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Christmas Basics.

December 24, 2009 at 9:57 PM


I’m not exactly sure why I have had this life long obsession with Aikido. Perhaps it’s because I have simply wished to be more graceful, a bit less of a general all round klutz. Whatever the reason, in the last twenty years I have failed twice at different dojos that didn’t seem to be doing it for me. In fact I was severely injured by an ignorant black belt on my second attempt.   Third time lucky I was recently introduced to a more traditional school with a clear system that moves systematically and safely, respecting the needs and difficulties of quasi-maniacal middle aged klutzes. Now having trained three times a week for some months I can claim to have moved into the conscious incompetence part of the skill learning model IE I can see what I don’t know and what I need to learn.  
What interests me about this style (Yoshinkan) is the emphasis put on basics. In Japanese the nuance of the word is slightly different to the English word. It has I think, a deeper sense of `foundation` rather than just `step one.` One can understand any skill (something one learns) from a hierarchy of modules. The basics (kihon dosa) are six stances/techniques which one practice repeatedly as the body learns the simple but powerful relationship between different ratios of weight distribution and spacing of the feet; how to move the hips;   strengthens the knees and so forth. It was three months before I was allowed to work with a partner on anything which may be an all time record for klutzes.... 
These stance/techniques in turn all derive from the only position referred to as `kamae.`   In essence all Aikido derives from one`s kamae in the same way that all violin playing derives from ones initial stance which represents our current totality in relation to the universe for better or worse. I have had the opportunity to watch the annual grading session of all levels, an incredibly grueling test for even the really fit.   What impressed me the most was not the gradee versus three armed combatants but rather the fact that at –every- level the candidate began with relentless repetitions of the six basic stances/techniques with three examiners scrutinizing every aspect of feet and finger placement.   Having left the dojo crying in pain on occasion (purely self inflicted by my innate stubbornness) it was sort of nice (?) to see black belts being tortured in the same way. It’s all about basics.
Well, this is turning into a marathon blog, but what better way to end the year? Of course it is about `Basics.`
There are a number of books in the history of violin pedagogy that have changed and continue to change many players/teachers and by default the profession. Pere Mozart, Baillot/Kreutzer,   Auer, Galamian etc. `Basics` by Simon Fischer belongs there... 
 I stumbled on the book just prior to publication some years back and thought it might be mildly interesting. At the time I was getting back into playing after a hiatus of some years doing other things, but finding myself directionless. I can trace the cause of this directionlessness (as it were) very easily and it is something I see so often I wish it could be shouted form the rooftops rather more than it is. It seems to me that the music profession and music institutes have a great deal to answer for in their failure to help talented young kids get decent systematic training (as in Yoshinkan) and in doing so they condemn many talented people to a less than fruitful life in music tempered by frustration and injury. Even the reputable institute I attended with great teachers seemed to be governed more by haste and lack of the basics we in Britain who didn’t live in London were largely unable to access.
I believe the book `Basics` is significant not just because of its extraordinary content but rather because it takes away any excuses for bad teaching at least at a technical level. The profession as a whole has had the relevant knowledge collated and any teacher should now be able to look at a student’s vibrato or whatever and go `Hmmm. Try this exercise for a week` or `I can see this typical problem with your vibrato. The upper arm is too near the rib cage.` etc. I strongly believe music institutes should use this book as a core syllabus for testing students in their teacher exams (I have those qualifications from said Institute but use –nothing- from that test except the playing ability it required) and every student should be grilled over problems of tone production, right hand thumb and the like. I don’t think it is going to happen in my lifetime but who knows....
At least `Basics` is universally established and helping more and more people get better in their own practice and working with their teacher on specific problems. Nonetheless I am often a little startled to find comments from people who have bought the book and ask `How should it be used?`   Of course any question is a good one (except the one –not- asked) so clearly something is a bit daunting about this book for some people and perhaps it needs a little discussion.
Actually Simon writes a few suggestions at the beginning which I have forgotten and don’t have a copy to hand but here are a few idle thoughts. Perhaps begin by simply reading it from end to end in a very broad sense.   Get the general layout- its divided into left and right hand . What aspects of these sections interest you or relate to you- that you can apply immediately to what you are currently studying- IE if your teacher is down on you for intonation then read and reread that section and begin applying the information to what you are doing with scales and pieces. The book is kept by the music stand on a chair for easy access. Reading in of itself is useful but not a substitute for application of what you read....
At the same time allocate part of your practice time to reading and applying small sections of the book.   You might do this the simplest way which is, quite sensibly to `begin at the beginning` and work your way through. Tick off where you have got to. When an exercise strikes a real note with you either post it or make a note in a notebook to return to that exercises everyday as soon as possible.   This approach is fine but then one is going to be working on bowing for a while. Another possibility is to read two or three exercises from the first section and two or three from the second in parallel.
Once you have worked through the book you will become aware of certain differences in the kinds of exercises and practice methods. 
1)   Some of them are simple `awareness` exercise and although they may radically alter your approach to playing they need not be done on a daily basis. You might make a note of those that are valuable to you and begin your weekend practice with these. 
2) Some of the exercises are clearly highlighted by Simon using expressions such as `this is a master technique which should be used in all practice sessions,` or similar. These sentences should be highlighted and the exercises notes on a special wall poster or memo board to be viewed before beginning a practice session.
3) Some of the exercises are designed to be used as part of a daily routine.   A good example is the `key bowing` section. One can photocopy this part and keep it separate on the music stand. Everyday, systematically select a few bowings from each type and practice them as part of your technical training.
4) Some exercises clearly apply to a specific problem you may be having right now such as vibrato.   Bookmark it and return to it daily, working at one or two different exercises a week until you find the one that really improves your problem the most and incorporate that into your daily routine for a while. Keep going back to the section, searching for a deeper understanding.
I suggest that once one has worked through the book in this kind of way one then has to go back again(as in the Aikido Kihon Dosa) and work deeper on one part or section.    Have one day a week in which you take one section and work at it for a few hours.   It might be general contact exercises or bow speed or whatever. A few hours focus on a specific area can help to substantially integrate your technique.   During this work try to think like a teacher. This is because the time proven and irrefutably strongest method of learning anything is simple called `re-teaching.` IE the moment you learn anything you should create a mental image of a student in your head and teach what you have just studied to them. If you cannot do it you have not quite got it yet......
As far as `getting it is concerned I have noticed that this is a little bit of an issue with some people.   They ask,  quite reasonably,  `How do I know when I have got it?`  and seem on ocassion to be put off by a feeling that they won`t know when they have it.   In a way this is over focusing on product and not paying enough attention to the `process.`  The two things go hand in hand and if one pays careful attention to the instructions the sound will emerge which in turn will feed back into the process.  It is important to remember that the most successful learning actually contains an element of struggle and insecurity.  Very often one can miss the point that the feedback is built in.  If someone is really fixated on this as a problem I ask them to practice the Suzuki pizz exercise in which one plucks a note,  listens to the ring and tries to emulate that on a bow stroke.   The feedback is built in:  all the data is contained in the ringing note of the pizz and the copy you then make with the bow.   No teacher,  video,   or tape recorder can really help you with this.  One has to decide to use the ears/mind and actually listen to what one is doing.  This can be a very hard lesson,  but nobody ever said playing the violin was easy;)
That’s about it really. The deeper you work the more you will find and some things will take on great significance for you. In my own practice I constantly return to the same four pages: general contact exercises which includes the click, Suzuki’s pizz/bow /   play progressively longer notes at heel listening for the resonance and then incorporate into bow change etc and in tandem with that-   sound point exercises. All my students are tortured with whole bows at mm 80/75/70/56/40 on the various sound points. I hope they realize that like the black belts in the dojo , I too have to go back to basics for it is only out of these that art can flow.
Have a Happy Christmas,

From Terez Mertes
Posted on December 24, 2009 at 11:41 PM

 Not a typo in sight - I'm so confused. Okay, Buri, who did this for you?!

Jokes aside, thanks for the insights and Happy Christmas back atcha.

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on December 25, 2009 at 12:27 AM

Twas the night before Christmas,

Not a typo was stirring...

From Terez Mertes
Posted on December 25, 2009 at 1:06 AM

 ... not even a mou...

Oh, sorry. Wrong blog. The one over there is the rodent discussion. My bad.

...not even a percussionist.

From Bruce Berg
Posted on December 25, 2009 at 5:13 AM

Thank you for your comments about the Simon Fischer book on Basics. What struck me about his book is how he draws on so many different approaches ranging from Galamian, Delay, to Dounis. This book for the aspiring violinist and the already professional player is a compendium of a solid approach to the technique of the violin. I just got the Practice book by Mr. Fischer for myself and look forward to looking through it for further insights not only into my own playing but for my teaching.

So many violin teachers have the idea that only only they have the answer to playing the violin. This is not and should not be the case. The manner of teaching and playing the violin is not a secret, it is just a learned skill. The successful player and teacher needs a huge bag of tricks to solve any problem presented. Mr. Fischer's book supplies a lot of this. The truly great teacher will not only have the solutions to technical problems, but will know the manner and order in which to address these and also possess the innate empathy to relate to each student in an individual manner.

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on December 25, 2009 at 6:12 AM


Dr Berg, thanks for comment.   I was interested to note thta you used the expression a `learned skill` in talking about the violin.  These days I am striving to integrate the concepts and techniques of `skill learning,` as a distinct field ,  into my approach to studying and teaching.  There are a lot of interesting and importnat non-violin works out there which we violinists could greatly benefit from.  I find one of the underlying characteristics of Simon`s work is that he has an instinctive understanding of typical skill acquisition models.  `Basics@ isn`t just an ad hoc collection of stuff but can also be a powerful guide into approaching the violin in a generla sense which shoudl really be the same a slearning origami or making Christmas mice out of rotting cauliflower florets.  It`s not something I got into in the blog but I think fairly assiduous study of basics can both integrate and reinforce for example,  the model by Moretti of efficient practice:

1)  Choose the section you wish to work on.

2)  Either a) simplify (separate hands,  play without vibrato,  ghosting, etc)

or b) slow down until whatever you are practicing is actually relatively perfect.  (correct drop-outs with use of fermatas,  various rythms for fast/slow practice)

3)  Repeat the necessary number of times. (Add vizualisation)

4) Increase speed and or complexity (metronome work,  fast fingers,  coordination exercises, rythms etc)

5)  Repeat procedure with other chunks at same level of complexity.

6) Integration (ABCDE practice)

7)  Choose next section and repeat procedure




From David Allen
Posted on December 25, 2009 at 1:17 PM


I too have been impressed with the parallel between the Martial Arts and Music. After studying San Soo for twenty years I have come to the belief that if there is any "secret" to anything in life, it is the importance of the basics in any endeavor one might care to name. They cannot be over-emphasized!

Thanks for your comments.

From Yixi Zhang
Posted on December 26, 2009 at 2:13 AM

Buri, Merry Christmas  and thank you so much for this incredibly wonderful blog!

A number of issues you mentioned are exactly something I should be working on. Although I find re-teaching is relatively easy, I don't do this well enough because I've got the over focusing issue big time. The Cartesian love for clear and disctinct ideas has pounded into my being a bit too deep so anything less than absolute clear doesn't give me confidence. The result often is I don't think I understand what my teacher told me even though she said to me again and again I got it. If I don't believe I got "it", I won't remember to re-teach myself, right?

The major technical issue I'm facing now is the tone production. I am doing the SF exercises and listen to myself carefully, but I'm told that I need to pay more attention to the tactile aspect of the tone production. My right hand needs to 'feel' more with the subtle difference for producing colours. I'm not sure if Fischer or anyone has commented on this issue, or if it is indeed an issue. Most of the discussions on tactile aspect of violin playing I saw appeare to be about the left hand fingers. One thing I recently noticed is that my right hand sensitivity is affected by where the right index position on the bow stick is. The further I move it towards the tip of my finger, the more data I get from the bow stick and perhaps more colour I can try to produce. In other word, when position the 1st joint of my index finger on the stick, I can feel the stick a lot more with both the joint part and part of the finger tip (the padded area where we tend to use to feel the surface of things). But if I position my middle joint of my 1st finger on the stick as I use to do for many years, then the benefit of the fingertip sensitivity has lost. This observation may be completely a fantasy on my part, but I would really like to learn more about the right hand tactile aspect of tone production if possible. 

Anyway, Buri, thank you again for this wonderful, wonderful blog, a Christmas surprise, the best present!

From Bart Meijer
Posted on December 26, 2009 at 9:20 AM

This is a print-out-and-hang-on-wall blog. Thank you!

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on December 26, 2009 at 5:43 PM

"Perhaps it’s because I have simply wished to be more graceful, a bit less of a general all round klutz" lol I have exactly the contrary problem!  Typical discussion between me and my teacher: (She) I would like to be as graceful as you (her words).   (me) pls no, I would do anything to have your fingers and short neck.  ; ) !!!  

Thanks, so many things are related to violin.  About basics, thanks for your excellent advice!  I think I'll take a little break of concertos after the January festival and work more on studies, scales and basics to get good "vitamins"!!! Just find violin is too important, to complex, to noble to be "just a hobby".   Really it would deserve all my time and attention... and I would like so much if it would be possible! Think I'll go practice NOW!!!

Thanks for this nice blog!


From Erick Busato
Posted on December 28, 2009 at 3:02 PM


Very enlightening blog! Thank you very much.

Happy new Year!


From Yixi Zhang
Posted on December 30, 2009 at 8:10 AM

Happy New Year Buri!!!

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