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Everything you need to know about violin playing (but were never taught)

Musical timing and closure, hearing and thinking for ourselves – just some of the things that teaching often fails to help us with, according to Burton Kaplan

Violin pedagogue Burton Kaplan

This summer I spent two weeks at the Magic Mountain Music Farm Practice Retreat, run by Burton Kaplan. My article about the experience is out now in the September issue of The Strad, and I've written a blog about the experience of being offered such a learning opportunity as an amateur. But in the two weeks of twice-daily masterclasses I ended up with 20,000 words of notes, and a brain brimming with new musical concepts. So here are some of the things that Burton talked about in class that I haven't been able to fit in anywhere else. You might find some of them quite provocative!

'There are two ways to do anything. One is to do it; the other is to let it happen.'

'Historically, if you could wow people with your playing, people would applaud. That doesn’t work any more: there are lots of amazing players. People’s ears used to be tuned to virtuosity but they’re not any more.'

'One of the major problems in developing is that musical time isn’t considered the primary factor. Without timing musical sense doesn’t exist. Music is organised first in time, then in sound, and pitch is only part of the sound. It’s a tragedy that this mistake has been made for four centuries of recorded pedagogy. Since metre came into existence, music has organised according to metre, but people are not trained enough to know that. Music isn’t about right pitches. Pitch is more like Impressionist painting marks – you can’t look too close up, you have to look from a distance. The trick is to play patterns of notes so that the notes that matter are in tune enough. Timing and tone quality and character distracts from pitch. It’s the pattern of pitch relationships that have to be right.'

'We do too much rather than listening for what we want. Listening is what gets us what we want. Doing gets in the way.'

'In lessons you only have an hour and it’s expensive. One of the mistakes is that a teacher will say, ‘Did you hear how the tone in bar three didn’t match the music?’ You say, ‘Uh-huh.’ You don’t even think. You didn’t hear it. They heard it but you didn’t. They’re trying to impart a value system but it doesn’t work. That’s why it takes so long for people to learn things. It’s your perception that matters, not the teacher’s.'

'Music is the art of illusion. We manipulate the ear of the listener.'

'If you act confident you’re going to appear confident. Mask is an important part of theatre. This is theatre, too.'

'There is something such as resistance to change – some people will avoid things. When people can’t remember, there’s something in the way of their memory.'

'If you can’t define the problem, you can’t fix it.'

'One thing you end up doing unconsciously in your practice is to set up breathing patterns. It’s hard to observe what your breathing is doing in relationship to starts of pieces. Some people start with a breath but then stop. The only place your breath can be manipulated is the beginning of the phrase.'

'You can’t play the Bruch Concerto opening G as a static note. You have to change the sound every instant – a low grade of change, but our ears are sensitive. As uniform as note may seem, you can change bow speed and pressure, listening and modulating. When you hear a sound that has change in it you immediately set up a pulse in your body. Entrainment becomes a form of anticipation, so can lead to disappointment.'

'You can’t shut off attention to anything but you can fill it with something else. Space to be conscious is limited so you can crowd it out until you’re no longer aware for what you didn’t want to be aware of.'

'You can’t fix something until you know what it is. We’re corrupted by lessons – we have so much to learn that it becomes easier to do what our teacher says. Your ‘observer’ becomes your teacher’s ‘observer’. It’s not that we’re not imaginative, it’s that we’re scared out of our wits to use our own brains.'

'It’s important to correct any sense that music is what’s on the page – it can only emerge when we react to it. This is a freedom that most musicians aren’t offered when they study. If only everyone could be liberated to find the power of their own interpretation.'

'Most of us have spent so much time learning to play that we haven’t learnt to trust that what we feel we hear is the truth. We have to cause our bodies to make a sound that when we hear it makes us want to listen to it. That should be the main preoccupation.'

'With any tempo or dynamic marking, the seed of it must be in you before it happens, unless it’s abrupt on purpose.'

'Technique gets better when there’s a musical idea.'

'If you’ve done something well stop while you’re ahead because nothing that endures takes a day to acquire. You’re developing skill. You’re developing neural circuits – setting up the firing of neurons. They don’t just keep doing that because you want them to. Stop while you’re ahead. Tomorrow do it again and see if you’re still there. Day four you will have got further than you dreamed.'

'Practice isn’t just moving your body. It’s anything you do: listening to recordings, analysing performances, getting inside music.'

'To make great music you need to be able to feel and think at the same time. To guide yourself well you need to know about yourself. It’s a complex process.'

'There are not many musicians who are articulate about musicians. Flesch was, though. Thinkers don’t usually make good musicians, but Flesch was a thinker.'

'There are too many talented people. Now they conduct (they can’t, but they do because they’re famous, which is part of a manipulation of administration and of the public) and they play chamber music, and pretend they can produce a great performance every week.'

'The mind is the body: you can’t separate them. Music is an opportunity to put the two together. Everything else is taught so that thought and feeling are separate, but in music they’re never separate when they succeed.'

'Conservatory is about conserving the tradition – which is rigid. We have to have constancy in order to refine interesting things, so education conserves. Music is taught like ballet. You go to the class and learn a plié, then you spend your whole life trying to remember to lift your elbow like that and one day you think, ‘Gee, it’s no fun any more.’ The paradigm that gets lost is that what you’re trying to do is to develop a mouth that talks.'

'We’re so preoccupied by ‘this moment’, ‘this detail’ that people are dumb about how to create closure in a phrase, and it’s not taught. We can do it in language and everyone gets it. We have to know the end at the beginning.'

'People playing music tend to get trapped by smaller pieces that have meaning but don’t add up to a bigger picture.'

'We have to train ourselves by how we speak. We don’t think about breath or how we move our mouth. The connection from what you want to hear has to govern all your actions so you don’t think about the actions. Hearing it makes it happen.'

'The metronome is an informer, not a director.'

'If you play a good piece of music in a bland way, it doesn’t mean anything – you have a million opportunities to make meaning.'

'The way you create closure is you elongate and increase the expectation of the penultimate, most tense, moment. That makes us need the end so when you produce the end we feel fulfillment, but you need to generate the need for closure. Do it with time and tone – picking the pitches. We like a struggle. We experience the contradiction of expecting one thing and getting another and feel fulfilled at the end.'

'We can control closure by taking the notes that are capable of creating the greatest suspense and prolonging them.'

'One of the things we love is continued flow. When it says sostenuto if you literally try to sustain the energy, you’ll get weaker. So you have to keep adding energy and to increase the energy in the suspensions.'

'Each decision you make at the start of the phrase will cause all the things it will cause – don’t keep making it mean something. It’s all there.'

'Music is dots – a lot of people don’t hear what they see as music until they play it, because that’s what we were taught. We see the pitch first instead of the rhythm – so we experience music the way it isn’t supposed to be. Most people see pitch and hook on to it with the rhythm in the background, which makes no musical sense.'

'When we’re taught rhythm we’re not taught to perceive patterns. We’re taught around the barline. There are patterns and sub-patterns that are not there for the eyes, but as a sub-experience, which is a sense of motion, and not static.'

'Syncopation is the struggle for dominance between two beats. If you feel that struggle in your body you’ll do it. Syncopation depends on both notes fighting for prominence.'

'As a player, doing something right evokes a response in your body that makes it sound right and feel right.'

'In a harmonic progression if you stop at any point you can ask yourself to what degree is there suspense. As long as there’s suspense we need resolution. Stopping at any point you can decide how unfulfilled you are.'

'This is not music theory: this is performance reality – your heart, your body and a sense of wholeness and when it comes together it feels wonderful and if it doesn’t feel wonderful it’s not good enough.'

'I want you to be engaged to find out whether if you played this way would you be happy. Is this always uniformly attractive to listen to or not? See if you can become fussy like I am. This is fusspot art. It’s sad that they take this fussy quality and impose it on intonation. You should listen for, ‘Do I want to hear the rest of the story?’'

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