Some of the Best Things I’ve Learned About Music… So Far.

With thanks, as always, to Anthony Devroye, Lim Soon Lee, Choochart Pitaksakorn, Khitikhun Sodprasert, Dr Robert Kolt, James Dunham and Leonard Atherton.

There are three categories: about the instrument, about interpretation, and about musicianship.

THE INSTRUMENT: THE VIOLA

1. If there is one exercise that should outlast them all, let it be the Ysaÿe “arc” bowing. William Primrose refers to it in the Dalton book, but it’s sort of assumed that the reader is already familiar with it. The concept is easy enough: that we have to “unlearn” having four distinct positions for the four strings, and move smoothly in an arc across the strings. Meaning that a simple one octave scale should have the bow constantly moving across all the notes – even, or especially when on the same string.

2. It’s bow weight, not bow pressure. Well, most of the time anyway – the index finger of the bow hand does have its uses for articulation, but great sound comes from the weight of the upper arm. Actually, you can even extend it further, whether to the back muscles, or even a connection through the body all the way to the ground. Add all this to the concept of forming a ring with the middle finger and thumb, focusing on the pinkie on downbows… and basically what you get is that the more sensitive one is to every part of the body involved in the music, the better. Everything plays a part. Loosen the thumb and the whole hand relaxes. Adjust the head and the bowing becomes easier. Bend the knees and you release tension everywhere.

3. Play nearer the bridge. Projection is not everything, but it certainly makes everything sound better.

4. Up-bows are just like coming back home. (This one is all Khitikhun – even clearer on the cello, perhaps.)

INTERPRETATION: THE SEMANTICS OF MUSIC

1. The reason Americans tend to prefer faster tempos is not really about the speed – it’s about the phrasing. Phrases are the foundation of any story music wants to tell, and the choice of tempo is just a means to the end.

2. Vibrato the upbeats. It does miracles. Then vibrato the upbeats to the upbeats. Especially helpful when we consider that vibrato sometimes need not be so much as to clearly heard – just enough to be felt as warm tone – what Primrose referred to as “white” vibrato.

3. For perfect intervals, intonation is unforgiving. For everything else, intonation is not only negotiable – but an avenue of interpretation, what Pablo Casals called “expressive intonation.”

4. Almost always delay the start of crescendos – or else they won’t have anywhere to crescendo to. And whatever happens in concert IS correct – even when it’s wrong.

THE INDUSTRY: WHY WE’RE HERE

1. In the music industry, the hours are long. And they’re in all the wrong places – at night, on weekends. But if somewhere along the line one no longer enjoys making music, it’s time to think about doing something else. An orchestra conductor used to say something along the lines of: If you’re not having fun, why are you here?

2. That being said, the thing I can’t stand the most about the layman’s concept about music is the part about, “it must be great to work in something you enjoy”. I’ve tried for a long time to find a way to make people understand what it’s like. I started with “when you make your hobby into your career… you have a career, but you don’t have a hobby.” A great violinist met someone who said, “I would give my life to play like you.” He replied, “Madame, I did.” For me, the best example I’ve come up with is that it’s also great to like a sport like tennis and then make it your life – but when you’re there six days a week whacking a ball against a wall hours a day just in warmup, there’s a certain amount of enjoyment you give up, and trade in for a different kind of satisfaction.

3. You have to be a bit screwed up to be a musician. It’s an insane profession to find the people who are emotionally vulnerable enough to able perform not just with technique but with passion, and then create a working environment where they are alone on a stage under a spotlight, with a couple hundred eyes staring from the darkness. That’s like getting people who are scared of heights to work for a bungee jumping company. But after all, if you weren’t a bit off in the head, where else would you find that originality of interpretation that leaves the listener not just with a satisfied ear, but something to think about?

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