Cultivating a Relaxed Left-Hand: Technique Class with Grigory Kalinovsky

August 9, 2015, 10:49 PM · If you want to play with high-level technique and also with physical ease, you have to work at it.

Grigory KalinovskyAnd if you want to work at it, violinist Grigory Kalinovsky has a great many ideas about how to take the unnecessary tension out of violin technique. I was lucky enough to sit in on left-hand technique class that he taught late in July for students at the Heifetz International Music Institute in Staunton, Va. A native of St. Petersburg, Russia, Kalinovsky is a violin professor at Indiana University and also teaches at the Pinchas Zukerman Young Artists Program in Canada. Kalinovsky described exercises -- physical and mental -- to help players conquer the fundamental problem in violin-playing: the fact that the human body simply wasn't built to do it!

First, how do you hold the violin? This is arguably the number one source of bodily tension and potential injury for the violinist. And it's a complex equation. One does not hold the violin as a statue. Simply assuming the proper, picture-perfect form will not necessarily guarantee ease of playing and freedom from tension. Everything is in motion, so even your "violin hold" is constantly reacting to different pressures. The way you raise the violin to your shoulder, the way your shoulder and arm both support the violin and move around it, how you think about the violin as an object -- these things all affect your violin position. Kalinovsky recommended thinking about the shoulder coming forward to meet the fiddle, not up. Also, he points out that neck tension most often results from a dragging left arm, not so much from other set-up problems.

Kalinovsky said that he isn't a big fan of using a shoulder rest, for several reasons: first, it raises the violin above the shoulder, "then the bow arm has to reach higher," he said. If you have to build up that space between the violin, shoulder and neck, he recommended doing so by building up the chin rest, rather than the shoulder rest. Second, the shoulder rest takes away more sound than going without one, he said. And third, it's rigid; "it forces you into one position, and the violin position should be dynamic." All of that said, one can still learn to play in a dynamic way with the shoulder rest as well, he said.

Shoulder rest or not, violinists tend to grip the violin with the shoulder and neck, especially when things get intense. Instead of gripping, "you want to feel like the violin is just hovering in the air, and you move around it, without knocking it over," Kalinovsky said.

It makes sense, then, to cultivate the ability to play without gripping at all; to completely cradle the violin in the hand instead of "holding" it with the head and shoulder. That doesn't mean that one will always play this way, but it just gives the violinist another tool to help combat tension. One can let go a bit with the shoulder, neck and head, and rely on cradling the violin in that "V" between the thumb and side of the hand. In the video below, Kalinovsky shows how to cultivate more trust in the hand, so that one doesn't need to grip so tightly (or at all!) with the shoulder. He recommends practicing Flesch one-octave scales and arpeggios, completely releasing the shoulder and neck and using just the hand to cradle the violin. This is an exercise, just to learn this feeling. In the end, the violin "hold" is a balance between hand and the head/neck/shoulder.

One common mistake in developing a good left hand is an overemphasis on strength, when the best thing to cultivate is speed. Make sure that your hand is relaxed and that your fingers don't get glued in one place. Very often, people need to better develop the muscles that lift their fingers. This can greatly improve articulation. Kalinovsky's following exercise is designed help develop speed in the muscles that lift the fingers, and thereby improve finger speed and articulation. He emphasizes staying relaxed at all times, as tension is the enemy of speed.

In his lecture, Kalinovsky really dissected all the motions of finger articulation. The exercises he demonstrated seem simple but require a very high level of concentration: he asks the student to separate the motions of placing the finger (with a "smack") and then lifting the finger (with a "pop") and not combining those motions. So one lifts the finger "pop," then separately, one prepares to place the finger, then one actually "smacks" the finger down, prepares to pop it up, actually does pop it up, etc. The reward, if you can concentrate this hard, is some mighty fine and fast articulation (check it out, at the end of the video!)

Shifting poses all kinds of issues, especially when there is tension in the shifts. "A lot of times, right before the shift, the shoulder locks," Kalinovsky said. This is very counter-productive, because shifting actually comes from the shoulder. He said that the larger muscles of the upper arm and shoulder bring the finger along, not the other way around.

Also, one should not let up on the bow during the shift to "hide" the shift. To avoid doing this, practice the bow stroke without the shift, then keep it the same when adding the shift. Or, instead of thinking of it as two notes, think of it as one note, with the shift as a "tail."

When it comes to vibrato, always vibrate below the pitch. Vibrating is basically rolling backwards onto the pad the finger, then back onto the tip, etc.. No matter how much pressure you put on the fingerboard, the tip must always remain flexible, and you might have to cultivate that flexibility. Here are some of Kalinovsky's ideas for doing that:

Once one has cultivated flexibility in the fingertips, one can practice doing a scale with all collapsed fingertips. "When you learn to play with easily collapsible fingers, then it improves your sound," Kalinovsky said. Then when you are playing something and don't have time for actual vibrato, you can just leave the fingertips free so they can wobble a little. Set the metronome on 70 and practice at various speeds, up to four oscillations per beat. To have a continuous vibrato, rather than thinking about vibrating every finger, think of keeping a constant arm or wrist vibrato motion, then simply substituting fingertips, he said.

Kalinovsky also talked about "isolating physical tension from emotional tension." Sure, the music may be building to point of great emotional tension, but that does not mean you have to take on physical tension as well. Ideally, a good musician can build that musical tension and still carry on a conversation about the weather. Zukerman, a mentor to Kalinovsky, "could tell a joke, while making the violin weep," he said. As the musician, you should not be attempting to catch up with the music in your head. Instead of reacting to music, the musician creates it. Keep in mind: "The music doesn't happen until you create the note."


August 10, 2015 at 09:32 AM · Great insights, thanks for posting! The students sitting in his back did not seem super impressed though ;-)

August 10, 2015 at 02:20 PM · I had a masterclass with him at the Young Artists' Program... what a great technician!

August 10, 2015 at 02:38 PM · I wouldn't say they were unimpressed! Serious, probably tired because this was at the end of a long (and hot and humid) day. If you look in the vibrato video, they are all trying his suggestions. It's kind of cute!

August 11, 2015 at 08:38 AM · Very useful blog, Laurie. You must have put a lot of work into this, and it's much appreciated.

August 12, 2015 at 12:56 AM · Excellent, and really like the video excerpts. A ton to learn from here. Thanks!

August 14, 2015 at 02:00 AM · Thank you again, Laurie, for a wonderful write-up! It was great to finally meet you in person and to chat a bit!

August 14, 2015 at 11:52 PM · Great to meet you as well, Grigory, and what wonderful suggestions! I am still trying to get my left pinkie joint to get with the program, lol!

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