Pedagogy Class with Odin Rathnam: Galamian Principles in Action

June 4, 2013, 5:29 PM · When violinist Odin Rathnam came to study with Sally Thomas, he had to start all over again with his bow arm.

His elbow was so high, "it looked like a dog peeing on a fire hydrant," he laughed. And his energy was also completely out of control, which was a problem.

In violin playing, "emotional feeling that does not manifest as expression through the instrument, manifests as tension," he said. You can emote all you want up on the stage, but it won't translate into music unless you exert some control over your instrument. "If I am the victim of my emotions, how can I manipulate yours? We are in the business of manipulating emotions."

Ivan Galamian was a master of control.

"Most powerful is he who has himself in his own power." -- Seneca

That's from a plaque which hung on a wall at Meadowmount, the summer music school that Galamian founded. Odin's teacher, Sally Thomas, Professor of Music at The Juilliard School since 1961, was a student of and assistant to Galamian. She wrote the introduction to the latest edition of Principles of Violin Playing and Teaching, which, happily, is now out in paperback.

Like the quote above, the best violinists have their playing under their own power. But it takes time, work and training. "Your most talented students are the wild ones -- the wild stallions," Odin said. "But they can't win a race without training." He said it took him 40 years to truly assimilate what Sally Thomas taught him, but now those lessons, based on the principles of Galamian, are the ones he teaches his own students.

Sally Thomas was in the audience last week, when Odin taught a pedagogy class called "Lost in Translation: Demystifying the Principles of Ivan Galamian in Practical Application" at the Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies at The Juilliard School

Sally Thomas and Odin
Sally Thomas and Odin Rathnam

"Galamian was primarily a speech therapist -- he taught a language, the language of the bow," Odin said. "Galamian's genius was to discipline the production of sound. He could demonstrate something artistic very simply and physically." And with that discipline and simplicity comes control.

One part of that control, for the bow arm, involves a relaxed arm, starting at the shoulder. This involves relaxing the deltoid muscle. We tend to think of this feeling as "arm weight." Below, Odin describes this concept:

Keeping that weight in the bow arm, one uses the right hand to manage the bow. Believe it or not, the motions required of the bow hand can be boiled down to five actions, which were at the crux of Odin's lesson. Here they are, with brief descriptions of how to do them:

Five Actions of the Bow Hand (based on Galamian principles). The actions can be "active" or "passive." Passive actions form the springs and cushions, active ones articulate the strokes.

1. Horizontal Motion of Wrist and Fingers: Hold bow vertically, hair facing you, and set the bow on your left hand. Then raise bow off hand, with just fingers.
2. Vertical Motion of Wrist and Fingers: Hold bow horizontally and raise and lower from wrist, keeping stick over hair.
3. Pivoting Motion: Like turning a doorknob. Pivot up: turn bow clockwise, lifting from string with hand, not using arm. Pivot down, or counter-clockwise, to lean into string -- use for "catch" at the beginning of certain notes.
4. Balance of Bow: Thumb is fulcrum, pinkie raises bow, index pushes it down.
5. Relationship of Bow to Thumb: At tip, feel index finger side of thumb; at frog, feel center or pinkie side of thumb.

Below, Odin demonstrates these five actions:

For example, No. 3, the Pivoting Motion, is used when catching and releasing the bow. If you say "Pah!" you must purse your lips in the moment before saying it. "Pursing your lips is catching the string," Odin said. Catching the string involves pivoting the bow into the string, and it must happen before the bow stroke. "If you catch the string, the note is there for free." Softer notes actually require more articulation, more "catch," in order to be understood. Think of it this way, when you whisper, you have to articulate your words better, to be understood, than if you were speaking in a normal or loud voice.

To demonstrate No. 2: Vertical Motion of the Wrist and Fingers, we looked at a string-crossing exercise, Exercise No. 4 from School of Violin Technics, Book 1, by Schradieck.

"You are basically in one plane with your elbow, but you are crossing with your fingers and wrist," Odin said. String crossings also require an awareness of No. 5. Relationship of Bow to Thumb. If the bow thumb is locked straight or the bow hand is holding too tight, the bow will simply roll over when crossing the string with fingers and wrist. One has to be able to roll the bow stick with the thumb during the bow stroke, to keep the bow hair flat when reaching for the lower string.

"The thumb is different than the other fingers," Odin said. It's easy to see which is the base knuckle for the other fingers, but where is the base knuckle for the thumb? It's the wrist! "That means, if you lock the thumb, you lock the wrist. If you lock the wrist, you lock the elbow. If you lock the elbow, you lock the arm!" (I know an old lady who swallowed a fly, perhaps she'll DIE!) No wonder we hound our students not to lock their thumbs!

And being double-jointed does not change that. Odin knows; he's quite double-jointed himself. "It's not a curse, and it's not an excuse the lock the thumb!" he said.

Another place where the wrist can help is when going from a down-bow to an up-bow. "God gave us round joints, and Stradivari and Tourte gave us straight lines," Odin said. It's up to us fiddle players to find a compromise.

Galamian talked about bowing in a "figure eight," which is really more of a feeling in the hand and arm than a literal "figure eight." In order to bow in a straight line, during the down-bow, the bow has the feeling of going out. At the change, the hand drops slightly, with the wrist coming up slightly as elbow closes, dropping inward for the up-bow. This smooths the bow change and helps keep the bow perpendicular to the string.

When practicing, instead of trying learn large amounts of music all at once, break the music into smaller actions. Practice making those actions perfect and relaxed, "and the brain will solve the rest," Odin said. "You have to think of little perfect actions -- laying bricks."

As you lay those bricks, aim to "speed up your preparation time and slow down your action," Odin said.

If you make a mistake, figure out the reason -- there's always a reason. "If you can't figure out why you made that mistake, then you are bound to repeat it," Odin said. "The moment you make a mistake, I can always trace it to something you did in the moment before the mistake." Find what that was, and you'll find your solution.

The best way to measure the results of your work on the violin is by your own comfort and the musical result. "If it doesn't make you feel comfortable, if it doesn't sound right, than all this is just something brown and steaming and sitting in a field," Odin said.

We played a bit of Kreutzer Etude No. 2, a very common one for which Galamian recommends the practice of many rhythms. Odin said this etude can be used to practice just about anything, "Just plug in the rhythms!"

"Mr. Galamian had this incredible patience, but persistence," and so did Sally Thomas, Odin said. "I would say, 'When can I play Paganini 1?' She would say, 'When can you play in tune?'"

We also looked at a piece by Veracini called "Allegro in A Major" (From "Largo and Allegro"), a piece that he said is a good preparation for Kreisler's Praeludium and Allegro.

This piece has many string crossings, and he recommended being sure that the bottom note speaks, and also getting rid of any noise between notes. Also, don't over-energize chords, keep them calm so they don't crunch.

On the second day of Odin's lecture, he showed us these ideas in practical application, working with a student, Fedor, who played the first movement of Lalo's "Symphonie Espagnole" for us.


He talked about bringing the bow very close to the bridge for clarity when playing the very high note in the introduction of the Lalo.

"It creates emotion, but you don't have to feel that emotion," Odin said of that note. It's more important to concentrate on building a structure for playing that note -- so your audience can feel it -- than to feel it yourself. Control the sound, in the context of time, and in doing so, "give yourself a calming factor. Keep your gestures within the context of the music."

And when it comes to creating those gestures, set up earlier and execute slower. Do NOT set up late and execute fast!

In passages with many string crossings, it's important to know which strings you are on and how long that will last, so you can make a plan. One way to ingrain this in your bow hand is to practice the passage on open strings.

All these ideas are simply tools, so when you are using them to create a gesture, "Don't leave our artistry at the door," Odin said. "Keep your artistry above your technique."

"I call what I teach my students 'knowledge,'" Odin said. "When they use it to solve problems or create expression, it's 'wisdom.'"

Odin, who is left-handed, also warned against using vibrato for every bit of expression. "Make the sound with the bow," he said. As Sally Thomas once told him, "Don't put responsibility in the left hand that belongs in the right."

As you build these skills, you build your virtuosity. Virtuosity, Odin said, is a lot more than fancy, fast playing. It is "the fanatical application of a limited set of values or virtues to every aspect of a given task," he said. "The greater the number of virtues, the more virtuosic the player."

So build your skills and learn to control when and how you use them. "Galamian control," he said, "It works way better than Inderol!"


June 5, 2013 at 05:25 AM · One last thing from Odin: Spiccato!

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