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The Life of the Adult Amateur Player: Three Simple Words

Rosita Hopper

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Published: January 11, 2014 at 10:03 AM [UTC]

Like a koan they came to me:

control without tension

I imagine that the concept has been articulated by many teachers of--and aspirants to--our exquisite art form.

It matters not. What matters is that the concept came to me like a mystical revelation--felt more than articulated-- during a recent practice session as I was attempting to apply a technique demonstrated by my viola teacher, who is guiding my work on the Bach solo cello suites:

control without tension

It's a concept so simple to say and yet so difficult to attain, and strikes me as one of the most critical elements of string playing technique.

Further words by me are not needed, but I am eager to read the responses of other players.

From Dottie Case
Posted on January 11, 2014 at 1:50 PM
YES! And that goes for both hands, and the body in general. I noted earlier in the week that tension is the mortal enemy of violin playing... it destroys the capacity for progressing beyond a certain point by locking down both hands.
From Patrick Tinney
Posted on January 11, 2014 at 6:44 PM
My most difficult struggle.

I did not realize how bad I was doing until I decided to see if a lower shoulder rest would help me.

I use a BonMusica but one day I pulled out my old Kun.

The plastic Kun flexes more then the BonMusica.

Fortunately when the forks spread and the violin dropped to the back of they rest there was no damage. Though it did take exceptional care to free the violin.

I am still working to relax my neck and not clamp with my chin.

From Jim Hastings
Posted on January 11, 2014 at 6:45 PM
Avoiding tension in the bow arm was more of a challenge to me.

But I found, some time ago, that beginning a practice session, right after tuning, by bowing each open string individually, then bowing string pairs -- E-A, A-D, D-G -- forced me to pay full attention to what I was doing with the right hand and arm, concentrating on quality and evenness of tone -- "control without tension" -- without yet having to form notes with the left hand. First come full bows; bow division follows -- not the same divisions each day.

This takes maybe 3-4 minutes. But I play on three fiddles -- about 1 hour a day on each one; so that's 3-4 x 3 = 9-12 -- a lot of opening work.

I never really had left-hand tension problems -- or, at least, they were far less. I carry over to music practice one of the basic principles of working out with barbells and dumbbells -- walk, stretch, lift. I make sure first that my hands are warm enough and have enough moisture for grip; then I do basic stretches, then a 20-minute warm-up routine, then play.

From Kate Little
Posted on January 11, 2014 at 10:29 PM
Hi Rosita - I understand the issue that you refer to, but how does one deal with it? How does one develop control and release tension?

Posted on January 11, 2014 at 11:44 PM
Any performer wishing to play well has to learn the technical aspects of tensionless playing. While sometimes tension can work for some small parts of the repertoire, learning to move in and out of tension and control it is paramount to good playing.
From Jennifer Kendrick
Posted on January 11, 2014 at 11:50 PM
Exactly. I am only 26 and beginning, but even I have to make sure my left hand is always relaxed while still achieving good intonation, etc. I can see it would definitely be crucial to older people, as well.
Posted on January 11, 2014 at 11:55 PM
To achieve a relaxed left hand one can try not to focus on the finger that is currently playing but on the contrary, on all the other fingers that are released at any time and becoming free to play the following notes.
Posted on January 12, 2014 at 12:07 AM
"Control without tension" is a wonderfully succinct statement of what I am trying to accomplish. Funny, it doesn't sound that hard to do. I appreciate your blog as an older violinist who began playing recently after a 30 year hiatus.

From Rosita Hopper
Posted on January 12, 2014 at 10:42 AM
Great comments! As Dottie observed, the concept applies to the whole body. And like Patrick, it is probably my most difficult challenge. For those who ask how to achieve it (and especially for Kate who’s impassioned plea is so moving), I am itemizing a few tips but they are only the observations of a sister learner: 1. reviewing your equipment choices regularly is important and recently my teacher had me lower the chin-side leg of my shoulder rest (a Kun), while keeping the shoulder-side leg more elevated. 2. As Jim observed, lots of opening bowing is a wonderful antidote and I too spend time in every practice doing a couple of different opening exercises, trying to hear--more than see or even feel--when the control without tension has been achieved. 3. While the concept came to me as I was thinking about bowing challenges, I (and my cherished teacher) continue to notice ways that tension can compromise left hand technique, with intonation (yes, Jennifer!) and also with shifting, with trills, you name it. For intonation, my teacher has observed how we often get stuck thinking that we need to stretch our hand in one direction (usually upwards going for those higher pitches) but that the opening or stretching or fanning of the hand as she sometimes calls it, is also back towards the scroll (Try it, you’ll like it!) 4. For older players CWT is probably harder to achieve, but I feel so blessed to be an older player because it’s taught me just how vital my mind, body and spirit still are, even as I age (57 on Nov 29), and a new life goal is to learn to play every Bach cello suite, something I don’t think I would have even considered attempting 10 years ago, so check please back in with me again in 20... Finally, I’m also discovering that yoga is a fine complement to string playing and achieving CWT. Only yesterday I learned the true meaning of yoga which is ‘cessation of mind.’ Three simple words yet so hard to achieve. Much love to you all.
From Laurie Niles
Posted on January 12, 2014 at 6:24 PM
Something my yoga teacher likes to say comes to mind: "Calmly active, and actively calm."
From Rosita Hopper
Posted on January 12, 2014 at 7:02 PM
Yes, Laurie, thank you. I also find the practice of yoga a wonderful complement to string playing and would recommend it to anyone who is looking to achieve control without tension in any endeavor, at any time.

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