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Common violin playing myths – part one

We hear of certain rules and sayings our peers and teachers repeat that claim to resolve a complicated problem quite simply. That is, until we start living inflexibly by them! That is when we discover the ‘truth’ is often hiding behind a subtle nuance.

These things often are just repeated over and over again without testing to see if they’re true or not! And certainly not by adjusting the advice for an individual’s own personal solution.

This is the first in what I envisage to be a three-part series about common violin playing myths. Let’s take a look at some of these issues:

Sit at the front of your chair

Some chairs almost seem purpose-built for string players, whilst others…

This old adage is especially an issue for tall players with long legs. Often your chair will not be high enough off the ground to allow for you to both sit at the front and to allow your thighs enough room to be perpendicular to the ground when your feet are flat against the floor. When the seat is too low to the ground your thighs and knees will point upwards, causing slouching as your core muscles used for stability become overused.

Sometimes, depending on the individual, sitting closer to the back of the chair and wedging your lower tail-bone into the back of the chair whilst slightly leaning forward can alleviate this issue. But this is not true with every chair and every sized person – some chairs will force you to the front of the seat because being at the back will lock you into an unplayable posture due to either a complete lack of lower back support or a too-prominent high a back to the chair.

Personally, when I sit at the front of a low chair, I simply must have somewhere for my legs to go and often it ends up that I have to tuck my feet underneath or have one them stretched out in front and am unable to provide the best support for a straight back which you can get most optimally when your feet are flat on the ground with thighs perpendicular to the ground.

There are people who are built in a way that they can sit at the front of a regular chair and still afford free movement. When sitting, in any position on the chair, the important factors to concentrate on are the following:

  • No matter where you are seated, it is important to refrain from slouching, and that you are relaxed in your upper body whilst keeping your core muscles strong and your whole body feeling supported.
  • If you are going to sit back, it’s important that you understand the back of the seat as a kind of pivot area ensuring stability with the seat, and refrain from slouching back into the backrest. The seat should allow you to sit far back in the seat with yourself contacting the inside corner of the chair, and your legs should be able to extend along the entire seating pad with an inch or two give, and your feet flat on the floor.
  • Back problems can arise if the chair you’re sitting in doesn’t allow you to sit in this pivot area and can result from sitting back in a chair without a slight forward tilt of the seating pad or by having the back rest too high, both of which results in locking your back or shoulder musculature against a rigid backrest when you sit back in them.

The last thing you want is to lock your back against your backrest, which is where this prescriptive probably originated from. At the same time, there is nothing wrong with seeking the right kind of back support so long as it allows you to be stable and is positioned low and close to your lower back.

Beyond the general ergonomics discussed here, there are musically contextual moments when one should generally be further towards the front of the seat than towards the back, and I would argue vice versa, but I’m not going to delve into any of that here.

Practise makes perfect

Perfection may be our goal, and practise is needed to reach it. But what if you’re still discovering how best to get there?

This is… kind of true. If you’re already happy with the way you play and don’t want to change it. Repeating things over and over during practise doesn’t make perfect – it makes permanent. It’s the same way our body responds to any kind of training – it gets really competent at doing that thing you repeat. Now if you’ve become competent playing something that isn’t your 100%, it’s nice to hope that things are going to right themselves before the lesson or performance, but what should we really expect?

Now this requires discernment because sometimes 50% of a specific section of a piece is all you can do that one day. Great! Do it, but don’t work at it too hard, as in don’t do repetitions of the piece if you haven’t found the optimal way for that section to improve yet! Mindlessly repeating your 55% or 60% version doesn’t result in a 65% or 100% version, it results in the muscle-memorisation of improper solutions and can lead to a faulty performance.

Consciously avoid drilling repetitions when you’re still in the discovery phase – look for an optimal solution for each technical and musical challenge. The time when repetition is important is when you are close to or at 100% of what you’re capable solving – competency is still important but only when you’re ready to lock something in and only so you can perform the technical difficulties of that passage reliably in any context life throws at you.

But when am I close to or at 100%? This is why it’s important you have a teacher that is aware where you’re at in your practise and can help point out things you might have in your blind spots. Or if you don’t have a teacher this is precisely where taking a quick video recording of yourself and being self-analytical is necessary.

Practise makes permanent, so it’s only really good to think of repetition as a tool to lock in your optimal solution to a technical problem. You still want your performance to be exciting and spontaneous, right? Then this is important! Be conscious when you’re repeating stuff and learn to stop yourself and think instead.

Fix your crooked bowing by watching yourself play in-front of a mirror

Now indeed, we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we shall see face to face

So your teacher told you to stare at yourself in a mirror and watch to make sure you’re making the movements of a straight bow over and over again. Seems simple, but there is a catch: this kind of fix only works for those with their left side set-up is in a position that is already aligned for a relaxed right side set-up. For everyone else, doing this can at best help to develop awkward angles and tension and unnecessary compensatory movements in your right side – let me explain.

If there is something not properly in alignment regarding your entire set-up that is inherently causing a problem, no amount of forcing your muscles to move in a different way will make you bow straight, or if it does it will destroy the ease and tone production from the encumbrance of your right side not being in alignment – so how should you fix a crooked bow? You need to look at your whole body, or more specifically look at these three variables:

  • The position and rotation of your violin on your collarbone (or shoulder if you use a shoulder-rest), as well as your chin rest (further up, further down, looking down the tail-piece vs slightly to the left, etc.)
  • The position of your left hand/arm (scroll position relative to your midpoint)
  • The angles of your right hand/arm, which each of the above should should be free enough to allow you a smooth, steady, fast or slow, easy action along a straight path, perpendicular to the bridge, with a relaxed bow hand.

Strangely enough once the other dimensions are set correctly, your right arm naturally mechanically will want to perform a straight bow. All the parameters for bowing a straight bow are built into the circularity of our arm through your elbow, wrist, and finger joints.

There is a sweet spot for everyone that satisfies comfort in both left and right arms, but the clues to getting there are subtle. Needless to say an issue like this is easier with the assistance of a teacher who knows what to look out for regarding this and is willing to help.

It might require a slight change in how far up your shoulder you hold your violin, or it maybe by adjusting where your shoulder rest or chin rest contacts the instrument. Or it might be a rotational or directional adjustment, where you might experiment with aiming the scroll a bit closer or further away from your midpoint. The sweet spot to hit is where your right side feels free to move as naturally as possible and your bow will be able to be drawn straight naturally and without any unnecessary compensatory movements. As always, listen out for a free and uncomplicated singing sound from your instrument.

Conclusion

Have you ever felt a bit stuck encountering any of these sayings? Write a comment below and let me know your thoughts!

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