The hands of a violinist

Posted: March 1, 2018 in Fiddle stuff, music education

I really thought I’d have the job done by now. Insofar as I thought about it at all as a young violin student, I probably imagined a journey with a defined end-point; put in x number of years, and you’ll have mastered the instrument.  Let’s just say that turned out to be rather wide of the mark. Pablo Casals, when asked in his 80s why he continued to practise for 4-5 hours per day, is said to have replied ‘Because I feel I am making progress’. This is both very good and very bad news for string players; on one hand, it’s reassuring to know that even a master like Casals saw room for improving his musicianship throughout his life. On the other,the bad news is the job is never done.

Certainly, many of my young adult students tend to ask questions like ‘how long will this take?’, and I’m never sure how honest to be with them at the beginning. The truth might have a demoralising effect. (In an aside, it’s rather different with children. Learning seems to be no big deal for children –  after all, it’s the single activity that accounts for most of their time – and, consequently, mistakes are not a big issue either, nor do they look for results in the way adults do). Nowadays I teach only adults, which is highly rewarding in many ways, but there are challenges; adults are constantly seeking progress, tend to be very hard on themselves when they make mistakes, and in many cases are crippled by baggage around learning music, sometimes with the belief that they inherently have no right to be doing it (‘I never was a musical child’/’a teacher told me I was tone-deaf’ etc…)

A particularly common stick with which many adult violin students beat themselves is the notion that the shape or size of their hands makes them unsuitable for the instrument. I’ve heard it all; ‘my hands are too big’/’my hands are too small’/’ah but you see I’m left-handed’/ ‘you see, I’m right-handed’/ ‘i’m double-jointed’*. And here’s the thing: I have yet to encounter a students whose hands might constitute an obstacle to their playing violin. The bad news is that I have encountered students whose ears might hinder them. And here I have to invoke the wisdom of my very wise mentors at the Voice Care Network,  who teach that while we hear a lot about eye-hand coordination, as musicians we need to think more about the notion of ‘ear-hand coordination’, which is a massive part of becoming a violinist. Many students find the left hand technique very daunting – “how do you know where to put your fingers?!” – and they’re right to respect it; with no frets or keys to guide intonation, the potential for error is extremely high. However, focusing all your practise attention on the mechanics of where to place your fingers, without a corresponding time investment in ear-training, is a waste of time. And I wished I’d realised this a bit earlier in my violin training. The fingers can’t do anything that the ear hasn’t already prepared.

All this focus on the left hand challenges comes at another price, as well; we undervalue bow technique. It’s only relatively recently, through viola lessons with the excellent Lisa Dowdall, that I’ve come to appreciate how much of the artistry of string playing comes from the right hand. Which brings me back to what may well be the bad news; you never stop learning. Like I say, I didn’t think I’d still be learning the violin at this age, but, as it turns out, your relationship with your instrument is constantly changing. At the moment I’m trying to go deeper into this relationship with the bow, exploring the different sounds I can make by changing the bow weight, speed, breathing even, and now that I’ve started, that seems like another lifetime’s work. I still can’t decide whether it’s a good or bad thing that I didn’t know at the outset how long the journey would be; it might have deterred me from starting in the first place. But it might equally have helped me to know that a lifetime’s work can equal a lifetime’s reward.


*A student bringing up this old chestnut recently prompted me to find out once and for all what it actually means, having always been quietly puzzled by the term. A medical person assured me that, technically, it doesn’t mean anything, but is a term used by laypeople to describe a greater than average range of motion or flexibility in the fingers. Why on earth would that prevent you from mastering the violin?


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