Salut d’amour — How interpretation of a song varies among violinists

Salut’ d’amour is one of my favorite violin pieces. It is one of Edward Elgar’s best-known works and has inspired numerous arrangements for widely varying instrumental combinations. I couldn’t help myself searching for every version I could find online, and I noticed that, with each performer’s different styles and their interpretations of the song vary, their performances are very different from each other. It became an interest of mine to study the nuances of each version. It also facilitate the process of imitating each style.

I’d like to first introduce the background of this song first as it is quite romantic. Salut d’amour has another German name“Liebesgruss” (‘Love’s Greeting’). Elgar finished this song when he was engaged to be married to Caroline Alice Roberts, who is fluent in German. Elgar presented it to her and then proposed to her (I would like someone to propose to me that way!)

Among many versions I’ve listened to, there are four that I think are worth comparing.

James Ehnes is a Canadian concert violinist. He began his violin studies at the age of four. He graduated from The Juilliard School in 1997 where he was a student of Sally Thomas, winning the Peter Mennin Prize for Outstanding Achievement and Leadership in Music. I truly believe that where and who a violinist learned his skills from are quite important. Ehnes is always acute and rich in emotion. His performance reminds me of meticulosity. Even when his live performance sounds like recorded.

Ai Okumura is a Japanse violinist born in Amsterdam. She also started learning violin at the age of four. She graduated from the Toho Gakuen University with the Diploma of Soloists. She has studied with Akiko Tatsumi, and has taken open master class lessons given by such renowned artists as Isaac Stern, Augustin Dumay, György Pauk and Itzhak Perlman. Okumura plays fine and smooth tones, which lives up to Salut d’amour. But I feel like his performance is rather restrained.

Itzhak Perlman is a master of violin, that I don’t even need to mention. He has a very distinct habit of playing violin: that little flip of the bow once in a while. It gives me chill every time and makes the piece alive.

And finally Sarah Chang, whom I’ve mentioned in my previous post as my favorite. Sarah is a tough girl, you can tell from her performance that she is rich in emotions and she is never shy of showing her emotions. You can feel how she loves this piece by watching her play; she plays at the tempo of her love, neither too fast nor too slow, in no way compromising the authentic beauty of the composition, and with such vigor, a glorious release of emotion, in so magical a form.

All of these versions are well done because all of the four performers are so talented. But I likes Sarah Chang’s the best because it softens my heart every time I listen to it, making me feel that love is about beauty but also sorrows. The climax of the song makes me cry sometimes. I believe that’s exactly the best response that a violinist wants to evoke from his/her audience.

Here are reasons why violin is the hardest instrument to play

You may argue that there are a lot more difficult instruments out there that I don’t even know. Well, that might be true. There are 1,500 and 2,000 instruments – with traditional ‘classical instruments’ only making up about 300 to 400 of those…So let’s say that, among piano, guitar, most drums, flutes, orchestral instruments that we commonly seen, violin is definitely the hardest to learn.

I am saying this because I have practiced violin for so man years but I still suck. I have people to back my point. My roommate has played piano for years. One day she picked up my violin and tried to pull the bow. It literally sounded sawing wood. And she said: “I will never learn how to play violin. Piano is much easier.”

The first thing people who are only used to piano may struggle with violin is, to find the placement of each note. To violin, your hands are doing two complete different things – your left hand has to make sure that yo are hitting the right note, while your right hand has to move the bow in a certain direction with appropriate strength and speed. Your brain has to make subtle decisions, and very nuance makes what comes out different. That’s why it is the best to start at a age of 5. It could take months just to get used to the position.

While with piano, there is far less weird noise you can make because every note is neatly separated. You may have trouble hitting the wrong key but you won’t be out-of-tune.

Then another thing my pianist roommate noticed was that, you don’t sit on a bench to play violin. Although lazy as I am, I sit while practicing all the time…but, just think about those concert, where musicians have to play hours. Isn’t solo violinist the only one who stand the whole time?

Finally, and the most struggling fact to people like me who probably have amnesia, violinists play without music score…I can imagine how does the violinist play a 30-minute-long song non-stop. I can’t imagine how many hours of practices is behind the stage.

Anyway, I remember trying to explain my VIOLIN-IS-HARD-THAT’S-WHY-I-SUCK theory to my mom when I was younger, and how she didn’t even bother listening to me. But really, when you decided to pick up a instrument, and it is your choice to crack it, then you have to deal with whatever it takes to excel at it.

How I got tired of violin

That’s right. Although I love violin so much now. I once got tired of it and felt lucky that I got rid of it.

I met my first violin when I was a second grader in elementary school. My mom talked me into practicing it because a whole bunch of kids in our school were doing it. It was more like an “ok I will do it” than “omg, this is amazing”.

So there I started my seven-year journey with violin. I should have been a rather professional performer if I were very into it or I were a prodigy. But I were neither.

But when did I start to get tire of it? Hm…I guess the answer is, I’d never really developed a passion for it. I was assigned to do it from the very beginning till the end. My mom decided for me when I were to play and for how long I were to play everyday. It was normally in the morning 6’clock for an hour and another hour after school. Imagine what kind of music(noise?) would a sleepy girl make out of her 1/4 cheap practice violin. How kind were my neighbors to have tolerated me for seven years. My teacher decided for me whose songs I were to play so I didn’t really have a musician that I was very familiar with or in favor of.

The worst of all, I guess, is the fact that I had to pass the violin level examination. This is still one of the stupidest thing I have done in my life. It usually happened in the summer when I didn’t have school to attend. Guess what, I had to play 5-7 hours per day, practicing several same songs everyday. I couldn’t tell if I were improving or not. It just numbed me.

Oh and I forgot to mention that I was forced to play on a square at night, where hundreds of people were looking at me when I played. It was supposed to lift my courage for the test. But it was against my nature. I was shy and introverted. It really made me extremely uncomfortable. And yes, I screwed the test.

Anyway. When I left home and went to high school, I lived in a dorm and I didn’t have time to play anymore. I was relieved. For another seven years until the end of 2014, it never came to me that I should pick it up again. It just somehow struck me as an feasible idea, and soon developed into a pending desire.

I never regret having picked it up when I was six and then let go of it. Without that experience, maybe I wouldn’t appreciate being able to play it whenever and however as I like now.

Electric violin – innovation or heresy?

The idea of getting an electric violin first came to me when I was choosing for my first violin in the states. I had never played an electric violin before, nor had I thought about playing one. Classic music and classic violin is the true music to me. I’ve always thought that any electronization of classic instrument is total heresy. But just as a classic violin has things that a electric violin can never achieve, an electric violin also have its beauty and advantages over a classic violin.

Playing violin in a quiet neighborhood or a dorm is frustrating. You never know when your neighbors will knock on your door and ask you to stop practicing. Even though there are metal and rubber mute available on the market for classic violins, you will still get a little bit of the sound that are not acceptable at midnight. For people like me who live in an apartment where I can hear the vibration of my neighbor’s cellphone and her snores sometime, it really makes it impossible for me to practice violin after 10 p.m., when my energy for journalism kind of die down and need the refill of inspiration. That’s when an electric violin comes in handy. When you plug in a head phone to the electric violin, it really makes it mute. What you can hear is the sound of the bow rubbing the strings, which is not sharp nor noticeable at all. While your neighbor will never know that you are playing violin, you can put the headphone on and enjoy (suffer?) the music all by yourself.

There are other merits of an electric violin that make it really popular. It is super easy to record a song with an electric violin with the cleanest quality of sound you can get. Want a album of your songs recorded? Electric violin makes it possible with just a chord connected to your computer. Also, for electronic music fan, and electric violin definitely is their best choice, saving them the trouble of plugging to amplifier and other boxes.

All in all, although I already bought a classic violin in America, and I like it a lot. I still wanted to get a electric violin sometime. It gives a brand new sense of playing music – it looks modern and customized, and also makes playing music and creative.

How many “true stories” are behind Pachelbel’s Canon?

Pachelbel’s Canon is definitely one of the most famous of classic music of all times. Just think about how many weddings we have been to where has played Pachelbel’s Canon in D. But other than the music scores itself, not very much is known about Pachelbel’s most famous piece. However, I’ve probably read four different versions of the stories behind the composition of Canon, all in Chinese.

One of the most famous and legendary version goes like this: Pachelbel played piano at a British church where he travelled to during the war at his 10ish. The most beautiful girl in town Barbara fell in love with Pachelbel listening to him playing. She told Pachelbel that she wanted to learn to play piano as well so that she could spend time with him. But not after long Pachelbel found that Barbara wasn’t really into playing and told her:” Piano really isn’t your thing, you don’t really like it. Just go.” Three days later, Barbara KILLED HERSELF in the church. In that following half a year, Pachelbel found that he wasn’t as happy as when he had Barbara around. He realized that he actually loved Barbara. He started to compose a song to propose to Barbara, finished the 1/3 of that song first and then finished the rest of it during a war. Then he found out what happened to Barbara and played the Canon in front of everyone in town. And of course everyone couldn’t help but crying out loud.

I couldn’t believe that I actually thought this was the real story behind the song before I did some research in English recently. It is cheesy and disrespectful to the composer Pachelbel. But it is a story that is widely circulated and perhaps believed by a lot of people in my country since that’s why all on the Internet are about when you google:”What’s the story behind Pachelbel’s Canon?”

There are tons of other example of this kind of misinformation on Chinese websites, maybe other countries as well. Another typical one, for example, is “a famous song from Tagore “The Furtherest Distance in the World.” I bet 80% Chinese knows about these lines:

The furthest distance in the world

Is not between life and death

But when I stand in front of you

Yet you don’t know that I love you

And yes… it is not until Wednesday that I got know it is actually someone created by Chinese people their own, and they even translated English versions of it and put them online…

Well, who knows how many those fake stories are out there being read by people who have no idea about it? It’s even somehow funny to think about it. Getting data about that must be interesting

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The Movie the village and how violin takes it to the next level

About half a year ago, I watched the movie the Village with four friends at my apartment at mid-night. We were kind of forced to watch it because a friend was trying to talk the four of us into watching horror movies. We did the vampire movie Let me in and this one. I was so taken away by the superb storytelling, the scene-setting, plot and how violin comes into making these happen.

The Village is reminiscent of all things strived for by the Amish community. Whilst ridiculed by many and misunderstood by most of the rest, the Amish and the community in “The Village” long for the same things: a return to simpler times when the good in life was much more prolific.

It tells the story of rural Covington, Pennsylvania in 1897, a town of less than 100 people that is confined within its boundaries by woods inhabited by a race of “mythical creatures.” While two central characters pursue romance, the restless male lead performed by Joaquin Phoenix seeks to end the town’s historical policy of solitude by exploring the forest. By doing so, the delicate truce between village and forest is violated, and mysterious events begin to happen in both places. The secret of the creatures lies with the town’s founders and their unusual group decision decades prior that would make current day libertarians in America thrilled by their resolve.

Hilary Hahn voiced for the violin pieces written by James Howard Newton for this movie.

Hillary Hahn is a Grammy-winning American violinist.

The Gravel Road is one of the most famous violin song in this movie. It starts with grandiosity and repetition, bringing a sense of running or driving on a country road. But the latter part of the song enters a secret with a shudder of horror. It plays with the movie so well that every time I listen to it, it brings me back to the movie, make me think about its meaning behind and sometimes chill me a little bit.

Here is some professional comments of the violin music in the movie.

With their instrumental roles often meandering restlessly in the background to enhance both the authenticity of the location and the nagging feeling of displacement and, daresay, hope, Howard accentuates their tonal presence of grace with the remaining majority of the orchestra’s string section. Moments of solo exploration by the violin are sometimes aided by dainty, high woodwind tones, the flutes representing the innocence of the female lead and her journey to a mysterious world where she is completely out of place. Much of the score presents these instrumental elements in soft, wayward performances that literally blow in the wind and swell and sway from bar to bar. Howard’s attention to rhythmic flow, and the associated movement towards the inevitable confrontation with what lies beyond the forest, is a central aspect of his contribution to the Village, and he enhances the quiet uncertainty factor in any given scene depending upon the tempo of these ostinato figures.

This is the whole playlist of the violin music in the Village. I’ve been practicing these songs for a while and hopefully can upload the recording later sometime.

(source: http://www.filmtracks.com/titles/village.html)

Brianna Kahane — a child prodigy violinist that wows me every time she plays

I normally hate to use or see words like child prodigies. It makes me feel that it will spoil children with real talents at a young age and encourage them to get off on the wrong feet. But when I first saw a video of Brianna Kahane performing violin at age of 8, it blows my mind. And after getting to know her a little bit more, I have to agree that she is absolutely a child prodigy in music.

Brianna Kahane hopes her talents will help raise funds, material to rebuild a music school in Haiti that collapsed during January’s earthquake. Credit: Daily News

Brianna Kahane started to play violin at 3 years old when she saw someone playing violin and the beautiful music instantly filled her heart. She begged her mom for violin lessons and has been good at it ever since.

That sounds like a familiar story that happens to every child prodigy. I started to play violin when one day my mom came home and said to me: “A bunch of kids of my colleagues are learning violin and I think you should do that too.”

Guess that’s why I was never a prodigy.

Anyway. Brianna Kahane wowed the crowd wherever she played. People were amazed by how this little body could have the acute memory of songs, her perfect pitch and her insight into music.

To be honest, I am not impressive her perfect pitch or memory, but the insight she has for each piece of music she plays and how she manages to bring the music alive really make me so jealous. Those are something one can never learn or gain from teachers or by imitation. Nor will it come with just lots of practice. They are things that either you have it or you don’t. I’ve seen a lot of kids that has really amazing talents of performing music precisely as it is indicated on the sheet music by the composer. They has techniques to play an extremely complicated piece that even surpass most adult violinists. But you rarely see a soul. You only see a kid showing off the superb skills he/she has as is unusual among their age. When a real talent plays a piece, you see pictures and scenes, you smell the rosin as the bow touches the string. It gives you chill and make you feel whatever is on the performer’s mind.

All of these I’ve listed, I have seen them on Brianna Kahane. One thing great about this little girl is that she is not only a talented violinist, but also a philanthropist who performs on various fundraising parties and helped raise millions of dollars. She does what she thinks what she is doing can do: music makes the world a better place.

Now Brianna Kahane is studying at the Juilliard School Hyo Kang and I Hao Le. I wish she could be as good as she is now, and becomes the next Sarah Chang (as she is one of my favorite).

What’s so special about the Stradivarius Violin?

The name Stradivarius should be familiar to most people, even if they are not familiar with violin. It is a sacred name in the field, the kind of strings. For violinists, having a Strad is a dream, but the whopping price makes this dream a pie in the sky.

Antonio Stradivari in his workshop; Artist- Edgar Bundy British 1862-1922

Famed violinist Itzhak Perlman has played his Stradivarius for years and now says he could not afford to buy one at today’s prices. In different auctions around the world, the prices of a Stradivarius violin often vary from $1.6 million to 45 million. What’s so special about them?

Actually, a study says maybe nothing. The study found that most people can‘t tell the difference between a sky-priced Strad and a common modern violin.

[Can you tell which clip is performed on a Strad?]

Why are Stradivarius violins so expensive? There is no definite answer. Some say Stradivarius violins are prized as much for their unique and supreme craftsmanship.

According to the “Cambridge Companion to the Violin”, Stradivari’s most important contributions were the flatter and more powerful arching, and his new system of thickening. The biggest difference between a Stradivarius violin and the traditional Amati form is the straighter and stronger “C” bout. In addition, the f-holes are longer and straighter, with a larger scroll.

While Some believe it is the varnish that made Strads so special: a strong red pigment. While it offers the violins a beautiful depth of color, there is more to the varnish than what meets the eye. Violin makers agree that the wrong varnish can ruin a violin, silencing the vibrational quality of its wood.

For some exquisite songs like those of Paganini, it is believed that their beauty can only be heard with a Strad.

As Perlman described the sound of his Stradivarius,

“I can actually see the sound in my head…it has silk. God, it’s so difficult to describe…there is a sparkle to the sound.”

The price of Strads is also boosted by its rarity. There are only 650 in existence today. Among them, the most expensive ones are the ones crafted from 1700 to 1720, the golden period of Antonio Stradivarius. These violins are estimated to bid at the starting auction price of millions of dollars.

But not every violin with Stradivarius in its name has the same value. Most violins today are made in the shape of Stradivarius violin, but they are not strad. I have a strad-modeled Yamaha violin which worth a market value of $1,400, which is pricy enough for me but nothing compared to a real Strad.

Is it really impossible to make violins as good as Strads with modern technologies and tools? I am not sure. But the quality, rarity, fame and mysterious life of the maker Antonio Stradivarius himself make Strad itself unique. It represents a certain status that makes it exclusive to those who deserve it or rich enough to have it.

Violin vs. Fiddle

Fiddle was never a word in my dictionary before I came to the States. I learned violin for seven years, then stopped learning it for another seven years. I practiced songs by Beethoven, Bach, Sibelius, and those names that I have long forgotten. For me, violin is always the equivalence of elegance, classics, serenity or grandness. And all of that was about to be torn apart.

On a lovely Saturday of September, 2014, one month after I came to this country, I went to the Columbia Farmer’s Market to look for story ideas for class J7802. I saw a bluegrass band playing there. They played instruments I’ve never seen (which were later known as mandolin and banjo), but I was happy to see something I am familiar with—the violin. By then I was still trying to not even fit it, but just get to know this new country and its people, and I could not jump out of my comfort zone, or, I didn’t have one; I didn’t feel comfortable with anything.

So when you finally see something you know in a environment where the rest of it just doesn’t make sense, you feel relieved and reach out to it.

“Hi. That was fantastic over there! So how long have you been playing violin?”

“Well, this is fiddle sweetheart.”

“—Oh,” WHAT???

No. You gotta be kidding me. I know this is violin. I’ve been playing it since I was even shorter. So there I asked:

“But I thought it is a violin.”

“Well. It is, but not exactly. It depends on what kind of music you play on it.”

Ever since then, I started looking for an answer to best explain the difference between a violin and a fiddle.

Some say no, there is no difference, and some attribute it to the slight difference between the height of the bridges. A more scientific saying is “fiddle” is an English word and “violin” belongs to Italian.

But I enjoyed reading some of the more acute/funny answers:

People clap after a violin song while people clap during a fiddle song“—Mike Gonzalez

A violin is kept in a violin case, and a fiddle is kept in a sack“—Henry Stour

A fiddles usually got a redneck (red neck) on it,” —Nathaniel McDonald

or,

You don’t spill beer on a violin.”

Finally I was able to give a cursory conclusion that, whether a instruments with four strings is a fiddle or violin depends on the person playing it and why he/she is playing it.

When you play violin, you try to accomplish something. You try to recreate the sentiment a song was written to show, and sometimes you add your own interpretation to it. But with a fiddle, you just play it. You play it on a party, in your yard; you play it in a band, with friends and for fun. It is not to say that fiddler don’t have techniques and subtle emotions, they do, but they only exists in a lifestyle where people gather to spend the whole afternoon together, to dance, to drink beer, to talk or just to enjoy life. Yes, fiddle is a lifestyle.

I could never imagine having fiddle in my country, because people just don’t share each other’s life in the way those who play fiddle do.

Learning about fiddle became part of how I started to learn a country.

By the way, I now started playing violin again.