Composer’s Notebook #6: Bowing and Articulation in Violin Playing


At the beginning of the year, I promised that I would try to write more regularly. This has clearly not been achieved! In my defence, studying mathematics full-time requires much dedication, patience, and practice — not unlike learning a musical instrument. But now I have time to write since I have completed my semester 1 exams.

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Sight-reading, AMEB exams, and studying maths

This would seem like an awkward mix of topics, but hopefully I can convince you of the similarities. The connection occurred to me recently, as I have been tutoring a student for theory and sight-reading in preparation for a grade 4 AMEB violin exam. (The AMEB is the Australian Music Examinations Board, a bit like the local Aussie version of the ABRSM, which is a world-wide music education organisation). In addition to preparing a set of pieces for performance, the student sitting the exam must also answer questions relating to music theory and history. I have only ever taken one AMEB exam in my life, so I don’t know exactly what kinds of questions are asked during a typical exam. Based on this student’s learning materials, I can deduce that, at this early stage in the progression of grades, they are likely to be questions regarding the fundamentals of music history and analysis, such as: “What is a concerto?”; “What is the form of this movement?” (binary, ternary, ritornello, and “through-composed” are the expected possible answers at this grade — sonata form comes later!); “The music of Mozart is representative of which period of music?”; “You just performed a piece by Handel, can you name some other pieces by Handel?”; “What does allegro moderato mean?; and so on. This is not particularly challenging. A student who is curious and motivated will probably know the answers already, via searching on Wikipedia and other sources on the internet. These basic concepts of Western classical music may also be covered in high school music classes, if the school is fortunate enough to provide them. For the average student, these facts can be imparted easily by the teacher during a lesson, with the additional advantage that explicit examples from the music being practised may be used. With a little more effort, the fundamental concepts of musical analysis and theory can be similarly acquired, or else taught in the lesson too. Remember, at this early stage (grade 5 or below), the student only needs to recall the basic facts.

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Composer’s Notebook #1

I have decided to record some of my thoughts on composition on this blog. In the good ol’ days, these things were usually penned down into a notebook or included in letters to friends and colleagues, but now we have the Internet!

Finals of the Kendall National Violin Competition

For this first notebook entry, I would like to say a few words about my recent trip to Kendall, NSW, where I attended the finals of the Kendall National Violin Competition (hereafter KNVC). Despite its setting in a quiet rural town, the KNVC is nevertheless one of the most prestigious in Australia, and attracts the best young violinists from around the country.


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On Focal Dystonia (1)

By now, a fair number of people are aware that I am enrolled in a Bachelor of Science (Advanced Mathematics) degree at the University of Sydney. This knowledge has invariably (and to my great relief) been greeted with enthusiasm and kind support, and I am immensely grateful for this. However, I have never really fleshed out the details behind the circumstances – which I intend to do now with this blogpost. Many of my friends and colleagues at the Sydney Conservatorium will know that my retreat from violin performance is due to onset of focal dystonia in my left hand, a neurological condition which severely compromises coordination in the affected area(s). It has occurred to me that it might be useful (and not only to musicians) to describe in detail the symptoms of this condition, how it affects instrumental playing, the treatment I received, and finally, the steps I am taking to recover.

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Watermark Composition Prize

I am delighted to accept the inaugural Watermark Composition Award for my composition Rhapsody No. 2 for solo violin. The piece is written specifically for the Kendall National Violin Competition, and will be the compulsory “test” piece in the finals, to be held in Kendall (NSW) in September. I look forward to hearing my piece interpreted by some of Australia’s best young violinists!

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