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We Can Be Our Own Worst Enemy.

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Published: February 27, 2015 at 2:52 AM [UTC]

violin stringsWe are our own worst enemy.

Of all the Alexander lessons I took related to violin playing, I think the most meaningful for me was one in which the teacher (not a violinist) stopped me at the exact moment before I was about to pluck the violin out of its open case. "Think about how you would walk across the room to get a pencil. Compare that with the excitement you are feeling now and observe how it is affecting you, even though you are essentially doing the same physical act. In life we have 'choice points,' where we can stop and observe what we are doing and consciously use ourselves better. So instead of leaning over in that habitual way and grabbing the instrument willy-nilly, stop and feel the ease in your neck, as your head goes forward and up and you back widens etc…."

(One can perhaps see a little of the same kind of idea in Zukerman’s master class at the RCM where he tells an advanced student to always pick up the bow with the left hand and the violin with the right.)

Anyway, the significance of this during practice should never be underestimated. Currently there is a very interesting thread concerning tension in practice of Kreutzer No. 9 going on. When a serious and committed player like the OP in question works on this kind of etude, it is very common that excitement and determination work hand-in-hand to keep the practice sustained for twenty, thirty minutes or even an hour, especially when working on different rhythms and bowing patterns. Of course this is a virtue, but it is not a good idea. First of all, one is keeping muscles in a semi-contracted state for a long periods, so they may actually become more stressed than they should be. Rather like working on a computer with short-range focus and not stopping every ten minutes to allow your eye muscles to re-elongate on an object in the distance. Secondly, one is almost invariably practicing in tension. The violin happens to be like that……

If we start thinking in terms of 'choice points,' then we can stop every ten minutes and make a conscious reevaluation of our total physical state. We must have a checklist of questions. :

  • How am I standing?
  • Have I been holding my breathe? (Ten minutes is quite an achievement)
  • Is my bow hold ok?
  • Is my right thumb tense?
  • How about my left thumb?

I am not giving a complete list here but there isn’t actually that much to observe. Then take some time to reset yourself; visualize yourself completely relaxed; take mental stock of what you are actually trying to achieve and whether a change of course might be more useful, and so on. If necessary, set a timer to go off every five or ten minutes until one gets into the habit of doing this.

Hopefully, this way of thinking about how we use ourselves during practice will lead to greater productivity and less damage in the long run. After all, I still want to be serenading my sweetheart and annoying my cat at 90.


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From Jeewon Kim
Posted on February 27, 2015 at 3:14 AM
Great blog post Buri, I really like that idea of choice points. Make the choice when we have the time to make the choice.

When trying to change a habit I would get students to "stop and go." Play 4 notes, stop, think what you just did, think what you're going to do, play next 4 notes, stop, think, etc. Play a measure, stop and think, play next measure, etc. Focus on one thing at a time, learn how to bracket everything else. I think I drove them crazy, but the way you frame it is much more zen.

When I get into something I often have a hard time stopping to break and reflect. I think I need to choose to stop and make more choices.

From Katherine Li
Posted on February 27, 2015 at 6:04 AM
Definitely a new part of my daily technical regime -- so much forcing of bad motions goes on during that time.


From John Rokos
Posted on February 27, 2015 at 11:43 PM
Buri, how can you be so confident about what you hope to be doing when you're 90, when even now you're doing it the other way round from what you said?
From Paul Deck
Posted on February 28, 2015 at 4:25 AM
Great post, Buri. Why do these etudes need to be as long as K9? Sometimes I wonder if the composers of these things just padded them out to two pages. On the other hand, why are there no three page Kreutzers?
From Stephen Brivati
Posted on February 28, 2015 at 6:55 AM
Paul, good point. I recall some teachers at college just asking students to work on a line or two of an étude simply because there was no time to get through all the études it was felt were necessary.
Howefer, I think that is treating exudes as exercises but there is a big difference in my book. It is very easy to treat the Kreutzer as extended exercises and just apply variations. but the real benefits star when we think of them as unaccompanied bach. So we look at the structure, search for the musical high point, try to use different colors and rubato and so on. They must ultimately be treated as concert woks , sort of;)
The other reason is to develop two fundamental aspects of our arsenal: memory and stamina. Vadim Bron once said that because he was forced to learn the kreutzer from memory , memorization became easy for him.
From Paul Deck
Posted on February 28, 2015 at 5:10 PM
Musically, they're okay. I think that point makes the most sense for the younger student.

But I agree wholeheartedly with the stamina point. I just don't have it yet.

From Francesca Rizzardi
Posted on March 1, 2015 at 7:11 AM
My teacher told me to stop every 5 minutes and loosen up my right thumb--actually redo my bow hand. I take that as an opportunity to check the tension everywhere in my body. As for going for my violin--I always do it consciously because once I accidently dropped my bow on my violin as I was putting it in my case. I don't want to ever make a similar mistake again.

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