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Simon Fischer at Dartington, UK

Bart Meijer

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Published: August 13, 2014 at 7:02 AM [UTC]

Each year at the International Summer School of Music at Dartington, musicians and teachers of high renown are invited to teach us students during the day and to play for us in the evenings. (I've written about the summer school in years past.)

This year, Simon Fischer taught violin during the String Players’ Week. He taught two classes: one for music students, and another for non-professionals. I had the good fortune of being in the latter class.

Simon FischerThough his books and teaching techniques have been discussed frequently, not much is written on about Simon Fischer’s public teaching (but see Laurie's report ). Now that I’m trying to, I sense why. Unless one is an observer and not a participant, the writing is as much about the writer as it is about Simon’s teaching.

Be warned: this is only about my experience. And one is only aware of how much information is given, when one tries to write it down. Next time, I’ll take notes.

Here goes.

Sunday 2 August. This is the first time I meet Simon in person. From the way he moves, it is immediately clear that Simon is an adept at Alexander Technique. He holds a long introductory talk, of which I remember two main points. First, it is important for violin teachers to know as much as possible about their profession. Second, violin lessons are always about elementary things. Simon cites the example of Midori, at an age when she already was an accomplished violinist, playing the Tchaikovsky concerto in a masterclass. The technical part of that lesson was basic: about drawing a straight bow.

I play de Bériot to get the playing started; results so-so. Simon asks: “Have you climbed the ladder?” Simon goes immediately down to Basics, in this case, bow hold. I make a lot of movements with my right-hand fingers which I’m not aware of, but must have been introduced as a means to a better tone. This end was not achieved, and I ended up with a distracting habit. Not doing certain things is as important as doing other things. The former – inhibition – tends to be neglected when we practice.  The place of the index finger on the bow is discussed, and the angle the row of knuckles makes with the bow. Simon shows me the eight points of contact between fingers and bow. But: “Don’t imitate or copy, experiment!” By the way: don’t repeat when practicing, experiment. I am going to do just that.

On Monday and Tuesday other students play, and a lot happens. I don’t feel comfortable writing about other students in so much detail, so I’ll only mention some of the points taught, without much context.

On Monday, a student plays who is self-taught. Any teacher is better than no teacher.

Tuesday. Walter plays. Simon explains the ladder analogy: Kreutzer, Rode, Dont, Wieniawski (opp 18, 10), Paganini. Meanwhile, the discussion is about playing from the inside out, not the other way around. It all comes down to what is audible. Waving the fingers of the left hand for vibrato, for example, is useless when nothing happens at the point of contact between finger and string.
Thursday. Simon offers his help with one or two particularly troublesome passages in the de Bériot piece. One is a fingering problem on the last page (“no-o! I’d only spend time on practicing that fingering when everything else is absolutely perfect!” (ie never)). That’s one less problem to solve. The same page has two or three scales in octaves, which I have tried to play as fingered octaves. Simon suggests playing them as 1-4 octaves. Detailed advice is given on left hand position. Which part of fingertip touches the string? This leads to more supination than I’m used to. One can widen the space between the metacarpals and between the first phalanges of the fingers, creating a wedge form. This offers great perspective for extended fingerings such as tenths. Simon observes that I make extraneous movements with my mouth and head. He explains that in the play of inhibition and direction, inhibition comes first. I finally play the octave scales while concentrating on not making those extra movements, and somehow the octaves take care of themselves. This surprises me, but I have since bought The Violin Lesson, and p. 313 describes just that! Simon advises me to make use of his books: I could profit from them. If my experience in the lessons is any guide, that must be true.

A summary of things Simon taught me shows how much was covered:

- a subtly different bow hold
- - 8 points of contact between fingers and bow
- - - one for the little finger
- - - two for the ring finger
- - - one for the middle finger
- - - two for the index finger
- - - two for the thumb
- - slightly greater distance between first and second finger
- - the difference seems minor, but it has far-reaching consequences
- - - it becomes much easier to produce a bigger tone
- - - it produces more calmness in the right hand, and a resonance between hand and bow I have long been searching for
- - - flexibility has to be invented anew

- the importance of not doing – inhibition – before doing – direction
- - don’t grimace with mouth
- - don’t look down sideways when playing high up the G string
- - don’t make right hand finger movements which don’t help
- - and enjoy the freed energy

- when playing a 4 string chord
- - vary the contact point: nearer the fingerboard on the lower strings, nearer the bridge on the higher strings
- - follow the curve of the bridge
- - use the part of the bow below the balance point to get from the G to the E string
- - revise the plane the R elbow moves in, don’t drop the elbow

- supination of left hand
- - the points of contact between string and fingers are not all on the same part of the fingertip. Left for 1, more to the right for 2.
- - to keep my fingers hovering over fingerboard
- - to use the wedge described above for extended fingerings – tenths for instance

To be sure, this is not to say that no-one else has taught me any of these things before, but it is all too easy to think that you are doing it right when in fact you’re not. Which brings us back to Alexander Technique.

From jean dubuisson
Posted on August 14, 2014 at 1:20 PM
thanks a lot for your report Bart, participating in such a summer school would be fantastic, and I don't think there are so many of these that also accommodate amateurs, I'll keep it in mind for one of the coming summers!
Posted on August 14, 2014 at 1:32 PM
Hello - I read this site on occasion but have never posted or commented previously. I found the information in this post very helpful and it led me to Simon Fischer's website. I am an amateur, adult player. I took lessons from early childhood through being a music major in college, but then abandoned playing for other pursuits as I entered adulthood. I started playing again several years ago and would say that I play on some semblance of an advanced high-school level. I struggle a lot with basics - left hand position, adjusting my shoulder rest and chin rest, and keeping the bow straight. I know these things hold me back. I dream of taking lessons, but as an adult with kids and a job, I never know if I will have a productive violin week, so I have never made the commitment.

Last night I experimented with the bow hold ideas here and found them very useful. Looking at Fischer's site, I see he has several books and a DVD. Based on my particular situation, can anyone suggest a starting place for me? Which of his books would you recommend or is the DVD the best place to start?

Thank you for this post!

From Bart Meijer
Posted on August 14, 2014 at 3:26 PM
Congratulations -- on finding the violin again, and on finding Simon Fischer's books. For me, the best thing about them is that they get you involved in the process of studying the violin, instead of being concerned with the end result only -- endgaining, as F.M. Alexander called it. I think this question - which of his books is best suited to your situation - merits its own discussion thread.
Some teachers on this site have used Simon's material for years and can no doubt advise you better than I could. But for me, The Violin Lesson would be the first book to try, because it is so accessible.
Happy practising,
Posted on August 16, 2014 at 8:59 PM
+1 For The Violin Lesson. I own all the books, but I have noticed that opening The Violin Lesson on a random page and reading for a stretch always brings new ideas and new inspiration.

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