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Holy Week Twilight Retreat: Bach’s St Matthew Passion

Ben is looking forward to sharing with the Dayspring Community as they hold their Holy Week Twilight Retreat, as he presents some reflections on J.S. Bach’s St Matthew Passion.

Johann Sebastian Bach is not only one of the giants of the musical world, but also of the Christian church. Sometimes referred to as the fifth evangelist, Swedish bishop Nathan Söderblom called his cantatas “the Fifth Gospel”. In this retreat, we will reflect on the glimpses we find of Bach’s own spirituality by examining his great work “St Matthew’s Passion.” Violinist and Music Teacher Ben Clapton will lead us in this retreat.

Bach wrote a huge number of church cantatas – his Nekrolog (an obituary written in 1754 by Johan Friedrich Agricola and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach) mentions five year-cycles of cantatas for all Sundays and feast days. This would amount to at least 275 cantatas. However, we only have copies of around two thirds of that number, as some have gone missing, or have only survived as fragments. His Passions – while related to his Church Cantatas – are considered a seperate category of his works. The St Luke Passion, BWV 246, is thought to be Bach’s copy of an anonymous composers Passion, with very little material original to Bach’s hand. The St John Passion was composed during Bach’s time in Leipzig, using the text of the Brockes Passion for the arias. The St Matthew and St Mark passions use libretto’s by Picander, however we have no autograph of the St Mark passion and rely on reconstructions.

The St Matthew Passion is longer and more complex that the St John passion. Using a double orchestra and chorus, it is considered to be more reflective and resigned, as opposed to the more realistic and anguished St John Passion.

The Holy Week Twilight Retreat is hosted by the Dayspring Community, an ecumenical, open, contemplative community that focusses on contemplative spirituality, love for God and love for their neighbour, particularly the marginalises and those considered to be the ‘least of these’.

Sunday 28 March, 2021
2:30pm-5:30pm
St Peter and Emmaus Church, Mt Hawthorn

Tickets available throug TryBooking

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Orchestral Violin Practice Challenge – Week 2

I was aiming to get a video out each week, however it’s not going to happen this week. Things have cropped up where I am not in the stage where I’ve got enough footage, nor enough time to edit a video, that I think I will just aim at putting a video out every couple of weeks. But I still want to hold myself accountable, so I will provide a written update of my violin practice progress here.

Changing Tactics with my Violin Practice

Following some feedback from a Reddit thread where I posted my video, there was a suggestion to take some time in my violin practice to focus on my technique, particularly my scales and my shifting. They suggested that I look at Nathan Cole’s New York Philharmonic Audition challenge series, which was very enlightening. I took his 2 hour violin practice break up as the basis of my own practice for this week. This included introducing the first three pages of Schradieck, Kreutzer 9, and Dont 6 as my studies, a focus on vibrato and trills for technique, and a big section of work on my scales every day.

Violin Practice leads to Tiredness and Exhaustion

A man sitting at a table, looking out the window, looking tired and exhausted.
Photo by Andrew Neel on Pexels.com

This week saw my violin practice go backwards in many ways. I only had three days of actual practice out of the seven, with another day where I had a piano trio rehearsal but didn’t spend time practicing. The other days saw me being excessively tired, and just not wanting to practice. My son has been coming into my bed at night, and so it’s been quite common for me to be waking up around 2-3am, and not getting back to sleep. Even as I’m writing this I’m feeling tired. My other son came into bed around 2am, and while I did get back to sleep, I’m still feeling tired.

The other side of the equation – which is linked to my tiredness – is exhaustion. When I was practicing with this new schedule with a huge focus on technique, I found my body getting tired a lot quicker. My muscles were working a lot more than they were used to, and as such I didn’t complete the schedule once. This might mean that I need to think more about how I structure my practice as I build up into it – instead of 2 hours with a ten minute break, perhaps I should do an hour in the morning, and an hour in the afternoon. Or 4 half hour blocks. Given my current limitations, that might be more achievable than the solid two hour block. My body will be fresher, and my mind will be more focussed.

Physical Therapy

The other thing that I’ve been contemplating is that my body isn’t really ready for two hours of practice. I jump in and practice, but I’m not giving myself any preparation. I saw a composer on twitter suggest finding some benefit from adding in some stretches, particularly for his legs, as he is sitting most of the day. The stretching was increasing flexibility, and strength in his body, and allowing him to focus more on the task at hand, and not on the stiffness in his body.

The book, "Violin - Six Lessons with Yehudi Menuhin", features a picture of Yehudi Menuhin playing his violin on the cover.

I borrowed from the library a while ago Six Lessons with Yehudi Menuhin. I had an idea for a video of following these lessons and seeing how my playing improved. However, the first lesson starts with a number of stretches, one of which is a Yoga pose that I wasn’t confident of my ability to pull off. But given how my body is feeling, I am wondering if it might be worthwhile adding these exercises into my daily routine, warming up and building up the muscles in my body so that I can have greater stamina in my practice.

Practice Log

So Here’s my violin practice log for this week.

8/1/21 – No practice

9/1/21 – Piano Trio rehearsal (2 hours). Playing the Schubert and Saint-Saens piano trios.

10/1/21 – First day utilising Nathan Cole’s schedule. Practiced C Major scales from Flesch up to and including thirds, Schradieck pages 1 and 2 at 60BPM, Vibrato Work (From Simon Fischer’s Basics), Kreutzer 9, Mozart Concerto, Dont 6 and some trill work. 80 minutes practice in total.

11/1/21 – Same as the day before, but using A minor scales, with a focus on the one string scales and arpeggios, getting smooth shifts. Also did 10 minutes on the Bach St Matthew Passion excerpt, before exhaustion got the better of me. 90 minutes practice in total.

12/1/21 – I completely missed that this was a palindrome day, until just now. I only completed the first half of the practice today – E major scales, Schradieck, Vibrato, and Kreutzer 9.

13/1/21 and 14/1/21 – No practice.

Focus for next week – introduce some warm up stretches to get the body ready to practice. Break up practice more, with an aim for more days of practice, and completing the routine. Focus is still on technique, particularly on shifting. Instead of the vibrato and trill work section, introduce specific exercises from Basics on shifting.

Catch up on Week 1

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Criticism: Deal with it well by being in the right mindset

I would be surprised if there is anyone who deals with criticism well. If someone actually likes being harshly criticised for work that they did, I’m sure other people might have some concerns about that person’s psychological profile.

An image of two people, one filled with ways to give harsh criticism, and the other filled with the effects that criticism can have on our self image.

Criticism is something that we deal with on a daily basis. Whether it’s our own self-criticism or the criticism of a teacher or trusted mentor, or if you’re someone who releases your creative work to others, then you can be criticised by random people who may or may not have any concern for your mental well-being.

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Orchestral Violin Practice Challenge: My goals for the next two years

One of the things I absolutely love about playing the violin is playing orchestral music. I love the variety of repertoire that it brings – from Bach Cantatas to Tchaikovsky Symphonies, Bizet’s suites, and modern, cutting edge compositions. Orchestral playing, and the violin practice that goes with it, is constantly interesting and challenging.

Rehearsing with the Bendigo Symphony Orchestra

When I was going through my Bachelor of Music, I loved orchestral playing. I even did a research project on what was required to win an orchestral violin position in an Australian orchestra. But my playing was never at the stage where I could consider applying for an audition, let alone winning that audition.

I went away from music for a few years, but now I’m back – currently studying to be a High School music teacher. I’ve got two years of study to go, so I’m setting myself a goal.

In two years, I want my playing to be at a stage where I could feel confident in applying for an audition. I’m not going to say that I’m going to win that audition – but to borrow a line from a hit musical, “I want to be in the room where it happens.”

What’s required?

So to start with, let’s look at what’s required for an Orchestral Violin audition.

First, you generally need to have two violin concertos prepared. These are broken up into two categories. The first is a Mozart Concerto – by which they will either specify, or at least expect either the Fourth concerto in D Major, or the Fifth concerto in A Major. The second category is either a Romantic or Twentieth Century concerto. These have a bit more flexibility in them, and do allow for a bit more choice, but most audition panels would be expecting to hear the Tchaikovsky or Sibelius Violin Concertos.

Then you are required to play some orchestral excerpts, which allows them to see how you might fit in to the individual stylistic playing of the orchestra. Over the many years of orchestral auditions, there have been a number of excerpts that have proven themselves to be required more often than others. As a result, even though you may not get a list of required excerpts until the audition is announced, or even closer to the audition date, you can still prepare these excerpts knowing that it is likely they will be included.

Reviewing where I’m at now

When I consider my own playing and my own repertoire that I know at the moment, there are a few things that are missing. I’ve learnt the fourth concerto by Mozart, and I refreshed it in 2020. However, I’ve not really learnt any of the major romantic concerti. And while my head knowledge remains relatively fresh, a lot of my technique has slipped. And if I’m to seriously tackle the Tchaikovsky concerto, then I need to address the weakest part of my playing – my double stops.

Difficulties ahead

A Bendigo Symphony Orchestra chamber music rehearsal

When taking on any challenge, it’s important to note the things that can get in the way, or make it more difficult. Firstly, I’m heading into full time study this year, which is no easy feat on its own, but my studies will see me be required to complete three month-long practicums – two this year, one next year. That will take up a lot of my time, and mean that finding time for my violin practice will be difficult. Secondly, I have three kids, one who is diagnosed ASD, and one who is undergoing diagnosis. As such, there are a lot of appointments and therapy sessions to attend to. And while this is an important challenge to me, my family will always come first.

As such, I’ve come up with a plan for my violin practice that I feel is achievable despite these time constraints, however, it will still enough of a challenge that it will stretch me. I’ve divided it up into semesters, but in other words it means the first half of the year, and the second half of the year.

The Goal

Semester 1Semester 2
2021Polish Mozart 4
Learn Mendelssohn
Technique focus on Double Stops
Excerpts: Bach St Matthew Passion; Beethoven Symphony 2, 3 and 9; Mozart Symphony 35 and 39
Polish Mendelssohn
Learn Mozart 5
Technique focus on tone production
Excerpts: Brahms Symphony 1 and 4, and Variations on a Theme by Haydn; Elgar Enigma Variations; Prokofiev Symphony 1; Shostakovich Symphony 1
All 2021Kreutzer and Fiorillo Etudes
2022Polish Mozart 5
Learn Tchaikovsky
Technique focus on intonation
Excerpts: Prokofiev Symphony 5; Rimsky-Korsakov Scheherazade Solos; Strauss Don Juan; Tchaikovsky Symphony 4 and 5; Bartok Concerto for Orchestra
Polish Tchaikovsky
Technique focus on bowing
Excerpts: Mahler 3 and 5; Prokofiev Romeo and Juliet Orchestral Suites; Strauss Ein Heldenleben (Solos) and Der Burger als Edelmann (Solos); Tchaikovsky Swan Lake (Solos)
All 2022Rode and Dont etudes

In terms of the amount of violin practice I am able to do, I am aiming to do two hours of practice a day. While that might be a bit of a stretch some days, so it might only be one hour, but that is the aim.

Do it once and do it right!

One of the things that I am really trying to focus in on is learning the right way. So I will also be really looking at my practice techniques, utilising resources such as Practiceopedia by Philip Johnston (no longer in print), Youtube, and others, to improve my practicing and make it as effective and efficient as possible. In time, I’ll be sharing these in my weekly videos as I share what I’ve been working on, how I’ve been working on it, and how well it has worked.

I’m excited to see what this program will be able to do for my playing. Similarly, I am looking forward to what it will do for my teaching. In conclusion, I hope you’ll be able to join me for this journey by subscribing to my YouTube channel. But for now – I need to go and practice.

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#AMerryViolinChristmas – Away in a Manger

Time for our third video in the #AMerryViolinChristmas compilation – a collection of Christmas Carols arranged for beginner violin and Piano. If you haven’t yet, make sure you grab your copy today! Today, we’re learning “Away in a Manger”, so watch the video above and have a go. In addition, discover some more about the history of this great carol below.

About Away in A Manger

Having first been published in the late nineteenth century, Away in a Manger has gone on to become one of the most popular Christmas carols in the English speaking world. It is thought to be American in origin, despite having originally been attributed to Martin Luther.

While there are many versions of the lyrics, with variants on almost every line, a version by William Kirkpatrick published in 1895 has now developed into being the standard version that is most well known.

Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,
The little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head.
The stars in the bright sky looked down where he lay,
The little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.

The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes,
But little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.
I love thee, Lord Jesus! look down from the sky,
And stay by my cradle till morning is nigh.

Be near me, Lord Jesus; I ask thee to stay
Close by me forever, and love me I pray.
Bless all the dear children in thy tender care,
And take us to heaven to live with thee there.

Taken from “Around the World with Christmas: A Christmas Exercise”, by E.E. Hewitt, John R. Sweeney, and William J. Kirkpatrick (1895)

Two wonderful melodies

Finally, There are two well-known versions of this melody. Firstly, James R Murray’s version known as “Mueller” is most popular in America. And secondly, William J. Kirkpatrick’s version known as “Cradle Song” which is most popular in Britain. In this video, I am looking at Kirkpatrick’s “Cradle Song”

Have a Merry Violin Christmas

I hope you’ve enjoyed this Violin Christmas collection, and that you’ve spread some joy using these arrangements. Finally, if you haven’t seen them yet, check out the other videos in the #AMerryViolinChristmas collection – this was the third one I produced this year, along with Joy to the World and Silent Night.

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Ding Dong! Merrily on High

Ding Dong Merrily on High is a Christmas Carol, and in this picture is a book with the words "A Christmas Carol" on it, as well as assorted christmas decorations.

An exciting arrangement of “Ding Dong Merrily on High” that will challenge the choir whilst still providing interest and variety for all parts.

Arranged for SATB Choir (without accompaniment) by Ben Clapton, each part takes the melody at some stage. As such all parts are actively challenging and highlighted throughout the performance.

Initially arranged in 5/4, the verse has a sort of Mission:Impossible, uneven waltz feel to it. Then in the chorus, it changes to 7/8 which brings the waltz feel into the other direction. In closing, there is a standard arrangement of the verse and chorus in 4/4, which utilises rich harmonies and intersecting parts that brings to life the “evetime song” that exclaims “Hosanna in Excelsis!” 

All parts have opportunities to take the melody. The altos take the first verse, and the sopranos take on the melisma in the chorus. The Second verse sees the tenors take on the melody, while the sopranos once again take on the melismatic chorus, being joined by the altos in a descending line that brings out the waltz falling over itself feel. Finally, in the third verse in 4/4, the Basses take on the melody with the upper parts providing the rich harmonies, with the final choruses passed between the female and male voices.

About Ding Dong Merrily on High

The well-known melody first appeared as a French secular dance known as “Branle de l’Official” in a dance book written by Jehan Tabourot. George Ratcliffe Woodward later penned the English lyrics to “Ding Dong Merrily on High” and was first published in 1924. Then Charles Wood added a harmonisation to the French Melody. While the carol is in English, it is particularly noted for the refrain which is in Latin, in which the vowel sound “o” of Gloria is extended to a 33 syllable long lyric through a lengthy melismatic melodic sequence.

Gloria, Hosanna in excelsis!

(Glory! Hosanna in the highest!)

Buy Ding Dong! Merrily on High at Sheet Music Press

“Ding Dong!” SATB Arrangement (Unaccompanied) of Ding Dong Merrily on High. List price: $9.99.

More Arrangements and Compositions by Ben Clapton

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#AMerryViolinChristmas – Joy to the World

It’s Christmas time! Time for Christmas Carols!
The problem is that many Christmas Carols are written in keys that aren’t friendly for the violin, especially for the beginner violinist, who initially learns notes in G, D and A major, whilst carols are often written in F, Eb and Bb major.

So I’ve arranged ten favourite carols for beginner violin, and made it available for free on my website – and I’m going to teach you how to play them. Today, we’re learning “Joy to the World”.

If you’re learning these, I encourage you to share your progress – tag your video with #AMerryViolinChristmas and I’ll watch and comment some encouragement for you.

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Practice Technique – Blocking

This is the start of a new series where I’m going to highlight a practice technique in each post. I know that as a teacher, I often don’t have time to go into specific techniques of how to practice. This is because there is so much to get into during the lesson. However, learning how to practice is just as important as learning how to play an instrument. In fact, it might be more important, as you can take the skills you learn in how to practice over to different instruments. Today, we are looking at a practice technique that I think most people think of when they think about music practice – blocking.

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