February 2010

Finger yoga works wonders.

February 24, 2010 05:07


for the first time in ages I am going to write about something I find really exciting and significant.  For reasons I won`t bore you with I have been both unable to and uninterested in practice for about six weeks.   This is a very long time for me away from the instrument apart from teaching.  Also I am one of those people who goes back to Suzuki book 1 level if I take three days off so restarting the violin is always a horrible process that takes about three hours of torture.
Anyway, on a whim,  a couple of days ago I started playing with the finger exercises mentioned in the finger yoga thread.  The first day I just took a casual look and ran through a few of the sequences in a somewhat desultory fashion.  Yesterday I stepped it up although not with any real enthusiasm  Today I started to find feelings of release in the hands so I worked quite a lot at them in very small chunks when I had a spare moment ,  also playing around with them with the elementary school kids I teach.   By the end of the day I noticed the veins on the back of my hands absolutely engorged which is possibly charming for some people although I have my doubts.
This evening I decided to bite the bullet and relearn the violin.  Except I did@t have to. In fact my playing had drastically improved. I could control exactly where I wanted the fingers to go,  what I wanted to do with vibrato and support the weight of the bow with great sensitivity in all manner of ways. I worked on Agopian`s book `No Time to Practice` which demands very rapid whole bows and awkward combinations and because my hands felt so strong and sensitive the whole body reacted positively and the rapid whole bows were effortless and easy to control. The biggest surprise was the fingered octaves which I could play without any sense of stretch a all and just flutter as trills.  That was scary;)
So what is going on here?
Well, I have long been an advocate stretching for violists (as well as other exericse).  The reason for this is simply that the violin is held in a somewhat awkward position for the muscles which is not in itself harmful as long as the opposite stretch is done to bring things back into balance which is why yoga is so good for us.  That is what it is designed to do,  among other things. however,  if we really think about stretching ,  we don`,  or rather I don`t stretch the hands much at all.  And those are the appendages that spend a great deal of time contracting.  Now this is the key word because, as many AT teachers among others have told me,  the amount of time it takes to release the contracted muscle is longer than to time to use it in the first place. Thus, if all things are dne more or less equally the hands experience a progressive shortening of muscles and accumulation of tension of the years if one is not careful.  Now what I noticed during these exercises was what I call releases occurring,  I also found one of my right hand fingers was actually relatively dead (an old injury actually) and that finger actually increased its range of motion i one exercises by about three cm in a day. It was as though it was saying `thanks for finally noticing me.` And that I think is the crux of what these exercises about. The guy doing it , who is actually a musician,  often reiterates the statement `doing such and such increases the communication or contact with your hands.` That is different from strength training or exercises that don@t require thought to isolate fingers when they don't want to be isolated.  The mind does have to dig new pathways and it happens really fast.  So when one does pick up the instrument after a lay off the degree of mental control over the hands has increased and for sure, that improves the playing.  Shame it doesn`t develop you as an artist....
The possibilities are rather interesting for people who suddenly find they have restricted practice time and I am going to be using these exercises everyday from now on. Somewhere soon down the line so are my students.

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What to do in thirty minutes. Not scales.....

February 13, 2010 19:54


sorry this is actually in response to a discussion question posted by Rick.  The computer has gone haywire so I send it under the blog rubric. Hope it is of some interest.

Rick,,  I thought for a minute you were talking about the book by Flesch called `Urstudien.`  However, I am guessing you are now talking about doing Flesch scales for thirty minutes and you have raised some very interesting questions.


To begin with the books,  I am probably now in something of a minority but I think Flesch scales are introduced far too early.  I have young kids (aged 7-12) turn up at my doorstep with techniques defective in basic areas who are doing the Flesch scales.  Except they are not really doing them.  They are simple playing a few of them very slowly and often badly out of tune.  I do not think one should do Flesch before one has mastered Hrimaly.  In conjunction with Hrimaly I would use the techniques introduced in the Galamina scale system and gradually work on that.   The ideas found in the Galamian system ca be integrated beautifully with the Flesch.  One could do only Flesch and use a lot of creativity but Galamian has simply made it a lot easier to be flexible and systematic ,  as long as one doesn`t go too far.  

This is an overview of scales in the traditional sense,  but as I have pointed out for years on this site (and Mr Fischer much more articulately) scales are not always a means to an end. They are in fact a finished product that integrates all aspects of violin technique and this raises a whole new set of questions about how to actually practice them.  If your shifting,  finger pressure,  vibrato,  bow technique ,  is not in good shape then those are what you should be practicing,  with the scales as the icing on the cake.  Heifetz practiced scales for four hours a day because he could....

Thus, it makes far more sense to practice fundamental movements and techniques before doing actual scales. This position is supported by standard technical works such as those by Dounis,  Torkanowsky,  Sammons,  Fischer et al. and of course Carl Flesch.  The Carl Flesch in question is his Urstudien.   This book covers  all the major finger actions ,  a wide range of vital bowings ad finally just about the right amount of scales.  It is a marvelous system that Henrik Szeryng swore by and used his whole life (I belive Heifetz also used it though the actual wording he used was not definite).  One would,  In my opinion,  make more technical   advances using this approach on half an hour a day than starting in with scales.  

However, there is another important caveat.   I disagree with both the teachers who use this as study material and those who ,  once again,  give it far too early to students.  It was designed for professionals and in my opinion that is where it remains maximally efficient although intermediate students can use it well for a time.

At an earlier stage I prefer a work called `The Daily Dozen` which is a deceptively simple set of exercises which not only covers basic movements very effectively but will definitely build technique. The only problem is that I don`t feel it covers basic bowings to an adequate extent.   One might therefore supplement this with the basic bowings listed in Simon Fischer`s Basics or a few Kreutzer etudes.

There is now one more book which if used well will also develop technique including scale playing That is the one by Drew Lecher which I strongly recommend everybody has a copy of. It is worth very careful study over a lifetime.  Another excellent option is Agopian`s no time to practice.

If you weer stuck for practice time in the short term and needed to sustain an advanced technique I would suggest you spend your thirty minutes on a burst of pattern practice,  playing first in first position and then leaping up an octave on the same string and repeating it. Thus one combines patterns,  intonation,  shifting and tone production work to mention but a few things.  then do scales in double stops on one string as high as you can go. Thirds are especially important.  Agopian`s book mentioned above is a very good source of material.




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The eyes have it!

February 11, 2010 20:09


As global warming continues to destabilize global norms,  the coldest winter in living memory for this part of Japan continues unabated, in spite of the fact spring officially started a week or so back.   Even my dreadful moggie lurks under the futon with me at night and refuses to come out. Although,  after too much fermented soybean and yeast I do occasionally contribute my own burst of methane to the biosphere.  Once the ratio of breathable air becomes too low Po has no choice but to rush,  complaining bitterly, from under the blankets, at least for a minute or two.
We pick up bad habits really easily.  One session may be enough. I had found over the weeks that my practice of Basic Aikido body movements was not going well.   The head honcho finally put his finger on it when he observed that I was looking down slightly during each movement. The reason for this was simply the analytical nature of the style I practice: absolute precision of foot spacing and weight distribution is the goal during movement practice and I had got into the habit of visually checking my feet.  Bad Dobby!
Moving the eyes incorrectly is actually one of the fastest ways of destabilizing and discoordinating the body that we have.   I was reminded of this the other day while working with a colleague on some of his basic body movements.  He expressed an interest in this kind of concept so I asked him to make a simple experiment.  Walk the length of the room a few times. When turning lead with the eyes (as one should). If turning to the right lead with the left eye, if turning to the left , lead with the right eye. This is what natural athletes do automatically, it is part of their gift of super coordination.  I then asked him to repeat the experiment but if turning left , lead with the left eye. He actually almost stumbled and there was a palpable slowing down and air of discombobulation in the body as he turned. I was surprised how strong the contrast was for me . For him it was, I suspect an even bigger shock.
This is an issue that could be rather important for musicians. How often do we actually pay attention to what the eyes are doing?  Playing in orchestra or quartet may involve watching specific clues from specific players in different locations. If this involves some movement of the head and body are we leading with the opposite eye or the same side? How about playing a concerto and turning towards the conductor for a quick burst of eye contact in a difficult section?  Mmmm…
Try the walking experiment for yourself and see what comes out in the wash.
Back under the covers,

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