Total Abandon and Vibrato: Fiddle as a Metaphor 4 Life

Have you ever had one of those days where you find you’re telling yourself, “Physician, heal thyself”? I’ve had that kind of day for the past several weeks.

Let me begin with a bit of background.

A long, long time ago, back when I was a young violinist headed to the University to study Violin Performance, I had a beautiful vibrato. Total control over depth and speed, up and down the fingerboard. All four fingers effortlessly adding tonal color to my music. I didn’t have to think about it; it was a tool I used without difficulty. Then the unthinkable happened.

I auditioned for the Scholarship Honors String Quartet at the University of Utah. The quartet’s coach, Mr. Mikhail Boguslavsky, called me into his office after the audition to give me the news.

“Mr. Kelly, I’ve spoken with your teacher, and I’ve decided to give you a spot on the quartet on one condition: You MUST improve your bow hand. It is ridiculous how you can be in this program at all with such a miserable bow hand as yours, and I think it is deplorable that your teacher has neglected to instruct you in such a basic, necessary element of violin mastery. Let me make myself clear. If I don’t see drastic improvement in your bow hand in short order, I will drop you from the quartet and will make it the Honors String TRIO.”

Needless to say, Mr. Boguslavsky scared the piss right out of me. I was mortified. And yet, I committed myself to obtaining the best bow hand that sweat and dedication could buy.

And somewhere along the way, I “forgot” how to vibrato.

It happened so subtly that I didn’t realize it for some time. But it has remained a problem ever since that first year at the University.

It was very strange, and I had teachers and coaches that told me just how strange it was. Nobody seemed able to help me remedy this problem. I was able to teach vibrato to my students, but was unable to have a consistent, effortless vibrato myself. I had gained a beautiful bow hand, but at the cost of a skill I had “mastered” years earlier.

Fast forward to the present time. I’ve been reading books, such as “Effortless Mastery” (Kenny Werner, 2011) and “Practice Perfect: 42 Rules for Getting Better and Getting Better” (Doug Lemov, Erica Woolway, and Katie Yezzi, 2012). I’ve also reviewed all of the material by Kato Havas. This reading started me thinking about my problem with vibrato, and a few weeks ago I decided that I needed to take a different approach.

In the past, I practiced vibrato in the manner I was taught decades ago. I would get frustrated in my practice, because the harder I tried to control and sustain it, the harder it became. My hand seemed to clench up every time I tried for it … but it would appear in performance on its own, unbidden and uncontrolled. The only time I had difficulties appeared to be when I really wanted to use it.

Using the same techniques I teach my students in their quest for effortless playing, I decided to go back to the basics. Here is what I discovered.

My first problem was that I was pressing my fingers too hard into the string. In Ivan Galamian’s “Principles of Violin Playing & Teaching”, I read that the finger should exert only enough pressure on the string to create a pleasant tone; exerting more pressure does nothing to improve the tone, and it interferes with the facility of the fingers.

Practical solution: Practice vibrato exercises with my fingers barely touching the string, almost like skating on top of the string. The resulting sound is not pleasant, but it is relaxed and allows for the fingers, hand, and wrist to do what they need to do.

My second problem was that I could do the exercises for only a short time before my hand and arm would clench up in an attempt to control the motion. This was a habit I needed to overcome if I were to have any control over my vibrato.

Practical solution: Using some techniques I learned from “Practice Perfect”, I designed some drills to help me extinguish the habit of clenching up. I would practice the exercises in a very relaxed fashion, and as soon as I felt any tension in my left hand, I would stop, drop my hand down to my side, relax, and then start again. This required a great deal of patience, and for a while it seemed as if I was dropping my hand more than actually practicing the vibrato. What I had to do was shift my goal from doing the exercises to extinguishing the habit. With that mental shift in my expectations, I was able to continue on in a consistent fashion. I found, after a time, that I was going longer and longer executing the drills before needing to drop my hand and relax. I also found that my vibrato was “popping up” more often in my performances.

My third problem was that after doing all this, I still considered vibrato a “problem”. I was doing the work, extinguishing the bad habits, practicing proper technique … but I still was afraid of not having control over my vibrato. I was overthinking the process on a daily basis.

Practical solution: It was time to stop micro managing my vibrato. I had done the research, made my observations, devised a solution, drilled properly … Now I needed to “let go” and allow the automaticity of the technique to take over. My conscious mental supervisor needed to step back and allow the subconscious hind brain to do what it had been trained to do without oppressive oversight.

The result:

Last night I performed with Anita Mansfield and the Mansfield Band at the Little Bar in Los Angeles. Not once did I worry about my vibrato, nor did I attempt to control it in any fashion. I found myself playing fluidly, and my vibrato came naturally. I played with total abandon. I felt the music, and the vibrato was there at the appropriate depth and speed, up and down the fingerboard and on all four fingers. I felt such a freedom while I played, and the joy was abundant and even transcendent. It is a rare thing for me to be impressed by my own playing, but last night was one of those times.

I am not to the point where I feel I can totally trust my vibrato yet, as I did when I was a youngster. I will continue following my own prescription for a while longer, making certain that this skill is as effortless as breathing, walking, or driving a manual transmission vehicle. The improvement in my “control” over this technique has been gradual but steady over the past several weeks, and last night’s performance was only the latest and most exciting example of my increasing mastery.

After decades of worry and frustration, I finally figured out a plan to heal myself of this aggravating weakness. If it is basic and remedial; if it is something that I have been teaching my students for years; if it is something I have known all along … none of that is important. What remains important is the fact that I executed the plan and that I am seeing very positive results.

1. I observed the problem, or the weakness, and puzzled out the reasons underlying the difficulty.

2. I devised a plan to drill and exercise the technique in a relaxed and efficient manner.

3. I consistently exercised patience as I drilled the technique, extinguishing bad habits along the way.

4. After doing the work, I let go and let the music inform the technique. I released myself from the constant worry and oversight of the conscious mental supervisor and just played.

I hope that you will find something of value in my experience that will help you overcome the obstacles in your life. I look forward to your comments, and I hope that, if you found this bit of writing useful, you will share it with your friends.

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