Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Yehudi Menuhin on Holding the Violin

I was so happy to hear this discussion on the 8th DVD of the Bruno Monsaingeon Edition devoted to films about (and of) Yehudi Menuhin. The first thing I teach my students about holding the violin or the viola is to place the top of the instrument on the collarbone, because it's what I do. Balancing the instrument on my collarbone reminds me of the way a cellist uses the endpin for balance on the floor. Here's what Yehudi Menuhin had to say about it in 1994:
I was the victim of the type of thinking which to me now is anathema wherever I see it; whether in violin playing, in diplomacy, in habits, whatever it is. It is the rigid: the idea that to establish an order you begin with the motionless. You begin with what doesn’t move, then you add movement.

You begin with the first position on the violin, and then you don’t explain it. Because it’s called the first position, you begin with the first position. And you press fingers down; you don’t know how to hold the violin. And then afterwards you will add motion, instead of realizing that the world began with motion.

People begin with the solid, they begin in their minds with something secure . . . either all men are terrible or all men are equal or some theory, something that is rigid, whether political theory or religious theory, it’s that rigidity . . .

Now, it’s idiotic to begin in the first position because it’s the farthest away from the body; the violin is heaviest there. It’s also bad to begin near the shoulder of the violin because you are inclined to hold the violin and support it. So you begin in between, and you don’t begin in a position, you begin with motion right away . . .

One of my main motives in life seems to be to correct for myself, first of all, and then for as many as I can reach, a false notion of thinking, basic idea of thinking, as if the body were a statue and then you breathe into it motion. . . .

* * *

If you are dealing with something that has to vibrate, as soon as you hold it tightly you inhibit the vibrations. As soon as you squeeze, as soon as you oppress a human being, you destroy the opportunity of dialogue, of giving and receiving. And the same with the violin.

The violin is said to rest on the shoulder, because that’s obvious; anyone can see a shoulder. But few people can see a collarbone, and all the most crude and obvious approaches I was subjected to during those first eight months of study with that teacher in San Francisco, an old-fashioned teacher who got results (you get results: you can run a country with slave camps, you get results—they work) but my feeling is you can’t become the kind of violinist that I admire, and which exists today more than before because people are more evolved in their thinking than before. Before it took a genius to be a Paganini, or perhaps a Corelli, or maybe not . . . maybe those people played just like that.

But then came this oppressive approach where you only got results by whipping, and that has been against my whole attitude to life.

Then I looked for the truth and I found some truths. For instance, probably knew the truth, and everyone who played the violin already did it beautifully, but I had to find these things out for myself against a very strong environment of security, false security, and against my own ambition, or with my own ambition to play so that finally I realized that the violin does not rest on the shoulder. It rests on the collarbone. The bone which, connected to the violin communicates the vibration, the bone which is a harder substance than the shoulder. Besides, as anyone can see, as soon as you raise the shoulder against the chin you have a crazy kind of diagonal, and it lifts the elbow away from the violin.

Then you have those violinists who play with their thumbs right above the fingerboard, the neck of the violin. And instead of the shoulder feeding the flow into the fingers, you have it inhibiting. And so they get over it. You can get over so many things, so many obstacles, and still play the violin very beautifully and make it communicate. Its extraordinary how badly you can play the violin and still communicate if you really want to. But even so, the feeling of continuity in motion, in other words: the economy of motion consists in not allowing any motion to be wasted. If there’s already a motion, don’t push it. You don’t say “now I’m going to do something” if it’s already there. The same in walking. . .

That fact that if you play with everything balanced, and you can move each joint: you can roll the violin between thumb and finger, you can feel that this [the elbow] is a pendulum, that the shoulder can move, so that the farther the hand goes away, the lower and backwards the shoulder goes. You don’t do that [he leans forward]. You always do that [he leans upwards and backwards]. One of the first exercises without the violin, after I’ve made the children walk on all fours, is to raise the collarbone and lower the shoulder. It’s perfectly possible. One becomes gradually aware: (I can feel that [the collarbone] rising, I can feel that [the shoulder] lowering).

That’s one of the first exercises. And then the ease of the neck so the neck just touches, it doesn’t clutch the violin, it touches it, and in such a way that it can slide on the chinrest, and that it can compensate the motion of the hands [he demonstrates a pulling back motion with the hand loosely moving up and down the imaginary fingerboard].


Fresca said...

Oh, how wonderful! I love this:
"If you are dealing with something that has to vibrate, as soon as you hold it tightly you inhibit the vibrations. "

It reminds me of one of my favorite quotes about learning:
" It is evident that the free play of curiosity is a more powerful spur to learning these things than is fear-ridden coercion…”
--Augustine's Confessions, I.14.24 (--reflecting, as you may know, on how he hated being forced to learn Greek as a child, and how even to avoid being beaten, he never really did learn it)

Anonymous said...

If I am correct, Menuhin spoke about his "crystallizing experience" upon first seeing/hearing the violin as a young child. I think this true for many children, and therefore conclude that it is almost wicked of this modern academic culture to deprive kids of such experiences as often as it does. That the classical arts are so easily cut from budgets in favor of six-figure salaries for administrators tells a story not of education, but of a rape of society and culture in favor of the few. If more children had that "crystallizing experience" as relates to a violin, a paint box, a rhyme, a play, culture would be enriched rather than diluted into today's morass. So it seems to me.

Nikki said...

How can I put it....this is life's metaphor
He is truly inspirational and his lessons made available on YouTube have helped me so much. I am do glad I found your blog. I am learning.. . Starting over I suppose, I tried the tall chin rest ( I am 5'10"), but I rather think he is right. I can't stand any shoulder rest I've ever tried. I feel stuck and bound by it.