The Violin Retreat Diaries - Day Two: The difference a day makes
Updated: Jun 16
9AM: Think ahead
Today’s Schradieck session is really about bedding in the two main goals established yesterday: making sure I’m keeping all four fingers down in my left hand when using my fourth finger, and having my left wrist slightly closer to the violin for a more secure and relaxed hand position. It's amazing how much easier everything feels even after just one day of focused work. I’m discovering which cells are particularly tricky when prioritising these new practice aims and - you’ve guessed it - it’s all the places where I’m using my fourth finger a lot. I write a star just before all of these places in my music to make sure I’m extra focused. One of Wen Zhou’s favourite sayings is “Think ahead” - this approach is so important in both practice and performance. If you’re thinking about what you need to do once you’re in the moment then it’s too late! [Pictured here is Ailsa Craig, an uninhabited island off the coast, and a constant, comforting presence during my stay.]
10AM: Understanding Detaché
Today I continue my pedagogical study of Rode with caprices 5 to 10. I’ll focus on No. 8 here, which is all about the detaché stroke. I’ve always found the name given to this stroke a bit confusing; detached implies short, but this is actually a broad, sustained stroke with separate bows. The key is even pressure and bow speed throughout. It sounds simple but students often struggle to sustain after the initial bow change articulation, the result of a release in pressure. Rode instructs us to have ‘the bow resting on the string’ and Wen Zhou would go one step further and describe the bow as being glued to the string. This particular study also incorporates a variety of string crossing and slurring combinations as additional challenges.
10.30AM: Say bridge again...
We move up a semi-tone to B-flat for today’s scales and I’m thinking about getting my default bow position a bit closer to the bridge. When I watch the great violinists play I’m so inspired by how fast they can move their bow and stay right by the bridge, producing a big, rich sound. Many teachers talk about contact point by dividing up the space into 5 categories, 1 being right next to the bridge and 5 just on the edge of the fingerboard.
I aim for a number 2 point of contact to develop this bow speed-bridge combination. I also remind myself of yesterday’s new arm position when playing higher. Here I must also make sure I ‘think ahead’ and ensure that my arm starts to move round before the shift. This leaves less for the brain to do in the pressure moment and so results in smoother shifts, i.e. not jerky ones.
12PM: Pinky problems
It’s really satisfying practising Paganini 5 straight after practising scales because the opening is plain old arpeggios. So I’m thinking about a lot of the same things and adding playing with full bow hair to the list so that I’m using every tool possible to make a big sound without resorting to pressure. In both the Introduction and the main Agitato section I have to be very attentive and make sure I’m not allowing my fourth finger to curl when using my 3rd finger as this increases tension. This is a challenge as many people including me do not have complete independent function of their little finger due to the biological make-up of their hand. Many of us come up against physical challenges when learning to play the violin; it’s certainly not the most natural position for the body. We all have to spend time figuring out precise positions of each body-part to maximise ease, expression and comfort. It can be frustrating discovering ways in which our particular body might put us at a disadvantage but enjoyment and satisfaction can be found in the process of experimentation. I will never have complete independent function of my little finger, but continued practice and an appetite for new solutions will certainly help to improve movement and reduce tension. Dr Jill Tomlinson of Melbourne Hand Surgery shows us the difference between an independent and a non-independent little finger:
2PM: Listening to the greats
It’s time for another post-lunch walk along the coast accompanied by some stunning music-making. Here is today’s shortlist:
Pablo Casals, Alfred Cortot, Jaques Thibaud: Haydn Piano Trio in G major “Gypsy”. III. Rondo all’Ongarese. Presto
Pekka Kuusisto, Heini Kärkkäinen: Sibelius Pieces for Violin and Piano op. 81. I. Mazurka
Jessye Norman, Kurt Masur, Gewandhausorchester Leipzig: Strauss Four Last Songs. II. September. The garden mourns
Martha Argerich, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Chamber Orchestra of Europe: Schumann Piano Concerto in A minor op. 54. I. Allegro affetuoso
Lydia Mordkovitch, Neeme Järvi, Royal Scottish National Orchestra: Shostakovich Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor op. 77. I. Nocturne. Moderato
Jacqueline du Pré, Gerd Albrecht, Radio-Symphonie-Orchester Berlin: Schumann Cello Concerto in A minor op. 129. III. Sehr lebhaft
You can find all of today’s recordings in the following spotify playlist:
5PM: Brahms deserves our love (despite what Tchaikovsky said!)
Taking inspiration from Jessye Norman’s incredible variety of consonants and glissandi I try to incorporate similar elements into the Brahms Double. I only make it to the end of the introduction in 90 minutes but it feels great to work in this level of detail. For me Brahms’ music is so vocal, full of opportunities to really sing with the instrument. I’ve always found his music to be very moving, (particularly his big chamber music i.e. the quintets and sextets), which is why I was so shocked when I read what Tchaikovsky had to say about it:
‘There is something dry, cold, vague and nebulous in the music [...] Brahms does not possess melodic invention. His musical ideas never speak to the point; hardly have we heard an allusion to some tangible melodic phrase than it disappears […] as though the composer’s special aim was to be incomprehensible and obscure. Thus he excites and irritates our musical perceptions, as it were, yet is unwilling to satisfy their demands; he seems ashamed, to put it plainly, to speak clearly and reach the heart […]’ I let out an audible yelp the first time I read this. How could anyone, let alone a great composer like Tchaikovsky, feel this way about Brahms?! Since reading this quote a few years ago I’ve realised that quite a few people aren’t huge fans of Brahms’ music, it’s made me commit even more to projecting what I love about it in performances.
6.30PM: Conveying music’s essence
I’m still in Isserlis’ ‘Great players of the past’ edition of the Strad, today I read about (Guaneri Quartet First Violinist) Arnold Steinhardt’s summer studying with Joseph Szigeti:
‘Szigeti would talk about colouration constantly. He’d say, ‘Think of the oboe here,’ or ‘Think of the flute.’ That opened my mind in terms of the violin’s capability to mimic other instruments.'
‘Another important thing, which partly came from his Hungarian tradition, was what he called ‘parlando’, the violin’s ability not just to play notes but also to speak. [...] When he played something that was of a melancholy nature, for example, it was as if he was confessing to you from the inner depths of his heart about what that melancholy was. He would speak about that in terms of bow articulation, of how you could talk with the bow.’
‘He’d say, “This is a Chopinesque place - you and the pianist are two lovers talking to each other, each interrupting the other in their eagerness to express their love”.’
‘I came from teachers who [...] would hand every student the same fingerings whether they were six feet tall or five feet, and whatever their hand and arm lengths. Szigeti wasn’t like that at all. [...] To this day when I open up a piece of music and think of fingerings, I can feel Szigeti behind my shoulder whispering to me: “That’s too standard, look at something that gets more into the essence of the music”.’
‘The violin is such an ungrateful mistress. It’s so hard. It’s tempting to dwell on technique - as one must - but the essence of great music is this emotional landscape that we each have within us. [...] It’s OK to say, “You played a little sharp here, the tempo could be faster, here your rhythm was inaccurate.” All of those things are important, but Szigeti was all about conveying music’s essence. I want to break through a young person’s tendency to be cautious about music. Being a teacher of a violinist is not only an instrumental exercise, it’s also a psychological exercise in taking a student by the hand and leading them to the heart of things, to their heart. So you wind up being a musician, an instrumentalist, a violinist and a psychiatrist. Szigeti handed that to me the way no other teacher did.’
8.30PM: Time to relax
After some dinner I settle down for a chilled evening listening to vocalist/violinist Alice Zawadzki’s beautiful album ‘China Lane’. You can listen here.
Today’s recording of the day pick is such a tough one; all of the tracks in the shortlist are stunning. I’m going to go with Jessye Norman’s Four Last Songs:
This choice doesn’t need justifying but I was particularly moved by the fortuitous timing of coming across this view just as the horn solo started (04:30):
Thanks for reading, join me next time for Day Three.