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Violin Crisis

March 5, 2013 at 8:37 PM

I'm having a violin crisis!

It came about like this: One of my learning habits is to occasionally snoop about You Tube for violin tutorials. There are plenty of them. It is interesting to see how various people teach shifting, vibrato, & etc. Hearing a lesson presented multiple ways prods me to think more deeply and try it it from different viewpoints, which reinforces the concept. It gives me ideas to take into lessons, allowing me to engage more fully with my teacher. Usually, the tutorials are more or less in line with what I’ve learned in lessons. However, this week, one on-line tutorial left my playing completely discombobulated.

It was from the Yehudi Menuhin Violin Tutorial series. These films present fundamental technique of holding (balancing, actually) the violin and bow, fingering, and drawing sound, in a clear, concise and thorough format. The lessons are unique in that the master 1. is able to break his motions down into component parts; and 2. is able to slow them down or exaggerate them as necessary so the student can see exactly how the motion of the hand and body work. The camerawork, with close-up shots from various angles, allows viewers to clearly see his physical actions. When appropriate, a transparent acrylic violin is used so the working body and its action can be seen through the instrument. The suppleness and agility of Menuhin’s motion are beautiful. The images of him provide a visual reference of the physical fluidity essential to playing violin well.

In particular, it is Tutorial #3 with left hand exercises which has sent me into crisis. This tutorial begins by discussing the difference between holding and balancing the violin. I noticed that the guy is not using any kind of shoulder rest, and I think, “Hey, that looks interesting. I’ll try that, too.” So I dispense with the Kun collapsible and spend the rest of the day experimenting with balancing the violin between the collarbone and thumb. By late afternoon I’ve sort of got the balance thing down. The instrument is not fully stable, but it is comfortable and I feel less physical clenching and more freedom, as was described in the film. Furthermore, when I return to using the shoulder rest, all kinds of familiar tension creeps back into my neck, and the instrument feels plastered to my body and unable to engage sympathetically. Before yesterday, the shoulder rest made me feel secure. Now it makes me feel restricted.

The second half of this tutorial brought further physical confusion. One theme of my lessons has been getting my left hand to melt its oh-too-solid grip of the violin. Its tension impinges fingering and shifting. My teacher wants the hand to release tension and gain flexibility, softness and space. This is exactly what Yehudi Menuhin ever so clearly demonstrates in his tutorial. Oh, to have hands like his! Feeling inspired, I work through all of the left hand exercises, and, guess what: My left hand totally releases its clench. All of a sudden, I can get my fingers to go where I need them, especially the low 2. Sounds good, right? Well, yes, except that my left hand (and arm and shoulder, too) doesn’t really know how to cope with this newfound freedom. Now everything is completely out of kilter and I can’t play anything anymore. So much for the studio recital this coming Saturday.

What I’d really like to do is get together with an experienced violinist to study this tutorial together, and figure out if I have understood and am using it correctly, and where do I restart and what do I do to incorporate this discovered freedom into my playing. Unfortunately, neither my teacher nor anyone else is available, so I am left to my own curiosity and devices to explore for the rest of the week, seeking a sense of physical freedom and balance.

It’s back to Twinkle for me.

From Corwin Slack
Posted on March 6, 2013 at 2:57 AM
Well better to experience and learn this early than late. It took me well over a year to be comfortable with no shoulder rest (i.e. secure) but the freedom is astounding. I learned how to shift, prepare fingers, cross strings etc. it was enormously liberating. It can't be done with a teacher who doesn't play this way.

From Trevor Jennings
Posted on March 6, 2013 at 1:17 PM
When playing without a shoulder rest (which, incidentally, was unknown before the middle of the 20th century) remember that there are three or four points of contact that stabilize the instrument:
1) the left hand (the thumb should never grip - just light frictional contact with the neck is all that's needed, and you should not be able to see any more of the thumb nail than its edge, if that);
2) the collar bone;
3) the one that doesn't occur to most people - the pressure (albeit light) of the bow on the strings;
4) the chin/jaw, with or without a chin rest - a little less important for stabilizing the violin than 1-3 because during a lot of playing it isn't necessary for the chin to contact the rest. In fact, one should avoid clamping the chin down on the rest all the time because that will likely cause physical problems in the future.
From elise stanley
Posted on March 6, 2013 at 1:46 PM
Kate - love your blog, and I suspect there are very many of us who have done the same thing in different contexts - change one's technique and 'improve' it only to find that playing is actually impaired. I've gone through the 'dump the SR' thing recently too and have been piecing through the seemingly infinite variations - chin rests, cloths, angle of the violin (vertically), angle (horizontally), grip (or not) of not only the left hand but also the chin, angle of my left elbow (tends to creep to the right) etc etc - and then trying to be totally relaxed!

Funny thing is, difficult and confusing as it all is not once have I wanted to go back to the SR (OK maybe once but that was cause I was getting a stiff neck after 2 hrs nonstop sight reading music that was too hard for me with an orchestra).

I've been through the menuim tape you mention too, but not to the detail you did - and his ability to hold the violin with just chin and collarbone is scary. I can only really conclude that his body was constructed for the violin, not the other way round. Actually, I wonder if you start young enough whether the body really does adapt to that particular motor/scaffold function. I wonder if anyone has looked at that.

Oops this had gone long. Good luck figuring it out - my teacher is an SR user so not much guidance there either..

From Christina C.
Posted on March 6, 2013 at 5:08 PM
this is a timely entry for me. My lessons took a very unexpected turn down the slippery slope of restlessness just this past weekend. We've been working on building better bow-arm basics and after a scale, my teacher prefaced her advice with "You're not going to like this" ....and off came the shoulder rest. I'm not opposed to trying to convert but as you can relate, it's all in the timing. I have a pit gig right now and there's no way I can just give up the shoulder rest without risking serious injury to myself and (more likely) my instrument, so I'm using one and it's actually serving as a reminder of where not to hold. From what I'm seeing so far, my biggest hurdle will be the left thumb.
It just so happened that F# came up as the starting key-du-jour for 3 octave scales... very tricky at the top!
From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on March 6, 2013 at 5:13 PM
I don't know, to me this reads like a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of trying to do something so complex with just a video tutorial for guidance. It actually made me happy about my own shoulder rest and my ongoing decision to stick with it, since it's comfortable and doesn't give me any trouble.

I think your last comment, finding an experienced violinist and teacher to help you make this transition is a great idea. If you can go to a violin shop and try out several different chin rests and so on that could help too. Good luck!

From Paul Deck
Posted on March 6, 2013 at 5:32 PM
Trevor, quick question, does the base of your left-hand forefinger not touch your violin at all when you are playing?
From Nathan Cole
Posted on March 6, 2013 at 6:30 PM
It's great that you're discovering some new (and even improved) sensations playing without a shoulder rest! It's something I've experimented with on a couple of occasions, but never for less than a month at a time. This is also playing an average of 4 hours a day or so. I wouldn't expect any lasting change in a shorter time than that! So be patient and see what comes of it. And if you can get together with an experienced teacher either in person or online, so much the better. It's tough to go it alone!
From Trevor Jennings
Posted on March 6, 2013 at 10:23 PM
Paul, I had to get my violin out in order to check out the answer to that one! Concerning the first position, generally speaking I don't think I touch the neck with the base of the index finger when playing on the E and A, but if I do it is very briefly and incidentally; it's not a gripping. There is a little more contact when playing on the D and G, probably because I have the thick fingers you get from playing the cello for a lifetime; but again it is not a gripping contact otherwise I wouldn't be able to shift easily - the contact point for the G and D seems to be more or less at the join between finger and hand as I bring the hand more over the fingerboard.

The higher positions - no contact, as you'd expect.

It didn't use to be like that several years ago when I started playing folk fiddle, and was more or less self-taught on the technical side. I didn't actually have a full-blown left hand death-grip, but I was aware of the base of my left index finger always being against the neck in the vicinity of the scroll, and the skin at the base of that finger did thicken as a consequence, so there was some gripping and stiffness, sufficient to make shifting difficult. Nearly all of the folk fiddlers I knew played like that but it wasn't a problem because it was all first position playing.

When I started having proper lessons five years ago my teacher deconstructed my "technique", replacing it with the technique that actually does what it says on the can, to the extent that two years later she considered I had improved enough to swap over from the cello section of my chamber orchestra to the violins, an idea I had been thinking about for a little while. So I made the change and haven't played the cello orchestrally since. I'm now working on the Haydn Gmaj vc with the same teacher, and also play in other orchestras.

From Charlie Gibbs
Posted on March 11, 2013 at 6:57 PM
What a timely blog! It coincides with a crisis of my own, namely vibrato - which I've never been able to do satisfactorily.

Last week a friend couldn't make his violin lesson so he gave me his time slot, with a truly excellent teacher. I decided to use the time to address some of my problems instead of going over the material I'm working on with my regular teacher or with the orchestra.

In the lesson we discovered that I was gripping the neck between my thumb and the base of my left finger. I would release this grip occasionally - I have no trouble shifting - but at other times I was taking quite a firm grip in an effort to stabilize the instrument. This was making certain fingerings difficult, and vibrato almost impossible. With the encouragement of this teacher, I tried playing without touching the neck with my finger - and suddenly my hand was free to vibrate.

Like you, I have decided to deconstruct my left-hand technique, and rebuild it in a way that will allow me to play better. In my practice sessions I'm now concentrating on never allowing my finger to touch the neck. It's a temporary step backwards - my tone, intonation, and stability have deteriorated sharply - but the ability to finally do a proper vibrato is enough motivation to keep me working until I get it all back. I know I'm on a better path now.

This isn't a shoulder rest issue - I'm sticking with my good old Kun. But once I got the principles worked out, I picked up my viola - which I play without a shoulder rest - and found that everything works just the same.

Recalling that Suzuki book 3 had a section titled "Vibrato Exercises", I dug it out to see if there was anything there that I had missed. Buried within the text were these tidbits: "Be sure that the first finger knuckle is free from the neck of the violin," and "The fingertip and the thumb should be the only 2 points of contact."

These words should be printed out in big letters and framed on the wall of any practice room. I wish I had noticed them a couple of years ago. But at least now I can start putting things right.

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