AHHELogo-300x300A&HHE Special Issue August 2016

De- and relearning the violin – a short reflection

Morten Carlsen
Norwegian Academy of Music

Abstract

A violin student with a lot of tension in his playing asks for help. We find that his problems are of a more basic kind than he thought and start to rebuild his technique from scratch. He struggles to find motivation for doing the necessary, very basic exercises, but soon enjoys experimenting and the feeling of really learning something thoroughly. We build new patterns of movement based on gestures, whereby he is also aided by a bio-motorical method. His attitude to music and practice are challenged on the way. His own account of this process is built into the article, which describes the learning process and its psychological implications during eight months.

Keywords

self-reflective practice, collaborative teaching, gestures, attitudes, motivation

Our first lesson: the young man in my studio is energetic and eager to express himself. But his performance is marred by a pattern of bodily contortions and grimaces, his heels are often off the ground, his breathing seems shallow and his vibrato rather tense. The sound production is uneven and the technical control limited. At the same time he is in command of sophisticated elements of violin technique; he has a quite virtuosic left arm and the intonation is good. While he is playing, I try to find an appropriate way to respond. When I then ask him to comment upon his greatest challenges, he mentions ‘unnecessary movements and tensions’. This makes things easier for me: we seem to agree and are ready to start working. In general, I enjoy challenges like this. We will work together, in individual and class lessons, for the next two years as he has chosen me, a violist, as his teacher for his Masters programme, having finished his BA.

I have known Sander for four years already, but prior to this lesson we had hardly worked together. He is an open-minded, easy-going, conscientious and intelligent student. His self-confidence is as it should be; he is a keen chamber musician and folk fiddler and also plays some jazz. At the Academy he has had some experience with Alexander Technique and is now very fascinated by the “Timani” method. This is a biomechanical approach developed by the Norwegian pianist Tina Margrethe Nilssen to help musicians achieve sensible and balanced movements, thereby, of course, also strengthening their mental resources.

My immediate diagnosis of Sander’s problem is that he has no trust in his basic movements; all the time he fears mistakes and mishaps. His need to control every technical detail, especially concerning his bow arm, gets in the way of mastering the music. The problems are only aggravated by his strong wish to express himself. We look for a way of channelling his energy directly into the music, letting go of undue bodily tensions.

You could say that Sander lacks firm ground under his feet; he is finding himself in a “violinistic quagmire” when he performs. It is not really that hard to play the violin, but you can easily make it difficult. The first thing then that we have to do is to find one point to build on, which may serve as a foundation for the reconstruction of his technique. The number of potential key elements is very limited, and if we succeed in establishing a feeling of ease with one of these, I feel certain that he will be able to make rapid progress with the rest. This is a psychological challenge for him, though, as Sander himself explains:

…my movements seemed to run counter to the music. I thought that the problems were above all connected to my craving for expression. The more I committed myself, the more I moved around. Almost every teacher I played for would tell me the same thing. I thought it was just a question of technical awareness, but with Morten it was evident that my problems were of a more fundamental nature. I could hardly do anything on the violin without some unnecessary tension! The first month I hardly studied any repertoire but worked on basic exercises, which was very challenging at first. I could only practise for a very limited time daily to avoid losing my concentration. I remember asking myself if I was really motivated to go through this, there are so many pieces out there one should learn. I think I gained a lot from really thinking this through and quickly realised there was no other option. But then this kind of work soon turned out to be quite inspiring. The exercises Morten gave me were to a great extent very specific and it was easy to understand what he wanted. Many were intended as experiments focussing more on possible “aha” moments than perfect execution. It felt rewarding to master “easy” exercises thoroughly and I soon experienced significant progress.

It may be useful at this point to take a step back to explain some important principles behind our approach. First, in my view, teaching is a collaborative process where both parties need to trust one another. It is only then that both will be able to challenge the other, the teacher demanding first-rate practice and playing of the student, and the student demanding clear, constructive and inspired feedback of the teacher. The teacher´s most important task is to help the student practise fruitfully, and this implies working together on how to integrate thought, feeling and movement, including breathing. Secondly, the activity of musical practice is an exploration of music, instrument and the musician’s inner self. (For a more elaborate discussion of this point see Carlsen 2015). Thinking about it this way helps a student to experience basic exercises as genuinely interesting, because even these have the potential to change how you act and experience yourself as a person. These thoughts resonate with Otto Fr. Bollnow’s pedagogical thinking as well as with the philosopher Hubert Dreyfus’ theory of skill acquisition and his colleague Peter Sloterdijk’s concept of man as the practising being. On the other hand, they may be at odds with much research, of a rather behaviouristic kind, based on K. Anders Ericsson’s definition of ‘deliberate practice’ as ‘a structured activity with the explicit goal of increasing an individual’s current level of performance’ (Ericsson, K. A., & Lehmann, A., p. 695). From my perspective as a performer, this research has hardly resulted in any change in the way that musicians practise or teach. It may also be added that a meta-study in 2014 covering a large number of disciplines concluded that ‘Ericsson and his colleagues (1993) deliberate-practice view has generated a great deal of interest in expert performance, but their claim that individual differences in performance are largely accounted for by individual differences in amount of deliberate practice is not supported by the available empirical evidence.’ (Macnamara, Hambrick & Oswald, 2014: p. 9)

Sander’s own engagement has been a decisive factor in our collaboration. He was always able to think independently about what we worked on. In a remarkable way he would turn exercises, which might have been nothing but monotonous repetitions of elliptic movements or bow strokes, into research regarding his own habits and responses. He practised breathing, balance and coordination patterns in the same way. Experimentation fascinates him, and he has often made more discoveries through his practice than I had thought possible.

After two months working only on very simple exercises and repertoire, Sander was asked to perform a rarely played Norwegian violin sonata. He had three weeks to learn it and asked for my advice. I was afraid the stress would make him fall back into earlier habits, although I noticed that he was eager to accept the invitation. We agreed to go for it, and fortunately he managed very well. He explored his personal ideas and expressivity without losing his newly found basic ease. This became a milestone, marking that we were definitely on the right track. We could from now on face greater challenges in terms of repertoire and technical difficulties, refining his technical tools, and working our way from bigger to smaller movements, from arm to hand and finger movements. In the distance Brahms’ Violin Concerto loomed large like a mountain Sander wanted to climb.

Violin technique is just a means of expression, and we had for some time already paved the way for more imaginative freedom. Sander remembers

…being told even before my first lesson to get hold of the Beethoven/Kreisler Rondino. I was asked to learn it by heart without really practising it at all and be prepared to perform it at the first class lesson! I had to master the piece without playing it, practising only in my mind.

This became a starting point for developing a more conscious approach to practising. We found methods to simplify a phrase or passage, sometimes working only on the rhythm, or just on the movements of the arms separately. We looked for ways to reduce the number of active musical and technical impulses, allowing each impulse to trigger a whole sequence of movements. Sander recalls:

…it became important to work on the way I listened. I felt I had to get into the right mode. I was told to imagine sitting in the corner listening to myself. To get a feeling for the music you play as an undivided whole, I think you need a certain distance to what you are doing, and a really clear musical idea becomes very important. I worked on this first by singing, then copying carefully on the instrument. I looked for a mode where I could let the music happen instead of willing it, for instance by counting backwards in German (which I do not know very well) while playing. Morten sometimes accompanied me on the viola in lessons and made me listen more to him than to myself. The results could be surprising. Thus, in one lesson I suddenly managed to be completely present and let the music play itself, with me just here and there adding a touch of something extra. I nevertheless felt somewhat passive. Morten, however, lowered his viola, looked me straight into the eyes and said with strong emphasis in his northern dialect “this was extremely good, Sander!”

During the eight months that we have worked together, Sander’s preoccupation with the Timani method has intensified. A number of his peers at our Academy now share his interest in this method. At all turns where new questions of movement, tension or breathing have occurred, we have discussed them to avoidany possible misunderstanding and Sander has been able to combine both approaches fruitfully. The new ideas have changed his thinking and feeling and he is after one year convinced that ‘the whole task is very complex, affecting the way I play, the way I listen, my attitude towards music and how I approach it’.

With some pride I may say that Sander now feels comfortable playing the violin and is able to explore his musical ideas with a great degree of freedom. Certainly, we still have to explore some technical elements before immersing ourselves completely in the music. But he has worked his way well into the Brahms concerto, and sometimes I enjoy challenging him to play even louder, with more intensity and spontaneity than ever. This may make him look at me, astonished that I ask for more tension instead of less. ‘Morten, you sure surprise me!’

This article has been written as part of my project within CEMPE, the Centre of Excellence in Music Performance Education at the Norwegian Academy of Music.

My student Sander Tingstad in April 2015 provided me with a reflection paper in Norwegian, graciously allowing me to quote from it. The translation of these passages is mine.

References

 For further information on the “Timani” method: www.timani.no

Bollnow OF (1959) Existenzphilosophie und Pädagogik. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer.

Bollnow OF (1991 [1978]) Vom Geist des Übens. Stäfa: Kugler.

Carlsen M (2015) Practice as Self-Exploration. In: Pio F/Varkøy Ø (eds), Music Education Challenged – Heideggerian Inspirations. Music, Education and Personal Development. Dordrecht, Heidelberg, New York, London: Springer.

Dreyfus HL and Dreyfus SE (1986) Mind over machine – The power of human intuition and expertise in the era of the computer. Oxford: Blackwell.

Ericsson KA and Lehmann A (1999) Expertise. In: Pritzker S and Runco MA (eds), Encyclopedia of creativity (vol. 1, pp. 695–707). New York: Academic Press.

Macnamara BN, Hambrick DZ and Oswald F (2014) Deliberate Practice and Performance. In: Music, Games, Sports, Education, and Professions: A Meta-Analysis. Psychological Science. August 2014(25): 1608-1618..

Sloterdijk P (2013) You must change your life. Cambridge: Polity Press.