I remember the gentle reminder from my violin teacher during middle school to practice the left hand first, then practice the bowings, dynamics, articulations, and phrasing. This sounded perfectly logical, but it came with an unwanted side-effect. I would get stuck on the left hand and never get around to the other details. I couldn’t nudge my mind into seeing the big picture. From the moment I’d look at a passage, I was a one-trick pony.
I'd like to explore ways to get a student to think of the bow arm. The back and forth of the bow, on its face, doesn’t seem to need as much of the concentration as the left fingers and the many notes they are playing. So how can a teacher convince a student to focus on other details? First, teach the student to trust that the left-hand fingers will move automatically, and so he or she can afford to concentrate on bowing into the string and moving it with more assertive rhythm. Concentrating on the bow feels good and powerful, in fact. In that moment, the mind opens up to new possibilities. A new thought adds a new dimension, like the parting of the Red Sea.
From Abstract Notes to Musical Elements
There’s nothing wrong with prioritizing the notes themselves, but without the context of dynamics and pacing, the notes remain abstract, unmusical, and unserviceable. In fact, your highest priority should be getting the music - not just the "notes" - into your ear, as quickly as possible.
A musical phrase contains so many sensations and details - it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. However, the mind is fully capable of organizing lots of disparate, but connected, parts. If there’s any fear of biting off more than you can chew, or choking on an unexpected note pattern, just bite off less. It’s tempting to keep learning just the left hand until you’re satisfied, but you’ll end up with a monotonous practice session.
Finding the Context at the First Reading
There are several ways to avoid musical tunnel vision and to widen your attention from a narrow focus to a more expansive one. The goal is to introduce a minute change while hanging on to the essence of what you’re already doing.
Of course, being happy with your playing doesn’t mean that you don’t need to fix mistakes. Being positive prepares the mind to work efficiently and without self-doubt. There are wonderful benefits to such a state of mind, including being patient and having the powers of sharper reasoning.
When in Doubt, Pick Anything
The possibilities for musicians in the practice room are endless, so it’s common to not know what to do first. Violinists with an hour to practice may be paralyzed with indecisiveness, aimlessly watching the clock tick away. No wonder feelings, doubts, and depression run rampant in a practice room. Yet progress and confidence can also thrive when you pick one thing to work on. As Theodore Roosevelt said, "start anywhere." (I saw this quote on a financial advisor’s desk, but couldn’t corroborate it on Google. Repeat quote at your own peril!)
Seeing the Forest and the Trees
Use every opportunity to acknowledge what you do well on the violin, because that is your base of operations. The details that you surgically apply, like a certain articulation, or painstakingly remove, like forgetting the double sharp note, can only be applied when your playing stays on firm ground. When you make one small change, you can be sure there will be some upheaval. However, the raw ingredients that you’re adding will make the foundation of your playing that much stronger.
Whether you’re trying to unravel a complicated bowing, or changing the shape of an entire phrase, be patient as the new and the old merge. Two minutes of lots of repetitions can do more than one hour of idle aimlessness. The process of music may be clunky, but polishing a new idea, technical or musical, delivers common sense and elegance.
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Paul, There is lots to be said about playing pieces that are a little too difficult. It’s pretty hard to pry yourself away from the notes and think about the bigger picture. What’s especially noteworthy about thinking about the bow arm is that it signifies a new perspective on the music. Learning only the left hand is more straight-forward, so it’s more comfortable to learn more and more notes. I wish working on the bow arm and reshaping phrases was as compelling as finding a fingering.
Focusing on the left hand is natural at the early stages of learning a piece. Our mind follows our eyes, and our eyes are on the paper, so our attention is on the left hand, especially in the orchestra. When we memorize something we can start to shift our attention to the right arm. I am able to do that at my Mariachi jobs, where everything is memorized (sometimes transposed or improvised!) and the left hand technique is easy. Ideally we should be able to focus on the sound and trust the technical mechanism that we have trained. I have only been able to do that when singing.
One piece of advice I've picked up from a method book titled The Pedal Steel Guitar, by Julian (Winnie) Winston and Bill Keith, is to play blindfolded (or eyes shut) some music you know well, and you find you can find the notes without needing to see your fingers (or the score). When you do that on the violin (or viola or cello) you find yourself listening to your own bowing. That's what I do on occasion, fwiw.
I find that thinking of the intervals in a passage expedites the learning process. It’s an extra ingredient that guides my fingers. It ties into the mechanical nature of the violin, and is also a nice complement to how the ear leads the way. The sooner I have the notes polished and in my fingers, the sooner I can attend to the bow.
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November 1, 2021 at 06:58 PM · Paul, a wonderful essay as usual. I can't help thinking, though, that if the left hand difficulties kept you from ever working on the right hand, that the pieces you were assigned were perhaps too hard.