Since Alexander technique is cropping up with greater frequency these days I thought I might ramble on about it for a couple of blogs or so, being as I don’t seem to have a life to talk about….
I am very lucky to have studied with some of the best teachers alive today so I am fairly familiar with some of the complexities and vagaries of what should really be a very simple thing. Alas the simple things in life are almost always the most difficult to get a handle on.
(For me that is women, alcohol, computers, and spell checkers. For women presumably it is men, men’s idiocy’s, the stupid things men do and the problems men create).
One of the first problems one encounters with AT is finding a definition. I have attended classes for advanced trainees in which the senior teacher asked the students point blank to explain what they are teaching in a way that would be to the point and be relevant to a casual conversation. Another way I suppose of saying summarizes it accurately in a sentence or two. Have never seen many flummoxed people in one room for yonks.
Typically a good teacher will define AT as they see it for the participants in training weekends so here are a few I have come across to give you an idea of the diversity.
1) AT is about saving energy.
2) If you put all the titles of Alexander’s books in order you get a sentence (parargraph) which defines it beautifully. Can’t remember off hand but it has a lot to do with the reclamation and conscious control of our natural inheritance etc.
3) Teacher ) I teach movement.
Student) But, what about thinking?
Teacher) Thinking is movement.
At a later stage one gets to see the oneness of all these answers but for the novice searching for a way forward it is not so easy. However, my main teacher once said to me that whatever else was happening, however involved and complex the learning of the technique becomes one always goes back to the central and overriding concept: primary control. So, if you understand primary control you are well on the way to letting AT help you reclaim your right to live comfortably and use your body well.
(The question of using your body well is one that constantly shocks and even frightens me. As I trained and began observing the world it seemed to me that I never saw anyone using there body well, as in how a baby or cat uses the body. I once raised this point with my teacher `Have you ever seen -anyone- use there body well in normal everyday life?` `No. Never.`)
Anyway, this primary control thingy. It is the relationship between head, neck and back. There is nothing more and we have to consciously explore this. Question is , how?
Well, there is this movie by Bruce Willis which I used to like getting drunk with called `Sixth Sense.` The problem is they got the wrong one. The loony one with spooks in is the 7th. Number 6 is out kinesthetic sense. What is it? Put your hand above your head. Do you know where your hand is? That is your sixth sense, knowing what your body is doing. And the bottom line is that for perhaps all of us in the modern world we have very little idea of what our body is actually doing, and as violinists we need to know. I will explore this in my next blog.
The subject of going restless or not has been hacked to death so violently across the Internet and in this venerable forum it hardly seems worth dragging up again.
I think throughout all the verbal abuse, internicine warfare and apocalyptic doggy doo-doo that has been slung in this area I have, in all modesty, consistently presented the pros and cons of both sides very fairly. In fact, I seem to recall a very good easy on the subject by myself in the archives But here I am again, , Buri the bad penny. It’s my blog so bleeeeugh!
I was never taught to play the violin comfortably, or efficiently. Thus when I entered music college things just got harder and harder, more and more painful, especially in those long hours of orchestra. But, the very idea of playing restless was deemed lunatic by just about everyone and was certainly never offered as a possibility in most lessons. The only teacher around that time I am aware who really insisted his pupils drop it was/is Trevor Williams. (One of the unsung greats). The odd thing was though, that when this weeks model fell off during another Mahler or whatever, everything seemed to fall into place and I actually felt comfortable for once. Unfortunately it never occurred to me this might be some kind of message. Interestingly, I recall a review by Tully Potter of a top young quartet a while back in which the first violin lost the rest. Potter acidly commented that maybe it was time to learn to do without since the leader sounded so much better rafter that.
There does seem to be a kind of tacit agreement emerging between the burnt out sides of this issue. In particular it is suggested that if you have a long neck you need a rest. If you have a short neck you don’t. I go along with this to a large extent. However, the problem is that if you are like me, then you have an -average- neck and it is actually not so easy to decide which way to go. Or rather it is quite easy because the road of least resistance is to hunt around until you find a rest that you think is comfortable. Sadly, I have been observing over many years that this comfort is often a an illusion and the -greater freedom of technique` one hears about from rest users is also largely an illusion. This does not apply to the best players because they have the talent to find out how to play freely and expressively with a rest and use it to their advantage, although I personally feel the overall picture is one of more wear and tear on the body due to the raised position of the shoulders.
But for most players I observe using rests there is no real freedom across the whole organism. Rather there occurs a great deal of immobility of a minute but pernicious kind which generally includes a raised and slightly locked left shoulder. The instrument must adjust to the player. Never the other way around.
What of the difficulty of playing restless? From the beginning, with a teacher who knows what they are doing it is actually very easy. For someone who has had technical issues all their life it is rather more complex and requires a great deal of patience. You see, in my opinion, it is possible to play very inefficiently with a rest and come across okay. You cannot do that restless. I have finally got down from smaller rand smaller pads, through foam to no support whatsoever and a lot of the time it is a real joy. But then things stop working or a phrase sound horrible, and it takes a real effort to sit down and work out why. Almost invariably it is misuse of the whole body, especially manifested din something funky in the left shoulder and it needs to be corrected before things sound okay again. Its never less than interesting but sometimes I look at the pile of rests in the corner of my music room and think `I wish….`
Some general themes that perpetually recur on violinist.commie always interest me: memory, how to practice, and what is the difference between a good player and an average one. Since violin playing itself is such a complex skill things can rarely be isolated and considered to any really useful extent here are my musings on how the three might interrelate.
One of the primary differences between a great player and a merely competent artisan simply concerns origin of stimulus to play. Sounds arty farty, but the truth is that a great many players, even at professional level use the dots on the page as a stimulus to trigger a response in the fingers. They don’t actually hear the music in their heads at all. What they do hear is the response to this stimulus which is then acted upon after the musical event ha s occured. This is a largely uncreative and unsatisfying process which has a lot to do with the general unhappiness of so many very talented musicians. The great players have also used the page as stimulus, it is out artistic legacy, but they have heard what they are going to play in their heads and the fingers are responding to sound rather than symbolic cues. The post event processing is then fine tuning one’s internal art.
Practicing then, for many players, is often needs to be completely rethought. A strong statement perhaps, but if the way we practice is the way we perform and the latter needs to be altered to acocu8nt for the opening point then so does the former. For an good beginner or lower intermediate player I take a double stop book such as that by Polo. The purpose is to get the student to sing -not- play double stops. The student learns each line vocally and then accompanies herself with her voice. This transitional approach has powerful all around benefits and nudges the student into the -hear it in your head- zone.
For a more competent player the Bach Fugues serve the same purpose. It may be necessary for a player to sing the various lines but ultimately the kind of work I ask of them is to sing in their head d and mentally visualize the spacing one of the triple stop chords then play it. The hands remain in place and each note is then carefully evaluated. The mental preparation is repeated allowing for any errors discovered in placing of fingers. To nail a chord perfectly over and over is the goal. It is also important to focus on the hand being completely relaxed while it holds the chord.
The same principle applies to the homophonic lines as well. One plays a musically complete segment incredibly slowly, allowing the mind to visualize the next note in great detail before it occurs. Especial focus on total relaxation. This way of practicing also has an interesting side effect. The brain has so much time to process all the complex data necessary that memorizing is automatic. The basic reason why people say `I cannot memorize` is that they are practicing without inputting any relevant data. If the brain is given clear information it will retain it.
A while back a poster blogged the rhetorical question `How much practice is safe?` At the same time there was some discussion occurring about how long a person can concentrate and by implication perhaps the question `what is useful practice?` Since these questions all interlock with each other to a large degree I’m going to waste a cup of coffee or two while musing on them.
If we take the first question at its most literal, obviously if one is injured, then the advice of a professional or three plus commonsense is the start point. But what about those of us who don’t think we are injured? What are the safety factors in violin practice?
I suggest that the three most important `Safe practice` factors that are completely ignored by most violinists are warming up, the `ten minute rule.` and stretching.
Warming up is not as simple as it might seem. The usual interpretation of warming up is not best done on the instrument. It is a question of getting blood to the extremities. A five minute brisk walk, some calisthenics or whatever. According to recent research on the effectiveness of stretching this does not have to be done so much before practicing. But, we are also bundles of feeling and focus. Without activating these aspects of our playing we cannot really claim to be fully warmed up. I think it is helpful for many players to try and assess how they are feeling at the moment they begin practicing. Really try to objectively assess and put a word to your feelings. Then try improvising something that corresponds to that feeling or play a piece that matches the mood. This helps to bring the concentration into focus which can then be further refined by playing something technical of moderate difficulty such as a two octave scale or a sevcik/Schradiek exercise and really paying attention to intonation, tone, rhythm. After such a beginning work on scales is likely to be more useful than jumping in cold and assuming that the complexities of scale practice make a good warmer upper..
The ten minute rule is something I leant only recently and I have no idea why it is not taught at colleges etc. Basically, the fingers are lubricated in the same way an engine piston uses oil. After about ten minutes the lubricant is used up. If you continue to practice without a minute or so break you are effectively playing without enough lubricant in the joints . The result is wear and tear. How many violinists just keep going and going in the hope of getting better when what they are really doing is shortening the twilight zone of their career.?
Stretching. What is the purpose of stretching? Muscles contract and expand at different speeds. The former is faster. So if you play rhythmic structures over and over again the muscles involved do not have the time to stretch back. Over time the continued shortened condition becomes an integral part of you physiology. It is limiting and harmful to your health. A wise player learns and uses stretches continuously both during and after practice as well as during long rehearsals.
Which brings one to `how much practice?` and `what is good practice?` One of the oddities of college life I noticed was how little practice the really good players did (I mean really good) compared to the rest of us. Then when it came to their concerto appearances with us wannabes suiting in the orchestra those same players practiced for 13 or fourteen hours a day without any apparent harm or effort. How often had I been told as a youth that practicing six or 8 hours without concentration was useless and harmful? So wasn’t this marathon stuff twice as harmful and even more useless? You wouldn’t think so from the playing…
What then is going on? The truth is these players have mastered genuine concentration while we lesser mortals have largely misunderstood it. While we think that concentration is effort (resulting in tension, injury, ingrained stage fright etc) the immortals have grasped the psychological complexities of concentration. They know that it is goal oriented. There goals are clearer than the average players. Very specific.
In the inner game of tennis Galwey states that ones degree of concentration is a function of the goal we have in mind.
They break the goals down into a series of steps which operate within a very narrow bandwidth of not too easy, not too difficult. The rest of us have difficulty selecting this range of operation.
We play passages over and over without ever really observing where the problem is and homing in on that.
Most of all, they are actually having fun. Without the element of fun learning is -real- slow.
Once concentration is analyzed in this respect we can begin to see that the amount of practice one can do with concentration cannot really be reduced to a comparison of numbers, some camps saying 20 minutes, some 30 to forty minutes (Auer for example) 50 minutes (Galamian/Delay). The majority of player should err on the brief side but strive to enter the `flow` state that the great players can access so readily. Any other kind of practice, no matter how long or short is simply not safe.
The Trouble with Tartini….
I have found one of the most satisfying things a violinist can do is deciding to spend some time exploring the life and works of a specific composer or genre. Hopefully one already doe sit to a certain extent when tackling any work IE read the life of, check out some other works and so forth. This kind of mini project can through up all sorts of different pathways to explore. For example, I began exploring Czech music on a whim, got interested in Martinu, explored all his violin music and now feature that composer regularly in concerts. Teachers who want a work for students at around the level of the Vivaldi a minor concerto might well check out the Sonatina as something different, musically challenging and a very powerful introduction modality to more eastern modalities. A useful precursor to the Dvorak Sonatina for example. Slightly more difficult and well suited to a regular recital is the Intermezzo.
Anyway, my recent locus of attention was Tartini, and a somewhat bizarre experience it turned out to be. I would guess that the main items that keep this composer floating around the landscape of violinists consciousness are the following:
2) Tartini Tones.
3) The Devils Trill and silly dreams associated with it.
4) A cute little Chinese girl (the cuteness may be a cultural trait) playing and then singing a sonata for Isaac Stern in Mozart to Mao.
5) The Art of Bowing (which everybody has heard of but not practiced….)
6) A very good short work called `andante Presto` which works beautifully in recitals as an encore (instead of all that blasted Kreisler)
Well, this is all jolly good stuff but somehow the dude remains something of an enigma and I wonder why this should be?
Consider first his life. In brief he was primarily interest in fencing and the law in his youth. However an affair with a rather young daughter of an important person (this may be a feature of human behavior that Italian culture has tended to emphasize) led to his running away to a monastery elsewhere where he got on with the more serious business of learning the violin. After that he didn`t do much else except play and write things so maybe his life was not ultimately the stuff of Hollywood movies.
However, he did write hundreds of concertos and sonatas and, assuming a priori that he was an important and interesting composer , how come they are so difficult to find with a few notable exceptions. I think the number of available concertos is about 15 if you scrabble around all the publishers and the sonatas even fewer, of which only two seem to get a look in anyway. Maybe lack of availability has done much to cause the relative rareness of hearing things other than the Devils Trill. On top of this, the majority of those editions are awful. They tend to belong in that category of `bowed fingered and pianoed by dead 19th century German violinist.` One honorable exception is a rather romantic version of a concerto done by Gingold (d minor I think) that is also available on video played by Szigeti way past his prime which does little to sell the work.
As a consequence, preparing even the well known `Didone Abbandone` sonata is not as straightforward as it might seem. Typically, I have seen this treated more as a beginners work with a lot of emphasis of good tone production and singing lines blah blah blah. Nothing wrong with that at all, but the end result has never really seemed to be what Tartini intended to me so after some thought I concluded that it suggests a misunderstanding of the historical position of the work. Tartini is not Handel. He comes from the land of impassioned flourish, embellishment, poetry and pizza and I think this work belongs very much in the improvisatory, ornamental flourish genre of Corelli, even at the expense of a big singing line. So, for example, I approached every cadence and large interval of the first movement with a view to adding ornamentation (research Geminiani`s book and pere Mozart). And, doing all the repeats which changes the substance of this work dramatically, I intensified the ornamentation even more, introducing rapid scale passages between intervals of an octave , converting 16th note passages into rapid 6 note patterns and so forth.
Furthermore, the most common Hermann edition has a ridiculous piano part where extensive pruning is necessary. Before anything else the double octaves have to go. Finally, in the same edition there is clearly -a bar missing-!!!!! The recapitulation of the opening subject is not the same. The second phrase is absent. The damn passage actually needs to be recomposed for both violin and piano.
The use of repetitions brings the work back into balance only if one then gets rid of the oft played 2nd movement which want written for this work. It was actually borrowed from another Tartini work in the 19th century and somehow the tradition stuck. It just doesn’t fit, beautiful though it might be. Incidentally, the dude who stuck it in is the same one who borrowed other bits and bobs from all over the place to put together the silliest baroque (?) work of all time : Nardini`s e minor concerto for bagpipe and roadkill combos. The last movement also required drastic pruning in the violin part. Instead of the romantic double stopped passages which I suspect are 19th century I substituted trills on every note (great effect) . I also pulled the g string filigree work up the octave where I am damn sure it was original written as part of the musical line, not as some 19th century editor going `Okay, lets bang out some triplets on the G string for show!`
In conclusion I think Tartini is both severely misrepresented and underutilized as a violinist’s resource. Hopefully this situation will improve before the guy slides into obscurity, rememberd only as a selling point for gooey stuff violinists rub on a horses appendage found remarkably near the botty.
the Renaissance sculptor Michelangelo, once explained to an idiot fan (or gushing reporter) that he didn’t actually turn blocks of marble into Garfield or whatever. Rather, he simply removed the excess marble to reveal the glowing example of humanity within.
Learning and performing a piece of music is somewhat like this I think. Recently I had to coach and then lead a pretty good amateur orchestra playing Shostakovitch 10th symphony . Unfortunately the end product had emerged in the first rehearsal way ahead of the chipping process and you couldn’t imagine an uglier or misshapen entity if you had nightmares for the rest of your life. How was it I asked, that the group had managed to produce something that actually needed the marble chipping stuck back on as quickly as possible? The answer was very simple. In order to be as prepared as possible the players had spent hours listening to one specific recording of the work and following the score. It took a huge amount of effort to get rid of the mislearnings and preconceptions, a rehearsal laden with exchanges such as:
‘Well, these 8th notes have no dots so although its the same theme as later Shostakovitch probably wanted a contrast."
‘But Karajan plays it that way.’
‘Why are you doing a big crescendo in this bar?’
"Because Karajan does."
‘But the same bar is repeated with a crescendo marked. Shostakovitch does things for a reason.’
Similarly, our piano trio had its first meeting with a new pianist last week. Very professional player, sight read Beethoven trios well and then switched styles beautifully to read the Debussy trio for the first time. It was clear to both the cellist and I that this player really knew her French music and we were quite content to absorb new things from her by playing through the work . However, after the rehearsal the pianist tentatively asked me to lend her a recording of the trio so she could ‘study how to play it.’
For me, these were two classic examples of how after basic training (boot camp if you like) players so easily fall into the trap of imitation and as a consequence develop little in the way of their true self. The problem is especially strong in Japan for cultural reasons. So this begs the question "How does one know what or how to play something?’
Asides from the importance of studying the whole oeuvre of the composer as far as is humanly possible I recall an interview with Joshua Bell in which he rather simplistically stated ‘Just play what is written on the page.’ This point of view seems rather banal compared with the type of advice one hears from more esoteric thinkers such as Stern who would make profound remarks about music existing between the notes on the page... But there is not really a contradiction and Joshua Bell is nobody’s fool. The truth is 95% of the music is written on the page and it is up to us to find it by going over the score in depth and trying to play what is written.
The problem is, most people don’t. If you pick up Auer’s book and read the chapter on nuance he lambastes students who make no distinction between mp /p, f and ff etc. The problem is an old one. Auer’s very practical solution is to study the symphonies, quartets, trios of Beethoven.
Of course one then runs into a slight snag... The performance practice up to (and beyond) Mozart doesn’t necessarily include all the bowings and phrasing/dynamics. They were considered common knowledge. Thus a diligent student goes out and buys for example, the Barenreiter edition of Mozart piano trios , and plays endless runs of 16ths as plain detache which is not what Mozart intended at all. The player has to be aware that the bowings of Mozart’s time were the actually articulations that created the phrase, not simply conveniences, or things that sounded a bit nifty. So the player is forced to decide where the phrase begins and ends, which notes are important and then highlight them with appropriate slurs. The appropriate information on this can be found in Mozart’s father’s book on violin technique. It really isn’t that hard and once one gets something appropriate one is once more playing what is on the page. In the case of Beethoven one is ignoring what is written on the page. For Mozart one is ignoring what is written elsewhere combined with musical common sense.
The other aspect of the problem is to take traditional ways of performing certain works and assume just because a) everybody plays them that way including Heifetz and b) my Peters edition has this bowing printed we don't have to think for ourselves. There are many interesting examples in the Handel sonatas where I think, the composer knew what he wanted and wrote it precisely . Thus the first bar of the A major sonata is usually slurred in two beats two a bow and played that way by just about everyone including some of its greatest interpreters. One thereby avoids the problem of a dotted quarter note on a down bow and two 16ths on an up bow , played twice in a row. But what happens if one flouts convention and plays the bowing Handel wrote? It is radically different from what one normally hears and for some people may speak far more vocally than the usual smoothed out version.
To play what is written on the page is not at all easy. If one can get this far that is really something. The other five percent Stern was referring to comes after and is where the true artist emerges. The error illustrated at the beginning of a distorted imitation of Karajan’s distortions (;) in a sense occurred because the players were trying for that last 5% without doing the bulk of the work first.
Not everyone can get there but we can die trying!
More entries: October 2006
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