Viewing entries tagged
Benefits of Music

James Ehnes' violin

I've been thinking lately about better ways to teach kids how to care for their instruments, something I have begun to see as a gap in my method. Lately I've noticed many of my students need reminders about not swinging the bow or violin around, poking the tip of the bow into their foot, the ground, the stand, etc. It's a problem, especially because I know that when they are free from the lesson room and the harping of the teacher they will revert to their own whims and habits. As the parent of two preschool boys, I know well that I have to both discipline the behavior and approach the heart of the child in order to aim at changing their motivation.

It's my job to help them want to change. In the spirit of full disclosure, I'll admit I'm particularly sensitive about the bow tip as I just spent $500 getting the ivory on mine replaced after it had what looked like an everyday crack to me. It also scared me a bit that it had gotten bad enough to need more than a quick fix because I know how crucial the mechanism of the tip is to the proper function of my lovely bow. I should have taken care of it much more quickly when I saw the first sliver of a crack. Lesson learned.

Yung Chin,
bow whisperer & pernambuco conservator

In last night's Oregon Symphony program I particularly enjoyed this part of the interview with violinist James Ehnes about the privilege of playing his instrument:

You've played your Stradivarius for 11 years. Describe the relationship you have with something that is your constant travel companion and, I would assume, your most precious item.

One of the more interesting things about violins is that they're works of art that help create works of art. It's as if you had a Rembrandt that could paint a Rembrandt. It's a very unusual thing. I feel fortunate that the people I was around from a very young age instilled in me feelings about these instruments. I mean, my first violin was probably worth $150. But that just seemed like an unbelievable amount of money to me. It was more money than I could process. And then as I got a violin that was worth $500 or $1000, and these figures.. I think they put me in this reverential respect for instruments so that as the stakes got higher, I'm not sure my attitude towards the instrument changed.
I remember one of my old violins dated from the early 1800s. It was just a three-quarter violin, but I could tell that this instrument had been through a lot of hands. When my dad bought it for me, he explained to me that the only reason I have this is because generations of other lucky young people loved it and took care of it and made sure that I would be able to have it someday. And certainly when you get to an instrument like a Strad, you're just upping the ante there. Because it would be really a tragedy if something happens to one of these violins. The only reason that there are any left at all is because people appreciated them enough to take care of them.
(emphasis added)

So there's my task as a teacher. I want to instill in our students a respect for their instruments that encompasses not only the instrument as a tool of expression, but also the art involved in creating them and the longevity of the creative lives of stringed instruments. This thinking can be presented to students in a way that includes respect for their bodies & brains as creative tools as well, tools which need time to learn, many repetitions to remember, and good maintenance to perform at the top of their potential for their young owner/operators.

This soup of responsibility & reward is one of my favorite things about kids learning music. I love the many opportunities this discipline gives them to explore and demonstrate these truths themselves, and even enjoy the steep challenge inherent in getting to those rewards.

Here's a video from youtube with audio of Mr. Ehnes speaking about the Stradivarius "Sassoon" violin and playing Kreisler in a deliciously beautiful way. Keep it playing, and around 3:20 you're rewarded with video of him playing. Note to my students: You may keep your violin thumb that high when you are as tall & free of tension as this accomplished dude. That is all, enjoy!

Musicians are funny.

I went down to Salem last night to catch the Hilary Hahn concert. There are .6 degrees of separation (rather than the customary 6) between any two people in the musical world. For me and Hilha, as I like to call her, well, we're practically like that. (I'm crossing my fingers... there's probably an emoticon for that.)

I have played in various orchestras accompanying her as a soloist, and for a while in Baltimore I taught a schizophrenic who was a little obsessed with her. He was annoyed when I said I thought I'd like to hear her Bach when she was in her sixties rather than however young she was when she recorded them. I think she was a toddler of some sort at the time.

Not only have I played in her general vicinity and known people who REALLY love her, my friend was also in town for the Oregon Symphony violin auditions and she once took Hilha white water rafting. So, like I said, we're like that.

She played Tchaikovsky and I was truly impressed. Her bow seemed to be an amplifier for her lovely violin (a Vuillaume?) and she was able to do unreal things with a few inches of that sucker. I love to see things like that, to enjoy it all the more fully for knowing that it's no easy feat. Musically, she made some things so new in the concerto- some spots where she slowed in such a way that there was a sparkling classiness in the play between solo and orchestra. I would love to hear that for days. Lovely, nuanced, silky. I'm really glad we went, it was so much FUN even for a jaded old thing like myself.

So when I got home, I decided I'd check out the website posted in her bio and I found this:

She also has a YouTube channel I'll be showing the boys, and a Twitter feed from the perspective of her violin case. A true music geek, and you have to love that.

Peer Pressure Wins Again...

This has been a fascinating summer, musically, for me with my boys. There were lots of rehearsals and fantastic chamber music performed within their earshot. Several kids concerts were a big hit, as were some laid back church events involving both a playground and my viola & violin. I thought for sure these were perfect scenarios to pique the interest of Toby, age 4. His brother Isaac is still just 2, so I figured he was still more of a sponge than anything.

I should have known better. Isaac has taken the proactive role practically from birth, and it turns out that music is no different. The first time he grabbed my hand to march me upstairs declaring, "Go to work, Mama. Play the vi-lin now," I thought he meant he wanted to hear the theme from Bob the Builder for the zillionth time. Nope. He would not leave the studio without "playing" himself.

Fantastic as that was, what really has me smiling is that Toby had followed us upstairs and directed me to, "Do the Mr. Violin voice." That boy is now the proud owner of a foot chart, and knows how to use it. He can find his ear with the end button and holds the bow on his bow hook with the instrument in rest position. This is nothing short of miraculous to me; Toby is a young 4 year old boy. He has messed around with the violin a few times but he's easily frustrated if he thinks he's made any mistakes so he generally prefers other things so far, and I'm cool with that.

I know it was seeing Isaac have a "lesson" that got Toby going, and I have no qualms about continuing to use that. Isaac gets a mini-lesson (it turns into drawing with colored pencils in less than 60 seconds on most days), and that puts Toby in the mood for his own session. Many of my students have paired up over the years to have joint recitals, mentoring relationships, practice partners and plain old violin buddies. I remember my own years in school orchestra, youth symphony and all the festivals along the way. There really is nothing like the camaraderie of peers to inspire, goad and energize an interest in music.
Let's use it!

Here's a video of Toby with the foam violin we started out playing. It helped me avoid getting tense and saying, "No!" or "Wait, careful with that!" in these early lessons. He didn't seem to really mind that it doesn't make its own noises. As you can see, he provides those happily enough.