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Why you should stop practising

Observing masterclasses can be a brilliant way to learn and find inspiration, and yet students rarely turn up to watch. They may be too busy practising, but have they got their priorities wrong?

They say that youth is wasted on the young. In one respect I concur. In the many masterclasses I’ve been to around the world, watching some of the finest players teaching, there’s often been barely a handful of students in the audience. It happened again yesterday. Shmuel Ashkenasi, first violinist of the Vermeer Quartet, and, as I’ve only recently discovered, one of the finest there is, was taking a masterclass at the Royal Academy of Music. There were, I’d guess, no more than twelve students in the room throughout the three hours.

This isn’t confined to the Academy. I’ve seen it at other London music colleges, and at competitions and festivals around the world where they’ve held high-level masterclasses. I’ve heard teachers sadly making the same point. The only exception I can think of was at the Menuhin Competition in Beijing, where students crammed themselves into every nook of the hall to learn from the likes of Pamela Frank and Henning Kraggerud, taping the classes on their phones for posterity. It’s telling that in a country with such a level of curiosity and demand for self-betterment, standards are rising quickly.

Why is it so hard to get students to come to such events? Of course there are huge pressures on time for them. If they’re not practising their supposed six hours a day, they’re in a college orchestra, or studying, or working to pay their bills, or planning musical projects, (or on Facebook). I can see why these urgent things might seem to take precedence, and I confess that as a violin postgraduate I probably felt the same way. Certainly, expense can't be an excuse, as often these classes are free.

It's so short-sighted, though. A masterclass such as Ashkenasi’s yesterday is revelatory. For each student he picked an aspect of their playing that was weak and went into constructive detail about how to fix it. So not only did one learn about the art of diagnosis (which is so essential in our own work on ourselves), but one also engaged with very practical ways of solving problems, without the pressure of being on the spot.

We also heard the level of attention to detail that a truly great player demands of themselves. Listening to Ashkenasi explain and play a four-note phrase of Mozart, with each note exquisitely characterised, was a lesson in itself. His advice to one player about creating vibrato with the bow was an essential lesson for her as well as for all of us. The explanation he gave of the ‘double standards’ of intonation (see below) was powerful and possibly life-changing for any player in the room. And many of the ideas he covered about phrasing in Mozart were applicable to any musician, whether clarinet player, singer, or pianist. There is also a certain fascination in watching the human interaction between coach and student and how it unfolds, and whether change is possible.

What can be done about this? I’ve heard of conservatoires where students sign in to classes to monitor their attendance, which rather treats them like children. Or rewarding the ones who turn up by giving them access to future masterclasses, which is a more positive way of doing it. Certainly students should be encouraged by individual teachers, who surely understand the value of a special three hours compared with practising Kreutzer studies. But ultimately, the drive has to come from within, and from a sense of curiosity and hunger. Maybe it’s the best players who have that anyway, and maybe sometimes that only comes with age and perspective.

Shmuel Ashkenasi quotes from his Royal Academy masterclass: ‘If it must be out of tune it’s better for it to be too high’

On bulging in the middle of notes: ‘Everywhere I go I see it. It’s like a disease’

On the first bars of the violin part of the Mozart G major Concerto: ‘An appoggiatura is a discord – in Italian the word means “lean on”, but many times you don’t vibrate that note… There is a difference between the grace notes. The orchestra doesn’t have them, but for the violin each one becomes more beautiful… You can tell by the consistency and the differences that Mozart really meant how he wrote the grace notes’

‘I recommend you sometimes practise without the violin for a short time and create a bow plan’

‘In tennis they have the expression “follow through”. Once you’ve hit the ball you continue the motion. This also has advantages for the violin’

‘When the music is beautiful and great it doesn’t need your help. When it’s not so great, then it needs your fantasy and imagination’

‘Sometimes, when you need a bigger sound, turn the bow stick towards you’

‘Avoid changing strings on the half-step’

‘If you do the wrong shape I still prefer it to having no shape’

‘There’s a big club of musicians in the world whose members feel that if you have a repeated note you must do something different. I am not a member. Very often the composer is setting up the listener to go somewhere else and if you play exactly the same it’s appropriate. I’m not intrigued by doing something for the sake of variety, especially when the music is this good’

‘It’s good to acknowledge that there are double standards with intonation: whether you play a single voice or accompanied; and fast or slow. Sit down with the music and put an arrow on every note. There is an intelligent way of playing out of tune. The root and the 5th must not miss, but all other notes have a polarity. When you’re playing fast, or unaccompanied, half-steps are very close. The faster you trill, the higher the trill note needs to be’

Shmuel Ashkenasi gives another masterclass for ChamberStudio at Kings Place on Sunday, 10 May, which is free to students. I interviewed him about his views on chamber music for the ChamberStudio website here.

There are plenty of other free masterclasses in London over the next couple of months:

Royal Academy of Music

Susan Bullock, 10 June

György Pauk, 18 June

Steven Doane, 19 June

Royal College of Music

Guildhall School of Music & Drama

Robert Levin, 11 May

Peter Frankl, 11 May

Trinity Laban

Pascal Rogé, 14 May

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