By Scott Flavin
This article first appeared in Strings’ May 2018 issue.
The Bruch Concerto! For most intermediate violinists, it’s a rite of passage, the first steps into full-blown Romanticism—you’ve left the world of de Beriot and Viotti behind, and new excitement awaits. You start practicing, and for the first few bars, you can’t believe that you’re actually playing it! It’s not so hard, and the richness of G minor encourages you to go further—until you hit measure 18.
“Only when you have built up to near tempo should you get the violin out!”
It all comes to a screeching halt. How can you possibly play all those notes in tempo? Your illusions of easy success are shattered.
In the first movement, you encounter such passages in mm. 18, 26, 31–32, 77, and 89 [to see these measures and the musical examples, scroll to the bottom of the page]. The irregular groupings and subtle rhythmic differences plus the rapidity and difficulty of these arpeggios can be daunting. Here are some steps you can take to get these bars flowing:
1. Focus on Conceptualization: Discover the ‘Why’
In looking at these bars, one is struck by the rhythmic irregularities: groups of seven and ten notes, dotted rhythms, and 32nds are juxtaposed. Why did Bruch do this? Imagine if these measures were written in a regular rhythm—how tame and predictable they would be! If one considers that this movement alternates between singing lyricism and virtuosic display, these irregular groupings make sense, highlighting the sizzling excitement, and creating wild lightning flashes of sound.
2. Channel Pablo Casals
“Without order there can be no freedom.” —Pablo Casals
You must figure out the rhythms, as slowly as needed. In m. 18 (Ex. 1), there is a septuplet on beat two. Rather than attempting an even seven notes, give yourself rhythmic goal posts. How should you divide this? This beat contains a rising arpeggio: Is the direction moving forward, or slowing down?
Trial-and-error can help you decide, but an important factor is the rhythm of the following beat, in this case four 16ths. If you divide the septuplet 4 and 3, you create a “lump”in the rhythmic flow; if you divide it 3 and 4, a much more natural shape occurs. In beat 4, the dotted 16th to the 32nd note at the end of the beat gives you a dramatic pause, so essentially the 32nd note belongs to the following downbeat rhythmically.
Next, speak or sing the rhythm with a metronome, as slowly as needed to be in control. Only when you have built up to near tempo should you get the violin out! When you do, organize the passages rhythmically, creating internal accents in the left-hand finger action on the beats.
3. Shift Smoothly
Use open strings and rests where possible (Ex. 2). Release shifts, starting with weight on the departure finger and releasing as you start shifting (Ex. 3). Watch for the flow of left arm, hand, and fingers, rather than abrupt movement, which will slow down the speed and accuracy of position changes. Just look at any great violinist playing technically difficult music and you will see rounded, flowing motions, not blocky, jumpy ones.
4. Consider Impulse-Release
In concert with the shape of each passage, note where there is an impulse for a given group of notes; give that impulse-note a strong accentuation with the left hand, and then relax the fingers on the following notes of the group (Ex. 4). This will create a musical flow as well as loosen the hand for shifting and finger action.
5. Don’t Forget About Your Right Hand
Usually overlooked in technical passages, you need to be aware of the bow arm as well. Play the passage with open strings only, noting on which beats string crossings occur. In slurred string crossings, a flow of the right arm from string to string will create much more clarity than an angular string crossing, which cuts off the transfer of arm weight (and thus, tone) dramatically. Follow the curve of the bridge with your arm and anticipate each string crossing.
6. Turn Up the Heat
Working with a metronome, gradually raise the tempo from what
is achievable to what is just beyond achievable. By continually pushing the envelope, you can build to, and ideally exceed, tempo, so that performance speed becomes easy.
7. Don’t Make It an Étude!
Have fun! Practice with dynamics, color, and vibrato. If these are added later, precious practice time is wasted.
8. Practice Within Context
For each of these difficult bars, practice from at least one beat before and after, then from one measure before and after. This helps answer the “why” for each passage.
9. Use the Knowledge to Set You Free
Now that you have all this information, you must free yourself of each individual action by being in touch with your body through breathing and feeling balance. Listening differently, you can look at the larger gestures and shapes of each passage, and bring the Bruch Concerto to life!
This article originally appeared in the May 2018 issue of Strings magazine.