Learn to Play Advanced String Literature with Structure & Flow

Article excerpt

Find out how pedagogical legend Otakar Sevcik divided - and conquered - advanced string literature

It's time. You've breezed through Suzuki, you've excelled onstage, you were always front chair in your school orchestra. Now it's onto one of the big boys: you're going to play Felix Mendelssohn's violin concerto. But you don't know what to do. The fingerings, the bowings - it's all too much!

Or it isn't.

In fact, even the most advanced literature can be broken down into manageable - and most importantly, practicable - chunks. The trick is knowing how to do it.

"Everything we play needs a certain breaking down," says Milwaukee-based soloist and violin teacher Jerry Franke, who teaches at Wisconsin Lutheran College.

A successful solo violinist will have at her fingertips "20 to 25 major concertos," Franke says. Some students, who may think their abilities are advanced, will want to tackle a piece immediately. That can spell disaster.

"An eager student already knows how the piece goes. They just want to play it. No," Franke says. "They have to strengthen the foundation - build your walls before you pick out the drapes to hang in the house."

In other words, to play effectively a piece with challenging fingerings or bowings, a student needs to make sure his or her abilities to finger or bow effectively are built up - and specifically to the piece. To do that, Franke employs a method of breaking down advanced literature that dates back to pedagogue and Czech violin legend Otakar Sevcik (1852-1934).

"Too often, in my teaching and coaching experience, students only play the piece exactly how it is written. They don't learn how to tear it apart. They don't understand how to break it down," Franke says. This method "shows them how to break it down and learn it, and then put it back together."

Using this method, students will find out what elements of a piece are redundant and what's not necessary at all. The emotional content of the music is removed, and a student is free just to practice the technical part, according to Franke.


Sevcik may have been something of an insomniac, Franke thinks. "He wanted to cover how to play a piece in every single way," he says. "He's so thorough, it's like he had OCD."

Included in the mountain of material left behind are encyclopedic practice notes, which could be the finest and most important bit of Sevcik's legacy. The notes - dividing standard pieces into the sections requiring difficult bowing or difficult fingering - allow a student to focus in on the exact area where help is needed.

"It's meant to be encyclopedic," Franke says. "You don't pick up an encyclopedia or a dictionary to read the whole thing. You go to where you need help."

This method is also where composers' genius can be subdued - if not conquered - long enough for musicians to find their bearing. A student can break a difficult composition into exercises that will allow her to master the individual difficult bits, and then when the entire piece is played, the bits will be played well. …