Critique my work in progress

February 13, 2017 at 08:32 AM · In about six weeks, I play Lark Ascending with my community orchestra. Today I did a performance with piano. This was basically unrehearsed -- the pianist was sight-reading and we ran it once immediately before the recital (my teacher's studio recital, i.e., me and a bunch of kids).

I was far more nervous than I thought I would be, and there are a bunch of WTF moments where I have no clue why something went off the rails (even if not always audible, like where I play fingerings and bowings that were unplanned), since most of those places aren't difficult. And my teacher notes that I tend to play sharp when I'm nervous -- he thinks it's something that happens in my brain/ear rather than a physical thing. (There may be a physical element involved as well this time, since I have a sufficiently bad cold that my congestion has by and large blocked my left-ear hearing, but I think this is only a vague contributing factor.)

I'm interested in your critiques and commentary. I've put about 25 hours of practice into this to date, and I'll probably put in about another 25 hours over the next month, and I want to use that time efficiently on whatever will make the biggest impact in terms of impression on the audience.

Here's the YouTube video:

Replies (43)

February 13, 2017 at 09:29 AM · Really impressive Lydia! As it has been said before on this forum, you have the true soloistic sound. You make the top D sound so clear. If I may make some suggestions on things to work on: (1) listen to the video and pick out the passages where the intonation is not yet perfect; (2) practice on taking your time a bit more in the singing themes; (3) this is probably something more long-term, but I find your vibrato a bit stiff if I am allowed to say that. Doing daily exercises on loosening the end joints and paying attention to having them loose while doing vibrato can do miracles in producing a looser vibrato. The trick that worked for me is to pay attention (and work on it) that the strength in your finger is concentrated around the base joint area, at the same time keeping the top parts of your finger floppy. The fast runs are good as they are, this is clearly where your chops are (together with the sound production as I already said). It is admirable that you manage to keep up the violin on such a high level with a high-level job and a baby! All the best!

February 13, 2017 at 02:42 PM · Thanks!

About three years back, my teacher decided to rework my vibrato from scratch, which turned out rather well (slower, more amplitude) -- until I'm nervous. Then I still have tremendous problems vibrating without resulting in a nervous tremor.

My hands were shaking before the performance, when I was playing the rehearsal in front of a videocamera (which is often by itself enough to induce nerves for me), so my teacher sent me off to go play half an hour of scales without vibrato before performing. That helped fairly significantly, but not entirely.

February 13, 2017 at 02:47 PM · Very nice performance! I don't have time right now to listen to the entire video or to go into depth, but I agree with Jean about your vibrato. That was actually the first thing I thought to comment on, given that you are already aware that you tend to go sharp.

More later, I hope.

February 13, 2017 at 03:26 PM · Hi Lydia,

Awesome playing! You may already know this, but here's how my teacher suggests practicing vibrato. I think it has helped me widen the amplitude of my vibrato and allow me to adjust the speed as well.

Set the metronome at 72. Work on one finger at a time in first position on the A string.

Vibrate up, down to the metronome. Up on one beat, down on another beat. Basically quarter notes up, down, up down to the beat. Do this for 8 beats. Next do 1/8 notes, up, down on each beat for 8 beats. Next do triples, up,down,up on first beat, down,up,down on second beat, for 8 beats.

Next shift your thinking to 1/8 notes, but do two ups per beat, so each beat will be up,down,up,down. Do this for 8 beats. Then triplets for 8 beats, then 1/16ths for 8 beats. For the 1/16ths, you are doing 4 ups per beat.

Hopefully, this is clear, but I can do a video if it will be helpful.

February 13, 2017 at 04:02 PM · Yup. I do a nearly identical pulsed-subdivision exercise (though with the metronome set to 60 instead).

My vibrato tends to naturally fast, so I am usually explicitly conscious about choosing a speed. (If I'm not, my teacher usually reminds me!) However, when I'm nervous, vibrating can lead to my left hand/arm essentially shaking uncontrollably, so all the planning goes completely out the window. This time was somewhere in the middle -- enough control to not allow the tremor to get out of hand, but not enough relaxation to get a more free sound in most cases.

February 13, 2017 at 04:45 PM · I can definitely relate to nervousness tensing up the vibrato! keep up the good stuff!

February 13, 2017 at 05:11 PM · Very pretty Lydia, thanks for sharing! Very fleet fingers flying indeed :) When I start feeling my machine gun vibrato kicking in, I tell myself, "unwind," which means to physically undo anything that contributes to a bicep curl: release elbow to the left (undo shoulder rotation,) push the scroll right, undo supination, drop the upper arm (deltoid and bicep while not connected have a synergy in shoulder flexion, see

Also, to slow it down, I try to vibrate away, away, away, instead of using an impulse vibrato, which pulls in partly with the biceps. That might also help with pulling the pitch down a bit. However, for a piece like this, I'd say play the 'white' notes unapologetically. For the long term, you might think of developing more of an arm vibrato (both impulse and swinging-away) for greater amplitude, greater mass to move, for variety.

Yixi linked to a great masterclass with Kraggerud on Smiley's thread where he was mostly trying to elicit variety in the students. One way to plan variety into the whole is to never play similar things the same way in a row. Also, choose one high point per measure, or one high point per phrase (which might mean eliminating one or more of those high points in adjacent measures,) extend that to one high in a section, in the whole piece. Of course these are guidelines, and sometimes the composer explicity asks for sameness (or editors do, as Kraggerud insinuates) but we can even try to create some variety in sameness. So in m3, VW gives us three identical figures in a row, DEDE, each of which terminates on higher and higher intervals suggesting the lark perhaps rising from slumber, shaking out her wings a little more each time before taking flight. You give us three same agogics on each of the Ds which makes for a stodgy bird ;) Following Kraggerud's advice, try coming up with several permutations of varying agogics mixed with none at all and see how that describes your lark. Because there are so many repeated figures throughout the piece, some identical, some with slight alterations, often with unchanging harmonies underneath, you have a lot of leeway with how you vary things.

More later. I'll try to coordinate my remarks on Smiley's thread and offer them at the same time.

Edit: you do change colour on each of the D's which is nice!

February 13, 2017 at 05:27 PM · Thanks, Jeewon! My teacher's immediate post-performance comment to me was, "Needs more tonal variety." :-)

February 13, 2017 at 07:37 PM · Hi Lydia,

Nice performance! Thank you for sharing this.

I watched about half of the performance before the video went quirky for some reason. I will try to watch it again later, but here are the notes I took:

Nice bow usage and management -- really makes it to the extreme frog / tip effectively

When going to the tip on the upper strings, the bow tends to drift toward the fingerboard. Not sure if that is intentional, it seems awfully consistent.

Hard to tell from the video, but my impression is that your tone on the G string is quite nice and has both clarity and depth

Again hard to detect tone in the video, but the E string playing sounds a bit thin for my taste

Vibrato is a bit too consistent. I think varying it more (speed and modulation) will have a better effect. I'd like to see more modulation in the 4th finger as well.

Nice crisp trills!

Effective body movement without interfering or distracting

Intervals occasionally get too large resulting in sharpness of pitch, but you correct it after some deviation

February 13, 2017 at 10:25 PM · Simon Fischer's two pages on vibrato in _Warming Up_ are excellent. My teacher has been doing a vibrato rebuild with me, and after getting it pretty good adding in a daily run-through of Fischer's exercises (less than 10 minutes) has brought me to a whole new level of relaxation in my first finger joints.

Regarding the recording, let me first say that I enjoyed the performance a great deal and I aspire to play as well as you do. However, you are looking for suggestions, so forgive me for offering one: it sounds like the phrasing, in general, could use some work to add drama to the performance--it sounded "flatter" and less exciting than it could, I think. Since your technique, in general, is so good, it seems bolstering the musicality of the performance could yield great dividends relative to the others areas you mentioned you want to work on.

I also suggest this since I'm more adept at focusing on technical issues, and that is my sense for you as well based on your past writings here. My teacher has been working with me a great deal to help build more active and intuitive senses of the music into my practice and performance, and it's amazing how much it can improve something even while the other technical stuff stays static.

Anyway, though, I enjoyed the playing a great deal, so take everything I said with the low weighting it deserves=)

February 14, 2017 at 03:33 AM · Please be critical without apology. :-)

I'm listening to my video of tonight's rehearsal with orchestra and I am psuedo-happy to say that the pitch isn't creeping higher... but the pitch center is moving based on what I'm hearing from the orchestra. I am not sure exactly how to deal with this, since the pitch creep isn't really happening in practice alone. There are a few shifts that aren't really as totally secure as they need to be that are where something might destabilize, but the shifting pitch landscape in my head / heard in the orchestra is a different matter, and I'm not sure what practice strategies might work for it.

Frustratingly, vibrato was tight again tonight by default, plus I had a bit of a right-hand shake. Mild nervousness in front of the orchestra in terms of physical reaction, despite my relatively calm frame of mind. Have to figure out something to deal with this.

You're right that it's far easier to focus on technique than the phrasing, but the phrasing is also what a non-violin-playing audience pays attention to. By personality, I am much more likely to obsess over the technique, though.


The tip drift is deliberate. My arm isn't long enough to reach the tip otherwise, and I was taught to let the bow arc a little bit to compensate.

The G is the Larsen Tzigane I just put on the violin. I'm getting to like it more, as its response improves as it breaks in. The E is a Warchal Amber. I think it sounds thin on the recording because YouTube is eliminating the high frequencies in the audio compression. If you heard this violin in person, up close, you can feel the high frequencies as a kind of pressure in your ears, similar to what you feel with noise-cancelling headphones. It's quite the interesting sensation. It projects far better than I expected, actually; I was really surprised, listening to the rehearsal recording taken from the back of the room, camera behind the horn section, that the violin punches right through the orchestra texture even at a piano dynamic.

Looking forward to everyone's additional comments!

February 14, 2017 at 04:48 AM · I added a post about backwards bow planning on Smiley's thread. Though your phrases are very busy, you can still use the same principle of using bow division to phrase. The Lark is very senza misura, but it will help to organize all the rubati and tempo changes around a solid steady rhythmic framework, otherwise it can sound random at times. Fill each bow division with the smaller notes. This will help you spread the little notes out to fill each division, rather than compressing them. I would start with no agogics, just phrase shapes first, then add agogics which will change all the bow divisions, as will colour changes. Of course you don't have to go through the whole piece like this every day in one go. But planning the bow, knowing exactly where you want to be at every moment, knowing how many notes, fingers, will fill each division, each bow stroke, on which string will give you absolute control. Right now some of the corners feel a little uncertain and some of the fast notes are compressed. Some of the bowing feels a little automatic also (along the lines of using same agogics over and over.) Bow planning will solve a lot of these issues.

As much as possible I would play the whole piece steadily and with precise rhythmic subdivisions and super divisions and bow divisions at least once a week.

m3/system 1 this is an interpretation thing, but to me the fragments go 2+3+3, rather than 3+2+1+1+1, if that makes sense

s2 the 3 groups of 4 could be more connected so they phrase to the top B; I would save more bow for the last 4, F#AF#A, use slower bow on the last F#A and feel the shift with the bow so they're coordinated and connected; I think your bow finger motion is disturbing the bow change (made some remarks about bow change and connecting left and right on Smiley's thread)

s3 last group should have only seven notes--I think you're doing 9(?); the groups of six are too flippy; you could spread them out more and sustain the sound so that it's really 12 notes which lead to the top each time, rather than two groups of 6

s4 end to s5 Brava! It could have more variety still.

s5 first group could almost be an echo, or at least a dim. more spread out and even; start the second group slightly slower, delay the acceleration a tad, decelerate more coming out this and spread out EAB and feel your left fingers divide the lower third of the bow; you need to be at the frog at s6, so bow planning, feeling the notes really fill the divisions you choose, feeling the fingers flow through the divisions will take your already brilliant display a notch up

s6 because you don't have enough bow, this corner starts a little choked, and is a little rushed; feel the dot

Brava on the climb to the high D, but I think you spend too much bow on the low D, getting to the tip for the E; instead grow the down bows a little bit longer each time, so you don't have to spend it all on the first note; I'm not convinced by your bowing on the high D, but in any case, you need more bow for the high D, spin the sound; subdivide the rit. into the high D in your head, e.g. feel the rit. in triples and feel a sextuplet starting to flow from the high D, or continue in triplets if you want it a bit faster; this section is still halting, not a tempo yet, but feeling the rubati in subdivisions will make this section more organic; the dotted rhythm + eighth will sing more if you use less bow for the dotted A's and more bow on the last A's and connect into the B's; mix it up to see how it feels; e.g. you could do emphasize dotted rhythm for the first one, then grow into the B for the second one

s7 after the climb down from the E, I would place the D eighth, maybe even an agogic, and slower bow on the B to have more of an arrival

s8 on the last scale, don't kick the D; you need more bow on the B, again bow planning

I think careful bow planning will really kick everything up a notch. You look a little uncomfortable at the frog and getting to the frog and better divisions will help with this.

P.S. I'm kind of tired of hearing about the virtues of standing still. It's passé. Everyone insists no one can play like Heifetz yet everyone wants to look like him. Freedom, adapting to your own body type is in, forever I hope. I think you would benefit from moving more (see Kraggerud about dancing.) Rhythmic moving, walking around while you practice, helps free everything. Also, I think you're kind of stuck to the left, for your proportions. You have good contrary motion moving the fiddle left as you finish a down bow, but notice that swinging away moves the fiddle away from your bow, increasing the crooked angle. Contrary motion increases the relative speed between bow and string. Similar motion slows the relative speed (watch Oistrakh.) You can also get to the tip by raising the scroll rather than swinging away. Swinging the fiddle right, lowering the scroll helps you play near the frog (watch Midori.) After the performance you might benefit from moving the fiddle more in front of you. From middle you can still lean left if you want more bow speed and fast bows. It's easier to lean right for when you need to help out the bow arm.

February 14, 2017 at 05:16 AM · Thanks for the detailed notes!

I ended up re-bowing a goodly amount of this -- and completely changing my bow division for the entire thing -- about two weeks ago, when I was told in a coaching session that the sound I was producing was much too intense for this work. I'd struggled to be heard in a read-through last summer, but I was told that the orchestra needs to come down in volume rather than me producing a denser sound -- essentially, that I needed to trust the instrument to project.

A methodical bow re-planning is a great suggestion. I routinely practice all the runs in the piece in down-bow/up-bow staccato for evenness, but haven't tried consciously subdividing the long notes across the bow.

Edit: The leftward placement is deliberate. I tore a ligament in my left elbow as a kid, and bringing the violin more center sets off a bad chain of physical issues. I generally only do it when a passage really physically demands it. (After years of pain despite excellent musician-specialized physicians, a new violin teacher in my mid-teens solved everything with a simple, "Move the violin two inches to the left.")

February 14, 2017 at 05:42 AM · Ah, I see. I injured my left shoulder over 10 years ago, and watching James Ehnes I realized I could simply unwind everything on my left side. The way I hold, chin over left edge of lower bout (kind of like Hilary Hahn,) which unwinds supination and lowers the general level of the fiddle relative to the bow arm, left elbow pointing to the left (rotating for each level of the string) which unwinds shoulder rotation, a greater tilt angle to bring the strings closer to my short pinky, has helped. Of course this is a disadvantage for playing at the tip with my relatively short arms, so I swing the scroll more to middle, or raise the scroll when I want to reach the tip. I basically have 3 'stations' for playing. Swing left for fast full bows. Middle for normal. Right to favour tricky bowing passages, and when I need the frog a lot. But I don't rotate the torso, I leaning over each hip, shifting my balance. When standing you can actually rotate one side of the body about the opposite hip. So lean left, step forward with right foot, rotating on left hip. Lean right, step forward with left foot, rotating on right hip. (Somebody somewhere talks about using hip rotation in coordination with bowing, but I've forgotten who.)

I just noticed your post about bow arm shakes. Nate Cole has a video about tilting the bow so the ferule hits the thumb nail. For soft, sustained playing I've been moving my right shoulder, drooping it completely forward and out (as if to elbow someone to the right) for down bows, then retracting it and pulling it slightly back in prep for up bows. Also, exhale to prepare for an entry. Exhale when you get jittery. The inhale will then take care of itself.

Edit: But I suspect no one can tell. Watching your video, you say you're nervous but it doesn't show in your bowing at all. You say you have WTF moments ;) where even though we can't tell, you use unplanned bowings and fingerings. That is a great asset and I think you should be encouraged by and trust your solid base-line skill set.

Edit2: Do you hold your breath? You might try breathing, exhaling really hard, almost sighing before you start your vibrato.

February 14, 2017 at 06:48 AM · Lydia, I listened twice and I am impressed in many ways. I'll ask a few questions for you to think about:

From the very beginning, what is you want to say to the audience in this piece? Can you translate the first a few lines into words such as "Once upon a time..."? (I don't mean exactly these words, but some words that give you concrete meaning). What kind of mood you want to convey? Anything visual? What kind of atmosphere you can create to help audience to begin their imaginations, fantasy, or at least, curiosity?

As the music goes on, where is the tension, the yearning, or something enigmatic you feel and you can convey? Any new material you can show the audience? In the end, what you want to leave behind in listeners' ears?

I'll listen a couple of more times and will give you more feedback if I have any.

Edit: I found a video with landscapes and a poem (below the video) by George Meredith that inspired Vaughan Williams to write this piece:

Edit 2: I think people need to hear this piece especially now. It can bring a lot of peace and tranquility to them and be reminded that life is bigger than politics.

February 14, 2017 at 06:57 PM · Very nice performance. Could you relax the bow hand a little bit more? The pinky could be detached from the stick when playing at the tip of the bow.

February 14, 2017 at 07:52 PM · My grip on the bow is relatively loose, especially in this work. My past teachers have been very pinky-belongs-on-the-stick in philosophy, though my current teacher often plays without his (but that might just be a result of his hand configuration).

I'm curious what you think pinky-off-the-stick achieves, though.

February 15, 2017 at 06:13 AM · Posted on Smiley's thread about using bow speed on the small notes to delineate and add nuance to phrases.

In general, be careful not to shoot the bow, especially up after a down at the tip. Your tendency is to use a lot of bow from tip to middle, then less, so you have a slowing in the sound on every up bow.

1 before a tempo, on the ascending scale, up-up on the E-F#, do less more, instead of more-less so that the F# connects with the A

a tempo, starting second half of second measure B, next measure E, next D, next D, and all subsequent up bows have similar speed and sound; they don't connect with the previous down bows

2 after a tempo, second half, the G also shoots and is louder than the downbow D

2 before [A], the down bow ends with a tug, think rest/release on the tied note, or maybe in this case, "float", then you can spend, but with a floating sound which turns more dense on the last three sixteenths so they connect into the E-E; or, you can grow the E, connecting the D after the tie, less, more, more, more, more so that you gradually grow all the sixteenths into the E-E

give more length to all sixteenths, but not in the same way

1 before [A], you could do less-more/A-F# to grow into the E; then more-less/E-F# to diminish into the A, etc. All the nuance is in the short notes; all the eighth notes can be given a similar treatment

for the apreggios of 10, distribute the bow with more at the beginning as you do, but then really save as you cross to the A and D strings; since the strings get thicker, slower bow is appropriate anyways, and that will help track the bow; then spend as you play B-E-F into the A; I think I would hold back on the first group a bit or at least grow more at the end of the second group of 10, giving more density on the last E-F#, so it connects better into the A, 1 before [B]

1 before [B] you could give more length to B-E, even hold back a bit to give this a little more weight, and pass it to the (is it a) clarinet(?) figure; be aware of how you interweave with the orchestra

1 after [B] sing the sixteenths with bow division (I think you can use more bow,) especially coming out of it, connect the A-D into the next E dotted figure

cantabile after [B] is a bit notey; sing through the notes and make sure it's not just even sounding down and up bows

4 after [B] give a shape, as it is I think you grow on the B, 5th eight note, into the 32nds, and there's no where for the small notes to go; the 32nds belong to the next two measure (note grouping) and you can delineate that by slowing the bow on B, so, more-less D-B, new bow speed on 32nds leading into the next measure; save on the ties, don't kick the ties--it should be more-less/D-B; nice colour change, but match with the bow--use less, slower bows the second time, to give an echo; spend more on the last triplet, the B's to connect better with the D's; spread out the triplets more (could do with some metronome work--undertempo, sixteenth note to the beat, make sure you feel the 2 against 3); there's not much happening here, so I think you can be calmer/softer

the little bird calls, taper the the longer notes, taper the repeated sixteenth figures more-less/DB-DB; more flautando?

track the bow on the last 32nds leading back into the tune, less-more/ABAB-DEDE, which you do, but you taper the DEDE; don't lose sound on the last DE, connect it into the B, don't lose sound on the B, connect, grow it into the A

grow the allarg. less-more-more/A-C#-D connect into the E; take time, it doesn't quite feel allarg., maybe do rubato on the D, arrive on the E

more singing on the last sixteenths in this section; track the down bows; here's a section where you need to maintain soundpoint

suggestion 1: practice moving the bow along the string, push forward toward the scroll, back toward bridge; the idea is to have a feeling of pulling the whole bow toward the bridge as you bow around the corner to maintain soundpoint; control it with the index

suggestion 2: at the beginning of the down bow, feel your elbow move sideways, as if to elbow someone to your right, before you start swinging at the shoulder; keep your elbow more forward in general, i.e. for straighter bows, push the elbow in front of you as a default position (you might want to save such work for after the performance); also push the elbow forward after you reach square elbow

In general there is a tendency to close the armpit as you pull a downbow (I think that's what's disrupting your bow change at the frog); your elbow dips and you kind of raise the hand at the wrist and turn it, sometimes you raise the forearm; instead bow out, push the elbow out first, along the plane of the string, or even lift it slightly

February 15, 2017 at 02:28 PM · Lydia,

I noticed that (1) your bow hand holds the same shape/position with the pinky firmly on the stick, and (2) the bow tip is considerably slanted when you are using the tip of the bow. My guess is that given your physique, esp. arm length, freeing your pinky from the stick would help your sound production. Hope this helps.

February 15, 2017 at 04:50 PM · I've got nothing for technique that others haven't said. One musical thing that you might try is in that first bit, when you've done all the flutterings and then you arrive on that high note and signal the melody for the first time, still solo. In this video, it happened so fast with no noticeable change in tone or breath. You might try a slight pause/breath and maybe slightly more focused tone there, different vibrato, signalling to the listener "Hey! I've arrived!"

Really beautiful work, though. I can't believe you've pulled this together with an infant and a full-time job. I'd shell out for a ticket to hear this performance.

February 15, 2017 at 10:01 PM · Hi Lydia,

Thanks for posting this. I haven't looked at all the comments, but I'm really partial to the part between 3:30 and 3:50. I think the double stops are mostly 6ths, though I haven't seen the notes.

To me, I think you could shape that section a little more so that you build to the top, and then it seems like there is space to linger on that top double stop, before releasing the tension on the run down. I would maybe work from that top double stop down, and try and smooth out the transitions between notes. I think it's almost there, but it's such a beautiful moment, that I think it benefits from as much fluidity as possible. I think introducing a little more fantasy into that part can give you a little more breathing room on your shifts, and may make it a little easier too.

Good luck!

February 16, 2017 at 03:26 AM · Beautiful, beautiful legato... jealous about you seamless bow changes

February 16, 2017 at 08:06 PM · Bowing seems fine, just a couple minor things far as proportions along with a couple speed/pressure issues especially affecting some of the arpeggios and clarity making them sound a bit muddled.

The piece, especially the opening Violin intro lacks phrasing, which is mostly due to the type of vibrato. It's very tight. Scary tight vibrato messing with the piece. A lot of times, you don't need to bother vibrating notes and simply allow the phrasing to carry the piece through. Vibrato is fine for upper register and quite effective though.

Will edit later whenever I find my score about mid sections. I'm sure others have nitpicked already.

The ending same thing mostly. I don't have my copy handy right now, but at about 12:00 mark, passage before, the abrupt stop and a lot of the ending is a tad bit messy. Also, your final note is almost there. I wouldn't use the roadrunner vibrato and just let it fade instead.

Great job overall. With some changes, especially to your vibrato and overall phrasing it could be very good.

February 17, 2017 at 07:13 PM · Thanks for everything thus far, folks. :-)

February 22, 2017 at 05:19 PM · Wow. very impressive! I hope I can play so well one day!


February 23, 2017 at 12:01 AM · Pinky off the stick at the top of the upbow when the wrist is bent backwards the most. This helps me go farther, and prevents pain from pinky to elbow.

Best wishes!

February 23, 2017 at 03:30 AM · I normally more or less ignore my pinky on the bow. If I pay attention to where it is at the tip, it's essentially barely in contact with the stick, but I rarely lift it in legato playing, the way I might for certain other strokes. Since my hold is Russian, it's all focused on the thumb/1st/2nd anyway.

I have a preference for bows that feel light (even if they are normal weight) so the pinky tends not to be needed for balance/counterweight/etc.

February 25, 2017 at 08:20 PM · Jeewon, today I discovered in a practice session that your "unwind" trick works quite well for me, although it remains to be seen whether it will work when I'm actually nervous rather than tensing because I'm tired.

My latest problem is that I'm trying to put the music stand down as low as possible, but I don't have the piece securely memorized so I'm needing to glance constantly at the music to make sure I don't lose my place on the page. But that's altering the way that I hold my head, and it's contributing to significant shoulder and neck fatigue that doesn't normally occur. (It's something that I'm normally careful to avoid, since I've never 100% recovered from a non-violin-induced bout of shoulder tendinitis, and so now I take special care not to stress it.)

February 26, 2017 at 09:01 AM · Hey that's great to hear Lydia! Though I've found these things take time, I hope it works in performance too. You might also be interested in your foot placement/hip rotation to further unwind your whole body. I used to play with a symmetrical stance, toes/knees out at about 45 degrees. When the hips are rotated out the pelvis is free to rotate in either direction, which is why this stance is a good 'ready' position to leap into action into any direction (like in volleyball.) But because violin stance is asymmetrical, and there's a tendency to push left shoulder forward and rotate torso to the right, for me the pelvis tended to rotate right also; my whole body used to be twisted as a default position--which is common for violinists. I now like to keep my left toe slightly pigeon toed, as in a boxer's stance, knee/toes pointing slightly right, left hip slightly internally rotated, which causes the pelvis to rotate slightly left, and the torso to rotate slightly left also, thus unwinding the twist. Of course, I try not to get stuck in any one position, including foot placement.

These days I think the common wisdom suggests pointing the toes at the same angle as the fiddle points left. In the old days I believe the toes always pointed inside the angle of the violin, more forward than left. It might be useful to revisit old ideas.

I posted this and another idea about using lower traps to raise the upper arm in the more recent posts in Yixi's thread here:

Whenever you raise your arms, whether to open a cupboard or ask a question, the proper coordination is to pull the shoulder blades down first.

Re. your new fatigue with low stand. Remember your body tends to follow where you look. It may be that by looking down, you tend to bend the neck forward and down slightly, following your eyes. If your hips/pelvis don't respond to the head/neck you might be creating an internal tension to counter the slightly forward lean caused by the head leaning forward. One way to deal with this is to simply practice AT's 'forward and up' while pivoting only your eyeballs, so you can look down briefly. But I think a greater awareness of how your whole body balances will help prevent unnecessary tension anywhere in your back.

Remember there is no single joint in your spine which bends by itself. A common mismapping for the spine is to feel there's a hinge at the base of your neck and at the waist. It's possible to 'bend' forward by curving the whole spine in a 'C', pelvis tilting backward, head bending down at the base of the skull, and vice versa. That's a coordinated motion of the whole spine. But if you try to bend any single part of the spine and the rest is stuck, you will create an internal tension.

To keep the spine aligned while you bend down, you have to bend at the only true joint which is designed to do so, which is at the hips--you have to learn how to hip-hinge:

Notice balance is maintained by the butt moving back, as if you were sitting/squatting, and the knees stay over the ankles (tibia stays vertical.) If you don't sit back leading with your butt, the whole backside will tense in an effort to stay upright. If the knees move forward (knee dominant movement in the video) you can strain the knees.

It will feel weird at first, but if you keep the knees soft and hip hinge ever so slightly in order to look down, there will be no alteration to your spine alignment, which means no added tension to your neck/back. You can 'look' with your hips. You might also feel conspicuous at first, but from the outside, if you fold down in a balanced manner, no one will be the wiser (especially if you keep it a very small motion.) If you go forward, without the butt going back, you will look off balance and the audience might notice, even if only unconsciously. Although by Todd Hargrove's definition, Esther Gokhale is more of a guru than an expert, I've found her method useful in realigning my spine and pelvis. How to pickup things according to her method. Her website.

I used to hold a lot of tension in my thoracic spine. Gaining T-spine mobility was the final piece in understanding whole spine coordination:

These exercises, designed for tennis players, feel great:

These are great too:" N.B. The rounded lower back movement is designed to stretch out the butt. "Chest Opening and Closing Mobilizations" at the bottom is great for spinal coordination.

Hope it helps!

March 4, 2017 at 10:55 AM · I really love the way you use all the bow so effortlessly. I really wish one day I can play like you.

March 4, 2017 at 08:29 PM · Thanks, Allen!

Jeewon, I don't think that alignment works for me, at least not in a violin-playing position in which I tend to prefer to keep the scroll relatively high. (Indeed I notice that if I don't use the music at all, I generally hold the instrument higher.)

I do try to keep spinal alignment, though, when I'm conscious of it. (This comes from Alexander Technique for me, though, but I imagine the principle is basically the same.)

I'm in the midst of weekly orchestra rehearsals for this now, and I'm gradually getting over my terror of being in front of the orchestra, so I'm playing more stably in rehearsals, but I'm still wary of how much nerves will impact the eventual performance.

March 4, 2017 at 09:14 PM · Lydia, just keep in mind the positive reaction people are already having to your very preliminary performance above! I predict your audience will be moved and love it. I think you can trust your current baseline skill set. Anticipating fear can become self fulfilling, and any wariness is really self imposed and a bit unfair to yourself. Getting over such thinking takes active practice over many years (as I'm still learning!) and one remedy is to always play to your audience, the actual group of people who will come to hear you, not some abstract group of judgmental violinistical snobs we all imagine from time to time.

I like this talk by Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, and the idea that genius is something which visits us from time to time, not something we are. All we have to do for our part is to just show up every day and give it our all. [19m24s]

Re. the alignment, yeah, you have to really find what works for your current setup, and any serious overhaul should be done after important performances. I wasn't suggesting it as a permanent position though, just as a fleeting movement for looking down from time to time. But I suppose if you're used to standing still as you play it would feel weird to move like that. The other reason I went into detail about coordinating the spine is to downplay the idea of a "good posture". I believe a functional and adaptive posture is more important than a "proper" static one.

E.g. if you curve the neck and thoracic spine forward and down (like our ever diminishing mascot) while keeping your lumbar extended, you can feel strain in the neck and compression of the low back (swayback). But if you curve into a 'C' curve by coordinating the pelvis into a posterior tilt (like in the mobilizations in and our mascot) there is no single spot in the spine which becomes tight or compressed. That's another way to 'look down' with your whole spine, and bring the fiddle, especially G-string, closer to the bow, and you see quite a few concert violinists use this tactic. In this way, as long as you don't get stuck in any extreme position, I've discovered such spinal coordinating is more important than a fixed alignment which is theoretically optimal. Unless you have an ideal violin body, I think it's useful to explore greater ranges of motion to help compensate. But of course these things take time and a lot of experimenting.

March 4, 2017 at 11:34 PM · Thanks for the thoughts, Jeewon.

In thinking about how much I move when I play, I suspect that I move more in an orchestral setting than in any other. Some of it is simply because I have generally occupied principal chairs, and therefore I move because I am specifically trying to communicate via that movement. Some of it might have to do with how I'm seated; I suspect I move more or less depending on my chair.

At home, I have a set of quartet chairs -- other than the cello chair, they are Wenger's Nota conBrio chairs, which allow you to move really easily (you can practically leap out of your seat and still feel balanced), and tend to force you towards the edge of your seat, upright. I have one of them at two inches shorter than standard height since I'm short, and it's super-comfortable for playing in. But I normally don't practice seated.

Standing, I think I move a lot more in energetic music, especially for forte attacks at the start of an entrance, but for this fairly quiet work, I think I move a lot less. It's a rather placid work, after all.

Playing this with orchestra is forcing me to rethink all my dynamic levels, too -- how to get a transparent, "piano-in-attitude" sound while retaining enough projection, even though it's not that big of a performance space. (I've played a concerto in a thousand-seat hall in the past and I'm really glad that I'm not trying to do this one in a bigger venue!)

(One major lesson learned: Having a nicer violin really, really helps being heard above the orchestra.)

March 5, 2017 at 01:10 PM · Wow! gotta get me one of those Nota con Brio's!

Re. transparency and projection. The greater the bow speed the more projection you'll get with greater transparency. So even if a piece is calm those moments which require that kind of sound, or in fact those strokes which need to convey motion or direction all require a like change in bow speed. Bow speed is motion. And action requires an equal and opposite reaction unless the body acted upon is rigid.

So the idea of playing the fiddle under the bow can free the action of the bow arm which might otherwise be sluggish or even stuck, but also frees the whole body to move organically with the motion in the music. Often jerky bow changes result from the bow arm tugging against a left side which is stuck. Even in a performer we perceive as being very still, such as Heifetz, you can see the body breathe with the bow, like the left side of the bellows of an accordion. At other times you need speed but more bow so some artists like Oistrakh freely employ similar motion to achieve their sound (like in a golf swing.)

But also, I've found moving the fiddle, the body, underneath the bow helps me stay free, unstuck when I start getting rigid with nerves.

As with any whole body motion, for it to be integrated means to feel the kinetic chain throughout. When standing, motion transfers to the feet and into the ground, when sitting, to the sit bones and into the chair. So when the bow moves from one side to the other, no matter how subtle the shift, there is a transfer of weight from one side to the other.

March 5, 2017 at 03:49 PM · The interesting thing is that my teacher has spent the last couple of years trying to get me to draw a denser sound -- less bow, slower bow-speed, more weight. My previous teachers all taught me to put more air into the sound, and to use a lot of bow and bow-speed. So I am sort of reverting to a previous habit in playing this, although I think that I'm keeping a more solid contact with the string than I have in the past.

Quiet openings are really hard in solo works, I think. I did Prokofiev No. 1 with orchestra a while back, and that opening is a b*tch when you're nervous. This one is too, and I'm having trouble fixing the right initial motions in my brain, because of the unusual sounding-point for the sul tasto marking.

March 5, 2017 at 06:04 PM · Yep! I agree, I find lyrical playing in very soft dynamics some of the most difficult stuff to do under nerves. I'm always blown away by Tetzlaff's soft, tender playing. I suppose ultimately you want to be able to do both airy and dense and switch it up whenever you want. Did you happen to see my latest post of exercises in Smiley's thread, bow speed and air bowing?

I hadn't seen your video in a while, but I think what I'm seeing is an inflexible stance when you approach the frog, not all the time, but it's not as fluid as your body coordination playing at the tip. I'll take a closer look later. But the things I can't really see, your left shoulder and knees, I wonder if there's some stuckness there, inferring from your tight vibrato under nerves and the motion of your upper body. I think I've seen one or two knee bends, but after your performance it might be interesting to look at your whole body coordination from a fresh perspective.

You might want to choreograph your whole opening, Nate style, to ingrain a softer stance and good breathing. I would plan everything from walking on stage to ready position. Then ready position to starting.

I don't know if it's habitual but you raise your fiddle and adjust several times (and push up your glasses ;) Does it feel insecure when you first raise the fiddle? Does it feel tight before you raise the bow? Try to feel what it's like and adjust to what you want.

E.g. of entrance ritual. Walk on from stage right, visualize the hall, the audience, hear the applause, acknowledge CM and orchestra, take your A. Assume ready position, then center. Develop your own centring ritual to be used to prepare mentally (e.g. count to 3, breath in out, in out, in out, scan your body, hear your entry, hear your tone, hear your pitch, feel your subdivisions, feel your tempo.)

E.g. of preparing start. Practice one smooth motion to playing position. Feel softer bow fingers before raising the bow.

Kato Havas has a great idea for getting to playing position. Rather than raising the butt end and jamming it under the chin, she suggest raising the whole fiddle at its playing angle to the floor slightly above your collar and slipping the fiddle onto the collar from above. With the arms alone, raise hands up as if to surrender, and lower them into playing position with a floating feeling. Repeat with fiddle. Practice this raising routine until it's a single smooth gesture.

This is kind of a personal thing but in the ready position, keep the bow in the palm and pointing to the floor so that your hold never gets rigid. Quickly flick the bow into a proper hold as you raise it to the strings.

Whenever the bow is in the air the bow must hang from the fingers, the hand from the wrist, the arm from the shoulder. As you raise the bow feel the suspension of the bow in hand, and also the level of the string and which edge of the string you want to start on. In this case you want to be at an angle which places the bow on the D-side edge of the G-string. So feel a pivot in the fingers to keep the tip raised as you place the bow on D-side edge. It looks like you're aiming for the top edge, even a bit to the left edge, which is appropriate for a fullish sound, even a heavy agogic. Also feel proper tilt of bow as you raise, in this case, hair against thumbnail.

The Conables believe that when you inhale the spine flexes. But that only happens if the thoracic spine is tight and flexes further. Once I felt the release and coordination of the thoracic with the rest of the spine I realized, as Ghokale says, that when you inhale the spine extends, when you exhale the spine flexes. This is perfect for getting into playing position for a soft start as exhaling deeply helps release upper body muscles. As you get into playing position exhale, allow your spine to flex, release your shoulders forward allowing the fiddle to drop toward your bow. Keep knees and your hip hinges soft. In this way you can feel your preparatory beat not only with the bow, but also by moving the fiddle under the bow, down and slightly right, so the two meet together at the perfect angle for the sound you want.

Exercises for the opening: after you've ingrained the getting to playing position ritual try the following. Start mf.

Place bow on D string and finger the G string notes.

Place bow on double stop D/G and play first notes.

Place bow on D-edge of G string and play opening.

Pay attention to the angle of the bow keeping tip raised for a soft landing. Always keep moving and breathing.

Repeat in mp, p, pp, ppp.

Develop some ritual like the above and repeat throughout the day, everyday, religiously.

March 5, 2017 at 09:22 PM · It's funny you mention Kato Havas's routine, which I was taught as a teenager. It's what I do in the warm-up room, and sometimes in practice sessions when I feel like I want a certain centering in advance, but I don't do it in the actual performance.

Getting the violin comfortable on my shoulder is a function of what I'm wearing. Sometimes I end up setting the violin on the shoulder with the shirt-collar off in some odd position. :-)

March 6, 2017 at 12:25 AM · I just went to Duke and visited my old violin teacher and she lectured me for 15 minutes about Tetzlaff's approaches to his notes. I'm going to go watch videos of him playing. She said you could hear the specific quality of the tone even if you were deaf. And watching him prepare for a note signals exactly what sort of note it will be. Random aside because of Jeewon's comment. Also saw the Hagen Quartet. Wow.

March 6, 2017 at 01:10 AM · Ah, I see, like bow ties and penguin suits for us!

Katie, do you have more? What did your teacher say for the other 14m55s of the lecture!? Love the Hagen too and want to see them live one day...

March 6, 2017 at 01:58 AM · Typing with my thumbs, no keyboard. Too painful. She demonstrated a lot. I think the point, which seems really basic, was letting the music drive how you attack the note (or ease into it) and moving more organically with the music. I haven't watched Tetzlaff up close so need to observe more to triangulate and be sure I understand what she was getting at. (This, by the way, is entirely characteristic of our violin lessons/conversations. Unwrapping what she says takes a few days of iterative thought and practice and then there's usually an epiphany.)

March 6, 2017 at 02:38 AM · Yes! There's something satisfying about organic movement, seeing what you hear, like a dance for the ears. Being able to telegraph musical intent is so important for collaboration, which I think is supplanting the paradigm of the soloist as individualistic hero.

Hope you will allow us a peek of your inevitable epiphany :)

March 6, 2017 at 08:24 AM · Tetslaff's Bach and chamber music are heavenly. His masterclasses are always very thoughtful and probably worth watching more than once. His playing is always very musical but sometimes uneven. It's like he is making a point. This one for instance, I love the way he played the 2nd and 3rd movements, but I don't get the first mvt.

March 9, 2017 at 04:21 AM · I find this quite interesting, as the communicative aspect of telegraphing what you intend to do is pretty vital for all kinds of collaborative playing, but feels most acute when you're playing a solo with orchestra, since you need to be clear enough that even people who aren't paying close attention / are distracted by reading their parts / don't know the work well, can nevertheless feel what you intend and dovetail with your timing.

I wrote some time back, during a previous concerto-performance prep period, that my teacher emphasized the difference between being right and being clear -- how you can be perfectly in rhythm and yet leave other players feeling uncertain.

Lark Ascending is interesting in that the tempo is subtly flexible throughout. I tried taking a metronome to quite a lot of recordings and discovering that I couldn't, even on sections that weren't in free time. This requires the conductor and orchestra to be alert, but there's also responsibility that falls on the soloist. Now I'm working on being better about that, which involves a lot of subtleties.

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