Category Archives: Weekly Listening

Bach Partita No. 3: IV. Minuets I & II

If you’re in need of some beauty in your life – and I think if we’re honest we could all use a little more of it – I would recommend taking a listen to Julia Fischer’s Bach for solo violin.  Here I have selected the Minuets from the 3rd Partita in E Major, which are short, simple, and light-hearted.  But her complete catalogue is available on Spotify or even on YouTube.

Every concert violinist worth their salt records the unaccompanied Bach Sonatas & Partitas at least once – often many times – in their career, so there is no lack of listening options out there.  However, Fischer’s displays a depth, character, warmth, and resonance unique to her and I think is noteworthy among the others.  When she plays, it truly feels like Bach is living through his music to this day!

Chaconne from Partita No. 2 in D min

There are, of course, a million things that one could point out as being done excellently, here.  As a teacher, however, I couldn’t help but immediately notice how well this young man was doing all the basics while performing something complex, and complex this piece is – it’s the longest and most technically challenging from the cornerstone of violin repertoire that is Bach’s 6 Sonatas and Partitas for unaccompanied violin.

“Look how low and relaxed his violin thumb is!” I was saying to myself as I watched him play.

“Look how curved and tall his violin fingers are!”

“Look how close he keeps his fingers to the strings to minimize effort and maximize accuracy!”

These are all things that we talk about in various ways and at different levels in lessons every week!  What a great example this is of someone who has turned all those individual ideas into habits that form the foundation of his masterful playing.  Please take the time to watch and enjoy!

Improvising with the National Symphony Orchestra

I grew up listening to Ben Folds on the radio as frontman of the alt rock group Ben Folds Five.  At the time, I didn’t know much about him, and certainly didn’t know about his exceptional improvisational skills.

As string players, we spend a lot of time listening, repeating what we hear, and working on developing the techniques required to play our instrument, which are numerous.  Improvising – or making up melodies on the spot – takes a whole other set of skills, or perhaps demonstrates a true mastery of the skills we all work so hard to develop.

Improvising requires that we know the principles of how melodies are built and what makes them sound right to our ears so well that we can put them into practice on the spot, without any prior preparation.  We have to know scales better than we know our arithmetic.  We have to be able to walk through chord progressions as well as we can walk to the fridge when the house is pitch black at night.  In short, music has to be living and breathing naturally inside us.  Getting to this place takes a lot of work!

We get an opportunity to practice some of these skills in the Doflein books that many of us are using for sight reading.  Those blank exercises where they ask you to fill in scales or melodies give us a chance to try out own hand at making something up, and then seeing whether it sounds appropriate or not.  If yes, why?  If not, why not?

In any case, enjoy watching Ben Folds demonstrate his mastery of the piano and improvising in this short video!

Shostakovich String Quartet No. 8

Throughout the Suzuki Books, and even as early as Suzuki Book 1, we learn to play music in such a way that conveys the “character” or “mood” associated with a piece, not just the notes and bowings of the piece itself.  With so much Baroque dance music – Minuets, Gavottes, Bourrees, and Gigues – interspersed throughout the Suzuki repertoire, we’re often focusing on the lighthearted aspects of musical moods.  However, music can also convey the other end of the human emotive spectrum, and often in incredibly powerful ways.

This is as true in Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8 as perhaps anywhere else.  Written in a deeply troubled personal time in the composer’s life, his String Quartet No. 8 reflects the grief he was feeling.  It’s a haunting, beautiful, and powerful piece of music, and one I hope many of our students will have a chance to play for themselves in the course of their musical studies.

This particular recording is by the Borodin Quartet, who’s interpretations of countless selections from the classical repertoire are among the very pinnacle of chamber music.

Der Erköenig

Music and stories are a lot a like in that they have a logical beginning, middle, and end to them.  Much of the best music actually tells a story.  So it is with Der Erköenig by Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst, a contemporary of and musical successor to Niccolo Paganini, whom we have mentioned here before.

Many of the most challenging pieces for violin have been written by some of history’s preeminent violinists, and Ernst was certainly one of these.  It seems that intimately knowing how to play the violin allows for particularly masterful composing for the instrument, as well.  This particular recording is by Hillary Hahn, one of the preeminent violinists of our day.  As for the story that goes along with Der Erköenig?  Well, I’ll let Ms. Hahn explain it to you herself!

Stravinsky – The Rite of Spring

If you haven’t listened to much 20th century music, which to be honest most of us haven’t, then your ears just might not know what to do when you first listen to The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky.  The music is an accompaniment to a ballet, a ballet which tells the a fictitious story of sacrifice to the Russian gods of the seasons.  And the music is equal in energy in every way to the story being told alongside it.

I remember the Rite of Spring as a unique challenge when I first encountered it in an orchestra.  Changing from 5/8 to 9/8 to 3/8 and many other time signatures in rapid succession made for the most difficult counting and rhythmical experience I’d had to that point in my musical career.  But playing the Rite was also a uniquely enjoyable experience.  It’s such beautiful music.

Just listen to the immense strength of the basses and cellos at 8:55.  And whatever you do, listen to the pulsing rhythm starting at 31:00 and escalating thereafter.  There’s so much beauty and power throughout this strange and in many ways unparalleled example of musical genius.

Paganini Caprice No. 5

Every generation has its select few incomparable violinists, but of all the great violinists that have ever lived – Ernst, Joachim, Kreisler, Heifetz, Menuhin, Oistrakh, Perlman –  perhaps none is spoken of in such terms of great legend as Niccolo Paganini.  Indeed, people have wondered in jest whether the violinist sold his soul to the devil to acquire his fiendish ability on the violin.  Paganini left us, along with 2 violin concertos and other collected works for violin, a series of 24 Caprices, or virtuosic pieces for solo, unaccompanied violin.  Amongst aspiring violinists, these are a challenge to be met and with dedication and great effort, possibly mastered.

Of the 24, Caprice No. 5 is one of the more approachable, though this still leaves it quite difficult. Of the dozens of recordings I have listened to of Paganini’s Caprice No. 5, I am perhaps the most impressed with Augustin Hadelich’s.  Many violinists achieve impeccable intonation on this caprice, but I’m not sure I’ve ever heard as wonderful tone over the whole range of the instrument, or as exquisite control of each and every phrase.  So, enjoy.  Maybe some day you’ll meet the challenge of Caprice No. 5 for yourself!