You may play this fast, but you may not rush.
I found myself delivering this admonishment to a student recently, as we prepared for the spring studio recital. She was tripping over the notes at the final "più mosso" at the end of the Seitz Concerto (No. 3, III), but the problem was not her ambitious speed. She could handle the speed. The problem was an unintended accelerando.
I used to run down a certain hill at a park with my children, à la Little House on the Prairie. It was a dangerous endeavor as an adult, because if you truly let gravity take you, your legs can't keep up, and of course you fall to the ground. Her fingers were reminding me of this -- as the tempo careened out of control, her fingers stumbled.
My student was clearly unaware that rushing was the problem. In fact, I'm pretty sure she perceived the problem as a deficiency in her own abilities. "This passage is fast and difficult, and I just can't keep up!" Not true.
Why do we rush? For some, it's simply a fear of the fast passage, as if that passage is a bear in the woods. Oh no, I can see it up ahead, a BEAR! That bear is bigger, stronger and faster than I am, and I think it's going to chase me. I have to outrun the bear, I can't breathe, ahhhh! Here comes that fast passage -- it's faster than I can go! I have to go faster! I think I'll hold my breath until it's over -- hellllp!
Many students are surprised to learn that their problem is not that they need to speed up, but that they need to slow down.
For my student, I took out the handy metronome, "What speed are we trying to take this?" We agreed on the speed that the passage should be, at full tempo. I set the metronome ticking, "Let's hear it!"
Though she was clearly making a lot of adjustments, she had no trouble negotiating the notes at this speed. When she finished the passage, I asked a question, though I knew the answer:
"How did it feel? Did the metronome slow you down, or did it speed you up?"
She thought for a second. "It mostly slowed me down," she said.
"Well that's good news!" I said. "You can handle it just fine at this speed, and certainly it doesn't need to go faster."
Of course, knowing these things doesn't cure the problem, so I gave her our metronome marking and advised her to practice it at that speed and other speeds in the few days left before the recital. When the day came, she played it impressively fast, but she didn't rush!
So if you have a difficult fast passage and have to correct your rushing ways (or a student's), here are a few ideas:
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Playing the violin requires technical accuracy of a tenth of a millimeter. "The greatest marvel is just off the worst disaster," Yehudi Menuhin used to say.
While playing, the violinist should have a perfect trust in his technique, a security and peace of mind so he can focus on what is most important. Yet this quietude, this security shouldn’t prevent one from making music. "That's the permanent ambiguity of the violin, and that is what's so beautiful about it, what's interesting. This is one of the most difficult challenges," said the French violinist Augustin Dumay. I met Augustin Dumay when he was in New York to play and record the Mendelssohn Concerto with the Orpheus Orchestra.
The tenth of a millimeter on a violin implies hard work. This permanent obsession of being as close as possible to perfection is the common capital of all violinists. "All violinists one way or another are forced into it, aware of it. At the same time they maintain a certain defiance against it,” said Dumay. "The tree shouldn’t hide the forest. The tree is this form of technique and perfection, and the forest is the music. Always keep the awareness that it’s this forest that is the most important even if sometimes we get the tree in front of the eyes.”
When he sees that his students are too much "on the tree" – purely in the technique – he "moves" them a bit and tells them to look back, where the forest lies, where what is really interesting lies. "That said, we all have our tree, and we must work our tree. Because otherwise there is no question of being in the forest," said Dumay.
Musicians are often very focused on their work and lack a global view of their surroundings. So focused are their lives on music that their life experiences beyond it rarely enrich their musical insight. Musicians tend to live crazy lives and work constantly, always in relation to themselves and their particular interests. The pursuit of perfection is the subject of a musician's life. During his life a musician will likely return to a work incessantly each time finding new solutions and different angles. The possibilities are limitless.
Dumay, who has not recorded for seven years, does so non-stop these days. "At a time when everyone complains that the disc is dying, quite the contrary – in my life anyway – the disc is very much alive these days," said Dumay.
He declares he loves recording because it allows him to set ideas, to “fix” ideas. "It does not mean that these ideas are inscribed in marble and will no longer evolve, but in any case I think we should dare to say what we think and fix it for a moment.” For Dumay the fact that today the disc is less commercially present is irrelevant. What matters is their presence in the musical life for future archives. We must think of the future. "I think it's a number of testimonies that perhaps in centuries people will be happy to go back to. If only in order to understand the evolution of musical interpretation through the ages," he said.
When he is recording, Dumay tries to ensure that his expression of music is also a testimony of its evolution and a personal expression of his own life as a violinist.
The materialization of the music, the fact of fixing it, should by no means render a less lively interpretation or merely a standard interpretation. That’s the great risk of the disc: to lose the substance and ideas of the music as a result of excessive care for the form.
Indeed a musician should never try to do something original or different solely for the purpose of being original or different. On the contrary, this is the best way to produce something very banal. "At all cost, I think we must make this life, this evolution, our life, our evolution to come across effectively in the recording. I think we simply must dare to express what we think. We have a huge capital of records: how many violinists recorded the Brahms concertos, the Beethoven, the Mendelssohn? Hundreds. Recording should not be overwhelming, it has to be liberating.”
For musicians nowadays it’s a great challenge not to betray our own musical ideas. Too often people choose to do what is politically correct in order not to displease. If one really wants to go far one has to forget about success. "In the future great personalities of the musical world are going to resist the temptation just to please," said Dumay.
"We don’t do music for the lady in the third row or the gentleman in the first balcony, in any case. No more than an officiant celebrates a religious service for the people who are there! He does it for God, ” said Dumay who tries to convey this ethic to the young musicians.
"It's a little bit against the current of today’s values. We live in a period in which you have to please, one of unbridled marketing in which image is so important. Of course everyone is affected by this phenomenon. But for us musicians, I think we need to keep our eyes looking in the right direction, that is, rather there [he points upward] than in front of us at the audience. It is best to keep our eyes on - everyone can call it as they want - God, Mozart, Brahms." We have to get the people in the audience to understand this phenomenon and look in the same direction – upward.
In general, there is not enough accountability from musicians about the future of music. "I think we musicians must do everything to help the new generation. We have to find the extra hours to devote to the idea of continuity. Whenever I have the opportunity I try to dedicate myself to younger musicians,” said Dumay. "We must not let the marketing people put a mustache on Mona Lisa to ensure that we look at her. It's an essential thing; it’s our role to defend the music. If we are not careful, in the coming centuries classical music will be what Egyptology became, that is to say something exciting but practiced by very few persons.”
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What is the difference between a good teacher and a bad one? Probably about $50.
Flippancy aside, one of the most noticeable things about great teachers is they focus on how to practice for a large part of the lesson time. (An excellent example of this is the collection of DVD's featuring Zhakar Bron teaching -- here is an excerpt on Youtube) The reason for this is simply that a person learns to play the violin for the days in between their violin lesson.
One thing that I have noticed over the years, although I don't have any concrete data on the subject, is that of all Simon Fischer's books, the one that gets mentioned the least is called Practice. As a collection, anybody who studies all Simon's books in depth will know pretty much everything one needs to know about violin playing. But each book serves a slightly different function. The granddaddy, Basics gives both teacher and hard core student alike, the technical resources to develop any aspect of their playing through tried and tested exercises. The Violin Lesson is a magisterial work which shows clearly how anyone from a professional to a self-taught older learner can improve any aspect of their playing that they choose. I suppose it is possible that "Practice" got a little overshadowed by being sandwiched in between these masterworks, but if I am right in thinking it is neglected, then that is rather odd!
In a sense, "Basics" and "Practice" are a two-volume set. The former provides the "What" and the latter the "How." And it is this "how" which is central to the only way we can actually learn to be violinists: by being able to practice efficiently. What, then, is the key concept underlying "Practice?" Quite simple: the more ways one has of approaching a specific problem, the faster and more effectively we can solve it. This may involve choosing a single correct approach, applying a few, or a huge number. It's case-by-case, but unless one has a repertoire of practice techniques, then there isn't necessarily a best single one to select!
I would like to illustrate this by referring to the great video and discussion by Ben Chan a few blogs back. He made this in response to a student having trouble with the octaves at the end of the first movement of Wieniawski Concerto no. 2 so you might want to take a look at that before continuing. Here are my observations on the topic.
A typical student will probably go through some kind of mental/physical procedure as follows: "Gosh, these octaves suck. Mmm. Play them a bit slower. Mmm. Not so good, but work them up to speed with metronome. Better repeat the passage a lot...29, 30, 31....what's for dinner tonight? Done with this. Play it all through. Octaves still suck. Lasagne and grape jelly."
Ben immediately hones in on two fundamental aspects of playing:
So Ben recommends working on double-stopped open strings and then keeping the bow as close to the string as possible. One could actually take this a step further by playing either double-stopped open or octaves, and and having one string p and the other f. Then one string ppp and the other fff.
This develops great sensitivity in bowing. (Actually this kind of string crossing should be part of the technical regime and be done in all parts of the bow at least three times a week.)
However, in the end there is only one secret to playing octaves, which Auer states clearly in his little book on the violin: the first finger must be absolutely in tune. The rest just follows. This is one reason why students should be introduced to one-finger, one-string scales very quickly. The way to practice them is by using the hooked bowing method, where the next note is played slurred to the previous one and then played as the first note of the next slur. One should always hear the next note in your head before playing it. These scales can also be practiced with the fourth finger resting lightly on the upper string. Once the intonation is mastered then there are a variety of ways of practicing one can choose from:
These are just a few examples of the kind of things one can get from studying "Practice," so I hope students of the violin will take a closer look if they are not already. Simon's books are rather like The Wizard of Earthsea collection. It's more fun to do the whole lot.
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Changing strings is its own art, and it takes a while to get good at it.
If you don't know how to change strings, or if you aren't yet very good at it, it makes sense to have someone else do it, particularly if you are short on time. Often, violin shops will offer to change them for you, either for free or for a small fee. This works well if you don't wish to take up lesson time, having your teacher change strings.
On the other hand, having your teacher change your strings can be an opportunity for you to learn how to do it. You can watch each step, as your teacher takes off the old string(s) and puts on the new, or if you are feeling confident, you can have your teacher supervise while you try changing them yourself. Of course, it does take up lesson time, but I'd say this is an important lesson in the maintenance of your violin. As a teacher, I do like to teach this skill to students, but the best time to do it is not the week before an audition or performance! Rather, plan that lesson for a break time or summer week.
If you have a relationship with a luthier, sometimes he or she can help show you how to change strings; I learned at least as much about changing strings from my local luthier as I did from my violin teacher. You can also learn from Youtube tutorials! (Maybe I'll make one!)
Recently I had to learn how to change strings with a new kind of pegs -- the geared pegs, or "planetary" pegs. Here's the secret: You change the strings in much the same way as you do with traditional pegs, you just have to wind, and wind, and wind, and wind!
Tell us who changes your strings, and if you do it yourself, how long did it take to learn this skill? Who taught you?
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