher it becomes a delight to finally be able to pick up music for themselves and play the correct notes and rhythms without having to hear it first. Some of these students experience the satisfaction of feeling competent on their instrument for the very first time!
In my quest to teach students to become self-sufficient musicians I realized that the materials I needed were not readily available in the books currently on the market. Even the most popular method books seemed to leave out crucial elements of how I wanted to instruct my students. So I developed—along with composer Dr. Benjamin Williams—The Beginning Violinist, a companion book for children and adults. In addition to helping students with note and rhythm reading, I also included ‘extended’ techniques not found in other books, such as left-hand pizzicato, changing meters and changing key signatures.
One of the most frequent problems I found with beginning method books was that they started by introducing the fingers one by one, usually leaving the 4th finger until later. While this seems like a logical step-by-step progression to string instruction, in practice it invites poor left hand technique. By the time students learn the 4th finger, they end up sticking it straight out across the string in order to get the notes in tune. As such, it is not until the 4th finger is introduced that problems in hand set-up become apparent. By this time a habit has been learned and the student will have to go back and re-learn—as they should have initially—the proper set up of the 1st finger, which requires pulling it back, leaving a ‘shelf’ on the metacarpal bone on which the neck of the violin rests.
Another frequent problem among young violinists is a deficiency in note and rhythm reading. When teachers allow students to learn by ear things they are capable of figuring out for themselves, putting copious fingerings in the music, they handicap their students by making them reliant upon an outside source to decipher the written music. Students may give the illusion of proficiency, even when their ability to read music is almost non-existent. Instead of handicapping our students, we ought to provide them with music appropriate to every level that we insist they decipher for themselves.
In The Beginning Violinist, students begin reading the open strings of their instrument first, which helps them to identify and learn notes more quickly. Songs using only the open strings with quarter-, eighth- and sixteenth-note rhythmic patterns give students the ability to start reading music on their own at some of the first lessons. In my experience, students who become proficient at reading the open strings of their instrument before adding the left hand ultimately learn to read music more quickly and can more easily identify the notes on the staff with their locations on the instrument.
When ready, my students progress to learning all four fingers of the left hand by string. By introducing all four fingers at the same time, correct left-hand technique is fostered and reinforced. The index finger reaches back in order for the pinky to curve appropriately. Students (as well as teachers) can easily identify if there are any errors in hand position before a bad habit becomes ingrained.
In addition to addressing the above issues, a large portion of The Beginning Violinist is dedicated to songs on the D and G strings. Most beginning method books focus on the A and E strings. When the D and G strings are finally introduced students often have a difficult time adjusting to repertoire using these strings because their proficiency level is unequal. It’s important that students gain the same fluency on the D and G strings as the A and E strings by learning these strings from the beginning of their studies. Learning in this way allows students to progress to more difficult repertoire without being delayed by their inability to quickly read notes on the lower strings.
Just as a parent seeks to teach their children how to become self-sufficient, successful adults, so I desire for my students to become self-sufficient, successful musicians at whatever level they choose to work to achieve. My experiences as a student and teacher suggested that despite the myriad of beginning violin method books available on the market today, holes in the most popular materials still exist. It is my hope that we, as teachers, can continually reexamine the familiar teaching methods we use to ensure that we are preparing our students for success.
For more information about The Beginning Violinist—including information about its authors, how to purchase the material and a look inside the book—please visit The Beginning Violinist. You may also contact Emily Williams via email at email@example.com.
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June 4, 2014
The Uncommon Friendship between Willa Cather and Yalta Menuhin
Author: Lionel Menuhin Rolfe
This is an extraordinary story of the friendship between Willa Cather and the author’s mother, piano prodigy Yaltah Menuhin (1920-2001), sister of violinist Yehudi Menuhin. There is currently a resurgence of interest in the remarkable American author Willa Cather (1873-1947), many of whose novels explored women and creativity. This is a personal, yet universal, book which explores Cather’s mentoring of the young pianist. It illuminates the lives and works of two important women artists and raises provocative questions about the effects of social and family constraints on the lives of brilliant women. Against the tumultuous backdrop of America and Europe in the early and mid-20th century, Rolfe presents an engrossing chronicle of his mother’s struggle as a budding musician, her tragic relationship with her parents, and the solace she found when Cather became her mentor. The mutually inspiring friendship, which endured for decades, inspired some the most memorable heroines in Cather’s novels, notably Lucy Gayheart.
"Rolfe opens up his family’s history to examine the creative symbiosis in the cross-generational friendship between Cather and Yaltah" — Weekly Variety, Nov. 1, 2004
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June 3, 2014
Beyond the Dots: Teaching Visually Impaired Students
Author: C.M. Sunday
Everyone knows musicians who are blind and play very well. I don't know about players in classical music (I'm sure there are many?), but in pop music, of course Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder. I've never taught anyone who is blind, or even nearly so, but I would be more than willing to do so, particularly if they have a heightened aural perception, or were especially musically intelligent.
The whole Suzuki business of "Every Child Can" and how the objective of studying music is to product "happy children," rather than professional musicians, comes into play here. This Suzuki perspective may be, as much as anything (along with rote playing), the reason that most intellectuals in university music departments do not, to my knowledge, support Suzuki training. But I think it would be very useful in working with visually impaired students; you would have to use, come to think of it.
It would be a shame to refuse to teach someone because of this perceived dis-ability, and I think most teachers would try. Suzuki method would be a good way, since the book is really for the parents at the beginning, any way, in this method. I also think there are braille versions of classical works, though I have no experience in this.
But Suzuki method, for sure.
A brief Google search on "braille classical music" produced the following:
There are lots of resources there. Common sense would suggest that the repertoire is available in this format, and looks like it is. My guess (again, just common sense) is that there are visually impaired private teachers who use the braille scores, but if one such is not available in your student's location, I think any good Suzuki teacher could lead them through the materials, probably until they were ready for university, if they wish to become professionals.
I don't see any impediment, in other words, and there should not be any, or any perceived. I would avoid a teacher who thought in the negative about this.
On reflection, I wonder if there are blind students playing in orchestras, or if there are orchestras in higher education which serve these students in this way. Again, I just don't know. That's string players in classical music, but there is no reason not to study, in any case, or shut down the ambitions of anyone who loves the repertoire. How many players actually watch the conductor, anyway?
Here's some more (scroll down to BLIND MUSICIANS AND ORCHESTRAS):
I'm bragging, and I should be embarrassed to do it, but I'm sure I'm not the only one. I found out, by happenstance, that there are some orchestral works which I have played so often and for so long, I don't need to look at the part, at all. Beethoven and Mozart symphonies, in particular. This really confuses the conductor, I think, until they realize what's going on. So I can watch the conductor do their job, and it's really enjoyable. Brusilow kicked me out of the school orchestra at UNT, where I got my MM, giving me an A for the three semesters I was there, but not making it necessary for me to play in the group. Whether this is bad or good, I cannot say, but I graduated.
In teaching, I don't use the rote piece of the Suzuki methodology, but do indicate to students how different is the experience of playing with the nose "in the book," versus playing from memory (I guess you would call it), without staring at the written music. Some players of folk and other music genres do this exclusively, and some players seem to have a sort of contempt for people who read "the dots." It's not a particularly friendly stance to take, but it's probably in response to a perceived snobbishness on the part of classical players. I wish this division didn't exist.
I would really love to teach a blind student, especially one of those students who are interested in, and accepting of, all kinds of music and "want to know everything."
What I'm saying is that it's fun to sit in a large group, like an orchestra, and play at full force, without looking at the music at all. It is a thrill probably not dissimilar to an athlete at the top of their game. I feel like I'm fortunate to have experienced this. Comes from playing the repertoire from a very early age (12, professionally), and then a great number of good teachers, and the study of scales and etudes, and the repertoire. No one should be denied this, if they want it. It's a privilege, and I'm sure everyone familiar with the experience knows what I'm referring to.
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June 2, 2014
Discussion: Careers in Music
Regarding careers alternative to getting a "major" orchestra job,
Steve Ledbetter has the following to say:
The discussion of helping music students "face facts" in the "real world" is a very interesting one, but it overlooks one aspect that I have found significant over the years: the number of people who study music as undergraduates because they love it, but don't actually anticipate going on in the field, and the number of graduates who find a job in which their experience in music has a tangential (but important) connection to whatever they end up doing.
I should probably explain that all of my teaching (and learning!) experience has been in music departments of liberal arts colleges, so there is already a qualitative difference from the students of conservatories, though a good number of the students I had (at Dartmouth, for example, or my classmates
from Pomona College, my undergraduate school) went on to conservatories for advanced study if performance was their main goal.
At both Pomona and Dartmouth, a rather large—perhaps surprisingly large—percentage of music majors were also pre-meds, planning to become doctors. I'm sure you know how many "doctor's orchestras" there are around the country and what a high percentage of the medical profession is very musical. At both colleges the orchestra rehearsals could NOT be scheduled at a time when biology labs were held!
But there are those who DO plan to go on as performers but find the competition too great for them to succeed in that line. So what do they do?
On a number of occasions, I have been asked to speak to students at the New England Conservatory on musical careers outside of performance. I supposed they asked me so that I could explain about the life of the symphony orchestra program annotator, but there are so few of those (and many orchestras who have had full-time annotators are now outsourcing, to independent contractors) that I don't think it deserves greater emphasis than many other possibilities.
I've pointed out that there are many areas in which competence as a performer and knowledge about the theory and history of music are important, even vital, adjuncts to a fulfilling career in a related area. Some of these include:
• Work in the technical areas of recording or broadcasting. [I once watched an experience NPR editor at work putting together a piece focusing on the Vermont Symphony Orchestra. The piece involved an appearance by the then-governor of Vermont narrating the "Lincoln Portrait," and it included clips from Copland's music as a near-constant background to the interviews
about the orchestra. I was absolutely amazed at the ear of this editor (who was a horn-player) and his ability to pick, unerringly, the point at which he could edit the clips together in order to provide a seamless background, without a noticeble break between sections of the piece.]
• Publishing music, and also publishing books or magazines about music; editorial skills and a sharp eye for editorial or typographical inconsistencies are important here, but equally so is knowledge of music.
• Working on the staff of a musical organization (I was well aware of the number of conservatory graduates and performers or former performers who were on the staff of the Boston Symphony, in areas ranging from concert production to educational outreach to fundraising.)
• Musical scholarship and librarianship. This requires further study toward a degree (the Ph.D. in the one case, and the Master of Library Science in the other). For a person with the right skills and interests, both of these can lead to satisfying and stimulating work that remains closely tied to music. As a grand, but generally useful, stereotype, let me point out the following difference between musicologists and music librarians: musicologists are primarily interested in their OWN work; librarians share a code of helpfulness and love helping OTHERS find and develop what they need. One's personal attitudes might be a guide in choosing one or the other of these areas (which actually overlap, because many of the most important music librarians are also substantial scholars in music, and vice versa).
And then there are the people who, like the pre-meds of my experience, studied music passionately in college because they loved it, but never expected to make a living from it. They wanted to devote at least SOME part of their lives to a particular passion, but then moved on to become doctors, lawyers, business people of all kinds. They are extraordinarily valuable, because they will help form the core of support for our musical institutions—as donors, board members, and as parents who will encourage their children to study music.
Of this latter group, I can't resist mentioning one of the best ideas I've ever seen a college offer to new or current students (and especially to their PARENTS!) about choosing a major. When my daughter attended Ithaca College, we naturally visited the place with her. Each department of the college had prepared a handout for students and parents that discussed some of the career possibilities that DIRECTLY grew out of that major (philosophy, English, history, music, etc), but—more important, I think—they added a list of perhaps 25-50 recent graduates from that department with a note about what kind of work they were doing now. This was very eye-opening: the majority of students in ALL majors were working in fields that were unrelated, or only tangentially related, to their college major. Either they had changed interests or, more likely, had pursued what the really ENJOYED in college, got a good education, and then turned that into the work force in a variety of ways.
In other words, parents did not need to worry that their offspring who chose to major in music, or drama, or philosophy, or classics, or any other "impractical" major would not be able to find work after college. Employers are happy to find well-rounded, interesting, well-educated people with the ability to focus on what needed to be done. And MUSIC is certainly a field that teaches that kind of focus!
Steven Schaffner has a similar perspective:
While it may be true that there are many more musicians graduating than there are full-time professional performance jobs, there are some facts that are often overlooked. Musicians working as performers are most often self-employed. There are many free-lance opportunities in many areas of the country. There are per-service orchestras large and small, small ensembles like brass and woodwind quintets, string quartets, etc. The better players will have much to do. The bad ones will have less. Many times competent musicians who have been around a while and who have proven dependability (not virtuosity, but being there on time, in tune, and playing the part well) will have more work than the recently graduated young, inexperienced musician. This comes with the territory in just about every field, not just music.
There are also jobs for FINE music teachers (not your run-of-the-mill music ed. graduate). There is also work for music editors, copyists, repair people (who really should be musicians of high caibre as well as fine technicians), music engravers, contractors (people who can get work for others and themselves because they are good salesmen as well as knowing who can play the part best for any particular style of music). There are also music librarians for those who want to go the extra mile and do some coursework in library science. There are recording engineer jobs for musicians with computer skills and an excellent ear. There are rental library jobs for musicians who want to get into the publishing end of the music business (the amount of musical knowledge required for this is quite substantial—one should be able to recommend works to a conductor depending on the size and proficiency of an orchestra).
There are also opportunities to write program notes, reviews, and on various subjects to do with music. One's music degree is a qualification for this, and the better a musician is, the more respected his/her opinions are. Encourage students to look at all the things a music person can do besides performing. Musical talent shouldn't be wasted being a bank teller. Leave that to people who have talent in that area. Probably the easiest way to show a student what is likely to happen to them in terms of finding a full-time orchestra job is to take them to a full-time orchestra player and have them play in an ensemble situation with them. Stories from the pro will happen naturally.
IF the student is musically talented and capable of holding their own with the pro (playing duets, for example) in terms of range, pitch, reading, and so on, it may be a possibility. The student will also find out just how far they have to go, and will sometimes work harder to get there. Of course, we know that being able isn't enough. One has to be able to play well under the pressure of an audition and happen to be the best player in the room on the day of the audition. This is going to mean several hours a day in the practice room, learning every possible excerpt. Listening to recordings of good performances of orchestral materials so you're not caught out with a radically wrong style or tempo, and being able to play the required solo material FLAWLESSLY is also essential.
The student has to ask him or herself if he/she is prepared to make those sacrifices needed to get there. It is hard work. Competence is not enough, as you know. Artistry is a requirement. Nerves of steel won't hurt either. Self-confidence is paramount. For free-lancers, a pleasant personality is a plus. No one wants to work for a complainer, someone who makes sly, sarcastic remarks about colleagues or conductors, or anyone else on the job. For very bright people, keeping one's mouth shut is often difficult, but mandatory.
These are things I would tell a student. And if they fail to meet any of the above requirements in the learning environment, they need to be taken aside and reminded. In reality, most of the folks I've known in full-time playing positions have been able to play their instrument very well since they were in junior high or maybe even earlier. If a student comes into a lesson unable to play an etude without major errors at the college level, they probably haven't the "right stuff". College really ends up being the place to refine skills, not gain them wholesale. While there are exceptions to this, they are rare.
I have played with a great many very fine musicians. I have often thought some of them should be in the major league orchestras. Some haven't bothered to try because they are afraid of auditioning. Some have decided not to do it for other reasons, but do sub or play extra in major orchestras. A good friend plays the guitar, and is first call with a major orchestra for any and all fretted instrument parts, that is anything from banjo to balalaika, so versatiliy in his area is paramount. He did not learn these skills overnight. Imagine not learning one instrument, but several well enough to perform with a top orchestra. A cellist with a major orchestra I know also played piano with that orchestra whenever one was called for. This is the kind of talent we are dealing with. And these people at this level are NOT uncommon. All this can be told to a hopeful student. It is hard work, and that is the real stumbling block for most students.
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