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November 2009

To Stretch, or Not to Stretch

November 21, 2009 08:37

For many years I had the privilege of working with a very, very fine Los Angeles violinist by the name of Arnold Belnick.  He was a ‘first call’ violinist and concertmaster in the studios for well over 4 decades.

He also made some terrific recordings, which may yet be available; his Prokofiev Sonatas recording is absolutely top-drawer.

Over the years we had many an interesting conversation about violin playing.  And many of his views surprised me in both their boldness and unorthodoxy.

For instance, on the subject of posture Mr. Belnick was adamant in NOT trying to counter the structural changes in the body arising from the very unnatural position we take to play.

This means if one shoulder is a little higher than the other, your back a little more rounded than the norm, not to worry.  In making a decision to be a violinist, he felt, one accepts certain consequences; a slightly asymmetrical skeletal arrangement being number one. 

It was his contention, therefore, that many violinists actually bring discomfort and pain on themselves by resisting these changes; that all the stretching and yoga violinists do just set the stage for internal conflict; i.e. pain.

And I will say, in support of this view, that in all the years I played with Arnold, some 25 at least, I never heard him complain of any ‘violin pain’ whatsoever.

So, is this the council I keep?

Well, no, not exactly.  And I must say that vanity plays a part in this.  I want to stay straight and upright as long as I possibly can.

I also believe, however, that certain body types are naturally more suited to violin playing than others, and that this is where you will find the greatest indicator of pain, all other things being equal.

Barrel-chested folks with relatively short arms and necks have, in my opinion, a distinct advantage over more rangy types.  Not only are the bodily adjustments greater for these types, the stresses placed on muscles and tendons are greater due to arm and neck length – not to mention that the core muscles will have less volume and therefore less ability to provide leverage.

All this being said, I think you, as a unique individual, must find what works best for you; stretching, or no stretching; staying straight and level, or listing slightly like a sailboat on a close reach. 

One thing that is certain, however.  Efficient, relaxed playing fundamentals are an imperative, and Arnold had THOSE in spades.

All the best,

Clayton Haslop

P.S.  Since I’ve mentioned stretching, there’s one thing I should say about it.  EASY does it.  Pushing beyond what the body can tolerate in a stretch will lead to trouble in a hurry.  You don’t need or even want the flexibility of a rhythmic gymnast to play the violin.

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To Pinch, or Not to Pinch

November 19, 2009 10:13

I received a couple of interesting notes in my inbox in response to my most recent blog.  One, coming from Kenton, down Florida way, was the ‘violin’ entry in an old Webster’s Dictionary. 

And though the accompanying illustrational was quite odd indeed, the text was right-on in its characterization of the violin hold I thought.  It said, ‘…held nearly horizontal with the player’s arm with the lower part supported against the collarbone or shoulder.’

It did not say, ‘held between the chin and shoulder’, as many might believe.

In another response Stephen asked ‘whether one pinches the neck between the thumb and base of the index finger horizontally, or whether the thumb should be under the neck so that you can squeeze into the notes and roll the vibrato like a cellist’.

Now it is certainly easy to dismiss the former, I’ll have no pinching of violin necks in any coaching or master class of mine.  Pinching of violins or violinists is strictly verbotten. 

Doing this not only tightens your hand, it severely limits your ability to get around the violin.  Not a good thing.

The latter concept is almost all good, however.  There is just one little thing.  I like to think of the thumb and base of the index finger as forming something of a ‘V’, with the violin resting between and atop the first joint of the thumb and the base of the index finger.

And yes, I do like the idea of squeezing or, better yet, massaging the fingerboard with the fingers – note that both these images imply pliancy within the hand and fingers.

Nothing is ever stiff, locked, or unyielding in the hand.

In yet another emailed response Al referred to the sweet spot where the violin rests as a ‘birth’ for the violin.  I like that.

Now, all this being said, I don’t want to give the impression that I make a religion out of the neck’s location in the hand either.  When I play there is quite a bit of flexibility in my hand, and the neck may indeed rest on the thumb, at times, or deeper in the ‘V’ now and again.

Yet the exceptions prove the rule, as the old saw goes. 

And a good deal of my practice is spent relaxing and balancing my left hand as I perfect challenging passages. 

I want to arrive at the point of maximum efficiency, minimum effort, and minimum hand distortion for anything I do.

I certainly look to keep my chin free of the chinrest if at all possible.  Downshifts, moving from a higher position to a lower position, are the one exception in this.  Why? Because the fiction generated by the left hand moving away from the body must be counteracted.

All the best,

Clayton Haslop


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Avoid THIS Playing Pain

November 18, 2009 09:21

Just returned from a quick weekend jaunt over to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where I cavorted in the back-country with a friend.  On Sunday we ran through snow showers, arriving well above the 10,000 foot level before making the turn for home.

Got a great, old-fashioned ‘Rocky Mountain High’ on THAT one let me tell you.

Today, however, I’m sitting at my desk facing the red-rock buttes of Sedona.  And I just spent a good hour or so reviewing some wonderful videos on YouTube.

Amongst them was one featuring Zukerman in an interview on violin playing and the importance of learning to play properly. 

The interesting, or perhaps a little confusing thing about this particular video, however, was that Maestro Zukerman begins his remarks by saying how much physical pain he suffers while playing.  And it is within this seemingly ironic context of pain that he expresses the need to learn to play ‘correctly’.

Now, Zukerman is an extra-ordinary violinist, and my comments here should in no way be taken as a criticism of his playing or musicianship. 

I also don’t want to give you the impression that I don’t experience any discomfort whatsoever when I play.  As Zukerman himself points out, the very positions we take when raising the violin are undeniably unnatural to the human body. 

Yet there are things we can do to keep the discomfort to a minimum; to where it does not overwhelm or detract from the pleasure of playing the instrument. 

After all, one of the great pleasures of the playing the violin or viola is the close proximity they have to our ear while we play them. 

We are literally enveloped by the tone.

The irony of Zukerman’s comments, however, arise from his emphasis on learning correctly, on the one hand, and the specific pain he experiences in his neck and shoulders from his ‘hold’ on the other.

You see, Zukerman was taught to secure the instrument to the shoulder with his chin.  Most of us have been taught this, actually.

Yet fortunately for me, and now potentially for you, 3 decades ago I came under the tutelage of a fairly decent fiddler by the name of Nathan Milstein, who had something quite different to say about this important subject.

He said, very matter-of-factly in his heavy Russian accent, ‘hold the violin with your left hand, not with your chin.’

Wow, what a concept.  ‘Can this really be done,’ I thought to myself.

Yet there the man was, standing in front of me playing the G Minor Caprice – he always referred to them by key, not by number; #16, in this case – playing with the violin slid half down his shoulder with absolute ease.  It would have taken the neck of an ostrich to reach the chinrest from where it was.

Ok, I’m exaggerating just a tad.

Yet the point remains, you can alleviate much of the neck pain and chin abscess issues you may be experiencing by weaning yourself away from the constant reliance on the chin, and to keeping the instrument pinned to your shoulder.

In the process you may also learn a thing or two about how to balance and organize the fingers of your left hand.  And guess what, by doing THAT your playing immediately becomes more seamless and fluid.

Not a bad addition to the bargain, I’d say.

All the best,

Clayton Haslop

P.S. By the way, last Thursday we finished recording the music to ‘Avatar’ which required some 60 or so hours of recording over the past couple months.  I also learned that I will be given screen credit for the violin solos; a welcome exception to the general and very arbitrary practice of excluding musicians from such recognition.

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My Perspective

November 17, 2009 10:58

Recently I’ve been hearing education discussed in various public forums as this administration implements new standards and national funding policies.

It’s a circus, but one with serious consequences.

So I’ve been mulling over the catch phrase given to the Obama program, namely, ‘The race to the top,’ as it might apply to a life in music.

Now, on the one hand, I certainly don’t have a problem with being the best one can be.  Am I’m sure you feel the same.

What I do have a few reservations about, however, is the implication of self, or group improvement being a race; that we are continuously in competition with each other.

When such thinking becomes endemic within a national psyche it comes with a price, sometimes witnessed in horrifying tragedy – such as the recent student suicides in Korea preceding their national examinations – yet more often in a pervasive, underlying feeling of stress in the society.

Gradually the fun of learning and growing is replaced by a feeling that nothing is good enough. 

And with this ultimately self-defeating mindset, the soul gradually forgets how to breathe.

When I practice, now, I am no longer ‘racing for the top’ – yes, I was at one time a victim of such thinking.  Today I begin by merely becoming present with the feelings inherent in drawing a pure and well-tuned tone from the violin.

Only after I’ve ‘tuned in’ on this very basic level do I begin to stretch myself, and think, ‘where does it make sense to move from here.’  Sometimes this is a very easy decision, the session flows easily into an etude or piece of repertoire.

Sometimes, however, my left hand is reluctant, tight.  If I were ‘racing to the top’ on such days you can imagine the frustration and impatience I could feel. 

Totally counter-productive and useless.

I must necessarily inhabit in a world of incremental changes on some days, and be thankful for those just as I am for the great leaps in insight or performance that accompany others.

It all begins and ends with being present and excepting of the moment.  Not in a complacent, flaccid sort of way mind you, but one that is dynamic, inquisitive and attentive to unrealized potential, small OR greatly profound.

Bottom line is, I’m sad, in a way, that our public discourse on what should or shouldn’t condition the conduct of our lives must be reduced to such simplistic, desensitizing catch phrases.

You are welcome to disagree with me, of course.

All the best,

Clayton Haslop


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The Global-thinking Approach to Violin Playing

November 11, 2009 09:21

Recently I have been studying a very interesting strain of Chinese philosophy called Hwa-Yen.  It is the philosophical basis of Zen.

In the process I have learned something about the way Asian language systems, Chinese in particular, conceptualize and label the forms we see in the physical world.

This morning I was reflecting on how I think while playing, and it struck me that my thinking about violin playing reflects this Chinese approach to language and conceptualization very closely.

There is a subtle and interesting difference between the East and West in this, and if you stay with me I think you’ll get something worthwhile out of it, something that may indeed benefit your violin practice.

You see, in Chinese the word for ‘train’ translates, literally, as ‘fire car,’ automobile as ‘gas car’, and bicycle as ‘foot-stepping car.’  In English, however, we have quite different and distinct words for each of these things; etymologically they are seemingly quite unrelated.

In the Chinese mind, then, the linguistic construction first identifies ‘train’ as a generalized vehicle for transportation.  This generalized term is then modified by an adjective to describe one requiring fire for operation – at least they did in the old days. 

So even from the way our language systems are constructed you can see that the Western mind tends to compartmentalize, to identify in a specific and definite way.  The Eastern mind, on the other hand, tends to generalize, and then differentiate through the use of an adjective; this so-and-so is BOTH as these many things AND, simultaneously, as its own thing.

Now let’s talk violin playing.  Many violinists I coach want to ‘nail things down’; this is THE way the fingers of the left hand articulate.

And for such players it comes as a surprise that in one Kreutzer Etude I talk of fingers tapping the string, and in another of the combined four fingers as a constant motion machine; the former implying a digital type of articulation, the latter something quite analogue.

And, in fact, BOTH must be accomplished to reach the highest levels of performance. 

The world of form IS full of contradictions and the message of music is, by definition, transmitted within this same world of form.

There is no escaping this.

Now, don’t get me wrong here.  Because I say there are contradictions does not mean you surrender to chaos.  There are, after all, ways of playing the violin that are more efficient, effective and conducive to getting the music across than others.

The point is, however, that your technique must be fluid, dynamic, and able to embrace and effortlessly represent a great range of textures and expressions.

So there isn’t just one way to articulate with the fingers of the left hand.  And there isn’t just one way to ‘take the string’ when initiating a tone.

The challenge of a violin system, however, is to provide for all these ‘contradictions’ within something of a generalized framework, otherwise you have hopeless confusion in place of a technique.

In short, you need a method of approaching the instrument that is BOTH superbly straight-forward and simple, AND supremely flexible and adaptive. 

When we listen and watch a truly great player effortlessly moving through a vast range of expression we often can’t help but think, ‘and they make it look so simple.’  And so it has become, for them, and now for you.

All the best,

Clayton Haslop


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A Hand Like Greased Lightning

November 9, 2009 11:21

You know, there are 2 ways one can use lightning as a metaphor for the goings-on of a left hand. 

On the less-than-flattering side, Aaron Rosand once quipped, after the performance of a student, ‘you have fingers like lightning, they never strike in the same place twice.’ 

And then there’s an entirely opposite use, a way that describes perfectly the workings of Milstein’s left hand.  It’s called ‘greased lightning.’

I love that one.  And I’ve invested quite a bit of time over the years in understanding how to condition my left hand to convey the same impression.

And one secret to this kind of fluidity, one that you won’t hear about in most teaching studios, is the concept of the left hand as perpetual-motion machine.

So often we think of the fingers as little digital devices, either on or off.  We don’t think to groom the in-between movements of the fingers.

Yet for scales, arpeggios, and many kinds of figurations – Kreutzer #9 being a perfect example – getting control over the entire range of movement of the fingers can ramp the fluidity of your articulation, and the upper end of your velocity, to a whole new level.

Instead of seeing the fingers as either on or off, imagine them to be as four parachutists descending to the fingerboard in series.  And, when raising them, as balloonists rising from the string one after another.

Now if this image makes sense to you, you’ve got some fun and challenging practice ahead, practice that will amaze you when the results are counted – yes, don’t forget to do that.

All the Best,

Clayton Haslop


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