Thursday, April 09, 2015

Plop and Pop: Creating a Reliable Left Hand Position on the Violin and Viola

Much of what I know about violin and viola playing comes from practice, obsessive observation, and intuition. A lot of it comes from my experience as a wind player; particularly my experience with the recorder, and a lot of it comes from advice I learned from friends who happen to be great musicians. I have never been "trained" as a Suzuki teacher. If I were to identify with a "school," it would be the rather dowdy Samuel Applebaum "school" because that is the method I used to learn to play the violin when I was a child.

I have been teaching students my "Plop and Pop" method for about ten years, and I think it's high time I share it with other upper string players. There are people who might disagree with me totally, which is fine. All I know is that when an intelligent student applies the principles of "plop and pop," s/he makes an excellent sound, plays well in tune, and develops the confidence to express himself or herself musically.

Here are the basic components:

A beginner violinist does two basic things with his or her fingers: plopping and popping.

The Plop

When (in the first position) you play a D on the A string you plop down your first, second, and third fingers in the configuration necessary for the key (e.g. the second finger will be "kissing" the third finger in keys that have C sharp, and the second finger will be "kissing" the first finger in keys that have B natural and C natural).¹ You always plop from above, and you always plop decisively. You don't need to press when you plop, and you never need to squeeze or clamp the hand down on the fingerboard. Plopping is kind of like sitting down on a nice chair, or putting down a bag of groceries. You use the weight of your arm to make the plop. The plop works most effectively when the wrist is dropped and when the left thumb is relaxed and not bent. It also works best when the arm is under the violin. Form follows function.

The plop works in any position, and conscientious plopping is a great antidote for students to tend to pull their strings sideways. The beauty of the plop is that it is premeditated. You "see" the fingers that are out of "sight," and you feel the half steps and whole steps during the nanosecond before the plop. In the case of the three-finger plop, the fourth finger needs to remain above (or the plop can't really happen). Once students pay attention to the necessity of keeping the fourth finger with the rest of the hand, the fourth finger learns to behave. A four-finger plop is more difficult (due to more half-step possibilities); but it is the logical next step after mastering the three-finger plop.

It is not always possible to plop all the fingers down comfortably (i.e. when you have a low first finger and a high third finger or when you play the viola), so the mental accounting for where the "unseen" fingers would land (if they could) works almost as well as an actual full-hand plop.

¹The "kiss" is what happens between the fingers during half steps. When you have a lot of half steps you get "Romantic" music!

The Pop

The pop is not as simple as it sounds. In order to get from the above mentioned D to the C sharp a half step below it you obviously need to lift the third finger. With the three fingers of the D on the A string "in hand," the second finger is already on the C sharp. The difference between just lifting the finger and "popping" is that before you lift the third finger you shift the weight of the hand to the second finger, using it like a lever to "pop" the third finger. The difference between using the moment before the change of note to shift the weight to the second finger before popping the third finger to "reveal" the C sharp and not shifting the weight is both audible and palpable. It takes a great deal of concentration on the part of the student and the teacher to recognize the physical and aural sensations.

I like to give the idea of a teeter-totter to "enlarge" the image. I also tell students that their fingers are like levers. The hand and arms really work like a group of simple machines when it comes to playing the violin and the viola.

[Click for a larger image, or go to the link above.]

If you use an arm-powered vibrato (as I do), it is easier to vibrate from one note to the next when you follow the principles of "plop and pop." If you do old finger shifts (as I do: it's the best playing therapy I know for left hand tendonitis), a modified plop and pop comes into play. It sure makes practicing interesting, and it makes everything sound better.

For some reason cellists seem to do this kind of thing naturally. When our son started playing the cello, he did it immediately. If you watch Nathan Milstein's left hand, it is clear that his weight is always shifting before he "pops." My father does it too, but when I explained my "plop and pop" theory to him a few weeks ago, it was new to him. Maybe you do it naturally too. But teaching others to do it is a different matter.

I find that while students are playing I can remind them to plop here and pop there. I also incorporate other words that come immediately to mind: stop, roll, and drop, but those are really matters to elaborate on in another post. Here's a brief preview:

Stop: The bow can stop at any time. It can make very short stops between notes in a shift. It can stop during the nanosecond before the left hand weight shifts to the next finger in order to "pop."

Drop: Drop the wrist.

Roll: The bow rolls to the next string in the case of a string crossing.

Note to violists:

Since the half-steps on the viola are not as natural as they are on the violin (we always have to make adjustments), there is an added level of "pre-thought" that goes into using the "plop and pop" method. The price we pay to play our glorious instrument well is that additional moment of thinking. Now I really understand the motivation behind my father's dictum, "You have to think all of the time, not just some of the time."


Rachel said...


Dave Wentworth said...

I love the plop method. As a right handed guitarist for over 30 years I taught myself how to play guitar with my left about 3 years ago. It sure is a learning curve.