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Mindful Practicing - Connecting the Technical and the Musical

April 19, 2021, 7:56 PM · Practicing the violin is the art and skill of removing what doesn’t fit and adding newer and richer possibilities. The only thing I would add is the need to concentrate on keeping your playing whole and intact while making small changes. It’s a prescription for maintaining your strengths, first and foremost, and getting more expressive at the same time.

How to establish that kind of recipe, a balance of positives and negatives, is the aim of good practice habits. One moment you may be thinking about something as basic as playing the right accidentals, and the next moment you’re thinking on a higher musical plane. It’s a rewarding part of playing the violin. See-sawing between the sublime and the ordinary defines the thinking process of a violinist.

Letting the Left and Right Hands Inspire Each Other

If you tend to forget to be expressive with the bow while learning a group of notes, now would be a good time to get the bow involved as much as you can. Here are three ways to make both hands come alive:

1. Whenever you see a crescendo, start enriching your vibrato. The dynamic markings are reminders to be on top of the wave that’s about to energize the music. If it’s a diminuendo, however, don’t lose the vibrato. The tendency to do that needs to be replaced with always keeping enough vibrato to maintain the music’s natural, expressive timbre. When a rich sound suddenly loses vibrato, it’s as if the bottom falls out.

2. Mutual enrichment, when both hands encourage each other, is a mainstay of violin playing. Start with a strong bow, both in terms of length and weight. The most effective way to make the bow as vibrant and bold as possible is to remind yourself at the beginning of each phrase. How you prompt yourself, whether it’s by nagging or gentle suggestion, will determine how expressively you play.

3. If you’re waiting for an unconscious urge to play louder or softer, it may never happen. Develop an assertive and decisive conscious mind. You may have some good ideas floating in the back of your mind, but they’ll become more formed and accessible if you think them through.

Changing the Tempo to Capture the Mood

When you practice a technical passage in a solo, it can feel oddly off if the tempo doesn’t match the style of the music. Finding the right tempo and the right character will help the left hand and the bow arm work together.

Don’t spend a lot of time practicing passages too slowly because you may develop bad habits associated with erratic rhythms. For instance, the success of a shift is dependent on fitting within the beat and the flow. Practice shifts in their musical and rhythmic context.

There are ways to practice which help develop good muscle memory:

After you’ve spent a fair amount of time practicing and absorbing what’s going on in the left hand and the string crossings and dynamics of the right hand, ask yourself how the phrase lies. Does the tempo slightly move ahead or relax a little? Those parameters will beg for a little technique adjustment., and your playing will become more flexible and musical.

All technique and their musical counterparts are stored in the muscle memory. By keeping these parts organized, that is, patiently deposited and reviewed, they are more likely to surface when needed.

Keep unwanted and faulty information out of this memory bank. Those also surface, so it’s best to be on the lookout for them. For instance, sometimes your bow will bounce uncontrollably during a shift; be ready for it by anticipating the shift and adding weight to the bow. In this way you will add positive information to your muscle memory.

There are two aspects technique which I consider invaluable – the ability to switch your concentration from the left hand to the right hand, and the skill to feel the flow of a proper phrase. Nothing stays still in music, so being alert reminds you of the pace and the direction of each phrase. The bow arm is the ultimate sculptor’s tool. Start out with as much material, or warm, deep sound, that you can produce. Even soft notes require a generous amount of depth, color, and mass to reach the ears, and souls, of the audience.


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