Problem of technique, or technical problem
As I had anticipated in the Introduction above, Vivaldi’s concertos inevitably bring up the question of violin technique. And just in this moment of writing, when typing these words, I reflectively start to drum the table with my fingers in percussive trill patterns and make bowing movements in the air, feeling the urge to open my violin case and engage in some basic technical routines of scales and exercises. The curse of necessary daily maintenance. But it is a joy as well. Despite declarations that regular practicing is an unavoidable duty, violinists evidently develop a kind of dependency on maintaining a physical touch with the instrument. When on holiday, it takes several days, if not a week, to calm down and not feel the urge for just one fast scale up and down, or a swift arpeggio passage after breakfast .
The preparation for the technically demanding Four Seasons triggered many memories from my years of study at the Academy of Music in Bratislava. Back in the day, being ruled by the traditional Russian violin school, body movement – other than that necessary to sound production – was unthinkable.
Entering the HIP environment during my studies at the Academy of Music in Bratislava was not without consequences on my technical development. All of a sudden, I was introduced to different priorities of sound and ways to produce it. Different equipment, in form of an historical instrument; a different manner of holding the instrument; a different technical method. All of these newly encountered alternatives to the one and only traditional way were about to confuse my last years at the Academy.
However, HIP was not the first disturbance to my carefully designed development in the laboratory of the state music educational system. Like many of my fellow violin students I had a background in folk music, and displayed a natural way of moving while playing. But it did not take much time at the Conservatory to make us all stand still, focusing on the efficiency of sound production. The Conservatory , true to its etymological connotation, ‘normalized’ students to match the prevailing model, thus preserving the aesthetic values inherited from 19th century traditions, such as the concert hall, the symphony orchestra, the conductor, and not least, the ubiquitous classical musician’s uniform - the long tail.
Accepting students from the age of fourteen, the Conservatory is considered the last opportunity to inculcate thorough technical skills. As with learning a language, violin skills were to be mastered at the earliest possible age . To get rid of all bad habits, the first two months were aimed at a total reboot. Several weeks of playing only open strings, slow bowing, carefully watching the position and function of every finger, was a nightmare for a folk fiddler like me. I plead guilty as charged, that I sinned and occasionally played some folk or jazz tunes with friends in the dark hidden corridors of the Conservatory. And of course, one day I was busted! My teacher suddenly entered the room in the middle of my wild Grapelli solo passage. As she did not show the slightest hint of being impressed, and just left the room, I understood that my folk and jazz sessions were over. We did not even talk about it in the next lesson. But there was a message in my study book: my open strings exercises were prolonged for yet another week…
Some thirty years later, now as a teacher at the Malmö Academy of Music, I start my days with playing open strings and Ševčík exercises again. What a crumb of madeleine did for Proust to trigger the memories, the books of Ševčík’s technical exercises, retrieved from the cobwebbed corners of my library, did for me. Returning to regular and intense technical practice was revealing. It did not feel like acquiring new skills, but rather like reconnecting to the disused skills inscribed in my body back in the days of intense violin exercises during my studies.
It struck me that if I focus on sound quality and dexterity of execution, my body movements diminish. Indeed, there is an inherent ‘technical’ body attitude directed towards the bow action. This attitude is not based on dance or gesture, but on supporting and controlling the most resonant trajectory of the bow action. Being occupied with sound-producing movements, I seemed to neglect dance and expressive gestalt movements.
But does it really have to be one or the other? Would it be possible either to extend skilful and focused sound production (a Soundist) into expressive body movements, or to channel dance movements and expressive gestures straight into the instrument by merging these with efficient sound producing movements (Davidson, 2011)?
The analyses I made of online videos from masterclasses with renowned 'Soundist virtuosos', such as Pinchas Zukerman and Boris Kuschnir, helped me to recollect some dormant technical habits, and inspired me to employ some virtuosic features of the Soundist strategy in my playing. I also encountered some controversial situations where both Kushnir and Zukerman reproach their students for making ‘unnecessary’ expressive or dance body movements. The message from the teacher is clear: ‘don’t move, don’t dance, everything you play you have to do “with hands”! Yes! Like that, that’s better.’
Now, is it?
Vid. 1 Boris Kuschnir reproaches a student for 'dancing' in a Mozart concerto.
Vid. 2 Pinchas Zukerman reproaches a student for bending her knees.
Not all virtuoso performers look down on dancing or expressive body movements. Maxim Vengerov often encourages the students to imitate physical actions – i.e. climbing, jumping, running, or throwing – to enhance expressivity, but also sometimes, paradoxically, to solve a technical problem.
Vid 3 Maxim Vengerov uses a basketball metaphor in Mozart concerto.
In spring 2017, I had the opportunity to hear a Pinchas Zukerman recital in Copenhagen . Apart from the fact that he did not seem to care to make any stylistic differentiation between Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert, it was an amazing violinistic experience. To hear this Soundist phenomenon in a live concert, and to observe possibly the most efficient sound producing action of today from just a couple of meters’ distance was invaluable.
On the third day of our honeymoon in Italy, my wife and I were dining at a garden restaurant. I literally tore the violin out of the hands of an approaching street musician, claiming that I wanted to play a short romantic tune to my wife. Even though we were just married, I definitely could not fool her about the real reason for this reflexive impulse to grab a violin which was ‘passing by’.
In the Slovak school system, the Conservatory is on the same level as a secondary school, preceding the Academy of Music. I entered the Conservatory at the age of 14.
Later on, starting my studies in Sweden, my new Russian teacher asked, after what seemed to be a promising first lesson, about my age. I could not miss the blink of disappointment in his eyes hearing that I was already 22. His short sigh with lips pressed together seemed to say: ’too late, much too late…’
The concert was sold out before I could secure a ticket, so I had to literally force my way into the hall, waving my unfinished PhD chapter on Zukerman over my head and in front of the venue official.