Simon Fischer – Teaching Children
On Sunday 2nd November 2014, the 6th European Suzuki Exchange Conference in Remscheid, Germany, welcomed Simon Fischer for the second year in a row.
The renowned pedagogue worked with six violin students from Germany and Switzerland in two masterclass sessions. The students played pieces including the Introduction and Polonaise from Arabesken, No. 12 by Carl Bohm, Violin Concerto No.3 by Saint-Saens, and the Double Violin Concerto in D minor for two violins by Bach.
Simon’s cheerful nature came across whilst working with the students, as he challenged each of them to strive to reach their full potential. Simon’s advice to students and teachers alike covered varying pedagogical topics, but much of his advice fell into three broad categories. Simon discussed the importance of the freedom of movement whilst playing, as well as covering technical issues of the left and right hands. Whilst he was careful to place great emphasis on the importance of instilling technique, he also discussed the importance of working with and for the music, rather than working for the technique.
The Importance of the Freedom of Movement
Simon was keen to stress that movement is a required part of playing the violin as it aids tone production and releases tension from the body, preventing aches and pains. To assist in the release of tension, Simon suggested that the students made sure they were ‘humans and not aliens!’ He encouraged them to jump up and down whilst bending their knees on landing, then keeping their knees soft when playing. He explained that every part of the body is connected and needs to work in harmony, just like the thumb and fourth finger on the bow needs to work together.
However, whilst subtle body movement is encouraged, Simon warned that intense body movements could distract from the sound, particularly if the violin slants forward rather than staying upright and balanced on the performer’s shoulder.
Simon encouraged the young violinists to engage in suitable movement whilst performing, explaining that many successful solo artists may move around the stage during a performance, but their bodies will move around the violin, which remains relatively still.
Many successful solo artists also bring their bow to the violin rather than taking their violin to the bow, which further assists in fighting the natural tendency to give into the force of gravity. Simon encouraged all teachers to see their students through this lens, and to consider that performers raise their scrolls slightly at the apex of a melody stating ‘you need to go up when you go up’, rather than tipping the scroll and inevitably the violin, in a downwards motion.
In order to assist teachers with the teaching of their own students, Simon suggested that students would need to practise the freedom of movement in isolated sections of their pieces, either resting their scroll on a music stand or shelf protected by a cloth, or with the teacher holding the scroll whilst the student plays. This will provide the student with the experience of performing whilst the violin remains relatively still, which can help counteract the natural tendencies of the student to pull the violin downwards.
This effect that gravity has, pushing down on you while you are wanting to keep your arms, violin and bow up in the air, and how you react to it, is the first factor to consider in the whole subject of good posture and freedom from aches and pains (Fischer, 2013, p. 164).
Simon referred to an interesting paradoxical formula that highlights the delicate balance of movement required by the performer ‘if you can see it, it is too much. If you can’t see it, it is not enough!’.
Further information on the importance of keeping the knees soft whilst playing is available in ‘The Violin Lesson’ (Fischer, 2013, p. 195), and also in Paul Rolland’s book ‘The Teaching of Action in String Playing’ (Rolland, 2000, p. 30), Galamian’s ‘Principles of Violin Playing and Teaching’ (Galamian, 1985, p. 12–13), and Carl Flesch’s book ‘The Art of Violin Playing: Book 2’ (Flesch, 2008, pp. 92–96).
Left and Right Hand Techniques
Simon addressed a number of fundamental techniques that are paramount to a student’s success.
Technique is the ability to direct mentally and to execute physically all of the necessary playing movements of left and right hands, arms, and fingers… In short, it is the complete mastery over all of the potentialities of the instrument (Galamian, 1985, p. 5).
The following points are highlights from the discussion on left and right hand technique within violin playing:
Bow Hand Finger Placement:
Simon explained that in violin playing, there are no straight lines. The bridge is curved, the stick of the bow is curved, and the bow curves around the strings. The same advice applies to bow circles and spiccato (no straight lines, only curves,) and also to the fingers of the bow hand where straight fingers should not exist.
A common fault of the student bow hand is to protrude the pad of the flat thumb pad through the frog of the bow, resulting in a straight thumb and fourth finger. For an interesting case study on this issue, see Simon Fischer’s book ‘The Violin Lesson’ (Fischer, 2013, p. xxiii). Simon’s response to this common fault is to think of the bow as a touch pad, like a mobile phone. Each finger has a placement on the bow and must touch it’s ‘button’. The fourth finger is set on top of the outer edge of the bow, and the third finger has a button between the eye and the curve of the frog. Another button sits on the top and side of the stick for the first finger, with the second finger having no button as it just rests where it falls. Simon talks more about the bow hold in his book ‘The Violin Lesson’ (Fischer, 2013, p. 38), and ‘Basics’ (Fischer, 2008, p. 1).
Simon advised that in order to play at the heel and under the fingers of the bow (stating that ‘you pay for all the hair on your bow – you should use it!’), the bow hold must be balanced and relaxed. In order to ensure a balanced and relaxed bow hold, Simon recommended bow hand stability and strength exercises very similar to the violin gymnastic exercises illustrated in Kerstin Wartberg’s Step by Step – Introduction to successful practice: Volume 2A (Wartberg, 2006, p. 8).
Left Thumb Placement:
With regards to the left hand setup on the violin, Simon explained that the key to relaxed playing was freeing tension, starting with the thumb. Simon urged his audience to consider that the base knuckle joint in the thumb is much lower that most people think, and therefore, relaxation of the thumb needs to start at the muscles close to the wrist joint and ball of the thumb (thenar eminence).
Simon suggested that a 1-minute wrist massage before playing might be hugely beneficial (Fischer, 2013, p. 184), although care needs to be taken to prevent damage to the soft tissues.
However, discovering how to release tension in the hand and wrist is immensely important in the quest for tension free playing, and further discussions on the benefits of the freedom of the left hand can be found in ‘The Violin Lesson’ (Fischer, 2013, p. 181).
Left Thumb Rotation:
Simon proposed that teachers consider thumb rotation (clockwise or anticlockwise) as well as the forwards and backwards position of the thumb, and explained that the considerable benefit of relaxation can be gained by the frequent rotation of the thumb during playing (just for a few seconds), to make sure it is tension free. Suggested exercises for thumb position and independence can be found in Simon’s book ‘Basics’ (Fischer, 2008, pp. 89–91).
Left Hand Fingers Moving from the Base Knuckle Joints:
For ease and efficiency, it is good practice to train the fingers on the left hand to move from their base knuckle joints. However, when doing so, care must be taken to ensure that the shape of the first finger on and off the string does not change. In his book ‘The Violin Lesson’ (Fischer, 2013, p. 187), Simon discusses a number of tapping exercises that can assist in the student in developing the appropriate finger action technique. Further discussions on the importance of moving the left hand fingers from their base knuckle joints can be found in Galamian’s book ‘Principles of Violin Playing and Teaching’ (Galamian, 1985, p. 18).
Left Elbow Placement:
When referring to the correct placement of the left elbow, Simon connected the elbow placement to the base knuckle joints of the fingers. He suggested that when playing on the E string, the left elbow would need to swing more to the left, with the base knuckle joints of the fingers near to the level of the fingerboard. In contrast, when playing on the G string, the left elbow needs to swing more towards the right (under the violin), and the base knuckle joints of the left hand will be higher than the level of the fingerboard (Fischer, 2008, p. 108).
In order to demonstrate the feeling of this with a student, Simon advocated engaging in left hand pizzicato using the 4th finger to pluck the E string, then swinging the elbow under the violin in order to find the correct elbow position and finger placement to pluck the G string. This feeling should then be repeated whilst bowing (arco), challenging the elbow and left hand fingers to make the same placements as per the pizzicato exercise.
Simon explained that over the course of his teaching career, he has come almost full circle on what he considers to be the most ideal violin hold position. After many years of study in the area, he now believes that a violinist should adopt a violin hold that allows the violin to remain as flat as possible, in order to prevent the loss of natural bow weight on the E string. However, he does suggest slanting the violin slightly for the bow to gain better access to the G string, preventing bowing fatigue that might occur if the violin position is too flat.
The reason for adopting the flatter violin position is that the sound projects better. It also provides the performer with a different bow arm where everything feels different. Although the same muscles are used, they are used in different proportions, which result in the provision of superior bow arm motion.
For further discussion on the importance of the violin position, see ‘The Violin Lesson’ (Fischer, 2013, p. 27), ’The Teaching of Action in String Playing’ (Rolland, 2000, pp. 73-74) and ‘The Principles of Violin Teaching’ (Galamian, 1985, p. 13).
The Importance of Musicianship over Technique
Throughout the masterclass, Simon stressed the importance of being a musician first and foremost, and ‘then being a musician!’ Simon was emphasising the importance of making sure the primary aim of a violinist was to deliver the musical result, whilst employing the necessary technique required to support their musicality. This is contrary to the belief that many students have that their bow hand and bow arm is what makes the magic happen on the violin.
Simon suggested that the violinist starts from the musical result they want to achieve, and then works back towards the technique required to maintain the musical result. Therefore, what happens on the violin should be as a result of the music, and not the cause of the music. This means that attention must be paid to the form of the bow hand (the physical appearance), but it’s function (the way it works) comes directly from the music. Here, Simon was putting across his viewpoint on the age-old argument of balancing the teaching of technique and musicality, which has been debated by pedagogues as far back as Leopold Mozart in 1756 (Mozart, 1951).
Simon also applied the same idea to shifting, where he explained that the first rule of shifting is that there should be no musical concept of shifting. The shift is just a mechanism that the student gets for free when they work on the music rather than the technique. However, once they own the mechanism, the student will need to practise it repeatedly in order for it to be accurate, automatic, and readily available to employ in their future repertoire.
Simon’s key message was that ‘we do not play the technique, but the music requires the technique’. When applied to the bow hand, it means that ‘the bow hand supports the bow, but does not control it’.
Words of Wisdom
Throughout the masterclass, Simon made reference to some useful words of wisdom that are worth noting:
- Sometimes you do not need to practise something over and over until you get it right. You just need to listen, understand it, then do it, which cuts out a lot of mindless practise time. ‘You need to listen, then do’. This idea stresses the importance of an organised mind before embarking on practise. Simon talks more about this concept and other practise ideas in ‘The Violin Lesson’ (Fischer, 2013, p. 326).
- Simon’s key to success in his own teaching is that he has a talent for seeing how a student could play in the future. This is a constant theme he employs for all of his students, and encourages all teachers to adopt a similar strategy, as developing a vision for every student is a hugely beneficial tool for clearing the mind and prioritising teaching.
- If the student does exactly as they are told, when they are told to do it, they could do anything. This is a key concept that could be developed by teachers relating to their own students, although it may be a very difficult strategy to implement!
Simon made numerous references to Galamian during the masterclass, and suggested that all violin teachers should be familiar with the fundamental work ‘The Principles of Violin Teaching’ (Galamian, 1985), as well as Leopold Mozart’s 1756 book ‘A Treatise on the Fundamental Principles of Violin Playing’ (Mozart, 1951), in which a number of Simon’s ideas are also corroborated. Simon also made a reference to Dorothy DeLay as the source of inspiration for the less-more-most concept of expressive playing. An interesting insight into Dorothy DeLay’s life and teaching can be read in ‘Teaching Genius’ (Sand, 2005).
Great thanks are offered to Simon Fischer and the teachers and students involved in the masterclass. They proved to be a great inspiration for teachers and students alike, and the information provided will continue to help teachers and their students for years to come.
Fischer, S. (2013) The Violin Lesson: A Manual for Teaching and Self-teaching the Violin. London: Peters Edition Limited.
Fischer, S. (2012a) Scales: Scales and Scale Studies for the Violin. London: Peters Edition Limited.
Fischer, S. (2012b) Tone: Experimenting with Proportions on the Violin. London: Fitzroy Music Press.
Fischer, S. (2008) Basics. 300 Exercises and Practice Routines for the Violin. London: Peters Edition Limited.
Fischer, S. (2004) Practice. 250 Step-by-step Practice Methods for the Violin. London: Peters Edition Limited.
Flesch, C. (2008) The Art of Violin Playing Book 2. USA: Fischer.
Galamian, I. (1985) Principles of Violin Playing and Teaching. London: Prentice-Hall International.
Mozart, L. (1951) A Treatise on the Fundamental Principles of Violin Playing. London: Oxford University Press.
Rolland, P. (2000) The Teaching of Action in String Playing. USA: American String Teachers Association.
Sand, B. (2005) Teaching Genius – Dorothy DeLay and the Making of a Musician. New Jersey, USA: Amadeus Press.
Wartberg, K. (2014) Basics for Young Violinists – Test Version for 6th Suzuki Teachers’ Exchange Convention in Germany. German Suzuki Institute
Wartberg, K. (2006) Step by Step – An Introduction to Successful Practice: Volume 2A. USA: Alfred Publishing.
Studio Director of ‘Violin with Helen’ in Reading, United Kingdom
Helen holds an MA in Instrumental Teaching from the University of Reading (where she graduated with distinction), and violin teaching diplomas from Trinity College London (ATCL), and the Associated Board of Royal Schools of Music (DipABRSM).
Conference report – PART 1
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7th European Suzuki Teachers Convention in Germany
30 October – 2 November 2015
EVERYBODY is WELCOME!