Summer 2019

Well, once again it’s summer – the slow time of the year in any violin studio- and therefore the time of year when I have the luxury of updating this website. So let me begin with a piece of good news:

In the “Biography” section of this site, I mention that I studied composition with Roman Toi. Well, Dr. Toi celebrated his one hundredth birthday on June 18th, so I would like to take the occasion to congratulate him, and to wish him well. It’s a milestone few of us will ever reach. Now, Roman, I remember your saying to me, many decades ago something along the lines of “Richard, I’m an old man and I’m going to pop off in a couple of years”. Thankfully, such was not the case, but then again, I’m older now than you were then, and I have no intention of “popping off” quite yet. So, happy belated birthday, Roman!

Now, let’s move on to something that involves violin teaching. Most people who study with me know that I stress group playing as much as possible, and also that I encourage students to go in for Royal Conservatory exams. These two activities might seem to be in many ways antithetical. First of all, group playing requires us to put the group before ourselves, whereas RCM examination preparation requires us to learn, and learn very thoroughly, a very small quantity of music, music that is basically soloistic in nature. Looked at in broad terms, group playing involves learning a lot of music (where the worst thing that can happen during performance is getting lost), and solo playing which requires learning a small quantity of music in much greater detail (and where the worst thing that can happen during performance is hitting a wrong note). However, as different as these activities are, both are important in the development of the well-rounded young player. And yet, how many of us ever received a truly well-rounded musical education in any real sense of the term? By well-rounded, I mean the learning of a diverse skill set, beyond “re-creative” playing on one or more instruments.

Additionally, useful skills might involve:

  • An ability to sight-sing and take dictation without the aid of an instrument;
  • A knowledge of how chords work, and of how to use the piano part of recital albums (the RCM Graded Levels for example) to infer the composer’s intentions regarding bits of music that we are not too sure about how to interpret;
  • The spotting of mistakes in printed scores;
  • Some general knowledge as to the historical and cultural background to the music that we are attempting to interpret.

And all of this barely scratches the surface, by the way, of what we might usefully learn about early on in our musical education.

In part, I think that the lack of “well-roundedness” may well be a result of an inadequate and lopsided musical curriculum early in life, but I don’t believe that that is all there is to the story. I think it is also partly the result of the assumptions and goals that we adopt at the outset of our training. Concerning the violin world specifically, there is a very old and very sad tale about violinists who all, supposedly, aspire at the outset to become soloists, something that is reserved for perhaps 0.001% of the violin population. When we fail at this, we decide to become orchestral musicians instead, also a very long shot! When this doesn’t work out, we sign up as violin teachers…..well, no doubt this sad trajectory covers a great number of cases, though, hopefully, not all!

There will be a few wise folks among us who will recall two statements made by Yehudi Menuhin (the so-called “miracle boy” who grew into a very wise man indeed). In his book The Violin, he stated right off the bat that “no-one should go into playing the violin with the idea of making money at it”. Additionally, he noted that “a teacher who doesn’t do too much damage to his students is already a pretty good teacher.” To these two tidbits, we might add a third bit of advice, this time from Joseph Szigeti- one of violin history’s most renowned soloists- who reminded all aspiring soloists that countless soloists of the past enriched their playing abilities through a stint of orchestral playing (he mentions Joseph Joachim, Leopold Auer, Adolph Busch, and Georg Kulenkampff, among others). Szigeti also recalled the noted teacher Carl Flesch’s statement to the effect that “to the solo player, some time spent in the orchestra, although only a temporary measure, offers an uncommonly valuable means of extending his musical horizon”. (For an in-depth discussion of the role of orchestral playing in the violinist’s development, see Szigeti’s short book Szigeti on the Violin, available as a Dover reprint).

Sometimes people ask me about the violin teachers that I had. Well, I had four of them, two orchestral players (one retired, one still active), one professional, Conservatory teacher and one fiddle teacher-performer. In general, I think the orchestral players did the best job. They had lots of practical, musical experience, they knew how to think on their feet, and perhaps most important of all, they knew how to put the students’ interests ahead of their own.

Perhaps in closing we might take a moment to thank all of the private teachers we had, all of whom played a role in our musical development. After all, they and their studios gave us all our start. They are the basis of violin playing, not the renowned art schools and conservatories, or even less so, the big orchestras and performing soloists. Just a thought….

Happy summer to all!

Well, it is summer time once again, and we have had a great year in the studio, with a spring recital to match. Of course I would like to thank all of the children and their parents for their hard work over the past two semesters. This year, Carol- the other music teacher I work with- and I decided to hold a separate rehearsal in the afternoon for the youngest students; this seemed to work out well, and avoided an overly-long evening program (particularly stressful for very young children). We have decided to stick with this format for next year. I have also adopted a practice of giving each brand new recital participant a personal coach. This also seemed to work out well, and I will be keeping this as standard in my studio in future.

I want to go back to a subject that I discussed originally in the FAQ section of this website. I asked, at the time, whether the Suzuki method was the “best” method for teaching strings. In light of a new article in this month’s Strings magazine, I would like to revisit this subject. (Of course, the original disclaimer that I am not a Suzuki-trained teacher remains in place). As I stated in my earlier article, the Suzuki approach seems to have the advantage of getting children playing at a young age. However, I have also questioned whether or not one should try to adapt an Asian method to the needs of a North American student population, an objection that is essentially cultural. Nevertheless, it seems reasonable to assume that learning does not take place in a cultural vacuum, which is why I consider the objection a valid one (on a personal note, I am not the kind of individual who follows other people’s ideas, neither in violin teaching, nor in other matters).

In connection with the Suzuki method, I have come across an interesting article in this month’s Strings magazine (A Teaching and Learning Special Report: A Question of Order and Method, by Louise Lee, Strings magazine, August 2014). In her article Miss Lee recounts last year’s slugfest between heavyweight American fiddler and fiddle teacher Mark O’Connor, and the battalion of American Suzuki teachers. Mr. O’Connor of course publishes his own Violin Method (available by mail order through Shar Music), which he has fashioned to a certain extent around American folk music and idioms. Mr. O’Connor is reported to have blasted the Suzuki method as “all wrong for creativity, an all technical approach that does not serve the violin world”. These are fighting words, setting up a kind of David and Goliath situation south of the border. Ms. Lee goes on to mention the Music Development Program at the Toronto-based Royal Conservatory of Music, and reminds us that the RCM uses its own series of graded string repertoire books and maintains an online directory of participating teachers (Again, in the interests of objectivity, let me state that I studied in this Conservatory, and I use their graded materials extensively in my studio. I also encourage children to take part in the RCM examination system, and am listed in their online directory of teachers). Ms. Lee goes on to state that the program “doesn’t endorse any particular pedagogical method” – which leads me to wonder why she brings it up at all, since it is only a curriculum, and not directly comparable to the Suzuki material (which in an actual method). Ms. Lee then goes on to mention the American String Teachers Association, also an organization to which I belong, and draws attention to its preference for learning through what it calls “eclectic styles”. ASTA also sponsors both an Eclectic Strings Festival and a National Orchestra Festival, and is somewhat more geared to music teaching in the schools than to private studios like my own. Nevertheless, it is a valuable resource for all people involved in string teaching.

What should we make of these criticisms of the Suzuki method? Well, my own thoughts lead me back to Dr. Suzuki’s original premise, i.e., that the ability to learn a musical instrument is innate to the child’s mind, and if given a chance, children will learn to play an instrument “as easily as they learn to speak.” Well now, in the early twenty-first century, much more is known about native language acquisition than was known so many decades ago when Dr. Suzuki was laying down his basic principles. And while no-one in our post-Chomsky linguistic world can possibly accept the basic premise behind the Suzuki method, i.e. the parallel nature of language learning and learning to play a musical instrument, this does not mean that the method does not work (if we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that we don’t really know much about how people learn anything, when you get down to it. Language learning has been much more extensively investigated than music learning, for many, many reasons that I won’t get into here). So if we go back and look at the problem of music learning from a cultural perspective, we immediately recognize classical music as a European cultural product that has been exported world-wide, including to Dr. Suzuki’s Japan. As one who did his advanced studies in Germany , and who thought that German children were inherently more intelligent than Japanese ones (another idea that cannot withstand intellectual scrutiny), Dr. Suzuki was one of these “cultural importers”. Seen in this light, the wedding of rote-learning techniques to European musical material becomes merely an Asian take on how Western people have always approached the learning of scales and studies in any case. In addition, Japan has an ancient tradition of adopting foreign learning and culture, and incorporating it into their own traditions. We in North America do not, at least not nearly to the same extent.

And so what about us, as North Americans? We have also imported much from Europe, including a lot of our own people. But in our case, the fact remains that we do not defer to other cultures, as the Japanese so often do. Mark O’Connor is on solid cultural ground when he adopts his “I am an American. I defer to no-one” approach, as so many others in the fields of learning and culture have done before him. I think I will leave the last word with Mimi Zweig, the director of the pre-college strings program at Indiana University. She says simply “Ultimately, regardless of what teaching philosophy an instructor uses, a method is only as good as the teacher”. Wise words on which to end this discussion.

In another matter entirely, I would like to bring up Sir Yehudi Menuhin. Among his many, many activities in the service of music and the violin, he operated a boarding school for young musicians in England. His headmaster, Tony Brackenbury encouraged the pupils to keep small animals as pets. Well, I tried that for awhile, but I got severe flak from the mothers of the students, who no doubt did not want to wind up looking after more animals. So I decided to keep the small animals myself, and share them with the children when they come for lessons I would like to report that in my studio we now have two new guinea pigs, Ragnar and Loki (Loki is also known by his Ojibwa name of Nanabush); they are now five months old, and are doing well. We refer to them simply as “The Vikings”, and, along with old Mr. Mocha, they are a true pleasure.

A fun summer and happy fall to all!

In January Marie-Helene and I decided to celebrate my birthday in Italy, more specifically in Cremona, a smallish city in Lombardy, and the locality in which the modern violin was brought to its current form. I have included a brief account of our trip here: Our Trip To Cremona

In common with many other Canadians, Marie-Helene and I think that January is an excellent time of the year to take a trip away from Canada. And so one afternoon this past January we crossed the pond, headed this time for Spain. I have included a brief account of our trip here: Our Trip To Spain

If you would like to see pictures from recitals, please visit my photo stream at: open up the set titled “Concerning Music Only”.

My thanks to all for visiting my site, and I hope everyone has a great summer and fall.

– Richard

St. Andrews Church, Cobourg, Ontario
senior orchestra

On the home front, the main news is that we held our Annual Recital on June 23rd, in St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church. The event was well attended, and I hope everybody had a great time. As usual, the strings played in two orchestras, a “junior” one for those under fifteen, and a “senior” one for adolescents and adults. Again as usual, we tried to mix up older music with classical and popular tunes. Here are a few photos of the musicians, taken just before the proceedings got under way:


Another bit of news in Northumberland is that the Northumberland Orchestra and Choir is hiring a new music director for the upcoming season. Details should be available shortly, and will appear on the orchestra

My daughter Emma, who wrote the Violin or Viola article for this web site, continues to do astoundingly well at violin performance. We recently attended a recital she gave in Toronto, which included the Saint Saëns Concerto number three and the Sixth Violin Sonata by Beethoven, She was kind enough to dedicate the recital to me, in my role as her first violin teacher. Well… it was on father’s day, but all the same..…Brettmy sonBrett Roland, who lives in Montreal, continues to do well as a composer, and has recently completed a work for viola (an instrument which he actually plays, although you didn’t hear it from me).

And finally, as anybody who has studied violin with me knows, I place a great deal of value on the tape recorder as a teaching aid. Even though most of us don’t like to listen to our own playing, nothing equals a recording to help us avoid errors, rhythmic errors in particular. So I have decided to upgrade my primitive recording equipment, and have ordered a high quality digital recording device for the Steel Practice Hall (a.k.a. “The Tin Can”). This equipment should be installed and running by the fall, and while I can’t promise that it will make our playing any better, I hope that it will at least make it sound better!

From the world at large, there is so much to report. The violin becomes ever more popular, especially in the Celtic universe. (Those of us who can remember thirty years ago will remember a time when the violin seemed to be dying out. That was before the Celtic Revolution that turned the violin-playing world on its head). Concurrent with the huge rise in the number of young violin players in the world has gone a huge upswing in the number of violins available, most of them from China, and most of terrible quality! So perhaps I will close this section with a visit to Cremona, in the north of Italy, the homeland of violin making since, well, since the very beginning. From the BBC’s European division (pinched from the Internet and reproduced here without permission):

Cremona Violins thrill Virtuosos

By Christian Fraser
BBC News, Cremona, Italy

The great Maxim Vengerov once said of his Stradivarius violin: “It is my musical soul mate.”

Creating an instrument with such depth of character relies on centuries of tradition – most of which belongs to the small town of Cremona in northern Italy. It was here that Antonio Stradivari set up his workshop in the early 1700s. It was also the home of Andrea Amati, who designed the first template of the modern-day violin.

Today the town has 130 luthiers (stringed-instrument makers) who still make violins using the template of the great masters. Stefano Conia, 61, has been making violins in Cremona for forty years. It is a family business. “My father, my bother, my son, they were all violin makers”, he told me. Stefano’s workshop is cluttered with gauges, planers, scrapers and clamps. And on the shelf is stored an exotic collection of ingredients with names such as Black Boy Gum, Juniper Gum, Root of Curcuma: all natural resins that he blends together to make each of the 40 layers of varnish that he applies to his violins.

Obsessed with Wood

But aside from the craftsmanship, it is the wood from which the instrument is made that gives the Cremona violin its unique sound. Stefano owns valuable stocks of old wood, some of it bequeathed by his late father. The wood is dated in pencil on the back, some of it going back to the early years of the last century. “I have been searching for the best wood all my life”, said Stefano. “It’s an obsession. Even when I was a student. I am always buying wood for my violins. The best pine comes from the north Italian alps and the best maple from the mountains of Bosnia- Hercegovina.” Apart from violins, Stradivari made guitars, violas, ‘cellos, and at least one harp – more than 1,100 instruments in all. About 650 of these instruments survive.

Pinpoint Accuracy

Stefano has been crafting a replica of a Stradivari violin made in 1715. The measurements and the thickness of the wood are exact to the nearest millimetre. It is time-consuming work. He makes just twelve instruments a year, all entirely by hand. Each sells for at least 10,000 euros. But pluck the strings of a Cremonese violin and you can instantly recognize the clarity and depth of sound. “A violin maker is a sculptor, an artist and a musician”, says Stefano. “They are three elements that are not easily reproduced.” That is why musicians still flock to Cremona.

Eastern Rivals

Even so, as is the case in most industries, the luthiers of Cremona face intense competition from East Asia. In China violins and ‘cellos are mass-produced for a fraction of the cost of those you can buy in Cremona. And in the town itself, the craftsmen increasingly hail from Asia. Among Italians, violin making is a dying trade. At the town’s International Violin Making School, Professor Massimo Negrosi says 80% of his students are foreigners. “We have Koreans, Japanese and Taiwanese students” he said. “These days a large number of our students come from Asia- very few from Italy.” While most will take their skills abroad, some do stay to continue learning the trade and open their own shops in the town.

One former student who did that is the Dutch master Mathijs Adriaan Heyligers, who attended the school over 30 years ago.

Good Investment

He says local Italians have always been concerned that foreigners who learn their trade in Cremona will eventually take away the business altogether. He just does not believe it.

“In the time of Stradivari, the world was only as big as Europe – now they come from all over”, he said. “But if the Italians think intelligently about this question, they will quickly come to the conclusion that every foreigner who arrives in this city comes because it IS Cremona. “Once every year we have a huge meeting when thousands of violinmakers from all over the world gather for conferences, exhibitions and concerts. We learn from each other. Cremona is the home of violin making – it always will be.” And there are very few investments that will provide a return like a Cremonese violin. The experts tell me that if you buy well, you can expect to see a 20 to 30% return on your money within three to five years. Few can resist the allure of a Cremonese – particularly an old instrument.

Cremona’s town hall boast a collection of the most ancient instruments – including one dating back to 1556, made by Andrea Amati for Carlo IX of France, and the original ”Cremonese” made by Stradivari in 1715. They may be museum pieces, but they are still tools of the trade, and must be played every day. The lucky man entrusted with this task is Andrea Mosconi. So how does he compare the instruments made today with those of the grand masters? “There’s an enormous difference”, he says. “These violins are like wine – they get better with age. But if the new violins are well made and to the classic templates of Stradivari and Amati, then one day they too could be put into the category of the grand instruments.” And that, say the luthiers, is why violin making in this town will always survive. The name Cremona is to musicians as Ferrari is to car enthusiasts. It is special, it is hallowed and no-one – not even the Chinese – can reproduce that.