Originally published by www.violinist.com, October 3, 2016. See here.
I am very interested by this idea of teachers who want to teach their students only scales for a whole year. This blog was triggered by a recent discussion here: A Year of Scales.
My first experience of the madness that teachers can inflict on their students was when I was 14. It doesn’t matter who the teacher was, but I studied with him for six months before my parents rescued me from him. He nearly finished me off altogether using a combination of three main methods:
First, I was not allowed to use a shoulder rest. I was pretty much the same build at 14 as I am now – tallish, long neck etc. – and while there are sensible ways of playing without a shoulder rest, he did not show me any. I simply hunched up my left shoulder and went into spasms of tension for six months. It was then that I first had to be sent off to Alexander lessons (almost unheard of at that time), and physiotherapy, to try to get around the pain I was in.
Second, the bow-hold he made me adopt was absurd – I have photos of me at that age holding the bow with the tip of the little finger on the screw, the first finger too close to the thumb (leading to loss of leverage), and the middle two fingers low on the frog (in fact, with my long fingers, they often protruded beneath the level of the frog).
But the third, final nail in the coffin of my enthusiasm – or the coffin of my talent, such as it was at the time – was that for six months I was not allowed to play any pieces. I was not allowed to play any etudes. And I was not allowed to play any scales. So what was I allowed to play? Only left hand Ševcík finger exercises!
Naturally, within a short time I would not practice at all. I was bored witless within minutes of starting to play, and I hurt too much even before getting bored. It was nearly the end of me.
A funny coda to that tale – actually, it’s not very funny at all – is that 16 years later, when I was playing in the London Symphony Orchestra, in one concert this former teacher of mine was sitting next to me. He was using a shoulder rest. I remarked on it. He said, "Yes, I’ve decided it is better." And he was a short man with a short neck!
I did not mention that he nearly ruined my whole life as a violinist, because it was too difficult to say anything without at the same time wanting to seize his violin and hit him over the head with it – which I did not feel I could do at the time, being on stage at the Barbican concert hall, and all. Besides, I would not have wanted to harm his beautiful violin. (Only joking! I am actually a gentle, nice person!)
But on a serious note, that story is nothing compared to what a friend of mine (let’s call him David) has told me about studying privately with one of the leading teachers in London in the 1970s (let’s call him A. C. Person). David went to Mr. Person at the age of 11. For two whole years he was not allowed to play anything except left-hand Ševcík. Yes, two years!
After two years, David was finally allowed to play a piece, the Mozart G major Violin Concerto. David practiced it and took it to his next lesson. Mr. Person gave him an ordinary, normal sort of lesson on it, and then when he showed David out of the house at the end, David stood on the doorstep and Mr. Person stood with his hand on the door, ready to close it.
He looked at David and said, "You used to be such a musical boy, David. What happened to you?" And with that, he literally slammed the door shut in the boy’s face.
Yes, that is a 100% accurate account! When David first told me about it, I said it was a pity that, as a child, he did not have the right answer to hand. (And anyway, Person had closed the door before he could say anything.) The correct answer was: YOU happened to me, Mr. Person!
My next experience of "technique only" was when I went to study with Yfrah Neaman at the Guildhall School of Music. His rule was that new undergraduate students had to spend the first term (September to December), not playing any repertoire at all but concentrating only on technique. We had to do the six Carl Flesch fundamental movements, the Carl Flesch Scale System, a different Kreutzer etude every week, learn and practice Dont Op. 35 No. 1 (chords), and lots of Ševcík Op. 1. It was only one term, and there was plenty to do to keep us interested. My first piece, in January, was the Mozart Adagio in E, K261, and after that the Rode Concerto in a minor, no. 7, Viotti Concerto 23 in G major, and Spohr Concerto no. 8 (Gesangsszene). All good stuff.
However, I have never once asked a student to do only technique for any period – not for even just one week, let alone a whole term – even if I have considered it many times. I was too impressed by Dorothy DeLay’s approach when later I went to her.
All her students played slightly differently from each other because she did not have a "method" to drill them with. She simply took them at whatever level they had arrived at, and helped them up from there to the next level without first making them relearn everything from the beginning. With her, you did not have to go "down" before you went "up." You simply carried on up, as you had already been doing.
If the two extremes are 1) Nothing but technique for a year, or 2) only repertoire for a year without playing a single exercise, scale or etude, I would certainly choose No. 2 without a second’s hesitation.
That is simply because, in the final analysis, "technique" comes from playing music, but you can’t get "music" out of playing "technique."
The crucial difference is between "technique" and "mechanics."
"Mechanics" means the angle of the violin to the body, or keeping the left fingers close to the strings, moving the fingers from the base joints, drawing a straight bow, standing with your feet correctly positioned, etc.
The list of essentials is not even very long. All of them are easy to describe and to explain (in very few words), and therefore easy to teach. If somebody has ongoing difficulties in any of the basic areas, it means that in some way the problems are not being identified, not being analyzed correctly, and therefore not being helped.
In my book The Violin Lesson I quoted a story from the great "success guru" Brian Tracy’s The Power of Clarity:
There was once a nuclear power station that had developed a fault. The power output was slightly below normal but none of the plant’s engineers could locate the source of the fault. So they called in a specialist.
The specialist, a man in a white coat with a clipboard, wandered around taking notes. The control room contained a host of dials and meters and readout displays, all connected to equipment located around the plant. After a couple of hours the specialist took a piece of chalk out of his pocket and marked a large ‘X’ on one of the readout displays.
Replace the unit linked to that display,’ he told the management, ‘and it will fix the problem.’
They did as he suggested, and immediately the power output returned to 100%.. A few days later the manager of the plant received the bill from the specialist, who was asking for a fee of $10,000.
Now, although this was a multi-million dollar plant, it was the manager’s job to keep down expenses. So he wrote back to the specialist thanking him for his work, but saying that $10,000 seemed a very high amount to charge considering he had been at the plant for only two hours. Would he please itemise his bill?
Some days later, a new bill arrived from the specialist and this time he had broken it into two parts: $100 for time spent on the premises; $9,900 for knowing where to put the X..
So spotting problems and solutions in violin playing is all about "knowing where to put the X." It only takes a whole year to sort something out if you don’t know where to put the X.
And then there is "technique." Real technique comes from musical expression: you feel such-and-such in the music, and because of that – and without knowing that you are doing so – you make a particular subtle little squeeze on the bow, or the vibrato is wider, or the shift lighter or faster, and so on. These things come from making music.
So if you spend a year playing only exercises or scales...well, what can I say? It is just a very, very bad idea. A colossally bad idea. And surely one that comes from basic ignorance of what is possible.
But then, many talents are ruined by their teachers. The talented, fine players we know of and hear about are often only the survivors of teachers, not the products of them!
Originally published by www.violinist.com, December 6, 2010. See here.
You can do anything on the violin, if you just break it down, step-by-step.
This seems to be London-based violinist Simon Fischer's operating philosophy, and he's given us quite a lot of instruction about exactly how to break things down, with his well-loved pedagogy books Basics and Practice, and The Violin Lesson coming out in the spring. Simon is a professor at the Yehudi Menuhin School and the Guildhall School of Music, and he writes a monthly column on violin technique which appears in The Strad magazine.
Now he gives us more: the visuals to go with the theory. His new DVD, The Secrets of Tone Production includes detailed descriptions of specific exercises for improving tone, as well as footage demonstrating how to do them, working with students of various levels.
Also, the introduction, called "Knowing Your Instrument," has some of the best explanations I've seen of how the violin works: the physics of sound, the way the tension works with strings, soundpoints for different strings, exactly the way the bow hair sets a string vibrating, even the difference between a high-frequency and a low-frequency scratch.
Here Simon answers some questions about his DVD, about his approach to tone, and about some of the common issues that violinists face on the road toward creating a beautiful tone.
Laurie Niles: You've written three books now on violin technique, what made you decide to do a DVD?
Simon Fischer: I’ve wanted to make this film for about fifteen years. The exercises are the purest, simplest and most immediate way to work on sound production, and they are simple to demonstrate. So they are perfect material for a teaching video. Everybody should know these simple exercises, and the question has been how to get them out there.
The film has basically arisen out of a workshop I have given many times over the last twenty years called ‘The Tone Production Class.’ It has usually taken about two and a half hours, and with just one violin student acting as the guinea pig. It starts off with them playing something for thirty seconds or so – anything, even just a slowish two-octave scale in first position. Then we go through all the principles and facets of tone, and I guide them through practicing four or five of the exercises.
To finish, the student plays the same two-octave scale, or whatever it was they played at the beginning. The difference in the tone is always quite extraordinary. In most cases, it is like witnessing five years’ worth of improvement in two straight hours. Everyone can tell the difference. It’s not just a question of the student perhaps being unsettled at the beginning of the session and more comfortable at the end after being in front of the audience for all that time. There is a certain extraordinary sort of culture that immediately enters the tone quality after just a short time of doing these exercises. They truly are magical, and the effects are noticeable so quickly and easily.
Every time I have ever given the class, I have thought how it should be filmed and made available for far more people to see than are ever at any of these events, even though sometimes there have been audiences of over a hundred at a time.
In fact, years ago I used to occasionally think about training up a group of teachers in these exercises and sending them out on tours of every school and music department in the UK, so that every single string player and teacher could get to use them. But of course the logistics of such a huge, nationwide operation were always enough to stop me in my tracks immediately. And what about all the other countries? Slightly more practical to put it all on a DVD and send that out instead!
Laurie: How is this DVD different from "Basics"?
Simon: Well, all of the exercises on the DVD are in Basics, but there are all kinds of other stuff in the Tone section of Basics as well. If anything, the content of the DVD follows the Tone Production chapter of my new book, The Violin Lesson (scheduled to be released in the spring). When it came to that book, the question was: what to offer that was not already covered in Basics and Practice? The answer quickly was clear: the content of the Tone Production Class.
So by the time it came to deciding to make the film, I was able to use the Tone Production chapter out of The Violin Lesson as the basis for a script. Of course, written text and the natural spoken word are necessarily different, so this was only a start, but it fulfilled the original idea of making the Tone Production Class into a film.
However, on film I could coach students on other instruments, so the DVD has ended up as a sort of super-deluxe version of the original class. That is also why it has ended up at over four hours.
Laurie: Do beginning violinists tend to have different tone problems from advanced players?
Simon: I love the story about the great cellist Pablo Casals. He had a not-very-advanced amateur student, and one day a friend of Casals asked him, ‘Pablo, you can teach anyone in the world, why do you teach this man?’ Casals answered, ‘Because from him I learn how to teach the advanced ones!’ In other words, the problems are all the same as you go up level-by-level, but they get smaller and smaller – until they are so slight they are even hard to spot. When we see it in a beginning student, we see an enlarged version that is easy to understand. When it comes to tone production, all we have are three variables: control of speed, pressure, and soundpoint. We are all in the same boat when it comes to the challenge of being able to control these three factors so that they remain even.
By the way, Casals is an interesting subject in this whole realm of tone exercises. He is often held up as the definitive musician who did not ever merely play his instrument, but always made music. It is true that when he played the cello, it was as if the instrument was in parentheses, and he was in a musical world beyond the instrument. He is the hero of those who decry technical practice, and who maintain that such work, divorced from music, is unmusical practice which will make you play unmusically in the end.
But the joke is that Casals himself practiced the Pressure exercise that is featured on this DVD (Exercise 3)! There is a whole chapter of Casals in the book, String Mastery: Talks with Master Violinists, Viola Players and Violoncellists by Frederick H. Martens (New York, 1923).
In it, Casals says: “I believe in daily technical exercise. I practice scales, repeated notes, trills in different rhythms; and as to the bow I use special exercises for the point, frog and middle, as well as exercises in strength-inflection, to accustom the bow-hand to finely marked differences of strength and pressure.” Exercises in strength inflection? That’s the pressure exercise, which is known amongst cellists who studied with Casals as ‘the Casals exercise’. Of course Casals practiced bare technique!
Laurie: How can you tell the difference between tone problems that come from the player, and tone problems that come from the violin? At what point would you tell a student he or she needs a better violin, or would you?
Simon: I certainly do often suggest to students that they get a better violin. This does not always mean a more expensive one, but a different one. What is important is to have enough ‘room’ in which to make all the different colors you want, from light to dark and from light to heavy, and for the instrument to have enough responsiveness and enough sound. It is no good if there is too low a ceiling in any of these things and there is just no further you can go.
If an instrument is boxy, in the sense of weak bass and dull treble, or if it just doesn’t have enough sound or resonance, there comes a point where you just have to concede that the player is doing everything he or she can. One of the most unfortunate things is when someone is working ten times harder than they should need to, and if they had a more responsive instrument they could get the same result with half the effort and in half the practice time.
But responsiveness is not only or always a matter of price. There are plenty of expensive instruments that are harder to play than cheaper ones, or that seem to have less ring. One of my students has a not-terribly-expensive violin, and if you play a short third-finger D on the A string, exactly in tune with the open D, the note rings on afterwards for so long, it is quite astonishing. I am almost jealous. In fact, what is really astonishing is the extent to which expensive or cheaper violins can end up sounding exactly the same when heard from a distance. Often violins become ‘neurotic’ for one reason or another. Of course I am joking, but one definition of 'neurosis' is when one part of the organism is at war with another part of the same organism. In other words, there is an internal conflict going on.
And when a violin – whatever the value – is properly set up, it responds to the lightest touch, it is resonant and free, it really rings and sings. But when the bridge or soundpost is not in the right place, or the tail gut is too long or short, or if the nut (the ridge at the end of the fingerboard at the scroll end) is too high or low, there is a feeling of ‘conflict’ in the sound. You can sense the violin fighting against itself. Fortunately, violins are easier to adjust than people are!
By the way, the length of the tail gut seems to be one of the great secrets of setting up a violin that even violin repairers sometimes do not take into account sufficiently – i.e. a fraction longer or shorter completely affects the responsiveness of the string to the bow, all other things being equal.
Laurie: Did you struggle with tone, as a student? When did you first realize the importance of this aspect of playing the violin? When did you first realize the importance of teaching this aspect of violin playing, and the best way to do so?
Simon: No, I didn’t struggle with tone at all. I thought that that area of my playing was all naturally fine, and that what I had to build was a reliable and virtuosic left hand. But I didn’t know what I was missing.
Some of these exercises are mine – in the sense that I am sure someone else must have done such things sometime somewhere, but I have not come across them. But the main ones, and the speed/pressure/soundpoint basis of them, were what I learned from Dorothy DeLay, with whom I studied, starting when I was 23. The assistant I worked with in my first year with Miss DeLay was Masau Kawasaki, now for many years on the faculty of Juilliard himself. He was extremely good at explaining and demonstrating these exercises, too. And his excellent tone on both the violin and viola was evidence of their good effect.
My initial reaction to the way my sound improved after the first couple of weeks in New York was one of feeling very cross, to put it mildly, that nobody had shown me these exercises before. I was very grateful to Yfrah Neaman, who I had just studied with for five years, for his musical influence and much else besides; but it was almost upsetting, when I thought about how hard I had worked, and imagined how things might have been, had I known this approach to sound production.
A couple of days ago I received an email which said, ‘I have received "The Secrets of Tone Production" DVD and am very pleased with it. The exercises are so simple it makes me wonder why the various violin teachers I have had over the years never thought to mention them.’ Exactly. How many times have I heard that same comment over the years, either when I have taught these exercises to individuals or in classes. And it was my reaction as well!
To me the tone exercises are a perfect example of the ‘Acres of Diamonds’ story. There are many versions of it, but basically the point is that diamonds in their natural state do not look like the glittering, cut and polished jewels that you see in the jewelry shop. In life we so often do not see something of value because it does not look the way we expect it to look. String players have this unfortunate tendency to want to play music all the time and can easily miss the benefits that work like this can bring. I call these exercises ‘million-dollar tone exercises’ because they truly are worth a million dollars.
As to teaching them, since I first came back from America they have been my not-so-secret weapon that I have shown to, and used with, every student I have ever worked with. And I always return to them many times with the same students. There is no easier or quicker way to help them.
In the early days, when I was teaching at Wells Cathedral School in the 1980s, I sometimes used to teach the exercises all day long. I had eight students, and each got one hour. Each lesson was like embarking on an entirely new journey. For me it was simply endless fun, the way each student got more and more un-forced, glowing resonance out of their instrument. However, it is not necessarily quite as much fun for someone else who happens to be in the vicinity. At Wells, the room I taught in was directly above the secretary’s office. I remember that at least twice, probably in the summer when the windows were open, she came upstairs and begged me to do something else because the one note was driving her crazy.
I often give long lessons that are actually the complete Tone Production Class but given to one student. After 30 years, I could give one of these lessons in my sleep, but for some reason they remain forever new. However many times you experience them you look forward to the next one. Every time there is always something that comes up, some new way of expressing or doing something, that feels like a great discovery, and then you look forward to the next session, just so that you can do or say this new thing again.
The way I teach the exercises that Miss DeLay taught me (numbers 1, 3, 4 and 5 on the DVD) has always remained the same, i.e. exactly as she taught them, and herself was taught by Galamian, and he by Capet. I haven’t changed a thing. In fact, sometimes I have said to students when we have been working on these exercises, ‘You want to know what it would be like if you were a student at the Juilliard School having a lesson from Miss DeLay? Like this!’
Actually, I have changed one thing. In recent years I stress far more – in fact, all the time – to imagine that the one note of the exercise is in a piece of music – in a solo piece, or a quartet, or whatever. Then the playing always becomes completely different, and infinitely more sensitive. You shouldn’t do these exercises in a detached, unmusical, intellectual, mechanical sort of way, but always expressively. One of the sections of the film is called ‘Playing musically’.
As to the note, in the film I stick to just one, for reasons of consistency and comparison as the film progresses. But of course in the end you need to do the exercises in each of the twelve areas of the fingerboard, i.e. low, middle and high positions on each string.
Laurie: Once a violinist or string player has mastered the correct way to practice these exercises, how often should he/she do them, and for how long? Every day, forever?
Simon: They are the best warm-up exercises, so looked at from that point of view they could be done many times each week, forever. It is worth occasionally spending a whole day’s practice on them. You feel the benefits for weeks afterwards.
Coming back to Casals, he once said ‘Intonation is a question of conscience’. In other words, if you have a strong conscience and a shop-keeper gives you one penny too much in change, you give it back because to ‘steal’ one penny feels the same as taking much more; and if your musical conscience is really strong, if you play a note only a fraction out of tune you cannot accept it.
ery good, but why did he say this only in relation to intonation? Surely quality of tone is also a matter of conscience, as is phrasing and expression and all the rest! So for how long should you practice these exercises? Who can say? How beautiful a voice do you want to have?
Again, the key is the attainment of evenness. There is no such thing as perfection, when it comes to performing a piece of music. There is always further to go. But when it comes to sustaining one note on a stringed instrument with a bow, or going heavy-light, heavy-light etc., there is such a thing as perfection. I’ve always liked to say that these exercises are like an endless well of the purest spring water: however much water you take out, there is always more to take, whenever you want.
Laurie: Once a person has practiced these exercises and is feeling more confident about their tone, do you have any pieces that you recommend to practice the application of tone production principles? (Big-tone pieces? Change-the-lane-on-theing pieces? Fill the hall even though you are playing piano? )
Simon: No, not at all. There are four categories of practice: exercises, scales, studies and pieces, so the tone exercises are basically in the first group. However, you can apply them to notes, phrases or even whole passages in the repertoire, and then they become an essential practice method throughout all of your practice. This area, applying the exercises to regular practice, is what the Tone Production section of the Practice book is all about.
Laurie: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Simon: My hope is that over time this DVD will help to make these exercises truly become an ordinary part of everyday string teaching. Ever since my student days in New York, it has been a strange thought to me, that there are literally millions of violinists and other string players all over the world who are all only a couple of hours away – i.e. 20 minutes each day for a week – from an entirely different experience and level of playing their instrument. It all consists of such simple steps.
First published December 8, 2011. by www.violinist.com. See here.
· Once again, the British violinist and pedagogue Simon Fischer is offering us violinists -- and violists -- a gem of a book to help our playing. This one, called Warming Up, basically offers a comprehensive warm up for both hands that takes about a half-hour.
Neither a scale book or etude book, this book contains exercises designed to help increase rapidity in fingers, widen their reach, improve left-finger accuracy, increase right-hand flexibility, straighten the bow, get a better sense of bowing soundpoints, improve coordination between the two hands, improve vibrato and improve double-stop intonation.
Some exercises are for the right hand and others for the left; some involve playing and others do not. Unlike Fischer's other pedagogy books, Basics and Practice, which encourage leafing around and picking your exercise, this one leads the player through a routine -- one could simply read through the 23-page book, front-to-back, every day, and count on strengthening the hands and improving their abilities.
Simon was kind enough to take time from his busy schedule, teaching at the Yehudi Menuhin School and the Guildhall School of Music; writing his regular column for The Strad magazine and giving recitals, to answer some questions from V.com editor Laurie Niles about "Warming Up."
Laurie: I've enjoyed playing all the way through your "Warming Up" book, and even only doing it once, I can see how it would help promote a springiness in the fingers. Tell me, why is it important to warm up, in general? What happens if you don't warm up?
Simon: I think most people find that they play better after at least a few minutes of re-sensitizing themselves to the instrument, and getting the muscles moving and the blood flowing and so on. A simple example is when you play something like Schradieck from cold, as opposed to five or ten minutes later, when your fingers then work much faster and with less effort.
But everything finally comes back to how refined and efficient your technique is, and how in shape you are in general. When everything is working well, and you are on form and ‘in the groove’ with your playing, you may easily not need to warm up at all. You can simply pick up the instrument for the first time in a day and immediately feel as good as when you played your last notes on it the day before. Or like Glenn Gould, you may need merely to soak your hands in hot water for five minutes to quickly get back to 100 percent.
But if your technique is still developing, or if you often need to get back into shape, what’s great is to be able to get your sound back, your intonation, your vibrato, your accurate shifting and so on, as quickly as possible. As the years have gone by, I have been able to refine the process of boosting all the different areas of playing, so that I have been able to get it all done in less and less time. And the "Warming Up" book is the natural end result of the stripping-down process, so that in just 30-40 minutes you can cover all the essential areas, feel all of your playing powered up, and then be in fantastic shape to get on with whatever else it is you want to play.
By the way, I know perfectly well that there are plenty who turn their nose up at ‘exercises,’ and even scoff at the thought of doing them; and they will often cite Pablo Casals and hold him up as an example of a pure musician rather than a mere cellist; and yet Casals himself stated that he worked on sound – on open strings – for hours each day! (I don’t like practicing open strings because they ring too easily, but that’s another matter.)
Laurie: Here you present many exercises, why not just warm up with my current piece? Or Bach? Or Kreutzer?
Simon: Well, you can, but the point about the "Warming Up" book is that it touches on all the important areas all at once, in the shortest space of time. Any study is probably going to focus on a particular aspect. But the simple exercises in "Warming Up" sort of get into the innards of your contact with the instrument. Exact degrees of left finger pressure, flexibility exercises for the right fingers, and so on. This is a different order of things to actually playing anything properly.
I use all kinds of different materials, and would urge anyone else to do the same. For example, I love playing the first few pages of Schradieck (you can even make them sound like a good piece of music when you play them without stopping and with musical shaping), I love the Key Bowing Patterns in Basics, which cover every bowing pattern you can expect to meet, without needing to drown in the ocean of Sevcik. I love exercises by Dancla, little miniatures which one plays at different speeds with the metronome and try to play perfectly, and so on.
But as I mentioned earlier, there is a direct correlation between how good and ‘efficient’ your technique is, and how much you need to warm up. I use that word ‘efficient’ because Dorothy DeLay once said to me, ‘Don’t think in terms of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in violin technique (I was forever asking questions along those lines); better to think more of ‘more efficient’ or ‘less efficient’ ways of doing things.’
What she meant was, for example, if you drop your left fingers partly with a movement of the entire hand, this is not ‘bad’ as such, but a less efficient way of getting the fingers down on the string than if you move only the fingers from the base joint, the rest of the hand keeping still.
The crucial point is that warming-up exercises, and technique-building exercises, are really one and the same thing. Every time you do an exercise to warm up you are actually working on your basic technique – making it ever more focussed, refined and efficient. For example, the first exercise in "Warming Up" consists of tapping exercises designed to force the fingers to move from the base joints.
Then, the more you do such things, the less you need to do them because your starting point is higher and higher all the time. Finally you reach the stage where you really don’t have to warm up – you have so much ‘money in the bank’ that you need to do the technical work-out in "Warming Up" only occasionally.
Laurie: How long does your warm up take?
Simon: Timings for the exercises are given throughout the book, most coming in at 30 seconds to a couple of minutes. Even I can open the book at the two pages of trill exercises and think, ‘Oh no, do I really have to do this?!’, but then when I see that each one takes only 30 seconds I immediately have a feeling of ‘Okay, well I can handle that!’. And then another 30 seconds: okay, I can do that! And so on.
The total, if you play straight through from beginning to end – so that you cover all the essential areas and feel ready to tackle anything at the end of it – is 36 minutes. When I was first playing it from cover to cover I couldn’t do it in less than 40 minutes. The last time
I did it, about a month ago, I was pleased to find that I completed it in exactly 30 minutes (all timed with a stop-watch).
But you can take less time over it, if time is limited, by doing only a few bars of each exercise, and get through the whole lot in 10 minutes or less.
Laurie: What gave you the idea to do this book?
Simon: I had the idea for this book one day while I was warming up after a week in which I had not had much chance to play. It occurred to me that whenever I practiced like this – i.e. a full-blown work-out – I usually covered the same areas of technique, and used the same types of exercises or approaches, in basically the same sorts of ways.
I realized that over the years, I had settled into a routine for thorough warming up where I had filtered out, from all the things I knew I could do, everything except just these particular things that I actually did do. So the "Warming Up" book needed only to be written down, since in effect I had already been using it for years but without having printed it out.
But I never used to do the soundpoint practice as it is presented in "Warming Up," and in the first draft of the book I simply wrote out the five chief tone exercises in their basic format (which was what I played myself). But then I was curious to see if there was a way of combining them so that you could get the same result but in less time.
As it turns out, I love the tone sequence in "Warming Up" – you get to play all the tone exercises, on all soundpoints, and including martelé, spiccato and double stops, on all strings, in just six minutes from start to finish! I wish I had worked that one out years ago.
Laurie: Are any of the exercises from Dounis, or other oldies but goodies?
Simon: Flesch and Dounis, and others, have written out tapping exercises, although the ones in "Warming Up" are slightly different, since they are an amalgamation of different exercises. Lots of the exercises are completely my own, even if based on age-old principles and practices so that it is not possible to really call them your own invention. And many really are completely new.
When it comes to Dounis, I have always recommended the trilly shifting exercises that are in The Artists Technique. I have said to an uncountable number of students over the years that it is worth paying for the whole book just to have that one section, and maybe some of the other shifting exercises in it.
But I have always thought that great care must be taken doing the stretchy left-hand Dounis exercises, lest they become ‘the fast lane on the freeway to Tendonitis City’. They are very clever, and if you are careful and have expert guidance, and have the patience to master them, I am sure they are very effective. But in contrast, all the exercises in "Warming Up" are extremely user-friendly yet they still very much do the trick.
The ‘widening at the base joints’ exercises are the only ones that come close to being strenuous; but compared to Dounis they are nothing, and anyway they take only 30 seconds and you are done.
Laurie: For what level player is this book of warm-ups intended?
Simon: Anyone from sub-intermediate level up to concert soloist. At the less advanced levels, so long as you can basically sort of bow parallel to the bridge, you could do most if not all of the book. Perhaps the little intonation exercises go a bit high if you have not gone up there before, but you can always miss out the ones you don’t like the look of.
The vibrato exercises are strikingly effective. One professional chamber music player friend of mine who has been doing these exercises said recently that his vibrato had so changed that colleagues who knew his playing had commented on the change and improvement. So the exercises are great for the top end; but for players who want to develop their vibrato I can’t recommend anything better than this short, five-minute sequence.
Laurie: We've all heard about Schumann damaging his finger from over-exercise, in attempt to strengthen it. How do you prevent injury, when doing exercises?
Simon: I can only think of it as a matter of being aware and sensitive to your body, and being sensible. Never force. Never overdo. If one dose of medicine is good for you, it doesn’t mean that if you drink the whole bottle it’ll cure you. It might even finish you off forever.
Laurie: How much does this book cost and what is the proper link to buy it?
Simon: £14 from www.simonfischeronline.com. You can also buy it in other currencies, such as U.S. dollars, from my website.
Laurie: There was only one exercise I did not feel like I fully understood, and it was "Feeling the give of the hair and the wood." The concept makes sense, but I wasn't sure whether this was something I was to impose, or if I was to just feel the way the wood-hair balance is at those areas in the bow. Can you clarify that one thing for me?
Simon: This is a really great thing to apply, and it completely changes your use of the bow in the upper half.
The whole thing is that when you play near to the frog, the hair gives, and you can find a feeling of playing into the hair. But when you play near to the point, the hair remains rigid and the give is in the wood in the middle of the bow – so playing in the upper half, rather than gauging the feel of the hair of the bow in the string, instead you sink into the wood of the bow. It changes everything when you do that, and you can find these different sensations of give in the hair and the wood in everything you play.
This exercise is a good example of the difference between merely playing a study to warm up, and using the exercises in "Warming Up." Dorothy DeLay used to call the tone exercises ‘sensitization exercises’ – they sensitize you to the feeling of the bow in the string, and the fingers on the bow, and so on. In the same way, most of the exercises in "Warming Up" are sensitization exercises, and this one – ‘Feeling the give of the hair and the wood’ – is a prime example. It takes only seconds to do, and immediately restores your awareness of, and sensitivity to, this feature of tone production and bowing.
Poor cellists can feel almost none of this give in their thick bows, and as for bass players – forget it. We violinists (and violists, though to an ever-so-slightly lesser extent) have the best bows in the business, when it comes to these sensitive differences between playing in one part of the bow or another.
Originally published on www.violinist.com, November 7, 2012. See here.
Do you need a master plan for scales, for yourself or for your students?
That is the aim of British pedagogue Simon Fischer's new scale-studies book, "Scales." The book, which came out earlier this year, is available through Simon Fischer's website or through Sheet Music Plus.
While it includes all the basic one-, two-, three- and four-octave scales and arpeggios, the book lays out a detailed scheme for understanding intonation as well as exercises for building solid shifts and finger motion in scales.
Simon Fischer talks about his own youthful struggles with scales, about how he came to see scales as invaluable, and about the systems he has laid out in "Scales."
Laurie: Do you remember your first scale book? What was it? Did you like the book?
Simon: I remember it well. In fact I still have it: Comprehensive Scale Manual by Hans Wessely, with my name written on the front cover by my mother. I was using this around the age of 10 or 11. The format of the book is typical -- full of black ink.
No I didn’t like it! It was to be avoided at all costs. The trouble with scale books like this is that, even though they provide handy sequences, they basically give you only fingerings.
The rest is up to you. If you don’t know fancy ways of breaking things down into smaller units and into their constituent parts to solve the actual problems -- it means you just have to play the scales over and over again. It always took me ages to get round to practicing them, and when I did, I lost interest all too quickly and moved on.
When I was about 14, I was put on to the Sevcik scale book, which is really a compilation of scale-type Sevcik exercises, helpfully put together all in one place. This seemed slightly more interesting, since it was varied. Still, it looked a bit severe, and I was put off, just looking at it. I did practice some of it from time to time.
Then came the Carl Flesch book from about the age of 15. You realize how simple the Wessely is, once you see the double-stops in the Flesch. There are various things that I wish were different in the Flesch. For example, the double-stops that go up and down, instead of once up and once down; and four-octave scales are missing (something Rostal tried to address in editing the new version, but without really succeeding). Nevertheless, it is quintessential.
Still, the Flesch is most useful only for the most advanced players; for everybody else it should be a scale book that you graduate to. How perfect, if within 45 minutes or so, you can play a complete key each day, as Flesch intended you to, covering all the scales on one string, in three octaves, and all the double-stops and harmonics. But who can do that?
Who can play them well enough without too many hitches along the way? That would mean playing them in tune, with even sound on each note, with even rhythm, etc. Only the very top level of players can do that. For anyone not so far along the road, it takes too long to play a whole key. Even if you do just a bit each day, it can be arduous and unrewarding work.
What you need are stepping stones across the river, and that’s where scale-studies come in – ways of breaking the overall task down into more manageable challenges. For example: one-octave scales on one string. In my book, "Scales," the actual straight-up-and-down scale is the final stage, after various preliminary building stages. When I watch my students playing the final stage perfectly easily, all I can think is how my attitude to practicing scales might have been different had I had this book when I was a teenager.
Laurie: How was your attitude toward scales, as a teenager?
Simon: I always hated them, particularly the Flesch! I remember standing on the train platform at eight in the morning on my way to my weekly masterclass with Yfrah Neaman at the Guildhall, shivering not just from the Autumn cold, but from fear that I would be asked to play scales, which I had put off practicing all week until finally it had ended up that I had not practiced them at all. As a student, my battle was against tightness and tension. The Flesch just seemed too difficult to play well. Playing music was different – somehow you made it all work however you had to do it. Like most students, for me scales were always something to be put off.
Laurie: What turned you around, what convinced you that scales were worthwhile?
Simon: In the ten years after finishing studying, I spent a lot of time working on basic mechanics rather than on scales -- exercises for tone, shifting, string crossing, intonation, and so on. As part of that work, once or twice a year I would go through a brief phase of practicing scales. Each time, I was pleased to see that they had improved a lot since the last time, without having practiced them at all in between. I would find I could play a scale in thirds more in tune, faster, and with a more relaxed hand, than ever before; but all I had done was practiced exercises in thirds. Four-octave scales would be far easier than before, but only because I had practiced shifting exercises and finger patterns at the top of the G and E strings.
At that time I would rarely ask students to play scales, either. Later, I was pleased to discover that Dounis had had the same approach, also preferring to work on the elements of the scales rather than on the scales themselves. Not that my students did not all have their scale books. When I was first teaching (while still a student in London), I expected my students to do what I had never been interested in doing myself, and so they all had to use the Carl Flesch.
Then in America, I discovered the Galamian scale book, which was unavailable and unknown in London at that time. When I started serious teaching, I used to buy 20 copies at a time (of both the single and double-stop scales) direct from Patelson’s in New York, and had them shipped over to the U.K. at great expense and passed on to my pupils. The Flesch was history.
Then after a few years of everyone using the Galamian (which I never really liked, but which was the most useful book I could find), one day a 15-year-old Czechoslovakian student of mine gave me a present. It was the scale book by Zczislaw Jahnke -- completely unknown then in the West. From then on, the Galamian was history for me.
As it turned out, many of my excellently-trained Polish violinist friends were brought up on the Jahnke. It is a book of scale studies, not just written-out scales. Both it and the Hrimaly, which is similarly an excellent book of scale studies, were the reason I didn’t write my own book sooner. I had decided that in these two books, the job had already been done.
But I still had other justifications for not practicing scales. When I was a student, a friend who had recently won an international competition (and is very well known today) said to me, "If you asked me to play the Brahms Concerto for you, I would be perfectly happy; if you asked me to play a three-octave scale in C major, I would fall flat on my face!" She is a fantastic violinist, I reasoned; so if I don’t practice my scales, it doesn’t mean my career need suffer.
There were also plenty of important players or teachers who, instead of viewing scales as the cornerstone of technique, doubted whether there was any point in playing them at all. So I thought that by not practicing them, but by improving them anyway, I was getting the best of both worlds.
I once asked the pianist Alfred Brendel how he kept his technique in such excellent condition. He was a bit over 70, and I had just heard him, at very close quarters, play a recital with superb technical control. Did he practice scales and exercises? No, he said. He had never played scales or exercises in his whole life. He said he practiced everything from the point of view of musical control, trying to find how to make the music sound as he wanted it to, and all the technique came from that.
The pianist Daniel Barenboim says that practicing scales is positively bad for you, since when you come to a scale in a piece, you might play just a scale rather than music. Though I am a big admirer of Barenboim otherwise, this idea does seem crazy to me. It misses an essential point of scale-playing: that you must play them musically. Scales are full of inner musical tensions and resolutions. I’d bet the same people who play a "scale" instead of "music" would probably play in the same unmusical way, even if they did not practice scales!
So finally, in the last 15 years or so, I began to realize how good it is to practice scales and arpeggios themselves. After all the building work of practicing the elements – shifting, intonation, string crossing and so on – the next step is to practice scales and connect everything into a streamlined whole. There is simply nothing to replace what regular scale-practice brings.
All the previous ideas about saving time by practicing the elements separately are obviously correct, but what I had not fully realized was the benefit that comes into the whole of your playing when you do practice scales regularly. Everything feels easier. Everything requires less practice to get it really good than it would otherwise have needed. You feel in good condition all the time, even at the start of your practice.
These days I regularly work with students on scales, whether or not an exam is coming up! The perfect day’s practice, if you have time, is first exercises, then scales, then studies, then pieces.
Laurie: What did you want to do in this scale book that you felt had not been done before? Are there a few things adopted from other systems as well?
Simon: My book, "Scales," contains everything that is in any standard book, with one- and two-octaves scales as well. Part 3 is a self-contained, normal scale book in itself, with all the usual three-octave scales and arpeggios and chromatics. Part 5 is the same with four-octave scales. The chief rhythm and bowing patterns that you find in the Flesch, or taken to their logical extreme in the Galamian, are there also. It is also naturally influenced or inspired by some of the best features of Jahnke and Hrimaly.
But the truly original feature of Scales, for which I can take no credit since it is not my original idea (though I have added to it slightly), is the way you set up the intonation before you play the complete scale. You begin by playing only the first, fourth and fifth degrees of the scale, then add the others in a particular order. Dorothy DeLay taught scales in this way, as did the great cellist Pablo Casals.
"Scales" is the very first scale book in history to have this setting-up-the-intonation written in to the actual notes of scales, so that the player can read them off the page. It was that idea that inspired me to write a scale book in the first place. Then, with this intonation-structuring as the basis of the book, I was able to add favorite practice methods by incorporating them into fully written-out scales, too.
Laurie: Your scheme for understanding and thinking about intonation in every single key is something I've not seen written out before. How did you come up with this? Do you feel intonation can be taught to someone who has a hard time hearing it?
Simon: A very clever friend of mine spent an entire week number-crunching different frequency calculations to try to see how this scheme worked. It was not that he disagreed with it, but that he couldn’t understand why he liked it, and how it all made such perfect sense to him. In the end, he decided that it was the same tuning system as used by J. S. Bach. I have no idea whether he is correct or not, so this remains only a pleasant thought.
As far as I know, what I have written is exactly what Suzuki or Casals taught: the principle of treating accidentals as ‘leading notes’: sharps lead up, flats lead down, C is a perfect fourth above G, B is the leading note to C, F is close to E.
Of course, how exactly to tune each note – which depends on the key and the context and lots of other things – is another discussion. In playing music, especially with the piano, half the time you have to play completely tempered. Even without the piano, sometimes you don’t want a sharp to be too sharp, or a flat too flat.
I am not the number-crunching type. To me, this simple approach sounds right to the ear, and I have left it at that. If the numbers told me something else, I would still go for what sounded in tune, rather than what the calculations or system insisted was "correct."
As for teaching intonation, I’ve never known anyone who is serious about wanting to improve their playing, whose intonation cannot be improved. So yes, intonation seems very much teachable or learnable. It starts with better listening, and then in having notes to relate other notes to – both aurally and in the feelings of the finger-relationships.
Laurie: Your two-octave scales use all possible finger combinations, so you have three different ways to play the same scale. Why do it this way?
Simon: It’s just a good uniform-intonation exercise. If you use different fingerings to play the same scale, you instantly notice anything that is out of tune, but which you have become used to hearing as correct through sheer repetition of it. Suddenly you realise that a note, which before had seemed correct, is in fact very different from the note you played with the other fingering. The tuning of any note should be an ideal that has nothing to do with which finger is used to play it.
ou get the same two-octave scales in the Hrimaly, but not with one fingering after another. In Hrimaly, the differently-fingered scales are in different sections, on different pages, so the uniform-intonation element is unfortunately lost.
Laurie: For what level student is your scale book? Is it meant for the professional as well as the student?
Simon: It is not a book for complete beginners, but then no scale book is. Players who are somewhere between beginner and intermediate level could benefit greatly from three-quarters of it. If you can play any scales at all, then you can play most of this book. For the professional it is a complete must. This book gives you the opportunity to take your playing on to new levels of complete security.
Now that I can practice from my own "Scales," I find that rather than having to force myself to do them, I can’t stop. I have to drag myself off them when I have run out of time -- it is all so interesting! The variety of the material makes you want to keep turning the pages to see what else you might do. Perhaps anyone would feel like that, playing from their own scale book! But that doesn’t explain my friends and colleagues reporting the same thing for themselves.
Also, now that "Scales" is in print, I no longer have to beg, bully, cajole and endlessly try to inspire my students to practice in certain ways. For example, if I were to say, "This is how to set up the intonation in A major. Now do the same thing in all the other keys!" Well, most students just won’t do it. Or, "Practice shifts as follows: now do that on all your scales and arpeggios!" Perhaps one or two of your best students will do this, but the rest won’t. With "Scales," they can just put the book on the stand and play what’s there.
In "Scales," I included exercises for intonation, for timing the shifts, for moving the fingers at greater speed, and so on. I call all this sort of work "written-out, excellent practice." If you just play what is there and improve it – even if you don’t think about it or know what you are doing – you will be practicing scales excellently. Then, when you play the normal scale as presented in parts 3 or 5 (or in any other scale book), you'll notice massive improvement.
Laurie: At what point should a student start doing scales? And at what point can they stop doing scales -- or is this a lifelong discipline?
Simon: Start as soon as you can! Never stop! But for that to be possible, the practice has to be creative and therefore interesting and engaging, not just repetitious. And you need to climb up the ladder of difficulty rung by rung, and not try to jump straight to the top. Again, that is why most players can benefit from a scale-studies book much more than from any straight scale book.
Originally published by www.violinist.com, March 4, 2010. See here..
Violin playing is a basic matter of proportion and balance.
With all the bowings, fingerings, pitch, tone, rhythm, phrasing and sheer agony that goes into it, just how does one boil violin playing down to that basic matter?
This is the brilliance of London-based violinist Simon Fischer's contribution to violinkind: In his books, magazine columns and teachings, he cuts a path straight to the issue at hand, whether it's wobbly vibrato or out-of-tune scales. Sometimes he even makes the solution seem so simple as to be self-evident -- such is the genius of good pedagogy.
I first met Simon at the Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies in New York in 2007, when he was giving a lecture on tone production. By then he'd already written the two books that many consider essential to any violinist's library: Basics and Practice.
Most recently I spoke to him on the phone about his latest projects: books called The Scale Book and The Violin Lesson, and an epic DVD on tone production. He also has been working on a number of transcriptions, including the Purcell "Chaconne," and he recently released a recording of the Brahms Violin Sonatas that he made with his father, pianist Raymond Fischer.
Laurie: How did you get started with the violin?
Simon: My late brother Mark, who was six years older than me, took up the violin when he was nine, so I was three at the time. We lived in Sidney, Australia, and I remember walking with him to his violin class. Pretty soon he gave up the violin, but I wanted to learn. However, my father wanted me to wait.
Simon: He's a professional musician, a pianist, and because of the difficulties of the profession, he was wary of parents who push their children too soon. He wanted to be absolutely sure. What he wasn't taking into account was that earning a living as a pianist is a very different matter than earning a living as a string player. When you play the piano, you tend to spend an awful lot of time on your own. The violin is a completely different world – he shouldn't have worried.
I kept on pestering my parents until I was seven and a half, and finally I was allowed to start violin lessons.
Laurie: How did you end up in England?
Simon: He and my mother both wanted to come to London, so in 1961 the whole family uprooted to here, and here we've been ever since. My father had to start again from scratch in a foreign country at the age of 32 – very, very difficult, especially for a pianist. When I was growing up, he was forever telling me that I was going to enjoy an advantage that he had not had in this country, in that I was growing up here, with my generation, and all of those contacts.
Laurie: So then was he Australian?
Simon: He was born in Australia, my mother was born in England.
Laurie: Tell me about your schooling.
Simon: I was briefly at the Junior Guildhall at 11, where I studied with Christopher Polyblank and Clive Lander. But then at 13, I left and studied privately first with Homi Kanger, then with Eli Goren, then Perry Hart, then Sydney Fixman. It was only when I met Yfrah Neaman, at Guildhall, that for the first time I stayed for many years with one teacher.
I stayed five years at Guildhall. In those days it was a three-year course, and some students just left and started free-lancing. I was offered a full scholarship to do a fourth year, and I thought, why go out to work if I can be paid, in effect, to stay at home and practice and have lessons? That seemed an obvious thing to do.
Then I was offered another scholarship to stay a fifth year, and so the same applied. By then, I was teaching myself, really, by watching the fantastic players that Yfrah Neaman had in his class. Yfrah was sitting on the juries of lots of international competitions, and lots of international competition players would come to study with him. The cynic can say that that's because they knew that he'd end up on the jury of the competition they were wanting to do! (laughs) But for whatever reason, he had fabulous violinists studying with him.
Laurie: It sounds like you were soaking it up like a sponge.
Simon: Well, I got terrible shock when I went to Guildhall. When I went to Guildhall, I thought I was the best. And the reason I thought I was the best was because as far as I knew, I was! We're talking pre-Internet days. Today is the day of information, but it certainly wasn't in the 1960s. I didn't even play in the National Youth Orchestra. I won the prizes in the local little competitions in Wimbledon, and I didn't really know anybody who could play the violin at all. I could play anything that was put on the music stand, but people didn't put Paganini Caprices on the music stand, they didn't even put the Bruch Concerto on the music stand!
I very easily got my place at Guildhall, nevertheless. Then in my first week at the Guildhall, Mincho Mincheff, the fabulous Bulgarian violinist who had just won the Carl Flesch Competition, was standing there, about five or six feet away from me, playing the Brahms Concerto -- on Szigeti's Guadagnini which had been left to him. I thought, my God, I can't do that, I'd better learn how to!
By my fifth year at Guildhall, I won the top competitive scholarship auditions to go to America, playing the Paganini Concerto No. 1. Also at that time I won the Noel Millidge Concerto Prize at the Guildhall, playing the Bruch G minor with the Symphony Orchestra. I have a recording of that performance that I am very proud of. Two weeks before that competition, I went from London to Aspen to audition for Miss [Dorothy] DeLay, and it was the Bruch that I played to her there.
Then, after I came back from studying with Miss DeLay for two years, over the next few years I had between one and about four lessons with several teachers, including Zakhar Bron, Hermann Krebbers, Igor Ozim, Frederick Grinke, Sandor Vegh, Emanuel Hurwitz and Eric Gruenberg. At that time I was playing some international competitions, though I didn't win any of them – though I did get to the semifinal of the Carl Flesch – doing them partly simply to try to power or force my playing up to new levels.
After I was past the age-limit to play competitions, I carried on studying by myself and ended up doing all kinds of nice things, from playing recitals on the BBC, to leading lots of the orchestras here, to playing the Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky concertos with the Philharmonia at Kenwood (London's equivalent of the Hollywood Bowl) in front of audiences of 10,000. I often say to my teenage students who can already play Paganini Caprices in tune and easily, that if I could do what I have done, starting from where I was at the age of 18, they can do anything!
Laurie: Do you remember your first student?
Simon: I remember my first student very well --- two students. I left school when I was 15. Because I was too young to go to Guildhall, I went to what was then called a Polytechnic. I took Music "A" level, kind of the highest exam you take in high school before you go to college. That was a two-year course, and it was a fantastic time. In the second year, somebody phoned to ask if there was somebody who could give two children violin lessons. I was 17, and I was the violinist there, so I was asked. I taught a little boy and girl, 9 and 7, both from Ireland, and I taught them for about two terms, every week, and took them through the associated board exams, Grade 5 and 3. Each took an exam, then the family moved back to Ireland, and I left Chiswick and went to Guildhall. But I used to skip down the road after those lessons. I just loved teaching those kids, it was just the best.
Then, I went to the Guildhall. Seeing Yfrah -- with his master classes there -- the way he was enjoying this whole violin world and this repertoire and all these students, it was this feeling of camaraderie amongst his class. I just looked at him doing that and thought, that's what I want to do. It was as simple as that.
Laurie: You've managed to teach quite a lot, and to continue playing. How do you keep the balance between the two?
Simon: What I've always found is that the teaching improves my playing, and of course my playing improves the teaching. Then I've found that writing about playing improves my playing as well. It has to do with mental rehearsal and mental visualization: When you are practicing something, then you decide to play it in a different way, you are changing your mental picture. Galamian was talking about it in the 1950s and 1960s; he said that all practicing is a matter of training the mind – nothing to do with training the muscles. When you make a change in your practice, you change your mental picture. This is why mental practice is so fantastic. You don't need a violin; you can go sit on a bench in the park and do fantastic work on whatever piece you are playing, There is a catch, though: you have to know what are the images you're meant to be forming in your mind. And there's a limit to it; you can't learn repertoire like that.
Laurie: Was there ever a time when you came across a student who just could not get something?
Simon: You mean have I ever found myself unable to cope with a particular student, can't sort them out? I've occasionally come up against a brick wall with a student, but very rarely. It's almost impossible that that happens.
Laurie: How do you avoid it?
Simon: I'm passionate about proportions, and this is something I got from Dorothy DeLay. I've put this in the Practice Book, and in the Violin Lesson book there's a big new section on this.
The story DeLay told me is simply this: Leonardo da Vinci was asked to go along and inspect an ancient statue that had just been unearthed. When he turned up, the statue was surrounded by a group of people, all talking about it in what today we would call "artsy-fartsy" language. He stood there in silence. Then he got out one of his famous notebooks, and he got out his measuring tools. He measured every angle, every width, every diameter, everything. He wrote it all down and went home.
As a man, he could see the beauty of the statue: the light and the line, the radiance and the expression. But as an artist, he knew that everything he was looking at was the result of certain proportions, and that was the key. Everything is a question of proportions: if you're a painter, if you're an architect, if you're a cook, if you're a designer of anything whatsoever, what you're dealing with is proportions. When you're making yourself a cup of coffee, you're dealing with proportions.
To me, this is the be-all and end-all, it's the answer to everything: Proportions.
Occasionally, you get a student come to you for a first lesson, and they say that their teacher just didn't know how to fix their problems, so they had to move on. Then you look at the student play, and all the proportions are completely wrong: the bow isn't straight to the bridge, the hand isn't round and nice on the bow...you don't know where to start. You think about the previous teacher not knowing where to start, and you wonder, how is that possible?
If you think in terms of proportions, as a teacher, you never reach that stage where you simply don't know what the next step to take with a student is. And as a player, you never reach that stage – you always know what to do next and improve next. If you can improve and refine the proportions, it's just endless.
Laurie: What exactly does this mean, when you are in a room, looking at a student?
Simon: What it means is, that everything technically can be described in terms of proportions. For example, tone production, every sound that comes out of the violin is the result of certain proportions of speed to pressure to distance from the bridge. Spiccato – every sound in spiccato is the result of certain proportions of length of bow to height of bow, with the added ingredient of how much hair you're using. And intonation, in the major scale, it starts whole-tone whole-tone half-step. You don't want a narrow whole-tone for the first two notes and then a wide whole-tone for the second two, they've got to be equi-distant, and that's a matter of proportions. You play an arpeggio, and if you go A C# E, A C# E, A, all the C#s have to be exactly the same, that means the proportion of two to one. It's all numbers, in the end. Vibrato is a question of mixing different proportions of speed and width, and another extra ingredient, how much finger pressure. Every single aspect of playing the physical violin is describable, and in few words, and the language of the describing is proportion.
You can also use proportion to describe music. To describe an accelerando, each note must be proportionately sooner than the previous one. If you make a crescendo, each note must be proportionately louder, and you can gauge and grade these things accordingly. Of course, lots of people think they make a crescendo when they don't, because they don't listen – actually every note is the same volume. But if they would listen – it's just proportions, everything is.
Laurie: How did you come up with your ideas for Basics?
Simon: Thinking in terms of proportions, or practicing with this in mind, you get flooded with ideas for new combinations of actions that lead to fantastic exercises which are entirely original, and yet based on completely sound principles and elements of violin playing. So many of the exercises in Basics are entirely original as a result of this. All the great violinists have played in these ways – but not necessarily knowing what they are doing or being able to explain it to somebody else.
The Basics book and the Practice books are simply the record of all the things I had to learn, in trying to learn how to play the violin. The Basics book started because, after a year or two of teaching in the early 1980s at Wells Cathedral School and continually writing out the same exercises for students in their notebooks, I finally woke up one day and thought, why don't I write it all down just once, photocopy it and hand it to them? Thus the very first Basics book was born, and it was 20 pages typed, on a typewriter. Then I kept revising it and producing better copies of it. A few years later, I bought my first word processor and decided to make a better version of the Basics book. I thought it would take only a week, but it took three months. It went from 20 pages to 50 double-sided pages because I added all the things I'd been doing in lessons and in my practice in the meantime. A few years later, I got my first proper PC, and that was when I thought I'd make the real super-duper Basics book, which then eventually led to it being published.
Basics and Practice books are just glorified lesson notebooks. If you had five years' worth of lessons and if you went to the trouble of writing down everything at the end of each lesson, you'd end up with a pile of hand-written notes. And if after five years you collated them and put them into order and gave them nice bold headings, what you'd end up with would be these books.
Laurie: What are some of the top exercises in the books?
Simon: Many people ask me that, and it is difficult to answer because I always want my pupils to do them all. But the intonation exercise, number 255, is perhaps one to mention. It is simple to prove how good it is: play, say, a three octave scale in A major; then practice number 255 for 10 minutes in A major; then play the scale again. The scale will be very much easier and more in tune. The question is: if you had practiced the scale itself for ten minutes, could you have improved it that much? Normally the answer is: no way. I always like to say that if there is a violin heaven-world, then Dounis, Flesch, Sevcik and all the rest are up there either shaking their fist at me in annoyance - because they did not think of it themselves - or else (hopefully) they are nodding encouragingly.
Then there are the tone exercises. I call these "million-dollar tone exercises," because they are worth a million dollars each. They will be in my Tone Production DVD, which is set to come out in about six weeks. Three or four of these were taught to me by Dorothy DeLay and Masau Kawasaki, the rest are my own combinations out of the basic exercises. But just 10 minutes a day doing these exercises in the first few weeks, then 10 minutes three times a week for a while, then once a week after that (or used briefly as a daily warm-up), is all it takes to utterly transform your tone.
Laurie: Tell me about the recording of the Brahms sonatas that you did with your father, Raymond Fischer. What's it like to collaborate with a family member?
Simon: We played the complete Brahms in Wigmore Hall in 1988 or '89. Prior to that we played them in at least six or seven music club performances around the U.K. Something about those sonatas remind me of my childhood, of my mother. I just love playing them to death, and to play them with my father. We played them in a big concert in Australia in 2004, and that was my first visit back to Australia since I'd left as a child. My mother passed away a long time ago, and so she never lived to see my career unfold in the way that it has. So it's very significant to be playing those pieces in Sydney with my father, as an adult.
As for Brahms, Benjamin Britten said that, once a year he would listen to a piece of Brahms just to remind himself how awful music can be. In the Brahms vs. Berlioz clash at the time, the composer Hugo Wolf, as a young man, wrote as a music critic to make some money on the side, and he wrote that in one cymbal crash from Berlioz you had more music than in the then-three symphonies (he hadn't written the fourth yet) of Brahms put together. This is what he wrote! All I can say is that if these people do not understand Brahms, then what can you say to explain it to them? I just can't be bothered.
Laurie: I actually love Brahms. He's one of my favorite composers.
Simon: Mine, too. The second piano concerto, the piano quintet, the clarinet quintet, the fourth symphony, the second symphony....
Laurie: ...and the first and third as well!
Simon: The first and third! And the fiddle concerto! I have to say I'm not the greatest Benjamin Britten fan...I would exchange the entire works of Benjamin Britten for one of the violin sonatas, any day, without thinking twice about it!
Laurie: Now one last question, I hope you'll indulge me. I know that you've played a lot of studio gigs, and also that you played with Sting. I'm a pretty big Sting fan – what was it like to work with him?
Simon: Yes I did play with Sting. The recording for Ten Summoners Talestook place at his house in Wiltshire -- it's a 16th century mansion that you have to see to believe. I don't remember this, but someone reminded me recently that at one point in the day I met Sting in one the hallways. "Nice place you've got here," I said. (Don't ask me why I said that, but I did.) He looked around thoughtfully, and said, "Yes, and I got it for a song. Well, two songs, actually!"
First published on violinist.com on July 1, 2016, See here.
Any violinist who wishes to play the instrument's most stunning virtuoso literature, not to mention the best of Bach, must master the double-stop. And to master the double-stop, one must make friends with the double-stop scale.
Of course, regular scales present difficulty enough. But sliding up and down the fingerboard with accuracy on two strings, two fingers by two -- this complicates matters a great deal more. One's first efforts with double-stop scales can be painful to both the ears and the fingers, and they don't necessarily improve quickly and easily.
In college, and even before, I was assigned double-stop scales, and I labored over them in vain. I'd played regular scales for a long time, and I did appreciate their power to improve my technique. Unfortunately, I mostly found frustration in double-stop scales; they never seemed to improve beyond a certain point. Certainly any ease of execution was eluding me. I began to view them not as a friend, but more as a nemesis!
So when I heard that Simon Fischer was writing a book called Double Stops: Scales and Scale Exercises for the Violin, I was skeptical, despite being a fan of his work. Simon is author of violin pedagogy books Basics, Practice, Scales and Warming Up and The Violin Lesson.
What good could it do, to practice double-stop scales, when I'm just not very good at double-stop scales in the first place?
Let's just say that if my teacher had given me Simon's exercises, I wouldn't be asking that question! Simon's book doesn't just present a series of double-stop scales to play (as my technique books did), it breaks them down into their simplest components, with exercises that lead step-by-step to the end result: the actual scale.
For example, if you are working on scales in thirds, he has devised 20 exercises, and only the last one is simply playing the scale slow and then fast. The book includes thirds, sixths, octaves, fingered octaves and tenths for all major and minor scales, and he explains how to do each exercise in detail.
It's an exciting development, to have a book like this available. I spoke to Simon about how he came up with these exercises and how best to use them.
Laurie: How did these sets of exercises evolve? I've never seen anything so detailed! What was your inspiration?
Simon: A direct inspiration was possibly the Jahnke Double Stops scale-studies book (very hard to get hold of in the West), which also has several pages of preparatory exercises before you finally get to the scale at the end. Having started off with the Carl Flesch Skalensystem as a teenager, I ditched it as soon as I discovered the Galamian scale books. But while they are very clever, I was never really happy with all those stemless notes, and the moment I came across the Jahnke scale books I was never interested in Flesch or Galamian again, either for my students or for myself.
However, although I have really appreciated the Jahnke for many years, the double-stop exercises are slightly repetitious and much of the same ground seems to be covered more than once. By contrast, each exercise in Double Stops explores a different technical aspect or focuses on new territory, and builds the whole spread of technical ability in the process.
Basically, all I was trying to do was to help my students prepare for their technical exams. Instead of showing them various ways of practicing, and suggesting (and hoping) that they practice all the double-stop scales in the same ways, I wanted them to have all the most targeted, most effective practice methods all just sitting there on the page, written into the scale, ready for them to play.
So one aim was that the content of the book be essentially just best-ever practice written-out – so that if you do what is there, you are by definition practicing as well as you possibly could be.
I always remember, from when I was about 14, seeing a review in The Times of a performance of the complete solo Bach given in London. I'm sorry that I can't remember who the violinist was, but the critic spoke about all the "customary scratches and scrapes, and forced, sour tones" of the violinist – or something along those lines – and went on to explain that composers such as Bach wrote "beyond the scope" of the instrument because they were writing pure music without regard to the instrument's technical limitations.
Therefore, he explained, of course the playing was full of scratches and scrapes and sour tones – it isn't possible for it to sound otherwise, and one must imagine the music more than listen to it.
Of course, this is complete and utter nonsense. Composers such as Bach knew exactly how to write for the instrument, and not one single double stop in the complete unaccompanied Bach is impossible to play purely and in tune.
The review reminds me of one of the best violin jokes: What's the definition of a "double-stop"? Answer: Double-stops are when one previously good-sounding violinist suddenly sounds like two bad violinists playing together. Triple and quadruple stops? When one previously good-sounding violinist suddenly sounds like three or four absolutely dreadful violinists playing together!
It's only funny because it is so often the truth, but the best players prove that such playing is absolutely unnecessary and avoidable. My hope is that Double Stops is powerful enough to enable even less-advanced players to make real progress towards secure and easy double-stop playing.
Laurie: Were there any other teachers or sources that taught similar exercises, or did you create them all?
Simon: A small handful of the exercises are obvious and well-known – for example, to play first the lower note of an octave, then the upper, then both together; or inserting fourths into a run of thirds; or practicing in rhythms. There is also one that I learnt from my teacher Yfrah Neaman, and a Dounis-type exercise similar to one in The Artist's Technique.
But most of the exercises are entirely new. Some have come about through taking a double-stops exercise from Basics and devising step-by-step, logical sequences out of it in the key of the scale. For instance, shifts with intermediate notes which clarify exactly how to shift from one double stop to another, or string-crossing exercises, or uniform-intonation patterns which so easily reveal when a note is fractionally out of tune.
Laurie: At what point is a student ready to start learning double-stop scales?
Simon: Surely the simple answer is as soon as possible. By the time a child or an adult can play simple tunes, they are already ready to start playing two notes at the same time - I mean easy double stops, not fingered octaves! Once they are able to play single-note scales with shifts, by definition they are ready to start on double-stop scales.
The part of childhood that the teacher must surely capitalise on is the fearlessness that comes with it. The teacher must have an attitude of "of course you can do it, it's nothing." If a child senses a sort of trepidation on the part of the teacher, they will naturally be afraid of double-stops themselves, and become hesitant.
The other reason for beginning double-stops as soon as possible is that they make single-stops feel so easy. There is nothing better than thirds and octaves to encourage a good hand position with the fingers hovering above the strings.
This is a side to this new book that I am really thrilled about – that it doesn't just improve your double-stop scales, but vastly improves all of your playing. After doing these exercises your left hand feels invincible! I think that feeling of invincibility happens firstly because all the note-comparison and note-isolation patterns force you to listen in an entirely new way; secondly because the exercises constantly encourage you to lighten the fingers, so that afterwards the fingers feel incredibly free and responsive; thirdly because some of the exercises are to improve the basic set-up of the left hand and fingers; and fourthly because the patterns map out the fingerboard so clearly in the mind that afterwards there is a feeling of really knowing each finger on each note, wherever it is.
Laurie: Are these exercises in the order that you would have people learn them?
Simon: There is a logical progression from beginning to end in each section, beginning with getting the third tones in tune and setting up the left hand, progressing through shifting and string-crossing shifts, and ending up with the complete scale.
The point is the difference between a "scale book" and a "scale study book." The trouble with the former, such as the Flesch, is that that there is no help offered – you are simply presented with THE SCALES. Double Stops targets each technical aspect of the scale one at a time and gradually assembles the parts as you go.
The complete scale is the final thing you get in each section, after three whole pages of exercises that highlight each technical feature. In a standard scale book, that last line is all you get.
Laurie: Say I'm working on thirds; you have 20 steps for mastering a 2-octave scale in thirds. How many steps should I aim to do in one practice session? All of them? Less? All in a week? If it depends, then can you give some parameters for when to move on, etc. For example, how much would you assign to a typical student for a week's work?
Simon: For more advanced players, the best is to play through the whole section of thirds in one go; or if you do not have time, to spread the whole section over one or two days, or however long you need. For less advanced players, the teacher can select certain exercises according to which aspects of technique the pupil most needs to develop. They could do just one exercise from each section (of course leaving fingered octaves and tenths until later).
I think it is important not to get stuck on trying to do one thing "perfectly" – it is much better to do just enough work to make some progress, and then quickly to move on.
It's really helpful if you mark with a tick everything you play. Then you can practice for just as long or short a time as you like, and play whichever exercises you like and in whatever order, and always be able to come back on another occasion and continue where you left off.
On that basis, I'd recommend practicing a whole key at once, not just one section. A little work on each type of double stop, even just one exercise in each, soon adds up. It is always very rewarding and motivating to see ticks building up, and whether it takes a day or a week or a month to tick every exercise in a key is surely not the point.
The essential thing is to cover lots of ground, since everything you do improves everything else you do. The work you do on the new exercises improves the previous ones anyway, without you needing to stay on them.
Laurie: I noticed that you frequently repeat the admonishment not to move the fingers, once placed, but to leave them there and then see how accurate the attempt was. Why is this important?
Simon: This is only in one of the thirds and fingered octaves exercises, where you place all four fingers together and see if you can get them in the right spacing pattern for both intervals. In fact I learnt this exercise from Yfrah Neaman when I was 18. He mentioned it once only in passing, telling the class that someone in America had recently shown it to him.
Anyway, I found it rather difficult and never tried it much, and it is an exercise I did not put in Basics or anywhere else. It was only in recent years that I realised that although it does seem difficult in the beginning, the exercise becomes easier more quickly than you might think it would. I am very good at it now, after not that much practice – I wish I could show you! But whether you can do it at first, or not, is not the point. The benefit of such exercises is usually as much in the trying, and afterwards you find that things have improved even though the exercise itself was not entirely good or successful.
Also, as Galamian would tell you, practice is not about training muscles but training the mind, since everything comes back to the directions sent to the muscles. So this exercise is actually one of mental control, as you picture the intervals and the finger spacing, not a physical exercise at all. Again this is why playing anything feels so good after doing the exercise: it is because you have strengthened your mental picture, which is just like strengthening mental muscles, that you seem to know so well now where everything is on the fingerboard.
Laurie: How do you avoid injury, if you are practicing double-stops diligently?
Simon: The most important thing is to keep the left fingers as light as in playing single notes. To avoid tension, the normal amount of finger-pressure should always be 'just as much as necessary for a pure tone,' and no more.
While the weight of the bow, in playing a double stop, is spread between two strings, so that therefore you generally need more weight to play a double stop than a single stop at the same volume, double stops do not require double finger-pressure; triple stops or quadruple stops do not require triple or quadruple finger-pressure. Instead, even in chord passages the left fingers can be feather-light. This is the "secret" to being able to run around fast in double stops.
Another essential thing for most double stops is that the hand be balanced on the upper finger, with the lower finger reaching back, rather than based on the lower finger with the upper finger stretching upwards. That doesn't apply to sixths, but again this basic hand setup is written into the exercises for all the other double stops.
Laurie: Is it possible to cultivate good double stops at an older age? Is there an age past which it's a little harder? What are the benefits of starting earlier?
Simon: This is one of the most destructive myths – that if you haven't got your technique by the age of 20, it is too late because after that age everything takes so much longer to learn. This is nonsense which stops people from taking simple steps to improve their playing.
You can learn and develop these skills at any age, and in fact adults often learn much faster than children or teenagers. Learning these or any set of skills depends first on your level of desire to attain them, second on the clarity and depth of the information you receive, and third on how much time you are able to devote to them. But it doesn't depend on age (assuming no physical disability).
Anyway, too late for what? Too late to win an international competition? Even that is not necessarily true, though it certainly helps to have a large repertoire all ready to play at a moment's notice by at least that age, or perhaps more by 15, if you really want to end up winning Brussels, Moscow or Indianapolis. But how many people even want to aim for such things? Isn't there far, far more to being a musician than that? For everybody else, except that tiniest of tiny minorities who are aiming for a solo career, that "20" time limit simply does not exist, and neither does any other, really.
I love the analogy – I think it comes from the American "success guru" Brian Tracy – that while there is the "three strikes and you are out" rule in baseball, in the "game of life" it is different: you are not only the batsman, but also the bowler and the umpire; you can bowl yourself as many balls as you like, and the only person who can call you out is yourself!
If you want to call yourself "out" at the age of 20 or 25, or 30 or whenever, that's fine – but you don't have to!
Laurie: It is my feeling that fingered octaves are impossible for me to play, with smallish hands and also no longer being a teenager. But I thought they were impossible back then, too. Are some people just incapable of fingered octaves, or do you find most can learn them?
Simon: I always refer back to a lesson with Dorothy DeLay in which I was trying to play the 17th Caprice of Paganini, the one with the section in fingered octaves. She advised me to play the lower notes much more loudly than the upper notes so that the octaves would sound more in tune. "But that's cheating, Miss DeLay," I protested. "I want to play them in tune!"
She had recently returned from Europe after sitting on the jury of an International competition (I think it may have been the Queen Elizabeth). "Well," she replied, "I have just heard about 20 top international-standard competitors play that Caprice, and not one single one of them played the fingered octaves in tune! So you can go ahead and try, if you like...!"
It was very funny. Afterwards I realised that indeed neither the Perlman or Rabin recordings of the Caprices were truly in tune – and nobody else seemed to be either. So you are definitely in good company, Laurie!
I have heard at least one person play them in tune, however. I was present at Midori's first-ever concert in the United States when she was 8, I think, up at the music school in Aspen. She played the Bach Chaconne and the Paganini 17th Caprice. In the Bach she got lost in the first bariolage section, and improvised her way back to the right key – almost as astonishing as the fact of her playing the piece at that age in the first place.
In the Paganini, the fingered octaves were absolutely in tune, or seemed so to me at the time, since each octave had that blended, ringing quality that comes when they really are more or less in tune. And all on a tiny violin.
On the other hand, it is said that there is no point in playing octaves in tune, since if you do, nobody really knows they are octaves! Better to play them slightly out of tune!
But back to your question. First of all you should practice them occasionally anyway, even if you are never going to perform a piece that uses them, simply because afterwards your left hand feels so good – if, that is, you do them with the hand based on the upper finger and with the lower finger reaching back to its note, rather than the other way round.
Secondly, I am fond of reminding myself that the trouble with ever thinking that we have a valid reason for not being able to do anything, is that usually we don't have to wait long before we meet someone who had even more reason than we have to not be able to succeed, and yet they have succeeded! It must be that there is someone in the world, somewhere, who is slightly older than you and has slightly smaller hands, who can play fingered octaves at least not too badly! So please practice these exercises and report back in one month, Laurie!
Laurie: Why no fifths?
Simon: I thought many times about including patterns in fifths, and also in fourths, and would love to have been able to fit them in. I even began to write some in the early drafts. After all, half the chords in unaccompanied Bach use them. It was just a question of space and page-count and not wanting the book to get too vast. Beside, nobody is ever asked to play 4ths or 5ths in scale exams at college, as far as I have ever heard, and I wanted to keep the book focused on what they would have to play.
Laurie: How do you get your students to hear Tartini tones? Do you play them? When did you discover them? How important is to hear these? (I pretty much can't!)
Simon: Third tones are like one of those funny, apparently random pictures made up of coloured dots, where you stare and stare, and then suddenly you see what they are a picture of. The picture was there all the time and you just couldn't see it, but now you easily can. It is the same with third tones, and once you have "located" them you can always hear them easily. And even if you can't hear them in the lower registers, you can still hear when the two notes of the double-stop blend in that smooth way that they do when the third tone is in tune.
The question is, when does it matter that the third tone is in tune, and when does it not? This is a big subject. I have colleagues who maintain that every third or sixth must be tuned so that the third tone is in tune, but although I have tried to see things (hear things?) their way I simply can't.
As far as I can tell, sometimes the third tone should be in tune and sometimes not, depending on the musical context. But I love the third-tone exercises in Double Stops. Getting the purity of the in-tune third-tone is surely the foundation of double-stop playing, even if afterwards you choose to ignore the third tone in particular instances for musical reasons.
Originally published by violinist.com. July 10, 2013, See here.
Even some of the best players in the world can't really explain, in detail, what they are doing on the violin, how they are doing it or why it works. But when a student is struggling, or when a student wants to reach a new level of playing, this explanation can make all the difference. Fortunately for teachers and for students, UK violinist and pedagogue Simon Fischer has compiled an entire book of such explanations: The Violin Lesson.
The author of violin pedagogy books Basics, Practice, Scales and Warming Up, Simon has taught at the Guildhall School since 1982, and at the Yehudi Menuhin School since 1997. He writes a regular column for The Strad magazine and freelances in London.
We spoke over the phone last month about his new book, and the question that it begs:
Why is it, that many violin students aren't taught the simple things that would immediately help improve their playing and boost their expressive abilities?
"Their teacher might be a fantastic player and a fantastic musician, and they might give a fantastic music lesson," Simon said. "But the trick is to find the teacher who gives a violin lesson as well as a music lesson. The ideal violin lesson must be a wonderful music lesson and also a chance for the teacher to immediately identify what needs to be changed about how the student is going about playing the violin. And the change is always so simple to make."
Teaching technique and teaching music are two sides of the same coin, he said. Yet some teachers don't even try to teach technique. One teaching colleague even admitted quite happily that when the student has technical problems, she doesn't know whether to look at the left hand or the right. "So she just forgets about it and carries on teaching them music," Simon said.
In the UK, college students sometimes have to prepare a journal in which they describe the content of all of their violin lessons: what the teacher said, the points that were made, etc. "When you adjudicate a student recital, this journal is put down on the table in front of you, and you're meant to look at it and give that a mark, as well as grade the playing," Simon said. He remembers encountering one particularly exceptional journal: "It was beautifully handwritten, and the teacher's words were marvelous -- wonderful musical ideas and philosophical ideas. It was all about music and expression and contrast. I thought, you could publish this, it's beautiful! This is a real musician who knows about music, passing on his knowledge to his student with great dedication."
The problem was, the student couldn't play. "The student's bow was all over the fingerboard, he was holding the violin at the wrong angle to his body, he was playing not a note in tune," Simon said. "There was no music because he couldn't play the violin!" And those beautiful musical ideas? "All irrelevant, because the teacher wasn't giving a violin lesson as well as a music lesson. The teacher was telling him everything, except what he actually needed to know."
In fact, this sometimes is intentional, with some teachers embracing the idea that teaching technique, or explaining too much, will somehow ruin a student's innate musicality. Simon said that a violin teacher colleague, having read one of his Strad Magazine articles (about bow retakes), admonished him: "Don’t explain! If you explain to students how to play, they will forever be wooden players. The student must ‘just do.'"
"But some students can 'just do'; some can't," Simon said. For those who can't, "if you explain what to do, then if they continue to do it for the short while that it takes for the new habit to become unconscious, then they end up in the same place as those who could do it without knowing how in the first place."
"So I believe very much in explaining," Simon said. "This takes time – actual clock time – in lessons." But it's hardly a waste of time. A good explanation creates what Simon calls a "packet of information." The idea is to create a good number of these "packets."
"Suppose you spend 10 minutes of a lesson explaining the idea of thinking about the violin in terms of proportions. It doesn’t take much longer than that to cover the sort of range of ideas that I described in the chapter, The Magic Word: Proportions, from The Violin Lesson (p. 96). Then in every lesson afterwards, that entire 10 minutes is contained in that one word: 'Proportions.' It has become a ‘packet,’" Simon said.
"As lessons progress, more and more of these ‘packets’ are accumulated and become the shared language of the lessons. Therefore, as time goes by, the power and intensity of the lessons increases exponentially. This is one reason why the speed of the students’ progress should increase the longer they continue with a particular teacher, not decrease, as is so often the case! "
There is time, in lessons, to explain things. "Let the clock tick on, make the investment! Once you have explained the subject, it is ‘in the bag,’ to be taken out whenever required, and that then takes only seconds," Simon said.
"The Violin Lesson is ‘the book of opened packets’ – the contents of the boxes when they are opened up. Sometimes this can take just a paragraph of text (or thirty seconds of instruction in a lesson), sometimes several pages of text and examples and photographs (or five minutes of a lesson) – but once you have got the idea, it is now ‘one thing’ in your mind. Then, in a typical lesson, ten or more of these subjects may come up. Then each lesson literally becomes more and more valuable."
These detailed explanations are what makes this book different from his previous books, Basics and Practice, Simon said. "The Basics book is pure: the actual principles underlying everything else, and I kept it absolutely strictly to that," he said. Practice focuses on just that: the practice techniques used to solve technical and musical problems that typically arise.
"Every musical example in the Practice book comes from real life, either a lesson situation or my own practice," Simon said. "For years, I had a notebook in every lesson, and I scribbled down the music example and what I had just done with a student. So there's a story behind every single example."
The examples and practice techniques filled notebooks, numerous scraps of paper, the back of violin string packets and Simon's daily diary, "just writing down, writing down, writing down -- everything good, everything that worked."
For three or four years, he wrote down everything that helped.
"I'd come out of the Scottish Academy after eight hours of teaching and sit down in the taxi or the bus to the airport. I'd immediately have my file on my lap and I'd be writing down things that had come up in those lessons. I’d continue while standing in line for the security search, and then the moment I sat down on the plane I’d begin again.
'Driving home from the Menuhin School I would sometimes pull over and stop, to write down some idea or method that I had just remembered had come up during a lesson that day. Because although you think you’ll never forget, in fact unless you write everything down, things do get lost. The music examples in the Practice book are like a record of all the pieces that I was teaching or performing in that period."
"Then for several years it was the same with The Violin Lesson," Simon said, "at the end of the day, and between (and often during!) lessons, taking notes of the subject headings that have come up. But more than a record of the lessons, The Violin Lesson is a record of many of the chief steps in understanding that I have had to take myself in my musical and violinistic journey up to this point, as well as the steps my students have had to take in theirs."
Simon has been teaching for about 35 years, ever since he was a student at the Junior Guildhall. He's easily taught more than 1,000 students. This fall he will have some 40 students, between his teaching at the Guildhall, the Yehudi Menuhin School and private teaching.
What is the key to being a good violin teacher?
"A teacher needs to be able to look at a violin student and to see how they could play, at their absolute best, if everything were going for them. That's the picture you have in your mind," he said.
"Walter Carrington, my Alexander Technique teacher, was brilliant," Simon said. "He didn't try to force you in any direction; he could see how you would be, if you were actually in an ideal state, and his hands would just so gently sort of urge you in that direction. It's not the same as saying that what you're doing is wrong; that's something different. His attitude was more like, 'Why aren't you being that, that which you are already? Or that which you could be, if we can strip away all the things in your way?'"
"I'm always telling the students the story about Michelangelo, walking down the same road for 20 years," Simon said. "There was a slab of marble, by the side of the road, that he didn't particularly notice. Then suddenly one day he saw the statue, imprisoned in the stone. He had the slab taken back to his studio, where he chipped away all the bits that shouldn't be there and 'liberated the statue from the stone.' The same goes for the teacher and student: the teacher helps liberate the student from anything that isn't serving him or her, anything that is getting in the way of the student's music."