I’m a big proponent of metronomes, tape on violin bows to show the line between the upper half and lower half, and especially tape to indicate where the four fingers find first position. Take away the frets that guitarists cherish, and you have nothing left. I don’t consider these spatial aids unnecessary crutches, but a great way to mark the territory set up by the violin.
While we admire the remarkable qualities of the violin, there’s no limit to how confused young players get. Imagine four strings that are parallel to each other, but unlike the strings in a piano, they are laid out in an arc. It would be helpful if an aid were invented to show the angles of the bow for each string. So far, we only have our visual imagination: The G string is at the 40 minute mark on the clock, D string at 45 minute, A string at 50 minute and the E string at 55 minute.
I bring these aids up because they have their pluses and their minuses. We can all agree that it’s nice to be in the general ballpark when it comes to rhythm, intonation and set up. However, tape on the fingerboard is never 100% accurate, and, as Debussy once said, anyone who thinks that one metronome marking will work from one measure to the next just isn’t listening.
All that training can box a person in.
What’s Outside the Box?
Yet the road from tape and metronomes intersects constantly with the road that brought us to music in the first place. Somehow, at a very early age, we connected to the different elements of music: beauty, dance, excitement, pace and cadence, harmonic relaxation, etc. How we managed to balance the sublime, the rote and the eye-hand-ear nerve center is a miracle. It’s our own personal pyramid, with a huge amount of knowledge and details at the bottom seeking the most important principles at the top to guide and manage it.
It takes an active mind to coordinate all these things, but we’re conditioned from an early age not to think while we’re performing. Maybe we were actually taught not to over-think, but nevertheless we received the wrong message.
To breach the walls that hold us to only one type of thinking, we need to recognize the fluidity of musical thinking. It helps to acknowledge that our playing is always trying to catch up with our ear.
We are so consumed with our way of doing things, in ways that satisfy both ourselves and our teachers, that the box we’re in doesn’t leave much room for free-associating. What would the musical landscape look like if it were free of dogmatic thinking?
Do our melodies feel haphazard or well thought-out? While it’s easy to settle into a routine and exaggerate the usual highs and lows, a more eloquent interpretation might demand a completely different technique. A slight change of pace will bring out something never heard before. Melodies should be part of a musical conversation, not the tonal version of the Tower of Babel. They don’t thrive well outside of a phrase, yet we play them all the time in a somewhat makeshift fashion. Artists can achieve a pace that is natural and flowing, while technicians are conveniently satisfied to shove the notes within compressing beats.
The main obstacle to melodic phrasing is the unrelenting drive to the next beat. Unfortunately, given the nature of music as a momentum driven art form, much of the time it can’t be helped. The beat bully is everywhere around us; it’s rarely intentional. The only thing that stands between us and it is a conductor or quartet leader who takes the time to let each beat breathe.
The greatest gift music gives us is the ability to experience such musical freedom in our own space and in our own time. The privacy of our practicing moments give us ample opportunity to alter the metronomic straight jacket and replace it with supple, flexible beats.
Doris Gazda published a wonderful book called Melodious Etudes. These are vocalizes composed by Marco Bordogni. If you try to play them in a stiff and robotic way, you will meet resistance at every turn. Don’t make Marco mad!! With intermediate players, beats tends to truncate and close in on themselves. Advanced players notice the way 16th notes and all other values retain their unique properties, they flow easily, and they transform the beat, rather than the other way around. The music should tell you what the beat feels like.
Teachers have limited input, because putting things in words can never replace what is infinitely more important, which is the art of watching and analyzing how great musicians perform. In the case of working with a highly gifted child, the teacher may simply codify and quantify a technique that the student already does naturally. This teaches the student to be verbal about their art, but when one articulates only with words, the unspoken truth becomes only a little less obscure. There is a quality about music that emerges when spontaneity and free-thinking merge.
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