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Christian Vachon

'The simpler it is, the less complicated it is!'

July 16, 2013 at 1:31 PM

"The simpler it is, the less complicated it is!" (« Plus c’est simple, moins c’est compliqué ! »). It’s a personal mantra that has been at the centre of much of my life and playing these past few years.

There is a tendency with violin playing and teaching to want to complicate things by being very micro-oriented instead of focusing on the macro-essentials that guide the details. And in the end, it is always these most basic things that make up everything from the simplest to the most complex. In my experience as a performer and in teaching, I have found that the greatest majority of things that don’t work can most usually be traced to these simple things. It doesn’t matter what one is playing as no amount of exercises will accomplish what simply observing and fixing these basics will do in my experience. In this context, here is my personal basics list:

Left hand

1- The violin rests of the base of the first finger with the thumb coming up opposite at whatever height is natural for it (it is individual for each hand).
2- The upper arm should be perpendicular to the floor and the elbow should not be pointing in sideways (i.e. the elbow is pointing down, not out to the left or right). This alone eliminates almost all tension in the shoulder by being in line with the vertical axis of gravity.
3- The fingers should lift vertically up and down from the base knuckle.
4- Know where the semi-tone is, if there is one: It is much easier to focus on patterns than individual notes. Most of these patterns are based on the location of the semi-tone.
5- Shifts : The finger doing a shift needs to be on the string before one moves and start from a definite in tune location. You need to know exactly how you will travel. Follow the string in a straight line. Do not go around the violin but go over it. Match the speed of the shift to the speed of the bow to ensure smoothness and coordination.
6- The thumb should never press against the neck. If the thumb does not press, the other fingers cannot either and you will avoid tension.
7- Use the thumb for extensions instead of moving the elbow in : By moving the thumb back from its normal position of opposite the first finger instead of bringing the elbow in, we open the hand (in the same way that pianists open theirs) but keep the arm relaxed and the fingers closer to the string. With fingered octaves and tenths, the thumb needs to prepare before we start the run.

Right hand

1- Regardless of bow hold, the forearm moves the bow. The hand follows the arm. Big leads Small.
2- Never press the thumb into the bow. This way, the hand is always relaxed and flexible.
3- Four strings, four levels of elbow : A lot of uneven bowing comes from not keeping the elbow at the same height throughout the stroke and therefore keeping the string vibrating in the same direction.
4- Sound production is lateral. The more the string vibrates in the same direction, the purer the sound. The bridge actually rocks side to side when we play and that is what makes the sound. Almost all impurities are the result of vertical interference (with the elbow, hand, fingers) which sends the string vibrating in an uneven way creating impurities.
5- A great détaché : find where your arm makes a square and play from the forearm there. Everyone doing this will have a great détaché. It doesn’t matter where it is in the bow as everyone has a different ratio of length of upper arm to forearm. However, the movement is the same for everyone as there is only one way in which the joints move.
6- Sautillé vs spiccato : in the first case, the stick bounces but the hair is on the string. In the second, the hair is off the string. The speed determines where in the bow it will be. The faster the speed, the more towards the tip you have to go. The bow determines the location. Each bow is different, but by finding and doing it where the bow wants to rather than us, we save a lot of trouble. In slow practice, practice the stroke where you will be using it at tempo.


Focus on what you want to do and how, not what you don’t want. It is a big secret of the law of manifestation in our playing. A lot of people play and teach how not to play the violin which results in doing exactly what you don’t want to do. So, be positive and active, think of what you want to do and do it. If you say something negative, phrase in the positive action that will produce the result you seek. Also, abstract things like right or wrong accomplish nothing. If you want to do something, then think of the action necessary to accomplish your task and the result you want. That way, you know how to get what you want rather than repeating aimlessly.


Set yourself up so that your shoulders can be kept down and that things work for your body geometry. There are simple guidelines in this area that could be discussed in a separate post, but in essence, make the equipment work for you, not the other way around.

The simpler it is the less complicated it is. And the less complicated it is, the easier and the more fun it is to play!


From Kathryn Woodby
Posted on July 16, 2013 at 6:31 PM
So good! Are you serious, tough, about having the left upper arm perpendicular to the floor??? Or did I understand this wrong? If I did that my scroll would be at the level of my stomach!
From elise stanley
Posted on July 16, 2013 at 6:38 PM
I think he did mean perpendicular as in the elbow is pointing down not out to the left or right(not with the hand pointing down to the floor!).

Very nicely put Christian. I'm pleased to say that I've come to a very similar outcome through an infinite number of oscillations!

From Christian Vachon
Posted on July 16, 2013 at 7:54 PM

Kathryn and Elise, thank you!

Kathryn, I did mean it the way Elise clarified it.

Elise, thanks for that. I added your clarification in the original post.


From Eric Rowe
Posted on July 16, 2013 at 10:59 PM
Mais, oui! Je suis d'accord. Super!

I like Sassmansshaus' approach for similar reasons of direct simplicity.

I like what you write about patterns. Also about concentrating on what to do right, rather than what not to do.

I catch myself sometimes saying "That's difficult" about aspects of playing but try to change it to "that's interesting, incredible, amazing etc" or even "easy".

From Corwin Slack
Posted on July 16, 2013 at 11:01 PM
Good stuff. My teacher gives three rules for shifting that pretty well correspond to yours. 1. shift on a finger on a string 2. shift to a position not to a finger 3. all shifts are slow
From Carter Asbill
Posted on July 17, 2013 at 12:35 AM
Christian, this is the best perspective in a concise way about how to practice the violin that I have ever read or heard. I am going to make a copy of it and put it in my violin case and read it prior to every practice session.
Thank you for your insight.

From Geoff Caplan
Posted on July 17, 2013 at 5:46 AM

This makes so much sense - I'm increasingly convinced that a key difference between the great artists and the rest of us it that they spend more time perfecting the basics in Book 1.

My old high-school cello teacher told me a story of waking early one morning at a strings camp and finding Cassals, in his 80s, working on open string bowings with intense concentration...

You might enjoy this article by Tim Janov on how he worked to simplify his approach to cello technique:

From Christian Vachon
Posted on July 18, 2013 at 10:13 AM
Eric: Merci beaucoup! I agree with you about eliminating the idea of the difficult passage; for me, the word "difficult" alone adds tons of tension in the mind and the body. That's why I try to focus on the basics that make-up things that way, it is just a larger amount of the same things.

Corwin: Thanks! You teacher's point about shifting speed is a good one. For me, I find that by matching the speed of the shift to the speed of the bow, it automatically slows it down and help to avoid bumps.

Carter: Thanks! Your comment makes me really glad to have posted this and that it is helpful! I am touched!

Geoff: Thanks! Thanks for the reference to the article. I will read it as soon as I finish writing this.

Thanks everyone and Cheers!

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