Tag Archives: violin

From Jazz to Tango, Violinist Jeremy Cohen Plays Fearlessly

In tango music, there’s an important concept called “la mugre,” literally, “dirt” or “grime,” but referring to a figurative scintilla of grit—a bit of rawness and emotion in both the music itself and the dancing. If your tango isn’t tinged with adequate mugre, explains violinist Jeremy Cohen of Local 6 (San Francisco, CA), it will lack the depth for which the genre is known.

Coming to tango a bit later in his musical life, adding it to his well-established repertoire of both classical and jazz music, Cohen found that the concept of mugre resonated well with him, giving a word to a feeling he’d had for quite some time—that a rigid culture of perfection tends to sanitize music itself. “The mugre is what gives the music its soul; that’s the good stuff,” he says. “You can’t fool anybody if you’re not coming from a place of real joy, and that means being able to play freely and without fear.”

That’s not, he is quick to clarify, to say that technique isn’t important. Having studied classical violin under legendary performer-pedagogues Itzhak Perlman and Anne Crowder, he puts strong value on knowing his way around a fiddle and a bow, but his circuitous route to serious studies included an extended stint in his grade school jazz band after a false start in the orchestra. “I was sitting with my legs crossed, so they sent me to the back. I didn’t like that, so I quit and joined the band instead,” he says. This was a minor infraction but one which stuck in the craw of the young Cohen, who found himself with a two-track career from the very beginning: studying classical music at Sonoma State in California with utmost seriousness while also playing casual swing gigs on the Russian River.

As his career developed, taking him the long way around from New York to Los Angeles via the road company of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, he eventually found his way back home to Northern California. Settling down in San Francisco, he pulled the parallel tracks closer together, performing with a number of prominent and diverse ensembles. Eventually, he formed his own Quartet San Francisco, an eclectic string quartet that explores the possibilities of string-forward contemporary music. Quartet San Francisco has won tango competitions, performed the music of everyone from Dave Brubeck to Michael Jackson, and snagged a handful of Grammy nominations in its nearly 20 years of existence. The quartet’s lack of self-imposed boundaries allows Cohen the freedom to explore genres and composers broadly, but also to take a deep dive into a single sub-genre or even an artist’s repertoire. “Really, we’re just expanding the roles of the modern string player; putting the strings front and center,” he says.

Cohen also heads up Violinjazz, a more straightforward does-what-it-says-on-the-tin jazz group, where he digs deep into the swing and big band violin repertoire, expanding beyond the better-known Joe Venuti and Stéphane Grappelli and into the work of Stuff Smith and Eddie South. Violinjazz is also the name of the Cohen’s publishing label, where he composes, arranges, and produces sheet music from the broader repertoire of American string music.

The freedom that comes from all of these outlets to simply play what he loves to play and create what he loves to create is a major key to Cohen’s success, he believes. He works to impart this joy and fearlessness to his own students, whom he primarily teaches via StringMasters, his custom-built online teaching platform. A few years back, Cohen found himself, like so many other teachers, frustrated trying to teach remote lessons via a patchwork of glitchy apps, juggling payment systems and video conferencing software, and emailing PDFs of sheet music. So, alongside a student who also worked as a web designer, Cohen built his own dream platform from scratch, giving him the flexibility to modify it for his own needs as a teacher, both in terms of real-time lesson capability and scheduling, payment, and other administrative necessities. Teachers can pop pieces of sheet music onto the screen from a massive library and mark it up in real time onscreen. Students can re-watch their recorded lessons at their leisure. Both can maintain an easy-to-manipulate personal library of sheet music and recordings. “It’s designed for serious musicians who want a higher lesson quality and the ease of just one platform,” Cohen says.

Though the StringMasters platform (www.StringMasters.com) predates COVID by a few years, it did come in awfully handy when Cohen, who also serves as the artistic director of string, and his fellow teachers all found themselves unable to teach lessons in person. Not only has the number of individual teachers using the platform skyrocketed, a number of prestigious summer programs used it this past summer as their instructional base. The dynamic system allows for constant improvement even now: Cohen is currently working to add instant video playback—the closest replica of playing duets currently possible with web capabilities.

Private instruction is what’s keeping most of Cohen’s time filled during the ongoing pandemic shutdown, but he credits the AFM with providing a career’s worth of job security leading up to this point. He rattles off his locals with the same jovial familiarity with which he rattles off old bandmates: “I was a member of 802 in New York, and then after I went to LA, I was a member of 47, and now I’m a member of [San Francisco Local] 6,” he says. He reminisces of a time when San Francisco was a die-hard union town and blue-collar and white-collar workers were ready to go to the mattresses on each others’ behalf whenever it was needed. Union-busting on a nationwide scale is a major factor, he believes, in the current political climate. “How many of these people out here have no backup?” he asks. “They just see things getting worse and worse; the destruction of the entire middle class in their lifetimes, but instead of protection, they got NAFTA.”

Even in a political climate that is hostile to organized labor, Cohen sees the way out as growth. “We not only have to survive [as a union], we have to figure out a way to come back bigger,” he says. “The path back means more than just survival; it means growing the base.” For him, though, that’s an easy sell, especially in a part of the country with a notoriously high cost of living. “Without a steady job in San Francisco, like with the symphony or the ballet or the opera, making a living—especially raising a family—without the auspices of union work is not possible.”

Jeremy Cohen’s Violin Has a Life of Its Own

Jeremy Cohen plays a violin that sings out a tango as comfortably as it squeaks out a mouse’s revenge.

Originally made in 1868 by Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume, the premier French luthier, the violin spent half a century in the capable hands of Lou Raderman. Raderman has one of the most extensive discographies in American popular music and played with everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to Frank Sinatra. As concertmaster of the MGM Orchestra from 1939 to 1969, Raderman and his violin can be heard in every MGM movie soundtrack for a third of a century, from The Wizard of Oz to Singin’ in the Rain, to Ben Hur, Doctor Zhivago, and hundreds more.

“Every time I’m watching an old movie or listening to a record and I hear it, I know it right away—that’s my fiddle!” enthuses Cohen.

MGM also made the iconic Tom and Jerry cartoon, where this violin played a crucial (and cheeky) role, which Cohen loves to gleefully demonstrate: a resonating twang, the unmistakable sound of a plucked whisker.

Cohen purchased the iconic violin from Lou Raderman’s widow, Sally (who was also a violinist with the MGM orchestra).

42 Etudes For Violin Solo

Published in early 1806, Kreutzer’s 40 Études ou Caprices for violin—there are 42 today—are the product of his years-long employment at the Conservatoire de Paris and are the most comprehensive collection of studies from his quill. Their systematic and complete reappraisal of essential violin technique make them an indispensable tool of the trade for every serious student of the violin (conservatory level).

42 Etudes for Violin Solo, by Rodolphe Kreutzer, G. Henle Verlag, www.henle.de/us

shoulderrest

Pirastro KorfkerRest

Redefined Shoulder Rest

shoulderrest

The Pirastro KorfkerRest is billed as the world’s lightest shoulder rest. Bendable maple and sleek, ultra-light rubber feet redefine the classic shoulder rest. It offers extensive and precise personal modifications of position, height, and tilt; brings out a wider dynamic range from the instrument; and allows a richer diversity in articulation. Finer variations in string contact can be felt while minimal use of rubber improves sound characteristics.

www.pirastro-shoulderrests.com

Variations on a Viennese Theme

(for violin and guitar)

Franz Clement was a prodigious talent from an early age and his performances on violin were highly lauded. He is credited with a large number of compositions, primarily for violin. This set of Variations is the only known work by Clement that features guitar. The editors work faithfully with the original 1819 publication. Now rediscovered, Clement’s set of seven Variations on a Viennese Theme can be a fresh challenge for this underserved pairing of instruments.


Variations on a Viennese Theme (for violin and guitar), by Franz Clement, edited by Richard M. Long and Evelyn Moore, Tuscany Publications, www.presser.com.

J.S. Bach: Six Sonatas and Partitas

J.S. Bach: Six Sonatas and Partitas

J.S. Bach: Six Sonatas and PartitasBach’s sonatas and partitas have captivated violinists for centuries. Having studied the music of Bach for decades, violinist Rachel Barton Pine, a member of Local 10-208 (Chicago, IL), created this edition complete with detailed historical notes, performance suggestions, and downloadable study materials. Her interpretation is informed by historical study and polished by years of performance insight, and closely follows her 2016 recording Testament: Complete Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin by J.S. Bach.

J.S. Bach: Six Sonatas and Partitas for Violin Alone, edited by Rachel Barton Pine, Carl Fischer, www.carlfischer.com.

Solo Violinist Honored for Work with Homeless

Last month, Kelly Hall-Tompkins of Local 802 (New York City) was recognized in the New York Times as one of New York Today’s New Yorkers of the Year. Last year, the violinist earned praise for her performance as the fiddler in the Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof. But, she wasn’t recognized for that acclaimed solo performance. She was recognized for her monthly visits and performances of classical music in homeless shelters.

She first found herself performing at a shelter near Lincoln Center as she struggled to prepare for a solo performance following the death of a close friend in 2004. She felt she had reached her homeless audience of around 12 on a deeper level, affecting them more profoundly at a difficult time in their lives.

The following year she founded Music Kitchen—Food for the Soul, a program to lift the spirits of homeless people through live classical music performances. Since its inception, she has inspired around 200 other musicians to join her for performances in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Los Angeles, and Paris.

Dawn Hannay: Shining Light on the Union

Dawn Hannay of Local 802 (New York City) looks back on her career and activism as a violist with the New York Philharmonic.

Dawn Hannay of Local 802 (New York City) practically grew up on the stage of the New York Philharmonic. Having joined at 23, in 1979, the violist was one of a handful of women performing with the orchestra at the time. Now comprising more than half women, the oldest ensemble in the country is steeped in history and tradition. Hannay, who retired from her position last October, says she learned quickly, “I was always a bit of a rabble rouser so it wasn’t long before I was elected chair of the musicians’ committee.”

Back then, for an “inexperienced young woman,” there was a learning curve. Hannay explains that in those days music schools did little to prepare string players to master the overwhelming orchestral repertoire. “You had to be a great sight reader and fast learner,” she says, remembering the first time she played Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe suite in Studio 8H at NBC with the mics on, no rehearsal. “It’s like jumping on a speeding train. You have to be tough, especially as a young and very naive woman in what in those days seemed like a good ole boys club, complete with poker games, chain smoking, and even occasional fisticuffs!”

Hannay inherited the torch from those older and more experienced musicians who had fought so successfully to improve the lives of orchestral musicians. She says, “I took on the challenge, and spent decades doing my utmost to improve the working life of my colleagues, negotiating contracts and helping to resolve disputes.”

“The union is crucial in maintaining fair wages and working conditions for all musicians. Younger musicians who prefer to remain independent need to learn the history of their business, and how essential the union is in ensuring that musicians could earn a living from their craft. It is easy to take for granted the 52-week season, health benefits, and pension that we enjoy today,” she says.

What distinguishes prestigious orchestras like the New York Philharmonic from the Vienna Philharmonic? She says it’s “the communication between older players and the next generation. There are many traditions of phrasing and tempi, of fingerings and articulations, of tone quality and bowings, and even jokes that are handed down, such as applauding in rehearsal at the false ending in Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5.”

Hannay explains that a wise conductor lets an orchestra play, shaping his or her own interpretation, but allowing the unique character of the orchestra to shine through. She says, “There may be fewer than a dozen musicians left in the orchestra who played West Side Story under Leonard Bernstein, but they still play the score like nobody’s business. That’s tradition.” 

Not long ago, playing in an orchestra was among the most precarious of livings. Hannay explains, “It’s almost unheard of nowadays in any profession for people to stay in a single job for 30, 40, or even 50 or more years. It’s the norm here. We owe this extraordinary stability to a whole generation of musicians who fought to make it so. Their work created the continuity that enables the unique musical traditions to be carried forward from generation to generation. Through the efforts of the past generation there are contracts and fair wages.” 

Orchestra standards were set by flutist Julius Baker, clarinetist Stanley Drucker, trumpeter Phil Smith, and concertmaster Glenn Dicterow, of Local 802. Bassist Orin O’Brien of Local 802 shattered the glass ceiling and became the first woman in the orchestra. Legendary players Buster Bailey, Bert Bial, Ralph Mendelssohn, Newton Mansfield, and John Ware created and added to the history and traditions that make today’s daily performances possible. 

Hannay performs chamber music, appearing often with the New York Philharmonic Ensembles. She spends the summers in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, playing with the Grand Teton Music Festival, where she is a founding member of the string quartet Wind River 4. In 2001, she was a featured soloist and guest principal viola with the London Chamber Players on a tour of South Africa.

Violin Secrets: 101 Strategies for the Advanced Violinist

This resource for serious violinists tackles a number of topics, from achieving immaculate intonation to advanced techniques like fingerboard mapping, controlling vibrato, and navigating in high positions. It includes tips from top master classes and conservatories across the country. The book also explores strategies for effective practice, as well as overcoming performance anxiety and winning auditions.

Violin Secrets: 101 Strategies for the Advanced Violinist, by Jo Nardolillo, Rowman & Littlefield, www.rowman.com.

Proper Playing Position Is Key to Comfort and Injury Prevention in Strings

by Claire Stefani

Playing any instrument means moving a lot. Musicians make a number of physical adjustments to play, often at the expense of optimal body mechanics. Given the asymmetric position of playing a violin or viola, properly fitted ergonomic solutions are critical to a healthy body and optimized posture. It is important to find the appropriate equipment for your body and periodically check that it’s still the best solution for you. Here are some tips from a chinrest fitting expert. 

Head Balance—Keeping the head balanced and free to move is critical. Chinrest height should permit the head to rest in a neutral position at the low point of nodding “yes,” but free to move laterally (shaking the head “no”). Some chinrests provide ergonomic benefits such as additional height or left/right tilt. Some custom models allow musicians to lower their instrument and rest it partly on the collarbone in a neutral head position.

Arm Balance—If not supported by the torso muscles, arms will hang and pull the instrument downward. If a musician is not keenly aware of back and shoulder muscles, especially in the development of arm support, any attempt to adjust the chin/shoulder rest setup to counterbalance this downward weight will only put more stress on the head and left shoulder. Also, work at allowing the shoulder blade to immediately follow the humerus while shifting and bowing—similar to how the femur swings freely from the hip joint when walking.

Instrument Position—Up or down, in or out, is an individual preference. The chinrests or shoulder rests should not dictate instrument position. By allowing the instrument to lean on the collarbone, instead of only on the left shoulder, you are less likely to clench, and will have more freedom in the left shoulder, as well as in the bow arm.

Shoulder Rests—Once the head is balanced, muscular work is redistributed throughout the torso to better support arm weight, and the left shoulder is relieved from its static role, you can determine what equipment, if any, to use under the instrument. A shoulder rest can result in overall stiffening of the entire left shoulder, but playing without one can lead to distress throughout the upper body. Changes may need to be progressive. Keep in mind:

  • If a shoulder rest is too squishy, it may encourage clenching.
  • Models designed to lean just below the contour of the collarbone prevent downward pressure over the left shoulder.
  • Anti-slip surfaces may add to comfort, especially when shifting to and from high positions.

Seating—Much of your playing is likely done sitting. Wedges, pads, and stools mounted on a convex base allow a slight pelvic tilt resulting in psoas muscle release. This pelvic tilt will improve awareness of balance around your lumbar core and address lower back pain linked to postural issues or ill-fitted chinrest/shoulder rest setups.

Listen to Your Body—Pain or fatigue often come from muscle tension. It is important to identify any postural imbalance in playing position (versus neutral position)—leading muscles to sustain a static position, instead of contributing to movement. Say “No!” to the mantra “no pain, no gain.” Pain only leads to injury!

Claire Stefani is a fitter for the Frisch and Denig chinrest line, she has helped more than 400 musicians with their setup. She is founder of Volute Service International and amateur chamber music violist and violinist in New York City, an affiliate Andover trainee, and an active member of the Performing Arts Medicine Association.

Rachel Barton Pine

Pilot Rejects Violin

violinOn March 6 of last year, following nearly three years of lobbying and negotiation between music stakeholders (represented by the AFM) and DOT officials, details of the rules for bringing musical instruments onboard US airlines were announced. Though musicians are experiencing less problems since the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, the regulation is only effective if the airline crew is ready and willing to abide by its rules. Among those guidelines, US carriers are required to allow passengers to board with small musical instruments, like a violin, provided it could be stored in an overhead compartment or under the seat in front of you.

On April 17 internationally acclaimed violinist and Local 20-208 (Chicago, IL) member Rachel Barton Pine was denied boarding with her violin—a 1742 Joseph Guarneri “del Gesu” violin. The instrument, insured for $20 million, is on lifetime loan from an anonymous benefactor. Pine was the first person down the jetway to her American Airlines flight, and her only other carry-on was her purse. It was the pilot who eyed her violin and stated he would not allow it on his plane. She tried to explain that it would fit (as it had many times before) in the overhead compartment and tried to restate American Airline’s own policy, in line with the FAA Modernization and Reform Act.

The pilot simply stated: “It is not going on because I say so.” Pine was forced to take another flight in the morning where her violin was easily accommodated in the overhead compartment.

“The Department of Transportation and the airlines have established important policies to protect musical instruments. However, those policies are meaningless if they are not enforced, or if the airline staff and crews are not properly educated and trained,” she says.