Even though fingers look beautiful when they assume the left-hand position on the fingerboard, they’re not designed to look like that. Violin teachers try everything imaginable to set up a primitive template that helps children make sense of intonation and hand placement: stars, bars and marks-a-lot fixed on the fingerboard, commercially designed “rulers” that you can tape on, unattractive appendages that try to keep the wrist from touching the violin’s neck, etc.
We’ll do anything to play in tune, and fingerboard graffiti show us where our fingertips go. We use whatever talent we have to give us a clear picture of what actually happens when two incompatible shapes, the left hand and the violin neck, become one. However, there’s a blind side in each of us that causes various problems, like the hand collapsing when it changes string, or not moving the hand a little BEFORE the finger moves. The more we understand how things actually work and why things break down, the more our talent grows.
Find the Teaching Tool in the Garage
Speaking of how things work, why is it so difficult to evolve from a slippery, sliding finger on a chromatic scale to an efficiently moving finger that “clicks” into place? Flutists and other wind players can commiserate, while pianists and percussionists may wonder “What’s the big deal?”
Since our fingerboards don’t have frets, there’s an implicit invitation to slide from half-step to half-step. Beware such an invitation. The resulting sound is not just bad intonation, but bad rhythm.
One of the paradoxes that music and violin playing is so (in)famous for is that the bow moves smoothly while the left fingers are more machine-like, precise and structured. If the bow movement is smooth and unflappable, you can move one finger a half-step, whole step, or any interval for that matter, and make it sound legato. The trick is to place the finger inside a very precise, centered orbit, on the correct pitch. The lurking danger is that fingers tend to waffle and gravitate to other areas, and orbits bleed into each other and co-mingle rather than retain their independence and identity.
Fortunately, there is a teaching tool for this tricky movement. The socket wrench illustrates how fingers move and click into place. Even though the concept sounds stiff and metallic, it combines elements of uniform rhythm and mechanical reliability. These qualities are so essential in musical performance, but not easy to describe in words. Just as a picture is worth a thousand words, the right image or analogy can help us unlock the mystery of the technique.
A socket wrench has a ratchet mechanism, and this reminds us that there are no short cuts when it comes to physical dexterity. While half-steps may seem like the baby steps of the violin, it is just as important to measure them as it is larger intervals. The most common mistake when shifting a half-step with the same finger is that the finger doesn’t move far enough.
The Bow’s Blanket of Sound
Don’t worry that all this talk of clicks and mechanical movements of the left fingers will result in a dry, percussive quality. Here is where the bow arm performs two miracles. It maintains an even and smooth sound from one stroke to the next, and provides a boost to the confidence of the left hand. The number-one cause of a faulty shift is the lack of support from the bow arm.
All those rote exercises we did as beginners do pay off. Our mechanically trained left finger movements will produce precise pitches, evenly spaced; our bow arm engages the constantly vibrating string, which provides a beautiful texture on which the notes will thrive. While the fact that these movements, which have little in common with each other, are the bane of our existence, the achievement of having them work together is one of the human miracles upon which music is based.Tweet
This article has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.
Violinist.com is made possible by...
Discover the best of Violinist.com in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews.