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Small can be beautiful (and a pain in the butt)

February 25, 2007 at 11:07 PM

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.

From Patrick Hu
Posted on February 26, 2007 at 8:10 AM
Great Post Buri...(as always). I actually spent about 30 minutes working on your tips 1-3 and after that, it seemed to me that playing the violin became..."easier" (for a lack of a better word).


From Man Wong
Posted on February 26, 2007 at 5:06 PM
Thanks much, Buri, for the additional excellent pointers and insights on this subject. I feel honored that my comments actually got an entire blog entry/article for response/followup though I'm sure other newbie amateurs will also appreciate this excellent article -- heck, even Patrick above has found it very helpful already.

Anyway, I should probably point out that the finger pattern for the G-E-C chorded sequence I previously mentioned also shows up for a different sequence in that same Bach Minuet (as D-F#-A on the A and E strings), so the piece already has 2 different sequences built in for practicing that particular finger pattern, which works out very nicely I think -- and as it seems w/ every other piece in the (early) Suzuki repertoire, I bet this sort of repetition of finger patterns probably had much to do w/ its selection/placement at this point in the method/training, which my teacher had pointed out on occasion in the past about the various pieces when discussing certain finger patterns and bowing techniques.

Beyond that I also wonder if my teacher didn't sorta hope/expect that I'd be curious enough to try some things out (or find out elsewhere) on my own under the circumstance. I think she knows/realizes that I'm the sort that won't really be satisfied being slowly spoon fed everything. OTOH, she probably also didn't want me to get too bogged down on learning/exploring technique just yet. Although I picked up the violin nearly a year ago, I have not actually had regular lessons throughout that time -- only occasional lessons and 5-10min pointers now and then as part of my daughter's Suzuki method training. My last lesson w/ the teacher is actually my first official regular lesson that's focused on me alone, and we had a good deal to work on as it were. Still, I'll probably bring up and ask about at least some of these additional points (along w/ your previous interesting discussion about Bach's use of chorded sequences and part of what makes Heifetz so great) at my next lesson tonight.

BTW, I also find it interesting (and perhaps, serendipitous?) that here I am learning the violin via the Suzuki method -- well, not "pure" Suzuki as *some* might think it anyhow -- over here in the USA, but I'm also getting additional great pointers and insights that would not normally be taught so early in this method (to children anyway) from 1/2 way around the world where Suzuki originated. Seems like the best of both worlds... :-)

And thanks so much again!

Very best regards,


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