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VIOLIN

Technique and Maintenance for Fiddle and Fiddler

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Q: How do you respond to criticism from a sometimes unforgiving and even bitter purist classical crowd?

A: David Garrett: Very frankly put — I don't give a [expletive]. Seriously, you can quote me on that.

BODY MAINTENANCE

How to Stay Healthy at AllThingsStrings.com.

Violinist.com:

BOWING

From Violinist.com: Hold the bow in a way that allows each finger to do its job, never in a way that works against those jobs.
  • The thumb is the anchor and point of balance.
  • The ring finger is the main counterbalance
  • The middle (index) finger re-enforces the ring finger. The index finger is the driver of the bow -- it steers it straight. The index finger is also the pressure controller -- but never hooked on the stick.
  • The main job of these three fingers together is to hold the bow.
  • The pinky is the main balancing finger, especially when playing in the lower half.
  • The index and pinkie are in charge of balance and direction, not of holding.

Tightening the bow: recommended tension leaves the hair about a pencil-width from the stick at the middle of the stick, its closest point.

Jesus Florido: Balancing the Bow on YouTube.

Sautille, sounds like you are off the string and bowing rapidly. A simple approach. Finger flexibility very important, and use three fingers on the bow.

INTONATION

In Western music, a C sharp is held to be the equivalent of a D flat, and ditto for the other similar combinations. This is called equal temperament and it is used on the fixed-pitched instruments, like the pianos many of us start our musical education on. It divides the octave into minute units called "cents". Since an octave is 1200 cents wide, and the Western scales have 12 tones per octave, each note is 100 cents apart.

However, on a violin, just intonation often sounds better to the ear. Just intonation is based on the relationship of the Hertz cycles per second of both notes in an interval: the ratio needs to be a whole number. , which is based on the relationship between the notes in an interval, and it is the musical expectation of many non-Western cultures From Wikipedia: "Today, despite the dominance of repertoire composed under equal-tempered systems and the prominence of the piano in musical training, musicians often approach just intonation either by accident or design because it is much easier to find (and hear) a point of stability than a point of calculated instability. A cappella groups that depend on close harmonies, such as barbershop quartets, usually use just intonation by design. Bagpipes, tuned correctly, also use just intonation. There are several conventionally used instruments which, while not associated specifically with just intonation, can handle it quite well, including the trombone and the violin family of instruments."

From Violinist.com:

Clayton Haslop recommends the following for violin students:

  • Put some small amount of daylight between your fingers when playing minor sixths, and rather a slight bit LESS daylight between the fingers in major sixths.
  • The same holds for major and minor thirds; a little more space between the minor third notes and a little less within the major thirds, as compared to what you might have assumed.
  • If you really want to take up the hunt for pure intonation, listen for and tune up the tone that springs into being when playing the intervals as double stops. It will be heard as a rather dim, fuzzy note an octave plus a third to two octaves below the lower of the pitches; depending on the interval played.

PRACTICE

My most-important and most-neglected "rule" for practicing is to know what my goal is and to have it in my head BEFORE I play it. This means listening to a new song several times, attentively, before putting bow to string; reading the new exercise through before attacking it; visualizing and humming the problem note or phrase before trying to fix it.

How many hours a day should you practice? Noa Kageyama says just one if you are really trying!

Dr. Kageyama lists three major problems with the auto-pilot method of practicing:

  1. Very little productive learning takes place when we practice this way, and it strengthens undesirable habits and errors. "Practice doesn't make perfect, practice makes permanent."
  2. Real on-stage confidence comes from being able to nail it 10 out of 10 tries. You have a tendency to shift over into hyper-analytical left brain mode when you walk out on stage. If you have done most of your practicing unconsciously, you really don't know how to play your piece in full-conscious mode.
  3. It is tedious and boring.

Kageyama espouses Deliberate Practice: "goal-directed, problem-solving, solution-focused practice." Listen with concentration so that you can analyze what went wrong, why, and how to correct the error. This will involve focusing on the specific notes and phrases that require improvement, not mindless repeating an entire section in which the error is embedded.

  • Deliberate Practice is very draining. Practicing more than one hour at a time is likely to be unproductive and probably not even mentally or emotionally possible. The key is to keep tabs on the level of concentration you are able to sustain.
  • Keep practice sessions limited to a duration that allows you to stay focused. This may be as short as 10-20 minutes for younger students, and as long as 45-60 minutes for older individuals.
  • The key to getting into the zone when practicing is to be constantly striving for clarity of intention. In other words, to have a clear idea of the sound you want to produce, or particular phrasing you'd like to try, or specific articulation, intonation, etc. that you'd like to be able to execute consistently. When you figure something out, write it down so you will not forget it.
  • Practice smarter, not harder. When a strategy isn't working, stop practicing and brainstorm. Experiment with the promising solutions.

Efficient Practicing for the Time-Crunched by Lydia Leong. Her article on practicing 40 minutes a day had many of the same points as Dr. Noa Kageyama's, above. Here are some additional points that she made.

  1. Know exactly what your goals are. Match what you plan to do to your energy level and available mental focus.
  2. Review what you did the last time. If you got something nailed in the last practice session, repeat it in the next session to make sure that the learning sticks in your head.
  3. Break up your practice. Nap in-between if you can; you should better retain what you've learned.
  4. Skip the scales. The time invested in scales often isn't worth it. If I'm going to play scales, something else useful has to take place at the same time, combining them with some kind of other technical drill.
  5. Warm up on what you're working on, played at a slow speed and gradually sped up. Normally this will be something that's starting to feel comfortable, as opposed to something that's still very shaky.
  6. Reduce etudes to their most useful bits. I do just do the first few lines of the etude while I'm getting comfortable with whatever skill is being emphasized. Once the skill is learned, getting the rest of the notes will become easier.
  7. Have a plan of attack. Do the difficult bits and those bits alone. Simon Fischer's Practice has a large collection of useful tricks. Train your brain, not your fingers.
  8. Resist the urge to practice what you already know. When you need them, you will go back and rebuild them, and they'll get more solid with each rebuild.
  9. Listen to your repertoire as background music. Listen to repertoire with score in hand when unable to practice. Make a playlist with as many different versions as possible.

Eugenia Fielding is the incarnation of Lydia Leong's admonition to avoid scales unless they are combined with another technical drill. She uses scales and arpeggios as the content for bowing exercises. She describes her approach in detail at Why I practice scales and what they do for me.

At 60 beats per second, she practices her scales thusly:

  1. Slur between a base note and a third above it;
  2. Play whole notes while shifting;
  3. Slur half notes between notes an octave apart while keeping all fingers down;
  4. Slur three notes together with no bowing anamolies;
  5. Slurs four notes with emphasis on good legato, no bow accents, and with with crescendo at the top and decresendo at the bottom of the scale;
  6. Slur six notes with good bow division and consistent tone;
  7. Slur eight notes, accenting one note and then again with accent as slurred staccato;
  8. Switch between eight, then six, then eight, then six slurred notes until scale is complete;
  9. Twelve, then 16, then 24 to a bow with slurred staccato, spiccato, sautille, and detache bowings.
When that is done, she does arpeggios. She does a major key one day and its minor the next for a week, then she changes to a different key the next week. This routine takes 30-45 minutes per day and leaves her prepared to smooth out string crosses or to fit a lot of notes into a bow.

Liz Lambson also multi-tasks, but her tool is a metronome. She describes her approach in How to Use a Metronome.

  1. Warm up with long, slow tones to a metronome beat.
  2. Practice scales and arpeggios with different rhythmic patterns. Whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, triplets (one per bow) and groups of sixteenths. Practice with a slow tempo, gradually turning up the speed.
  3. START SLOW. Only increase the speed on your metronome once a passage or lick is free of error. You can apply this principle to even a single measure, a group of notes, or even a single shift between two notes. Zone in on exactly what you're tripping over and then conquer it with your metronome.
  4. Learn vibrato by slowly rolling your wrist, forearm, and/or fingers in time with a slow beat. This will develop a vibrato that vibrates consistently.

VIBRATO

CHIN and SHOULDER RESTS

The use of shoulder rests, in particular, and what kind, is a hotly-contested subject. I use one. All the fiddle players I know use one. My first violin teacher did not use one... he used a handkerchief...so he never suggested I use one.. but after years of wondering about it I finally realized that he had broad straight shoulders and I have narrow sloping ones.
  • How to Hold a Violin, a book review that includes a clear explanation on how to choose a chin and shoulder rest. "The violin resting lightly on the collarbone and the jaw resting gently on the chin rest establish two stable points of contact with the instrument... The jaw, collarbone, base of the left index finger and the side of the left thumb establish four contact points with the violin... The instrument is supported by the collarbone and the base of the first finger. The jaw on the chin rest and the left thumb provide stability and may be intermittently more active in supporting the violin."
  • Practice without a shoulder rest in order to improve "focus on developing the ideal balance of instrument, body and bow... without tension".
  • Shoulder Rests from the Alexander body-work point of view. Recommended: Viva-Sas chinrests.
  • There are a bewildering number of styles of chinrests. You can see pictures of many of them at Amazia.
  • AllThingsStrings.com, which requires a subscription to see the archived articles, includes an article, Rest Assured, by Mary Nemet, which includes a recommendation to test, test, test different versions of chinrests and always with the shoulder rest (if you use one) of your choice. "By far the most popular [chin rest] type used by professionals is the Guarneri model," says Jim Scoggens of the Orchestra Store in Houston, Texas. "For beginning students, it would be a side-mount Dresden type."

Mutes

There are two uses for mutes: in an orchestral piece, as notated by the composer, and during practice to keep the neighbors from calling the police.

I am only familiar with the last. However, I avoided them (and lots of practice time) for years because I felt the mutes distorted the sound to the point that the practice time more than non-productive, it was damaging.

However, one day I awoke to the fact that there was more than one option and some of them not only reduced the sound better than my ebony wood one but which did not distort notes.

ROSIN

From AllThingsStrings.com: "Some musicians perceive significant differences among rosins, while others are simply not picky. Ultimately, each player's experience is subjective and preferences are highly personal... According to Norman Pickering, a giant in the world of violin acoustics, the rosins that work best break up into tiny particles, coating the hair with a thin, uniform coating. "Small particles stick to hair better. It's the larger ones that fly all over the instrument and do no good at the string." According to Pickering, and many others in the violin business, most people use far too much rosin. "Ninety-nine percent of the rosin falls on top of your instrument. So I use very little," says Fan Tao, a violinist and head of research and development for D'Addario Strings. An avid player, Tao has barely scratched the surface of a rosin cake he started nine years ago and has never needed to have his violin cleaned.

"While it's crucial to use enough rosin, over-rosining to get a better grip or improve the tone often has the opposite effect. Bow maker Michael Vann is fond of the following demonstration. He asks a violinist to play for him, perhaps a passage of Bach, and then asks to see the bow. He removes much of the rosin with a soft, clean cloth, and then asks to hear the same passage. Says Vann, the player is always surprised at the bigger, more beautiful tone that ensues with less rosin. He also points out that vigorous rosining, rather than working rosin into the hair, actually melts rosin into a glassy coating on the hair."

Fiddlesman.com recommends that a new, unrosined bow be rosined for 5-15 minutes. After the initial treatment, re-rosining will be necessary after an hour of practice and with 5-20 strokes.

If you over-rosin a bow, you can remove the excess from the bow with a clean cloth. Remove the rosin dust from your violin with a clean cloth as well; My luthier says that a layer of un-removed rosin will change the tone on the violin.

Recommended rosin types:

  • Dark rosin is deemed softer, grippier, and likely to get sticky in hot or humid situations than light rosin. Hence the terms 'Summer Rosin' and 'Winter Rosin.'
  • StringsMagazine.com article on the differences between dark and light rosin; plus an argument by Magic Rosin proprietor that the article be brought up-to-date to include 'clear' rosins, such as Magic Rosin, which are described as both light, grippy and stable.
  • Fiddlerman recommends Kaplan Artcraft dark rosin for the carbon bows he sells: he considers it to be a product that produces less dust but has a very good grip.

STRINGS

ELECTRIC VIOLINS

  • An inexpensive electric violin setup, including amplification equipment, from Violinist.com. Including comments by others with more recommendations for amplification, including an argument for the Yamaha THR5A.

POCKET FIDDLES

I have owned and played three types of travel (or pocket) fiddles.

My first was the wiplstix. I had it for several years and tried to love it, but couldn't. The main problem was the shorter-than-standard fingerboard, which worked against muscle memory. The completely round bottom was another hindrance- it was very hard to keep on my shoulder and the little tire tube supplied with the fiddle wasn't much help on my sloping shoulders. The bridge kept sliding to the left (turned out to be a common complaint) and tuning was very difficult. I actually liked the intimate sound very much but it took too much effort to obtain it. I gave it away.

My second was the Neil Gow 22XL Travel fiddle from Adventurous Muse. This is made from full-sized neck and a narrow body. I ordered it with the fancy geared tuners. I like the sound very much. It's a good tool in a small group or at home. The optional shoulder rest holder (which attaches with two small screws) is an ingenious solution but those two little screws are, well, little, easily misplaced, and they have to be unscrewed to remove the holder if you want to put the violin away. A nuisance. I purchased a two-part bow with it, which was a mistake; I ended up getting the bow hair tangled every-which-way in a careless moment. I then purchased a 1/2 (or 1/4) size Coda bow, which serves well. It came in a case made from a broad piece of PVC pipe which would no doubt cause mass panic in any airport.

My third is now the Cricket... My main interest in it was the chinrest/shoulder rest assembly... it looked awesome. And portable. And screw-less. The fact that it was made in the USA and that I could order it with an internal pickup was an additional bonus. I am really loving the full-size fingerboard and the sound. The optional geared pegs make tuning it easy. The chin/shoulder rest is both elegant and functional... this is their second version, more adjustable than the first I was told. I COULD get this thing into my luggage if I put it sideways, which would make it a REAL travel fiddle. Meanwhile, I can sneak this thing into any informal social event without being too ostentatious, and bring it out if music is appropriate. Maybe a coat with very long pockets is in my future!?

VOCABULARY

Glossary on Violinist.com.

REFERENCES



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