Musings on Son File Article of Yesteryear

January 19, 2007 at 09:41 PM · I was digging through an old theory book the other day and found stashed away in the pages an article by Manfred Clamer called "The Son File Bowing Principle." My teacher at the time had given it to all of her students at a master class. I read through it back then and understood very little. I just read through it again and found so many incredible pearls of wisdom. Time heals most stupidity.

So, I'm wondering your thoughts on a couple of passages I will quote:

Elias Malkin, a student of Leopold Auer and Heifetz' second teacher, once told a friend of mine that Heifetz instinctively developed his own unique and original playing position. While conventional wisdom at the time dictated strict, orthodox playing positions, Malkin learned from Auer and from his own observations that leaving Heifetz "alone" and just guiding the child in what he could not do instinctively proved to be not only more productive but in fact the only way to teach him. In other words, Malkin did not interfere, but built up the child within his own unique physical parameters and idiosyncrasies (high right arm, high right wrist, left thumb high up over the violin neck) . . .

You have heard violinists play with tremendous dexterity, left-hand acrobatics and impressive musicianship and yet your ear, your musical inside, was not satisfied. In most cases these people, without the benefit of the son file, press, choke and distort the sound. The result is that even though their left hand hits the notes dead centre and in tune, the under- and overtones are left out. The sound becomes flat and it sounds out of tune. As we are dealing with resourceful and intelligent people, they usually purchase very sensitive instruments and bows so that the distortion of sound becomes less apparent under the ear. The audience hears it just the same, flat out of tune. The unconscious of the player also remains dissatisfied. Then, as they all want to compete with Heifetz, Perlman and Oistrakh on recordings and their teachers keep on insisting that pressing the devil out of an instrument is the answer, they play fortissimo most of the time. Now the ear gets into shock and hears less and less and the player gets used to this rape of the violin.

Oh, how it hurts! I'm surprised my teacher didn't underline that last bit for me in highlight marker when she gave me the article, as that pretty much describes the sort of player I was back then. I hope I've improved a bit since then.

I think this article appeared in The Strad back in the early 90's, if anyone wants to search it out and read the entire article. Just wanted to share something I felt was valuable and worth thinking about.

Replies (21)

January 19, 2007 at 11:20 PM · Hi Kimberlee

By coincidence, a couple of weeks ago I was going through stacks of old books/papers in a half-forgotten chest of drawers. Underneath some photocopies of Carl Flesch's book on violin fingering I came across a photocopied article from the Strad. It is the very one you mention. I took it out and re-read it with interest. I had forgotten I had it.

It does indeed mention some rather controversial things, perhaps not very popular since it seems to make the claim that an important skill has been somewhat lost. I make no claim that this is true (it probably isn't. I don't know) but it is certainly an article worth reading by all who are interested in early 20th C violinists such as Elman.

January 20, 2007 at 12:03 AM · Along similar lines (a 'lost' technique) is the thought-provoking article on the 'Fingerstroke' in the December 1995 issue of The Strad.

January 20, 2007 at 12:22 AM · Oh yes it is a might controversial, Jon! And Mr. Clamer doesn't mince words . . . be forewarned all who read--there may be a few spots to make you wince. But, I'm all FOR having my eyes opened to myself, even if it involves pain--it's the only way I learn. Gotta look in that mirror and be responsible for it--or, in this case, wake up and listen to your recording.

January 20, 2007 at 03:27 AM · I vaguely remember that article in "The Strad". I recall taking issue with some (or a lot) of it. Now I'm curious to re-read it, myself. Can anyone tell me the exact month and year? Thanks

January 20, 2007 at 04:33 AM · I looked at my photocopied pages and there is not a date to be seen anywhere, sorry Raphael. The title says, "The Son File Bowing Principle", and the author is Manfred Clamer. Pages 204 to 211. At a guess, I'd say I probably got it from around a '94 issue of the Strad.

January 20, 2007 at 01:09 PM · Actually, just now finding and reviewing the 12/95 article, there is a reference to the other article in the 3/91 "Strad". Now I remember why I didn't like this fellow's articles. This man's approach is insufferable! By profession, he's an international marketing cunsultant, not a violinist. At least I, a very active New York area professional violinist never heard of him outside of these articles, and he's not a member of the NY chapter of AFM. (That, alone, isn't everything by any means, but there are many professional jobs you can't get otherwise.) Yet he blithely tells all of us what's right and wrong about so many legendary pedagogues and soloists from Auer to Perlman!

To go into a lot of detail would result in a very long posting, so I'll limmit myself to a few points. One thing that is frustrating is that he does make some valid points with which I agree. (I practice a modified son files excersise every day. Both this and the finger stroke are open to many interpretations and executions. As it happens, my own approach to the finger stroke, based partly on my interpretaion of aspects of Dounis, is central to my basic bowing. It works for me, and I do 'inflict' it on my poor students. But I wouldn't presume to tell the whole violin world that I have rediscovered a lost 'secret' and that only by using my approach will you play well!) Then he says such wrong-headed things that I just want to scream. He flat-out contradicts himself here and there, and seems to think that he's proved his points by publishing photos of various violinists, and drawing a circle around their wrists, as if to prove that this shows that they follow(ed) his principles. It does nothing of the kind. At one point he says "It has nothing to do with talent; it is pure knowledge and its application." Well if that's the case, Mr. Clamer must be the greatest fiddler on the planet!

Oh well, at least in the 12/95 issue i got to see once again a beautiful photo-shoot of a delicious-looking Peter Guarneri.

January 20, 2007 at 05:33 AM · My attitude to the article has always been: son file? Big deal (maybe). The whole point is really "good bowing", which is of course a quality not confined to the artists of the early 20th Century. The term 'son file' comes across (to me) as being slightly jargonistic.

Still, the article did have one or two interesting little tid bits in it.

Is it tid bits or tit bits? I must consult my dictionary...

January 20, 2007 at 05:43 AM · Jon--a number of writers on violin playing have stated that son file is a crucial exercise. It's no more 'jargon' than any other French bowing term we have inherited.

Raphael--The Peter of Venice in that issue is lush, and also a favorite of mine, although I find myself having to admit that in some ways it is a tad tepid, i.e. in the style of the corners.

I'd be grateful if you would address your problems with the 'fingerstroke' article in more detail. I find the topic intriguing. There is no question that Perlman has a phenomenal level of finger involvement in his bowing, and I have satisfied myself through frame-by-frame analysis that many early 20th c. violinists also show a lot of finger movement at certain bow changes.

January 20, 2007 at 07:44 AM · Andres -- true. I was jumping the gun there. I just had not heard it mentioned all that often lately (I don't get out much at the moment).

I certainly respect the idea behind the term. It was just the term itself. I stand corrected.

As an interesting aside, I wonder what Milstein would have said of son file. No doubt he used it himself without necessarily being overly aware of it. Didn't he tend to stress the minimal involvement of the hand (eg. the fingers).

(PS I can sense a potential barney happening here. Remember, I'm just a learner. If the pros want to fight I won't be sticking around).

January 20, 2007 at 08:51 AM · No worries Jon. I have no idea what the pros are going to do but hopefully we'll all learn something. ;-) FWIW 'son file' and the 'fingerstroke' are two different things. I'm sure Milstein was aware of the former term (previously discussed here, essentially very slow whole bows with a focus on good tone), and I suspect none of the famous 20th c. players who exhibit the latter would have called it 'the fingerstroke'.

January 20, 2007 at 11:52 AM · Would it be possible to summarize those two articles here? I would love to learn what's written in them. Not sure how to search for. Thank you.

Ihnsouk

January 20, 2007 at 01:06 PM · I'm kind of busy for the next couple of days, but I'll try to post again soon with more details. Meanwhile, (he said, in a fit of shameless self-promotion,) my basic appproach to the bow is on my website, http://rlviolin.com. Click on "writings" from the index on the first page, then "fundamentals of holding the violin and bow", then "the bow".

Have a good weekend, everyone!

January 20, 2007 at 07:57 PM · Raphael and everyone. I have just a snatch of time to write . . . more later . . .

Raphael, I really value your opinion as I've learned much from your writing on V.com. Jon--don't sneak off. There won't be any flames here--at least I hope not--I'm just trying to learn. Normally, my moments of "knowing" are only precursors to more learning. Andres--I will look for that fingerstroke article. Insouk, I'll write more later.

The main thing I took from Mr. Clamer's article was encapsulated in that second quotation--that perhaps "pressing" the bow does not always achieve the desired effect, and I was curious to listen to my own sound and see how his comments bore out. For my own part, I notice the main job of the bow hand and fingers is to stabilize and guide the already heavy bow--gravity does a lot for us already. What we can do in order to stay out of the way of nature is usually best--that much I agreed with.

Still, nothing ever completely states the truth.

So, I'm going to take a look at your website and hopefully learn some more from you.

Oh, also, I didn't think Mr. Clamer was so much proclaiming "the secret" or offering any new found knowlege as he was trying to point out some negligence of old knowlege.

January 20, 2007 at 09:17 PM · A remarkable leap of logic allows me to offer a corrected address for Raphael's web site:

http://rkviolin.com

:-)

January 20, 2007 at 11:23 PM · OK OK I'll stick around. I want to learn too.

January 21, 2007 at 05:27 AM · Thanks, Kimberlee - more details soon. Thanks Andres - I think I have an opening for an assistant webmaster!

January 22, 2007 at 05:24 PM ·

January 22, 2007 at 06:39 PM · Yes?

January 24, 2007 at 03:54 AM · Hi all! OK, a few more details on this subject. For those just joining this show - already in progress - we were discussing two articles, originally published in "The Strad" by one Manfred Clamer. The first, in the March, 1991 issue, focused on the "son file" bowing technique, and the second, in the December, 1995 issue, focused on the "finger stroke".

I was quite critical of Mr. Clamer in my posting above, whereas Kimberlee, who began this thread, was far more generous than I, and felt that she had much to learn from him. I looked up Kimberlee's profile here, and was struck by her generosity and creativity in listing among her teachers "v.com" and "audiences". Brava, Kimberlee! We all definitely stand to learn from one another. And there are certain kinds of things that we learn on stage in one hour that we can't learn in a whole year any other way. But that is precisely the reason why I have a problem when someone who is not a battle-tested professional performer, nor a distinguished pedagogue, lectures the violin playing world with supreme confidence, bordering on prickly arrogance, on just what is right and wrong about the playing of many distinguished artists. And I'm frankly surprized at the "Strad" in accepting this gentleman's supremely confident but credential-less lecturing twice.

I'd like to clear up one detail from my earlier post. Lest I be thought of as a solipsistic New Yorker, I went on about the New York aspect because Mr. Clamer listed himself as New York based. I also did say that he made any number of valid points in both articles. I couldn't agree more with a central point that Kimberlee focused on regarding the importance of fluidity, and not pressing. But his general tone did rankle me, whereas it may or may not have struck others so. One would really have to read both articles in toto to see whether one feels this or not. So...on to a few more details:

Let's begin with "Son file" (not to be confused with filet of sole!). There are different interpretations of this technique, from what I have read, both as to its historical origins and its implementation. Most agree that it involves playing long, slow bow strokes. (I'll get into my own approach another time.) But in typical fashion, Mr. Clamer presents one approach as THE approach. This technique, in my opinion, can be overdone. If one spends too much time trying to play too slowly, it can have a deadening effect, rather than promote the looseness that Mr. Clamer - and I - advocate. He speaks of the "Russian" bow hold leaning the least, and not producing much pressure - contra to what Flesch had said. I beg to differ, and will refer, and defer, to Aaron Rosand's remarks on the subject in Vol. 3 of "The Way They Play". Later on in this article, he contradicts himself thus: "Go to visit a famous dealer and watch the cream of soloists try out instruments. You'll go deaf. It's like being in a disco." But a little later - "No great solo virtuoso... has a loud sound." He lumps together "Yoga meditaion, psychiatry, and massage as claiming to cure some effects of faulty technique EXCEPT [my caps] its original causes. I wonder". Without abrogating a single violin technique, I would submit that one of the most prevailing problems is tension, and that the root cause lies more in the psyche than in not practicing son file. (Though still a beginner, I have been practicing Yoga meditation for more than 25 years.) Later - "With the son file, many aspects of violin playing will change...violins with high pitched, penetrating soprano sound will become more desirable (they carry further)." I have no problem with such a violin. My own favorite could be so described. But I'd hate to be the one to tell Heifetz, Ricci, Stern, Rosand, etc. what fools they were for their darker choices!

A few remarks about the "finger stroke" article. "None of Flesch's students had a developed finger stroke." What about Szerying? "...Perlman makes me nervous when he states...that he plays spiccato like waiving goodbye from the wrist. I'm sure he doesn't mean that." Well, you know what, Mr. Clamer? I'll sooner take Perlman's word for it. Just who are YOU? Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.

I could go on, but speaking of fingers and strokes - I'd better rest mine!

January 24, 2007 at 02:13 AM · Greetings,

>This technique, in my opinion, can be overdone. If one spends too much time trying to play too slowly, it can have a deadening effect, rather than promote the looseness that Mr. Clamer - and I - advocate.

Most definitely. Flesch strongly warned his studnets against this, arguing thta it should always be followed by an equaivalent amount of rapid bowing such a wb martele.

Nor does he undertsand the fingerstroke. Flesch taught it as soemthign for the practice room. he never intended to be used as a highly visible aspect of performance. He gretaly regretted the promince it achieved as the result of the Urstudien

Cheers,

Buri

January 24, 2007 at 03:44 PM · Thanks for the clarification, gentlemen. I knew I could count on my V.com friends for enlightenment.

My initial interest in the article came mainly as a result of self-inspection--picking up the article after so many years emphasized to me how much I've grown and changed over the years.

I try (mostly--not perfect) to be engaged in life as a learner. I believe I can learn from anyone and that each person is a vital piece of the puzzle which leads me to the answers I need for further growth.

Mr. Clamer's tone is vitriolic in nature, but if you can get past that (difficult--as I said, he doesn't mince words), this is what I learn:

1. The sound of the violin can be choked by pressing. He reminds me of the importance of overtones, and to listen for them as a part of the singing nature I strive to perfect in my playing.

2. In teaching, I will generally do better to support my students' natural movement--that it is wise to watch for those techniques which support the student's natural physiology, to counteract stiffness where possible.

3. That "parallel to the bridge" leaves some room for interpretation--Milstein certainly bowed wherever he wanted between the bridge and fingerboard. Still it was controlled.

4. There is a paradoxical relationship between control and freedom.

I think that pretty much sums up what I took from the article. Thanks for the kind words, Raphael and Buri, and I second your issues with the article--

I didn't see them until you pointed them out. You are quite right. I can see how "slow bow" practice may be taken to an extreme, and it also strikes me as interesting that Mr. Clamer claims to know the tone quality "good" violinists prefer. Also not something I thought about, but yes, I should have questioned Mr. Clamer's own playing ability.

As you can see, I posted before, but chickened out and dumped it because I was worried about looking ridiculous in front of my peers . . . that was before I remembered my entire life seems to be an exercise in ridiculousness, and somehow I'm still alive and performing that function, so it must be needed in the world. Nevertheless, the nice comments preceding mine gave me confidence to try again. So, thanks.

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