Thoughts on memorization

With the Brooks Music Festival happening 2 weeks ago, I had the chance to talk to a lot of people active and interested in promoting music education in our community, both parents and teachers. One thing that came up repeatedly was memorization. At the Brooks festival, we do not currently require performers to have their selections memorized. However, both for the provincial festival and Royal Conservatory exams, memorization is required. So today, I thought I’d explore why I think all selections should be memorized and even more so, why memorization should be one of the very first steps in the process of learning a new piece.

Why memorize?

If you’ve gone to any music show, be it pop or classical or anything in between, you will find that the lead performer almost always has their music memorized. At a symphony performance, you might even be surprised at how many orchestra members only occasionally glance at their sheet music, and most of the time in my experience that’s to count out rests that can last several measures so we don’t miss our place to jump back in when it’s our turn.

Soloists, however, always have their part memorized. Let’s watch another of my favourite violinists, playing my all-time favourite piece for violin: Anne-Sophie Mutter plays the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64

The why, I believe, is simple. When you are playing the violin, there is a lot going on: bow stroke, fingering, vibrato, intonation and that elusive concept, sound. If on top of all that you’re reading the music off a piece of sheet music, you just can’t concentrate properly on getting that “sound”. When you free yourself from sheet music, you free yourself to pour your heart and sould into the interpretation of the repertoire.

The building blocks

So, having established that memorization is essential, how does it fit into the development of repertoire?

building blocks 2

This pyramid represents how I approach learning a new piece of music.

Sight Reading

The very first step is sight reading. This step is where I figure out where the notes are, get my fingerings correct and start to get a feel for the melody. I might play the piece through a few dozen times with the sheet music and make notes where I experience difficulty with fingering, rhythm or bowing.

Memorization

Once I have a feel for the piece, and that should take no more than a few days, I begin memorization. This is the one step where a lot of the work can be done even without the violin.

My first step in memorizing is to sit down with just the sheet music and hum the melody quietly to myself as I tap out the fingering on my thigh. I often do this while car pooling to work and I can get a movement committed mostly to memory within a day or two.

How does this work? Basically, I use a form of kinesthetic visualization, the use of which is well established in elite sports. I tap my fingers in the rhythm of the music and according to the fingering, using my thumb for open string. I find this method to be most effective. Just humming the music can be helpful, but connecting it to the tapping of my fingers seems to cement the link that much more quickly in my mind.

I start with one or two bars, sight reading and tapping and then repeating it until I have it down. Then the next few bars. Then all 4 or 5 together. And so on until I have whole phrases and before long whole movements memorized.

Now at this stage, memorization won’t be perfect but you’ll be well on your way there for when you pick up your violin. Again, playing from memory as much as possible, play through the piece, section by section, translating the fingering onto the violin, with positions as applicable.

The entire process of memorization can be completed for a short movement in the space of a week. For the 6th movement of the Bach Partita I am playing at the exam, which I showcased in yesterday’s post, I spent 2 days in the car practicing without my violin and another 2 days of practice time (about 10-15 minutes each day) to get it pretty much memorized.

Moving forward

The next steps to perfecting repertoire are outside the scope of this blog post but I will briefly touch on each one so you’ll know what I’m referring to.

Intonation

Up until now, I have not concerned myself with being pitch perfect while practicing my piece. It is still very rough and certain notes may end up being slightly off pitch. The next step is perfecting the intonation. The last thing you want to hear your violin teacher say is: “it’s a bit pitchy”!

Rhythm and Metre

Now that we are pitch perfect, it’s time to pay attention to rhythm and metre. Working with a metronome at this stage is helpful. For faster pieces, it can take some time to get up to the indicated tempo while maintaining proper intonation, so pay particular attention to this step.

Bowing and Dynamics

Now that we know the piece by memory and are playing it in tune and in “time”, we can start putting the finishing touches on. Bowing refers to the use of different bow strokes, which will be a series of posts in itself. Dynamics is the use of varying degrees of “loudness” from pianissimo to fortissimo and everything in between.

“Sound”

Call this what you like. Sound, interpretation, artistry… I like to think of it as making the violin sing the story. This is where you’ll hear the music come alive. To really understand this concept, let’s finish off with Itzhak Perlman playing the Theme from “Schindler’s List”. I don’t know about you, but I think he’s almost crying and his violin definitely is crying plaintively but oh so beautifully. Kind of makes you want to shed a few tears too…

Maintenance

A final note on what I call maintenance. When preparing for an exam or a recital, it’s difficult to predict exactly when we will “peak” as they say in sports. With music, there’s really no downside to peaking early, other than the need for maintenance. What I mean by this is that once the piece is “perfect” to our ears, with all the preceeding elements mastered to our satisfaction, we need to keep practicing it to maintain it in the repertoire. There is no longer a need to practice the piece for 15-20 minutes a day unless things start to slip. A couple of runs 2 or 3 times a week is usually sufficient.

This gives us some breathing space to make room for the rest of the repertoire we need to learn for that exam!! Time to get practicing that Partita!

Grade 8 repertoire

Welcome to my new series on repertoire from the Royal Conservatory of Music violin syllabus. One of the easiest things you can do to improve your violin playing is to listen to recordings of the music you are learning. Henceforth, I will be publishing a selection of repertoire from each grade list, from Preparatory through Grade 10. Starting today with Grade 8, because yours truly decided to work towards her ARCT after all this time.

I chose to start with Grade 8 because the repertoire is attainable (for me) within a relatively short practice timeframe and it will allow me to get a feeling for the exam format before attempting something more challenging. Since I am the teacher, as well as the student, I curated my repertoire selections myself.

RCM repertoire is organized by “lists”. For the Grade 8 exam, a candidate must select repertoire from each of 4 solo repertoire lists: List A Concertos, Airs variés and Fantasias; List B, Sonatas and Sonatinas; List C, Concert Repertoire; and List D, Unaccompanied Repertoire as well as two selections from the Orchestral Excerpts book.

For lower grades, you will get to see Miss Jetske in action, but for today, I’ve chosen to showcase some of my own idols.

List A – Concertos, Airs variés and Fantasias

J. B. Accolay – Concerto in A minor – Itzhak Perlman

No list of my heroes would be complete without Itzhak Perlman. I have loved his performances since I was a small child. I was lucky enough to see him in concert at the National Arts Centre once.

Although I can’t recall what he played that day, I do remember he played a Paganini caprice for an encore.

List B – Sonatas and Sonatinas

Mozart – Sonata No. 18 in G major, K301 – Hilary Hahn

Hilary Hahn is an impressive violinist with a lovely sound. Although she is an advocate for contemporary music, I’m glad to see that she still performs the classics. The grade 8 syllabus requires either the first or second movement.

List C – Concert Repertoire

Massenet – Meditation de Thais – Yo Yo Ma

I have always loved this piece and I’m breaking with tradition here by linking a cello version. Yo Yo Ma is of course the master, and the sound of the cello brings a lovely warmth to this piece.

List D – Unaccompanied Repertoire

J.S. Bach – Partita in E major, BWV 1006 – Itzhak Perlman

And it’s back to Itzhak Perlman. This is an older recording but I love the video because it shows him grinning to himself as he plays. I feel like Bach partitas are meant to be fun so seeing him smile makes me think maybe he agrees with me?

For this partita, the only movement to be performed at the exam is the 6th mouvement “bourree”.

Orchestral

Starting in Grade 7, the violin exam includes a section on orchestral excerpts. In grade 8, candidates have to perform two contrasting orchestral excerpts.

W. A. Mozart – Symphony No 25 KV 183 – Salzbourg Orchestra

There are several recordings of this first selection on youtube and I chose this particular one because of the level of expression in the first violin section. Orchestral excerpts are generally quite short (a few dozen measures) and have sections removed so as to only reflect the portion being played by the 1st violins which is to be evaluated. In this case, I will be playing parts of the first movement.

J.S. Bach – Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G major – Orchestra Mozart

I enjoyed this last piece because baroque music sounds so nice with a harpsichord accompaniment. The section to be played on the exam is portions of the third movement.

 

Here’s hoping my music selections go over well (and technically perfect!) on exam day.

Winter 2019 Calendar

Winter 2019 Calendar

Check out the calendar for the Winter 2019 semester.

To note for this semester:

  • For Friday and Saturday students: No lessons during Easter weekend but 5 lessons in March
  • No regular Tuesday lessons last week of April. This date is reserved for makeup lessons as per the cancellation policy.
  • Music Festival is scheduled for 31 March – 5 April 2019. Please note that Friday lessons may be rescheduled to Tuesday or Wednesday evening as strings classes are expected to be held on the Friday. Communicate directly with the teacher at your earliest opportunity to reserve a time for earlier in the week. Remember this will be your last chance to practice performing your piece with Miss Jetske! And good luck to all!

New violins are on their way!

I am ecstatic to announce that I’ve put in my first order for a number of student violins from SAGA instruments.

SAGA offers a range of violins, from affordable starter student violins to high-quality instruments for the discerning amateur. I’ve ordered a couple different Cremona models in a few different sizes to get a feel for the quality of the instruments for the price. All these new violins will be available for sale or rent under the violin rental program.

Just for fun, I ordered this little beauty also:

purpleviolin

The SV-75 is their “premier novice violin” and comes in sparkling purple, among other fun colours. I wish these had been around when I was just learning to play as a child!

Big changes are coming!

Big changes are coming at Studio Kingma 2.0 this week! I’m expanding, in more ways than one.

One thing that has been bothering me for some time is the size of my music room. When I have a young student coming in with a parent, it gets really crowded real fast. But that’s to be expected in a 9′ x 10′ room. So I’ve done some work, rearranging my place so I can use the larger of the two bedrooms, which is about 12′ x 14′. Big difference!

I figured while I’m at it, I should paint the room to give it a fresh look. Once I’ve got the painting done, the new curtains and pictures up and the keyboard moved in, I’ll put up some pictures of the new studio.

The other big change is an expansion to my business model. A big frustration for my students and their parents is the need to make a day trip to Calgary every time they need violin accessories. I’ve been in contact with Saga music, makers of the Cremona line of student violins, as well as the publisher Alfred music and Shar music for accessories. I hope to build a small inventory of necessities for students and other string players in the Brooks/Duchess area.

Check back soon for more info!

Start-up costs

I was talking to the parent of a prospective student today, and we got to discussing the initial costs of taking violin lessons. There is a lot to consider, so I’ll try to break it down in this post.

First and foremost, obviously, you’ll need a violin. Price on a violin can range from $350 to many thousands of dollars. For a beginner, though, an entry-level violin will be around $350 for child sizes up to around $700-$800 for a good-quality adult violin. I am aware that cheaper violins are available on amazon and other online stores, but I’ve not included them in the price range here because I do not recommend them. The quality just isn’t there, and keep in mind that you’ll be listening to this instrument for hours and hours of practice. Also, when you buy a better-quality violin, you have a better potential for resale when your child outgrows her instrument.

Next of course, a bow, which can be fibreglass or wood. $100-$150 for a good-quality child-size bow, up to $300 or more for an adult size.

Accessories: A hard case to transport and store your instrument. Rosin for your bow. A shoulder rest (see my note on this below*). A spare set of strings. A music stand. A metronome, while not a necessity right away, will be very helpful as you get a little more experience and need to work on tempo. All together, you’re looking at probably another $200-$250.

Finally, if you’re taking lessons at Studio Kingma 2.0, you’ll need a copy of the Suzuki violin method, book 1. This is where we will begin. It contains tons of information on technique as well as most of the music repertoire we’ll be playing for the first year. It also comes with a CD recording of the music, which is especially helpful when we’re starting out and not yet proficient at reading music. Cost is around $30.

When you come for your first lesson, you’ll also get an exercise book in which we’ll track your progress from week to week. You will also likely get fingering tape, applied to the neck of your violin, to help you learn proper finger positioning for pitch. You may also get a loan of a bow-stopper or bowing hand positioning aids, if I feel it will help you progress. Finally, for young kids, I have a book of worksheets to help with music-reading with fun activities and games.

Now you’re all set! Time to start playing!

*Just a quick note on shoulder rests: I am not a fan of rigid shoulder rests. They do not allow for proper movement when playing the violin and I do not allow my students to use them during lessons. A soft, sponge-type shoulder rest is recommended. A special type of sponge that has some grip is available from most violin supply stores and can be held on the violin with a simple elastic. This is ideal for kids. For more advanced violinists, my personal recommendation is the Acousta-grip. While expensive, it is the best shoulder rest product I have found. I am able to source these for my students who are interested, since not all violin stores carry them.

My kid is on their 3rd lesson… and they still are not playing!

I think this is the single-most voiced complaint among parents of new students, especially very young students. Let me debunk this off the top: Your child is not going to become a violin virtuoso in a month, or 6 months, or even 3 years. Playing violin is a very difficult skill and if you want them to become proficient at it, you’re in it for the long haul. Just ask my mom… she had me in weekly violin lessons for 14 years!

Of course, your child WILL be playing violin within a few lessons and will be able to play quite a few pieces quite well by the time they’ve been taking lessons for a few years. But often, parents of new students get a little frustrated with my method because it seems like we’re not really playing the violin for the first few lessons. We seem to do a lot of singing, some body exercises and not much actual manipulation of the instrument, let alone putting bow to strings for the first time!

From a teacher’s perspective, I look at it like building a house. You can’t start the cosmetic work like painting or installing bathroom fixtures until you have a foundation, a frame and a roof. And you can’t build all three at the same time. Same with the violin. The student needs to learn how to hold the violin, how to hold the bow, how to place the fingers, how to move the bow, etc. We teach all these things concurrently but separately.

So, in a half-hour lesson, your child might spend a few minutes practicing holding the violin under her chin. Then we’ll sing some music together. Then we’ll practice holding the bow. Then we might listen to me play something on the violin or piano. Then we’ll play some games to teach the proper bowing movement. And so on. These many small exercises, interspersed with breaks to listen to music or sing, help us create the initial building blocks without overloading a young child’s attention span.

Rest assured that after a few lessons, we will put all the pieces together and put bow to strings. But in order for that to happen, the parent has a crucial role to play. When you go home from your lesson, your 5-year-old is not going to remember the bowing game or placing their fingers like little houses in a row, or the melody we are learning. It is your role to help your child practice 4-5 days a week in order to reinforce these lessons so we can keep building on them week after week. In some ways, you will become more of an expert on the theory of violin playing than your child. I’ve even had some parents come back to take lessons themselves when their child is a little older, and because they have so much background theory knowledge already, they generally do very well!

Be patient and before you know it, your child will be playing her first notes on the violin. And in a few weeks, you will be begging me to get your child to play something other than “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” because you’ve heard it SO MANY TIMES!