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Technique and tonality

Lydia Leong

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All of the technical literature that I can think of has its roots strongly in tonality. Most of our exercises come from the mid-19th century or earlier, and our basic foundation of scales, arpeggios, etc. are the very essence of tonal music.

However, we now have a century's worth of musical composition that departs from the ear and mind's expectations of tonal music, to greater or lesser degrees.

Notes are not just notes; good players anticipate and the muscles react accordingly... and are betrayed when the sequence violates tonal expectations. Intonation goes haywire, too, because dissonant intervals are hard to hear in the mind's ear. We end up with difficulties in shifting, too, because we're covering intervals that we're not used to hearing, with the hand in a position that violates the usual expectations that have been set by arpeggio exercises, etudes, and the usual shifting workouts (Sevcik, for instance, is almost always done in a specific key).

What can be done to overcome this weakness, either as part of one's original training, or as later "repair" work?

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I have absolutely no idea what you mean but if you are interested in Tone and Semi-tone harmonies, they work well with string and wind, but not in the same instrument groups.

If you are thinking scales and intervals - yes I agree, but the quality of the average instrument today is such that making them produce an old fashioned scale is a burden.

A good supply of economy instuments with the full range of response would hasten the inevitable.

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As you know there are some basic rules of composition (even in atonal music). I've generally found it helpful to familarize myself with contemporary atonal music theory to "unlearn" classical music theory.

My point is that tonal music (arpeggios, scales, etc.) you refer to is based on "classical" music theory. You have to work just as hard to familiarize your ears and fingers to the (new) idiom and rules of atonal music. This (familarity w/ fundamental rules) applies to all styles of music, e.g. jazz, Indian, etc.

I must admit I've not developed a systematic way to master atonality, but like sightreading, exposure and practice helps. Redwood Symphony (in SF Bay area) generally programs more interesting contemporary works, and if you're not a participating member already, I'd highly recommend it. Be prepare to work hard if you sit in 1st violin section.

Hope this helps,


[This message has been edited by Flyboy (edited 11-20-2000).]

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You live in the Bay Area? Do you play in Redwood? If so, who are you? There are at least three members here on the board -- myself and one other player are in the 1st violins, and there's a cellist as well. (Feel free to email me privately: lwl@black-knight.org )

I agree with the various assertions -- thus my original point, which is that traditional training ill-prepares one for contemporary works. smile.gif

While exposure/practice helps, systematic training is even better, I think.

[This message has been edited by Lydia Leong (edited 11-20-2000).]

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Joseph Silverstein once suggested whole-tone scales as a useful way to get warm for Ysaye's sonatas--- not quite the thing you have in mind, but a step in the right direction.

It's amazing how bad the ripple effect of losing one's grounding in fifths and octaves can be. A few years back, we did Vaughan-Williams' 6th, which is really heavy with tritones. In absolute terms, I'm sure I've seen harder parts, but that is one I'm glad is behind me.

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Ms Leong:

I know exactly what you are talking about. I see a demanding and excellent Russian teacher once a week. For the last couple of years my work with him has been concentrated, by my preference, on difficult contemporary music: the Schnittke viola concerto, Schnittke violin sonatas, Bartok second violin concerto and the like.

Music that is not written in a discernible key can be dauntingly difficult to read, as I am sure you know. The interval B sharp to G sharp is the same, more or less, as the interval C to A flat, but I find the former difficult to understand, whereas I hear the latter in my mind instantly. A string of such unfamiliar intervals can leave one so befuddled that it becomes impossible to hear a consonant interval when you run into it.

I find that problems of this kind can be ameliorated, if not totally solved, by using a variety of methods: repetition of difficult passages on the piano, followed by singing, until you are reasonably comfortable with singing such passages. Then it becomes possible to solve shifting problems on the fingerboard.

Another problem is double stops on unfamiliar intervals: minor seconds, for example, or minor ninths. I find that these problems can be solved with patient practice solely on the fingerboard. The ear adjusts to those intonation problems very readily.

The final problem is shifting through two or more octaves to an arrival pitch that is, say, a semitone away from the departure pitch. Here the solution, for me at least, is the same: patient slow practice solely on the fingerboard will get the pitches into the ear and the shifting problems can then be solved.

I hope this response is helpful. Learning music that is not plainly key-related poses special problems, but they are worth solving.

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