Yin and Yang - How Violinists Juggle Two Parts of the Mind

November 11, 2022, 11:36 AM · Playing the violin makes me appreciate the subtle relationship between my conscious and subconscious mind. For example, I was just guessing how it’s done when I first drew my bow across the strings. With the bare minimum of instruction, my conscious thoughts were of little help. It was my subconscious that was awakened. Something kept my bow afloat, and it certainly wasn’t my negligible athletic ability. It was a mysterious blend of having the right amount of passiveness so that I didn’t overpower the strings and an ear which filtered noise from a smooth sound. Thus began a lifetime of working out the details and de-mystifying the process.

A musician’s subconscious is where the parts that fit together pretty well reside. How one juggles sound, phrasing, and dynamics is determined by the subconscious, and even the pacing and concentration involved in practicing can be found there. So it should be treated with great respect, and cherished as a place to contemplate your musical and technical thoughts.

The Conscious and Unconscious Parts of the Bow Arm

Keeping track of what works in your bow arm and what doesn’t is vital to staying confident. It gives you control of fixing problems one at a time, without unraveling the positive components. For instance, some violinists can play a phrase with musicality and good rhythm, but use far too little bow. It takes a highly developed unconscious mind to do the former, and requires a tenacious conscious mind to work on the latter.

It’s fascinating to observe these two parts of the brain working together. Picture the role that the ear has in determining sound, and then juxtapose that with how the motion of the arm and general mechanics alter everything. The ear is the most perfect representative of our unconscious mind because of its subtlety and power; sound, intonation, and rhythm depend on it. On the other hand, the nuts and bolts of moving the bow should be integrated as naturally as possible. Blind obedience won’t help to improve the technique, but seeing the reason behind the instruction will. If the ear and the mechanics are fighting, they both suffer.

Making Spiccato Less Complicated

Playing off the string was not easy for me because I had no frame of reference to understanding it. Without that, I didn’t know where to begin. Consciously, I tried basic exercises such as relaxing my fingers on the bow and keeping the bow close to the string, but I needed a deeper awareness of the parameters and pitfalls. Here’s where my subconscious came into play. It was a place where new, more effective knowledge could reside. I felt comfortable with my detaché and it slowly dawned on me that it was the basis of spiccato. In fact, spiccato forced my detaché to become stronger so it wouldn’t collapse. I made the spiccato area of the bow (just below the middle of the bow) much firmer, able to keep its structure while bouncing the bow.

Eventually my subconscious revealed how my bounce would work better if it was skimming the string, not puncturing and punching it. This whacking is similar to when a pianist bangs the keys, but makes even more of a distortion of the sound. Yet the solution came about with some free association. I needed to aim not directly for the string, but to a point slightly above it. Using strong rhythmic conviction, my bow found the string indirectly, that is, with gravity and an angle of about 45 degrees.

Seeing Music in a New Light

The path between the conscious and unconscious mind is a two-way street. One moment there may be resistance, another moment fluidity. The ideal practice time includes slowing down and focusing the mind long enough to take in one interesting and beautiful detail. It helps your confidence to know that there are easier ways to do things, and that music is not supposed to be that difficult. The mind’s tug-of-war when making music, though, is a normal state of affairs. Balancing it and staying positive makes it a more pleasant experience.


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