Learning Spontaneity From Fritz Kreisler

July 11, 2019, 11:48 PM · Where were you, Fritz, 50 years ago when I needed you?

Fritz Kreisler
The young Fritz Kreisler. Image from cover of the book "Fritz Kreisler" by Louis P. Lochner.

My bow arm was in serious need of polishing, that is, maximizing the roundness, purity, and direction of the sound. I hadn’t read Fritz Kreisler by Louis P. Lochner (The MacMillan Company, 1950), but I could have used the wonderful advice Kreisler gave about the connection between thinking and playing, included in his practice tips on pages 89-92:

“I believe that everything is in the brain. You think of a passage and you know exactly how you want it. It is like aiming a pistol. You take aim, you cock the pistol, you put your finger on the trigger. A slight pressure of the finger and the shot is fired.”

“The same should apply to technique on an instrument. You think before, and not merely as, or after, you fire the note. Your muscle is prepared, the physical conception is perfectly clear in your mind, a slight flash of will power and your effect is achieved.”

Kreisler was prescribing something that sounds obvious, but is actually the exact opposite of what many of us do. In 1970 my bow arm was mechanized by technical thoughts, such as how I held the bow, self-consciousness of what my wrist and elbow looked like, and fear of running out of bow. (That fear was justified; I ran out of bow more than I want to admit.) Where I should have simply moved my arm like a conveyor belt, with a minimum number of movable parts, instead I over-thought everything. An overwrought bow arm was the result. Kreisler jumped over that hurdle by thinking first of the musical goal, then trusting the technique to work on its own. He even made a point of showing that spontaneity relates to music and technique equally.

My Inner Voice

I needed some kind of verbal instruction that didn’t exist. One thought kept surfacing through the muddle of building repertoire and suffering through memorization, the mainstays of majoring in performance. As I would play a phrase, I heard a voice telling me to get from point A to point B with more cohesion and assertion. I then played with more resolve, not realizing I was jump-starting all of my movements. Shifts worked better, sound was fuller, and notes were better in tune. Then I’d drift back to the status quo, my bow arm and energy at dangerously low levels. Then I’d give it another shot and feel pumped up again. Wash, Rinse, Repeat. Occasionally a new technique would be required of me. Tenths and up-bow staccato requirements should have been shooed away. I really didn’t need them. What I needed were the necessary words to fix my technical yo-yoing.

The most difficult thing about studying the violin is that the right words you need at a particular time are usually not specific enough. When my bow arm was half of what it should have been, I needed to hear:

  1. Keep the music moving forward; don’t idle into neutral and stall the technique into a state of limbo.
  2. Have the confidence to move the bow with the technique you have. There aren’t hoops you have to jump through or quirky conditions that have to be met to be successful.
  3. Success depends on having a smooth, non-interrupted, and non-scratchy sound. Learn how the hairs and the strings co-exist and figure out how to make bow changes so that your ears are satisfied.
  4. All knowledge should be arrived at with careful study, so that you can call upon it when you need it. It’s only worthwhile if you can implement it quickly, with the pull of a trigger.

Kreisler’s Jump Start

Talking about triggers, firing shots, and flashes of will power gave us a glimpse into Kreisler’s own secrets of success. I can’t read his mind, but I suppose Kreisler had just as many distractions as the rest of us, and his words of advice may have helped him stay focused. It’s interesting that one moment he’s talking about musical conceptions, and the next moment about technique. There’s no doubt that music trumps technique, but it would quickly die without all the rote exercises that we put ourselves through.

In fact, music sees technique as an equal. While Kreisler’s interpretations were obviously so full of life that his musical conceptions were completely untethered to earthly and pedestrian concerns, he valued technique and expected nothing less than the spontaneity he cherished in his musical feelings.

Shedding Whatever is Unnecessary

My bow arm had been answering the wrong questions and listening to the wrong voice. Sure, my bow was straight after years of training. I had had lots of scaffolding to make that work. Now that was too much and unnecessary.

Kreisler’s trigger philosophy applies to sound and organic principles, not pedagogical starting points. The truth always reveals itself when the veneer and the gimmicks are removed.

The greatest among us have their own stories. Daniel Barenboim shared what his father had taught him, in an interview with Emanuel Pahud on the Berlin Philharmonic Digital Concert Hall.

“It’s not about how you play. Some play this way, others that way. Some play from the bottom, others from the top. [He demonstrates different hand positions.] I never had those uncertainties, because I was raised that way. And my father taught me to think in music and with music.”

You’ll be surprised how much fun shedding is.


July 12, 2019 at 05:57 PM · Hey Paul, great article! A bunch of us are interested in the Fouette stroke you described some time ago. Any chance you could go into that in more detail or provide us with a YouTube video? We're interested.

July 12, 2019 at 05:59 PM · Referencing this discussion: https://www.violinist.com/discussion/thread.cfm?page=3167

Here is the article about it, too: Fouette: An On-the-String Sautille

July 12, 2019 at 06:35 PM · Reading between the lines of Paul's characteristically thoughtful essay, I infer that a teacher of the violin can only teach you so much. Things like really smooth bow changes are something one just needs to figure out for one's self. The teacher can put you on the right track and help you understand what the parameters are, but (s)he cannot draw your bow for you.

July 12, 2019 at 08:17 PM · I really look forward to the day when the scaffolding can be removed for my abilities to stand on their own to let the music flow organically...

July 13, 2019 at 04:51 AM · I'm in a sort of musical rehabilitation right now, owing to taking some time off, and this is a very helpful article as I begin putting Humpty back together again. Hopefully, better this time. Hopefully, shedding some of the scaffolding I didn't need, but still leaned on and that held me back. Thanks for you lovely insights.

July 13, 2019 at 04:25 PM · Katherine, I have a love-hate relationship with all the methods that helped me draw a straight bow, play in tune, and keep my violin from falling. The hardest is the straight bow, and I did everything except put up the wire “bow guide” concoction between the bridge and the fingerboard. Good luck with your shedding of scaffolds. I’m sure your playing isn’t as broken as Humpty.

July 13, 2019 at 08:02 PM · Paul, Smooth bow changes are a technique that often made me focus on what my fingers were doing. Teachers encouraged me to flex the fingers, having them switch direction like the fins of a fish. Some teachers also said to speed up the bow before the change, or the obverse, to slow it down. For me that was too much instruction. I’d rather try to make a good sound up to the moment I change, make a good sound immediately after the change, and the audience won’t notice that the string had stopped vibrating the moment of the change. I like that element of magic and common sense.

July 13, 2019 at 10:17 PM · Pamela, I remember my playonair shoulder pad falling off during a concert a few years ago. Perfect example of a scaffold that helps us manage and ameliorate the violin. For one very specific reason, I decided I was done with all shoulder pads. I just left it on the floor of the concert hall. Because I was tired of shoulder pads falling off.

There’s one very famous violinist who insisted that his students not play with one. I disagree with him, because it’s a very personal matter. Who has the right to make that decision for someone else.

Good luck with your own quest.

July 14, 2019 at 07:13 PM · Really wonderful article! Your line..."The truth always reveals itself when the veneer and the gimmicks are removed."... is so true. I've certainly used gimmicks to shortcut technical issues. When I do so, however, I've learned that I will ultimately pay the price for the shortcut. It's a bit like taking lots of medicine to dull an ache. While it's initially helpful, the underlying problem is usually still there. It's probably best to figure out why the ache got there in the first place. Thanks for another wonderful post.

July 14, 2019 at 09:54 PM · ditto-- great insight. That goes along with what some psychologists are now saying: that "Multi-tasking" is wrong. God can do it, but most normal humans, well,the males of the species, cannot. We focus on one thing at a time. You have to do the technical preparation first, but at some point you transfer your attention from the left fingers to the right arm, and then finally focus on how you want it to sound, and trust your body to do the right things. It takes some courage. I am not surprised that Kreisler played that way, maybe most of the time.

July 15, 2019 at 02:30 AM · Diana, good medical analogy! My favorite medicine on the violin is to shy away from a slide or glissando. If I do it half-heartedly, I can ignore the weak result. From now on, I’ll just go for it. Full steam ahead

Joel, thank you for bringing up the debate about multi-tasking. My teacher Broadus Erle said you can’t think of two things at the same time, but you can think about them in quick succession. That sounds like what you’re saying.

July 16, 2019 at 12:24 AM · Re: "running out of bow". Fritz Kreisler never ran out of bow because he used an 'economy' of bowing. He didn't fly from frog to point like many violinists today, and the pressure and measured bowing gave him a fuller, richer sound. It's also important to find the sweet spot between the end of the fingerboard and the bridge. His technique wasn't as astounding as violinists of today, probably, but he didn't think of technique - he already had it at the ready. He thought in music, and the effect he wanted, not mechanics. The physical followed the mental model like a needle must follow the groove in a record.

July 16, 2019 at 03:56 PM · Ole Bull, Great analysis, thank you. Needle analogy works for me. The connection between the needle and record is subtle, vulnerable, and incredibly precise.

July 17, 2019 at 07:15 PM · --Ole, Paul,-- I am glad that someone else has thought of that needle in the record groove analogy. One approach to bowing is to think of the edge of the bow hair tracking in an imaginary groove (or real kink) in the string. As long as we do the proper motions with our fingers,wrist,elbow, it will track on that optimum point of contact. But, if you take all of the weight or leverage off it might slip sideways, like the phonograph needle dancing out of the groove when there is too little weight on the stylus.

July 18, 2019 at 11:50 PM · Although the music for string instruments consists largely of only one voice, compared to other instruments, the playing technique requires two totally different movements of the limbs. The bow arm moves back and forth (in reality in a elongated standing eight), the left fingers are moving up and down. This is difficult

It took decades for me to realize that this total different worlds between right an left is not only mechanical, but also mentally, even emotionally.

Lets look first to the notation of music, which is very misleading. Points on lines suggest that music goes from note to note. But people who never have learned to read music, are not thinking in notes, just as we don't see letters appear before our mind's eye while we speak.

What happens in music, and in general in every art, is emotion, which has no shape, becomes materialized. This is music: emotion becomes sound. And this is what we have to hear first, our inner voice: emotion. More specifically: a feeling that translates into an increasing and decreasing tension BETWEEN each note to the other, over a phrase, over the whole piece. I dislike the word "energy" outside the physical context but pondering about the movement of the right arm, there is an analogy: riding a bike. On every pedalstroke, there is always more or less energy that is taken along from the previous pedalstroke and given forth to the next one. The only thing a biker need to do, is to adjust (to add or lessen energy) every "pedalstroke" in relation to his/her riding, as smooth as possible. Back to music: while listening carefully, each "energy" of every sound is transferred by the bow arm to the next one, in the context of the emotion required.

The left hand has a totally different task: the fingers are going up and down (also in shifts, except in shifting with one finger), and holding the string down at least as long as the sound lasts, without grasping too firmly, landing on the right spot, certain and without hesitation.

In contrast of the biking of the right arm, the left fingers are rather walkers. Not with tightly tied shoes, but with loose-fitting slippers. It takes a lot of practice to walk with confidence on a difficult terrain without loosing them.

This two different worlds, the bikers and the walkers, in my imagination, have to coöperate to express the emotion and to make the violin sound.

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