Fun and Games

Learning to play the violin well takes lots of hard work, but there are certain compensations. Due to the violin’s remarkable power to penetrate doors and walls of any material and thickness with its acoustic emanations, you can torment your family and neighbours with your practice for a few years, until the music starts to sound halfway acceptable – to yourself.

Zak having fun

Jokes aside, whether you are a player or a parent, surviving those early years requires a healthy mix of stamina, optimism and love. To keep at it, you need to experience progress and more crucially, maintain a resilient sense of humour about it all.

We all love a good laugh, even at our own expense. It’s a welcome antidote to the problems of the world and our struggles with musical perfectionism. We especially like humour that appears spontaneous, but as every comedian knows, the best wisecracks, well timed remarks and ad-lib jokes take lots of conscious practice to sound unrehearsed. For them, being funny is serious business.

For musicians, it is a necessary condition of our profession.

Fun and Games in the Classroom

Fun has an especially important place in teaching. In the most memorably enjoyable music lessons I’ve been privileged to watch, the teachers used humour to ingeniously transform work into play – literally.

What if you’re not the joker in the class? Is it possible to grow a good sense of humour, or is it one of those abilities some lucky people are just born with? Nature or nurture, gifted or learned? As a teacher who studied with Suzuki, you can probably guess my opinion.

Personally, I don’t consider myself naturally funny, (ridiculous, perhaps) and had to learn how to get a laugh. The best teachers are often children themselves, who are quick to catch a joke and eager to join in the fun and games.

Teaching with Games

Studying with Suzuki showed us that teaching almost any skill can be turned into a game of sorts, and it’s become a hallmark of the Suzuki Method.

(If you’re looking for some game ideas, take a look at these posts: memory games, practice games, studio games.)

The trouble with games, of course, is that they become stale if used too often or the agenda is too transparent. Obviously they need a point and purpose, since their true value is measured by how effective they are at building real skills and creating interest for lots of correct repetition.

Some Classroom Clunkers

Although I love inventing funny games, not all have been successful and several have been abandoned in the search for good ones.

The biggest reason for their failure was unintended consequences. Here’s a few notable examples.

Down the River

To practise no mistake playing, I created a game where teams of students had to cross an imaginary river marked out with stepping stones on the floor. To get safely to the other side, students had to perform their pieces perfectly.

Playing without mistakes is a great habit to learn. In fact, beginners and parents are surprised when they first hear error-free playing described as a habit, one which has little to do with the difficulty or complexity of a piece of music – and is as easy to establish as habitually playing with the odd stumble or wrong note.

For the river game I thought, no problem: there’s lots and lots of pieces that everyone can play well without mistakes.

The team’s primary challenge was to work cooperatively together, helping each other play the pieces correctly and beautifully, with special regard for the younger students. They could choose any pieces they liked, but each could only be played once.

We set up the teams with good leaders, balanced them for age and level, explained the simple rules of the game and got started…

All went swimmingly well until one or two students became hopelessly stranded, unable to cross after several nervously unsuccessful attempts. I could see them dissolving into tears and had to come to the rescue before the game ground to a halt. Whoops!

The Storyteller

In this game the class performed the musical background to a story. I’ve always enjoyed storytelling, creating protagonists children can identify with, weaving together imaginary scenes and adventures, dramatizing challenges, obstacles and narrow escapes from danger, posing interesting choices and meeting mysterious characters in strange places.

But what was the teaching part of the story? Particular pieces were supposed to be triggered during the narrative to help the characters get out of trouble, to journey from place to place or to provide a musical backdrop to various scenes. It was a feasible idea, I thought.

And what actually happened? Perhaps because I put most of my planning time into developing the engrossing plot line, before too long the pieces themselves became an irrelevant distraction. Mmm.

Paper Mountain

Another notable clunker was an elaborate practice chart I constructed in the form of a mountain climbing game. Engrossed my smart idea, I spent a couple of hours illustrating the chart and writing the complicated instructions. I cheerfully unveiled it at the next group class, convinced it was going to make practice more interesting and enjoyable.

After receiving a muted reception from both teachers and students, it was quietly shelved. My mistake was going ahead without consulting others, in particular the people for whom it was intended! And as I was to learn from other experiments, most of these types of individualistic games and challenges were bound to fail.

Notwithstanding these forgettable blunders, funny and enjoyable games are easy to create – especially if you can clearly visualise beforehand how they will work in real life.

Laughing out loud with Suzuki

Humour was an intrinsic part of Suzuki’s teaching and all his interactions with children. He found ways to make almost everything disarmingly and preposterously funny and his zen-like joking softened the impact of mistakes and success alike, helping both students and teachers to resist taking themselves too seriously.

It’s also a good teaching strategy, since almost every student, irrespective of their level of playing, experiences some tension during lessons.

Sound Flowers

One of Suzuki’s positive obsessions was teaching students to produce a beautifully huge tone, large enough to fill any auditorium. His constant refrain was, “Your tone is too small,” and many lessons involved new and unusual ways to increase tone power and projection.

He arrived at group class one morning with toy dancing flowers that gyrated in response to sound. Our challenge was to see how far from the toy we could set them off with a short piece. We had fun trying at bigger and bigger distances, but perhaps they weren’t as sensitive as he hoped, and they only lasted a day or two.

Rubber Bands

Elastic rubber bands were Suzuki’s favourite teaching apparatus, their main purpose to guide and train students’ bowing arms. Connecting the right elbow and a foot with a series of rubber bands was intended to relax and lower the bowing arm and to improve motion. Done correctly, it works surprisingly well.

The bands’ gentle tension encourages the bowing arm to adopt a more relaxed position, and to use natural weight for producing and controlling tone, volume and shape. Suzuki was a staunch advocate of a lower right arm, perhaps because his own teachers, Ko Ando (Japan) and Karl Klingler (Germany), were students of the famous violin virtuoso Joseph Joachim, who played this way.

Fun and games with bows

To onlookers, the rapid gymnastics of the left hand appears to be the most wondrously difficult skill violinists acquire, yet all string players recognise that the work required to master bowing techniques and tone control is just as monumental – if not more so. Suzuki used a myriad of ways to teach better bowing, even commissioning a bow making company to produce two very unusual bows.

The first of these was a very short bow, with a normal full size frog, an ingenious solution to a common problem. The tiny bow is very effective for learning to play with ease at the frog, since it is impossible play elsewhere with it! The drawback, of course, is its lightness in comparison with a regular bow, but it worked so well that we used a similar bow occasionally in our own school with good results.

Just as absurd looking was the the bow with two frogs. The idea behind this contraption was learning to play with a ‘balanced’ bow, the skill of controlling the weight of the bow on the string at every point of contact. Suzuki was well known for asking students to play with a reversed bow, to learn how to produce more weight and power at the tip, so this was a logical extension.

Presented with these strange bows at the morning group session, we were expected to practice exclusively with them for a whole month. Who did, I wonder? It wasn’t easy.

In my opinion, it was less successful in practice than the little bow, and has remained a memorable curiosity on my shelf.


Thanks for visiting Teach Suzuki Violin!

Cheers,

John

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Two Teaching Tips from Twinklers

Music schools and studios owe much of their success to the expertise, work and vision of the teachers, but there is another source of creativity and growth that sometimes goes unrecognised. It comes from the students and parents themselves. The two teaching tips from twinklers I describe in this post originated from among the very youngest students in our violin school.

1. A new graduation level

This is how the first one happened.

At one of our violin school’s annual graduation concerts we noticed the longing gaze of a three year old student as the graduates came forward one by one to receive their certificates to the exuberant applause of the large audience.

Dressed beautifully like her fellow students, she had just played her piece, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, together with the group in the concert’s finale. She naturally expected to be called up to stage like the others. But it was not to be.

At each concert practically every student graduated from one or more levels, except those who hadn’t yet reached the first level – Gavotte by Gossec. It’s the final piece in Volume 1, which the youngest beginners often took the best part of a year or more to reach. Although Gavotte is a great goal to work for, it’s too distant to have much meaning for three year old players.

The benefits of celebrating achievements

Receiving a certificate or an award gives a reassurring sense of accomplishment, especially when a good amount of work was required. None of us are immune from experiencing this feeling (Bob Dylan included) – nor should we be. It’s a healthy part of our personal development – and when real attainments are acknowledged, accreditation becomes a valuable and positive strategy in teaching.

After that concert we decided to introduce a Twinkles graduation level, to recognise and celebrate the achievement of learning to play this pivotal piece.

We also predicted there would be advantages for very young students (and their parents) to experience the process and challenge of perfecting, recording and presenting a piece earlier in their musical growth.

And this is exactly what happened. Not only did they enjoy preparing and playing the Twinkles variations and theme for the graduation concert, their fluency and tone improved markedly and their learning rate for new pieces accelerated.

They cherished their Twinkle graduation certificates like PhD graduates.

2. I can play that too

At around the same time as the new graduation level, we introduced another change I was initially skeptical about. It began almost by accident at our weekly group class.

To warm up and get the energy moving, we usually began each Saturday group class with several easy pieces, played together in unison by everyone. In this short playthrough session students and parents had to suffer the teachers’ cheery good mornings and impromptu humour before getting down to more detailed study in the later sessions.

It was a good opportunity for players across the levels and parents to connect and enjoy making music together. Students who hadn’t reached a particular piece simply sat down and watched the others play.

By this time the violin program had hit that satisfying sweet spot in the cycle where the momentum of the student group produced progress for everyone. The healthy mix of advanced and junior players in full flight gave newcomers a clear vision of where they were going and how to get there. A kind of perpetual motion.

In that year we had an influx of eager three year old students with their exceptionally dedicated parents. (It’s a strange phenomenon: Learning the violin invariably attracts eager children with dedicated parents…)

A funny incident

When a couple of them spontaneously continued playing along with a higher piece of music – one they hadn’t learned – we all laughed, watching them try to get through the complicated passages. Oblivious to our amusement, they happily copied the advanced players.

This created a mild dilemma. The music obviously sounded different. Although the playing of the older students easily overwhelmed the little violins, certain sections became a little, well, cacophonous. Blissfully unaware and completely caught up in the music, the twinklers were playing away with unrestrained gusto – mostly on open strings.

“This is great,” said one of the other teachers. “We should do it more often.”

Doubts and decisions

I wasn’t so sure.

The perfectionist in me was concerned that it would allow mistakes to become acceptable or even reinforced. Nonetheless after some discussion at our next teachers’ meeting I was persuaded to experiment with a few pieces in the warm up session.

At the next class we positioned the little ones so they could see the older students as they all played.

Now instead of being spectators, they were part of the action, moving with the excitement and flow of the music.

Within a few weeks the results were plain to see, exceeding our expectations and overcoming my hesitation.

The group of very young players improved rapidly and soon began to adopt the stance, style and stage presence of the advanced students. It also gave them and their parents confidence about how much they could achieve.

My doubts about mistakes failed to materialise. The children were still aware of needing to learn a piece accurately, much in the same way they learned to speak – by imitating, correcting, improving and just doing it.

Children are our teachers…


Thanks for visiting Teach Suzuki Violin. If you have had experiences that would be interesting or helpful for other readers, please write and tell us. We love your emails.

Cheers and have a peaceful Christmas,

John

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Innovation in Teaching and Learning Music

In an earlier post, we posed the question: Can violin teaching and the way we learn to play the violin be improved? And come to think of it, is innovation in teaching and learning music even desirable?

violinist-on-stage

In view of long the established traditions surrounding violin teaching, it is generally assumed that only small advances can be made. Is this true?

Evolution maybe, but revolution? Inconceivable! (Apologies to Wallace Shawn of Princess Bride fame.)

shawn-wallace-princess-bride

Perhaps we thought the same about some of Newtonian physics – until the arrival of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.

First, let’s look at the some of the recent innovations.

The Great Innovators

During the 20th century four innovators emerged in music education, each making ground-breaking contributions to music teaching and learning. Their advances share some common features, arising from explanations describing how movement and language (especially speech and song) interconnect with learning music. Significantly, each of these great music educators spent many years developing, refining and applying their work before the successful results were recognised and the ideas were adopted.

All of their systems, philosophies and methods grew into major international movements and organisations with considerable reach and lasting benefits for music education.

Dalcroze Eurhythmics

emile-dalcroze

Swiss musician Émile Jaques-Dalcroze, developed a highly successful music education system using physical movement to teach rhythm, musical structure and expression. As anyone with performing and conducting experience understands, many aspects of playing music are profoundly physical, especially rhythm and phrasing. At the time, teaching musical concepts through conscious bodily motion was a valuable breakthrough with wide reaching effects.

Further reading:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dalcroze_Eurhythmics

http://www.dalcroze.org.au/dalcroze-eurythmics

http://dalcroze.org.uk/

http://www.dalcrozeusa.org/

Kodály method

zoltan-kodaly

Hungarian composer and musicologist Zoltán Kodály combined musical experiences such as listening, singing and movement in a child development approach, building a vastly improved and comprehensive music curriculum and method that has spread throughout the world, transforming music education. Along with composer Bela Bartok and others, he collected and published thousands of folk melodies in addition to his own works.

Further reading:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kod%C3%A1ly_method

http://www.iks.hu/

Orff Schulwerk

carl-orff

German composer Carl Orff formulated a child-centered way of learning approach to music education, treating music as an natural part of life and growth like language, incorporating play and less formal teaching in a friendly and kinder environment. His Schulwerk music combines movement, singing, playing, and improvisation.

Further reading:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orff_Schulwerk

http://www.orff-zentrum.de/

http://aosa.org/

Suzuki Method

shinichi-suzuki

Japanese violinist Shinichi Suzuki astonished the musical world in the 1960s with tour groups of young Japanese violinists to the USA. Suzuki’s innovations came from his understanding about the growth of spoken language in young children. When applied to learning music at the same age as a child learns to speak, the results created a revolution in instrumental pedagogy.

(As a former student of Suzuki who taught using his ideas and philosophy for 35 or so years, it is the innovation I know best and the raison d’être for this website, Teach Suzuki Violin.)

Further reading:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suzuki_method

http://internationalsuzuki.org/method.htm

http://www.suzukimethod.or.jp/indexE.html

Two Ongoing Improvements in the Psychology of Education

Two advances in understanding are currently creating better ways of teaching:

Harsh discipline and autocratic teaching methods continue to give way to more enlightened and friendly teacher-student working relationships. The teaching studio’s past reputation as an austere place of tortuous mistakes and corrections is fading into history. Learning to play music has been transformed into a enjoyable and enriching activity for all. “Because I say so” and “This is the way it has always been done” is recognised as poor education.

Better teaching strategies about motivation flowed from dispensing with behaviourist rewards and punishments. The influential theories of John Watson and B.F. Skinner left an unfortunate legacy of erroneous beliefs in behaviour modification as a viable teaching and parenting method.

Behaviourism is now acknowledged to be an essentially pessimistic theory when applied to people. It denies the existence of an inner life and the mind, reducing the causes of all human activity to stimulus and response. Improved teaching theory explains that playing and learning music is inherently attractive, interesting and enjoyable. Creating internal motivation and using the power of social groups are superior ways of building musical ability.

b-f-skinner

B.F. Skinner

Improving Notation

For more than three centuries, written scores have been the primary sources and reference points for transmitting classical music from its creators (composers) to musicians. Scores are permanent and easily reproducible records in an internationally accepted script, and unlikely to become redundant.

Nevertheless, notation is still an imperfect language for translating musical ideas into sound. When taken too literally, it can even hinder the growth of real musicality. In many cases notation only approximates a composer’s deeper intentions and scores can arguably be considered road maps for exploring their music.

A vital part of the musician’s art is understanding, interpreting and transforming musical symbols into living music and recreating the composer’s ideas in real time.

Although they don’t replace the need for referring to and studying scores, audio and video recordings add valuable knowledge for music students. What makes them so useful is the variety of interpretations available and their capacity to be listened to or viewed repeatedly. This shortens the time needed to become familiar with the music and may provide solutions to problems not answered or indicated in the score.

Integrating audio and video into scores is a potential area of improvement that has already begun to make substantial progress. Thousands of programs and apps are now available for reading, learning and composing music.

Some Current Opportunities for Progress

Beyond the impact of technology, improving our understandings and explanations about teaching and learning violin will create even more progress.

Two Common Problems – that have been around just about forever:

  1. Firstly, there’s the daunting amount of time and effort required to develop the ability to play well, a task faced by every musician. Short cuts, we soon discover, are an illusion. Although the responsibility for solving this problem is shared by teachers, parents and the student, ultimately a creative solution must be found by the individual player.
  2. Secondly, there’s the problem of enabling every student in a school or studio to consistently make good progress. A different problem than the first one, in this case it’s a mistake to look for purely individual solutions. Collective strategies and policies are needed to create social cohesion and collaboration within the group for everyone to benefit.

Possible Solutions

Solving both of these problems, especially for young students, means designing a local (home) culture of studying and playing music within the normal course of daily life. This is the hard part and as all parents know, not achieved overnight. If the student is the only one in the family group interested in music and involved in learning, a sustainable study culture is difficult to maintain. More than just habits, good cultures consist of positive behaviours, meanings and ideas deeply embedded in the collective life of the group.

A paradox at the centre of these two problems is the relative benefits of individualism versus those of the community. Individual autonomy promotes the growth of original ideas, yet tends towards isolation and self absorption. Communal solidarity provides direction and momentum but can foster conformity and conservatism. Resolving the interplay of these two dynamic aspects is more than just a balancing act. We need to find ways of getting the best out of both sides.

A strong supportive musical community of teachers, parents and students has proved to be the best way for all students in a music program or school to make good progress. It requires a lot of thought, time and effort to create and maintain an active sense of belonging, where everyone has the welfare and progress of all members at heart, using cooperative rather than competitive strategies. (Obviously at different times some students will progress more quickly. Good progress doesn’t mean equal progress.)

A New Age

As we discovered in the first Age of Enlightenment, we can make progress by criticising and improving the theories, ideas and methods of the past – without venerating them as immutable sources of authority. Art, as much as science, is an open ended search for imaginative solutions.

As well as living in a new age of Enlightenment, we are also in the midst of a great of age of Communication, where new ideas can spread quickly and easily to all people regardless of location. Exciting!

Cheers,

John

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Great Leaps Forward

Are the violins made by Italian master luthiers Stradivari and Guarnieri ever likely to be exceeded? Has the violin reached a perfect form, impossible to improve, or is it outdated technology in serious need of an upgrade?

stradivari_1721-and_regazzi_1998

Stradivarius 1721 – Regazzi 1998

Despite being interesting questions, they miss the point. It’s certainly possible to change the appearance of the violin without drastically altering its sound qualities. Today it can be produced in almost any colour, for example, and some changes could feasibly be made to the shape, yet practically all attempts to improve the fundamental design since Cremona’s golden period in the early 1700s have failed to catch on. Why? Because the violin that emerged from the workshops of these consummate instrument makers combines aesthetic form and function so completely.

It is simply a beautiful instrument that’s very good for creating what we love to hear – music. And good music, of course, is the real point.

(Two small changes were made in the 19th century to accommodate a rise in concert pitch. The neck was lengthened by about a centimetre and the bass bar strengthened to resist the higher string tension. Tellingly, a disastrous attempt to improve the tone by scorching the wood ruined a number of fine violins.)

Progress in Teaching and Learning

Can violin teaching and the way we learn to play the violin be improved?

This question can’t be answered so easily.

Here also it’s commonly believed no substantial improvements are possible. Looking at the rich and mature traditions of violin study, based on an exemplary literature with far reaching sets of major texts and exercises such as Sevcik and Kreutzer, plus the vast violin repertoire, it seems complete.

Newly published methods and textbooks mostly draw on these sources. However, it’s a mistake to rule out continuing progress. Big changes seemed unlikely before the arrival of European innovators like Dalcrose, Kodaly and Orff and from the far east, Suzuki. (See the next post.)

Learning Music with the New Technology

Now we are experiencing the rapid growth of new technologies. Are they beneficial to learning music or just a distraction? Are we on the brink of some great leaps forward or in danger of a slide backwards?

new-technology-music

Mastering the violin requires a large commitment of time and effort. Usually about 10 years or more of concentrated study are needed to learn the complex skills, knowledge and meanings (memes) of classical violin, and be fully recreated from previous generations of musician-teachers.

Teachers have an indispensable role. Music is a profoundly human experience, and it’s doubtful that the teacher-student model of person to person musical training can be successfully superseded. Live teaching via video streaming is becoming more common, but it lacks the shared proximity of the studio.

The idea of learning music from a robot is unappealing, to say the least.

The growth of musical ability and meaning is intricate, complex and personal, containing subtleties beyond the capacity of any software program. Computers can play chess with number crunching prowess. Can they determine the interpretive possibilities of an exquisite phrase in a Mozart concerto?

What is making a big difference is the right use of new technology, which allows the violin to be accessible to more people than ever before.

We know that J.S. Bach, for instance, occasionally made long journeys on foot to experience the playing of great musicians, whereas today we can hear and view multiple performances by a variety of international virtuosos while living in some of the most remote places on the planet.

Suzuki and Audio Recordings

As he researched and developed his music education philosophy, Suzuki introduced daily listening to audio recordings of fine players to young students, creating a richer musical environment and speeding up their progress. His revelation about the connection between spoken language and music made immersion in the sound of the student’s current and future violin repertoire a key part of his teaching strategies.

Taking advantage of young children’s natural capacity for language for learning music produces extraordinary results. This explanation has created real progress in music education around the world, as shown by the great surge of fluent young violinists in schools and orchestras. It also lowered the average age at which children start lessons and when they reach the professional violin repertoire.

suzuki-musicians

The spread of online video performances is also having a powerful impact. Due to the large visual component of playing the violin, young children will also absorb the way high level violinists look and move. Video performances highlight the refined actions and expressive movement violinists use to play and communicate their music to the audience.

How to take advantage of the New Technology

Audio recordings provide the opportunity to study the art of world class players and experience their differing interpretations. I’ve summarised this in the post, How to use Audio Recordings for Violin Teaching and Study.

Online video performances enable us to see and experience the music beyond the sound. This includes technical knowledge such as bowing, bow division, positions, musical and interpretive questions such as style and character, right down to phrasing and dynamics. Some accuracy issues, like rhythmic complexities for example, are better understood visually. You can pick up hints about stage presence, movement and how to integrate your performance with the orchestra or accompaniment.

The two main sources are YouTube and Vimeo. Look at the contrasting  styles of these two performances of the Tchaikovsky Concerto.

Online video tutorials are available that demonstrate specific techniques and exercises, providing a useful addition to live lessons. One of the best is Violin Masterclass.

DVDs. Due to their superior audio and vision in comparison to online videos and their extended length, DVDs are invaluable resources for study.

hilary-hahn-dvd

Software and apps. A great variety of music education products are emerging, and it’s clear this type of technology is just beginning. Some of the more useful ones help with basic skills and knowledge – such as keys, time signatures, rhythm, note recognition, intervals, harmonic analysis, composition, transcription, arranging and editing.

Electronic tuners and digital metronomes have been around for some time and are only marginally more convenient than their analogue counterparts – tuning forks and mechanical metronomes – until their batteries run out. Electronic tuners are easy to use and adjust, even if they take over the ear’s job.

clip on tuner

In the next post, I’ll discuss the potential for progress in teaching and learning beyond the use of technology.

Thanks for visiting Teach Suzuki Violin – and a warm welcome to all of the new members and subscribers!

Cheers,

John

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Hungarian Dance No 5 by Brahms

Hungarian Dance No 5 by Brahms, like Monti’s Czardas in the the previous post, is another one of those flamboyant pieces riding at the edge of passionate abandon. Johannes Brahms borrowed the melody for his four hands piano composition thinking it was a Hungarian folk tune, not knowing it was written by Hungarian composer-conductor Béla Kéler. Martin Schmeling arranged it for orchestra and its popularity produced numerous arrangements for other instruments.

Brahms-at-the-piano

Violinists such as Joseph Joachim and Fritz Kreisler wrote arrangements for violin that make dramatic use of chords, double stops and higher registers. The easy version in this post is a good concert solo for violinists at about Volume 4 level.

(On a personal note, although I didn’t get the opportunity to know my Hungarian grandfather, I inherited a love of the music of his country – prompting a visit to the Liszt Academy in Budapest a couple of years ago during a dark and icy European winter. We realised while we were there that in addition to producing great music and musicians, Hungarians also make the best cherry tart on the planet.)

Hungarian-cherries

Main Points of Interest

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Czardas – Monti’s Marvel

Czardas! From the moment they hear the alluring gypsy-like melodies, every young violinist wants to play this famous showpiece. It’s impossible play Czardas without the pulse quickening and life seeming a little better than before. The romance of this cliche-defying classic continues to attract and thrill audiences everywhere.

Photo by Nat Farbman 1939

Photo by Nat Farbman 1939

Paradoxically, Czardas wasn’t composed by a dashing dark-eyed Romani violinist from Hungary. It was written by Italian violinist, mandolinist, conductor Vittorio Monti, born in Naples in 1868.

v-monti

This iconic piece’s enduring popularity has caused it to be transposed and arranged from the original versions for violin or mandolin and piano into a bewildering array of instruments and ensembles.

Violinists can enjoy the improvisational flavour of Czardas by adding their own personal ad lib touches, as you can see in some of the video performances below. Read More →

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How to use the magic power of repetition to acquire ability

Ability, especially if it is exceptional, has this wonderful and mysterious quality of fluency and grace. You can see and hear it every day in the most ordinary places and situations: a skateboarder gliding past on the street, a barista producing another cup of perfect aromatic coffee, the clear voice of a child speaking, the sure motions of a chef creating a culinary masterpiece.

skateboarder

Photo by Hans Eiskonen

What ability looks like

  • Fluency and ease of movement.
  • The skill looks and sounds natural and seems effortless. Observers are often unaware of the level of difficulty – until they try to do it themselves.
  • The skill is integrated into the whole. Physical actions seem to involve the whole body rather than just one part, such as an arm or leg.
  • It works spontaneously and can easily adapt to different situations or contexts.
  • The performer’s self awareness is minimised, and absorption in the activity is near total.

Musicians and other performing artists who have achieved high levels of ability are able to focus on expression, communication and subtle details while performing the most complex passages. I once watched Vadim Repin rehearsing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with orchestra, chatting away with the conductor as he played. (In the video below he is playing the Tchaik in 1989 – when he was a teenager.) Read More →

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The Advanced Player’s Bowhold

It’s natural in the early stages of violin studies to focus on left hand skills. After all, there’s little worse than playing out of tune! Then as string students give more attention to mastery of the right arm – the creator and controller of sound – things really start to improve. The reason, of course, is that so much of tone quality, note duration, note speed, articulation, shape and colour comes from the violin’s magic wand – the bow.

Sarah Perricone

Sarah Perricone

Since I posted Making a great bowhold for beginners, several visitors to Teach Suzuki Violin asked how Suzuki taught the advanced player’s bowhold.

Suzuki was very particular about where each finger is placed on the bow, and trained us to use flexible finger motion actively in our bow strokes. As a prerequisite to flexibility, the fingers need to be shaped and positioned correctly, as in Sarah Perricone’s perfect bowhold above. (You can watch Gwyn Cole’s delightful cameo of Sarah on Vimeo at the end of this post.)

Let’s review the basics.

Finger Shape and Place

  1. Position the thumb between the two middle fingers, taking hold of the stick just in front of the frog at the leather binding. The right edge of the thumbnail touches the stick and the fingers wrap over – no further than the pads. The back of the hand is relatively flat.
  2. The index finger rests on the stick at the first joint. Suzuki emphasized stable arm weight rather than muscle pressure for producing powerful tone.
  3. The second finger, slightly ahead of the thumb, forms the upper part of the fulcrum.
  4. Third (ring) finger curves around the stick.
  5. The little finger curves and sits on the stick, not too far from the ring finger.
  6. Hold in position with everything soft and relaxed, and a little space between fingers.

Balance

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Corelli’s Courante

Arcangelo Corelli’s Courante in Suzuki Volume 7 comes from his Concerto Grosso No. 6. Today a concerto is known as a piece of music in three movements, usually played by one solo instrument and orchestra, but why grosso?

Photo by Larisa Birta

Photo by Larisa Birta

Grosso means big in Italian, and concerto grosso refers to a concerto with a group of soloists plus orchestra – a kind of big concerto. Corelli was the first major composer to use the term and other composers, such as Geminiani, Locatelli, Torelli, Bach and especially Handel, subsequently took up the form. Finally it was superseded by the solo concerto and sinfonia concertante.

Concerti grossi (plural) from the Baroque era (approx. 1600  to 1750) are generally pleasant harmonious pieces, often without prominent solo lines, a reason perhaps why they were overtaken by the solo concerto.

Corelli’s Op. 6, for two violins and cello, with stronger melodies and themes, has the balance about right, and it remains a popular concert piece.

Trills

When violin students first encounter trills in Volume 2, the big issue is finger speed. In the effort go faster, however, the upper trilling finger may hammer down too strongly and the lower finger may press down on the fingerboard with too much force. Paradoxically, it has the effect of restricting speed. It’s better to relax the left hand, focus on clarity and listen for accurate pitch in the upper note.

What is the musical purpose of trills? Are they simply ornamental? One way to find out is to play the piece omitting the trills. If you know the piece well enough, it sounds like part of the melody is missing, though not as much as when you leave out a note or two.

Trills in Baroque music are usually added to produce harmonic suspensions, preparing for and leading into cadences. They may begin on or above the principal note and unless there are specific signs in the score, can be played at the performer’s discretion.

There’s some trill exercises on previous posts here at Teach Suzuki Violin. Here’s the links: Read More →

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How to Teach Musical Phrasing

What is musical phrasing? It is a mysterious and elusive concept even for experienced musicians to explain.

Musical phrasing is essentially about grouping notes in performance to make the music more meaningful and enjoyable for the audience. Notes within phrases can grouped and interpreted in a myriad ways, with different kinds of connections and articulations, dynamics, weights, colours, styles, variations in speed and phrase rhythm – all to give listeners a clearer musical experience.

Stephanie Novacek

Stephanie Novacek, mezzo-soprano

Violinists (and other instrumentalists) commonly draw on analogies and similarities with language, such as sentences, lyrics, poetry and punctuation; or with visual terms like expressive shaping.

These allusions are very useful for understanding phrasing, especially when combined with listening to the music and above all, playing it for yourself.

Even very young students understand and appreciate phrases quite well and benefit musically from studying how to play them.

How to Teach Musical Phrasing

Breathing Life into the Music

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