One difference between being a professional soloist and being an occasional one, is that the former’s life is structured entirely around practice, rehearsal and performance; whereas the occasional soloist’s life can be full to the brim with other things which they can’t just stop when the concert opportunities arrive, in order to do nothing but practice. It all has to be done on top of all the other commitments.
Therefore if you don’t have endless time in which to practice, and if you don’t always have your best energy to give to it, you have to be constantly on the lookout for ways to save time, and to make more progress in less time. Every minute of practice must be productive.
Part of saving time is to find ways of fixing multiple problems with a single solution. It was during my preparation for a performance of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, twenty years ago, that I had a ‘eureka’ moment that I reflect on to this day.
The concert was with the Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Sir Charles Groves, and was part of the series in the grounds of Kenwood House, within Hampstead Heath, London. It was a similar venue to the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, though smaller. There was the same sort of enclosure over the stage and audiences of up to 10,000 sitting in the open air, the sound amplified through loudspeakers.
I practiced very hard for that concert, even though I had already performed the Tchaikovsky a few times before, and the last time had only been about a year earlier. "Very hard" meant about 90 hours spread over three months. (I know how long for a fact, because at that time I was going through a stage of writing down in a practice diary exactly how long I had practiced.)
What was I doing all that time? Primarily I was working on making sure that every note was clean, every note was in tune, and every note was musically rhythmically in time. I wanted to make sure that no note was "dropping out" – ie, in a fast passage there were no notes that were either shorter or softer than the surrounding notes. And I was working on all the shifts to make sure they were entirely reliable.
What about the music? Well of course what I wanted was to give a meaningful musical performance. It is a piece of ballet music, full of every possible emotion and excitement – not just an empty technical display. But a favourite quote I reference constantly is from the great Russian violinist Nathan Milstein who, when asked what he thought about when he was playing, said: "I don’t think about anything, really. I’m just trying not to spoil the music!"
Exactly! So what spoils the music? Certainly mistakes of intonation, monotony or lack of expression in the sound (or vibrato), or lack of true rhythm and expressive musical rhythm; and if there is one thing that can mess up all of these, it is shifting.
Like so many important discoveries, my eureka moment consisted of suddenly understanding something that could not have been more simple. I was practising this passage:
I was working on improving the evenness of the descending and ascending arpeggios. The shifts (marked +) caused slight disturbances in the tone and the rhythm.
I had already practiced in dotted rhythms, and with separate bows; I had played only one note, then two notes, then three, starting first from the bottom and then from the top; played with the metronome, starting slowly and speeding up; and various other things. Yet often when I came to this passage, even if I managed to play it "well" it still did not necessarily feel easy.
Then it hit me. I was shifting too late. Or I wasn’t shifting early enough.
I remembered Galamian’s words: "The time for the shift must not be stolen from the note before the shift." That was what I had been brought up on. Here is what it says in Galamian’s Principles of Violin Playing and Teaching:
"One of the commonest faults in shifting is that of shortening the note preceding the move. The reason behind this fault is always a psychological one. The player worries about the shift to the point that he loses rhythmic control and nervously anticipates the correct moment for the move. This gives a feeling of insecurity and great unevenness to the passage. Conscious attention to the rhythmic value and sound of the note preceding the shift is imperative until correct habits are formed."
But if you do not steal time from the note before the shift, it must mean that you begin to shift after you have played the full value of that note (the note before the shift). But now you are already meant to be playing the note AFTER the shift. Then where is the time for the shift to come from?
If you are going to walk somewhere and want to arrive at 2:00, and it is going to take half an hour to get there, you know you must leave at 1:30. Or if instead you go by taxi, perhaps you can leave at 1:50. And if you could go by helicopter, you could probably leave at 1:59. But it’s no good staying at home until 2:00 and then setting out. You have to leave before you want to arrive!
So you cannot stay "at home" on the note before the shift for very long at all if you are going to shift slowly. You can stay on it for longer and longer so long as you shift faster and faster. But the time for the shift must be stolen from the note before the shift! I realised that logically, Galamian’s edict could not stand.
Imagine the passage in slow motion. The down-arrows indicate metronome clicks. Here is the too-late timing:
Here is the "leaving early enough to get there in time" timing. Imagine playing the note before the shift for only a 16th or 32nd, and using the rest of the note to shift:
No matter how early you shift, the group of notes sounds even. It is all about the rhythm of the front of the note. If the front of the note before the shift is in time, and the front of the note after the shift is in time, the notes sound regular even if you actually play only a fraction of the note-value before the shift. Just so long as the beginning of that note is in time.
After my discovery, suddenly every shift became a complete "non-issue." I felt heady with elation because here was not only the answer to this passage, but to all passages!
It was not that I had never shifted well before, I hasten to add! It was just that I had not realised what I had been correcting, in the past, by practicing shifts until they were reliable.
With regard to the Galamian quote, the issue reminds me of another one, this time to do with the bow arm.
I once remarked to the Russian teacher Zachar Bron that it was odd that Carl Flesch never mentioned the "in" and "out" that Galamian describes – the upper arm pushing forward (out) at the end of the down-bow, moving back (in) at the beginning of the up-bow. Flesch talks only about opening and closing at the elbow, which if taken literally makes the bow move out diagonally from the bridge. Bron suggested that it would probably not have been that Flesch did not understand it, but that he thought he did not need to say it.
Looking at the same levers in the left arm, Bron pointed out, nobody says that when you shift upwards, apparently just with the forearm, the left upper arm moves in towards the body at the same time – without which the scroll of the violin would jerk upwards. Nobody mentions it because the movement is automatic. Similarly, he said, it probably never occurred to Carl Flesch that anybody would try to open and close the arm at the elbow without the in and out movement of the upper arm.
Along the same lines, perhaps it simply never occurred to Galamian that anyone could take his words absolutely literally, since of course there has to be a fraction of the note given to the journey.
That may be so, but I remember clearly the day when a fellow student in my class at the Guildhall explained "in" and "out" to me, and the feeling of revelation I had – as well as annoyance that the bow arm I had been taught for years, by a succession of different teachers, had turned out to be missing something vital. And it is the same with this question of the length of the note before the shift.
What has prompted this blog is that recently, as a major part of my preparation for some concerts, I have finally gotten around to practicing an entire key of the Carl Flesch Scale System every day, after putting this off for about thirty years. In my defence I have always maintained that the Flesch is something one graduates to, just as you do not begin with Paganini Caprices. Over about two months I went through all 24 keys twice.
It is many years since I have played Flesch scales, and I have inevitably been filled with memories of trying to play the same scales as a student. How horribly difficult they were! Particularly the double stops. But even in the single-stop sections, every shift caused a bump that had to be practiced before it was smooth and even.
But now, every time I play a shift that is not "perfect" – either the timing or the tuning, or if in any way it does not feel easy and secure – the answer always lies in beginning the shift sooner. And throughout this entire period of scale-work, every time I have applied this super-simple solution, and a "difficulty" has instantly disappeared, the idea of "shouting it from the rooftops" in a V.com blog has come back into my mind.
But what about less-developed players, for whom the timing of the shift is only one factor that needs to be adjusted, and which won’t help if meanwhile they are gripping the neck or over-pressing the strings, and doing all the other things which we mustn’t do?
Of course the other things need to be refined as well, but my point is that many of the tensions and apparent "other" difficulties of shifting actually stem from not shortening the note before the shift.
When a shift is made too late, each one becomes a sort of emergency situation. You know you are already late before you have yet set out, which can easily cause an unconscious, momentary tensing of the hand and left arm, making each shift feel tight or heavy.
Instead, shifting early immediately produces a feeling of great ease in the hand. The sense of having "plenty of time to get there" makes the hand relax and soften, and then the shift works lightly and easily.
Just shift earlier, and you may be amazed at how much the "stress" of violin playing diminishes all round! Why didn’t anyone tell me this before, I lament! It would have saved me so much time!
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