Balance: Fiddle as a metaphor 4 life

My favorite violin teacher in college introduced me to the writings and philosophy of Kato Havas, a wonderful concert violinist and teacher from England. Kato Havas wrote a couple of small books which I highly recommend to you, especially “Stage Fright”.

Kato’s philosophy is basically that the violin is an easy instrument to play . . . IF you are balanced and relaxed.

Take a look at the violin. It is a study in balanced tension. The average full sized 4-string violin has 32 pounds per square inch of pressure on the bridge. Supporting that, underneath the Spruce top plate, is a small dowel about a quarter inch in diameter called the Sound Post.

This little piece of wood is wedged between the top and back plates of the violin, and must be shaped to match the interior slope of each plate. It is NOT, as some suppose, glued in place.

The Sound Post, as insignificant as it may appear in its precarious position supporting 32 psi, is considered the “engine” of the instrument. It is what causes the top and back plates of the violin to vibrate at the same rate in complete synchronicity Without it, not only is the instrument in danger of cracking, the violin cannot produce those pleasing tones it is known for.

Now consider the fingers on the string: In order to change the pitch of the string, you must shorten the length of it by placing your finger on it with enough pressure that it touches the fingerboard. Not enough pressure and you get a bad tone. Too much pressure, you’ll get a good tone but handicap your ability to move quickly and accurately.

Now consider the bow. It is essentially balanced between the tip of the thumb coming up under the stick and the tip of the pinkie pressing down on the top of the stick. There is just enough pressure to counterbalance the weight of the bow. The other fingers are wrapped around the stick for security and control, but remain very relaxed. Too much pressure from any part of the bow hand creates an ugly tone.

Finally, there is the violin hold itself. “Hold” in this case is a misnomer. It is really a balancing act. The violin needs to rest comfortably between the jawbone and the collar bone, with just enough pressure to counterbalance the weight of the violin sticking out from your body. Too much pressure does nothing other than create some real physical problems for the violinist/fiddler. Not enough pressure and you risk dropping the instrument.

It takes some getting used to, but when the violin and the bow are balanced properly, there is no weight to speak of . . . and no danger of losing control.

So why, then, do most players have problems with this balance? Why is playing the violin considered to be so difficult?

It’s because we, as human beings, feel like we need to exert a lot of energy and pressure in order to control the instrument. In reality, the more we try to control it, the more likely we are to fail.

In order to succeed, you need to search for the balance. You need to find the sweet spot that gives you the most using the least amount of effort (pressure).

Think about how this can apply in your life outside the realm of music.

Let’s assume you are worrying at a particularly obnoxious problem in your life, and you’re looking for solutions or answers. You try really hard, hitting the problem from every conceivable direction. You spend hours on it, your head aches and your shoulders are tense. Nothing.

You go home that night, play with your kids, get ready for sleep, and just as you’re going to bed, BAM! The answer hits you. Or perhaps it comes to you as you wake up the next morning. But it’s there, seemingly appearing effortlessly out of thin air.

Why did the answer come so easily when you had struggled with it throughout the entire day?

You were exerting too much pressure, expending too much energy on the problem. You were choking your ability to find a solution with all that wasted effort. And you were making yourself hurt, as well. Kind of hard to think when you’ve got a headache.

Balance your energies. Use just enough to get the job done. Anything less, and the results are ugly. Anything more, and at the very least you are wasting your efforts. At the worst, you are handicapping yourself.

Contrary to popular sentiment, you should always look for the easy way to do anything in life. If you are in balance, everything is so much easier.

Please check out my Trad Tune learning website at for more ideas on how to play the fiddle – and live your life, too – the FAST, EASY, and FUN way.

~ Michael Kelly, fiddler, Sligo Rags (Celtic Bluegrass Fusion)

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