The question of playing fast (especially in orchestra) often crops up on this list so this blog is going to address some of the issues involved.
First and foremost is the issue of efficient use of tension and relaxation. This is governed by use of the body. Almost all players who believe they cannot play fast have tension somewhere in the body which stems from and is part and parcel of the fear of playing fast. It may be the toes, the base of the first finger, the jaw, or whatever. But, but something changes just before we are about to play fast and until the action and -the underlying wish- behind the action is changed, attempts to play fast may be apparently successful but mask a host of ills which prevent the best and cleanest fast playing. This has to be addressed on a case by case basis with the help of a teacher. Alexander lessons are invaluable. You don’t need a musical one. That is not the point. A good AT teacher will simply observe, feel and tell you how you are misusing your body and then present you with alternatives.
Second, we cannot play fast without a clear program telling the body what to do which has been made more or less unconscious. Without accurate programming playing fast is a mess which feeds into the tension problem mentioned above. The implication of this is we need to do –slow- practice. Unfortunately slow practice in itself is not a virtue unless the brain is working at peak intensity, usually with visualization. The majority of slow practice people do is mindless and thus achieves very little except the right to tell ones teacher that one has indeed practiced slowly as instructed!
Third, we have to understand how the mind works when moving from slow to fast practice. Fast means more activity within an identical span. Keeping this identical span in mind that is a useful visual metaphor for the instructions we have to give. The size of the instruction must not increase (IE the span does not increase) as the activity within the span increases. In essence, in a span with little activity (slow practice) the brain gives one instruction such as `play this note.` As the activity within the span increases the brain needs to give a differ instruction of similar simplicity such as play this pattern.` Ultimately it might be as simple as `play this movement.`;) In order to develop this use of the mind there is an important practice method. Take one small chunk and practice it slowly using all the necessary commands: `third finger d in first position on the a string mf, wide vibrato followed by…etc.` Repeat this `small` chunk` maybe four notes many times until it is sufficiently absorbed to be automatic via one command. Do the next chunk in the same way. Then the next for four or five small chunks. Now go back and combine two of these chunks in the same way so that they ultimately are triggered by only one command. Then do two more etc. then go back and do three chunks together and so on. In this way the passage is built up to a rapid tempo using the minimum mental energy.
Finally, I am going to respectfully disagree with the oft given and perfectly reasonable advice to practice Sevcik for speed. Not because I believe it is bad or the legions of other great players who have used this route are completely wrong. I have just come to feel very strongly that this is the long way round and is not as efficient as generally believed. My rather strong assertion that the practice of Sevcik for speed has been superceded in this day and age is based on the idea that has become very formalized in the latter part of the 20c that understanding left hand patterns or blocks is something to important to be left to chance. This was, I think first systematically written about by Gerle who argued for incorporating systematic pattern practice into the daily regime in his book `The Art of Practicing.` Fischer includes a lot of this in `Basics` and Drew Lecher has probably taken it as far as possible in his new volume. The difference between this pattern practice and Sevcik (which is, after all patterns) is that one isolates a specific pattern and works on ONLY THAT for whatever technical work one is doing. When teaching post beginners I give them just one pattern that they may work on for two weeks or more. The rapidity exercises use only that pattern, the shifting exercises use only that pattern, the double stops only that pattern and so on. The pieces they are playing are analyzed to identify this pattern, possibly with a photo copy and marker pen.
By isolating one pattern I believe the mind hand connection is vastly strengthened with great rapidity because there are no changes of pattern to think about which one is confronted with in Sevcik. Intonation improves amazingly fast because there is no –mental ambivalence- about where the fingers should actually go that causes them to go in the wrong place or make a small excursion in the wrong direction before being place en masse.
It is this mental uncertainty which is the core of inability to play fast and I have observed more and more through my own playing and the work of my students that this simplicity represents the fastest and most reliable road to rapidity.
Well, I sure as heck over committed myself with a rash promise to write a blog about controlling the bow. Asides from putting it on Prozac there are so many sides to this question I think I am just going to jump around a little.
The original problem posed was stopping the bow slipping away from the bridge in forte. As many other posters pointed out the simplest answer may well be that one is dropping the violin. Either because one is leaning forward in a misguided attempt to play forte (actually the reverse is better-in Japan this is a major problem ) or because one is dropping the violin as one shifts down. The down shift should have a sense that the arm is actually moving upward as well as away from the nose.
One might then turn one’s attention to the notion of contact point which is simplified into five lanes by most teachers , numbered from 1 (closest to the bridge) to 5 (closest to the fingerboard). One chooses contact point according to the volume and quality of sound one wishes to produce and this point then becomes the deciding factor in the weight one is going to feed into the instrument and the speed the bow is pulled or pushed. If the bow is angled to the slightest degree then, all things being equal, the bow is going to slide onto a different sound point very briefly and the quality of sound is going to change. Does this mean that a straight bow is the basis of violin sound? Not at all. There are different schools of violin playing that place more or less emphasis on the straight bow. The strongest these days is probably the Galamian system which has students develop the ability to produce a straight bow by stressing the use of a curved bowing action in which the bow arm goes more forward than to the right on the down bow and back on the up bow. A great deal of time is spent on this. It is time well spent. By visualizing the path of the right hand as an ellipse it may well be possible to cure this problematic sliding referred to in the beginning.
Another way to approach the problem which I am more fond of is to more of a specific unwanted action and the opposite so that one becomes sensitized to the full range of possibilities and can then make choices. In this case one practice placing the point of the bow at the fingerboard and the heel of the bow angled back. As one does a slow up bow the bow automatically slides towards the bridge. The angle back should not be too much or the slide will be too fast. Perfect timing is required! No effort is made on the part of the player top move the bow. Let the angle it is held do all the work. Then do a down bow and watch the bow slide back to the fingerboard by the time one reaches the point. Repeat many times. Then do the reverse. Begin at the heel with the bow on the fingerboard. Watch it slide to the bridge on the down bow and vice versa. Practice this exercise in half the bow as well at various speeds. When one is confident then begin combining the twp possibilities so that one goes from fingerboard to bridge during the duration of the lower half and then change the bow angle and get back to the fingerboards during the use of the upper half. A great deal of time spent on this exercise even in the early stages of study pays enormous dividends.
Another aspect of the problem is the question of what initiates or leads the bow stroke. This is often talked about in terms of for example the elbow leading or the upper arm or whatever. However, I think this is actually misleading. The best analogy I can think of is `what do you do when you reach for a cup of coffee?` (apart from salivate and croon). Do you lead with the elbow ? No. The fingers lead the hand and the rest of the arm organizes around that simple action. It’s completely natural. In the same way if one spends more time thinking of how the right hand is moving through space rather than worrying about the whole bow arm and why the bow isn’t straight the problem may be much more easily resolved. This attention to the hand has another dimension within it. We rely on all sorts of input, often of the wrong kind to do a bow stroke. But in fact one of the least used and most important is the feel of the string through the bow into the fingertips. This sensation is an important factor in ones ability to draw something straight. In the same way one can draw a straight line on a blackboard in large part because of the feeling being sent back to the fingers through the marker pen. Paying more attention to this data is also helpful in controlling the bow rather than letting it control you.
It’s another quirk of mine but I burn out thumb leathers like nobody’s business. Indeed, if I put my hand on a cow it would probably have worked it’s way through within a couple of hours. That’s why I never became the new James Herriot. The problem is slightly compounded by the usual very flimsy leather often used here in Japan. Getting a new leather put on once a month is expensive so I began looking round for an alternative solution. What I ended up using around the worn part of leather is the cloth sticky tape that is used to stick down the end of a bandage after it has been wrapped around an offending body part.
Reason I mention this is because of a major bugbear of mine. So often beginners have either no thumb leather or it positioned so badly they cannot possibly hold the bow. This unacceptable state of affairs is left by the teacher and the end result can often be the student giving up in frustration. I wonder how many times a high school teacher has had little or no success with his/her large classes of students because of this simple problem? Carrying a spool of the above mentioned tape might just be the job.
Interestingly the problem occurs in higher level players as well. Sometimes they have written into this site asking what they are doing wrong with their right hand thumb which is becoming more and more strained and the solution has simply been to get a decent thumb leather put on by a qualified luthier.
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