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QSCM's Between Friends Improvisation Workshop by Linda Minty

Updated: Jun 3, 2019

Local cellist and teacher Linda Minty attended QSCM's Between Friend's Improv Workshop with Amahl Arulanandam Friday April 26. She reports as follows: The Quinte Society for Chamber Music presented, which would be for most musicians in this area, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to participate in a Cello Master Class with a virtuoso cellist, Amahl Arulanandam, of the duo VC2.

Unfortunately for the Maestro, there aren't any cellists presently available in the Quinte and Hastings regions to provide suitable candidates. Most cellists are either children or beginner adults. As a result, Mr. Arulanandam changed direction and offered an improvisation workshop for string players, open to all ages and all levels of ability.

On a rainy Friday evening at dinner time, a raggle-taggle group came together - 2 young violinists came prepared for a master class, 3 cellists and another violinist came for the workshop. The first violinist, Anissa Nielsen, played Polish Dance by Edmund Severn. She had just recently competed in the Stirling Festival of Sacred Praise with this piece. Next was another violinist, Jeanette Huang, with Pablo de Sarasate's Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Airs). She had recently won several awards with this piece at the Rotary Music Festival in Belleville. Both works are virtuoso show pieces and contain special musical effects, includingt 'trick' bowing, multi-stop chords, left hand pizzicato and passages of harmonics and double-stops.

Mr. Arulanandam's comments were insightful. Even though a cellist, string technique is very similar on both instruments. "Use more bow here, less bow there, more schmaltzy slides here, dramatic pauses there." This is an over-simplification of a complex process. Every detail looked at is designed to bring out the most in the music, not just for the player, but also for the audience's enjoyment. Both young ladies rose to the occasion, working patiently through the exercise on their instrument. The results were immediate - the music was just that much better.

It was now time for the improv workshop. We sat in a circle - 3 cellists, 2 violinists, and the teacher. By way of introduction we were asked to say our name and pick out a different sound on our instrument for each syllable. You could tap the body, 'play' the tailpiece, do a glissando, harmonic or chop. Each person truly found different sounds from the others with which to express their name. This was to enable them to think outside of the box with respect to the musical sounds which we are familiar with on our instrument.

We learned a simple 3-note chord progression in D-Dorian mode (DEFGABCD - all piano white notes). The next step was to use these notes and play whole notes in random order over the chord progression which Mr. Arulanandam played. Each by turn, the students tentatively tip-toed through the exercise. We all heaved a sigh when it ws done. Next we were to change notes in a more thythmic style in half notes. Again, by turn we shyly picked out our notes. Some sounds were quite pleasant while others a little dissonant. But, according to the teacher, "there are no wrong notes". Our final task was to improvise a 'tune' over the chords, still using the same notes as at the first. As one person played, the others quietly and together played the original chord progression. The result was quite eye (or ear) opening. Each player, who at first was hesitant and frankly scared, played out a musical melody and finished with confidence.

The range of skill was diverse: an RCM Grade 7 level violinist, a seasoned cellist (teacher/performer), a 9-year-old beginner cellist (Suzuki Book I), a young adult cellist (RCM Grade 2), and a professional violinist. All in all, it was great fun and everyone took away a different experience. Thank you to Amahl Arulanandam for his patience and kindness, and his generosity in going ahead with something quite different than what it was originally planned to meet the needs of our community.

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