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Mirror, mirror

Graham Emberton

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Published: October 16, 2014 at 1:31 AM [UTC]

“Wow, I really need to get a haircut soon…” A desultory glance in the mirror produced profound thoughts such as this when I first entered the practice room this evening. The primary purpose of a mirror has always been to reveal our exterior self as it appears to others, so my inclination to preen was not unusual. Musicians, however, can glean much more practical information than this from our reflections. So, after taking some centering breaths, unpacking, and tuning, I began to play some scales while looking in the mirror, vanity set aside.

Today I used the mirror to monitor tension. I had recently taken some video footage of my practice and noticed my mouth was twitching involuntarily as the difficulty of the music (a Bach fugue) increased. One of the myriad challenges presented by Bach’s fugues are the double, triple, and quadruple stop passages. These sections were causing me particular grief, and my quivering mouth exhibited clearly the stress I was feeling within. Once I knew what I wanted to address, I didn't need a high-tech recording device to check on my progress; mirrors provide the opportunity to receive real-time, visual feedback. I began by practicing double stop scales, making sure my mouth was uninvolved in the process. After going through 3rds, 6ths, and octaves, I returned to the Bach. Selecting excerpts from a few heavily-textured sections, I got to work. Before diving right into the chords, I sought ease by first isolating and playing only the leading voice in each passage (Simon Fischer suggests thinking of fugues as written for choir, with SATB voicing). Then I added double stops, and finally the whole chord (I left the quadruple stop passages for later). All the while I was frequently watching my face in the mirror, checking to see if I was doing anything bizarre. While I wish I could say I completely cured my twitching, I did notice vestiges of it when I had to play several triple stops in a row. But, I was much more at ease than before, and now I know specifically where I tense up (a.k.a where my practice spots are!) Another result of my mirror work (which was a happy surprise) was that my listening improved when I was watching my face. I think this might be because I over-focus on my left hand visually when I’m playing normally. Tonight was a good reminder that my left hand can, in fact, play in tune without me glaring at it all the time. A relaxed gaze opens up the ears.

The way I used the mirror in this practice session was a departure from my norm. Usually I use the mirror to check up on my bowing, ensuring that my bow is traveling parallel to the bridge from frog to tip and back. This is very handy, and something I’d recommend to anyone whose bow likes to wander toward the fingerboard (or bridge) when you’d rather it not. When doing this, make sure you stand in such a way that when you look in the mirror (peripherally), your bridge appears as a straight line and you can’t see its front or back. After delighting in the feedback mirrors can give (notwithstanding bad hair days), I’m curious- what are your favorite ways to use the mirror while practicing?

Posted on October 16, 2014 at 8:10 PM
I shouldn't worry about facial twitches when you're playing something difficult. Most violinists, even at the top, do it to some extent in performance. See this one of Leonid Kogan

I'd go so far as to suggest if a violinist is thinking about their facial expression while they're performing then they're not giving enough attention to what they're doing.

From Graham Emberton
Posted on October 16, 2014 at 11:14 PM, thank you for your reply. I do agree with your assessment in that my facial expression is not going to be of much concern when I'm actually performing the fugue. However, when I'm in the process of building the piece, experiments like briefly shifting my habitual gaze (from my left hand and bow contact to the mirror) infuse the practice session with novelty. I tend to clench my jaw/mouth somewhat when I'm tackling difficult music (perhaps I should have clarified this in the blog), so my goal here was to release excess tension. Maybe the twitch is unrelated to the clench. In any case, lots to work on in a fugue, so rest assured I have other plans for my next practice!
From Graham Emberton
Posted on October 17, 2014 at 3:42 AM
P.S. Lovely Paganini, thanks for sharing.
From marjory lange
Posted on October 17, 2014 at 3:56 AM
I think you are wise to address tension in your body, wherever and however it expresses itself. A facial expression, per se, is not an issue, but the tension behind it is energy wasted.
From Mike Miller
Posted on October 18, 2014 at 4:59 PM
I really enjoyed reading this because I've experienced something similar happening in my playing as well in a Bach Partita (I guess there's just something about Bach that gets the face going), but I've actually noticed a more-than-reasonable amount of tension in my jaw while I played. Sometimes, when I finished practicing, my jaw would actually be in pain. I too used the mirror to solve this issue, and I identified specific points in the music that would trigger my jaw to build up tension; and I can now safely play through the entire thing. I have no doubt in my mind that the mirror is very beneficial to our playing because it never lies! It prevents me from convincing myself that I've nailed a new technique when I'm actually pretty distant from mastering it. I now use it for about 60% of my practice. Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

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