|Making of the site|
The idea came to me on a flight. What would be the best way to introduce the finest violin playing techniques to students anywhere in the world? The information has been available since 1929 in books such as Die Kunst des Violinspiels by Karl Flesch and The Principles of Violin Playing and Teaching by Ivan Galamian (1962)-and since then, advances in the field warrant another treatise on the subject. But hardly any young students ever read these books. Human motions are intrinsically difficult to describe in print. To a non-violinist, such as a parent, the motions described are as incomprehensible after reading as they were before. Most readers are adult students at the end of their studies, and by then, it's too late. What would be the best way to teach a level of violin technique that has only been available to students able to audition into the world's best classes, such as those by Carl Flesch, Leopold Auer, Ivan Galamian, and Dorothy DeLay?
Motion pictures, where a picture is worth a thousand words, seemed to provide part of the answer. With film, motions can be demonstrated. And to reach struggling students all over the world, it seemed that the time was ripe to use a revolutionary new tool. While the Flesch and Galamian books may be hard to find in small towns in China, Armenia, or Russia, the Internet is becoming omnipresent. A violin technique web site, as such, could exist almost anywhere as a living document. It could be continually updated and expanded. And more, it could be a virtual international community for violin students and aficionados.
Selling the idea took patience. I presented the concept to the Starling Foundation in Houston, where they expressed cautious optimism. I then met with Melissa Godoy, director/producer at On Location Multimedia, who had recently wrapped production on Classical Quest, an Emmy Award-winning public television program featuring the Starling Chamber Orchestra. She was most interested, and together with On Location's vice-president at the time, Jerry Smith, we developed a coherent proposal, which we submitted to the Starling Project Foundation.
The Starling Project Foundation approved a grant for the proposed website! But, we needed a non-profit fiscal sponsor to manage the account. The Wyoming Fine Arts Center, a hub of fine musical training for children in the Cincinnati area, was invited to be the sponsor. Legal contracts were drawn up, scrutinized, and finally approved. Attorney Tim Matthews, president of On Location, was an excellent architect of the contract among the various organizations. It was time to begin.
I started writing detailed lesson content and selecting exercise topics and sub-topics to feature on the site. Melissa developed a structure for the content she called, 'the palette for creativity on the violin.' The idea was to be able to see all the techniques available for expression on the violin at a glance through a series of drop-down menus. We wanted to visually portray the violinist's tools in a way that put artistic control in the hands of the player, while at the same time isolating one technique at a time. We also needed to find a way to show beginning, intermediate, and advanced levels of these techniques, as well as use of the techniques in performance. Melissa kept a flowchart going that would not be finalized for the next two years. There was an overwhelming amount of information to structure.
February 11, 2003
I met in New York with Jay K. Hoffman & Associates, a PR firm for some of the most renowned classical musicians, to invite them to handle publicity and the launch of the site. We quickly came to an agreement.
April 24, 2003
Jay K. Hoffman and Associates (Jay Hoffman, Clara Park, and Daisy Cho) came to Cincinnati to meet with myself and Starling Project Foundation Executive Director Nina Perlove, Starling Board member Brittany MacWilliams, and the On Location team who would be creating the website (web developer Clay Beyer, designers Joe Busam and Brad Bowman, and Melissa). Most significantly, Jay Hoffman pointed out a solution to the structural problem caused by quantity. Perhaps it wasn't necessary to show every lesson in a violin curriculum, but rather to focus on significant lessons—master classes, so to speak. I agreed that a website could not possibly replace a violin teacher, but it can demonstrate important concepts and serve as support for teachers. This also helped tie in the art of teaching itself as a serious examination on the site. Why not illustrate selected concepts as a series of master classes? As in any master class, the audience, students and teachers alike, could learn by observing other students and teachers. The concept of 'Violin Masterclass' was born.
We also made major decisions, including restricting the design to HTML technology for access. We knew we would be pushing the envelope anyway with large quantities of streaming media and we didn't want to further burden the users with Flash or other demanding files. We decided to use QuickTime as the streaming media format, since it is the streaming media player most used worldwide. The goal of reaching users in many different countries, including developing countries where broadband is not available, is an ideal we tried to maintain throughout development.
We also decided to target the design to a young audience, but not necessarily just children. The site should be attractive to teenagers and young adults, as well as to teachers and parents.
Finally, because we were locked into a rectangle for the streaming media segments, Melissa called for a more organic, curvaceous feel on the home page. Curves are not easy on the Internet, but Joe Busam and Clay Beyer were up to the task. Joe began the first of two designs that ultimately became our youthful, colorful, and shapely look and feel.
May 20, 2003
May brought another series of meetings with the same cast, plus director of photography Mike Bizzarri. We needed to decide how to proceed with the look and feel of the filmed segments. We knew that the website itself would be a complicated frame around the streaming media. Our singular goal within the streaming media box was to make the faces, hands, and violins pop. We aimed for simplicity and good crisp lighting. After a little experimentation, we settled on a particular shade of blue as our seamless background color, since blue provides enough contrast between almost all shades of flesh and the warm wood of a violin. We quickly dubbed our shade, 'website blue.'
We also noted that camera movement makes file sizes larger and difficult to stream, and that the quick movement of the subjects and their playing would be about all the challenge we could risk. We banned most camera movement and decided to shoot everything as a series of locked down varied focal lengths.
May 27-30, 2003
Melissa and intern Olivia Johnson went to the local public television station, CET, which had rented its studio to us, to paint its cyclorama a carefully mixed shade of website blue. Melissa tried to avoid chroma-key blue, used for TV weather maps. Nevertheless, it took until the next shoot to get the shade right. This first time was experimental. DP Mike Bizzarri brought in his lights and camera. The camera package was On Location's Panasonic High Definition variable frame rate cinema camera. Although On Location most frequently shoots in 24p for a cinematic look, 24p can cause motion blur on fast-moving subjects. We decided to shoot at 60 frames per second for the most clarity on fast-moving bows and fingers. Knowing that streaming media has its own artifacts and challenges, we wanted to start with the fastest frame rate and highest resolution available. Also, because we occasionally planned to show some techniques in slow motion, we wanted 60 fps as a foundation for optimal slow motion later.
Audio designer Tom Haines arrived with recording engineer Brian Niesz. Together they rigged two systems: stereo mics for recording music and a shotgun mic for speaking.
10We began shooting with my on-camera definition segments rolling through a teleprompter. Earlier, I had prepared the text and rehearsed it; and since English is my second language, I had asked a friend, journalist David Schoenbaum, to proofread. Reading into a teleprompter and making it sound spontaneous was more difficult than I had anticipated. After examining the results of the first day, we decided to switch to a less didactic, slightly off-camera, and more interview-like approach.
On Wednesday, we filmed the first exercises, boldly blazing into the 'master class' concept as a mini-lesson. Already anticipating long download times, we tried to limit each lesson to three minutes or less. But, each 3-minute clip took about an hour to film. We began with master shots of the exercises until we got the definitive best takes. Then we repeated the exercise so the team could get close-ups of each person in the segment and finally extreme close-ups of the details that would be most instructive. All this required constant changes of camera angle, microphone placement, and lighting. Mike and Melissa quickly became expert at finding the best possible angles to show certain left or right hand motions. Coordinating the technical details with my speaking and outstanding playing only looks easy. Starling faculty Brittany MacWilliams acted as the 'straight bow police' making sure that good violin playing technique was very clear in the monitor. It took several takes to get it all.
Thursday was our first master class day. We brought a Steinway Grand into the studio and began the first of many discussions about where the piano should go. A large black piano can take up a lot of screen space and requires many lights. But finally, like in any other 8master classes, we had our piano and could hear complete musical phrases.
On Friday, we transformed the studio into a performance venue. The lighting was expressionistic amber and the atmosphere was purple. At this point, version one of the website interface was purple, so it made sense. Later, after the website settled into our signature blue and orange, we discarded the purple, even though many of us still like the results of that day. We ended up using nearly all our experiments on the website, despite the variation in color. If the kids played well, we used it.
Post-production began in early June. First, the On Location team logged the tapes, a task that took almost as long as actually shooting. This is where the producer and assistants chose the selects, made sense of the footage, and gave each shot a unique name that could be interpreted by the editor. During the shoot, a production assistant had written down the time code of the good takes, but it still needed to be unraveled in the dark viewing room and coded into MediaLog. Then the selects were loaded into the editing system (G4 Mac with HD Final Cut Pro). In Mid-June, editor Jeff Glaza began editing the first of what would be 170 segments. Usually we based the structure of every segment on a wide master shot. Then we inserted medium shots and close-ups to show the details. Sometimes we took audio and video from different takes. We found that Tessa Lark had incredibly steady tempi we could take a 30-second moment of audio from another of her takes, and it would synchronize without a hitch. One day of shooting easily became two days of editing. Jeff, who had been nominated for an Emmy for editing Classical Quest, soaked up violin technique terminology as he developed an ear for the subtleties of violin repertoire and an eye for bow continuity. The footage was easy to work with. We were very happy with the picture quality and camera work of Mike Bizzarri and the audio production of Tom Haines.
After the first clips had been edited, sifted through, and finally approved, the audio files were delivered to Tom Haines. Tom sweetened each file and returned them to Jeff, who replaced them onto each clip. Jeff then began the first of many experiments to stream the media at the most optimal rate. Clay had already created a test site to upload the files and we scrutinized our first attempt. Then, everybody went back to the 1 drawing board and adjusted - audio approaches, lighting approaches, streaming approaches, directorial approaches - in preparation for the next shoot.
Mid-summer brought Sarah Tennison as a production intern and design assistant. Sarah had an intuitive sense of design and went to work developing the inner pages based on Joe's design and Melissa's flowchart. She added complexity with layers and spent considerable time experimenting with layout. The result was a gorgeous look that could speak to children, teens, and adults. As the content demands grew, so did the inner design, to a logical and elegant form.
Sept. 8 - 11, 2003
The second shoot commenced in September. We were on top of things. With the help of CCM graduate student Semi Yang and Brittany, we organized a schedule that gave a fairly accurate amount of time to each musician. Every hour a different student demonstrated a different technique. The production schedule was often dependent on the students' families or academic schedules. The sometimes very young violinists and their families were professional about showing up to the CET studio at call time. By now, I had found a way to prepare them by practicing the techniques they were to perform on camera during their lessons.
For this shoot, we had decided to sharpen the look. Melissa felt strongly that the blue background was too dark and adjusted the paint color, as well as allocating more of the budget for lights. This brought the addition of gaffer Jeff Fisher and grip Duke Smith. Together, 'Fish' and Mike brought ingenious methods for back-lighting my blue blazer against the blue background. They lit a gradation on the cycloramra, which resulted in a high key, distinct look. For atmosphere without overcomplicating the set, we added a chair, table, and a colorful bird of paradise flower.
Also normally assisting on the shoots were John Schmidt, who does everything from teleprompter to gripping to note-taking; and Jeff Glaza as a grip.
Again, we began with definitions on the first day and moved into exercises and master classes (with the piano in a different place for variety). I developed a way to remember my succinct lessons with an easel of paper just outside the camera frame. Prior to taping each segment, while the crew tweaked lights and audio, I ran through my lessons and jotted notes. Joining the 'straight bow police' were Semi Yang and Wyoming violin teacher Gayna Bassin.
We held off taping performances until the next shoot, which would take place partly in Werner Hall at CCM.
For this second round of post-production, Sarah was an invaluable logger, having taken extensive notes in the field. Melissa verified the selects and named them into MediaLog. By the following week, Jeff Glaza was again up to his ears in footage.
Website Design Continues
Meanwhile, Clay, Joe, Sarah, and Melissa continued to develop the inner sections and test them for usability. At Jay Hoffman's urging, we added my headshot to the top, courtesy of photographer Gary Kessler. Clay suggested many solutions to structural challenges and invented clever ways to make things happen on the website.
We also determined that the lovely blue gradation made file sizes larger and decided, with great reluctance, to let go of it until technology catches up. We plan to go back to that as soon as we can.
Joe created the Prof. S cartoon. Later that summer he made the Masterclass Kids template.
December 8 - 15, 2003
Our third shoot session began at CET (with less gradation) and ended at Werner Hall in CMM, which is a gorgeous auditorium with its own design issues. The stage back wall is a warm, exotic wood, which is almost exactly the color of a violin. It is a background that, because of its natural beauty, is hard to resist. The crew did not have a way to control the stage backlights made available to us by CCM, and there did not seem to be an easy way to rig motion picture lights without damaging the wood. Again Fish was gaffing with grip Russ Faust. As the violinists played, the lighting team began to plan.
The cold month of January was spent in the warm editing suite cutting together files of music.
Meanwhile, Alvin MacWilliams, director of the Wyoming Fine Arts Center, had finished his first round of assembling graded repertoire lists. Laraine Kasier delivered the first draft of the competitions and auditions lists. And Nina Perlove and Brittany MacWilliams began the task of gathering biographies for the About Us section.
Sarah was extremely busy creating the inner pages, including the Virtuous Moments section. The Virtuous Moments concept is key to making the techniques on the website real. It's my approach to effective practice. Sarah designed the PDF (Adobe Acrobat) template that would hold my time-honored practice sheets and the Violinmasterclass lesson summaries. The summary template was designed to be a one-page synopsis of the major points of each lesson. Right side margins identify the lessons in a hierarchy that matches the website, and on the left there is room for three holes. This enables students and teachers to print the summaries, add their own notes, and compile the information into notebooks. As learning progresses, practice schedules and lesson summaries can be filed together as a journal of the learning adventure. We called these things our 'printables.'
Meanwhile the streaming had continued. After comparing the quality of a variety of rates of streaming on a variety of computers and Internet connections, we selected a bit rate of 355 kbps. This happy medium seemed to provide the highest audio and video quality without obnoxiously long download times. We decided not to provide a lower quality version and decided that the next level higher was to be left for the future when broadband is more the norm.
Shar Music Products in Ann Arbor, Michigan joined as a sponsor of the site! With Shar's support, Violinmasterclass.com will be able to pay monthly hosting fees and continue to develop technologically. This also gives us hope for our foreign language plans. We only need a few other sponsors to make it all a reality.
May and June, 2004
Our final shooting session began at CET and ended at Werner Hall for almost a whole week of performances. Photographer Mark Lyons took production stills during our last day at CET.
At Werner Hall, Fish lead Russ, Jeff Glaza, and grip/electric Rasheen Crawley in the rigging of crisp backlights off of a velvet-lined truss- and made the background fall off into almost black. It was another look yet and gave this particular set of performances a dramatic edge. The quartet, in particular, looked stylish with the black-clothed musicians rimmed against the black background. Since these sections are for advanced players, we thought that this variation was appropriate. As we continue to add content to the site, we will pull it from a variety of venues from around the world, all with their own unique qualities, and we'll have to be comfortable with slight variations in the look of our presentation.
University of Iowa intern Mike Lindley joined On Location for the summer and became useful at keeping us supplied with coffee and lunches. These things may seem inconsequential to the outsider, but they are very important on the set. He also began to do some note-taking and logging, as well as helping with the constant transportation of production gear.
Final editing began in June and we worked hard to finish as much as possible before I had to leave to teach in Aspen. This time, besides working on lessons and performances, we got to zero in on the more theoretical segments of Intonation and Putting It All Together. Brad Bowman, animator for Classical Quest, created colorful animation for parts of the Putting It All Together section, as well as bright yellow staff, notes, and charts for music theory. Because we wanted to keep file sizes low, nothing too demanding was allowed, but it was fun to add the cartoons.
When I left for Aspen, there was still the task of over 100 printables to write. As soon as Jeff finished streaming the approved segments, they were sent to me, where I studied them again and wrote printables. The printables were formatted by Sarah as PDFs, proofread, and uploaded.
Meanwhile Tom, also in Aspen, began to sweeten the audio for the last group and sent them back too Jeff in batches. It took awhile to process the final files to the point of being uploaded on the growing site.
QC & Launch
We needed a promotional postcard to send out and put in magazines — something that could be re-purposed for movie posters or even a billboard. I suggested the line, 'Coming soon to a computer near you' and Melissa offered a visual concept. The idea was to show an abstracted close-up of part of the violin almost as if it were a sunrise or a rare astrological event. It was a way to capture the anticipation of a new era in this old art. She set up a high-resolution still shoot with photographer Tony Arrasmith and worked out the details of the layout with Joe Busam and Nina. The day of the shoot, Brittany brought a 270-year-old Petrus Guarneri violin to Tony's studio, and they went about capturing the image through lights and lenses. Tony's meticulous attention to details brought out beautiful highlights and showed the age of my violin. After Joe incorporated the selected photo into the postcard and added the text and other stylish details, Tony touched up the color and printed proofs.
The QC process began in August and included the addition of programmer Timothy O'Neill, who is also featured on the site as a violinist. Not only did Tim's extensive knowledge of violin technique help in proofreading the vast amount of text, but his programming skills ensured that the site works seamlessly between as many browsers and platforms as possible. Tim debugged the site and wrote additional code to make the drop-down menus work smoothly across the board. He and Melissa evaluated many details on the site and fine-tuned layout, text, and other elements to look and work great. Clay finalized the last sections and prepared to go live.
Sept. 17, 2004
Launch is scheduled at a press luncheon at Le Cirque in New York hosted by Jay K. Hoffman and Associates. After three and a half years of hard work, the doors will be open.
The site is a living, breathing community. Work will continue. With the help of our sponsor, Shar Music Products, we'll continue to develop, add lessons, and begin the process of translating the site into German and Chinese. Eventually, we intend to offer it in seven or more languages and are seeking additional sponsorship to do so. Also, when the time is right, we plan to compile HD DVDs of the media for distribution. For now, we hope that the site gives users the finest information available to help them reach their violin dreams. Happy Fiddling!