One note at a time

The violin reveals its secrets slowly. One must be attuned to its possibilities with an almost reverent observing, akin to the sensory awareness of a naturalist in the woods. While this frame of mind brings a necessary focus to practicing, it’s a reminder that learning to play violin is not for the fainthearted.

What keeps me going is the promise of a discovery. If I am observant enough, I’ll realize some slight adjustment of the hand, a pulling in of the elbow, a relaxing of the shoulder brings progress.

My latest discovery has to do with the amount of finger pressure applied to the strings. It’s one of the million and one crucial things you had no idea you needed to learn back when you were struggling to play Twinkle Twinkle.

There’s an exercise to help determine this.

With your left hand in position, you start the exercise by lightly touching the string where you’d normally play a note. Then draw the bow across the string.

This delicate amount of pressure produces not a real note, but what’s called a harmonic–a raspy sound, not all that pleasant. Gradually you add an incremental amount of pressure on the string, stopping just before it actually touches the fingerboard. Because the string needs that freedom to fully vibrate for the clearest sound.

When you realize the distance from string to fingerboard is barely an 1/8th of an inch, you get a pretty good idea of the nuanced amount of pressure needed.

I’ve done this exercise numerous times, always with disappointing results. Until this week.

Suddenly I became aware of the string’s vibrations through the ends of my fingertips in a way I never noticed before. The vibrations were strong. I need press no further. My fingertips tingled. I couldn’t even see the minute amount space between the string and the fingerboard. But it was obvious this was the sweet spot.

Upon further study, I learn there are even more precise steps needed for accurate finger action.

My mind understands the concepts. That’s the easy part. Training my fingers to obey requires new mind-body connections, and a lot of no-nonsense directives to my unruly fingers.

It will take time to train myself to loosen my “beginner’s grip” on the violin especially since there are so many other techniques to discover. Like finding the exact place where the ‘ring tones’ live. A violin’s ring tone.

It takes a quiet, relentless courage to place the violin and lift the bow, something to be acknowledged but not dwell upon. Just showing up every day requires a certain “capacity to tolerate, endure, even thrive on uncertainty” a quote attributed to Chekhov that I relate to.

Success involves being able to pose the correct questions. Waiting for the answers. Taking it one note at a time.

The Music Lesson

When you learn the difference between playing notes and tapping into the ‘wholeness’ of Music, you become absorbed in something infinitely greater than your self.

Some Inspiration from reading The Music Lesson: A Spiritual Search for Growth through Music, by Victor Wooten. Bass guitarist.

Photo by cottonbro on