Love your instrument.

You know how sometimes you watch someone perform who is having so much fun that it makes you want to play with them? Watch this:


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New Year’s Resolutions

Today I said goodbye to an old and loyal friend headed into retirement: my shoulder rest. I’ve had many shoulder rests over the years. Fixed, adjustable, inflatable pillows, velvet covered bars, carved hardwood. But my favorite was easily a $10 Resonans rest I bought more than twenty years ago.


It took me a while to find it. I tried lots of different kinds of rests after giving up the block of foam held with a rubber band. I tried fixed rests, adjustable rests, inflatable rests, soft velvet rests, and carved hardwood rests. Some were cheap. Some were expensive. But it’s the low-end Resonans that felt right and I’ve been using it almost exclusively ever since. It’s seen me through dozens of recitals, chamber concerts and orchestral performances. It’s been to more rehearsals than I can count.

But recently it’s been losing its grip. It happens to the best of us as we age. It clatters to the floor at inopportune moments. I had to face facts. It was time for retirement. But still, I resisted.

As a teacher, I talk a lot about building playing habits. Consistent practice and position helps build consistent, solid technique. But there’s a fine line between consistency and rigidity, and we’re not always good at seeing it. Sometimes it’s time for a change.

This week, spurred by the need for a new shoulder rest, I decided it was time for some other changes too. I bought a new Wolf Primo rest to replace my loyal friend of more than two decades. I bought a new set of Peter Infeld strings, a great extravagance, but I was curious after all I’ve heard. I bought two new books of Italian Baroque music.

Change begets change. The new rest is much like my old one used to be when it was new. In my holding onto the habit, I’d lost site of the reason I’d built the habit in the first place — it was easy. And now it’s easy again. Likewise the strings. I’ve been using the same setup for years (Dominant A-G with a Pirastro gold E). But I’ve been hearing about the PIs for some time and wanted to give them a try. I felt like I had a brand new violin. At $127/set, I probably won’t be using them all the time, but boy, howdy, are they fun to play.

So what happened? I played. And played. I didn’t want to stop because everything felt brand new. Change begets change. Trying something new can inspire you anew. If you’re stuck in a rut, try making a small change. Maybe it’s treating yourself to a new set of strings or maybe it’s making a new commitment to, say, playing scales in keys you find challenging every day. Or trying a new playing posture. Whatever it is that inspires you.

My New Year’s resolution is to keep trying new things, to pull myself out of the rut of making the same mistakes or just to see what else is out there. The goal? To be a better player, of course but mostly just to fall back in love with my instrument every now and again. To remember what it is that makes me keep at it. To play and play.

What changes will you make this year?

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My first violin teacher didn’t play the violin.  He was a French horn player who made his living teaching instrumental music at our elementary school.  At the time, all students were given a hearing discrimination test at the end of second grade.  Those who scored above a certain (and undisclosed) amount were handed a violin in third grade.  I was one of those students.

Eight or ten of us got pulled out of class once a week for a group lesson.  One of the first things we learned how to do was hold the instrument.  Our teacher brought in a bag of marbles and placed one in each F-hole and had us balance the marbles.  It was hard at first but I worked hard until I could balance them every time without dropping them.

There was only one problem:  that method encourages a lousy violin position.  The violin shouldn’t be flat like a table.  It should be angled down a bit to encourage good bow position.  It took me a while to unlearn that one.

We all inherit position problems either because we learn things that don’t work well, or we learn things that don’t well for us — every body’s different and sometimes what works for one person doesn’t work for someone else. But it’s worth trying to get it right.  A good position is important for making the best use of your body’s natural strength.  A good position keeps you from getting tense and tiring yourself out. It helps you play in tune.  

Try watching videos of different violinists playing. There’s a wealth of material on youtube.  If you need ideas of who to look for, you can check out my list of some of my favorite players in the “Violinists” tab above.  Look at how players differ from one another, how the same player may hold an instrument one way for baroque music and another way for romantic music, how soloists’ position looks different from seated orchestral players.  Try to put your own body into some of these positions.  How does it feel?  What happens when you play?

If you’re trying to teach yourself good position, you can find some helpful videos on position on youtube.  <a href=–DlE>This video</a> from Violin Lab Channel offers a detailed explanation of left hand position.  And in the video below, Red Desert Violin demonstrates overall posture.

Note that these are both geared towards classical violin playing.  You’ll see much more variation in fiddle playing.  Compare, for example, this video of Joshua Bell playing the Sibelius violin concerto:

with this video of bluegrass fiddler Alison Krauss:

Notice how Krauss holds her fiddle in front of her rather than off to the side as Bell does, and curves her body over her instrument as she plays. This is fairly common in bluegrass playing in general, but is also characteristic of Krauss. Bell is much more upright and moves a great deal as he plays, letting the scroll of the violin lead.  His left hand looks a little stiff. 

One of my favorite videos for comparing positions is this duet by legendary classical violinist Yehudi Menuhin and jazz violin great Stephane Grappelli peforming “Jealousy.”

Menuhin looks like he’s working a lot harder than Grappelli.  He makes an incredible sound, but his bow!  It’s incredibly crooked!  I remember going to see Menuhin in recital when I was very young and I noticed that bow.  I went back to my teacher triumphantly and said, “Menuhin plays with a crooked bow!”  “Well,” said my teacher, “When you an play like Menuhin, you can make your bow as crooked as you want.”  Clearly good position isn’t everything, but it can help you.  These two violinists both play beautifully, but if you want to take it easy, keep your eye on Grappelli.

But whatever you do, don’t use these violinists as models. No matter how good you are, holding your bow with your left hand is just not going to work. 




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How to get to Carnegie Hall

Parents often ask me how long and how often their children should practice. For beginners, I usually pass on the advice my teacher gave me long ago: the student should take the violin out of the case and tune it every day. That’s it.

That’s not really it, of course. But the thing is that the case is sometimes a barrier to playing. If you take it out and tune it, you’ll find you want to put your fingers on the neck. You’re going to want to try that bow out on the strings. You’re going to want to play a little something. And before long, you’re practicing.

Once you’ve got a regular practice habit, once you decide you really want to play, then things get more detailed. this article has some interesting things to say about quality of practice vs. quantity. What do you think?


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Another Dueling Fiddlers tutorial

Remember that great arrangement of Guns ‘N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child o’ Mine” I posted a few months ago? Well Adam DeGraff of the Dueling Fiddlers is back with a new tutorial, this time for Rihanna’s “We Found Love.” Go forth and fiddle!

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Playing chords

It’s recital season time. One of the studios I teach at has a recital program that involves putting some of the students together in bands. Mostly this has meant vocalists and those playing traditional rock band instruments, but we’ve started including some violin, which means I find myself arranging violin parts. This year I’ve got students playing Green Day’s “Good Riddance” and Aerosmith’s “Dream On.”

One of the challenges about arranging rock for violin is that often the violin is called upon to cover a guitar part, which means playing chords. This is less of an issue for an advanced violinist, but it can be difficult for students who are both used to playing on one string at a time and also used to thinking of their instrument as a tool for melody, not so much harmony. Playing rock arrangements is a great way to get students (and me too) to think outside the box as to what the violin can do.

Landing double and triple stops accurately is tricky, especially if you’re fairly new at violin. When you are a rank beginner, double stops happen all the time accidentally. You spend a lot of time trying to make sure you’re playing on just one string at a time. But when you get a little more experienced and actually want to play on two strings at once, it doesn’t always happen the way you want it to.

While my students have been working through playing on multiple strings in lessons this week, I’ve been working on some of my favorite chordal violin pieces at home, to remind me of the challenges. I’ve been playing Biber’s 16th sonata of the rosary (the passacaglia):

and the Gavotte en Rondeau from Bach’s Partita E Major Partita:

The above video, featuring Gil Shaham is not my favorite video of the Gavotte en Rondeau. That honor goes to a 1970s recording of Itzhak Perlman Gavotte en Rondeau is not this one, but a film from the 1970s that features Itzhak Perlman. You’ll have to click through — embedding has been disabled. It’s worth it, though, for the excellent shots of his amazing bow technique. It’s interesting to compare it to Shaham’s version, which seems to be more about Shaham and less about Bach. Also beautiful, but quite different.

When I first learned the Bach and the Biber, I was using Baroque equipment — a violin with a flatter bridge, and a short bow curved the opposite direction from a modern bow. You can see a comparison of baroque and modern bridges and bows here. With modern equipment played in the traditional manner, you can only play, at most, two strings at a time without doing what we call “rolling” the chord — playing one note at a time in close succession to approximate the sound of playing all at once. With baroque equipment, you can play on a maximum of three strings. But as far as I knew, there was no way to play on all four.

However, today Shar (the store every string player should know about) posted a link to a performance by Chinese violinist Chuan Yun Li, playing on all four strings with modern equipment. How does he do it? Watch:

It’s a creative and surprisingly effective solution to the problem. But please, violin students, don’t try this at home without quick access to a bow repair shop!

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It ain’t Baroque

I started playing violin when I was in the third grade. My elementary school gave everyone a hearing discrimination test at the end of second grade and those who got above a certain score were offered in-school violin lessons in third grade. In fourth grade, everyone else could take an instrument and those who’d started on violin had the option of switching to something else. But I loved the violin. It was what I’d wanted to play anyway, mainly because I loved listening to my parents’ recording of J. S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerti by an obscure European orchestra featuring a then-unknown young flutist by the name of Jean-Pierre Rampal.

I studied classical music exclusively, with an emphasis on baroque-style playing, until I got to grad school when I started to experiment with other styles. I quickly fell in love with Irish fiddle and spent a lot of time in Chicago-area Irish bars playing seisiuns — semi-organized gatherings of musicians who want to play traiditional tunes for free beer. I found though, that Irish wasn’t just fun to play. It helped loosen up my baroque playing by freeing me from the printed page and teaching me to listen better and understand how ornaments worked and what they did rather than just reading the ornaments off the page or following teacher instructions. Learning by ear taught me to take greater control over my interpretation and helped me get out of a rut of playing notes and start playing music.

My latest stylistic interest is bluegrass and one of the bands I’ve been enjoying a lot is The Punch Brothers. Here they are playing “Rye Whisky.” The instruments you are seeing, in case you’re unfamiliar, are fiddle, acoustic guitar, mandolin, banjo and double bass, and of course the voice. Note that the bass is mostly playing pizzicato (plucking the strings rather than using the bow), as is traditional for bluegrass (he does actually pick up the bow before he starts to play, but he doesn’t seem to use it). The mandolin, guitar and banjo play during the vocals. The fiddle sometimes drones during the vocals, but doesn’t play out except when the singing cuts out. This is actually analogous to the way instruments were used during the baroque era. It was practical — winds and bowed instruments covered up the voices in the days before amplification. Plucked instruments like lutes and harps played with keyboards like harpsichords (where the strings are also plucked) and portative organs (much smaller and quieter than church organs) and bass instruments like theorbos and archlutes and viols (bowed).

Here’s an example: the Prologo (“Dal mio promesso”) from Monteverdi’s 1607 opera Orfeo. This is not my favorite recording of the piece, but you can hear when the string section cuts in and out around the voice. The big instrument in front is, I believe, a theorbo, although without being up close and personal, I wouldn’t swear it wasn’t an archlute. They look quite similar.

Recently, The Punch Brothers’ banjoist Noam Pikelny won the first annual Steve Martin prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass. Here he is playing “Duelling Banjos” with Steve Martin on the David Letterman Show (actual playing begins around 3:40.)

Since I mostly listen to the Punch Brothers on a bluegrass station, I was unfamiliar with their forays into baroque music until a friend posted this incredible arrangement of the Allegro third movement of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto #3. First, here is the traditional version, as played by the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra:

And here is the Punch Brothers, the same band playing Rye Whisky above with one additional violinist, the arranger of the piece Rob Moose. Note that this version includes an opening transitional section that is not part of the Freiburg recording but is part of the original piece.

I really love how the mandolin is suddenly sounding like a lute to my ears, just because of context. I love the lightness that the change in ratio of plucked to bowed strings adds. And I find I’m not thinking of it at all as a bluegrass band. It’s very idiomatic. I think Bach would be pleased with the performance. Most of all, though, I love the way I’m suddenly hearing a little baroque in the bluegrass and a little bluegrass in baroque. As an ethnomusicologist, I am unlikely to ever suggest that all music is music. That’s not how I think about it at all. As a scholar, I’m interested in the connections between the styles, connections that come from shared interests and instruments and contextual demands. As a violinist and teacher, I love working with multiple styles as a way to develop technique, skill, and playfulness that can’t help but improve musicality and a love of what you do.

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