Practice Techniques – Blocking

This is the start of a new series where I’m going to highlight practice techniques. I know that as a teacher, I often don’t have time to go into specific techniques of how to practice, because there is so much to get into during the lesson. However, learning how to practice is just as important as learning how to play an instrument – if not moreso, as you can take the skills you learn in how to practice over to different instruments. Today, we are looking at what most people think of when they think about music practice – blocking.

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The Lark Ascending

Today is Remembrance Day, or Armistice Day – the day the guns fell silent in World War 1. And I thought it fitting to look at this incredible piece of music by English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams – The Lark Ascending.

First composed in 1914 for violin and piano, due to the outbreak of the war it wasn’t performed until 1920. During this time, at the age of 42, Vaughan Williams volunteered for military service. He joined the Royal Army Medical Corps as a private, where he drove ambulance wagons in France and Greece. In 1917, he was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Royal Artillery, and saw action in France from March 1918. The war left an emotional toll on Vaughan Williams, losing many friends and comrades, including young composer George Butterworth, who was shot by a sniper at the Battle of the Somme, buried on the battle field, and his remains never recovered.

Vaughan Williams stopped writing music during the war years, and after the war took some time before he felt he was ready to write new works. It was in this time that he reworked some of his previously composed works, and the reworking of this piece for violin and orchestra is the result of this time. First performed in 1921, it is this version that is the more famous version.

The first performance was given by Marie Hall, to whom the piece was written for and dedicated to. She gave the premiere of the violin and piano version in December 1920, and again with the orchestral version on 14 June 1921 at Queen’s Hall, London with the British Symphony Orchestra. It was, however, not the main work on the program which was dominated by an early performance of Holst’s The Planets, another piece that was started in 1914 and seemingly affected by the war, with Marilyn Cooley writing of the first movement, Mars, “there’s a truly visceral sense of horror; what must have seemed like the end of the world to those who experienced The Great War.” At the time a music critic for The Times newspaper wrote that this performance

“stood apart from the rest as the only work in the programme which showed serene disregard of the fashions of to-day or of yesterday. IT dreams its way along in “many links without a break, and though it never rises to the energy of the lines “He is the dance of children, thanks Of sowers, shout for primrose banks,” the music is that of the clean countryside, not of the sophisticated concert-room.”

Music Critic in The Times, 15 June 1921 (likely H.C. Colles).

Compared with the spectacle and visceral horror of The Planets (which does end with Neptune’s quiet introspection), The Lark Ascending is one that tranquil, and in a way promotes the hope of peace that was longed for after the war.

Sheet Music Editions: Oxford (preface by Michael Kennedy), Oxford Full Score, Oxford 1926 edition, Eulenburg Study Score.

Wirrangintungiyil – Eric Avery

It’s NAIDOC week in Australia, where we celebrate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture as a vital and important part of Australian culture. There is a strong culture of music in Aboriginal culture – in their beliefs they talk about songlines – the paths across the sky and sometimes the land that mark the route followed by creator-beings during the Dreaming. As such, it is unsurprising that there is a group of musicians who are breaching the gap between traditional Aboriginal music and Western Art Music, and using this new medium to share their stories and culture.

Eric Avery is a Ngiyampaa, Yuin, Bandjalang and Gumbangirr artist. Formally trained in Dance (NAISDA Dance college and a mentorship at The Australian Ballet) and Music (Bachelor of Music from the Australian Institute of Music), he combines his skills on the violin to perform classical music and create new contemporary music that expresses his Koori (NSW Aboriginal) heritage. He works with his family’s custodial songs, reviving them and continuing the age old legacy of singing in his tribe.

Galinga (water song) is an incredibly emotive piece that incorporates Avery’s native tongue with traditional violin playing and looping textures to create a rich tapestry that evokes a babbling brook.

In Wirrangintungiyil, Avery performs with his father on Didgeridoo, utilising a healing lullaby that he learned from recordings of the King Family. Avery talks about how utilising native languages has been transformative and healing for him in reclaiming his culture.

ABC Classic FM has a fantastic page highlighting a number of stories and performances around Indigenous performers and composers that is well worth checking out.

Top Five Modern Violinists

Following up from yesterday’s post about the top five historical violinists, today we have the top five modern violinists. These are the violinists that if they come to do a concert in your town, you should do everything you can to get to see them. These are the ones that you should be watching and listening to for the best quality recordings of today. And these are the ones that I just prefer to listen to. Let’s get into it.

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Top Five Historical Violinists

There are many brilliant violinists around today, and tomorrow I will share with you my five favourite modern day violinists. But all of these violinists are built on the shoulders of the greats who came before them. While in my opinion the Romantic period of classical music (1830-1900) is the period that produced the greatest violin works, it is in the 20th Century that the best violin performances dominated. These giants still influence modern thought and stylistic interpretation, and today I want to share with you my favourites. And thanks to the wonderful world that is YouTube, we have live recordings and performances of all of them.

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Holy Song of Thanksgiving – Beethoven’s String Quartet number 15

In the spring of 1825, Ignaz Schuppanzigh, an Austrian violinist, was engaged to perform the premiere of Beethoven’s latest quartet, written some 15 years after his last quartet which premiered in 1810. Schuppanzigh, with his quartet consisting of Karl Holz on second violin, Franz Weiss on viola and Nikolaus Kraft on cello, gave the first performance of this piece on 6 November 1825, and whilst reports said Beethoven was not pleased with the performance and blamed Schuppanzigh, the quartet would go on to perform the two other quartets that were commissioned by the Russian Count Nikolay Galitzin.

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The Last Night of the Proms

A number of years ago, I was planning the trip of a lifetime. I was going to fly to England, find a backpackers or something near Paddington, and go to as many Proms concerts as I could. The Proms are something so uniquely Brittish, but even more so is the traditional Last Night of the Proms.

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Concertino in G, Op. 11 – Küchler

German composer Ferdinand Küchler wrote this piece in 1934 and it became a staple in the beginner violin repertoire. Küchler was a renowned violin pedagogue, and his writings on teaching went on to shape violin pedagogy into the 1960s.

This concertino of three movements was written to be performed in the first position. The first movement, Allegro Moderato, is written in sonata form, features an arpeggiated main theme, a tranqillo second theme, with some scalic passages and a repeated quaver development of the first theme. The second movement, Andante, in 3/4, is in an extended Ternary form (AABA). The final movement, entitled Rondo with a tempo marking of Allegro, is written in rondo form, and includes a number of beautifully crafted melodies.