Welcome to the Sound Exchange and thank you for agreeing to answer the world's questions.
Very pleased to be here.
I understand you flew in this morning, I´ve just seen you rehearse the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto which you´ll perform tomorrow night at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London and then you´re going on to the Manoukian Centre on Friday, followed by another performance of the Mendelssohn in Leeds on Saturday - how do you cope with all of this? Don´t you get tired?
You know, these days I tend to travel a lot less than I used to - I remember in the past there were times when I averaged only 2 or 3 days at home every month and now I don´t do that - I play about 50 dates a year and I´m loving it - I have a different musical life and have much more time for my home life - we have a young boy and are expecting another baby so it´s important I have more family time.
I was lucky enough to be sitting in on your rehearsal [which has just finished] and it sounded amazing - how do you create your version of a piece like that [The Mendelssohn Violin Concerto]?
You know I don´t know about putting one´s stamp on a piece - I always feel like our job is very similar to the job of an actor: we take the ideal that´s on the page and we´re supposed to bring it to life for the audience. I think the [performer´s] personality will come through, but I think first we have to do justice to the composer.
We´ve had lots of questions from our website, so perhaps you might be able to answer some for us?
Katie Philly says: If you hadn't learnt to play the violin what instrument do you think you would have learnt and why?
The one thing I regret is that I never really learnt to play the piano: as a violinist we have to work extra hard to figure out the counterpoint and harmonies, which maybe pianists understand better…. But I guess it´s not too late, right? We can all go and learn new instruments -why not?
Do you play the viola at all?
I´ve played some chamber music on the viola… but I´m very slow at reading the clef! And every once in a while I turn my bow and search for an E string and panic when it´s not there.
Ben Clapton asks: Are there any special techniques required when playing with an orchestra as opposed to playing a recital with piano?
It´s a good question… there´s no question that there´s some things you play completely differently, depending on who it is you´re playing with. I guess in general when you´re playing with piano you have more room to play around with rhythm and also tone colours. I also find tuning to an orchestra easier. I guess with orchestral concerts you get to play for 25 minutes and then hear a symphony, whereas with a recital you have to really work for 2 hours! Seriously I guess projection of the sound is the biggest part of it.
That´s interesting because Dermod asks: What strings do you use and how often do you change them? How much difference does it make to sound you get from your violin and its ability to project to the back of the hall?
I think strings make a difference, but I´ve never really done the proper research I guess I should´ve and tested every string on the market - I´ve always used Dominant strings and I´m too scared to try anything else! I play on a Stradivarius from 1699…
I guess that kind of helps?
It´s true - I´m incredibly lucky to have this instrument - nowadays the halls we play in are pretty much the limit for a single violin sound and although this hall [The Queen Elizabeth Hall, the Philhamonia´s London home during the refurbishment of the Royal Festival Hall] is not such a problem, you have to be really careful to cut through in some of the bigger ones.
Dioctyl says: You're playing a piece inspired by Mozart's violinistic style - what are the characteristics of this and how good was Mozart as a violinist? When describing another violinist to his father, Mozart in passing mentions how he doesn't like 'difficulties', and thinks that a very good player playing a hard piece makes the listener think that they could at once play the same themselves. How does this, if at all translate into his writing for violin?
It´s true of the Mendelssohn which has influences from Mozart and we´re also playing some Mozart arrangements on Friday. From what I understand Mozart was a great violinist - there´s a letter from his father saying “you could be one of the great violinists of Europe” and I guess he was… but then he quit the violin altogether. I love playing Mozart, and that´s true of all the other instrumentalists I talk to - they say that Mozart´s knowledge of their instruments and his writing for it just sits so incredibly well, and that´s true for violin too. What´s amazing to me about Mozart´s writing is that he sounds like he´s writing for voice, and the tunes are just arias… all Mozart´s writing for violin is just so well thought out - the limits imposed by the instrument just aren´t noticeable.
Moving on to some more technical questions, zeagle79 asks: When should a well motivated student begin learning vibrato? Should one wait until after 3rd position?
I don´t know!!!
Well how about for yourself - when did you learn vibrato?
I don´t remember when I started… I remember practising vibrato and being told to roll the finger and use the arm… but for me I found it easier to focus on the sound, you know, to focus on the goal… I just thought, well I want it to sound like this and I just tried to make it sound right and then later thought about what I was doing… so if you feel you want to vibrate in your sound before learning how to move between positions, why not?
Squallmonger says: I feel like I've reached a point where it's physically impossible for me to make a more intense vibrato, but I see other players who have amazing vibrato speed and control (like Itzhak Perlman). I've already used the metronome and gotten a decent speed, but whenever I try to go faster my left hand gets too tense. Also, I use hand vibrato, so would that be harder to improve than arm vibrato (which I don't know how to use)? My teacher warns me that I should only practise vibrato when my hand is relaxed or else the vibrato will become spasmodic, so I'm not sure where to go. I'd really like to have one of those amazingly intense and fast vibratos, but also have the control to use it when I want to. Do you have any exercises or advice to increase vibrato speed/intensity and control? I want my vibrato to look like a blur, and sound professional.
I think I´d want a bit of arm vibrato [mimes the action and thinks about it for a while]… I´m really the wrong person to ask! But tension is wrong because as well as the possibility of hurting yourself you lose control of what you´re doing. I remember changing my vibrato when I was in my 20´s - I became more conscious about when I was vibrating and what my vibrato was accomplishing. I´m sure I don´t know the answer… but keep trying things, keep enjoying it, remove the tension and I´m really sure it will come - the muscles will do it.
Violincadenza: How much daily practice would you recommend for a 14-year-old violinist who aspires to play like you, and how much time should I spend on scales?
I was always too lazy and disorganised to spend set times on things!! But you always need a little rigour. I guess as much as feels comfortable and then a little more… but you´ve got to be enjoying it - practising for the sake of it won´t really help.
This links to another question from stardustfantas which I´ll summarise - how do you keep focused when practising?
You know I think music in a certain sense is a hobby and it´s not like ´oh I have to do the dishes´ or whatever… I mean if you´re practising and you feel like ´oh I have to do something else´ then go and do something else and come back to it when it feels better. It´s probably the worst advice… but you know the dishes you can do whether you´re into it or not but to achieve what you want to achieve on the violin you have to put everything into it.
Priscila asks: Generally, in competitions, the majority of the candidates are a bit nervous, affecting their performance. What do you say for the students about how to deal with this nervousness? What is your advice in relation to this?
There was a time when I would get so nervous before a performance - I guess when I was about 21, 22 and it would be really stifling, so I started thinking about it and basically came up with ways to talk myself out of the nerves - I stopped taking myself so seriously and thought ´What´s the worst that can happen?´. I´m lucky to be in the position now that when I remember that I think ´well I´ve done that [the worst] a few times´ [Laughs] but I lived to tell the story.
Do you have some sort of concert day and pre concert routine to help with this?
There are things that I´ve learnt I need to do before a concert to be happy: be warmed up, be happy with tuning, eat at a certain time and be comfortable… but you know I don´t mean to make surgeons nervous, but we´re not performing surgery! Try not to make too much of it.
And mistakes are part of music aren´t they? I mean without the possibility that something might not work out there would be no ´edge´ to the performance would there? For example the last movement of the Mendelssohn you just played - It went at a real lick…
[whispered in case Maestro Dohnányi should hear] It´s quite fast, right?!
And you really went for it and that´s where some of the excitement comes from- its being ´unsafe´.
Nowadays I find myself enjoying it even more - I used to worry about a lot of things, but now it´s the concerts that are less accurate but more engaging that stick out in my mind.
It´s kind of like old recordings where they didn´t have multiple takes and despite the occasional slip they´re the most wonderful performances…
And in a way if there is a slight problem the ear of the listener really compensates for it and what´s interesting to me is the overall sweep of the music and the spirit and the atmosphere.
So the advice is to worry less.
Exactly - don´t worry, be happy!
On that note, can I wish you all the best from everyone on The Sound Exchange.
Thank you - it´s been fun!
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