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Magic realism in Cambridge

Ariane Todes visits a course with practical aims

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

I always get summer course envy, especially around the time we put together the Summerplus supplement to our January issue, where we list all the exciting things for people to learn and do during the year. This became quite extreme last week when I popped into the Cambridge International String Academy, a new course that has been set up by violinists Rodney Friend and Stephen Shipps. Just walking into Cambridge is like stepping into a perfect little fantasy world, and with the course taking place in Trinity College (one of the most impressive of the colleges, dating back to 1546) it’s hardly surprising if the 60 mainly-American students felt themselves taking part in a Harry Potter story.

One of the reasons for setting up the course was Friend’s belief, which he wrote about for us in the April 2011 issue, that music colleges don’t do enough to make string players actually employable. So the schedule of the course includes a range of studies: one-to-one lessons (three a week with varying teachers) and chamber music; but also more practical-focused sectional and orchestral rehearsals under Friend himself and orchestral repertoire sessions.

The course runs for three weeks, and in my day there I sample a selection of the activities. In one of the lessons I sit in on, a student brings her first-ever crack at Bach’s Chaconne, which she’s worked up in the previous two weeks. So of course I envy her the time and space to study like this (students have the three hours of every morning to work on their own) and then even more, I envy the amount of feedback and constructive criticism that she receives in just an hour’s lesson, and the openness with which she receives it.

Then it’s on to a rehearsal of Mozart’s Divertimento and Dvořák’s Serenade led from the violin by Friend, in the chapel of Trinity College, presided over by statues of the likes of Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton. Friend doesn’t let anything go by and you can hear the young players trying everything they can for him. He exhorts them: ‘Improvise with your sound and colour a bit more’; ‘You’ve got to feel mentally exhausted by the end – you’ll recover’; ‘I don’t like the quality of this note.’ The result is disciplined but imaginative and elegant playing.

After lunch I sit in on some of the orchestral technique session led by Shipps, and watch the students perform the first page of Strauss’s Don Juanfirst violin part in front of each other. This is done four or so at a time, and after each group the players leave the room, for the rest of the class to discuss their individual performances and choose the best player to be ‘employed’. It is fascinating to hear their insights into the playing of their peers – always harsh but fair – and it should come as no surprise to me that they are spot on in their choices and wisdom. Time to start a competition where the competitors are also the jury, perhaps?

This practical exercise leads to a whole conversation about how orchestral auditions are judged – is it possible to make a mistake and get through, for example (the answer is ‘it depends on the orchestra’)? And when one girl expresses incredulity that screens are used in the US to guard against sex discrimination, a whole discussion ensues on the subject of women's status in the profession. It is a truly heartening sign of how far we’ve come in the last generation or two that young string players are so ignorant of this particular prejudice, surrounded as they are by successful female orchestral players.

The day wraps up with a concert in the chapel given by the orchestra in the first half, and with octogenarian guest star Ida Haendel playing a Schumann sonata in the second. Her core sound is as rich and her phrasing as instinctive as ever, for any other flaws. It’s a magical evening, and Haendel is treasured and given several standing ovations by the respectful youngsters as she totters in on her high heels, loving every minute of the recognition.

After only a day I feel like I’ve been there six, and can only imagine how much information and inspiration the students have absorbed, how much their playing and futures have changed, and wish just a tiny bit that I were in their shoes.

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