Can We Unlock the Secrets of Virtuosity?
Fundamentals Underlying Techniques and Methodologies
By Prof. Lihay Bendayan, Head of the Violin Class, Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance

What is virtuosity?

The common understanding of the term “virtuosity” refers to a great technical skill in music, dance, writing, painting – mainly in the practice of a fine art. The Cambridge dictionary defines “virtuosity” as “the quality of being extremely skilled at something.”

In relation to playing an instrument, and in particular in violin playing, virtuosity refers to brilliant technique and the capability to perform the most technically demanding repertoire. A “virtuoso” (from Latin “virtuosus” meaning “good, virtuous”) is an extremely skilled violinist possessing exceptional technique. Niccolo Paganini, Louis Spohr, Henri Vieuxtemps, Pablo de Sarasate, Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst, Joseph Joachim, and others in the late 18th and 19th centuries are prominent examples of violin virtuosos who were able to stretch to the extremes the capacities of the instrument and develop the related human capabilities to previously unknown highs. The 20th century was exceptionally generous in offering great virtuosos and fabulous representatives of various violin schools, such as Eugène Ysaÿe, Carl Flesch, Fritz Kreisler, and later Jascha Heifetz, Yehudi Menuhin, David Oistrakh, Leonid Kogan, Isaac Stern, Ivry Gitlis, Michael Rabin, Nathan Milstein, Ruggiero Ricci, Tibor Varga, Zino Francescatti, Christian Ferras, Arthur Grumiaux Ginette Neveu, Jacques Thibaud, Joseph Hassid, Henryk Szeryng, and many others. More recent examples, we should mention for example Itzhak Perlman, Shmuel Ashkenazy, Shlomo Mintz, Pinhas Zuckerman, Maxim Vengerov, and Vadim Repin. All these great virtuosos possess exceptional technical skills, but at the same time their playing and interpretations vary greatly in taste and approach. In fact, their virtuosity does not define their interpretations; rather, it is a tool that affords them a great deal of freedom, and therefore the privilege of dealing with musical challenges without concern for technical issues. I am convinced that all these wonderful violinists use their virtuosity for the much greater cause:  presenting the repertoire’s beauty, meaning, shape, expression, textures, atmosphere, and aesthetics. 

Virtuosos and Pedagogues

Virtuosity certainly requires great talent – an exceptional natural gift – but also years of very hard work. Even the legendary Jascha Heifetz, considered by many to have been the greatest virtuoso of the 19th century, used to say: « If I do not practice seven hours one day, I can really feel it in my playing. If I don’t practice seven hours a day for two days, everyone can hear it! »  This is where schooling comes in. Some pedagogues were able to produce more virtuosos then others. Luis Persinger, Leopold Auer, Ivan Galamian, Pyotr Stolyarsky, Abram Yampolsky, Carl Flesch, Yuri Yankelevich, and George Enescu are just a few examples of wonderful pedagogues who formed several of the virtuosos mentioned above. They were able to transmit in a constructive way precious information to their pupils – and themselves possessed a great talent: the capacity to develop their students into the best possible version of themselves. As Heifetz used to say about his teacher Leopold Auer, « He made me become Heifetz, not another Auer. » 

Very often virtuosity is associated with child prodigies or with the myth of « the gypsy violinists » who astonish listeners with their fabulous facilities. The idea of this article is to try and decipher the secret of virtuosity from a pedagogical point of view and to analyze the principles underlying the various violin schools and exercises books. These were naturally influenced by the personalities and experiences of the pedagogues, including when and where they lived, the older traditions and schools and musical taste they had been exposed to themselves, as well as conceptions of ideal violin sound and the cultural influences relevant to time and place. 

What would be an extremely great skill for a violinist?

We often associate virtuosity with the capacity to play very fast. But is it that simple? If we take the example of two cars: a new Ferrari model and an old Volvo, both driving at the high speed of 170 km/h.  Are they both “virtuosos”? 170 km/h is a high speed for the Volvo, which is already beginning to strain under the effort, while the Ferrari is just warming up. And of course the sound of the two cars at 170 km/h is not at all the same.

This example demonstrates that playing fast alone is an insufficient measure of virtuosity.  Playing fast with great effort and difficulty and with a poor quality (intonation/sound) would not be considered virtuosic, despite the player having reached a fast metronome marking.  Further, this applies to the performance of all the other technically demanding skills or passages, such as brilliant bow strokes, quick double stops, and double harmonics. 

Considering the above, in my personal definition of virtuosity, I would say that the first condition is quality, and then how easily a passage is played and how much of the player’s capacity is required to do so. By the same token, we could say that the easier the Paganini concertos are for you, the more virtuosic you are. 

 “Easy” means effortless and tensionless, raising the question, “How can we reduce the amount of effort and tension while we play and so become more virtuosic?” 

The following analysis in answer to this question is most relevant to advanced students and professionals who already benefit from solid basic technique.

  •  Use proportional effort (not force):

In many ways, we unconsciously create difficulty and tension for ourselves by using too much force, or using force instead of other capabilities, such weight, for tone production. We are born with clenched fists and as babies retain the reflex of holding objects tightly and in disproportionate relation to their weight for quite a long period. Avoiding this reflex when holding the bow, when holding the violin (neck, shoulders, right thumb), or when pressing the fingers into the strings is absolutely crucial. Imagine the impact on your bow technique of holding a 60-gram bow with the force needed to lift a 2 kg chair, or, in a quick passage, pressing the fingers too forcefully into the strings (which, as we know, rest quite close to the fingerboard). This is like running with weights on your feet or forcing your feet into the ground, instead of doing exactly the opposite. We need instead to fine tune our effort, reducing it to the absolute minimum necessary. How often do I see players who could use much less effort in a technical context! Let’s come back to the car for another example, reflecting on how you hold the steering wheel when you drive: naturally, you don’t need to hold it very tightly and with force when you drive, nor do you need to clutch the steering wheel tightly when you need to move it. When you turn the steering wheel to follow the twisting of the road, you can benefit from the car’s reaction to the road to reduce the effort you make in consequence; further, you can use the weight of your shoulders and arms, rather than the strength of your muscles, to accomplish the turn. 

  1. Maintain Quality Posture:

Quality posture, a relaxed, neutral position of the back and neck, is at the base of good, free technique. I warmly recommend you consider methods such as Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais Method, and others, in relation to this point. By contrast, building technique with an asymmetrical back position will create compensatory mechanisms, increasing tension. There is always a correlation between the muscles and the tendons in our body, and this is why, for example, tension in your shoulders will impact your arms and even your wrist and fingers; an asymmetrical back position not only influences the position and the state of your shoulders, but also alters the position and hold of the violin, which in turn inevitably affects your capacity to shift positions freely, to vibrate freely, to control your playing in an efficient yet sensitive way, or to adjust the amount of pressure needed for each finger to stop the string.



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