July 19, 2007 at 5:11 PMAs kids we are often taught “The Basics” or “The Rudiments of Violin Playing” or “The Way to Learn the Violin” as the Teacher sees it, especially things like how to: 1) hold the violin 2) hold the bow 3) read music and 4) count, and not necessarily in that order. But holding the instrument and holding the bow are way up there, in terms of priority, at least in what I have been told by various pedagogues.
However, just as in public K-12 education, where modes are shifting toward more integrated and hands-on learning, now that I am taking time to reflect on my own contributions toward teaching violin in that world, I am coming to believe that the idea of how to “hold” the violin is a bit stagnant and misleading. Let’s face it, there is no one way to hold the instrument, or the bow, just like there is no one way that all kids learn how to read or do math and certainly no exact time frame for doing so. Just think about how many gradations of body shapes and sizes have to deal with learning the physicality of the violin, not to mention mental development or intuitiveness. And does anyone ever need to ‘hold’ the instrument really, unless you are taking a still photo, or waiting to start playing in a concert? I do agree that there are some basic stances and positions to put the instrument into to make one as naturally comfortable as possible, but these stances come with the inherent idea of setting up an environment to create the best and most natural music with the shape one is in.
So move it. We eventually learn how to move everything--most of our joints and muscles--or suffer the consequences of excess tension and uncomfortable playing. Why not learn a bit of motion in the same lesson as holding? It is harder to hold still than to move. One of the things that worked well in teaching strings classes for me was having students demonstrate motion in playing. Once students had a decent grasp of their instrument technique and started to deal with their own intonation issues, a class would find a not-so-difficult tune that worked for them, and were on their feet. These kids were not statues on their feet—they were encouraged to walk the beat, make up dance moves, and get creative with larger bow strokes to get themselves more comfortable in playing/performer mode. Some were able to dive right in and do this right away; others were terrified initially until they found they could catch and show the beat in other, less disorienting ways. But the improvement to their tone was amazing.
One time a few years ago a student came to me wanting to do her senior project on hip hop with her violin. It was an opportunity I now look back on as one which I let go due to my lack of experience with the genre, but now I think such an endeavor would have been great. Hip hop/gypsy is a great way to put the talent to the moves, or the moves to the talent, depending on how you look at it. Just check out the short video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lesliestomp grooves on her fiddle
and you will see what I mean, if you haven’t already. Even Time For Three gets it that motion and the beat are integral to the life of a musical performance.
Of course this is not the same for a performance of say the Beethoven Violin Concerto with orchestra. But there are definitely still elements of motion that make any performance work. We have all seen students literally scared stiff at their recital where their fright makes their tight bows skitter and bounce, or their jaw clench, or their vibrato look like it hurts, like they have fought hard to take the natural motions out of it. Sometimes a teacher’s bad habit creeps into a student’s playing, but sometimes stress and fear do awful things to prevent the most natural motions in playing even when diligently prepared.
When I was a young kid starting to learn how to play the violin, I had to learn and relearn and start over several times with different teachers. Each teacher had his or her own ideal of how playing should be. After working hard (several teachers into this life work) I really had a good working relationship with my teacher, Peter J. Kaman, who is still playing with the Seattle Symphony. Peter patiently corrected some areas of my playing and technique which, had they gone unattended, would have limited my playing unnecessarily. For a few years, I diligently prepared scales, an etude and a part of the great repertoire each week, driving a couple of hours over Snoqualmie Pass to the lesson, weather permitting.
Also during this period of my education, I had received a music scholarship toward college which required my studying with the college’s instructor as well as performing with the local semi-professional symphony. This arrangement worked fairly well until one day when the college instructor adamantly insisted on her interpretation of a particular shifting technique…which did not work at all for me with my long fingers, at least not in that moment, and not with the direction of another very well seasoned violinist. The ensuing exchange and the stamping upon of my own ideas did not end that particular lesson well. In fact it helped me realize that I was making a mistake to entrust my learning to someone with whom my ideas meant so little. It also really drove home that it is a bad idea to have two primary instructors at the same time, especially with one inflexible and intolerant of anything beyond her demand du jour. Not long after, I left that college to go on to a serious program of study in violin performance at the Longy School of Music and Emerson College while working my way through school.
Now I think that from day one kids should have the opportunity to do something fun with the instrument in their hands, involving their moving to a piece of music in some way, even without putting bow to string for the production of sound. Of course the person will go home and try to make the sound thing happen anyway, but at least in the lesson there will have been an attempt to free the student’s thinking and creativity just a little. Subsequent lessons could involve more details of ‘holding the bow,’ or perhaps ‘presenting’ might work better as a word. ‘Holding’ has too many static connotations and all of us could do well with one less thing to get stuck on although it is certainly better than ‘gripping’. Although the blog published here earlier by Michael and Jessica Schallock on How to Hold a Violin is an amazing piece which I use and refer my colleagues to. I am not naïve enough to think that by changing one word we will forever alter how to learn to play the violin. I do believe that improvements can come when we examine the actual concepts and processes we sometimes take for granted.
I suspect that a lot of violinists move their body is not a result of mere imitation but of some perceived sound improvement or as a necessary emotive gesture. Especially during performance, if certain expression comes out more beautifully and naturally with a bit swing of the upper body or a little lift of the heel, that’s a very rewarding experience and one would naturally want to do it again in a similar situation. This can of course be carried away and lead to too many unnecessary movements in some players; nevertheless, the reasons for and the benefits of the body movement are worth exploring.
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