To look or not to look?

November 18, 2011 at 02:49 PM · Rightly or wrongly I am working on the principle that progress on the violin is about experimenting with physical sensations and relating them to the sounds they produce, so the body gradually feels its way towards a better technique. As a result I become very inwardly focused as I play.

When I'm practicing I do use checks in the mirror and watch the sound point or left hand at times, especially when trying something new. But I've noticed that more and more I'm relying on the sensations rather than the visuals, and that looking at the violin tends to distract me from this inner awareness. For example, I seem to adjust better when I feel the bow isn't tracking right, rather than when I see the problem.

But I recently spotted a post by respected v.commer Nate Robinson where he suggests that not looking as you play is a bad habit.

What do people think?

Replies (86)

November 18, 2011 at 03:51 PM ·

November 18, 2011 at 03:51 PM · Yes, I've got a mirror parallel to my violin and use it to check that my left hand, in particular the thumb, is correctly positioned. I only give the mirror an occasional glance but I find its presence useful.

November 18, 2011 at 04:14 PM · You should read the Hilary Hahn interview where she talks about watching the point of contact all the time. That should get you thinking. Your eyes are incredibly powerful and sensitive instruments for collecting a lot of data about how you are playing. Why not use them?

November 18, 2011 at 04:30 PM · Once I've mastered new material, I concentrate mostly on hearing and feeling. Seeing is important, but with me, it's the occasional glance Nicky referred to -- rather like checking the rear-view and side mirrors when driving.

In position-playing, I can't see where the notes are on the fingerboard; but I know the intervals, and I know the way a given shift feels. Once I've mastered new material, I concentrate on the bow arm, not the left hand -- still mindful of good posture and hand form. I need a quick look now and again at the bow contact point, but other than this, it's more of a side-vision thing.

I've previously mentioned playing several evenings in a row last April during the 103-hour blackout that followed a tornado outbreak. I was in near-total darkness the last 60 minutes or so of each practice session; yet these sessions were at least as good as any I've had with the lights on -- a small hint of what it must be like for a blind player.

November 18, 2011 at 04:36 PM · It can be very good to at least try playing while not looking. It keeps your spine from twisting and reminds you where your most natural center position is.

November 18, 2011 at 06:06 PM · Paul

"Your eyes are incredibly powerful and sensitive instruments for collecting a lot of data about how you are playing. Why not use them? "

You make a good point, but my problem right now is that I find it's either/or - when I'm relying on my eyes I tend to lose touch somewhat with my physical sensations. A virtuoso like Hilary Hahn will, I guess, have the talent and experience to track everything at once (as she says, she's been doing the contact point thing since she was tiny), but at my stage I'm struggling.

Can anyone suggest any tips or exercises to help integrate both modes of feedback?

I certainly wouldn't want to lose the ability to play without looking - it's handy for sight-reading and particularly for interacting with other musicians when we're improvising. But having the choice would clearly be an advantage...

November 18, 2011 at 06:16 PM · Since my message got edited out by clicking on the wrong link, I'm resending it. I do have a mirror parallel to my violin to make sure that my left wrist and hand, particularly my left thumb, are correctly placed. I just glance at it occasionally to check.

November 18, 2011 at 06:41 PM · I agree that eyes are a good tool, but I do feel that most of us tend to be overly visual-oriented and often, taking the eyes out of the equation can open us up better to the physical/aural aspects which are more at the heart of playing.

November 18, 2011 at 06:47 PM · Your vision is an important part of the sensory input needed to play the instrument, in combination with your hearing and touch. To me, this is most important during the learning/practice process, though there are times in performance where vision isn't necessary (for example, once you've already set the interval pattern for first two notes of the Massenet Meditation). There's no need for head twisting to accomplish this; we aren't owls, we can move our eyes and not our heads!

Light is many orders of magnitude faster than sound. So for matters of the left hand, if you can *see* that a whole or half step interval placement is out of tune and correct it before you play it, you stand a much better chance of playing in tune than waiting to *hear* it is out of tune, and then adjusting for it.

Hahn is right on with the observations about the point of contact. If you believe that your bow placement on the string relative to the distance from the bridge is part of achieving a specific tone color, how can you consistently duplicate it if you don't see, hear, and feel where it is? Our spatial understanding of our instrument depends on making the best use of all available sensory input.

November 19, 2011 at 02:58 AM · Besides Hilary Hahn, Heifetz, Silverstein, Rosand, Oliveira and other greats have also advised in different ways having your violin in your sights and and looking straight etc. However some of those that advise this can sometimes be seen turning their heads to the side as well (when playing from memory).

I find that looking directly is very helpful sometimes to control certain technical things. But when I play something expressive (not that this doesn't need technical control of a different kind) I tend to turn my head as well. It's good to have the physical flexibility to do both and never have a vice-like grip from the chin, shoulder, hand etc. I also agree that no spine twisting should be involved. Menhuin admired Oistrakh for (among other things) his abilty to easily shift back and forth with his head.

November 19, 2011 at 08:53 AM · I don't like to look. I play a virtual violin in my head that translates onto the real thing. When I look it distracts - in effect I then have two people playing, the virtual and the physical one and they confuse each other!

November 19, 2011 at 09:25 AM · My man turned the lights off on me the other day, just out of mischief. I was too stubborn to turn them back on again, and my scales were instantly miles better once I couldn't see a thing!

Usually I look to check I'm not practicing a hideously-apparent-even-to-me bad habit in, but now I always do at least half an hour a day with the lights off too...

I always learn the music, too. I find it's much easier to focus on the million and one things you need to do to get the piece played if you aren't taking up valuable resources following the dots. I suppose I do use my 'free' eyes to check things are in order, but I wouldn't like to rely on this exclusively. I like to know I can do it in the dark if I need to.

No smutty innuendo intended there.

November 19, 2011 at 01:24 PM · I have to admit that I do look, but not at my fiddle, but at the pretty girls going past my window. I have a whistle on open E and occassionally it gets me into trouble, as the young ladies think it was me whisting at them! As if I would do such a thing ...

November 19, 2011 at 03:31 PM · Hi folks

Thanks for the input so far. I like Lila's story about her mischievous man!

Clearly, as Raphael says, visual checking is something you should be able to do - the question is how much and when...

Trying to think this through, visual feedback in performance (as against mirror work in practice) seems,on the face of it, relatively limited.

As John said, I'm not convinced it has much of a role in left hand tuning. So the main application would seem to be bow contact point, which is what Hilary Hahn says she is focusing on.

Feedback from physical sensations is surely much more all-encompassing: a good player must be consciously and subconsciously scanning their entire body for balance, tension, release, the feel of the bow on the string and on and on...

I know from many years of meditation that you can be much more sensitive to internal sensations if you limit visual input, ideally by closing your eyes, or at least by defocusing and giving low priority to visual input.

So given that internal sensation is the more important, maybe not watching the fiddle is not such a bad habit after all? I do feel it almost becomes a meditation.

Todd Ehle gives an interesting exercise where you try to find the plane of each string accurately with the bow with closed eyes. Given how much we have to process simultaneously in performance maybe it's actually a good thing to train our body to do the basics automatically by feel?

But balance in all things - as Raphael says, there are clearly times when visual feedback adds security.

Has there ever been a great blind violin soloist? No one springs to mind, but my knowledge is limited...

November 19, 2011 at 04:00 PM · I can't remember coming accross any blind fiddlers, but I worked with many deaf conductors ...

November 19, 2011 at 06:31 PM · Geoff, I think you're on the right track by focusing on the sound and feeling with occasional use of the mirror to double check that everything is all right.

Obviously, if one is reading music it's impossible simultaneously to look directly at the instrument. When I teach piano, guitar, mandolin, banjo etc. I forbid looking at the instrument at all once the basic technique is established.

The violin is a lot more complicated: just when the student feels like they're finally drawing their bow correctly you tell them to try it at a different sounding point. Just when the left hand is relaxed and playing in tune, they are expected to shift to a higher position.

So, I do use a mirror with students and encourage them to do the same when they are learning new technique. But I also teach that the ear is the most important part of the body in violin playing. When they do finally get something right I have them close their eyes, listen carefully to how it sounds, and really feel what is going on with their body's relationship with the violin.

After all, the reason we change the sounding point or draw the bow a certain way, for example, is to create the perfect sound for the situation. If we are unable to recognize what we are doing by the sound we are making then something is definitely missing.

November 19, 2011 at 06:53 PM · > I'm not convinced it has much of a role in left hand tuning

Ever see Midori perform? :)

November 19, 2011 at 08:37 PM · Unfortunately, yes, I have.

November 19, 2011 at 09:22 PM · Randy

"When they do finally get something right I have them close their eyes, listen carefully to how it sounds, and really feel what is going on with their body's relationship with the violin."

That's a great suggestion - seems like the logical next step to how I'm working currently. I'm going to add it to my practice routine!

Thanks for the input...

November 20, 2011 at 10:02 AM · Greetings,


In about 1985 I went to a recital at the Queen Elizabeth Hall of a blind Japanese violinist called I think, Watanabe. It caused a little bit of a stir and I think he was even interviewed in the Strad. One thing I remember in particular from that interview was him noting the danger of a blind violin soloist wandering off the edge of the stage. For this reaosn he had a heavy iron bar placed in from of him which he kept his feet in contact with. I don`t think He never had a stellar career. to tell the truth he was more or less good enough to do a recital in that prestigious location but not musically that memorable.

A month back I was reading a very interesting book by a blind female Japanese violinist who actually went to the Royal College of Music fairly recently. She has recorded works of Kreisler on CD recently. I am not sure how well know outside Japane she is. I dropped the book and have currently forgotten her name because I am in the middle of prepping for the hardest test of Japanese ever invented. Day and night is spent memorizing conjunctions of mind numbing similarity. I will dig the book out. Very intelligent lady. I was thinking of translating it into English. Interesting point to bear in mind might be the difference between being blind at birth and becoming blind later. The lady who wrote the book lost 90 percent of her eyesight through illness when she was five, started the violin soon after that and gradually lost the rest.



November 20, 2011 at 10:11 AM · Gee,

thanks to Google I now have to update my previous comments and eat humble pie....

The violinist in question is Wanami not Watanabe and he has, according to the blurb, had a stellar career. Not to mention having studied with everyone from Oistrakh to Szigeti.

I don`t know if he was having an off nght the one time I heard him. Non of my colleagues there at the time were that impressed either but it`s great that he has done so much. Is he much better known than I thought?



November 20, 2011 at 10:20 AM · Buri

That is all very interesting stuff. I can't imagine what it must be like to be blind.

There was an interesting case mentioned by I think by Kato Havas about a young girl who was deaf and could feel the vibrations playing and could even distinguish between in tune and out of tune playing.

There is also the case of Evelyn Glennie here in the UK who is a deaf percussion player. Same thing must apply I would imagine.

Perhaps I'd better watch what I say about conductors!

November 20, 2011 at 11:01 AM · I'm from Edinburgh, so I saw Evelyn Glennie early in her career and have followed her since. A wonderful musician and an inspirational person...

November 20, 2011 at 12:32 PM · Geoff Caplan

I remember North of the border very well, as I spent a short time in the Scottish Radio Orchestra in Glasgowwhere we often played all those Scottish dance music tunes as well as light music and classical music. I seem to remember playing in Edinburgh with the SNO - or was it somewhere else?

Looking whilst you are playing - to get back to the thread - I think is OK occasionally but only in practise sessions.

I've been reading a lot of Simon Fischer's writing about "command/response" and groupings etc., and I feel he is right. Looking and too much visuals may only get in the way of what we should be doing. In music patterns are important, not only finger patterns but note patterns, and the ability to read the first note in a group and let the rest happen. I suppose I would say listening and the brain are the keys, not visuals.

November 20, 2011 at 02:25 PM · In the summer of 2001 I went on tour with an orchestra throughout much of Japan. One of our guest soloists was a blind Japanese violist who was very good. Don't remember his name, but could look it up on an old program if anyone really wants to know.

Steve - I've always been curious but never asked. How did you first come to live in Japan? Did you know much or any Japanese before that? In my brief and enjoyable experience there I found that not including the staff of hotels and airports, almost no one spoke anything but Japanese. I managed, though!

November 20, 2011 at 03:18 PM · That's not cheap!! An Indian violinist colleage once told me that in India it was sixpence!!

November 20, 2011 at 04:43 PM · Vision uses up to 50% of our brain power, so if we are looking at our fingers or bow we are less likely to notice poor intonation and to have a "feel for the bow". In my experience with teaching intermediate students, I found they were more likely to have straight bowing and a better sense of intonation with there eyes close. There are two ways to control muscle movement; one is with vision and the other is with our Proprioception sense(some may use the terms Tactile or Kinesthesia). Proprioception senses pressure and resistance, whereas vision doesn't. Vision actually interferes with proprioception because vision requires so much brain power to work. Students learn much, much ,much quicker when Propriocetion techniques are used instead of Vision techniques.

November 20, 2011 at 05:13 PM · I think it would be good practice to turn the lights out, put a small orchestral LED light on the music stand just enough to illuminate the sheet music\book, and practice "in the dark." Seems to me that this would serve to help develop ear training as well as assisting in alleviating an over dependance upon one's sight while developing left hand musculoskeletal memory.

November 20, 2011 at 06:00 PM · One situation in an orchestra where it's advisable to have an eye on where your bow is on the string is when you are required to play ponticello. It's surprisingly easy for the bow to slip over to the other side of the bridge. It happened to me once in a concert in the days when I was a cellist. Our conductor, himself a professional violinist, told me afterwards that it had happened to him in a recording studio.

November 20, 2011 at 06:28 PM · Peter - I'm hopping the first plane out to India!

But seriously, and back on topic: good results can be obtained both ways, but when so many greats advise looking, I'm surprised that a number of posters seem to regard it as some kind of crutch or indulgence. And, btw, it can help with certain aspects of l.h. technique as well.

November 20, 2011 at 07:16 PM · I suspect, like most things on the violin, this boils down to what works for the individual.

Raphael - though you are ten times the player I will ever be I think that when it comes to the learner I tentatively disagree. Clearly, the greats have mastered the basics till they are virtually subconscious, so they can engage a large part of their brain with the visual without compromising their listening and tactile perception. They can do a lot of things I can't do, and I'm beginning to think this may be one of them! And even with the greats, they don't always seem to follow their own rules (I didn't have to look far for these clips):

- Here's Milstein playing with his eyes largely closed.

- Here's Isaac Stern

- Here's Hilary Hahn (see 3:00 for example)

- And even God's own Fiddler seems to close his eyes quite frequently!

For a beginner like myself, playing results in significant cognitive overload - as soon as you focus on one area, something comes adrift somewhere else. I find that if I "switch off" my visual attention, I can follow far more elements at once on the auditory and proprioceptive levels, and my playing improves. Once I've progressed with the basics it may be I can make more use of visual perception without losing track of the auditory and tactile, but for now I'm increasingly thinking I may be on the right track.

Following the suggestions of a number of posters I've just been experimenting with closed eyes, and I find that I'm at least as accurate. I can pretty much hit all 7 string planes from above, my bowing stays straight, and I seem to have a good sense of which sound point I am on via the tactile feedback of the bow on the string. More importantly, I've never sounded better, of felt more in control. Bearing in mind I'm still a beginner it's interesting how the visual seems to be much the least important of the senses...

November 20, 2011 at 07:25 PM · Greetings,

it`s probably just a quesiton of usage but I would not equate `proprioception` with the kineasthetic sense. `touch` is one of the five senses but `pro` is at least in terms of Alexander Technique the`sixh sense.` which is obvious once it ispointed out. This sixth sense is `knowing where ones body is in relation to itslef and the world. In other words if you put your hand above your head you cannot see it but you @know` it is there.

As far a slooking is concerned I think it is okay to keep an eye on where the bow is at least some of the time. I am less happy about watching the left hand which I think is generally counter productive although there are exceptions to this rule. Kogan, I think suggested it was okay.

My reasoning is that yes, violin playing hsould be mostly tactile but while the left hand is immediatley sensing what is going on, the bow hand is one step removed. IE it should be sensitively feeling what the bow is doing but, the bow ha s-already done it- to soe extent. Therefore the sense of vision is helpful.

I do advocate practicing with eyes closed.

I`ve lived in Japan for twenty years. As a result of various post grad studies I never learned Japanes e properly and have spent the last three years starting over from scratch which wa s painful. It is officially a difficult language for western people (see US state department training ) but its very easy to acquire basic communication /coverstaion skills for two reasons. First, its very context dependent rather than needing everything stated

so as long as you are in roughly the same ballpark you can be understood and second, the Japanese are very forgiving of foreign efforts. However, this is a double edged sword as the understatment is based on a very thorough grounding in grammar and discourse (true in any language) so as one advances , if the groundwork hasn`t been done it becomes harder and harde runtil one hits a wall and can`t get any further.

Same as violin playing...

The idea that the calligraly (character alphabet) is the difficult part of Japanese is a myth. The basic approach to learning based on brute memory is fundamentally flawed even for young children an dit is not surprise that as a result of using keyboards Japanese adults are finding ift harde rand harder to remember how to write the more complex kanji.

I didn`t speak Japanese before I came to Japan. My first day in the Royal College I was in the new canteen when I saw the most beautiful and exotic woman on the planet sitting across the room. As a callow 17 year old I have no idea how I did it but I walked across to her and stammered `would you like to go to the movies.` As she looked at me blankly the portly gentleman sitting next to her said `Young man, the gentleman we are talking to is the crown prince of Japan so if you would just run along like a good boy.` That was Sir David Wilcox with death writ large in his eyes. A true case of Japanese honne and tatemae in action. As I considered in a flash all the possible ways of killing myself on the spot the young lady in question looked at me smiled and said `okay.`

Not a triumph of hormones. She only knew one word. We went to the movies for years together but I never learnt Japanese from her because with an IQ of about 250 she learnt English in a bout three days. Went on to a career as an international concert pianist. I teach English in impoverisheded Japanese elementary schools and come home to my mouldy cat.

Must be a moral there somewhere.



November 20, 2011 at 07:39 PM · By the way, just to clarify, I'm not saying I never look - that would be daft. I'm just suggesting that at my stage not looking will play a bigger role than looking, on balance...

November 21, 2011 at 03:39 AM · Hi Buri. Thanks for your background. Glad you met that super kawa-i girl and did not commit hari-kiri! In my 3 1/2 weeks in Japan I just picked up a handful of japanese words. My favorite is "kawa-i" for obvious reasons!

Geoff - Thanks for the compliment. I believe I also said - or at least meant to - that some who advocate looking don't do so all the time. Nor do I advocate looking all the time. But keep open to it as another tool. But certainly it doesn't make sense to me not to look on principle of some sort.

I will illustrate in my case how visual technique works for me to help the LEFT hand by admitting to a certain weakness. By violin standards I have a pretty big hand with thick pads and spatulate tips (they widen towards the top). This helps somewhat for tone (like well-felted piano hammers) but gets in the way in other ways. (Glenn Dicterow once told me that I had a great hand - for the cello!) In negotiating scales, and certain other passages high on the E string, if I'm not careful, I can play unintended left-had pizzicato on the open A string. It's a matter of a fraction of a milimeter. If I closed my eyes and really concentrated on the kinesthetic aspect, I could make it work. But I find it much faster simply to look. The guidence comes very quickly, and I certainly don't feel aware of using up 50% of my sense capacity.

November 21, 2011 at 09:48 AM · Haha! I wasn't sure what to call him... boyfriend? We have owned a house together for two years. Fiance? We have no plans to marry. Concubine? Hmmm.

He would look very sweet in one of those footman wigs, though.

Anyway, just to update: interested in this thread, I recorded the playing of the same piece twice- once with lights on and once in pitch black. There is a tremendously noticeable difference. I then recorded it 'lights on' once more to see if it was just because it was the second time through that did it- it wasn't. From now on, this violinist only does it with the lights off. No idea why it works but it does. Cut down the sensory input and I'm suddenly shifting like a BOSS.

This is going to be fun at my next violin lesson. How do I request 'lights off' without getting the dear chap in a terrible fluster?

November 21, 2011 at 11:02 AM · Just close your eyes instead, just like when the earth moves ...

November 21, 2011 at 01:51 PM ·

When I said you're ten times the player I will ever be that may not be as big a complement as you think - you haven't heard my playing!

"But certainly it doesn't make sense to me not to look on principle of some sort."

With the violin that surely makes a lot of sense. With other instruments such as piano (or English Concertina, my other instrument) there really is no need to ever look if your technique is decent. But the violin is so demanding that I've got no problem accepting that sight is helpful in many situations, and the fiddle's right there in front of your nose...

"Just close your eyes"

Health warning - if you move around while you play (I'm mainly a fiddler, after all) beware of bumping into the furniture. When I was doing the eyes closed experiments I mentioned, I nearly bashed my lovely violin!

And Lila, there's always the danger that your mischievous "man" will be tempted to take advantage of the situation...

November 21, 2011 at 02:55 PM · I play in an instrumental folk music session (English or Irish) in a pub once a week. On one occasion a couple of winters ago there was a power cut in the area resulting in a complete black-out. In the 15 minutes or so it took the bar staff to find candles (in the dark, of course!) we continued playing just as if nothing had happened. The only difference was that there was no eye-contact for a change of tune so someone would say "change" at the appropriate moment.

The point I'm making is, in these sessions the music is always played by ear (i.e. from memory); playing from sheet music is just not done. If you don't know a tune you listen until you've got it, and ideally you avoid learning the tunes from sheet music except as a last resort.

In the classical music field I would therefore advocate as much memorizing of practice music (and performance pieces of course) as you can, obviously almost always from sheet music, so that you can really concentrate on the music without the mental encumberance of that extra layer of reading the music when playing. It is a skill worth acquiring as one gets older and one's eyesight gradually deteriorates.

November 21, 2011 at 05:35 PM · Great point Trevor - and the astonishing thing for me is that while I could not memorize anything - words or music - as a child its not that difficult now (I can't say easy yet - I do have to work at it). And the effect on the quality of playing can not be over emphasized.

I just started a new topic on recent amazing discoveries on how music is saved in the the brain - we can discuss that there....

November 21, 2011 at 11:44 PM · Trevor's point about memorisation certainly chimes with my own experience - in the trad world it's very important to find your own distinctive angle on a song or tune (there's much wider scope for variation than with classical), and this simply doesn't seem to happen to the same extent if you're reading.

There seems to be some consensus here that at least for beginner/intermediate players the visual can distract from the aural and the tactile. Then you add the extra processing of sight reading...

By the way, Trevor, I see you're also in the South West. If you're ever in South Devon drop me a line - we have a very lively session scene here if you'd like to come along.

And John - I used to have my own punt in Cambridge when I was a student there - ah, memories!

November 21, 2011 at 11:50 PM · Michael Cleveland is one of the hottest fiddlers I've ever seen or heard. He's also blind. It doesn't seem to slow him down...

November 22, 2011 at 01:09 AM · Geoff - John was continuing my punt prosaics from the Mozart topic (he almost got my name right :p ) but, by coincidence, I am going to be in south devon next july - visiting my brothers thatched cottage for my neice's wedding (from Canada). I plan to bring my violin....

November 22, 2011 at 01:31 AM · Grreetings,

>The design of the Japanese language has many surprises. One is the way they put objects into categories by shape . So a sentence in English--"Please take this letter to the post office ," becomes , "Please take this flat thing to the post office. " I never expected that. Do they say "Please play your Violin Shaped Object ?"

Mmm. Not quite. What you are referring to is `counters` because there aren`t ay plurals (in our sense).

So a letter is still a letter, a cigar is still a cigar , but when you wnat to specify `how many` letters you identify the lette rusing the conventional noun and then the number followed by the `counter` word. Please take this lette rto the post office translates liiterally as the same, although I think `Please post this lette ris mayvbe more usual, unless it@s a special one...`

Of course Japanese is highly context dependent so your wife might just hand you the letter and grunt.



November 22, 2011 at 09:33 AM · I have never wanted to learn a language more than I now want to learn Japanese.

Also, regrettably I don't live in Cambridge any more. Sadly they tend to put someone else in your room once you finish your exams, so sticking around is difficult. I was on the college's Punt Committee though! I... I am still not sure what this entailed as I certainly didn't have any responsibilities. I had a key to the punt padlock though. Now who, I wonder, would be so foolish as to let me have one of those? The best I managed in three years was long wobbly zig-zags, downstream and perilously close to the weir. Which was your college, Geoff? Happy days indeed. :-)

November 22, 2011 at 10:02 AM ·

November 22, 2011 at 10:28 AM · Linguistic differences and anomalies are the MOST fun. I love it especially when other languages have words/ways that mine doesn't, such as Malagasy, where you would use a different 'this or that' word depending on whether the object you're describing is uphill or downhill from where you are.

Or! When languages drop you right in it. My school French teacher was trying to explain to some curious locals just why we thought French bread was so great. What, then, must be the matter with English bread? Her attempt to explain the artificial ingredients prevalent in supermarket loaves over here- "le pain anglais, c'est plein de preservatifs"- possibly did a little more to answer the question than she was expecting.

I remember having a huge long discussion with a linguistics professor, during which he became a bit lost in a long and rambling analogy. I shan't reproduce the whole thing verbatim, but it ended with "so if Iceland is Hull, then Papua New Guinea is Milton Keynes." I would like to award a bag of Haribos to anyone who can work that sentence seamlessly into a conversation today, and two bags of Haribos to anyone who works out what on earth the analogy was meant to describe...

November 22, 2011 at 01:16 PM · John, you're probably going on memory from way back but Welsh for "kettle" is unlikely to be have been "teggle". It is "tegell", and if the "ll" at the end isn't pronounced properly (you won't get that from a dictionary) then a native speaker is likely to correct it. The Welsh "ll" is, I believe, unique to the language, but it's not difficult when you're shown how – like most things (except playing the violin!).

November 22, 2011 at 02:01 PM · There seems to be some consensus here that at least for beginner/intermediate players the visual can distract from the aural and the tactile. Then you add the extra processing of sight reading...

Well, if this is the or at least some concensus, then I'm still a dissenting voice. And mind you, I'm NOT advocating visual technique all the time. But use it where appropriate. And for beginners, too. Would you have beginners just close their eyes? It doesn't make sense. Before they're even reading music and you're positioning them and showing them how to hold the violin and bow and draw the bow across the strings, they're not supposed to look?? Now looking at the music is a different aspect of using the eyes, Indeed, if we're looking at the music, we can't be looking at our point of bow contact or the left hand except in the most peripheral way. So there, the aural and tactile must be relied upon while processing the written information. Again, I too, often like to close my eyes when playing from memory - especially something expressive. But I won't hesitate to use visual technique as a guide when that is helpful. Keep more tools in the tool box and have them handy.

The eyes can even help with balance sometimes. Try this trick. I recommend trying it w.o. the violin or anything else in hand. Can you stand on one leg for at least a few moments, with the other one pretty far up and the knee bent? Good. Now try that with your eyes closed and see what happens.

Buri. Another Japanese lesson kudisai: I understaand that there is a word, "mashta" which in itself is not a regular word, but turns what you just said into past tense. It seems like "Yestraday I go to school, mashta = yesterday I went to school" Is it something like that? I wonder if that's why foreign speakers from Asia (and I used to teach ESL) often have trouble with tense in English.

Arigato Kosai-imas!

November 22, 2011 at 03:44 PM · Raphael is talking some sense here.

November 22, 2011 at 04:16 PM · Raphael, You owe me a coffee table.

I don't know if the question to look or not to look helps much with learned skills, but when learning new techniques students learn much much much quicker with proprioception techniques than with eye hand coordination techniques. This is my from own experience, not my opinion. The eye hand coordination techniques become a bad habit or crutch than a skill. What I do is I get my students to do the skill first with the aid of sight ,and then I get them to repeat it several times without sight.

November 22, 2011 at 05:07 PM · If you do something effective and you don't see it happen...if it requires an understanding of spatial orientation, how are you going to reproduce it? This is why people don't close their eyes when *learning* tennis, neurosurgery, or writing!

Hand-eye coordination techniques are not a crutch. They form an important basis of the skills we are asked to master as part of our training as musicians. For those without sight, the process becomes immeasurably harder.

As Raphael mentions, this is not an "all or nothing" affair. We use all of the possible senses to practice and perform, and that is why memorizing music is such a great leaves you free to process what you see in your playing rather than interpreting symbols on the page.

November 22, 2011 at 05:47 PM · Raphael

Not clear why the discussion has suddenly polarised?

"But use it where appropriate. And for beginners, too. Would you have beginners just close their eyes? It doesn't make sense."

Surely we're essentially agreeing? I don't think anyone is proposing the extreme you're suggesting here.

As I think everyone is saying, when learning a new skill sight clearly plays a major role, directly and in the mirror.

The grey area seems to be the role of sight once a skill has become relatively secure, and learners are beginning to refine it. And also in performance.

Personally my adjustment seems more refined if I spend most (not all) of my time "zoning out" my sense of sight and focusing hard on listening and body sensations and how they are interacting. What this thread has given me is a the confidence that this is OK, and not something I should be trying to eliminate.

Mostly I'm not actually closing my eyes - as you say that does affect the sense of balance, at least after the first few seconds. I think that people have been suggesting it mainly as an exercise - which I for one have found interesting and intend to use regularly. And as the clips show, the greats do seem to close their eyes quite frequently in performance.

In any case, surely over-reliance on sight would be a handicap for orchestral players and others who generally read as they play?

So if we're disagreeing at all, I'm thinking it's only about the balance of looking and not looking, as no-one seems to be suggesting the extremes that looking should be mandatory, or that not looking should be banned. And once we get down to fine point like that, it's surely a matter of personal make up and preference as much as anything?

November 22, 2011 at 05:59 PM · @Gene

"if it requires an understanding of spatial orientation, how are you going to reproduce it? This is why people don't close their eyes when *learning* tennis, neurosurgery, or writing!"

Do these analogies really hold? For example, will looking at the fingerboard really help me land that octave shift in tune?

With tennis you're hitting an unpredictable moving target. Neurosurgery and writing are obviously more visual than tactile. A counter analogy might be typing, where you are learning patterns on a fixed keyboard, and where looking is unhelpful. Ditto, I think, for the piano.

What we seem to be agreeing is that the violin is somewhere in the middle, an unusually challenging activity which demands an intelligent balance of the visual, aural and tactile, with the most effective proportions varying in different situations. I hadn't really thought of it like this before. So I've found the thread helpful, and I now feel equipped to make smarter choices rather than just following a fixed rule.

November 22, 2011 at 06:19 PM · @ Lila

Drifting back OT...

"so if Iceland is Hull, then Papua New Guinea is Milton Keynes."

Can't resist a challenge:

"Iceland is cold and remote, while Papua is rarely visited. So if Iceland is Hull, then Papua New Guinea is Milton Keynes." I claim my bag of Haribos!

I was at Trinity, back in the day. Lived above Heffers with a wonderful view of the Great Gate. They only started accepting women in my last year, which tells you how far back it was. Or as the Sun constructively reported this long overdue advance: "Sex Shock in Royal College"...

I did enjoy the river - found an abandoned punt, and when no-one claimed it, it became legally mine! Granchester by moonlight... So where were you?

November 23, 2011 at 07:23 AM · King's. Had a river-view in my third year, so was frequently distracted from finals revision with the sight of tourists clinging to sticks whilst their punts slid gracefully out from under their feet. :-)

November 23, 2011 at 09:21 AM · Lila

Ah, Kings, you glamorous creature! Did you get a chance to play your fiddle in the Chapel? Truly one of the world's great buildings. I heard Rostropovich play Bach there - memorable.

So you're welching on your Haribos challenge? Don't think I didn't notice...

November 23, 2011 at 10:25 AM · Sadly not- I only started playing seven lessons ago!

I did get the chance to play oboe in it though. I remember the first rehearsal in there- I had a little bit of a solo to do, and stopped after the first four notes. The conductor brought everything to a halt and basically asked me 'what the £&@%'? Except politely. I didn't really know what to say. How could I explain the way watching those notes I'd made drifting up to that famous ceiling had made me feel?

Fortunately I managed to pull myself together before the concert. But it was very inspiring, and also humbling.

November 23, 2011 at 11:14 AM · John, your comments spur the critical question: What is Lila doing in my punt?

Actually, I agree about the looking thing mostly. The angle - and also the closeness make it difficult to see where on the fingerboard you are - unless you still have fingerboad tape perhaps (hehe, that should stir up something). As you say, the only real discrimination is lateral and vertical. I can't see the benefit of lateral, few violinists need to see which string they are on - perhaps double stopping piano when you have to hit both strings gently? Vertical - well same thing - a very gentle bow stroke could be heleped.

i kinda think that looking at the violin actually has very little to do with the technical aspects of playing it but its something some players do as part of communication. Maybe visual people do it? As a kinesthetic it has little attraction for me....

November 23, 2011 at 11:27 AM · I'm terribly sorry, I thought it was Geoff's punt!

November 23, 2011 at 04:57 PM · Lila -so I've managed to tempt you into my punt? Life's looking up!

Elise, when you're in South Devon for the wedding, drop me a line if you'd like to attend a local session (or are you purely classical?).

Um, seems I'm confusing with Facebook...

November 25, 2011 at 12:44 PM · Gentlemen - I do enjoy the OT rambles that pop up on threads, but this must be some kind of record!

November 25, 2011 at 12:55 PM · I was going to say "well you started it," but having gone back through the thread I now believe it was John.


November 25, 2011 at 06:07 PM ·

It seems essential to look if you want to play parallel to the bridge, doesn't it? at least for a while? otherwise you are completely lost . . . ?

November 25, 2011 at 06:47 PM · John, it could happen - the Universe is expanding, you know! I hope at least no one tried any turkey carving with their eyes closed!

November 25, 2011 at 06:51 PM · Just to confuse you even more - I do competetive ballroom dancing and I love more than anything to dance with my eyes closed. And no, its not leaning on the partner because sometimes I practise by myself - 20 mph spins and turns and all with my eyes closed.

Ballance does not need sight - it works by labarynth in each ear - else we would all fall over when the lights go out (please try the experiment). Vision can contribute to ballance but if you experience a loss with closing your eyes its probably because your brain has strong feedback circuits between the eye and ear to help stability. Try this: ballance on one leg and then close your eyes, as suggested above. Yes you will start to feel unstable - but stick it out. Gradually your stability will come back as the brain shifts its focus from the eyes back to the propioceptive inputs.

But I suspect this is moot with respect to playing the violin. If you think vision helps then why not rig up a video camera that is focused on your fingerboard and watch it while you are playing. I'm going to guess that you would find it debilitating to watch, not helpful at all (at least not till you trained yourself to do so).

November 25, 2011 at 07:06 PM · And to clarify the punt confusion.

On November 21, 2011 at 10:49 PM John wrote:

"One more image for Lila in Cambridge drifting home after the shopping in her flat boat [hence the punt ee]. Baked beans and cornflakes piled up high as her "man " steers gracefully with the long wooden pole."

What I was referring to was my post, much earlier the same day (November 21, 2011 at 01:21 PM) on the 'Mozart advice for young player' topic I wrote: "Graceful, summer, sunshine, leaves - Cambridge, floating down the Thames on a punt with the person you love poling, you can even feel the pole thrust..."

It seems John had no knowledge of this since later on this topic he wrote (referring I'm sure to the punt situation) : "Elise is confusing me."

Which can only be interpreted three ways: First, John C did not read the Mozart topic and we have the best proof ever for two parallel punt universes; Second, this forum has two John Chads that have a shared subconcious. Or, third, that he was just intoxicated by the punt illusion and, well, pushed his pole into it....


November 25, 2011 at 07:35 PM · living proof that everyone who goes to cambridge is invariably `up the greek without a poodle.`



November 25, 2011 at 07:49 PM · I just assumed he'd had a nosey through my expansive profile... I am usually confused too, though, to be fair.

Nevertheless, I am moved to comment that that, Elise, was the most inadvertently filthy post I've ever seen on here!


November 25, 2011 at 07:52 PM · Lila. Oops. And thanks for the faith that it was inadvertent.

[It was - and now I think the punt really got stuck in the mud... wait a mo, this topic is RIFE with mot-minefields!! ]

Lets go out in my row boat OK? :)

November 25, 2011 at 11:18 PM · "If you think vision helps then why not rig up a video camera that is focused on your fingerboard and watch it while you are playing. I'm going to guess that you would find it debilitating to watch, not helpful at all (at least not till you trained yourself to do so)."

Huh? Well maybe next time I go to the store, I'll go by way of China. Or if you think that non-vision is the way to always go, then next time you play, why not wear a blindfold so there's no chance of peeking?

Look, don't look, it's no hair off my bow. But everything I've said above is from decades as a professional violinist and soloist, in turn backed up by much more prominant soloists than myself.

November 26, 2011 at 12:43 AM · But you didn't read all of what I said. I think it depends on your personal way of functioning - I bet I could find professional superstars who don't look, or at least don't need to. And I defer to your greater experience and obviously your own preferences - surely for some violinists (hey, maybe most) vision is very important. I'm but a humble student but for me its not - at least not vision through my eyes. What I find is that my mind generates an image of my fingertips on the fingerboard - I can 'see' their relative positions. A real image is very limited by comparison (from where my eyes are located) and actually conflicts with the mental map.

vive la différence..

November 26, 2011 at 02:09 AM · how 'bout a take on this from an improvisers point of view. Get it, point of view yuk yuk. And very similar to what Elise is saying. But I don't read music so... I visualise the finger board over 4 strings in scale patterns more as a mental image. Lotsa different patterns in different keys. Pentatonic, blues scale patterns, Major scale modes, arpeggio patterns. Took me quite a while to visualize the 3 diminished patterns in 1st pos.

Anyways... for me it's a combination of looking and not looking, but I'll often look away and defer to the mental image.

November 26, 2011 at 04:33 AM · Elise - possibly you also didn't read everything I said. I never advocated exclusively using visual technique, which I don't do, myself. I also agree that different modes may work for different people. And yes some greats did/do not look at all, including Ricci and Accardo. What I do advocate is to try to have ready many tools in our toolbox. But what struck me in what I quoted was that you seemed to be blithly dismissing something that so many greats have done, just because it may not work for you. Maybe you were just being humorous.

Just for entertainment earlier this evening I was reviewing a few of my violin DVD's. Maybe because it was partly on my mind, I noticed how many used occasional to exclusive visual technique, besides the masters already listed in posts above. The ones so doing that I just happened to come across earlier included Milstein, Szigeti, Elman, Markov, Francescatti, Stern, Rabin, Korcian, Thibauld, Haendel, Kogan, Oistrakh, Mutter and Ehnness. Just maybe they know something.

And to everyone - if you want to try my standing-on-one-foot-with-closed-eyes challenge, which Elise says can be overcome with practice, for the the sake of your health, and so that neither Elise nor I get sued, please don't try it anywhere near a coffee table or other protrudence!

November 26, 2011 at 06:39 AM · Here's something people can try. It's a proprioception technique for learning to feel straight bowing. Have someone watch you or video tape yourself to notice if the bow go's back straight.

With your eyes open,start in the middle of bow. Bow 4 straight 1/4 notes , now angle the bow towards you and bow 4 more strokes , now bring it back to straight and bow 4 more strokes ,now angle the bow away from you and do 4 more strokes, now bring it back to straight and bow 4 more . Now do the exercise with your eyes close.


4 |

4 /

4 |

4 \ ,

4 |

If someone was watching you or you video tape it , they would notice that when the bow came back to straight it stayed parallel with the bridge more often when the eyes were closed than it did with eyes open.

If you practice this over time you will never have to look at the bow to know if it is parallel with the bridge or not.

You don't have to look to feel straight

November 26, 2011 at 12:26 PM · 'Flat boat' is, indeed, probably the best way to avoid the myriad and various pitfalls associated with attempting the phrase 'punting up the Cam'.

November 26, 2011 at 01:29 PM · Self edited. Behave yourself ee, behave yourself.

November 28, 2011 at 01:37 PM · For those of us who rather favour playing without looking, here's a video of some bloke called Perlman playing an entire Partita without so much as a glance at his fiddle. Somehow or other he seems to limp along quite well ;-)

November 29, 2011 at 01:57 PM · A very fine job from "the Perlmeister"! Not to put myself in his category, but if anyone would like to take a look at my youtube it's at

It might surprise some to see me not looking - but it shouldn't. I never put myself in one camp or the other, but rather objected to a few who seemed to disdain looking as though there were something wrong with doing so, or that somehow one ought to deny oneself from looking, whereas so many masters have looked anywhere from sometimes to exclusively.

I also liked Charles Cook's exercises. I have done similar things with myself and with students. And keep in mind that unless we're playing from memory, this is a moot point, since when reading from music we can't look except very peripherally. But when we can, and if it helps, we shouldn't hesitate at all.

I'm particularly busy in my freelancing now, and probably won't post much for a while. But in the end, I'm somewhow reminded of this story about the legendary pedagogue, Leopold Auer, toward the end of his career. A boy came to play for him. The aged master seemed to be drifting off to sleep when suddenly he yelled "don't scratch!" The boy resumed playing. After a while again Auer exhorts "I already told you not to scratch!" The boy resumes playing for a while. Auer finally wearily says "OK, so scratch"...

November 29, 2011 at 03:52 PM · Raphael - loved the performance! You are a true artist, and with a gorgeous sound...

As I said before, I'm not at all sure that we're disagreeing. I was really looking for reassurance that it's OK not to look for some of the time. We can certainly agree that any kind of dogmatic rejection of looking is going much too far.

As I suggested above, what I'm taking from this thread is a need for a smart balance between visual, kinetic and aural awareness depending on the context, something I hadn't really thought about explicitly before.

I'm more than aware of the value of looking when required - I've just spent an hour in front the the mirror checking my bow arm with open strings!

November 29, 2011 at 11:31 PM · Thanks, Geoff! Just one more thing, and then I really need to take a break. I think someone mentioned that this subject came up in the current December issue of the Strad. Just got my copy yesterday. It is in the "ask the teacher" forum. It is not covered nearly as exhaustively as in this thread, and yet introduces a rather different aspect: the focus of the solo violinist's eyes when performing in public, and how that may or may not affect the connection with the audience.

As someone who has performed publicly innumerable times, I can say that when performing something from memory - especially something expressive - I find that I close my eyes more than when practicing at home. It helps focus my concentration and tune out some of the audience distraction even while at the same time, I'm connecting with them.

Happy Holidays!

November 30, 2011 at 12:48 AM · Looking maintains the *focus* on what you are doing. Looking at one subject creates a tunnel vision so that nothing outside can distract. Looking at the contact point of the bow on the string, even a chrub in the front row, or something on the back wall keeps one in the present moment.

Looking is also done with the eyes 'closed'!

If one are not seeing in your 'minds eye' the movements of the bow on thw strings, and the fingers upon the fingerboard, then one must be a robot?

December 7, 2011 at 12:54 PM · Just spotted the following in a write-up by Laurie on a workshop with Julie Lyonn Lieberman:

Here's another interesting idea to consider: the brain's visual cortex is huge, whereas the auditory cortex is a little blip on each side of the brain.

"When a person uses their eyes, the other senses shut down 75 percent or more," Julie said. This has implications for beginners. How much attention can they pay to their bodies, or the sounds they make, if they are learning to read music at the same time as they are learning to hold and play their instrument?

"Suzuki was really onto something, building the muscles and the auditory complex independent from the eyes," Julie said.

This tends to support my growing feeling that we learn in a different way when we are not emphasising looking. Clearly reading will engage more of the visual cortex than simply watching the hands and bow, but the same principle surely applies...

December 7, 2011 at 03:06 PM · kinda depends on whether the visual cortex is helping or hindering the learning. Music is surely mostly aural, perhaps the challenge is turning the visual cortex off!

December 7, 2011 at 10:11 PM · Greetings,

exactly the opposite in my opinion, the best violinists I have ever known not only `see` music in colors but also talk about sound in terms of color. Indeed, I see it as one of the things that separates the great from the merely talented.

Also look at Beethoven`s death mask. It shows that the area of the skull harboring the visual cortex is greatly enlarged.

See you,


December 7, 2011 at 10:27 PM · But the colours are there even if it's dark or you close your eyes, so that wouldn't have anything to do with the looking or not looking... er... I think?

December 8, 2011 at 12:27 AM · Subjectively, I'm guessing it's partly to do with focus. You can have your eyes open, but not be giving visual input much of your attention, which I suspect would leave more "processing space" available for the aural and tactile areas of the brain. With something intensively visual, such as note reading, I'm guessing that more of the visual cortex will fire up to deal with the complexity, crowding out the less dominant aural and tactile senses. That's what it feels like, anyway.

I've been trained in a form of meditation (Vipassana) which requires steadfast focus on sensations throughout the body. For 2500 years practitioners have chosen to work with their eyes closed and I think there is a good reason for this - despite Lila's colours etc behind the eyes it really does enable greater awareness of the body. I suspect the colours are caused by the visual cortex in "idling" mode and don't take up significant processing space.

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