Great Leaps Forward

Are the violins made by Italian master luthiers Stradivari and Guarnieri ever likely to be exceeded? Has the violin reached a perfect form, impossible to improve, or is it outdated technology in serious need of an upgrade?

stradivari_1721-and_regazzi_1998

Stradivarius 1721 – Regazzi 1998

Despite being interesting questions, they miss the point. It’s certainly possible to change the appearance of the violin without drastically altering its sound qualities. Today it can be produced in almost any colour, for example, and some changes could feasibly be made to the shape, yet practically all attempts to improve the fundamental design since Cremona’s golden period in the early 1700s have failed to catch on. Why? Because the violin that emerged from the workshops of these consummate instrument makers combines aesthetic form and function so completely.

It is simply a beautiful instrument that’s very good for creating what we love to hear – music. And good music, of course, is the real point.

(Two small changes were made in the 19th century to accommodate a rise in concert pitch. The neck was lengthened by about a centimetre and the bass bar strengthened to resist the higher string tension. Tellingly, a disastrous attempt to improve the tone by scorching the wood ruined a number of fine violins.)

Progress in Teaching and Learning

Can violin teaching and the way we learn to play the violin be improved?

This question can’t be answered so easily.

Here also it’s commonly believed no substantial improvements are possible. Looking at the rich and mature traditions of violin study, based on an exemplary literature with far reaching sets of major texts and exercises such as Sevcik and Kreutzer, plus the vast violin repertoire, it seems complete.

Newly published methods and textbooks mostly draw on these sources. However, it’s a mistake to rule out continuing progress. Big changes seemed unlikely before the arrival of European innovators like Dalcrose, Kodaly and Orff and from the far east, Suzuki. (See the next post.)

Learning Music with the New Technology

Now we are experiencing the rapid growth of new technologies. Are they beneficial to learning music or just a distraction? Are we on the brink of some great leaps forward or in danger of a slide backwards?

new-technology-music

Mastering the violin requires a large commitment of time and effort. Usually about 10 years or more of concentrated study are needed to learn the complex skills, knowledge and meanings (memes) of classical violin, and be fully recreated from previous generations of musician-teachers.

Teachers have an indispensable role. Music is a profoundly human experience, and it’s doubtful that the teacher-student model of person to person musical training can be successfully superseded. Live teaching via video streaming is becoming more common, but it lacks the shared proximity of the studio.

The idea of learning music from a robot is unappealing, to say the least.

The growth of musical ability and meaning is intricate, complex and personal, containing subtleties beyond the capacity of any software program. Computers can play chess with number crunching prowess. Can they determine the interpretive possibilities of an exquisite phrase in a Mozart concerto?

What is making a big difference is the right use of new technology, which allows the violin to be accessible to more people than ever before.

We know that J.S. Bach, for instance, occasionally made long journeys on foot to experience the playing of great musicians, whereas today we can hear and view multiple performances by a variety of international virtuosos while living in some of the most remote places on the planet.

Suzuki and Audio Recordings

As he researched and developed his music education philosophy, Suzuki introduced daily listening to audio recordings of fine players to young students, creating a richer musical environment and speeding up their progress. His revelation about the connection between spoken language and music made immersion in the sound of the student’s current and future violin repertoire a key part of his teaching strategies.

Taking advantage of young children’s natural capacity for language for learning music produces extraordinary results. This explanation has created real progress in music education around the world, as shown by the great surge of fluent young violinists in schools and orchestras. It also lowered the average age at which children start lessons and when they reach the professional violin repertoire.

suzuki-musicians

The spread of online video performances is also having a powerful impact. Due to the large visual component of playing the violin, young children will also absorb the way high level violinists look and move. Video performances highlight the refined actions and expressive movement violinists use to play and communicate their music to the audience.

How to take advantage of the New Technology

Audio recordings provide the opportunity to study the art of world class players and experience their differing interpretations. I’ve summarised this in the post, How to use Audio Recordings for Violin Teaching and Study.

Online video performances enable us to see and experience the music beyond the sound. This includes technical knowledge such as bowing, bow division, positions, musical and interpretive questions such as style and character, right down to phrasing and dynamics. Some accuracy issues, like rhythmic complexities for example, are better understood visually. You can pick up hints about stage presence, movement and how to integrate your performance with the orchestra or accompaniment.

The two main sources are YouTube and Vimeo. Look at the contrasting  styles of these two performances of the Tchaikovsky Concerto.

Online video tutorials are available that demonstrate specific techniques and exercises, providing a useful addition to live lessons. One of the best is Violin Masterclass.

DVDs. Due to their superior audio and vision in comparison to online videos and their extended length, DVDs are invaluable resources for study.

hilary-hahn-dvd

Software and apps. A great variety of music education products are emerging, and it’s clear this type of technology is just beginning. Some of the more useful ones help with basic skills and knowledge – such as keys, time signatures, rhythm, note recognition, intervals, harmonic analysis, composition, transcription, arranging and editing.

Electronic tuners and digital metronomes have been around for some time and are only marginally more convenient than their analogue counterparts – tuning forks and mechanical metronomes – until their batteries run out. Electronic tuners are easy to use and adjust, even if they take over the ear’s job.

clip on tuner

In the next post, I’ll discuss the potential for progress in teaching and learning beyond the use of technology.

Thanks for visiting Teach Suzuki Violin – and a warm welcome to all of the new members and subscribers!

Cheers,

John

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