April 2011

In pursuit of one beautiful note. Lesson number 9.

April 20, 2011 18:46

How do I get that beautiful sound that I so want to produce ? My teacher's notes are all ringing, pure, lovely.

Well of course it is all in the bow, and that is what I am shifting my focus to more and more. Or is it?

My big concern now is with the pressure of the fingers of the left hand. Any tendency I have to tense up in the shoulder or to grip or support the violin with the left hand (rather than have it properly balanced between my chin and my shoulder) is counterproductive and must be eliminated. This happens fairly regularly. I realise after concentrating on something else that my left shoulder is raised and tense. Not just bad for my body, but it tilts the violin up, altering all the angles of bowing. I regularly have to reset the violin in the right position and try not to let the same tension and movement recur. But still it does. I must relax. Relax. RELAX. RELAX!!! Yeah, that works.

In some ways I'm well suited to develop the left hand, as my experience with the other instruments, with rhythmic practice, and  having a fairly good ear for relative pitch, recognising when my intonation is off (often!); is helping me train the left hand fairly well. Occasionally I try double stops, and on the rare occasions that they are in tune I feel a surprising happiness, it is charming, magical. It is a new experience to be so close to the resonant source of such a sound. It is even quite emotional experiencing this particular kind of  beauty.

Anyway, back to the beautiful sound of single notes. I'm learning the effects of arm weight, bow placement relative to the bridge, consistency of this parallel relationship throughout the bowoke, bow pressure at different regions of the bow, bow distribution, bow speed, consistency of bow speed, attention to precisely suitable bow angle for single notes, double stops, string changes especially when alternating repeatedly between 2 strings, index finger pressure on the bow, balance beween thumb and 5th, wrist involvement at both string-crossings and change of bowing direction, use of forearm and wrist and fingers when playing at the tip, and of arm and shoulder nearer the frog, retakes, initiating notes with prepared pressure on the string prior to the bowoke, staccato, etc etc etc etc etc. All these things influence the sound, and ultimately must be executed with minimal tension and with precise but fluid movements: in other words RELAXXXXX!

OK. But what about the left hand. Surely it influences tone in various ways. And I'm not even thinking about vibrato yet, (I've actually been forbidden until I can play with a beautiful sound - and in tune - and perhaps I should be grateful that there is one hurdle I just don't have to worry about for now).

Finger pressure. I can see how excess finger pressure can arise from uncertainty about the notes, or from sympathetic tension corresponding to whatever the right hand is doing (well or badly!). This excess pressure would be a gripping of the violin that would surely add tension and impede resonance. Sure enough, in earlier weeks I was gripping the violin so tightly that my thumb-tip was going numb and my left index base was developing a painful callous. Since my introduction 2 weeks ago to basic shifting, this had to stop. I think it has.

What about the finger pressure selected just to stop the strings effectively. Obviously if too light the string will not respond as if shortened to the correct length, and the sound will be weak or out of tune. But is there a level that despite not being in the realm of the high tension referred to above, is still more than is really needed, or could excess pressure be beneficial? I suppose my question is, " Would it be right to use the minimum pressure that works?" Does a bit more pressure help or does it  mar the tone? Should the pressure vary according to the bow pressure, or are they independent? Since good intonation at speed will require precise movements that must be released quickly to follow the notes of whatever scale, arpeggio or sequence is played, should there be a deliberate relaxation once the finger hits the target point? I'm thinking of parallels with the piano and with keyed instruments, where the lightest touch, acting precisely works best. But flutes and piano keys have springs, while stopped strings behave somewhat differently I think.


Anyway, this week, between proper practice of my pieces, I mess around with sight-reading, just measuring the incredible distances between what I can yet do and my ultimate goals. A good friend used to play Zapateado by Sarasate, - probably a piece I won't study seriously for 10 more years if ever, but fun to slowly pick out the notes and remember the glorious joyful sound she made. The artificial harmonics got me thinking, as, although my fingers were in the right place (for at least a few of the notes!) there was no sound. What was the trick? Sure enough, the Violinsite blogs and forums had all the answers: flat bow, close to bridge, fast bow stroke. Yippee! it works. But the difficulty then is the left hand finger placement. More good advice. Practice the melody notes until they can be played perfectly and comfortably and in tune. Too huge a task for me as yet with shifts up and down the fingerboard. Various ways to secure the position of the harmonic-producing finger: practice the sequence of 4ths, use the octave (produced by placing the higher finger on the adjacent upper string) as a template for the interval distances...etc.

The other effect in Zapateado I really like is the mixture of alternate bowed notes and left hand pizz, all nicely arranged in 1st position so I could make an attempt, much under tempo of course. ( I hasten to reassure everyone, I will attempt difficult techniques properly only at the appropriate time that my teacher recommends). But it also got me playing around and exploring. I found one can simultaneously bow while playing LH pizz, and I wonder if this is ever used or is a useful effect. One can, for example, hold down a double stop like B on the A and G on the E with fingers 1 and 2, and play the full 4-note arpeggio G, D B, G both ascending and descending with the bow, while with the left 3rd finger one can play the same notes pizz, by moving across the strings in the opposite direction to the bow, or following behind it.


While the study of these effects is not appropriate for a beginner like methe playing of harmonics did have an interesting, unexpected spinoff: since I'm still mastering the fingerings of first position, the fingers that cause me the most trouble are the 4th, (because it is weak and sometimes needs to stretch), and the second because it is more frequently asked to play 2 different notes. My A string C naturals are still often sharp, my C sharps are often flat, and the E can be either way. The only solution so far is to think about their placement every time, another hindrance to flow and spontanaeity, - but inevitably any task has to be absorbed consciously in this way until it becomes automatic.

However the ability now to produce nice loud clear harmonics (well, relative to the previously unrecognisable wispy noises!) has added a new way to check the 4th finger placement, producing a 12th above the open string. And I can also check the 3rd finger which in 1st position produces the same 2 octave harmonic like all the standard artificial harmonics using the interval of the 4th with fingers 1 and 4 (or 1 and 3 at the high end).

The other thing I like is that although my questions about finger pressure and good tone still remain, the exercise of producing some harmonics is increasing my mental and physical sensitivity in regard to the left hand fingers. I could be wrong, but it seems that when I returned to normal full-toned bowed notes, the tone was much better.

I know this seems a bit back to front, but does anyone use thie playing of harmonics in their early teaching of beginners?

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A birthday present to myself.

April 12, 2011 18:58

I turned 50 recently, March 1st in fact, and it occurred to me that though I have no regrets over never having not studied violin before, it was something I truly wanted now. 

This is a little peculiar. I have been aware all my life that the violin is the most difficult of instruments, and that good players begin young, and never stop working to keep good. Why would I begin a difficult journey like this, so late in life, and with so little prospect of success, of even becoming a moderately competent player? The answers are many and personal, and perhaps of little interest to others. But nevertheless... (I love a scene in the film of Betrayal by Harold Pinter in which a drunken Jeremy Irons professes his admiration for Patricia Hodge. 'You're drunk!" she declares. Irons pauses (of course!) and says with determination: "Nevertheless...").

My grandfather was a professional player, and my mother was preparing to be when marriage changed her life's course. Her father's violins were always a family legend. The Vuillaume and the Gagliano. Fakes? Possibly. But one was eventually accepted by Beares as original. She loved her instruments, but rarely played them. Her musical experience was soured by too much pressure when young. When I first showed interest in music (at about 3 I believe - I do recall picking out tunes on my grandmother's piano) there was no pressure, in fact no encouragement to study music.

Fortunately my love of drawing developed at 7 and since there were no issues over that there was at least no discouragement. At school I was reserved, unsporty, poor socially. The teachers wisely saw music as a way to encourage a group activity. The flute was chosen for me. 6 months of lessons with a teacher I did not much like, and I was ready to quit. I was 10. My parents didn't mind, but the school were determined to make me persist. This decision, reluctantly accepted by myself and my parents, and probably firmly at odds with all modern ideas of education was one of the most fortunate events of my life.

Very soon after I returned to lessons, my teacher taught me Gluck's Dance of the Blessed Spirits, and it was as if a light was switched on. I don't know why or how it happened this way, but the phrase that ends with a  fall of a 7th moved me deeply. I can still vividly hear the way my teacher sung that phrase to me, with such eloquence and passion. After that I adored playing, practicing and enriching my life with music. My feelings were given an opportunity of expression. I did not however become focussed exclusively on music, or indeed on anything, to the exclusion of all else. And my life has progressed with music as a theme, sometimes in the foreground, often as accompaniment. My exposure to Chopin was life-changing again. At 16 I all but abandoned flute to study piano.  Later revelations were the Mendelssohn Octet and the Siegfried Idyll, yet though I always kept my mum's books of Kreutzer, Flesch and Sevcik, I never thought of seriously applying myself to them.

After school I had become in turn an art student, a medical student, a flute teacher, a medical student once more, a part-time GP, a full-time music student, and thus a player of flute, piano, baroque flute, a dabbler in jazz improvisation and composition, a very mediocre clarinetist and saxophonist, an obsessive fan of Glenn Gould, (and of Nietzsche) and as if by accident: a sculptor in bronze and marble. My artwork is all centred around musical themes and ideas. I'll talk about this on some later post, perhaps.

Now moved from Australia to London, and working as a medical researcher, I am revelling in the oppotunities here. There is no interest so obscure that one cannot find a person, many people even, who share that interest. So it has been unexpectedly easy to find a flute-maker prepared to teach me some of his craft. And eventually I realised. It should be easy to find a good violin teacher.

That may sound a bit arrogant. Why wouldn't there be good violin teachers elsewhere? Well of course there are; but to explain: I think I've reached an age and have the experience such that I can assess teachers almost as well as they can assess me. Really good teachers have to have so many attributes. My experience as a flute player taught me much about this, as did the other fields I've pursued.

An aside about the flute. There is far less history of good flute teaching as there is for the violin. There is no true 'school of the flute' although the nearest that exists is a French tradition. My teacher learnt from Geoffrey Gilbert who studied in this tradition and also taught such great players Sir James Galway and William Bennett. In my later years, my studies with Galway have clarified so many of the fundamentals - that were unfortunately glossed over in my youth, largely because I was a 'natural' player. This meant that I got good effects by incorrect means, but with time these problems mounted up. I eventually recognised that much was wrong. Tension in my shoulder, variable embouchure, imperfect intonation, etc etc.

At the 'right time' for me, when I began to seriously reassess my playing and try to analyse all these issues, Sir James set up an internet chat-group for flute-players. Almost every conceivable flute-related technical and musical question I had has now been resolved by careful attention to what Galway says. In his masterclasses he demonstrates the methods he uses, and with which he maintains his form in an exceptionally busy performing and touring schedule. One of his idols is Heifetz, for obvious reasons.

Currently, with the freedom and flexibility in my work to allow some hours a day of focussed practice, my thoughts turned to the violin. I found a teacher, and have no hesitation after 8 lessons in saying she is wonderful. We are working on the Suzuki Book 1 and I am working as purposefully as at any task I have ever attempted.

I love being a beginner. There are discoveries to be made, and insights to be drawn, connections to be made and perceptions to be enhanced.

One of the first is the way the stable balancing of the instrument sets up a reference or 'fixed target' for the actions of the bow. This is precisely the same issue as flute players have in setting the instrument up properly so that the embouchure is firmly related to the flute, allowing all the nuances of the airstream to impinge on the edge of the blowhole (much like the bow on a string).Yet it is a topic in flute-playing that is much neglected or confused by misunderstandings of fundamental mechanics.

Another is the relative difficulty of some scales. Eb minor is notoriously tricky on flute. Well I see it is no picnic on the fiddle either. Interesting! I suppose this is because the flute's fingering arose to favour the keys with minimal cross-fingerings and accidentals, and for ease of playing with violinists in 1st position - and this might be why the early flute was so pitched to favour G and D major.

Anyway, after 8 lessons I am beginning to feel comfortable with Suzuki Book 1, and have enjoyed every single piece and every single note. I am secretly going above 3rd position at times, doing a page of Sevcik now and again, attempting some easier kreutzer studies and looking at Bach sonatas and partitas. These will be a destination I look forward to travelling towards for the remainder of my life.

I do not enjoy the squeaks when I make a mess of changing strings. A friend has kindly lent me a lovely instrument from the 1850's. It seems his family all play and have spare violins to loan. I am so very grateful.

After lesson 7 I thought about all that one must consider before playing one note correctly on this fascinating instrument. Pray forgive a Joycian touch:

OK it all makes sense now: While keeping the bow at the right distance from the bridge and perfectly parallel to it at all times, one glides in an unwavering line, smoothly tracking an imaginary line in 3d space, missing the adjacent strings at all times unless deliberately playing double-stops, so as to maintain a tone of the chosen dynamic, applying variable force along the whole length, from light at the frog to firmer at the tip to account for the difference iin leverage, and this being just for a note of fixed dynamic, with further changes of pressure for crescendo or diminuendo affected by the region of the bow used at the time, and using just the right length of bow for the note in question, with due regard to those before and after, and whether, when one reverses direction one will have reached a point close enough to tip or frog to permit a long enough bow for the next long note (or slur over multiple notes), sometimes while changing strings at the change from up-bow to down-bow and sometimes changing string within a slurred sequence, and also taking account of the dead-zone of the bow due to string-crossings, the angle of the string and the corresponding position of right shoulder and elbow and always without rasps, scratches, slides or fluttering, using arm weight, a feather-light bow grip allowing appropriate pressure from the right index, a well rounded 5th finger and a suitable loose but controlled position of the other two fingers, the balance struck perfectly between the thumb (which must be flexed at the IP joint) and the 5th finger, with flexibility at the wrist to enable slight alterations and facilitate smooth changes during string-crossing and bowing direction reversal, yet mindful always of the role of forearm movement from elbow, or whole arm movement from shoulder, or combined movents of both in the transition zone, initiating and ending notes with a certain slight pinching or contraction of the fingers, and allowing a fluid arc of movement to get a clear staccato, ending with a ringing tone, not a scratching, and matching the change of angle of the bow required for each string with a corresponding movement of the left elbow, medially for the lower pitche strings, lateral for the higher, so as to maintain identical relationships of the left hand and fingers to the string in current use, and these fingertips must be brought down firmly, always flexed at the tip and pointing precisely down, but not too firm or there will be excess tension when shifting position, a process that must carry the whole hand, and thus the thumb glides along the violin neck, yet at other times steadies the direction of the violin counteracting the left index base, and these positions are the references for the change in angles of the left hand and subsequent contact points of the hand with the violin body in shifting position, and the changes must be memorized for each shift combination, of which there are a great number of possibilities, and this is after mastering all the notes in first position, which then must be completely relearned in each and every position, with different fingers, such that every note and interval is reassigned to different fingers, and of course these new relationships are based on a contraction of all intervals in higher positions due to the physics of vibrating strings, whereby each semitone is larger than its higher pitched predecessor by a factor of the 12th root of 2, and of course the violin must be balanced between chin and shoulder (and rest in the 'v' between thumb and index of the left hand, but not low touching the web, but high enough to allow a mouse to fit through the gap) and without tension in any of these, yet firm enough to provide a fixed focus or target, the strings, so as to allow the learning and memorization of all the precise movements of both arms and fingers wich should then develop perfectly reliable movements to create the desired effects, including the rotation of the left arm underneath the violin to match the string in use (which is often rapidlly changing), the flexion of the elbow and movement of the arm towards the body in shifting to the higher positions, the coordination also of the same finger consecutively used on adjacent (or non-adjacent) strings, the accurate placement of two fingers at once for all the myriad double stops, the additional changes of bow angle to play these, and the change in bow pressure whereby the lower string of a double-stop receives much greater pressure than the other, and the complex movements of wrist and forearm to effect vibrato, which can only affect pitch if the finger is not pressed down too firmly, yet must not be so loose as to mar the tone, which musn't be dampened either by excess contact or pressure on the violin body from the neck and shoulder, nor should the bow be too tight or too loose, and finally, one places every finger precisely so that every note is always perfectly in tune.

Now back to practice.

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