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The Importance of Violin Basics

 

How important are the basics of violin?

The basics are so named because they never stop being important! Every weakness in a person’s playing can be traced back to neglecting one or more basic principles or skills. Conversely, you can be sure that the strongest players have never lost sight of those basics, even though their playing style may have changed over the years.

How often do students forget to practice the basics? 

It’s rare for me to come across anyone who is completely sound in all the basic skills of violin playing. So we all neglect the basics from time to time. Unless you’re playing many hours each day, while listening and watching carefully, some key skill is going to suffer. In fact, when I notice a problem in a passage that I’m playing, it’s likely because I’ve forgotten the importance of a basic skill.

Why do you think they forget it?

It’s natural, as you focus on one aspect of your playing (either because you’ve heard or felt something you didn’t like, or because a teacher mentioned something to you) to lose focus in other areas. For example, you may be focusing on maintaining a consistent sounding point (distance from the bridge to the bow). Because you’re devoting your concentration to that aspect, you fail to notice that your vibrato has become very wide, distorting the pitch. Or perhaps you’ve been working on perfecting intonation in a piece, only to find that the notes have stopped connecting to each other. Such is life as a violinist! It’s tough to put everything together on a consistent basis. Until you have experience working each basic skill on its own, you can’t expect to combine them consistently.

How does playing violin with proper posture help?

Proper posture is the foundation on which everything else is built. You can get away with bad posture for a while, but eventually it catches up to you in the form of inconsistent playing, or even worse, pain or injury. This is because violin playing is both a physically demanding activity and a repetitive one. Proper form lets you deliver the right amount of force to the right area at the right time, and freedom from tension allows you to do this hundreds and thousands of times.

At the same time, it’s important to remember that posture itself does not equal playing. There are many fantastic violinists who look anything but textbook when they play. But looks can be deceiving! Just as in golf, where the only position that really matters is the position at the moment of impact, violin playing is all about “delivering” bow to string and fingers to string. There can be many ways to do these things, and some look better than others. What makes the best principles of posture valuable is that they have enabled generations of violinists to make the sounds they want to make while remaining free from unwanted tension.

One of the most important areas of posture is the setup of the left hand. Now this setup won’t be the same for each student, because everyone’s hands and fingers are shaped differently. But however you are shaped, you need a left hand that doesn’t adjust note-to-note. In other words, the hand remains still and calm while the fingers fall naturally on the string. This is the desired result, but it takes work, sometimes lots of work! That work is well worth it, however, when you are eventually able to play difficult combinations in a relaxed way. This builds confidence, and that confidence allows for even faster progress.

Similarly, the height of the bow arm is a setup area that’s often neglected. Within reason, the actual height isn’t as important as having a height for each of the four strings. With that, you can deliver the bow to the exact sounding point you wish, and you can cross between the strings with ease.

How does a proper bow hold enhance playing?

The proper bow hold, like so many other aspects of violin playing, can look quite different from player to player. You might even say that there are many “proper” bow holds. Remember that the right hand never directly makes sound; it only assists the bow in setting the string in motion. In fact, though we speak about the bow hand or bow arm, only the thumb and fingers even contact the bow! This is different from the left hand, which contacts the instrument all the time, and its fingers, which very directly decide the pitches that sound. So there is more leeway in the right hand setup.

The right hand simply needs to determine the pressure of the bow on the string, and to maintain flexibility in all dynamics. On the top of the bow are the fingers, and on the bottom is the thumb, the fulcrum of the “lever”. There are many ways to think about the force you apply to this lever (some people frown upon words like pressure or force, preferring “weight”, but the end result is the same) but flexibility is the key. One sign of this is a curve to each of the four fingers and the thumb. A straight finger or thumb is one that cannot flex further in one direction, and is therefore useless.

How about the left thumb placement? 

The thumb plays a support role, figuratively and literally! The most common fault of the left thumb is squeezing the neck of the violin. This constricts the hand and immediately produces all kinds of undesirable effects. Even quite advanced players can be guilty of this. So it’s important always to be aware of unwanted tension in the left thumb. The thumb itself most commonly opposes the first or second finger, or somewhere in between, but the only pressure it exerts is counter-pressure to the fingers, nothing more. It also helps to support the instrument during shifts, although this was something that I learned much later in life.

Basics, Simon FischerWhat are some ways to remind yourself to perfect these violin basics?

The best way is to play for a teacher, because he or she can see and hear things that may have become habits for you. After that, making a video of yourself is more helpful than mirror work. Mirror work has its place, especially when judging the straightness of your bow or the height of your bow-arm, but most people feel that a video is a truer representation of their playing. They are free to watch the playback while noticing any tendencies that stick out.

Finally, you can read a book such as one of my favorites, Simon Fischer’s aptly-named Basics! Even the most advanced players, when reading about fundamental skills, will often say, “I hadn’t thought about that!” or “Is that really how it works?” There’s sometimes a fear that knowing too much about something will make it stop working, but this is nonsense in my opinion. It’s true that if something is working well for you, there’s no point in over-analyzing it since you could use your time working on something else. But if you have a weakness, get all the information you can on it, from a trusted source.

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