Free, Cheap and Expensive

One of the biggest obstacles to good string playing that I encounter is a misunderstanding of the difference between easy, kind of difficult and things that take a lifetime. To make these easier to relate to I’ve categorized them as free, cheap and expensive. I’ll turn again to Simon Fischer, who writes in the introduction to his book “The Violin Lesson”,

“To develop technique on the violin you have to learn the Science of Violin Playing. But this must not be confused with studying ‘real’ sciences like physics, chemistry, biology, DNA and so on. Any field like these is obviously a lifetime’s work, and however much you know is only ever a tiny speck compared to the amount you do not know – even if you study all day, every day, for 50 years. In comparison, the entire science of violin is only the size of a tiny speck. (He continues on. This is my favorite part)

You cannot study for the rest of your life how to draw a straight bow; or study how to raise and drop the fingers, how to shift, and so on. There simply isn’t that much to learn. You can study music for the rest of your life – and after fifty years, the amount you know about music will be only a tiny speck compared to what you do not know – but that is a different matter.

On a practical, physical level of violin technique, there is not so much to know about (emphasis mine). There are all the things you have got to learn to do , and all the things to learn not to do. Yet all this amounts to only a few principles about how to hold the instrument and bow, how to use each hand in all the various ways, and so on. The list of ‘things you need to know and do’ is not endless, and is not even very long (emphasis mine).

I find this refreshing, inspiring and a relief. (I’m going to go into academia speak for a minute and also say that I like this because it doesn’t have any of the “science envy” that I see going on in so much of the humanities now.) If this list of things you need to know and do isn’t very long then what the heck’s on it??? Let’s get going, right??? Well…I’m a teacher, not a vending machine, so I need to make sure this is set up correctly first. If all of this is so easy why don’t we just apply it, go home and have a Coke? I think the list of reasons why isn’t that long, but they are a huge impediment.

  1. We try to teach all of the easy things at the same time, which makes everything difficult. It’s not possible to teach more than one thing at a time, or even think about more than one thing at a time. Picture in your mind a dog, then say “cat” or even have someone else say “cat” and try to keep the image of the dog in your mind’s eye. If you’re an enlightened being and can keep the cat from invading your doggy heaven I will put on a robe, sell all of my possessions and follow you. I’ve been a pretty steady (albeit terrible) meditator for over a decade and I can’t do it. If you try to work on more than one thing at a time you will almost inevitably fail.
  2. We work on the hard things before the easy things are good. This is akin to a young pitcher trying to throw a curveball before (s)he can locate a fastball. In a similar way,  I don’t think it’s a great idea to teach vibrato until the student can really stack seconds (link to exercise to come) with true security. The easy things have to be learned first to provide a foundation for the difficulties that lie ahead. Also, getting the easy things out of the way, thus succeeding early, is incredibly motivating. Motivation is a fundamental part of teaching, yet it’s hardly discussed. That will not be the case on this blog!
  3. The final one is simply giving the student enough time and chances to get the concept under her belt. My colleague Dr. Molly Gebrian, (a brilliant pedagogue who teaches viola at UW-Eau Claire and holds a degree in neuroscience in addition to her viola degrees. She actually puts the science in music!) says that a learner needs to do something correctly five times consecutively for it to have a chance of sticking. I know there are times I haven’t allowed myself the time to make sure I was doing that and that there were times I didn’t give my learners the space to do that. In ensemble settings (the main target audience for this blog), this is nearly impossible. This is where nurturing comes in, and I’m going to talk about ways to nurture in a group setting. I’ve seen nurturing succeed in large groups in situations as diverse as the floor of a suit factory and a music classroom. I know we can do this!

Now why is it problematic for us to confuse free (cheap) and expensive?

  1. If we go into something with the belief that we are able to do it, we are much more likely to succeed under many circumstances. Conversely, if we go into a task thinking we’re going to fail it’s far more likely that we will fail. A Stanford/University of Michigan study showed that simply pointing out that you are a member of a disadvantaged group tends to depress your test scores. There’s a lot to unpack in the study, most of it in scientific jargon, but the crux of it remains that misidentifying a molehill as a mountain can make it harder to climb the molehill.
  2. I find that the opposite is true for the things I’ve labelled “expensive.” These are the things that we pursue for a lifetime. We either evolve and constantly shape these things (vibrato), they require constant vigilance to maintain (intonation) or they require a massive upfront investment of time and energy to obtain (vibrato, intonation, pulse, relaxation, etc.). There are two dangers here. The first is that the student, not understanding that these things are mountains, will simply give up or settle for a bad version of their goal (We’ve all seen the side-to-side wiggle that passes as vibrato for some learners.) The second is that the skill will be introduced too soon, leading to the same result or even worse, covering up a more fundamental hole in their playing.

I’ve had students suddenly play much better when I simply told them a passage was easy. I’ve also had them ready to dig in and try to learn things over several weeks, months and even years when I’ve told them that something was difficult and they needed to put in some good old blue collar work. Quite obviously, this is a form of mental reframing, the sort of thing you might hear from a sports psychologist, but I think it is readily applicable to string playing. If we can convince our students that things like having a good bow hand, playing parallel to the bridge, minding our contact points, counting, etc. are relatively easy to acquire, requiring only a week or two of vigilance a piece, I think they’re more likely to put in the effort to try and gain these skills. (This reminds of the time we bought a car from an eccentric neighbor who was always running some kind of side hustle. He told me he had the perfect car for me. The only problem was that it was a stick shift. I had just gotten my license and had no idea how to drive a stick shift. I was convinced there was no way I was going to be able to learn. He thought this was hilarious and retorted ,”You play the violin and you think you can’t drive a stick?” He was right. It was easy, but I had framed it as difficult so I failed before I started.) Conversely, my crazy trek towards playing without pain took forever, taking me to several teachers in different states and countries, Alexander and Feldenkrais work, doctors and physical therapists galore and vast amounts of thinking that my life in music was over. If someone had told me up front that it would be a difficult journey it would have saved me a lot of angst. I have no idea if it would have been any shorter, but I know for a fact that I would have taken to the journey with more confidence and that I wouldn’t have allowed the setbacks to have me looking into a chasm of despair. But I thought there was some magic panacea for my pain, and I almost even had surgery. There was no such panacea, just the slow unwinding of the problem, as difficult and perhaps even as literal as undoing the nastiest knotted mess of string you’ve ever seen.

Next time: The free, cheap and expensive list

Copyright Rising Tide String Project 2018 (Erik Bryan and Chung Park)

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