Teaching Violin/Viola

The violin (to avoid unnecessary repetition and somewhat awkward language of writing I will use “violin” instead of “violin/viola,” except when talking about their differences) is one of the few instruments that has not gone through any major transformations, such as the flute or clarinet, and yet has managed not only to survive the rigorous and harsh test of centuries past, but also become one of the most popular instruments in the world. It is indeed, one of the few things in the world for which the adjectives “used” or “upgraded” have very little meaning. This is especially fascinating when considering the obvious awkwardness of its hold, with our left arm rotated more than 90 degrees, and the right arm lifted up often to the level of ones shoulder.

The teaching methods changed throughout the centuries, and we have been lucky enough to have the towering figure of Carl Flesch in last century. What Einstein has done for physics, I believe Flesch has done in violin pedagogy. The way he was able to assemble, reassess and organize the work of his predecessors and contemporaries, and adding his own reflective insights to accomplish a fundamental work, which I believe is still unsurpassed in its field, is truly extraordinary. While taking into account some technical and aesthetic differences between now and 1920s, I use his “Art of the Violin” as my departure point in teaching the instrument. It is also the ultimate scale book, although there are other alternatives.

For violin exercises I recommend the studies of O. Sevcik and H. Schradieck. The Op. 8 of Sevcik is especially indispensable for left-hand shifts, and Book I & Book II of Schradieck’s School of Violin-Technique are excellent sources for left-hand finger-action and good intonation. For bow arm I recommend the old-time proven method of long open strings (I myself practice them routinely) with variations in bowing length and speed, and to some extent the bow-arm exercises of Schradieck and Sevcik. However, I rely more on etudes and studies by Kreutzer, Mazas, Dont, Fiorillo and Rode when addressing right-hand problems. I consider especially the 42 Etudes by Kreutzer to be an obligatory part of a violinist’s training. If a student is advanced enough, Caprices of Locatelli, Paganini, Ernst and Wieniawsky, as well as some studies by Yuri Yankelevich will be assigned for technical improvement.

Notwithstanding all of these, it is important to point out that a dry routine of exercises itself does not necessarily guarantee artistic success. It is only in the context of a musical work that the essence of these exercises is revealed in full light for a student. True, some exercises of particularly mechanical nature, such as left-hand finger dropping or slow open strings can benefit from certain amount of cold-blooded dry repetition, but this type of work should only amount for a small percentage of the general practice routine. Therefore, as I believe that an average university student should always have a few etudes in his/her current repertoire. I also insist that these etudes are taken as musical compositions and performed with a thorough consideration of form, structure and musical content. Conversely (and this is one of the fundamental components of my teaching method), musical works themselves can be the best source of purely technical/mechanical training. The solo works of J. S. Bach, as well as polyphonic movements from sonatas by Corelli and Biber can be used as effective tools for good intonation. Additionally, hundreds of scale like passages, arpeggios, and sections with the use of different bow strokes appearing in regular repertoire can be assigned to students, regardless of whether or not they are playing the actual piece. It is my intention to assemble a volume of these excerpts to create a study of violin technique where a student has a direct and immediate reference to an existing piece while practicing “technique.” This way he/she will see it all as one, there will develop a concept of coherent oneness and rationale between the theory and practice, between the mechanical and the emotional. This principle, I believe is a shortcut to acquiring knowledge in ones vocation.