Mostly Violin

Jan Dejnožka

updated October 8, 2017


I read once that most people think the violin is very natural while the electric guitar is very artificial, since the violin is mostly wood, and its sound is normally acoustic (unaided by electronic production), while the electric guitar is mostly plastic and metal alloy, and its sound is normally electronically produced, but that in fact the violin is very artificial in the sense of being a very sophisticated artifact, while electricity is a natural phenomenon. I think that is correct as far as it goes. The truth is that both are very artificial artifacts, and both are equally subject to the laws of physical nature. And while the plastic and metal materials composing an electric guitar are themselves artifacts, so are violin varnish and the seasoning (ageing in dry condition), cutting, and varnishing of the wood. However, what most people think is, in some sense, not wrong. And there is some fairly obvious sense in which that is fairly obvious to most people. I think this is just the very same sense in which a wooden acoustic guitar is more natural than a metal and plastic electric violin. Namely, even aside from the relative degree of artificial production of the materials (wood is more natural than plastic or metal alloys), the sound is produced more naturally if it comes to us directly from the instrument itself, meaning unmediated by anything except the natural medium of the air around us. This is so even though, say, a Stradivarius is far more sophisticatedly and delicately artificed than a beginner’s electric guitar, or in simplest terms, far more art is involved. This is in Aristotle’s sense of art as human production of changes to natural materials.

The distinction between natural and artificial starts to blur when we recall that many other species make and use things. Birds build nests. Bees build hives. Spiders build webs. Beavers build dams. Some primates make and use tools. Making artifacts begins to look like a natural behavior. If we define “instinctive” as unlearned and unchosen, then making some artifacts seems instinctive or largely instinctive. Surely birds, bees, and beavers at least choose the locations and materials. They do not build just anywhere, and do not choose just any materials. This raises the question whether there is any real difference between making an artifact and modifying one’s environment. And if we define “culture” as behavior that is taught and learned across at least one generation, following James Deetz, then it seems that some other species even have various cultures of making artifacts.

The distinction between natural and artificial is reversed completely on the deepest level of the distinction for those who believe that God exists and that God created nature out of nothing. For this makes nature itself God’s artifact. In this regard, God has been famously called “The Great Artificer.” And if God created us as well, and made it our nature to make things, then it is as natural for us to make artifacts as it is for birds to build nests and bees to build hives; and at the same time, human nature is itself more deeply an artifact than any human artifacts. On this divine level, the violin and the electric guitar seem equally natural and equally artificial. The difference is only in the details, and in which came earlier in the historical development of our knowledge and technology, and therefore mistakenly appears to us to be further from nature. A disclaimer: I myself am agnostic, and I’m making only a conceptual point. And in a very ordinary sense, that is an intellectual artifact. It came fairly naturally to me, since I’m naturally suited to be a philosopher. Here I’m trying to bring out that there are natural nuances in the uses of the artificial terms “natural” and “artificial.” To what extent or in what sense or senses is English a natural or artificial language? To what extent or in what sense or senses is music natural or artificial? To what extent or in what sense or senses is music a language? Certainly it has various notations. My best music teacher, Louis Krasner, said that music is (a form or species of) thought, and that in a music composition, every new phrase is (or is best thought of as) a new thought. But enough philosophy of art, that is, of production of artifacts in general, including the fine arts as species. On to the fine art of music.

Advice to beginners in classical music

It's not at all necessary to enjoying classical music, but almost nothing is as helpful as playing it, however poorly. That puts you inside classical music. You become a participant. Only composing it can put you more inside; then you are creating it at the deepest and most original level. I never played or composed very well, but the rewards for my understanding and enjoyment were almost unimaginable over the years.

The nice thing about violin and viola is that they are played exactly the same, except that a viola is bigger and tuned a fifth lower. The viola has a softer, warmer, mellower tone and is often called philosophical. It's not hard to learn the alto clef (viola) if you know the treble clef (violin), but you don't even have to do that if you just want to play solo violin music on the viola. You can also play the mandolin, since it is tuned the same as a violin. But you should play the instrument you would most like to, as motivation is key. My older daughter started on piano and violin, moved to flute, and then to French horn, while my younger daughter started on piano and moved to flute. I'm just happy they played something, however briefly.

If you can't play an instrument, I would recommend listening as actively as possible. In this way, you can still be an active participant as audience. Try to hear as many notes, tones, and nuances as possible, and to see as many relationships as possible-- how things work together, and impact on each other. Ask yourself why the players play as they do. Active listening is a very rewarding kind of work. Many pieces are quite intelligible on first hearing, but it's hard to understand other pieces without hearing them many times. I would even suggest that music is not very rewarding if you can't keep coming back to it to learn new things. But this should not be drudgery. There's no point in listening if you're not enjoying it. And you can overdo it. I've listened to some pieces too many times, and sometimes to classical music too much. This is not much different from anything else.

Another way to get inside music is to make an instrument yourself. I made a cigar box violin in 2006. To plan it, I learned from the Web and from an amateur violin maker. I also improvised, sawing the top two inches off large barbecue chop sticks for the tuning pegs. It was eye-opening even to make this primitive violin, which took me only three or four hours of work once the planning was done and the parts acquired. (I called it the "Weekend Violin"-- made on Saturday, tuned on Sunday.) Imagine how much more one could learn by making a good violin.

Louis Krasner's advice for beginning violin / viola players

I do not think Prof. Krasner would have minded my sharing the advice he gave me while I was his viola student at Syracuse University, 1969-70. In fact, if it helps people play better, I think he would have liked that very much. The advice can be extended to the whole string family. This is the advice I mentioned in the reminiscence as growing on me over the years until my tone came together. As I recall his tips, they are:

1. Take a piece of chalk and mark the bow into four quarters. Learn to play a piece (e.g. of running eighth notes) well in any quarter.

2. Press tightly with the left fingers, but keep the right hand loose-- relaxed and flexible.

3. Use the right pinkie finger for more bow control.

4. Think of the bow as a tooth brush and the hair as the bristles. You have to make every bristle pluck the string.

5. (Then) think of the strings as coated with a wad of chewing gum. You have to play through the gum.

6. (Then) think of the strings as being an inch thick in diameter. You have to play down through the string to the core.

7. Music is thinking. Each phrase is a single musical thought. Each time you move to a new phrase, it should be like turning a corner.

8. If you can't play it slow, you can't play it fast.

9. Watch yourself play in a mirror. (I think that was his advice, about your posture and its effect on your playing.)

10. If you can't do vibrato, at least wiggle your finger to put a little life into it.

11. Listen to yourself play. This means that the sound should control what you are doing. If it doesn't sound right, you need to change what you're doing. That may sound obvious, even trivial; but in fact we quickly learn to stop listening to what we are doing wrong, and it becomes habitual to ignore it. This point is the foundation of all good musical method, and can overrule the other tips. The sound is the music. The music is the goal. Therefore the sound is the goal, and the feedback. But consider also the old joke, "Wagner's music is better than it sounds, while Puccini’s music sounds better than it is." (Another version says this of Brahms and Tchaikovsky.)

Advice from a teacher at Star Lake String Music Workshop, summer of 1968

You don't have to tighten the bow that much. Try a looser bow. Bow tightness affects tone, control, and volume. Try changing the tightness for different effects in different pieces. Concert violinists often use a tighter bow to increase volume and brilliance for large audiences, but it may sound worse to a listener five or ten feet away.

Reading suggestions

Schonberg, Harold. C. 1981. The Lives of the Great Composers. New York: W. W. Norton, 3d ed. 1997.

Goulding, Phil G. 1995. Classical Music: The 50 Greatest Composers and Their 1,000 Greatest Works. New York: Fawcett Columbine. 1992. My daughter Marina liked this one while she was in middle school.

Perhaps the best idea is to browse a major library or bookstore.

Recommended DVD

The Art of Violin. This is better than The Art of Piano,which omits the greatest recorded pianist, Ferruccio Busoni, or The Art of Conducting, which is good but too much talk.

Video clips and audio clips

Jascha Heifetz - in my view, the greatest violinist after Paganini, though we only have eyewitness accounts of Paganini. (Schubert: “I have heard an angel sing.”) Some of these performances are favorites from my high school days. The Tchaikovsky Trio is from my college days.

Tchaikovsky - Violin Concerto, Mvt 1 (ed.), 12:35, Fritz Reiner cond., from the Carnegie Hall movie

Tchaikovsky - Trio in A Minor, 41:28, with Artur Rubinstein and Gregor Piatigorsky

Mendelssohn Trio, Mvt 1, 7:05, live with Artur Rubinstein and Gregor Piatigorsky

----- Mvt 2, 6:51

----- Mvt 3, 3:30

Prokofiev - March, 1:33

Debussy - La Fille Aux Cheveux de Lin, 2:33

Paganini - Caprice 13, 3:20

Paganini - Caprice 24, 5:41

Schubert - Ave Maria, 4:43 - one commentator says this is the performance Heifetz recorded in 1917 at age 16. I agree.

Mendelssohn - Violin Concerto, Mvt 3, 5:17, from the They Shall Have Music movie. The conductor looks fake, but the youth orchestra is real.

Mendelssohn - Violin Concerto, 11:05 - Heifetz turns a second rate concerto into a first rate one, much as Heifetz and friends turn the second rate Tchaikovsky Trio into a first rate one. 90% of that is taking the piece more seriously than the composer did, and 10% is being capable of performing it so. Or maybe the percentages are the other way around. Or maybe we underrated the compositions, and did not see what was in them all along. Unfortunately, the sound quality is terrible, but I tend to forget that when the performance carries me away. The brain can adjust for that.

Portrait of an Artist (1953), short movie, 25:31 , “Heifetz answers questions by a group of college students and performs Mendelssohn's 'SWEET REMEMBRANCE,' Brahms' 'SCHERZO' and 'HUNGARIAN DANCE NO. 7,' Gluck's 'MELODY,' Prokofieff's 'MARCH,' Wieniawski's 'POLONAISE' and Dinicu's 'HORA STACCATO.'”

Bach - Partita 3, Prelude, 3:24

Ravel - Trio. Mvt. 1. Mvt. 2. Mvt. 3. Mvt. 4, with Artur Rubinstein and Gregor Piatigorsky. RCA Victor Red Seal LM 1119.

Brahms - Concerto for Violin and Cello, with Gregor Piatigorksy, cello. Alfred Wallenstein conducts RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra. RCA Victor LD 2513.

Steven Staryk

Bach - Sonata in E minor, Mvt 1, Prelude: Adagio ma non tanto, 1:17, Kenneth Gilbert, harpsichord, Baroque Records BC 2858. The flutter is not on the vinyl LP.

Isaac Stern

Beethoven - Violin Concerto, 42:48 - a high school favorite; the album belonged to my parents.

Arthur Grumiaux

Mendelssohn - Violin Concerto

George Enesco / Enescu - composer, and teacher of Grumiaux.

Corelli - La Folía, 8:53

Alexander Markov

Paganini - Caprice 4, 6:34

Paganini - Caprice 21, 3:22

Paganini - Caprice 24, 4:52

Shlomo Mintz

Paganini - Caprice 4, 6:30

Paganini - Caprice 24, 4:41

Henryk Szeryng

Brahms - Violin Concerto, Mvt 1, 22:30

----- Mvt 2, 9:04

----- Mvt 3, 8:01

Midori Goto

Ravel - Tzigane, 10:51

I first saw this performance in the 1980s on Breakfast with the Arts, a wonderful Sunday morning program on the Arts and Entertaiment channel when it used to have the arts. She played Paganini's 24 Caprices beautifully when she was 19.

Anne-Sophie Mutter

Berg - Violin Concerto. 1. Andante-Allegro. 2. Allegro - Adagio. Anne-Sophie Mutter, violin. James Levine conducts Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft DGG 437 093-2. This performance is also included on Mutter’s multi-CD Modern, along with her performances of the Bártok and Schoenberg violin concertos.

Brahms Piano Quintet, Opus 34

Mvt 1 - Yelena Grinberg, piano, Eric Silberger and Emilie-Anne Gendron, violins, Daniel Adams, viola, Jia Kim, cello

Mvt 2 - Condoleezza Rice, piano, Ken Hamao and Eric Wong, violins, Lydia Bunn, viola, Aleisha Verner, cello. Aspen Music Festival and School, August 2, 2008. See August 11, 2008 news report on Rice.

Mvt 3 - missing the beginning - David Golub, piano, Pinchas Zukerman and Ida Kavafian, violins, Paul Neubauer, viola, Gary Hoffman, cello

Mvt 4 - David Golub, piano, Pinchas Zukerman and Ida Kavafian, violins, Paul Neubauer, viola, Gary Hoffman, cello


Photo 1. Jan Dejnožka, “Song.” Op. 3, No. 1. Photo 2. Jan Dejnožka, composer and violin. Julie Dejnožka, piano. I initially composed the piece for piano solo on June 24, 1974, and added the violin part on April 27, 2004 for my daughter Julie's piano recital, May 1, 2004. Julie was 9. Photos by Chung Hwa Dejnožka.

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