Do you have the dexterity needed to play the violin?

Three plastic surgeons decided to conduct a study of finger dexterity in violin and viola players versus the general population. The paper describing their findings, which was published in The Journal of Hand Surgery, has a title that tickles my funny bone:

Assessment of the presence of independent flexor digitorum superficialis function in the small fingers of professional string players: Is this an example of natural selection?
, by Godwin, Wheble, and Feig.

The paper is, lamentably, behind a paywall, and I am unconvinced by the abstract that it is worth $32.00. But never fear, The Atlantic Monthly has provided a summary and analysis of the paper in an article titled Study: Violinists’ Fates Resides in Their Left Pinky Fingers.

The gist of their argument is that you can conduct tests to determine how much independent motion a person has for their pinky and their ring finger. Go ahead, test yourself:

Hold down the index, middle, and ring fingers of your left hand, then try to bend your pinky. Now try it again, but allow your ring finger to bend as well.

About 18 percent of people can do neither, according to a study in The Journal of Hand Surgery. But in a similar group of 90 professional musicians from “three of London’s leading orchestras” (38 first violinists, 33 second violinists, 19 viola players), none lacked this ability, and all but two were able to bend just their pinky finger.
(Source: Atlantic Monthly).

I can easily bend the ring and pinky fingers together, but I have only limited curl of the pinky on its own. Does this explain why I continue to struggle to get good intonation with 4th-finger stops?

Picture from

Apparently, Godwin et al. recommend testing children for this ability prior to signing them up for violin lessons. As a filter? Really?

As a possibly-slightly-impaired player, I’m more in favor of the Atlantic’s take: “[Instead,] music teachers could use this knowledge to go easy on kids who aren’t predisposed to the violin, instead of just telling them to practice more.”

My first fiddle tunes

After nine months of violin lessons (and practice!), it’s satisfying to be able to see actual improvement. I can play some basic minuets, my scales keep improving, and my general intonation also sounds better. I’m working on controlled staccato bowing and being able to execute 16th notes (so fast!), thankfully not at the same time. But lately it’s been, well, feeling a bit dull.

Not so any more! I asked my teacher if I could learn some fiddle technique, since she also plays fiddle music. She immediately recommended “the only fiddle book you’ll ever need,” which turned out to be “The Craig Duncan Master Fiddle Solo Collection.”

Fiddling is done on a violin, but with a different style and some different techniques. My first fiddle tune is “Cripple Creek,” which is so simple that I was able to sight-read and play it for the first time during the lesson with only a couple of mistakes. It still astonishes me every time my teacher presents me with music I’ve never seen and apparently expects me to read and play it in real time, like this is the most normal thing in the world, even though we’ve never actually talked about or worked on sight-reading. It’s always an adrenaline rush and one of those surprise-myself things when I manage it.

But ah! After this simple tune comes some variations, one of which has two “slides” (which my teacher insists are not glissando, but I don’t know the difference yet). To play a slide, you start on one note and slide into the second. It sounds, and it is, fun! (Some of the fun is because it feels like you’re breaking a rule. On the violin, you’re taught to avoid sliding into your pitches, as you’d rather hit them correctly on contact.)

Once I master the tune, the next step is to add a “drone.” This seems to be where you play everything in double-stops: the bow touches the string you’re playing on and a neighboring string… ON PURPOSE! Another rule to break! The result is a series of chords instead of single notes, and it sounds really neat and fiddle-y when done right. When done wrong, it sounds awful. Like so many things.

I couldn’t resist trying out some more tunes in this book (there are 150 total). I found “Star of the County Down,” thinking it was one of my favorite Emerald Rose songs (which actually doesn’t feature a violin, which should have been a clue). Instead, it is this haunting and beautiful waltz. I’ve also started playing “Turkey in the Straw,” because really, who doesn’t like that song?

My conclusion: fiddle tunes are just FUN! Violin practice has now become the treat I reward myself with after getting chores done, instead of a chore itself. :)

Psychotherapy from violin practice

I was delighted to discover Laurel Thomsen‘s Violin Geek podcast. It’s full of tips for the beginner (and not-so-beginner), and already I’ve found a more comfortable thumb position and am improving my ear training, thanks to Laurel. What I wasn’t expecting was an episode on self-criticism that turned out to contain wise words beyond the violin setting.

Her advice for dealing with self-criticism, when it begins, is:

1. Adopt a “detective” approach. Instead of thinking, “I really screwed that up!” try asking “Why did the sound come out that way?” I like this because it not only keeps things on an even emotional keel, it also keeps you detached enough to adopt a problem-solving perspective. It makes sense that you’d have a better chance of fixing things in this state of mind than if you’re getting angry and frustrated with yourself.

2. Find the positive thought that lies underneath the self-criticism. This was a new one on me. For example, you’re kicking yourself because you keep flubbing the three-measure run of sixteenth notes. You ask yourself why you’re frustrated. Your answer might be that you really want to get this piece right for the recital next week, so you can avoid embarrassing yourself in public. Or maybe you’re a general perfectionist. Or maybe you want your parents to not regret the lesson money. Or maybe you want to impress your girlfriend. Whatever it is, likely it’s more positive than the self-flagellation is, and it can be a motivating thought to focus on during difficult exercises. (She also comments that some motivations, like practicing only because your parents want you to, might indicate a need to switch instruments or hobbies.)

From there she transitions to a discussion of “unmet emotional needs,” and that’s when it really starts feeling like a therapy session. But I appreciated what she had to say, and it’s a reminder that those of us prone to self-criticism should watch out for it even in recreational hobby settings!

The circle of fifths just blew my mind

In tandem with violin practice, I’m working my way through Practical Theory Complete: A Self-Instruction Music Theory Course. It starts out REALLY basic, with simple notation and rhythms, but works all the way up to composing your own song (!). I just hit lesson 39 (of 86) and my brain exploded.

I’d heard about the “circle of fifths” before, but had never delved into what it actually meant. What it provides is a nifty arrangement of the various (major) keys, anchored by the key of C, that reveals patterns in the progression of sharps and flats that comprise each key’s signature. Check out this awesome magic:

Starting from the key of C, if you go up a fifth, you reach G. The key of G introduces one sharp, F#. Up another fifth from G, you get D, which in addition to F# also features C#. And so on. (The order of keys G-D-A-E are easy to remember for violin players, since those are the four fifth-separated strings on the instrument.) Going down from C a fifth, you get F. The key of F introduces one flat, B♭. Down another fifth is the key of B♭, which adds E♭. And so on.

This defines a linear relationship between C and the keys “above” it as well as “below”; but positioning them on a circle reveals a bit more of the magic: three of these keys are redundant (or “enharmonic”: they sound the same but are notated differently). This diagram shows that G♭ and F# are the same key; my workbook’s diagram also shows that D♭ and C# are enharmonic, as are C♭ and B. And hey, look on any keyboard and what do you see? These key pairs are, in fact, literally the same key.

Want more magic? What’s going on here is modular arithmetic! Not mod 7, but mod 13: the set of values includes { C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A#, B, B#, C }. For each key, the major scale is traditionally given as WWHWWWH, where W = “whole step” and H = “half step”. But let’s instead view a scale starting on x as the sequence

{ x, x+2, x+4, x+5, x+7, x+9, x+11, x+12 }.

So the key of C contains { C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C }; C+12 = C in this modular land. Now if we go up a fifth and examine the key of G, that’s the same as adding 5 to all entries. The key of G is therefore
{ C+5, D+5, E+5, F+5, G+5, A+5, B+5, C+5 } which yields
{ G, A, B, C, D, E, F#, G } after doing the addition mod 13.

That is, it’s as if we jumped 5 items forward, but then the extra whole-step in the second tetrachord threw off the pattern and caused the F to become an F#. If you move on to the key of D, the first four notes again are unchanged (with respect to the key of G): { D, E, F#, G }, but then we have to shift one note in the second tetrachord again, yielding { A, B, C#, D }. In this way, the sharps keep building on themselves, and the new sharps introduced in each key alternate. The sharp order is F#, C#, G#, D#, A#, E#, B# (see the pattern?). A similar process explains the progression of flats going “down” from C.

This relationship seems also to explain the conventional structure in how key signatures are written. The key of B major has five sharps, which are C#, D#, F#, G#, A# if you write them in ascending order, but F#, C#, G#, D#, A# if you write them in this circle-of-fifths-inspired order. And that seems to be just what one does (see right).

Patterns! Math! Music! And of course, at the heart of this magic is… physics. :)

Long bowing and plateau #1

It had to come sooner or later: I hit my first plateau with the violin. You know, that point where you keep practicing and working and somehow nothing seems to improve (and sometimes things even get worse!). This is frustrating, but I recognize that it’s part of the process and you just have to push on. After a while, something will click, and you’ll start making progress again.

My plateau hit while working on the first two Minuets in Suzuki book #1. These are two simple pieces in 3/4 time in the key of G. I’ve gotten rather good at scales and arpeggios in the key of G (when I relax and focus), but this only means I hear my mistakes all the more when playing the pieces. :) You know you’re at a plateau when you start getting exactly the same feedback and homework assignments from your teacher on subsequent weeks.

For me, the struggle was in (as dumb as this sounds) using the whole bow. I’d gotten used to practicing with a small mid-section of the bow, as this made “enough” sound for me.

“No, no,” my teacher says. “This piece is to be played forte, and that means the whole bow!”

So, just use the whole bow, right? But you have to cram the whole bow into a quarter note. Suddenly I was rushing, trying to use up the whole bow’s real estate in one click of the metronome. And my intonation degraded, and the bow would make breathy sounds or skip on the strings. Ugh! Gradually I figured out that some of this can be addressed by pressing more firmly (“dig in!” says my teacher) and that it’s really an issue of good bow control (not just letting it slide across the strings), which will come with practice and time.

At about this point, I happened across the excellent “Teaching Suzuki” blog (by a Suzuki teacher) who coincidentally posted about Long Bow Day. She writes about the utility of setting aside a practice session just to work on long bows, and breaks this down very nicely. I went on to read some more of her posts, which manage somehow to be both delightful detailed and accessible, and fascinating in that they provide pedagogical insights about (her philosophy of) how one learns the violin. She appears to be working her way through book 1 right now, in her posts, so I’m eager for her to “catch up” to where I am with the evil Minuets. I love the chance to learn from someone else in addition to my weekly lessons.

Anyway, after much effort, I am making more forte-like sounds, and the intonation is improving. I feel I’m starting to break free of that static-feeling plateau. I’m also getting a bit better at some associated skills from these pieces, like triples (3 notes played in one quarter-note’s time; tricky mainly because it’s a rhythm change), staccato slurs, and “hopping” a left-hand finger to enable playing two notes in succession that require the same finger but are on different strings. Onward and upward!

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