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Studio Thoughts on Bax, Bach and Hindemith

Today we have part two of a series in which Molly Carr poses questions to members of the studio about their repertoire.  In this installment, we cover the Bax Sonata, Bach’s Suite No. 3,  and the Hindemith’s Der Schwanendreher.

Deanna Anderson and Katy Ho on the Bax Sonata

1) How long have you played this piece? Have you performed it? Multiple times?

DA: I have worked on the Bax Sonata throughout the school year and have performed it several times, including in my graduation recital.

KH: I have played this piece for half a year because this is my graduate school audition piece. I have performed it in studio classes and on my graduation recital.

 

2) What do you like about the piece?

DA: This sonata is so imaginative and colorful! I love the lush harmonies and beautiful melodies in the first movement; it’s not every day that a violist gets to play a piece in this style. The second movement is quite exciting; I love how the opening is edgy and aggressive, and other parts are playful or longing. I can definitely picture it as a film soundtrack. The melancholic third movement is incredibly expressive—lots of opportunity to dig into that C string!

KH: I fell in love with this piece when I heard it for my first time. I love the variety colors, tones, and techniques in it.

 

3) What do you find is most challenging about the piece – (musically and/or technically and/or other…)?

DA: The opening is a challenge. I want to get the right color, the right atmosphere. To me, it’s like a morning sunrise, the earth is awakening, and you have to emerge from nowhere. In order to do this, I played around with contact point and bow speed to create a fluid sound, and searched for vibrato that is also “waking up.”

Another challenge is creating long lines with the phrases. It’s important to map out what is going on and where you want to take your listener. There are so many long legato phrases where I had to make sure my right arm was not interrupting the line.

KH: I think besides some technical issues of this piece, what challenge me most is actually getting different tones and colors in the movements.

 

4) Can you describe one way you worked/practiced to overcome this challenge?

DA: (see #3)

KH:  I practiced slowly for the difficult spots, and listened to some recordings. Moreover, recorded myself when I performed and listened back to it.

 

5) How did you prepare in the days leading up to the performance? If you performed the piece multiple times, was this preparation different for each performance? – Explain…

DA: I would practice the harder technical spots slowly (i.e. octaves, shifts, and fast passages) to make sure it was solid. I would work on expressivity and play through my favorite parts for inspiration. I would also do more mental practice to hear exactly how I want it to sound in my head. Visualizing your performance is a great form of preparation.

I did put the piece away and bring it back out again a few times, and the hard part about that is finding a way to still be “in the moment” while playing it and to have a fresh approach. It’s important to remember to exaggerate characters.

Also, playing the sonata in a hall for the first time made me thing more about projection in my practicing. Especially for the second movement—finding the right stroke.

KH: For the first performance, I just tried my best to prepare it – both technically and musically. However, it didn’t go as well as I practiced when I first perform. Then, I paid attention to the spots that I need to be improved and focused on them. And also listened to the recording of my performance and see where I can improve. This really help a lot!

 

6) Tell us about the performance experience – would you offer any advice on what one should focus/not focus on while performing the piece?

DA: It’s a long sonata, so it’s important to pace yourself. And as with any piece, it’s good to have one ear in the audience—to listen to yourself in third person, in a way. Most importantly, have fun and be as creative as possible, and make your story come alive. Remember that perhaps everyone in the audience is hearing it for the first time!

KH: I think playing this piece should focus on the colors and tones, rather than the small technical issues or intonations in this piece.

 

7) Any additional thoughts, tips/tricks, or advice for learning/practicing/loving/performing/struggling through/etc this piece that you would like to offer your readers?

DA: One more thing—learn to let go and trust yourself in performance. For me, I often worried in the climax section of the first movement that the notes in the stratosphere would squeak or that my octaves would be out of tune. The best thing is to play confidently and trust your hands, and if you can hear it in your head while you play, it is sure to be successful.

Ok, one last thing—Bax was definitely a leftover romantic. Enjoy the opportunity for romantic slides and expressive choice of fingering, make the most out of it!

KH: I think this is a really beautiful piece that I want to play it again and again. Falling in love with this piece will definitely help you to play better!

 

Marie Daniels on Bach’s Suite No. 3

1) How long have you played this piece? Have you performed it? Multiple times?

MD: Of the six cello suites, this one was the fifth one that I have learned. At the end of my junior year I was discussing with my teacher which one to learn for my senior recital and graduate school auditions and the two I had yet to play were four and six. Both of these are challenging, but I really love the exuberant Prelude and thought it would be the best for performance in auditions and in my recital.

 

2) What do you like about the piece?

MD: I really love the contrasting characteristics that each of the movements have, in my opinion, more so than other suites. The Allemande is particularly interesting, as it flows with such a beautiful melodic line, but is in fact deriving its motion from a simple but exciting bass line. Transposing the suite to G major I found works very well, as it provides lots of opportunity for singing and ringing open strings. With that, I also enjoyed learning this piece, knowing that it was originally written for a 5-stringed instrument and confronting the challenges of having to make decisions at certain parts which must be changed to accommodate the viola. Another challenge I met in this piece was its sheer length. It takes a lot of stamina to play through all six movements and deep concentration to remain focused and with good musical intentions (especially when performing from memory).

 

3) What do you find is most challenging about the piece – (musically and/or technically and/or other…)?

MD: Unfortunately, I cannot say that I have found the perfect solution that works for everyone for how to prepare for a performance of such a large work. It is a personal journey. However, here are a few things that I myself found to be helpful:

-Divide the movements into sections, creating a mental map that you can follow. *this is also particularly helpful for when it will be performed in an audition situation in which movements may be selected and there is possible jumping around between movements

-Once the movement is memorized (or whole suite is memorized), play through it at least once each practice session without stopping, even if mistakes happen along the way. This helps prepare for emergency recoveries and helps build stamina.

-Understanding the harmonies is incredibly helpful, and something that I must admit I often don’t take the time to do. This helps influence good musical decisions and can also contribute to the “mental road map” which you create for each movement.

-I also have enjoyed learning these suites in a baroque style. Of course these suites can be performed convincingly in many styles, but I would recommend one to at least have a slight understanding of basic baroque style and of the basic dance forms, dance steps, and dance characteristics. It can also be helpful in decision making for bowings, phrasing, etc. (Fortunately you don’t actually have to dance 🙂

 

Daniel Getz on Der Schwanendreher

1) How long have you played this piece? Have you performed it? Multiple times?

DG: I first picked up Der Schwanendreher a little over 4 years ago. I learned the whole piece and performed it in a studio class, and also played it in a school concerto competition in which I was a runner-up. Since then, I have used the first movement as an audition piece on multiple occasions. I have never performed it with orchestra.

2) What do you like about the piece?

DG: It has so many highly expressive moments. Particularly in the second and third movements, there are a lot of harmonies typical of the German Romantic period. This is really the only viola concerto where we get to explore that.

3) What do you find is most challenging about the piece – (musically and/or technically and/or other…)?

DG: Varying color! It is tempting (and often, seemingly necessary) to play very squarely throughout, particularly in the first movement. But that is boring. This may be the least accessible of the three major viola concerti, so a monotone approach can make for a dull performance.

Intonation is a huge problem. Hindemith really seems to have liked writing fourths and sevenths into his music, and those intervals can be hard both to hear and to catch.

And of course, the third movement is an endurance test. Every time I performed this movement, I worried that it could fall apart during some of the passagework.

4) Can you describe one way you worked/practiced to overcome this challenge?

DG: Color: I confess that I have not quite worked this out yet! One possibility is to look at the pulse. There are a lot of tempo and character changes throughout the concerto, and each change brings about a shift in the attitude of the pulse. Noticing and reacting to that may ultimately help to vary the sound quality.

Intonation: There is no easy solution. Fourths are perfect intervals, so we can simply be strict in our practicing about getting them to ring. Sevenths are trickier, and maybe slightly more subjective. Sometimes I practice seventh-passages by hearing each voice horizontally rather than as vertical double-stops. Melodic lines that happen to converge into sevenths are easier to hear than vertical sevenths. But with that in mind, I just had to be really strict with myself regarding intonation. I listened very carefully, and went over anything that faltered.

Endurance: Perform it over and over again until you’ve built up the strength. I played for my roommates a couple of times before going out in public with the third movement. That helped me to assess where my concentration and physical endurance fell, and I was able to solidify these sections in my practicing.

5) How did you prepare in the days leading up to the performance? If you performed the piece multiple times, was this preparation different for each performance? – Explain…

DG: In all instances when I performed this, I had many other pieces to prepare as well.  Mostly, I played through the beginning a couple of times, looking for good intonation and a strong, confident sound.

6) Tell us about the performance experience – would you offer any advice on what one should focus/not focus on while performing the piece?

DG: As I was getting ready for a big audition (my most recent performance of this piece), someone advised me to focus almost entirely on remaining stubborn in my opinion that Der Schwanendreher is a wonderful piece.  As I mentioned, many people find this piece to be somewhat inaccessible, so it is especially necessary for the performer to believe the opposite.  This attitude made me play bigger, stronger and more confident than I thought I could.

7) Any additional thoughts, tips/tricks, or advice for learning/practicing/loving/performing/struggling through/etc this piece that you would like to offer your readers?

DG: I really like this as an audition piece because it forces me to play with strength. Starting some of the other concertos, I often feel as though I am walking on eggshells, but with the Hindemith I can flex my “muscles” immediately. When I get to start an audition with that big C major chord, I have the confidence that I need to carry through the rest of the performance.


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