Choreography, excessive movement, excessive stiffness

Edited: October 14, 2021, 4:37 AM · I'm partially making this post because I keep learning and forgetting this lesson. Hoping that writing about it will help solidify something. I'll try not to ramble too much, but there'll probably be stream of consciousness tangents.

I have heard or read it emphasised before that movement while playing the violin is superfluous - the sound comes from the right hand and the left hand. For instance, there are masterclasses, with clearly very proficient students, where the master will remark that they saw a lot of movement but it didn't translate into the sound, directing the student to move less.

Question 1:
Has anyone ever seen a beginner/intermediate student, especially an adult student, who moves TOO MUCH? Is that mostly an advanced student problem?

To me, it seems that when I search on youtube for amateur performances of some student pieces it is almost always the case that the ones who move more also sound better. The only possible exception to this are some really small kids compensating for yet undeveloped minor motor skills.

Obviously, this doesn't mean that moving automatically leads to better playing. It could be that it's just a consequence of being more natural with the instrument. But isn't it important to get yourself moving while playing? I have not seen a single video of a stiff professional soloist. The recording that comes closest is the Heifetz Chaconne. But even there, where movements are not needed as cues for other performers, he makes sometimes quite significant gestures and is not still in the way we (adult) students are.

Question 2:
Could you proficient violinists make the same sound if you forced yourself to be still?


One thing that I definitely notice is that when movement does help me it's only when I LET myself move. If I try to MAKE myself move it comes to nothing. And I can only LET myself move when I'm relaxed - which is not always the case during lessons. This comes into play when I try to take directions from my teacher. Looking back at it, I think I always try to follow the direction too literally - trying not to add, and in fact trying to subtract, anything of my own. This leads to very stilted attempts at trying to follow direction. I'm trying to follow the letter of the "law" instead of the spirit of the "law", so to speak.

Next step in my thought process is this:
I think it's important to incorporate choreography into my practice. I don't mean preplanning some artificial moves, but instead LETTING myself move and making notes of what I'm LETTING myself do and remember to let myself do what works - eventually leading into some sort of consistent movement to go along with knowing the piece. It seems like a no brainier, honestly, to let kinesthetics be an additional anchor to help "performances" be more consistent. So if I play a phrase well it surely makes sense to associate some movement with that execution, right?

Question 3:
Do yo do this when you learn a piece? Do you find that your body movements are mostly consistent across performances of the same piece?

Very interested in any thoughts on the topic, but these are my main questions.

Question 1:
Has anyone ever seen a beginner/intermediate student, especially and adult student, who moves TOO MUCH? Is that mostly and advanced student problem?

Question 2:
Could you proficient violinists make the same sound if you forced yourself to be still?

Question 3:
Do yo do this when you learn a piece? Do you find that your body movements are mostly consistent across performances of the same piece?

Replies (34)

Edited: October 14, 2021, 6:26 AM · What a great discussion starter.

I do know that as a young player (hs/college) I was told, gently:) by a couple people I respected that my movement may have been in the way of my actual technique. Turns out, they were right. I was (and still am) a mover, but I had tension in almost all my fine motor movements and was "compensating" in the gross and frustrated bc i couldn't obtain precision. I had to strip away, refocus, and rebuild my movement based on the actual fine motor skills needed to produce the sound. I'm still a mover and I still notice that tendency once in a while, but mostly it works in synch and I am able as needed to reign my large movement in without sacrificing my actual playing.

October 14, 2021, 6:52 AM · We need more Lindsey Stirlings. And holes in the head.
October 14, 2021, 7:00 AM · Interesting. My hunch is that the issue you describe is more likely to occur with people who started playing young, whereas adults are mostly going to be too reigned in.

I suppose the takeaway is that the large movements are there to compensate or complement the fine motor skills, but they shouldn't overcompensate.

When you were working on not moving too much I assume that didn't mean to try to be completely still? That is, what movement is left is still integral to your playing or not?

October 14, 2021, 7:04 AM · Gordon, I'm obviously not talking about dancing around. I'm talking about the kind of movement seen in recordings of professional classical violinists.
When I say "choreography" it's for lack of a better word.
October 14, 2021, 7:16 AM · I was only joking.

Originally I was going to say "movement can result from the music, but it won't result in music" or something like that.
Then I thought, that's just another anti-emoting rant, really, and I've done that enough elsewhere.

Play music, and if it happens to make you move, that's probably OK, unless you move too much. Everyone's definition of too much will vary.

Violin sections all bow in the same direction. But on Youtube there are orchestras where the cellists sway from side to side and not in synch. It looks ridiculous.

October 14, 2021, 7:44 AM · Yes, I'm wary of merely cargo culting with the movement without achieving anything musically. It's what I was getting at when I said that my idea is to let myself move and observe what happens. It seems to work in alleviating tension, though there may be a better way of doing that.

It certainly seems to me that professional performances mostly involve more movement than amateur performances. I'm talking about YouTube recordings of easy/intermediate student pieces like those from Suzuki. That isn't to say that those students who don't move would necessarily see improvement by starting to move, but that there is something missing in their playing which is either causing or caused by lack of movement.

I suppose the point "don't be stiff like a board" is rather obvious, but it is what I keep forgetting. :)

Also want to clear up that when I say more movement = better sound, I'm not talking about comparing recordings of PROFICIENT violinists. I'm not saying that professional violinists who move more sound better. I'm only applying this to relatively unskilled players.

Edited: October 14, 2021, 8:25 AM · Can we even have this discussion without links to YouTube videos featuring Chuanyun Li? He's a ham, but his Czardas and P24 are pretty incredible. Can you imagine if that guy took a one-year sabbatical and learned American fiddling*? He'd blow everyone else away.

*Sorry about the meaningless catch-all term, but you know what I mean.

Coming back to your question, my teacher often has to tell me to stop moving around so much. He says it's compromising my ability to maintain the best sound points and so forth, and that's a good point. Last time he was more direct: "You don't want people to worry that you'll need a break after the first page." We had a good laugh about that one.

October 14, 2021, 10:11 AM · Ha, those Chuanyun Li videos are something else!

As for the movement, I'm curious how much you move around when your teacher points it out. When you correct it, do you try to be as still as possible or do you just make the movements less extreme?

I suppose it's something like giving a speech. Ridiculous movement is detrimental, but every good/natural speaker moves to some extent with their speech.

October 14, 2021, 10:17 AM · Do we move more when there is a public? So the music "fills the space"?

Anyhow, we play with our whole bodies; this may not show (or be felt by us), or we may unconsciously immobilise apparently irrelevant members, which cannot be a good thing.

Emoting? We are also actors, but there is no need to be "ham" ones.

October 14, 2021, 1:07 PM · I think we should distinguish between several aspects here:

1. Movement may inhibit playing if too extreme. On the other hand, deliberately suppressing it may tense you up. Where the optimum is is probably individually quite different. I don't think there are any firm rules in this respect.

2. From the perspective of an audience excessive moving may be distracting and/or annoying. This is certainly something to keep in mind.

3. In chamber music playing the communication between players is largely though movements. Which sets borders for point 1.

October 14, 2021, 1:34 PM · In my case, excessive movement was an unintentional expression of anxiety. It hindered, not helped, my music making, and it took only one lesson with a teacher who insisted that I stand still, stop making all kinds of funny faces, etc. for me to realize that I sound better without the motions. What I tell students who point out how Joshua Bell or whoever moves around, is that when they can play like Joshua Bell, they get to move around however they want. Until then, they need to learn how to perform the motions correctly and efficiently.
Edited: October 14, 2021, 3:34 PM · Greetings,
Joshua Bell is a very interesting case. There is a very old video of Ivan Galamin telling him that if a movement looks ugly it (sound ugly) don’t remeber exactly. I believe Galamian was trying to warn this brilliant child about his excess movement but i dont think the lesson sank in. Bell has got his well deserved career concomitant with his genius but his movements do, to me, look detrimental on occasion and he does sometimes give les ethan stellar performances. Most of the time his natural talent simply transcend sandy efficiency and his performance is stellar. I think this happens more often than we think. A virtuous o has so much talent it overrides some mechanical inefficiencies most of the time. But we cant deny their existence. The problem is that lesser mortals tend to copy these movements without having the innate genius to transcend them. So, it seemed to me that the lesser talents surrounding Bell were somewhat inclined to copy his ‘contortions’ in the subconscious desire to match his performance. This was, of course disastrous.
October 14, 2021, 3:47 PM · I never move when learning a piece, but I do move when performing it – if I am...well, moved by the music.

I never plan any of this. I don't say, "I'll contort my face at bar 7 and sway from left to right at bar 16". And since they aren't planned, my movements are not consistent at all.

In case it isn't clear, I'm responding to the third question.

October 14, 2021, 4:46 PM · I find extraneous movement to be self-indulgent and unnecessarily dramatic, especially from a mediocre performer. On the other hand, if you can play like Joshua Bell you can do whatever you want.
October 14, 2021, 5:08 PM · Greetings
. ‘On the other hand, if you can play like Joshua Bell you can do whatever you want.’
Yes, that’s pretty much it. Although , as I alluded to 8Perhaps) this can be detrimental on occasion. I do believe the most mechanically efficient players tend to have considerably longer careers. On the piano, Rubinstein was a marvelous example.
October 14, 2021, 5:09 PM · Personally, I prefer to not try to hit a moving target. The trick is to be both stable and physically relaxed, free. Being rigid is obviously dangerous; tensed muscles fatigue quickly. If a student has too much movement, that interferes with the technique, or too visually distracting, I have them try the old-school stance: lean on the left heal with the right foot slightly advanced. That puts an imaginary straight line from the left heel through the body, left shoulder and chin-rest. It prevents "dipping" forward. Unfortunately, that old style stance puts a slight twist to the spine and extra weight on the left hip joint, so I cannot recommend it as a permanent posture.
October 14, 2021, 5:37 PM · I understand that at some point movement becomes obviously affected. But I'm really not talking about gestures as big as Joshua Bell's. I'm talking about even the kind of movement seen in the Heifetz Chaconne video. That seems to me to be part of playing naturally.

But my point does some more trite to me now then it did when I wrote the post. Basically, it boils down to the fact that I forget not to be stiff. The only question is if it should be possible and desirable to be still but not stiff.

As for self-indulgence... I think just a little bit is needed so that fear of it doesn't turn into inhibition.

October 14, 2021, 5:40 PM · "I do believe the most mechanically efficient players tend to have considerably longer careers."

But isn't SOME movement also part of that efficency?

October 14, 2021, 5:50 PM · absolutely
check out vidoes of Oistrakh. His whole body spirals up and down as a unified entity in tandem with his beautiful bow strokes. This is efficient, natural movement as opposed to habitual, useless , tension related ‘self-expression’ movement.
October 15, 2021, 4:08 PM · "I find extraneous movement to be self-indulgent and unnecessarily dramatic, especially from a mediocre performer. On the other hand, if you can play like Joshua Bell you can do whatever you want."
Why do I feel personally attacked?
October 15, 2021, 5:42 PM · @Kennedy Becky. No personal attack was intended. I've never heard or seen you play. So I can't comment. My comment was more of a general nature. Personally, when playing in orchestra I find it quite distracting when someone is moving around extraneously or excessively AND playing out of tune or not in rhythm. On the other hand, a good player's rhythmic breathing and movement can unify and improve an ensemble.
October 15, 2021, 5:43 PM · My son had a big problem with moving too much from very early on, even as a very young beginner. He just got way too excited when he played. It was like Joshua Bell doubled with a side of stomping. I have video but he would kill me if I shared it. But it was incredibly problematic, because he moved so much he couldn't control his bow and also had issues with his sound. He's worked to restrain it somewhat, making sure not to move on sections when he really needs to be in control of his bow or LH. But I have to say, I kind of miss his wildness!
October 15, 2021, 11:07 PM · Here's another angle the discussion could take: what if you're a concertmaster or in a string quartet? Now you HAVE to make gestures that would not be necessary for good playing in a vacuum. You are now part-conductor (arguably). What are some safe but communicative gestures a violinist/violist can make? There's the common "scroll up, scroll down" motion used to cue an entrance (maybe even accompanied by a timely sniff!) As a section player, I find it lacking when a principal doesn't do anything to visually project an entrance, if for nothing but to help the section know which part of the bow to start in. If we have four rehearsals, I can memorize where the bow strokes start by concert time, but you don't always get four rehearsals...
October 15, 2021, 11:19 PM · string quartets often watch each other’s fingers
October 16, 2021, 10:53 AM · I also move more when I am a section leader; a prep. bow motion one beat before an entrance, violin up one measure earlier after a long rest, etc.
Edited: October 16, 2021, 2:51 PM · My movement instincts are mainly from chamber music and from leading a section, so a lot of it is bow and scroll motion before entrances.

That said: I used to dismiss movement as people just trying to look dramatic, until it was suggested to me that moving the body in certain ways can facilitate bow arm movement. For example, when playing standing, I find it's easier to emphasize a note if I bend my knees a little more in advance and push upward as I play the note. For solo rep, I may even decide on and practice body movement at key moments, not for the purpose of looking dramatic but to help with bowing.

October 16, 2021, 3:13 PM · As an example, in an ensemble, of how body movement and the music can naturally flow together, I give you the Freiburger Barockorchester playing Brandenburg Nr 3:

Their performances on video of the other Brandenburgs suffice equally well.

October 16, 2021, 4:27 PM · Very interesting discussion, with so many aspects. When all is said and done, take another look at Zino Francescatti's stage demeanor. There are few exaggerated movements but many very subtle ones. To me he's always been a model of stage demeanor.
October 17, 2021, 4:17 AM · "For solo rep, I may even decide on and practice body movement at key moments, not for the purpose of looking dramatic but to help with bowing."

Yes, drama never really entered into my idea of incorporating more movement into playing. But instead the sort of thing you describe here - something to help facilitate the rest of the technique. Very much like what Zino Francescatti seems to be doing.

Would it be fair to say that at least (more or less occasionally) swaying from side to side is part of most proficient player's playing? Because I can't really find a video where that doesn't occur.

Edited: October 17, 2021, 12:37 PM · Just relating my experience as an adult learner: I've slouched since I was young because of reading. When I started playing violin, it's only a mild exxageration to say I was doing an impression of the hunchback of notre dame and 1 hour sessions would end with my bones imitating Rice Krispies.

When I realized posture was going to be such a detrimental part of my playing, for one I couldn't achieve the flexibility in my shoulder and that related to tension through my forearm and into my hand, I undertook a grueling process of fixing my daily, life posture.

That's when I would say my "excessive" movement started happening. It was involuntary, I record between 1 and 2 minutes of my practice sessions with a specific intent in mind and then veiw myself to see what everything else is doing to understand my challenges. When I set out to not move, I would find within a few seconds, I was rocking or some other motion. If I really checked in with my body, something was uncomfortable and I needed to stop, stretch, and if that still didn't remedy it, take a break to let my body rest with some heat, ice, a bath soak, and maybe even a good nights sleep.

I've finally come to a point where I can play decently consistently without movement. Everything about my playing has improved and I relate that to the fact that I'm playing without tension (at least in my back, my hand can still get crazy). Now that I'm at "ground zero", I allow myself "expessive" motions when I'm actually aiming to be expressive in my playing at moments that feel right.

Edited: October 17, 2021, 2:00 PM · Now that I think that over, when I mean expressive,I really mean along the lines of playing with a softer bow stroke than my current ability allows, which is sort of a cheap shot and indulgent in the way of immediate gratification (which I'm not saying we couldn't use an ego boost now and then, or in the case of the butt kicking that is learning violin, an ego break) and, at worst, could develop into a crutch. Unless I'm getting paid the big bucks to play complicated peices on short notice, I suppose there's good reason not to incorporate this into regular practice. To each their own though, we all have different aspirations.
October 17, 2021, 3:28 PM · This is a direct quote from a lesson I had with Ivan Galamian many years ago. "99% of the audience looks. Only 1% listen."
October 18, 2021, 8:57 AM · Especially when young children move a lot, it is often something like a holistic way of expressing their musical feelings of the moment. That being said it means that those children have a strong emotional response to music, which, in turn, can make better players out of them, in the end.
I have often seen children or older beginners move too much- the motions come naturally and stress the musical expression, but this is sometimes the opposite of an efficient motion to technically really produce the sound you want to hear. It feels a right match to quickly bend down when playing an accent, for example, but when holding the violin, you just lower it by that, and reduce the energy of the bow, hence making less of an accent than you wish.

I personally tend to move more, lately. I have more or less learned not to make movements that result in the opposite than aimed sound, so moving in a good way helps me being more precise: when having to place the tip of the bow on the string, silently, for example, it is easier if that landing is part of a bigger, round motion.

This leads me to your next question: When forced to play very stiffly, this makes me feel awkward and it is technically somewhat harder. This is the case when playing in an orchestra with many players on a too small stage. Now, with the Corona distancing, having more space to be able to move a little bit more than usual is the biggest advantage of the current situation, in my opinion.

Last question: I always plan my movements when practicing. I also am aware of it if I know I will be sitting with no space, at all. I practice with normal movements, in that case, but I purposely try out some tricky spots keeping still, in order to not get surprised by the situation, later.

When having to perform at a recital, I know how my stage fright keeps affecting my movements. Therefore, even if I just let them happen during practice sessions, I observe them in order to know what I am doing and what I should aim for, during performance. So even if I don’t make it to get into the flow, I have a chance to get close to it.

October 18, 2021, 9:12 AM · Bruce,
They may not "listen," but I'm afraid they "hear."

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