Practicing Reorg - A Foggy Mind vs A Focused Mind

May 12, 2019, 11:21 AM · 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.

brain focus

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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May 13, 2019 at 05:39 PM · "So much can be improved by simply accepting one’s personal technique and deepening the understanding of the nature and physics of violin playing."

This is the thing that occasionally hangs me up. In knowing what is ok for "personal technique" and what is not accepted. What won't hold me back,what can potentially hold me back and what doesn't matter.

The second part of the statement eliminates much conjecture.

Thanks for these thoughts.

May 13, 2019 at 05:59 PM · Great thoughts, Paul. There is so much contradictory information out there even by famous teachers.

May 13, 2019 at 07:00 PM · I truly appreciate this article! I vividly remember the joy (and pain) I experienced as a 7-year-old violin student when I graduated from open strings to putting down my first finger. I just did it, no fanfare, and simply reveled in the sensation and the sound. There was a freedom I had then that gradually dissipated the more I learned and began to become self-conscious about my technique. Laurie recently posted a video of a very young Joshua Bell playing Tchaikovsky. His left elbow is turned inward toward his body in a manner that makes his arm almost appeared double-jointed. Thank goodness he "took ownership of his technique" and so clearly played "with confidence and pride" instead of succumbing to someone else's vision for his playing. Safe to say his personal style has not been a hindrance!

May 13, 2019 at 08:31 PM · Timothy, Many musical topics can be explored in a personal manner by listening carefully to what goes wrong. It helps me to listen to great violinists and figure out what’s missing in my playing. Rhythm is particularly vexing, but we can notice when and why we slow down or speed up. One thing I try to avoid is the teacher that wants to change everything. It’s hard to run as fast as you can in the opposite direction, because such music teachers appear so sure of themselves.

Michael, Your comment is right on target. When two theories contradict each other, don’t forget they both might be incorrect.

Diana, Your story about your first finger illustrates the joy of music so well. Your observation about Joshua is is helpful in pointing out that we’re all so different. With a little thought, we can celebrate our own differences.

May 14, 2019 at 12:06 PM · I like your alternative ways of viewing these things Paul. This isn't intended to sound pompous. It's more of a stylistic comment. I don't always like what I see from pro players. I don't necessarily aspire to their manner or exact sound. I can always learn from anyone. They mostly aren't doing anything wrong. They are to be esteemed for their efforts, yet as you say we are individuals and might do something that works or sounds better for us. I don't want to do anything that might hurt progress. I'm not good enough yet to make that determination.

It is refreshing to hear these kinds of comments from someone experienced like yourself who leaves wiggle room in technique for the individual!

May 14, 2019 at 02:39 PM · I agree with Timothy! It's so nice to read an article written by an experienced pro who admits to having his own struggles with the violin and is willing to state the view that the teacher is not always right. Paul's perspective is really helpful.

May 15, 2019 at 03:01 PM · Thanks for this Paul. It is so great to read something written by an experience player on their own struggles with teachers!

I've worked with three teachers upon returning, and the first one (while lovely and encouraging, they also insisted I have perfect pitch - but I cannot name the notes so I don't think it's "perfect pitch") had some flat-out incorrect ideas about how to generate a better sound on the instrument (my personal favorite, and breaking point: press harder with the fingers on the string to produce a clearer sound). The second one is a wonderful player and (busy) performer, a truly lovely person and role model in many ways, but was too disorganized a teacher for me - especially from lesson to lesson. This third teacher is my Goldilocks teacher: just right. They're focused first and foremost about finding what works best for me in my capacity to play the music and of course to make as great a sound as I can at this stage of my playing (my bar is quite high, theirs is too).

This third teacher wanted to modify A LOT within my playing when I first started working with them - at first this was incredibly frustrating, because I'd done this rehab of technique work before with teacher #2, but now I'm starting to see the payoffs 3+ months into my second round of intensive rehab work. I spoke with this teacher about what my musical goals are, and I'm doing what they recommend in order to maybe-possibly-one-day reach that point. While I comply with their assignments, I continually question what is being asked of me and why - and testing it all throughout.

It's been incredibly difficult at times though - I have glimmers of what I think is supposed to be going on, and a lot of "you'll figure this out, you just don't know how to do it comfortably/naturally yet" self-talk in the practice room when the recordings show the stark differences between "my" way and "their" way. So far, their way is best in all ways for me except their preferred bow hold - my hold is somewhere between Franco-Belgian and Russian, and they prefer straight up F-B. In my effort to be the ideal student, using the Franco-Belgian hold, my heavy bow literally slipped out of my fingers, landed on the floor and broke - it was a very expensive repair and lesson.

Expensive lessons and all... my bow arm has improved greatly since working with this teacher - no doubt to lots of attention paid to what is happening, why, the result, how to change the result for the better, and so on. I feel like I'm being taught how to teach myself - finally! - and I get what is being taught to me in lesson.

It also helps that I do not leave lesson feeling like I need to fix everything - I have good things going for me, so when things get tough I focus on those very few good things.

I know of a couple of teachers who throw the shoulder pad/rest away - my teacher was a victim of one of those famous teachers back when they were young too. It seems a shame to do this to kids since the goal is to create as much comfort/freedom/flexibility/ideal sound production as possible - not to play with a setup that is the "ideal" for a small percentage of people and terrible for others. I switched from a shoulder rest to a pad a few months ago and that alone was a rough transition! I cannot imagine going from rest to nothing... and dealing with it for two years in confused misery.

May 15, 2019 at 05:27 PM · Pam, You’ve really thought this through and it sounds like you understand your goals. Every goal is meaningful, and both you and your teacher are of like mind. I think we can all strive to play our whole lives.

May 16, 2019 at 12:06 AM · Great article Paul! Here you touches something very important. The constant struggle to listen to the experienced person and the trust in one's own feelings and ideas.

There are two violinists, I'm particularly thinking of and I wonder concerning both of them, when they settled for their very personal bow hold. The first one is Nathan Milstein and the other one is Itzhak Perlman. None of them would be presented in a violin school book as exemples of good violin bow holds. On the contrary any pupil with these kind of holding their bows would surely be corrected by any teacher. I think both Milstein and Perlman contribute in a beautiful way to your writing in this article.

May 16, 2019 at 05:10 AM · Ariel, Bringing up Perlman’s bow hold made me think about the multi-faceted dimensions our bow sounds are capable of. A tiny percentage of what our bows do are covered by books. Bows are almost always slanted in relationship to the bridge, but most instruction emphasizes how straight the bow needs to be. Perlman teaches us so much by example. The way his ear is so finely tuned to his personality, his bow’s spontaneous connection to dynamics, and the springy quality of the string which brings out color and richness, inspires us immensely.

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