Bending to Music's Unifying Force - The Art of Flexibility

September 13, 2020, 9:44 PM · Unless you’re playing the solo Bach Sonatas and Partitas, there’s always something outside of yourself that you need to connect to. Whether it’s a conductor, a pianist, or your string section, your concentration is not only on your own playing, but also on fitting with their phrasing, rhythm, and dynamics. The audience has the easier job of absorbing the finished product. The musician juggles, compromises, and does whatever else is necessary to adjust to the ensemble’s mutual goal.


I find great comfort in that -- because the combined interpretation represents tradition and musical common sense. I would get exhausted if I had to make every decision and re-invent every wheel, without the benefit of listening to others around me. Following something greater than the individual parts becomes a technique unto itself.

The study of flexibility is one of the most useful because it prepares you for whatever is thrown your way. The winds of music change their speed and direction quite often, and if you blink, you’ll miss it.

There are two exercises which help you spontaneously re-arrange the musical parts, while retaining your unique way of performing. The first one involves changing the bowings and rhythms. It takes some mechanical thinking and can be practiced in a rote way. It’s useful to absorb these changes as early in your development as possible. Ivan Galamian called this exercise "correlation" in his Principles of Violin Playing and Teaching (affiliate link). The second exercise is more fluid and artistic. It encourages you to change dynamics and phrasing at your whim. It carries with it one major responsibility: to make the new rendition as whole and convincing as possible.

Exercise One – Rhythms, Bowings, and Observing Changes

Practice different bowings and rhythms with your scales and etudes to develop your ability to think differently and quickly.

First, though, be sure that the original music is played evenly and with the correct proportion between quarters, eighths, and sixteenth notes, before making any change. Don’t let bow speeds, string changes, and other moving parts affect the basic rhythm. Keep a set of subdivisions in your ear that you can use as reference points and note any longer gaps between notes that stick out and don’t fit.

Now try making a change in bowing or rhythm, and observe how your mind juggles new information. Even changing four separate 16th notes to two slurred and two separate notes takes careful thinking. If you’re not clear about the make-up of a measure, stop immediately and formulate it in your mind before playing it again. It doesn’t take long to stop and think, and it saves work down the road, as repeating two or three mistakes in a measure leaves a long trail of necessary repairs.

When you make a change to a measure, you’ll experience new sensations, some of which may feel awkward at first. After even one small bowing change can make all the other bowings that follow feel uncomfortable, because they’re now backward.

A change in rhythm can change the shape of the phrase. Most changes will be guided by your ear, which does a good job of keeping you grounded as you try new approaches. Be on your toes to observe the new parameters such as unexpected string crossings and feeling like the timing is completely different.

Exercise Two – License to Make Artistic Changes

While bowing changes can make a difference in the shape of a phrase, they’re minor compared to changes in tempo, dynamics, timbre, virtuosity and plain old-fashioned willfulness. Can you practice that feeling of music being subject to its many whims?

The first place to start is to make your ear sensitive to variations in the sound and changes in the momentum from one section to the next. As long as you remember what the basic phrase feels and sounds like, and you make one change at a time, it’s possible to watch the phrase grow in a tighter rhythm and more expressiveness.

One small change, like a fuller and more vibrant sound, may create new, unexpected developments. The tempo may feel slightly slower to accommodate the expressive sound. Sometimes you have to let go of a little control in order to move with the ensemble. With that comes mistakes, but most of them will be fixed the second or third time you practice the passage.

Knowing the Difference between Proportion and Distortion

Keeping all musical components in check insures a well-proportioned musical phrase. Avoid sudden, unintended accelerandos or ritards. Keep dynamics within a range that blends with others. If you have a good musical idea or a way to make a section more exciting, do it within the structure that’s already in place. The challenge to make a fine ensemble better consists of carefully thought out actions. Flexibility leads to fine ensemble playing and a very rewarding experience.


September 14, 2020 at 06:03 PM · Well written.

September 16, 2020 at 09:53 PM · Thank you, Michael.

September 16, 2020 at 11:58 PM · This is a lovely article and a perfect title for it!

September 17, 2020 at 12:52 AM · Thank you, Diana. My original title was Following Music’s Unifying Force, but Bending described better what it feels like.

September 17, 2020 at 05:48 PM · Hi Paul,

Something I learned from a Scottish traditional fiddler: After you have designed your optimum bowing scheme for a piece, for one practice session, play the whole thing with reversed bowings ! Three good things can happen: You might discover a better bowing, you will find out why some bowings work better than others, and, if you get turned around in performance, you know you can continue until you can fix it.

One of the good things about playing in non-classical "bands", is that after multiple memorized performances it gets "tight", the ensemble can rise to the next higher level, like ESP. Full-time professional Quartet players probably also experience this. There were several occasions when I and another would think of the same spontaneous variation, and then we would just look at each other in amazement.

September 17, 2020 at 11:03 PM · Joel, your excellent reversed bowing suggestion reminds me of very young students who will inadvertently play an entire piece with the bowing backwards without realizing it. They do it so convincingly. But then, when they grow up, they have more difficulty doing a bowing change consciously.

It reminds me of the famous book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.

Your second point about spontaneously coming up with new ideas is a good one. I think that giving as much as you can leads to new inspirations. No wonder there are limitless possibilities.

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