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Paganini's Pencil!

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Published: March 4, 2015 at 6:52 AM [UTC]


The other day I stumbled across a rather disconcerting web site claiming to be a specific school of violin playing that had inherited the secrets of Paganini. Said site was generously giving them all to us. All this is done with quasi-dramatic backdrop, voice and so on. In point of fact, the violinistic advice given wasn't bad at all, except the so-called "Paganini bow hold" owed a lot more to the protagonist's rather stubby fingers than any real secret. There actually wasn't anything there that isn't standard teaching practice. If you want to know the secrets of Paganini you'd be much better of reading Ricci's book on technique.

PaganiniOne of the things that made me burst out laughing was the discussion of how a big secret was practicing the right hand with a stick or pencil. An advert then flashed up on the screen for a pencil company and it was stated that "the x school of violin playing has been using these pencils for over a hundred years." Paganini for pencils, or is it the other way around?

Having calmed down with some stewed prunes (another of Paganini's secrets) I did get to thinking about how we can enhance and extend our practice time away from the violin with a little thought. For example, when I first went to college I was advised by my teacher to carry a pencil around and practice finger movements when I am on a train or whatever. So it dawned on me that what was useful then is still good now. Even with my limited resources and time, I can do really useful practice away from the instrument. Not only straightening and bending the fingers, but dropping the hand from its neutral straight-ahead position and letting the fingers extend. Then raising it above wrist height and contracting the fingers. Then there is windscreen wiping, or rotating from the elbow. Actually I much prefer this with a pencil for young players anyway. Or how about just stretching out the arm in a down bow further than normal and then doing an up bow further than normal so your range of movement is increased?

After a week of this doodling around I could actually sense some improvement in my bowing.

It seems to me that there is a great deal we can do, with or without Paganini's Pencil, to improve our playing, even if we are busy adults with only a few minutes to spare or doing a boring job like train crossing guard. Of course, in this day and age, everybody has a keyboard, but I don't recommend using that for bowing exercises.


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Posted on March 4, 2015 at 8:42 PM
How do you get the rosin to stick to the pencil?
Posted on March 4, 2015 at 8:56 PM
Great essay.

I have always wondered about Paganini's direct influence being passed down through the generations.

Specifically, I'm thinking of Zino Francescatti. He had a unique sound and (to some extent) unique interpretations and technique, did he not? I can't think of any other violinist - now or in the past - who sounds (or sounded) like him. No?

And here's the interesting thing. Francescatti's only teachers were his parents, primarily his father, Fortunato, who had studied with the Italian virtuoso Sivori, who was (if the historical account is correct) the only regular pupil of Paganini.

If all this is true, then is it possible that at least some of Paganini's specific technical and interpretive techniques and approaches could have been passed on DIRECTLY - person to person - to Sivori. And, could Sivori have transmitted (at least in part) these techniques and interpretations directly to Fortunato Francescatti.

And could, therefore, the senior Francescatti have passed along those Paganini techniques and interpretations to his son?

If so, is it possible that what is unique about Zino Francescatti is at least in part a direct influence of Paganini? If so, when we hear a Francescatti performance, is it conceivable that we are getting even a glimpse of how Paganini actually may have sounded?

From Christian Lesniak
Posted on March 4, 2015 at 9:33 PM
When I was re-working my bowhold a few years ago, I would practice on a pencil when I was away from the violin. Some things can seem like such basic work, that it can be hard to motivate yourself to do them when you are at the violin, especially if your time with the instrument is limited. Granted, I haven't had a reason to do so for a while.
From Eun Hwan Bai
Posted on March 5, 2015 at 2:13 AM
Pencil least this guy is a true master....!!!
more then 200 kinds of high level techniques....!!!
Posted on March 5, 2015 at 4:13 AM
The pencil is for when you don't want to do col legno with your precious French bow.
From Paul Deck
Posted on March 5, 2015 at 4:15 AM
Sorry for the duplicate post. I wasn't logged in. I wish they would fix that.

The pencil is for when you dont want to do col legno with your precious French bow.

I find that the best kind of practice without the violin is just thinking.

From Laurie Niles
Posted on March 5, 2015 at 4:58 AM
Maybe because I'm left-handed, if a pencil is in my right hand, I hold it like a bow and do the exercises you mention, but mostly to occupy a bored hand. I think that in my early days of study, the pencil really helped my pinkie get stronger and learn to stay on the stick better. I try to encourage students to do pencil bow exercises, but I'm not sure how many of them actually do it!

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