Published Oct. 18, 2005
I got out my main violin two weeks ago to practice, and I was appalled. I haven’t been practicing, and it showed. Violin is not something you learn and then set aside, picking it up when it’s time to perform. It requires regular practice just to maintain ability and serious, dedicated, slow practice to improve.
A violin lets you know that you haven’t been practicing. I know this, and I go through this regularly, but if I play after a hiatus, I get discouraged and feel as if I’m wasting my time, that I lack some secret talent the great violinists possess. But it’s no secret; as Pete Seeger wrote in his book on playing the banjo, the secret to good tone is practice.
It didn’t help that I was tired that night, and I was trying to practice with the music book on the piano instead of my heavy black stand. And the next day I realized that my strings and bow hair were nine months old. Three months is enough to kill them in normal circumstances for a part-time musician, and nine months is 90 years old in string years.
Later that week, I played my second violin, which had newer strings, and my cheap bow, which had newer hair, and the difference was immediate and marked. I played that violin that Friday with my friend at a nearby hang-out, and I could feel my technique returning.
Many people who play guitar ask how I know where to put my fingers because a violin fingerboard is a straight stretch of unfretted black wood. You learn by feel where to put your fingers. Many students start with little strips of tape, but I agree with Leopold Mozart, father of the more famous Wolfgang, who said in his book “A Treatise on the Fundamental Principles of Violin Playing” that students should rely on the ear, not sight, for finger placement. (Leopold was adamantly outspoken about the subject.) The “Treatise,” published in 1756, was the major work on violin playing at the time and is still valuable.
Learning to properly place the fingers of the left hand for correct intonation is quite a challenge, and it is the source of much of the painful notes played by beginning string players. Good intonation takes regular practice, and when I am out of practice I must play for a while to make my intonation more precise. It’s harder when I switch from mandolin, with its frets to guide my fingers, to violin.
But the left hand is relatively easy compared to the bow, and the main source of all that squeaking and squawking by beginning musicians is the strip of wood strung with tail of horse. The bow has three directions it can travel, allowing a multitude of means that the player can mutilate the music. The bow must go straight in relation to the bridge, but the tendency is to pull it down to the right. That dilutes the sound and makes squeaks. The bow also wants to rock back and forth when you change direction, and the proper placement of thumb and fingers on the grip is learned to keep the bow at the correct slant on the strings. It wants to pitch, roll and yaw, and bowing technique involves controlling those gyrations with a complex movement of the hand, flexing the fingers and the wrist as the bow travels up and down.
It’s that flexibility that disappears with lack of practice, so when I played that Friday I felt the flexibility in my wrist return. When I practiced last Thursday, I was working on bowing turnarounds, trying to keep the sound good while changing bow direction, and the technique of flexing my fingers in the opposite direction just before the bow changes direction, thus making a smooth change, came back to me.
When I’m out of practice, I don’t notice those little details are gone by feel as much as by sound, but I know when they’re back, and it’s a good feeling. It’s even better when I’m in shape again and I make progress during a practice. I don’t considering practicing worthwhile if I don’t learn something or make advances.
As my technique returned last week, I practiced Scottish fiddle tunes from the Skye collection, one of the best resources of Scots fiddle tunes, published in the late 1800s and containing a wealth of tunes from that century and the preceding. I was connecting with my German violin and with the Scots tunes of the 18th and 19th centuries, my fingers and wrist were flexing, and my mind was alive. The room was filled with the rich sounds of the music that is my home, and I made a promise never again to neglect my practicing.