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Don’t make that face

May 3, 2018



The violin is an unforgiving instrument — it ranks up there with clarinet for Most Painful Instrument to Hear A Beginner Play. Unlike piano or guitar, you have control over both pitch (finger position) and tone generation (bowing). In the hands of a master, it allows the instrument to sing like a human voice. In other hands? I have a theory that the first violin players must have been royalty, otherwise they would have been put to death by their neighbors while they tried to figure it out.

One skill you need to get really good at is intonation — playing in tune — and being able to adjust if not. This requires training your ears to become very, very sensitive to whether you’re even the slightest bit off. The same way supertasters are overly sensitive to bitter tastes, you become a superlistener, listening for any notes that are out of whack.

In high school, I had a pretty serious violin teacher — she would hold regular recitals where all her students would assemble at her house and perform whatever piece they were working on. Once a year she would rent out a theater and have everyone play on stage with an accompanist with all the families in the audience.

There was one very talented student in particular that had wonderful technique, tone — the only issue is that any time she felt she made a mistake, she would scrunch up her face and wince, like she twisted her ankle. She would do it all the time, even though it sounded great, even to a fairly discerning audience. It was really distracting, and unfortunately for her, it had become an unconscious reflex that undermined all the hard work she’d put in.

While it’s important to take note of what needs to be improved so you can continue getting better, during a performance is not the best time point this out. Your audience wants to enjoy your work. They’re not there (most of them, anyway) just to pick it apart, and even if they were, it’s unlikely they know the material inside and out, the way you do. Odds are they wouldn’t even know anything was wrong — so why go out of your way to point it out to them?

Finally — when you’re done, just because you’re unhappy with your performance doesn’t mean you have to tell other people how wrong they are when they tell you they enjoyed it. I didn’t understand until much later (towards the end of the HD years) that it’s actually more a form of arrogance than humility. So, remember: Do everyone a favor, don’t make that face.

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