Tips to Revolutionize Your Playing from Master Violist Kim Kashkashian

Last week, I had the pleasure of observing world renowned violist Kim Kashkashian‘s master class with students from the Steans Institute for Young Artists at Ravinia Festival. Both the students who I observed were violists, but Kashkashian gave valuable advice which could apply to musicians of any instrument or genre. Here are some tips which she shared with the students.

Play your instrument as if you are singing.

The first student played Three Romances, Op. 94 by Robert Schumann. All of the movements were in a similar style and tempo, and they sounded virtually indistinguishable. Kashkashian suggested that the student create variety by using her bow to color her sound in the same way that a singer uses her diaphragm to control her voice.

Tone Color – Kashkashian worked on using bow speed to make subtle shading in the sound and emphasize harmonically important notes. Changing tone color is important to musicians of any genre. Electric guitar players use different styles of distortion and picking to match the mood of the music. Rock singers will use heavy vocals to express anger and clean vocals to express calmness. Variety is necessary to keep music interesting.

Phrasing – The student said that the second movement’s melodic motion felt “stuck”. Kashkashian said that the student was breaking the melodic lines into short bits rather than making long phrases. Kashkashian also told the student “put more grammar” in her playing by emphasizing harmonically important notes in the same way that a singer might emphasize words.

Dynamics and tempo – She advised the student to keep a constant tempo rather than speeding up or slowing down in order to change from loud to soft. Kashkashian had the student say the phrase, “The Three Musketeers”, emphasizing each of the words in turn as either loud or soft. She asked the student to notice if it was necessary for her voice to pause or slow down when switching volume. The student noticed that she was able to emphasize the different words without changing speed. Kashkashian told her that it is important to be able to modify dynamics without altering the tempo in order to maintain a continuous melodic line. In addition, phrases do not necessarily align with dynamics. A melody will not necessarily come to an end just because the dynamics are getting softer.

Maintain consistent rhythm and sound quality

Rhythm – The second student in the master class played the first movement from Paul Hindemith’s Sonata for Solo Viola, Op. 11 No. 5. The student had unintentionally compromised the rhythm of the bass line due to the difficulty of the technical challenges. Kashkashian told the student that when performing, despite the technical hurdles, she had to make sure that she got the correct rhythm or else the piece would not make sense to the listener.

Sound Projection – Kashkashian advised the student to pay attention how her tone projected to the back of the performance venue. For acoustic instruments, the sound which is produced under the performer’s ear often does not match the sound heard by the audience. In order to project a loud sound, a violinist’s bow may create crunching sounds under the performer’s ear which are inaudible to people sitting in the back of the theater. It is valuable for performers of any type of instrument to listen to the sound at the back of the theater for many reasons. First of all, the performer must make sure he’s producing enough sound in order to reach the back of the hall. Second, the performer must make adjustments for the amount of reverberation to produce the optimal sound.

Consistent Sound – Kashkashian worked with the student on maintaining a consistent sound across all ranges of the instrument. The student was getting a brash sound on her upper strings and a muddled sound on the bottom strings. As Kashkashian explained, this is a common problem for violists because the instrument’s string length and body size are not matched in a way to make the instrument acoustically perfect. Therefore, violists need to put extra effort into bringing out the volume and clarity on the lower strings. However, violists are not the only ones who struggle to produce a consistent sound. Singers must smooth the change from chest voice to head voice. Guitarists struggle to create smooth melodic lines while plucking across the instrument’s six strings.

Ravinia has several more master classes taking place in July and August. The classes are free and open to the public. They are a wonderful way to pick up valuable information from Master artists, and I would highly recommend attending these events. Here is a list of the next master classes:

Thu. July 15                2:00 PM          Pamela Frank

Wed. August 4            7:00 PM          James Conlon

Sat. August 7              1:30 PM          Nathan Gunn and Julie Gunn

Tue. August 17           2:00 PM          Kiri Te Kanawa

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