March 5, 2013 at 8:37 PMI'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.
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..
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!
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.
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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Kate Little is from Salt Lake City, Utah. Biography
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