Proactive vs. Responsive Intonation

“Some professionals do get [to where they are] without hearing [anticipating] what they are going to play. I suspect the number is actually quite large and is a sufficiently severe problem to justify being discussed at some length in Lieberman’s book, You Are Your Instrument: The Definitive Musician’s Guide to Practice and Performance, as just one example. I am afraid that a lot of players, from a young age, get in the habit of lots of mechanical work, which gets the fingers in just about the right place in response to the feedback from symbols on the page. They then evaluate after the act but probably don’t correct. When working in orchestra or whatever, the feedback then becomes more complex and the ability to respond to feedback rather than be proactive becomes very advanced but doesn’t really change its nature. I would also idly speculate that this is why there appears to be more emphasis on ‘hours practice’ these days. The approach described above takes longer… Or maybe even in the past more work was done in the head which gave the impression of less hours.”
–Stephen Brivati (Posted on, March 14, 2005)

Here are a few important thoughts that I felt when I read this.

It is essential, especially in violin technique, to hear a passage of music in the mind, to anticipate that which is going to be physically played, before ever laying a finger down on the fingerboard. And, yes, if our aim is a little off, it is our duty to adjust until it is right. But we cannot live our performance days in continual trial-and-error; it would not do justice to the music. (Besides, by the time we hear a note is wrong, it’s often too late to do anything about it! Better to just hit it correctly in the first place.) If we and our students take time to study our scores musically, wisely, we can then set up goals for how the music and its nuances should sound in the end. (True enough, however, that the easier the piece for the level of player, the less time needed for study.) We come to an understanding of what the composer was driving at, and all practice-work will be aimed at achieving those goals. It has been said of the violin Greats, that days-on-end would be spent studying and planning (i.e. progressions, form, fingerings, bowings, dynamics, etc.), before ever going to the instrument.

So let us not come blindly to a new work and begin hacking away, note after note, merely admitting when we’re wrong and moving on. (That would be only responding to the symbolic stimulus of the printed page.) Let us be proactive; let us take time to understand the thought that went into the creation of the work, and strive to re-create that moment of inspiration and emotion.


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