Have you ever stopped to think about just how many different skills come into play in a solo violin piece? I have, and I usually end up regretting it when I’m on stage performing that same piece. “OK, this moment is all about contact point, shifting, and intense vibrato!” Not the healthiest way to perform.
And it’s not just the big concertos or Paganini Caprices that bundle various challenges together. Even the “lowly” Suzuki pieces (which I grew up playing) demand precise coordination and imaginative practice techniques. Just ask my two violin-playing kids, now 9 and 7, who constantly roll their eyes and tell me, “I can’t do this with my fingers while I’m doing that with the bow!”
I’ve been thinking about fundamental skills quite a bit lately, since I’m about to lead a large group of violinists and violists through Bach’s E-Major Preludio. You can join in the fun this coming week if you’d like: more details at the bottom of the post.
The hand we’re dealt
I’ve taught mostly adults over the last ten years, and I’m constantly reminded that everyone comes to the violin with different gifts. Nobody has every single gift (though we can safely say that Heifetz came pretty close). And depending on what you think about the concept of talent, you might say that nobody starts with any gifts at all: that we have to work to develop every skill we add to our case.
I find it more fun to imagine that we’re all dealt different hands, and that the cards in our hand can change value over time. For example, in a game of “Texas Hold‘em” Poker, a pair of 3s might look worthless until the first turn of the community cards reveals two more 3s! In the same way, I’ve seen students discover that they’ve been sitting on a valuable skill for years without realizing how far they could go with what they already have.
Of course, some skills have prerequisites: double-stops are a nightmare if the individual fingers aren’t set correctly; off-string strokes can’t develop properly without a straight and consistent detaché. One of my great pleasures in working with adults is to help them unlock an entire branch of violin technique that had previously been closed off.
The fundamentals of the Preludio
So when I set myself to break down Bach’s amazing (and virtuosic) E-Major Preludio into its most important skills, I knew that every player would come at them from a different perspective.
If you’ve never played the Preludio before, then navigating those famously wicked three-string bariolage passages will likely seem impossible at first. Yet depending on what cards you bring to the table, you may be able to master the stroke in just a couple of days!
And while that may be the most well-known challenge in the piece, it’s far from the only one. You probably encounter most of these tasks every day without even thinking about them. Here’s a partial list of the fundamentals I’ll be going over next week:
Difficulty on the violin comes either from combining two or more challenges (smoothly crossing strings while placing a left-hand finger in advance) or from asking yourself to do something in less time (faster tempo).
Actually, it’s a lot like preparing a meal. Ask me to make you one dish and give me an hour to do it, and you’ll eat well. But ask for a couple side dishes too, and cut my time in half? You’ll get a microwave bounty!
Therefore the practice room is all about “chunking” tasks: making our brains believe that we’re doing just one thing (that contact point-shift-vibrato move from the first paragraph) when we used to have to think about three.
The memory question
Then there’s the fact that so many of us are obsessed with playing from memory. I hesitated to include memory strategies as part of next week’s work, but in the end I know it’s a subject of great interest to a lot of violinists and violists.
And I can’t deny that when I’m forced to memorize something, I do learn it more completely. I often learn it “horizontally” (note to note), “vertically” (the harmonic changes) and “structurally” (where each phrase or section fits into the big picture). I might even learn it visually (where the notes are on the page)! That way, if one system fails in the heat of the moment, hopefully another one is there to back it up.
Plus, I actually find memory work stimulating and rewarding. I’ve found that while I’ve been gifted with good “horizontal” memory (sing me a tune and I can play it back for you), I have to work on the other kinds. And that work ultimately gives me a richer understanding of the piece. It helps me see the music from the composer’s point of view: as a narrative, with a plot and characters.
Bach to Basics and a week’s journey
My ideas about how to break down this incredible piece get put to the test next week, when more than a thousand violinists and violists will follow my five-day plan to learn and refine the Preludio. It’s a free challenge I’m calling Bach to Basics.
I’ll be appearing live for an hour each day, Monday through Friday (May 30-June 3), though all five sessions can be viewed later. We’ll be working from violin and viola parts that I’ve marked with my fingerings and bowings, as well as my collection of daily assignments.
I’ve tried to design next week to be a fun challenge for a wide range of playing levels. If you’ve never played the Preludio (or any solo Bach), you should be able to get your hands around the piece and pick up some new abilities in just a week’s time. If you’re already a Bach veteran you will, I hope, add some tricks to your bag that will help with all your Bach going forward.
To download your materials (the welcome packet includes some preparatory exercises that you can get started on right away), just visit here to register for the free Bach to Basics course:Tweet
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