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Learning a New Piece: From Unfamiliar to Polished

Learning new repertoire is always exciting and can be a mark of your improvement. It is an everlasting cycle of starting a fresh work, perfecting it to the best of your ability, and then starting anew with a different work. There are many different strategies and approaches one can take when beginning a new piece and I am by no means an expert. However, I will share some of my best advice from what I have learned.

Learning a piece starts before you even begin getting the notes and rhythms into your muscle memory. You truly begin learning the music when you sit down and study the score and learn not just what your part sounds like, but also how the orchestra part fits with the solo line. While you study the score, it is important to decide musically what you want your interpretation to be. Many students (myslef included sometimes) make the mistake of first diving into the technical passages to nail those in place. My belief is that you can’t truly perfect the hard parts if you don’t know musically what they mean or why the composer wrote them. Always strive to find musical solutions to technical problems.

Once you have studied the score, maybe listened to a few recordings (not too many), and thought about your interpretation, then it is time to choose carefully your fingerings and bowings. Bowings in my opinion are the most imporant thing to do before starting on the notes. As a student, most of my bowings come from my amazing teachers. As I continue to grow as a player, I put in more of my own bowings to fit what I want to sound like. Fingerings are also very important, as having a bad fingering can make a challenging passage much harder. When choosing fingerings, it is important to think of what makes sense both musically and technically. You should aim for a fingering that makes the passage flow seamelssly, but also gives the color you want and perhaps helps to set you up for the passage or phrase ahead.

With bowings and fingerings in place, it is important to try not to play the piece through, however enticing that may be. Find the hard spots and use practice tools to solidify it. I love to practice rhythms, seperate bows for a slurred passage, doubling the notes, and slow practice with metronome. These are just a few of my favorite practice strategies. To save yourself the time and trouble of correcting later in the learning process, it is important to start a piece making sure you solidfy intonation and do not jumble notes even in fast passages. Start a slow tempo if you need and only speed it up when you are sure you can handle it. Learning a new piece well can be a challenging and time consuming process, but in order to have a fulfilling and enjoyable performance, you must prepare in the right ways.

The Performing Mentality

A performance is short, and we as musicans have very little time to make an impact on the audience. Performing is more than just those brief moments on the stage, but rather includes the whole experience of preparing mentally and physically right before stepping out to play. Reflecting back on some of my better performances, I realized that there is a certain performance mentality that I was able to achieve.

At the beginning of a performing evening, the adrenaline builds up until the actual performance. I like to think of this as excitment for what is to come rather than thinking of it as nerves. I thinks this helps to bring a better mentality to the actual performance. In the minutes just before the concert, it is important of course to be physically warmed up, but possibly even more important to transition mentally from the stresses of everyday life into the performing mentality. In this mentality, it is important to realize that it is the composers message you are trying to preserve, not your own personal struggles from that day. Be prepared, no matter how tired you are, to put all of your emotional and physical energy into creating best intention into every note. I always like to refelct on why I am donig this performance before i head out on stage. I like to remind myself how passionate I am for my craft, and how I perform for my own enjoyment, as well as that of the audience. No matter how much you have practiced, you can never be fully prepared. Go to a performance knowing that you have prepared as much as possible, and be ready to invest your energy into making this a very music performance. Trust that the technical work you have done will come through because you spent the time to solidify it.

It may seem silly, but the most important part of the performing mentality is to realize that you are actually about to perform. Especially if you perform often, a comcert can start to seem everyday and trivial. A performance is a short escape from everything else in your life where time seems to stand still. Take a deep breath, walk onto the stage, and do your best. Do your best to preserve the intention of the music, you best to be technically accurate, do you best to enjoy the short time you have on stage!


Leonidas Kavakos Concert Review

this week, I had the pleasure to see Greek violin virtuoso, Kavakos, play Sibelius violin concerto with the the Philadelphia Orchestra. I went to the concert twice, once sitting in the front row, the other sitting on tier 3. Kavakos has a long history with this concerto, having won the Sibelius competition before the age of 21.

At the beginning of the concerto, the subtle orchestra accompaniment and the tender solo remind me of the wind blowing, which Kavakos brought to life with no grit in his sound. This movement has many technical challenges which Kavakos tackled with apparent ease. It was clear he had made good musical choices as well, although I believe those choices would have been enhanced if he had shown the phrases with his movement. Instead, he maintained a rigid and stiff form for the whole movement.

The second movement of the Sibelius concerto is meant to invoke emotion and to convey images. Although Kavakos’ performance was technically flawless, he did not convey the strong emotions I wished for. The orchestral accompaniment was trying to draw this out of kavakos by playing more musically themselves, but his performance was lackluster and slightly dull.

The third movement is a technical nightmare, which Kavakos dealt with beautifully. He made it sound easy, while loosening himself up to enjoy the performance and show his medical ideas more. This was by far his most successful movement, combining technical accuracy with beauty and flash.

Overall his performance was good, but only the third movement stuck out to me as being fantastic.

The Nature of Music

In the musical world, competition is something you might expect. We willingly sign ourselves up for competitions, and go to concerts to hear other musicians perform. Every time we hear someone else play the violin, we instantly think “I want her intonation!” ‘I want her sound quality!” “She can play so fast!”  What we don’t realize everyone looks at us the same way when we play. When I am performing, I see the worst aspects of my performance magnified and I truly believe everyone else see’s this also. In fact, others see the performance the way it really was, which probably isn’t as bad as you think. Even if you don’t have a great performance, others will be much more forgiving of you than you will be.

What we also don’t realize is what goes on behind the scenes of the performance. Maybe your friend who you thought played amazingly, practices six hours every day. That is the reason she became amazing. If you only practice two hours a day and are upset because your friends who practice more are improving faster, their practice is the reason for the improvement.

I want to be a violinist more than I have ever wanted anything in my entire life. Sometimes I  don’t want to do my homework, so I wait and do it Saturday night or Suanday afternoon instead of Friday afternoon. Sometimes I don’t want to go for a run, so I do it later. These things are important to me, but I don’t have as great of a motivation to do them. With music, it is easy for me to get up and go practice because I know I have to. I know that if I don’t, everything I dream of could go away. Even at 5:00 in the morning when I really don’t want to get up I do because I have a dream that my life will one day be great. My life will be great because of what I am doing today. This day of dedication and work, and ultimately joy is the reason that I will ultimately achieve my goal.

Instead of comparing myself to other students who may be better than me, it is importnat to realize the work that I put in and the improvments I am making in my playing slowly every day, every week and every year.

Concert Review: Gil Shaham plays Bartok Violin Concerto no 2

Last night I had the amazing opportunity to not only hear the amazing violinist Gil Shaham play, but also meet him after his performance! He played Bartoks second violin concerto wonderfully! His performance packed a huge amount of personality into the 30 minutes he was given, and here are some of my other thoughts on his performance.

When Gil Shaham walked on the stage, and he looked happy to be there, not at all nervous as I might have expected.He had great communication with Yannick, the conductor,which was fun to see. In the first movement, he used a number of different techniques that were all executed  perfectly to share his idea of the concerto with audiences. At times he played so softly that he was barely heard, but the audience was quite in these special moments and he was heard throughout the hall. Other times, his playing was rough and heavy, but to audiences further away, the toughness went away and all that was heard the was the power and evenness of his eight notes. His cadenza was well planned and executed and was very techichally flashy, ending this movement with a real bang!

The second movement begins with a beautiful theme, and then goes into hysterics. Gil passionately showed all of the characteristics of this movement with perfect technique. This whole concerto was very clean and perfected so that his musical ideas could really shine through. Overall his performance was a success, but what intrigued me most was not his technical skills but his pure enjoyment of his time on the stage!

A Guide to Running your Own Chamber Music Rehersal

When I play in a chamber music group, you can be put with many different personality types. I have been with players who are very shy and quite and won’t give their opinion or ideas, then there are those who take complete control and make the decisions for the group. In both of these situations you should take some control of your group, making sure rehersals are going the way you want also. Here are some pf my tips.

When the others in your group are shy and won’t make decisision about what to rehearse, you must be th one who keeps the rehearsal going. I know that you don’t want to seem like the tyrant type of leader, but continue to check in with them and ask if they have any new ideas or sopts they would like to work out. If you don’t take the leadership role in this situation, your rehersals will be spent doing nothing. As long as you continue to make sure your group mates are content with your choices as leader, this approach works very well.

If a member of your group is trying to take the lead, that can be ok. Sometimes you should let someone else step into the leadership role if they want. The problem comes in when they begin to ignore your ideas, or make derogatory remarks. In this situation, it is imperative that you tell the leader that you value his/her ideas but that you have some suggestions to that you think would improve the group. If the musician is taking over as leader, they obviously want a good performance also, so you can use that knowledge to bond together and try to become a more unified group.

If you haven’t worked witht the groupd for very long, these are just tendencies that come up that can be worked out over time. I hope these tips helped you to deal with difficult personaliy types in your own chamebr music rehearsals.

How to Stay Motivated to Practice

Everyone has a different time when they like to practice, and different ways they like to break up their practice. It is easy to come up with a good practice routine and do it for a few days, but sticking with the routine long enough to make it a habbit is the tricky part. I have figured out what has been working for me, so here are my favorite tips.

  1. Find your most concentrated time of day and do most of your practice then. I like to practice in the morning before school. I usually can fit in 2 or 3 hours before I even start school which makes the rest of my day more stress free.
  2. Block out chunks of time to practice certain things, so my first hour of practice is basics, like shifting, vibrato, and finger dropping. My second hour is scales, thirds, and octaves. My third hour is etudes and orchestra music, and my final two or three hours of the day are concerto and other solo repertoire.
  3. Keep a practice journal of what you need to work on, how you intend to fix it, and what ended up working. This will ensure that you stay interested and engaged in your practice instead of mindlessly practicing.
  4. If you are not focusing, just take a break. You never want to practice something the wrong way because as my teacher used to say, practice makes permanent. This is very true and is a good thing when you do good practice.
  5. Think like a scientist. Use your practice room as an experimentation lab and try new practice techniques, fingerings, and ways to play difficult passages. This can make even the most tedious practice better.

I hope that some of these tips helped to make you want to practice everyday. Sometimes, you still make not want to play but know that picking up your instrument in the early morning is the hardest part of the practice session.

Second Violins Role in Chamber Music and Orchestral Music!

Each instrument in a group has a certain role, each equally important. Most people make the mistake of thinking that because first violin’s usually have the melody, they are always the most important. The first violins melody should be heard above the other parts, but audiences should understand that the melody wouldn’t sound the same if the other voices or counter-melodies weren’t  there.

The second violin has many different roles in both chamber music and orchesral music, one of which is playing the melody. The first violin doesn’t always get the melody. This type of writing is less common in classical era music where the first violin dominates, but in more contemporary music, the second violin takes the melody quite often.

Sometimes, the second violin imitates what the first violin or any other instrument has just played. Sometimes the imitation is just the same rhythym with different notes, and sometimes the second violins imitate the exact same line.

When the second violin has any kind of steady continuing rhythym, their job is to keep the melody in line rhythmically. This is boring to play, but so important to the whole group.

Often times the second violin will be in octaves with the first violin and then the second violin should play much louder. This helps to support the first violin as he/she climbs higher on the violin.

It is important to remember that the second violin part is important to the piece and you can have fun playing it! Think of playing second violin like a service to the group. You may rather play first violin, but the group needs a second violin! Remember to play loud and confidantly and have fun listening the group.

How to Learn Orchestral Excerpts Effectively

When you take auditions for any orchestra, you will need to know the standard orchestral excerpts. An excerpt is a small section within a larger orchestral work which usually has some sort of challenge( fast notes or troublesome intonation). Listed below are some of my favorite ways to learn orchestral excerpts.

1. Get a good fingering. When starting out learning an excerpt or any piece of music, it is important to experiment with fingerings to find the one that works best for YOU. Fingerings are very personal and what works for you may not work well for someone else. A good fingering can solve many technical problems.

2. Figure out why this particular excerpt is chosen. If it has hard intonation, you know that the intonation is the one thing you need to be flawless. If you find the skill the jury is looking for within the excerpt and make it perfect, you have a much higher chance of getting the audition.

3. This trick is obvious, but slow practice is a must. For anything to be consistantly good, it takes slow repitition.

4. You should be familiar with the work as a whole so that you can know the context of the excerpt and the character you should use to play it. You should also be aware of what the other instruments are doing during the measures of the excerpts.

5. You should know if your part is important or not. Sometimes the judges give you experts that are secondary to the main theme and they want to hear the excerpt played like an accompaniment. If you are playing the theme, bring it out and play it like a concerto.

These are my favorite tips for learning orchestral excerpts. These tricks really speed up the learning process and should make the audition process easier.

Dvorak Piano Quintet no 2 Analysis (mvts 1and 2)

At Curtis this summer, I played the Dvorak Piano Quintet. This piece is so special and it is important to play it well.

The first movement begins with a cello solo, acting as an introduction to the whole piece. This remeinds me of someone floating down a river. The solo is interrupted by the contrasting minor melody brought by the second violin. The movement switches between major and minor, ultimately ending in A major. I think of these switches as multiple people having an argument. This movement has many different melodies that come in sequences or change keys. The melodies alternate between the instruments and feature odd instrument duets. The first and second violins are often in octaves. The second violin played the lower octave and should play much louder because the register of the first violin is higher. The second violin can also guide the first violin when he or she is playing very high on the violin. This movement has a rhythmic motif of dotted quarter note eigth note. The eigth note should be placed later and made very short when this rhythym is played. Near the end of the movement, you can feel the tension building and all of the instruments hold a whole note before moving to a dotted half note. This is the climax of the entire peice and this is when the key is settled in A major. Then the movement comes to a crashing end in A major.

The second movement is a dumka, which means thought or melancholy. This movement is written in an ABACABA form (the letters refer to different themes that return). The first entrance is like a funeral march and is based around the beat. Then comes the B theme which is very different. This theme, featuring a violin duet, is in major and reminds me of dancing. Then the A theme reutrns but this time, it is expanded on. The C theme is the A theme pieced together. Dvorak uses a small part of the first theme to create this folky, and new theme. Then the A theme returns again almost to show the similarities between the rhythmic structures in the C theme at that of the original theme. Then the B theme returns, this time in a differnt key. After this, the A theme comes back for the final time, and ends with another development on the very first part of the A theme.

This quintet has so many small details that if noticed, really bring out the true intentions of the piece. Dvorak had many cultural influences from European, to folk music, to Asian culture, and African American cultures.These influences are what makes Dvorak’s music so unique and colorful.