Strad readers submit their problems and queries about string playing, teaching or making to a panel of experts
In the next of the series, a violinist asks if players should separate technique and musicality when preparing a piece for a performance? And is there a strategy that can help combat performance nerves?
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The dilemma I prepare a piece for a performance by beginning with technical work on intonation, rhythm, sound, accents and varying tempos, working through in small, then middle-sized, then large segments. Once I have a solid technical and structural grounding with a piece, I start work on musicality. But I often wonder whether it’s better to play through the piece several times from beginning to end, with full emotion (I find this works well for very demanding pieces such as Ysaÿe’s sonatas or Ravel’s Tzigane), or whether one should work on musicality section by section as one goes along (I find this works better with easier pieces such as the Brahms or Beethoven sonatas). Also, is there a method of performance preparation that can help students bear stress on stage more effectively? DANIEL ÁLVAREZ, MADISON, WI, US
ALEX LAING Building confidence in the performing environment is key. This, of course, starts with technical assurance. If a student knows that passages are technically beyond them, they will leave themselves open to stress. Nerves are often caused by a student thinking too much about how they feel. This is the wrong focus: instead, the performer should think about the music itself and the composer’s intentions – and, perhaps most importantly, the audience’s perceptions. Listeners mind far less about perfection than we as performers fear they do. An audience wants to be moved. The performer must be convinced that the audience is a supportive body of well-wishers.
I often teach performance classes – something I cannot recommend highly enough. The environment of performing to your peers can be hugely positive, and while playing to other violinists can be daunting, I am as demanding on the audience as I am on the performer. The audience is encouraged to think about helpful advice that might benefit the performer, and also to acknowledge the aspects of the performance that worked well, especially areas of successful musical communication. In this way, performers not only have the chance to practise performing before a knowledgeable audience, but they also receive positive, reinforcing feedback. The audience members learn as well by spotting aspects of playing that might later benefit their own practice. The sense of camaraderie that comes from these types of performance classes can be hugely beneficial.
Students should also be encouraged to accept that performance nerves are completely normal. If a student has done their preparation and is technically assured and ready to communicate, what does it matter when something is not perfect? With the support of peers and audience, the student will no longer experience the detrimental effects of stress, but will find their playing enhanced by the creative excitement.
ALMITA VAMOS Practising is a very personal thing and there are many ways to approach a piece of music. Playing it through first of all, to get an idea of what the piece is about, is quite a sensible approach. After that, my own philosophy is that music and technique are all the same. My approach technically would include my musical ideas, so my bowing articulations and phrasing would be a part of my routine.
However, on breaking up the piece into short segments I can carefully address particular technical challenges, such as intonation and coordination, without trying to be particularly musical. This might include practising in rhythms, trying different bowings, very slow practice and so on. When I try to go through the piece and bring it up to tempo, I record myself and put tick-marks by the spots that are still not perfect. When I start my next session I go to those particular spots, and when I feel completely secure I erase the ticks. When there are no more ticks I feel pretty good.
The best way to calm nerves is to learn the piece very well, trying it out for friends and having trial performances as much as you feel you need. All the wonderful meditation and breathing exercises in the world will not cure your nerves if you are not in perfect control and are secure about the piece you are about to perform. My final advice is that the more you practise carefully, the better off you will feel under pressure. Some people need less time, so work out what makes you comfortable because no one will judge you on the number of hours it took you to prepare.
GYORGY PAUK When learning any new piece you should first analyse it musically. Next, start practising it slowly, bit by bit. Work out your own fingerings and bowings – very often they are printed in the music, but my advice is to do your own. The most difficult passages should be repeated slowly and carefully many times. It is important that the fingers move almost automatically and that the shifts are secure. This helps every player feel more confident. Then comes the actual interpretation – putting the phrases together while focusing on tone quality, colours and timings.
When it comes to the questioner’s ‘easier pieces’, Brahms and Beethoven are much more complicated musically, and even technically, than a virtuoso piece by Ysaÿe or Sarasate. First of all, such pieces have a long tradition of great players and performances, enabling audiences to compare the various interpretations (not that we should try to imitate them). Secondly, the sonatas require much more control of both hands, coordination of vibrato and – most importantly – control of bow speed. In my opinion this is absolutely essential for generating a big, colourful sound and producing a memorable and individual performance. Take, for example, the slow movement of a Beethoven sonata. It needs the utmost concentration, a slow bow and sufficient vibrato to produce a warm, dark-sounding yet penetrating tone that can equal the sound of the piano. This is even more true when playing a concerto with orchestra. It is no accident that every international competition, and even some orchestral auditions, require players to present a Mozart concerto or a Beethoven sonata.
Alex Laing is head of strings at Uppingham School, UK, and teaches at the Royal College of Music’s Junior Department
Almita Vamos recently retired from her role as professor of violin at the Bienen School of Music, Northwestern University, IL, US
Gyorgy Pauk gives masterclasses internationally and is the Ede Zathureczky violin professor at the Royal Academy of Music, UK