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In pursuit of one beautiful note. Lesson number 9.

April 21, 2011 at 1:46 AM

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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