Shaken and Stirred - Learning to Rest the Twitchy Fiddle

November 27, 2017, 5:44 AM · Here is my report card after one year of violin study, age nine, Dallas Independent School District (out of 100%)

Posture while holding the violin 60%
Pizzicato 52%
Bow sound 60%
Holding the bow 65%
Reading to the end of one line of music and finding my way to the beginning of the next line 95%
Fitting into the ensemble 85%
Finding something to laugh about with my stand partner. 90%
Intonation 59%
Rhythm 60%
Athletic eye-hand coordination 7%
Musical eye-hand coordination 70%
Firm and steady grip on the violin and bow 9%

The reason that the last category got such a low grade was because a jumpy, off-kilter violin is not high on anyone’s priority list.

twitchy fiddle

My very encouraging, positive teacher, Mrs. Billie Cook, made sure that we could read music and move the bow in the same direction as everyone else. She had a contest every week to see who practiced the most. It worked. However, the side effects of playing the violin were being released all at once on my unsuspecting, non-athletic body.

Contrary Motion in 3-D

Just because no one is trying to knock you down doesn’t mean that playing the violin is easy on the body. Like any sport, much eye-hand coordination is required of a musician. Innate ability and talent keep a child from squeezing the bow, and if you’re not born with it, you can discover it hidden within you and develop it. But the obstacles to creating better habits pop up regularly. Cramps, over-zealous momentum and bravado all build up, unbeknownst to the performer.

Holding the bow invites the worst kinds of pressures, those exerted downwards by the index finger and upwards by the thumb. It all adds up to an unbalanced hand, compounded by the bow traveling at inappropriate speeds while changing strings. Guess what kind of effect that has on the body, especially the left side? With all that uneven motion flying around, eventually the violin jerks up, down and sideways. It’s hard enough to play the violin without trying to bow into a moveable target.

This presents a very worthwhile goal to reach: letting the path of both the right and left hands be pure, in a blissful state of inertia, and without unwanted detours. Make the dizzying zigzag motions a thing of the past.

Independence Day

To avoid the chaos of one hand fighting against the other hand, learn the technique of keeping all motions independent, or even better, inter-dependent. For instance, how do you bow smoothly in one direction while vibrating in a different one?

  1. Shift your concentration from one hand to the other. While thinking about the right hand, don’t be satisfied simply with the status quo. Make it even smoother and match the sound you have in your ear. You’ll be surprised how strongly you play when you consciously do more. Don’t try harder with the vibrato, because it may throw off the balance between the two hands. Surpassing technical limitations makes you feel incredible at the end of the day.
  2. While concentrating on the vibrato, notice how quickly the balance of the hand changes. Just playing with different fingers creates a 25% change, and four fingers add up to an entire spectrum of shifting weights and balances. And yet little conscious thought goes towards fixing this formidable obstacle. When you’re older and experienced, you can look around and wonder how many violinists are still dealing with this zigzag phenomenom.

For all of the annoyance that the darting of the violin in every which direction causes, we learn to ignore it and play around it. However, think for a moment of how much easier music is when warring hands are replaced by all the motions moving in perfect harmony.

A Violinist’s Nirvana

As you eliminate the sudden jabs caused by uneven weight, your rhythm will improve. Rhythm requires soft edges as well as decisive centers of energy. The roundness of the vibrato fits in nicely with the floating, interlocking units of the beats.

If the vibrato starts bearing down into the fingerboard, rather than maintaining a horizontal penddulum, you’ll experience a sudden drop of the violin. Air turbulence isn’t fun at 30,000 feet, nor particularly welcome on the concert stage. As the hand changes its balance or weakens from human fallibility, take a moment before it happens. Rebalance the hand. All it takes is a little thought.


November 30, 2017 at 03:00 PM · A comfortable chin-rest/shoulder-rest combination is essential too, helping the player to focus on moving both bow and left hand while "feeling" the music. Also the way we stand or sit while playing makes a big difference: balance and alignment is key to moving any parts of the body effectively.

November 30, 2017 at 11:59 PM · Your early weaknesses didn't seem to prevent you from having a pretty amazing career! Sounds like you had a great teacher who kept you motivated.

December 1, 2017 at 08:35 AM · Thank you, 107, for your kind comment. One thing that kept me going was the variety of concerts, festivals, orchestras and competitions that the Dallas Independent School District provided for us. There is also something validating to the individual who is part of an orchestra. The sense of belonging feels really good.

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