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A cornflakian theory of violinists.

July 20, 2010 at 10:15 PM


of the very little I have learnt over the years perhaps the most significant thing is that cultures can be understood in terms of their relationship to cornflakes.  The Brits for example often soak theirs in milk before pouring on copious amounts of sugar and call it breakfast.  A negative value food coupled with two poisons. probably why we lost the Empire.  The Japanese amazed me ,  and vice versa, when I discovered that yes,  cornflakes are sold in small boxes as a snack aimed primarily at the young to teenager market. The idea that one might actually put milk and sugar on them was so totally alien I dined out on it for my first seven and a half years here.

Anyway,  in response to John`s comment in a recent thread: 

>The Tarantelle music is more violinistic than intelectual.    Violinistic versus Intelectual?  Lets have a heated debate!    You can envy the original poster and all the fresh players he will enjoy. Would you like to have your memory wiped and then start afresh ?

I have evolved a cornflakian theory of violinists and music to satisfy all but the most pernickety.  It`s lacking in content,   slightly orange in color and comes with a free 1cm plastic model of Brittney Spears.

The fundamental underlying requirement of being a performer is fire/passion.  It drives not only commitment to practice but the way one feels on stage.  Those world class violinists who do not have this burning connection with music and an audience do not become soloists.

The great soloists of past ,  present and future have three basic qualities set against the backdrop of fire/passion:   technique,    intellect and innate musicality.  Ironically these can be separated more easily in lesser players than the great.  Suppose for example one is at the upper sludge bottom music festival in Chipping Sodbury.  The set piece is Zapateado.  One player is only concerned with technique and produces a flashy but uniinteresting performance.  The next young victim is musically gifted to a much greater extent ,  rarely practices but often plays cutesy pieces for the family on Sunday afternoon.   Zapateado  is played at half speed and rather out of tune with some dynamics thrown in.  The third performer (rare) doesn`t practice scales,  has no innate musicality but knows the origin of the word Zapateado in ancient Greek and can explain to you the hints of spanish modality found in certain notes.  The performance is neither technical or musical and the player might as well have read the program notes from a CD.

In short,  Zipadidooda as opposed to whatever.

When one comes to great violinists the three qualities are much more evenly distributed.  It is only a slight shift in the ratio between them that distinguishes the players from each other although this distinction can be quite marked. An obvious extreme is Heifetz vs. Szigeti.  In the one case technique is prioritized and in te other intellect although in neither is the reverse lacking (nor is innate musicality.   The great players can consciously adjust this ratio to some degree although the core of their nature is fairly fixed.

In terms of their interpretation the above situation fluctuates to a degree due to the nature of the music itself and how the player in question actually views the music.   This classification of music is not really best done only in terms of rather broad periods (baroque,  romantic etc) but also in terms of the intent and nature of the piece itself which is also an interpretive issue.  Did it have a particular religious or moral objective?  Was it written to show off the instrument (a category that cuts across eras) ?  Was it designed as musical dessert or main course?  etc.

As the great players consider these questions adjustments occur to a minute degree in the ratio of application of the three qualities;   technique,   innate musicality,   and intellect.   In some cases there may be such a conflict that the player is unable to play the piece at a certain stage in their life. For example,  Szigeti reached a stage where he no longer had any interest in performing works of a dessert nature that did not make sufficient demands on his intellect.   Heifetz ,  on the other hand may not have pursued works he found over intellectual.   When the relative qualities of the player and music coincide the effect is astonishing.  On such happy ocassion a player becomes associated with that work and a so called `legendary performance` takes place. Szigeti playing the Prokofiev,   Oistrakh/Shostakovitch,  Heifetz/Elgar  and so on.

Sometimes the results can be surprising and remind us that there are always other possibilities.  In the case of the Scherzo Tarantelle I grew up on Heifetz which is of course awesome.  The performance epitomizes the technique oriented approach to the work.  Brilliant. Over the years the kind of sound I like best switched in the direction of Milstein and his version became a favorite alongside the Heifetz.  Then recently listening to Menuhin for the first time in this work ( my own thoughts and prejudice son this master made me seek him out in otehr genres) the technique is utterly extraordinary but the orientation is more to relegating the show off/technical element to second place and treating the work as one which,  despite the incredible speed,  must let the  innate musicality of both player and music shine as though it were the most sublime Mozart.   For me it is the non plus ultra recording of this work and it says something about Wieniawski that should perhaps be said more often.

PS as a hurriedly added and rather sad footnote,  the version that inspired me was recorded by Menuhin in 1932.  The later recording (1947)  seems lacking in everything I so admire in the first.  this issue is covered by the frosties theorum which is too diverse and sophisticated for v.commie.



From Emily Liz
Posted on July 21, 2010 at 2:37 PM

 Aww, I wanted to hear the frosties theorem, don't dangle it out in front of us like that. ;)

Really interesting blog, thanks for sharing.

From Ronald Mutchnik
Posted on July 22, 2010 at 12:56 AM

I really like what you've written Buri, and I think it's true- without a passion for what one plays, something will always be lacking. In fact, we can get rather spoiled when we hear a performance that has that quality of playing as if one's very life depended on it- other performances can pale by comparison. Despite the realization that a given artist may not always maintain the qualities later on that so endeared him to listeners earlier in their career, there are other examples of artists who seem to get better with age- they understand more deeply, search and consider in ways that they had not thought to before and perhaps become more efficient with their technique. The Milstein film deals with this- talking  about inventing ways to rethink one's playing and his interpretations were always fresh and unfussy. There's a great recording of Tchaikovsky Concerto with Abbado that startles by its rhythmic flexibility and unique tone colors. It's quite something to consider that as many times as he must have played it he still found many new things to convey and what's more, one gets the impression  that he could have done it yet again the next day with the same forces and it would be just as fresh and interesting.

Glad you posted this blog- but, there's one question that remains unanswered-  is it ok to add prunes with those cornflakes?

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on July 22, 2010 at 2:03 AM

Well written!!! So true! 


I agree very much with your 3 qualities for the greats but I see perhaps another one that is so obvious that everyone takes it for granted, yet when when it's not there, your three qualities are... ruined. (and eating prunes doesn't fix the problem in this case ; )

The physical ability to materialize it and do it! 

This seems so obvious but really, not everyone is quick ennough to do things like Sibelius or Brahms concerto etc even with good training.  Guifted violinits are violin athlete technicians with very quick reflexes and motor skills + some physical affinity for the instrument's shape.  (per example, my "Darwinism" observations (lol) of professionnal high level violinists showed me that there are much more short necked people than long necked amonst them. I don't think it can be just a coincidence?)

Tosch Siebel told in an interview after telling everything a gifted violinist must have that "finally, the good god has to give the aspirant violinists good hands..."  IMHO This is something that is not talked much about in the artistic world but without it, everything is ruined!

Interesting blog!


From Stephen Brivati
Posted on July 22, 2010 at 2:41 AM


Ronald,  in his movie`Mozart to Mao` there is a scene where Stern talks to a quite advanced player about his lack of follow through.  This is where the prunes aspect of the theory kicks in.




From Tom Bop
Posted on July 22, 2010 at 3:14 AM
Anne-Marie, violinists are "small-muscle athletes."
From Pauline Lerner
Posted on July 22, 2010 at 4:28 AM

Buri, I love your description of British breakfast and its link to losing the Empire.  I once had a British breakfast as you described but worse, and yuk!  I had a history professor who said that the English conquered the world to get away from their own cooking.

I agree with you about the essential characteristics of good musicians.

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on July 22, 2010 at 4:41 AM


Pauline it amazes me what we use dot call breakfast in Britain.  The cornflake sand milk thing is ,  I suppose, the sort of yuppie version.   The traditional working mans cafe breakfast was /is fried bacon, eggs, tomatos and bread.  everythign fried,  preferably in lard.   The huge cup of tea presumably helps to flush out the arteries.



From elise stanley
Posted on July 22, 2010 at 8:56 AM

Ann-Marie wrote: (per example, my "Darwinism" observations (lol) of professionnal high level violinists showed me that there are much more short necked people than long necked amonst them. I don't think it can be just a coincidence?)"

Contraction latency depends on the length of the nerve axons - the longer the neck, the longer the neural path to the finger muscles and the longer the delay between 'instruct to move' and 'move'.  Thus, short necked violinists are selected by evolution and I am doomed. 

Fortunately, a dose of prunes is the antidote to this genetic deformity - specially chopped over cornflakes with a pinch of salt...

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on July 22, 2010 at 9:33 AM


fortunately John has invenetd a device for shortening the neck without causing long term residual damage. Its under patent so I cna only tell you alittle. It works on the same principle as the `remove the tablecloth and leave all the plates on the table party trick.`A Japanese naginata company has expressed an interest.




From John Cadd
Posted on July 22, 2010 at 10:55 AM

Stephen      You can talk about the shoulder rest now. It`s well out of the secrecy stage. But if I advertise I will be flooded out. I have to change from chrysalis to butterfly now. Some wriggling is required.

From John Cadd
Posted on July 22, 2010 at 10:58 AM

Tell what a Naginata is .

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on July 22, 2010 at 11:43 AM


Naginata is a blade mounted on the end of a long pole used by Samurai women with no sens e of humor.  Rather out of fashion a s a mainstream martial art but ideal for solving the neck length problem.

The Aikido Hall I practice in houses another martial art of even less popularity these days. Once a month a litlte group of enthusiasts get together and practice the same movemennt over and ove ragain with long wooden muskets.  I asked my sensei why the art appears to only have one movement.   `He looked at me for a moment then said `Well, Buri.  You have a musket. You shoot the bullet.  You stab someone with the bayonet and then you run.`   




From Ray Randall
Posted on July 22, 2010 at 4:05 PM

Reminds me of what Dr. Don Greene, who wrote the superb book  Performance Success, said about playing that bores an audience. He basically said that performers have to lay it all on the line and right on the edge if they want to keep audition committees and audiences from being bored with your playing.

From Lisa Van Sickle
Posted on July 22, 2010 at 8:48 PM

I seem to remember beans as a part of an English breakfast, too- the poor man's prunes?  Then it was on to Italy, where breakfast seemed to be strong black coffee and a cigarette, taken standing up, with perhaps a hard roll if you begged.

Reminds me of the old observation that in Heaven the cooks are French, the police English, and the engineers German.  In the other place, the police are German, the engineers are French, and the cooks English.

From sharelle taylor
Posted on July 23, 2010 at 12:19 AM

 I am disturbingly reminded of an elderly family friend who isnsited I eat the cornflakes with warmed milk - no matter how long I dawdled by putting cornflake animals aroudn the edge of the bowl and then flushing them in with a tsunami of spooned milk, that concoction defied the lawas of physics and stayed at the goddawful temperature for more than an hour.

I love nathan milstein.  I am sorry to say that Heifetz playing just about anything does very lettle for me, iwther listening or watching.  I really wish I cold enjoy him on the same level as so many others, but there you have it.

As to short necks, I think its more interesting how the great women players - Haendel, Kyung wah chung, hilary hahn, mutter, and some of the lesser known but still really good evben excellent like Wen Weh(or is that vice versa) seem to have longer arms proportionally.  

the Sharelle theory: the longer arms does something to how they get the weight into the bow, so creating a better sound. doesn't mean that more regularly proportioned players cant be great players, but I think it is one of the things that makes the fractional difference in the sound. I don't know what that means for Emily's neurological deduction above.

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on July 23, 2010 at 12:42 AM

How interesting! 

Contraction latency depends on the length of the nerve axons

This seems very logical even though I am not at all a specialist...  Are tall people less "quick" than small generally speaking? Since the nervous signal has to travel a longer distance? But tall persons have usually really large hands which his very helpful in violin. 

But we see more violinists of various heigh than of various necks in my amteur "Darwinist" ; ) opinion based on my observations.

Perhaps, the neck lengh is a more important factor than the heigh of the person at that level.   generally speaking.   Also because it fits well the instrument shape too.

Buri, can't wait for John's neck shortner device with the table cloth principle...  Otherwise, I'll have to try this Japanese tool ; ) 

Interesting discussion!


From Pauline Lerner
Posted on July 23, 2010 at 2:13 AM

Buri, I experienced the "milky cornflake thing" years ago in a hotel in London. I remember it because it was so bad.  It came with sausage which was burnt on one side and raw on the other.

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on July 23, 2010 at 2:17 AM

Anne-Marie, electrical conduction in nerves, like electrical conduction in an electrical wire, is very fast. It doesn't take longer for people with long necks.

I will stick my neck out and say that long necks are good for swans.  I have a long neck, and I get neck, shoulder, back and myofacial pain easily.

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on July 23, 2010 at 2:47 AM

Pauline, I agree it's probably more related with beeing comfortable with the shape of the violin than enything else!

But, In my physics electric course, they were something about a long wire beeing slighly less efficient than a short wire but I don't remember???  Was it the intensity that was lost or the voltage? Any electricians/physicists here? ; )

Anyway, if there is something, it surely is not ennough to disturb much of us here... (but at top soloist level, everything counts.  This is like milliseconds in olympic sprint. Otherwise in real life, who cares about milliseconds!)



From Stephen Brivati
Posted on July 23, 2010 at 3:00 AM


I`m afraid that quantaam theory has dispelled the myth about anything longer being less efficient than anything shorter.  Women of course,  have understood this for years....



From Joseph Galamba
Posted on July 23, 2010 at 11:31 AM

 It does take longer for longer necks.  The basic rule to remember is that information does not travel faster than light.  Nerve impulses are on the order of a million times slower than light which means that if your neck is 10 cm longer than another person's neck (unlikely...) it will take somewhere around one millisecond longer.  

So measurable but not significant.  

From Michael Felzien
Posted on July 23, 2010 at 4:27 PM


Not sure If I'm fully understanding this post.  I might end up an arbitrary casualty of quantum corflakian prune theory (of which I’ve heard is difficult to extract oneself from).

But, to paraphrase Galamian on what he has to say about Technique vs. Musicianship (or Building Time vs. Interpreting Time).   He says that there needs to be a balance between the two.  These practice modes are in flux and, initially the teacher supplies the answer to proper balance.  

However, once the student is more self actualized the violinist learns to ask themselves “how” to practice this section.  This process of learning and practicing then generally leads to what Ivan G. had on his kitchen wall at Meadowmount.

"Most powerful is he who has himself in his own power." -SENCECA

So there you have it.  From Galamian.  Anyone care to commit the fallacy of "reductio ad absurdum" or have a hot cup of “autodidactic tea?”

Mike F. (Grabbing the dilemma by the horns) 


From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on July 24, 2010 at 1:11 AM

Buri, nice theories but we were talking about lengh of... necks ; - ) 

Perhaps the "small is beautiful" quote would apply better (for practical reasons) to violinists necks than what you told woman knew! (lol)

Anyway, a theory to defend the two sides so everyone is happy!





From Pauline Lerner
Posted on July 24, 2010 at 3:51 AM

If there is a difference in the time it takes for an electrical current (in nerve cells) to traverse a short neck or a long neck, it would be much, much, too small for a human to notice.

Buri, I'm interested in your praise of Menuhin's technique.  I've read so many comments from v.commies who say that his technique was sloppy and his intonation was often incorrect.  Most of them admit that he made music very emotionally appealing anyway.                     

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