Benjamín Ramírez Analyzes Films and Photographs of Master Musicians

June 15, 2015, 4:28 PM · One of the most thought-provoking lectures that took place at the 2015 Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies at Juilliard last month was an analysis of violinists in performance, by Benjamín Ramírez of Germany.

Ramírez is at the forefront of Instrumental Wissenschaft ("Instrumental Science"), which is a lot like sports science. But instead of analyzing actions like cross-court basketball passes or backhand tennis strokes, he uses videos, physiological measurement techniques and modern imaging technologies to study the movements of master musicians. In analyzing those movements, he also compares them with other kinds of movement, in fine art, sports, animals and physics. A violinist himself, much of Ramírez's research has focused on violinists, though he has looked at other instrumentalists as well.

Benjamin Ramirez
Benjamin Ramirez. Photo by

What has he discovered? All kinds of details, and a few surprises. Very often, the movements of the greatest violinists defy what we learn as students -- or teach as teachers.

"The story of art is the story of transgression," Ramirez said early in his lecture -- and repeated many times. In other words, the greatest moments in art often happen when we break the rules. (Which, of course, is different than ignoring or not knowing the rules.) We violinists tend to have a lot of rules: stand tall and steady, bow straight and stay on the "highway," curve your fingers, calculate your movements -- the list goes on.

Ramírez had many things to point out about the way people actually play, versus the rules by which we think we play.

One thing he pointed out was how our instruments interact with our bodies, and vice-versa. To illustrate the point, Ramirez showed a video of a cannon firing; in slow motion, a speed which allows one to see the enormous recoil. Our bodies also react to our instruments. For example, Ramírez showed videos of Oistrakh, shaking his head with every bow change; and Jacqueline du Pré, how her cello went up and down in response to the downward motion of her bow. He showed the pianist Arthur Rubinstein, whose hands often started extremely high off the keys -- "we'll never see another pianist who has the courage to do it at this high level," he said.

He showed violinists following through with their bow strokes like tennis players -- and he pointed out that, in fact, many were tennis players!

tennis violinists

Ramirez showed many videos of violinists who were not playing with the perfectly parallel bow stroke that we tend to idealize. Heifetz, to achieve certain colors and dynamics, often transported the bow in a diagonal way. "He loses the sounding point for the sake of phrasing," Ramirez said. He showed other videos of famous violinists doing similar things -- Zukerman, Stern, Milstein -- "If we had a pupil with this stroke, we would stop him immediately and say it's forbidden!"

Ramirez talked about using a "falling down" kind of motion, using the example of pianist Josef Hofmann, and even of Mickey Mouse, raising arms high to let them fall on the piano.

Mickey piano motion

He then showed Wilhelm Furtwängler using the same kind of motion in his conducting (toward the end of this video). "He's not conducting, he's playing piano!"

In slow motion, sometimes the bow seems to do a see-saw motion, even when remaining on one string. Ramírez pointed this out in the playing of Menuhin and Szeryng.

Also, in many cases the violin is not just a stable entity, acted upon by the bow. Players often move the violin itself. In one slow-motion video, Perlman's scroll goes up and down with his vibrato, as if the scroll and hand are dancing together.

And about those rounded fingers -- Ramírez showed that in certain very fast passages, the cellist Jacqueline du Pré would flatten her fingers. "Of course, it is dangerous to teach the kids," he said, "But in this dimension, you can flatten them." Videos showed that both Milstein and Szeryng would flatten and even collapse their fingers a bit, in the heat of the moment. Many violinists flatten their fingers while doing vibrato: Zukerman, Mutter and Thibauld, for example. Heifetz inverts and flattens his fingers for runs.

"It requires absolute relaxation," Ramírez said.

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June 16, 2015 at 10:41 AM · Greetings,

lots of interesting stuff in there. it is certainly very useful to look at what people do. but on the other hand I think we are not so daft either. I am perfectly familiar with the technique of holding a bow at a diagonal ang keeping it on the same sp. A lot of top players have used it. And Simones work has long been pointing out the need to practice using a crooked bow to move between sound points. I don't think there are that many high level players who insist that the only way to play is with a straight bow all the time. Anyone can see that is not usually done.

Milstein often made a connection between his playing tennis and bowing but the Heifetz thing is not so related. I think a lot of violinists play table tennis simply because it is safe and fun. Doesn't correlate much with playing. I've played a lot too.....

The great English violinist Hugh bean often used the analogy of bowling in cricket . He tried to get me to use my wrist more as though spin bowling. He was very disappointed by my lack of response. probably because I'm too Italian to understand that rather dull sport...



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