Sunday, January 28, 2007

Master Class

It's feast or famine. Yesterday I attended the second cello master class in 2 weeks, but I don't think there is another scheduled this academic year. This class featured Fred Sherry as the master teacher, again with four students, but this time in the standard performance auditorium. Must say, I enjoyed the class at the jazz club last time.

According to the bio materials, Fred Sherry is best known for his role as a champion and expositor of "new" music. He is also on the faculty at Juilliard, and has done hundreds of master classes in his career. Rather than addressing microscopic musical elements of the performance of each piece, his approach was to choose one macroscopic core element of each student's playing to discuss both in and out of context of the piece performed.

There were some recurrent themes, but rather than present you with the didactic summary, I am going to list the details as they occurred during the performances. (These are my notes and reflections, not an article on master classes ~g~.) On the program (ages are approximate this week):
(1) M~13 Saint-Saens Concerto in a 1st mvmt
(2) M15 Elgar Concerto in e 1st mvmt (same student played Faure Elegie at last class)
(3) M~20 Bach Prelude of c Suite (college student)
(4) F~16 Lalo Concerto in d 1st mvmt (another of my teacher's students)

Student #1, Saint-Saens
* FS described the "Rostropovich Method" for practicing fast passages. This involves lifting the fingers high off the string at a comfortable, slower-than-performance tempo. I can add this to my repertoire of ways to bring music up to speed, which already includes rhythms, accents, and gestures.

* Sometimes the R hand should respond to the L hand. FS made a point of labeling each student as predominantly right hand dominant (Rostropovich) or left hand dominant (Yo-Yo Ma). I think the biggest idea I took away is to be aware of your tendency, and look for places in the music where you might need to focus on your weaker handedness or on cooperation between the hands. We discussed an example of this at a recent lesson, moving to the high B in Chanson Triste, and "pulling" the shift upward with the down bow.

* Cuing of the accompanist can be done with a breath OR a bow motion. I usually focus on the former, but realize I do the latter unconsciously at times.

* In the "hours of boring passagework" section, keep spinning the sound on the longer notes with the bow. There should be life at the ends of the notes. This keeps the section from *sounding* boring.

* In discussion of shifting, FS stated his opinion that the half-step shifts are the hardest, requiring the highest level of perfection of intonation. He demonstrated an exercise for shifting (that can be extrapolated for larger intervals and also include or be limited to thumb shifting). Here it is by fingers for 1/2 steps, where the "-" indicates the shift:
1-1 (up) 2-2 (down) 3-3 (up) 4-4 (down) 4-4 (up) 3-3 (down) 2-2 (up) 1-1 (down)
ex. On the D string in 1st position, the notes would be:
E-F F#-F F#-G G#-G G-G# G-F# F-F# F-E
Ways I can think of to check intonation (accuracy): play against open G drone, use tuner drone at various pitch to check each time it is played, check G only against open string, check that departure E is same as arrival E with either G-E or E-A chord.

Student #2 Elgar
* The core element for this student was his sitting stance. He had a tendency to bend at his waist while keeping his hips open, rather than bending from the hips ( a definite no-no in Alexander Technique!). So FS led us on an amusing diversion through Bruce Lee films while moving the student through some martial arts stances. The point was to take the active crouching at the hips over to the cello chair, and to get the feeling that the legs are active and ready to support your movement there.

Two other points he made about stance:
* Use hands with non-dominant playing hand loosely fisted and other hand either with palm gently pressing top of other fist or curled around it. This student was left-hand oriented, so that meant R fist and L wrap. I'm not sure what practical application this has.
* Always look up when you bow. In the film he was citing, a bow while looking down led to charges of disrespect and death of the practitioner. Rather serious consequences for not being aware of the situation surrounding him. Again, I'm not sure of the practical application, other than it does tend to keep the back straighter with the bend at the hips as opposed to curled over the cello.

* Use all of the emotional palette. Example: FS called the initial note of the Elgar the death blow. That shouldn't just sound like a large, pleasant sound. Sometimes nice is exactly the wrong thing.

* Regarding the tenuto marks later in a slow section. Pay attention to the small differences between sections and bring them out. Ex. here the notes are the same as while the tenuto marks differ from an earlier section.

* The twin pillars of every piece of music are Pitch and Rhythm. These are non-negotiable, while other aspects of the music can vary based on interpretation.

Student #3 Bach
* About the piece: the twists and turns baffle the memory. There are more relationships among the notes than notes themselves. (All the students played from memory, and there were a couple of small slips here. This was empathetic as well as acknowledging the particular difficulty of this piece.)

* An aside here. I noticed this student played entirely with his eyes closed. At my last lesson, T- asked me to play the opening of my piece (Bach, d Suite, Prelude) with my eyes closed. How disorienting, but how much better to focus on the tactile aspects of playing. I shall have to adopt PFS's habit of playing in a dark room. But without candles. They result in too many singed whiskers at my house.

* Though this prelude is often referred to as a Prelude and Fugue, FS expressed the opinion that it is more like a French overture with corresponding allegro. Bach was just an early adopter. (He also noted his use of double dotted rhythms before there was a way to annotate them, using 1/8 note, 1/16 rest, 1/16 note.) He recommended choosing the tempi by first playing the "fugue" section, then transferring the pulse to become the beat of the "prelude" opening.

* The roll of the many chords should happen outside of the beat, so that the top of the line is heard in tempo.

* The core element for this student was about bow grips. FS made the observation that the student seemed overly finicky about getting his bow hair tension and grip "exactly right". So he had him play little improvisatory licks using different bow grips, including thumb under frog, thumb and fingers moved forward around thumb grip (thus origin of the term), more forward still at the balance point, and at usual place on frog but using only very tips of fingers. Guess what. There was not much difference in the quality of the sound.

* An exercise for bow hold: monkey climb with R hand only up to tip and back to frog while holding the bow steadily horizontal. This is good for developing strength of the intrinsic hand muscles, finger coordination, and also leads to a comfortable, balanced hold when arriving back at the frog. (This is one of my "cello gym" exercises. I should write about that some day.)

* This really had nothing to do with Bach or this student that I could see, but was an interesting diversion. FS set up a little improvisatory conversation between him and the student. The rules were to stay within a 3/4 frame, stay out of each other's register as much as possible, and to use non-overlapping notes. This was done by one player sticking to the C MAJ scale and the other to an F# pentatonic scale, which is to say, all the leftover notes. That would be F# G# A# C# D#, or the black keys. It was very cool. Maybe I can sweet talk the violinist in my trio into trying it out with me.

Student #4 Lalo
* FS asked this student to begin by playing a d melodic minor scale, 2 octaves, half notes at a modest tempo. Just as a warm-up, since she had been waiting for over 1.5 hours to play. Yikes. I was sweating. For the past year I have played only harmonic minor scales, with the Duport fingering (no open strings.) I'm not sure I could have done it, and forthwith promise to spend some of my scale practice time reviewing Klengel 2 octave scale fingerings.

* Another aside. The student played the scale the first time with the big extroverted sound favored by our teacher. FS then asked her to play it a second time, more relaxed, mf. She cut back considerably, but he still commented that this was louder than he considered mf. I noticed that I got a lot of those comments at my various summer camps last year. I'm thinking T- may be a little divergent from the masses in this regard.

* So anyway, this student played the heck out of the Lalo. I was in awe of her fast passage work. I sat in on a number of her lessons while she was learning this piece, but they focused on the rhythms of the Theme 1 sections and development. I guess she didn't need any help on the fast parts! And FS chose to work on sound quality and interpretation for her core element.

* At the beginning of the mvmt, tell a whole story on each long note. Technically, this is done in the usual way, by varying bow speed, weight, and sounding point. I point this out because it wasn't discussed, with the focus kept on imagining the sound and making it. Cello-playing should be a piece of cake, with only a few tools broadly applied.

* The dreamy part requires a total change in tone color, not merely a change in dynamics. (I was impressed with how much more emotionally intense the piece sounded.)

* Vibrato. There are many different styles. Its purpose is to enhance the tone, not merely to intensify it. A player must learn to control speed, width and timing in order to develop a large palette of vibrato colors, and then must purposefully choose the style of vibrato in order to achieve the desired effect. (I am beginning to become aware of all of the details that can be consciously chosen. It's nearly overwhelming.) Styles demonstrated:
-- accent - fast, wide attack, then decrease width to shimmer
-- continuous - the same on all four fingers, including across shifts
-- shimmering - narrow, fast vibrato with bow close to the bridge

* FS also advocated an open, relaxed hand while vibrating on each finger independently. This contrasts with T-'s recent instructions to vibrate with my other fingers relaxed but apposed in a "vibrato mitten". The adult student sitting next to me commented that her teacher was asking for the same thing (the mitten). Until I hear otherwise, I will consider that to be another instance of "more than one way to do it right".

* Almost forgot. Back to the initial scale: when playing a scale having open strings, the notes on either side of the open string should be played with a relatively small vibrato to decrease the aural jarring that would occur otherwise on the unvibrated open string.

1 comment:

Terry said...

Great info, thanks for writing it down. Much more than I can absorb in one reading.

I've long wondered about that LH/RH leading thing. I thought such a thing might exist, but I don't know which one I am, and how to use th information once I know. Let us know if you learn more about it.