Every gadget is not necessarily a gimmick. I would like as many gadgets as possible to compensate for the quirkiness of the violin. I welcome fingerboard tape, metronomes, shoulder pads, bow guides, and pre-existing bow holds (Russian and Franco-Belgian). They become gimmicks only when they outlive their usefulness. I can’t imagine how I would have played in tune without tape when I was eight, but I spent far too long looking at the tape rather than just knowing where it was.
I once saw a photo of an antiquated shoulder pad that had an attachment that reinforces a connection between the violin and the sternum. Too much, you say? Truth be told, it looked grotesque and medieval, but to a teacher who pleads with students to hold their violins up, it was a gift from God.
Seemingly effortless perfection
Jascha Heifetz played with his violin at the perfect angle and his face lined up to convey dignity, passion, and intensity. I wouldn’t be surprised if the violin god let his “best side” be the one that the audience saw. Considering he didn’t use a shoulder pad, but merely a handkerchief tucked inside his coat, his violin appeared to hold itself in place with the magic of levitation. On the violin, nothing happens by accident. Only Heifetz can tell us how he achieved that look. I think Violinist.com would be a wonderful platform for him to share it with us. Jascha, are you listening?
One of my students is a second-grader who places her hand on the bow to create a perfect looking hold, streamlined, knuckles not to high, and fingers spaced just enough to show poise, flexibility, and a little bravado. I asked her mom if her previous teacher had made this a priority and had her work hard on it. The answer was that the student had been shown only once where to place the fingers. I would have fallen off my chair if the mom had said one of those little “elephants” that you can attach to the frog was used to create a template for her hand to fit on. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in the elephant, but only to avoid a complete collapse onto the frog, not to create a sophisticated hand structure. My student won’t reveal her secret.
Our minds do two things very well: nag us to do the right thing and form images of stability and safety. We step off curbs and follow conductors without looking directly at them. We formulate the boundaries of the beats with athletic precision and hear phrases played in a unified manner. If we’re listening correctly, the clear structure fills our mind and guides us rhythmically and dynamically. Our own gentle nagging and the unwritten rules, both musical and societal, keep us from veering off course. In the rare instances when buckaroos think they’re stars of the rodeo, stand partners try to keep their distance from such offenders, while occasionally inflicting shame on them on behalf of the rest of the section. Structure and limitations are the silent forces which guide our every move.
Left Hand Structure-Working With the Wilted Bouquet
While there are inventors who have manufactured hardware that keeps our right hand from collapsing and our left hand from letting the violin sag, nothing works as well as our imagined edifices. Think of the sophisticated structure that keeps our left hand on the side of the violin, instead of bunching up under the neck. It’s the well-designed scaffold that never sits still. Never mind that the hand is vibrating all the time; it changes radically with each half-step, string change, and finger change.
My favorite vision, however, is nothing like the prim-and-proper, perfect looking, goal most of us strive for. Instead, it’s the disheveled, seemingly anarchic left hand of the backwoods country fiddler, that, nevertheless, plays perfectly in tune with a lovely, sweet vibrato, albeit with a wilted, vibrating hand. Don’t think for a minute that it demonstrates there is a lack of structure. If the notes are in tune, there’s a very personal and unique structure. You may not see it but it’s there. (As Einstein, a well-known violinist, said, “God doesn’t play dice with the universe.”) When I see non-conventional, Dali-esque hand positions, I know that God works in mysterious ways.
The Ultimate Template
There are two huge obstacles to designing a left-hand scaffold: the fingers usually want to move before the hand is ready, and, no matter how small a space you’re moving, a rather extreme change of position needs to take place. Our minds help us most of the time.
We don’t stop a yard from a door knob to open a door. We get our feet, elbow, wrist, hand, and upper torso in the exact position before we turn the knob. On the other hand, if we ask our fingers to play from one string to the next, or change from one finger to another, we try to do it without any preliminary preparedness. Small spaces belie their complexity and geography.
I keep gadgets in my drawer that demonstrate the counter-intuitive nature of playing the violin. To imitate the flexibility necessary for the left hand, the closest thing I could find is a furniture caster with ball bearings. I’ll leave it up to your imagination to build in some super features, like an allowance for changes in altitude, changes in hand structure, and variations in intervals. Your scaffold will change as you mature and the small world of the violin will seem like a universe.
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