THE SECOND GREAT CIRCLE: SCYTHING TOWARD THE BRIDGE

BOW, HAIR, STRING, AND BRIDGE

Violinists typically think of applying pressure down into the string, in order to get it to move maximally. However, the process of sound production is somewhat more complex. The movement of the string underneath our bow agitates the bridge; then the movement of the legs of the bridge is transferred into the entire top of the violin and through the sound post to the back of the violin as well. It is therefore more precise to think of applying pressure in the direction of the bridge, in order to create the most movement there.

Applying pressure with the stick of the bow angled slightly away from you, so that the wood presses toward the bridge, rather than directly downward into the string, can produce a warm, beautiful, rich sound. The wood when angled in this way has a feeling of softness and give, but if you make sure to keep all the hair in contact with the string, you can apply enormous pressure without ever scratching or straining. I call this scything with the bow, because the circular motion you are making with the bow resembles that made by a scythe when used to harvest crops.

A clear advantage of using this sideways curving pressure is that you will be less likely to trap the string underneath your bow. The string needs to spin and circulate underneath your bow. If you press straight down, you can all too easily pin the string, restricting its movement and removing many of the overtones which add depth and quality to your sound.

THE FEEL OF THE HAND AND ARM

Use your left index finger as a substitute for the bow. Place your bow hand on top of the index finger and apply pressure directly downward. You may notice that there is a tendency of your right shoulder to come up and forward as you press down. You may also notice tension throughout the right arm, especially in the wrist, the upper arm near the shoulder, and the pectoral muscles at the front of the armpit.

Now place your right fingers around your left index finger and apply the pressure in a sort of curve in the direction of the bridge. Because you are curving toward yourself as well, you may notice how your right shoulder is opening back and your right shoulder blade is naturally tucking down and under. Your shoulder will feel freer and more open. You can feel the work in this pulling motion coming from the strong muscles in the back of the shoulder, rather than the weaker muscles of the front.

Especially on the downbow, this pull also encourages a natural engagement of the fingers on the bow. You will not be straightening the fingers and pushing down, but instead gathering the bow with the fingers, encouraging them to relax and curl into the bridge. Not only does the bow hold feel looser, it also feels paradoxically stronger; your fingers feel secure and fleshy on the bow stick.

Now try the above on the bow and violin. What is the type of sound produced when you think of applying pressure straight down into the string? What happens when you curve toward the bridge instead? For most violinists scything will create a deeper and more sonorous tone. This kind of sound is often ideal for romantic and lyrical expression. There is almost no limit to the amount of sound you can produce in this way, so long as you keep the hair of the bow in complete contact with the string and the wood of the bow pressing sideways through the hair and into the bridge. What I particularly like about this method of sound production is that when done properly, you will find it almost impossible to scratch or overplay!

MUSICAL USES

Scything is especially wonderful when you want a warm sound, and since this sound can be both warm and huge, it is extremely useful in concertos and in any situation where you want to project without strain or edge. Here are some pieces to which you can apply scything:

  • Beginning of first movement of Tchaikovsky Concerto
  • Beginning of second movement of Bruch g minor
  • Outer sections of second movement of Brahms Concerto
  • First movement of Brahms G Major Sonata
  • Beginning of first movement of Sibelius Concerto
  • Beginning of first movement of Barber Concerto

Scything may not be the best choice when the sound you want to produce is direct, brilliant, heroic, or even angry. Catchbows and slightly flatter hair, when the wood is more directly above the hair instead of being angled, will be better for this type of expression. Flat hair, which is what Ivan Galamian recommended for maximum sound production in the upper half of the bow, produces a brighter, more direct tone. Even a détaché sounds different when done with flat hair as compared to slightly angled hair. Here are some pieces to which you can apply flatter hair:

  • Beginning of first movement of Saint-Saëns b minor Concerto
  • Brilliant fast passagework such as in the last movements of Sibelius or Tchaikovsky Concertos
  • Beginning of first movement of Lalo Concerto
  • Beginning of first movement of Brahms Concerto
  • Middle section of second movement of Brahms Concerto

Have fun experimenting — learn how to scythe in your lyric melodies, and switch to flatter hair for brilliant or more aggressive passages!

THE FIRST GREAT CIRCLE: PLAYING THROUGH THE VIOLIN

PARADOX

The best sounds and the longest lines are produced when we can draw the bow in a line, usually quite parallel to the bridge so that the sounding point remains steady.  However our bow arms work best in circular motions: our shoulders are ball-and-socket joints, and our elbows are hinged to allow the rotation of the forearm. If we are concentrating only on the straight line of the bow, we may inhibit the natural circular motions needed for the arm to function well, and our sound may become stiff and thin. I call these natural and desirable circular motions the smile bow.

SMILE BOW

AIRPLANE   A great exercise for developing the smile bow is one I call the airplane landing.  Before starting, drape a cloth across the midsection of the violin, under the strings. Begin with your upper arm rotated entirely outward so that it is actually touching your face. The tip should be so far to the right that it is pointing to the floor. Now rotate the upper arm to trace a giant circle, beginning a downbow from a point as far as possible to the left of the violin. As you circle in for a landing on the G string, curve into the string so that you are incredible close to it before you land. Land without stopping the slow steady motion of your arm. Think of your bow as an airplane. Before an airplane lands, it levels off, and its touchdown is very gentle.  Never hit as you land — don’t make your passengers spill their coffee! At the end of your downbow, draw the frog upwards and gently pluck each string (G, D, A, E) with the tip of your bow. You should end with your bow in the air, off of the violin, with the frog high in the air and the tip rotated downward, facing the ground. To perform an upbow, continue from this position, drawing the upbow from a point as far as possible to the right of the violin. As before, circle in for a landing, curving gently into the string without stopping. At the end of your upbow, gently pluck each string (E, A, D, G) with the metal of your frog; you should end with your upper arm touching your face, ready to start the downbow again. If you are not comfortable coming from above the string, or if you often hit the string when starting a stroke, this airplane exercise will be marvelously effective. Practice landings in all parts of the bow, on all four strings.

DEEP CIRCLES UNDERNEATH THE VIOLIN   For the deepest sonorities (think chords, Brahms, and concertos) your smile bow should trace a circle far under the violin. Stand with your violin in your left hand, but hanging downward under your right armpit. Now with your bow make a slow and giant circle in the air, starting far above and descending far below where your violin normally is on your left side. You should feel quite relaxed, and there should be no change in the slow speed of your arm during this circle. After a few of these air circles, gently but quickly place the violin on your shoulder, without stopping the slow circles of your right arm and bow. The violin will intersect your circle; the bow will land on the strings of the violin; but you should continue to feel as if you are playing deep circles underneath the violin. Land once and return the violin to its position under your right arm. Your bow should continue to circle slowly, largely, and without stopping. Repeat.

What is most prominently and noticeably circling during this exercise is your upper arm. However you can also see your elbow drawing circles in the air; if you can, try to feel your right shoulder blade circling as well. This is what it means to “play from the back.” When your bow lands, the weight of your whole arm and upper right back is relaxing into the strings. If you were to stay pressed into the strings the sound would buckle, but the beauty of the smile bow is that it will lift you out of the string before the sound can be pinned and crushed. Try playing chords while feeling and envisioning this giant circle. Feel your whole back and arm releasing into the strings. At the end of your downbows, feel your frog lifting to the balcony; at the end of upbows, your tip.

FOREARM HINGE   Another important circle is created by the forearm. Try holding your ulna bone and rotating your radius. You’ll be startled to see the range of motion possible without ever having to move your elbow, and without your ulna moving. To feel this circle, stabilize your right upper arm with your left hand and swing your right forearm. You can easily see the smile created by this motion – it is as if you are tracing the bottom of a hammock! These small circular motions of the forearm give smoother bow changes and a more liquid, creamy quality to the sound.  This ability of the forearm to move at its elbow hinge is very important in classical repertoire such as Mozart and Schubert, and it also is crucial in string crossings, particularly in fast passages and barriolage. To practice passages using this motion, stand so that the back of your upper right arm is flat against a wall (D string level is best for your elbow) and practice Kreutzer #13 without allowing the upper arm to participate. Feel your arm opening and closing at the elbow as you draw the bow; also feel the tiny circles of rotation. After this, step away from the wall and produce the same arm motion, keeping your elbow level stable while using a free, even exaggerated forearm movement; use lots of bow.

PREPARING YOUR BODY TO RECEIVE THE WEIGHT OF THE BOW AND ARM

We often think of producing sound simply by moving our arms to press the strings into the violin, but we should remember that the quality and richness of our sounds will be greatly helped if we have springs and openness in our bodies. Remember the deep circles underneath the violin? If we think of those circles as continuing through the violin and into our chest, abdomen, and torso, we’ll realize that those parts of our body must not be rigid and stiff.

TREE GIRL   One of the most beautiful, sonorous tones I ever heard was produced by an incredibly thin young girl. The tone could not be explained by arm weight, because her arms were the size of twigs. Her posture, however, was remarkable – her entire back was rounded forward so that the violin appeared to be wrapped inside her chest and body. It was as if she were a tree with a violin enveloped within. If you experiment by playing with this (admittedly terrible) posture, you can learn to feel as if your arm weight is going through the violin and directly into your chest and belly, and you will hear a big change in your sound. After doing this exercise, return to your regular upright posture, but imagine that you are still carving a C shape into your chest and belly.

SCRUBBING INTO THE BELLY   (Karen Tuttle Exercise) Another excellent way to get the feeling of playing through and below the violin is to bend over, place your bow on the D and A strings, and make a loud, rapid détaché stroke. Push the wood entirely down as you feel your force going straight into your gut. Continue scrubbing as you straighten to playing position; continue feeling the force going right into your gut. If your sound changes, start over — you have lost the connection into your belly!

 

 

 

Karen Tuttle Breathing Coordination

July 31st, 2019 | Posted by BaylaK in Body | Goal 05: Ease - (Comments Off)

KAREN TUTTLE BREATHING COORDINATION

The great viola pedagogue Karen Tuttle developed a system of breathing with the bow which she called Coordination. The genius of her teaching was to incorporate frequent muscle and breath releases during every bow. The muscles continually release, allowing the string to circulate freely under the bow. Your sound becomes open, rich, and never pressed, even in the loudest dynamics. This method can be used both to eliminate muscle tension and also to enhance musical expression.

This technique is most easily learned with slow bows at first.

         Before beginning a downbow, breathe out gently or say Lah-eee-Lah,” encouraging your stomach (really it’s your diaphragm!) to descend on the eee

As your stomach descends, everything softens: your shoulders, elbows and chest release down slightly, the head releases back slightly as the neck relaxes, the torso settles into the legs, the pelvis drops under as the lower back lengthens, and the legs bend slightly.  Releasing in this way before bow changes will allow your elbows to circle very slightly and naturally.

        Inhale in the middle of the bow, noticing the natural slight lifting feeling.

        Near the end of your downbow, breathe out gently or say “Lah-eee-Lah,” encouraging your stomach to descend. Notice how your arm weight deepens organically, without a sense of effort.

By breathing out near the end of your downbows, you will prevent the lifting of the shoulders and violin that often leads to tension in the upper half.

       Draw the bow an upbow.  Inhale in the middle of the bow, noticing the natural slight lifting feeling.

       Near the end of your upbow, breathe out gently or say “Lah-eee-Lah,” pushing your stomach down. Notice the small circle your elbow makes. Notice especially the softness in your chest.

Practice very slow open strings and scales with the breathing releases near the ends of the bows. As you become more comfortable with this, you can begin to incorporate the breathing into slow or lyric material. Sing your passage and vocalize the “lah-eee-lah;” then play it, breathing out or sighing before bow changes.

“Lah-eee-lah” can be used as well to energize the end of a long note or tie — long notes in romantic music often need to increase into the next note.

 

Tai Chi Figure Eights

July 31st, 2019 | Posted by BaylaK in Body | Goal 01: Sounds | Goal 05: Ease - (Comments Off)

CONNECTING UPPER AND LOWER BODY FOR A BEAUTIFUL SOUND:

TAI CHI FIGURE EIGHTS

 

One of the best ways to maintain a relaxed, strong, yet constantly releasing posture while holding the violin is to feel the connection clearly between the ground, your feet and legs, and your upper body. When you are in alignment and able to make your energy flow directly from your legs and lower body into your violin, it will be much easier to practice and perform many hours without tiring.

Stand with your feet parallel at a width directly under your shoulders. Your feet should be soft and relaxed, your knees slightly bent, your lower back in neutral (not arched – release your lower back so that your pelvis relaxes under) and your hips loose.

Push into the ground with your right toe. Notice how your body will react by shifting to the left and up.  Repeat on the opposite side. Continue to shift back and forth between your legs, alternating the pushes from your feet.

Now as you shift, instead of going directly across, trace a figure eight around your feet. Feel your weight as it passes from the front of your left foot backward around the outside, then around the left heel, then shifting weight, going diagonally to the right toes, then along the outside of the right foot into the right heel, then forward along the inside of the right foot and across to the left toes.  Do you notice how relaxing this circular movement is for your lower back? (To feel an extreme contrast, straighten your legs, lock your knees, and shift your weight from one foot to another, going directly across.)

Now return to the circular motions. Make the figure eight with your hips, allowing your left hip to drop back as you shift onto the left leg and then allowing the right hip to drop back as you shift onto the right leg.

Play air violin with this hip motion. Put your bow at the imaginary tip; shift your weight onto your right foot; drop your right hip back, shifting your weight onto your right heel. Push off from that heel; allow your right hip and entire right side to come forward, turning slightly leftward. As your weight shifts onto your left foot, allow your bow to travel to the imaginary frog. Let the motion of your body carry your bow; your arm should feel relaxed and passive.

At this point your weight is on your left leg and your bow is at your imaginary frog. Drop your left hip back, shifting onto the left heel. Push off from that heel, allowing your left hip and entire left side to come forward as you turn slightly toward the right. As you shift your weight onto your right leg allow your bow to open in a downbow to the imaginary tip. Now you have returned to your right leg and can repeat the circle.

Remember that the figure eight you are making, initiating in the feet and reflecting in the hip movement, has an overturn; this means that you will be in one continuous flow of movement. The overturns anticipate the movement of your bow. Start your air upbow after dropping the right hip back and beginning to move your right side forward; start your air downbow after dropping the left hip back and beginning to move your left side forward. You may be able to notice how soft and relaxed your hands feel. (To feel an extreme contrast, stand still and move your arm in upbow and downbow motions. Where do you feel the work?)

Repeat all the steps above with the violin. Try to feel the movement of your bow arm initiating from the hip. Your arms and torso should feel like one continuous flow. Do you notice anything about your sound as you draw the bow? Your ability to hold up your violin? The ease of movement in your arms? The release of tension in your back and shoulders? The arms begin in the lower back, and by moving in this figure eight you are constantly releasing those deep muscles, allowing your arms to work more freely and naturally. Put your awareness in your feet and legs, allow a subtle shifting and circling, and notice how much easier technique and expression become.

Body Springs

June 14th, 2013 | Posted by BaylaK in Body | Goal 05: Ease - (Comments Off)

The Three Principles:
Open Form (Alignment and Space)
Stabilization (Balance)
Circularity (Fluid Movement, Soft Muscles, Marriage of Line & Circle)

Building Connection from the Ground Up – Legs:
Tension in the legs will be transmitted like a virus into everything above. When you are balanced, the alignment of your spine will hold you up with a minimum of muscle effort.
Stand on your bare feet. Imagine you are a baby again with soft, pliable pads – there are no bones in your feet yet. Feel the pad under the ball of the foot, the pad under the outer toes, and the pad on your heel contacting the ground with gentle springiness. Do all three points feel the same, and can you feel your weight dropping into them equally through both feet? Bounce happily on your feet without picking them up. Walk slowly and softly, pretending they are suction cups as you lift, and placing them on the ground delicately.
Stand easily on your baby feet. Notice the space at the front of your ankles. What happens to that space when you bend your knees? Push with your toes, bend and unbend your knees slightly, and sway lightly back and forth on your feet to find the place where your ankles feel soft and open in front. Notice how when you are out of balance the ankles, feet, and toes will tense. If you have a practice partner, take turns feeling each other’s ankles. Find a way of standing that will allow the least grabbing.
Experiment by straightening your knees and locking them. What happens to your neck and shoulders? Now release the backs of the knees. Notice how your hips and shoulders let go. Jiggle slightly, first with the knees bent and then with the knees locked; notice what changes. Also try this with air violin, holding an imaginary violin and moving your arms.
Stand with your feet soft, your ankles open and your knees slightly bent; your feet should be directly under your shoulders. Feel your weight evenly on both legs. Now shift weight to one leg. Let the other leg remain in contact with the ground and keep your hips level. Shift weight to the other leg. Shift side to side and then circle around forward and back, feeling the inside and outside of your feet; try a circle 8 as well.
Return to the center and allow your weight to drop right through the arches of both feet. Feel the space between your legs; imagine it connecting to the ground as if it were a third leg. Allow your bottom to melt down and forward, releasing the lower back. Relax and settle.

Building Connection from the Ground Up – Torso:
Weakness in the center of the body will cause it to fold in and collapse, diminishing sound, decreasing strength, and setting up the arms for injury. Rigidity in this area will cause thinness and harshness of tone, as it will communicate stiffness to all the joints of the arms and fingers. The ideal is space, balanced support, and freedom of motion in the back. Think of opening the front of the body and stabilizing and strengthening the back.
As your lower back drops, notice how your swayback diminishes and your hips come more directly under your shoulders. Exaggerate the swayback and play air violin; then allow the pelvis to tip forward and notice the difference in how your arms move and how your neck and shoulders feel. This posture is healthy for the arms and will give them the support they need, because the hips and shoulders are closely related. Throughout the day, jiggle occasionally to check the alignment and openness of your legs.
To counteract the weight of the violin pressing down, muscles in the midriff of the body need to engage and lift. Imagine your side ribs as folds of a fan and feel them stretching open and up. Do side bends to release and elongate the spaces between the ribs. Feel your spine, especially the area of the mid-back between your shoulder blades, stretching up toward heaven. Do the same with your occiput. Notice how reaching up from the back helps the fronts of your shoulders and collarbone open and relax.
Your shoulder blades, while located in your back, are actually the beginnings of your arms. Utilizing them properly will enhance your sound, free your bow, and prevent the stooped posture that is common in string players. Let your arms hang loosely at your sides. Imagine a giant puppeteer holding strings attached to the back of your elbows. When the strings are raised, your upper arms will rise, while your forearms and hands dangle. Now flip the left arm over into playing position and play air violin. Notice how weightless your arms feel; this is because they are being held up from the strong deep muscles of the back, the rhomboids, between the shoulder blades. Let your arms hang straight down again and then lift the hands directly up into playing position. Even if you are at the same height as before, your arms will feel much heavier. Notice especially what you sense in the area between your upper arms and the sides of your body. Try the puppeteer version again for contrast.
Your armpits and indeed the whole area under your arms need to stay open, even when your bow arm is carving into the string. Imagine that you have small balloons in your armpits, and larger balloons around your waist and torso. Play air violin, carving down into the balloons with your elbows while simultaneously keeping the spaces of the balloons open. Notice the circularity of your elbow movements as you curve into those soft deep imaginary spaces under your arms.
Find the connection of your elbows all the way back into your shoulder blades. Stand with your hands in loose fists, held at chest height with palms down and knuckles touching; stabilize your legs, torso, and head so that they do not move; and move the triangle of your arms and elbows around the column of your spine, back and forth from left to right. Can you feel the shoulder blades moving in relation to your spine? Now take your arms into playing position, continuing to hold the traction between your elbows and shoulder blades as your stretch your elbows apart in space (I call this the starfish stretch). Let the blades go and feel how your shoulders collapse forward and up. Feel the slackness and emptiness in your elbows. The balloons are gone. Activate the shoulder blades again; squeeze them together and allow the elbows to be drawn away from your body. Notice how wide open your chest and underarms are when your shoulder blades stabilize your arms. Notice how symmetrical the spaces under your arms are, how light they feel, and how calm, alert and energetic you are. Notice how your breathing changes. Everything expands.

Building Connection from the Ground Up – Arms:
When the arms are unimpeded at the critical joints of the shoulders and elbows, nerve impulses are more efficient and a sense of ease and comfort will result.
Roll your shoulders gently back and around. Now add elbow circles. Do this slowly enough that you can feel your shoulder blades sliding across your back, towards and away from the spine.
With each hand, turn the opposite upper arm away from the body and towards the body. (This is a good exercise to do with a partner too.) Allow the forearms and hands to follow along passively. This gentle twisting motion will soften and open the tissues around the all-important juncture of your arm and body, through which many important blood vessels and nerves pass. Can you do both arms now, initiating the movement from your upper arms?
Play air violin while gently holding the front of your right armpit (the pectoralis) with your left hand. First play legato 16ths in the middle of the bow, leading with the hand, and notice the popping and jumping in the pectoralis; the right shoulder will also begin to rise as the pectoralis tightens. Now do the same but initiate the motion from the elbow (in effect, farther back in the upper arm). The forearm will still execute the motion but the circularity of the movement will prevent tension in the pec, making it much easier to keep the underarm soft and the right shoulder relaxed. Can you feel the circles in your right shoulder blade?
Play a downbow, allowing your arm to simply slide down and away from your body. See if you can find the gentle bounceback that will begin your upbow effortlessly. Now initiate the motion of the downbow from your hand; notice how you will automatically stop at the end of the bow and the upbow will necessitate a separate effort. Perform these two types of downbows again while holding your right bicep. Notice that a more circular motion will give you a fluid continuity from downbow to upbow, while the feeling of “straight across” produced by leading from the hand will immediately engender contractions in the bicep.
Contract your left bicep and execute an air shift. Can you feel the jerkiness and effort as you work against your own tension? Next do the same thing with a relaxed bicep. Finally, do the same thing but initiate the movement from underneath the arm, releasing the shoulder blade to allow the elbow to circle forward as you go into high position. Notice that the forearm and hand have the sensation of being carried.

Building Connection from the Ground Up – Neck and Shoulders:
When holding the violin we often draw our shoulders up and our head down, creating what I call the drawstring effect. This position cuts off circulation to our arms and brain. Your posture when playing the violin should be as near to an ordinary standing posture as is feasible.
Keep your shoulders as relaxed as possible; imagine them falling away from your head and neck. Soften the muscles around your collarbone; visualize your head as a boat rocking gently in the water of the collarbone.
Turn your head to the left, first by leading with your eyes and then by leading from the occiput, with your eyes trailing. Does your neck feel different? Is there a change in the range of motion?
Draw long bows in the air. Does your left side remain stable, or does it come towards the bow during an upbow? If you engage the shoulder blades it is easier to bow without collapsing the front of the armpits. Keep your head as close to vertical as possible; especially when drawing an upbow, avoid the tendency to crunch in and forward. (Is it easier or harder to move the bow in the air if you allow yourself to shift weight slightly, alternating left and right feet?)
Take your left hand and make a fist. Relax the full weight of your head onto your hand, resting on the chin. Talk (if you can). Now move your fist two inches closer towards your left ear, rest your head upon it, and try to talk again; notice how your jaw feels. Once again move your hand closer towards your ear. Once you have passed the hinge of the jaw you will be able to rest the full weight of your head on your hand, talk freely, and relax your jaw. Incorrect head position is responsible for much jaw tension and can eventually lead to temporomandibular joint disorders.
Now let the violin rest upon the left shoulder. Balance your head upon the chinrest gently; find the balance point behind the hinge of the jaw, let the weight of your head relax, and do not add additional gripping. Remember that the left hand plays a key role in supporting the violin too.
A balanced, upright posture, open and flexible joints, and using muscles as naturally as possible will all contribute to joy, effortlessness and ultimate freedom of expression as we play our glorious instrument.

The Movable Elbow: Left Arm Alignment

June 14th, 2013 | Posted by BaylaK in Body | Goal 02: Intonation | Goal 05: Ease | Left Side - (Comments Off)

Connecting to the Shoulder Blade:

Put your left arm up in playing position. Reach back with your elbow, stretching out from the armpit. Can you feel the connection of your elbow into your shoulder blade? Now scoop around and forward as you shift to a high note. Notice how the space under your arm is maintained. What is the track of your thumb? Can you feel how you are initiating the movement from the back?

Keeping Openness:

As you shift, do not crunch your upper arm into your side and do not squeeze your bicep; instead try to find open spaces. Even as you shift up try to come around an invisible balloon in your elbow, so that it doesn’t squeeze shut. Imagine that your entire arm is making a giant “C” shape.

Finding the Balance in High Positions:

When you are in high positions, try to find the “C” shape; if your fingers are elongated they will be weak and unable to press the string down with its additional tension nearer the bridge, so make sure that your elbow has come around the violin as much as is necessary to allow the hand and fingers to find a good balance. An arch shape will be stronger than a flattened one. Check your base knuckles – they should be relaxed and springy, never hard. (Exercises: Tapping to the Left of the Fingerboard, Pancake Hand)

Moving for Chords:

Keeping your wrist directly above your forearm, place your fourth finger on each string in turn. In order to keep the alignment, the elbow must move as you change strings. Experiment with the best position of the elbow and notice how when you have the proper alignment it is much easier to vibrate and feel the finger relax into the string.
This elbow support has enormous consequences when playing multiple stops. In solo Bach, correct placement of the elbow will give the advantage to the finger (voice) you wish to bring out. Even the pressure of the fingers should not be equal; you should be able to feel to melody finger more deeply.

Calm Shoulders

June 10th, 2013 | Posted by BaylaK in Body | Goal 05: Ease | Left Side | Right Side - (Comments Off)

Avoid the drawstring effect

Many violinists crunch their shoulders up and their heads down into the violin. This shortens the muscles of each arm and greatly affects sound and left hand facility. It also isolates the arm from the shoulderblade, which is the first bone of the arm.

To avoid this, try the following exercises:

Stand and play with your head against a doorframe. You may feel you have to press backwards with your head in order to maintain contact. Now step away and feel the same backwards, upright position.

In a straight chair, sit with your back against the back of the chair as you play. Maintain contact.

With a partner, take turns holding each other’s heads back. (This is really easy if you have a ponytail!)

Draw an upbow, allowing your head to travel in the same direction as the bow. Draw a downbow, and move your head slightly to the back of the chinrest, in the opposite direction from the bow. Can you feel the slight tug of the string?

Loosening the Head on the Violin

Settle your head into the chinrest gently, balancing the violin with the relaxed weight of your head.

Incorporate Karen Tuttle’s breathing exercises into your bowing: each time you breathe out, allow the head to settle towards the back of the chinrest gently.

As an exercise, play downbows holding the violin with your left hand as you move your head around; play upbows with your head gently relaxing into the chinrest as you take your left thumb off the neck of the violin. Are there moments in your music where you could do one or the other, to release muscles?

Interesting Dilemma

Holding still helps your nervous system sort out the fine movements of your hands and arms, because the variables are fewer; but moving releases muscles and combats rigidity. Moving also is often more exciting for the audience. Think of a modern day performer such as Joshua Bell and compare him to videos of Heifetz and Oistrach.  My own experience is that it is generally best to move lyrically during singing lines and slower music, with swaying being preferable to the crunch, to keep the shoulderblades as stable as possible; but it is almost always best to have calm shoulders, a stable violin, and a centered balance which allows your weight to drop through both your feet during fast passages and string crossings. It is also usually true that a stable violin produces a stronger tone.

Try fast passages with your violin scroll on a stand, on a ledge, or against a towel on the wall. You will find that shifts and string crossings are much easier when you do not have a moving target!

Injury Treatment

June 10th, 2013 | Posted by BaylaK in Body | Goal 05: Ease - (Comments Off)

As violinists and musicians, it is easy to get so caught up in our intense love for music and our need to practice endless hours that we forget that we are physical creatures with wonderful bodies which do so much for us. We are athletes, and just like athletes, we must get to know our own bodies with all their strengths and limitations. Unlike athletes, however, we will want to practice our art for decades, and in caring for our physical self we must develop both incredible sensitivity and power.

 

When you are injured, whether due to an accident, sudden overuse, poor playing habits, long hours at the computer, or some combination exacerbated by worry and stress, it is easy to panic. This will not particularly help! Remember that nearly all musicians, particularly string players, will deal with injuries at some point in their careers. There are many ways of treating injuries and getting the help you need. In the process, you will become a better player AND you will live more happily in your body.  I love the Chinese character for crisis; it is actually a combination of two characters – one for danger and the other for opportunity.

 

Here are some possible ways for you to get help:

1. Medical doctor – Dr. Michael Charness at Mass General specializes in musician’s hand injuries. He may splint the hand for a period of a few weeks and send you to a physical therapist who gives you exercises.  I am not usually in favor of splinting, mainly because when you immobilize an area it gets weaker, therefore the risk of injury remains when you return. I am also very wary of operations, because of scar tissue, and cortisone shots, which are temporary but do not help your body learn to heal itself.

2. Chiropractor – Dr. Stuart Grey (617-738-7428) has an office near BU and has helped musicians. Often hand and arm problems in violinists originate in the neck.

3. Feldenkrais – Olivia Cheever, at oliviacheever.com. Feldenkrais is a system of retraining your nervous system so that you perform actions without strain.  I see Olivia once a month and my work with her has been invaluable in my teaching. She works at Longy. Google Moshe Feldenkrais, the founder of the method.

4. Stretching and related activities – yoga, tai chi, qi gong – anything that teaches you more body awareness. I attend Brookline Tai Chi Academy. I love tai chi because it is a form of moving meditation; it centers me, teaches me to feel inside my body with ever more awareness, opens my joints, stretches my muscles, and is great for balance (both mental and physical).

5.  Alexander Technique classes are a well-established body awareness path. Betsy Pollatin at Boston University is an excellent teacher.

6. Personal trainers can give you carefully calibrated exercises and stretches to balance your muscles, strengthening arms, shoulders and back. Find someone with experience of injuries, if possible someone who has worked with violinists and musicians, not just a local sports jock. Kelly Bellinsky at Performing Arts Occupational Therapy, 1330 Beacon, is great. (617-277-1550)

7. Deep tissue massage therapy such as Reiki. For pain relief, massage is often the first and best line of defense. My violist friend in the National Symphony gets a weekly massage – it’s tax deductible!

8. Tui Na is Chinese acupressure, and is fabulous: Carolanne Oller at Ancient River Healing Arts, 1141 Beacon Street in Brookline, 617-566-3603

9. Some people find acupuncture to be life-saving.

10. If you have tendonitis, icing and aspirin or Ibuprofen (not acetaminophen) are great.

11. Find a violin teacher who can help you identify areas of tension when you play, particular in your hands, arms, shoulders, neck, hips, legs, and feet.

 

 

 

 

 

Injuries are likely to occur because we are out of balance, weak in some area, working muscles without releasing them, or not able to listen to the signals our bodies give us when we use them. Most often healing will mean a combination of:

  • retraining muscles to work more easily and efficiently, with every action followed by a  release
  • learning how to listen to early signs of distress from all related body areas
  • feeling ourselves in our bodies as much of the time as possible, so that we don’t strain or pull ourselves in daily living
  • getting massage, stretching, or other exercises to help us loosen up and learn what a relaxed muscle feels like
  • getting strengthening exercises for imbalanced and weak muscles– violin is extremely asymmetric
  • getting our spine and neck into alignment so that nerves can give proper signals to muscles
  • calming inflammation with icing and anti-inflammatories such as aspirin or Ibuprofen

 

 

Except for certain cases of prolonged or chronic injury, I always recommend the slower route of healing, stretching, strengthening, and reconnecting to your own awareness of your body—intense people are often so focused on thoughts and musical expression that they miss their own kinesthetic sensations.

 

You may have to try several things before you find just the right combination.  For me it was retraining on the violin, seeing a chiropractor, getting some exercises, finding a great Feldenkrais teacher, and then doing Tai Chi.  I still do many of these things and am stronger and more flexible than I ever was as a youngster. Be patient, this is important work and it will affect your whole life, not just your violin, and you will be better off for having undertaken it!

 

 

Left Hand Relaxation: Why Footies Matter

June 10th, 2013 | Posted by BaylaK in Body | Goal 01: Sounds | Goal 05: Ease | Left Side - (Comments Off)

Moving from the Shoulderblade:

The left arm works more easily when movement initiates from the back and shoulderblade, rather than from the small muscles between the shoulder and hand.

EXERCISE: Take the left elbow back behind and away from the body; scoop under the violin and forward.     Keep the inside of the arm soft.  Initiate the motion from the back and shoulderblade.

EXERCISE: Swing up and tap the body of the violin to the left of the G string with all four fingers.

EXERCISE: Remember to stabilize the shoulderblade, keeping it near the spine, so that the left arm does not collapse into the side of the body, but instead maintains a lovely relaxed open space. Notice how the inside of the armpit feels soft.

EXERCISE: Hug a tree while keeping the shoulderblades back. Notice how maintaining your shoulderblades’ positions in relation to the spine helps the arms feel lighter and more relaxed.

 

Alignment:

At all times we should strive for the easiest, most natural positions when playing the violin. When muscles stream into each other, the electric nerve signals can pass through unimpeded. Avoid breaking the lines of the wrist and arm; keep roundness, curvature, and openness wherever possible.

EXERCISE: Compare playing with the wrist forward and collapsed, backwards, or neutral and straight.

EXERCISE: Pair up and hang each other’s arms, first in the air and then on the violin. Really relax and let  your arm become dead weight. Does it matter if your finger is arched or flat?

Relaxing the hand to get into position:

We need to be able to get the heel of the hand close to the neck of the violin, so that our 3rd and 4th fingers do not overreach, flatten, or strain. In order to hold the all-important octave frame in comfort, our hand must soften and relax.

EXERCISE: Using the right hand to hold the violin perpendicular to the floor, bring it around into position under your chin, allowing the left hand to follow passively. Do the same thing with a pencil, curving your     left fingers and pushing down while your right hand  turns the pencil into violin position.

EXERCISE: Massage the webbing between the fingers. Visualize the tissues opening and melting.

EXERCISE: Start with the hand perpendicular to fingerboard and the palm facing you. Use your right hand to melt the left knuckles in, ironing them gently into the neck of the violin.  Hold the position and notice how relaxed your arm feels. Repeat several times. Now get into that same position only by turning the     arm. Notice the tension in the forearm. Do the fingers move as freely?

With all stretching exercises, your goal is to allow the hand to open – never force, and never overpress. Think of your hand as relaxing apart, with the 1st and 2nd fingers melting back towards the pegs and the 3rd and 4th energetically reaching forward.  I call this “split hand.”

EXERCISE: Dounis Stretchback from 4th Position – place 3 fingers on the E string; gently slide the 1st finger    as far back as is comfortable on the A string. Repeat, leave in place, and then place 2nd finger on A string. Continue with all fingers. Do NOT allow other fingers to move. Do NOT overpress

EXERCISE: Simon Fischer contrary motion; also slide up and down a half step with each finger. Keep your fingernails facing you.

Keeping the fingernails facing you (this is called pronation) will result in easier manipulation of the spaces between your fingers, improving your intonation and solidifying your finger patterns.

EXERCISE: Simon Fischer Fingertip Placement

EXERCISE: Simon Fischer Thumb Spa – relaxing the thumb. Also try resting scroll gently on a stand.

 

The Footie:

Loosen the 1st joint to broaden the point of contact to aid in the transfer of the weight from the arm.  Do NOT flatten the finger; the 2nd joint should remain higher than the 1st. This is especially important in high positions and while shifting!