James and the Giant Peach

Last week, one of my students pointed out that there is a violin playing grasshopper in James and the Giant Peach, the 1996 film based on the book by Roald Dahl. Here is a scene from the movie. If you’re familiar with this scene and you’ve always wondered what the grasshopper is playing, it’s the Gavotte en Rondeau from Bach’s Partita No. 3. Here is a great performance by violinist Ilya Kaler:

"A Violin’s Life" by Frank Almond

A Violin's LifeViolinist Frank Almond has come out with an exciting new recording which I highly recommend. A Violin’s Life: Music for the ‘Lipinski’ Stradivari was released on April 19, debuting on Billboard’s Top Ten Classical list. Almond is the concertmaster of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and a faculty member at Northwestern University. He is accompanied by pianist William Wolfram.

Here is the interesting story of how the “Lipinski” Stradivari, one of the world’s finest violins, came into Frank Almond’s hands in 2008. A Violin’s Life celebrates this instrument by featuring music from its impressive history. The disk opens with the “Devil’s Trill” Sonata by Giuseppe Tartini (1692-1770), the violin’s first owner. Here is an excerpt:

Also included on A Violin’s Life is the rarely heard Violin Sonata No. 2 in F sharp, Op. 20 by Julius Rontgen (1855-1932), Caprice Op .29, No. 3 by the influential but largely forgotten violinist, Karol Lipinski (1790-1861) and Robert Schumann’s Violin Sonata No.2 in D minor, Op.121. I found the Rontgen reminiscent of the Brahms Sonatas. The Lipinski Caprice is a daredevil virtuoso adventure in double stops.

A Violin’s Life can be found on iTunes and at Amazon. For listeners who are interested in delving deeper into to the history of this music and the “Lipinski” Strad, Frank Almond provides a website, aviolinslife.org. He introduces the CD and provides further samples here:

It’s widely believed that the sound of a violin can be influenced and shaped by the performers who use it. The rich lineage of the “Lipinski” Strad is on full display in this recording as the past meets the future. A Violin’s Life will be a fascinating and enjoyable recording for all who love the violin.

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.

Perlman Plays Tchaikovsky

Listen to this amazing performance of the final movement of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto played by Itzhak Perlman.  You probably know Tchaikovsky as a Romantic composer of lush, fiery, emotionally charged music, but don’t forget that he was also a ballet composer.  You may notice a grace and elegance in the rhythm that suggests dance.

After you listen, consider what makes Perlman’s performance so exciting.  The piece is a tight rope walk but Perlman is always in control.  Notice his sense of timing and the precision of his rhythm.  The music never rushes.  Also pay attention to his highly expressive and often roaring tone.  Does this expand your perspective on what type of tone is “beautiful”?  Do you hear tone colors that you didn’t know the violin could produce?

Notice how the orchestra interacts with the solo, sometimes supporting and other times conversing.  Pay attention to each instrument’s unique personality and color.  For instance in the interlude at 5:54 notice how the melody is passed back and forth between the oboe and clarinet and then the flute and bassoon. Each voice brings a unique color.

You can find a live recording of this performance with Perlman, Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic at iTunes or Amazon.

Now that you’ve enjoyed the clip, you may want to hear Perlman perform the First and Second Movements of the concerto.  Perlman has some interesting things to say about the Tchaikovsky concerto here.

The Mental Side of Violin Playing

[quote]Technique is conception.[/quote]

-Zvi Zeitlin

As we begin a new year of practicing, let’s consider the mental side of violin playing.  The concepts we hold in mind can be an important guide for sound, phrasing, musical style and other aspects of playing.  Technique should always serve the musical concept.  In many cases, starting with a musical concept can propel us over a technical hurdle.

Think about your last practice session.  Did you focus mainly on the technical issues of the bow and the left hand?  Did a difficult passage remain illusive, even after many repetitions and problem solving attempts?  Put the violin down and hear the sound you want to create in your mind.  Imagine the physical feeling of playing well.  Think of a few words or images that capture the character of the music.  See if the power of your concept makes the bow and fingers automatically fall into place.

For the youngest Suzuki student words like “soft”, “squishy” and “springy” immediately create a good mental image for the bow hold. For the left hand, “spaghetti fingers” and “holding an imaginary ball” are good images. Hearing the string ring “like a bell” and using syllables like “Tuck-a-Tuck-a Tuck-a” and “Toh, Toh, Toh” can help build a mental image of tone production.

The opening phrase of Dvorak’s Humoresque in Suzuki Violin Book 3 provides a specific example of the way concept can improve technical control.  Challenges in this phrase include the “snapped” rhythm (cheating the rest can accidentally turn the rhythm into a triplet) and “zig-zag” bowing which can lead to an undesirably heavy sound.  A word like “sneaky” might help with the rhythm, while playing the last note before each rest “like a feather” could guide the wrist and bow hand to lighten up the sound.

Violinist and teacher Simon Fischer has written an interesting article about Mental Rehearsal which highlights the importance of visualization in violin playing.  Visualization is also central to the work of Don Greene and others who help professional musicians overcome performance anxiety.

Another important component of mental practicing involves attending concerts, listening to recordings and studying the score. If you’re learning a concerto it’s essential that you know the orchestra part as well as the solo part and how the two interact.

As you practice in the new year, remember that it’s important to use time efficiently.  Make a commitment to thoughtful practice and allow musical concepts to be your guide.

The Artistry of Maxim Vengerov

Here are some inspiring clips featuring the great Russian violinist, Maxim Vengerov.

In the first video, Vengerov performs the Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47 by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957).  The Chicago Symphony accompanies, conducted by Daniel Barenboim. The concerto is followed by two encores: The Sarabanda from J.S. Bach’s Partita No. 2 for Solo Violin (0:35:31) and Eugene Ysaye’s Ballad (0:40:06).

Polish violinist and composer Henryk Wieniawski (1835-1880) contributed greatly to the development of the violin.  Here, Vengerov talks about Wieniawski and plays the dazzling Variations, Op. 15:


The final clip is a movie entitled Playing by Heart that features Vengerov’s life as a concert violinist.  At 4:20 you will briefly hear some of the Vivaldi A Minor Concerto from Suzuki Book 4:

Violinist Ruggiero Ricci (1918-2012)

August 6 marked the passing of one of the twentieth century’s greatest violinists, Ruggiero Ricci.  Ricci’s playing was notable for its fire, brilliance and daredevil virtuosity.  Like Yehudi Menuhin, Ruggiero Ricci was a child prodigy and a student of the legendary teacher Louis Persinger.  Ricci’s long career provided a link between the world of Ysaye, Kreisler and Heifetz and the present.

Go to NPR and Slipped Disk for video of Ruggiero Ricci’s playing and more on his life.  You might also want to read this interview.

Here are additional clips:




Suzuki’s Tonalization

Beautiful tone, beautiful heart.”

“Tone has a living soul without form.”

-Shinichi Suzuki

Tonalization is “the ability to produce and recognize a beautiful, ringing tone.” Dr. Suzuki observed that singers cultivate their voices daily through “vocalization” exercises.  He believed that instrumentalists should approach tone in a similar way. Great musicians make their instruments “sing”, developing a concept of tone that is inspired by the natural expression of the human voice.

Tonalization starts when the beginner first draws the bow across the string. Through continuous, careful repetitions of the first “Twinkle” rhythm, the tone, and the physical feeling of creating tone begin to take shape.  Throughout Book 1, Suzuki offers scales and Tonalization exercises in the keys of A, D and G.  More advanced students and professionals work on tone with three octave scales, arpeggios, thirds, sixths, octaves and more. The quest for the most resonant tone possible never ends.  Daily attention to Tonalization leads to improved tone for everything else you play.

Here are a few ideas to keep in mind as you work on Tonalization:

Listen.  In order to achieve your best tone, start by listening carefully.  Consider each note “guilty until proven innocent.”  Don’t ever be completely satisfied.  Always assume that an even better tone is around the corner.  Dr. Suzuki asks students to pluck the strings and listen as they ring.  He considers this to be the string’s most fundamental and natural sound.  As you bow, keep this ringing sound in mind.  Play the open strings and try to get the same resonance.  Next, challenge yourself to get the same ring on fingered tones, even though these will have a slightly different timbre (or tone color).  Stop the bow on the string and listen to how long the ring lasts.  Over time, try to increase the length of ring.

Notice that each tone has a beginning, a middle and an end.  The bow connects and pulls, articulating and then releasing, allowing the string to ring (“Tow”).  Make sure the volume stays even as a single note is played, or throughout the “Twinkle” rhythm (“Tuck-ah, Tuck-ah, Tuck..ah”).

Consider what the bow has to do.  The bow can be pressed into the string, cutting off it’s ability to vibrate, or it can slip around on the surface, never really catching the string.  Instead, connect the bow to the string and allow the arm to drop with a springy feeling.  Relaxed weight from the shoulder transfers into the elbow, wrist, fingers and into the string.  Now pull the bow and continue to feel the shoulder. Imagine the arm pulling and pushing in a slight arc, rather than a straight line. Notice that the wood of the bow itself is shaped like an arc.

Placement of the bow in relation to the bridge is important.  This is called the sounding point.  The closer the bow gets to the bridge, the more weight is needed. This is accompanied by slower bow speed.  As the bow is placed farther from the bridge, less weight and faster bow speed are required.  This is something players get a natural feel for over time.  Placing the bow near the bridge creates a louder sound with more overtones.  As the bow drifts to the fingerboard, the tone gets softer and more velvety. The beginner starts with the bow placed directly in between the bridge and fingerboard.  Suzuki called this the Kreisler Highway because it’s where the legendary violinist Fritz Kreisler played most of the time.  Kreisler is still remembered for the singing quality of his tone.

Consider what the left hand has to do.  Playing in tune is essential for tonalization.  Find that one place on the fingerboard where the tone rings.  Move your finger slightly higher and lower to see if you can get more ring.  Once you find the correct place, pick your finger up and try to find it again.  Your finger will begin to remember where it needs to go, especially if it is kept close to the fingerboard.

Make sure your fingers are up on their tips and are not touching nearby strings.  You want the other strings to be ringing sympathetically with the string you’re playing.  If you are playing G on the D string (third finger in first position) you should be able to see the G string vibrate as the D string is played.

Keep a cushiony, relaxed feeling in your hand.  Tension will limit resonance.

Develop a visual image of the tone.  Allow the string to ring like a bell.  Feel the string under the bow and imagine that the tone has a strong and intense center that is focused like a laser beam.  Around this focused center is a fluffy, soft layer of “ring”. Imagine that you are drawing the sound out of the box of the violin.

Turn on the energy.  How you feel inside will impact the way the bow pulls across the string.  Practice turning on an attitude of inner energy and vitality.  Don’t try to change anything you’re doing technically.  Just turn on the energy and it will affect what comes out.

Play the room.  This is how the unique sounds of the world’s greatest orchestras are developed over time.  Listen to how the sound is coming back to you in the room. Treat the room like another musical instrument that you are playing.

As I mentioned earlier, Dr. Suzuki was deeply influenced by the tone of the great Austrian violinist, Fritz Kreisler (1875-1962).  Now that we have considered the fundamentals of Tonalization, listen to this old recording of Kreisler playing his composition, Liebesleid, which translates as “Love’s Sorrow”: