When music was created, human beings unleashed a set of elegant elements that held it all together. Whether it was Gregorian chant or a symphony orchestra, there was an underlying logic of harmonic movement and well-defined rhythmic characteristics. The rules carry with them the reliability of a pure system – we’ve even inherited the well-tempered scale and can be confident that it will work.
The light that leads us is in our inner ears.
They store phrases, rhythmic cells, and melodic gems, ready to be repeated by the pure act of singing. Recreating it on the violin involves hanging on to what’s in the ear and trying to integrate it with the violin’s technique. Which is the more reliable leader, the ear or the technique? If you want a performance of natural tempo changes and imaginative flights of fancy, the ear leads the pack.
Cultivating and Strengthening the Ear
To make sure that you’re not dwelling too much on technical minutiae, here are two ways to let your ears, and the elements of music, give you a clear picture of how you’re going to play:
1. Remind yourself that a musical idea will define the technical requirements, not the other way around. Something like a dynamic echo or a more expressive legato will inspire you to refine your technique to fit the moment.
2. A musical idea reaps amazing benefits even if the technique is not quite up to par. When your ear inspires you to change an articulation or slide between two notes, trust your technique to adapt to the changing tonal environment. Trust alone won’t fix the problem, but finessing the technique will make it exactly what is needed.
The way pianists learn to enrich the dynamics in a simple scale teaches violinists about the art of making small differences. These are the things that make music come alive. When notes get higher there is often a natural crescendo and a warmer sound. Violinists try to do the same thing, but have the disadvantage of not having the harmony in the left hand to inspire expression. What we miss in harmony, we make up for it by watching a conductor. When you’re in an orchestra, there is a built-in motivation to rise with the tide and taper as the wave ebbs. When you’re alone, though, you must find ways to motivate yourself.
3. When we listen to fine players, it’s like adding sounds and ideas to our ears’ possibilities. The evenness of all their rhythms serves as a template for both expressive and organic pacing. Any rhythm that has too wide or narrow a gap will be noticed, and will be hard to ignore. When the ear is not engaged, a faulty rhythm will escape detection.
The ear is the most amazing radar system ever designed. Long before we played the violin we heard simple songs which instilled the raw basics of quarter and eighth notes. Nothing felt rushed when we were children because music unfolded naturally. We need to remember to play musical rhythms when we’re practicing with mechanical metronomes. It’s up to us to make our peace with them. If you can make a duet with a metronome sound like you’re playing with your best friend, you’ll be fine in any situation you’re thrown into.
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