March 2015

Hours, concentration, listening.

March 8, 2015 19:25


While watching both the superb documentary about Ivry Gitlis and his somewhat surreal masterclasses on YouTube, I was repeatedly struck by how little patience he has for practicing in general. This intrigues me because it raises interesting questions about the correlation between hours of practice and level of performance. Gitlis at his best is technically one of the most dazzling violinists of all time, surpassing Heifetz in more than a few ways. Of more recent players the violinist who to my mind really rivals that mind boggling facility is Kavakos although I am sure there are others.

Night and DaySo why is it that the number of hours one has to practice is now (fairly) standardized at around five other, than the fact this is the figure advocated by Dorothy Delay and set as limit by Perlman. After all, these are two people who clearly know what they are talking about. And yet Auer set the limit at three and Heifetz echoed this admonition. Could it have anything to do with the marvelous generalization of Gitlis in said documentary that "the fingers of yesterdays violinists followed their souls, whereas today's players follow their fingers?"

I suppose if you are a genius who has imbibed rather a lot of the black juice in the same cafe as Satre frequented you can say these things without missing a beat....

However, joking aside, I think the three-hour thing is worth more consideration. Perhaps the issue has a lot to do with concentration and listening. Let us consider the former first.

The majority of us actually don't concentrate that much. A non-violinist colleague of mine who has been meditating daily for about forty years states quite baldly that he can use genuine concentration for about ten minutes and that he can count the number of people he knows who can do that on one hand. Sadly, I am not among them. This is somewhat similar to the Buhdda remarking that a man who can genuinely concentrate for ten minutes can rule the world.
When most of us practice we aren't really concentrating for the whole time. Indeed, recognition of this issue has lead to ideas such as cutting the dreaded and meaningless unit of 'an hour's practice' down to fifty minutes followed by a ten minute break. This seems to be pandering to the idea that if we concentrate for the first and last ten minutes then that is more useful than struggling through th least ten minutes. But I still don't think this directly addresses the issue of how much we can actually concentrate at the 'Buddha minus one' level. It varies a lot between individuals. In my case, if I am really focused to the nth degree on what I am doing I get quite burned out after about thirty minutes. I don't think most people can really go much beyond that, truth be told.

But this sort of raises the question as to what we are actually concentrating on....
I think, going back to another Gitlis burble, 'our intellect is getting in the way of our intelligence.'

Since the Galamian revolution, when he famously stated something to the effect that 'the purpose of practice is to strengthen the correlation between our minds and fingers,' so many good practice techniques have become available, there should not be any excuse for rapid advancement. Yet somehow.....

Perhaps part of the answer lies in the act of genuinely listening to ourselves. I love the anecdote Simon Fischer frequently tells against himself about how DeLay told him that he only listened when tuning the violin. And this, a seasoned player whose Bruch performance got him a scholarship to Juilliard in the first place. My lower-level experience of this kind was being berated by the other violinist in our quartet at college who said, 'If only you learnt to listen to yourself, you would be a great player.' With hindsight, it was the best lesson I had at college, although I ignored it, of course. But Simon tells the anecdote to make the startling point that there is a euraka moment in violinists' lives when they do actually start really listening to themselves, and it can be when they are well into the music profession for some people. What were they doing before that? Would it have been more useful to clock up some real-life experiences rather than waste that time?

It may be that if we can genuinely pay attention to the sound coming out of the instrument, rather than the feelings of our fingers, the motion of our body or the sound we 'imagine' we are making, then practice time may indeed become maximally concentrated, while the notion of doing three hours maximum becomes common sense rather than 'goofing off because all the other players in the college canteen try and out-hour each other.' A competition that is as pointless as much of what they do.

* * *

Ivry Gitlis plays Henryk Wieniawski "Capriccio-Valse E major", op.7 (1968):

Documentary: Ivry Gitlis and The Great Tradition

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10 replies

Paganini's Pencil!

March 3, 2015 23:52


The other day I stumbled across a rather disconcerting web site claiming to be a specific school of violin playing that had inherited the secrets of Paganini. Said site was generously giving them all to us. All this is done with quasi-dramatic backdrop, voice and so on. In point of fact, the violinistic advice given wasn't bad at all, except the so-called "Paganini bow hold" owed a lot more to the protagonist's rather stubby fingers than any real secret. There actually wasn't anything there that isn't standard teaching practice. If you want to know the secrets of Paganini you'd be much better of reading Ricci's book on technique.

PaganiniOne of the things that made me burst out laughing was the discussion of how a big secret was practicing the right hand with a stick or pencil. An advert then flashed up on the screen for a pencil company and it was stated that "the x school of violin playing has been using these pencils for over a hundred years." Paganini for pencils, or is it the other way around?

Having calmed down with some stewed prunes (another of Paganini's secrets) I did get to thinking about how we can enhance and extend our practice time away from the violin with a little thought. For example, when I first went to college I was advised by my teacher to carry a pencil around and practice finger movements when I am on a train or whatever. So it dawned on me that what was useful then is still good now. Even with my limited resources and time, I can do really useful practice away from the instrument. Not only straightening and bending the fingers, but dropping the hand from its neutral straight-ahead position and letting the fingers extend. Then raising it above wrist height and contracting the fingers. Then there is windscreen wiping, or rotating from the elbow. Actually I much prefer this with a pencil for young players anyway. Or how about just stretching out the arm in a down bow further than normal and then doing an up bow further than normal so your range of movement is increased?

After a week of this doodling around I could actually sense some improvement in my bowing.

It seems to me that there is a great deal we can do, with or without Paganini's Pencil, to improve our playing, even if we are busy adults with only a few minutes to spare or doing a boring job like train crossing guard. Of course, in this day and age, everybody has a keyboard, but I don't recommend using that for bowing exercises.


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7 replies

Masterworks and Mindblowers

March 2, 2015 02:40


There seems to be a a fairly large body of opinion responding to the "Zimmerman Strad Problem," thread that is not very predisposed to classic violins. I have to admit the strength of opinion expressed surprised me a little, although I can't afford either so it doesn't affect me much!

Personally, I can understand and sympathize with the position of the pro-modern camp. There certainly are an awful lot of over-priced old violins out there that are not a patch on their modern relatives and yet have the mystique of name associated with them. Often to such an extent it seems that we can be blinded as to their true merits and relative value.

However, from another perspective, it doesn't seem unreasonable to me that those soloists using the absolute creme del creme of Guarneri or Strad find something in those instruments that makes them different from an exquisite and highly reliable modern. It is certainly true that these instruments often fail to prove superior to the listener in blind tests.

ZimmermannHowever, I am not sure this is the point. Great players like Zimmerman are, I suspect, much more finely attuned to something powerful and elusive in these instruments than the average player/listener, and it acts as their muse. Maybe it comes from a combination of age and the daily touch of a succession of great artists. I have no idea. But I do believe that this quality is real and it must be tangible enough to the greats that they are still willing to spent a number of years searching out the best possible way of playing such an instrument instead of playing on one of the many superb modern instruments now around. Of course, I have no rational basis for any of this but that is the privilege of blogging. 100 years down the road the instruments of Burgess et al will, in my opinion be the new Stradivari. Shame nothing is going to survive global warming.....

It's been a great week for finding new "stuff" on Youtube. My mind has been blown so often I sometimes feel totally discombobulated. Where to start....

Best find of the week was, without question, Gitlis playing the Adagio movement of the Bartok solo violin sonata. Gitlis doesn't seem to get mentioned much among the pantheon of great violinists for some reason. Maybe he just carried on a bit too long in a world that has far less tolerance for error and absolutely personal interpretations. Or maybe he did just a few too many concerts without practicing because he just didn't care. Didn't care in the nicest possible way. He is such a profoundly original and cosmopolitan artist it seems he needs to live to play rather than the other way round. On form he had one of the most terrifying techniques on the planet. Listen to the Bartok and weep. Then go to his Wieniawski Cappucino Valse in E major and look at the fast twitch up bow staccato. That's how it should be done!

Still on a slightly insane note but hidden behind a refined facade listen to the great Zimmerman playing the Bruch.

It's one of those performances that raises a rather interesting question: For most of us, playing what Bruch wrote with a few minor violinistic tweaks is the best we can do. Zimmerman quite unselfconsciously chooses to use bowing, phrasing or what not that suits his musical intent even when it differs (?) with what Bruch wrote to a considerable degree. Is this anti authenticity, or just simply that Zimmerman is such a great violinist he knows better than the composer how this piece should be played? For me he reinvents this work so it was almost like new to me. I had to go away and experiment with what he was doing. I leave it to you to decide.

Some of my favorite Bach is the accompanied sonatas. I have been frustrated by them for years as a player and a listener. There are many great performances by player of the past, the best of which may, to my ear be Szeryng. Then there are superb modern /authentic performances by Manze and the like. However, neither of these extremes has every completely satisfied me and I had just about given up until I stumbled across Mullova's version.

The great lady once again manages to synthesize the old and the new in a satisfactory way and I cannot recommend searching these performances out strongly enough.


(Here also, is her Chaconne:

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