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Cello Lessons: “Polovtsian Dances” by Borodin

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The Polovtsian Dances,
actually I should try
this in a Russian accent,
Polovtsian Dances,
I can't do a Russian accent.
In your video exchange,
I want you to introduce this piece
in your best Russian accent.
It's by Alexander Borodin.
And it actually comes from an orchestral
piece, the classical ballet Prince Igor.
And it was written sort of from
the 1870s through the 1880s.
And it's based off of a folk dance
from a subset of the Russian people.
And actually, when I was preparing this
curriculum, I got the opportunity,
the amazing opportunity to play
with the New York Philharmonic
with the Silk Road ensemble and Yo Yo Ma.
And they were sort of a folk
meets classical concert.
And the New York Phil played this piece.
And it was so beautiful, that I was like,
I just wanna teach this in Artist Works.
So here we are,
we're gonna learn this Polovtsian Dances.
And so I wanna talk to you
about some of the principles
that I want you to think about
as you're learning the notes.
I've got all of my recommended fingerings
and bowings in your PDF download.
In the, you'll notice that there's
no open strings on any long notes.
This is a big difference that's
gonna affect everything,
as we move from the classical period,
to the romantic period.
We used a lot of open strings
in the Boccherinian minuet cuz
it helps gives us this resonant clear,
pure sound.
But for romantic music,
we want to use every possible
opportunity to be expressive, and so
we're always going to be fingering
the notes that an open string might have.
So just like in the third bar.
[SOUND] Because we're holding that for
a long time, we're definite.
I'm adjusting the fingering so we can be
finger, so that we can vibrate on it.
There'll be some fast open strings.
That we'll move through
in these fingerings.
But as you learn romantic music,
you're definitely not gonna wanna use open
strings nearly as much as we did in
the Baroque and Classical periods.
Over all, we want a really smooth sound
for all of our bow changes in this piece.
And that's gonna require moving the arm
In a kind of like a wave-like manner.
I don't want to get too analytical,
but if the arm changes motion
before the hand,
you get this kind of wave-like feeling,
and that's going to help us keep
all of these bow changes smooth.
What I don't
wanna hear, is stiff
bow changes like this.
What we don't want is we never
want the sound to really stop.
We want the sound to keep going
through all of the notes.
And so, we talked about,
in the previous lesson
about romantic music,
about sustaining tension and
creating long melodies.
And so a key, a key way to do
this is every time we have a long
note in this piece,
they happen almost every other bar.
Every long note, we're actually gonna kind
of crescendo through We're always going to
grow through a long note in this piece.
Except maybe towards the end
I'll let the phrase die a little bit,
a little bit, not completely die.
But this idea, you don't want to be
letting the sound decay with each
long note, that might sound like this.
It gets a little
sort of sea sick if every
shape is really short.
We want to have as long
of a shape as possible.
And so
often I'm using a sustained bow sound, and
actually speeding up my vibrato
through the long notes.
Listen to my vibrato and see if you
can hear how my vibrato speeds up.
You don't
necessarily want
to do it the same
way every time.
But just that principle
of using vibrato to help
lead us forward and
keep the energy and the tension up.
In fact I'm often kind of
landing on the downbeat.
These long notes are held
over the bar line.
So it's when the next downbeat
happens that I'm often kind of
releasing the vibrato, in a rhythmic way.
Three, one.
We still want the,
you know this is a dance,
we want people to feel where one is.
Even in the melody,
even if we're not changing a note.
All that being said,
you don't want to exaggerate it.
Or do something weird with the bow, like
we're not going to do a bluegrass push or
[NOISE] We don't want to
do that with the bow,
everything we do is gonna be smooth and
sort of gentle.
A really important consideration as
we're interpreting a classical piece is
identifying the high points of the piece.
Where is the most dramatic,
most expressive moment of the whole piece?
I would say in this piece it
happens when the harmonies
start to get a little more tense
around bar 20 and 21 and 22.
It's this section here
And then we resolve back to D major there.
As we're playing the piece, we're gonna
be making a lot of phrases for each,
or a lot of shapes, for each phrase.
But we wanna make sure we save something.
We never get too big until
that one part of the piece.
When we make that shape, it's gonna
be the highest shape of any of them.
Conversely, you also wanna figure out
where is the low point of the piece?
And I think, actually,
after this development section
if that's the high part,
after that section ends,
when we get to bar 34,
33, that's when the first
melody comes back.
And the return of the first melody,
I would almost say,
is a really nice low point of the piece.
We've resolved and we've come back home.
So right here,
I've changed the fingering for
this phrase.
This is the only time we're
gonna play this melody
on the D string,
for that B note.
And the D string will give you a different
character than the A string gave us
at the very opening.
That's a little stronger when we play
that melody on the A string.
But I'm saving the D string for
this final return of the melody in bar 33.
So that we can play it more sensitive, and
that can be sort of the low point of
the piece as we lead towards the end.
The last thing I'll leave you with,
is just this general
idea of making shapes, and
finding goals for every phrase.
You don't necessarily want to
lead to every single down beat.
You don't want it to get too beaty,
is what sometimes classical musicians
will say when everything is accented.
So we wanna find long arcs.
And so the first phrase lasts six,
seven bars and
it's in the eighth bar that we
have pickups to the second phrase.
And so, you want to sort of
identify these long phrases.
So in bar eight,
we're leading into bar nine.
Bar nine is where
the second phrase starts.
And then it's bar 16 that is leading
into 17 for the third phrase.
And so, I want you to sort of count.
These are pretty even phrase lengths.
But if you can identify where
these phrases start and end,
then you can sort of create a single
shape for each of these phrases.
Actually, while I'm talking through this,
those first two phrases are identical,
From bar one to 8,
it's repeated exactly
from bar 9 through 16.
So one other thing to keep in
mind is we never want to play
anything the same way twice
in romantic music here.
We have to find some different shape,
or some different notes to lean
on the second time through cuz if
we play it just the same way twice,
it's not gonna to sustain
the interest of the listener, okay?
So let me just see if I can very
explicitly play this melody two times
through in different ways.
It got
I'm starting quiet and
So that was just some simple shapes.
I kinda got quiet and
resolved at the end of the first phrase.
And then kinda grew through
the second phrase and
ended strong In the second phrase.
Whether it's an overall shape
that you wanna change, or
even just the amount of vibrato
you're using, you really wanna
find something you can do to change
your expression as you repeat it.
Spend some time practicing
the notes in this piece, and
start with my recommended fingerings and
And once you come up with some
shapes that you think work well for
these melodies, send me a video of your
performance, and we'll go back and
forth a few times working on this piece,
the Polovtsian Dance.
I can't say it right, but I want you
to figure out how you can say it better
in a nice Russian accent
in your video exchange.
A really standard way to
work on any classical
piece is to start slow.
Work on everything at a slow tempo, and
then work it up with the metronome.
We've made, actually, a backing track for
the Polovtsian Dances for
you that's at a slower tempo than
the one that I performed at.
And you can use that to practice
phrasing at a slow tempo as well.
That slow track is at
quarter note equals 100.
So once you can play it at that tempo,
bump up the metronome on your
own to 110 and then 120, and
you can just every ten clicks,
you'll keep working,
practicing the piece at a faster tempo.
Ultimately, the performance version of the
backing track is at half note equals 88.
So that comes to the equivalent
of a quarter note equaling 176,
so you can work all the way
from 100 up to 176.
One other thing I wanna say about
practicing at different tempos is what's
really great about it is at different
tempos your coordination is tested, and
you actually have to
use different muscles.
And it's really helpful to actually
practice things extra fast
in addition to practicing them extra slow.
So it can get a little ridiculous,
the performance speed of this
Borodin piece is already kinda fast.
But if you can, try bumping
the metronome up to 180 190, even 200.
And you'll end up sounding ridiculous,
but actually, what I love about playing at
a really fast tempo is you
hear the phrase length so
much more clearly cuz it
just doesn't take as long.
So practicing at a really fast tempo
can test your coordination, and
really get your fingers awake and active.
But it can also help you hear
the piece in a different way.
And you'll really start to
hear the phrases as units and
how they connect to each other.