Taking the “Wrong” Way Around

Did you ever have the experience as a student of being told that you needed to “unlearn” a technique? Were you ever told that you needed to start over and rebuild because your prior education had been lacking in some way? If so, how did it shape your relationship to learning?

A new student came for her first lesson this week. When I asked her to play something, she proceeded with the caveat that she knew she had to pretty much start over on the violin because she had learned so many things “the wrong way”. Over the course of the lesson, I learned that her beloved teacher of the last three years – a guitarist, not a violinist – had moved out of town during the pandemic. In her search for a new teacher, almost all of the trial lessons she attended involved teachers telling her how far behind she was, that her technique was “all wrong”, that she needed to start over again from the beginning and “rebuild”.

Throughout the first half of our lesson, she kept her eyes on me for approval, faltering at any change in my facial expression. When she struggled to mimic a “correct” bow hold, her bow bobbled on the string; when she refocussed on “correcting” her left hand-frame, she struggled, unsuccessfully, to make fine adjustments in pitch. When I asked her to comment on what she was hearing and feeling, she seemed to be searching for the answer I wanted to hear.

A turning point came when I asked her to tell me more about the kind of partnership she had with her guitar teacher in figuring out the violin – what they had learned together, what she had to figure out on her own. She told me that she had thought he had been a wonderful teacher, but now she realized she had only been building a list of “bad” habits to undo since he didn’t know the “correct” way to play the violin. I asked her to show me some of what she had been doing with her old teacher, even if it meant demonstrating something that was incorrect. She immediately relaxed and both her pitch and tone changed noticeably. She turned her attention to what she was doing, and I was able to ask her to make small changes and compare some of the differences she felt and heard. Giving her back the power to trust in her own learning made her open to new options.

How many ways are there to hold a bow? To finger a scale? To execute a beautiful vibrato? To shape a phrase? To tune a melodic line? We know there are hundreds, or thousands, or perhaps as many different ways as there are individual artists. In spite of this knowledge, musicians continue to train in lineages and schools of technique, the tenants of which are often treated like scripture. Most of us can think of situations where dogma has limited us, making us less adaptable when difficulty arises. Even when we are not initially impaired by a directive to forget what we know and to re-learn to play the “right” way, we are taught that learning has limits and exclusions.

Feldenkrais’s movement lessons have taught me that ANY learning expands our networking so that we will always have choice when we encounter new challenges. Not all information is equally valuable in every situation, but the more experiences we can acquire and reflect on with awareness, the more chance we have of having exactly what we need in the long-run when the right challenge arises.

I use these two learning-environment scenarios to help students, teachers, and arts professionals think about the impact of just a few words of dogma and the disadvantages of corrective teaching:

In the first scenario, you have just moved into an apartment in a new city. You are eager to get to know your way around and all that it has to offer. You try a different route to work each day – you take the bus one day, you choose a subway stop a couple of blocks away, you take a cab, or you walk different parts of the route. You explore different neighborhoods when you go out to eat, and you go to the market several blocks away for mundane items just to see what other options are available to you. You allow yourself to “get lost” and find your way back many times. Pretty soon you have a solid map of the city inside your head, so that when your regular subway line is shut down, you know the next fastest way home from work. When you need a specialty item that your regular market doesn’t carry, you know that you can reroute to a nearby neighborhood to pick it up. When you have a couple of hours of free time to enjoy yourself between appointments, you know a museum and a good coffee shop in the vicinity to make the most efficient and pleasurable use of your time. As you try new things, literally explore new avenues, you gain freedom and confidence.

In the second scenario, you move into this same apartment and you take the bus to work on the first day, and your boss tells you that no one in your office takes public transportation, and that from that point on you can take the car service provided by your company. When your neighbor sees you climbing the stairs with bags from your corner market, she tells you that you should just order from a delivery service, because none of the local shops will have everything you need in one trip. And why bother to visit these farther afield neighborhoods when you can get whatever you want brought to you by Uber Eats? A month later your car service goes on strike, and you have to struggle to use public transport to get home. You are halfway through cooking dinner and you realize that you are out of an important ingredient; you don’t know the there is a store at the end of the street that carries it that you would have passed on any walk to and from the subway. You arrive at the wrong time to a doctor’s appointment outside of your neighborhood, and you have to wait for two hours in the waiting room because you don’t know much of the city outside of work and home. Your limited experience has made you isolated and dependent.

Our approach can as easily build confidence and self-awareness in students as it can reduce their learning to isolation and dependency. Which learning environment do you want your students to inhabit?

Ten Minute Technique: Audiation

One of the best ways to address the full spectrum of function in string playing is to work on audiation skills, or developing the aural imagination. I find that physical tension is often related to an lack of internal clarity with pitch and rhythm and even more abstract concepts of dynamics, phrasing, and articulation.

Feldenkrais said, “If you know what you are doing, you can do what you want.” I would say for musicians that if you can imagine the way you intend for something to sound, you are a big step closer to doing what you want.

So, get your vocal cords warmed up, because there is no better way to work on audiation than through singing! This TT is full of brain-teaser style exercises for combining singing and playing. I use Lightly Row in D Major as a model, but these exercises can be applied to scales and/or samples from any level of repertoire to develop you internal aural world.

Ten Minute Technique: Left Hand Tension III (Accessing High Positions)

This lesson specifically addresses problems in left hand tension and discomfort that are associated with playing in high positions, including shoulder pain and injury that many of us experience with prolonged and excessive external rotation in the shoulder joint.

Here I explore options for shifting and string crossing to lower strings that allow us to keep the shoulder in a more neutral range.

These ideas are suitable for more experienced players, but are also ones that I use in introducing less advanced players to higher positions. Enjoy!

Ten Minute Technique: Left Hand Tension II

Okay, this one is actually fifteen minutes, but we are all working on ways we can improve!

This is the second in a series of lessons that explore some of the common elements in left hand tension, discomfort, and difficulty. This lesson brings awareness directly to functional properties of the hand itself.

I have found that many upper string players struggle with speed and efficiency due to varying degrees of hyper-extension in the fingers and antagonistic relationships between flexion and extension, combined with unhelpful destabilization in the wrist and compensation for lack of finger flexion through wrist extension. Here will look at ways to explore stability and neutrality in the wrist while finding fast and powerful movement in the fingers through the folding and unfolding of the hand.

The second half focus on exercises in chromatic patterns that we can use to elicit coordinated flexion throughout the whole hand.

I hope you find something new to explore!

Ten Minute Technique: Left Hand Tension I

Do you struggle with left hand tension? Do you find it takes more effort to play on lower strings or with certain fingers? Do you experience discomfort in your left shoulder, elbow, or wrist?

This is the first of a series of Ten Minute Techniques devoted to reducing unwanted tension in left hand technique. This particular lesson focuses on finding a comfortable range of motion in both the rotation of the upper arm and the pronation/supination of the forearm.

Many upper string players experience discomfort, sluggishness, weakness, and even pain due to playing for extended periods of time at the far end of their range of motion, due to the positional demands of the instrument and the demands of our repertoire in speed, precision, and endurance.

This lesson focuses on becoming aware of the distinctions in movements involved in playing and in finding a comfortable range in which to access all fingers on all strings with efficiency and accuracy. I hope this adds new freedom to your practice and playing!

Ten Minute Technique: Steering the Bow

Got some kinks in your bow arm? Do you or your students struggle to draw a straight bow? Would you like to become better at changing contact points to add nuances in shape and color?

This Ten Minute Technique focuses on the mechanics of drawing whole bows within one contact point between the bridge and the fingerboard AND the adjusting mechanisms involved in playing with varied contact points.

We start by exploring some of the functional movements of the arm, hand, fingers, and even shoulder blade, neck, and collarbone. Discovering new function in some of these “forgotten” places can make the resulting action more fluid. We will also look at the specific mechanics of steering the bow from an animated graphic model of how hinges work. Bringing this concept to life with all of the complex nuances of this relationship between body and instrument will, I hope, provide you with new insights into bow technique and artistry!

Ten Minute Technique: Finger Patterns and Major Tetrachords

I like to introduce new finger patterns in relation to Major tetrachords. This allows students to associate changes in half- and whole- steps between the fingers with a consistent relationship to a melodic pattern. Because this pattern also has harmonic roots in the Major scale, it promotes consistency in intonation. I have found that when students think about finger patterns mechanically before they understand them aurally, tension and pitch are a bigger issue.

This lesson explores each of the four main finger patterns that occur within Major tetrachords in first position. We also briefly look at how to build Major Scales in different keys by combining two tetrachords.


Ten Minute Technique: Vibrato

Oh vibrato! You are elusive and complex in your execution, yet you are among the principal components of our personal expression as string players.

As a young violinist I remember longing for the day that my vibrato would emerge, free from the early feelings of tension that seemed to grow with every effort I put toward figuring it out. I wanted a vibrato the way I once wanted to learn to roller skate and hula hoop, but those skills seemed to come so much easier. I think most young players think of vibrato ‘mastery’ as a kind of rite of passage to becoming a REAL violinist or violist. Plus it makes us sound so darn awesome that there is a lot of pressure to try to get it by whatever means necessary.

Over the years of teaching vibrato to students and working with professionals on gaining more freedom in technique and expression, I have learned that we all can keep nurturing and improving this unique skill over a lifetime. I have also learned that there are many pedagogical approaches to this technique, and most of them provide us with novel avenues to explore…so there’s nothing wrong with trying out anything you can get your hands on!

This Ten Minute Technique offers a handful of exercises and experiments that I have found most useful in teaching beginning vibrato, as well as trouble-shooting vibrato challenges with advanced students and professional players. This is by no means a prescription for perfect vibrato, but I hope you and your students will find some new ideas to add to beginning work on and refining this skill!

Ten Minute Technique: String Crossings

Today’s Ten Minute Technique is String Crossings! This is an exercise I started using with my students years ago that I call String-Crossing Twinkle. The focus is on variations of string crossings between any two consecutive strings. You can do this with two open strings, but using Twinkle makes it a little more like patting your head and rubbing your belly, especially as you get into the latter variations…you have to learn to multi-task and to attend to more elements at once.

I like to use this to differentiate some of the mechanical elements of string crossings and then see how the overall technique improves and becomes more fluid after more detailed and more varied exploration. Your practice can include some examples I introduce and then expand to elements of interest to you. Maybe you will come up with some novel ideas all on your own!

The important thing is to develop many ways of approaching technique through diversified practice. As you accumulate more ways of approaching a skill, you upgrade your access to more challenging repertoire just by having more options in your technique from which to choose!

Ten Minute Technique: Open String Ladder Scales

Hi Everyone! Welcome to music education in the era of COVID-19. It seems like a good time for us to share teaching ideas and ways of working with students via video uploads, so here’s my first, highly casual, and imperfect attempt. I’m a regular violin/viola clinician in the public schools in Houston, TX. I’m also a Feldenkrais practitioner, so you’ll find that I sneak some of that into my approach, ninja-style!

My plan is to start uploading some Ten Minute Technique videos of exercises and processes I use in lessons with all levels of string players. I am hoping this will provide a practice resource for students, especially those without private teachers, and a reference for educators who are looking for teaching tools in this challenging time.

My first technique, Ladder Scales, is one I use in school clinics to teach the movement of shifting and position mapping in 1st through 5th positions. This video includes 2-3 minutes of introduction and explanation (including basic breakdown of the actions and functions involved) plus 10 minutes of active playing. This exercise is done at a quarter note = 60. Students should tune to a 440 A to either play along, or listen to the recorded version of each exercise, then stop the recording to try it.

I hope you and your upper strings students will find these useful!

Please feel free to suggest new topics in the comments.