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Violin Master

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“I thought about writing [a book], until I realized that students, especially teens, don’t read them. But they’re always online. So I thought, rather than a book, why not a Web site?”

And just like that, was born.

It took Kurt Sassmannshaus, chairman of the string department at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music three years of intensive work to bring it online this past September.

The site uses video to show rather than tell.

Barrymore Laurence Scherer (what a great name), who studied the violin briefly in his youth, raved about the site in last Thursday’s Wall Street Journal, noting that among the wonderful things about it is the fact that you can repeat a lesson ad infinitum.

Just try that with your teacher.

Each facet of violin technique forms a separate lesson on the website.

Exercises are provided for beginner, intermediate, and advanced levels, as well as master-class demonstrations.

Amazingly, the site is free to all visitors.

Sassmannhaus said this was extremely important, “because a 12-year-old in China or Eastern Europe doesn’t have a Visa card in his pocket sign up for a subscription.”

The site’s going to be translated into as many languages as possible.

It’s been a smash hit: over four million hits since its September launch.

Here’s the article.

    Bowing to Technology: Fiddling in Cyberspace

    Of all string instruments in classical music, the violin is king.

    Such great composers as Bach, Mozart and Johann Strauss II were violinists, and numerous great violinists were also accomplished composers, from Baroque master Giuseppe Tartini to Nicolo Paganini, Pablo Sarasate and Fritz Kriesler.

    In every era, leading violinists wrote instructional treatises that codified the most advanced playing technique of their time – Mozart’s father, Leopold, wrote a standard one, and major 20th-century works include volumes by Karl Flesch and Ivan Galamian.

    Kurt Sassmannshaus, chairman of the string department at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, knows them all.

    An internationally revered teacher, he was flying to judge a Texas competition in 2001 when he conceived of launching the venerable art of violin instruction into cyberspace.

    “Because progress in the field since Flesch’s and Galamian’s time warranted a new book, I thought about writing one, until I realized that students, especially teens, don’t read them. But they’re always online. So I thought, rather than a book, why not a Web site?”

    After three years of intensive work – funded by a substantial grant from the Dorothy & Richard Starling Foundation of Houston – was launched in September.

    This is a compelling application of modern Web technology to a fundamental aspect of music, one that presses that educational hot button, “distance learning.” Prof. Sassmannshaus observes that “physical motions involved in violin playing are always difficult to describe in print.

    But with film, the motions can be demonstrated visually to students.”

    These motions include everything from correct hand positions for a good vibrato to the subtle right-arm and hand positions necessary for bow up and down in order to trill continuously on a note.

    Those familiar with the intimacy of the teacher-student relationship in music may wonder how the nuances of violin technique can be taught at long distance.

    Prof. Sassmannshaus responds that “the site is intended to supplement a student’s actual teacher, not as a teacher substitute.”

    Having studied the violin briefly in my youth – albeit with little hope of rivaling a Jack Benny let alone a Jascha Heifetz – I was particularly eager to put Prof. Sassmannshaus’s invention through its paces.

    Melissa Godoy, the site’s producer, and the director of each video segment, says that: “We designed it to be very appealing to young people, with elegant warm colors, and visual shapes, so that your eyes don’t get tired using it.”

    While download times for the streaming videos depend upon the speed of your computer and Internet connection, the site is very easy to navigate.

    And with a click of the mouse you can repeat instructional demonstrations infinitely.

    Every facet of violin technique forms a separate lesson, starting with the basics: how to stand, and how to hold the violin and the bow; how to determine the proper size violin for a student, and how to determine whether to use a chin rest or shoulder rest.

    The lessons are presented on an easily navigable menu, covering techniques for the right and left hands, from bowing and vibrato to tasty virtuosic effects such as double stops (playing two notes at once) and harmonics (high, flute-like tones made by partially stopping a string with light finger pressure).

    The lessons involve students of all levels – those who log on are not only shown highly accomplished musicians in the advanced stages, but also relatively inexperienced peers working under Prof. Sassmannshaus’s encouraging eye.

    Each technique is defined, with exercises for beginner, intermediate and advanced levels, as well as master-class demonstrations.

    Prof. Sassmannshaus has devised this lesson plan with exceptional care and logic, placing each lesson into the context of a finished performance.

    For instance, the section on bowing includes lessons on bow speed across the strings and pressure, as well as the varying sounding point – where the bow actually touches the string between the fingerboard and bridge of the violin – all crucial to achieving varied and expressive tone.

    Then, to put it all together, there is a performance by Prof. Sassmannshaus’s own students of Schubert’s Duo in A, which employs these specific techniques.

    Not only invaluable to actual violin students, this Web site can be tremendously useful to anyone with an interest in the mechanics of violin technique.

    Parents of student violinists can intimately examine what goes into the training of their budding players.

    Non-violinist composers have a visual lexicon of violin technique that can help them to write more idiomatically for the instrument.

    Even the nonplaying music lover can visit this site to see up close and personal just how the violin is played to produce the sounds familiar in concert repertoire.

    The Web site also offers lists of graded repertoire for practice and advice on how to set up your practice routine.

    There’s a forum for discussion with “Prof. S,” as well as facilities for e-mailing him directly with private queries.

    As no music exists in a vacuum, there’s a continually updated list of competitions and auditions world-wide.

    In the final section of the master classes, “Putting it all together,” Prof. Sassmannshaus offers concise and trenchant pointers on how to apply technique to learning repertoire.

    He emphasizes the importance of finding out about the life of a composer to gain psychological and personal insight into his music.

    Thanks to Starling Foundation funding and to support from a developing group of sponsors, the site is free to all visitors.

    “This was very important to us,” he says, “because a 12-year-old in China or Eastern Europe doesn’t have a Visa card in his pocket to sign up for a subscription.”

    Continuing sponsorship will ensure that the site remains online with any and all necessary upgrades.

    Moreover, in a global market, sponsorship will pay for German and Chinese translations of the site.

    “Then I want Korean, Japanese, Russian, Spanish – as many languages as we can possibly afford.”

    Languages aside, even at the startup the response has been overwhelming, with over four million hits since the September launch, according to Dr. Nina Perlove, Executive Director of the Stirling Project Foundation, Inc. in Cincinnati.

    That’s enough to make any webmaster trill with satisfaction.

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  • Aaman

    very nice site – thanks for bringing it to our attention

  • texasviolinist

    Sassmanshaus’s contribution is clearly in the mainstream of modern pedagogy. But it is a stream that takes most students over waterfalls and through severe rapids that they cannot survive. In particular his comments on bow grip assure a horrible pressing sound that is altogether too prevalent in modern players. The state of modern violin playing is truly sad.