December 2008

Getting the background right and a poem.

December 24, 2008 21:38


I think one thing I wish above almost anything is that anyone who picks up the violin with the intent to master this beautiful art should succeed to the full extent of their talent which is usually much more extensive than they realize anyway.
One reason this rarely happens is that aside from the (these days) well documented, demonstrated and delivered technicalities of the instrument there is much going on in the background which plays a vital role and is largely ignored by teachers to the detriment of their students.  Here are two simple but crucial things that can spell the difference between success and failure.  
The first concerns putting up the violin and is connected to the structure of the bones in the forearm.  We tend to assume that the little finger is weak and the thumb is strong.  However, as far as the big picture is concerned the little finger is structurally very well anchored and connected to the elbow region whereas the thumb is not.  The latter is a much more free floating agent connected to smaller bones and much more prone to overload and injury.  This is why when one watches judo(ka) approaching an opponent they have the little finger side of the hand leading because it is stronger. The thumb is very prone to getting broken. The implication for violinists concerns how one puts up the instrument.  The action of putting up the violin is rotation around an axis.  The axis must be strong. Thus the correct way to throw up the instrument is by keeping the little finger side of the left hand constant in its spatial position while the thumb side rotates around this axis. This is easily under stood if one places the forearm and palm on the table.  Now keep the little finger side of the arm and hand still and rotate the thumb side round it.  Try the opposite and notice the tension it causes. A large percentage of violinists raise the violin by keeping the thumb side stationary and rotating the little finger side around this axis causing enormous stress on the arm before one has even begun playing.   Its simple, but important.
Even more important is how one places the head on the instrument (or not).  Understand that at the top of the spine are two disks that have separate and differing functions.  The top one allows the head to rotate freely from left to right and vice versa.  The next one down allows the head to rock forwards and backwards.  They perform different jobs and should not be mixed together. Typically many players throw the violin up and then drop the head on the chin rest at a diagonal angle.  The two discs have no idea what they are trying to achieve and the end result is a kind of corkscrew effect on them that cause damage to the spine, tension in the right side of the neck (check that out for an obvious warning sign) and general disc ordination. Do we really want to make playing so hard before we even begin? The correct way to position the head is turn it to the left –first= and then allow it to drop.  So many young players go for years learning this dangerous fault it makes me want to scream at times.  It isn’t hard to correct either.
The strangest things happen to me,
I don't know why that this should be.
Like seeing People that are not there,
Some say I'm nuts and should not stare.
I look at the knots in the wood,
Please untie us, I wish I could.
The eyes in the Potatoes look at me,
Don't you eat us for your tea.
The thing that bothers me most of all,
Are those green spots up on the wall.
They ask me why I sleep all day,
I really don't know what to say.
Has this ever happened to you,
While bending down to tie your shoe.
A very small voice loudly cried,
Leave us alone we've just been tied.
And then again the other day,
I shaved myself in the usual way.
The tooth brush said, Silly Nit,
Don't you know its forbidden to spit.
Now it's most upsetting you must agree,
Do these things only happen to me.
I went down town to see the sights,
A Lamp Post said, Turn left at the lights.
So turning to the right, What do you know,
I saw a sign that said, Please go slow.
So ever so slowly I hurried along,
And arrived back home where I belong.
Now I think that I will put my computer away,
And let it write another day.
Have a great Christmas,

8 replies | Archive link

A different look at memorizing.

December 15, 2008 16:32


a while back PM wrote a blog of frustration about memorization which I can really relate to. The solution is not harder work or more hours practice. The problem of playing from memory often has very deep roots and no simple answer although I will attempt to provide one that might work for somebody here.

When I was a kid memorization was easy. In fact it was automatic and I don’t have a photographic memory. Then when I entered adolescence I began to develop a hang up about it and even for my college graduation recital the memorization process was an agonizing stretch that precluded a lot of the fun and music making I could have shared with the panel. Ironically, after I graduated I went for lessons with a very famous teacher/player. I played very badly for him and he surprised me by laughing and asking me to play him something I had worked on when I was about ten. I put the fiddle up and went straight through Wieniawski 2 without any lapses of memory at all, not having played it in the interim at all. He smiled wryly and just noted `It’s amazing how we remember our childhood pieces....` Since then I have come across numerous pros with memory hang ups making their life miserable or at least more difficult. One of them is MR Haslop who explains in a blog how he broke through. You might take a look at that one. I had to find my own solution and it was surprisingly simple.

I had assumed that I simply did not have a musical memory, which is absurd. What I discovered after picking up the violin again post a long hiatus was that I could memorize whole works before picking up the violin and then play them quite easily and in a fairly good state. It wasn’t that I don’t have a musical memory, but rather the trauma of years of bad teachers and experiences leaves the violin having too many negative associations in that department. By bypassing the instrument the problem solved itself. But it wasn’t just a question of memorizing a piece by looking at the music and recreating the physical motions. That was still a little too close to home. The solution was actually provided by ASM (bless her little cotton socks) in her `The Way they Play Interview` when she stated she worked on new pieces at the piano. I found that by simply playing long passages of music a couple of times they were automatically committed to keyboard memory and very easy to reproduce on the violin. Over time I have honed this practice for maximum efficiency.

First of al there is the question of double stops. I always sing one line with the piano and then switch. This is really important. One reason we waste so much practice time on double stops is we think we are listening or visualizing or whatever when in fact our brains are dead until after we play the two notes at which point we decide, too late that we are not playing in tune and that the violin is difficult.

Then there is the question of transfer and I do go back to the violin in a sense. That is, I stand up form the keyboard and play the music holding an imaginary violin and bow. When I go back to the score the fingerings and bowings seem to appear on the page without effort. Last week I realized how far I had come with this approach when I memorized the first Reger Prelude and Fugue within five hours at the piano and then played it mostly correctly on the violin. Great piece by the way....

So if you are stuck and want to memorize something from a Suzuki book or whatever it might pay dividends to get away from the complexity of the violin and just do some musical work on the piano.



5 replies | Archive link

Little Jack Horner Syndrome.

December 11, 2008 16:02


One of the most significant things I learnt from Alexander Technique is that we tend to assume that what we are `used to` is correct or right or relaxed. Thus we may have no awareness of the presence of tension whatsoever or, when one is offered an alternative use of the body that is more efficient it feels uncomfortable and we often reject it to our detriment.
For violinists I think the right hand thumb is a classic case.  It is possible to have a quite mobile thumb that works technically correctly in bending and straightening etc that actually holds a lot of tension.  When I observe this in myself or a student I work on or offer this combination of exercises which seems to be efficacious.  
First I ask the player to the no thumb bow roll (not to be used in making Schoenburgers). That is, they place the bow on at the heel with a flat hair and remove the thumb. They then allow the bow to roll back and forth across all four strings. It is amazing the number of players who find this difficult, especially here in Japan where over pronation and squeezing the first finger is so common. This simple exercise has a remarkably powerful effect on developing hand control and comfort in bowing. This exercise is followed by one that frees the bow arm. Start at about mm90 and draw whole bows with the bow quite near the fingerboard and minimal pressure.  Gradually increase the mm speed until you get up to about mm144. If you can move the bow arm this fast and control it you are doing well.  It really gets the body pumping.  
While you are doing this stroke pay attention to two things.  First imagine that the bow is balanced on the strings and the thumb. The thumb is not pressing in anyway. It is simply a bow rest.  Second, imagine that the bow is leading the stroke.  This latter is a very powerful heuristic for improving playing in general,.  It is the tool that organizes the way the body is used not an intellectualization of various parts of the anatomy doing this and that.
Hope this is good for a laugh over Christmas,

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A meander on efficiency and scales

December 7, 2008 23:12


Q: You mean I can still improve considerably without the torment of 4-5 hours a day?:DI would like that.
A: Oh yes. If you didn’t consistently improve on an hour a day something would be wrong. However…
 Q: But does  that work  if you're thinking of a solo career ?
A: I doubt it. In general a soloist has had quite an extended period of fairly intense practice before perhaps heading into a more maintenance orientated state.  And in order to maintain technique one never stops. Soloists have such perfect technique that I think there is a point where they can reduce actual practice and focus on a more music oriented growth but there is certainly still fundamental technical work going on. There are exceptions who are notorious for not practicing that much such as Shumael Ashkenasi but these are few and far between. Genius is a special case at times. I am very wary about what to say to talented people who are `thinking about a solo career.` It is very easy to put people off or be destructive, but in general I honestly feel that in this day and age if you are `thinking about a solo career` then it is too late.  These days career s start so young and the standard is so astonishingly high that soloists are soloists by default from a very young age. There are exceptions but they are few and far between. I also question the actual meaning of the expression and why any one would actually want what I presume they mean.  Of course we all love playing concertos with orchestras , until, like Arnold Steinhardt we find that you have to follow an orchestra rather than vice versa and that conductors won’t give you rehearsal time.  Or that it is a lonely life without a great deal of money after everyone is paid off.  Many, if not all of the great soloists around at the moment are teaching (at least after a certain point- don’t think Mr. Ehnes is yet…) and or playing chamber music whenever they get the chance.  So many of those with enormous potential who have won international competitions that previously would have launched a solo career are becoming front desks player sin top orchestras. It’s not that’s there’s anything wrong with the dream of being a soloist but it is potentially dangerous in blinding one form the utter joy of chamber music and playing in a good orchestra. Not to mention the complete love of my life- teaching (and prunes of course.
>And, speaking of maximizing the efficiency of the time used, would it be ok to just replace scales sometimes with some Sevcick and Schradieck work? I am starting to hate Flesch.
Well, sevcik and schradieck also include complete scale systems;) I can understand you starting to hate Flesch.  I can only be bothered to work through the set for a couple of days a week.  But the fault is much mine as Flesch. If you want to substitute something though you might consider Dounis Artists Technique.   
>:( . I know those scales are complex and really useful , but it just takes me so much time to finish the 4 pages (?) of a Flesch scale , when I can hardly wait to play something nice. Playing scales for me is a tiring , long , and boring experience , and thinking that I have to repeat this experience again ....and again... and again....Isn't there a way of mainting and improving technique , that is not so long and know...:)
The actual problem is your approach in general I think. Its very understandable. We are told again and again that scales are the fundamentals (absolutely true) and that Heifetz practiced them for four hours a day and that (tacit perhaps) the more we practice the more brilliant we will be.  However, the truth is that we should be working on the violin with full emotional, spiritual and mental focus at all times.  Typically however, scales become a duty that weighs us down and because of this lack of involvement at various levels mistakes creep in that actually slow down our progress sin the long run although in the short term there may well be an increase in certain areas of technique.    For the average person, as opposed to Heifetz, the word `long` and mental efficiency are incompatible. This is not to say that one should not spend a good amount of time on technique but rather that within that one should be constantly challenging the mind and changing materials as well as balancing out with a good dose of music.   This was the beauty of the Galamian scale system: if used correctly one becomes so involved in the changes in rhythms and bowings that times passes in a very quick and yes, enjoyable (sort of way) with commensurate rewards. I actually think the Flesch is very inefficient unless used in an equally imaginative and interesting way but how many players honestly do?  
In fact, one of the simplest ways to make scale practice more interesting is to combine the two systems.  
Fopr example, take the Galamian book and open to page 26 which is six note rhythm patterns. Keep the book open on the stand. Now play through a three octave Flesch scale using the first rhythm pattern. Without stopping go into the scale again using the second rhythm pattern, then the third until you have played about ten rhythms.   Move the mm up and repeat the procedure. After things are going fast mix in six note bowing patterns as well.  Accents too…
I don’t think the Flesch double stops are actually fully efficient. Much better for me are a) scales using the same two fingers 13131313 for 3rds for example then 242424224 then the real deal.  Also apply to sixths and b) they do not include shifting in double stops which is –really – important. That is why I prefer the Dounis Artists technique. Notice that Agopian`s book `No time to practice` places a lot of emphasis on this.  So does the less well known book by Turkanowsky.   Not to mention Drew Lecher’s book which at risk of boring the pants off everyone contains all the necessary elements of technique (I suppose…) in such a way that they are maximally efficient and can be done in very small does before switching to another area of technique.  Yes, you could replace Flesch with this volume, but you’d still end up doing scales.;)   There is no escape.
 >And if there are any tips of how to have the same efficiency with less time of practice, please, that would be helpful.
Actually you have to practice with more efficiency if you have less time.;) The most important thing is contained in the idea `Think ten times, play once.` If you cannot hear and visualize what you are going to play then stop.  Blind repetition is the artistic death of the majority of violinists. Yep. I will stand by that.:(
Second, have clear goals. Without them concentration is substantially less. This has been proven over and over again in sports psychology. It is a key point made by Galloway in his book `The Inner Game of Tennis.`

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