Monday, October 19, 2015

Violins and Violinists

Passing the Torch

One of my characters in Jamie’s Children, my work-in-progress, comments: “In the right hands, the violin can sing as beautifully as the human voice.”  A favorite college memory: hearing the legendary Jascha Heifetz perform the Brahms Violin Concerto with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. String players awe and amaze me. Mastering any string instrument has to be a challenge unlike any other, and I do love the sound of the violin. The Brahms concerto is one of my favorite pieces of music, and it plays an important role in the upcoming book.

I don’t recall when I first met violinist Chris Souza. I believe the first time I worked with him was, interestingly enough, in a musical theater production. In 2010 South High School performed The Secret Garden, which has a beautiful, lush, lyrical score which needs strings, and the school has no string program. Chris and a cellist with whom he frequently plays, Agnieska Rybska, agreed to join the high school instrumentalists and play for the show.

It was magical. The young musicians rose to the challenge of these two fine performers being in their midst; it was probably the best pit orchestra we ever had. The young men and women on stage also responded to the beautifully expressive and well-executed string sounds they were hearing, and the caliber of the show jumped several notches. It was an exceptional production.

When I was writing Eli’s Heart, I needed a violin and piano sonata that featured both instruments equally, and when I asked Chris for a suggestion he named Franck’s A Major Sonata, which I listened to and promptly fell in love with. The piece features prominently in the book, and last year when I held a “musical book signing” at the Pocono Community Theater … short readings from the book about specific pieces, followed by performances of those pieces … Chris and pianist Scott Besser played two movements from the Franck sonata. Hearing them was enormously gratifying. It was more than that; it was a thrill.

My current work in progress, Jamie’s Children, is about a brother and sister whose musical lives move in very different directions, and at very different times in their journey. Their father, Jamie Logan, is a world famous opera singer whose story is told in You Are My Song. Laura, Jamie’s firstborn, is discovered to be a violin prodigy at the tender age of four. Chris has been my “go-to”” person for learning more about Laura’s life and career. As a way to better understand what a child that age might have to experience when first beginning to play, Chris generously invited me to attend his studio classes one morning last week. It was an educational and delightful time.

Chris is as impressive a teacher as he is a violinist. I watched a few minutes of his “older” class (all these kids are home schooled and these were morning classes) and heard some nice playing. Then I watched him work with 5-year-olds who are just beginning. There were four little girls in this group but I believe Chris said two were missing.

I loved that one of the first things these children learn is respect for their instrument. They spent quite a bit of time learning to do a “concert bow” … how to hold the instrument and bow in one arm, keep the feet together, bowing to the audience, etc.  The kids were very attentive, partly because of Chris injecting humor into this part of the lesson. After he had shown them the proper way to do this, he had them close their eyes as he then demonstrated the wrong ways, one at a time, and had the kids tell him what he was doing wrong. It was a very effective teaching tool (and one I’ve used in audition workshops for aspiring musical theater performers).

At the beginning of the class they sat on mats and did rhythm exercises. Then after working on their concert bow, they worked on how to correctly hold the violin … they all seemed to have a good basic understanding of holding the bow … and did some open string exercises, and then were shown how to use the ring finger … the third finger … on the strings. As they played he moved among them, gently adjusting an elbow here, a bow arm there, checking hand positions.

He then had the children sit again and used some flash cards, again for practice with rhythm. When he asked them to stand, one child in the group said, “I’m sitting now.” And refused to stand, and her wise and wonderfully patient teacher ignored her and continued the lesson. Eventually she did get back on her feet.

Chris kept the class moving and I appreciated his soft-spoken and low-key approach with these munchkins. While I became very much aware of the amount of strength and coordination these young violinists would need to develop in order to play well, the kids were absorbing it a step at a time, and Chris made it fun for them.

At the end of the lesson they all took a final concert bow. They were a happy and excited group when they left, having experienced a joyful time with the violin. How great to witness a fine violinist passing on his passion for music and for his instrument to these fortunate children.

Chris Souza
photo by Tristan Flanagan