Dual and Multi-Tasking - The Violin as a Thinking Game

January 3, 2019, 3:53 PM · Robert Jourdain published Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy in 1997 and pinpointed the difficulty of playing rhythmically: "It’s often said that rhythm is music’s most 'natural' aspect, that it comes to music from pulsations we find in our bodies. This is one of those observations that, like the flatness of the earth, is blatantly obvious and blatantly wrong."

brain and music

Rhythm has plagued me my whole life because I began my musical studies with the gift and curse of playing in an ensemble as soon as I picked up the violin. The gift was that I was invited to fit into a musical, sonic, and rhythmic template. The curse was that I was invited to fit into a musical, sonic, and rhythmic template.

When the rhythm, texture, and melody were handed to me on a silver platter, with conductor and fellow musicians laying out a clear path, the negative side effect was that I took it for granted. When it was all taken away, leaving me having to figure out things in the practice room all alone, I had to learn self-sufficiency.

This is where the art of thinking while playing becomes very useful and helpful in breaking down barriers.

Thought Experiments

Let’s start with how we learn to value and appreciate thinking. The typical rhythmic mistake many of us make is over-indulgence; we play too long during half-notes, mindless of the subdivisions and the general rhythm of the ensemble. It takes a lot of thinking to correct that problem. The first thought, and the most important one, is knowing that we started slowing down. (Music’s structure is so tight yet sensitively proportioned that it’s no surprise we all slow down and speed up.)

The second thought is to define the beats more clearly, not as simple as it sounds. When we linger on an emotional rhythm, we pretend that beats can be vague. Instead of blissfully ignoring reality, we must think rationally. If the beat is wavering, we need to question how we’re hearing it. If our ears are temporarily failing us, quantify the beat in a different way. Just as conductors create a shape for the beat, we may need something more specific and reliable.

Oddly enough, I have found that thinking of a brick creates the image of length that I can rely on to keep me on a sophisticated, rhythmic path. Musical thinking allows for this kind of image because the beat will remain comfortably consistent even when rubatos and ritards are at play. In other words, the beat stays the same, but it plays tricks with our brains. (Nitpickers may quibble about beats wavering between eight to twelve metronome marks, but in a slow-ish tempo, a great musician considers that fluctuation the price of a beautiful rubato or harmonic change.

There’s Just One Tiny Problem with Thinking

Musicians impress others with the dexterity of their fingers, and violinists in particular are singled out for playing in tune on a fretless fingerboard and shaping a beautiful sound out of a structure built on a house of cards. (compared to the solid edifice of the piano, chimes, and bass drum.) Yet ask a violinist to think while he’s playing, and make one or two changes, and the mind’s quirks come into play. The first time I heard my fourth grade conductor in Dallas say "don’t rush when you’re getting louder," she wasn’t just whistling Dixie. She was giving me my first glimpse of the trickiest thing in music: fix one mistake and create three more. It sounds overwhelming, but it’s not the same as plugging the hole in the dike; no one is going to drown.

Yet we must come to terms with this dilemma and create a technique that makes thinking fun and not a burden. If we know in advance that changing one fingering may even disrupt the bow arm, we’ll be more prepared to deal with it. Changes create side-effects. Plan on fixing the fallout in two or three attempts. This is the easy part. The hard part was realizing a change needed to be made and thinking of a strategy and a solution.

This process of musical growth is the most enjoyable and rewarding aspect of our love of music. By definition, nothing we play is an island unto itself. There is always a gentle, or in the case of playing in an orchestra, an urgent responsibility to match the prevailing phrase, dynamic, and tempo. Change is inherent, and thinking is the means by which we achieve it. We can’t change it or wish it away, but we can accept it. It will never get easy, but we’ll keep getting better at it.


January 4, 2019 at 07:09 PM · Another great article! Your comment about playing "too long during half-notes reminds" me of something I heard famous countertenor Andreas Scholl say. He talked about the need to always hear the underlying pulse when we're playing (or singing) sustained notes. As you point out, we're so busy worrying about other things, such as bow control, intonation, etc., forward momentum takes a back seat. Thanks for some good suggestions on how to think and reconcile multiple issues simultaneously.

January 4, 2019 at 09:50 PM · Tomita, using his programing skills, played Bach with extreme precision. It was unique, interesting, and boring.

Yes, we hang on some notes, cut others short, strive for precision and create music that has no soul. I've heard someone describe music as the language of emotion. That works for me.

My guess is that nobody, not even the best-of-the-best string (or other instrument) musicians are perfect in rhythmic ability. I've sometimes sat in concerts with pocket/study scores - reading along. There they are, the shortened notes, elongations, all those imperfections within an ensemble or even a solo. Yet, the music sometimes moves me to tears because the musicians managed to convey something deeper - much deeper than printed notes on a page.

To be sure, that doesn't mean we don't try and I love trying to play a totally unfamiliar piece as I try to play the notes as written in relative time with each other. I'm often surprised that as I become comfortable, a little Rubato comes to the surface and it usually feels right.

If it sounds good it is good.

January 5, 2019 at 01:48 AM · What amazes me about music is the thin line between playing the notes metrically and playing them musically. My practice sessions bob between playing steadily and then, as you said eloquently, George, “a little rubato comes to the surface and it usually feels right”.

My favorite violinist these days is Vilde Frang, whose control of rhythm and rubato has no equal. I welcome this era over the years of Ricci and Heifetz. I think that music has far more possibilities when rich, thick sound is no longer the end all and be all.

January 5, 2019 at 05:53 PM · Thank you, 87, for your reference to Scholl and how singers have the same issues when it comes to rhythm. Whenever I have anxiety about how difficult the violin is, I remind myself at least I don’t have to worry about breathing like a singer. My biggest fear is an out-of-control bouncing bow. I still prefer that to running out of breath.

January 5, 2019 at 08:36 PM · This interesting article by Paul Stein reminds me of the art of David Oistrakh and I have some ideas of the rhythmical aspect of his playing. I've heard him as a soloist in life three times, and one of them included a rehearsal of the first Violin Concerto by Sergei Prokofiev. These three moments became an ever growing inspiration of what life can offer; to that extent that I felt it worth being born only for these seconds. Listen to David Oistrakh created in me a concentration, where every second could be divided into units of thousands. Everything was there: the meaning of life, the beauty of sound...; still there is one thing that I particularly relate to these moments and it is the rhythm. One had the sense that Oistrakh had all the time in the world, even in the most difficult and quick parts. His playing was never forced. It was like the rhythm was his best friend instead of being an invisible frustrating force.

Three things which might be worth considering concerning the art of Oistrakh's playing: 1. Pyotr Stolyarsky, Oistrakh only teacher, never forced the talented young boy to become a child prodigy. Stolyarsky realized the great potential in his pupil, so instead he let him have his time and nurtured him with all what is needed for a musician. 2. Chamber music became an essential part of Oistrakh's education and continued to be during his whole life as soloist, conductor and teacher. This one can hear in his playing. Everything what Oistrakh did was in the spirit of being a chamber musician. 3. The young boy loved going to the Opera in Odessa. It was here the beautiful singing sound of David Oistrakh was born. Both the singing sound and the extraordinary sense for a living rhythm can in my opinion partly be related to his love for opera.

January 5, 2019 at 10:50 PM · Yes this made me think of a recent chamber music session with friends reading the miraculous Brahms string quintets (Op. 88 and 111). The rhythmic intricacy is like solving an enormous puzzle at high speed with all five players playing an essential role and having to continually adjust to each other. So hard, so much fun, and of course you are bringing to life this gorgeous work of art.

BTW I love Vilde Frang. There is a wonderful youtube of her playing the Brahms 111 with a excellent group of musicians: https://youtu.be/Ye2pDTJNm6U ... It is hard to grasp how hard this piece is to play for all five musicians unless you've worked on it.

January 5, 2019 at 10:51 PM · Yes this made me think of a recent chamber music session with friends reading the miraculous Brahms string quintets (Op. 88 and 111). The rhythmic intricacy is like solving an enormous puzzle at high speed with all five players playing an essential role and having to continually adjust to each other. So hard, so much fun, and of course you are bringing to life this gorgeous work of art.

BTW I love Vilde Frang. There is a wonderful youtube of her playing the Brahms 111 with a excellent group of musicians: https://youtu.be/Ye2pDTJNm6U ... It is hard to grasp how hard this piece is to play for all five musicians unless you've worked on it.

January 6, 2019 at 12:58 PM · Ariel, your description of Oistrakh is excellent. You depict him in a way that describes the secrets of music themselves. That rhythm can be someone's best friend is a beautiful image in contrast to the feeling that beats can feel faster and faster. The richer the harmony and the fuller the sound, the more time we have to play each phrase. Bad rhythm has the feeling of walls closing in on us. The opposite feeling is one of space, time, and freedom.

January 8, 2019 at 09:21 PM · I think of rhythm as a skeleton - the framework on which music is built - as well as the heartbeat of the piece.

The most common rhythmic error I hear in people who sing - particularly those with no musical training - is to drastically shorten rests, as if the absence of a note means that even that interval of time doesn't exist. If I'm accompanying such a person on an instrument, I can stifle these urges by playing fills at the end of each line.

A common rhythmic error among instrumentalists is to rush a quick passage. The sight of a run of 16th notes can trigger a case of nerves and cause a player to rush through them too fast - which just increases the chances of making the mistakes they feared, especially since the rhythm is disrupted.

When it comes to tempo, I'm quite conservative. I've heard a lot of wanton rubato which disrupts the flow of the music without warning, as if that 4/4 passage suddenly had a measure of 9/8. Listening to it feels like being a passenger in a car whose driver is swerving erratically - and is about as unpleasant. A judicious, well-placed rubato, on the other hand, feels as natural as the way a car slows down when rolling up a hill, then resumes speed on the way back down the other side. (The hills are part of the structure of the piece, not some gratuitous quirk of the player.)

The way sheet music is written can have a great influence on its rhythmic sense. Adding cue notes for another instrument can identify a measure as being a pick-up as opposed to the start of a phrase, and save a lot of confusion. A particularly barbaric trick is to write music where phrases start in the middle of a measure. I've seen this in a lot of baroque music, although I'm currently struggling with it in Donizetti's Don Pasquale overture. Or perhaps I should say I was struggling with it - it got so bad that I re-scored my part in Lilypond and inserted a measure of 2/4 at the beginning and end of each problematic part, to shift the bars to a more natural spot. Others don't seem to have the same problem with it - or at least they think they don't, but the number of timing errors might tell a different story.

Rhythm is the glue that binds together the players in an ensemble. There's nothing quite like when everyone is in the groove - and when we all look at each other and pull off a nice rallantando to the final note, it's a bit of heaven on earth.

January 9, 2019 at 11:27 AM · Charlie, your image of rubato being like a car going up and down a hill is excellent. Rhythm is the glue that binds us together, as you mentioned. I would add “for better or worse”, because, if we’re not careful, the weaker rhythm in the ensemble has a unique power to dominate.

You mentioned re-barring problematic phrases. I like that approach, whether one actually writes it out or notes the difference in his thinking. Conductors have to show phrases in their hands, and indicate where phrases begin and end. Darn, they make it look so easy.

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