Monday, February 20, 2017


Piazzolla Octet with two violins, Buenos Aires, 1957
The tango music genre was developed in the 1890s near the border of Argentina and Uruguay in South America. Like many genres in North America, the tango first gained a foothold in dance halls and nightclubs frequented by the poor and working class. (The term “tango” itself is believed to be a local African slave term referring to drumming and dancing.) Thanks to its playfulness, provocativeness, and unique rhythm, it became a sensation in Europe and North America in the early 20th century.

This particular tango, Libertango, was composed by the legendary American composer, bandleader, and bandoneon player Astor Piazzolla. Born in Argentina in 1921 to Italian immigrants, Piazzolla split his childhood between two hotbeds for music, Mar del Plata, Argentina and New York City (in particular, Greenwich Village and Little Italy). While living in New York at age 8, Piazzolla started playing the bandoneon, a German concertina (button accordion) that had been brought to the Americas in the 1800s. Three years later, he composed his first tango, and he never looked back.

Over the next several decades, Piazzolla immersed himself in South American folkloric and musical traditions as well as in classical and jazz music. In 1955, he formed an Octeto (octet) called the Orquesta de Cuerdas (Orchestra of Strings), which featured two bandoneons, two violins, cello, bass, piano, and electric guitar. Based in Mar del Plata, the Octeto developed a modernized version of the tango that utilized elements of Western classical counterpoint and compositional development as well as jazz improvisation and harmony. This “modern tango” would ultimately become known as nuevo tango.

Piazzolla’s nuevo tango, which clearly defied traditional stylistic boundaries, did not initially go over well in Argentina, a site of considerable political unrest in the 1950s. In fact, the Orquesta de Cuerdas only lasted until 1958, at which point Piazzolla moved to New York City in hopes of finding a more receptive audience. However, his Orquesta’s music had a major impact on the development of the tango, and as early tango did in the first part of the 20th century, nuevo tango garnered many listeners and fans in Europe and North America. A few of Piazzolla’s later pieces, including Libertango (1974) and Le Grand Tango (1982), became massively popular and solidified Piazzolla’s place in the pantheon of tango purveyors. The latter piece was premiered by cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, one of the iconic classical musicians of the 20th century.
Astor Piazzolla and his ensemble

The version of Libertango in this book, arranged for two violins, draws upon traditional tango ensemble instrumentation but is quite uncharacteristic of tango violin performance. Bandoneon chords are adapted to the violin as moving double-stops, which function as counterpoint or accompaniment to the main melody. Sometimes, these double-stop chords are played by both violins an octave apart, creating a powerful wave of rhythm and harmony. At other times, the 2nd violin mimics the guitar by employing four-note strummed chords. Overall, this violin duet version of Libertango is designed to emulate the sound of Piazzolla’s Octeto.

Somewhere Over the Rainbow

Judy Garland
Over the Rainbow (commonly referred to as “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”) was named the greatest movie song of all time on the American Film Institute’s “100 Years…100 Songs” list. The Academy Award-winning ballad was written by Harold Arlen and E.Y. “Yip” Harburg for the movie The Wizard of Oz (1939) and was sung by the character of Dorothy, portrayed by 16 year-old actress and singer Judy Garland.

Garland sang Over the Rainbow on stage for decades after the movie was released. In a letter to Arlen, who composed the melody, she wrote, “Over the Rainbow has become…so symbolic of everybody’s dreams and wishes that I’m sure that’s why some people get tears in their eyes when they hear it. I’ve sung it thousands of times and it’s still the song that’s closest to my heart.”

Judy Garland and songwriters
In some sense like Dorothy, I had big dreams and ambitions that extended far beyond the house and neighborhood where I grew up, and so Over the Rainbow became one of my favorite songs. When I was Garland’s age of 16, I converted the melody into a waltz and performed it at fiddle contests around the country. I also recorded it on my album Soppin’ the Gravy (1978). The version of the tune in this book is exactly like the one I came up with as a teenager. I dedicate this to all young folks who dream of flying like a bluebird over the rainbow one day!

Somewhere over the rainbow
Way up high
There's a land that I heard of, once in a lullaby

Somewhere over the rainbow
Skies are blue
And the dreams that you dare to dream
Really do come true

Someday I'll wish upon a star
Wake up where the clouds are far behind me
Where trouble melts like lemon drops
High above the chimney tops
That's where you'll find me

Somewhere over the rainbow
Bluebirds fly
Birds fly, over the rainbow
Oh why, oh why can't I?

Lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

Bach Sonata No. 1 in G Minor (Presto)

Johann Sebastian Bach, one of the greatest composers and musicians in history, was born in Eisenach, Germany in 1685. He was the eighth and youngest child of Johann Ambrosius Bach, a respected town musician and the younger Bach’s first music teacher. During his childhood, Bach was exposed to a variety of instruments and composers, in part because so many of his family members were musicians, including his uncle, Johann Christoph Bach (organ), and his second cousin, Johann Ludwig Bach (violin).

Johann Sebastian Bach
At age 14, Bach was granted a choral scholarship to attend St. Michael’s School in Lüneburg, where he studied for two years and received organ training from noted organist Georg Böhm. Bach devoted himself to both composing and performing, and he became known for his virtuosity on the organ and harpsichord, according to several contemporary accounts.

Bach graduated from St. Michael’s in 1703, and for nearly 15 years thereafter, he served as organist, composer, and court musician at a variety of churches in Weimar, Arnstadt, and Muhlhaüsen. (He was essentially a freelance musician – if he had lived in the 21st century, he might have worked for universities, record labels, or the film/TV industry, all influencing his creative output at least to some extent.) At Weimar, Bach also served as the concertmaster of the orchestra, an indication that he was a very accomplished violinist, especially given the orchestra’s reputation at the time.

In 1717, Bach was hired by Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen to serve as his Kapellmeister, or music director. Leopold was a Calvinist and encouraged Bach to write secular, and especially instrumental, music at his court. Over the next six years, Bach wrote some of his greatest instrumental works, including the Brandenburg Concertos, the orchestral suites, and – luckily for us string players – the cello suites and sonatas and partitas for solo violin.

Bach was likely inspired to compose the violin sonatas and partitas by Johann Paul von Westoff, a renowned German Baroque violinist and composer who himself had written a set of violin partitas in the late 17th century. Bach started composing his own in the early 18th century at Weimar, but he completed the bulk of them at Köthen.

Although the sonatas and partitas are among the most popular pieces in the classical violin repertoire today, they were almost never studied or performed for nearly 150 years after their composition. It wasn’t until violin virtuoso Josef Joachim and Ferdinand David discovered them and began performing them in concert during the latter part of the 19th century did the public finally become familiar with these beautiful masterpieces.

Bach's violins sonatas and partitas
The final movement of Bach’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in G minor is an uptempo Presto, and like its counterparts in the other sonatas and partitas, it is the closest thing to a virtuosic showpiece that Bach composed. It truly is a daring, explosive piece, and it is made all the more difficult by its frequent use of cross-rhythms, multi-voice dialogues, and interchange between duple and triple in the phrasing. But in addition to being a vibrant rhythmic, bowing, and fingering exercise, it is a fabulous and fulfilling work of art.

Over the last century and a half, many facsimiles of Bach’s violin music – including this movement – have altered the manner of the original notation, fingerings, measures, and articulations. I have personally transcribed and engraved Bach’s original manuscript, and I have presented it in this book as accurately as possible. On the following page, I offer my own interpretation and arrangement of the score, clearly identifying the changes I make.

The Presto is the final movement of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Sonata No. 1 in G minor. It has a binary structure with repeat signs at the ends of both parts, as in the final movements of Bach’s other violin sonatas. This movement in particular is exhilarating and explosive, employing running 16th notes in perpetual motion, and it completely contrasts the previous movement in the sonata, Siciliana, which is more meditative and lyrical. In fact, each movement in the Sonata No. 1 in G minor – and for that matter, each movement is every violin sonata and partita Bach composed – reflects a different mood, character, style, and tempo.

I spent many years studying Bach before developing any of my own interpretations of his music. Of course, I respect the music enough not to change things purely for the sake of change, but after thorough analysis and careful thought, I developed an American interpretation of the G minor Presto for this book. This interpretation draws from the American styles I know best – including bluegrass, jazz, old-time, and Texas-style fiddling – and contains new bowings, fingerings, rhythms, grooves, and syncopations. Although the notes themselves are as Bach composed, I added double-stops to certain notes in the repeat of the B-section. My version of the Presto illustrates how to creatively interpret a masterpiece, and it demonstrates that no piece of music, no matter how revered, must be exempt from experimentation. Here are my thoughts, using the G minor Presto as the subject of study.

The name of the movement, Presto, is an instruction for the performance of the piece. “Presto” means “extremely fast”, literally quarter note = 168-200 beats per minute (BPM). A “presto” tempo, according to Quantz, begins at quarter note = 160 BPM. I place the tempo for my arrangement of the Presto between 160 and 168 BPM, and it peaks on the repeat of the second part. Contemporary accounts indicate that Bach was very particular about his tempi and was keen on honoring them. (Although met- ronomes did not exist in Bach’s time, composers and performers referred to clocks and even heartbeats to calculate tempi.) The performance of the Presto must not be anxiety-ridden and out of control. The 16th notes in perpetual motion should flow like a waterfall in order to achieve the desired thrill and excitement.

Moreover, the character of the Presto is spirited and festive. Too often I hear heaviness and moodiness in performances of this movement, and of many other pieces in minor keys. In American old-time music, for instance, there are many minor-key fiddle tunes that sound “happy” and major-key tunes that sound “sad.” (Although I don’t subscribe to this dichotomy, it is worth noting that there are more major than minor arpeggios and phrases in the Presto).

One of the most important qualities of the Presto is its pulse, which should be stable throughout, easing only a little at cadences to mark the structure of the movement. This pulse is very present in my rendition, even during slight accelerations and decelerations in tempo. Whether it is performed with a duple or triple feel or is phrased in 3/8 or 6/16, the disregard for rhythm in Bach’s music runs counter to the spirit of the dance music that inspired his musical construction and phrasing as well as the playing style of his era (decades before the Romantic period). Many previous performance examples feature unusually long stressed notes every few mea- sures, a vestige of training (plant the left hand in preparation for the next difficult fingering or shift!) and an offense to the music itself. In uptempo music, no phrase should screech to a halt as a result of a technical challenge.

Simply put, the basic principles of time and rhythm should not be forsaken in the Presto, especially if it is a result of the difficulty of performing the piece. As Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (J.S. Bach’s son and an accomplished composer himself) wrote in 1753, “Performers should avoid exaggerated ritenutos…the attempt should be made to hold the tempo of a piece just as it was at the start, which is very difficult” (Donington, 1982 pp. 21). Violinists tackling the Presto should develop maximum bowing fluidity and left-hand finger accuracy in order to avoid sacrificing important aspects of the music during performance.

It is worth noting that the Presto alternates between “strong” and “weak” measures that form a musical dialogue, as indicated by the short measure line ticks every other bar. Phrases are in groups of 12 (rather than six) 16th notes, and the challenging string crossings in my rendition are actually suggested (I would even say encouraged) by the phrase groupings. Shifting up and out of tight spots in order to avoid string-crossing doesn’t conform to Bach’s vision for the piece.

This leads me to bowing, the importance of which cannot be stressed enough. In fact, the greatest difficulty presented by the Presto is the approach to bowing it requires. Fast bow strokes demand great bow control, which in turn necessitates an extremely facile right arm. To overcome the technical challenges of performing this movement, I utilize a combination of on-the-string and off-the string bowing (not to be confused with spiccato) to accentuate the phrasing and create articulate string crosses without sacrificing the pulse.

It is easier to play more clearly and precisely with the modern violin bow as opposed to the lighter, shorter Baroque bow of Bach’s time. That said, the modern bow, at least as most classically trained violinists use it today, seems to restrict bowing fluidity and impart a sense of seriousness to the piece that does not belong there.

Improvising violinists are good at mixing up bowings and slurs in performance. American fiddle and jazz music call for the use of a variety of bowing techniques, and lightness, fluidity, and phrasing are among the most essential attributes violinists need to develop in order to improvise effectively in these styles. Of course, the modern bow is preferable to the Baroque bow in almost any concert setting today because it is louder and allows for a wider range of articulation, but one advantage of the Baroque bow was the light- ness of playing that it allowed. Having tried a number of Baroque bows before, I can say that, when I perform the Presto, I envision my own bow as possessing the spirit of a Baroque bow in order to achieve the facility and character I desire.

It is commonly known that many of the great composers of the Baroque, classical, and Romantic eras, including Bach himself, were excellent improvisers. Bach’s written bowings were obviously intended for the Baroque bow, and indeed, they outline phrases in a very predictable and repetitive manner. But I think it is a gross misinterpretation of the music to mimic Baroque bowing slurs and instructions with the modern bow and to play each phrase the same way. First, Bach almost certainly improvised bowings and bowing patterns, as improvisation was a common practice in his day. Second, although the modern bow offers an opportunity to tackle the phrasing in the Presto in a clearer, more articulate, and more musical way, it does require re-slurring. Without re-slurring, the piece becomes heavy-handed and laborious, and I believe its integrity is diminished. On a final note concerning improvisation, I believe that, given Bach’s improvisational capacities, it is highly likely that he himself took creative liberties during the repeats of each section.

On the subject of vibrato in Bach. Vibrato should enhance music, not dictate it. Underuse of vibrato renders the music sterile, while overuse renders it too Romantic, and in some cases, it even seems to affect fingerings and tempo. According to a number of contemporary accounts, soloists employed vibrato moderately in the Baroque era, and Bach himself, being the great improviser that he was, would certainly have learned and employed the technique as well.

More specifically, vibrato should be employed in the Presto – and in any music, for that matter – in a way that honors the tempo and style. Indeed, it should vary in speed and amplitude. Improvisation, as I often say, doesn’t just consist of wiggling one’s fingers around; it also includes exploring textures, colors, sound contexts, and even spatial acoustics. (In a more ambient room, for instance, less vibrato is preferable, but in a hall with no ambience, vibrato can be used to compensate for the dryness.) Given the more measured approach to vibrato in the Baroque era, Bach very likely envisioned it as a means of augmenting expressiveness and, therefore, something that itself should vary. As for tone, it is true that the best examples of what might be considered “beautiful” violin tone are found in slower pieces featuring longer bow strokes, but by no means does every piece of violin music demand that performers showcase their absolute best tone. Although I don’t endorse forsaking tone in order to play the Presto at the appropriate tempo, I also believe it is counterproductive to slow down in order to achieve better tone. The only answer is to practice until neither need be sacrificed.

I developed this arrangement of the Presto not only to demonstrate the manner in which I believe it was intended to be played, but also to show that Bach’s music is indeed open to creative interpretation. I believe we have finally reached an era in which the leading violin pedagogues are ready to embrace this concept. I have already witnessed how a fresh approach to Bach’s music can excite audiences: I encourage you, students of the Method, to develop your own arrangements of Bach’s music. For it is this kind of creativity and experimentation that will be the driving force behind the betterment and invigoration of all music in the generations to come.

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot

Fisk Jubilee Singers 1870s
The history of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot is fascinating. In Mississippi during the first half of the 19th century, there lived a wealthy, half-Irish, half-Choctaw slave-owner named Britt Willis. When Congress passed the Indian Removal Act of 1830, Willis, like tens of thousands of other Native Americans throughout the South, was forced to relocate to a territory in present day Oklahoma. He brought his slaves with him. Two of his slaves, Uncle Wallace and Aunt Minerva, were musically inclined, and while in bondage in Oklahoma, they composed a number of spirituals, including Steal Away to Jesus, The Angels are Coming, I’m A Rolling, and Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. Reverend Alexander Reid, the superintendent of a local Choctaw school near Doaksville, Oklahoma, where Willis and his slaves had settled, overheard Wallace and Minerva singing these spirituals, and he was so moved by them that he notated them and wrote down their lyrics. Years later, he delivered handwritten copies of both Steal Away to Jesus and Swing Low, Sweet Chariot to the Jubilee Singers at Fisk University (an all-black college established in Nashville, TN at the end of the Civil War), who performed them on national tours during the late 19th century.

Antonín Dvorák
And the story does not end there. In the 1880s and 1890s, Czech composer Antonín Dvorák was hired by the National Conservatory of Music to come to the United States and begin developing an American strain of classical music. After hearing the Fisk Jubilee Singers perform one night, he asked his African-American assistant, Henry Burleigh, to collect as many spirituals as he could for his own analysis. To Dvorák, spirituals seemed the perfect source material for American classical music. He used the melody of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot in his Symphony No. 9 (1893), The New World Symphony, which went on to become one of the most popular and frequently performed symphonies in the world.

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot became ingrained in the national public consciousness when it became an anthem for the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. Its influence was so important that, in 2011, Oklahoma State Senator Judy Eason McIntyre introduced a bill nominating the spiritual for official gospel song of the state of Oklahoma. The sitting governor signed the bill into law on May 5, 2011 at the Oklahoma Cowboy Hall of Fame. The “Oklahoma Historic Sites Survey” references his grave like this; “‘Uncle Wallace’ Willis, Negro slave, composer of Swing Low Sweet Chariot, etc., unmarked in Negro cemetery about 1½ mi. S. Wilson School House.”

For the violin duet arrangement of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot in this book, I draw inspiration from many sources. The melodic rhythm is inspired by Johnny Cash’s vocal interpretation of the spiritual. The tempo (fast), key (B major), and “chop” technique are characteristic of bluegrass; indeed, there is an entire verse in which both violins chop the melody from double-stop chords. In another verse, the players actually sing the lyrics in unison (or octaves) while bowing double-stop chords, an approach influenced partly by old-time fiddling and singing. The coda features an “Alleluia” ritard.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Anniversary Blues

Vassar Clements w Mark O'Connor, Woodinville,WA, 1973
I was only 11 years old when I came to understood the power of the blues violin. In 1972, dobroist Mike Auldridge released an album called Dobro, which featured one of my early music heroes, fiddler Vassar Clements. The last track on Dobro is a sorrowful rendition of the classic song, House of the Rising Sun, and at the end of the recording, all the instruments drop out, save one – the fiddle, which is left improvising on the melody in a slow fade-out. Vassar’s masterful, lonesome, heartbreaking licks captivated me the first time I heard them, and they still do when I hear the recording today.

Vassar was born on April 25, 1928 and grew up in Kissimmee, Florida. When he was 7 years old, his stepfather, who liked music, purchased a cheap guitar and fiddle at a local furniture store, and it wasn’t long before Vassar picked them up and started teaching himself old tunes like Rubber Dolly (included in Book III of this Method) and There’s An Old Spinnin’ Wheel in the Parlor as well as learning big band music off the radio. It is also said that, on occasion, an African American man would pass by the Clements’ house with a guitar, and Vassar would follow him along the property fence line and listen to him play and sing the blues.

It was on WSM Radio’s broadcast of the Grand Ole Opry show that young Vassar first became exposed to the band that would give him his first break: Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys. He heard their new, innovative music on many different Opry broadcasts, and he also attended one of their shows at a school not far from his home in Florida. As luck would have it, a friend of Vassar’s, who was a long distance phone operator, illegally eavesdropped on a call she placed for Monroe in 1949 and discovered that he was planning to replace his fiddler, Chubby Wise. She told Vassar the news, after which he purchased a bus ticket to Nashville, showed up backstage at the Opry, and offered Monroe his services. Monroe accepted. Over the next four decades, both as a member of the Blue Grass Boys and as an independent session fiddler and sideman, Vassar became one of the most famous and respected fiddlers in the world, appearing on albums by Paul McCartney, the Band, and The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, among many others.

Vassar Clements and Mark O'Coonor
Vassar possessed a musical sixth sense, an instinctive creativity inspired by the energy of the moment. He always took chances and played on the edge, and for that reason his sound channeled his emotions in a stark, honest fashion. Vassar influenced me in many different ways, but I still often hearken back to the first time I heard him play on House of the Rising Sun, which convinced me that the blues, which can be rendered so powerfully on the violin, should become an integral part of string education. I composed Anniversary Blues with Vassar’s blues playing in mind.

Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown

Stuff Smith

The Cricket Dance

I wrote The Cricket Dance in 1994 after experiencing a deep connection with the natural world at my first annual Fiddle Camp, which was held at Montgomery Bell State Park in central Tennessee. The park is largely forested, and in the summer evening, the collective chirping of countless crickets would create a massive, swelling soundscape. As though conducted by some unseen natural force, the crickets’ chirping followed a variety of rhythmic and dynamic patterns that changed frequently and in coordination.

Holding my fiddle near the edge of the woods one evening during the camp, I wondered if I could manipulate these patterns by playing something “cricket-ish.” After all, fiddling (running a bow across strings) didn’t seem much different from chirping (rubbing legs and wings together). Perhaps I could fool the crickets into thinking I was just one of them?

So, I started chirping on the fiddle. I found a natural bounce point about midway up the bow, and I began playing a fast spicatto rhythm while fingering double-stops and sounding them with the bow on both strings. Not only was I able to propel off the strings with much more ease than playing single-string spicatto, but I could also generate many more overtones.

The pattern and sound texture I played seemed to excite the crickets, because their chirps became louder and more numerous. The crickets and I enjoyed what was perhaps the first ever human-cricket jam session, and The Cricket Dance was born!

I recorded the tune for my solo violin album, Midnight on the Water, one summer in St. Louis at the Sheldon Concert Hall, a very old building that was not terribly soundproofed. The crickets outside heard me playing The Cricket Dance through the walls of the hall, and even though I didn’t officially hire them, their chirping made it onto the final master tape of the tune. If you listen to the Midnight on the Water recorded version through headphones, you can actually hear their chirping at the end of the track.

Thanks to The Cricket Dance  I propose that the Italian term for “off the bow”, spicatto, be replaced with a new term, crickatto! The tune functions as a great crickatto exercise.