Archive for the ‘Repertoire’ Category

Learning Repertoire Quickly by Stephanie Galipeau

The following post is by Stephanie Galipeau.

For both professional musicians and amateurs, the ability to learn and perform music quickly is not only an invaluable asset but also extremely necessary. We’ve all been there: substituting at the last minute, receiving an unknown score shortly before a performance deadline, or even having to rapidly bring previously studied repertoire back to performance quality. With all of the varying situations testing our ability to learn quickly, I interviewed ACHT students Tegen Davidge, Matthew Lipman and Jocelin Pan in addition to faculty Edward Klorman and Hsin-Yun Huang asking the question, “If you have limited time to learn repertoire for an upcoming performance, what are the most efficient strategies you can use to learn the piece(s) quickly?”


Be Organized and Know Your Limits

Certain things to consider before beginning the learning process of a specific piece include timelines, knowing how you work most efficiently and also your individual capacity to learn and adequately fulfill commitments. As Mr. Klorman aptly recommends, “The first thing we can do, overall, is know our limits when we decide how many commitments to take on and to plan ahead whenever possible. Use free time during less busy weeks to start learning things you’ll have to play later in the season. Stay in good instrumental shape (scales, double stops, etc.) so your fingers are primed and ready to learn new material quickly.” Good organization and time management is advice echoed by Ms. Huang, suggesting to divide time up between long-term and short-term projects. As a student, making a lesson and studio class plan over the given time period is very useful. Although the need for flexibility in any plan is necessary, proficiency in personal organization by internalizing an overall timeline and knowing our learning styles creates a more realistic “plan of attack,” thus resulting in greater success in accomplishing our goals.

Strategic Planning = The Efficient Route

Especially in the case of learning repertoire quickly, beginning with a strategic plan will set off the learning experience with your feet on an efficient route. Although the interviewees collectively provided varied examples of what a strategic plan looks like, there was an across-the-board agreement that any plan that one creates should directly correspond with the performance deadline. For example, the journey to Ms. Huang’s performance of Ligeti’s Sonata for Solo Viola in October 2012 began a year previously, working on the Prestissimo movement “painstakingly and patiently” knowing that this was a long-term project. This strategic plan of spreading out the learning process would have been shaped differently had she been allowed only two months to prepare – a situation in which Jocelin found herself when asked to play Andrew Ford’s The Unique Grave for Viola and Orchestra with The New Juilliard Ensemble this past September. Regardless of individual circumstance, learning styles and capacity; the function of developing a strategic plan is to create “check points” in the learning process to keep yourself accountable, and to evaluate the most efficient way to reach these check points.

An Inside Look at The Strategic Plan

Under the umbrella of planning one will find three main steps in learning repertoire. Although these three steps should always be considered in the strategic plan no matter how tight the time constraint, certain sub-points, such as studying other works by the same composer, can be eliminated to simplify and “streamline” the plan.

  1. Things done away from the instrument prior to learning on the instrument;
  • score study
    • marking cues
    • isolating rhythms
    • sketching fingerings/bowings
    • mapping out technical passages
  • listening to recordings
  • studying other works by the same composer
  1. Learning repertoire with the instrument
  • practicing parts in three levels of difficulty
  • timer method/experimentation
  • hyper-focus
  1. Performance preparation/refinement
  • recording practice sessions and/or rehearsals
  • rehearsing
  • practicing performing the work

1. Things done away from the instrument prior to learning on the instrument.
Before you even touch the instrument!
Potential Situation: You find out that you will be playing a substantial work that you have never played before in a recital in four weeks. With the score in hand and upcoming deadline in mind, you now know that you have to make a strategic plan in order for this performance to be a success. Great! But what will this plan really consist of?

Both Mr. Klorman and Jocelin begin their initial learning of the music away from the instrument through score study. Especially in the context of a sonata, chamber work or concerto, an analysis of the complete score provides the opportunity to mark in cues of other instruments while learning how your part fits in with these other instruments, to isolate and learn tricky rhythms, and to visually get an overall feel of the piece. Even certain fingerings and bowings can be sketched out in the initial study. Jocelin mentioned that during her preparation for the New Juilliard Ensemble performance, noticing what other instruments were doing through score study was quite influential in how she interpreted certain passages. For example: Through score study, she was able to know where she could play extremely loudly because of a thick texture and know how certain rhythmic passages in her own line corresponded with aspects of those of the orchestra. This thoughtful analysis can be extremely efficient, for if one can begin the on-the-instrument part of the learning process with all the tricky rhythms already learned, fingering and bowing options considered, knowledge of cues and other parts already incorporated, and a rough concept of interpretation possibilities already formed – then a large chunk of “trial and error” in the practice room (which can often lead to repetitive mistakes that end up slowing down the learning process) is eliminated.

Additionally, listening to recordings is a productive strategy despite being a double-edged sword. Although it is beneficial to have a piece in your ear before you learn it, this can also get a musician into an interpretive rut. Listening to an amazing performer playing different pieces (instead of the one you’re working on) by the same composer could be a good remedy for this, in addition to studying additional compositions of the composer and the historical context of the composition.

Furthermore, mapping out technical passages into three levels of difficulty is something Mr. Klorman suggests as being extremely efficient.  He recommends “identifying (1) technically demanding sections that will need a lot of intensive practice and ‘drilling’, (2) intermediate sections that will need some practicing, and (3) sections that are basically sight-readable.”

2. With the instrument in hand!
Continuing on the idea of the isolation of technical passages in three levels, it is important to begin learning the “level 1” sections first. Set goals for both a broad perspective on when each level will be learned, as well as mini-goals to break up practice time dictating when a certain passage will be learned, played at half tempo, at three-quarters of the tempo, etc. Keeping track of progress is a good way to keep yourself accountable to the strategic plan you set for yourself!

Tegen has found it very beneficial to learn repertoire on her instrument with what I will unofficially call the “timer method.” After taking time to initially look at the score, she divides the music into appropriate sections (anywhere from half to full pages), sets a timer for 30 minutes, and works on one section for the allotted time with the goal of being able to play through the entire section at one consistent tempo without stopping (even if very under tempo) when the timer goes off. Variables she considers when determining the length of sections are: how much the piece is already in her ear, the performance deadline, difficulty of the work, amount of practice time, and knowing her own learning capacity and being realistic about it. Tegen’s approach to learning music is unique; she describes it like learning a language: to really learn it you have to immerse yourself in it. That is why she dives into the learning process so intensively, and follows it with and “experimentation period.” This period is when she plays through sections of the piece experimenting with different fingerings, bowings, and colors in order to explore interpretive ideas and “really get the music into her soul.” This, in combination with additional timer work for technical passages, is Tegen’s strategic plan for learning repertoire.

The immersion that Tegen desires when learning repertoire is similar to the “hyper-focus” that Matthew expresses as the most efficient way for him to learn music. He describes this method – which varies in length according to the repertoire – as a process in which you map out literally everything that is technically going on within the music (contact point, bow placement, bow speed, bow weight, vibrato, fingering, and bowings), sticking to those technical decisions. The sooner this process is done with a piece, the faster it will be learned and the better it will stay in the hands.  He advocates this approach because it means that the music is being learned based on conscious decision making rather than mindless repetition.

3. Performance preparation and refinement!
As we all know, working on repertoire in the practice room is significantly more difficult than playing that repertoire in a performance setting. That’s why it is important to consider performance practice a vital part of the strategic plan – even if you do not feel completely ready. This can be done by pulling people into your practice room for a listen, envisioning and imagining what the concert venue will look like/sound like/feel like, playing the work for a recording device, rehearsing in concert dress, and rehearsing in the actual concert space – all to ensure comfort and confidence. Staying healthy by eating well and sleeping well at least a few nights before the performance is also very important for mental preparation. But in the end, as Ms. Huang says, “Possibly the most important mindset to have is that once you are on stage, there is just no more excuses and it IS a performance … then we have the responsibility of carrying that off even if it is imperfect.”

A Few Extra Notes on Efficient Practicing…

The word “efficiency,” especially in the context of learning repertoire fast, seems to bounce around frequently – but what does it really mean? After looking up the exact definition on Oxford Dictionaries Online, the definition I would like to focus on follows:

Efficient – adjective

  • 1 (of a system or machine) achieving maximum productivity with minimum wasted effort or expense: more efficient processing of information
  • [in combination] preventing the wasteful use of a particular resource: an energy-efficient heating system

With limited time to learn repertoire, wasting time and energy is not a viable option. Although this may seem obvious, what is sometimes not so obvious is why efficiency is something not present all the time in the practice room. Too often I personally find myself mindless practicing, repeating things over and over again making dumb mistakes and not building a consistency of technical success. However, when under pressure, I can snap out of that zombie state and slip into a hyper-focus mode and learn music quickly by figuring out passages with conscious decisions, working in small units graduating to larger ones, only repeating when using thought and silence between each repetition, and focusing on making as few mistakes as possible. So if it is possible for me to learn music quickly in high-pressure situations, why do I not do it all the time? I am under the impression that I learn music slowly, yet time and time again I prove myself wrong. I think there is definitely something to be said for understanding our own limits and capacities to learn, but I think it is possible we often label ourselves incorrectly.  When that label is supported only by evidence created through consistent bad practice habits, we make it difficult for ourselves to push to the limit and see how fast, how consistently, and how effectively we can learn all the time.


It’s All About Perspective – Stay Positive!


When peering at a looming deadline of a performance for which we are trying to frantically prepare, “worrying” and “stressing” are two verbs that easily occupy our minds. We generally think about the negative components of our progress, usually thinking about how we are unable to play this or that specific passage consistently or in tune.  However, what we should really be doing instead is keeping perspective of the progress we have made and understanding what we can and cannot control. You can control how efficiently you practice, but you cannot control the rate at which you improve (and that is OK!).

For good reason, Tegen spoke of the importance of keeping things in perspective and relaxing, – even journaling when necessary. Negative thoughts take up a considerable amount of energy, and because we need as much energy as possible to learn repertoire quickly, negativity will only take away from the learning process. Keeping things fun and in a positive perspective will further enable you to learn the music as quickly as possible.  Through allowing yourself to be confident in your skills and preparation, the ultimate result will be a positive outcome: a much more enjoyable performance experience!


Why Bother by Molly Carr



When I was sixteen years old, I was sharing lunch at a Chinese restaurant with a close friend when he asked a humorous but pointed question: “So what you’re choosing to do with your life is essentially this: You are going to move your arms back and forth repeatedly in order to make a strip of metal wiggle, which will then cause air molecules to bump into each other. How is it that you think you can make the world a better place to live in with this?” After a lengthy discussion on the power of music, my own artistic “calling,” and the benefits of the arts to the world we live in today, we broke open the complementary fortune cookie customarily awarded with the bill and were both amused, but frankly startled, by the message we found inside, for it summarized the conclusions of our entire discussion: “Talents that are not shared are not talents.”

Since our discussion almost ten years ago, that cookie’s message has stuck with me, often pulling me back up onto the “straight and narrow” by reminding me of my purpose and calling, and shaping how I see myself and my work as an artist. So… what IS my purpose as an artist? Why IS it that I spend so much time locked away in a practice room perfecting my ability to cause air molecules to collide – and how is it that this honed ability can actually benefit mankind? I believe my purpose is to touch peoples’ hearts with the music that I make, and consequently, to spend my life in respectful and committed service to learning how best to accomplish this endeavor.

Music is words shared with exquisite inflection, and in my mind, it is the purest form of expression.  By its very nature, it can…

“…embody conflict of forces, depict interior states, suggest the infinite and invisible, encompass emotional change, mental flux, the process of becoming, with a completeness and immediacy unavailable to painting or poetry.  It avoids both literalness and pictorial imagery, communicates meaning without committing itself to specific content.”

-MacDonald, Malcolm. Brahms. New York: Schirmer Books, 1990. 32.

Indeed, music can break through and shake people from their self-absorbed, chaotic, and frequently isolated lives, soften their hearts, and enable them to recognize, feel, relate, and then even dance, sing, laugh, and cry all that they hold within but could never find a way to express,  – all without ever speaking a word.  Music is the God-given, unspoken language that holds the power to link human souls together and remind them they are not alone.

When I am able to remember this, all of the hours, days, and years I have spent in a practice room, as well as the pressure and stress involved with performing, suddenly becomes “worth it.” Unfortunately, though, this has been harder to remember than perhaps it should have been.  And looking back now, I see why: for most of my development in learning “how best to accomplish my purpose,” I have gone through frequent periods of being intensely selfish in the eternal pursuit of the unattainable perfection of my art – constantly frustrated by my shortcomings and judgmental of those who apparently did not “care” about their work to the same degree as I did. But THEN, I would alternately allow myself to think, “If the audience can’t tell, then why bother?”– a place of equal frustration and discouragement for someone who feels called to dedicate her life to the arts.

It is only very recently that I have discovered how to jump off this emotional seesaw and find a middle ground of balance and peace about my purpose and work. This has been through the realization that both of the above attitudes are actually twisted forms of arrogance.  At its core, the latter was essentially the mindset that my audiences were not worthy of my best work.  The message of the former: by taking so much energy to show the world that I was unhappy with myself, what I was actually saying was… “I’m too good for what you just heard.” Any performance played with this attitude will cause an audience to take its focus off of experiencing the power of the music and all it has to offer, and instead put that focus on ME.  Strangely, it would seem that if one succumbed to the humbling realization that any artist is only human – a mere work in progress with the ability to do only his or her best in the moment – that one would end up opening a door to mediocrity and failure. But this realization actually has had the opposite effect.  By “giving in,” and recognizing that stumbling and struggling in the practice room as well as on the stage is part of the creative process along with experiencing the times of pure joy and love for music, I have been able to release myself (and my audiences!) from the “distraction of myself” and have instead begun to focus all of my creative power on the goal of living, enjoying, and giving the gift of music – and consequently, on striving to reach my full potential as an artist!  I believe that when my work is at its most honest, honed, and dedicated it has a greater potential to make a difference in the soul of the person who experiences it.  I am happy to say I am starting to live and work in a way that retains respect for my listeners while remaining true to myself and my artistic calling.

So again, how is it I can benefit society through an elusive art form?  I can become a vehicle for the divine gift and link that is called music, penetrating and ministering to people’s hearts.  This is how I want to spend my life: in joyful appreciation of the gift I have been given and committed service to sharing my talents and learning how best to speak that wordless language which knows no social boundaries – respectfully speaking with music what God has blessed me with the voice to say.


Nuances of Musical Expression by Heidi Castleman- Part I: An Energy Manual

Nuances of Musical Expression by Heidi Castleman
Part I: An Energy Manual

Part I: Exploring Rhythm – General Rhythmic Principles
A. Pulses are bursts of energy; each has its distinctive character and direction.
B. Measures group pulses; each beat within a measure has its own quality.
C. Phrasing is the flow of musical energy.
a) An impulse is that portion of the phrase where energy gathers.
b) A resolution is that portion of the phrase where energy dissipates.
c) All energy gathered should be completely discharged by the end of the piece; cadences release accumulated energy.
D. Playing freely within the framework of a regularly felt pulse is inherent to musical movement.

Great rhythm often happens instinctively and is a joy to experience. When it does not, or when one wants to go to the next higher level artistically, awareness of the above principles can provide a path well worth traveling.

Developing Musical Vitality
Practice methods for exploring pulse character, direction and flow of energy
Counting aloud
1. Character of pulses
Ex. 1 Schubert, 2nd movement, opening 8 m. [gentle]

Ex. 2 Hindemith, 1st movement, 1 m. before R to 7 after [explosive]

* 1 m. before R [yelling]
* 4 m. after R [speaking syllables]
2. Direction of pulses
Ex. 3 Bartok, 2nd movement, opening 3 m.  [horizontal rhythm]

Ex. 4 Bartok, 3rd movement, opening 3 m. [vertical rhythm]


3. Flow of energy in phrases
Ex. 5 Schubert, 1st movement, opening of viola part, 12 m.

Notice impulse (gathering of energy) and resolution (dissipating of energy) within phrasing and that there exist waves within larger waves.

The role of sub-pulse in is critical to determining character: decide how active or inactive the sub-pulse should be in the chosen character.
When the sub-pulse is active, staying loose in the joints helps communicate important information about the multiple pulse levels.
Ex. 6a. Brahms, f minor, 1st movement, 2nd theme, 12 m. [with no sub-pulse]

Ex. 6b. Brahms, f minor, 1st movt, ma ben marcato, 7 m. [with active sub-pulse]



Clapping is ideal for showing how gentle or explosive a character is, as well as for indicating direction of pulse.
Ex. 7 Enescu, Anime, 6 m. [explosive, with active sub-pulse]

same example [body percussion] engages the whole body rhythmically

Can be especially helpful if large beats with a lot happening within the beat, helps to unify rhythm
Ex. 8 Boccherini, first movement, opening 4 m. [walk large beats]



Playing freely
#1 where to play freely
● To some degree playing freely is appropriate everywhere, because natural human expression is not metronomic (e.g., Rhetoric)
● Playing freely is demanded the most in:

  • cadenzas or cadenza-like writing
  • highly emotional music
  • certain national styles  (e.g. a lot of Italian music dramatic in nature)

● some Baroque music is much better approached rhetorically

#2 what happens in playing freely
● In playing freely, the metric quality of each beat becomes exaggerated. For example in a common time measure:
* the downbeat, as a point of rest, expands
* pushing the weaker 2nd beat over
* the third beat functions like a mini-downbeat
* and the leading qualities of the fourth beat as an upbeat are exaggerated
● There is a similar adjustment of the spacing of the sub-pulses within each beat while playing freely.
Ex. 8 Boccherini, first movement, opening 4 m. [playing freely – qualities of sub-pulses and pulses exaggerated]


#3 playing with the metronome or around it
* Experiment playing around the beat, i.e., on the front side of the beat or the back side of the beat, as well as on it
Ex. 9 Rachmaninov, Vocalise, opening 7 m. [playing on front or back side of (metronomic) beat]


#4 Strong-weak relationships are inherent to the music of the Baroque and Classical periods.
Beat hierarchy (contrast between strong vs. weak or heavy vs. light beats) influences the relationship of beats within measures, one sub-pulse to another, and the weight of one measure to another within a phrase. Relationships in Baroque and Classical music are not democratic! Only well after the American Revolution, the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars did democracy influence music.
Ex. 10 Bach, Suite in d minor, Allemande, opening 2 m


Zimbalist Tango by Molly Carr

The following post is by Molly Carr.

What you will find here is what I call my personal “skeleton” of Zimbalist’s Tango. That is to say, what I have written down in this document is a record of all of the technical directives which I have spent hours in the practice room slowly ingraining into both my mind and body (muscle memory) – until every motion and thought has become habitual. However, since performing a piece EXACTLY the same way every time one plays it is never the goal for any musician, this state of ‘habit’ is meant ONLY to be a stable foundation upon which one can fall back upon during any performance for physical comfort and ease along with technical confidence and consistency. Please note that it is the conscious, purposeful, and delightful(!) deviations FROM this foundation which can make a performance come alive and breathe. The purpose of developing a safety net of a solid “game plan” is merely to help lend the confidence needed to take those risky deviations in performance and ultimately to enjoy creating a version of the piece which is unique to each performer.

I gladly offer whatever of these technical directives that any reader would like to take in and make his or her own, but I also challenge readers to take the time in the practice room to create their own personal, unique skeletons – as each violist is built differently on so many different levels (physically, mentally, musically…).

What follows are the individual pages from the PDF, which is available here: Zimbalist Tango Breakdown

The Twelve Days of Christmas by Robert and Nadia Sirota

The following post is by Robert and Nadia Sirota.  Robert’s program notes refer to a performance of the piece on December 11th, 2012 at an ACHT studio recital.

By Robert Sirota

Last December Nadia swept into town between performing engagements and asked me if I would be interested in writing an arrangement of The Twelve Days of Christmas for 6-track viola. She was about to go and do some recording in Iceland – one of her favorite haunts – and she said if I could get her something within a couple of weeks, she would record it, playing all six parts. I delivered on time, and true to her word, she made the recording. Tonight’s performance represents only the second time this piece has been performed acoustically, with a different violist playing each part.

I found Nadia’s request particularly appealing, because years ago when the kids were, well, kids – we used to record these little Christmas albums, with all four of us singing carols and playing instruments. We would send the cassettes we made, with case covers hand-illustrated by either Jonah or Nadia, as our Christmas card to friends and relatives.

Nadia plans to continue this tradition by assembling a bunch of quirky arrangements of Christmas carols and curating an eclectic Christmas album featuring works by a number of her composer friends. My next contribution after Twelve Days will be I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In.

Nadia says:
When I decided to construct a Christmas album [because a) the holidays are the best and b) I had some bonus studio time available in Iceland last winter], it seemed super fitting to ask my dad for a holiday arrangement. We settled on the 12 days of Christmas partly because it’s insane and emphatic and over-the-top and partly because the Rockettes do it some real justice in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular every year, which might be my favorite piece of entertainment (trust that I’m being unbelievably sincere; every year I see it and weep). I recorded this piece right in the middle of recording a whole record of music for multitracked viola (and incidentally, I’m developing quite the viola choir repertoire) and thus asked my dad to arrange the piece for six of me. When my whole family presented a concert in celebration of my dad’s retirement this past October, we decided a live version of this piece was a great way to end the show. The all-star cast assembled for the acoustic premiere included my brother and my former teacher, Hsin-Yun Huang, who immediately thought of the ACHT studio and requested parts.

In many ways, I went into the family business. As rarified a career path as new-music-commissioning-violist may appear, in context of a family of musicians wherein the patriarch is a composer and the elder sibling is a violist, my occupation of choice seems almost… safe. Almost. Throughout my life, my dad’s musical voice, the first music I was consistently aware of, has remained a sort of point of orientation around which all manner of other music, art, and thought has settled. The more expansive my palette becomes, the more I cherish my father’s perspective as a composer. I am so grateful that at this moment in my life I can have experiences working with my family as colleagues. This arrangement of the 12 Days of Christmas is representative of the great joy that I get from music and loved ones.

Planning and Preparing for Your Recital by Heidi Castleman

The following post is by Heidi Castleman.

Planning and Preparing for Your Recital
So, you want to give a recital?  What are the steps assuring a successful performance?  Planning and well-paced preparation are the keys.
Recital Preparation: General Principles
A.  First stage
● Know the date of your performance and plan backwards (flexibly, please!)
● Identify and learn the most difficult sections of your works first (slowly and cleanly at first)
● Next, identify and learn the sections of medium difficulty
B. As practice, use repetition intelligently
● This is the key to building performance consistency
● Choose a unit small enough to be experienced as uninterrupted whole
    * do with a knowledge of the whole score
    * silence between repetitions will facilitate automatic self-correction
● Combine units to make larger sections, ultimately repeating whole movements
C.  As concert date approaches
● Spend more time playing through whole movements, entire pieces
● Work to reduce the number of places requiring warm-up to play piece well
  • Take time for large expanses of uninterrupted playing; allows one to “be there”  (as opposed to over-directing with the analytical mind)
D. Use ongoing performance opportunities (enjoying being heard is essential!)
● Play through material either at end or beginning of practice session
● Record material just practiced
● Play for supportive friends/family
● Play for play-through class or small group
● Play for studio class/other master class
● Play run-through(s)
(fill performing space with playing, welcome audience, give to audience)
E. Visualize performance including events leading up to and following the concert
● purpose to create an emotional road map of the experience
● if negative feelings, choose how want to feel, visualize again with new feeling
Recital Planning: Task List
Recital preparation plan:
● Make weekly plans, including what is to be heard at each lesson, both viola alone and with piano, as well as plans for performance in Play-through and/or Studio Class.
● Allow two weeks at the end of your preparation for classroom run-through about 10 days before recital, and hall run-through time around two days before.
Arrange run-throughs:
First or classroom run-through:
Ten days to two weeks preceding the recital, pre-recital classroom run-through should be heard by a teacher or someone whose musical judgment you trust.  Be sure to consult with your pianist and other performing colleagues (if relevant) about availability before setting a time and reserving a room.
● Inviting guests is encouraged.
    ● The recital material should be at an acceptable level and from memory where relevant.
● Make arrangements to record this run-through!!
   ● It is best if this run-through can be done in program order.
Second or hall run-through:
Often, you will have limited time in the hall, so it is important to arrive early and plan in advance how best to utilize your time.
Recording Your Recital
Make arrangements to have your recital recorded!
Do not keep your recital a secret!  Posters, invitations, facebook, word-of-mouth are helpful.
Other recital-related tasks
It is your responsibility to arrange for a page turner.
Recital Run-throughs
Focus of First Run-through:
1) listen to piano carefully
2) play room (listen from back of hall or imagine doing so if in a room)
3) sing with great interval connection; breathing
4) awareness of metric and phrase structure

5) follow momentum of the phrases
6) pacing of recital; where will you need fresh energy?
7) unify tempo
Focus of Second run-through:
1) greeting, establishing atmosphere
2) position of stand, piano
3) bowing
4) starting movements/ listen to piano/ listen in back of hall
5) balance
6) use hall sound to allow extremes of expression; don’t let it neutralize colors

Misha Amory on Learning the Penderecki Concerto

Misha Amory’s “Learning the Penderecki Concerto” is a thoughtful guide offering both useful practice suggestions and helpful musical perspectives.  His own viola score (included below) gives a most valuable view of possibilities for fingerings, bowings and marking of cues.

Mark up the part

Write in orchestra’s rhythms as needed.  When in doubt, do it – there is no such thing as too much information.  Do this right away, so you can start hearing the cross-rhythms and impulses in your head well before the first piano rehearsal.  As an example, I’m including a PDF of my marked part at the bottom of this post.

This will a) improve your knowledge of the score, b) tell you when you are rhythmically responsible to the ensemble and when you are free to do as you like, and c) give you a sense of when you will need to work to project.

Divide and conquer

Even more than most works, this piece is quite divisible.  An example scheme is:

Opening section

  • Start to 3
  • Cadenza to 4
  • 6 to 10
  • 10 to 11

First giusto section

  • 11 to 14
  • 16 to 18
  • 19 to 21
  • 21 to 24
  • 24 to 26
  • 26 to 27

Brief reprise / cadenza

  • 27 to 30
  • 30 to cadenza
  • cadenza to Vivace
  • Vivace to 32


  • 34 to 37
  • 38 to 41


  • 41 to end

The idea here is to help the mind get organized.  The smaller sections are not analytical, but are just logical, self-contained bites of music that one can zero in on and practice singly.  The larger sections are to keep the smaller ones from feeling like a mere list of items, to give a loose structural feel to the learning process, and eventually serve as the larger bite-size sections that we will practice later, when we know the work well.  If you feel it would help, try setting daily / weekly targets for when each small section will get attention, and consequently make plans for rehearsing each large one with piano.  This is an organizational approach that could arguably be used for any piece, but in the case of a sprawling, contemporary, single-movement work, it may be especially valuable.

“Types” of music in the work

Grossly simplified, one might perceive four main textures, or kinds of music, in the work: slow, parlando music (such as the opening), florid/freely improvised (cadenza on the first page, or the music at 10), propulsive, “giusto” music (such as 11), and lighter, scherzando music (25, or 35).  These types are often not strictly separated from each other, often interrupting one another or evolving to one another, but identifying them can provide another way of making sense of the piece in the early learning process.


With the exception of the slow material, it will help to do plenty of mechanical, rhythmic practice at first, even with the free, cadenza-like sections, just to give your mind a framework for its perceptions.  Although metronome work is often impossible due to the changing meter/pulse, fix a mental eighth-beat, or quarter-beat, and work through a small section with strict rhythm.  This approach will speed up internalization considerably.

When choosing fingerings for rapid passage work, try to minimize shifting, and watch out for opportunities to use open strings when you do shift.  (Examples – 22-23, the run before 27)

Practice runs (such as the one before 27 or the one at the top of the last page) starting with the last few notes, and building onto the beginning.

A note on bowings in the “giusto” music (like 11) – add slurs as needed to make the string crossings consistently comfortable.  Often the composer has done this for you (e.g. end of second line and fifth page), but take his cue and do it yourself if not (e.g. last line, tenth page).

When fingering the slow opening, I recommend “sticking” with each string as long as possible before proceeding to the next higher one, to evoke a feeling of effort or burden.  More generally, when fingering the slow sections aim for a vocal quality; when there is a choice, more often stay on the same string rather than crossing.

Notes from the DVD of the Penderecki/Zimmermann performance

The tempo of the performance was quite fluid, not only where a change is marked, but often where it is not.  For example, the tempi at 11, 14 and 18 were very different, and the vivace before 32 is different still.

A few approximate sample tempi from that performance (for information, not necessarily to be religiously followed):

  • Opening: 60 to the quarter.
  • 11: 126 to the quarter.
  • 14: 88 to the quarter.
  • 18: 66 to the quarter.
  • 25: 116 to the eighth.
  • Vivace before 32: 152 to the quarter.
  • 34: about 100 to the dotted quarter.

Some errata, at least in my part:

  • Page 1, first line: the slurred B-flat and A four notes from the end should be repeated.
  • Page 6, third line: a couple of missing slurs, one over A-flat/G, then later over A-flat/F.
  • Page 6, fourth line from the bottom: second note should be D.
  • Page 8, third line: three notes before the last trill, should the pitch be C-sharp or D-sharp?  Viola part has D-sharp, and that is what Tabea plays in the performance; but the piano part has C-sharp and it seems intervallically more right.

Penderecki Concerto – Misha Amory markings


On Memorization by Tegen Davidge

Recently in Studio Class, the discussion topic was memorization, as suggested by Tegen Davidge.

Because I was curious to hear from my colleagues how they approached playing from memory, in a recent Studio Class, I posed the following questions: 1) How do you memorize? 2) In performance, do you think about memory, and, if so, what do you think about?   A lively discussion followed producing many highlights.  With thanks to our scribe, Stephanie Galipeau.


Some memory facts worth noting:

– “Memory is just “part of the package” in the process of learning a piece.  It is something with which even people in other fields struggle and have to address. Recognize some pieces are naturally easier to memorize, and others just take more work.” (Will Bender, Daniel Getz, Abby Elder)

– “Be aware that memory happens in both your conscious and subconscious levels; it is usually when we trust entirely in the subconscious that we end up making mistakes.” (Bryony Gibson-Cornish)

– “Discover which method of learning you’re best/worst at (visual/aural/tactile) and use your strengths to your advantage. However, also work to strengthen your weaknesses.” (Will Bender)

– “Remember — Nervousness and mistakes in performances are almost always due to a lack of some form of preparation.” (Will Bender)

– “When a piece is prepared enough for all musical ideas to be executed comfortably and consistently, then the piece is memorized.” (Matt Lipman)

– “It can be exceptionally beneficial if you have a piece in your ear even before beginning the learning process because this takes care of the aural subconscious level of memorization.” (Deanna Anderson)

– “The key to good tactile memory lies much more in the left hand fingers than in the bow; the bow will follow if the left hand is sure of itself.” (Misha Amory)


Helpful tips for the practice room:

– “Start with smaller units and work up to bigger ones, alternating between playing with the music in front of you and playing without it.” (Stephanie Galipeau)

– “Create a roadmap of ideas and stories which can be associated with different areas of the piece.” (Abby Elder)

– “ I would recommend breaking any movement you have to memorize into a number of sections (for example 3 sections for the first half of Allemande of the Bach Suite #6, 3 more for the second).  Perhaps to give an overview of each section, name to yourself the key area(s) it inhabits.  Then without bowing, play the section with left hand only, explicitly mapping the the physical path of your fingers in your head as you go.  Repeat several times, being a “mental observer” of the left-hand process, before going on to the next section.  Take especial notice of changes of melodic direction, and big leaps (which are often the culprits in memory struggles).  By the end, in your mind you should be able to consciously trace the itinerary of the left fingers, which is a much more thorough state of memorization than just letting your fingers do the walking.  I find that the key to good tactile memory lies much more in the left fingers than in the bow; that the bow will follow if the left hand is sure of itself.

– “Do chord analysis! This is especially helpful with Bach.” (Jennifer Seo)

– “Work at memory while you’re away from your viola. Try to sing through the entire piece while mimicking playing – all in your head.” (Madeline Sharp)

– “Record run-throughs and then take note of where memory slips happen; be sure to practice not only those problematic measures, but also the measures directly before and after.” (Abby Elder)

– “Study the score and take the time to become comfortable with the piano part in relation to your own part! Don’t be in a position to let the piano part surprise you and throw off your focus during a performance.” (Will Bender)

– “Isolate musical lines with similarities and take the time to determine and take mental note of the differences in order to avoid confusion.” (Deanna Anderson)

– “Focusing on the vocal and rhythmic aspects of the music can foster  a connection to the feeling/emotional side of your brain.” (Heidi Castleman)

– “Regularly use part of your practice time to practice performing!” (Heidi Castleman)


Hints for the stage:

– “In preparation for a performance, find a quiet place in which to mentally go through the emotional road map of the way your want the concert to be, including going to the concert hall, warming up, walking out on stage, playing the whole program (including transitions within a movement from one section to the next, going from one piece to the next), concluding the concert, going out to celebrate afterward — the whole journey.  During this process should you encounter an emotion you do not wish to have, go back and replace it with the feeling you would like to have in a particular moment.” (Heidi Castleman)

– “Positively focus your mind on the music making rather than on negative thoughts of ‘don’t mess up.’” (Marie Daniels)

– “After so many hours and hours of practicing – your body really does know what it is doing!” (Abby Elder)

– “Focus on aural and tactile images of what comes next. This focuses you on preparing for what comes next and will free your brain from panicking about the present or any mistakes made in the past.” (Stephanie Galipeau)

– “Have faith and confidence in your skill and preparation. The moment you allow yourself to second guess or doubt, that is the moment you start to trip.” (Matt Lipman, Molly Carr)

“Märchenbilder- What do you think of?” by Stephanie Block

The following post is by Stephanie Block.


Märchenbilder- What do you think of?

When my teacher back in Chicago introduced me to this group of short pieces, I wasn’t quite sure how to approach it. I have always loved Schumann, but never really knew of his depth or of many of his pieces. I just knew they were all beautiful! The very name, “Fairy-Tale” or “Pictures from Fairyland” (whichever you prefer), allows for all sorts of imagination in phrasing. My favorite thing to do with a very emotional piece is to create my own story. For me, thinking of a love story provides me with the most feeling in my pieces. Who doesn’t love the very idea of love? It bothers us every day, ranging from simple infatuation to full-blown romantic love – the kind of love that drives you up a wall but then also gives you a reason to get up in the morning. It seems most everyone can relate to love on some sort of level, and it is certainly something that helps in drawing out my musical storylines.

But then, for those who prefer not to think of a love story, Schumann can still provide another sort of imagery – such as fantasy characters. Wikipedia states that the first two movements of Märchenbilde (I. Nicht Schnell and II. Lebhaft) depict scenes from Rapunzel. In the first movement (which is rather bipolar, just like Schumann), one can picture the king’s son amidst his struggle to climb up Rapunzel’s hair, while imagining the faraway love he feels for her as he stands at the bottom of the tower. In the second movement, the joyous and steady melody depicts a hero riding through the forest on his horse (for this reason, one should never rush this melody, as that would imply that the horse is nervous and running away). The third movement (Rasch) can then be Rumpelstiltskin dancing outside his house surrounded by fairies (the exciting range of dynamics through the quick triplets gives this “dancing” image, with maybe an edge of agitation).  And finally, the fourth movement (Langsam, mit melancholischem Ausdruck), with its entirely tranquil melody, clearly conjures up the image of Sleeping Beauty.

If this imagery is not enough, then sometimes I think of a seemingly typical relationship – one that meant a lot, but didn’t work out in the end – in order to give the piece even more emotion.

The first movement is the stage of initial attraction to someone – the time when maybe you have been talking to him/her and you start to notice how cute they are, or you see them right away and know that you want to know more. The recurring theme of this movement with the sudden crescendo and decrescendo makes me think of the- “Should I talk to him/her?… No. Yes! NO. YES!….Oh no… they’re walking away, and I missed my chance.” Everyone knows what this feels like (or at least most of you out there).

But finally, when you get your chance to talk to this desirable person and magic happens, you reach “the honeymoon stage”: the second movement. This is when the person you wanted to ask out so badly likes you back, and you couldn’t be happier. It’s all of a sudden easier to get up in the morning and people annoy you less. The “horse gallop” theme symbolizes this feeling, while the running sixteenth notes in the middle of the movement represent the flying, happy feeling of falling in love – the one that makes you feel as if you’re floating on a cloud.

The third movement, is Rasch in German. Rash. This is the stage where things in your wonderful fairy tale start to fall apart. Often, love makes us do rash things. The quick triplets and the variation from pp to ff make me think of the raging up-and-down emotions that come from a realization that maybe the relationship isn’t meant to be. This is not a feeling any of us enjoy, but unfortunately one that seems to hit us all at some point or another.  The third movement, for the most part, carries on in this craziness all the way through – with only a little break in the middle: a possibility that things might work out, that maybe the disagreement was nothing, and that maybe it will all blow over. But then, soon enough, the turmoil comes creeping back in and the craziness returns, starting at a pianissimo and going back to fortissimo. Finally, the movement ends with a bang. There is no solving this love story!

Finally, you arrive at the fourth stage – the last movement. In addition to giving your left hand a break from all of those crazy notes, the mood of the piece calms down. This part of the story can go one of two ways: 1) you have accepted that this relationship just isn’t good for you and you know eventually you will move on, just not today, or 2) you’re tired from all of the fighting and turmoil and you’re just done with all of this. You feel defeated, upset, and helpless. So, you soak in your loneliness until someone else comes along to drive you crazy again.

This probably sounds a bit melodramatic to some people, but it works for me! Being in touch with one’s feelings is what helps to create a great musician – pushing any performer to a level beyond just playing the notes well.  I’ve found that picking a favorite musical and imaginative path to follow can ensure that an audience will feel right along with me the pain and joy inherent in any piece I’m performing.

Playing Brahms; A Primer by Fanny Davies

Introduction by Heidi Castleman

What better guide could we have in approaching the works of Brahms than Brahms himself?  Fanny Davies’ (1861-1934) invaluable commentary on a rehearsal of Brahms, Joachim and the cellist, Hausman, playing Brahms c minor Piano Trio offers us an important road map to understanding Brahms’ style.  Her article appeared following Sir Donald Tovey’s on the chamber music of Brahms in Cobbett’s Cyclopedia of Chamber Music, (Oxford University Press).

The excerpts presented below highlight key features of Brahms’ interpretation of his own music and provide us with our own personal guide to the world of Brahms.


From Fanny Davies:

“To attempt to put on paper a description of his playing is difficult.  One is dealing with a towering creative genius recreating his own creations.  Brahms’s manner of interpretation was free, very elastic and expansive; but the balance was always there – one felt the fundamental rhythms underlying the surface rhythms.  His phrasing was notable in lyric passages.  In these a strictly metronomic Brahms is as unthinkable as a fussy or hurried Brahms in passages which must be presented with adamantine rhythm.  Behind his often rugged, and almost sketchy playing, there never failed to appear that routined and definite school of technique without which he might sometimes have become almost a caricature of himself.  When Brahms played, one knew exactly what he intended to convey to his listeners: aspiration, wild fantastic flights, majestic calm, deep tenderness without sentimentality, delicate, wayward humor, sincerity, noble passion.  In his playing, as in his music and in his character, there was never a trace of sensuality.

His touch could be warm, deep, full, and broad in the fortes, and not hard even in the fortissimos; and his pianos, always of carrying power, could be as round and transparent as a dewdrop.  He had a wonderful legato.  He belonged to that racial school of playing which begins its phrases well, ends them well, leaves plenty of space between the end of one and the beginning of another, and yet joins them without any hiatus.  One could hear that he listened very intently to the inner harmonies, and of course he laid great stress on good basses.

Like Beethoven, he was most particular that his marks of expression (always as few as possible) should be the means of conveying the inner musical meaning.  The sign < > (hair pins) as used by Brahms, often occurs when he wishes to express great sincerity and warmth, applied not only to tone but to rhythm also.  He would linger not on one note alone, but on a whole idea, as if unable to tear himself away from its beauty.  He would prefer to lengthen a bar or phrase rather than spoil it by making up the time into a metronomic bar.”

“There is very much more to speak about, but what I have described is thoroughly typical of the style in which Brahms both conceived and performed his works.  There remains for me only to emphasize perhaps the most important essential in starting to reproduce a work of Brahms – and that is the tempo.  The tendency is usually to play the andantes too slowly, and the quick movements, scherzos, etc., too quickly.  All Brahms’s passages, if one can call them passages, are strings of gems, and that tempo which can best reveal these gems and help to characterize the detail at the same time as the outlines of a great work must be considered to be the right tempo.  There is no doubt that the same artist will take a different tempo at a different time of life.  The balance of dignity with detail comes with experience, but in gaining the one, the artist must not lose the other.  Artists are, of course, not only of different temperaments but of different schools of craft.  Therefore, one must not uphold one single and only way of arriving at a great goal, the aim being surely to arrive at conveying the highest message in any great work.  I heard Brahms say once, “Machen Sie es wie Sie wollen, machen Sie es nur schön’ (‘Do it how you like, but make it beautiful’).  After such words from the master himself, is there anything more for me to say?”