July 2007

Not a bowel movement in sight

July 19, 2007 16:40

A very good player on this list recently wrote that Mahler five was hard or a struggle or something like that. Too lazy too check. I seem to be playing Mahler five a lot these days. Maybe it`s because it`s the rainy season and It`s some kind of metaphor for tears.
I wonder what the issue here really is? I have noticed that when I play this piece I ma emotionally drained and somewhat tired but I am not exhausted physically like some of the payers around me seem to be. What seems to me to be the root of the problem is true across the playing of the majority of violinists: an excess use of unnecessary movement. When I watch orchestral players in the Mahler I often see great sweeping movement of the body which typically includes downward lunges from the nefarious waist on chords etc. It is almost as though the players are following the maxim `if the composer wrote FF GENUFLECT.` Of course, touching the knee with the forehead completely unbalances the body but try telling people that. Try telling a violinist that they sound `exactly the same,` playing with minimal body movement as playing with a lot. No way Jose!
It seems people have so much invested in this waving about , perhaps subconsciously copied from their favorite modern violinist…) that they confuse it with their own expressiveness. Yes, that’s the word most frequently used `my expressiveness.` This narcissistic obsession can become so strong it may provoke a bizarre situations. For example, Laurie recently wrote of Perlman criticizing a violinist for moving around rather than paying attention to sound. The young man’s response, (I like it) was in my opinion, rude. Questioning the generously given advice of one of the 20c great is a no no for me. Maybe times have changed with the new generation of Viagra popping puppets. Who knows?
Another example springs to mind: the video of the Gingold master class with Joshua Bell followed by another talented guy. Bell moves around but he is rooted. Genius can get away with this. The next player is talented and he moves more, pulls more faces. It`s horrible. It contributes nothing and, I strongly suspect, serves to prevent the real and genuine musician coming out.
The cure is simple and annoying. Stick the scroll of your violin on your music stand and play smoothly using you arms and not much else (a wall may also help. Learn to play at a minimum. Most of the time the dancing musician is simply fake.

10 replies | Archive link

Melody and speed

July 9, 2007 21:55

In the discussion section Melody wrote `need some practice tips on playing the scherzando part of the Barber , mostly the 32nd notes! any suggestions on how to build speed would be greatly appreciated!`
The concept of speed in playing is so vast and complex I am going to use her request as a spring board for some idle thoughts.
First of all, I think it is important to recognize that more is not always better. Sometimes people play so fast it looks impressive, may even be accurate, but at the end of the day is largely inaudible to the untrained ear. What is the point of learning to do something few people can hear, especially in a concert hall? Then one might note that what one sometimes thinks is extremely rapid playing is actually not so fast when checked with a metronome. It is actually just extremely even. This is true of Heifetz on many an occasion. Although he did arguably play some pieces way to fast (or is that just a question of taste?) it was also true he was simply more precise than the rest and sounded faster.
Having said this, let us address the physical component of playing quickly. Heifetz has often been described as a lame teacher but I have never found this to be true. He had a definite knack for expressing the most significant aspects of playing in rather simple (banal?) sentences that I think some people with expectations of `loftier insight` managed to miss. Among these one of the most important was `there is the right hand and the left hand. Then if they are not together it is not so good.` What he was saying highlights that a) speed is a function of coordination and b) perhaps less directly, that if the bow arm doesn’t know where it is going as clearly as the left hand then coordination will not take place. This is so often the case that if a teacher was to ask medium to advanced student playing a major concerto fast movement to play only the right arm there is a virtually certainty the bow arm will reveal itself as flailing, often going in the wrong direction and then rectifying.
Then there are some important aspects of left hand technique to be considered. Have you left the right fingers down for the right amount of time? Does your first finger know where it is going?
If not try playing only the first finger notes omitting all the ones in between. Then the hand will know exactly where it is going.

How is your technical preparation? IE Are you preparing the next finger in time?
If not have you done slow practice in which the string crossings are played as double stops?
Assuming that one has worked on these aspects then the next problem of coordination is almost always that the right arm moves ahead of the left. The simplest way to rectify this is to practice the `hooked bowing exercise` in which one plays the first note and the second as a dotted rhythm slurred, then the 2nd and 3rd, then the 3rd and 4th and so on. One gets this faster and faster with the metronome. However fast one gets it the fact of note repetition in a different stroke ensure the left hand –always moves ahead of the right-
What then is fast playing?
It is really a question of placing notes closer and closer together. That’s all. The problem is what happens between the notes. Very often there is contamination or error. As we play faster and faster we decrease the length of the note itself but the dirt remains a constant. In essence the ratio of actual note to dirt changes adversely. In order to clean things up one has to practice very slowly and listen. Slow practice for its own sake is meaningless. Very often slow practice is thought of only in terms of `the speed I am starting at from which I will get faster and faster via the metronome until I play like Heifetz.` But slow practice is where the mind must be deeply and profoundly active. Analyzing exactly what is being done, what errors are occurring and –correcting them- For many top players slow practice is so intense that even playing a piece up to full speed becomes unnecessary. Rachmaninov used to practice pieces incredibly slowly, as did Casals. For most of us however a judicious combination of slow and fast practice is best. Keep in mind that the purpose of practice is to program the computer in your head so at the slow tempo one must be organizing huge amounts of data very efficiently. I suggest you go to Hilary Hahn`s web page and read her discussion of slow practice for some wonderful advice.
The purpose of speeding up practice is to increase the amount of playing without increasing the length or complexity of the mental command that triggers it. Thus as more and more actions become automated (don’t require a command) the longer chunks we can play. The ultimate level is when one command is given and a whole piece is performed without the need for and more commands ;) We can do this by practicing a small group of notes up to speed correctly a few times resting in between each repetition. Then do the next small group up to about five groups. Now go back and combine the first and second group, repeating and resting etc. Notice you are using bigger chunks with the same mental energy. Build up the length in this way.
One important way of increasing the necessary mind muscle connection is to practice with different rhythms. This is the essence of the approach spelt out in Galamians work. Much is made of the need to continually challenge the mind but it is also important to remember that repetition is not the most effective means of ingraining a good habit. In fact, modern research has shown that achieving the same result by slightly doing something slightly different each time is more powerful. This is typical of the way Milstein practiced and why people who heard him noted the way he rarely played the same thing exactly the same way in practice. Perlman emphasizes the need to practice rapid passages with a huge variety of rhythms too.
Finally, with all the talk of slow work be careful of what you are doing with the left hand. At speed the pressure may be minimal but slowly you may have learnt to use a lot. To unlearn this tension practice using no finger pressure at various speeds. Then just a little, then a little more and so on. Find out what the least necessary amount of finger pressure is.
If you really can`t move your fingers fast enough it may well be that you are either using too much muscle in the forearm or tensing the base joint of the first finger (I pass on the obvious one of gripping with the thumb...) To check the first finger base joint select some places to pause and check what kind of condition the hand is in, especially the first finger base. Consciously relax and then play to the next rest point and so on.

5 replies | Archive link


July 3, 2007 16:31

Still struggling with the blows to my faith made by the results of the Tchaik. That someone should have the temerity to enter and attempt to win by taking the underhand approach of playing like an angel is beyond the pale. That various teachers should go along with this by awarding prizes on merit is more than I can handle right now. It is, or course, a conspiracy by the Suzuki cabal who have had this long range plan for years. You can read the carelessly hidden memos concerning this plot among the crumbling historical documents of Timbuktu now in the headlines of that bastion of the British Press, the Guardian. That is of course, the reason why those documents receive little or no mention in the US media: the Julliard has of course been instrumental in the cover up.
However, I am not a mean person and I have written to George Bush asking for a presidential pardon for both Kamia Toyota doofreewhatsit and the arch villain Zhakar Nike Bron.
Quick quiz question: what is the strongest muscle is in the body?

No Albert. Get down of the ceiling. It’s the ones near the ear that move the lower jaw. Scary isn’t it. We violinists spend so many years screwing up our most potentially damaging body part without a care in the world.
But have no fear. Here is an unorthodox and helpful little stretch for violinists who haven’t won the Dubikovsky competition. First relax you neck. Imagine a thread pulling your head p to the ceiling. Now open your mouth and allow the head to tilt backwards so that you are looking at the ceiling (more or less). You are probably feeling a bit of a prat right now but this move will be de rigueur at all Russian music competitions form next year. From this position simply close your mouth by moving the lower jaw against the upper jaw so that your lips are together. You will feel an incredible stretch all the way under your chin and down the front of the neck. Some people have neglected this area for so long they actually can’t close the mouth with the head in this position.

10 replies | Archive link

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