Some days are weirder than others in Japan. At 6.30 this morning I was crossing a 4 lane bridge across one of Japan’s major rivers. The car in front of me was straddling two lanes and going at about 5kph. As I tried to crawl past him I saw the drive was slumped in his seat. I quickly accelerated to the police box at the end of the bridge but it was empty, as they were all off taking violin lessons from Emily. I ran back into the middle of the bridge and started banging on the guys window as his door was locked. Fortunately his car had slowed to about 2kph by now but it was still heading towards the busiest intersection in the prefecture and that is on a slope. So I walked alongside the car pushing it into the side of the road as hard as possible. After about 50 meters it crashed into the side and stopped. At this point the driver seemed to be having a major fit. Ambulance and police turned up in droves and stood outside the window looking at the guy. This didn’t impress me so I went to work.
I think I need some prunes,
Every complex human endeavor seems to go full circle in terms of skill gaining and sustaining. An example of this that interests me is yoga. In a lot of systems one starts with a position called `the corpse.` One lies flat on ones back and , more or less, does nothing. Beginners will tell you this position is very easy and relaxing. Advanced practitioners will tell you this position is one of the most difficult! Violin playing is pretty much the same. So many great players take time everyday to just play what are apparently the simplest exercises a beginner might be doing, perhaps on open strings. They are both learning and sustaining advanced technique.
In Tai Chi Chuan one of the hardest simple exercises is standing. Legs are shoulder width apart; arms are slightly out so that the space the size of an egg is under the armpit; the top of the head pulls up to the sky and so on. It doesn’t look like there is much to it. But stand like that for ten minutes and the places where you are holding tension in your body start to send that stress down though your Dan Tien (point below the navel) into the feet and then earth. Do it right and the soles of your feet hurt like heck! I think something similar to this exercise might be rather useful on the violin. Its really not easy to specific at a deep level to players who write in that they have neck, back, shoulder ache etc. Except of course telling them to get Alexander lessons. On the other hand they might be able to help themselves by doing something `simple` like the following.
As best you know how, stand balanced and relaxed. Pay attention to your ankles and feel they are soft Then the knees, the hips and so on. Imagine a string on the top of the head pulling up. Tuck the tailbone slightly under as though a string is extending from it pulling down into the ground. Put the violin up while maintaining position of shoulders, head neck as much as possible. Bypass all the `scrunching up` you do in the usual excitement of throwing up the violin to play this weeks Sarasate. Put the bow on any string in the middle. Check the relationship of the hand arm etc so it is all in a nice comfortable straight line. No distortions or awkward angles. Now do nothing. Watch the clock and start with one minute. Build it up over days and weeks to what ever you feel is right for you. As the time goes on keep your mind active in seeking out what the body is actually doing. Where does it feel like it is contracted? Can you send that tension down through you Dan Tien , down your legs , through your feet and into the ground. Keep telling the body parts that feel stress to `do less.` This is a very powerful instruction that the body responds to quickly. Avoid the words `don’t tense up` since this has the exact opposite effect. (Funny it is one of the favorite lines of so many teachers;))
There is so much in life to inspire us. Over the years I have learnt to deeply love handicapped students because of their special qualities of open heartedness and their determination to succeed and be accepted. Three years ago one of my schools was joined by an almost quadriplegic girl with severe learning difficulties and chronic obesity. She rarely uttered a sound and her only skill in life was to propel herself a few meters across the floor using some weird combination of back , neck and stomach muscles. She joined the school on her birthday so we decided to have a party for her. I took a violin along and stuck it in her lap. I remember her bemusement- `Why are you asking me to do anything at all?`- and the headmaster looking at me like `what the heck are you doing` and then the sheer pleasure that kid got from banging out open string with the little movement she had in her right hand while I played nursery rhymes for her. That’s when I knew anyone could play the violin. Three years on with the help of specialized walking frames her body is almost upright and she can push herself along with her legs. She can waves her arms a bit and has appeared in public in small English plays I prepare for handicapped classes in my area. She has found her voice. It was a great team that gave her a life and it has been so wonderful to be on the periphery of that growth.
Learning things about the violin inspires me too. An interesting little quirk I found re son file. This is generally thought to be pulling the bow along the string for a time of more than ten seconds or so near the bridge. But there is/was a tradition of practicing this bow stroke really slowly with the bow 1 cm above the strings. If I do this first for about 2 minutes per stroke then when the bow is placed on the string it is actually-much- easier to draw a sound from the instrument with a one and half minute bow stroke. I was surprised how different that was from going in cold with on the string bowing.
Dug out an old recording of Kyung Wha Chung playing the Sibelius and Bruch (Denon label). I realized very quickly that her sound was precisely what I wished for the Sibelius. Not too determinedly trying to be glacial and Scandinavian (a tribute to global warming perhaps?) and not too romantic and excessive. As I ran it through again I was struck by an odd thought I don’t often have: this is very much a female interpretation and approach. Not weak or lesser but to my ear containing elements that are decidedly feminine. That is odd because usually I am unable to hear any difference between men and women. It reminded me of one of old teachers (John Ludlow) saying that when London orchestras finally began accepting women player s into their ranks the sound actually changed. Again, not better or worse but distinctly different.
I took quite along time off from what I consider to be the non plus ultra of bowing exercises last year: son file. The a month or so back I started adding again as my first exercise of the day- it’s about the only thing I and my cat can tolerate at half past five in the morning. After all the hack orchestra work of this year I realized how much my bow arm had lost, being a very imperfectly trained mechanism to being with. I found I was struggling to get back to a thirty second stroke at first. Interestingly to me, this situation didn’t gradually improve but in jerks. I woke up three or four days and forty seconds was easy. This stayed for a while and then last week I was suddenly doing one minute. This morning I was very puzzled to find one and half minutes per stroke quite comfortable. I suppose when I am up to four minutes I will be dead….
I had also forgotten the fantastic benefits of this stroke. That’s easy to do with bowing where the improvements are not immediately clear in the painstaking work violinists must do daily on their bow arm until the day they shuffle off their mortal coil. Then something may happen and you realize there had been a point. Last Sunday I had to play the Scheherazade solo and I cannot remember ever being so deeply lost in the sheer sound of the music. After I finished the first solo my desk partner just let out a little sigh. I’ve been meaning to ask her for a date for ages and although the sigh was propitious it did not seem like such a good moment in terms of public viewing….
I would reiterate the dangers of son file while I am at it. Practicing this stroke without rapid bow work is very likely to lead to a sleepy bow arm. Very deleterious. I always follow this practice with WBs on SP5 (nearest the FB) at Mm 120-130. The slightest shake in the bow must be explored to find out where the interference is taking place. An important place to look is the exact base of the right thumb. Consciously asking that part of the hand to do less is a useful practice in a great deal of bowing work.
Quite a few years ago I had an experience which crystallized my thoughts on a rather tricky tropic related to violin playing and teaching. I was at a teacher training seminar for Alexander Teachers and a student wanted to be worked with while playing some blues on the harmonica. He is quite an experienced player and performer and he gave us a good rendition which we duly applauded. Then the teacher worked on his primary control (head, neck and back relationship). Suddenly his playing took on the most haunting depth of sadness one could imagine. The other ten of us were sitting there in stunned silence when the player blurted out angrily `What have you done. You took away my sadness. I hated that.` I have had similar experiences with my own playing, a sense of playing in a rather cool manner but then finding the audience has been very deeply touched whereas the same work played a moment before elicited a polite but rather less emotional response. What is actually happening is we are taking out the habitual superficial emotional states that reflect the maelstrom of modern living and reconnecting with the origin of music and genuine communication with others. But it feels very wrong initially, as the emotions embrace homeostasis as deeply as the muscles. Same thing in fact.
These experiences while working in Alexander seminars and classes do have a genuine counterpart in the day to day grind of er, mainstream pedagogy. If you are an avid reader of the literature of the string world such as The Strad, you will notice every now and again a very interesting piece of advice cropping up from coaches and teachers: we are not here to be moved- we are here –to elicit an emotional response in another person.- Or as the great cellist and AT teacher Vivienne Mackie but it in her blunt fashion, `there is nothing more boring than watching people cry.`
I believe absolutely and totally that players who kid themselves they need to draw on and express their own emotions as something to project at other people, an extremely common affliction, are doomed to at best slow progress and an utter failure to realize their potential. And it is teachers at fault when they talk about `play this like you are angry, this is a happy melody. Think of a dying relative and play this passage with great sadness.` What actually happens at these times? Usually very little good to be honest. It is pretty easy for example, to get somebody to conjure up their own egocentric emotions of anger and kidding ourselves its good teaching or good thinking about the instrument. However, since the mind and body are one entity one draws up all the physical tension concomitant with that rage and negativity resulting in a superficial appearance of anger which in reality is more a manifestation of the students frustration at not getting a genuinely good sound out of the instrument with the teachers egomaniacal believe they have `helped` the student express herself better.
Just this one example is a flagrant contradiction of the basic premise that if one wants to express things with more volume and articulation then greater relaxation is generally needed overall. Tension and emotional stress are contracted states non-conducive to playing –that elicits an emotional response in others.-!
What then, is expressive playing and how does one get there? Not saying there are any really easy answers but the start point is what is written on the page. This might sound banal but an awful lot of players cannot be bothered to think about the meaning of even the most basic instructional words that a composer may have written at the beginning of a piece and even if they have they may be unable to put it in any rational framework because they are ignorant of the composers milieu and oeuvre. It’s all relative! And we haven’t even got to the notes themselves. A rhythm may need to be played exactly correctly to get the effect the composer wanted (I am thinking of the opening of Tzigane right now. If the exact rests Ravel wrote are adhered to it sounds very much closer to an improvisation than a rushed /cut rendition by a violinist trying to play `with the heart and soul of a gypsy.`) Or it may need to be changed slightly according to conventions of the time (cf double dotting) or it may require some artistic license to create a very specific nuance but these things can be thought about and defined very objectively. I recently sat through an excruciating series of day long masterclasses in which the supposedly cream of Japan’s youth hacked through the Tchaikovsky concerto (more than any other work). The visiting teacher/soloist spent a great deal of time on pretty much the first two bars with just about everyone. There was certainly a lot of emoting and heavy breathing going on, but not one of these kids could actually play in time to start with , or control the bow sufficiently to play without unwanted miniscule dynamics and sloppy bow changes. It could have all been summed up as learn to listen to yourself but it really does often take something like the Alexander Technique to break through our habitual beliefs that we –are- listening to ourselves when we are actually fantasizing, something that has an exact counterpart in the Bhuddist purpose of learning to be present in the actual world rather than the one you wish existed. Hence the shock of the tape recorder for many….
The thoughtful and objective work needs to be continued on all the different kinds of kinds of accents, articulations of left and right hand and so on. I have far more respect for a teacher/player who has noted the difference in length between the ascending and descending colle/spiccato arpeggios in the first movement of the Spring than one who talks about `a pastoral mood and try and imagine Beethoven’s anger at deafness at this point yadder yadder.` Indeed, unless one is consciously experimenting and articulating what one is experimenting with then practice is doomed to ill remembered repetitions of an effect one stumbled on the day before which suited the whim of the moment.
It’s interesting that the really great teachers one can read interviews of have tended to avoid this constant use of ones emotions to create an effective performance in the practice room. Good teachers generally use language very precisely and often encourage students to analyze in the same manner. Talk about colors and where they are situated on the instrument, a more energetic sound with more shoulder, a darker sound nearer the bridge, a thinner sound, a more muted sound, a more intense vibrato on this note to bring it out. And so on.
They talk in terms of bow division/speed and sound point, the specific means to get a dynamic the composer wrote, or an unwritten one you intend to do because it corresponds to what the emotion within the music demands of you to represent at a given moment. But that decision to insert a specific dynamic is not because you believe the music is `happy or sad or angry` at this point.` Its because the music is asking you to look behind its notes and see what is lurking. What is –not- lurking is ones superficial, ever shifting psyche. It may be intended to elicit some kind of emotion in others but the player is the medium which searches out these things, considers carefully how to express them and then acts as a conduit to get that message to other people who will probably react but in some cases won’t. In the latter instance it is probably because the violinist has once more slipped into the trap of not shouting `listen to what I have found to say about this music, but rather `Listen to what I am using this music to say about me.` Were this to be the case the best performers would simply be the ones with the greatest and most unstable range of emotional experiences and capacity for anger and self pity. A mental institution might be a good place to search for such students…
An old friend dropped by at Christmas. He’s not a musician but loves music (?). When he was a student at UCLA he became curious about what it took to play the piano so he wandered into a master class by one of the most famous piano teachers around who happened to teach there quite regularly. This teacher was very impressed by my friend’s non musician genuine interest and spent some time talking to him and then took him on as a student for free because of his attitude. He only studied for about a year but this teacher had as her central approach to practicing =counting aloud while playing.=
The only violinist I have seen advocating this technique is Clayton Haslop in his Kreutzer series. I believe it is a very powerful technique and that it is often a far superior alternative to using a metronome. Part of the reasoning behind this is drawing a perhaps spurious connection between much of today’s rather strict (dare one say boring?) adherence to one rigid tempo and less than interesting use of rubato. When one begins this kind of practice it can be rather frustrating. It needs a lot of concentration to begin with until the action of speaking becomes automatic. Then distortion occurs as the tension we were perhaps unaware of in our playing distorts the ability to speak freely with a pulse. Then things settle down and the voice begins to reflect the ebb and flow of the music more. I suppose from an Alexander Technique point of view it might be understood as inhibiting the customary thought patterns that trigger our playing. The value of this is simply that one then by passes the stress and tension one has learnt over the years form faulty practice and well meaning teachers relentlessly criticizing what one does in an earnest desire to see one improve.
Another aspect of practicing I talk about a lot with my students is `discordination.` The difficulty of the violin is primarily due to the problem of disassociating the actions of right and left hand. We often hear a player bemoaning the lack of coordination in their playing when the actual problem is lack of discordination or `over-coordination.` In order to develop this underdevelopment there is an excellent three pronged attack which I think can be found in one of Fischer’s books if one wishes for a more detailed commentary.
First play whole bows on an open string with no musical intent. Just play a free smooth stroke to remember what that feels like. It’s amazing how easy it is to lose this simple thing when practicing complex concertos. Then play the bowing as though one was bowing the passage you are practicing with all the changes in sp, speed and weight you wish. At the same time imagine the music in your head.
Finally bow the single string (perhaps the g) while finger the passage with the left and of course, singing the music in your head just before you play each note.
I have actually added an intermediate stage between two and three in which one counts, bows and imagines the music before adding the left hand. One could then finish off the whole thing by playing the passage as normal but counting aloud. By this approach one has integrated the two methods I have discussed in this blog. That would definitely call for some prunes.
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