Hear from composer Mary Cohen...
Since Technique in Practice was published in 2020, teachers have been asking how this new volume fits in the sequence of technique material that begins with Superstudies 1. So now seems a good time to describe the way I use these books with my own pupils.
As well as working at ensemble material, and pieces with piano accompaniments, I’m keen that young players always have some music in their current repertoire that is complete and satisfying when they are playing on their own. With the exception of the duet items in More Technique takes off and Jazz Technique takes off, almost all of my studies are intentionally written to work as solo, unaccompanied concert pieces.
The role of storytelling in explaining and handing on skills goes back thousands of years. And it’s now widely understood that information can be retained better if the imagination of the listener is stimulated. At every stage, I have always used stories, descriptions of scenes, or ideas about sound worlds, in my teaching, and all of my studies have titles to help with this process. Pupils can enjoy choosing a concert programme for themselves, consisting of two or three studies whose titles fit well together; and in a big group session pupils can work out a sequence of studies so that the titles tell a longer story. (‘Choosing’ is such a good way of giving pupils a sense of ownership of their music making.)
Although Superstudies 1 uses only ‘finger pattern one’ (except in the final piece), I usually introduce this book to pupils who can already play at least two finger patterns confidently. I wait until pupils can (at their lesson) easily sight read at least two pieces a week from this book, and we work through it quite quickly. It’s simple, focussed material that we often go back to, when a particular technique or rhythm needs some attention. We might choose a piece from it as a lesson warm up, and this book stays in the pupil’s bag for reference.
Superstudies 2 is a book that we work through much more slowly. Before introducing it, my pupils will have used Scaley Monsters to acquire confidence in one octave and two octave major & minor scales and arpeggios in first position. They will also have started learning the principles of position changing in Nifty Shifts. Most pieces in Superstudies 2 have been written with two contrasting sections, or with an obvious way of splitting the material into chunks. Going through this book, my pupils are used to working at half a study for a couple of weeks, then ‘resting’ that half while trying the other. (‘Resting’ includes rest from practising it.) Often when we come back to rested material after a few weeks of looking at other things, the new technique has effortlessly settled in the pupil’s brain and suddenly doesn’t seem difficult. To keep the technique journey going smoothly, I’m careful to stretch pupils a little at a time without them noticing, and hardly ever give them music that will take a long time to learn. I think of this process as ‘working from the known to the almost known.’ We work at small achievable sections, always aiming to play musically.
When pupils can play through Superstudies 2 with technical confidence and good musical style, it joins Superstudies 1 as reference material in their bags. They are now ready to begin working at Technique takes off and/or More Technique takes off. As pupils move through the Intermediate stage, there are many new concepts to be absorbed, so I often use both these books in parallel, to reinforce learning. While Technique takes off was inspired by my love of Mazas opus 36 no 1, More Technique takes off has a more modern approach, and introduces a wide variety of styles and sound worlds. We will often rest pieces from one book, reinforcing the flow of technical progression with material from the other. If pupils are having difficulty with skills such as spiccato or double stopping, we can revisit those in Superstudies 1 & 2.
A special feature in More Technique takes off is that three of the studies appear first in duet format and then as solo double stopping. After we’ve worked at one of these in the duet version, I often play it to pupils in the double stopping version. Then I tease them by saying, “Whatever you do, don’t try it that way yet. We’ll work at it next time.” This is guaranteed to get them ‘disobeying instructions’ by trying the double stopping away from my ears. And it’s so nice when they come back next lesson bursting to show off their double stopping skills as a ‘surprise’ for me!
Jazz Technique takes off sits at the top end of the Intermediate level, and I will often keep it in reserve for pupils just starting to work at Advanced repertoire. As it’s hard to play these Jazz rhythms if the styles are unfamiliar, I recommend that pupils seek out audio clips of musicals and dance music from the first half of the 20th century. As well as writing suitably stylistic original music for this volume, I’ve included famous melodies by Scott Joplin, George Gershwin, and Cole Porter; and three of these are arranged as duets. We’ve all had teenage pupils who have brought favourite pop music to their lessons, asking to learn how to play it. These are often items they love because of the lyrics, and the multi-tracked layered texture of the music. In a simple violin lesson, all this cannot be reproduced, and they are often surprised when it’s a disappointing experience. But Jazz technique takes off contains a lot of ‘story pieces’ that work with just the solo line, and will appeal to this age group. (And beyond!)
I might spend two years exploring Technique flies high with my Advanced level pupils. The fourteen concert studies include baroque, romantic, contemporary, and folk styles. Once again, players are taken into a wide variety of sound worlds (ranging from fluttering Sibelius-like sul tasto to Bartok-inspired intensive double stopping). There is advanced position changing, fast playing, and slow playing. One ‘haunting’ piece is entirely in natural and stopped harmonics, one changes constantly between pizzicato and arco, and one uses the formula of the much-loved Austro-Hungarian Czardas. And there is an unusual slow slurred ‘folk style’ piece with up to fifteen notes in a bow. Players are challenged and stretched both technically and musically, and above all, the pieces don’t work if played half-heartedly – they encourage complete violinistic commitment.
After producing all this material, I took a long break from writing technique books. But one day I happened to mention my ‘Technique Ideas Box’ to an editor at Faber Music. I explained that this was a large box, with a tight lid, packed with hundreds of scraps of paper. On these were short exercises that I had improvised then written down, and many detailed thoughts about technique. Intrigued, she asked if I could collate some material to create a few sample pages, and this was the starting point for Technique in practice.
For over fifty years I have always started my playing/practice time by feeling a sense of ‘weightless balance’, and then playing some form of ‘Golden Tone’ exercise. Weightless balance when holding a violin and bow is something I developed from an exercise learned in Dalcroze classes at Music College. The basic Golden Tone exercise - extremely slow bowing, right by the bridge - was also shown to me in my teenage years. These two things take me immediately into a very deep, calm zone, where I feel at one with the instrument. In an emergency, if I only have a couple of minutes to warm up, this is what I turn to.
After much discussion with Faber Music, we settled on the idea of a ‘use forever’ book, with several sets of daily exercises, suitable for advanced pupils/students, teachers, and professional players. The introductory pages would describe weightless balance, and there would be a different variation on the Golden Tone exercise at the beginning of each new set.
Technique in practice starts with two sets at the Late Intermediate/Advanced level, and the following sets get progressively more demanding. Thinking as a teacher, I want the material to be easy for pupils/students to interpret when they are on their own, with text that reminds them how to be alert to hidden problems. It occurred to me that when keeping fit at the gym it’s common to have a ‘personal trainer’, so with that in mind I wrote the text as a kind of friendly, encouraging companion. As a player, I want material that goes to the core of healthy technique (including ways to give technique a regular ‘deep clean’). I enjoy exercises that have the potential for variation and improvised development, and even in a short routine I like there to be some musical content.
From very early stages, I discuss the role of the brain in learning and practising with all my pupils. So there is information about this in the introductory pages of Technique in practice. When using any of my books of studies in lessons, I often read the text boxes out loud, or ask pupils to do this if they are confident and fluent readers. Reading aloud - even just dynamics, expression marks, and tempo directions - is yet another useful way of stimulating the brain to retain information. We often re-read text boxes over the course of several lessons; this is doubly useful, helping the pupil to fully absorb information, and giving opportunity for discussion.
Eventually Technique in practice evolved into ten varied sets. To keep our technique healthy, we all need to go back to basics (especially in the lower positions) from time to time, so the book was designed to be useful as a repeating cycle, with players returning to Set 1 to experience the complete journey again and again. But it is up to players to decide how they want to use it, and different sets may appeal more at different times. One person has described their experience of using the book as, “Every set begins with focussed calm, moves into focussed thought, and ends with an enjoyable ‘Tech-synthesis’ study that requires full concentration!”
Each exercise covers a limited number of tiny aspects of technique; encouraging the player to listen and feel, getting the most ‘3-dimensional’ and aural information from each action. The companiable text reminds players of the obvious things they may be overlooking, and also points out things that are counter-intuitive. Along the journey of mastering the violin, the player needs to learn to listen in a really concentrated way, at the same time as linking everything they are hearing to precise physical sensations.
Listening and Feeling. Feeling and Listening. If we concentrate on these two things, the brain gradually builds a library of sensory and aural information. We need to let the brain play its role on ‘auto-pilot’ - and then our job is to learn from experience what to focus on, and when. Overthinking can create tension, so it’s important for us to keep our immediate goals as simple as possible. I often ask pupils to concentrate on just one thing (which I select), and for a moment to ignore everything else. This sounds so simple but it’s a skill that takes a long time for pupils to acquire. However, if we work on this with our pupils, and in our own practising, it can become an extremely useful tool.
Technique in practice is written to develop the art of listening intently to ourselves without fear; and to encourage players to make technique the servant of the music.
For more detailed information about this book: Mastering violin technique with Mary Cohen | Faber Music
This article was originally commissioned by Fredrik Ström and published in Swedish ESTA News.