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Clayton Haslop

On the Mastery of Two Skills

February 8, 2010 at 8:31 PM

I am happy to report that after 5 days and nights, Star, our new puppy, is getting the potty thing right about 80% percent of the time.  Actually with ‘poop’ he’s been 100% for two straight days. 

And boy does it smell a lot better around here!

But hang on, these are not the SKILLS I was going to write about today!

Two questions came from players at very different places in their violin lives.  One arose from the rather uncomfortable challenge of sight-reading Saint-Saens’ ‘Organ Symphony’ – a rhythmically tricky piece.

The other, from a beginner, and addresses the challenge of putting fingers to string accurately and reliably.

First the question regarding sight-reading.  Here are the basic priorities, in order, that a good musician should hold: awareness of the BEAT; dynamics, rhythms, articulation, and finally, the notes.

Now, for some, the order of my priorities may come as a surprise.  They were to me when I first learned them.  After all, I thought ‘getting the notes’ was the deal. 


Awareness of the flow of time is numero uno.  And along those lines I have conducted experiments with myself that have proved very interesting. 

When I count the beats, even as I sight-read whatever is in front of me, I find that I am no less effective at getting the dynamics, rhythms, articulations OR the notes than when I don’t, in fact I tend to be better.  AND I’m a heck of a lot more steady and aware of the conductor, the other instruments, and the pace of the music as I do so.

You see, for some reason the conscious act of forcefully engaging another part of the brain – the language center – OPENS the mind big time to other challenges.

Now, that being said, if I have a few moments before the conductor starts in, I will take a quick look through the music, finding the ‘tricky’ spots and mentally visualizing my way through them. 

And certainly if the opportunity to play a little – quietly – is there, I will take it.  And here is what I do.

I do my slow, verbalizing-the-beat-while-playing practice – with no regard for even staying in time – until I can coordinate the notes with my count. 

Listen, I’ve had some REALLY tricky music put in front of me, rhythmically complex, notey, you name it.  Yet when I spend even a couple quiet minutes in this practice the payoff is enormous when the ‘reading’’ begins.

The off-the-beat rhythms of the Organ Symphony are tricky.  Yet once the hands and count are ‘Locked’ in this way, it is VERY difficult for anything to shake them apart.  Even the most annoying gesticulations of the typical wanna-be conductor!

But again, first thing is time, then dynamics, then rhythms, articulation, and finally, the notes.

All right, on to the basics of putting fingers to string.

Here again, the key is in your thinking.  Well, hang on, let’s say the first step begins with the ear.  If you can sing the note you are trying to place, you’re more than halfway there.

The next step is to connect the ear to your fingers.  And this is about mastering some spatial relationships – where things are on the fingerboard – and developing discrete control over each finger.

Now both of these have primarily to do with the brain, unless, that is, you have nerve damage between brain and fingertips.  Yet assuming you don’t, and I hope this is the case, the key is to go SLOWLY.  Don’t move until you’ve computed some idea in your head of where that next note lies.

And when you do move the finger, consciously relax the hand – and breathe – such that the second finger is free to move independently of the first; and that it purposefully takes position on the fingerboard where your mental image dictates. 

If the image you projected was wrong, well, you just learned something new.  If it was correct, why you just moved closer to ‘hard wiring’ the location of F# relative to E in first position on the D string.

And there you have it.

All the best,

Clayton Haslop

From Roy Sonne
Posted on February 9, 2010 at 4:53 PM

First of all, thank you Clayton for your posts which always reflect great depth of experience and wisdom.

I think that the act of sight reading does not end with our first reading of a piece. Usually the second time we are still sight-reading most of it, in the sense that we have not worked out and internalized all the technical and musical details. In fact even the tenth or twentieth time we are still to some extent sight-reading many parts of the music -- in the sense of reacting in the moment to what we see on the page, finding fingerings, bowings, and musical sense and meaning, without prior planning and study. When we look at it that way sight reading becomes an even more important part of our skill set. From my POV practicing etudes can build our sight reading skill by building our vocabulary of violinistic patterns which we are then ready to plug in easily at any moment.

From Corwin Slack
Posted on February 9, 2010 at 5:13 PM

A very enlightening blog post. I will try to employ it. 

I have found that learning how to name finger patterns and apply them to the music I am playing is a big help. It is just as important as knowing the names of the notes. 

From Phil Easley
Posted on February 9, 2010 at 8:41 PM

 I am reminded of a discovery I made a couple of decades ago trying to teach my young son how to catch a ball.  He was also young enough that counting past the number of five or so was something of a challenge.  Just to make the game a bit more interesting, we started counting each throw.  The moment he switched his concentration to counting aloud with me he started catching the ball, seemingly without effort.  I think you've described the same phenomenon.

I have just recently considered putting rhythm ahead of 'getting the notes', and have been getting little glimpses of easier progress with it all as a result.  Odd, isn't it, how you think the problem is one side of your body (or your mind) when it turns out to be the other.   I'll now proceed with a bit more confidence that the strategy is sound.  Thanks.



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