Moving Target

imageI don’t know how to play the violin. In a master class in France, a violin prodigy played rather brilliantly for me — while standing on one foot. “Try the beginning again, and be sure to keep both of your feet on the floor,” I suggested.

With string instruments, I notice that when the position of the fingerboard is not fairly stable spatially, playing is more difficult. It makes sense. The left hand finding pitches, and the bow contacting the strings — have to hit a moving target.

Some musicians move around a lot. A few are very still. One pianist alarmed me a bit by including “choreography” in his list of attributes of a good performance.

Pianists have it somewhat easier, as the position of the keyboard is thankfully steady. Yet, a great deal of motion of the shoulders and upper body will cause extra changes of arm-angle, eye-angle, perceived key resistance, and the finger positions involved in playing. (And once, I did chase a piano on casters as I played an especially adrenalinized L’isle joyeuse.)

Some methods of piano playing and some teachers urge adding wrist and arm gestures to help release tension after a passage, a phrase, or a note. And changes of physical position do allow the body to stay supple and well-functioning. One difficulty of very repetitive music is the cramping that can occur when little change of position is possible for long periods.

To be very still, may give the impression of musical uninvolvement. I wonder if some who found the violin playing of Jascha Heifetz emotionally-distant were reacting to his upright, steady posture? Lang Lang might be a counter example.

There are many ways to play a musical instrument. But let’s consider that moving around more may make it harder to play well.

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  1. Gene says

    This is a fascinating topic. My high school piano teacher used to say that “half of what an audience thinks they hear, they actually see,” which led to all sorts of self-conscious “choreography” by her students. There is a sense that one has to pantomime or underscore with gestures the music’s meaning in order to help the audience get something out of it. It seems that a live performance of music – an art of sound, after all – now needs to be “performative” in the visual dimension to be assured of a good reception. Yet any number of great pianists of the recent past and present from Arthur Rubinstein to Maurizio Pollini to Martha Argerich simply sit (sat) there Zen-like with virtually no extraneous motion. For better or worse, Lang Lang’s flamboyant visual style seems to be the new paradigm. It’s likely that he would be a better pianist if he sat still, but he probably wouldn’t be nearly so popular.

  2. says

    With great respect, I think your advice to the violinist was wrong. I think your ideal, “quietness” and balance in playing is absolutely right, and applies to violin as to piano: however, lack of motion should never imply rigidity. When you see a great violinist like Heifetz play, seemingly without moving a muscle, it is because they are flexibly balanced, not rigidly pinioned on both feet.

    Which foot was the student standing on? Standing on one foot (the left), pushing off the right foot for balance, is the classical way — the way that used to be taught as a matter of course, and the way that all the “still” players like Heifetz took for granted. So many modern players move excessively because they were never taught to stand — or they were taught to balance on both feet equally. You can prove the correctness of the old method to yourself, even if you don’t play the violin.

    The concept is this: if you stand equally on both feet, you form a stable triangle between your feet and your waist — this, essentially, renders your body incapable of motion from the waist down. This means that when you swing your bow arm (which inevitably changes your center of gravity), you can only compensate for this motion from the waist up. Your torso will have to be in motion, while from the waist down you are locked. You look like you’re doing the hula.

    Stand on the left foot. The violin is on the left side, so you draw a straight line directly down to the left foot (standing on the right foot puts you off-balance from the violin: an oblique line). Like a plant on a stem, your entire body is now free to compensate for the motion of the bow — this is barely perceptible in terms of overall motion. The right leg is held flexible, and provides a slight “push off” for balance.

    The “old,” and in my opinion still correct, way of teaching this was to start with the feet apart, and then to throw the weight to the left foot, while bringing the right foot inward, almost at right angles to the left (somewhat like first position in ballet).

    Try it — try your two-footed method, and swing your right arm in a bowing motion. You’ll look like you’re doing the hula. Then try standing on your left foot, bringing the right foot in with the leg loose and the knee unlocked. Balance on the left leg only and swing your bow arm. Your body will hardly move.

    Robert W. Eshbach
    Associate Prof. of Music (violin)
    University of New Hampshire.

  3. says

    I think it truly depends on the instrument. In middle school I tinkered with the flute, violin, bass guiatar and piano and I was really able to master the guitar and violin quite well and always struggled with the piano. I am a hyper person as it is and I think that that along with my age contributed alot to it. My instructor let us do the “stand on the left foot” with the violin and it really helped alot, especially for someone in their early teens. I think many times, it depends on the individual and their age/activity level.

  4. says

    Funny you should write this because I was recently told I’m too stiff when I play the piano, and it was suggested that I bounce my head a bit to look as though I’m “feeling the music more”.

  5. says

    I’ve been playing the piano for many years, and this is an aspect I also noticed. When I was just learning how to play the piano, I was focused more on memorizing which note is which key. But as I advanced more, a bit of movement came along as I developed a better feel for the music I was playing. I guess it’s part of the natural evolution of a pianist, although some don’t express much. This is an interesting discussion point.