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Alan David Gould

Physical Mechanics of the Violin

July 7, 2013 at 11:36 AM

This is an essay concerning the physical, psychological and spiritual mechanics surrounding the science and the art of playing the violin. It has been said by many players that the pursuit of the violin takes a lifetime! There is hardly space in today’s frenetic world to find the kind of time for the painstaking practice that makes for artistic musicianship, but somehow it must be very deliberately sought after. Those who have managed to devote this level of energy to the violin have transcended the traditional boundaries and have enabled themselves the freedom to make great music; yet music by its very nature can always be more precise, more magical, more expansive….and limitless.. Everyone who aspires to be a great artist pursues music’s somewhat enigmatic path for life. Although there may be questions about mechanics, intonation, harmony, technique, theoretical issues, in fact, questions of all kinds, there can never be any real question regarding the true artist’s compulsive need to sustain a lifelong relationship with the violin.

The primal delight that we take in the pursuit of music can be entered into at any point in life. I have watched many adults express the child-like delight associated with the assimilation of the skills involved in making music Those of us who have been lucky enough to answer the call of music making early in life have enjoyed a long and pleasurable journey which, however arduous at times, has never ceased to be fun.

It is the periodic assimilation and conquest of basic mechanical skills which defines the individual’s assent up and over the musical hurdles which confront us all. These hurdles are really just a metaphor for life. In order to succeed at making music, or at living successful lives, we must first inevitably develop and hone these skills. We must learn patience, perception, stamina, ear training, body language…..and we refine these qualities and improve upon them as we practice and play.

Music is an organic resource. Our world vibrates with rhythm and melodious interface. At any point, we can tap into this ever-present resource…It waits for us perpetually and perpetually opens to us as we develop the comprehensive intelligence to use it. The capacity to make music is always with us although we sometimes take a lifetime to utilize it. It may be said that the art of music is a role model for the universe in general and its ever-present, highly-definable laws. The most common stumbling block in our effort to master a musical instrument is the proportionate lack of awareness of this model for life and for music…In order to curtail the expansive tendency of the artist which resides perpetually within us, we convince ourselves that we simply cannot move forward. We stop the natural ebb and flow of what we might conceivably create if we were just to allow the process to happen naturally. Luckily we are always ready to open to truth. Unfortunately, our apprehension about the unknown and our fear of failure limit us on our voyage. This book will discuss workable ways to confront our apprehensions and move forward into our personal artistry.

When we speak of mechanics as it pertains to music, we mean to describe the series of actions, with modifiers, that determine how a bar, a phrase, a passage, or an entire piece is created. Generally though, a mechanical action best describes a single musical technique, or event, which oftentimes has many duplicators in the actions of life. In order to negotiate any single action or event in music, as in life, we must first isolate the action, identify it to the point that we are capable of repeating it, and then repeat it under the guidance of an expert. We become aware of the correct way to obtain the learning and we approach the exercise of learning until we attain the moment of awareness. This is the process by which we learn the mechanics of physical action. It tends to be ordered and methodical. It requires periodic practice. This is not always practical for those lacking in stamina; But the rewards are much greater with this style of learning, and rewards, be they material, sensual, psychological, or spiritual, are what propel us forward. History can even be thought of in terms of a succession of rewards and disappointments fueling the upward surge to achieve even greater rewards.

Playing the violin is analogous to dancing. Although the intellectual faculties are engaged to the maximum, there is also an appealing physical aspect to the player, his or her stance, the graceful motions with which the music is delivered, the overall sense of finesse which accompanies the beautiful sounds that we hear. Although this combined auditory and visual aspect of music is not obligatory, it greatly enhances our sense of enjoyment. We tend to “understand” the artist in his attempt to convey the message of the music thru the combined medium of movement and sound.

The process by which we learn to play a musical instrument is therefore a series of definable actions which lead us step by step to the multi-dimensional endpoint of musical creation. We start by acquiring a single skill, combine it with other skills, modify that set of skills in conjunction with and in relationship to others, and finally transcend the place where we are simply dealing with skills and start to make music. Perhaps one of the reasons that it has been said of the violin that it is a relatively difficult instrument to master is the subtlety required to connect the many skills involved.

It has very interesting to note the professional musicians who I have had the opportunity to observe practice only what they cannot play. Aspiring amateurs, on the other hand, oftentimes practice only what they can. It is always convenient to dwell where we can remain comfortable. If only we could all realize that we have to know everything to do anything well. In the scheme of things and their complex inter-relationships, the more things we know, the better we do each thing. This is analogous to a symphony orchestra
comprised of highly skilled players performing an eclectic repertoire of difficult pieces with relative ease. After all, the music has a sacred obligation to be played; therefore the players must learn to play it. Simplistic as this may sound, this provides us with a wonderful model for the student in his effort to understand the laws governing the acquisition and assimilation of musical skill.

It is reassuring to note that no major changes have been made to the physical design of the violin or bow for a relatively long period of time. The method by which the violin is played has also remained essentially intact for centuries. It therefore has an irrefutable validity. We can have faith in it and believe in its solidarity. This has important ramifications for the student who needs to have confidence in a system that is somewhat difficult to understand.
Stability is an important part of sound production on any musical instrument and certainly an essential part of playing the violin. Physical movement necessary to negotiate the instrument must be affected within a stable center, much as a strongly-rooted tree is capable of bending in the wind. There exists a quiet and reflective place inside where we can calmly focus on and observe the events of music. Maintaining this center is essential for the precise execution of any kind of music. This stability is certainly achievable with practice. It is therefore not just the repetition of musical notes and phrases which we practice, but also the sensitive combination of quietude and observation in combination with actual physical execution of the music. Deeper than the passion that typically comes with art is focus. Passion, in fact, creates focus.

To watch an expert violinist move the bow on the instrument is a thing of great beauty.

Although there are many styles of bowing with many more modifiers, there is a consistency in the grace and fluidity with which the bow negotiates the strings. There is balance and poise, a graceful ease of execution and a general savoir-faire. Although the mental and physical coordination is considerable, in the end it is the apparent lack of visible effort which impresses us. The player has, in fact, transcended mere mechanics and is operating at a level far above the primary concerns of the student. It is the prerequisite of the artist to the make the music that makes us forget the medium. In the graceful motions and beautiful sounds of the advanced violinist we truly catch a glimpse of what music and art are all about; the vision of beauty apart from time and space…We have a rare opportunity to forget our typical concerns as we are transported into this magical place. We forget ourselves as we are intrinsically drawn to the music.

Moving a violin bow while stopping notes with the left hand is a complementary arrangement whereby each action supports the other and is integral to its success. If the bow arm is not smooth although the fingers of the left hand are stable there will be an inconsistency in the tone produced during those few seconds. If the left hand is unstable in its pressure to stop the note or inaccurate in its placement, we will have the resulting waver in the tone or actual intonation problems. It is also absolutely essential that the timing between the right and left hand is accurate. Although it may seem that the two motions occur together, the stopped note must be in place before the bow moves.

In the musical spectrum there exist a series of tones which are not only audible to the human ear, but which define themselves with color and flavor. We not only distinguish between pitch; we distinguish the peculiarity of the passage, defining it apart from the rest and planting itself in our consciousness in an uncanny way. We tend to remember what we have heard, as if we are recalling it from the depths of our being.

It is significant that, although we play scales, arpeggios, broken thirds, chromatics and patterns of all kinds on the violin which can feel quite sporadic, the motion of the bow more often than not resembles the arc of the bridge. This arc repeats itself in the design of the nut, the tip of the fingerboard, and the tailpiece. It is also suggested in the curvature of the top. In order to remain in harmony with the physics of the convexity of the violin, we must visualize the physical design of the curvature when we play: The bow must connect the strings as if we were drawing the arc. In many cases the instrument will tend to speak with an absolute minimum of effort if we merely observe the principles of momentum and gravity. The more we become cognizant of and adept at observing the path of the least resistance, the more we make our best music without unnecessary strain. This is the key to performing on any instrument for prolonged periods of time.

It is extremely useful to note that the laws governing the technical execution of the violin remain constant over time. Our learning process is something we can keep and build upon. The linear journey we undertake to master the instrument reaches its zenith much like a flower displaying its color and scent for the world to see, then dissipating in our old age. The intellectual exercise of listening, remembering, categorizing and holding music goes on for our entire lives, however; thankfully we remain more or less intellectually and emotionally capable of assimilating and appreciating music until we die. This becomes a wonderful gift to us after the physical ability to play the violin has waned.

There is a constant in music we should always bear in mind, for we are not always motivated to create, to practice arduous mechanical tasks on the way to musicality, or even to play every day. We should remember that the spirit to practice, create and perform will always come back to us and in good order. It is also good to remember, however, that a little self-motivation will initiate this feeling in us and tend to build on itself. We need to get the ball rolling. It is easiest to play when we have played all day and for days on end…That is when we play with real fluidity and when our mental powers are at their greatest. It is always good, for instance, to book a sizeable block of time in the studio when working on a recording project, because 10 hours are needed to make that magic in the final hour.

Mechanics

We should begin with the practice of scales. Scales are for the most part, deceptively simple structures until we realize that they form the foundation upon which all other musical structures are built. It is instructive to listen to a player that is in the habit of practicing scales, for there are many who are not and who have simply never learned how to go about it. They should be practiced slowly and evenly with consistent bow pressure and bowokes of equal length. It is sometimes useful in the beginning to actually sight down to the string to watch the vibration of the individual string. If the vibration is consistent then the volume tends to be consistent also. This practice is only a guideline and should not be the determining factor in achieving unilateral tone on the violin. In the final analysis, that is for the ear.

A good metering system for the beginning practice of scales if to think in terms of half-notes; They can accommodate a whole bow with relative ease and 2 counts of half a bow apiece tend to work well with an 8-note system. It is essential to develop the skill of drawing the bow with just enough pressure, just enough speed and just enough geometric balance. Here we have the triangular equation that allows us to connect ourselves with the music. The basic sound we create by applying the correct balance of these contingencies is what we build on no matter what we play. This is where we start. I cannot stress how important it is to develop this particular stepping stone on the violin, (or any musical instrument for that matter.)

It is not essential at first to practice many different scales; several can suffice to propel us forward. Of course before we are through we are required to be fluent in all keys, but for starters we can accommodate ourselves comfortably to 3 or 4 scales and several patterns only. As I previously stated, half notes will suffice for this purpose; we only need try to be focused on the consistency of the sound that we make and a cognizance of the physical mechanics necessary to negotiate the exercise of playing the scale.

Intonation is always an important consideration but in the practice of scales it is of paramount importance. We should think of each note relative to those that precede and follow it. In that way, we can visualize the sonic picture that we create in a linear way, occurring quite naturally in real time. Of course, in order to practice the actual mechanics of intonation, we need to isolate the intervals involved. Obviously there are two important considerations for our practice; the completeness and validity of each note and the relationship of that note to all the others. We should divide our practice time equally between these agendas.

When striving for good intonation, especially in the practice of scales, there are several methods to use. These deal with (1) the physical proximity of the notes themselves to those immediately adjacent to them, and (2) matching the vibratory rate of the notes to other notes which are more or less fixed, such as open strings and octaves. When we are trying to achieve correct proximity to adjacent notes, we should make sure that we hear the 2 notes in question back and forth at least several times slowly. It is easiest to judge a note by the other notes around it, although each single note, it is true, when played in tune, has a sonic transparency which is indeed recognizable. In order to practice discovering this inner quality of each note it is necessary to practice each note at length and to zero in on the correct pitch by rolling the finger up and back until a ring in the note is heard. In the overtone series on any decent instrument this clarity can be distinguished, although for a beginner it is not immediately apparent and can be difficult to ascertain. Once we have been able to distinguish the true sound of a single note, obviously the relationship of one note to the next can also be heard. This is also true with double-stops, triple-stops, and chords involving 4 notes. It is the placement and constant adjustment of our left hand and fingers on the fingerboard which allow us to achieve relative intonation in our music. Relative is the word here, for we have to remember that the listener not only does not expect to hear the adjustments; the listener wants to hear the passage in tune and is ready to give the player the benefit of the doubt. It is virtually impossible to distinguish the minute adjustments the player makes in the ongoing effort to play in tune. To extrapolate on this concept, consider an entire string section in the symphony orchestra playing a single note in unison. At any given moment the section of players covers just about the entire tonal spectrum of the “in tune” note, with various players playing just shy of sharp and others just shy of flat. In this potpourri of adjustment in which each player tunes himself and also tunes to the other players, is an ongoing barrage of changing sound occurring in real time which actually gives the impression of a note in unison. The ear of the listener simply cannot detect the aural adjustment. It is remarkable to think that the 70 or so players in the symphony orchestra could manage to create a sound which is homogeneous, but indeed they do.

Physical Properties of the Violin and Bow

The violin is a graceful and beautiful object to look at. It’s rounded, sculpted quality have impressed our aesthetic sense since the inception of what we call the modern violin. The design of the arc repeats itself in the bridge, the nut, the fingerboard and the tailpiece. It is also suggested in the general curvature of the top. We should consider that inside the chamber of the body of the violin exist another set of arc-like designs, in many cases complementing the external structure in a mirror image. It is interesting to observe that, not only does the complementary polarity between seen and the unseen exist in all things, but that it affords us the key to the visualization of the object as a whole. In the case of the violin, the aesthetics of the inner instrument both literally and figuratively suggest to us a comprehensive unity that we are obliged to honor. Although we do not touch the inner workings of the instrument, we are influenced by them. In an artistic sense, the joy of performing on an old violin has an element of mystique because we can easily imagine the other violinists, some of whom may have been great artists, who have played this particular instrument before us. It is no secret that the sound quality of the violin “opens” over time. The players before us have given us the gift of their effort as they strived to command the instrument. There is a linear quality to the process which is pleasing to us as we see ourselves as the current link in a long historical chain. It is a key element to our understanding of the past. The repetitive nature of the action and the music produced somehow validates us. It is ultimately a great adventure to imagine that we will be the ones to play The Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto as it has never been played before.

We draw from the past and create the future in all the aspects of civilization. When we play the violin, we remember and draw upon the collective consciousness of the great players who came before us.

It is vital to remember that the written notes on the page do not know what practical problems they present…They demand to be played with the same facility exercised in a passage much easier to execute. Another important thing to remember about notes is that they exist as separate items on the page but need to flow together in real time. Notes don’t know that they are notes and don’t appreciate that they can be difficult to negotiate. We should therefore be cognizant that we read only to provide ourselves with the floor plan of the music, but we create the music from our imagination. At times I have noticed that students treat the written page as the gospel, when it is really just a synopsis with the details left to us.

The Bow

The bow is one of the most understated objects in the world of musical instruments and their accessories, but it is of paramount importance. The bow delivers us our sound, and if it is balanced and in reasonable working order, can be easily made to respond to the variety of jobs required of the violinist. It is in recognizing the catalogue of effects that the bow can provide that distinguishes one violinist from the next. The subtleties required of the right hand and arm are only learned with repeated practice and long experience. There is an even more important consideration, however: that of gravity. We must allow our momentum to be used efficiently and understand where we draw the line between the initiation of the bow stroke and simply directing the energy already at work. It might be said that we might utilize half the effort by just knowing what to leave out. Here we have a model for excellence, for the climb to perfection is charted by leaving the unnecessary behind. In many cases, our ultimate lesson is not in knowing what to do but in knowing what not to do. Playing with too much effort causes fatigue and opens one up to all manners of unnatural physical compensation. Misdirected energy has to be compensated with counterproductive movements elsewhere in the body. Half of our creative energy is usurped in laborious and often unnecessary physical movements which have little or nothing to do with the physics of playing the instrument. We eventually learn to be efficient, which is not to say, robotic, just sagacious about the way we play.

One of the basic rules we must live by, and practice by, is that of repetition. We must go from point A to point B and back again…There is really no substitute for this time-tested method. Most of us will never find the will power to work in this way, but this is what produces tangible results. It is always helpful to set a certain number of repetitions as a goalpost. From that standpoint we can easily work towards a periodic reward, something to allow us to feel that we are indeed progressing. There is nothing that motivates us so much to progress as the real or imagined vision of progress. We are not what we are so much as what we feel we can become.

In the basic parameters of our practice we should always focus on the speed with which we execute our scales, exercises and phrases. We should start with slowness and deliberateness. It is a grave mistake to play the new music at the ultimate tempo. We develop the mental ineptitude and physical deficiencies that come with too much/ too fast. If we can just force ourselves to start slowly and keep to a rhythm in our practice, we will ultimately do far less work. Life and music are about relative ease, after all.

If playing from within is always the goal, then we must strive to arrive at the place where we are making music from that place. There is a recognizable difference in the player who is used to the sensation of playing the inside out; the phrases sound more natural, the choice of notes is more coherent and there is usually a sense of the player having a natural accord with himself and with the audience, if it is a public performance.

In any new skill there is a progressive order of actions which lead us to the goal of technical proficiency. We must first come to the mental awareness of the required set of skills. We must then begin by approaching the first skill with enough deliberation to move thru the skill without faltering. Since it takes time to develop any new skill, we must move at the speed which is in direct proportion to our lack of physical and mental coordination. Quite often it is not an action by itself which presents the problem, but the combination of mental and physical coordination that challenges us; we must face the music and the inherent skill required to make the music! Once we have mastered the action it is time to approach it from its precedent, move through it and connect it to the action following it. Where sight-reading music is concerned, we begin by reading one bar or phrase and connecting it to what precedes and follows it. We must move in and out of the problem areas in a methodical fashion until all the “units” of the music are connectable. It is only from this place of technical proficiency that we begin to give the music the artfulness that it demands. We play louder here, softer there, vary our tempos and styles, modulate and gracefully articulate the music with real expression, not unlike the act of speaking with poise, precision, command and general savior-faire. In the end it is the performance of the music that we’re after.

Physical Mechanics of the Violin © 2002 Alan David Gould

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