The Violin and Mindfulness

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Classical Violin By: Please log in to see tutor details
Subject: Violin » Classical Violin
Last updated: 20/12/2017
Tags: alexander technique, mindfulness, violin

Common Ground between the Violin, Alexander Technique and Mindfulness

It may seem over simplistic to reduce the process of playing the violin to a way of becoming physically self-aware relative to a wooden box stuck under the chin, scraped by a straight stick held in the right hand. But the more I learn and teach this instrument, the more I realise it is a question of adapting and moving the body around this immobile box and stick, so in a sense we learn how to play our bodies rather than an instrument.

Learning the violin trains the body and mind, but you don't have to rely on music alone for this. Alexander Technique and Meditation are other means by which such training can be facilitated and these can feed back into our instrumental study as well. Since I took up Alexander five years ago I have been able to solve technical problems on the violin that have dogged me for years, including some that I never realised were holding me back. Good body use helps you increase your playing stamina and awareness of bad physical habits that can lead to back problems. It teaches you to spot excessive and uneconomic movements that get in the way of playing well – maybe even eliminating the sort of over-enthusiastic movements that prevent the right arm drawing the bow across the strings in a straight line, which is essential for making a good sound.

About the same time as taking up Alexander, I started to learn to meditate. I quickly recognised the feeling of concentration I get when playing music, being in the zone, to coin a catchphrase. Meditation teaches you to observe thoughts and the empty spaces in between. In a very real sense it helps discipline the unruliness of our minds and increases concentration skills elsewhere in life. Just the mere ability to notice when you have drifted off and lost concentration during practice (or even during performance!) can help restore the broken thread and maintain that thread for longer periods of time. It can also help deal with negative self-messaging during performance and to feel at ease in situations where you are being observed, such as auditions, trials, and playing in front of large audiences.

Mindfulness (an offshoot cultivated through the formal practice of meditation,) can be applied to violin playing in many ways: awareness of intonation, sound quality, good body use (Alexander again which is a form of mindfulness), vibrato speed, what the right arm is doing with the bow and so on, as well as attention to musical matters of phrasing and listening to the lines played by other musicians, balance issues etc. You can also become mindful of sensations inside the body when certain things seize up, as happens with the bow shakes or vibrato crippling during extremely quiet passages. Perhaps a shoulder that hunches up when things get difficult. Not to mention mindfulness of self-talk, the sort of negative messages that can suddenly pop into your head just before a particularly tricky moment, leading  to cognitive and physical havoc – mistakes in other words!

Mindfulness of your own body extends as a teacher to awareness of the student's physical differences, a crucial aspect in teaching. You ideally enable the student to use their body in their own natural way rather than imposing what you learnt yourself from other people or from your own experience. What works for you may not work for a student with smaller or bigger hands for example, or longer/shorter arms.

Learning each student's uniqueness by amalgamating general principles of violin technique combined with a knowledge of Alexander and practice of mindfulness helps you appreciate and celebrate the difference of other players. Sitting in many different orchestras as I have done over the years has made me acutely aware of all the fascinating differences in styles apparent from player to player. Students need to be encouraged and helped to find their unique way of playing, which works best for them.

Ultimately, at the end of the day, the only unchanging thing is the instrument itself; the body and mind flow around that rock like water or air, with suppleness, grace, flexibility and constant self-renewal.

Ivor McGregor Classical Violin Teacher (Birmingham)

About The Author

I am a teacher of violin and musical composition with many years experience of performing and writing music.

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