Sarah Chang

I do the same scales, arpeggios and vibrato exercises every day.

Basics are the most important things

Sometimes my mum and brother stop me to say, ‘You have done your scales for 25 years. Don’t you know them by now?’ But I really do believe that the basics are the most important things, regardless of whether I’m practising for 20 minutes or 8 hours.

If I have a 10am rehearsal or a day of meetings, I’ll start my exercises at 9am at the latest and forget about the repertoire until later. I use a combination of the Flesch and Galamian scale systems, with a bit of my teacher Dorothy DeLay thrown in as well. Each day, to get my fingers warmed up, I go through four octaves in every scale that allows it.

Then I choose one key to work on using different bowings, 3rds, octaves and other variations, using double-stops from the Flesch system. It takes me about 15 minutes to go through all the keys, and then another 15 to do all the arpeggios, double-stops and vibrato exercises. So if everything’s going well and my fingers are cooperating, I can be done with my warm-up in 30 minutes. But I am not a morning person – I can’t even make coffee! So some days it can take me 45 minutes or even an hour.

Today I’m practising C major. It’s the most difficult scale to play in tune because you can’t hide behind any sharps and flats. It’s very exposed, so I always choose it when I’m trying to be hard on myself. It’s like looking at your face without any make-up on. I go back to correct my tuning all the time – it isn’t just a warm-up exercise.

Then I go through my 3rds and octaves, and I’m feeling brave today so I do my 10ths as well. When I’m playing pieces with a lot of 5ths, 6ths or other intervals, I add those to my exercises too.

Learn at least one new piece every season

At the moment I’m working on Bernstein’s West Side Story Suite, which I’m playing with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. After that I have a recital of the Franck Sonata, a Brahms sonata, Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances and Ravel’s Tzigane. Then I have to play the Dvořák Concerto, so there’s a lot going on at the moment.

I work on West Side Story for the majority of the day and touch on the Bartók, which is new to me, whenever I can. I try to programme and learn at least one new piece every season.

The Bernstein has been arranged for me by David Newman. He’s had to stick to Bernstein’s version quite carefully because the music is still owned by the Bernstein estate, but even two days ago he was  sending me rewrites and whole new passages, and the concert is next week! I’m playing from memory, so I try to get the rewrites embedded in my head and fingers as quickly as possible. Then I work through the piece section by section, thinking about structure, phrasing, musicality and dynamics.

I’ve watched the movie of West Side Story, seen the stage version and listened to the original soundtrack; I’ve also got my hands on video footage of Bernstein recording it with the singers and telling them to be more lyrical. It’s fascinating. Moving on to Bartók after Bernstein is a shock.

They’re like night and day! I begin by going through the piece slowly with a pianist friend of mine so that I can hear its structure and sound, rather than just trying to make sense of it from the piano score. I find that helps a lot, because the violin part is only about a tenth of what’s really going on and doesn’t always make sense by itself. Once I have a full sense of the piece I start working on it with the pianist, section by section, trying to get it under my skin in its complete form. Bartók’s markings are scarce, but those he did write are dead on.

Even if I try a bowing another way, usually I end up going back to what he originally wrote because it’s better. Music like this is more about your musical standpoint than your technique.

Technique will come with practice, but if you don’t sound convincing, as though you are playing straight from the heart with an honest interpretation of the music, it won’t sound good. Ideally, I would have a month off and dedicate 100 percent of my practice time to the new piece I’m learning, but that’s not realistic with all the concerts going on right now. I just have to find time when I can.