The ability to play at accelerated tempos is an expectation held for all musicians but especially for violinists. When people talk about legendary violinists like Niccolò Paganini and Jascha Heiftiz one of the first things they comment on is their ability to play faster than any other violinist of their time. While studying the violin in college I remember individuals, including myself, practicing with a metronome for hours on end, trying to speed up a passage of music. To a certain degree this methodology worked and all of us could make a passage a little bit faster. However, often times this speed came at the price of our physical and mental health or the passage lacked consistency and clarity.
During my Alexander Technique training I began to look very critically at the very basics of my violin technique, including my left and right hand positions (the exploration for which you can read in my other blogs), and my ability to play at accelerated tempos. While looking at how I play fast passages of music I realized that my body tightened considerably and contorted from its normal resting posture. While teaching many different levels of violinists and observing my colleagues, I realized that this contortion was not uncommon.
I began to understand that when a violinist thinks about playing something fast they tend to have the same reaction an individual has when someone tells them to try harder at an activity. Their head comes forward and down from the bottom of the neck, causing the chest to narrow and tighten, and their upper and lower back to curve in exaggerated manners. For a violinist this posture can be very counterproductive because when an individual narrows their chest they pull their arms in toward the torso thus limiting their entire arms mobility. This causes negative reactions in both the left and right hand.
While exploring this I found that my left hand became much stiffer, making it harder to put my fingers down in a coordinated fashion. I could also hear that it was resulting in certain rhythmic irregularities. For instance, I could hear that any note I played before I put my third finger down was elongated because my third finger moved slower than my other fingers. With my right hand, I lost any finger flexibility that allowed me to make very small bow changes, and in order to compensate for this I began to move my forearm and shoulder more. This movement caused me to use too much bow for the speed of the piece and eventually led to the right and left hand to move at different rates.
After realizing all the things, I was doing that interfered with my technique I set out on the very long and grueling adventure of reeducating my reaction to the idea of speed. In the first stages of this process I would stand in front of my music giving directions to my head, neck, back, legs, and feet. I would then place my violin into playing position and refresh my directions. I would then turn on a metronome to a fast but what I considered doable tempo for the piece in front of me. The first few times I did this I found that the click of the metronome caused me to react negatively, so I would inhibit and direct until I felt like I had released somewhere. Then I would come all the way down to resting position. Following several repetitions of this activity, I took the next step forward and placed my bow on the A string and began to bow with a quick paced tempo established by the metronome. While I did this, however, I did not focus on matching my bowing with the metronome but on width across my torso and elbows. This resulted in a slight incongruence of my playing with the tempo at first, but eventually I was playing at tempo with ease. At this point I started to add my left hand in to the equation by doing scales or very simple etudes. Continuing this process, I went back and forth from living the left hand out and adding it as well as changing tempos.
This process took several months to develop, but by continually focusing on my use and my ability to play music passages faster became easier and more coordinated.