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.

Why Music is Essential to Education

What is the role of music and the arts in education?  Unlike the arts-centered education of ancient Athens, modern American public education has increasingly moved towards jobs training.  In this commodified world of standardized tests, the arts are often pushed to the periphery so that students will be “prepared for college” or “competitive in a global economy.”

Does the current system teach students what to think instead of how to think?  In his book, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, Chris Hedges writes:

“We’ve bought into the idea that education is about training and “success,” defined monetarily, rather than learning to think critically and to challenge. We should not forget that the true purpose of education is to make minds, not careers. A culture that does not grasp the vital interplay between morality and power, which mistakes management techniques for wisdom, which fails to understand that the measure of a civilization is its compassion, not its speed or ability to consume, condemns itself to death.”

Advocates of music education often cite studies that document the effects of music on academic performance.  The Mozart Effect, this study about music’s effect on learning and the nervous system and this study which links playing music from an early age and brain health after age 60 are only a few examples.

While many of these studies have merit, they obscure the real value of music education.   Music is fundamental to the human experience.  There is speculation that music predated language, with the discovery of flutes carved out of animal bones by the Neanderthals 53,000 years ago.  Music expresses something deep in humanity and conveys a sense of meaning that cannot be put into words.

In his Philosophy of Music Education Larry Judd, a music educator of 36 years writes:

“Music is an expressive, aural art…It is a means of emotional fulfillment, an explanation of existence.  Through its creative nature, music aids the search for self-realization and identity.  Music is an active, personal art which demands emotional and physical participation.  

A study of music based upon an active, creative involvement insures the gaining of immediate enjoyment and satisfaction.  It is such that allows man to develop aesthetic sensitivity to the beauty around him and enables him to enjoy a richer, more meaningful life.”

“The greatest scientists are artists as well.” said Albert Einstein, an amateur violinist and pianist.  In this article Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein suggest that it was through entering the unique, creative world of music that Einstein gained his greatest insights into physics.  “I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music…. I get most joy in life out of music.”  Einstein told Dr. Shinichi Suzuki that “The theory of relativity occurred to me by intuition, and music is the driving force behind this intuition.”  Stressing the importance of intuition, Einstein stated that “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”   

In his book, The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, Ray Kurzweil suggests that, with the exponential growth of technology, artificial intelligence will one day surpass human intelligence.  Kurzweil paints a somewhat optimistic view of this new world, but would the essence of humanity, so mysteriously captured in our experience of music, survive?  Would we enter a new and sterile reality?  Perhaps there has never been a better time to hang onto those things which make us fully human.

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.

The Chaconne Across 300 Years

My last post featured music constructed around a repeating bass line, or ostinato. We listened to Johann Pachelbel’s famous Canon in D as well as passacaglias by Handel and Bach.  Now, let’s return to the ostinato  with another type of musical composition that was popular in the Baroque period, the chaconne.

Like the passacaglia, the repeating bass line of the chaconne gave Baroque composers a great opportunity to write endlessly inventive variations.  Most chaconnes are built on a four note scale that descends from the tonic (the home pitch of any key) to the dominant (the fifth scale degree).  This simple four note pattern creates its own satisfying drama.  Listen to the chaconne bass line.  Can you feel the pull of the lowest note (the dominant) back to the first note (the tonic)? With each repetition of this bass line, the music moves away from “home” and then returns.

Chaconne in G Minor…Tomaso Antonio Vitali (1663-1745)

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This piece was ascribed to Vitali by the nineteenth century violinist Ferdinand David, but it is unclear who actually wrote it.  Here is a performance by the great David Oistrakh:

Chaconne from “Roland”…Jean Baptiste Lully (1632-1687)

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Suzuki violin students know Jean Baptiste Lully because of his Gavotte in Book 2. Lully was one of the most important French Baroque composers and was especially influential in developing French opera.  This chaconne comes from the Third Act of his opera, Roland.  If you like this music, you might also enjoy another chaconne Lully wrote for the opera, Phaeton.

Partita in D Minor for Solo Violin BWV 1004…Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)


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Bach wrote six unaccompanied sonatas and partitas for violin.  A partita is a suite, or collection of pieces.  This monumental chaconne comes at the end of the Partita in D Minor.   In a Washington Post interview, violinist Joshua Bell called this chaconne “not just one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, but one of the greatest achievements of any man in history. It’s a spiritually powerful piece, emotionally powerful, structurally perfect.”

In a letter to Clara Schumann, the composer Johannes Brahms wrote: “On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.”

There are many great recordings of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin. Recordings I recommend include performances by Henryk Szeryng, Hilary Hahn, Julia Fischer, Ilya Kaler, Gidon Kremer, Arthur Grumiaux and Mela Tenenbaum. Tenenbaum’s recording features a separate CD with her thoughts on the music and is worth exploring for any musician who is studying solo Bach.

Here is a performance by the legendary Russian violinist, Nathan Milstein.

Violin Concerto…John Adams (b. 1947)

II. Chaconne: Body through which the dream flows

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In 1993 American composer John Adams wrote a chaconne for the second movement of his Violin Concerto.  It’s easy to hear echoes of the past in this haunting and atmospheric music.  In what ways is this chaconne similar to its Baroque predecessors?  In what ways is it different?  What feelings does the music evoke?

Pearls (from the album, Love Deluxe)…Sade (Released in 1992)

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Interestingly, this song from the British band, Sade is built on the same descending chaconne bass line that Vitali, Lully and other Baroque composers used.

Ten Tips For Practicing

The beginning of a new year is a great time to evaluate our practicing and to reaffirm our commitment to consistent, thoughtful practicing.  How we practice is as important as how much we practice.  Here are some tips to keep in mind:

1. Practice Every Day

In some ways, practicing is like exercise.  If it’s sporadic you won’t see progress and you’ll be constantly frustrated.   When practicing becomes a part of your daily routine, your practice sessions become easier. You begin to develop muscle memory and one skill builds on another.  Progress and momentum follow.  Dr. Suzuki said that for every day you don’t practice you need to practice two days to catch up.  “Only  practice on the days that you eat.” was his famous advice.

2. Organize Your Time

Understand each component of your practice session and its purpose.  In the first Suzuki books a typical practice session should include Suzuki’s Tonalization exercises, your new piece and review.  More advanced students might similarly divide their time between scales, etudes, unaccompanied Bach, concerto, sonata, show pieces and orchestra music.  Each component helps your playing in a different way.

As you become more comfortable with a new piece, continue to practice small sections of the piece slowly, but also spend some time “performing” the piece by playing through from beginning to end without stopping.

3. Identify Your Objective 

Make sure you always understand specifically what you’re trying to accomplish.  Be goal oriented and focus on only one point at a time.

4. Use Your Time Efficiently and Intelligently 

Practicing almost always involves problem solving.  Identify the problem and then consider the most efficient and effective way to solve it.  If you have difficulty with a musical passage, don’t immediately play it again.  Instead, stop and ask yourself why it isn’t working.  It may involve a string crossing, a shift or questionable intonation. After you have identified the problem, focus only on its solution.  This usually involves starting in the middle of the piece and only repeating a small group of notes.  Stop and isolate each action, whether it be a string crossing or setting fingers on the fingerboard.  After repeating it correctly many times, back up and play the passage again in context.  It’s important to be able to start anywhere in a given piece.

5. Stay Mentally Alert 

Listen carefully and evaluate your playing throughout your practice session. Be as tough on yourself as your teacher is at your lesson.  Every time you go on autopilot and allow a sloppy string crossing or out of tune note to pass you are ingraining that habit.  By listening and solving the problem quickly, you save yourself time in end.

6. Imagine What You Want It To Sound Like

Let the piece play in your mind like a recording.  How do you want it sound?  Put the bow on the string and play.  Then evaluate what you played, making adjustments if necessary.  Always stay positive and evaluate after you have played.

7. Stay Relaxed

Relaxation is the key to all technique.  Focus on four points of relaxation, isolating each separately before you play: the right shoulder, right elbow, right hand and the knuckles of the left hand.

For less advanced students, always go through a posture checklist before starting to play.  Place the bow on the string and take a moment to feel the connection and relaxed arm weight.

Throughout your practice session, keep renewing a soft, springy feeling in your left hand and bow arm.

8. Slow Down

This is especially true when learning a new piece.  Find the tempo where it feels easy and focus on your most full, beautiful tone.  Stay calm and relaxed.  If you find yourself scrambling for notes, evaluate what is happening.  Usually, this is a sign that you are not making the most efficient physical motions possible.  This, in turn makes it harder and you risk building a habit of tension.  Think about a relaxed “roof” over the fingerboard and fingertips that stay close to the strings and try again.

Dr. Suzuki asks beginners learning a new piece to use short, small bow strokes and to stop between each note to prepare the left hand.  Practicing this way reinforces the appropriate coordination (the left hand preparing first).  It also ensures that mind and muscles have time to learn and remember the correct finger patterns.  Students who try to go too fast and skip this step often end up ingraining wrong notes that have to be unlearned later. There is also a danger of sloppy coordination between the right and left hands.

There are times when it can be beneficial to play a piece at full tempo (or even faster than the performance tempo) before you are ready.  However, as a general rule slow practice is essential.

9. Do Many Correct Repetitions

Whatever we repeat becomes a habit.  To improve we must replace old, inhibiting habits with new and correct ones.  Dr. Suzuki said, “Knowledge is not skill. Knowledge plus 10,000 repetitions creates skill.”  Those who worked with Suzuki have suggested that he intended this not as hyperbole, but rather quite literally!  In his book, Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell suggests something similar.

10. Always Play Your Best

Because what you repeat becomes a habit, it is essential that you never let down. Don’t settle for anything less than your best.  Always turn the energy switch on and practice with your best tone and most inspired musicianship.

Insights of a Great Humanitarian


Quotations from Nurtured By Love by Shinichi Suzuki:

About Children:

They have no thought of self-deception.

They trust people and do not doubt at all.

They know only how to love, and not how to hate.

They love justice and scrupulously keep the rules.

They seek joy, live cheerfully, and are full of life.

They know no fear and live in security.

About Education:

Any child is able to display highly superior abilities if correct methods of training are used.

Ability breeds ability…Ability grows as it is trained.  Experience and repetition improve talent or ability.

A true artist is a person with beautiful and fine feelings, thoughts, and action. Character first…Ability second.

However wonderful the other person may be, it depends on us alone whether we have the capacity to absorb their greatness.

One has to educate oneself from within to benefit from the greatness of others.

Improvement in ability depends on action and attention.  Life’s success or failure depends on the habit of action.

Thought, to be profitable, must immediately be followed by correct action in order to acquire a better habit to replace the present poor habit.

Any skill can be acquired by constant repetition.  Progress is the acquisition of new skills.  One of the most vital skills is the ability to memorize.

Practicing according to the correct method and practicing as much as possible is the way to acquire ability.

Suzuki's Vital Points

Dr. Suzuki listed ten Vital Points for violin playing.  He used these points to develop a weekly progress report that allowed students and parents to chart improvement over time.*  Suzuki’s emphasis on Vital Points suggests that the important question to ask is not “How quickly can I move from one piece to another?” but instead, “How beautifully can I play?”  Suzuki acknowledged that each student develops at their own pace.  He patiently enjoyed this process with the conviction that, given the correct environment, all students can learn.

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