When I was a young boy I started many techniques, such as vibrato, bow distribution and shifting. It took me too many years to learn them because of one huge and maddening obstacle. I applied various exercises mindlessly and tirelessly, without thinking about what was actually happening with those techniques. I would have preferred more talent and natural ability to get me through those formative years, rather than knocking my head against the wall racking up my “10,000 hours.” I don’t knock hard work, but this idea that anyone can be great at something if they spend the time ignores the fact that practicing mistakes wastes time. My time would have better spent if I had searched for hidden slivers of talent that I didn’t even know existed.
I was clearly in a dead end.
Even the tiniest of insights would have been appreciated. Great vibrato involves large motions yielding results over a tiny area. Mine was very narrow because my muscles and movements were strained in the wrist area. If I had instinctively known that the pitch is supposed to change, but never sound out of tune, and that the fingertip will move passively as a result of an extremely wide movement of the arm from the elbow, I would have had greater success much sooner.
From a Dead End to a Cul de Sac to a Roundabout
When it dawned on me that my wrist was too tight and my vibrato rhythm was faster than a speeding bullet, I needed more than the usual exercises. My wrist and speed were preventing my arm from swinging at the elbow. This was a clear case of the tail wagging the dog. If an engineer designed a mental image of what happens during vibrato, it would show a pyramid: the swinging arm is as wide as the bottom of the pyramid, while the fingertip covers the tiny area at the top. I embraced this explanation because there is much that we can learn from engineers about the violin. However, I had a violinist’s brain that needed to dig myself out of the rut known as a bad habit, and evolve slowly to a natural and effective vibrato. I had to unkink the hose.
I used a concentration technique know as “free association” to break through the knotty cramping of my vibrato. I spent five to ten minutes at a time letting my mind wander while I randomly picked out notes to vibrate on. I reminded myself that my vibrato, as faulty as it was, had some elements that were redeemable. This thought kept my vibrato from unraveling, and gave even an imperfect vibrato some dignity. It was fortunate that the pitch didn’t waiver and the vibrato was continuous from note to note. I had to remind myself that future results and successes depended on staying confident and being proud of what I had. I was intent on not letting my musical mind unravel either.
I needed some talent and insight to see the big picture of how the vibrato fits in with the left arm. The problem was that my natural ability was not only limited, but hidden from view. I realize now, however, that there was a reservoir of it somewhere inside of me. But as long as it was dormant, it was of very little help. Its presence, however, served to remind me that these seemingly difficult techniques are actually very simple. I remember my inner voice speaking very clearly, simply stating that the solution would present itself. But mysteries don’t reveal themselves at once. Much investigating takes place to shed light, even at the slow rate of one detail at a time.
For instance, it dawned on me that my vibrato was being activated too quickly. Music is all about how parts fit, such as the vibrato being slightly passive when compared to the intensity and dominance of the bow arm. Not only was the shaking too fast, but it also kept starting over and over again when it needed to be coasting.
The three techniques of vibrato, bow distribution and shifting are very complex, especially when the ear isn’t engaged fully and the eye-ear-hand coordination is faulty. I like to imagine that Einstein had great difficulty with the violin. Was there something inherently difficult about music that inspired Einstein to re-examine the universe? What did he mean when he said that learning music, and specifically the violin, helped him create the Theory of Relativity?
I don’t believe he would have said that unless he had struggled with music. If it was hard for him, I don’t think it’s going to be any easier for us. Relativity implies that applications we learned when we were young aren’t as effective as we thought. As an intermediate or advanced student, it would take creative, adult thinking to solve problems. One student who was having great difficulty with the violin told me that he knew what he was supposed to do, which I think made him feel better. Ironically, all the words we have learned to explain what we do cannot take the place of knowing inside how things actually get done.
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