Learning a Concerto by Heart

It is now a couple of weeks since I performed the Beethoven Violin Concerto for the first time with an orchestra (writes violinist Vaughan Jones). The Romanian conductor Sergiu Celibidache once said that it’s a work¬†violinists shouldn’t attempt before the age of 40 (did he hear the 11-year old Menuhin play it…?) and as I am rapidly approaching that age (big birthday next year!) and have loved that piece for the last 32 years of playing the violin, I wanted to play this challenging work from memory. The experience was very different from the last time I played a concerto. The time frame for learning it (I had about 6 weeks) was the same but this time due to work commitments, it was a matter of grabbing any spare time in a busy schedule of performing, arranging, teaching and playing at weddings. This caused many frustrations, as the vital admin work that goes into running the wedding string quartet suddenly seemed an immense chore – getting in the way of the only important thing on my mind: namely, learning this 45 minute long concerto!

Vaughan Jones violin
Vaughan after playing the Beethoven Concerto in a room with acoustics redolent of a squash court…

As a result, at least 50% of the preparation was spent away from the violin. By singing the note names of a given passage (including all the flats and sharps), the shape and flow of the music became embedded in my consciousness. Learning in this way also gave me a deeper understanding of the underlying rhythmic pulse that flows throughout the piece. Once in the practice room, I spent a lot of time singing whilst accurately miming with the left hand and bowing arm (both individually and then together). In this, it is essential that the mime is accurate to the smallest degree so that when I eventually took the violin out of it’s case, it felt as if I was replicating the mime with the music already there, rather than the other way round.

With this approach, it’s surprising how free and fluent passages are¬†right from the first touch of the bow against the string even though I had never physically played them before (only prepared them mentally through singing, note naming and miming). It makes me aware how time consuming learning a large scale piece¬†would be if I had approached it any other way.

Although there are lots of other wonderful concertos I’d be keen to perform, I’d like to stick with the Beethoven and play it again at the earliest opportunity, refining the performance and continually developing my understanding of the work.