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The Weekend Vote weekend vote: What kind of approach best helps your violin technique and motivates you to improve?

August 6, 2011 at 6:52 AM

Summer took me to New York for a few days, where I visited long-time member Fan Tao, who is a researcher for the D'Addario Strings. I'm planning to write more about D'Addario's factory and how violin strings are made, but for this weekend's vote, I wanted to talk about something inspired by my conversation with Fan, who is a violinist himself and has deep knowledge and a fascinating perspective on many aspects of the violin.

He told me that his research on violin strings, and the physics of how the violin worked, did more to help his violin-playing than anything. For example, he was able to help a friend diagnose a problem she was having with her thumb by relating it to the physics of bow mechanics. This made me think about the different ways that violinists think about playing, relating it to their own experiences and ways of solving problems. Different people can describe and think about the same concepts in various ways, and looking at someone else's way of thinking can enriches our understanding of how to play. Here are some of the ways that people think about playing:

Understanding the physics of the instrument : Gaining an understanding of the mechanics of the instrument, in order to apply that knowledge to the music.

Understanding the musical goal : Sometimes a teacher or conductor can say, "make it sound sweet," and that means more to someone than "add vibrato, tilt your hand," etc. No doubt, they must figure out the mechanics of how to get there, but their focus on perfecting the expressive sound is what helps all those changes fall into place.

Understanding how the muscles/body work: This is more of a focus on how the body works, finding the right positions that allow for ease in playing. Finding that point of ease is what allows the musical ideas to fall into place.

No one approach is superior to the others, and I suspect people tend to have a combination of approaches over their time, learning the violin. I'm sure there are other approaches as well, and I would invite you to describe them. But my question to you is, which is your main approach, that best helps you to understand and improve?

From Julian Stokes
Posted on August 6, 2011 at 1:41 PM

I submitted "Understanding how body/muscles work". I have a feeling that may change as I (hopefully) become more proficient and have more understanding learnt so I don't have to think so much about how to do it.

From marjory lange
Posted on August 6, 2011 at 3:53 PM

 I would have to vote three times.  Currently, I'm working on the body mechanics side to attend to a long-created shoulder problem, but I test every solution attempt against the physics (or the solution won't be practically useful over the long haul) AND to see if it aids in making music, or why bother.

Before I injured my shoulder, I would look for musical solutions in the physics and the physical.  It's always all three; one may be temporarily dominant, but it's a tripod, and, ultimately, all three legs have to be firmly on the ground.

Actually, I'd add a fourth category, only I'm not sure how to phrase it--I do a lot of my musical practicing away from my instruments; I read the scores, to find the ideal phrasing/interpretation and I listen to recordings (rarely of the piece I'm studying, but of other pieces by the same composer, or, more rarely, recordings by artists whose musicianship I admire).

So I haven't voted yet.  I will, but I'll have to do it thrice.

From Kathryn Woodby
Posted on August 6, 2011 at 4:13 PM
I totally love this question! I don't think I can make a vote :) but I especially like that you drew attention to understanding the physics of this instrument. I think that is often missed, we talk about how to do this and make that sound but sometimes we overlook exactly what is actually happening-mechanically but I almost feel it more organically-to actually produce the music. Coming to an understanding of that has been a breakthrough for me. But then so has learning to actually listen to my sound-or recognizing what my body is doing that is/is not working..... :) Great discussion question.
From Jo Parker
Posted on August 6, 2011 at 9:17 PM

 I can't vote as I ALWAYS pay attention to all three

From Eloise Garland
Posted on August 6, 2011 at 10:53 PM

 Well after a fairly long time thinking about all three and finding it hard to decide, I voted for the musical goal one. Now I hope I've understood the question, but correct me if I am talking about irrelevant things. I think I voted for this because although I use all three at all times, my main aim when working on any piece of music is to get it sounding 'right' musically, and the technical and science side to it are the things that support this naturally and automatically. Personally, when I'm playing the violin, I am concentrating on the sound more than anything and the other aspects come second to this unconsciously unless I run into trouble, almost like they are all in partnership with one another. I'm aware that my body has its limits, and my violin also has its limits, but until I can achieve that sound, I won't be happy and I'll be searching for a way to make it work.

From Royce Faina
Posted on August 7, 2011 at 12:39 PM

     I chose the, "Musical Goal" though I wish I could have selected an "All of The Above" option. However.... in order for me to reach the musical goal(s) the other two must also come into play. Thinking like an engineer what must all three instruments (the violin, the bow and I) do to meet the goals to accomplish the ends. Humility tells me what my limits are (what I, the bow & the violin) can do & cannot. In common Biblical Greek the word "Humble" literally translates as the word "Teachable". Put all together I can set realistic goals, utilize what tools I have at hand to the fullest and meet realistic & reasonable ends often going beyond my and my teacher(s) expectations even though age and illness takes it's toll as each day passes. We strive for perfection but we will always settle with excellence.

Well folks, God gave me two ears and one mouth for a good reason. So back to just reading the posts and when I have something to write I'll do so. May you all have a great day/week! :)

From Anne Br├╝ggemann-Klein
Posted on August 7, 2011 at 3:13 PM

Being a scientist, I voted for physical. I understand that the music is the goal. I have also experienced the mysterious effect that you imagine how you want to sound and somehow the body finds its own way. I only wish I had a more intuitive understanding of violin physics!

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on August 7, 2011 at 10:12 PM

 This is such a fascinating question!  But I also had a hard time deciding between the three choices.  For me, I would frame it differently and say that it helps me *learn* best to be analytical and break the problem down into smaller parts.  So I picked understanding how the muscles/body work.  I don't honestly know a lot about the physics of the instrument, but I think that if I did, that would also help me.  

Where I don't do well at all is with teachers who say something like "make it sound sweet."  But I think that is more due to the fact that I think that verbal language is, as Flaubert would say, "a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity," than it is to my not wanting to understand the musical goal. The analytical building blocks, not the metaphorical description in words, are what help me get to some kind of understanding of the musical goal (when I do).

From Emily Grossman
Posted on August 8, 2011 at 7:32 AM

This is so "all of the above".  If I had to choose (and I did), I would choose the musical goal, since it spearheads the mission.  You get the musical goal in mind, and you figure out how to make the body and instrument achieve the goal. 

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