Category Archives: Practicing

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!

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.

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.

How to Help your Fingers Remember When you are on Vacation

Often times when I am on vacation during the summer or have started a new piece but want to keep the old piece in my fingers, trouble ensues. I believe that family always comes first and if you are on a vacation with your family doing something special, you need that time to take a break and enjoy the company. The only trouble with that is that when you get home, practicing is even more of a drag.

Even though this may be a hassle, it is worth is to bring your instrument with you on your vacation so that it will be in the back of your mind. Even if you can’t play or bring the instrument, listen to your reputoire everyday. Bring the scores and continue to study the scores if you have your instrument or not. Everyday remind yourself of the hard parts of your concerto and how you have learned to play them well. In short, remember the certain tricks you (probably) have learened that help you play the hard parts better. Visualize yourself playing the piece for just 5-10 minutes everyday.

If you have your instrument, just take it out for maybe 10 minutes everyday and just go over one or two common problem areas with slow practice, a drone, or a metronome (or any practice method that you think would be benefical) just to keep the hard parts still in your fingers. If you have time, jsut play the whole piece through at the end of the day to make sure it stays in your memory so that you will stay ready to perform it for when you return home.

The Complexity of Intonation

 

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When I say “intonation”, most people ask me what that means. I always say that intonation is how intune or out of tune I play (on a violin this is relative to where I place my fingers). That answer, while explaining the main concept of intonation, isn’t the full answer, which is so much more complex. When you google the definition of intonation, it provides a similar answer to what I give when asked this question. When I am complimented on my good intonation, that means that yes, I played in tune, but no one every really discusses what “in tune” is and how there are many different ways to play a note “in tune”. Pianists don’t have to worry about intonation, as they play a pre-tuned instrument, but the rest of us battle with having good intonation every day in practice.

A piano is tuned to what people call equal-temperament. There is a formula for the distance between the notes in equal temperament, but simply, this just means that all intervals are constant on the piano and there is only one way to play an “in tune” note. On a violin, you can pre-tune the instrument to many different “in tune” A’s*. The most common tuning system is A 440. This means that the string will vibrate 440 times (another common tuning pitch is A 442- A is the pitch an orchestra/ chamber group/ soloist tunes to). Because violin is pre-tuned and the A pitch can vary, there is no single way to play an in tune third, or any other interval. There is definately a way to play an interval out of tune, but there is a very small amount of wiggle room where the pitch remains in tune. This cannot happen on a piano.

When you play with a quartet, or to mix it up even more, a piano quintet, things start to become even more confusing. In a quartet, the pitch you play must be relative to the pitch the other musicians play (playing in a small group requires more attention to intonation than playing as a soloist or in an orchestra). Example: certain intervals must be played lower and quieter if the first violin is playing a certain pitch. (There is a basic chart for this at the top). When you add a piano to the traditional string quartet, the piano with it’s equal temperament will be considered out of tune next to the quartet. This is considered ok and the quartet doesn’t need to tune to the piano, but tunes to the lowest instrument, in this case, the cello.

On a piano’s equal temperament, it divides each octave into 12 semitones of 100 cents each (semitone is a half step). A cent is a unit of measurement for each interval. The alteration of one cent is to small to be heard. An octave in equal temperament spans 1200 cents.

This is just delving in to the basics of tuning, and I am by no means an expert. Many musicians don’t teach tuning with this method, but it shouldn’t be hard to find information. There is a chart on the top explaining how intervals go together and how they change if certain intervals are played together.

*A=the pitch A

Basic Practicing Tips and Tricks

Practicing is something that all musicians seeking excellence have to do a lot of. Not only do we have to practice a lot, but we have to learn to do it well. Practicing is an art that I have by no means mastered, but I will share a few of the tricks I have learned over the years.

Tip 1. I know that we all want to sound good in our practice, but if we want to sound good in performance, that is just not realistic. Don’t be afraid to take your piece at an adagio tempo and play each measure 50-100 times to solidify intonation, tone, style, bowing, etc. SLOW PRACTICE IS YOUR FRIEND!

Tip 2. If you are playing a legato/slurred passage, play it short and staccato to hear each individual note better. If your passage is short, staccato, or off the string, play it legato and connected to hear the lines better.

Tip 3. In order to get the intonation to be perfect, you MUST know what note you are aiming for next. Sing the part with difficult intonation as well as play it on the piano. Once you can sing it perfectly, you can play it even better!

Tip 4. String instruments! If you are having difficulty with a string crossing, write down the open string that name that corresponds with the string the notes are on and try that for a while. Once you understand that, play the real version.

Tip 5. String Instruments! For a troublesome shift, take a pause in between the notes where the shift is and as you repeat this, gradually shorten pause.

Tip 6. Play everything in your piece slowly until it is perfect. This may mean spot work, like I explain in the first tip, or playing through the whole page slowly until it’s perfect then move the metronome up a little up and continue in this fashion until you hit perfection at the correct tempo.

Tip 7. Enjoy yourself and remember that the more you practice, the less tedious it will become!