An Inside Look at Violin Making in Cremona

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Early last month, CBS News correspondent Bill Whitaker’s excellent 60 Minutes piece, The City of Music, profiled the long history of violin making in Cremona. The small Italian city has produced some of the world’s finest violins, including instruments by Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737) and luthier families such as Amati (active between 1537 and 1740), Guarneri, and Bergonzi.

Itzhak Perlman talks about the characteristics of his Strad and plays briefly. He describes his mental image of the sound and its sense of “sparkle.” Violinists Cho Liang Lin, Salvatore Accardo, and Anastasiya Petryshak also appear.

With one hundred and fifty shops, Cremona is still an epicenter of fine violin making. Whitaker offers an inside look at violin making and restoration, including the selection of wood which is based on resonance.

Watch the 60 Minutes report and then listen to Perlman’s Strad in action as he plays Fritz Kreisler’s Preludium and Allegro.

Zukerman on the Poetry of Tuning

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Violinist and violist Pinchas Zukerman shares some interesting thoughts about tuning in this excerpt from a masterclass. For Zukerman, tuning is more than a necessary mechanical process. It’s the merging of two contrasting elements: the bow, representing the “practical,” and the violin, representing the “emotional.” Most importantly, tuning and warming up should be approached musically.

Zukerman’s insights are a great reminder that violin playing starts in the mind. Tone production is about attitude and focused energy as the bow connects to the string and releases. “Technique is conception” was a favorite mantra of the late, legendary violinist and teacher, Zvi Zeitlin.

Here is Pinchas Zukerman performing Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3, K. 216 with the Ottawa, Canada-based National Arts Centre Orchestra:

Ten Tips for Youth Orchestra Students

Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela at the 2007 BBC Proms
Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela at the 2007 BBC Proms

At its best, orchestra playing is a unique combination of artistry and technical craft. It’s a skill which develops over time. As musicians play together, they develop increasing sensitivity and cohesiveness. With the help of a visionary conductor, a disparate group of highly skilled individuals is forged into a team.

Whether you’re a member of a student ensemble or an amateur performing in a community orchestra, here are a few orchestra playing tips to consider:

  1. Know how your part fits. Preparation goes beyond learning the notes. Be sure to listen to recordings of the piece you’re playing. Understand how your part fits into the whole. Pay attention to sections where the tempo or dynamics change.
  2. Feel the rhythm. Practice with a metronome and pay attention to the subdivisions within larger beats. When playing in the orchestra, feel a sense of collective rhythm. Be careful not to rush, especially in difficult fast passages. Even when it’s fast, you often have more time than you think you have, so fill out every beat. Anchor on important beats. Organize and group notes in ways which allow them to flow naturally. Carefully place pizzicatos so they don’t speak early. For soft pizzicatos consider just touching the string with the tip of your finger and release. Don’t forget to breathe.
  3. Use multiple senses. Imagine how you want the music to sound as you see the notes on the page. Listen to what’s happening around you. If you’re a string player, use peripheral vision to keep track of the section leader’s bow, and other bows around you. Make sure you’re in the same part of the bow as the leader and try to match bow speed. And, of course, watch the conductor.
  4. Bring a pencil, eraser and mute. 
  5. Pay attention to balance. Many students would be surprised to hear how softly professional string players can play. A soft dynamic in orchestra repertoire is generally much softer than the same dynamic in solo repertoire. It also requires a different tone color. If someone else in the orchestra has a solo line (usually in the woodwinds or brass), get out of the way and make sure the soloist doesn’t have to force to be heard.
  6. Play for the team. Always be mindful that you’re part of a collective sound. Never try to stick out. Listen to the players around you and blend in terms of sound and intonation.
  7. “Music Police” kill the music. If you hear a mistake, don’t point it out to your colleague. They probably also heard it and will try their best to not repeat it. “Music police” can create a debilitating and backstabbing atmosphere which kills real music making. Never react to a mistake, especially in a performance. Just stay in the “zone” of the piece.
  8. Be ready when the conductor is ready. It’s okay to drop out to mark an occasional bowing change, but never make the conductor wait for you. Use direct eye contact with conductors whenever possible.
  9. Where you sit isn’t important. Every part is essential. If you’re playing second violin, you often have rich inner voices and supporting lines which need to be brought out. Because it’s harder to hear, the people in the back of a section have the hardest job in terms of precision.
  10. Enjoy the sound around you. 

“Mam-bo!”

Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela gave a memorable performance of the Mambo from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story at the 2007 BBC Proms at London’s Royal Albert HallYou can hear them play the full Symphonic Dances from West Side Story here.

The Mambo has transcended West Side Story to become a cultural icon. It’s almost like a twentieth century Ode to Joy.

Gavotte from “Mignon”

"Mignon" postcards were popular in Europe after Ambroise Thomas' 1866 opera.
“Mignon” postcards were popular in Europe after the premiere of Ambroise Thomas’ opera in 1866.

If you’re a Suzuki violin student, you know the charmingly quirky Gavotte from “Mignon” by the transcription in Book 2. You may be less familiar with the piece’s composer and origin.

Mignon was a wildly successful 1866 French comic opera by Ambroise Thomas (1811-1896), longtime director of the Paris Conservatory. The three-act opera is based on Goethe’s novel, Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre. Its soap opera-like plot centers around a passionate romantic rivalry between two contrasting female characters: the seductive and unscrupulous Philine and the sweet, loving Mignon (who was kidnapped by Gypsies as a child and later discovers that she is the daughter of a wealthy gentleman). 

The Rondo-Gavotte, Me voici dans son boudoir, is sung in Act 2 by Frédéric, a young nobleman who is infatuated with Philine. He stands in her empty dressing room, overcome with excitement and anticipation at the prospect of seeing her. Although originally written for a lyric tenor, the aria is now also commonly sung by sopranos. Here is a performance by Marilyn Horne:

Other notable arias from Mignon include Non conosci il bel suoi and the final love duet, Ah ! son felice, son rapitaHere is the overture.

Sarasate’s Violin Transcription

By 1919, Mignon had enjoyed 1,500 performances at the Opéra-Comique in Paris where it opened. The opera’s popularity inspired this virtuoso showpiece, Romance et Gavotte de Mignon op.16, by Spanish violinist Pablo de Sarasate. Here is a recording by Tianwa Yang. You’ll hear the familiar Gavotte melody around the 4:40 mark:

Suzuki’s “Mignon”

From a pedagogical perspective, Suzuki’s transcription is valuable for both bow arm and left hand violin technique. Staying mainly in the middle of the bow, the eighth notes allow the student to listen for short but “ringing” staccatos, feeling a sense of springy connection and release with the bow (toh, toh). Later, as the student becomes more advanced, the sixteenth notes can become a brushy spiccato. Eighth notes in measures 38 and 42 can lift with a feeling of the elbow pushing the bow towards the Frog. Frequent re-takes with the bow should be timed so as not to cheat the preceding quarter notes. In the four note trills in measure five, a small amount of bow should be used with quick, precise energy in the left hand.

In the middle section, finger placement of the low B-flats and Fs should be practiced slowly and carefully, maintaining relaxation and correct shape of the left hand. The B-flat major scale is helpful for intonation in this section. The student gets great practice alternating between F-sharps and Fs and Bs and B-flats in this piece.

Most importantly, Gavotte from “Mignon” is about capturing an immaculate French style. Precise (never rushing) rhythm and a feeling of flow and motion to the ends of phrases are essential to this sense of style.

God Is in the Details

The Seagram Building in New York.
The Seagram Building

“God is in the details,” said Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969), one of the most significant architects of the twentieth century. Mies followed a modernist “less is more” aesthetic, which eliminated decoration and stripped architecture down to fundamental elements of structure and proportion. The results were serenely powerful and soulful monuments such as New York’s Seagram Building.

Mies, whose father was a master mason and stonecutter, found beauty in materials. Bronze, travertine, marble and glass were used in the Seagram Building, making it the most expensive skyscraper ever built at the time of its completion in 1958. The building was set back from the street in the middle of a large plaza, providing a satisfying visual break from the relentless New York grid and reinforcing the contrast with surrounding pre-war masonry structures. Mies paid attention to the way the carefully spaced window panels and vertical bronze mullions related to the lines of the plaza. To preserve the crisp geometry, window shades could be operated in three positions: fully open, halfway open/closed, or fully closed.

Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois
Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois

As other architects began following Mies’ lead throughout the 1960’s and 70’s, sleek, boxy skyscrapers began popping up in cities across the country. Unfortunately, many of the imitations lacked the elegance and sense of proportion which made Mies’ buildings come alive.

Recently, I began thinking about the importance of attention to detail in music. How can I move from one note to the next in a way which allows the music to flow? How should a phrase be shaped? How can I convey the structure of a piece? What sound quality and tonal colors are appropriate to the emotion of the music? Playing the right note at the right time is often a challenge, but it’s just the beginning. Musicianship is about how the notes are played. It’s a combination of thought and intuition. Listening is essential.

The physical motions of violin playing can be broken down into parts. If a technical element seems difficult, it’s probably the result of lack of attention to a specific detail. For beginning students, it’s essential to slowly and carefully build a foundation and then allow the structure to rise, one step at a time. This is the key to a lifetime of effortless, injury-free playing. In music and architecture, God truly is in the details.

Architecture starts when you carefully put two bricks together. There it begins.

True education is concerned not only with practical goals but also with values. Our aims assure us of our material life, our values make possible our spiritual life.

I don’t want to be interesting. I want to be good.

-Mies van der Rohe

Free Play: The Power of Improvisation in Life and the Arts

Unknown-38What is the source of a creative idea? What is the link between art and spirituality? How can we unlock our inner muse, find joy in the creative process and unleash the full potential of our imagination? Stephen Nachmanovitch’s book, Free Play: The Power of Improvisation in Life and the Arts delves into these questions. Nachmanovitch is an improvisational violinist and violistcomputer artist and teacher. Musicians and non-musicians alike will find his book meaningful, inspiring and thought provoking.

Nachmanovitch stresses that improvisation is not chaotic, but flows from a natural formal structure:

[quote]We carry around the rules inherent in our organism. As living, patterned beings, we are incapable of producing anything random. We cannot even program a computer to produce random numbers; the most we can do is create a pattern so complex that we get an illusion of randomness. Our body-mind is a highly organized and structured affair, interconnected as only a natural organism can be that has evolved over hundreds of millions of years. An improviser does not operate from a formless vacuum, but from three billion years of organic evolution; all that we were is encoded somewhere in us.[/quote]

Nachmanovitch also highlights the common threads which run through music, dance, visual art, literature and religious traditions. He shows that life and art are inseparable. Michelangelo believed that the statue already existed and that his job was simply to carve away the excess stone. Nachmanovitch suggests that:

[quote]As stone is to a sculptor, so time is to a musician. Whenever he gets up to play, the musician stands there facing his own unsculpted block of time.[/quote]

Nachmanovitch stresses the ephemeral aspect of improvisation and the spontaneous creative impulse:

[quote]The fact that improvisation vanishes makes us appreciate that every moment of life is unique-a kiss, a sunset, a dance, a joke. None will ever recur in quite the same way. Each happens only once in the history of the universe.[/quote]

To learn more about Nachmanovitch and his work, visit his website, listen to this podcast and watch this short interview:

[quote]If you forget yourself , you become the universe.[/quote]

-Hakuin Ekaku

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Four Points of Relaxation for Violin Playing

relaxationRelaxation is the key to all technique. Often when we’re on the spot trying to perform our best, the natural tendency is to tense up. The “fight or flight” instinct is activated. In violin playing, tension blocks the natural springy weight of the bow arm, leading to smaller tone and reduced control. Tension in the left hand causes fingers to push into the fingerboard and then lift too high, leading to loss of speed, accuracy and efficiency. There is also the danger of playing-related injury.

Often tension develops needlessly because we don’t take the time to establish the correct physical feeling and posture. During your next practice session, try placing the bow on the string, setting up good left hand posture and then isolate the following four areas for relaxation:

  • right shoulder
  • right elbow
  • right hand and wrist
  • knuckles of the left hand

Focus on each area individually for a few seconds and then play. If you feel tension creeping back in, shake out your arms and hands and go through the process again. Over time, the roadblock of tension will be removed, leading to more efficient playing.

[quote]The key to facility and accuracy and, ultimately, to complete mastery of violin technique is to be found in the relationship of mind to muscles, that is, in the ability to make the sequence of mental command and physical response as quick and as precise as possible.[/quote]

-Ivan Galamian

Vibrating Strings

Have you ever wondered what a vibrating violin string looks like in slow motion? Here is an interesting demonstration from the Discovery Channel. Notice that the E and G strings are vibrating sympathetically with the bowed A and D strings.

As string players, our goal is always to draw the most resonant sound from the instrument. It’s possible for the bow to slip and slide on the surface, never fully catching the string and missing the deep, focused “core” of the sound. At the same time, pressing will dampen the natural vibrations of the string. The bow arm should remain relaxed and springy, with natural weight transferring into the string. The energetic flow of the bow is essential from the moment the bow is pulled or pushed. Imagine the sound you want to produce and then listen carefully as you play. Continue to strive for a better tone every day.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Is the entire universe vibrating strings?[/typography]

Dr. Micho Kaku, who works in string theory, thinks so and offers interesting ideas in this Big Think talk. NOVA’s Elegant Universe: Resonance in Strings explains the theory further.