We are creatures of habit, whether we like it or not. Violinists with one year of lessons and one hour a day of practice accumulate thousands of down bows and upbows, millions of whole steps, thousands of half-steps, and a few moments here and there in half position. Whether we know it or not, we have stored incredible amounts of sounds, dynamics, and colors in our minds for recognition and retrieval.
We have the power to make quick decisions as we change the direction of the bow. Will we listen to the prevailing sounds around us and match our bow’s weight and speed to the other musicians, or venture into indiscriminate accents and wayward dynamics?
Of course, few eight-year old children are conscious of this type of storage/retrieval taking place in their minds. That’s the problem with the mind: while it does most of the work of disseminating musical knowledge, it takes some fairly sophisticated conscious thought to get it organized and ready for performance. I remember a sixteen-year-old boy who studied with me a very short time, who couldn’t make anything fit on the violin. He had it all: raucous noise, out-of-tune intervals, tumultuous bow changes, etc. He kept saying “I know what I’m supposed to do,” and he did remember things other teachers had told him. However, he had a mental block against processing all that information into something more organic and musical. All of these things we do are supposed to fit with each other. That fitting and tailoring that we do with all the details we’re juggling is the beginning of the process of fitting with others.
Clarity and Simplicity – Not Sludge
All musical sounds, at least the kind that fit precisely within the jigsaw puzzle we call a symphony orchestra, are based on small kernels and increments. The beautiful tones we hear a great artist playing on the G string are mindful of the context they are part of. This musical world that tones reside in includes small degrees of tempo changes, alternative phrasing contours, dynamic changes, and slight volume changes dependent on whether the notes are prominent or accompanying.
Without limitations, the sounds we create can quickly exaggerate to the point of overtaking others. The most glaring example is the pianist/accompanist who’s barely aware of the violin soloist. The hard-edged phrasing of the pianist leaves no room for the violinist’s musical intent. I call it the Dali effect, and huge volume, massive articulation, and lots of indifference are the hallmarks. Like Salvador Dali’s misshapen grotesqueries, our sounds and phrases can bulge or shrink, and end up convulsing everything around it.
Finding Our Commonalities
The best musical education is listening to great performers and figuring out what they do right and comparing it to what we would have done in the same phrase. The end result is that we discard a bad habit, hear the artist take time in a place we wouldn’t have thought of, and get a taste of his or her thinking process. Finding the essence of a performer and his interpretation means much more than simply noticing what sets them apart; by noticing what the artists have in common, we can learn the most. Take Jascha Heifetz and Arthur Grumiaux, Heifetz with his sizzling rhythmic thrust and gorgeous, sweet sound:
...and Grumiaux with his noble, generous pulses that make room for his elegant, classical sound:
What they have in common is the patience to make sure each beat is complete and proportional. All of their transitions allow for ideas to dovetail from one to another.
Just Do It, No More, No Less
These skills of patiently playing within the beats are harder to learn than they would appear. The problem lies in allowing ourselves to be overwhelmed by the precise focus of Heifetz’s and Grumiaux’sl achievements. Music’s trappings include sensations and emotions that are perfect in their design and in their effect on us. The downsides of those benefits are our over-reactions to them. Heifetz’s precise velocity makes some of us rush, and Grumiaux’s warm, floating sound cause some to slow down. Instead, by understanding how their artistic ideas rest on a foundation of musically organic rules, those principles of common sense will gradually seep into our own playing.
Sound familiar? Our elementary school conductors told us over and over not to rush when we got louder. Those were wonderful words of advice, and their persistent voices did much to stem the tide of overdoing it. Unfortunately, music’s power to focus energy and feelings also unleashes rhythmic side-effects like a tidal wave.
The sounds of these two violinists are a gift to us, so that we can study their depth, their articulation, and how they change as phrases develop. It’s not enough to assume that perfection is born, not made. While that is partially true, it’s much more helpful to believe that Heifetz and Grumiaux worked and struggled to hear how music speaks to the performer and to the audience. By imagining their thought processes, we can become better at the most important job we have, which is to develop our own way of thinking and problem solving.Tweet
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