Do you ever wonder about the curious relationship between the simplicity of an exercise and the relative difficulty of executing the technique? For instance, playing in tune is a lot harder than aiming your fingers on the tape placed on the fingerboard. Another example is trying to play pizzicato after being told to use the flesh of the fingertip rather than the nail. By the time I figured out that I was overplaying the pizzicato, I had wasted years producing plucked, distorted tones.
Of course, most of us want our teachers to give us simple sounding instructions, with the belief that our playing would improve. For years I truly believed that hope springs eternal and waited in vain for this or that teacher to fix my problems.
The curious truth is that I had to discover on my own how to make the violin sound natural.
Trial and Error and Perseverance
After the teacher’s work is done, the student goes home after the lesson with new descriptive phrases. As far as the right hand goes, words of lightness and sostenuto may be in the air. On the other hand, an extreme change may be prescribed, like a Franco-Belgian bow arm replacing a Russian bow hold. Thoughts of a major overhaul may cast a pall over the player’s brow. A red flag should go up in the student’s mind if the teacher asks for a major change as opposed to working with what the student already does. A good arm vibrato that needs a slight overhaul is doable. On the other hand, changing to a wrist vibrato can take years. What’s the point, if the arm vibrato comes more naturally?
The good news is that many small changes add up to huge improvements. Building sound is a good example of how an encouraging teacher can pinpoint goals without tearing the student’s technique apart. Sustaining at the different ends of the bow is one place to start. Giving him healthy ways to play “into the string” without forcing will fill his brain with useful and organic thoughts.
Musicians Accepting Each Other’s Strengths
No one ever improved with neat sounding philosophies that were thrust on a student by professors that taught by panacea. Music is unique in that things stay the same until they become different. (I know that sounds odd, but it reminds me of the obvious “the shortest distance between two points is a straight line”.) I’ve played in orchestras where the conductor would take it on himself to solve the orchestra’s Achilles heel, would succeed for the briefest moment, and then realize that the orchestra would revert to its traditional ways before the double bar. The smarter the conductor, the more respect he has for the musicians, and the less likely that he will obsess about their so-called fatal flaws. Carla Maria Giulini and Simon Rattle come to mind. Their own visions were more important than dissecting the musicians they were working with.
When fellow musicians in the orchestra start judging and disparaging each other, it shows how little they understand ensemble playing. We learn to think more clearly and rationally when we understand how much more we can improve our own playing.
Intense and Personal Practicing
Exercises and concepts we’re given by our teachers and what we learn in books only open the door to our development. The greatest joy in music comes from knowing how much sheer perseverance lies behind our personal discoveries. Just because a teacher may suggest how the bow hairs get into the string, it is not as valuable as understanding it yourself.
The instruction we get follows us into the practice room, where we get our opportunity to develop and own our beliefs. The core of musical communication is sound, and we must believe and have faith in our personal understanding of it. There’s a certain sound that we associate with violin playing: warm, rich, vibrant, filled with direction, fluffy, conversational, emotional, etc. Our bag of tricks imparted in our lessons includes getting into the string, speeding up when you change bow, wrist turning inward on the up bow and outwards on the down bow, etc. However, every measure has a slightly different bow distribution; sometimes the wrist doesn’t need to move during a bow change; the slant of the bow can point towards the bridge; the bow is anything but straight. Such is the complexity and brilliant logic of the violin. Anyone who merely follows the rules misses out on the hidden beauty and unspoken structure.
With knowledge comes confidence. During a performance, when lots of choices need to be made, every phrase gives us an opportunity to trust our instincts. Rather than holding back during a shift, we can break out of our physical bounds and play with a smoother, more directed, movement. We jump hurdles, and just when we’re faced with an important crescendo, or we change colors for an intimate harmonic change, we make the choice to put everything we have into it.
Music is full of such moments. Only our confidence and drive are the stimuli for really clearing the hurdle.
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