Archive for the ‘Performance Practice’ Category

Scordatura Tuning in Bach’s Fifth Suite by Meredith Kufchak

When I started learning Bach’s fifth suite, I decided to play it using scordatura, with the A-string tuned down to a G. This is how Bach originally intended the cello to be tuned to play this suite, although it is not uncommon for performers today to play it with standard tuning. The reason I initially chose to play with scordatura tuning was because that was how the suite was originally written, but I discovered several other reasons for and against the scordatura tuning as I was learning the piece.

First of all, I should address the difference in difficulty of fingerings between the two tunings. For the most part I would say that the scordatura tuning makes the piece easier to get under your fingers. It minimizes the amount of shifting you have to do, especially for chords and double stops, and it fits more comfortably into the hand. Another thing that’s great about the fingerings is that those nasty fifths on the upper two strings are now played with the hand shape of a sixth, which feels much better in the hand. On the down side, fourths, which are hard enough to play in tune as it is, are now played how you would normally play a fifth. Also, in some passages that go higher than the D one octave above middle C, you have to shift up to reach notes that you wouldn’t have to shift for in standard tuning, but I would say that on the whole, the scordatura tuning minimizes shifting and makes the fingerings simpler.

Another benefit that I really enjoy about the scordatura tuning is that I can play every note in all of the chords. Those extra notes are so important to creating full sounding chords, even though leaving out one note can seem insignificant. But I love that I can play chords that aren’t normally possible with standard tuning. For example, there are so many C-minor triads in the suite with the open high G string on top, and I can’t imagine having to choose which of those notes not to play. It’s not physically possible to play all the notes in standard tuning, unless you awkwardly break the chord to be able to sound all the pitches. There are so many chords that have to be simplified with standard tuning, and I feel that taking away those notes really detracts from the rich harmonies. 

Another reason I really love playing with scordatura tuning is because of what it does for the resonance of my viola. With two G strings, the higher one of which is an overtone of the C string, my viola resonates so much more! That added resonance is another reason why the chords sound so rich and full.

One difficulty that I initially encountered when learning the suite with scordatura tuning was simple coordination. I realized how much we take for granted that what we see on the page comes out sounding how we expect it to! It took me a while to get used to the fact that what it feels like I’m playing in my hand is not at all what is reaching my ears. I was a Suzuki kid, so playing by ear comes very naturally to me. When I am playing with scordatura tuning, I have to be very attentive to not slip into playing by ear, because then I start putting down the fingers that I would be using if I were playing with standard tuning.

This same thing is true regarding memorization. I prefer to memorize Bach suites for performances, because I feel that I can give a more natural and spontaneous performance if it is memorized. However, I have so far been unsuccessful in memorizing the fifth suite with scordatura tuning. When I memorize pieces, I usually don’t consciously try to remember specific fingerings. Rather, when I am familiar enough with a piece to the point where I have all the notes in my head, my fingers naturally find where they are supposed to be as I am playing. This does not work with scordatura tuning! Since we are so accustomed to our standard tuning, our fingers just try to go where they would go when we’re playing by ear, and what comes out is a bunch of wrong notes. You have to be constantly alert while you’re playing to override the automatic response of your fingers to go where they think they should go. When you’re playing with the music, the pitches on the high G-string are notated a whole step above how they sound, so you don’t have to think too hard about where you’re putting your fingers. But when you take the music away, it’s very difficult to keep playing those same notes!

I think that some violas are more conducive to the scordatura tuning than others, depending on each viola’s sound. Some violas will sound really good tuned down and will resonate more. Some violas have a tendency to sound very nasally with the A-string tuned to a G, and sometimes it is difficult for the nasally sound of the high G-string to blend well with the tone of the other strings. It tends to stick out of the texture if you’re not careful about it.

One more thing to consider, if deciding whether or not to use scordatura tuning, is the style in which you prefer to play Bach. Some people take a very romantic approach to Bach, and I feel that the scordatura tuning is not well suited to that approach because of the open, more nasally sound that the viola has with the high G-string. But if you play Bach in a Baroque style, I think that the scordatura tuning sounds more natural. For me, that means playing more simply and not overusing vibrato.

Scordatura tuning is definitely something to consider when playing Bach’s fifth suite. I have really enjoyed playing the suite with scordatura tuning, even though it felt strange at first. Re-tuning the instrument can give the viola a different, unique tone and open up so many new color possibilities. It’s also fun just to try something different and explore the possibilities of your viola!

Concert Attire: What’s the Big Deal

by James Dunham

It is very tempting to dismiss proper attire for concerts with a wave of the hand and see it as a boring bother. After all, we in classical music have been trying for years to show our audiences that we are, in fact, just people like them and to make the concert stage less of a divide between “us” and “them.” We have even come under considerable criticism for our seemingly stuffy and “out-dated” white tie and tails or tuxedo outfits and the black or gem-colored gowns for women.

Let’s think about the bigger picture for a moment, though. A concert, whatever the musical style, is an event, a presentation, an offering. When creating something of importance for our families, our friends, our public, it is always important to create an atmosphere of anticipation, of excitement, of sharing. By dressing appropriately for any particular concert, this includes our own sense of ownership, our respect for our audience, and most importantly, our respect for the composer!

Formal vs. informal:

Are there widely varied styles of appropriate attire? Of course there are! Charith Premawardhana,  one of my former students, has created an organization called Classical Revolution, which now has chapters around the U. S. Presentations range from true concerts of rehearsed chamber works in unusual venues to Facebook calls to meet at a given bar or restaurant simply to read chamber music for the assembled clientele! I suppose you could wear a tuxedo if you wanted to, but you are really more likely to see blue jeans and casual clothes.

0225a attire

Here I am with Classical Revolution founder Charith Premawardhana at a recent event in Houston!

But a major concert in a major city? While tuxes, tails, and gowns are sometimes seen as a bit too much, when done well, a fine outfit, say, with a great summer white tuxedo can still look very sharp! Please allow me to show off just a bit: here I am backstage at the Aspen Music Festival, where white tuxedos are still very much in evidence. With me are dapper Gil Shaham, glorious Sabina Thatcher, and the elegant David Halen!

0225b Shaham attire

Me, Gil Shaham, Sabina Thatcher, David Halen

All Black:

It has become very common to wear all black for concerts, sometimes with a jacket for men, sometimes without, with or without a tie. We often call it “New Music Black,” since it is frequently the “uniform” for contemporary concerts. It works, looks appropriate, and can also be more comfortable for works requiring extended techniques of all kinds!

While this next photo isn’t the crispest, I thought you would enjoy seeing the participants, all in black. Ivo van der Werff and I were invited to play a viola quartet in Boston to help celebrate composer John Harbison’s seventieth birthday. Here we are with Marcus Thompson and John himself, who insisted on playing Viola 4 in his own viola quartet, Cucaraccia and Fugue!!

0225c Harbison attire

Ivo van der Werff, Marcus Thompson, John Harbison, me

Suits: Ties or no ties?

Frequently, a business suit for men and an elegant dress for women is a common performance outfit. Ties, especially for ‘cellists and upper string players, can interfere with the way we interact with our instruments. A nicely buttoned shirt can look fine with a suit, or in the case of Paul Kantor in the picture below, there are elegant alternatives.

0225d kantor attire

Paul Kantor, Frank Huang, Ling-Ling Huang, Evelyn Chen, Brinton Smith, me

I confess, I did have an issue with a recent concert that I heard. The male members of this ensemble came out to perform in a professional concert in a major U. S. concert hall, wearing suits. To my dismay, while they were wearing appropriate ties, the top buttons of their shirts were open, and the ties were loosened to about three inches down their shirt front. It looked like what one does after the concert, back in the dressing room. It felt, to me, like cavalier disrespect of the audience, the venue, the composer, and, ultimately, themselves. Concerned about my potential “old fogey” factor, I checked with my own Studio. Luckily, everyone agreed that this felt very inappropriate for this particular circumstance.

A very positive incident took place at a chamber concert that I played recently. I had chosen to wear all black, with jacket, and a glorious red tie that my wife had presented to me. To my delight, a group of children surrounded me at intermission! Greatly impressed by the concert, they were even more impressed by my tie!

Girl one: “Can I touch your tie??”

Girl two: “You can’t ask that!!”

Me: “Of course you can ask it, and of course you can touch it!!”

A little too much excitement for an iPhone photograph, but you get the picture: classical music is alive and well!

0225e red tie attire

A final story:

I heard of a master class given by the great Pablo Casals. It was at a summer festival, un-air conditioned, hot and humid, in the days when coat and tie were the only way to go. The performer, nervous and sweaty, asked the maestro if he might take off his jacket before he played. The reply from Pablo Casals? “Why, of course: anything you would do in a concert . . .”

We have come a long way since those days!

Bringing the Past to the Present by Leah Gastler

Performing historical music is a balancing act. We hold tradition and history in the highest regard, yet we must also make personal decisions that allow music to breathe a new life; to be alive today, affected by our humanity, artistry, and also our modern standpoint. Like learning how to draw the correct proportions of the human figure, we have a responsibility to understand the structure, form, and intention of a composer’s work before imposing our personal opinions upon it.

When we perform a Mozart string quartet, for instance, we are affected by so much more than our own musical sensibilities. We want to adhere to the manuscript or discuss the values of the first edition notation, or we want to read Mozart’s letters and incorporate the historical context into our understanding of the work. Even more basic, we understand the form and function of the genre of the string quartet itself and its own historical context.

Then we listen to recordings, and we like the way one group does this or another does that, and we acknowledge that one recording might now be “out of style,” a rather mysterious qualifier itself. We incorporate all of these influences. We receive input from our mentors, who may disagree among each other, but who always present great arguments for his or her own interpretation. They provide quotes and anecdotes from their teachers and mentors—relics of the revered old-style performance that we so admire but can never relive. We make decisions based upon these ideals. We cannot adhere to every angle, because there is no “correct”; there is only “informed.” After the information, it is our duty to make the music alive.

Personal commitment makes music alive. The spirit of music originates within the performer, here and now, not within the composer or the history or all the information behind our output. We have to know what our personal impression is—what we want to convey and what moves us emotionally and convinces us of the validity of this music. It is our duty to make this history valid now, to us and our world, and it requires a challenging balance of imitation and innovation. This is what Mozart “should” sound like. This is what Mozart “did” sound like. This is what Mozart sounds like now; or, This is what my Mozart sounds like. This is what Picasso’s bull looks like:

0130a Picasso Bull

In new music, the role we play as the performer is much more of a creative process. We embrace unknown techniques and notation, and we imagine what sound, image, or feeling the composer intended. Sometimes we are lucky enough that we can even ask the composer. We are not beholden to centuries of tradition before us or even the qualities of beauty that we have learned to recognize. Sometimes we are even asked to actively reject these ideals and reinvent; start anew with a different palette, different medium, different-sized canvas, and different tools. Or sometimes only one of those variables may change.

Being the first to bring this music to life, we are allowed to bring our creative process to the foreground of our work. We have to decipher, interpret, and enact this music without the influence of what came before, setting the stage for performances to come and defining the meaning and relevance of this music. We have to relate to this work, as we are contemporaneous beings, and introduce our audiences to the musical expression of our time. We have to convince the audience of a work’s greatness, value, expression, relevance—that it should be heard again and given new life.

Whereas a Mozart quartet will survive into the future regardless of how many heartless performances it receives, a new work requires a level of commitment that believes in the future of this repertoire. We have to send this expression off well. This is Joseba Eskubi’s contemporary expression of something nameless, in mixed-media.

1030b abstract painting

Thoughts on Bach’s Second Solo Suite Prelude by Sergein Yap

I have had the opportunity to study the Bach Cello Suites with many different teachers, from Romantic interpreters to ones that insist on a more historically informed style. Regardless of what performance style you subscribe to, I think a very useful resource to have is a copy of the Anna Magdalena manuscript (perhaps aided by a magnifying glass). Though not Bach’s original manuscript, it is the closest thing we have to his own.

When trying to figure out suitable bowings, it’s important to take the time to hash out the bowings yourself with the manuscript. There are times when it’s quite difficult to decipher where slurs begin and end. When you find yourself in this situation, referencing an edition of the suites edited using the Anna Magdalena manuscript can be helpful. I have used the Bärenreiter cello edition (which comes with facsimiles of the various sources) and Anner Bylsma’s book, Bach, the Fencing Master (which includes a transcribed edition for the viola of suites 1–3).

Ivo is fond of using a metaphor about reflections and symmetry relating to bowing patterns. He sees this prelude as one walking about the inside of a large space, such as a cathedral, observing the architecture (arches, pillars, etc.) for symmetry. One lesson that I have taken from this metaphor is that one should choose bowings that add variety and avoid making extended patterns sound overly repetitive or belabored. More importantly, bowings and the execution of them (bow speed, amount of bow, contact point, and where you are in the bow) should serve the music and one’s interpretation, highlighting important points of tension/release in the harmony.

Something that I have recently been asking myself is if at points of release where I linger and take time, do I always need to give time back? My issue is that I tend to sound as though I am rushing and falling a bit forward when I give time back. Using rubato without feeling the need to arrive at the downbeat of the following measure in a metronomic manner is something I am working on incorporating much more.


• mm. 10–12 into the arrival at m. 13 (III)

extended pattern of 1 separate, 3 slurred with beat 3 of mm. 11 and 12 breaking from the pattern with separate bows.

0124a first example

0124b first example continued

• mm. 21–23

1 separate, 3 slurred pattern for 3 measures. Slight decrescendo into m. 23 to highlight the g-sharp, which creates the vii07/V harmony.

0124c second example

• mm. 44–48

On beat 2 of each measure, play as 3 slurred, 1 separate—The slur on beat 2 emphasizes the A Major pedal up until m. 47, where the harmony changes to g-sharp viio4/2/V

0124d third example

However you decide to play m. 48 regarding the length and speed of rolling the chord, it is the climax of the movement and is a dramatic exclamation on the vii06 harmony.

• mm. 59–63

In the last 5 measures, do you want to treat the chords literally and play them as the dotted-half-note value, simply arpeggiate the chords, reference gestures from previous sections (m. 30 for the realization of m. 59), or improvise new material based on these chords?

0124e fourth example