Forget for a moment that Sigmund Freud never played the violin. When he wrote how our unconscious mind guides our conscious actions, and that something we’re not even aware of creates the grand design for how our lives unfold, he could have been speaking to musicians. Young, beginning students lay their fingers on a bow and wrap their left hands around a shape of air, pivoting their arms for the first time in their lives. Will the hand collapse around the fingerboard? Will the right wrist cave inwards or support the bow from above?
The violinist’s subconscious provides the answers. It is the most accurate account of how he perceives the way things actually work. Will he know that the right hand needs to hold the air space more than the bow itself? This would prevent squeezing and collapsing. Will the left fingers figure out the spaces of the fingerboard? Intonation and muscle memory are systems that can be completely defined in the players’ subconscious, but often feel vague and chaotic when simply looking at the bald fingerboard.
There is a grand design to how the parts of a violinist’s mind work together to create a technique that works logically. A good place to start is trying to understand the groove that the bow hairs make with the string. From this exploration, we learn to make the violin as reliable as the piano. To hit a piano key assures us that a beautiful pitch will be heard with proper articulation. Although it’s harder to do it on the violin, it can eventually become just as reliable.
To borrow from a myth we’ve grown up with, great gypsy violinists supposedly never study any method. Their bow movements look liquid. I believe methods can only just begin the process. They are a necessary evil, and if a player is lucky, he’s not saddled with multiple, conflicting methods. Pick your poison and start out with one. Russian, Franco-Belgian, or Egyptian (very high wrist, like a pyramid) will do. Once the outer technique is decided, now the fun begins.
A musician hears the music either from others or from his inner ear, and the goal is to get, as close as possible, the same sound and phrase out of the violin. The talented gypsy has a technique that never interferes with the process. The rest of us run into interferences all the time. Educating our musical subconscious teaches us how to override these.
In the case of the bow’s groove with the string, we can be certain of one thing: hidden within the labyrinth of obstacles is an example of musical physics at its most elegant.
Make sure that the moment a new string is touched, it doesn’t pass unnoticed. When the bow changes direction, the player will either create a new, full vibration, or immediately play a raspy and fuzzy sound. Nothing focuses a violinist’s mind like the need to engage the string, thousands of times a day. How many of us leave the thinness of the E string, but forget to adjust to the thickness of the G string? It only takes a moment to let the hair and the string adjust to each other. It’s so simple, but cannot be described in words. It’s like a gentle kiss, or the formation of a bubble, which is a thin sphere of liquid enclosing air or another gas. The result is as if a flower blossomed at that moment. No wonder musical sound is so beautiful.
On first glance, the bow is unwieldy. It is usually the accomplice to the crime of pressing, slamming, leverage to the degree of critical mass, and finally, hydraulic movement into the mud of the fingerboard or the wall of the bridge.
On the other hand, what about the bow’s design is so perfect? It can make a groove that gently depresses the string, and keeps it spinning and vibrating. Once the string has been engaged, which is the process which starts the groove, the player reminds himself to avoid the pitfalls. If he needs to add pressure, there will be no problem as long as the hair remains fundamentally horizontal.
I don’t like the term “into the string” when describing the symbiotic relationship between the hair and the string. Along with the popular suggestion to add pressure with various fingers and/or the wrist, there is a powerful tendency to overcome and choke the string. One of the beauties of the bow’s design is its power to change dynamics and color with no “manufactured muscles” brought into play. A mere flick of the “mental muscles” provides all the necessary technique. This means that the arm responds to simply thinking louder or softer, and a neutral, organic arm provides exactly what is necessary, no more and no less.
Whatever loggers do when they’re in the river, competitively spinning logs, is the same as what the bow does. I would try to put it into words, but the image works alone. The word skimming comes to mind. Also, I imagine the loggers think they’re walking on a flat surface, keeping a horizontal frame of mind. The biggest obstacle for a violinist is not realizing how close the hair is to the string. It seems that the brain rests in the hand, and there’s no awareness how far down the bow goes until it reaches hair. Factor in changes of string thicknesses and lack of attention to the geography of the string changes, and before you know it, it’s pretty hard to avoid a four car pile-up.
The hair is always closer to the string than it appears. I find that the image of “playing the air” works for me. Because of years of scratching, I think of the hair actually clearing the string and staying above it, and lo-and-behold, gravity will lower the hair exactly as far as it needs to go. Just to counter-act years of bad habits, I find myself pulling away from the string. Gravity is a great thing, but sometimes it needs to be handled.
The Words That Help Our Subconscious Thrive
Water transports us, and the bow’s groove is like a boat, while the wake represents the generous width of the path. All those years of working on a straight bow paid off, but we should spend one week reminding ourselves that a tight, overly obsessive straight bow will not create a full vibration.
Our bow sometimes grinds its way up-bow, as if it’s pushing against gravity. That’s a figment of your imagination, and it’s grinding the sound as well. Let the bow move itself, and the hand will simply go for the ride. All those years of teaching yourself what the hand does to make the bow straight would have been easier if the mind simply told the bow what to do. Leave out the middle man. The neutral hand would follow the bow’s lead.
Our subconscious mind is our collection of reminders to ourselves. There is a possibility that Freud did play the violin, and a biography of Fritz Kreisler says that Freud played chamber music with Kreisler’s father. Wikipedia doesn’t clear up the controversy of whether he did or didn’t. For once, it has failed me.
Freud would have loved Kreisler’s humility about his own talent. He said “I was born with musical feeling…Do people praise fishes for their swimming?” What a rich reservoir we possess in wondering what Kreisler’s subconscious looked like. We are so lucky that, in listening to his playing, we can continue to understand what talent looks and sounds like.
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