Riding a bicycle
Wobbly versus balanced, and some insights on vibrato.
Originally I planned for the newsletter of today to make a short video about “wobbly”, but I changed my mind as I don’t think you really need to see my paying to get the point! There was a lengthy discussion on Facebook after my last post on playing posture.
I thought maybe I had not been clear on one thing. The only important thing that I was trying to convey is that you don’t need to get scared about little movements. There’s nothing terrible in little movements of the instrument while we play as far as we are in control.
Most of us come from a modern violin background, where most likely, we were taught to play using a shoulder rest, holding the violin entirely with the chin and neck, with pressure enough to keep it very firm so that the left hand is completely free from the task of holding the instrument. Later in life, I found this way not very healthy, so I searched for something different. Eventually, I also wanted to learn to play on gut strings, as I was making them, so I also learned to play completely chin off and graduated in baroque viola. After that, I wanted to go back to modern orchestra playing, and I found my way to play on modern viola, keeping my neck free, engaging it only in some moments to help me prevent movements during downshifts.
I do not have big truths or “must-do” instructions. I’d like to encourage every beginner on the Violoncello da Spalla not to be scared about little movements. It’s like learning to ride a bike without hands. In the beginning, every movement seems dangerous (and it is, because we are tense, so we do not react in the right way with the right timing), but with time we learn how to be in control, what will make us fall and what we can control. After some time, we will interiorise the movement and the reactions needed, and we’ll be in control without even thinking of it.
“Balance” is the great truth. Until we find that little spot where we can place the instrument, close to our collarbone, so that it is balanced, we will feel it wobbly. It’s not a matter of movement but of balance. I was wrong in using the words “free to move”. I exposed myself to easy criticism.
Sigiswald’s playing shows movements of the instrument in the bowing direction. Is this wobbly? No, it’s moving slightly, but he is totally in control. Does this affect his playing? That movement could easily affect the playing of someone else, who could get scared about it. Instead, Sigiswald seems well-balanced and relaxed.
The discussion mentioned above was driven to the dead point of the best players holding truthful instructions from everyone. These are overused arguments that do not bring any help to one’s technique.
We should instead focus on balance, which will always improve our playing (and our lives).
It’s not a big find that some of us can play wonderfully well and freely with an instrument kept firmly in position and others prefer something well-balanced but less firm. What we shall focus on is balance. A short strap gives me the same feeling of playing the violin with a shoulder rest, a bit of a longer one gives me more of the feel of a violin played without.
In this video, Anne Sophie Mutter’s violin is seen to move a bit in strong detache passages. Does she bother at all?
I could go on with examples of outstanding players without or with shoulder rest forever, but I guess everyone has his favorites!
There is one different question I admit I am deliberately avoiding, and that is how to make vibrato on a Spalla. I do not have a precise answer yet. I am myself trying to change my vibrato, from the arm vibrato that I was using on modern violin to a hand vibrato, more soft and relaxed. But changes like this do take more than a few weeks.
I hope this year I can meet live Esther Visser, who is a violinist and Alexander Technique teacher and also plays Violoncello da Spalla, and work with her on how to hold and balance the Violoncello da Spalla, and vibrato could also be something we work on. In the meantime, I think many of you could appreciate reading this article from her.
I always like to make my sound more with the bow than with vibrato, but could this be also due to my poor control of vibrato? After reading her article, I am convinced that to play well Violoncello da Spalla, vibrato is something I should manage better, being a fundamental ingredient of the music of Violoncello da Spalla’s time.
Someone recently said: if you want to know how to do it (playing da Spalla), ask someone who has been doing it professionally for twenty years. I did, openly, but got no answer. If you are not luckier than me, we could discuss together as people who have a musical background experience and are trying to teach themselves a new instrument in the healthiest way possible.
Updates from our workshop
We’re both making necks for our new cellos da spalla!