How to Simplify the Mechanics of Violin-Playing

September 22, 2017, 9:18 AM · One thing musicians share with athletes is the desire to eliminate tension. The first time a string player holds the bow, he or she is told to not squeeze the stick. At the same time, the student is asked to play loudly and with power. It’s not easy to do one without the other. A boxer is told to relax his wrist when he’s connecting with the opponent’s face. (Not the usual jargon boxers use, but I think it’s more appropriate for a violin blog.) A rock climber is told to relax his ankles while he or she is hanging upside down from Half Dome. And don’t forget to breathe.

To begin the work of letting go of tension, the one prerequisite is that you accept and cherish the over-all uniqueness of your bow arm. Don’t obsess about relaxation, when there are bigger fish to fry.

Violinists can alleviate the problems of stress and using unnecessary muscles without changing their entire method of holding the bow. The first step is to quit thinking about what you’re supposed to do with the bow and go directly to producing the sound that matches what you hear in your inner ear. The second is to recognize the advantage of changing the internal feel of the hand and working on the subtle manipulations that work beautifully with the bow’s properties and possibilities. The outer look is less important. No two accomplished violinists look the same, but all share the supple feeling that takes place within the bow hand, wrist and fingers.

A simple way to take your mind off of how your bow hold looks is to think of the bow arm as a conveyor belt. Imagine the people mover at the airport, with no mechanical bells and whistles in sight. The bow glides over the strings, string crossings are maneuvered without crashing, and, as your bow changes direction, you concentrate on the string vibrating before and after. Give the arm simple instructions, and remind yourself how the bow hairs and the strings work together. Imagine in a carefree way, as if it were an afterthought, the way you hold the bow.

Not as simple as it sounds. Creating your technique from the inside out is harder than the opposite. You have to deal with the obstacles as they arise. But here’s the positive side: the solutions are coming from you, not a teacher.

There’s going to be tension, doubts and negativity -- all human responses. Do everything you can to realize the potential sound; sort out the method afterwards. We’ve all seen many a beautiful-looking technique, but listening to it is another story. A well-structured left hand doesn’t mean it plays in tune, for example. The detail work of knowing distances and structuring the fingerboard in a matrix type of design insures good intonation.

Mentally Removing Knots

Let’s say your bow hold is good but full of pressures, dents, and skewed balances. Start taking them away, one at a time. Mentally focus on the specific area and culprit (for example, thumb pressing too hard upwards against the stick.) Tell yourself to stop pressing. Then go one step further, and tell yourself again. Set up a continuum of thoughtful reminders. You can vary the amount of adjustment until the moment when you realize you’re not pressing at all. The pain is gone, but the energy is still there!

The bad news is that once the pressure and pain are gone, there’s a possibility that the memory of the pain will linger. Evolving violinists can experience phantom limb syndrome in which the patient still feels the limb even after it has been amputated. The good news is that the violinist will be more careful about starting a new bad habit.

Rube Goldberg

There was a cartoonist named Reuben Garrett Lucius Goldberg (1883-1770) who was known for depicting complicated gadgets that perform simple tasks in indirect, convoluted ways, giving rise to the term “Rube Goldberg machines.”

Rube machine
If Rube Goldberg Played the Violin

This picture of good outcomes and great products built on an odd foundation resonates with me. No one wants effective and visually satisfying technique more than a violinist. However, only working on technique, or worse yet, changing it because a teacher asks the student to, prevents the student from finding a more direct access to the music. Let the music guide the mind, and subsequently the technique will reveal itself.

Even in orchestras, whose practices have been refined by incredibly talented performers and conductors to transcend problems, there are plenty of Rube Goldberg possibilities.

I made some regrettable mistakes my first week as principal second violinist of the Denver Symphony, now known as the Colorado Symphony. I got into an argument/fight with the concertmaster (Hi, Jesse!). I also turned around and told my section that, in Rimsky Korsakov’s Capricio Espagnole, it was OK to play on the D string a passage that every orchestra (including All State Orchestras) for the last 130 years has played on the G string. (You’re welcome!)

In true Rube Goldberg form, every successful endeavor will be accompanied by annoying imperfections. I made soon doozies in Denver. We're all human, though,and when one bad habit is cleared up, we get closer to the beauty and truth of the music.


September 24, 2017 at 08:26 PM · Ah, the Zen of Bowing the Violin (as well as the Viola, Cello and Bass). Like Zen, easy to describe, difficult to execute, it only takes a lifetime, but what else is there to do?

September 25, 2017 at 07:59 AM · Paul, you said it beautifully. It's really not about the technique but rather about the outcome. I'm still an apprentice, and recently I took some lessons with a teacher in Dubai who focused on the rhythm and sound rather than technique (most oriental & middle easter violinists focus on sound not on technique) and I realized that I progressed with him far more than when I was focusing on techniques.

Technique is still very important, but we should work on the outcome...

September 25, 2017 at 12:47 PM · George, you said it very well. I loved your second sentence. When the language of technique is too concrete, I think it shuts down other possibilities that would work better.

September 25, 2017 at 12:59 PM · Mohammed, I'd love to hear more about your lessons in Dubai. If a teacher can change your perception and engage your vision, you're a fortunate person. It says a lot about the teacher and the student. Einstein said that music and specifically the violin helped him develop the Theory of Relativity. I think had he was smart enough to try and figure out why the violin was so difficult for him. Like each of us has found, something he thought was right was actually wrong. That in itself is eye-opening. Relativity shows us how much possibility exists when we look for what actually works.

September 25, 2017 at 02:08 PM · hi Paul, I think the Colorado Symphony needs to update its website? it mentions neither a Paul Stein nor a concertmaster named "Jesse", or is the latter a nickname? good luck in your new position!

see the link:

September 25, 2017 at 03:20 PM · Jean, I'm sorry, I forgot to mention that I was in the Denver Symphony 1976-81!! Thanks for picking up on that.

September 25, 2017 at 05:15 PM · And that's Jesse Ceci, the former concertmaster of the late Denver Symphony, which became the Colorado Symphony. What a journey that orchestra has had! But that is where I grew up, and while other teenagers were up to their shenanigans, I was driving downtown and sneaking in the stage door of Boettcher Hall to go to Denver Symphony Concerts! (Don't tell anyone!)

September 25, 2017 at 09:01 PM · oops, that was stupid, I should have checked your biography first, my apologies!

September 26, 2017 at 04:01 AM · No reason to apologize, Jean! I was vague with the time I was with the Denver Symphony. Now, the mistakes I made in my current orchestra, the LA Phil (from which I retired 10 days ago after 36 years) - those mistakes I'll write about in 20 years. Stay tuned!

September 26, 2017 at 03:34 PM · Congrats, Paul!

September 27, 2017 at 03:41 PM · Excellent article! I was in Colorado during some of those years you mentioned and many consider that time period to be the "golden age" of the DSO. Brian Priestman was a wonderful music director!

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