Category Archives: Classical Music

Concert today with Dame Emma Kirkby!

Concert today with Dame Emma Kirkby! Sat 28th Sept, 7pm, Holy Trinity Church, St Andrews

Come along to Holy Trinity Church tonight at 7pm for a baroque and classical feast of choral music to celebrate Tom Duncan’s 50th year as organist and choir-master of Holy Trinity Church! With Dame Emma Kirkby, soprano and Ben McAteer, baritone (and me playing viola as part of the Heisenberg Ensemble!)

Programme:

Mozart – Laudate Dominum

Palestrina – Alma Redemptoris Mater

Haydn- Paukenmesse

Handel – The King Shall Rejoice

Bach – Suite in B minor (for flute and orchestra, solo Julie Duncan)

Gibbons – O Clap Your Hands

Heisenberg Ensemble and The Celebration Chorus, conducted by Gillian Craig

Tickets £10 on the door or by calling 01334 478317

My Portfolio Life: new academic year!

Keep Calm and Have a Cupcake!!Advice for stressed students from Bibi’s Bakery, South Street

It’s the second week of the new academic semester here in North East Fife, and the leaves are beginning to turn – it must be autumn already!  Apologies for the lack of news on here – it has been a somewhat eventful summer, and I haven’t had much time to write this blog due to illness getting in the way…  But I’m hoping  I can now get back to posting here fairly regularly, as this autumn seems to be gearing itself up to be a busy  semester with concerts and events, as you’ll see below!

I’ve also ordered myself some lovely new compliment slips, postcards and business cards which I’m quite excited about using! I’m trying to get myself organised and do stuff like that – part of being self employed, I guess.

Anyway, here’s a summary of the projects I’m involved with, and the concerts I have planned for the next few months!

New projects

St Andrews Smiles Better – my facebook page and a work in progress. Eventually I hope to be able to turn this into an official organisation/charity to help provide music and the arts in social care settings such as hospitals, care homes, schools and day centres. I’m still learning how to use a facebook ‘page’ so anybody with any experience, I’d love to speak to you!

Leuchars Military Wives Choir – I am now the “assistant musical director”jn of RAF Leuchars Military Wives Choir, a fancy way of saying I go to their rehearsals, play the piano for them and assist with music/warm ups/general musical stuff. This is very exciting for me, as I have written before about the impression that Gareth Malone’s Military Wives TV series had on me and the importance of community music. I feel very proud to be able to contribute something towards the running of such a group and very lucky to work with the amazing wives of RAF employees.

Projects I’m continuing with:

St Andrews and Fife Community Orchestra – I’m continuing my role as in previous years, taking sectionals, answering questions

Teaching – I’m now teaching in the St Andrews area only (not in South Fife or the East Neuk) and I’m continuing to enjoy sharing my experience of playing  and talking about all things string related  🙂 Cello subway

Image: Don’t forget your instrument when you travel!

Concerts

Sunday 28th Sept, 7pm in Holy Trinity Church, St Andrews – Heisenberg Ensemble with Dame Emma Kirkby – Mozart, Bach, Palestrina, Gibbons (Tickets are £10, available through the church,  or by calling 01334 478317 or emailing holytrinity(at)gmail.com replacing (at) with @)
Friday 25th October, Greyfriar’s Kirk, Edinburgh – St Patrick’s Ensemble play new music and Strauss, playing the “Sherlock Quartet” of instruments (more info to follow soon)
Tuesday 12th November, 1.10pm, Reid Hall, Edinburgh – lunchtime recital with Audrey Innes and Jean Murray – Hindemith Viola Sonata Op 11 no 4 and Hindemith Flute Sonata
Weds 20th Nov, 1.10pm, Younger Hall, St Andrews – Lunchtime recital with St Andrews String Trio – Schubert and Beethoven serenade
Weds 27th Nov, 1.10pm, Younger Hall, St Andrews – Lunchtime recital with Paul Livingston (Violin and Viola duo) – Programme TBC but probably including Mozart/Halvorsen

Further in the future, Audrey and I are planning another lunchtime concert in early 2014 – more details to follow as they are decided…!

Rapture on the Edge of a Dime

Robert Baldwin’s beautifully vivid description of the ‘in the moment’ feeling musicians feel when we play music. Psychologists call it ‘flow’, jazz musicians say it is when they are ‘in the groove’, but I prefer to think of it as a kind of timelessness, where actual reality is suspended. When we play music, all we as performers can (or should) think of is the music and how to physically produce it from our instruments to make it seem as effortless and convincing as possible. I always look for that feeling in a great soloist or musician – if they are making something incredibly hard look easy, then they are truly a great artist.

Rapture on the Edge of a Dime.

Teaching students how to practise

As an instrumental teacher, I’m often asked by parents how much they think their children should practise their instruments, or told proudly that they practise every day or even twice a day. In turn, I often ask my pupils how much they practise, which is most often met with a sheepish grin and a muttered ‘…um…’

We all know the old adage ‘practice makes perfect’, and as a professional musician myself, I know from experience that this is all too true. Behind every polished performance are hours and hours of dedicated rehearsal, practice, memorisation and close analysis of problems and their solutions. What not everyone knows, however, is how to practise so that the time spent practising is spent in the best possible way; in other words, how to achieve the most in the limited amount of time that is allotted to practising.

Many children, and adult learners for that matter, have not been told the fundamentals of how to practise a piece in order to correct the mistakes that their teacher points out to them. How to practise is part of the fundamental toolkit of every musician, which includes basics such as how to tune your instrument, how to hold it correctly and make the best sound from it, and how to improve your own playing.

As a teacher, I don’t like to spoon-feed my pupils – I like to try and challenge them with questions about what they are playing, why, what this means and so on. But I had sort of assumed – and this was a dangerous assumption – that most children know how to practise in such a way that they can improve and see their own improvement. I now know that I should be telling all my pupils the basics of how to practise a piece, and not just assume that this is obvious – as to an adult, practising the difficult bits of a piece more than the easier bits is common sense.

In my experience as a teacher, children tend to play their pieces through from beginning to end, often as fast as possible, and it doesn’t really occur to them that this might not be the most effective way of practising them. What often happens is that the same mistakes get repeated every time they play the piece through, and as such become ‘part’ of the piece and the way they play it, making it even more difficult for the teacher to correct when the mistake is pointed out. These habitual mistakes can be addressed, but what is much more effective is pointing out that playing the more difficult bars or sections of a piece on their own repeatedly until they became easier, then fitting them back into the piece, is a much better way of approaching the difficulties of a piece. Of course the piece must be played through from time to time to prepare it for performance, but variety is important – many teachers have emphasised to me the importance of not always starting at the beginning of a piece.

So, here’s my guide to mindful practising:

How to practise a piece mindfully – and really improve

  • Play the piece through to get an overview of the technical and musical challenges presented by it
  • Identify and isolate the difficult bars of the piece
  • Play these bars on their own, slowly if necessary,  become aware of the problems and work out solutions to these problems (e.g. bowings, shifts, fingerings)
  • Once you have worked out the solutions to the problems, play the difficult bars until you are satisfied that they are improving (this may take a long time in the case of very difficult music!)
  • Play the bars in context again, making sure that the join between the difficult bars and the others is practised thoroughly
  • Play the piece through again, this time being aware of the difficult bars and (hopefully) their improvement
  • Repeat the process regularly!

Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts to learning a musical instrument, but if this kind of mindful practice can be learnt and applied, then it will make the process of learning to play music more rewarding and less frustrating for the pupil. In other words, it is the quality, not the quantity, of practice that really matters!

For more information on how to practise and for discussions of many other issues that musicians face, see the blog of The Bulletproof Musician

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“The right kind of practice is not a matter of hours. Practice should
represent the utmost concentration of brain. It is better to play with
concentration for two hours than to practice eight without. I should say
that four hours would be a good maximum practice time—I never ask
more of my pupils—and that during each minute of the time the brain be
as active as the fingers.”
 
 -Leopold Auer

10,000 Hours or 22,000 Days?

A very interesting blog post from Robert Baldwin on ‘Before the Downbeat’ on the time it takes to become accomplished at something – the title refers to the 10, 000 hours that research has suggested it takes to become expert at a task such as learning a musical instrument.

10,000 Hours or 22,000 Days?.

My own view is that, while individuals may develop the technical proficiency to play a difficult piece of music,  the mere accomplishment of playing the piece itself is nearly worthless without the development of musical understanding and of a musical personality. This phenomenon is especially common in young children who have been pushed to become ‘virtuosos’ by the age of 5 or 10 – while they can play their instruments very well, their musicality is  un- or under-developed, leaving the performances technically flawless but without the depth that makes a good performance great. Or as Robert Baldwin puts it:

Art reaches beyond good craftsmanship.  Seasoned musicians transform it into artistry. A Bach Cello Suite can be played perfectly, without mentionable flaw and still not quite be ready.’

Everything you’ve always wanted to know about the viola (but were too afraid to ask)

Inspired by all the questions I usually get asked about playing the viola, I’ve decided to write answers to the more frequently asked questions. This post has turned into a longer one than I expected, so I’ll be impressed if you make it through it all. Hopefully you’ll learn something new about the viola though!

What is a viola? What is the difference between a violin and a viola?

A viola is often described as a ‘big violin’, which is a pretty accurate, if rough, description. A viola is larger than a violin in all dimensions – it is longer, deeper and a little chunkier, but the most significant difference between a violin and a viola is that the viola’s sound is lower in pitch (a fifth lower, to be precise) than the violin, and its tone is richer, rounder and mellower compared to the violin’s brilliant, flashy sound. The viola shares its 3 highest strings with the violin, but has one string a fifth lower, so instead of the violin’s E-A-D-G strings, its strings are A-D-G-C. The viola is the second highest instrument in the violin family, coming in pitch between the violin and cello, and the viola is the middle section in an orchestra.

How do you read the alto clef?

Lots of people ask me how I can read ‘that weird alto clef’ and my answer is usually the same every time – it is no different from reading any other clef, except that fewer people know how to read it, as fewer people play instruments that use it (it is also used for the viola da gamba and the alto trombone – rarer instruments than the viola!)

It is a little known fact that violists have to read not only their own clef, but also the treble clef, as when we play high passages it is much easier to read in treble clef than read millions of ledger lines. This is fine, but it does lead to difficulties when sight-reading when the clef changes half way through a line (or even worse, at the end of a line), and also embarrassing moments when you play loudly in the wrong clef…

Why is the viola sometimes called the ‘Cinderella’ of the orchestra?

The viola has been under-represented as a solo instrument and unfairly maligned as an orchestral instrument (see below), leading to some calling it the ‘cinderella’ of the orchestra. In recent times, beginning with pioneers such as William Primrose and Lionel Tertis (who wrote books called ‘My Viola’ and I and ‘Cinderella No More’), the viola has risen to prominence as a solo instrument in its own right, with more and more works being composed for it.

The viola repertoire is relatively small compared with many instruments, but given that the instrument took a long time to be recognised as a solo instrument, many major works have been written for it such as the famous Walton and Bartok Viola Concertos, and works by Britten, Vaughan Williams, Hindemith, Shostakovich, Clarke, York Bowen, Penderecki and Schnittke.

Aren’t viola players just failed violinists?

Absolutely not! Contrary to popular belief, playing the viola is actually harder than playing the violin. It is a larger and heavier instrument to hold, requires a more robust bow arm as the strings are slightly thicker and require more effort to make vibrate (especially the C string), and the notes are further apart than on the violin, making it harder to stretch some notes. Overall, it is harder to make a good sound on the viola than it is on the violin because of its larger size, but the sound when it comes out is gorgeously rich and full.

The commonly held belief that viola players are ‘failed violinist’ may have come about because violinists sometimes switch to viola, especially if there are not enough viola players in a group, so if a mediocre violinist was asked to play viola then of course they would play the viola badly too. Or violinists are simply jealous of the richer sound that we as viola players make! 🙂

I find that when I switch to violin (mainly only for teaching purposes, as I am definitely a true violist at heart!) everything seems very easy and so small, like playing a toy version of my viola!

I’ve never heard of any famous viola players.

Most people if you asked them probably would not be able to name any famous viola players, but if you do your homework you’ll find that many of the most famous composers including Mozart, Bach, Haydn and Beethoven played the viola and composed music for it, if only in combination with other instruments – Mozart is said to have directed the first performance of his Sinfonia Concertante from the viola. Other composers who were viola players include Britten, Frank Bridge, Schubert, Dvorak, Rebecca Clarke and Paul Hindemith, suggesting that as a composer, the viola was a popular choice, perhaps because of its role as a harmony instrument.

Many famous violinists also play (or played) the viola, such as Nigel Kennedy, Maxim Vengerov, David Oistrakh, Yehudi Menuhin and even Paganini, so it was not nearly as neglected an instrument as most people think! The pioneers of the viola as a solo instrument included the British violists Lionel Tertis and William Primrose, and notable viola virtuosos of today include Lawrence Power, Yuri Bashmet, Nobuko Imai and Jane Atkins.

A good article about viola players is here

Why would you choose to play the viola and not the violin? Isn’t it boring not playing the tune?

There are lots of reasons to choose the viola over the violin (no offence to any violinist colleagues!):

  • The viola produces a richer, darker tone and can be more expressive than the violin
  • As mentioned before, the viola is harder to play than the violin, making it more of a technical challenge. People will often tell you that playing the viola part is ‘easy’, or easier than the first violin part, which is true to an extent as first violin parts are often stratospherically high, but there are different challenges in viola parts such as playing fast on thicker strings.
  • I personally find it very satisfying to be in the middle of the texture, both in orchestras and in chamber music, underpinning the harmony – I don’t mind not playing the tune all the time!
  • Having said that, many composers give the viola section really great bits of tune, which conductors often refer to as ‘viola moments’!

Why are there so many viola jokes?

Viola players have a hard time of it. Take the following exchange on facebook:

Q: Why would a viola player constantly go to his locker five times a day?

A: To read the instructions: instrument on the left, bow on the right

To which a viola player commented:  ‘What are you talking about? Isn’t it viola on the right?’

And 2 other comments:

‘Nonsense. Everybody knows viola players can’t read.’

‘Wrong: a viola player who would practice 5 times a day would soon become a musician and start playing the violin.’

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of viola jokes. They all draw ammunition from the assertion that violists are failed violinists (see above), so we are credited with various characteristics in the jokes: not knowing how to hold our instruments (above), playing timidly (eg How do you get a viola-player to play pp tremolo?’ – ‘Write solo in big letters over the part’), so old that we are dead (eg What’s the difference between a viola and a coffin? The coffin has the dead person on the inside) and just plain incompetent (eg How can you tell when a violist is playing out of tune? The bow is moving). All I have to say is for all of these jokes, try replacing the word ‘viola’ with another instrument – the joke will work just as well with practically any other instrument.

Viola players (for the most part) tend to be friendly, approachable and long suffering – perhaps because we have been maligned for so long!

See this article  for a good description of the viola, viola players and a mention of viola jokes.

Why do violas come in many sizes?

Unlike with violins, cellos and double basses, there is no such thing as a ‘full size viola’. Violas can range in size from just larger than a violin (which has a body length of 14 inches) to massive violas with body lengths of 17 to 18 inches. Most viola players will choose an instrument in the range of 15-16.5 inches, as these are the instruments that are comfortable to play in size and produce a good resonant tone; the smaller the instrument, the smaller the sound, especially on the C string. The size of your viola is a personal choice based on what size is comfortable for you relative to the sound of the viola. I have played violas ranging from 15 to 16 and a quarter inches, and my current one is 15 and 3/8 inches – relatively small, but it produces a nice resonant sound as it is quite generously proportioned widthways.

Does anyone start playing on the viola? Why does it seem like most viola players start on the violin?

People can and do start playing on the viola itself, but due to its larger size, most small children who start playing will start on the violin and then move to the viola when their hands and arms are big enough. Having said this, you can use a small violin strung as a viola (but this really does not sound good, especially on the C string), and there are now violin-viola conversions available, which help small violins sound more resonant like violas. These are a bit drastic, as a small hole is drilled through the front of the violin and the bridge is placed in direct contact with the soundpost, but they do sound better than a simple violin strung as a viola. I cannot emphasise enough that this should never be attempted at home or with a violin other than a cheap factory made one.

Can you play fiddle tunes on the viola?

Yes, definitely! Fiddle tunes transposed down a string work well on the viola, especially slow airs, as they suit the mellow tone of the instrument. The viola can also be used very effectively to accompany fiddlers using drones and chords.

Chamber music and sensitivity

The week before last I attended a new chamber music course in St Andrews called ‘Strings in Spring’, which was coached by the fantastic Fitzwilliam Quartet (composed of Lucy Russell, Marcus Barcham-Stevens, Alan George and Heather Tuach). It was a chance for local string players to receive expert coaching from these eminent musicians, and to hear some top class playing when it came to their own concert. My trio (a string trio, which is a quartet minus the second violin) went along and we got some great advice on playing Mozart and Beethoven, as well as the unforgettable opportunity to play the first movement of Schubert’s ‘Rosamunde’ quartet with Lucy Russell playing second violin!

We also had the chance to play in a string ensemble for some of the sessions, and covered everything from Purcell’s Fairy Queen to Elgar’s Serenade and Mendelssohn’s Octet, which was really good fun, as members of the quartet are also specialists in Baroque playing and could advise us on how to get the most authentic sounds out of our instruments, and the benefits of playing with gut strings and baroque bows.

It was when I went to hear the quartet play in their own concert, entitled ‘Latest and Last’ as they played the last quartets composed by Mozart and Haydn as well as some recently written works, that I was struck by an aspect of playing music that I had never considered before. Musicians, especially those playing chamber music, have to be minutely aware of the subtleties of the other players’ playing, so that if one player suddenly decides to take time or change the dynamic in one phrase, the others must notice this and immediately adapt to it. This sensitivity to the tiniest changes in pitch, timing, dynamics and many other factors is helped along in a quartet by the fact that its members (hopefully) know each other very well and can anticipate what each other will do. Of course rehearsal is also essential to get to know the music and where the difficult patches are, but in performances, spontaneous things can happen and mistakes can creep in into the most well rehearsed passage, and the adaptability of chamber musicians in these situations is key to the success (or failure) of the performance. I remember when I was playing in a quartet in a concert (I think it was a fairly light hearted piece Schubert), and the cellist decided mischieviously to pause for longer than we had rehearsed before playing his pizz, thus momentarily throwing me and the rest of the quartet – but since we knew the piece well, we quickly adapted. This responsiveness, coupled with musicians’ heightened awareness of moods and emotions portrayed in music, means that as chamber musicians we can read music that we don’t know and pick up some of the nuances of it straight away.

The intimacy of chamber music is a large part of the reason I like it so much – you can hear yourself and your own sound very clearly (as opposed to in an orchestra where others are playing your part and it is more difficult to hear yourself), and you can bring your own interpretations to the music, as there are a much smaller number of players in the group and you are not being directed from the podium. Chamber music allows musicians to express their personalities through the music, and to interpret the composers’ intentions directly, without the medium of the conductor. A large part of chamber music is the close relationship of the players to each other, and the fact that you use eye contact and visual cues much more to be aware of what the other players are doing – without this, it is very unlikely that a string quartet or chamber group would ever be fully together. (This is the same in orchestras and choirs, only it is the responsibility of the conductor to make sure everyone is together). You will often see quartet players looking up from their music and looking at each other for large parts of the music – they know the piece so well that they can play from memory and use the music as an aide, concentrating instead on the ensemble. This strategy is great, until you are sight reading a piece or don’t know it very well – I’ve lost count of the number of times I have looked up and then completely lost my place in the music!

I leave you with a funny quotation from an unknown musician on the nature of quartet playing:

‘A quartet is four people who used to be friends….’

 

I selected this post to be featured on my blog’s page at Best Music Blogs.