Listening is one of the most important skills you can have. How well you listen has a major impact on your effectiveness at work, your relationships and your musical practice.
Listening enables you to learn, to obtain information, to understand and to enjoy, yet it can often feel like an abstract ability. Research suggests that most people remember only 25 to 50 percent of what they hear, meaning that whether you’re talking to a friend, listening to your violin teacher or listening to your violin practice, you’re paying attention to at most, half of what’s going on.
By becoming a better listener, paying attention to how you listen and what you are listening for, violin practice will improve, but good listening and its application in violin practice requires a high level of self-awareness, attention, positive attitude, flow concentration and critical thinking skills.
Listening in violin playing comes in many different guises:
First, prepare yourself to listen. Put other things out of your mind. If you notice you are thinking about what you’re going to have for dinner, allow the mind to re-focus on the music you are about to play, the sound you want to make and the shape of the musical phrase you would like to express. It is very easy to allow the brain to drift into autopilot.
Warm up by playing some long notes and slow scales. Really engage with the sound you are producing. Try to do so non-judgementally, just enjoying the variations of vibration and tone. As your body warms up, give yourself some images of colour, texture or objects, for example, a smooth piece of dark blue velvet. Visualise the feeling and the colour, and then play some notes with the same feeling. Really listen to your tone and the feelings you produce from the notes.
Practice focussed concentration. Break your violin practice into short bursts so you can really listen. The mental state in which you are fully immersed in what you are doing, known as flow or being in the zone, represents the deepest levels of performing and learning. In flow, the emotions are positive, energised and aligned with the task in hand. This level of positive focus is most likely to occur when you are practising with purpose; with a clear set of goals and progress, giving direction and structure to the practice, and with clear feedback; so having actually really listened to what you’ve just played.
It is important to find a balance between the perceived challenges of the music or technique you are practising, and your level of skill as you perceive it: You must feel confident in your ability to achieve what you want.
Broken down, this level of concentration can be achieved when you know:
If you are bored or anxious, it is very difficult to concentrate properly, and to listen to what you are really playing without negative preconceptions. Use visualisation, listen in your mind to what you want to do, listen to the results and enjoy the process. This is where your critical thinking skills will come in. Use the information gathered from listening fully to what you are doing to evaluate what you are doing and how you might develop it.
Full concentration, really listening to what you are doing, is more likely to produce the information and results you want than simply hearing what you’re playing.
Try breaking down what you hear into separate parts so you can listen more closely. Work on the rhythm, intonation, tone, phrasing and other musical ideas individually, and then start to put everything back together. Sometimes when you concentrate on the rhythm, the tuning will go funny, for example. Don’t worry about this; your brain is focussed on integrating your understanding of the rhythm. You can go back to the intonation later.
Allow your ears to listen to the sound in the whole room, not just to the sound coming from your violin. Imagine you have one ear at each side of the room. Sometimes it can be interesting to put an earplug in your left ear to hear the sound that is going into the space rather than the noise under your earhole!
Read the article about visualisation skills for more ideas and practice techniques.
You can use the ViolinSchool Auralia ear training software (included free with your ViolinSchool membership) to practice your listening skills and deepen your understanding of the music you are learning. Most music has three main ideas to notice: new melodies, repetition and variation. You can also look for colour, balance and texture, key (major or minor), rhythms and accompaniment. The more you understand about how your piece is put together, the easier it is to feel confident in how you want it to sound.
Listening to someone you admire playing the piece you are learning is one of the best ways to motivate yourself and understand the music. You can develop a mental map of the characters, colours and energies that make up your piece.
Listen to the piece as a whole and in small sections. It can be fun to listen to a phrase and then try to recreate the sounds and shapes you heard on the recording. Many beginner violin books and graded exam books now come with CDs. For children learning the Suzuki method, listening is one of the first skills learned. Suzuki encouraged his young students to listen to recordings of great violinists, and his method is based on the mother tongue ideal of repetition and imitation. Suzuki children normally start off playing the violin with a beautiful tone because they have listened so much to the sound of the violin. Ultimately, listening to the piece before and during study allows you to build a concept and an ideal of the music, and motivates your listening and your practice.
Recording your violin practice and performances and listening back is an extremely useful practice tool. Don’t listen back immediately if you feel it might be a negative experience. Record one day and listen back the next so you have a little distance from the process of “doing”. Often you will pick up on all sorts of things you missed. The violin is right under the ear and it can be difficult when you’re actually playing to pick up on things that are obvious when you are focussed solely on listening.
It can be easy to go into a lesson with a preconceived idea of what you can and cannot do. Your teacher will have a completely fresh perspective on what you are playing and will hear positive things and aspects you can work on, some of which you may think didn’t sound so good, or which you hadn’t noticed weren’t working. When your teacher is explaining something, don’t talk. Listen. Don’t interrupt or talk over them or you will miss vital information. You already know what you think; this is the time to take advice.
Listen to feedback in a positive way. Feedback that tells you why something isn’t working and how you can make it better is incredibly valuable; don’t let it depress you if your teacher isn’t constantly complimentary. Listen to the feedback and add it to your information banks. It would be much worse if nobody in your support network ever told you something didn’t work and it was only picked up in an important concert.
Playing with other people requires a whole new level of listening. Suddenly you aren’t just listening to your own sound, tuning and rhythm, you’re listening to the group sound and required to play in time and in tune with other people.
Have a look at the article about Ensemble Playing for some in depth ideas for playing with other musicians.
The whole point of playing the violin is to enjoy its sound. Without listening, there is no function to the music. Developing the conscious listening skills in practice that enable you to really express the music in performance is a really important part of practice and learning. Learning to listen when you practice, and to hear the elements of music as it’s performed, will heighten your enjoyment when you go to a concert, or when you hear birdsong, the wind in the chimney or the waves on the beach. You might even find you are listening and communicating better with others.
Start noticing your listening when you practice and see what else comes into your awareness through practising this essential skill.
How the Violin Makes Sound
The body of the violin is a hollow space that functions as an amplifier for vibration. The strings are suspended above the body by a bridge, a small piece of maple wood, which stands on the belly of the violin between the F holes and which is secured to the belly by the tension of the strings. The vibration from the stings is transferred through the bridge to the body of the instrument via the internal sound post. Vibrations are amplified as they meet the hard wood at the back of the instrument and come out through the soft front body and the F holes.
The F holes serve to connect the air on the inside of the instrument to the air outside. As a result of their length and shape, they allow the part of the belly between the holes to move more easily and to vibrate more freely than the other parts of the instrument.
The sound-post, the small upright piece of wood inside the violin, prevents the belly from collapsing under the tension of the strings and couples the vibrations between the stiffer back plate and the bridge. The position of the sound-post is critical to the sound of the instrument. The bass-bar sits inside the belly on the bass-foot side of the bridge, the side under the G-string or bass end of the instrument. This extends beyond the length of the F holes and transmits the motion of the bridge over a large area of the belly.
The air inside the instrument vibrates, exactly like the air in a bottle vibrates when you blow across the top of it.
The violin does not work like an electric amplifier. An electric amp takes a signal with a small amount of power and uses electricity to turn it into a more powerful signal. On the violin, the sound produced by the body of the instrument is created entirely with energy put into the string from the bow. The body of the violin is designed to make the conversion process of vibration to sound optimally efficient. A string on its own makes little sound.
Vibration of the violin strings can be achieved by plucking the strings, which is called pizzicato, or by drawing a bow across them, which is called arco. There are several other ways of making sound, known as extended techniques, which include col legno playing -hitting the string with the wood of the bow- or even tapping on the body of the instrument to make percussive noises.
The bow is strung with horsehair, normally about 150 to 200 hairs from a horse’s tail. Rosin, tree resin mixed with wax, is applied to the hair to increase friction. The surface of the hair shaft looks a little like the tiles on a roof, and the rosin adheres to the raised areas on the surface. Without rosin the hair is too smooth and will slide over the string with virtually no sound.
As the bow is drawn across the string, the air molecules in and around the violin move backwards and forwards, varying the air pressure by tiny amounts. The number of oscillations or vibrations of air pressure per second is called the frequency and is measured in cycles called Hertz (Hz). The pitch of a note is determined by the frequency, for example, 440 Hz, or 440 vibrations per second is the note A in the treble clef, the pitch of the A string. 220 Hz is exactly one octave lower, the A played with the first finger on the G-string.
The pitch of the vibrating string also depends on its thickness. A thicker string will sound lower than a thin one. The tension of the string also determines pitch: the higher the tension, the higher the note. Another differentiation is the length of the string that is free to vibrate. As fingers are added to the string on the fingerboard, the pitch of the note gets higher as the string is effectively shortened. Harmonics produce another mode of vibration, in which the sound waves produced by the string are a fraction of the length of those normally produced.
Here Mark Wood demonstrates the physics of sound on his seven string electric fiddle. This is an extreme example of how the pitch works across the instrument, but it is also clear that the resonance created with electrical signals is very different to that of an acoustic violin with all its nuances of shape.
Tone Production with the Bow
The three main points of violin technique that have an impact on the sound are the weight, speed and point of contact with the bow. The bow must always be drawn at a right angle to the bridge, in a straight line between bridge and fingerboard. Simon Fischer describes this constant point of contact like the needle of a record player in the groove of a vinyl record.
Once the bow technique is developed to allow the flexible, spring-like action in the right arm and bow, the three aspects of tone production and nuance can be explored.
Speed of Bow
The faster the bow stroke, the greater the energy that is transmitted to the violin. If bow pressure remains constant, a change in speed will produce an increase in volume. Decreasing the speed will mean the sound gets quieter. For a musical phrase that requires a constant dynamic, therefore, an equal bow speed should be maintained throughout. A frequent mistake is to use too much bow at the beginning of the stroke and run out towards the end.
The pressure of the bow on the strings comes from the weight of the bow itself, the weight of the arm and hand, controlled muscular action, or a combination of the these factors. The bow is heaviest at the frog and therefore whenever an even dynamic is required the pressure must be stronger towards the point. The amount of pressure helps determine the volume of the sound, but the quality of pressure is also important. Too much pressure crushes the string and actually prevents it from vibrating, and can even result in a change of note if the string is pulled too hard. The weight of the hand and arm and the pressure from the muscles must be transferred with freedom of movement and without tension. For example, a rigid right shoulder detracts from the ability to properly use the weight of the arm to apply pressure to the string.
Watch this tutorial by Yehudi Menuhin in which he demonstrates a series of exercises for developing a fluent, flexible right hand:
The third factor in tone production is the sounding point or point of contact. This is the point in relation to the bridge where the bow has contact with the strings. The optimal sounding point changes in relation to the varying speeds and pressures of the bow, and to the length and thickness of the string. On thinner strings the sounding point is nearer to the bridge than on thicker strings; in higher positions it is closer to the bridge than in lower positions.
A further acoustic phenomenon, which Giuseppe Tartini used in his compositions to great effect, also has an impact on tone production. When thirds or sixths are played on the violin, especially on the A and E strings, a third note sounds well below the pitch of the two written notes. These resultant tones, also known as Tartini tones, exist when any two notes are played simultaneously. The pitch of the third tone should be consonant with the double stop. By awareness of these tones, intonation and resonance reach a new level.
Here is Tartini’s Devil’s Trill Sonata. Listen the depth of tone in the double stops.