December 2009

Christmas Basics.

December 24, 2009 14:57


I’m not exactly sure why I have had this life long obsession with Aikido. Perhaps it’s because I have simply wished to be more graceful, a bit less of a general all round klutz. Whatever the reason, in the last twenty years I have failed twice at different dojos that didn’t seem to be doing it for me. In fact I was severely injured by an ignorant black belt on my second attempt.   Third time lucky I was recently introduced to a more traditional school with a clear system that moves systematically and safely, respecting the needs and difficulties of quasi-maniacal middle aged klutzes. Now having trained three times a week for some months I can claim to have moved into the conscious incompetence part of the skill learning model IE I can see what I don’t know and what I need to learn.  
What interests me about this style (Yoshinkan) is the emphasis put on basics. In Japanese the nuance of the word is slightly different to the English word. It has I think, a deeper sense of `foundation` rather than just `step one.` One can understand any skill (something one learns) from a hierarchy of modules. The basics (kihon dosa) are six stances/techniques which one practice repeatedly as the body learns the simple but powerful relationship between different ratios of weight distribution and spacing of the feet; how to move the hips;   strengthens the knees and so forth. It was three months before I was allowed to work with a partner on anything which may be an all time record for klutzes.... 
These stance/techniques in turn all derive from the only position referred to as `kamae.`   In essence all Aikido derives from one`s kamae in the same way that all violin playing derives from ones initial stance which represents our current totality in relation to the universe for better or worse. I have had the opportunity to watch the annual grading session of all levels, an incredibly grueling test for even the really fit.   What impressed me the most was not the gradee versus three armed combatants but rather the fact that at –every- level the candidate began with relentless repetitions of the six basic stances/techniques with three examiners scrutinizing every aspect of feet and finger placement.   Having left the dojo crying in pain on occasion (purely self inflicted by my innate stubbornness) it was sort of nice (?) to see black belts being tortured in the same way. It’s all about basics.
Well, this is turning into a marathon blog, but what better way to end the year? Of course it is about `Basics.`
There are a number of books in the history of violin pedagogy that have changed and continue to change many players/teachers and by default the profession. Pere Mozart, Baillot/Kreutzer,   Auer, Galamian etc. `Basics` by Simon Fischer belongs there... 
 I stumbled on the book just prior to publication some years back and thought it might be mildly interesting. At the time I was getting back into playing after a hiatus of some years doing other things, but finding myself directionless. I can trace the cause of this directionlessness (as it were) very easily and it is something I see so often I wish it could be shouted form the rooftops rather more than it is. It seems to me that the music profession and music institutes have a great deal to answer for in their failure to help talented young kids get decent systematic training (as in Yoshinkan) and in doing so they condemn many talented people to a less than fruitful life in music tempered by frustration and injury. Even the reputable institute I attended with great teachers seemed to be governed more by haste and lack of the basics we in Britain who didn’t live in London were largely unable to access.
I believe the book `Basics` is significant not just because of its extraordinary content but rather because it takes away any excuses for bad teaching at least at a technical level. The profession as a whole has had the relevant knowledge collated and any teacher should now be able to look at a student’s vibrato or whatever and go `Hmmm. Try this exercise for a week` or `I can see this typical problem with your vibrato. The upper arm is too near the rib cage.` etc. I strongly believe music institutes should use this book as a core syllabus for testing students in their teacher exams (I have those qualifications from said Institute but use –nothing- from that test except the playing ability it required) and every student should be grilled over problems of tone production, right hand thumb and the like. I don’t think it is going to happen in my lifetime but who knows....
At least `Basics` is universally established and helping more and more people get better in their own practice and working with their teacher on specific problems. Nonetheless I am often a little startled to find comments from people who have bought the book and ask `How should it be used?`   Of course any question is a good one (except the one –not- asked) so clearly something is a bit daunting about this book for some people and perhaps it needs a little discussion.
Actually Simon writes a few suggestions at the beginning which I have forgotten and don’t have a copy to hand but here are a few idle thoughts. Perhaps begin by simply reading it from end to end in a very broad sense.   Get the general layout- its divided into left and right hand . What aspects of these sections interest you or relate to you- that you can apply immediately to what you are currently studying- IE if your teacher is down on you for intonation then read and reread that section and begin applying the information to what you are doing with scales and pieces. The book is kept by the music stand on a chair for easy access. Reading in of itself is useful but not a substitute for application of what you read....
At the same time allocate part of your practice time to reading and applying small sections of the book.   You might do this the simplest way which is, quite sensibly to `begin at the beginning` and work your way through. Tick off where you have got to. When an exercise strikes a real note with you either post it or make a note in a notebook to return to that exercises everyday as soon as possible.   This approach is fine but then one is going to be working on bowing for a while. Another possibility is to read two or three exercises from the first section and two or three from the second in parallel.
Once you have worked through the book you will become aware of certain differences in the kinds of exercises and practice methods. 
1)   Some of them are simple `awareness` exercise and although they may radically alter your approach to playing they need not be done on a daily basis. You might make a note of those that are valuable to you and begin your weekend practice with these. 
2) Some of the exercises are clearly highlighted by Simon using expressions such as `this is a master technique which should be used in all practice sessions,` or similar. These sentences should be highlighted and the exercises notes on a special wall poster or memo board to be viewed before beginning a practice session.
3) Some of the exercises are designed to be used as part of a daily routine.   A good example is the `key bowing` section. One can photocopy this part and keep it separate on the music stand. Everyday, systematically select a few bowings from each type and practice them as part of your technical training.
4) Some exercises clearly apply to a specific problem you may be having right now such as vibrato.   Bookmark it and return to it daily, working at one or two different exercises a week until you find the one that really improves your problem the most and incorporate that into your daily routine for a while. Keep going back to the section, searching for a deeper understanding.
I suggest that once one has worked through the book in this kind of way one then has to go back again(as in the Aikido Kihon Dosa) and work deeper on one part or section.    Have one day a week in which you take one section and work at it for a few hours.   It might be general contact exercises or bow speed or whatever. A few hours focus on a specific area can help to substantially integrate your technique.   During this work try to think like a teacher. This is because the time proven and irrefutably strongest method of learning anything is simple called `re-teaching.` IE the moment you learn anything you should create a mental image of a student in your head and teach what you have just studied to them. If you cannot do it you have not quite got it yet......
As far as `getting it is concerned I have noticed that this is a little bit of an issue with some people.   They ask,  quite reasonably,  `How do I know when I have got it?`  and seem on ocassion to be put off by a feeling that they won`t know when they have it.   In a way this is over focusing on product and not paying enough attention to the `process.`  The two things go hand in hand and if one pays careful attention to the instructions the sound will emerge which in turn will feed back into the process.  It is important to remember that the most successful learning actually contains an element of struggle and insecurity.  Very often one can miss the point that the feedback is built in.  If someone is really fixated on this as a problem I ask them to practice the Suzuki pizz exercise in which one plucks a note,  listens to the ring and tries to emulate that on a bow stroke.   The feedback is built in:  all the data is contained in the ringing note of the pizz and the copy you then make with the bow.   No teacher,  video,   or tape recorder can really help you with this.  One has to decide to use the ears/mind and actually listen to what one is doing.  This can be a very hard lesson,  but nobody ever said playing the violin was easy;)
That’s about it really. The deeper you work the more you will find and some things will take on great significance for you. In my own practice I constantly return to the same four pages: general contact exercises which includes the click, Suzuki’s pizz/bow /   play progressively longer notes at heel listening for the resonance and then incorporate into bow change etc and in tandem with that-   sound point exercises. All my students are tortured with whole bows at mm 80/75/70/56/40 on the various sound points. I hope they realize that like the black belts in the dojo , I too have to go back to basics for it is only out of these that art can flow.
Have a Happy Christmas,

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The Tyranny of mathematical bow division.

December 17, 2009 20:53


Having been pondering various writings by Clayton Haslop and Jee Won concerning bowing I find myself wondering if there is a very important initial aspect of bowing which we ignore which bedevils many of us for our whole career if not given adequate consideration.  I call it `the tyranny of mathematics.`
What I mean by this is we are often taught to use the bow in an apparently simple progression that corresponds to -written music.-  IE musical notation usually has two or four beats and therefore we are often systematically taught to use whole bows, quarter bows and half bows in various combinations and this is supposed to be the simplest starting point.  Anyone who cannot get it is then written off as being less talented or whatever.
However, as the aforementioned writing make clear in different contexts (Jee Won was referring to beginners, Clayton to presumably advanced players struggling with the Bach Prelude) it is not actually the printed page but the nature of the bow and how its sections relate to various parts of the arm which is as important and actually quite a different thing.    If one actually analyzes this then the simplest bowings e.g. the ones with the least number of components being learnt are ones that take place from the heel to balance point, heel to square,   the square zone and close to the point.   If these uses of the bow, and which part of the arm performs them are not made clear from the start then trying to work on mathematical subdivisions of the bow is very hit or miss.   The student or even advanced player will simply not have an adequate sense of the role of the upper arm in isolation (although this is never completely true) or the forearm and how they blend into seamless units at a later stage which can be sub-divided as mathematically as one wishes. The next step is of course artistic sub-division!
I suspect it is in part frustration with unused or incorrectly used upper arm that leads to an occasional over emphasis on the wrist in string crossing.  As Clayton states in his most recent blog `the wrist is…never used for string crossing.`    However,   I have seen many times exercises in which one plays for example two slurred and two separate on alternating strings described as `wrist exercises,` yet even at high speed they are quite playable with the upper arm doing the slur and although it might sound a bit odd, the bow doing the crossing for the two short notes as a kind of reflex action within a gentle but glue bow hold which allows for the kind of movement.
At a higher level the problem in the notorious bariolage passage of the Prelude is actually that a player has never felt the independence of the upper arm as a string crossing machine working in tandem with a laterally moving forearm. Rather the organism is doing some kind of screwy spiral.  The only option at the point is to isolate this movement and then reintegrate.  It takes patience, but then that is what the Christmas Vacation was invented for.

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Are `classical` musicians snobs?

December 5, 2009 18:28


well, as global warming continues to mess up the seasons and the environment here in Japan I have learnt to expect the unexpected.  A hitherto unknown occurrence in my organic broccoli ,  fresh delivered to my door every week.  They actually contained almost no broccoli florets ,  about ten happy looking caterpillars and an awful lot of caterpillar poo.

A very intriguing discussion these last few days on snobbery stimulated by Mr. Bell`s Doodling after the Brahms compels me to write a looney blog with a strong position.   Will the last person to be offended turn off the lights as they leave the room please.

Are classical musicians snobs?

Unequivocally not as far as I am concerned.   There are instances when we may be guilty of snobbery ,  but the behaviour is not the person.  Such instances I feel most strongly are 1)  where a `classical` player denigrates another musical form as lesser and requiring less skill or talent  2)   claiming certain genres of classical music are inferior to others as a blanket criticism while ignoring the context and or purpose for which they were written and 3)  denigrating of dismissing beginners (either children or adults) as not being worthy of attention.  I am sure there are a few more but those are the ones that I personally consider the most worthy of the accusation. 

But, how do I support the view that the  behaviour is not the person ,  and that such instances are not representative of classical players as a whole.  Frankly,   I base it on my personal experience.   With the obvious caveat that all human beings are different and more or less sociable I find classical musicians friendly,  helpful,  supportive and open minded. This may not stretch to spending weekends at blues gigs,  having as many blue grass recordings as those of Oistrakh and so forth but this is a limitation of the job/art rather than genuine snobbishness.   While striving to keep an open mind to all,   one cannot just let go of one`s own art,  whatever it is,  and there are fewer harder or more time consuming taskmasters than classical music training.  One can quite reasonably make this statement without the implication that other forms or skills are lesser.  Simpler is often more throughout all fields  of human endeavour.

So how does this relate to oft cited examples of `snobbishness` such as wearing concert attire of a formal kind, frowning on clapping between movements,  not playing `accessible` or children friendly music or whatever?

For my answer to these reasonable criticisms I would look at society in general.  On the whole,  there are very few people in the developed world (actually a racist,  certainly snobbish term) who are relatively sane;)!   And I do mean to suggest that the gap between the clearly insane (according to definitions that may in themselves be highly inaccurate) and the majority of us is -very narrow indeed.-   One argument in support of this is simply to look around at the world we have created which is racing towards self destruction of our own species.  The fact that we all know and feel deeply war is wrong,  violence is wrong and somehow we manage to let it happen etc. etc.   This is both a consequence and an action working in a vicious circle that we have manged to create and feed.   

It affects people drastically and the insanity I refer to is basically a kind of endless noise,  for want of a better description, going on in our heads,  both from external and internal causes.  Another way to look at it is imagine a TV remote control that has got a mind of its own and shifts randomly three times a second between channels.  As a result we have less and less ability to focus on one thing;  to strive for understanding;  to explore and most of all -appreciate- others or even actually love other people (hence the unending cycles of violence). No where is this more profoundly demonstrated to me than in the huge percentage of children being fed drugs such as Ritalin (until they graduate to Prozac) just to keep some semblance of educational structure or happening in those things called schools.

Classical music and musicians have a role to play in all this. We are exponents of an art and this art has parameters.  One may well become more skillful, knowledgeable or insightful about this art by studying and performing blue grass but it doesn`t alter the fact that that is a different art with different parameters,  intentions and so forth.  In order for classical music to retain its function as an art it needs to retain its somewhat formal role.   But one should not mistake the formality for snobbery.  It is a -signal- of intent to the mind if you will.  The mind of bothe the performer and the listener who are essentially one anyway.   The statement it is making is `we are now entering a particular world together,  you as the listener  and me as the performer.`  At the end you and I may well be united in harmony and feeling or love but this is only possible in this art through certain roles or a making ready.  We can only find sumikiri (stillness in movement)  by going through certain procedures which serve to gently take us away from our crappy job,  two hour drive to work and miserable relationship or whatever.  That is what we are seeking to do together.  And where our job has certain demands that we hope achieve this purpose your role as listener and  partner  has certain gentle demands too.  One of them is to leave the outside world at the  door.  This is not a soccer game where one stands and cheers every great play.  There is no need to stand up and clap between movements unless genuinely compelled to do such a thing and the difference between a fake ovation and a real one is very clear.   And yes,  attending a concert is a time to do something we the insane find harder and harder.

To actually be silent.  

To not comment on things to one`s neighbour because we are conditioned by the endless chatter of talk shows,  and frenetic noise of the outside world.  And yes,  tough though it may be,  if you have a cough then don`t go.   To make such a sacrifice may be both an emotional and financial blow of great magnitude. But by actually showing respect for the stillness of mind of others (and preventing the spread of  illness) one has also grown in some way that is quite tangible.   

Perhaps the weekend vote should be `Are classical musicians snobs?

Time for some prunes I think,


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