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Mortal Enemies: Making Peace With the Left and Right Hands

May 31, 2016, 5:36 AM · A funny thing happens when a young student succeeds at playing resonant open strings, only to discover that when he or she places fingers on the fingerboard, the tone starts scratching. If only each hand could move independently, the problem wouldn’t exist. Little has been written about working out the independence issue, but when an exercise that addresses the issue is put forth, it’s usually in the form of overly difficult finger-twisters that Ricci and other virtuosi eat for breakfast, and that the rest of us choke on.


Don’t look for answers from D.C. Dounis, doctor extraordinaire of virtually impossible etudes. He composed “The Absolute Independence of the Fingers in Violin Playing on a Scientific Basis.” This is not the remedy I would recommend to someone who wants his hand to perform normally and efficiently. His approach was to challenge violinists with such difficult exercises that one wondered what was actually accomplished. The lesson learned was that being macho was more important than being musical.

The independence exercises and thought experiments I’m talking about simply remind the arms and fingers what they’re supposed to do. For example, why should intonation get off because the bow arm is consumed with double-stops? Or when the left hand shifts, why does the bow skid towards the bridge? Here’s one that occurs often: when you shift to a different position, the bow bumps away from the string?

The bow starts out usually as the weak link, since we’re so consumed with notes changing constantly. Oddly enough, even in our right-handed culture, when it comes to the violin we’re left-hand dominant.

For true independence to take place, let’s start with the concept of leading with the bow. Give the bow arm as much responsibility as the left hand. If you move the bow consciously, you create a sense of purpose and assertiveness. Alternatively, when the bow moves on automatic pilot, it’s vulnerable to the aerodynamic whims that constantly accompany it.

As you progress, keep both hands equally skilled, so one doesn’t over-shadow the other.

Viva la Difference: Opposites Attract, Then They Attack

When the two arms work together well, it is a marvel of engineering. With a beautiful, velvety sound coming from the bow, and the vibrato timed perfectly, who could ask for anything more? They don’t intrude on each other, nor do they hog the spotlight. How does the vibrato know not to start with the same speed as the bow?

I have seen every pothole that music and the violin can create, at least in my mind. Two things that are opposite in nature will either cut each other down to size, or create beautiful outcomes. An arm moving in one direction, with a vibrato following a totally different path, must come to terms with each other. An energetic detache from the right arm may cause the left side of the body to swing back and forth.

In what ways has music and its accompanying, opposing characteristics, done a number on your body? How did you resolve it?

What the Right Arm Tells Us; What the Left Arm Has to Say About It

The bow arm travels at speeds that vary with every inflection and nuance. The tempo of the vibrato will want to copy the bow speed, yet they aren’t the same. The speed of a shift will interfere with that of the bow. While the bow is highly suggestible, it must keep its speed independent of the left hand.

Even though pressure (or if you prefer, weight, energy or gravity) is an inherent part of the bow arm, the basic motion is horizontal. There is a groove, or channel, that the bow creates while moving through the strings. The angle at which the bow enters the string is an oblique one; it’s not a 180-degree abrupt invasion. That’s why the strings sound beautiful, because the effect is that of gliding rather than the hair hitting the string in a straight down, clunky fashion.

Yet the left fingers move up and down, and they tend to dominate the mind most of the time because there are so many notes to play. Even thought the bow arm shouldn’t do what the left fingers are doing, they can’t help but be a bad influence. The only way that the bow arm can stay independent is through will power and conscious thought.

Thinking raises our playing levels to heights unimaginable to the unconscious mind. If your right hand is stifled by the contrary motion of the left hand, vibrato and finger movements, just tell the bow what it must do to override the obstacles.

Thought Exercises for Getting Unstuck

We know the benefits of having the hands independent of each other, but isn’t the harmonious way in which they work together just as important? The blend of left and right feels different for each person, in the same way that how one holds the violin varies from individual to individual. When someone is comfortable playing the violin, it is easier to challenge and stretch the individual parts. Music, and violin playing itself, can feel like a zero-sum game, in which a small change disrupts the musician’s comfort and competence zone. Instead of feeling limited by such narrow parameters, make changes in one hand while keeping the other hand comfortable.

Independence has never come easily. You need to tell the each hand, in turn, that it’s the right moment to take center stage. The exchange of thoughts that take place in the mind can more easily be achieved during practicing when the bow and fingers are traveling lightly and playing softly. This kind of practicing, called noodling, allows a free flow of creative and strategic thoughts. The player will worry less about little mistakes, and concentrate on what’s more important: that little variations in technique will create larger musical differences.


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