Violinists Balancing Assertiveness and Self-Consciousness

December 21, 2020, 11:42 PM · There’s an ingredient in a violinist’s playing that is necessary for full expression of musical ideas as well as successful technical movements. Completing a vibrato and not flinching during a spiccato depend on this quality. Heifetz, Milstein, and Oistrakh were bursting at the seams with it. The act of will that can produce a highly focused, personal sound comes from throwing off restraints which can cloud one’s judgement.

The name of this quality is "lack of self-consciousness," the ability to rise above the nagging doubts that abound with being human.

Heifetz Milstein Oistrakh
Violinists Jascha Heifetz, Nathan Milstein and David Oistrakh.

When playing a mistake machine such as the violin, it’s gratifying to know how confidence and letting go can keep many of the mistakes from happening. Of course, confidence comes and goes, even with the greatest artists. Actually, there’s one ability that is even more important than having confidence, and that is manufacturing it if it’s waning.

In those moments when self-doubt has replaced thinking and instinct, it’s good to remember how Fritz Kreisler described his own playing. “I believe that everything is in the brain. You think of a passage and you know exactly how you want it. It is like aiming a pistol. You take aim, you cock the pistol, you put your finger on the trigger. A slight pressure of the finger and the shot is fired.”

Self-consciousness would not belong in such a process because it causes too much confusion. If you dwell on some insignificant imperative imposed by yourself or by a teacher, you can lose sight of the big picture. To be ready for rollercoaster-type dynamics or phrases that turn on a dime, you can’t afford to be self-conscious.

Letting Go of Restraints and Inhibitions

The issue of how much a violinist can ramp up and maximize his efforts came up when I recently watched the Ariel Quartet during their Hanukkah program. As any great string quartet demonstrates, there is a collective energy that can only be hinted at when an individual is practicing alone. To get yourself ready for whatever the conductor or quartet leader throws at you, use your practice time to run the gamut of possible musical plays. Be impulsive and bold, since that is the best way to switch gears and try out a new shape for a phrase.

  1. A good way to gain confidence is by being able to make small changes in your practicing while keeping the rest of your playing intact. Certainly, there will be a few mistakes made during any change, but they can be fixed the second or third go-around.
  2. Being self-conscious is often a temporary and periodic condition, which is a comforting thought because you can compare it to when you’re not self-conscious. It comes and goes, but there are ways to be more assertive. Take one measure, half a phrase, or just one note, and personally decide what you want to do. Taking charge for even a brief moment not only changes the course of the phrase but increases your ability to think and play at the same time. Remember what such a moment is worth and try to experience it often. Stepping out of your routine helps you hear a phrase from an entirely different perspective.
  3. If you can adjust to change in your practicing, you’ll find orchestra playing much easier. The fixed and predictable nature of a conductor’s interpretation offers lots of time to think of how you need to play something. Music is, by definition, symmetrical and ordered, and orchestras respond in a highly structured fashion. By comparison, the practice room is like the Wild West, a place to test your thinking and speed of reacting. Challenge yourself with changes of articulation and experimenting with changes in your physical motion.

Being Strong Enough to Withstand Change

Attempting too many changes can have adverse side effects, however. The huge sound you can develop when using the whole bow, or the gorgeous slide you play in Kreisler pieces might get a stern look from the conductor. Fortunately, the modus operandi of the orchestra makes itself felt loud and clear. When you’re gaining confidence with your new technique and greater palette of colors in your ear, make sure you’re also observing the orchestra and listening like a hawk.

Music makes us both passive and aggressive. Copying what we hear, and sounding like we’re independent, is inherent in every ensemble we play in. Balancing the scale of louds and softs, and faster and slower tempos, makes a well-rounded musician.

Certainly, a violinist will feel like he’s making the most progress when his tone gets richer and his vibrato fuller. However, the ultimate progress comes from learning how to decipher the prevalent sounds in the ensemble and identify all the parts. The softest and slowest passages are the most challenging. Since just one note carries the DNA of the phrase, take pleasure in making it rich and meaningful.

Nothing is Lost When You Try Something New

You’re more likely to rid yourself of self-consciousness if you know your playing won’t unravel. When you’re ready to try a new sound or dynamic, it can be a little nerve-racking. This is especially true when you’re playing by yourself with no ensemble to provide a solid structure. However, your playing is such a reflection of yourself that any change will only slightly imprint on your basic identity. Remembering who you are, and what you feel, gives you the confidence to try anything your knowledge and experience allow. After all, the only thing more important than your ear is your imagination.

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December 23, 2020 at 12:07 AM · Paul:

Excellent discussion. I have only one aspect to add, which is not musical, but psychological. There is a great deal of attention currently on the concept of "mindfulness." To me, as a psychologist, mindfulness is old wine in new bottles.

The actual concept is focus of attention. If our focus of attention is on ourselves (e.g., our worries about making a mistake, getting criticized, etc.), it takes our attention away from all of those things you have discussed that will help us perform music at a high level.

In other words, we if we can think of self-consciousness not as a weakness we have no control over, but as a choice we are focusing our attention on, then perhaps we can choose to focus on something different, such as one of the many strategies you have so clearly presented.

And even if what we choose to focus on is something (as you have so clearly suggested) that seems small or detailed or brief, actually doing it can perhaps have an impact on achieving the assertiveness you are talk about.

Hope that helps.



December 23, 2020 at 03:27 AM · Thank you, Sander, for opening up more discussion on how musicians think. I think of self-consciousness in its negative connotation because I’ve never heard it used positively. I think of the word “reflection” as something positive. I can see, however, that self-consciousness could have a more positive meaning.

For me, I know when I make the “detour” into self-consciousness when I’m not actively thinking about what’s happening in the music or concentrating on the mechanics. Both things fill my brain in a very positive and fulfilling way.

I’m just glad I’m thinking now. I really didn’t for an unseemly number

of years/decades. It just goes to show that progress can be made without thinking, but the price is a lot of spinning of wheels and happenstance.

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