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Clayton Haslop

The Global-thinking Approach to Violin Playing

November 11, 2009 at 4:21 PM

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


From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on November 11, 2009 at 5:58 PM

This makes me so much think of what Menuhin talked about in the "Art of the violin" DVD telling that they were "predictable" and "unpredictable" violinists and some who were the two at the same time.  I'm sure it's best to try to be the two at the same time. On one hand, you know how to do thing x, and on the other, you can adapt thing x as you play if ever something goes wrong or if the style requires adjustments. Quite a challenge!!!


From Christopher Liao
Posted on November 11, 2009 at 9:25 PM

"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."

So, so true! Sometimes they're so different that when you mean to say something totally harmless in English, it can come out as totally offensive in Mandarin.

On topic, though, I can relate especially to fingerings. I have always been taught that whenever I start a piece of music, I am required to find at least two alternative fingerings for the more difficult passages (excluding certain scenarios where fingering options are limited). While in performance I will only use one of the fingerings, my teacher believes that it will be more secure because I've already practiced all the other options. It seems logical to me; Hrimaly and Sevcik exercises work the same way for me too. While fingerings work out technicalities and precision, I believe the process in finalizing an option also plays an important role in the adaptivity (and effortless playing) in violinists.

Great blog!

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