Welcome back to Teach Suzuki Violin and thank you for your patience. The two days offline seemed like an eternity. The technical issue has been fixed. Thanks, Aaron, you’re a genius! (Even if you are my son…)
During a lesson on the Mozart D Major concerto a senior student asked, “What stage of the Suzuki violin program does this concerto represent?” Perhaps because it’s the 10th and last of the regular Suzuki volumes, she was surprised at the reply. “Äbout half way.”
The intention of the little joke was to try to gently undo her concepts of musical stages and destinations. A great delight of music and indeed of all of the arts, is its limitless quality. There’s always more musical wonders to discover and create. No final destination – and in truth, no half way point.
Beyond questions of stages and levels with this concerto, students experience the revelation of conversing with Mozart through playing his music. Learning the two Mozart concertos in Volumes 9 and 10 transforms everything you know and feel about violin music and it makes you want to listen to and play his creations for the rest of your life.
In his autobiographical book, Nurtured by Love, Suzuki describes losing feeling in his arms during a performance of Mozart’s music. I can understand why. On several occasions I’ve experienced electric waves of astonishment at the creative imagination of Mozart’s melodies. Why does his music sound so unpredictable, right and lovely?
Mozart wrote the D major concerto K.218 when he was 19 years old, already a mature composer (and beyond half way!). Amazingly, he composed K. 211, 216, 218 and 219 within a few months, between June and December 1775, revising them a few years later for his friend, violinist Antonio Brunetti.
Before learning the concerto it’s valuable to listen to a variety of performances to help form your own ideas about the music. Unlike the other 8 Suzuki books, there’s no set recordings for the two Mozart concertos, but there are lots to choose from.
So many fine performances are available that it’s hard to find ones to recommend over the others. You may find it beneficial to work with several different recordings, choosing particular qualities in each one that attract you. Just remember that at this stage we are using the cadenzas written by Joseph Joachim.
There are some epic performances on Youtube, if you can ignore the pesky ads! I’ve included a few at the end of this post – the performances, that is.
The first movement of the concerto revels in exuberant agility, springing with optimistic enthusiasm into a melodic line of energetic runs and leaps, flying above the support and balance of the orchestra. It all sounds so effortlessly spontaneous, unburdened by doubt or indecision, a wonder of creativity.
This is technically uncomplicated, but make sure the upper A is nicely in tune – 4th finger, leaving 1st down on D.
As you go on to memorise the music, take time with this phrase to consider each note, slowly at first – the shape, weight, on or off the string, how it connects to the next note, what part of the bow to play it. This will give you valuable clues to the whole movement.
The fine details within phrases are as important as the whole. Like French and Japanese cooking (I’m a fan of both) where the ingredients’ freshness, maturity, size, taste, colour and even origin are all vital considerations to the meal experience. They come together in correct combinations, with perfect timing, the right temperatures, enticing aromas, attractive presentation, in an elegant setting and in good company.
The analogy is an apt one in so many ways. Each note in a phrase has its own shape, tone, colour, flavour and volume, combining in musically attractive ways. Sample the following video performances to see which suits your taste, contrasting styles and interpretations. Notice the bow divisions, for example. All of the violinists play the staccato quavers in measure 44 at the heel.
Because the trills arrive at places determined by musical considerations alone, Mozart of course gives no regard to whether they are technically easy to play or not.
There’s time enough to prepare the trill in bar 46, and where they arrive at the ends of phrases. The trills in measures 99 and 193, and in particular bar 142, are more challenging as they require faster preparation and shifting.
Practise at a slow tempo, but with quick movements. Place fingers into position quickly, ahead of time, starting each bow stroke with extra attack and bite.
As we saw in Volume 9’s A Major Concerto K. 219, the melody ranges freely into the upper register more than most of the preceding pieces in the Suzuki repertoire. It takes time to become familiar and comfortable with the higher notes – and to hear and play them accurately and clearly.
To be continued…
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What kind of person was Shinichi Suzuki (1898-1998), the famous Japanese violin teacher whose work revolutionized music education and lowered the age children begin learning music all over the world?
The attraction of a charismatic leader or teacher can trigger responses from followers, students and supporters that may, in reflection, seem embarrassingly naive, overly hopeful and blindly emotional. Adulation delivers influence, power and permission, and putting too much faith in leaders creates risks – and as history shows, the dangers of the pedestal can disastrously overbalance the benefits.
By contrast, truly great teachers empower and inspire their students by sharing their mastery, knowledge and vision freely, and serve without succumbing to the temptations and perks that follow their success and popularity. Expertise and integrity are inseparable qualities of their leadership.
What do we know about Shinichi Suzuki ?
In public, Suzuki was an outlier even in his own country, yet eventually recognised as a national treasure, a pedagogical phenomenon, and a philosopher of the stature of a Tolstoy or Thoreau. But what sort of person was he in everyday life?
Personal accounts and anecdotes of westerners who studied with him are often mixed with the cultural exoticism of student life in rural Japan. Friends used to ask me, “Why did you go to study classical violin teaching in Japan of all places?” The stories I told of life at the Suzuki Institute were as much about the quirks and quaints of Japanese culture as about my studies with Suzuki.
Violin teacher and author Lois Shepheard brings us closer to both the man and the teacher in her memoir-biography, Memories of Dr Shinichi Suzuki.
A pioneering violinist-teacher in the Australian Suzuki scene, Lois uncovers some little known facts about the early years of Suzuki’s teaching as she recounts her time in Matsumoto. And foreigners who have lived in this fascinating and enigmatic country will recognise the curious and humorous experiences of being an alien in Japan.
Her account includes the difficulties his German-born wife, Waltraud, experienced living as a westerner in the complex cultural traditions of Japan. During the couple’s stay in a Tokyo hotel, the staff once refused to give her the key to their room because they couldn’t conceive of a foreigner being married to Suzuki, a Japanese.
Suzuki emerges as the kindly professor, unselfconsciously generous, unfailingly cheerful and funny, jocular, almost naively unworldly, an addicted smoker consumed in his work around the clock. There appears to have been little difference between his public and private persona, although Waltraud would surely have added ‘exasperating‘ to the list.
The recollections of Lois’s time at the Suzuki Institute and beyond provide readers with an authentic first hand account of the man behind the legend, with all the colour of her daily interactions with the Suzukis.
Unquestionably, knowing more about Suzuki helps us understand how to teach and learn better. His philosophy is delightfully contagious. As Lois and others explain, Suzuki built much more than a mere method.
Please follow this link if you wish to purchase the book: https://ipoz.biz/Titles/Suzuki.htm
(Disclosure: I have no financial interest in the sale or otherwise of this book.)
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Coming up next: Violin Concerto in D Major, K218 by WA Mozart – 1st Movement
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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?
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.)
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.
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?
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.)
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.)
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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 →
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.
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 →