February 2015

We Can Be Our Own Worst Enemy.

February 26, 2015 19:52

violin stringsWe are our own worst enemy.

Of all the Alexander lessons I took related to violin playing, I think the most meaningful for me was one in which the teacher (not a violinist) stopped me at the exact moment before I was about to pluck the violin out of its open case. "Think about how you would walk across the room to get a pencil. Compare that with the excitement you are feeling now and observe how it is affecting you, even though you are essentially doing the same physical act. In life we have 'choice points,' where we can stop and observe what we are doing and consciously use ourselves better. So instead of leaning over in that habitual way and grabbing the instrument willy-nilly, stop and feel the ease in your neck, as your head goes forward and up and you back widens etc…."

(One can perhaps see a little of the same kind of idea in Zukerman’s master class at the RCM where he tells an advanced student to always pick up the bow with the left hand and the violin with the right.)

Anyway, the significance of this during practice should never be underestimated. Currently there is a very interesting thread concerning tension in practice of Kreutzer No. 9 going on. When a serious and committed player like the OP in question works on this kind of etude, it is very common that excitement and determination work hand-in-hand to keep the practice sustained for twenty, thirty minutes or even an hour, especially when working on different rhythms and bowing patterns. Of course this is a virtue, but it is not a good idea. First of all, one is keeping muscles in a semi-contracted state for a long periods, so they may actually become more stressed than they should be. Rather like working on a computer with short-range focus and not stopping every ten minutes to allow your eye muscles to re-elongate on an object in the distance. Secondly, one is almost invariably practicing in tension. The violin happens to be like that……

If we start thinking in terms of 'choice points,' then we can stop every ten minutes and make a conscious reevaluation of our total physical state. We must have a checklist of questions. :

  • How am I standing?
  • Have I been holding my breathe? (Ten minutes is quite an achievement)
  • Is my bow hold ok?
  • Is my right thumb tense?
  • How about my left thumb?

I am not giving a complete list here but there isn’t actually that much to observe. Then take some time to reset yourself; visualize yourself completely relaxed; take mental stock of what you are actually trying to achieve and whether a change of course might be more useful, and so on. If necessary, set a timer to go off every five or ten minutes until one gets into the habit of doing this.

Hopefully, this way of thinking about how we use ourselves during practice will lead to greater productivity and less damage in the long run. After all, I still want to be serenading my sweetheart and annoying my cat at 90.


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7 replies

Pure Korn- Pure Gold

February 2, 2015 17:09


I've got my early morning routine well settled these days. I ensconce myself in the nearest convenience store to my place of work with decent coffee. Then I write email to my myriad legion of fan, IE a budgie living out somewhere near Clapham. Then I study Go for an hour or so to free the wind. To round all this off I listen to Hilary Hahn playing the Korngold concerto. Everyday...

Don't know much about this concerto, except it's a masterpiece and the performer can now, in my opinion, justifiably be called one of the all time great violinists.

First thing that springs to mind is how she can use a variety of vibratos and vibrato speeds to change the color and mood of whole sections of the work. Very few players can do this with such ease and control. And she even does a large chunk of double stopping with no vibrato.....

One thing that fascinates me about her playing is her uncompromising use of the fourth finger in the higher positions. She has one of the strongest and most flexible pinkie of any of today's players. Watch closely and see how she also supports it most of the time with the third finger. One of the secrets of her reliability.

However, as I watch this over and over I begin to feel that this may not always be the best way to do things. I don't think we can get around the fact that even with a finger like Hilary's the tone is infinitesimally thinner than if a third finger was used. After focusing on this point I have come to believe that there is a slight loss of meatiness and weight there even to the detriment of the musical line on more than one occasion. I think there are places, especially in the slow movement where, for the sake of preserving tonal power she would actually sound better with this change. I wondered if there was a slight desire to avoid any kind of sleazy slide that was behind this apparent tonal deficit. I have never had any trouble being sleazy but I could imagine this being anathema to the great lady. A point that does feel right to me is that last screaming high note of the piece. The summit has been reached ! Halleluyah! I'm done! Before those last notes on the g string saying 'so just go home...' I am pretty sure that note would be more effective with a third.

Anyway, I'm off to listen to it again coz I love it.

In the meantime by way of contrast, have a listen to our esteemed colleague Hartmut Lindemann imitating a string orchestra in this Bach Sarabande. I did warn him what would happen if he kept screwing the bow up too tight.


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