"From jotting down thoughts came the idea of having some text as a friendly companion – rather like a personal trainer."
There is always an inherent danger in playing the same violin warm-up routine – of doing it mindlessly instead of with full attention. That way you can end up practising imperfections until, without noticing, you have mastered the imperfect. For many performers and teachers, who lead busy professional lives, it can be difficult to find time to keep technique clean and comfortable. And on the road we don’t want to be carrying around a lot of heavy books of exercises and studies.
Over the years I’ve developed material to refine my practising and use of violin technique, covering elements that address the exact point of difficulty in specific kinds of musical passages. We don’t need hours and hours of technique practice once we’ve acquired good technique; we just need to keep it going ergonomically.
Violin Technique in Practice began for me as a way of having technique exercises and short studies that provided variety, in a single volume. While away from home, I often improvise exercises, sparked off by something I’m rehearsing or teaching. So, I started writing these down, eventually grouping them into ten sets to create a technical progression. The first two sets have material that can be introduced to late intermediate players; but as these contain exercises that are very exposing of technique, they are equally useful for advanced players and professionals in helping to spotlight unhelpful things that might be creeping imperceptibly into their playing.
From jotting down thoughts that reminded me what to focus on in each exercise, came the idea of having some text as a friendly companion – rather like a personal trainer. And the short ‘tech-synthesis’ studies, which pull together techniques at the end of each set, were designed as both a challenge and a treat.
Creating weightless balance
Before I pick up my violin, my normal warm-up starts with a “weightless balance” exercise, a methodology I developed for string players. We often have to play for long periods of time without a break, so it helps to know how to access a feeling of physical lightness in extended and energetic passages. The idea for this weightless balance technique stemmed from the version I learned in Dalcroze classes at the Royal College of Music, where, as it happened, everyone else in my group was a singer! (We were taught by the inspirational Elizabeth Vanderspar, who had studied with Jacques Dalcroze.) How to zone into this feeling of weightlessness is explained at the beginning of the book, as part of the one-minute pre-practising preparation.
Autopilot can help...
From the late intermediate stage onwards, technical and musical demands suddenly increase exponentially for violinists. At times when there is so much for the brain to absorb all at once, we need to allow it to retain things in a retrievable way. Some of what we are doing needs to rely on our muscle memory, but for this to happen effectively we first need to know what to focus on, and how to focus. Having well-learned techniques that we have on autopilot allows space for the musical imagination to function; conversely having inadequately practised technique stored in our subconscious can get in the way of communicating musical expression. You’ll find more information in Violin Technique in Practice about how our brain works when we are practising.
Developing a technique toolkit
At music college I was taught several strategies for practising difficult or awkward passages that were primarily for use ‘when all else fails’; but I no longer save these up for emergencies! Nowadays they are a standard part of my technique toolkit and I also teach them to pupils of all ages and stages. Probably my favourite - and definitely my pupils’ favourite - is playing a piece with all the correct rhythm on all the correct open strings, without any fingers. I often use this as the very first approach to difficult sections in new pieces; it is extraordinarily effective at laying down a structure for the brain to work with, and it also cuts down significantly the length of time it takes to master complex fast passages.
Often there are specific moments in pieces where getting a particular technical element absolutely right enables the music to flow freely. The underlying concept of Violin Technique in Practice is to home in on precisely these kinds of moments, using a variety of areas of the instrument, so you get a real 3-dimensional experience. For example, sequences in different parts of the instrument, covering rotation in high, middle and low positions, across all the strings. Because intonation is affected by the rotation of the left arm and the height and angle of fingers, to encourage really working at these aspects, exercises are sometimes written with an unexpected order of strings. Semitones frequently come into the spotlight. As there are two varieties - ‘tight’ semitones (e.g. for leading notes), and ‘wide’ semitones for a chromatic context - there are exercises which require careful attention to listening out for one or both types. Listening for ’whatever it is’ is astonishingly effective. But you have to know what to listen for, and when.
A journey of technique
Over time, I tried my material out with pupils and advanced players and noticed how useful it was for everyone to isolate individual issues in short bursts of concentration. As I wrote and worked through all ten sets, I heard both in my own playing and that of others the cumulative effect of all this focus during the course of a gradually unfolding technical journey, especially when using the sets in a returning progressive cycle.
Violin Technique in Practice is a resource to explore and use in a way that suits your own playing and situation at any given time. Personally, I use the sets as warm-ups, as a time to think in depth about technique, and sometimes to give my technique a deep clean. When it’s possible, I play the sets through as a cycle, one a day over a couple of weeks or so, allowing for an occasional day off! For intermediate players the first few sets are a good starting point, and for advanced adult pupils or professional players, I suggest starting by repeating each set a few times, to feel the flow of ideas and the gradual increase in level of difficulty. Use this book in the way that seems most helpful to you and make use of the blank pages to note your own ideas. Most importantly, remember to listen, think and enjoy!