As Carrie Dennis warmly greeted the students gathered in Morse Hall on November 12, one easily could have mistaken the cheerful violist for a Juilliard graduate student. However, in spite of her youth, Ms. Dennis has a wealth of experience that includes the position of assistant principal viola of the Philadelphia Orchestra and her current job, principal viola of the Berlin Philharmonic. Her knowledge of the orchestral repertoire was evident as she gave an enlightening master class focusing on well-known excerpts by composers such as Mozart, Mendelssohn, Beethoven, and Brahms.
Fourth-year student Zakaria Enikeev commenced the class with his solid interpretation of an excerpt from the final movement of Mozart’s Symphony No. 35. Ms. Dennis’s first response to his performance was “Breathe,” and this word threaded through the session as she stressed the importance of breathing and its ability to help one relax. After exploring character contrast and rhythmic stability, she asked Zakaria to play the excerpt a second time. In doing so, he incorporated Ms. Dennis’s comments to great effect. As Zakaria played from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Ms. Dennis once again addressed how to loosen up, instructing him to “keep breathing. Find where you can breathe.” The difference in sound when he followed her advice was noticeable.
While breathing was the theme of Zakaria’s turn, the bow arm was the main focus of Ms. Dennis’s work with master’s student Clio Tilton. Clio began with beautiful renditions of excerpts from Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony and Brahms’s Second Symphony. After encouraging her to have more fun with the Beethoven, Ms. Dennis directed Clio to allow the bow arm to dominate in the Brahms. More hints regarding sound production followed, and Clio’s tone blossomed, becoming even richer and fuller.
Precise rhythm emerged as the focal point of master’s candidate Lisa Steltenpohl’s portion of the class. Lisa’s strong musicality made excerpts from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 very enjoyable. Nonetheless, Ms. Dennis’s insightful comments about subdividing for rhythmic continuity made a marked difference. In order to help Lisa feel the subdivisions, Ms. Dennis lightly tapped her on the shoulder as she played. Later, while commenting upon Lisa’s performance of the Mendelssohn Scherzo, Ms. Dennis said, “Find the small beats, then orient the other beats around the small ones.” These words proved to be valuable as Lisa continued to play the excerpt.
The final participant in the master class was Artist Diploma candidate Kyle Armbrust, who played Enesco with great passion and flair. Once more, relaxation became crucial, and Ms. Dennis prompted him to loosen up in order to play all of the challenging passagework more easily. Kyle was very interested in getting Ms. Dennis’s sage advice, so he asked her several specific questions about bowings in Ravel and Brahms. As Ms. Dennis played the excerpts herself in order to determine the answers to his questions, it became apparent why she has already had so much success. She plays beautifully, and her phrasing is full of subtlety.
The class ended with a question-and-answer period, during which Kyle asked Ms. Dennis how she mentally prepares for orchestral auditions. Her simple but informative reply was, “I visualize it.” She proceeded to describe an experiment performed on a basketball team in which half the team practiced foul shots for one week while the other half visualized making foul shots. At the end of the week, the half that had physically practiced showed minimal improvement, whereas the other half improved their percentages remarkably. Visualization is a valuable tool for musicians and athletes alike.
Although the main themes of the master class may seem basic at first, they are vital aspects of performing a successful audition. Ms. Dennis’s perceptive comments about breathing, sound production, rhythm, and visualization are pearls of wisdom that can be utilized by all musicians.