Six Steps to Great Violin Posture

Good posture is essential for tone production, ease of playing and injury prevention. We’re all built slightly differently and there is no “one right way” to play the violin. However, these six steps are worth keeping in mind as a checklist for optimal playing:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]1. Fix Right Foot First[/typography]

Start with your heels together and your feet in a “V” shape. Pick up your right foot and step to the side and slightly back. Your feet should be shoulder width apart. Move only your right foot, allowing your left foot to become a guide for the angle of the violin. Dr. Suzuki asked students to put slightly more weight on the left foot to keep the body straight. For young beginners it is helpful to trace an outline of the feet on poster board. This allows students to quickly find “rest position” and “playing position”. Beginners should always play standing. Later, when good posture is ingrained it is possible to transfer to a sitting position for orchestra and chamber music.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]2. Chin Power[/typography]

Keeping your body straight, look straight ahead and then turn your head slowly like a robot until your nose is lined up with your left foot. Then drop your chin, keeping your head straight or slightly tipped to the left. Try the same sequence with the violin. Get used to holding the violin only with your chin. Young students can place their left hand on their right shoulder, allowing the arm to hang. This ensures that the left shoulder remains free of tension and does not raise. It’s important to stay relaxed, allowing the violin to adjust to your posture, not the other way around. Keeping your spine straight, lean slightly into your lower back to bring the violin up. The violin rising to meet the bow helps contact with the string. Young beginners enjoy balancing a marble on the strings to show that the violin is not drooping.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]3. Nose, Fingerboard, Elbow, Left Foot[/typography]

When chin power is fully established, bring up the left hand. The nose, fingerboard, left elbow and left foot should all line up. Students who have difficulty drawing a straight bow in line with the bridge should make sure that the violin is not positioned to the left of the left foot. Bringing the violin in often fixes this problem immediately. Your elbow will gently swing further under to position your hand for the D and G strings and release back for the E string.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]4. The Left Hand[/typography]

Gently hold a racquetball in your left hand with your palm dropping. Take the ball out, maintaining the same shape. This is the correct shape of the hand for violin playing. When the left hand moves up to the fingerboard, first find the thumb, marking first position. The thumb should be vertical. For larger hands the thumb will lean back slightly towards the scroll. Allow the base of the first finger to rest on the other side of the violin’s neck. Keep the palm dropped. Gently turn your wrist to allow the fingers to form a relaxed roof over the fingerboard. Establish a soft, relaxed feeling in the hand and fingers while your arm is at your side and then keep this feeling as the arm is brought up into place. Never squeeze the violin’s neck. If your hand feels tight shake out and renew a feeling of relaxation. Relaxed fingers will naturally drop with the fingertips close over the strings. Fingers should drop on their tips with just enough relaxed weight to keep the string down. They should never press into the fingerboard. If the wrist is slightly turned, you’ll notice that the fingertips contact the string at a slight diagonal angle. The first joint of the finger should stay over the sting, only slightly behind the finger tip.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]5. The Bow Hold[/typography]

Loosely drop your right hand from your wrist and notice how the fingers naturally curve. This is how the bow hold should feel. The beginner can practice picking up a pencil with only the curved thumb and the second finger. This lineup should mark the center of the hand for balancing the bow. Start with your hand held out with the palm facing you. Bring the bow in, lining up with the base of your fingers. Make sure the thumb curves and pushes into the bow with a slight firmness. The thumb and second finger should form a ring, although they don’t need to touch. The third finger curves around the bow, the pinky curves on top and the first finger rests between the first and second joint. The bow should always be held loosely and never squeezed. Maintain a springy feeling in the fingers.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]6. The Right Arm[/typography]

The right arm should also feel relaxed and springy. Relaxed weight transfers from the shoulder through the elbow into a loose wrist and hand and into the string. Feel the connection of the hair and the string. Make sure the wrist is released as if you’re playing with a yo-yo and allow your elbow to settle and relax. String crossings should come from the hand with the elbow only following. When playing with more bow, the elbow and upper arm will push and pull the hand and the wrist will freely move like a paintbrush, rising at the frog and lowering as the bow is drawn to the tip to adjust the weight.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Building Good Habits[/typography]

Beginners will build a great foundation by focusing on one element at a time and creating good habits through correct repetition. If you’re a more advanced student and you face technical difficulty in any area of violin playing, attention to one or more of these posture points might lead to greater ease as a violinist.

A Question of Timing

images-3Timing is an important element in music as well as comedy. A great comedian knows how to build up to the punch line of a joke . Similarly, great composers have an intuitive understanding of proportion in music. They know how long to repeat an idea before moving on. They allow the music to unfold organically in a way that seems “right”, as if the piece is composing itself.

As musicians, we also have to consider timing. How are the notes working together to create a phrase, or musical sentence? How long should a note be stretched? Should the music sit back on the beat or have a sense of being right on top of the beat? How do we group notes to create a sense of flow? James Morgan Thurmond wrote an interesting book on this subject called Note Grouping: A Method for Achieving Expression and Style in Musical Performance.

Top instrumentalists and pop artists alike have mastered the art of timing. Listen to the way the young Michael Jackson shapes each syllable in a flowing and expressive way in the The Jackson 5’s 1970 hit, “I’ll Be There.” His performance coveys a natural and powerful sense of timing, right down to the release of each “there” in the repetitions of the chorus at the end of the song. Or listen to Broadway legend Barbara Cook shape the lyrics in Stephen Sondheim’s “Losing My Mind.” 

Violinist Isaac Stern summed up the importance of timing the following way in an interview: [quote] “Music in essence is what is happening between the printed notes, not on the notes themselves. How in that milli-milli-millisecond of time in going from one note to another note do you do what you do? Instinctively, thoughtfully, with head, heart, taste, and talent.”[/quote]

Watch Abbot and Costello’s famous “Who’s On First?” routine. Think about how it may be similar to the flow, development and timing of a musical performance. The routine centers around the confusion which ensues when players on a baseball team happen to have unusual last names such as “Who”, “What”, and so on…

Practicing is Problem Solving

Take a moment and think about your last practice session. Did you take time to imagine how you wanted the music to sound before you started playing? How attentively were you listening to yourself? Did you stay mentally alert? What did you do when you encountered a musical or technical hurdle?

It’s easy to fall into the trap of playing through a difficult passage slowly until you “get it right.” This is often counterproductive because it relies completely on luck. Without first identifying the problem and finding a solution, you may find yourself ingraining the bad habits you’re trying to eliminate. Remember, whatever we repeat becomes a habit, good or bad.

Productive practicing requires problem solving. It requires your mind as much as your fingers. It’s about visualization, audiation and evaluation. To avoid aimless practicing remember the motto “Stop…Think…Play.”

Whether you’re an older student practicing on your own, or a Suzuki parent guiding your child through a practice session, here are a few things to keep in mind:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Identify the Problem[/typography]

Listen carefully. Are you matching the sound that you have in your mind? If you’re a violinist the challenge could be anything from a string crossing to intonation (correct shape of the left hand and finger placement) to a difficult shift. Maybe there are a number of challenges that need to be isolated, as in the Bach Minuets in Suzuki Book 1. Take one problem at a time and work patiently.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Unit Practice[/typography]

Unit practice involves isolating a small group of notes and repeating them. Use your time effectively by practicing only the problem spot. For shifts start from the preceding note, memorizing the distance visually and physically. Focusing on small units helps your brain absorb new skills quickly. Start by repeating small units and then begin adding and combining other units. If you’re confronted with a run of notes (as in La Folia in Suzuki Book 6) it’s helpful to isolate all the notes on each string, stopping for each string crossing. In Witches Dance the triplets can be isolated into rhythmic units.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Isolate the bow and the left hand[/typography]

Reduce a passage to open strings to practice string crossings and bowing. For co-ordination between the left and right hands, stop the bow in between each note to set each finger carefully. Long slurs can also be practiced with stopped bows.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Tempo Adjustment[/typography]

Practice slower and faster than the tempo you intend to take. Feel the inside beats to maintain a sense of pulse. Use the metronome to gradually build up speed for fast music.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Make up rhythms[/typography]

For straight eighth or sixteenth note passages, practice with a variety of rhythms to increase finger co-ordination and improve evenness, quickness and strength.

These are just a few strategies that might help you overcome technical challenges. For more thoughts on practicing read The Most Valuable Lesson I Learned from Playing the Violin and Don’t Just Learn-Overlearn! Next time you take out the violin try to listen with your teacher’s critical ear. Challenge yourself to become your own teacher and remember that good practicing requires problem solving.

Josef Gingold on Violin Playing and Teaching

Recently, I found a few interesting links relating to Josef Gingold, the legendary violinist and teacher who died in 1995. If you’re not familiar with Gingold’s legacy, this short video offers insights into his life, distinguished career and great humanity.

Having studied with the nineteenth century Belgian violinist Eugene Ysaye, Gingold was one of the last links to an elegant earlier style of violin playing. Here is an excerpt from his 1976 recording Josef Gingold Plays Fritz Kreisler, featuring Kreisler’s Aucassin et Nicolette. It showcases his golden tone and the warmth of his playing:

[quote]No matter what you do, always con amore, always with love. You never play dutifully, you play beautifully.[/quote]

Gingold has many interesting things to say in this interview, conducted in the last years of his life by Kim Markl. He talks about the importance of constantly learning and changing throughout life. Despite his age, he exudes a love of the violin and a joy of discovery that suggests an amazing youthful vitality. He discusses the way styles of violin playing have changed over time, demonstrating in the style of Ysaye. He believes that the most fundamental aspect of good tone production is good intonation, which allows rich overtones to ring. When asked about teaching, Gingold stresses the importance of a student’s first teacher in establishing the correct foundation. He says that a good teacher must have patience and must recognize that each student is unique.

It’s also fascinating to hear Gingold’s thoughts on violinists of the past. In this episode of Music for the Fingerboard Gingold takes us through recordings of significant violinists of the past including Joachim, Sarasate, Auer, Kreisler, Huberman, Ysaye and Heifetz. Students of Gingold, such as Joshua Bell say that listening to recordings and studying the way legendary violinists played was an important part of their lessons with Gingold. Indeed, it’s important for all violinists to know the playing of the great violinists of the past. (Here are Parts 2, 3, 4 and 5 of Music for the Fingerboard).

Here is a recording of Josef Gingold playing Henryk Wieniawski’s Capriccio Valse. Wieniawski was a Polish violinist and composer who lived from 1835-1880:

Shinichi Suzuki on Video

Here are two short videos that show Shinichi Suzuki working with students. They offer a glimpse of the good humor and almost childlike joy for which Suzuki was known.

In the first clip Suzuki demonstrates the students’ ability to stop and start at any point in the last movement of the Bach A minor Concerto (Suzuki Violin Book 7). The game he uses reinforces the idea that you really know a piece well if you can start anywhere. Isolate and repeat small units of notes throughout the piece during practice to help to build this skill.

In the second clip Suzuki plays the piano and creates endless new variations to Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, which the students repeat. Notice that he also tests them by changing the tempo here and there.

For anyone who is interested in some background on Suzuki’s life and how he developed the Suzuki method, here is an interesting clip.

The Mental Side of Violin Playing

[quote]Technique is conception.[/quote]

-Zvi Zeitlin

As we begin a new year of practicing, let’s consider the mental side of violin playing.  The concepts we hold in mind can be an important guide for sound, phrasing, musical style and other aspects of playing.  Technique should always serve the musical concept.  In many cases, starting with a musical concept can propel us over a technical hurdle.

Think about your last practice session.  Did you focus mainly on the technical issues of the bow and the left hand?  Did a difficult passage remain illusive, even after many repetitions and problem solving attempts?  Put the violin down and hear the sound you want to create in your mind.  Imagine the physical feeling of playing well.  Think of a few words or images that capture the character of the music.  See if the power of your concept makes the bow and fingers automatically fall into place.

For the youngest Suzuki student words like “soft”, “squishy” and “springy” immediately create a good mental image for the bow hold. For the left hand, “spaghetti fingers” and “holding an imaginary ball” are good images. Hearing the string ring “like a bell” and using syllables like “Tuck-a-Tuck-a Tuck-a” and “Toh, Toh, Toh” can help build a mental image of tone production.

The opening phrase of Dvorak’s Humoresque in Suzuki Violin Book 3 provides a specific example of the way concept can improve technical control.  Challenges in this phrase include the “snapped” rhythm (cheating the rest can accidentally turn the rhythm into a triplet) and “zig-zag” bowing which can lead to an undesirably heavy sound.  A word like “sneaky” might help with the rhythm, while playing the last note before each rest “like a feather” could guide the wrist and bow hand to lighten up the sound.

Violinist and teacher Simon Fischer has written an interesting article about Mental Rehearsal which highlights the importance of visualization in violin playing.  Visualization is also central to the work of Don Greene and others who help professional musicians overcome performance anxiety.

Another important component of mental practicing involves attending concerts, listening to recordings and studying the score. If you’re learning a concerto it’s essential that you know the orchestra part as well as the solo part and how the two interact.

As you practice in the new year, remember that it’s important to use time efficiently.  Make a commitment to thoughtful practice and allow musical concepts to be your guide.

Suzuki’s Tonalization

Beautiful tone, beautiful heart.”

“Tone has a living soul without form.”

-Shinichi Suzuki

Tonalization is “the ability to produce and recognize a beautiful, ringing tone.” Dr. Suzuki observed that singers cultivate their voices daily through “vocalization” exercises.  He believed that instrumentalists should approach tone in a similar way. Great musicians make their instruments “sing”, developing a concept of tone that is inspired by the natural expression of the human voice.

Tonalization starts when the beginner first draws the bow across the string. Through continuous, careful repetitions of the first “Twinkle” rhythm, the tone, and the physical feeling of creating tone begin to take shape.  Throughout Book 1, Suzuki offers scales and Tonalization exercises in the keys of A, D and G.  More advanced students and professionals work on tone with three octave scales, arpeggios, thirds, sixths, octaves and more. The quest for the most resonant tone possible never ends.  Daily attention to Tonalization leads to improved tone for everything else you play.

Here are a few ideas to keep in mind as you work on Tonalization:

Listen.  In order to achieve your best tone, start by listening carefully.  Consider each note “guilty until proven innocent.”  Don’t ever be completely satisfied.  Always assume that an even better tone is around the corner.  Dr. Suzuki asks students to pluck the strings and listen as they ring.  He considers this to be the string’s most fundamental and natural sound.  As you bow, keep this ringing sound in mind.  Play the open strings and try to get the same resonance.  Next, challenge yourself to get the same ring on fingered tones, even though these will have a slightly different timbre (or tone color).  Stop the bow on the string and listen to how long the ring lasts.  Over time, try to increase the length of ring.

Notice that each tone has a beginning, a middle and an end.  The bow connects and pulls, articulating and then releasing, allowing the string to ring (“Tow”).  Make sure the volume stays even as a single note is played, or throughout the “Twinkle” rhythm (“Tuck-ah, Tuck-ah, Tuck..ah”).

Consider what the bow has to do.  The bow can be pressed into the string, cutting off it’s ability to vibrate, or it can slip around on the surface, never really catching the string.  Instead, connect the bow to the string and allow the arm to drop with a springy feeling.  Relaxed weight from the shoulder transfers into the elbow, wrist, fingers and into the string.  Now pull the bow and continue to feel the shoulder. Imagine the arm pulling and pushing in a slight arc, rather than a straight line. Notice that the wood of the bow itself is shaped like an arc.

Placement of the bow in relation to the bridge is important.  This is called the sounding point.  The closer the bow gets to the bridge, the more weight is needed. This is accompanied by slower bow speed.  As the bow is placed farther from the bridge, less weight and faster bow speed are required.  This is something players get a natural feel for over time.  Placing the bow near the bridge creates a louder sound with more overtones.  As the bow drifts to the fingerboard, the tone gets softer and more velvety. The beginner starts with the bow placed directly in between the bridge and fingerboard.  Suzuki called this the Kreisler Highway because it’s where the legendary violinist Fritz Kreisler played most of the time.  Kreisler is still remembered for the singing quality of his tone.

Consider what the left hand has to do.  Playing in tune is essential for tonalization.  Find that one place on the fingerboard where the tone rings.  Move your finger slightly higher and lower to see if you can get more ring.  Once you find the correct place, pick your finger up and try to find it again.  Your finger will begin to remember where it needs to go, especially if it is kept close to the fingerboard.

Make sure your fingers are up on their tips and are not touching nearby strings.  You want the other strings to be ringing sympathetically with the string you’re playing.  If you are playing G on the D string (third finger in first position) you should be able to see the G string vibrate as the D string is played.

Keep a cushiony, relaxed feeling in your hand.  Tension will limit resonance.

Develop a visual image of the tone.  Allow the string to ring like a bell.  Feel the string under the bow and imagine that the tone has a strong and intense center that is focused like a laser beam.  Around this focused center is a fluffy, soft layer of “ring”. Imagine that you are drawing the sound out of the box of the violin.

Turn on the energy.  How you feel inside will impact the way the bow pulls across the string.  Practice turning on an attitude of inner energy and vitality.  Don’t try to change anything you’re doing technically.  Just turn on the energy and it will affect what comes out.

Play the room.  This is how the unique sounds of the world’s greatest orchestras are developed over time.  Listen to how the sound is coming back to you in the room. Treat the room like another musical instrument that you are playing.

As I mentioned earlier, Dr. Suzuki was deeply influenced by the tone of the great Austrian violinist, Fritz Kreisler (1875-1962).  Now that we have considered the fundamentals of Tonalization, listen to this old recording of Kreisler playing his composition, Liebesleid, which translates as “Love’s Sorrow”:

Ten Tips For Learning New Repertoire

When it comes to learning a new piece, knowing how to practice correctly is essential.  Good practicing is about developing problem solving strategies, efficient use of time and constant evaluation.  Young Suzuki students depend on the parent to structure well disciplined practice sessions that will facilitate the mastery of a new piece.  As students approach the teenage years, they are able to work successfully on their own.

Here are ten points that parents and students should keep in mind when learning a new piece:

1. Listen repeatedly. This is the core of Dr. Suzuki’s “mother tongue” approach.  When it comes time to learn a new piece, both the student and parent should know the music well after months of daily, repeated CD listenings and group classes.  As students begin to develop a deeper association between the pitch in their “ear” and the corresponding place on the fingerboard the learning process is sped up dramatically.  Later, when note reading is introduced, the player will see patterns of  notes, “hear” them and then play them in a process that comes together in a split second.

All great composers hear music in their inner “ear.”  In one story, the young Mozart traveled to Italy, heard a long choral piece performed once and went home and proceeded to copy the entire score note for note.  Beethoven was able to continue to compose after he lost his hearing because of his ability to hear music in his head.

As students become more advanced, it is important that they listen to as many different recordings of a piece as possible.  The goal should never be to parrot back someone else’s performance, but to consider many different interpretations and then to find your own.

2. Isolate sections that are more difficult or present new technical challenges.  I often give my students exercises when they are confronted with a new technical challenge.  After focusing on a specific problem and solving it through correct repetitions, the rest of the piece often falls into place.  You will be able to structure your time in the most effective way by getting a head start on these challenges.

3. Slow down.  Allow the fingers and bow arm to get wired in the right way from the beginning.  For less advanced Suzuki students, the parent should make sure that in the beginning each step is isolated.  Play, stop the bow, quickly set the finger, wait, play the next note, make a quick string crossing, wait, play the next note. This type of practice leads to quick mastery of the piece.  Physical motions are efficient and no wrong notes or extra motions are ingrained.

4. Use verbal and physical cues.  Parents can help young Suzuki students by calling out the correct finger after each bow stop.  The parent can also mime the correct bowing in the air with their right arm.  Even though the student’s eyes remain down on the violin, this is a helpful peripheral visual cue.  Sing or play along on the piano or another instrument if possible.

5. Take one goal at a time.  Consider what makes a particular passage difficult and quickly address it.  Focus on that one goal and try to achieve it through many correct, slow repetitions.

6. Repeat only a few notes at a time.  In some ways, learning a new piece is like sanding a table.  Work out a small section and then move on.  Gradually more and more of the piece will take shape.  It is also important to start in different places in the middle of the piece and play them out of context.

7. Listen carefully and evaluate.  Are you creating the phrase that you want?  Are you in the correct part of the bow and are you using the right amount of bow speed and weight? Is the rhythm good?  Is everything in tune?  If you hear an out of tune note go back to the preceding note and try again.  Once you get it it tune, look at your fingers, memorize the feeling and distance between fingers.  Are you playing with the indicated dynamics?  There is a lot to think about, but you want to catch any mistake immediately before it becomes a habit.

8. Isolate left and right hands when necessary.  If you encounter a bowing issue, take the bow separately and play on open strings.  Set the fingers of the left and play pizzicato (or plucking the strings)  so you can focus only on the left hand.

9. Maintain relaxation and good posture.  Notice when tension creeps in and shake your hands and arms out.  Renew a feeling of soft, cushiony relaxation in your hands.

10. Be patient and persistent.  Continue to play slowly and acknowledge that it may take some time to get a new piece in your fingers.  Make sure you continue to practice every day.  You will probably see a sudden jump in progress that is the result of your cumulative work.

Here are a few more posts on practicing that you might enjoy reading.