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Technic & Musicianship of the Violin


by David James


How do I regard technic now? I think of it in the terms of the music itself. Music should dictate the technical means to be used. The composition and its phrases should determine bowing and the tone quality employed. One should not think of down-bows or up-bows. In the Brahms concerto you can find many long phrases: they cannot be played with one bow; yet there must be no apparent change of bow. If the player does not know what the phrase means; how to interpret it, how will he be able to bow it correctly?

And there are so many different nuances, especially in legato. It is as a rule produced by a slurred bow; yet it may also be produced by other bowings. To secure a good legato tone watch the singer. The singer can establish the perfect smoothness that legato calls for to perfection. To secure a like effect the violinist should convey the impression that there is no point, no frog, that the bow he uses is of indefinite length. And the violinist should never think: 'I must play this up-bow or down-bow.' Artists of the German school are more apt to begin a phrase with a down-bow; the French start playing a good deal at the point. Up or down, both are secondary to finding out, first of all, what quality, what balance of tone the phrase demands. The conductor of a symphonic orchestra does not care how, technically, certain effects are produced by the violins, whether they use an up-bow or a down-bow. He merely says: 'That's too heavy: give me less tone!' The result to be achieved is always more important than the manner of achievement.

All phases of technical accomplishment, if rightly acquired, tend to become second nature to the player in the course of time: staccato, a brilliant trick; spiccato, the reiteration of notes played from the wrist, etc. The martellato, a nuance of spiccato, should be played with a firm bowing at the point. In a very broad spiccato, the arm may be brought into play; but otherwise not, since it makes rapid playing impossible. Too many amateurs try to play spiccato from the arm. And too many teachers are contented with a trill that is merely brilliant. Kneisel insists on what he calls a 'musical trill,' of which Kreisler's beautiful trill is a perfect example. The trill of some violinists is invariably brilliant, whether brilliancy is appropriate or not. Brilliant trills in Bach always seem out of place to me; while in Paganini and in Wieniawski's Carnaval de Venise a high brilliant trill is very effective.

As to double-stops—Edison once said that violin music should be written only in double-stops—I practice them playing first the single notes and then the two together, and can recommend this mode of practice from personal experience. Harmonics, where clarity is the most important thing, are mainly a matter of bowing, of a sure attack and sustaining by the bow. Of course the harmonics themselves are made by the fingers; but their tone quality rests altogether with the bow.


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