The first time I shifted from first to third position was probably the clutziest day of my life. I bet my bow was bouncing before, during, and after the shift. I think I was hoping I could remain a first position guy. However, I had a wonderful teacher, Mrs. Simon who lived on the other side of the alley from our house, a two-minute walk. I imagine she smiled and complimented my first try. That’s what I needed to make it through the dismay I was feeling. In the eye-hand coordination department, shifting challenges us no less than throwing a strike over home plate. Musical talent and sports talent rarely intersect, but each need to know the properties that are at play.
Timing is Everything
The bow needs to be fully prepared to withstand the tremor/jolt of the shift. "Frame" the beat just before the shift. Framing helps define a beat far more than a metronome or a tapping foot can. To get a clear picture of what framing looks like, watch the principal brass players in a symphony orchestra on YouTube. Amidst the melodic flow and harmonic atmosphere, you can see the clear and rather prosaic upbeat of a trumpet of French horn player. Once you understand how to actually see the beat, you can incorporate it into your inner thinking. Framing helps define not only the movement from beat to beat, but it offers up the entire DNA of the music, from articulation to emotion.
The Bow Readies Itself for the Shift
When my bow bounced during a shift, it was just behaving normally. There were some things I needed to learn, and I didn’t have that kind of talent that divulges information on an as-needed basis. What I learned over the course of many, many years, was that the bow arm’s balance changes constantly and predictably. Also vital was knowing the skill in which extra pressure can be applied during the shift without affecting the sound. The most important trick I learned was how the hairs and the string stay attached to each other without stress-inducing pressure. Becoming aware of this kind of subtlety rescued my arm from years of having inflicted damage through debilitating muscle usage. It’s quite baffling how I escaped the damage that may have led to surgery. It seems like my arm healed itself after every practice session. About that I was delusional, and just lucky.
Playing With "Neutral Leverage"
While it’s necessary to apply a little more weight as the bow approaches the tip, adding pressure is a relative thing. Maintaining the same sound is much more important than exaggerating the leverage of the bow. During a shift, we add a little weight to the bow pressure to maintain the path and energy of the bow. It needs to be done artistically, not mechanically. This is a reminder that we start our love of music through the ear, and artistic decisions always rely on the subtle interplay of movement, weight, and balance. Don’t get bogged down with self-conscious wrist movements or clogged changes of direction.
The Rainbow Rhythm of Shifting
After months/years of practicing slow shifting, it occurred to me that shifting is a technique that happens surprisingly suddenly and quickly. This realization took a long time because I needed to "rewire" my brain to reflect the invisible frets of the fingerboard. It doesn’t take that long to do that, but it can take years to know it’s something that needs to be done. Here’s where talent comes into play. Someone gifted with spatial awareness sees a long expanse of ebony, and naturally gives it definition, depth, and boundaries. The rest of us fall off the sides, cringe at the thought of playing fifths, and forget how far a whole step is.
Once the "frets" are firmly in mind, so is the distance to be shifted. Good rhythm and framing shows us exactly when to shift. All that knowledge tells us exactly when to prepare the bow to dig in a little and avoid the inevitable bounce/tremor.
I like the term "bracing the bow" to describe the act of preparing it for the bounce. While it often has a connotation of being stiff, I refer to the definition of "giving strength, vigor, or freshness".
Shifting is quick but never abrupt. Music teaches us that not only notes are unique, but so are the moments in which they reside. Spatial rhythm is best visualized by thinking of a rainbow, which defines space perfectly. The line between a fast shift and an abrupt one is very subtle, but, with practice, a player’s sense of perspective broadens. Fast doesn’t seem so fast anymore.
The Kernels of Talent We Develop
None of us is free of talent. Instead we piece things together. We may have a strong sense of sound. Certain harmonies give us chills. We can play super-fast and somewhat accurately as long as we don’t let problem-solving thoughts interfere. Talent is a bowl of opportunity we can cultivate or waste. In the example of the bow bouncing during shifting, every new technique we learn to brace the bow adds more to the bowl. Talent is seeing what physical actions are needed to tame the bow and adapt to its characteristics. Practicing is fun when adult thinking is applied to defining what we do.
To know what to look for when I search for efficiency and natural technique, I remind myself of my friend’s skill/talent that I see every time we play bridge. He seems to let the card sail out of his hand, with a flick of his fingers, onto the table with a perfect trajectory, launching and landing speed, and not a trace of the card flipping upside down while it’s in the air. This is what talent and art look like, and violinists have to work at it in spite of the fact the two hands are doing something completely different.
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