March 2008

Pruneless advice for practicing.

March 20, 2008 18:36

I strongly recommend you apply the following lessons to your violin practice.

Short Quiz
The following short quiz consists of 4 questions and will tell you whether you are qualified to be a professional violinst. The questions are NOT that difficult.

1. How do you put a giraffe into a refrigerator?

Correct Answer: Open the refrigerator, put in the giraffe, and close the door. This question tests whether you tend to do simple things in an overly complicated way.

2. How do you put an elephant into a refrigerator?

Did you say, Open the refrigerator, put in the elephant, and close the refrigerator?

Wrong Answer.

Correct Answer: Open the refrigerator, take out the giraffe, put in the elephant and close the door. This tests your ability to think through the repercussions of your previous actions.

3. The Lion King is hosting an animal conference. All the animals attend.... except one. Which animal does not attend?

Correct Answer: The Elephant. The elephant is in the refrigerator. You just put him in there. This tests your memory.

Okay, even if you did not answer the first three questions correctly, you still have one more chance to show your true abilities.

4. There is a river you must cross but it is used by crocodiles, and you do not have a boat. How do you manage it?

Correct Answer: You jump into the river and swim across. Have you not been listening? All the crocodiles are attending the Animal Meeting. This tests whether you learn quickly from your mistakes.


11 replies

Prythm continued.

March 17, 2008 17:09

This is a shorter continuation of thoughts on the use of mm. The reason I believe it is important to kick this topic around is that it somehow connects to much deeper issues of how we approach a piece of music.
In my previous ramble I suggested that there were times when a mm is invaluable and times when the tool becomes a weakened of rhythmic sense and musicianship. Let’s take a typical example of the latter. A player is not holding notes for their full length in a slightly slower passage. A mm is immediately prescribed as a solution because then one is forced to play within a specific and invariant time frame. Has much been learnt? I suspect not. What other options are available. I suggested previously that counting aloud is was an option but here are some other aspects of the situation.
First, do you know what the pinao is doing? Most string players don’t and couldn’t care less;) However, the piano player may have to fit in four 16th notes to your quarter note and if you are cutting corners then they are not going to be pleased. So, if you don’t know the piano part, have no interest in playing the piano etc you are limiting yourself as a musician in two respects: first, if you don’t know the piano part you cannot claim to know a piece of music. Second you are not using it as a rhythmic guide. If one knew the piano part and counted that rhythm aloud then the violin notes would be the right length. ( If the worst come sot the worst, learn the piano part on the violin.)
This gives us a useful insight into the idea of counting aloud. Why assume it has to be in quarter notes? If one counts 16ths and plays quarters that is a much higher level that will solve any rhythmic problem and stimulate the brain to work much harder in playing rhythmically. One need not stop there. The possibility exists of tapping the foot in quarter notes and doing different rhythms with the voice and vice versa. The point is to challenge rather than limit and restrict oneself.
To take it back to my original point about what a serious issue this is I wonder how many violinists are taught in the beginning stages to learn the rhythm of a piece first, then the pitches, then both together etc before they have even picked up the instrument? Good teachers work like this. Bad teachers don’t bother. They let an over excited student of any age pick up a work and start hacking away before pointing out a few errors which the student is suppose dot iron out by next week. Where is the joy in such destructive `learning` and oh how these habits are carried into the remainder of that persons playing career.
Incidentally, I am not such a big fan of clapping. I actually prefer conducting with finger snapping except for young kids who can’t do this. Not only do I find this works slightly better but it also allows the use of hand to indicate dynamics and character rather better than the process of clapping.
Off for prunes ,2,3,4,

6 replies

Prunes not metronome for regularity.

March 16, 2008 16:38

The standard response to `I have trouble with rhythm` these days seems to be `use a metronome.` Indeed, in a recent post one of our most esteemed and talented colleagues advocated just that. Working somewhat from a position of Devil’s Advocate I actually strongly disagree with anythign other than minimal use of the metronome for a few very specific purposes. The blanket recommendation to use it `all the time` if you have a `rhythm` problem is, in my experience , extremely counterproductive. This is literally my experience since when I was young I relentlessly used the metronome with much of my practice. If it does serve the function f improving rhythm then I would be the most precise person on the planet. On the contrary, I would say it weakened my overall rhythmic system in much the same way taking drugs for long term treatment of some ailments will weaken the system and exacerbate the problem.
The problem is, as always, identifying what the problem really is. Does the person concerned actually have a problem with `pulse` (which is not exactly rythm to my mind) or with placing units within this pulse or subdividing complex patterns, which after all, can stump even seasoned professionals sometimes.
Beginning with actual regularity of pulse, it is doubtful if it is a problem. Someone who does not have this internal regularity would drop dead. The heart beats, we walk, run and some even manage to dance although the skill eludes me to this date. This then is where to start. If you want to play with a regular pulse then put everything aside and reconnect with walking and moving in general... Why put a metronome in front of a kid if they could simply work on walking and clapping and other kinds of natural coordination. If this cannot be integral to the playing itself then there is something wrong with the way the instrument is being played that is blocking things. It is not a lack of pulse or `rhythm.` Sometimes we just get out of focus because as adults we have spent so much time thinking about technique in isolation from the ebb and flow of the natural world. The bets thing I think one can do is to refind one’s natural voice. That is why players like Clayton Haslop so strongly advocate counting aloud. I use this approach with student who apparently has no rhythm and the change within a short space of time is remarkable. I consider it one of the most powerful teaching and learning strategies available. I think it brings back into focus all our natural ability to pulse even if one’s first (and later) attempts are distorted by the effort it requires. Another example of how paying attention to an aspect of the body superficially distinct from playing technique shows up areas of considerable tension that maybe bets disposed of.
Another problem with the metronome is that it is rather like a clock that has stopped. It is correct but only twice a day. Put it another way, it may give you some kind or regular noise but this in no sense means that what one is ding in between is in anyway accurate. Indeed, I would venture to suggest that it teaches profound inaccuracy for many in the following way. Player X feels they are not keeping a steady tempo in a passage of 8th notes. They dutifully put on the mm and play. Sure enough they are out of sync with the `beat` but the adjust to it every time they catch this. In other words. Like learning bad intonation they have simply learned the skill of not being correct and then adjusting towards correctness supplied by someone else. I am actually `extremely` good at this as a result of many years of mm abuse even though my actually rhythmic impulse is average at best. This can be unnerving at times as I can make the most rapid adjustments to a conductors beat and have been praised quite frequently for this skill which is not a rhythmic skill at all. Rather it is a rapid reflex response to a visual cue- nothing more. Not only this, player x may well be playing the second 8th note in completely the wrong place. Indeed they are, because the first is never quite `right.` There is nothing in the beat of a mm which ensure that one is playing a rhythm within that tempo correctly and indeed, if the initial pulse of the group is lost in space the rest cannot be right anyway. It’s all relative. Only using the voice brings one back onto a coordinated pulse that integrates rhythm in a natural and flowing way as opposed to a fruitless striving for mechanical precision that does not actually exist because music actually should change tempo a great deal within an overall time frame. I consider the greatest exponents of this art to be Rubenstein, and Oistrakh.
Where does a mm excel? One obvious place is in learning to accelerate. If one has a difficult passage and wishes to speed it up in consistent increments then there is no better tool. Indeed, players often seem to limit themselves in the way they use it. One can be far more creative in speeding up, dropping back a little speeding up and various permutations of this in order to trick oneself into playing faster er, faster. Then there are cases where one might actually want to match a very mechanical beat to a very visual work out using bow length. I have the mm set at 6o for son file for sheer convenience but one could do a lot more than just have it keeping time. Try doing a son file with a slow beat and counting rhythms with the voice. Indeed, any combination of mm and voice is usually more useful than just mm alone.
But to go back to my original concern which prompted this post. I would say to a supposedly unrythmical beginner not `use a mm,,` but rather ` use your body and voice. Find out where the technical problem is that is distorting your rhythm. Practice slowly enough to resolve this and be able to count. If you need a mm to speed things up after that then so be it.` But never assume a mm has much to do with your personal sense of rhythm or that it will make things better by default if you it going all the time during practice.`

11 replies

Barry Douglas

March 13, 2008 18:44

Andrew doesn`t have a comments space for his blogs. Who can blame him with me around?!!!!
So I just thought I`d write and thank him for reminding me of Barry Douglas. I was leading an orchestra that played the Emperor Concerto with him just after he won the Leeds Piano conmpetition. Not only did he have very specific and cogent requests about bow strokes, it was such a fantastic performance it has been the yardstick I have measured all performances of that work since. The majority have not been nearly as good.

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The warm up of death...

March 5, 2008 18:02

Two blogs in one day can only mean…..Prune shortage!
I was really interested to see the expression `one hour of scales to warm up` occur twice this week on v.commie. No offence intended, but I think this way of thinking is fundamentally flawed. Of course no one except the protagonist really knows what happens during that one hour but language always reveals something about the mindset which is what is governing that particular practice session. For me this language is extremely revealing and just a little worrying.;)
One might begin by analyzing the concept of `warming up` just a little. It has three components: the physical- basically getting the blood to the extremities and its best done with a few minutes cardio vascular work such walking up and down some steps, calisthenics or whatever. It is not the same as stretching which should only be done after having warmed up. Be warned. The second component is emotional and might involve considering what mood you are in and playing a short extract or improvising around that mood. The third is intellectual and might be regarded as tuning in by playing a few scales with intense concentration or something of that ilk. I think the two octave scales at the beginning of the Galamian book are excllent in this regard... All this is a very personal thing but if it take longer than ten minutes, including planning out the next forty odd minutes of work then there is something squiffy.
Scales themselves are a very advanced exercise if you begin with a three octave set like the Flesch. They have perhaps one basic purpose which can be broken down further. This purpose is:


To approach scales with any other goal (or indeed any other practice) is destructive and is the primary reason why scales practice as opposed to any other is regarded as a burden and duty rather than an important and exciting time. The purpose has little or nothing to do with warming up. Some possible extrapolations of the primary purpose are:

1) To increase the mind finger connection by playing scales with combinations of rhythm, bowings and accents.
2) To increase the evenness of your playing by the use of combinations of bowings.
3) To improve the quality of your ear by refining intonation.
4) To improve a passage in a concerto by applying a specific bowing from a concerto to the scale.
5) To improve your control of dynamics by using a variety of crescendos /diminuendos and so forth.
6) To improve your ability to play rapidly by working on blocking techniques.

And so on.
At no time should one see scale practice as something designed to `sustain technique` since who really wants to stay in the same place for the rest of their life. The weak version of this idea is using scales to `warm up.` Scale practice is a time of devilry and imagination. Have fun and swagger a little. Make the point to yourself by beginning with concerto work and doing scales last in the day. What is different? How does it make you feel. If you think grinding out a routine makes you more alert for your concerto practice think again- it’s the violinistic equivalent of working at McDonalds.
There is no hard and fast rule about scales first. Galamian was quite clear on this point: changing the order of practice is desirable to prevent staleness, so in his mind at least, scales had absolutely nothing to do with warming up!

8 replies

Where is that true sound?

March 5, 2008 15:52

I seem to remember my sound at college fluctuated between average and miserable and it is only now in my dotage that I am beginning to sense what the core of a true violin sound is.
For what little it`s worth, this is my current line of thinking on sound production that I wish to explore. A word of warning to those just starting out: the following comments may be of interest (or not) but they could be in direct conflict with what you have been taught and I do not advise anyone to follow them. Prunes remain a safe alternative in all situations.
I think there is now a fairly standard, thoroughly reliable description of how to produce a solid and deep tone using the bow that is taught by many great teachers and can be found in much of the canonic literature of the violin. This is roughly, the bow gets lighter as one approaches the point and one therefore has to compensate for this by using the thumb as a fulcrum and feeding more weight into the stick/string by pronating the forearm(turning it inwards). This is described in great detail and with excellent clarity by Robert Gerle in his masterwork `The Art of Bowing` which should be on every violinists music stand to be read and reread.
The trouble is I have recently begun to feel that this idea is either slightly wrong, incomplete or misleading. I began to feel this after practicing more and more son file bowing first thing every morning. That is, after the first desperate cup of coffee at 5 am I practice bow strokes of more than 1 minute for on average about twenty minutes. After this work I practice rapid strokes using whole bows and half bows with string crossings. What I have noticed is that after the son file work the bow is adhering to the string and creating a kind of gluey but vibrant sound that to my ear is quite delightful and dare I say, moving. So I began to wonder where it was coming from because one thing is for sure, I don’t use pronation in son file. That is not a big deal, but then I checked out the rapid bow WbS (mm120-130) and I sure wasn’t using pronation their either. In fact, in this kind of playing any adjustment of the hand or arm in this respect tends to cause the bow to judder or get out of control. It can only be done for me (I am not speaking for anyone else) by using a flat hair and letting the bow do the work of adhering to the string and creating this gluey vibration. Attention is paid to the string itself and if the friction between the hair and string is not adequate to get the string vibrating fully using only the weight of the bow a little weight feeds into it from the upper arm , without pronation. It’s actually going through the whole of the hand evenly distributed. But in general there is no need to consciously add more weight.
It actually slightly contradicts what I would expect in that faster bow stroke usually implies an increase in weight to compensate. It might not be completely clear what I am trying to describe here, but it basically seems that if one stops trying to `make a big sound` using the conventional theory of pronating and adding weight, instead learning to let the bow really grip the string while being moved rapidly and lightly (although I suspect this is not lightness- more that non interference is allowing weight to be more present) coaxes a truly deep and vibrant sound form the instrument. W hat is strange to me is that there is no actual decrescendo on the down bow as though weight itself is not a factor in sustaining tone for the length of the bow. It is as though there is a more elusive factor in creating tone at the point where the hair touches the string and as long as this factor is kept at work one doesn’t actually have to work so hard to `equalize the tone in all parts of the bow.` It seems to happen naturally as long as one is listening carefully. Neither of the instructions `use more weight` or `use more bow` seem to cover this type of sound production adequately.

16 replies

Is loud allowed?

March 2, 2008 16:37

This morning I was looking back at an issue of the Strad from 2005. It announces the premier of a work called `Don’t push your granny when she is shaving.,` for string quartet. Apparently this work `moves quickly from ppppp to fffff….` among other things. As far as I know this work has never managed to achieve sufficient status to appear alongside the Beethoven quartets as standard repertoire and I speculate there are two reasons for this. First a global protest movement from grannies who like being pushed while shaving as it’s the only fun they get out of life. The second just might possibly be, and this is purely a personal opinion and guesswork, that the composer actually didn’t have a very good idea what the violin is or isn’t good for.
To go off at another tangent before expanding on this, the first violin concerto I ever heard live was Ricci playing the Tchaikovsky in a huge and rather unforgiving hall called the DeMonfort in Leicester. It was an amazing experience for me simply because I could not understand why the violin was so quiet relative to the orchestra. Why on earth wasn’t it as loud and powerful as on all those recordings? The truth is the violin is not a loud instrument akin a trumpet Many of us are attracted to it by the glorious sweeping sounds of a Menuhin or Oistrakh recording and spend a lifetime wondering why we never quite reach that elusive dream of standing in front of an orchestra pouring heart and soul into the Bruch concerto while all the good looking, freshly shaved grannies on the front row have tears pouring down their faces as they throw you signed bloomers from Marks and Spencers.
Unfortunately there is a strong tendency to conflate end result with means of producing said result so that mistaken beliefs about what the violin is about (a huge dynamic range) coupled with erroneous ideas about how to produce a big sound prevent a player from ever reaching their true potential. A few points regarding how this might be mitigated to some extent might be as follows:
1) The violin is an instrument of color and articulation not misguided attempts to play fffff. A violinist who has mastery of a variety of bow strokes and feeling for color will sound much more dynamically varied and interesting than one who only plays `Loud.` Contrast is the essence.
2) A cheaper instrument has limitations. Trying to get more from an instrument than is in it, or forcing a student to do the same is detrimental to technique.
3) Perhaps the worst misunderstandings of violinists is conceptualizing tone production in terms of downward direction of the bow as opposed to the push and pull description found in the French School of playing.
4) If you don’t play well in tune no amount of skill in bowing will produce a large and vibrant sound. But, intonation has a deeper aspect which is not discussed so often- every violin also has its own personal intonation which is the precise pitch in which the note rings to the maximum. This may not be exactly in tune with other instruments even if the open strings are.
5) The correct ratios of speed and bow weight are governed by the placing of the bow between bridge and fingerboard which in terms stems from a clear mental conception of the sound you wish. This latter could be well learned by listening to great players everyday and great singers as well. Practice of phrases on every sound point before playing as intended is a must for developing color.
6) It actually takes more energy/correctly used tension to play softly than loud. If you want to play louder you need to relax more. Many players go the other way. Conductors have contributed a lot to this misunderstanding with their gyrating antics and demands for `more and more、‘ from young players. If you want to see an absolute model of relaxation then check out the DVD of Milstein playing Mozart 5. After looking at Milstein ( a model of relaxation) look at the leader of the orchestra. That is Hugh Bean and his sound was –fantastic-. Observe how little wasted energy in his playing and how compact everything he does is. It really isn’t necessary to do more than that in orchestra.
7) In general (although not always) a bigger sound is produced by using more bow. So practice fragments from your pieces and concertos using too much bow. Then reduce the amount of bow you use until you find the precise amount you want for maximum vibration.
8) Use a flat bow hair most of the time.
9) Play in tune.
10) Don`t confuse vibrato with dynamic variation. Vibrato add intensity. Practice passages or whole movements with your full dynamic and expressive range without vibrato. Then let the vibrato grow organically out of this sound rather than feeling like something that has been slapped on top.


15 replies

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