I had recently seen, and commented on, a post about “fluid shifting” and accuracy in shifts, and I was inspired to blog about it. It is a very fascinating topic with many different insights and views. Is there a “right” way to shift? I really don’t know. I do, however, know some processes, which, over a period of time, work very well.
First, a small but entertaining anecdote. About three weeks ago, my parents and I made the long drive up from our home in Northern Virginia up to Philadelphia to have a lesson with a Philadelphia Orchestra violinist I had been studying with for a while. I was to go and play the first movement of the Saint-Saëns concerto, and the Schoenberg Phantasy. I thought I had prepared quite well, and I was quite confident as I walked to her front door. A bit too overconfident, if I knew what was to come…….
After saying hello and unpacking my violin and music, I lifted my violin to play. Right after my bow hit the strings for the Saint-Saëns, something went wrong. The first shift went completely flat. I fixed it and went on, but something was wrong. Every shift that came up was either hit horribly flat or horribly sharp. When I reached the end of the page, I put down my violin and looked sheepishly at my teacher. She looked at me, smiled, and said ever so sweetly, “Would you like to try that again?” Ouch.
That lesson, we went over my entire shifting technique, which, for all these years, I was doing all wrong. No matter how much work I did, the reason I could never play anything in tune when under pressure was because of the way I was shifting! However, this was not any fault of my teacher's. If anything, it was all myself. My wonderful teacher here in Virginia, whom I learn so much from, had told me many times to fix my shifting, but I was too just lazy to do it. I should have listened to her sound advice. However,I now know exactly what I was doing wrong, and what to do to fix it. And, more importantly, I now know how to make shifts accurate in tempo. And that, my fellow student violinists, is what I will be attempting to share with you.
Shifting is not in the hand, as many of us violinists believe. This was the policy I went by for about 8 years, ever since I learned how to shift. Shifting comes from the arm, and the arm only, about 90% of the time. The shape of the hand, and, more importantly, the fingers, should stay perfectly still when shifting. This means everything must stay constant-the arching of the finger, the angle of the fingernail to the fingerboard, and the shape of the wrist. This does not mean, however, that the hand must be stiff. Quite the contrary, actually. The hand must be very fluid during the shift, but the movement in the slide, as I stated before in the paragraph, must come mostly from the arm. That said, how do you practice this? The process is beautifully simple, but deathly boring and incredibly long.
Put your violin and bow up, and stand in front of a mirror. Practice the shift very slowly with a relaxed hand (let it, for the time being, be a shift on the A string with the first finger from the first position, B, to the third position, D). Now, first look at your hand. Is the shape of the finger staying exactly the same during the shift? Notice the contact of the fingertip to the fingerboard to the first knuckle. While moving on the fingerboard, this section of the finger may not drag back whatsoever. If the hand is moving back, while the shifting finger is “lagging” behind, then you are practicing the shift wrong. The reason why this is wrong is because if the hand shape doesn’t stay constant, the shift will be marginally different, or inconsistent, every time you practice it. And if you practice intonation with an inconsistent finger shape, you will be getting absolutely no work done. Then, secondly, look at the overall shape of the back of your hand in the mirror. Work on keeping the shape of the back of the hand the same as well, so you are 100% the shift is coming from the arm. Also, make sure the thumb is travelling with the hand, not lagging behind. A thumb dragging on the neck, like a finger dragging on the fingerboard, will make the shift inconsistent too. Then you might as well just not practice.
Okay….take a deep breath. Did you get that down? Can you make the shift (in tune?) very slowly with a relaxed but consistent finger shape? Great! On to step two! Now, we must speed up the shift. This is the crucial step to getting the selected shift in the piece in tune, and in time. So, let’s work the same shift we did in the first exercise (B to D) with a metronome. However, we will not be speeding up the metronome’s beats, instead, we will be speeding up the shift to the metronome. Set the metronome to, you guessed it, quarter note=60! Now, let’s start slowly. Start by shifting up in one bow, slurring the two notes, spending one quarter note on each note. Then, without stopping, change the bow and shift down on quarter notes again in one bow. You should be going up and coming down in a total of four beats, two bows, and in a note pattern of B-D,D-B. Ponder this for a moment; it may be hard to understand. Repeat this exercise 10 times, consecutively in tune, with the consistent hand shape. Once you’ve done that, you can go to the next step, shifting up with 3 eighth notes to the B and 1 eighth note to the D, and the same way coming down. Notice we speeded up the shift by cutting the time we had to shift in half. Repeat this another 10 times consecutively in tune, with the same consistent hand shape. After this, subdivide the quarter notes into sixteenth notes, and shift up with 7 sixteenth beats on the B, and one sixteenth note on the D, doing the same thing in the next bow coming down. Do this 10 times. We have cut the timing of the shift in half again! Now you are shifting about 8X (forgive me if this is wrong-too lazy to do the math) faster than you did when you first started with the metronome! Congratulations! Now we can go to the last step. Do the same thing you just did, but lift the bow during the last sixteenth beat. When you lift the bow, do the shift in that small space. You should be able to get that in tune, even though you are not hearing the slide of your finger. Once you get that perfectly ten times, you have finished practicing the shift! It should be able to be perfectly in tune every time you play it now. Shake yourself out….you did it!
You now need to go through every single shift in your piece like this (yeah….depression kicks in now). You might wonder what to do when a shift isn’t just on one finger. Lots of slides start on one finger and end on another. With this, you use the idea of “hovering”. Practice the shift the same way, but when you get into the position where you need to stop, ping the second finger down. It should hover close to the fingerboard so it can go down accurately as soon as you slide into position.
So that’s it! It’s actually a very simple concept that you will get the hang of very quickly. Yes, it will take a long time, but it will be worth it. I know that it definitely worked for me; two weeks later, I walked into a lesson with a different teacher, and played the first page of the Saint-Saëns almost note perfect!
So I hope you have not died from boredom while reading this, and I hope that you students will try this method. I know that there are other ways of shifting out there, but this is the process that has really helped me grow as a musician, in a technical perspective. I will leave you to ponder this huge fountain of knowledge that I condensed into three pages, and I welcome criticism for my writing, my views on technique, and, overall, my musical ideas. After all, I am only 14!
This will not be an entry about the violin, nor will it be about any classical ensembles, performers, or camps. Instead, this piece of writing will be about a different kind of music that I discovered, a type of music that has broadened my musical range and knowledge tenfold.
I must admit, I was quite narrow-minded about what music I listened to for the last several years. I thought, "Classical musicians must listen to classical music," and I idiotically never gave other types of music a chance. I realized my mistake this past summer, and I started listening to different kinds of music. It started at my first camp, Interharmony, when I downloaded the song "Viva la Vida" by the band Coldplay into my Ipod. I remember the lyrics (referring to the fall of Napoleon) being very insightful and lyrical. However, this was not the true time in which I began to seriously listen to and understand popular music, if that makes sense. Just before that day, I had fallen in love with a genre of music.
At the end of the last school year, a good friend of mine who was my stand partner in school orchestra, Paul, told me about a band called Symphony X. He said it was Prog (Progressive) Metal, which is a style of metal which is more lyrical than "scream-o". Of course, I shunned it at first, being the narrow-minded being I was, but then curiosity got the better of me, and I went to Youtube. I found selections from their new album, Paradise Lost, and I was blown away. Not only are the musicians amazing (Michael Romeo is probably the best guitarist in the world, and Russell Allen has the most powerful and beautiful voice, not to mention the brilliance of their bassist, keyboard player, and drummer ), but I realized what skill, thought, and musicianship one needs to play this type of music. I had always wondered why kid bands couldn't do this stuff, because my mind always went, "It's METAL, for heaven's sake! It's easy to play along to!" Boy was I wrong. There are many tempo changes, different key signatures, rhythms that even Schoenberg would have trouble figuring out, and different time signatures. I know some great musicians who wouldn't be able to keep up with Symphony X's music had they listened to it.
I also listened to other metal bands (Dream Theater, Megadeth, etc.), and I completely fell in love with the entire literature. It is a very deep and insightful sort of music and can be very touching. It is purely for this reason that I had a sudden urge to take up the guitar and take singing lessons. Michael Romeo, guitar, and Russell Allen, vocals (Symphony X), and John Petrucci, guitar (Dream Theatre), have been a great inspiration to me and have changed the way I view music. I realized that I cannot look down upon them and say, "You may be popular musicians, but we are the REAL musicians." I feel quite ashamed that that was the way I used to think. I cannot even begin to realize what a self-serving, conceited brat I had been to not even give these great artists a chance. Not only are they as respectful as, let's say, Itzhak Perlman or Maxim Vengerov, but in a way, they musically surpass them with their knowledge and ability to adapt to different tempos, feels, and rhythms in a matter of seconds.
Now I feel like I am a different person. Not only do I now listen to different kinds of music and love it, but now I am beginning to scratch the surface of what "pop" music really is, and I am beginning to realize how talented, intelligent, and dedicated people have to be to be able to survive performing this artistry.
I will now leave you with Symphony X's 25 minute masterpiece, the Odyssey. Because it is on Youtube, it has been divided into three parts. This is a song that depicts the journey of Odysseus to Troy and back to Ithaca with amazing clarity. Symphony X employs the use of a full orchestra in this piece, which creates a new form of music similar to Prog Metal, called Neoclassical. Neoclassical music draws upon classical music as its inspiration. I find the ending of the Odyssey to be especially touching, in a bold sense, which you will hear. I leave it up to you to judge this band, and also to judge this wonderful style of music which I was proud to come across this summer, Progressive Metal.
Best wishes to all of you on Violinist.com,
Brian Hong is from Fairfax Station, Virginia. Biography
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