Concerts

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 we 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

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Overcoming Performance Anxiety – A Personal Odyssey

In this post, the second about overcoming performance anxiety, I relate how we handled it in our violin institute and my personal experiences. In the lead up to my final concert in Japan, I stumbled upon a solution to this mystifying nervous reaction. Later on I realised it is an old technique, used by many before me.

Graduation-Concert-87

(This photo from should get a few laughs from old friends and colleagues.)

It’s clear for teaching violin, or any of the performing arts, that there are two starting points when dealing with the problem of performance anxiety.

  1. Bypassing it from the very beginning;
  2. Overcoming it when you’ve already got it.

This rather simple and obvious division helps us determine which teaching and learning strategies we need to use for playing on stage with serenity and confidence.

1. Bypassing Performance Anxiety

As a result of some of my own experiences and those of my musician and music teacher friends, focus was initially centred on the second point: how to help students overcome performance anxiety. I wondered if predisposition (or luck) played a significant role in whether or not a performer suffered from nerves on stage.

The picture changed when we saw the concerts and classes of young violinists from the Suzuki Institute in Matsumoto. Performers of all ages appeared remarkably composed on stage. They were very well prepared and rehearsed, played securely from memory and with rare exceptions, seemed quite happy and relaxed to perform in front of large audiences.

Suzuki-Violinists-at-the-Budokan

Watching them confirmed to me the answer was training, learning and teaching – and not luck or natural propensity.

So on returning to teaching at our violin institute, we made a policy of giving all players lots of regular opportunities to perform publicly, as soloists and in groups, making sure no one was left out, regardless of age or level. Soloists played for our enthusiastic audience of parents in the last session of group class and we held extra solo preparation classes leading up to concert performances.

This was very successful, especially when we changed to regular weekly group classes. Students became accustomed to playing with confidence and flair in public, in both group pieces and solos, to the point where it became normal.

2. Overcoming Performance Anxiety

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The Joy of Conducting

One day in our group classes I asked a parent to join me conducting a piece, and immediately saw how valuable and enjoyable it was – both for them and for students, especially their own child! After conducting in student concerts and classes for so long, I’d forgotten how difficult and strenuous it was to maintain the conducting patterns for each metre while focused on the musical qualities, such as dynamics and expression.

Gustavo Dudamel

Gustavo Dudamel, conductor, Los Angeles Phil. (Photo by Chris Lee)

Several brave parents tried their hand at it and we repeated the exercise at subsequent group classes. I encouraged them to practise conducting at home. The effect was truly beneficial: conducting deepened parents’ understanding of the music and enjoyment of helping their children with home study and practice. AND it was lots of fun!

As any teacher knows, being able to conduct well makes a big difference to group performances. A little bravado helps if you’re not a confident conductor and it’s reassuring to know that we all make mistakes. I cringe with embarrassment at the memory of the gaffes in my early conducting efforts. On one forgettable occasion I was conducting an orchestra of teachers and students at a big concert with dangerous enthusiasm. All was going beautifully until I wildly came in calling for a dramatic forte a whole beat too early. My generous and imperturbable colleagues thankfully didn’t appear to notice.

Unless you aspire to take up conducting professionally, taking a formal course isn’t really necessary. It’s relatively easy to acquire the basics – with guidance from an experienced conductor, online resources and lots of practice. I learned to conduct mainly through self-study and from observing and talking to good conductors.

The Joy of Conducting!

Learn The Basic Patterns

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Tone Production – the Heart and Soul of Violin

My daughter loves music of all kinds. I suppose it is inevitable in our family of musicians. She learned to play the violin from an early age, graduated from the Suzuki Institute in Japan and went on to become a fine player and teacher. We share a love and an appreciation of great violin music and violinists. Unlike me, she also has great taste and knowledge about good non-classical musicians, so when she recommends a particular concert or musician, I know we are in for a real treat.

John-Hammond-01-150x150She urged us to go and see legendary blues singer-guitarist John Hammond, appearing at a local wine bar on his way to a big music festival. Amazingly, in spite of playing guitar and enjoying the blues from my university folk music days, I’d never heard of him. Yes, ahem, classical violin can be all-absorbing.

Allie and I arrived early to get good seats in the small venue, not knowing when he was due to come on. Prior to the main act we heard several supporting musicians and some of them were very good. In fact one was so good that I said to Allie, “Is this John Hammond?” “Don’t know,” she gestured, “Could be.” My question was answered definitively a little later when John came on stage. All doubts vanished instantly as he sang and played with every fibre of his being, at ten times the volume of all the previous musicians! The microphone, amplifier and speakers were simply superfluous. The audience in the wine bar was stunned into rapturous appreciation, overwhelmed by the blast of great music emanating from this extraordinary musician.

Later as Allie and I left to go home, our conversation turned to the biggest distinguishing characteristics of the really good musicians in virtually every genre: Powerful Projection. Commanding Presence. Compelling Conviction. We recalled similar experiences at concerts of international violinists. They all had an enormous sound. And not just big in volume, big in heart and soul.

Here’s a little of JH on Youtube. Mind you, it’s no substitute for seeing him live.

And here’s Maxim Vengerov’s violin version with a bit of fun.

Tone, Tone, Tone

At the Suzuki Institute in Japan, tone – the quality of sound – was one of Suzuki’s long-standing obsessions. “I only teach tone,” he said constantly, and intrinsic to his teaching about tone quality was volume. His oft-repeated joke to us was, “Please say after me: My tone is too small.” When we said these words back to him, he laughed and replied, “Yes, I think so.

Suzuki-Teaching-3

 

The ability to produce and project a big sound was fundamental to Suzuki’s teaching about tone. I use an analogy with running to help explain to students why it is so important to study it: A fast runner has the ability to run slowly, but a slow runner cannot run quickly. In other words if you can play loudly, you’re also able to play softly when needed, but the reverse isn’t true.

Six Key Factors in Tone Production

  1. Resonance
  2. Weight
  3. Bow Speed
  4. Proximity to the Bridge
  5. Projection
  6. Heart and Soul

1. How to Teach Resonance

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Planning a Solo Concert

For some reason, that classic Murphy’s Law, Anything that can go wrong – will go wrong, applies particularly well to violin student concerts. I’ve seen my fair share of disasters during over three of decades of teaching. “A shower of bows fell on the stage,” was my colleague’s description of our tour group’s concert disaster in Singapore. Players were a little too close to each other on stage and one small stumble in the back row set off a domino effect that ran through the whole group. Perhaps the humidity had something to do with it. Snapping strings, crashing chin rests and breaking bridges were unexceptional occurrences. Starting to tune student violins before one memorable concert, I was dismayed to realize that the venerable old grand piano on stage was tuned over a semitone too low and I’d failed to check it. We had no choice but to carry on, with our strings feeling like rubber bands.

In retrospect, many of these calamities were avoidable. Our concert planning has improved over the years and now major mishaps are rare. We work from an exhaustive (if not exhausting) checklist that has all but eliminated groans and gripes on the big day. Now we can relax as the production gets under way, knowing we’ve got everything covered. It’s a great feeling. Things may go wrong – and little ones still do – but they are never serious enough to sink the show. Read More →

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The Making of Charisma

A couple of years ago, I saw Vadim Repin play Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in D twice – in rehearsal and the next day in concert.

Vadim Repin

Vadim Repin

It’s a concerto I love and know well, one I studied in Japan with Suzuki – with mixed success I might add, but that’s another story. Repin, born in Siberia, knew it so infallibly well he was able to chat away, in Russian of course, with conductor Vladimir Verbitsky whilst playing at the rehearsal.

During both performances I experienced spine-tingling sensations from his charismatic tone and interpretation. I found it hard to sleep that night as the sound of his playing rolled around in my head like the swell of great ocean waves. It set me thinking again about the nature of charisma. I’d previously heard Tchaikovsky’s concerto played in this same hall by other world class violinists on several occasions, without this electrifying effect.

What is Charisma?

What is this magical mysterious quality that attracts us with such a powerful magnetic force? Is it possible to teach and learn charisma? Musical pundits describe it as a pure, mystifying gift – unobtainable unless you’ve somehow always had it. However they are perhaps better at talking about what it is not, agreeing that it cannot be created by mere virtuosity and flawless technique. However, the question remains: as performers, is our charismatic appeal automatically created – or constrained – by some intangible force of nature arising at the time of our birth?

I don’t think anyone has completely unravelled the mystery, but my teaching experiences have shown me that many of the contributing factors can be taught and learned, giving rise to real charismatic performances. Some of the factors are surprisingly simple. Before I talk about each one, let me tell you about a very special solo I saw in Japan.

A Memorable Solo

At the Suzuki summer schools in Matsumoto, one evening is set aside for a Gala Concert. It features some of the best young players from around Japan, from the very young – like the four year old boy we saw play Vivaldi’s concerto in A minor – to mature teenagers’ renditions of Sarasate showpieces. One performance by a young teenage girl stands out in my mind more than any other. It became the inspiration for how I teach stage presence – or charisma, if you like – for soloists.

From the moment she stepped on to stage, everyone in the hall recognised that the performance would be something special. It began with her striking appearance: a tasteful red dress, long black boots, her long black hair and quick friendly smile. Striding onto stage with unselfconscious confidence, the sound of her boots echoes around the hall from the wooden stage. At centre stage, she smiles to the audience, pausing for a moment before an unhurried bow. When she bows, her hair cascades down in front, almost touching the floor. Rising, she tosses it back and lifts her violin into a dramatic stance. A little unhurried glance over to the accompanist and she is ready. We are all holding our breaths. Before a note is played, the whole audience is in her hands. We all know it will be good – and it is! Black boots

In my mind’s eye I can still see this solo when I teach stage presence. Beyond the music, she had learned and practised the art of performance until it became spontaneous and natural. It led me to ask: can we teach young players to perform with charisma? Now I truly believe so. For genuine charisma to emerge, important skills must be learned and practised in addition to the music. In other words, the right ingredients must be there first.

Prepare the way

Interviewed in her film, Portrait, Anne-Sophie Mutter recalls von Karajan’s response to her audition to play (at 13) with the Berlin Philharmonic as, “come back in a year” or words to that effect.  For professional musicians, the first obvious step is to make sure the piece is relatively perfect – confidently accurate at the right tempo and securely memorized. For this reason we choose solo pieces that the student has been playing well for some time; at least 6 months. A year is better. Then I ask the student to play the piece for me and some of the other teachers, in the presence of the parent. If we all agree the student is ready, we conduct a series of mini masterclasses with them, working mainly on musicality and expression.

Moving and Shaking

Times have changed. Almost any body movement when playing was once considered excessive and showy, but music is not just sound, it is also visual. It comes from living musicians who move and breathe with the music. But there is also a cultural factor – take a look at the contrast between the way Yehudi Menuhin and Janine Jansen move in the Mendelssohn Concerto in E Minor. We teach students to move with the music from the beginning. Even 3 year olds love to move. Over time it becomes a natural part of expression, amplifying emotions such as drama, energy, calm, pathos and humour in the music.

Janine Jansen

Janine Jansen, credits photo: Decca/Kasskara

Dressed to thrill

Because charisma has such a strong visual component, wearing the right clothes helps to spark it off. I ask parents to take time selecting clothes to suit the performance. It’s no accident that the most charismatic performers dress well. On the other hand, many professional musicians turn up on stage poorly dressed – too conservative or with wrong shapes and colours, exaggerating the body in an odd way. The remedy? Ask a French person – or at least someone who dresses well. Don’t choose your own clothes.

Staging the Walk

I tell my students that their solo begins whilst they are still off stage. Walking on to stage you are already communicating with the audience. If you step confidently with a welcoming demeanor, the audience will be with you – even before your bow touches the string. Practising the walk on to stage also minimizes and eliminates nerves. A senior student recently said to me after his solo, ‘I played well, but felt a touch of nerves, because I didn’t practise coming on to stage enough.’

Taking a Bow

The friendly unrushed bow on centre stage is the musician’s opportunity to greet the audience with genuine appreciation for their presence. It is more natural to look towards the feet when bowing. We teach our students to hold for a count of three, before arising quickly with a smile.  Try it.

 Posturing

Too many performances are tainted by poor and unusual posture. Drooping violins, strained necks, open mouths are ingrained habits practised unknowingly and can be an unwelcome distraction to an otherwise good performance. There’s little point in trying to fix them up on stage. Attractive playing posture is an integral part of studies. Play in front of a mirror sometimes.

 Projection

The ability to project well into a large space takes practice. Musicians know that making a larger sound is not achieved simply pressing harder or moving the bow more quickly, it means practising for more tone resonance. Professional soloists work  hard to produce a big and beautiful tone, one that has the power to reach the far corners of any auditorium. They can then adjust their projection to suit the space.

 This leads me to related point. Rehearsing in the actual performance space is good professional practice, because the hall or room space forms part of your violin’s voice, with a large influence on your sound and confidence.

Finishing

A good finish is as important as a good beginning. Is the ending dramatic, graceful, or fading into silence? The ending of Schumann’s Two Grenadiers is enhanced by lifting the final bow off the string in a dramatic gesture of triumph. By contrast the last note of Dvorak’s Humoresque finishes before the music ends – after several seconds of silent stillness.

These ‘charisma skills’ are not learned overnight. As with every consciously acquired ability, they are achieved by mindful and guided practice, one skill at a time. Stars are made, not born. (Just ask their parents.) We are born with our personality, our view on life, our take on the world, to colour our star in our own unique way, illuminating our music with our own distinctive light.

 Thanks for your interest. Me a comment below, I’d love to hear your thoughts on charisma.

Stay tuned! Coming up in a couple of weeks is an interview with British violinist, Tasmin Little.

Cheers, John

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