From the age of 8 to 22, the high point of my practicing the violin was when I was 8. The low point was ages 18-20. Since I had no pre-conceived notions as a beginner, I soaked up ideas and techniques. Not without bad habits acquired daily, however. Nevertheless, my childhood brain morphed into a musical and technical resource, and, to this day, it has served me well, even during the dreaded freshman and sophomore years of college.
The feeling I had in my first few college lessons was that the floor on which I was standing was no longer there. I was asked to remove my shoulder pad and I was given a new bow arm that made my arm, wrist, and elbow resemble a figure 8. I had no way of knowing that such changes would disrupt my basic identity as a violinist and dissociate myself from my style of playing.
The power of the teacher to impose a persona on a player may, in many cases, never be challenged or even questioned. To say the least, it was a jarring ordeal. Music thrives on organization and focus. Practicing with vague goals spirals into an aimless abyss very quickly.
Utilizing Practice Time
The difference between practicing with a sense of discovery and being guided by superficial theories is like night and day. A positive experience while practicing sound production would entail thinking about the relationship between the hair and the string, which is the truest source of the sound.
Another good use of time would be to understand how the change of the bow’s direction works. I spent many years being too conscious about how my fingers moved, without any positive effect on the cracks and holes in my sound. Instead, when I concentrated on keeping the sound consistent and warm right up to the point of change, and started the sound with a proper string engagement as soon as I changed direction, I produced a nice tone with no interruption. This type of thinking produced other logical conclusions. My timing had to be better, and the tiny moment when the string stops vibrating happens so precisely that it’s not noticed by the performer or the audience. It’s seamless in sound, but anyone watching the string knows that it had stopped.
Knowing What Unites Us, Not What Divides Us
Each of has a unique way of holding the bow and spacing our fingers. Gaining insights into what each of these have in common would pay far more dividends than arguing about which is better. To gain confidence and take ownership of your own technique, identify how you hold the bow, define it with words, create a theory to support it, design an exercise to develop it, and even give it a name.
For instance, imagine that you have a flexible bow hold in which your knuckles are high up, is shaped like the letter V, and resembles the point of a pyramid. The advantages are that the hand is not crowding the stick and the weight of the hand has been minimized to lighten the pressure. The flexibility of the hand makes it easier to change direction because the hand’s shape gently acts like the fins of a fish. You could call it an Egyptian bow hold, thus recognizing that this is your personal bow arm. These simple steps will help eliminate doubt in your bow arm’s power and potential.
So much can be improved by simply accepting one’s personal technique and deepening the understanding of the nature and physics of violin playing. At the age of 18, I needed help to avoid playing with my countless scratches and squeaks, and to put an end to the endless out-of-tune notes. To this day, I don’t see how taking off my shoulder pad would help me. I kept it off for two years, left the teacher, and, without any fanfare, put the shoulder pad back on.
Consolidate Your Knowledge and Identity
I’ve learned that every blessed detail on the violin works independently. If I wanted to play in tune and quit squeaking with the bow, my concentration needed to be broadened beyond mere obedience to the teacher’s wishes. I’ve heard the theory once that playing without a shoulder pad improves intonation. Another violinist postulated that the security of a shoulder pad also improves it. So does playing with a high thumb, low thumb, flat fingers, and high fingers. Theories seem to thrive on being supported by lots of explanations and proponents, but often there is a superficial connection to logic. Faux Logic.
When is the best time to consolidate what you know, accept it, and get to work on the details of playing that fall under the umbrella of common sense? College, for sure. Why wait until then? After ten minutes of practicing, put it all together and play with confidence and pride. Since music and the violin represent a sum of its parts, choose the parts wisely. There’s an art to making them work together.
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