December 2012

Learning how to Listen

December 26, 2012 20:31

I recently finished reading two literary pieces that inspired me. One is Eric Jensen's "Music With the Brain in Mind" and the other is cellist Marcia Peck's article "Why Classical Music", which is featured on the website of the Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra.

After reading both articles, it suddenly occurred to me that there is a very necessary but neglected skill that classical musicians possess which many in our society sadly
lack. This skill is the ability to listen which, in my opinion, is the most important step necessary to cultivate the ability to understand.

What do I mean by this? As musicians, we are acutely aware of the necessity of hearing the multiple layers of a piece of music that constitutes the whole. This is the main prerequisite for interpretation. The layers I speak of can be voices in a Bach Partita or multiple instruments in a large symphonic work. There are also layers of color (timbre) and rhythm, to name a few.

The beauty in all of this is that a well-written piece of music can be understood on multiple levels by all kinds of people. In effect, a good classical composer is communicating with humanity in such a way that ANY listener of cultural, social, or economic background can understand the message being imparted.

How does this apply to the average person and what is the implication for music education? Children are often unable to focus in school. Some (maybe most?!) daydream on occasion. Aside from the fact that these are often normal behaviors up to a point, and, notwithstanding the fact that boring teachers DO exist, there are slews of children who simply do not have the skills necessary to listen.

Now, listen to me carefully! Once one listens, rather than hears, one can understand what the teacher is saying. Oh - And one more thing! There are also phenomenal implications for cross-cultural understanding because of this enhanced ability to listen. When one truly can listen to the point of being able to understand the core of one's convictions, this results in respect for the other person. The same applies to those who debate sensitive issues in society at large.

As a violin teacher, I approach my lessons with this philosophy in mind. To me, the above reasons are certainly a great rationale for supporting music appreciation in schools.

I'd love to hear what you think!


4 replies

The Parts of the Bow

December 17, 2012 12:54

Greetings dear readers. This is part two of a series geared toward beginners who are looking for a basic introduction to the violin. For part one, which discusses the parts of the violin, click HERE. In this article, I will discuss the parts of the bow.

We will start from the bottom and make our way toward the top.
At the very bottom of the bow, there is a screw. This screw regulates the tension of the hair (which is from a horse's tail). When you turn the screw clockwise, the hair tightens. When you turn the screw counter-clockwise, the hair loosens. I like to tell my young students "righty-tighty, lefty-loosey".

How do we know how much or how little to tighten or loosen? Well, when you have finished practicing for the day, loosen your bow so that the hair starts to "hang" a bit. The hair does not have to be so loose that it touches the wooden part of the bow (called the stick). You can see the photo below of a bow with loose hair for reference. Note that the stick is of a somewhat concave nature.

violin bow with loose hair
Violin bow with loose hair

When tightening the bow, you should stop when you have roughly a pinky's thickness of space between the hair and the stick. Once you can play, you'll get a feel for this in a different manner. You will realize that the ideal tightness is just enough so that you can push down the stick of the bow so that it touches the hair while the bow is resting on a violin string. In the mean time, however, the pinky-method described above is ideal.
Be careful not to over-tighten! Also notice that the stick now has a slightly flatter rod-like shape. If at any time the stick becomes convex, immediately loosen the hair. You have gone to far and serious damage can result to the stick! You may wish to refer to the picture below to see the bow with ideal hair tension.

violin bow with ideal hair taughtness
Violin bow with ideal taughtness

Moving up the bow, we have a black almost-rectangular part called the frog. No, it is not made of frog and it does not ribbit! The frog is the heaviest part of the bow and often has decoration (such as a little white circle in the middle, often made from mother-of-pearl on expensive bows). The frog is also referred to as "the heel" by the French and is where one holds the bow (more on this in the next article).

Moving further up, you might notice that there are some leather covers and/or silver windings surrounding the stick. These are partly decorative and partly practical. When you hold the bow, your index finger will touch one or both of these sections. In my case, my index finger makes contact just above where the silver winding and leather covering meet. We will also discuss this in more detail in the next article.

Now, a quick word about the hair. We have invisible oils on our hands that keep us from drying out. We do not want to transfer these oils to the horse-hair because sweat can damage it, rendering it unplayable. If the violin shop you rented your instrument from gave you a bow that has black rubber-like material coating parts of the hair, ask for a replacement! This is a symptom of someone who regularly touched the hair.

I have been told that if one looks at it under a microscope, there are tiny little bristles that grab the string of the violin when you play. This is why horse-hair is so effective. Yet, it is not effective enough until we have applied rosin to the bow (see photo below). Rosin is a cake of melted and then dried tree-sap. This is not ordinary maple syrup! You may find different kinds of rosins in violin shops and as you get more advanced, you might find that you prefer one over another. In the mean time, however, it is not worth spending much on rosin. A relatively cheap one will do the trick. So how do we apply it to the bow? Well, this is best done once you know how to hold the bow, but in the mean time, I'll give you a primer.

Rosin case for violin bow
Rosin case for violin bow

First, take your rosin out of the violin case. Then take it out of its own plastic case. You'll notice that it looks very clear and beautiful. Unfortunately, we have to scratch it with a coin or sharp object. Just a few scratches will release the rosin dust so that it is "activated". Once this is done, rub it all along the length of the horse-hair. If this is the first time your bow has been rosined, be sure to do this for a good few minutes. The horse-hair should turn white or off-white at the least. Be sure to get all parts, particularly the ends of the bow. Concentrate on one part of the bow at a time and don't be afraid to be vigorous.

Rosin for violin bow
Rosin for violin bow

Speaking of parts of the bow, we can divide it into three parts. When violinists talk about phrasing, they often refer to the "frog", the "middle", and the "tip". Playing in these different parts of the bow results in sounds of different qualities and colors (called timbres). I don't think that it is necessary to tell you where the middle and tip are to be found! What I will mention, however, is that the tip is the lightest part of the bow and requires the most amount of weight and pressure into the string, unlike the frog, which requires that one suspend the upper arm to take weight off the string. We'll get into this more at a later time.

Meanwhile, I hope that this has been helpful for you!
Stay tuned for part three in the series: "How to hold the violin and the bow"

Daniel Broniatowski, D.M.A.
Maestro Musicians, LLC

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