Unlock Virtuosity| Chapter 6
Can We Unlock the Secrets of Virtuosity?
Fundamentals Underlying Techniques and Methodologies
By Prof. Lihay Bendayan - Head of the Violin Class Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance
What is virtuosity?
The common understanding of the term “virtuosity” refers to a great technical skill in music, dance, writing, painting - mainly in the practice of fine art. The Cambridge dictionary defines “virtuosity” as “the quality of being extremely skilled at something.”
To play an instrument, and in particular, in violin playing, virtuosity refers to the brilliant technique and the capability to perform the most technically demanding repertoire. A “virtuoso” (from Latin “virtuous” meaning “good, virtuous”) is an extremely skilled violinist possessing exceptional technique. Niccolo Paganini, Louis Spohr, Henri Vieuxtemps, Pablo de Sarasate, Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst, Joseph Joachim, and others in the late 18th and 19th centuries are prominent examples of violin virtuosos who were able to stretch to the extremes the capacities of the instrument and develop the related human capabilities to previously unknown highs. The 20th century was exceptionally generous in offering great virtuosos and fabulous representatives of various violin schools, such as Eugène Ysaÿe, Carl Flesch, Fritz Kreisler, and later Jascha Heifetz, Yehudi Menuhin, David Oistrakh, Leonid Kogan, Isaac Stern, Ivry Gitlis, Michael Rabin, Nathan Milstein, Ruggiero Ricci, Tibor Varga, Zino Francescatti, Christian Ferras, Arthur Grumiaux Ginette Neveu, Jacques Thibaud, Joseph Hassid, Henryk Szeryng, and many others. More recent examples, we should mention, for example, Itzhak Perlman, Shmuel Ashkenazy, Shlomo Mintz, Pinhas Zuckerman, Maxim Vengerov, and Vadim Repin. All these great virtuosos possess exceptional technical skills, but at the same time, their playing and interpretations vary greatly in taste and approach. In fact, their virtuosity does not define their interpretations; rather, it is a tool that affords them a great deal of freedom and the privilege of dealing with musical challenges without concern for technical issues. I am convinced that all these wonderful violinists use their virtuosity for a much greater cause: presenting the repertoire’s beauty, meaning, shape, expression, textures, atmosphere, and aesthetics.
Virtuosity certainly requires great talent - an exceptional natural gift - but also years of arduous work. Even the legendary Jascha Heifetz, considered by many to have been the greatest virtuoso of the 19th century, used to say: "If I do not practice seven hours one day, I can really feel it in my playing. If I don't practice seven hours a day for two days, everyone can hear it!" This is where schooling comes in. Some pedagogues were able to produce more virtuosos than others. Luis Persinger, Leopold Auer, Ivan Galamian, Pyotr Stolyarsky, Abram Yampolsky, Carl Flesch, Yuri Yankelevich, and George Enescu are just a few examples of wonderful pedagogues who formed several of the virtuosos mentioned above. They were able to transmit precious information to their pupils in a constructive way - and themselves possessed a great talent: the capacity to develop their students into the best possible version of themselves. As Heifetz used to say about his teacher Leopold Auer, "He made me become Heifetz, not another Auer."
Very often, virtuosity is associated with child prodigies or with the myth of "the gypsy violinists" who astonish listeners with their fabulous facilities. This article aims to decipher the secret of virtuosity from a pedagogical point of view and analyze the principles underlying the various violin schools and exercise books. These were naturally influenced by the personalities and experiences of the pedagogues, including when and where they lived, the older traditions and schools and musical taste they had been exposed to themselves, and conceptions of ideal violin sound and the cultural influences relevant to time and place.
What would be an extremely great skill for a violinist?
We often associate virtuosity with the capacity to play very fast. But is it that simple? If we take the example of two cars: a new Ferrari model and an old Volvo, both driving at a high speed of 170 km/h. Are they both “virtuosos”? 170 km/h is a high speed for the Volvo, which is already beginning to strain under the effort, while the Ferrari is just warming up. And of course, the sound of the two cars at 170 km/h is not at all the same.
This example demonstrates that playing fast alone is an insufficient measure of virtuosity. Playing fast with great effort and difficulty and poor quality (intonation/sound) would not be considered virtuosic, despite the player having reached a fast metronome marking. Further, this applies to the performance of all the other technically demanding skills or passages, such as brilliant bow strokes, quick double stops, and double harmonics.
Considering the above, in my personal definition of virtuosity, I would say that the first condition is quality. Then, how easily a passage is played and how much of the player’s capacity is required to do so. By the same token, we could say that the easier the Paganini concertos are for you, the more virtuosic you are.
“Easy” means effortless and tensionless, raising the question, “How can we reduce the amount of effort and tension while we play and so become more virtuosic?”
The following analysis in answer to this question is most relevant to advanced students and professionals who already benefit from the solid basic technique.
1. Use proportional effort (not force)
In many ways, we unconsciously create difficulty and tension for ourselves by using too much force or using force instead of other capabilities, such as weight, for tone production. We are born with clenched fists, and as babies retain the reflex of holding objects tightly and in disproportionate relation to their weight for quite a long period. Avoiding this reflex when holding the bow, when holding the violin (neck, shoulders, right thumb), or pressing the fingers into the strings is absolutely crucial. Imagine the impact on your bow technique of holding a 60-gram bow with force needed to lift a 2 kg chair or, in a quick passage, pressing the fingers too forcefully into the strings (which, as we know, rest quite close to the fingerboard). This is like running with weights on your feet or forcing your feet into the ground instead of doing exactly the opposite. We need instead to fine-tune our effort, reducing it to the absolute minimum necessary. How often do I see players who could use much less effort in a technical context! Let’s come back to the car for another example, reflecting on how you hold the steering wheel when you drive: naturally, you don’t need to hold it very tightly and with force when you drive, nor do you need to clutch the steering wheel tightly when you need to move it. When you turn the steering wheel to follow the twisting of the road, you can benefit from the car’s reaction to the road to reduce the effort you make in consequence; further, you can use the weight of your shoulders and arms, rather than the strength of your muscles, to accomplish the turn.
2. Maintain Quality Posture
Quality posture, a relaxed, neutral position of the back and neck, is at the base of good, free technique. I warmly recommend you consider methods such as Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais Method, and others concerning this point. By contrast, a building technique with an asymmetrical back position will create compensatory mechanisms, increasing tension. There is always a correlation between the muscles and the tendons in our body, and this is why, for example, the tension in your shoulders will impact your arms and even your wrist and fingers; an asymmetrical back position not only influences the position and the state of your shoulders, but also alters the position and hold of the violin, which in turn inevitably affects your capacity to shift positions freely, to vibrate freely, to control your playing in an efficient yet sensitive way, or to adjust the amount of pressure needed for each finger to stop the string.
3. Employ Symmetrical Starting Positions
Various violin schools propose different ideal positions for the violin, elbows, thumbs, wrists, and hands--and even feet! Moreover, the individual morphology of each violinist will lead to different ideal positions, even when following the same principles. Nevertheless, I strongly believe that brilliant technique, that is, technique free from tension and doesn’t go against nature, should be based on symmetrical positions. To illustrate this notion, consider the position of the right wrist, which is in fact defined by the position of the hand towards the lower arm and by the position of the elbow on its other side. A high wrist would imply a relatively low hand position and a low elbow, while a low wrist would imply the opposite: a high hand and elbow, with a low wrist in between. With a high waist, even if the hand is relaxed, the lower arm muscles are still tensed. Only when the hand is flat and in line with the lower arm are the muscles on both sides balanced. Now, imagine the context of a passage that contains quick changes between strings (such as in Kreutzer’s etude no. 13) involving the G, D, and A strings. To execute the string changes initiated by the right hand, the elbow should be positioned at the level of the middle string (D) with a flat wrist. From this position, we should be able to initiate movements of the hand upwards towards the lower string (G), back to the middle string, and from the middle (D) downwards towards the higher string (A) and back again to D repeatedly. But if you are on the D string with a high wrist position, how can you go farther down with your hand towards the A string? Conversely, if you are on the D string with a low wrist, how will you move the wrist farther up to reach the G string? The answer is: You will have to involve additional movements for the string changes, and these movements will be less economical, involving the elbow and arm, which will make the movements much more complicated, undesirable in a quick repetitive context.
Here is another example: imagine playing a melody on the D string with a right-hand position that corresponds to the G string (often tension in the wrist will bring it downwards and simultaneously turn the bow hair to the left). Will the sound in this position be as free and as profound as it could be with the wrist in the middle and therefore with symmetrical, tensionless muscles and tendons on both sides of the lower arm? This principle is also relevant to the position of the left hand's wrist and its impact on vibrato, the position of the fingers of both hands, and the fingers' relevant capabilities to initiate changes of positions (shifting). Likewise, it can limit the right hand’s ability to produce the necessary brushing movements (flat hand with a rounded thumb for downbows and a flat thumb with a rounded hand for up bows).
4. Momentum mechanisms and impulses in groups of notes and single notes
One single gesture or impetus, executed properly, creates follow-on effects. Think about how, when skillfully skipping a stone on a lake, you can make the stone skip several times without having to do anything more once the stone leaves your hand. A similar mechanism is particularly relevant in our playing. With a single gesture or impetus, we can produce several notes, thus dramatically reducing the amount of effort we use when we play. A skillful impulse on the first note of a group of notes permits us to relax and recharge while playing all the other notes of that group (see the text for Paganini caprice #5). This mechanism also applies to vibrato and bow strokes, such as spiccato, saltato, and staccato: one gesture or impetus triggers several additional notes effortlessly. On the other hand, using a new, separate gesture or impetus for each note in a quick passage will dramatically reduce its speed and build tension in our right arm, reducing the quality of the sound; at a certain point, the resultant severe tension will force us to stop playing. This same mechanism, which is relevant to groups of notes and quick repetitive gestures, is also relevant to each gesture or impetus: we can reduce the effort on every note by applying the mechanism of momentum. For example, we can start a longbow with a gesture or impetus but immediately switch to using the weight of the bow and the weight of the shoulder while enjoying a continuous horizontal movement without any tension in our right arm. Arriving at the next note or next group of notes without tension will also improve the quality of the upcoming note or group of notes. In turn, they will start comfortably and with better control since tension did not accumulate. Nevertheless, it is important to highlight that the mechanisms of momentum triggered by impulses should not create an accent on each note or at the beginning of each group of notes, neither an accent for the beginning of a détaché nor on the first movement. Of a vibrato! You should develop the capacity to use it within the musical context; you should use it to serve the musical context. Take as an example J.S. Bach’s Prelude from the third Partita in E major: very often you have a polyphonic discussion over two strings, with the main melody usually played on the lower string while the answer or accompaniment, often the same note repeated, is played on the higher string. In these passages, the gestures should be initiated on the melodic notes, and the relaxed consequences should produce the repeated notes on the higher string. In this way, the sound of the melody will be more dominant than the sound of the accompaniment; skillfully calibrating the gestures on the melodic notes creates a structure within the melody, while the accompaniment can remain more discreet and less active. A new gesture on each note in these passages would overemphasize the repetitive accompaniment, which can often sound too loud when played on an open string.
5. Reduce the number of gestures per number of notes
As in the previous point, the principle here is very much the same: Do less for more results (more notes, more sound), and the easier a passage becomes for you. In a quick passage for the left hand, in particular, creating momentum mechanisms is crucial, and the complementary element is related to the ability to drop several fingers at once, anticipating the upcoming notes by preparing them on the string in advance (see Animated Article 1 on Paganini caprice #5, video no. 1). This particular mechanism is necessary for quick passages as it reduces the number of gestures required by the left-hand fingers per the number of notes. In addition, the technical capacity of dropping fixed constellations of fingers onto the string together instead of executing several individual gestures sequentially requires you to think several notes ahead and already know their exact placement and adjust their intonation perfectly, well before the notes are played with the bow. Another technical skill that will develop significantly due to using this mechanism: dropping the fingers together on the strings with the relevant distances between them will force you to constantly consider the distances between the fingers and, therefore, develop your extension capabilities. Higher extension capabilities will naturally reduce the tension between the fingers while you play and will privilege a more relaxed left hand in general.
6. Trust your the subconscious mind, but also think
The functioning of our brain in general, and while we play in particular, is a vast and fascinating subject in brain research and the subject of several recent and ongoing studies. Naturally, I will only deal with this subject from my unscientific point of view, as a curious violinist, and only very briefly. Basically, the left side of our brain is for analytical processing, and the right side of our brain approaches problems holistically - and is, therefore, the intuitively musical side, which delivers inspiration. The left side is also very much involved in musical performance, processing information related to emphasizing the structure, shape, and other analytical aspects of a piece while we are performing it. At the same time, the left side of the brain activates the right side of our body, while the right side of the brain activates the left side of our body. It is interesting to note that it was discovered that musicians developed their left brains more significantly than the right. This information is relevant to our performance and practicing processes, which should involve active analysis and frequent repetition and memorization to take full advantage of the various brain capabilities. In performance, we should be able to create and calculate actively. Still, we should also be able to "let go" - and sometimes do both simultaneously and in this way produce a musically logical but also free and fluent performance.
An additional and particularly crucial piece of information for us is related to automated and non-automated functions in our brain. It is largely agreed that non-automated functions are limited to a few movements only per second, from planning through execution. This is, of course, much slower than the highest speeds we can play. This means that we are playing in automatic mode when we play faster than four notes per second. Now try to apply this information to play a speedy passage, which you usually play safely and comfortably at home. What will happen if you play the same passage in a concert and somewhere in the middle start to doubt yourself and ask yourself, “What is the next note?” or, “Which fingering shall I use?” Indeed, in this case, you will immediately switch to the manual or non-automated mode, which is, of course, much slower. Therefore you will be unable to play the next notes as fast as usual or might be forced to stop the passage at that point. This is why I always suggest to my students, “Trust your sub-conscience when you perform!” Your subconscious knows the piece by heart since the first time you heard it! Naturally, it is more difficult to trust your sub-conscience when you are nervous playing on stage - but you should work hard on developing the capability to control this mechanism as much as possible to preserve your automated speed capacities.
7. Play difficult passages musically
Our mental resources allow us to outdo ourselves and reach goals at levels that stand well above our 100% capacity, as defined by our own self-esteem. In a situation of urgency, we might find the capabilities to transcend ourselves and to do things we are usually unable to do, like lifting a car to save the life of someone caught underneath it or swimming extremely fast to save someone from drowning. The same mental resources can elevate our technical capabilities when productively channeling our energy in the stressful situation of playing on stage. Whenever we perform, determination, belief in our capabilities, and avoiding negative thoughts and hesitation before tricky places (which cause us to use our mental resources against ourselves) will lead us to greater achievements. By the same token, and since the spirit can elevate the material, it is imperative to perform technical passages musically. Playing the most difficult caprice or etude as a musical piece, not as an exercise, will elevate your technique and will support your physical capabilities.
8. Use the elasticities of your instrument effectively
An effective way to use less effort in a technical context is to maximize our response to the elasticity of the bow and its hair and the elasticity of the strings. When you play a quick spiccato or saltato passage, you should know, for example, that the faster is the speed, the higher on the bow you should play. Being aware of the elasticity of the strings, hair, and wood of the bow in the context of repetitive bow strokes will enable you to reduce the amount of energy you invest and will therefore reduce the need to trigger new jumps. The effect of the mechanism of momentum will be increased, and therefore a single impulse might provide a greater number of relaxed notes in consequence. Benefiting from the elasticity of the instruments will enable you to preserve your energy and be more relaxed. This is also relevant for the left hand when executing vibrato, shifting, or playing quick passages. Think of using the elasticity of the strings under the fingers as an elastic cushion or trampoline for the various movements can be very effective in reducing the effort you expend.
9. Always think ahead and “be” ahead
The accumulation of tension while we play is one of the worst enemies of virtuosity. Indeed, the condition in which we arrive at a passage will greatly influence its quality. Using the rests and space in between notes or technical elements or passages in an effective way is important to breaking the chain of tension and crucial to the quality of your ongoing, continuing performance. In fact, we need to use these fractions of time to do two things in parallel, two things which might seem contradictory: we have to relax tensions wherever they are, while in parallel or even slightly beforehand, we must very actively and very quickly prepare for the next notes. Indeed, the sooner you place your bow on the string again ahead of the next note, together with your left hand with fingers ready on the strings for the next notes, the more time you gain to relax your shoulders and recharge your energy before you start again. Naturally, to react fast, you need to think fast, and this includes thinking ahead and anticipating the notes coming up well before you play them. Thinking ahead is the attitude needed in performance, but it is the opposite of the attitude we apply when we practice when we need to think back and refine what we just played. The mechanism that combines anticipation in thinking and inactions while recharging batteries and relaxing is fundamental to a brilliant technique that provides greater skills and greater endurance capabilities.
My goal in this article is to emphasize principles that might be concretely useful in forming young talented violinists or bring more light and effective perspective to the methodologies you use in your everyday practice to master the violin at the highest level. The next time you practice or play, try to implement the principles and mechanisms mentioned above and check yourself to see if you are using them to reduce the amount of effort you need for every note, every sound, every demanding passage, and general when performing a musical piece. The next time you practice your scales, for example, in addition to working on the control of intonation, sound, bow distribution, and changes, shifting. The quality of all the mechanical aspects, try to use the scales as a platform for developing more sophisticated mechanisms which always lead to less effort and a better result. In parallel, realize that asking yourself whether something is too difficult for you is not relevant anymore; the only relevant question is how easy things are for you and how you can make them even easier.