Recently a friend of mine asked me to make some suggestions or give her my impressions of her piano playing. Although she was a graduate of Gedai University and has performed with many wonderful musicians over the years I somehow felt she was not really expressing all her gifts. Her playing seemed to be angry more often than warranted with little moments of rest in between. She answered that that was pretty much her on going mental state and that she suffered terribly form headaches and a feeling of being out of control a great deal of the time. Music was in essence, the only thing keeping her on the planet. I had nothing more to offer but suggested she visit my doctor. As I was introducing them he winced and immediately said `You were a forceps delivery weren’t you?` She vehemently denied this but asked he mother about it and found out it was true. My doctor then told her she had been living with twisted facial bones that were putting a huge amount of stress on the front of her brain. She began receiving treatment for this but then stopped.
I am not surprise that she stopped. People do have trouble facing less socially accepted problems; we are allowed to have influenza but not have mental problems kind of thing. What was very striking was that to compensate for the twisted skull structure she had distorted her whole body resulting in one leg effectively being shorter than the other. This leg shortening , actually a misalignment of the pelvis, is commonly seen and corrected in Alexander work.
It is this last aspect of a very tragic case that really interests me. Many people write in to v.commie asking for help with playing related injuries and always get very solid and helpful recommendations in many fields of health care. (Haven’t seen much looney stuff here at all apart from me). However one thing all this very accessible advice can obscure is the fact that the pain or injury is often the result of misuse of the body and could have been avoided in the first place.
It starts at a cold rehearsal three Christmases ago... The chair is wonky. You play for three hours with your neck at a funny angle. That micro mm change is not explored or release and creeps into next days practice. The body twists and adapts like my friend’s without us realizing. The problem builds and gradually even just playing a slow bow leaves one wanting to cry with the pain. Then one goes for help.
These things need not always happen if we recognize that we must protect ourselves by maximizing correct sensory awareness before, during and after practice. If we do this then risk of injury is reduce dramatically and the bonus effect is that high sensory awareness practice is very much more effective than what we normally do. What do we normally do? We rush to our beloved instrument with heightened breathing, gotta get it done, gotta get it done. We bend over badly and grab our instrument without saying hello and stroking its neck. We stand will nilly, chuck the damn thing up and start playing scales because they are good for us, and all the misuse of the body which we call `not warmed up` is nicely integrated into our scales which we mysteriously cannot play for our teacher next lesson.
We could do this.
Sit quietly. Check out all the sensations of your left foot on the ground, from the left shoe and so on. Then do the right. Then compare both. Now do the left calf followed by the right calf. Compare. Repeat with thighs. Compare both legs in unison. Do the lower back, left side, right side, upper back. Have you got it? In essence you are saying hello to your whole body and in the process integrating it. Once the body is integrated it will automatically change and adjust what isn’t needed and is potentially injury threatening. It isn’t the complete answer but it’s a big part of it. If you aren’t together you will break things.
Surely five minutes a day is worth it?
In the short run I suppose There is nothing wrong with a really knowledgeable teacher telling a student `This is what I want you to practice, this is how to practice it, bring it back next week.` However, to some extent I think this fosters dependency on the teacher, if it isn’t done in a kind of questioning way. Another thing which mentally tends to straightjacket people is the text itself. One quite naturally becomes so concerned with getting what is on the page right that it excludes the possibility of achieving that very goal by going beyond , around and under what is actually written there.
To bypass this kind of rigidity in approach I often encourage students to break down the problem into its component parts and then do something else with it. What made me think of this was Man’s comments in my previous blog about keeping two fingers down and then just lifting the fourth when necessary for a string crossing/chordal passage. The advice he got from his teacher was perfect, but it struck me as the kind of place I would seize on to get students exploring the instrument more deeply. Assuming that the original problem was to play with a `g` and `c` held down in first position with a lifting fourth finger `e` some possibilities might be:
1) The visualization of a multiple finger placement. Take the hand away form the instrument, create a clear mental image of the three fingers placed, hear the notes, and then put them in that position. Check the intonation. Repeat on twp different strings.
2) Be concerned with elimination of tension. Having placed the chord, run through a mental checklist of relaxation, especially the base joint of the first finger, thumb, wrist , forearm, upper arm, shoulder neck etc.
3) Practice finger independence by keeping two fingers firmly on the string and releasing the pressure on one while maintaining contact with the string. Try with all three fingers and then moving form finger to finger. Rest frequently and shake your hands floppily if you do these kind of exercises. Practice on different strings. Practice in different positions on the instrument.
4) Practice raising and dropping fingers from the base joint. Then to it with various rhythms. This is the meat of the work because it is here that one can use a mm and make a trill study with the fourth finger in various rhythms while keeping two fingers down. Experiment to find the minimum amount of pressure for the fingers that are being kept down. Keep two different fingers down and trill.
5) Figure out how to move the chord combination up a semitone and do similar kind of work. Move it up another semitone and do likewise. One can practice a pattern all over the instrument. You don’t have to have studied third position, or the dreaded 2nd position. Just use your ear and your brain.
6) Work on the bowing. Practice at the heel middle and point. Use different combinations of slurs. Practice on whole bows slurring 4 or 8 notes to a bow.
These are just a few examples, but I think if one asks students to identify a specific problem rather than just a vague `this bit sounds bad` and then ask them to work out exercises as well as the ones you feed them , then the whole business becomes really interesting.
One of my strongest memories of Music College is of walking through South Kensington in the rain and seeing a little sign in the local music shop. Jascha Heifetz had died. It felt like something really important and terrible had just taken place and I recall walking around in daze for about an hour. When I went back to college that day people asked me what was up. The general reaction from most of the student violinists was along the lines of `Oh, so what?` Or even `Who is he?` ;) It seemed a lot of young players at that time had all the latest Mutter and Perlman recordings but were not all that familiar with the Heifetz generation of players. Cut to the present day and I was once again really saddened by the extremely good quality book by Ayk describing her last years basically looking after Heifetz.
The funny thing is though, there is just one very significant passage in that book which seems utterly erroneous to me and verifiable as such. I don’t have my copy now, but it reads something like `The Heifetz Master class tapes do not represent what went on because the best students were chosen and the disparity between Heifetz and their level is not that clear.` On the contrary, when viewing those tapes, the striking thing is the way even a great (but not yet matured) player of the pedigree of Erik Friedman plays for example, an excellent Franck or Bach. Then Heifetz stands up says exactly the right thing and plays a thousand times better even in this time of life when his technique was diminished and he had some physical problems. The disparity is so huge at times its stunning.
As far as the Bach is concerned, I believe the Heifetz versions are awesome achievements. They are not my choice of listening but what is seen so clearly in the master class is to me, that even within the romantic primarily violinistic milieu that Heifetz occupied, the man understood line, beauty and rhythm like nobodies business. B he knew what mad e Bach flow and sing.
Which sort of brings me to an interesting question I have ha din mind for years. Why did someone who elevated the notion of violin technique so high cite the Bach sonatas and Partitas as the violinists bible, as opposed to the Paginini caprices or some other great and highly demanding repertoire? I know that Auer , in his little book noted that the violinist who can play Bach well need not fear the big concertos but that really doesn’t provide that much in the way of specifics.
One of the things I have found in my own practice is that a really efficient way to stay in shape and drag technique upwards is to practice the fugues. It is this work in particular that has clarified for me a very important maxim of private practice that often holds players back if ignored- breaking down phrases into smaller units to work on them is considerably less efficient if the chunk is not in itself musically viable. It might only be the difference between practicing note B and C together as opposed to A and B, but it often makes the difference between success and failure. How this relates to the fugues is that I find a strong tendency to look at a work and think `Well, this particular chord or sequence of chords is not so good so let’s break it down.` This may well improve things but somehow it doesn’t seem right. So I look back at the preceding phrase and it often turns out to be the case that a finger kept down from there is the foundation on which technical security in the phrase currently being practiced is based. Practicing the `difficult passage` without reference to the whole has not only been inefficient but counter productive because it may have instilled use of the fingers which does not connect up with the whole during performance. By observing this point I have found that there are actually –very- few difficult chords in for example, the g minor fugue. What one thinks of in isolation as a chord has simply been two fingers already prepared previously and placing a third down which is easy. Or it may be just one finger already in place from a while back so a double stop is simply superimposed. There really aren’t so many three part chords in Bach, at least in the technical sense!
And I think this idea was central to Heifetz` technique in many ways: a distinct lack of activity in the hands. Doing only what I necessary is virtuoso technique and there is no better place to work on that than the Bach, the violinist’s bible.
Well, Laurie wrote most eloquently about owning a decent instrument and the significant effect it can have on one’s playing so I’m going to comment on the bow a little.
I’ll start with a basic problem though: like it or not, playing in an orchestra is not going to help your bowing and the less secure your bowing is IE you weren’t taught to get it right from an early age , the more likely that the problems you patiently eradicated when you finally had a decent teacher will begin creeping back in. That’s why in recent years, as the amount of orchestra and chamber work I do has increased exponentially so has the amount of time I spend on basic bowing and I mean basic. Two things have persuaded me.
The first is increasing the number of beginner students I deal with. One simply cannot tell a kid (or an adult for that matter) that they have to learn to use a straight bow if yours wavers slightly off kilter , or your bow speed is sloppy after this weeks Tschiakovsky, or your bow arm is a little stiff because you’ve been rehearsing Bruckner tremolo for 6 yours a day for a month. There are no excuses.
The other thing I did is changed bows. Over the years I have got used to high end Nurnburgers (I note that because there are cheap ones floating about) that cost in the 5000 dollar range. Pretty darn good bows which Oistrakh also happened to prefer. I have heavy arms and can use a lot of force on the instrument where necessary so I never really questioned what seemed a good match. Then I bought a beautiful French bow at the top end of what is available and everything changed. A flawless bow will not accept less than perfection, it will not accept the smallest error in bow arm height and it will dictate to you exactly what type of stroke , speed and weight is appropriate at a given moment and you have to learn to listen. You have to listen –real- carefully to what your bow is telling you and do what it says. There is no alternative and you get trained. It’s like getting married.
So, all this stuff came together and as my bow arm altered rather radically the amount of basic bowing upped and upped so that now I practice an hour a day on bowing that involves a lot of open strings. The most beneficial exercise for sound for the last three years has been daily son file , 40 second bow strokes. To be able to sit in an orchestra in a p/pp passage with a smile on your face as the conductor gets slower and slower and your bow seems to get longer an longer is worth all the work. But to counteract the deadening effect of the son file I use the Key bowing patterns from Basics every day. I divide each exercise into five parts for the days of the week and practice those with a metronome as fats as possible making sure to do a lot of work using half the bow between middle and heel where it is rather difficult at speed with string crossings.
But the exercise which really attracts me is the first one in the Detache section of this book and is for bow speed. One plays a half note mm60-8o using quarter of the bow at the point, middle and heel. Every combination of speeding up and slowing down within those strokes is practice many times on quarter bows and then a simple whole bow is played which always is so pure it’s breathtaking. During the exercise itself one has to pay absolute attention because it is physically impossible to speed the bow up and down precisely within a range of cms without –absolute- attention and paying this level of attention to ones playing has a very powerful effect on overall playing as one begins to transfer this intensity of effort to the usual practice which is almost invariably a black hole of non-concentration in spite of what people say about `Oh, I can concentrate well for about an hour.`
Try it. It’s addictive.
My heartfelt thanks to all the people who dedicated a piece of music to Marnie Bradbury. It was a great source of comfort to all concerned.
Last week a university student came to me who has been playing the violin for 8 years and not got very far in spite of evidence of considerable talent. There was, as far as I could see only one reason: the lady was incredibly short even by Japanese standards and extremely chunky with unusually short arms. Yet, she was trying her damndest to play the violin with it held out around 45 degrees to the left, with the bow going at an opposing 45 degrees to the string in a straight line.
In the five seconds it took to move her violin around so that it was pointing directly forward her bowing straightened and her left hand and arm relaxed beautifully. Did her teachers not see this? Did they not care enough to help her? I hate watching people frustrated by inflexible teachers.
An interesting aspect of being a looney old dude is that one remembers the past with clarity but not where you put the clean socks. I can recall my first violin lesson like it was yesterday. Four or five of us kiddies and this really smelly old geezer (tobacco) who clearly didn’t want to be there. Quite a well know player, long serving in one of Britain’s top orchestras but not too interested in what was going on. His explanation of how to put up the violin was to ask us to see ourselves on bikes, signal to turn left and then keep the violin in that position.
That to me is typical of two things I can’t stand: 1) not making allowances for individual body structure and 2) a strong tendency for many players to keep the instrument too far to the left, particularly for their physique. Its interesting that the players who keep the violin more to the front tend not to use rests (am thinking of Aaron Rosand and people he has influenced in particular) but that is another story
If one consults Auer’s little book on this issue he is just a little vague. However, he does say `..it should be held in such a position that the eye may be fixed on the head of the instrument…..endeavor always to lessen the distance between the arms….` (Now if I had followed the instructions of my first teacher and been able to look at the scroll my neck would have been twisted at 90 degrees from the norm).
It doesn’t surprise me that Auer is less than specific because, like a lot of things in violin playing, it is not so much a case of there being a correct position that fits everyone but rather a rational parameter within which each unique individual is fluid. Positions change from moment to moment. The main guideline for the confused player is the bow arm. If you can keep the bow on at the point with the arm very slightly bent and not stressed that is correct. A second useful thing to keep in mind is that one does not necessarily have to adjust the scroll. Very often the scroll can be left where it is and the base end of the violin moved IE the position of the jaw on the chin rest is changed.
Prunes of course, are invaluable.
Marnie Bradbury came to Japan three years ago to teach English for my company, working in Elementary schools. This week she died in a traffic accident.
Her parents are here now to take her home.
I would like to ask all my friends on Violinist.com to send a message of condolence and compassion to he parents by picking up the instrument we all love so much and playing something no matter how brief, for them, her students and co-workers.
I know her parents will read this and perhaps draw a little comfort from such a gesture made across so many borders.
As far as a saintly person such as myself finds it possible, I do get riled by accusations that `classical musicians` (whatever that is- some rotting corpse of a Mozart look alike perhaps?) are conservative, elitist and retrogressive. Not only is this often not true, but where it is the case it is far larger forces such as economics limiting what we do and streamlining the publics psyche so that they can only accept pap- junk music to go with junk food.
Laurie’s comments about live music in her blog reminded just really reminded me that good music, anytime, any place touches people and makes a better world. Last week I played a recital with my friend the Czech composer Daniel Forro. It was a rather cold place, the fee was low and the people organizing it, whom I know fairly well were of the rather bossy type that are really aggravating when you want to focus on music. But we went out to play and there were thirty middle aged to old people in the room and I just thought `well, how often do these people get to have a really good time anymore?` Japan is a tough country to live in and being old is often not pleasant here. I was determined to play and chat to win them over like we were a bunch of good friends having fun together. Daniel can do this better than me because once he has a synthesizer in front of him he becomes Mr. Music. Must be a Czech thing….
So we played and I wise cracked and chatted about my nightmares at the dentist over this last few months till I thought we were going to have to have a quick `look in my mouth I’ve got more metal than you` competition.
When I do recitals with Daniel I always resist to the hilt request we get for light music because I know it means Humoresque, Leibesfreud and Londonderry Air. We program stuff that demands attention and is full of beauty by Mozart, Handel and then we chuck in great twentieth century music and people like it. They know they are being challenged a little but they come up afterwards and ask `what was that piece by this guy Martini I never heard of?` and so on. You can feel the buzz in the air.
So I left thinking `yes, this is what music is about. People are people. They want friendship, love, good music, talking and fun.`
We musicians are so lucky.
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