When I visited home after my first semester in college, I spent a long afternoon speaking to the violin teacher I had for five years until I graduated from high school, Mr. Wendland. I was talking about how my new teacher was going to make my sound warmer, and how his ideas about how I should move the bow would completely change my playing for the better.
Pretty insensitive of me, don’t you think? I’m sure he had heard it all before, and his other college-aged students had similarly regaled him about finding the perfect teachers to lift their playing several notches higher. Finally, I played for Mr. Wendland, and yes, my bow arm looked newish and exhibited clunky growing pains, but, lo and behold, I was just as out-of-tune as before, and the holes and scratches in my sound happened in the same predictable places. Was it warmer and richer? No.
While it was a waste of an afternoon for Mr. Wendland, I got a lot out of it, even if it satisfied an unhealthy part of my musical education. I was justifying why these new changes were going to make a big difference in my playing. This was not to be confused with actual growth. I had actually convinced myself that a few external changes would make my technique work. Even though I was barking up the wrong tree, I had given myself a crutch which would keep me busy for four years while I was spinning my wheels.
There are as many crutches and rationalizing thoughts at our disposal for whatever our musical needs may be. They’re there because we need them, at least until we’re ready to put them aside as we discover better, more organic ways of learning.
I referred to the above example to illustrate a rather far-fetched crutch, but it still meets the definition. Technical instructions become a "crutch" when we blindly follow those instructions, without allowing the real technique to grow from our own musical instincts.
Replacing One Crutch – Parallel Bow Movement
I don’t envy any teacher trying to teach a straight bow to a young student. Crutches are crucial, however, to get the player in the ballpark, so to speak. What helped me and thousands of other violinists was the tried-and-true “in with the wrist on the up-bow, out with the wrist on the down-bow.” While that gesture “simulates” what actually happens when you move your arm, it’s often done in an exaggerated way. I spent years undoing the harm that the crutch caused. While it sounds innocent enough, the “in-out” method turned my bow into a string scraper.
What should be a gentle movement in the wrist resembles almost exactly what happens when you open or close a jar. Oddly enough, you never exaggerate the jar opening because it’s completely organic and un-self-conscious. However, when you do the same while moving the bow, havoc and exaggeration ensue. Why is it that when we move the bow, our first thought goes to the least significant part of the movement, that of the wrist? The leading thought should instead be directed to the bow itself, so that every inch is guided by the mind. Caution should be the guiding principle, since the bow is more amenable to wayward paths than the correct one.
A perfectly straight bow is a misnomer, since once the connection between the hairs and the strings is made, there should be a “release” from a rigid straightness. Without the release, there is a danger of scraping the strings that I mentioned earlier. There are many organic details to think about, but the crutch of simplistically instructing the beginner tends to hide the discovery of them.
The sequence of when and what we think about is the key to discovery. If we patiently think about the path of the bow, the magical result is that the wrist will move organically, not in a premeditated and mechanical way. When we put the cart before the horse, the bow moves at the direction of the mind, not the wrist. The best use of the wrist is to passively go along for the ride as the bow elegantly finds its unique direction.
A whole chapter could be written about the natural, non-parallel bow movement versus the strict adherence to a “straight” bow. Ivan Galamian in his Principles of Violin Playing and Teaching (Prentice Hall 1962) spends four pages talking about how to achieve a straight bow, yet only two short paragraphs under the heading of “The Slightly Slanted Stroke.” I think both descriptions are necessary, but the discussion about the latter is far more interesting. What Galamian did not discuss was the negative side effects which are caused by the straight bow. Those problems are best dealt with by the performer himself. A teacher’s job is to present the options, while only the performer can recognize when a technique becomes a crutch.
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