What comes first, the chicken or the egg?

Edited: April 10, 2021, 4:14 AM · If we change bow and also change note on the same string, which comes first: the bow change, or the left finger? I've listened to many recordings (including non professionals) on Youtube using the 0.25 speed function and it seems that human coordination is far too advanced for this setting, since everything sounds perfectly synchronized. Isn't it incredible that we can play a scale up and down with separate bows, and our hands perfectly align? I'm quite interested to know though, if we could tell which hand tends to act first at 0.1 or 0.05 speed... Obviously this is not an important question practically speaking, since even at 0.25 speed the human ear is unable to detect any lack of synchronization. We all seem to be doing fine just putting both hands together at the same time and hoping it works...

Replies (33)

Edited: April 10, 2021, 4:26 AM · The left hand has to anticipate, but it's no different on wind instruments - the fingers have to anticipate the tonguing.

If you are a creationist, the chicken came first: if you are an evolutionist, the egg came first.

April 10, 2021, 4:42 AM · Poor right-handers like myself must must include this prescience deliberately in our slow practice.

I should love to know how many top violinists a left handed!

Edited: April 10, 2021, 5:17 AM · I agree Gordon, that the LH should always be anticipating. But in this case I'm talking about which hand ultimately actually makes the first action, regardless of our mental/physical preparation. In other words... assuming a state of absolute perfection does not exist, one of the following 2 scenarios MUST occur:

1. The left finger hits the fingerboard before the bow change, and the new note will sound on the 'old bow', before the bow change.

2. The bow change occurs before the left finger has been placed down and results in 2 identical notes on the same 'old bow'.

Edited: April 10, 2021, 6:00 AM · Clearly at the conjunction they are simultaneous: the left hand anticipates in order not to lag.
April 10, 2021, 8:22 AM · I believe, Gordon, that the right hand also makes preparatory movements before the bow actually does change directions. It is really quite complicated.

This is ultimately a question about biology. Why did humans evolve the amazing fine motoric capabilities that make violin playing (or piano playing) possible? I have no easy answer to that one.

April 10, 2021, 8:58 AM · To get babes. Straightforward evolutionary criterion.
Edited: April 10, 2021, 9:58 AM · The Left Shoulder(elbow swings forward, G to E string cross) moves first then finger, and then the Right elbow lowers first then bow. That's how I teach it. Left-Shoulders lead, fingers follow, Right- elbows lead ,bow follows, and then the bow stroke is always last in the sequence.

For me, practicing the correct sequence slowly is extremely important. This way you get rid of any movements that 'Lag'. If you're doing a sequence of movement incorrectly, there's always a movement that lags behind.

April 10, 2021, 10:05 AM · How many angels can you fit on the end of a bow tip?

-I'm convinced that you can't start the new bow stroke until the new finger is down.
-It's indisputably true that an object in motion, when reversing direction, has to pass through a point of zero velocity, so the bow HAS to stop at some point.

My hunch is that the bow has to stop first, or get very close to 0 velocity, and that is the small area of time that the left hand motion fits into. There may be a low enough bowspeed under which the left-hand finger motion can occur without the bowspeed needing to be exactly zero.

April 10, 2021, 10:40 AM · When designing my fingerings, I do a lot of prepared fingerings, maybe more than most. It prevents the left hand from being a little too late. The audience doesn't see it, but in expert playing the right and left sides are a little out of synch. The brain does not like to do this, so we train it in practicing. Pianists don't do this. Harpists do this for everything!; imagine a reverse action harpsichord that sounds when you release the key instead of striking the key.
Humans are also the only animal that can throw something a long distance and hit a moving target. To get a computer controlled machine to do the same thing you have to use 3-dimensional trigonometry and calculus.
Edited: April 10, 2021, 1:05 PM · Fingers before bow. And if you are doing a gliss or some special effect, that is an intentional thing. As longtime teacher I can say it does not help to put both bow and fingers together at the same time and hope it works. The finger has to be in place beforehand. If you get a vague perception that someone's playing is sloppy, this is very often the result of the bow being ahead of the fingers.
Edited: April 10, 2021, 5:24 PM · Thanks for your answers, but unfortunately Christian seems to be the only one who understands what I'm actually trying to explore here.

I think I agree with him that left hand fits into the point of zero velocity in the right hand. This seems somewhat plausible for slowish bow changes, but somehow we also seem to manage this perfect coordination in very fast detache semiquaver passages...

Just to clarify, I am not talking about the basic left hand preparation before right hand concept, but rather a much more theoretical discussion on something perhaps undiscussed. I am also referring to a very specific kind of note to note transition, let me give an example: Play a down bow 1st finger E natural on the D string for 1 second using the whole bow, and then play a 2nd finger F# ALSO on the D string up bow, the whole time ensuring a very smooth and undisturbed legato in the right hand during the bow change. Obviously sounds very simple and hardly in need of an in-depth explanation, but this specific scenario is completely different to if the 2nd note was a C# on the A string, where it would clearly be advantageous to have the left finger strike the fingerboard before the right hand changes direction.

April 10, 2021, 7:33 PM · I'm with Christian: during the bow's 0 velocity nanosecond is when the finger gets in place, so the finger has to be before the bow (but not so much before that the bow is still in the position of the previous note). I remember this vaguely from high school physics because of the amusement park field trip - think the top of the roller coaster hill between the ascent and the descent or when the swinging boat (pendulum) reaches the max point of its swing.

However, does the bow velocity strictly need to be ZERO or only close enough so as not to be detected by the human ear? My gut feeling says the latter although I couldn't tell you how close or how to measure. For a legato passage, I guess the time spent at 0 is so quick that you perceive that the previous sound is still going / you don't perceive a stop because your attention gets taken by the new sound and you interpret what you hear as smooth and undisturbed.

Edited: April 10, 2021, 7:53 PM · I think the right hand and fingers could require more distance to travel than the left hand and fingers; hence, it probably makes sense to have the left hand fingers in place before the right hand and fingers have changed to ensure the new note sounds on time. Plus the left hand fingers could be bit more hesitant to move to the right place (note) if the passage being played is an unfamiliar one.

I think a good example of hand coordination is the first movement of the Bach E Major concerto. Tricky finger patters to learn that can more easily mastered in my opinion by slurring the notes before trying to play them separately as written.

Edited: April 10, 2021, 11:45 PM · I may be totally beyond my skis, but I imagine that the bow moving too fast with the left finger moving would disturb the actual sound being made (in reference to what is close enough to 0 motion).

If the bow causes a gripping and slipping of the string as it moves, then I wonder if there is a bow velocity below which, the gripping mechanism of the bow with the string does not occur, and that functionally, below this velocity, we can think of the bow as having 0 velocity, and it is within this area that you have the chance for your fingering action in the left hand to occur. If my baseless theorizing has some sense, then I would imagine that bow pressure would also affect the gripping and slipping mechanism, and therefore, the relevant velocity threshold.

Something that I like to do when practicing detache passages in order to improve the coordination between my hands is to slow down and to emphasize each stroke with a little martele flavor. For whatever reason, that seems to improve the clarity of the sound I'm getting, but I'm not sure about the exact interplay of the hands in what I'm doing.

Of course, there is a reason that violinists don't really need to know this stuff, just like reading an anatomy book will not necessarily teach someone the most efficient way to walk, but perhaps figuring out these parameters could indeed be useful in establishing some kind of violin first principles. It's sort of interesting, the more I think about it.

I wonder what the algorithm for that violin robot was?

James, are you trying to build a better robot to replace all the violinists?

Edited: April 19, 2021, 7:21 AM · I like Charles Cook's inclusion of the shoulders.
While some contributors condemn "overthinking", with the passage of the years I find it beneficial to "re-think", and above all "re-feel", what the whole body is doing.

I like to "zoom in" on the transitions in the manner of a slow-motion film:
Left arm, wrist and fingers; then right arm, wrist and fingers (often with big sweeps for string-crossing.
Then, as we speed up, this "maintenance" will hopefully last until next time!

Edited: April 11, 2021, 7:07 AM · James, I'll take a stab at dealing with the theoretical end of it.

Any time a note is changed, or the direction of the bow is changed, there is a "transition" period during which the string does not produce a note, but rather a "crunch" or consonant sound. The duration of this transition noise may give some wiggle room in the needed precision of bow and finger timing. In other words, if the crunch from a finger change and bow change are timed closely enough to have a little overlap, we MAY hear it as one sound, and not be able to aurally resolve beyond that.

Edit: It's useful to listen to the robot video Christian posted if one isn't familiar with the "crunch", since it is much more evident than usual in that video.

April 11, 2021, 9:31 AM · Clearly, this is not something a player thinks about unless having trouble synchronizing left finger motions with bow motions.

This really hit me yesterday during lunch: I was watching TV at the timer and wanted to fast forward through the commercials (the show was recorded on my DVR) but my right hand was a little sticky - so I switched the remote to my left hand and for the life of me I could not remember what buttons to push. So I got up, washed my hands and with my right hand I did not even have to think about which buttons to push. That brought my mind back to this thread on Violinist.com.

That is how we coordinate our left and right hands when playing our bowed instrument - by instinct - gained over years of practice and playing experience.

The questions raised most recently above are how closely must the two actions be timed and in what order. This is the issue we have already solved in our years of experience and practice - pretty much without really thinking about it.

Practicing something like one of the "Perpetual Motions" or the Mozart "Rondo" can be helpful for developing the needed skills. Plenty of other music too!

If I think back over the 82 years since my first violin lesson I think I recall a few related coordination problems - solved by lots of practice none of which involved thinking about how many milliseconds leeway were available.

But it is interesting to consider, despite my negative musings.
Will someone research this for their MM?

April 11, 2021, 10:11 AM · David makes the good point (even if it wasn't his intended point) that there is no such thing as an "immediate" bow change, Heifetz notwithstanding. Even when one is drawing a slur, my guess is that there is not an "immediate" change in the frequency of the note. The finger must make partial and then full contact, and the new resonance must be established. If these two imperfections are well coordinated then both are mutually minimized.

The change in resonance frequency would probably be a pretty fast time-scale if the intrinsic slowness of the finger could be eliminated, but still the frequency-change time should be non-zero.

I have long suspected this is why my teacher recommends to his young students when learning the "Fiocco Allegro" that they draw a little more bow during the mordents. Because the faster draw of the bow accelerates the change in frequency as the stops are made. I'm open to other theories on that, of course.

April 11, 2021, 10:53 AM · I would be curious, Paul, to determine whether the practice of adding a bow accent in order to make a trill speak better is an acoustic phenomenon, or is a physiological/psychological phenomenon of coupling a motion bilaterally.

I know that the left arm often wants to do what the right does, and vice versa, and that we often consciously train this away by encouraging lightness in the left hand and heaviness in the right arm, but I wonder how much the left hand really wants to do what the right arm does, and how far that coupling extends.

Could you maybe kick a field goal while trilling to produce the same effect?

April 11, 2021, 11:03 AM · First of all, a chicken is an egg's way of making more eggs.

Second, one could argue that it is the egg that manifests any genetic mutations, therefore it comes first. However, since genetic mutations are already present in the chicken's sex cells, then one would have to say the chicken comes first.

Having seen and analyzed thousands of coordination issues over lifetime of teaching, it's my observation that the left hand is almost always behind. This is especially true in two situations: Shifting, and string crossings. Both are easily fixed with practice in groups and rhythms, and with slow-motion practice where the left hand is moved deliberately ahead of the right hand. For example, on shifts, most students initiate the shift at the last possible micro-second, which puts it behind at tempo. The hand should start its shift
before the previous note is even finished so that it arrives at the start of the second. This is an odd coordination to get used to, but when the passage is played at tempo, Voila, the shift is clean and on time.

Similarly, when crossing strings, students tend to slap the finger for the next string down at exactly the point the bow lands, which is too late. Again, making the left hand get there a split-second earlier feels strange at first, but it's necessary. Having an active left elbow helps.

April 11, 2021, 11:28 AM · For Fiocco Allegro mordents (and Weber Country Dance), I tell students that fast initial bow speed helps to encourage the LH to also be fast. I never really thought about if that's the real reason or if I just give it as a reasonable explanation. Maybe the "grab" of the string to start the note also helps the string "speak" better? (Country Dance mordents are approached from off the string though so the bow is in motion via the landing, which is another variable.)
Edited: April 11, 2021, 11:58 AM · "I tell students that fast initial bow speed helps to encourage the LH to also be fast." (Which supports what Christian wrote a couple of posts before that.) Yes, I thought of that too, and it seems very reasonable -- but is it also a kind of crutch? Curiously I still find it useful for mordents. And I also find that trills consume bow much faster than single notes.
Edited: April 11, 2021, 3:16 PM · "The change in resonance frequency would probably be a pretty fast time-scale if the intrinsic slowness of the finger could be eliminated, but still the frequency-change time should be non-zero."

Paul, you probably know this already, but others may not, so I'll do a quick recap:

With a bow direction change, or when the bow is placed on the string, the adhesive force of the rosin on the hair pulls the string sideways, until the string has been pulled far enough that it overcomes the adhesive force of the rosin, and snaps back. At that point, the snap-back sends a kink toward the other end of the string (which could be either the upper nut or a finger against the fingerboard, at which point the kink is reflected back to the bowing area, where it provides an additional and timed force, jerking the string loose from the bow/rosin adhesion.

Several of these cycles may be required to establish a solid vibration regime, or what we can begin to identify as a note of a certain pitch. Until that point, there is no "note" per se, and it can take more than one cycle to start to give the impression of one note or another.

A weird thing I've observed is that instruments which quickly establish a clean note are not always the most preferred. I've suspected for a long time that a little more delay, or "crunch", contributes a lot to what is perceived by an audience as better "articulation" or superior response.

April 11, 2021, 3:08 PM · "kind of a crutch" - possibly but it's early on in their development of that kind of LH speed and there is time later to decouple the bilateral synchronization that was used to get this going. (For grace notes and trills, which precede mordents in skill progression, they already had to work on letting RH be "slower-moving" than LH.) I wonder if trills consume more bow because more bow speed is needed to "speak" each note during a "slur" vs. when sustaining a note that already started?
April 12, 2021, 8:30 AM · Trying to put some back-of-the-envelope figures on David's lucid explanation: Take a tone at 1000 Hertz, about in the middle of the violin range. 1000 cycles per second would then mean that one cycle lasts 1 millisecond. Assuming 5 cycles to "establish a solid vibration regime": 5 milliseconds.

The ear perceives pitch by resonance which again needs to be established: Add another 5 cycles / 5 millisecond before we perceive a clear pitch.

This would mean that the synchronization of left and right hand (the effect, not the movement of fingers) has to be better than about 10 milliseconds. For comparison: 1/16 at a "standard" allegro (120 beats per second) lasts 125 milliseconds.

April 12, 2021, 8:43 AM · 'This would mean that the synchronization of left and right hand (the effect, not the movement of fingers) has to be better than about 10 milliseconds.'

Yes, this is the kind of figure I am shocked at. I've recently been playing this silly online human reaction time game, and I average 180 milliseconds, peaking at 150 milliseconds. But my attention needs to be completely undivided since I have to react to a randomly timed cue.

Still, 10 milliseconds for synchronization might not sound as far-fetched as it does, since we are using rehearsed timing and movements?

April 12, 2021, 8:51 AM · Well, it's got to be egg. At least if the luthier who made your violin uses egg white in his ground recipe.

Finger before bow is the common wisdom, no? Bow before finger doesn't work very well.

Edited: April 12, 2021, 12:54 PM · Thank you for further expanding on the notion, Albrecht.

James, 1000 hz upon which the calculations were based is around the first C on the E string. Lower notes would theoretically give you more "crunch" time, like four times as much if you were playing a middle C, so you might have as much as a whopping 40 milliseconds of acceptable timing error before it can be distinguished. ;-)

But since you seem to be a tech guy, you can also record a violin into a program which shows the wave-form, and expand the wave-form until you can see how much time elapses between the initiation of a note, and when it becomes a reliable repeating waveform. This will vary under different playing conditions.

Edited: April 12, 2021, 12:59 PM · continued-
I have read somewhere that our mental speed limit for hearing distinct notes is about 16 /sec, think 32nd notes at metronome marking /60. In the orchestra we sometimes have scales faster than that. What the audience hears is a blur. If I am playing those parts I have no idea whether I actually played the right notes. Perhaps not coincidentally, those automobile sub-woofers that you hear thumping in the street, when the thumps reach 16/sec we start hearing the pitch of a double low C.
When I was a student I saw a super-slow motion filmed close-up of Heifetz's(?) left hand. I didn't see anything that one would call technical secrets. Years later I realized that what was important what what I did Not see: No extra or inefficient motions, each finger moved smoothly from where it was to where it was needed next, without jerking or any panicky just-in-time motion.
"Most of our technical problems happen, and are solved, between the notes"-anon(?)
Edited: April 19, 2021, 7:20 AM · But we still detect wrong or out-of-tune notes in a "blur", even if we cannot pinpoint them (assuming the blur is diatonic or at least familiar.
April 15, 2021, 5:05 AM · Chicken and eggs exist only in your mind.
April 15, 2021, 5:13 AM · The ideal omelette may only exist in Plato's mind, but the real one I've got on my plate ain't so bad.
April 15, 2021, 6:38 AM · Go vegan, my friend.

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