Vivaldi’s Concerto in A Minor

Antonio Vivaldi’s Concerto in A minor, Op. 3, No. 6 is well known to all Suzuki violin students. Vivaldi (1678-1741) contributed to the development of the violin as a solo instrument, dazzling audiences throughout Europe with shocking new sounds. He wrote over 500 concertos. For many years Vivaldi also directed the female music ensemble at Ospedale della Pietàa school for orphaned girls in Venice.

Let’s compare two excellent but contrasting performances. The first is a modern performance by legendary Polish violinist Henryk Szeryng (1918-1988). The three short movements are Allegro, Largo and Presto (fast, slow, fast):

Now let’s hear a performance which attempts to capture the instruments and style of Vivaldi’s time. Baroque soloists often added ornamentation and improvisatory elements similar to the approach of a jazz musician today. This performance is by Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra:

Do you prefer one of these recordings over another? It’s amazing that we can approach the same piece in so many different ways.

Brahms’s Waltz in A-Flat Major

Here is a great 2011 concert performance of Brahms’s Waltz No. 15 in A-Flat Major, Op. 39. The pianist is Leopoldo Lipstein. Listen to Richter Haaser play the complete set of sixteen waltzes here.

Did you notice the way the melody reaches higher with each phrase, climaxing at 1:01 only to fall back? There are also some fun harmonic surprises as Brahms shifts briefly into minor (around 0:30) and sequences in the “B” section (0:52-1:06). It’s amazing how much drama and expression can be packed into two minutes and twenty seven seconds.

Suzuki violin students learn an arrangement of this waltz in Book 2. The piece is excellent for developing bow control. Varied bow speeds are required for the uneven bowing as well as the crescendo. It’s important that a long, singing musical line is created regardless of where we are in the bow or how much bow is required for a given note. Elbow and upper arm motion is developed as students push the bow to the frog throughout this piece.

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Music of the Hunt

Vanity Sounds the Horn and Ignorance Unleashes the Hounds Overconfidence, Rashness, and Desire (from The Hunt of the Frail Stag), 1500–1525 South Netherlandish
“Vanity Sounds the Horn and Ignorance Unleashes the Hounds Overconfidence, Rashness, and Desire” (from The Hunt of the Frail Stag) , Dutch tapestry, 1500–1525

The sound of horns and trumpets evokes ancient and sometimes subconscious associations. Horns were used during the hunt to call hounds because their sound was similar to the human voice but could carry for great distances. Trumpets served as a way to communicate on the battlefield during military campaigns. Originally these instruments were played without valves. Only pitches in the harmonic series were available, leading to a uniquely “open” sound.

Let’s listen to a few pieces that were inspired by sounds of the hunt:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Paganini Caprice No. 9 in E Major[/typography]

Paganini’s Caprice No. 9 for violin imitates the sound of hunting horns. Here is a great performance by James Ehnes:

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Hunter’s Chorus[/typography]

Suzuki violin students learn an arrangement of Carl Maria Von Weber’s Hunter’s Chorus in Book 2. Here is the original version from Act 3 of Weber’s opera, Der Freischütz. Read the synopsis of the opera here.

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Bruckner’s “Hunt” Scherzo[/typography]

Anton Bruckner drew upon the mythical associations of horns and trumpets in the Scherzo of Symphony No. 4 in E-flat Major. Listen to the sense of quiet excitement and anticipation Bruckner creates in the opening of this movement as a medieval forest awakens. Notice the sound of distant, echoing horn and trumpet calls around 1:27. At 4:05 you’ll hear a more pastoral trio section before the return of the Scherzo.

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Listen to Daniel Barenboim and the Vienna Philharmonic perform Bruckner’s entire Symphony No. 4 here. The opening of the first movement, which also features the horn, emerges out of silence. The hushed string tremolo creates an intense rumble which seems otherworldly.

Did I miss any significant pieces which are inspired by the hunt? Share your own music in the thread below.

[quote]The basic hunting myth is of a kind of covenant between the animal world and the human world. The animal gives its life willingly, with the understanding that its life transcends its physical entity and will be returned to the soil or to the mother through some ritual of restoration. -Joseph Campbell, “The Power of Myth”[/quote]

Bach Cello Suites

Sometimes great creative ideas flow from constraints. J.S. Bach (1685-1750) wrote six unaccompanied cello suites and six solo sonatas and partitas for violin. This music delivers seemingly limitless musical expression with the simplest and most economic means. Bach’s ability to create complex and inventive counterpoint and harmony using a single solo instrument is amazing. The suites are a collection of Baroque dances which were popular in Bach’s time. Gavottes, bourrées, allemandes and courantes are now long forgotten dance forms, but the music remains timeless.

Here is Yo-Yo Ma playing all six cello suites:

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Bourrées from Suite No. 3[/typography]

Dr. Suzuki included violin and viola transcriptions of these Bourrées in Book 3. You can read about the history of the bourrée here. Here is Rostropovich playing the original version for cello. Consider how the second bourrée (starting around 1:57) contrasts in character with the first:

Six Steps to Great Violin Posture

Good posture is essential for tone production, ease of playing and injury prevention. We’re all built slightly differently and there is no “one right way” to play the violin. However, these six steps are worth keeping in mind as a checklist for optimal playing:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]1. Fix Right Foot First[/typography]

Start with your heels together and your feet in a “V” shape. Pick up your right foot and step to the side and slightly back. Your feet should be shoulder width apart. Move only your right foot, allowing your left foot to become a guide for the angle of the violin. Dr. Suzuki asked students to put slightly more weight on the left foot to keep the body straight. For young beginners it is helpful to trace an outline of the feet on poster board. This allows students to quickly find “rest position” and “playing position”. Beginners should always play standing. Later, when good posture is ingrained it is possible to transfer to a sitting position for orchestra and chamber music.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]2. Chin Power[/typography]

Keeping your body straight, look straight ahead and then turn your head slowly like a robot until your nose is lined up with your left foot. Then drop your chin, keeping your head straight or slightly tipped to the left. Try the same sequence with the violin. Get used to holding the violin only with your chin. Young students can place their left hand on their right shoulder, allowing the arm to hang. This ensures that the left shoulder remains free of tension and does not raise. It’s important to stay relaxed, allowing the violin to adjust to your posture, not the other way around. Keeping your spine straight, lean slightly into your lower back to bring the violin up. The violin rising to meet the bow helps contact with the string. Young beginners enjoy balancing a marble on the strings to show that the violin is not drooping.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]3. Nose, Fingerboard, Elbow, Left Foot[/typography]

When chin power is fully established, bring up the left hand. The nose, fingerboard, left elbow and left foot should all line up. Students who have difficulty drawing a straight bow in line with the bridge should make sure that the violin is not positioned to the left of the left foot. Bringing the violin in often fixes this problem immediately. Your elbow will gently swing further under to position your hand for the D and G strings and release back for the E string.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]4. The Left Hand[/typography]

Gently hold a racquetball in your left hand with your palm dropping. Take the ball out, maintaining the same shape. This is the correct shape of the hand for violin playing. When the left hand moves up to the fingerboard, first find the thumb, marking first position. The thumb should be vertical. For larger hands the thumb will lean back slightly towards the scroll. Allow the base of the first finger to rest on the other side of the violin’s neck. Keep the palm dropped. Gently turn your wrist to allow the fingers to form a relaxed roof over the fingerboard. Establish a soft, relaxed feeling in the hand and fingers while your arm is at your side and then keep this feeling as the arm is brought up into place. Never squeeze the violin’s neck. If your hand feels tight shake out and renew a feeling of relaxation. Relaxed fingers will naturally drop with the fingertips close over the strings. Fingers should drop on their tips with just enough relaxed weight to keep the string down. They should never press into the fingerboard. If the wrist is slightly turned, you’ll notice that the fingertips contact the string at a slight diagonal angle. The first joint of the finger should stay over the sting, only slightly behind the finger tip.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]5. The Bow Hold[/typography]

Loosely drop your right hand from your wrist and notice how the fingers naturally curve. This is how the bow hold should feel. The beginner can practice picking up a pencil with only the curved thumb and the second finger. This lineup should mark the center of the hand for balancing the bow. Start with your hand held out with the palm facing you. Bring the bow in, lining up with the base of your fingers. Make sure the thumb curves and pushes into the bow with a slight firmness. The thumb and second finger should form a ring, although they don’t need to touch. The third finger curves around the bow, the pinky curves on top and the first finger rests between the first and second joint. The bow should always be held loosely and never squeezed. Maintain a springy feeling in the fingers.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]6. The Right Arm[/typography]

The right arm should also feel relaxed and springy. Relaxed weight transfers from the shoulder through the elbow into a loose wrist and hand and into the string. Feel the connection of the hair and the string. Make sure the wrist is released as if you’re playing with a yo-yo and allow your elbow to settle and relax. String crossings should come from the hand with the elbow only following. When playing with more bow, the elbow and upper arm will push and pull the hand and the wrist will freely move like a paintbrush, rising at the frog and lowering as the bow is drawn to the tip to adjust the weight.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Building Good Habits[/typography]

Beginners will build a great foundation by focusing on one element at a time and creating good habits through correct repetition. If you’re a more advanced student and you face technical difficulty in any area of violin playing, attention to one or more of these posture points might lead to greater ease as a violinist.

Practicing is Problem Solving

Take a moment and think about your last practice session. Did you take time to imagine how you wanted the music to sound before you started playing? How attentively were you listening to yourself? Did you stay mentally alert? What did you do when you encountered a musical or technical hurdle?

It’s easy to fall into the trap of playing through a difficult passage slowly until you “get it right.” This is often counterproductive because it relies completely on luck. Without first identifying the problem and finding a solution, you may find yourself ingraining the bad habits you’re trying to eliminate. Remember, whatever we repeat becomes a habit, good or bad.

Productive practicing requires problem solving. It requires your mind as much as your fingers. It’s about visualization, audiation and evaluation. To avoid aimless practicing remember the motto “Stop…Think…Play.”

Whether you’re an older student practicing on your own, or a Suzuki parent guiding your child through a practice session, here are a few things to keep in mind:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Identify the Problem[/typography]

Listen carefully. Are you matching the sound that you have in your mind? If you’re a violinist the challenge could be anything from a string crossing to intonation (correct shape of the left hand and finger placement) to a difficult shift. Maybe there are a number of challenges that need to be isolated, as in the Bach Minuets in Suzuki Book 1. Take one problem at a time and work patiently.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Unit Practice[/typography]

Unit practice involves isolating a small group of notes and repeating them. Use your time effectively by practicing only the problem spot. For shifts start from the preceding note, memorizing the distance visually and physically. Focusing on small units helps your brain absorb new skills quickly. Start by repeating small units and then begin adding and combining other units. If you’re confronted with a run of notes (as in La Folia in Suzuki Book 6) it’s helpful to isolate all the notes on each string, stopping for each string crossing. In Witches Dance the triplets can be isolated into rhythmic units.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Isolate the bow and the left hand[/typography]

Reduce a passage to open strings to practice string crossings and bowing. For co-ordination between the left and right hands, stop the bow in between each note to set each finger carefully. Long slurs can also be practiced with stopped bows.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Tempo Adjustment[/typography]

Practice slower and faster than the tempo you intend to take. Feel the inside beats to maintain a sense of pulse. Use the metronome to gradually build up speed for fast music.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Make up rhythms[/typography]

For straight eighth or sixteenth note passages, practice with a variety of rhythms to increase finger co-ordination and improve evenness, quickness and strength.

These are just a few strategies that might help you overcome technical challenges. For more thoughts on practicing read The Most Valuable Lesson I Learned from Playing the Violin and Don’t Just Learn-Overlearn! Next time you take out the violin try to listen with your teacher’s critical ear. Challenge yourself to become your own teacher and remember that good practicing requires problem solving.

Witches’ Dance

Nicolo Paganini by Richard James Lane

Suzuki violin students learn the theme from Witches’ Dance in Book 2. Here is the original piece by Niccolo Paganini (1782-1840).

Through his virtuosity, Paganini transformed violin playing. Audiences at the time were shocked by the new sounds and dazzling effects which he employed. He toured Europe garnering celebrity comparable to a modern day rock star.

Listen to this spectacular performance by Eugene Fodor. This clip is taken from his 1990’s recording, Witches’ Brew which features a collection of violin show pieces. You’ll recognize the Witches’ Dance theme at 3:20, followed by a series of variations featuring double stops (two pitches played at the same time) harmonics (a whistle-like sound effect produced by the finger touching the string lightly) left hand pizzicato, up bow staccato and more. It’s amazing how many different voices can be produced by a single violin, each bringing to life a unique personality.

Paganini’s music is infused with an elegance and Bel canto (“beautiful singing”) quality that may remind you of Italian opera.

Shinichi Suzuki on Video

Here are two short videos that show Shinichi Suzuki working with students. They offer a glimpse of the good humor and almost childlike joy for which Suzuki was known.

In the first clip Suzuki demonstrates the students’ ability to stop and start at any point in the last movement of the Bach A minor Concerto (Suzuki Violin Book 7). The game he uses reinforces the idea that you really know a piece well if you can start anywhere. Isolate and repeat small units of notes throughout the piece during practice to help to build this skill.

In the second clip Suzuki plays the piano and creates endless new variations to Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, which the students repeat. Notice that he also tests them by changing the tempo here and there.

For anyone who is interested in some background on Suzuki’s life and how he developed the Suzuki method, here is an interesting clip.