Speak the Music, the documentary about Robert Mann, being offered along side the usual comedy and action films. He was the founding violinist of the Juilliard Quartet, a position he held for over 50 years. Mann died on New Year's Day, at the age of 97.Some of the best violin lessons can be found for free on Amazon Prime. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw
Watching Mann play when he was older, I think in his mid-70’s, I noticed an unconventional bow hold in which his knuckles were raised quite high and the fingers would squeeze together. His hand looked cramped, and very different from the Franco-Belgian bow hold he usually assumed. His naturally spaced fingers, normally relaxed and flexible, became transformed into what looked like a claw, and yet were still perfectly functional.
Even though his early videos, when he was in his 40’s, showed a more perfect-looking bow hold, I thought that how he looked was less relevant than how he balanced his thoughts and observations. His musical foundation guided his playing from on high.
What is this thing we call by many names: talent, ear, natural ability, musical instinct?
As I absorbed Mann’s essence in this marvelous film, I was thinking about things that weren’t visible to the eye. What rose above the hand’s inevitable cramping and other earthly concerns were his amazing ear and musical lifeblood, this vital and life-giving force. How can we harness this source, which guides our hands and controls our rhythm? How can we develop that which guides our finger to the right pitch, even when our wrist is cramped and crooked?
When Mann reflected on his musical inspirations as a boy, he shared a remarkable insight. "What was musical inside of me was not known to my consciousness." Each of us has this musical force that defines us and casts its DNA on the technical exercises we practice every day.
Perhaps the most important thing to develop is our musical foundation. If we don’t, the cracks will forever seek dominance.
How the Ear Paves the Way
When I think of someone having a good ear, it means more than just playing in tune. It includes:
Start With How We Hear the Printed Page
Opening up our creative reservoir is sometimes as simple as hearing something that is obvious, but has never been stated. Twenty-five years ago I ran across a word which alerted me to a skill that I had never developed. "Audiation" describes the ability to look at printed music and hear it my head, even before I play it. Coined by Edwin Gordon in 1975, he suggested that "audiation is to music as thought is to language."
Why this was such a breakthrough sheds light on the connection we make between our ears and our actual playing. When you’re young, it's easy to overlook that there’s a disconnect between the two things. But here’s the thing: just paying attention to the purity of the ear makes it easier to directly connect to the playing. Musical biofeedback describes the process we aspire to, in which many of the pitfalls of playing can be avoided when the ear provides a safe harbor and a reliable source to follow.
When you talk to poker or bridge players, they’ll refer to some of their more talented colleagues as having good "card sense." This is a catch-all phrase which describes having a sharp mind, figuring out probabilities and a good memory for knowing which cards have been played.
It’s interesting how we reduce complex abilities of the brain by describing them with simple sayings. If the words over-simplify, like describing spiccato as just waving your wrist, then it will impede progress. However, if a new insight penetrates the status quo, then better results will be obvious. When it comes to streamlining the bow arm and its many duties, or creating a long phrase with forethought, we look for new parts of ourselves that we didn’t know existed.
Robert Mann held a position in the musical world that will forever be a source of inspiration. He could set a template for the rest of the Juilliard Quartet in which each person was able to express the music fully and expand the depth of sound and phrasing. What Mann heard inside, he could verbalize, share and perform. Most of us can do one, maybe two, but not all three. But every day, we have the ability and the potential to experience them all.
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