Have I become a Fischerman? Next to my music stand are piled the complete works of Simon Fischer. They are all in constant service throughout my practice and teaching. This can be a bit annoying since the pile of books is now as tall as it is extremely heavy. The latest volume (The Violin Lesson) is the biggest of the lot and has probably weakened the foundations of my shabby old house.
It is this volume which has confirmed in my estimation that Simon Fischer is the most important pedagogue/writer of the late 20c and onwards. I base this claim to some extent on the content of his works but more on two possibilities he has created. The first emerged with the publishing of his book `Basics` something like ten years ago. At that time Simon had a reputation of course but there was nothing to indicate in the blurb how radical or important Basics was going to prove. I believe I was one of the first people to order it and I can claim in some small respect to have helped in it’s promulgation as I advocated its use to all and sundry, on and off the web. I have argued over the years that it should be a set work at Music Colleges where the teaching exam would require a candidate to clearly demonstrate an exercise or two from a given section to address a specific problem selected by an examiner.. Sadly this has yet to happen. With The Violin Lesson a new possibility has emerged.
Although it is still true, in my and many others opinion, that learning the violin properly requires a teacher, I have noted in past blogs that the bar is slowly being lowered. The proliferation of internet videos by competent instructors has helped a great deal. In this book Simon has presented a philosophy of the nature of the violin and how to approach it that has made the instrument yet more accessible to all and sundry for which he is owed a great debt.
So what’s it all about?
Those people familiar with Simon`s work know that the key word is `proportions.` By applying this concept to every single aspect of violin playing (of which there are actually not that many) one can systematically evaluate and change one’s playing without waiting around passively for a teacher to tell one what to do. There is no aspect of playing which cannot be worked on in this way. As Simon stresses in the book, -anyone- can choose –any- aspect of their playing and improve it by working on its proportions at the simplest level. This raises another important aspect of Simon`s work: he has I think demonstrated conclusively that all levels of violin playing from complete beginner to top professional are based on the same most fundamental actions and their proportions. Thus, the fastest way to improve, whatever your level, is to practice fundamentals. Not only etudes, scales and concertos, but the fundamentals that these are built on so that learning them is no longer a struggle but straightforward and enjoyable. This is not to say we don`t practice the former , and if you want to know about how to work on them then look no further than `Practice` and his scale manual. But it is through exploring the foundations of playing and manipulating proportions that a final recognition of the fact that anyone can improve on the violin if they so wish, has been realized.
The Violin Lesson contains so much more on top of this. Simon`s study of Alexander Technique informs much of what is going on; charming and highly relevant, thought provoking anecdotes form great pedagogues and perfomrers and Simon`s own original thinking permeate the work. Among my favorite Simonisms is the following suggestion.
Do you want to know how Oistrakh played that marvellous passage from the Sibelius which we see in `the Great Violinists Video? You know the one? He slashes out the most perfect whole bows the planet has ever seen. Well, as Simon so brilliantly points out we can systematically and objectively examine exactly what Oistrakh was doing. The distance from the bridge is objective. The temp is objective. The length of bow is objective. All we have to do is find out what weight is required to make a sound using those factors and we are playing as Oistrakh played. Isn’t that an amazing thought!
Another one I really liked concerned the rather neglected attention to how the fingers are contacting the bow as you play. Simon devotes a fair amount of space to discussing the neglect of the third finger. His suggestion that we imagine that each point that contacts the bow is a button on some kind of machine and press these randomly to see how that affects the sound and ease of playing is amusing and –extremely helpful-.
Whereas Basics was basic, Practice was application and scales self explanatory it is through `The Violin Lesson` that we finally get the big picture with all the details thrown in. I can’t really review it more than this because I’m still wandering around in it trying stuff out, having fun and (hopefully) improving.
Anyway, you’d better go and buy a copy.
Simple Simon Met a Perlman.....
I live on a small island both literally and metaphorically, with a smelly cat and a good supply of prunes. Good job California!
People come to me for lessons every now and then. I am always somewhat puzzled by this and often worried that I will have nothing to say given that those people are often pros or are studying with world class teachers and/ or soloists. Funnily enough this has not been a problem. I think there is something really important going on here....
First of all, we all have different roles to play in the music world. I was born to be a teacher. If that is the case then you find this out at a very young age when other young people start coming to you for ideas or help. However, this purpose cannot be realized unless one takes the necessary steps to train as hard as possible from a young age to be a musician. It is a truism that any talent can only flourish if the necessary hard work takes place. But how exactly does a teacher teach?
I think, like many other fields of education, violin teachers start out teaching like their most long term, most beloved teacher taught them. Usually there is only one of these. Of course, as time goes by the teacher adds their own ideas and experiences, trains more and so on but I think the basic content and approach is fairly static. This can sometimes be called tradition....
Over the years I have been to many teachers. Probably slightly more than average. These have varied from the run of the mill locals of my youth up to music university professors, world class soloists, orchestral leaders and so on. They have all had a lot to offer, all been fascinating and so on, but I have always felt like I was like the blind man being offered a different facet of the same elephant without ever really identifying the whole. Everything is very helpful and good but somehow I feel that myself and many others enter the profession without ever really finding there absolute fulfillment of potential.
Later in my life I did find such a teacher from whom I learnt how to teach. I have never met him in person but I had to laugh when he said to me that after reading what I wrote he assumed I was one of his ex students. I am indeed.
The person I refer to is Simon Fischer. If you wanted to Desert Island Disc me and let me have only one book it would be his 'The Violin Lesson'. I choose his approach above the detailed philosophy and eloquence of Flesch, the ground breaking systematicity of Galamian and anyone else for that matter. I do this because I believe that without inventing anything too dramatically new his work has reprogrammed the violin world in an exciting way. He has done this by, in some senses, going in the opposite direction to many master pedagogues and books which owe their value to the complexity and eloquence of their ideas which are sometimes as elusive as they are profound.
Simon, on the other hand, takes as his basis the idea that it really isn't rocket science. There is a very limited number of aspects to violin playing and by paying attention to any one of these in the simplest possible way one can improve that aspect and therefore one's playing as a whole. This is leading, I hope, to a shift away from questions about age, doubts about ability and so on, to the idea that anyone, anywhere who is willing to apply these simple heuristics can improve their playing. This is as true for professionals as it it for 90 year olds who are realizing their dream of beginning violin study.
To illustrate what I mean here is what happened in a recent lesson I gave (she gave me?) to a very talented teenager already playing major works I don' t play anymore if indeed I ever did. As expected the worry about anything to say at all crossed my mind, but as I listened I focused on the point in 'The Violin Lesson' about what is violin playing?
It's intonation, sound and rhythm. Heuristic number two is 'prioritize'. So what could have been better?
Answer: the sound is not completely there.
Solution: put the piece to one side and go back to the simple point that sound is the relationship between weight, speed and soundpoint. Immediately the problem is obvious and so is the solution. We begin practicing Simon's tone production exercises on open strings paying maximum attention to string vibration and proportions of the three factors. Returning to the piece was a different violinist, the sound being so good it made my hair stand on end. But one must watch like a hawk and try to understand every movement or gesture that is not as easy as it should be. Some perceived awkwardness at the heel and I find a problem that affects even some violinists who are already playing professionally: there is too much thumb on the stick leading to tension in the right hand. Discussion of the role of the thumb and counter pressure, simple awareness exercises without worrying about pieces and the player now had enough material to bring her playing up to a whole new level. Starting the Brahms concerto would not have got us there. Using simple heuristics, observation and simple solutions allowed this player to enter a new dimension of playing.
More entries: December 2011
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