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Technique is a secondary system.

September 6, 2007 at 1:47 AM

In a recent post somebody inquired about how to improve double stop trills in fingered octaves, 3rds etc, for Chausson`s Poeme and the like. The responses were all absolutely first rate responses offering what I would call `discrete solutions` that were basically centered around more and more sophisticated practice. It left me feeling slightly regretful until George Philips wrote about `balance` which began to take things off into an interesting dimension. What I mean by this is that violinists as a breed separate what our hands are doing from the `whole` and the consequences can be awful. I know this from first hand experience of playing difficult pieces throughout my childhood with no attention paid to anything to do with the whole body. As the tensions and distortions became more and more embedded music lost all its joy for me and even though I worked through college I was always in pain when I played and none of the fine teachers I went to had anything much to offer in the way of solutions that would help me. It just didn’t seem to be in fashion at that time…. If I was director of a Music College my program would have all the freshman spending the first three months doing Alexander technique, yoga classes and meditation everyday. Maybe that’s why I haven’t had any offers yet.
Many years later I have redone the way I work and play from scratch and it hasn’t been easy or rather it has been progressively easier. These days I think more teachers understand the totality of violin playing so more students don’t have to go through the years of misery I endured. Think of Kempner`s approach in `Teaching Muscles to Learn,` Mimi Zweig talking about `tension in the toes being a problem` (in fact that is a –major- and very common problem) or Mr. Weilerstein using Alexander based techniques and ideas in his lessons as just a few examples.
Indeed it was through Alexander lessons that I first began to understand how one has to be before even attempting to play anything as complex as the violin and the more deeply I explore this background the more I trace errors and problems to areas utterly outside the traditional `discrete` solutions to technical problems. Indeed, when the discrete solutions produce only slight improvement (they usually produce some) I think teachers tend to subconsciously classify students as `more or less talented..` An unfair and often wildly imprecise classification that is almost certainly echoed in the students mind at some level with a great deal of their practicing and learning being concerned with developing their own system of `red flags.` `Fingered octaves are difficult. I’ve got small hands so I can’t do xyz. I am a nervous person onstage etc..`
The basic physiological premise underlying Alexander technique is that existence of two systems involved in utilizing skills. A primary system which organizes the self (no separation is made of mind and body) and secondary systems which do the skills at the local level. Thus in playing the violin, whatever technique we are attempting, unless the primary organization system is correctly set IE the correct relationship between head neck and back called the Primary Control, it is not possible to perform a skill to maximum potential which is, I think what was being hinted at when balance was mentioned at the beginning. It is traditionally helpful to pick on specific muscles in the hand and say `relax here.` However, this actually sets up tension between a new demand and an old habit that in the long run does more harm than good in many cases. Far more useful is the ability to cut new channels of command to action by working on the whole organism.
I apply this principle everyday in practice. For me, the most useful book of daily technical work is Agopian`s `No Time to Practice` which makes the hilarious claim it can be completed in 30 minutes assuming `no potty breaks.` It’s a hard core book for professionals and advanced students (not till next week Albert) that includes leaping all over the instrument at speed, extremely rapid crossing of bow from e to g string, trilled thirds and fingered octaves, demanding finger independence exercises and so. When I first began using it seriously a year or so ago I fell back into the old patterns I’d learnt of just going for it and letting sloppiness pass. I’d work discretely on the fingered octaves, perhaps slowing the mm in the oft cited and inaccurate belief that simply playing something slower , trying to keep the hand relaxed and speeding it up by increments will improve it ;) until finally I came to my senses and worked on all the exercises in relations to the whole organism. It all fell into place very quickly. As Szeryng once remarked in exasperation `The violin really isn’t –that- difficult!`
However, the moment I hear an error creep in I stop and ask where something is happening that is stopping the technique from working? More often than not it is a slight clenching in the neck or an unnecessary movement somewhere else in the body. Let that go and the world is once more at one with itself.
Bottom line, if you want to be able to do hard stuff take Alexander lessons.
Then work yer arse off.

From George Philips
Posted on September 6, 2007 at 3:02 AM
so, Buri, I'm slightly mystified... was I close or far off?
From Stephen Brivati
Posted on September 6, 2007 at 3:03 AM
ah, my usual clarity....
I was complimenting you for yanking the thinking into a different arena,
Case of prunes on the way,
From Albert Justice
Posted on September 6, 2007 at 3:42 AM
Buri you act as if I am impatient! You varmint!

I enjoyed your post, and realize how privileged I am to be taking on violin as an adult today, rather than in the past.

Though I haven't taken Alexander formally, I'm certain it's similar notions that have got me past a lot of things--lots of'm.

For example, I can now here myself muffling a note and correct it very well--as well as a vibration, and can stop myself rather than just going on.

For these reasons, I'll be focusing heavily on etudes over the next period of time, and deemphasizing almost everything else as I try and drive home the balancing the instrument and balancing both the hand across the strings as well as the right elbow and bow.

There are measures in Albinoni's Adagio in Gm that are in 1st position, g/d that I could actually tweak the amplitude with my f4 on tonight consistently because of these anti-tension notions--to which a significant degree I must thank what feels like the entire world.

I was thinking just recently, that I was lucky in my Atilla the Hun world ('just do it'!) to have begun with damaged fingers. I am one hundred percent certain--yep a hundred--that I would've spent years not refining that tuck, those finger angles, that lightness of instrument balance, that lightness of elbows and bow.

Since I did the deal, and went the distance with this though, I'm going to reward myself by ensuring that I carry through towards some more Zweig like ideas as I attempt to ingrain these things over the next six months to a year. Looks like a bunch of etudes and arpeggios to me.

Next week indeed!.

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on September 6, 2007 at 4:11 AM
I have always reframed your `impatience` as a high level of comittment and desire,
From Yixi Zhang
Posted on September 6, 2007 at 4:19 AM
I must confess I’ve been slacking off on AT lately. Early this summer I started with a new great violin teacher so I’m making progress leaps and bounds (is this how you say it?). So, why bother with TA, the little voice told me. But imaging how much more I’d have been progressed had I kept up with my AT daily work! Sometimes I wish I could be like clock-like -- just stick to schedules and never stop, but I'm rhapsodic by nature. There are so many fun ways of trying different things in life and it's hard to keep up with all the regimes. So, I can really benefit from timely reminders like the one you just gave to us.
From Albert Justice
Posted on September 6, 2007 at 4:20 AM
It really isn't, but thank you anyway. I don't feel I have any choice. I love violin that much.

Though my words seem over the top a lot, they have actually been pretty true to my experience. I'm very anxious to see what I can do the next two or three years, and last night had to remind myself that it's in the getting there--uh, again.

From Laurie Niles
Posted on September 6, 2007 at 4:34 AM
Dear Buri, I tried prune yogurt the other day. I'm afraid that it was rather horrible. I'm terribly out of sorts. Was it perhaps the wrong genre for prunes? What to do?
From George Philips
Posted on September 6, 2007 at 4:38 AM
thank ye very much buri - I like to help when I can!
From Stephen Brivati
Posted on September 6, 2007 at 4:42 AM
Laurie, is it possible to set up some kind of amusing party game in which a significant number of glasses of Sangria are consumed. After which one spreads the offending genre on a plastic sheet and competing teams use straws to try and blow the prunes out of the offending yoghurt into a more salubrious environment?
From Stephen Brivati
Posted on September 6, 2007 at 4:44 AM
Yixi, I know it takes time, but once you get deeply into AT you will relaize that it is not a regime or daily practice routine to be done along with all the others. This approasch has, in my opinion, tended to evolve from the faulty use of self itself in literate computer /machine orieinted societies. Ultimnately AT is you and it is lived throughout the day in everything you do. There never has been a set routine;)
From Laurie Niles
Posted on September 6, 2007 at 5:09 AM
Buri it's hopeless. Quit drinking in '91.
From Stephen Brivati
Posted on September 6, 2007 at 5:49 AM
You too???????????
From Laurie Niles
Posted on September 6, 2007 at 6:17 AM
I'm terribly dehydrated as a result.
From Yixi Zhang
Posted on September 6, 2007 at 6:16 AM
Getting deeply into AT is the hardest part, but I'm having my books and video out again tonight. So tomorrow I'll get a little deeper than yesterday:)
From Corwin Slack
Posted on September 6, 2007 at 1:25 PM
This is all a bit philosophical for me. Perhaps its because I haven't experienced pain or stress and haven't felt a need for remediation.

Perhaps its because I quit squeezing at the shoulder to hold the violin (which is a cicumlocution to avoid the forbidden topic) before I attempted anything remotely real.

I can see that there may be a variety of stresses that we can induced by bad "body awareness" but first and foremost for many of us is the squeeze at the shoulder.

I find it interesting that many violinists will address any aspect of posture and mechanics except the shoulder squeeze. This is off limits and cannot be mentioned or is trivialized to irrelevancy.

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on September 6, 2007 at 10:49 PM
Hi Corwin. The whole point about AT is it is the antithesis of philosphy. It is derived 100% from objectibve studies of physiology. Alexnder points out that we acquire the bad habits of our parents and add outr own over time. The most prevalent and dangerous is loss orf awarness of head, neck back relation and how the head/eyes lead the body as in a healthy child. I have asked many Alexander teacher sover the years `Have you even sene a single perosn in daily life who use dthemselves well ?` to which they have all responded an emphatic `No.` Adults in the western world have simply lost it . The exceptions are so differnet for one reason or another that they rise to incredible heights. Top sportsmen, the greta violinists, Kreisler, Heifetz, and otehr muscicians, Casala, Rubenstein et al. Dancers too. Its overt once one is aware of the difference asnd what one is looking at.
From Stephen Brivati
Posted on September 6, 2007 at 11:10 PM
incidentally, there is one greta teacher who links vibrato problems primarily to faulty use of the shoulder ratehr than in the hand, fingertip or whatever: Mr Bron. He has stated that this makes hime something of a loner....
From Corwin Slack
Posted on September 7, 2007 at 6:24 PM
Years ago my employer hired a physical therapist to come into the office to teach us how to sit, stand up, lift light objects etc.

The therapist told us that after he learned principles of correct posture and started teaching them to his patients he had to give up most his practice because everyone got very better very quickly and didn't need his services so much. That is when he decided to be a lecturer for companies who were trying to avoid safety incidents and workman's compensation claims.

The most memorable part of his lecture was how the head should be positioned over the shoulders or spine and how our posteriors were meant to stick out.

I don't remember if he ever said anything about Alexander technique etc.

I certainly frequently feel a sort of lethargy at the computer that is probably a function of my poor posture. It vanishes when I play the violin.

From Chris Dolan
Posted on September 8, 2007 at 1:40 AM
I have read comments regarding Alexander Technique off and on for a some time now, but still somehow feel as though I am catching a glimpse into a secret society! I guess what I am trying to say is that, while I have heard and read about Alexander Technique, I cannot for the life of me begin to understand what it is really all about, or what makes it so obviously special. What exactly is AT, and how in the world does one begin to study or become aware of AT? I guess what I am really wanting to know is, what is Alexander Technique really all about??? Somebody enlighten me, please!
From Yixi Zhang
Posted on September 8, 2007 at 4:33 AM
Mind affects body subtly but concretely and profoundly. That’s what AT means to me.

AT is based on very straightforward human anatomy. Nothing fancy. What you see in human skeleton and muscle structure is what you get, theoretically speaking anyway. The theory/philosophy behind is breathtakingly simple. But –

Nothing about AT is simplistic. The profoundness is in its simplicity in a sense that it is elegant. It’s simple in a sense truth is simple: it is either is or is not – something that is indivisible. Because of this type of truth-seeking nature, combined with empirical work being integral part of it, AT is in a way more like ethics than science in that it provides both meaning and guidance to one’s way of life. If one follows the doctrine and keeps up with the practice, one is leading a way of life that will most likely lead to happiness. In this sense, it’s the best kind of philosophy there is.

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on September 8, 2007 at 6:53 AM
there are some detailed explanations of AT on this site. Go back through my old blogs and you can find a series of explanations plus the informed commentary of a professioanl AT teacher of long standing who uses this site.
Basically AT is learning to make a conscious decision to use the body well in the instant before one uses it badly which is waht we do all day long in any activity. Ther eis no separation of mind and body and the relearning to live well occurs through the ministrations ofan At teacher`s hands which can be the most liberating and magical experience of one`s life.
From Chris Dolan
Posted on September 8, 2007 at 1:24 PM
Could those that naturally take well to the violin do so because they have integrated some of the concepts taught with the use of AT, even though AT is unknown to them? Could this be the root of talent for some? Even were this the case, what about some players who seem to be all over the place, yet manage to do quite well. As a case in point, consider Nathan Milstein and the manner in which he played the violin, varied posture and all, and then consider Jascha Heifetz, who seemed so disciplined in his form that he was for all intents and purposes a violin-playing machine. Could either of these players have benefited from AT, or were they to some extent (or in some sense) putting AT into practice, even though unknown to them?

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