Violin Practice: Using Both Hands to Connect the Technical and the Musical

April 22, 2021, 1:49 PM · Mutual enrichment, when both hands encourage each other, is a mainstay of violin playing. Nothing stays still in music, so it's essential to be alert to the pace and the direction of each phrase, and use both hands to achieve it. Here are a few strategies to help get both hands working together.

right hand left hand

Letting the Left and Right Hands Inspire Each Other

Do you forget to be expressive with the bow while learning a group of notes? Do your fingers become passive, when concentrating on bow strokes? Here are three ways to make both hands work together and come alive:

  1. Whenever you see a crescendo, start enriching your vibrato. The dynamic markings are reminders to be on top of the wave that’s about to energize the music, and vibrato is a much a part of that as is increased bow speed and pressure.
  2. When playing a difficult left-hand passage, remind yourself to activate the bow as well. The bow arm is the ultimate sculptor’s tool. Start out with as much material, or warm, deep sound, that you can produce. Even soft notes require a generous amount of depth, color, and mass to reach the ears, and souls, of the audience.
  3. Think through your expressive ideas, and form a plan for how to achieve them with both hands. Then practice your plan in a conscious way. If you’re waiting for an unconscious urge to play louder or softer, for example, it may never happen. Develop an assertive and decisive conscious mind.

Choosing the Right Tempo to Capture the Mood

When you practice a technical passage in a solo, it can feel oddly off if the tempo doesn’t match the style of the music.

While there is a place for slow practice, it's important to spend plenty of time practicing in tempo. Finding the right tempo and the right character will help the left hand and the bow arm work together. For instance, the success of a shift is dependent on fitting within the beat and the flow. Practice shifts in their musical and rhythmic context.

After you’ve spent a fair amount of time practicing and absorbing what’s going on in the left hand and the string crossings and dynamics of theright hand, ask yourself how the phrase lies. Does the tempo slightly move ahead or relax a little? Those parameters will beg for a little technique adjustment, and your playing will become more flexible and musical.

Practicing for good muscle memory

All techniques and their musical counterparts are stored in the muscle memory. By keeping these parts organized, that is, patiently deposited and reviewed in one's mind, they are more likely to surface when needed.

Keep unwanted and faulty information out of this memory bank. Those also surface, so it’s best to be on the lookout for them. For instance, sometimes your bow will bounce uncontrollably during a shift. If you notice that happening, then be ready for it next time by anticipating the shift and adding weight to the bow. Practice and repeat the "no bounce" shift. In this way, you will add positive information to your muscle memory.

Practicing the violin is the art and skill of removing what doesn’t fit and adding newer and richer possibilities -- all while keeping the overall integrity of one's playing. It’s a prescription for maintaining strengths, first and foremost, and getting more expressive at the same time.

Establishing that kind of recipe, a balance of positives and negatives, is the aim of good practice habits. One moment you may be thinking about something as basic as playing the right accidentals, and the next moment you’re thinking on a higher musical plane. See-sawing between the sublime and the ordinary defines the thinking process of a violinist.

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April 22, 2021 at 09:49 PM · This is very helpful. When my teacher gives me a bowing pattern for an etude that's difficult the bowing goes to pot when the fingering gets more difficult. Exhausting!

April 22, 2021 at 10:34 PM · Ann, I like the Barbara Barber scale book because it suggests different bowings and rhythms to supplement the scales. I agree with you that it complicated things. The saving grace is that the muscle memory stores the notes so you don’t have to overthink. The mind is not designed to think of two things at the same time, but it’s good at thinking of things in quick succession. I like the philosophy of play with a moderate tempo and be patient.

April 23, 2021 at 03:23 PM · Love this!

April 23, 2021 at 08:03 PM · Thanks again Paul.

I learned one important technical trick from playing harp(!). On the harp, unlike the piano, Every note must be prepared in advance. Applying that to violin left hand; have a session practicing very slowly, doing the preparation for the next note half way between the 2 notes. Up to tempo, that trains left side to move slightly ahead of the right side. When using the sheet music, try to develop the mental reflex of looking slightly ahead of what you are playing. Otherwise some things happen a little too late. The mind follows the eyes.

April 23, 2021 at 09:55 PM · Joel, you bring up a good point about the need to consciously prepare the next note. Sometimes this applies to the bow, if that’s the arm needs some prompting. Such is the plight of the musician: you need to know which arm is lagging behind the other. Why is pizzicato so much harder on the violin than on the harp? Or is it?

April 24, 2021 at 04:07 AM · Harp is harder than violin pizz., but the principle is the same; first you tense the string, then release it at the right time. Harp is like a reverse action harpsichord; imagine a keyboard instrument that sounds when you Release the key, not when you strike it. Then there are the pedals and great strength in the hands, but that's another topic.

April 24, 2021 at 01:05 PM · The idea of releasing the pizzicato is very appropriate. It prevents the sudden striking of the finger which produces a raspy sound. Tensing the string works well too because it implies a thoughtful preparation before releasing the string.

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