The Never-Ending Kreutzer

December 12, 2007, 4:49 PM · Greetings,
Recently an interesting and important question `(roughly) just how much Kreutzer is enough?` was posted here.

The question gets to the heart of what is one of the most important and profound understanding about the nature of learning the violin that there is: from the initial stages to quite a high level (including college for many) the progression is quite linear. One is presented more or less systematically with techniques, scales, etudes, pieces etc and this becomes the way the instrument is conceptualized.

However, at some point the realization often occurs that the highest levels of playing often involving a completion of the circle. One goes back to the roots. This revelation often occurs as a result of teaching a beginner when the teacher suddenly realizes they either a) don’t know how they do XYZ or b) in truth, don’t actually do XYZ as well as they had believed!

Taking the specific issue of Kreutzer first, it is useful to take note how the players of the past saw this book. The general layout and material of the book actually suggest quite strongly that in Kreutzer’s day this was a manual for professional players rather than a student’s book of technique.

It is interesting to note that Heifetz called this "The professional’s manual," a comment which had a strong influence on some of the great Russian pedagogues such as Tziganov. In his books Szigeti told about how he regularly asked top competition players to play and improvise on these etudes and they looked at him blankly. Or that he saw the octogenarian player Rose practicing them. In more modern times, Fischer notes that many top players use No. 2 as a daily bowing exercise and Clayton Haslop has noted that his Paganini improved as a result of practicing Kreutzer even when not practicing Paganini.

So I think the answer to the question of Kreutzer, once taken out of the linear mindset, is that it is a lifetimes daily study, unless you choose to use something else containing the fundamentals of playing as a daily study! There are alternatives that should be explored thoroughly, but the most important point is that it really is unwise to drop the habit of etudes (as well as scales) as a professional.

The advantage of teaching is one is constantly reminded that players/composers of the caliber of Mazas, Wolfahrt and Dancla really understood the nuts and bolts of the instruments. Taking Wolfahrt as an example, in his first book after the elementary duets(in themselves miniature classics of violin technique) there is a fairly short son file type etude (about No. 5 I think) that is really hard to play with perfect control. It encapsulates the same kind of challenge that Mazas No. 1 (Opus 38) has.

To play that with perfect phrasing and proportions is the work of an artist. It is never finished and the lifetime’s process is actually our art growing. It makes perfect sense to me when a top player says I use the Mazas etudes to keep my technique in shape. I have met college level players who scoff at Mazas, but when asked to play number five from the same book with a beautiful seamless detache, can’t do it so well. The same problems as Kreutzer No. 2 (or so many of the others). Detache is something one spends a life time trying to get more and more perfect.

It is also quite normal to go even simpler, which in my case means a great deal of basic open string work everyday (well, about 30 minutes- it just feels like a lot….). Why I mention this is because many violinists are, quite rightly, obsessed with producing a bigger and bigger sound. However, they often go down the misleading path of pressing which creates an illusion of power and very little quality.

In reality a huge sound comes from maximum vibration. I began really pondering this only recently while teaching a student the first Dancla operatic theme and variations, of which the first variation is repeated short down bows. I couldn’t get her to stop either pressing or hitting the violin until in despair I asked her to put down the instrument and repeat it a number of times pizzicato observing the vibration of the string and listening to the ringing tone. She was finally able to recreate this sound.

So, taking this kind of vibration as an ideal, open string work offers a really clear tool of exploration. An area of technical weakness it really highlighted for me was the question of the plane of the bow arm and bow in relation to the string. This aspect of bowing tends not to get as much mention as the inimitable relations between the big three: sound point, bow speed and weight.

However, I have become more and more convinced this is a central issue because of the work I have been doing recently from Drew Lecher's book. Its only been a few months but the players in my piano trio have commented on a noticeable increase in volume (piano trios have a lot of balance problems) and at a competition we aced a couple of days ago the judges first comments were on how the violin power matched that of the open grand piano in the concert hall.

I attribute this solely to having unconsciously learned to pay a great deal more attention to the plane of the bow on every single note of the Beethoven trio we played. It ends for example with three quarter notes on the g string after a 16th note run up to the a string. So the bow arm is in a string position and at the speed it is going it is all too easy to just use a bit of wrist and forearm angle to get back to the g string. No big deal. But if one is actually back on the plane of the G string those notes just explode. It’s fantastic! And the only thing I attribute this change to is working carefully and patiently everyday on such banal practice as two quarter notes and a half note rhythm. G-gd d d-gd g or g (up bow heel) rest e (down bow point) rest…..

You’ve just gotta love this instrument.


December 13, 2007 at 12:43 AM · Dear Stephen,

When will you make a recording for us?

December 13, 2007 at 03:48 AM · Buri,

Per usual, your blogs and discussion contributions are always well worth reading, even the humorous comments.

Thanks for the mention…

December 13, 2007 at 04:55 AM · Gold Buri... Thanks

December 13, 2007 at 05:28 AM · I agree with you on the importance of revisiting studies you've played in the past. It will help your mind and fingers remember what they've learned, and you may get new insights/improvements because you have advanced with other material. Personally, Kreutzer has always been my favorite exercise book.

December 13, 2007 at 06:13 AM · Ah, so true.

December 13, 2007 at 08:21 AM · What wonderful insights. So right - there was an interview with Nikolaj Znaider in Strings Magazine a few years ago in which he tells of "going back to open strings" when studying with Boris Kuchnir (sp?).


December 13, 2007 at 10:35 AM · Hey Buri,

I am an older violinist with a young Russian teacher who is ......... DOING THE KREUTZER, #2, 3 octave scales and vibrato dissection with me ad nauseum. At times, I have been quite frustrated after each lesson, but then almost immediately I am totally inspired to achieve the sound you and he are talking about. You are so right on about this and I am abjectly grateful for your comments. Another observation about my own technique problems is that Stoss works diligently with me to eradicate areas of 'stiffness' and rigidity. It's almost like working with a psychoanalyst who constantly points out your defense mechanisms (the ones that are dysfunctional) in order to improve your life. I have been successful in almost completely eradicating 'shaky bow' and awkward string crossings. I am still focusing on consistent big sound from bow to frog with smooth bow changes and even sound. I have a bit of loosening up to do in my right wrist in transitioning from up bows to downbows at the frog and nearer the midbow when practicing detache. I have a tendency to use too much finger motion.

Well Buri, I always appreciate your wonderful insights and look forward to whatever you have to say.


December 13, 2007 at 03:52 PM · Buri,

By the way, congratulations on the 1st with your trio!

December 13, 2007 at 04:34 PM · In reality a huge sound comes from maximum vibration.

Vibration of what, Buri?

(Anticipating another wonderful essay.)

December 13, 2007 at 09:35 PM · Maximum vibration of string, of course. ;-) Bill

December 13, 2007 at 09:32 PM · Greetings,


>Another observation about my own technique problems is that Stoss works diligently with me to eradicate areas of 'stiffness' and rigidity. It's almost like working with a psychoanalyst who constantly points out your defense mechanisms (the ones that are dysfunctional) in order to improve your life.

Sound like you have a really brilliant teacher. The great challenge of being a violinst (I belive more thna any other instrument) is thta you cannot separate anything that is happening in the body fromn what comes out. This doesn`t always seem to be such a big deal until you really begin to dig deeper. It`s not somethign one thinks about too much when young but my greatest elarning over the last few years is how mind body and spirit are all one and that we store our experiences mnot only from this live but from our continuous existence as energy in a constantly changing universe or God. Anyone who has done , for example, Vipassana meditation (the full ten days) will be able to tell you about the extraorinday things w estor ein our bodies that need to be let go called `Sankaras.` All the pain, nastiness, trauma of our loives, whether self created or inflcited by otehrs has to be let go by learning to be in the present, recognizing there is no othe rrelaity. As one sits and lets the mind quite jerking, massive contractions , crying out loud and uncontrollable laughter are all ways people rel;ease things they did not know were slowly killing them in such practice. Of course people can choose whethe ror not they wnat to address htese things and how deeply, butrecognition of their existence is a major step forward.

Drew, thanks re Trio. The judges told us that we were unequivocally the est ensemble in the hall but because of a misundertsanding with the organizers we had playe dtwo long works as oppose dto three contrasting or something like that so er, no prize money. Not everydat you lose 3000 dollars. heheeheheheeheh:(

Bill, to this day the most resonant sound I have ever heard in a cocnert hall, big players notwithstandign , is Milsteing at eighty something. When stirngs and isnturment are vibrating freely, as is the player and the music then all is good in the world. Interestingly, sound, color etc are all forms of energy and I think in whatever human edaevour we are engaged in, we know deep down if things are colorful or juts a kind of blackness. absnece of life, color, energy)

Maybe this is an odd comment but today the worldis odd too. I live in a peaceful rural area where live goes a little slower, everything is fresh and relaxed- or was. Yesterday the Yakuza started using it for the first time as a place for shooting at each other from speeidng cars. Never seen or heard anyhting like it. Wish I could just go back to bed with a Hershey bar,



December 14, 2007 at 03:59 AM · Maximum vibration of string, of course. ;-) Bill

So for a big sound then we should go up at the fingerboard where the string can vibrate more freely? Anything else we want vibrating?

What if we had just a taut string, bow, and fingerboard and no violin?

December 14, 2007 at 08:50 PM · Still think that Kreutzer #1, the super slow one, is one of the hardest to play and one of the most beneficial.

How slow do you play it?

December 15, 2007 at 04:14 AM · very.

I starte dit five years ago and only halfway down the page. I do stop for prune breaks.

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