Printer-friendly version
Corwin Slack


March 28, 2008 at 12:58 AM

Can you play the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in 1st position on one string?

Playing the violin is all about extending boundaries and pushing limits. The best studies and techniques push us to to exceed limits. Pushing the limits gives us space to express ourselves even in much easier music.

Last night I rehearsed the third movement of the Sibelius 2nd Symphony. It is a fast study in 6/8 time with eighth note patterns. Everyone knows that its easiest to play the patterns with down bow on the first eighth note of every measure. But why should it be? I have noticed that a lot of my colleagues in amateur orchestras rarely play in even numbered positions? Why? Why do we avoid extensions or extended finger patterns? (Brivati-Sensei mentioned that Gingold asked his students to play Dont No. 2 in one extended pattern per 4 note group. Why not?)

Its interesting that some of the best studies focus very much on extremes. What is Yost but a study in the extremes of shifting: scales and arpeggios on one string using one finger, any two fingers etc? What about son filé? Dounis is all about almost every conceivable limit. Paganini is also a big limit stretcher. He gets them all, thirds, sixths, fingered octaves, tenths, left hand pizzicato, double harmonics (not in the Caprices though), ricochet, staccato, etc. etc. Is there a harder bow stroke than the original bowing for Caprice No. 5?

I think that every study from Wolfhart to Kreutzer and on to Paganini etc. should be approached as a question in extending limits. Can we play more notes per bow? Can we play it in one position? Can we play it on one string? Can we play it with one finger? two fingers? Can we ricochet up bow and down bow one measure at a time? Can we transpose it up a minor second? a minor third? For players in earlier stages of development can we play something without moving the shoulder? the elbow? the wrist? Can we play from frog to tip?

It isn't enough to just try to do something at a limit. One has to consider how the old limits can be breached and new limits set. What postures are necessary, what motions are required, what has to be suppressed, what exaggerated?

This is daunting to consider. I used to see success as a huge mountain peak in the distance. Now I see it as a mountain range, still in the distance, full of jagged and formidable peaks. The most daunting of all is musicality. I hardly know where to start.

From Yixi Zhang
Posted on March 28, 2008 at 2:31 AM
I’m all big on pushing limits to the extent that I’d often choose difficult fingerings or bowings hoping that once I can nail these suckers, I’ll be better technically. Again and again, I’m reminded by my teacher that my fancy fingerings or bowing don’t actually contribute to color or phrasing, and she is right. At some point, I think it’s wise for amateurs to just keep it simple. In the end it’s about making music rather than winning a technical contest. By the way, I use finger extension and even positions a lot – it’s kind of necessary to avoid shifts that aren’t called for musically.
From Corwin Slack
Posted on March 28, 2008 at 3:01 AM
Yes in the end Art rules but it's nice to give Art some choices.
From Charlie Caldwell
Posted on March 28, 2008 at 3:58 AM
pushing the limits is good. we get better as we push the ceiling on our playing. However, do not get too caught up in difficult technical endeavors.
From Yixi Zhang
Posted on March 28, 2008 at 3:58 AM
I know. Choice or freedom in the truest sense, hence being virtuosic is highly seductive.
From Yixi Zhang
Posted on March 28, 2008 at 4:39 AM
Ok, I need to clarify: I always think the notion of freedom fascinating. The most naive view is that being free means simply the ability to do whatever we want. Well, if so, we might as well turn ourselves into wild beasts. Not to mention this is neither doable nor desirable (think for instance the struggles of drug addicts). Many libertarians will argue that freedom means freedom from compulsion. Or, if I’m free to do X, it means you (or the society) has the (mirroring) duty to not interfere with my doing X. This is basically the foundation of many legal and largely moral frameworks in the West. To me this is too much like turf-fighting: everyone is making claims over others and often everyone runs down the hill.

Being virtuosic sets shows us not just showing excellence but also a more enlightened sense of freedom, that you can do anything you want in that realm and much more after putting significant amount of human efforts. It means that when you have reached to such level of skills and understanding that you are almost god-like in that part of the world without taking away anything from or limiting others. What more can a mortal ask for in this world?

Now, go back practise and push for the true freedom!

From Laurie Niles
Posted on March 28, 2008 at 5:19 AM
Indeed, ability allows us freedom, and ability is something that is cultivated.

Pushing the limits reminds me of yoga -- you contort your body into all kinds of difficult and challenging poses, thus expanding your range of motion beyond what you might need to, say, walk down the street. But man, you feel great walking down the street after yoga!

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on March 28, 2008 at 6:33 AM
Laurie, I practice yoga, and I don't see it as "contort[ing] your body into all kinds of difficult and challenging poses." My kind of yoga is about stretching, strengthening, balancing, and relaxing both your mind and your spirit.

I think that learning to do things in the extreme can give you confidence that you can do difficult things, but these do not always good music. In his book "The Inner Game of Music," Barry Green has some exercises in playing extremes, i.e., such as "play it too soft, then play it too loud, then the way you feel most comfortable." Frequently, I couldn't stand the sounds of the extremes, but sometimes I found them well suited for certain passages. I found that once I learned to play the extremes, I felt more comfortable exploring the space between the extremes to find the right sound for a given passage. The Buddhists advocate finding and staying with "the middle way." This is not the mathematical middle, but someplace comfortable and appropriate between the extremes.

From Corwin Slack
Posted on March 28, 2008 at 12:20 PM
Technique is a necessary but not sufficient condition for Art. Lots of technicians can hardly be called artists but every great artist has a formidable technique. Mischa Elman didn't seem to play the virtuoso show pieces (except for the Tchaikovsky) but listen to him play a miniature and you can hear technique oozing out. Fritz Kresler recorded the Paganini Concerto No 1 (his version) when he was in his seventies.
From Ray Randall
Posted on March 28, 2008 at 2:44 PM
When we lived in Colorado I skied frequently with the #1 and #2 pro skiers in the world frequently as they were my next door neighbors. I'm strictly an amateur skier. They always pushed me outside my comfort zone on purpose saying "in case you ever accidentally find yourself way outside your comfort zone you will have been there frequently before so it will be no big deal." I can see the same for string players extending their comfort zone to extend a skill level and possibly give you additional options for playing if you need them.
From Royce Faina
Posted on March 28, 2008 at 11:37 PM
Dr. Pinell told me, when he was 7 he had his first lesson. Afterwards he wandered where his father was listening to Hiefetz. He looked at the album cover and said, "Daddy, this man is holding his bow all wrong. The teacher showed me that you hold it like this." He told me that if a violinist is getting the violin and bow to do what the player wants it to do though not done by a Violin School Tradition let him or her. Don't fix what isn't broken. Without experimenting, and exploring... playing and listening to the violin could be very dull?
From Corwin Slack
Posted on March 29, 2008 at 6:00 PM
I received a request from someone to share this blog entry. As far as its mine to give -- no problem.

This entry has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.

Our Kokopelli
Please support
your donation
or sponsorship campaign. is made possible by...

Shar Music

Yamaha V3 Series Violin

Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases

Zhuhai International Mozart Competition - Apply by April 30, 2017

Metzler Violin Shop

Gliga Violins

Anderson Musical Instrument Insurance

Bobelock Cases


Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

Long Island Violin Shop

Los Angeles Violin Shop

Pro-Am Strings

Wangbow Violin Bow Workshop

Study with Simon Fischer in Michigan, July 31-Aug 4