The Power of Words When Teaching a Stringed Instrument

By vaughan • 6th March 2010 • Posted in: Violin and Piano Teaching

Over the last few years, in my own journey of learning the violin and the viola, I have been very privileged to take lessons with a wonderful teacher – the Hungarian violinist, Kato Havas. One aspect of her ‘New Approach to violin playing’ which has given me much to think about (especially with regard to the way I teach my own pupils) has been the use of language used when teaching a stringed instrument and the effect this has on our students.

There are many accepted terms that string players use as a matter of tradition – handed down from generation to generation, when referring to different aspects of playing the instrument. Words and phrases include ‘bow hold’, ‘double stop’, ‘shifting’ from one position to another, and even ‘up’ and ‘down’ bow – probably one of the worst of all is ‘thumb grip’. All these terminologies instill in a player the message which goes beyond the basic meaning of the words and implies an effortful approach to playing where the fingers ‘press’, the violin is ‘gripped’, the bow goes ‘up’ and ‘down’. The word ‘shifting’ conjours up images of manhandling a heavy sofa, and ‘double stop’ sounds like something coming to an abrupt halt, putting the breaks on quickly. When we look to the finest and most natural players for inspiration, we find that they play in an effortless way, with an economy of movement and a feeling of the music being given out freely, without inhibition and beyond the instrument. The last thing we hear in their playing is ‘up and down’ from someone ‘gripping’, ‘shifting’ or ‘stopping’ – as that would indeed have an effect of inhibiting the flow of the music.

So when Kato speaks about having ‘no bow hold’, and the fingers ‘swinging towards’ the notes, as well as ‘gliding’ up and down the violin, this language conveys a sense of momentum where the magical line of the music can flow undisturbed. When this language becomes the accepted way of talking about music, then the divisions between the technical and the musical aspects of playing can dissolve somewhat, for when everything is approached from a pure musical impetus, then a simple scale can take on beauty. If we play each scale or study as if it is the most beautiful piece of music ever written, with a sense of lightness and agility, imagine what a piece of Mozart can sound like!

In my own teaching, I now never use these stunted, stilted terms and the difference it makes to how violin pupils think about their playing is enormous. When a feared ‘double stop’ is approached, we now think of it in terms of (in Kato’s words) one ‘voice’ joining another and a ‘shift’ is thought of as a ‘glide’. These terms somehow takes the fear and tension out of technically challenging aspects of playing.

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