The Violin Retreat Diaries - Day One: Back to basics
Updated: May 22
As I eat my breakfast I look up and see the birds flying into the wind. There is no need for them to flap their wings as they let the strong force of the wind do the hard work for them. I’m struck by the similarities to violin-playing; given how much stamina we need for say a violin concerto, we’re always looking for ways to put in as little physical effort as possible. For example, if we think about lifting the violin towards the bow rather than pressing the bow downwards onto the string then gravity makes natural weight the main component for making a big sound.
9AM: Dependable Ol’ Schradieck
I’ve detected some tension building up in my left hand over the last few months so I turn to that dependable old friend, the first study in Schradieck’s ‘School of Violin Technics’. As I suspected some things have slipped in the ‘basics’ department so it feels great to revisit them and really identify what is going wrong. I discover that I have not always been putting all four fingers down when using the fourth finger and so work through the study slowly to ensure my hand is always in the position shown when all four fingers are down. I’m also not using the best position to make my hand shape as relaxed and stable as possible; sometimes when I use my fourth finger my wrist has to move. So I experiment with having my wrist slightly further in i.e. closer to the neck.
10AM: Rediscovering Rode
One of the things I’m keen to do this week is continue my examination of all the main violin study books with my teaching hat on. I worked on many of these studies as a student with Wen Zhou (Li) but of course not all of them. Looking at them again as a teacher brings a whole new perspective and it’s great to increase my knowledge of the ones I didn’t personally study. There’s often more than one study that practises the same bow stroke, but they might vary in difficulty level or introduce other elements. This is part of what makes every study unique, and consequently there’s a suitable study for almost every technical issue that students experience. I’ve already gone through the Kreutzer studies prior to my retreat so start looking through Rode's 24 Caprices. In this first session I look at studies 1-4.
Some observations from No.1: A great study to practise one’s martelé bow stroke (in the upper half of the bow and as Rode specifies, ‘vigorously detached’). In this study, martelé is combined with trills and starts with a melodious introduction; it’s lovely to observe how the violin masters make these studies feel more like mini pieces of music and allow students to practise a technical issue alongside expression.
10.30AM: Those all-important Scales
I start with a satisfyingly slow scale, one note per bow and playing almost on top of the bridge. A three octave scale takes a long time like this because you have to use a very slow bow but it’s totally worth it. It wakes up both me and my violin! After this the instrument will complain less when I play closer to the bridge so I’ll be able to achieve a richer sound with less effort/bow pressure.
I’ve always used the Ivan Galamian acceleration exercise when practising scales since studying with Wen Zhou. It’s a fantastic method for practising in the technical ‘basics’ because you start slow (when your brain should be working hardest) and gradually get quicker. The ‘acceleration’ of the tempo is so incremental that each change doesn’t feel big but by the end you’re playing a fast scale and (hopefully!) incorporating your intended practice goals. I start with A major and notice a bad habit in my unevenness at the top of the scale. I have a tendency to rush over it and it could be clearer. Why do we so often make things harder for ourselves and play faster when things get more difficult?! My fourth finger at the very top of the scale feels like it’s working very hard, I experiment with bringing my arm around even more and having the hand more ‘on top’ of the instrument. This means I’m stretching my fourth finger less and therefore less effort is required.
11.30AM: I pop into the kitchen and realise that the cup of tea I made myself to be drunk whilst studying Rode was left to brew and promptly forgotten about. Easy to lose track when geeking out!
12PM: Guess I should practise some Paganini…
I’ve never been one of those violinists that can just wop out some Paganini without fuss. I’ve always had to work very hard to get them to a high level; they are not my comfort zone. So the work continues! And I figured you can’t really have a violin bootcamp without Pag!
So I choose to look at the fifth caprice because it’s a good fit for practising the weaknesses I’ve identified in my Schradieck and scales. Paganini is such a good test to see if the ‘basics’ practised have really stuck because one has to overcome all the technical challenges and also play expressively. I need to have a holistic approach otherwise I’ll only be able to relax my fourth finger when playing like a robot! The introduction is perfect for practising my new arm position when playing high. Think I’m going to leave the ricochet (bouncing several notes in one bow stroke) until I can play it faster….. ;) While I struggle on I'll share this video of Sumina Studer absolutely nailing it!
2PM: Listening to the greats
After some lunch I head out for a walk along the beach. I take this opportunity to listen to some of the brilliant recordings that family, friends and colleagues recommended to me before I left Manchester. I wish I could talk about them all but if I did then we’d be here forever! Check out my list of personal favourites and my recording of the day at the end of the blog.
4PM: The Art of Fugue
So if a violin bootcamp has to have Paganini then a violin retreat must have Bach. Two composers could not be more different. Paganini is the king of virtuosity, entertainment and extroversion. Whereas Bach speaks to the introvert, the philosopher, the spiritualist. I want to understand fugues better; how they’re built and what the implications are for interpretation and expression. So I choose the fugue from Bach’s first solo sonata in G minor. My first steps are to explore and understand the harmony both academically and practically. I work through the whole movement and figure out the hand positions whilst searching for as many open-string resonances as possible.
5.30PM: Tell a story
With my body feeling a little weary, I decide to use the remaining time to study the first movement of Brahms’ Double Concerto away from my instrument. It’s the one thing I’ve brought this week where I’m working towards a performance, which is later this year with Hannah (Roberts). I examine the structure and related harmonies, looking to make emotional connections and imagine a story. Listen and follow with me if you like!
The fact that the orchestra’s opening chord of Am has an E not an A in the timpani contributes to the feeling that this opening section is in fact one long upbeat, full of anticipation, to the true start at letter A (where we have our home key of Am but now with the A in the timpani).
The opening orchestral tutti sets the scene: the sea, the sky
Violin and Cello opening solo entries: the narrator speaks “Our story begins…”
Figure A, orchestral tutti: the true beginning of the story. First sight of the great, noble ship where the story takes place.
Figure D, 1st subject (A minor): Introduced to our protagonist - a young sailor aboard the ship. A decent man, committed to the common good. Sings as he works, does his best amongst choppy seas (bar 126). Seas calm, sun comes out (Figure E).
Bar 152, 2nd subject (C major): Our protagonist looks out to calm sea, youthful optimism, pure of heart. Dreams of falling in love. Figue F: sailor swings around on ropes, swings up to the look-out point. A young man full of energy and fun. Tutti after Figure G: crew busies around the ship
Figure H, Development: Our protagonist dreams of making something of himself and returning home. Figure I: Sea birds irritate. Figure K: Land is in sight, far away, large grand cliffs.
Figure L, Recapitulation (back to home key Am): Our protagonist returns home, the ship pulls in. Bar 300: he disembarks and navigates the busy port. Bar 323 sailor meets a beautiful girl. Love at first sight. Bar before Figure N: lovers kiss. Figure N: joy at true love, couple search to find a priest to marry them. Figure O: church bells and marriage montage.
Figure P: The ship calls the sailor back to sea, he must leave his beloved behind.
Bar 416, Coda: Ship departs
6.30PM: Strad mag gems
I’ve brought a small collection of old Strad magazines with me and start with an edition from October 2013 which focuses on the ‘Great players of the past’, guest edited by Steven Isserlis. There’s a fantastic opinion piece from cellist David Waterman where he shares his ‘utopian musings about what [he] would ideally like to have learnt as a student’ (which I highly recommend giving a read) but here I’m going to focus on my favourite quotes from the edition’s main piece: ‘A broad spectrum of today’s artists talk about some of their favourite string players and explain their influence.’
Actor Simon Callow on Bronislaw Huberman: ‘Huberman was aware that music isn’t simply an art. It’s human communication at the deepest level, a profound exchange. You find the same thing with Casals. It isn’t only about beauty and skill - although it demands those. It is about speaking to your fellow human beings at the deepest level and affirming the best of what it is to be human as opposed to the worst, which Huberman had seen. One is dealing with an extraordinary human being and that’s all in the music-making.’
Joshua Bell on Eugène Ysaÿe: ‘If Bach’s six Sonatas and Partitas are the bible of the violin repertoire, I like to think of the six Ysaÿe Sonatas as the New Testament. [...] I also love that they were each dedicated to other great violinists of his day. [...] How wonderful that he thought of his colleagues not as rivals but as friends - and that he appreciated all their different qualities.’
Thomas Zehetmair on Fritz Kreisler: ‘Everybody mentions that he was a very generous and modest personality. He was once playing the Brahms Concerto in Philadelphia with Eugene Ormandy. The famous oboist Marcel Tabuteau played the opening solo and Kreisler was overwhelmed by it. He turned away from the audience and played it exactly the same. Afterwards he said, “Brahms has spoken to us”.’
Ivry Gitlis on George Enescu: ‘The first time I met Enescu I was a little boy [...] I was presented to him and he found a picture of himself for me and signed it ‘Patience et courage’. I often wondered what he meant: I think I know now, more or less.’
8.30PM: Listening to the greats
After some dinner there’s just time to listen to a few more recordings before I wind down with a solo game of Bananagrams! As promised here are my top picks:
Sir András Schiff (Fortepiano): Schubert Sonata for Piano No. 18 in G major, op. 78 D894. 1. Molto moderato e cantabile
Mikhail Pletnev: Liszt Piano Sonata in B minor S178
Alice Coote, Ashley Wass and Maxim Rysanov: Two Songs for Voice, Viola and Piano, op. 91. 1. Gestillte Sehnsucht
And the recording of the day is...
Christian Ferras: Chausson Poème (Georges Sébastian, Orchestre National de Belgique, 1953)
You can find all of these recordings in the following Spotify playlist: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/3rlP9hc0QcA4JlGURomwNk?si=2Kn37QrTRtWQLfOWKPBHZw
Thanks for reading, join me in two weeks time for Day Two.