A lot of newbie teachers are turning up here these days which has me wondering what kind of advice to give and why. I think they are pretty lucky to have this site actually. My first teaching was terrible and mirrored Emily’s experiences to an uncanny degree. IE I started with the Suzuki books because that s all anyone knows in Japan although I have no training in Suzuki. Unfortunately this doesn’t really work so well. Then I discovered Adventures in Violinland and that is extraordinarily helpful and paced which helped me get thing under control but I still don’t enjoy teaching complete beginners as children. (Adults I welcome with open arms). Everyone has their niche.
Over time I have concluded that there are a few universal rules for teaching which apply across the board to all students. These are somewhat outside the realm of specific points such as `let’s start vibrato this week.`
First and foremost is the question of goals. I don’t mean this in the usual sense of having a five year plan and so forth. Rather I refer to what the teacher sets the student to do each week. There must be time set aside at the end of every lesson in which the teacher and student sit down and come to a clear understanding of what the student is expected to achieve by the following week. Without this discussion the teacher has no right to feel aggrieved when a student forgets to or doesn’t bother to do a particular scale or technique which the teacher may have felt was the whole point of the lesson. It is also important that these instructions are much more precise than typically given. For example, there is often no value in saying ` learn this movement/piece in rough` since the student probably has n idea what in rough means. Unfortunately this is typical. The student needs to understand exactly what is required IE be able to play these lines at a slow tempo (mm40 or whatever) in tune. I strongly recommend teachers read the book `The Practice Revolution` and consult the related web site to see how this kind of work can be very clearly spelled out to the student so there is no confusion or frustration on either side. The task or goal for the week must be written down in a practice notebook. If this is not done then the work will never be done as intended and the teacher is as likely to make an unreasonable demand in the next lesson as the student is to try and avoid doing something by claiming it wasn’t mentioned;)
Second, never try and teach more than one point in a lesson. Or, don’t give too much information at one time. The simple act of referring to something obvious to the teacher concerning the left hand followed by a throw away comment about bowing may well cause complete collapse. It is really hard for anyone to focus on more than one aspect of playing at a time.
Third, I would recommend training students to learn how to analyze their own playing by using the system devised by Burton Kaplan in his book `Artistic Development.` this system can be adapted for younger kids, but it really does teach anyone to listen first in a slightly general to sense to identify the area of weakness and then more specifically where that manifestation of that particular weakness occurs.
Fourth, I recommend a whole slew of interesting games for variety, but a really useful one is improvisation and imitation. Have the students play simple melodies that you repeat back and vice versa in every lesson. The activity can be extended to dynamic patterns, rhythm patterns and combinations built up over time.
Haven’t written an odd blog for a while so just to keep my hand in….
To continue with the question Ruth raised in a recent blog about an individual sound I pose the question `what is an individual sound in the most general sense?` For the sake of argument I am going to suggest it is an expression of the divinity in you. Whether or not one is religious is not particularly relevant here. I think most people recognize that there is a rather abstract idea we talk about as part of our personal development called something like `our spiritual side` although it is really to the fore in our daily lives and a lot of people have seem trouble explaining exactly what they mean by it. However, one of our main goals in life which is central to the degree of happiness we experience is spiritual growth and the degree to which we do grow and, as a result, allow divine energy to flow freely within and from us. This is, in my opinion, reflected in the sound we produce on the violin.
This doesn’t mean we need to start going to church to play better or walk barefoot through the Apennines without a Blackberry. Funnily enough it has a lot to do with something much closer to home: food. An awful lot of religious bigwigs have been, over time, concerned with what we eat and its central role in spiritual development. The blueprint for mankind’s eating patterns set out in Genesis 1:29 is quite clear about vegetarianism: `Flesh food weakens the moral will-power, weakens clarity of mind and intellect for understanding God’s messages to us, dulls the sense of spiritual receptivity to the light and grace of God, and strengthens the animal tendencies, allowing them dominance over our mental and spiritual powers.`
Then Jesus hammers it home in The Essene Gospel of Peace, Book One (p36) : But I say to you: Kill neither men nor beasts, nor yet the food which goes in your mouth. For if you eat living food, the same will quicken you, but if you kill food, the dead food will kill you also. For life comes only from life and from death comes always death. And everything which kills your bodies kills your souls also….
Whipping over to a different cultural perspective consider the ancient but still thriving and widely respected practice of Indian (Ayurvedic ) medicine. This tradition has always argued that food is divided into three basic types which have a mental/physical counterpart essential to health and spiritual development. A sattvic state of mind is clear, peaceful, harmonious, interested in spiritual life and ideal for violin playing. To get here we eat sattvic food which are easy to digest and do not build up toxins in the body. These are: all fruit, vegetables, edible greens, grasses, beans , raw milk, honey, and small quantities of rice or bread.
A rajasic mind is active, restless, worldly and aggressive, typical of a corporate executive or a soldier. Rajasic foods stimulate the nervous system, almost always to excess. They include coffee, green or black tea, tobacco, fresh meat, butter, cheese, eggs, sugar , oily fried foods and spices such as garlic and pepper. They are used without thought to carry out worldly activities (can’t start scales until I’ve had a Starbucks) and typically lead us into a state agitation and eventually burnout. These foods are so taste stimulating that they distract the mind from inner somatic messages integral to producing our real violin sound.;)
Tamasic foods are the nutrition of moral and physical degenerates including drug addicts and criminals. They are stale, decayed, decomposed, spoiled, overcooked, processed and er, fast. Chemically treated with pesticides, fungicides and loaded with artificial colors and sweeteners. In essence the Standard American Diet. This goes quite a long way towards explaining why the US ranks lower than 20th on life expectancy tables and has more than 20 000 murders a year.
Anyway, this hopefully provides some food for thought (explain that one…) about your sound. I’m off for a prune.
Ruth`s blog has me thinking about the search for an individual sound and color. It’s interesting that she raised the point about over emphasis on left hand. It’s true for many, but it’s nothing new. Flesch bemoaned the very thing in his classic work `The Art of Violin Playing.` However, when one begins to explore the question of what individual sound might be I think it is also important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. One great teacher once said to me `the left hand is the mathematic and he right the art.` Even though this is out of context I don’t think I would fully agree with this these days. There is certainly something very mathematically satisfying about developing what one might call the `technical` aspects of left hand such as evenness, velocity, intonation. But individual sound is also influenced by a) our type of vibrato and use we make of it b) our range and method of shifting and c) our choice of fingerings. In this latter case for example, Heifetz would strive to keep a theme or melody on one string even if it went really high up the fiddle. In another example, consider Ysaye`s playing. Part of his unique sound was his trait of leaving shifting in scales to the e string instead of the lower string shifts (sometimes extremely low…) of more modern schools. To get a taste of this get a copy of Barber`s book of advanced scales. She includes the Ysaye fingerings.
Another factor in the search for one’s own palette is, in my opinion, the strings used today. When I started working with pure gut I was astonished at the types of different sounds available. I do not believe these same sounds are available on synthetic strings. I did find written support for this view from an interview with a top French quartet in the Strad in which the players claimed that without gut they didn’t have all the ingredients. I find synthetic strings have a good range of dynamics, plenty of power and guts, but I found on the gut a and e string a kind of piano sound near the bridge for example, which is so complex and rich it blows me away. For the first time I could see why Beethoven wrote certain kinds of apparently difficult sustained notes in his quartet. I felt he had this sound in his mind’s eye and in a weird kind of way the quartets had many passages which actually made more –musical-. I’m not a big fan of authenticity performances but being able to experience first hand much closer to the kinds of sounds that composers may have been working with sheds a new light on many old and venerated compositions. Consider how the opening of Brahms one would have sound played on gut strings. How the balances of the whole opening change- accompanied by the hilarious twanging of snapping e strings as well.;) Another interesting one is the opening pizz in Smetana`s Moldau. It so rarely sounds like a musically relevant sound connected to the ebb and flow of the woodwind on synthetic strings. Anyway, I digress.
The question of individual sound and how it filters through the bow arm has three dimensions for me. The first is concerned with the individual, the second with musicianship and the third with technique. The last two feed into and inform the first which directs and controls them in turn.
Perhaps one could begin with musicianship at the most basic level. It is crucial to play what is written on the page. This sounds simple but is rarely the case. What I refer to has a chapter devoted to it in Auer’s book `Violin Playing and How I Teach it.` The chapter is headed `nuance.` It is one to be read over and over. Auer cites Beethoven as a treasure trove of nuances which includes dynamics, articulations and expressive markings of all kinds. Until one is making a distinction between mf and forte, piano and pianissimo (complicated by the role of the instrument in that moment!) there is not much point in worrying about individuality of sound! Then one has to express the rise and fall of the music. This is best done by imitating the voice which I think is also linked to visualization. The more one works by identifying who you are though singing and visualization the closer to an individual sound one gets. I so often read about and se e in action diligent players who have put aside the shape , contour and character of the music in favor of solely `learning the notes first` even though this approach is considerably less efficient in the long run as well as being less interesting to practice. Take a great piece of music that you love and have wanted to play for years and start learning the notes and all the ideas and shapes and colors that drew you there in the first place get stuck in the back of the cupboard with all those past sell by date prune cans. This piece used to be about feelings….
Having identified what is on the page one has to make sure all the technique is available to play, so a deep knowledge of all kinds of bow strokes and daily practice of basic bowings is essential.
Finally there is the question of the individual. What comes out of the violin sound wise is entirely dependent on one’s concept of sound ipso facto one has to have one. Can this be picked up at Wal Mart? Beats me. Never been to one. Perhaps the start point is simply to listen to as many great players over and over. But I would also strongly recommend going a step further and really learning to listen to great singers. Their sound has to be individual for better or worse because it is what they are. The sound is not filtered through an external tool- they are the tool. The added bonus of listening to a lot of singing, opera etc, is that one is simultaneously learning about how words are connected to sound through the singer’s interpretation. This is something worth pondering very deeply. In our private practice we should perhaps learn to listen to and verbalize quite precisely the kind of sound we are producing and the kind of sound we want. By developing this habit one can learn to change and explore sound much better. However, it is actually pretty useless to use generalizations like `This passage has to be beautiful.` One also needs to remove the clutter form one’s mind. There has to be a space for beautiful sound in the old grey cells. It is amazing how important a walk in a forest for example, may help towards stimulating your natural sound.Looking at great art, or painting and drawing oneself may also be a great help in exploring your own color scheme in a given work.
So this gets me t the question that should have perhaps been posed at the beginning `What is a individual sound?` Although a violinist with a distinctive sound may be recognizable just from a note or two outside of the context of a work I believe one should be very careful about trying to build it by isolating specific aspects of technique. I feel this is connected to a real danger which is not often mentioned these days: the easy availability of so many recordings to today’s young players. This relentless exposure has at it’s most problematic level a violinist aspiring to `sound like Ms.x.` Alexander Technique refers to this as `end gaining` in which the wish to be something creates a false reality that one can live in for one’s whole life and never find out what one’s actual sound is. Or one may have a more subtle preconception of how one ought to sound that is at odds with what nature intended you to do and it takes outside help to let go of things and be oneself for better or for worse. Even the most thoughtful and careful listeners may absorb ideas that appeal to them but actually occlude their own god given feelings and ideas. It might well be worth considering absolutely not listening to a specific work before e playing it and working from a totally naïve perspective, . One may get a lot of things wrong, but that is always a good way of finding out what is right.
Perhaps at the end of the day questioning and experimenting are the keys. ` What am I trying to express here? If I tried this would it take me closer or further from where I want to be?` Incidentally, writing things down goes a long way towards eliminating mindless repetition of experiments because one has forgotten what one did the day before.
I’m not up to date on all of today’s great players (sorry James, Julia and Rachel) but my fastest growing collection of a particular player is Mr. Vengerov. Aside from a technique that is just staggering he just seems to be one of the most natural and inspiring musicians around. But of the recordings I have listened to so far (Paginini, Beethoven Spring, Lalo, Dvorak) he has teetered on the brink of madness. A brown rice diet and prunes are clearly called for. As I said in a recent discussion of his erroneously reported retirement , he does seem to have ideas beyond the scope of the violin. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if he gave up simply because it is hard to see where he can go on from now. More gigantic, more lunatic? How much more expressiveness can one take? To tell the truth, I’d really like to see him form a piano trio.
I had been putting off buying his recording of Mozart 4, 2 and the concertante because I was afraid that if he wasn’t able to scale down his huge personality and dynamism it would just be a gross caricature. I finally gave in yesterday and have listened to no.4 a few times. The disc has a couple of interesting features. First of all there is no conductor. The orchestra and soloist play with wonderful unanimity with Vengerov standing right in the middle of them. Second, the concertos come after the concertante. I don’t know if that was intentional but I suspect for most big names in this coupling we violinists tend to listen to the concerto (first on the disk) and then ignore the concertante as a sort of oddball poor relation. This order seems like a well thought out statement and it is an excellent reflection on Mr. Vengerovs determination to share the limelight.
Mozart 4 comes as a relief! The tempo is rather slow. The result is a loss of the `Military` character of the first movement which has on occasion led to bit being nicknames as such. For me this is a slight miscalculation. However, Vengerov`s determination to take a more feminine approach with extreme focus on finding expressive meaning in every note produces one of the most moving demonstrations of cantabile violin playing one could wish for. It is worth studying over and over to hear what he is doing with the bow and vibrato. Vengerov has always, to my mind, had the knack of looking at a phrase and somehow letting it appear magically with its own unique character. Everything is a kind of organic growth. On occasion, when all these wonderful individual idea have not hung together the result has been less than a coherent whole. In this music he does keep sight of the wood for the trees. The slow movement tempo is beautifully judged. The last movement is the weakest in my opinion. He chooses a very slow tempo again and the Sfz marking in the opening spectator are so over blown from the orchestra (and presumably him) its not at all charming. Pretty much the only example of where my fears about exaggeration were realized. Vengerov writes his own cadenzas which are tasteful, interesting and played stunningly. A disk that all violinists can learn from. (and everybody else if they so wish)
Here's some Youtube, Vengerov on Mozart, about this recording, added by Laurie:
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