Five Ways to Foster the Highest Standards of Violin Playing

Listening to a young student playing her latest piece one day in the violin studio, I became aware that I was mentally adjusting and correcting her intonation to make it acceptable. Just to make sure, I recorded her playing and listened back to it later. Sure enough, the parts I thought were off, were indeed so, plus a few more that I’d overlooked! I had been willing her to play in tune – and it appeared to be working. I should have followed it up with her immediately. Whoops!

It was mother-tongue in reverse. If you hear the wrong things all the time, they begin to sound ok – and less wrong. It’s like living next to a busy street: after a while you tune out the noise.

busy-street

Likewise if you or your students spend a lot of time practising and playing alone, strange things start to happen without you realising it. Little peculiarities creep into the sound of the music – odd note shapes, scratchy tone, misplaced accents, funny little squeaks or a sound quality that is too uniquely personal.

I’ll tell you a little story to illustrate this point.

We joined a large group of students to visit Singapore in the 1980’s for some workshops and concerts with Dr Suzuki and a few young Japanese students from the Suzuki tour group. The trip was full of amazing and hilarious incidents. An amusing one happened while I was sitting in the soft light of the hotel foyer one evening waiting for my friends to arrive.

A band was playing tasteful relaxing music led by a clarinet player. Now I’ll be honest, wind instruments aren’t exactly my cup of tea, except perhaps in Mozart’s clarinet music. Anyhow, the music was pleasant easy listening, as you would expect in a hotel foyer.

As the band played through their pieces I became aware of a subtle change in the tone of the clarinet. When I turned around to look at the band I was surprised to see that the leader was no longer actually on the clarinet. He was now on a violin, playing with a sound that was remarkably like his clarinet. I nearly laughed aloud, amazed at his skill in creating a complex windlike tone from the violin.

violin-with-clarinet

His first instrument and great love was the clarinet, which he played with fluent enjoyment. Judging from the difficulty he was having keeping it on his shoulder and the collapsed shape of his left hand, the violin came later. As part of his admirable achievement of teaching himself to play it, he’d measured up to the standard he knew best – the golden tones of his clarinet. So in the long lonely hours of the practice room it was perfectly logical and natural for him to imitate the sound that he knew and loved so much.

Musicians steeped in their traditional folk genres do much the same, colouring the sound of their violin with the hues of their cultural heritage. Fiddlers playing Country, Irish, Gypsy, Classical and Blues all have a distinctive recognisable sound.

Classical music has spread out into a world-wide culture, making it impossible to distinguish the country of origin of international level violinists from their sound alone. Despite significant differences in elements such as style, personality and interpretation, the playing standards are more or less universal.

Five Ways to Foster the Highest Standards of Violin Playing

How do you foster and uphold the highest standards of playing for yourself or your students? And what’s the best way to keep in touch with best practice in playing and teaching?

Whether you are a teacher, student or parent, the answer comes from being in constant contact with international playing standards – of the musicians themselves.

  • 1. Go to live concerts. Apart from the rush of energy and inspiration that comes from experiencing a great concert, live performances transport you back to where you belong – into the stratosphere of great music making at the highest level.
  • 2. Listen to high quality audio and video recordings of the great violinists. Over the years I have amassed a large collection of audio and video recordings of the great violinists for listening and showing to students. These great players are happy to tirelessly play the same virtual performance over and over. (To student, “Did you hear how she finished that phrase? If we ask her nicely, she’ll play it for us again.”) Many of these are now available on Youtube and other internet platforms.

Here’s a great example. Arabella Steinbacher plays Fritz Kreisler’s Recitativo and Scerzo-Caprice. Watch for the awesome vibrato at the start!

  • 3. Attend workshops and masterclasses. Get a group of teachers together for a workshop and a masterclass or two and something special always happens.
  • 4. Study, perform and spend time in the company of high level players. Just like the best environment to learn to speak French is in France, the best place to learn great music is in the company of high level musicians.
  • 5. Record your playing. Like me, you’ll be surprised at what you pick up!

Thanks for coming to Teach Suzuki Violin! Next week it’s Back to Bach. We look at the celestial second movement of J.S. Bach’s Violin Concerto in A minor.

Cheers,

John

 

 

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