All posts by cygnet

i'm an experienced professional violinist and teacher. Also a teacher of the Alexander Technique working with musicians at all levels. I have held appointments at Trinity Laban Conservatoire - Senior Alexander teacher - until 2017, and have hosted an international conference about Alexander Technique in music education (2016) I work as a performer, educator, writer and teacher, teaching at all levels and giving masterclasses and workshops about my work.

Some thoughts about practising

Some thoughts about practising – Albert Einstein (pictured) had his best thoughts….so he has said, whilst practising the violin. He was quite a good player and pretty good at physics!

Taking time

It’s good to remember that ‘end-gaining’ – is always present – we all tend to ‘end-gain’ without realizing it! It’s the desire to gain our musical ends in a manner that distorts our co-ordinative expansion.

It’s a small death to our creativity and to our energy levels, too. If we remember that the ‘business end ‘ of our playing (hand and arms etc.) is but a very small link – albeit an important one – in the chain of command from musical intention to execution, then we are on the right track and we can work on our general co-ordination, connections between the head, neck and back, that strongly influence the level of skill that we bring to our playing.

The smallest bow stroke or the most fleeting scalic passage is very dependent on the health of the body’s global background- that of the musculo-skeletal support system and our inherent anti-gravity system. In short, the skill with which we play is dependent on our poise.

On Practising

Try recording yourself practising in the privacy of your home or studio; listen and check for the signs of ‘end- gaining’: trying over and over again, the same passage, making the same mistakes repetitively, weighting notes within a phrase similarly time and time again and noticing if the musical end that you are trying to gain result is somehow unsatisfying or helping to create within your system multiple signs of stress. Is your practice and performing a pleasure, or do you sometimes feel (as a colleague of mine has put it) as if you are skating on thin ice?

Get a friend to listen or sit in on your practice – and then make some observations – make sure that this is a shared learning so that the roles are reversed.

Anti end – gaining strategies: Creeping up on a passage

This approach can help you avoid your tendency towards end- gaining. Firstly, I’d suggest lying in semi-supine and just noticing your muscular patterns of reaction around the idea of playing. Sounds like hard work? Well, if it does, then it may be that you are already wishing to end – gain and ‘just get on with it’. We all do it, of course, though I’d suggest that it’s no more than a strong habit, with little reason to back it up. There’s a nice reminiscence by Jascha Heifetz, that when he was young his father use to lock his violin up to spare the budding Jascha the pain of having to unlearn bad habits that he might have acquired if he were to pick up his violin up and indulge in less than perfect practice!

It’s not far fetched, I’d suggest, that this type of indirect practice will help save huge amounts of time in the long run. If you can’t manage this all the time, then it’s ok, but do take care to listen to the ‘sound’ of your thinking before you play. This will take the form of a muscular response, a conception you have of the effort involved in playing or perhaps a small movement routine that is manifest before you start to play. There is nothing wrong with routines, as long as they do not disturb the connection through our backs and also that can be varied or changed at will; however, it’s good to be able to break a routine and encourage new ways of thinking, that may be more effective.

If you are conscious, in this way, of the beginning of your practicing, you may then be able to change your ideas about playing, especially those that lead to misplaced kinds of effort. Are you, for example, able to sing a phrase and clap the metre at the same time? Or isolate and work on the basic building blocks of a piece-it might be a bow stroke, an expressive gesture, leading gradually to the type of sound that forms the basis of a passage that you are trying to interpret? Can you perfect these ingredients in a basic or skeletal form before you attempt to play the phrase in its final form?

Are you paying attention to your HNB relationship-remember the idea that the ‘business end’ is only a small part of the picture? What happens when you move the bow to the g string from the e string, or play a 4th finger high on the ‘e’ string, is dependent on the support you allow right the way up from the ground – any sense in which the violin or cello is controlled, supported or skillfully manipulated is strongly related to the quality with which these processes are allowed to operate naturally.

Alexander himself was fond of saying: ‘ Stop the wrong thing and the right thing will do itself’. There seems to be an ease about the finest playing – a simplicity of means and, to quote T.S Eliot , ‘costing not less than everything’.

Creating multiple possibilities in playing.

If we are always doing things in the same way and maintaining habits of action along with the ideas that accompany such acts, then musical growth will be limited, by definition. To have a choice in the potential direction of travel, musically speaking, it is necessary to spend time working with and developing the complementary skills of inhibition and direction. Stopping the things that tend to clamp and fix our responses whilst encouraging those that free us up!

One easy way to start to consider this issue, is to consider that every discrete act is an act prior to the next one and also sets up the quality of this act, and so on.

This might include the possibility that a ff down bow, for example, has the potential, latent though it might be, for transformation to pp in an instant. Or that the note just before a shift, say, is given its full expressive value without the worry of the next note to get in the way.

Or that a note played without vibrato can be transformed readily into one with infinite intensity of vibrato and in connection with an infinite variety of bow speeds.

Much of this potential is dependent on our ability to respond with acuity and subtlety. This requires, indirectly, proper neuro-muscular support for the arms and hands and a connection between the arms and hands and the back and legs.

In particular, we need to be able to allow some types of muscular activity and stop others. We need to keep our conscious direction alive, if not detailed, all the time, working from the general ‘direction’ of the self to more specific aspects of playing, as they arise.

Everyday life and everyday practice.

Many of the seeds of good playing are sown in everyday life. The better we use ourselves in daily life, the better we’ll tend to use ourselves when we play. Think of it as setting up good habits upon which we will build our playing skills. If I am a fine juggler of two balls, I may well be better at 3, than if I was a mediocre 2 ball juggler…..

It’s always interesting to consider the seeming fact that degrees of freedom in playing are strongly supported by good underlying habits of use in the basic activities of life. A back that collapses when we eat is more likely to collapse (and is the same back) in action when we play. The quality of our use in seemingly small, (perhaps mundane activities) will influence the larger and more complex ones.

Some final thoughts

To improve you ‘use’ as you play give attention to your use, generally. Work on being able to use your back well in everything you do. The arms are ambassadors of the back, meaning that the arms reveal the back’s inconsistencies, strengths and weaknesses. If you desire to improve your vibrato, work on the support system for the arms: the back. If you want to improve your back, work on your reactions: change your musical goals or ask yourself if your concept of sound is authentic or derived from a competitive, imitative or ego driven tendency, for example. Is your playing style commensurate with your temperament or are you trying to sound like someone else?