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Am I a Fischerman?

July 1, 2013 at 3:55 AM

Have I become a Fischerman? Next to my music stand are piled the complete works of Simon Fischer. They are all in constant service throughout my practice and teaching. This can be a bit annoying since the pile of books is now as tall as it is extremely heavy. The latest volume (The Violin Lesson) is the biggest of the lot and has probably weakened the foundations of my shabby old house.

It is this volume which has confirmed in my estimation that Simon Fischer is the most important pedagogue/writer of the late 20c and onwards. I base this claim to some extent on the content of his works but more on two possibilities he has created. The first emerged with the publishing of his book `Basics` something like ten years ago. At that time Simon had a reputation of course but there was nothing to indicate in the blurb how radical or important Basics was going to prove. I believe I was one of the first people to order it and I can claim in some small respect to have helped in it’s promulgation as I advocated its use to all and sundry, on and off the web. I have argued over the years that it should be a set work at Music Colleges where the teaching exam would require a candidate to clearly demonstrate an exercise or two from a given section to address a specific problem selected by an examiner.. Sadly this has yet to happen. With The Violin Lesson a new possibility has emerged.

Although it is still true, in my and many others opinion, that learning the violin properly requires a teacher, I have noted in past blogs that the bar is slowly being lowered. The proliferation of internet videos by competent instructors has helped a great deal. In this book Simon has presented a philosophy of the nature of the violin and how to approach it that has made the instrument yet more accessible to all and sundry for which he is owed a great debt.

So what’s it all about?

Those people familiar with Simon`s work know that the key word is `proportions.` By applying this concept to every single aspect of violin playing (of which there are actually not that many) one can systematically evaluate and change one’s playing without waiting around passively for a teacher to tell one what to do. There is no aspect of playing which cannot be worked on in this way. As Simon stresses in the book, -anyone- can choose –any- aspect of their playing and improve it by working on its proportions at the simplest level. This raises another important aspect of Simon`s work: he has I think demonstrated conclusively that all levels of violin playing from complete beginner to top professional are based on the same most fundamental actions and their proportions. Thus, the fastest way to improve, whatever your level, is to practice fundamentals. Not only etudes, scales and concertos, but the fundamentals that these are built on so that learning them is no longer a struggle but straightforward and enjoyable. This is not to say we don`t practice the former , and if you want to know about how to work on them then look no further than `Practice` and his scale manual. But it is through exploring the foundations of playing and manipulating proportions that a final recognition of the fact that anyone can improve on the violin if they so wish, has been realized.

The Violin Lesson contains so much more on top of this. Simon`s study of Alexander Technique informs much of what is going on; charming and highly relevant, thought provoking anecdotes form great pedagogues and perfomrers and Simon`s own original thinking permeate the work. Among my favorite Simonisms is the following suggestion.

Do you want to know how Oistrakh played that marvellous passage from the Sibelius which we see in `the Great Violinists Video? You know the one? He slashes out the most perfect whole bows the planet has ever seen. Well, as Simon so brilliantly points out we can systematically and objectively examine exactly what Oistrakh was doing. The distance from the bridge is objective. The temp is objective. The length of bow is objective. All we have to do is find out what weight is required to make a sound using those factors and we are playing as Oistrakh played. Isn’t that an amazing thought!

Another one I really liked concerned the rather neglected attention to how the fingers are contacting the bow as you play. Simon devotes a fair amount of space to discussing the neglect of the third finger. His suggestion that we imagine that each point that contacts the bow is a button on some kind of machine and press these randomly to see how that affects the sound and ease of playing is amusing and –extremely helpful-.

Whereas Basics was basic, Practice was application and scales self explanatory it is through `The Violin Lesson` that we finally get the big picture with all the details thrown in. I can’t really review it more than this because I’m still wandering around in it trying stuff out, having fun and (hopefully) improving.

Anyway, you’d better go and buy a copy.


From Carter Asbill
Posted on July 1, 2013 at 2:32 PM
Hi Buri, first I would like to say that I have enjoyed your very informative posts in the past and have gained a lot of information from them.
Regarding the Simon Fischer literature, I have been playing the the violin since 1952 and have had the great fortune to have played in several amature and semi- pro orchestras during my life in the different cities where I have lived. I am retired now but still practice every day.
My question is of all the instruction books that Simon Fisher has written, is there a particular one that you would recommend to someone like me that would really help keep my fingers and bow arm in as good a condition as possible for someone my age. I still play well but really want to keep it up as long as I am physically able.
Thank you for your advice and please keep up your great insight to other folks inquires. All of us can learn at any age.
Best Regards,
From Stephen Brivati
Posted on July 1, 2013 at 7:08 PM
Hi Carter,
my feeling is that it would be this one. Simon wrote something very significant in its pages. As a younger man he believed violin playing consisted of intonation, sound , rhythm, style and expressiveness. As a result of his thinking of things in terms of proportion he concluded that the last two are not direct factors. They are simply things that are manifested by the first three by changing the proportions. In other words, to play in a certain style one simply adjusts the first three in some way. It should not be considered as a separate entity.
Then, as a result of his studying with one of FM Alexander`s last and perhaps best students (sadly that teacher has passed on) ,I noticed Simon changed quite a bit over the years. In this case he added a new factor:
So , whenever you have achieved a specific goal in terms of intonation , sound and rhythm you must continually ask `Can I do this with greater ease?`
Therein lies the secret of violinistic longevity, and anything else for that matter. Finding the way that produces a correct result with the most ease. Of all his books this one leads down this path the most so I have no hesitation in recommending it.
From marjory lange
Posted on July 1, 2013 at 10:53 PM
Buri, I love that Simon Fischer links to your review--two great minds in tandem. Mutual respect.

It will be interesting to read Mr. Fischer's new book--I hadn't realized he studied AT with Walter Carrington, whose books I am very indebted to, thanks to my AT teacher's recommendation.

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on July 2, 2013 at 12:34 AM
Laurie very kindly supplied the lInks. Walter Carrington's passing was a great loss,
From William Wolcott
Posted on July 2, 2013 at 1:48 AM
Thank you, Buri. :)
From Paul Deck
Posted on July 2, 2013 at 4:35 PM
I have "Basics" and "Scales" and I think they are works of great insight and high quality. So on that basis alone I will probably buy the latest of Fischer's books. However, one does start to wonder how many different books of violin pedagogy one really needs. After a while the sheer quantity of advice becomes a bit overwhelming.
From Yixi Zhang
Posted on July 2, 2013 at 5:38 PM
Yes, the 3rd finger! My teacher also mentioned this to me awhile ago and it’s good to read Simon’s clear explanation to solidify the concept.

This is a good example how I feel Fischer’s books at its best – they should be required textbooks or reference books for serious violin students who have teachers who believe in Fischer. We usually have so much to deal with in each lesson and it is easy to gloss over something important; not everything teacher points out registers well with the student. Students are constantly self-teaching between lessons and that’s why good textbooks like Fischer's should be mandatory.

Buri, regarding learning violin without teacher, do you think Fischer’s books sufficiently address the issue of ear training for the self-taught? I’m asking because I believe having good ears is probably the single most important ability enabling a violin student to progress because, based on my own experience as a student, so much, too much time wasted in learning due to our inability to tell a particular sound/phrase we produce is poor or out of tune or both.

By the way, after having read your last post I ordered the Violin Lesson. It arrived last week, fast delivery for a very reasonable shipping cost.

Paul, I've got his earlier books and his DVDs, yet still find this book a worthy addition. Given my reasons above and for the price comparable to an in-person lesson with a good teacher, I think you should definitely get it.

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on July 2, 2013 at 7:09 PM
Hi Yixi, I do think there is enough on ear training. Simon approaches the issue form many different angles. Some of the key points:
1) Intonation is simply one note in relation to something else. In the case of the violin this means the open strings. By learning to play in tune with the open strings, or rather learning to always check, the ear is sensitized enough to play pretty well.
2) There is a visual aspect using sympathetic vibrations.
3) there is knowledge of the notes sounding behind the note.
4) Practicing scales as he teaches.
5) Making the transition from -not listening- to listening is not so easy for many people. He constantly refers to this and makes suggestions for what to listen for in order to get the habit of really listening, including things like evenness of underlying bow rasp.

This last point is the big challenge facing all players. I believe Simn`s books greatly aid in the transition.
best of luck in your endeavors,

From Yixi Zhang
Posted on July 2, 2013 at 9:49 PM
Thanks Buri! Yes, the visual aspect is really helpful. Systemic and objective is the way to go.

I often wonder how much physics has been utilized these days by violinists and whether violin teachers should be encouraged to work with physicists more often.

Last year I went to Beijing to watch the Menuhin Competition and had the chance to spent some quality time with Kerson Leong (1st Prize Junior winner of the Menuhin Competition Oslo 2010) and his family. I learned some extremely valuable advices on violin playing from Kerson’s father, a non-musician physicist. He talked about resonance and violin playing from a physicist point of view, including how to pull the bow to produce the best sound and how to feel at the tip of the LH fingers the tiny vibration to play in tune (the kind of glowing sound you get when you spot on).

Me thinks a lot of violin pedagogues can be demystified when we get to work with someone who has in-depth understanding of resonance and can articulate the science of violin playing in simple and straightforward manner.

From Eric Rowe
Posted on July 2, 2013 at 10:35 PM
Another vote for third finger. Sassmannshaus mentions it also.

I've been told many times (even aggressively) that the violin is 300 years old, so there is nothing new to say about it. Nice to know others see it differently.

I also know that physics and maths can illuminate much about playing (e.g. smooth bow change, fingering patterns, balance, tone) but not everyone appreciates the idea (especially if coming from someone who wasn't given a violin on their third birthday).

BTW "modern physics" invokes quantum physics, relativity and the like.

From Yixi Zhang
Posted on July 2, 2013 at 11:11 PM
Eric, thank you for the correction! The word "modern" deleted:)
From Stephen Brivati
Posted on July 3, 2013 at 1:27 AM
what's wrong with modern physics?
Half the worlds pitch is relatively bad and when a viola player misses a note it is certainly occurring ad infinitude in a parallel universe
From Geoff Caplan
Posted on July 3, 2013 at 9:29 AM
I very much agree with Buri that the bar for those of us who are self-teaching is lowering, and that this is due, in large part, to Simon Fischer.

I'm in a position where I can't afford lessons. But I also have a strong desire to learn the violin. It was discovering Basics that convinced me self-teaching was practical.

As Buri says, Fischer provides a framework for analysis that demystifies the whole process, and always guides you towards the next step. Now I have a basic grasp of Fischer's principles I never feel stuck - there are always open-ended vistas of practical experiments I can make to get better. The only problem is prioritising!

Even for those with a good teacher, I suspect that the best players discover much for themselves in the practice room. Anyone who digs into Simon Fischer's work will surely accelerate that process. The ability to identify and solve one's own problems is surely the most empowering skill for any musician.

With the help of Simon's insights (and the wide range of material on the web, including Buri's old blog here) I've reached a level where I can play with decent tone and intonation. I get great enjoyment from the instrument and can sit in on sessions with good players without disgracing myself. I attribute much of that to Simon Fischer.

From tammuz kolenyo
Posted on July 3, 2013 at 12:26 PM
Dear Buri;

I have an issue with Fischer's books (i have Basics and Scales) if used for self-learning purposes without a teacher prescribing target excercises and scales. Perhaps its that I haven't applied a lot of effort in soaking it in mentally. but here is my qualm: i have two of his books (Basics and Scales) and the material is very dense and seems almost encycopedic. however, there is no plan that one can work according to, linearly (or in any other organizational pattern). the material is presented in a democratic manner. for a self-learner, organization and priority of addressing certain issues are, i think, crucial.

i just so wish that there was at least a tentative plan implied by the organization of Basics that would give a structural backbone further to the thematic one present (bow technique, finger technique...etc.) it has been noted above that the amterial is overwhelming - especially for a self learner who does not have sufficient critical awareness of where s/he stands with respect to violin technique development. in contrast, mr. fischer's DVD is extremely and immediately helpful because it presents the material in an episodic and non exhaustive manner. it doesnt overwhelm and wow does it help. and its not just tone production. the excercises necessarily improve bow control, bow division, a feel for the bow in all its parts (frog, middle, tip).

i know that one plan cannot suit all but at least it would be a tentative one for those who are not yet able to konw what is weakest in their technique denominated by what is the most basic of the basics.
i hope i'm not making a mess by saying the above but i would really love to delve into this literature but with a sense of confidence. especially that i'm soon moving and will cease having a teacher for some time and therefore it would be a perfect time to be a fischerperson as well :o)

is this Violin Lesson book an answer to my qualm? does it lay out a heirarchy that Basics doesnt seem to me to do?

From Paul Deck
Posted on July 3, 2013 at 5:21 PM
Tammuz captured exactly what I was thinking after reading the preceding responses!!

While you are thinking about that you can enjoy this beautiful arrangement of the Fibich "Poem."

From Sue Porter
Posted on July 3, 2013 at 9:59 PM
@Buri: If one were so fortunate to go right out and buy all of the Fischer materials, now that the Violin Lesson book is out, how should one use them? Read the Violin Lesson first, and then study the others in light of it? Thanks!
From Stephen Brivati
Posted on July 3, 2013 at 10:51 PM
Hi Tammuz,
I understand your feelings very well. It is all to easy for someone who has a degree of familiarity with many of the exercises and their respective value in certain cases to dismiss this feeling of being over whelmed without acknowledging it's weight.
Nonetheless, I think if you do let it govern your attitude towards Basic you may possibly lose more than you can gain.
I don't have my copy with me and I don't remember exactly how Simon worded it but he does give a fairly solid and straightforward approach in the introduction I think. Basically just a case of working through systematically and ticking things off. He is not prescriptive because it is not possible to be so. The role of the teacher is usually to make decisions about when to do xy and z. This is the standard argument and although I agree with it up to a point I think find myself less and less absolute about it given the amount of simple and effective material Simon has set out that can be applied to any aspect of ones playing. I think a little more can be left to the judgement of the autodidactic adult learner....
The trick is to just do a very little at a time. And I really mean a very little. Start at the beginning of either the le hand or the right hand and just read a paragraph or two. Try one thing and ponder on it, digest it!??Is there really any hurry?
Personally I think most people can do one small section of both bowing and left hand section of the book. I don't think this is overwhelming. Take as much or as little time as you want before moving on. Mark what you have looked at with a pencil.
Alternatively think of one aspect of your playing you would like to improve. This is not hard is it? Wouldn't you like a better vibrato? I certainly would. Is your bow hold comfortable?
Just go to those sections, read a little and digest. Take as much time as you want. Experiment. After a week or so you should see some small changes happening. Make a note of these. Always write down what you are going to practice before you begin a practice session. This kind of planning ,,improves your overall practice and helps to integrate the exercises from Basics and your actual playing.
It is not up to me at to tell you that you need basics and would be well advised to work on it
as a mature adul is truly capable.
What I can say is that although your progress may be slower , or indeed much faster than another person doing the same thing, you will ctainly be a significantly better player than if you don't take the plunge and leave things to chance.
You have already proved you are not such a person by your work from the DVD.
Best of luck,
From Stephen Brivati
Posted on July 3, 2013 at 10:52 PM
Hi Sue,
that's hard question to answer. Some people may prefer the more leisurely and fun read of the lesson while others may want to do a more direct deconstruction and rebuilding of their whole technique from scratch using Basics. My own preference is fir Basic first but one could just as well start with the lesson and follow up with Basics.
Incidentally, open can develop an awful lost from the scale manual too.
Best wishes,
From Yixi Zhang
Posted on July 4, 2013 at 12:17 AM
Thank you all for discussing the issue of feeling overwhelmed by Fischer’s books!

I get overwhelmed easily because I tend to bite more than I can chew. For this adult ESL violin student who holds a full-time job beside knitting and cooking every day, I can get stressed out just by looking at these big English books sitting on the shelves. But this is how I cope: I keep reminding myself these books are the Bibles for violin: they are not for my reading purpose but I have to chew them, one bite at a time. Maybe I’m just too lazy to read everything within my reach but this works for me. I usually look at the books during the breaks between practice sessions like this:

Read one page of preface. Stop. Process.

Does my playing sound too wimpy? Look at the section on bow hold or arm weight. Try it out. Process.

... und so weiter.

Buri’s ticking off method is a great one. Will try that!

From tammuz kolenyo
Posted on July 4, 2013 at 9:48 AM
Thanks you for the response Buri. I understand and appreciate your kind advice. However, for the sake of more clarification, i would dearily appreciate if you could give me/us further advice aropos the below.

Just first to note that I suppose that part of the reason i would have been overwhelmed (well for one more week) would be that I have to practice the material my teacher gives me and then Basics and Scales. i showed the books to my teacher; she didn't provide much comment. she - and i notice this is true of other teachers- feel only/most comfortable teaching from material that they themselves have been taught irrespective to whether there may have been pedagogical advancement. anyway, i don't blame her for not trying to incorporate the Fischer material - it is what it is.

However, perhaps I have been intimidated by the abundance of material and - as you say- i should not let that dictate my attitude towards the content of these books. Regardless, i would like to elaborate on the reason for feeling intimidated.

one of the issues is that when i start an/any excercise, i don't know when to drop it and pick another one. for example, the excercises prescribed by mr Fischer in his DVD....i do them DAILY. not all of them, i've actually yet to know what the last excercise is. but other than the first (hand travelling over the bow) and the last, i practice the other excercises every day prior to pieces or etudes. i also transform one of the excercises so that instead of working heel or midsection or tip seperately all the time, i could organically link all these parts on the same soundpoint (going up then down) and then travel to another point. this reall makes me sense the transition of bow parts.

other excercises (might be in Fischer or elsewhere, i cant remember) i do for vibratos and taht i picked up here or intuited/ copied directly (i cant remember) are for vibrato. fingertip tapping without leaving string (from harmonic to the pressed note -1,2,3,4 per beat), then knuckle joint excercise (1,2,3,4) then normal wrist vibrato (again 1, 2, 3, 4)

so, all in all, it takes me around 20 minutes to do all this everyday with slight rests in between because they actually take nerve-centric effort. my vibrato is much better than before. my bowing is much healthier and my control and awareness of the bow in its parts and its whole is much better.

but here is my other question, if i add more excercises (which Basics with its sheer expanse of material compels you to) , i would have to either add more time (which i might not have for excercised - beyond those 20 minutes? therefor less for scales, etudes and pieces)or drop excercises that are proving to be very helpful.

I know I'm being narrow minded. perhaps, i should choose a few excercises that should be more permanently part of the practice routine and other excercises that go in a round i.e. practice them for a week or so, then replace them, come back to them later..etc.

would it actually be possible to distinguish, within Basics, between excercises that are best practiced near daily for a long long long forever-ish time and others that can go in a round? in other words, can we distinguish between a "Basics of Basics" and a merely "Basics"?

From marjory lange
Posted on July 4, 2013 at 10:53 AM
I think a key is "study" not "read" these books. As Yixi points out, they can function more like 'bibles' than they do like novels--or even like most other how-to books--because they are in greater detail and ask a different level of thought than other types of reading. This isn't 'violin-for-dummies,' after all.
From Stephen Brivati
Posted on July 4, 2013 at 10:58 AM
I think there are two issues here. First of all , I understand very well this thing about not giving up on an exercise etc. The simplest way to resolve that is to give up on responsibility. What I men by this is set yourself an arbitrary limit, perhaps four daysn on any exercise.
Write the date i pencil in the book or in your notebook. Then after four days simply start the next exercise and stop doing that one. You dont have ot think, examine or make decisions at this point. You simply stop with a clear conscience and move on. By this means you will gradually develop awareness about what is and isnt going to worl for you without having to worry too much.
The second issue is the question of basics within basics. I would say yes. You ought to do the key bowings everyday for the rest of your life. They seem t be huge in number so simply allocate a day f the weel to a couple of bars. You never play the same exercise two days in a row. This systematic variation is the key to keeping things fresh and keeping the workload to a mnimum.
The other thing is vibrato. Follow the four day advice I gave above until you done the whole lot. Then strat again and repeat te whole process if necessary. Of go backand choose an exercise you really like and do that for a week and see how that feels.
At te weekend you might like to skip the above ideas and do bow speed and pressure exercises. If you are feeling really keen spend a whole day doing short sessions of loud soft alternation within one bow stroke. See hoe that kind of one off craziness affects your playing.
Does this give you somewhere to start?
From Eric Rowe
Posted on July 4, 2013 at 11:36 AM
The "Basics" book sounds more and more sympathetic. How does it compare with "The Manual" (which I have also only read about)?

BTW Yixi, (at the risk annoying you ;-)) you do realise that your statement

"Buri’s ticking off method is a great one. Will try that!"

is ambiguous?!

EDIT: "The Manual" by Drew Lecher that is.

From tammuz kolenyo
Posted on July 4, 2013 at 12:49 PM
Dear Buri, that definitely gives me a thread to follow and a doorway into Basics. thank you so much.
From Yixi Zhang
Posted on July 4, 2013 at 4:56 PM
Hey Eric, you can’t possibly annoy me. I never get annoyed by smart people. What I referred to was Buri’s advice “Basically just a case of working through systematically and ticking things off.” However, ambiguity has its own beauty and maybe I should leave it as was.
From tammuz kolenyo
Posted on July 4, 2013 at 5:58 PM
Buri, sorry to press this further but by "key bowing" you mean the "key bowing patterns" pp78-85 (and not the whole "key bowing strokes" section)? thanks (again and again) in advance
From Stephen Brivati
Posted on July 4, 2013 at 7:03 PM
yep. Key owing patterns.
From Eric Rowe
Posted on July 4, 2013 at 9:11 PM
Hi Yixi,

I was just using humour (well, trying to!).

For anyone who didn't get it, "ticking off" can also mean "to annoy" or "rebuke"... :-) Don't change it.

From sharelle taylor
Posted on July 4, 2013 at 9:25 PM
Bloody hell, Buri, you are such a gorgeous light. I love having your strategies back here. thank you. and thank you to all the others who have contributed their thoughts on this htread, because it all helps.
From Yixi Zhang
Posted on July 4, 2013 at 10:53 PM
Eric, bloody hell! Your gorgeous light really ticks me off! :)

Sorry Buri, I don't mean to tick YOU off by hijacking your blog too much, maybe only a little. Back to the topic, have you tried Fischer’s two little books: Warming Up and the Tone?

For those who want something smaller in volume, these two might the way to go.

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on July 5, 2013 at 1:30 AM
yes those are both great books. But don't forget their objectives are quite different. One might , in spite of the detailed explanations, for example, use the warming up book without really deconstructing ones playing in any significant way. The purpose of the bigger to,es is to slowly get a grip on teaching yourself.
From Paul Deck
Posted on July 5, 2013 at 3:44 AM
This thread is one of the most enlightening I have enjoyed on vcom. Partly, though, it just makes me more sad that I have such limited time to give to the devil's instrument!!!
From Stephen Brivati
Posted on July 5, 2013 at 4:30 AM
Greeting ,
now you have to admit this is the best blooper I ever made....

The purpose of the bigger to,es is to slowly get a grip on teaching yourself.


From Sue Porter
Posted on July 5, 2013 at 1:24 PM
Thanks, Buri. Much to ponder and work on. Any updates on Japan forthcoming?
From sharelle taylor
Posted on July 5, 2013 at 11:00 PM
I am still struggling with my littlest to,es. I cant deal with too many things at once. I'm a slippery character, to be sure.
From Stephen Brivati
Posted on July 6, 2013 at 3:05 AM
clearly The Pobble was a lucky chap.
From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on July 7, 2013 at 12:44 AM
Well, I'm late to this party, but I'm glad I came. I bought Basics several years ago, felt overwhelmed, and have been embarrassed that it's mostly just been sitting on the shelf. I admit, I'm not very good at self-teaching or learning things out of books. But I like what I've read here and I think I can do that!
From tammuz kolenyo
Posted on July 7, 2013 at 11:09 AM
I started with Ex. 1 and 2 and the first few bowing pattern bars per Buri's suggestion. i now have time given that im on my own for a while.

I wonder whether we can create a Basics support group to give even more spur.

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