Where were you, Fritz, 50 years ago when I needed you?
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:
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.Tweet
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