Body use and release
In order to play with fluent coordination, the body needs to work as an integrated whole. This coordination depends on the body being free enough to respond to the demands of playing in a balanced way.
To maintain balance while playing, the joints need to be released.
- Check your knees are not locked. A good guide to a balanced stance is if you can walk while playing.
- The ball and socket joint at the shoulder needs to be released. In particular watch that shoulder rests do not press down on top of the ball and socket joint, thus hampering the freedom of movement.
- The elbow, wrist and base knuckle joints should also be released and available to move. Pay particular attention to these joints at your bow change and for fast actions such as trills, vibrato and sautillé.
Remember where the joints are in the body and where they are not.
- In the trunk (the upper body) there is no joint in the ribs or chest. While sitting the best way to move forward and back or side-to-side is to rock at the hip joints.
- The neck is very flexible but it is not a joint. The chin or jaw contacts the chin rest after we let the head nod and rotate, not by pushing the jaw forward.
The eyes must not be fixed. Fixing the eyes on the music or looking down the fingerboard is a common cause of tightness, which in turn can affect coordination. Find moments while playing to release your head off the chin rest and try practising with your eyes closed.
Technical timing, impulse and momentum
Good technical timing, the efficient movement of the fingers and the bow on the string, is basic to coordinated playing.
The timing of the finger lift to coordinate with the bow stroke is vital, whether playing Sevcik Opus 3, Variation 38 or Hot Cross Buns. Lifting the finger too early or too late means that the bow creates the sound as the finger is in transit, and then the note is not articulated cleanly.
The speed and energy of our actions needs to match the task in hand. A sluggish lift of the finger will mean that the note does not articulate clearly.
The number and intensity of impulses is also central. Just as a quick, small shot in table tennis requires a different impulse, with different preparation, to a serve in tennis, the impulse to lift or place the finger needs to be technically appropriate to the tempo and character of the music.
Too much intensity disturbs the balance in the left hand. While a sluggish finger-lift affects the articulation, an over-active lift can unsettle the hand frame. Too many impulses for small technical tasks will also disturb the flexibility and reliability of our left hand in performance. For example in bar 13 of the Allegro of Rode 'Caprice No.4', we can see that the left hand has several small tasks to complete: to shift, to trill and play a turn.
For slow practice we can isolate these various tasks and practise each one with its own impulse. So we may practise just the shifting back and forth from 1st to 2nd position using guide fingers. The impulse to use is one appropriate for a small shift. We may practise just the turn without the preceding shift or the trill and here the impulse will be felt from the C# leading to the Eb. Similarly we can practise the trill on its own, focussing on the trilling finger.
However, when each component and each variable of the technical task is learnt, we need to combine them into one unified action and thus we will give one impulse from the Bb at the beginning of the bar and the momentum carries right through to the Eb after the turn.
Sometimes a player may have trouble with coordination in a passage and the arm continues to lock even after halving the tempo and inserting practice breaks. This can be because to make the passage work, they have attempted to force the fingers and arms into position. This use of force is unreliable, especially at tempo in performance conditions.
For instance, if the arm has not prepared the left hand for a string cross, or if the arm has not shifted far enough, then the finger has to suddenly stretch too far or fling itself into position to grab the note, resulting not only in an inaccurate note but a tightening of the whole left hand. What needs to happen in slow practice is the calm preparation of each technical command in the passage, whether this is note by note or the whole unit. Above all the ability to stop in practice, in the middle of a passage, to think and to mentally prepare what is coming up next is vital for eventual fluent coordinated playing.
Practising for calm coordinated playing
Use mental practice so that we know our intentions and how we want the passage to sound before we put the arms into play.
Practise slowly, (especially at half and quarter tempo) and use practice breaks, so that you have the time to listen to what you have just played and most importantly to prepare for what is coming up.
Separate the arms. Practise silently, that is with the left hand alone, or play the open strings with just the bow.
Change the articulation to challenge and improve your coordination. Start on the wrong bow, for instance start Kreutzer 'Study No.2' on the upbow. Our ears can get used to strong downbows and weak upbows and consequently we do not hear the unevenness of our détaché stroke. By starting on the upbow we work towards a more even détaché and therefore improved coordination.
Also practise slurred passages with separate bows and vice versa.
Check your rhythm as problems with rhythm are linked to issues with coordination. A poor understanding of rhythm will lead us to be unclear about our intentions, to be unclear in telling our hands what to do. Just like dogs, your hands and fingers respond well to calm, clear directions and tend to panic and freeze if the directions are confused, contradictory or imprecise. Poor coordination (especially in the bow arm, but also when shifting or in finger preparation), in turn leads to poor rhythm.
Separate and reintegrate the various variables to work on your rhythm and your coordination. Practise singing, clapping and conducting to ensure that your understanding of the rhythm is secure before picking up the instrument.
To work on a problematic rhythm
Walk with a step on each beat to emphasise the pulse while you:
- Sing the rhythm out aloud
- Play the rhythm on an open string
- Play the passage as written
Work with the metronome. Play for a few beats and then add silent beats so that you can analyse what you have just played. See Gerle's The Art of Practising the Violin.
- Add subdivisions and speak them out aloud during long notes to give rhythmic pulse. See de Alcantara's Integrated Practice.
- Practise bowing out long notes with the rhythm of the shortest notes, e.g. bow a dotted crotchet as 3 quavers if the shortest note in the phrase is a quaver.
Clear articulated sound
Remember when practicing syncopation to keep the articulation short so that you can hear the rhythm.
The small group or string ensemble is an ideal place for rhythm and coordination exercises. These can also include dance and movement to music. The benefits of working on these issues in groups include:
Peer group motivation.
Provides a space to do more than to analyze.
Observing others mistakes is easier than acknowledging ones own.
Students can model themselves not only on the teachers playing but also that of other students.
Scales and technical work
Shifting exercises. Try playing the 2nd octave of Galamian's Scales in one position with each position played twice. On the second time through each player in turn can shift up on the lower string. For instance, play 1 octave of Bb major across A and E strings with the solo line repeating up the A string using just the 1st and 2nd fingers.
Practise rhythms in scales of 3 octaves. Part of the group plays a rhythmic drone on the tonic while the rest of the group plays the scale listening to the drone. The players playing the drone can change the articulation, for instance:
- A particular rhythm such as triplets, a habanera or gigue rhythm.
- A certain bowing style such as spiccato, détaché or sautillé.
- Using a different part of the bow such as détaché in the lower half or upper half, downbow retakes at the heel or tremolo at the tip.
Divide the group into three parts to play scales in three parts. Start each group two notes apart so that the scale has a triad on each note.
Divide the group again into three parts, but with each part starting on a different octave. At a less advanced level, the top octave can be played with one finger shifting up the E string for the 3rd octave. So for G major use 2nd finger, for A major use the 3rd finger, for Bb major use the 4th finger.
Group coordination exercises away from the instrument
It is useful to work on coordination exercises not only at the instrument but also away from it, since basic patterning is more easily learnt without the challenges of playing the instrument. Some researchers, including myself, have studied the effect of learning juggling on coordination in string playing. Like string playing, juggling requires the fluid integration of many different actions into a cohesive whole. This finding the zone, getting in the flow, notable in string playing is also present in juggling.
Juggling and string playing
To play a string instrument well requires good coordination between left and right arms.
Juggling develops coordination between left and right sides.
There is no time to focus on separate mechanical actions such as shifting action of the left hand or bow strokes with the right hand.
Like string playing, juggling cannot work if the juggler is trying to control each individual action such as the throwing of each ball.
The skill of focusing on the whole rather than individual actions may be transferred from juggling to string playing.
Like music performance, juggling is also a performance involving interaction with the audience.
See Murphy F P, Gill A & Rickard N S. 'Informing New String Programs', volume 28, issue 03, pp. 285-300, British Journal of Music Education, 2011
Geza Szilvay at the East Helsinki Primary School has developed a whole range of exercises for groups sitting in a circle including:
Use flat hands or fists to tap and bounce off your legs like trampolining.
Tap your leg, clap, tap neighbours leg, clap.
Cross the mid-line of your body to tap your neighbour or do a high 5 clap with your neighbour.
Add in tapping your shoulders (cross your arms).
Sing a simple melody in 4 (like Hot Cross Buns) while tapping fingers against thumbs.
See www.ihmo.fi/ for East Helsinki Music Institute and www.wcmt.org.uk/reports/73_1.pdf for String Pedagogy and Musicianship Teaching in Hungary, Eastern Europe and Finland by Philippa Bunting.
With the instrument
These exercises develop inner hearing and understanding the difference between rhythm and pulse.
Sing and silently finger the notes with the left hand.
Follow by playing and singing at the same time.
Try singing one line of notes in double stops while you play the other line.
March or step through a rhythm while playing.
Sing while walking.
Pluck tunes while walking.
Play while stepping through a pattern. Start with your strong foot or insist on starting with the right foot if the bow is the issue.
Also practise your sight-reading as this can help considerably with improving issues with coordination and rhythm.
Introduction to Practice