How to improve String Technique and Musicianship

How to improve String Technique and Musicianship
May 12th, 2015 by Emanuel E. Garcia, MD

(in just twenty minutes a day!)

Music, perhaps more than any other human activity, enlists the synthetic cooperation of intellect, creativity and athleticism. As a physician and psychotherapist who spent nearly a decade working with students of classical music, I was deeply impressed by this inextricable interrelationship between mind and body. Eventually I devised a method of practice designed to enhance the technical and musical abilities of string players, and I am pleased to reintroduce it here for Stringendo readers.

First, a few general observations. Listening closely to string players one can over time distinguish superior from inferior technical ability (for now we will leave aside the matter of creative interpretation). The superior musician plays with a fluidity and ease, an accuracy of pitch and a tone that is robust even when soft. He or she can also play rapidly and softly simultaneously. Great musicians of course use their magnificent technical skill in the service of their creative ideas. But the more technical ability at one’s command, the easier for the musician to realize these ideas.

I was astonished to discover that even among elite classical musicians very basic aspects of practice technique had been relatively neglected. This factor, coupled with the constant striving for perfection of sound, created a vicious cycle; when ‘perfection’ could not be attained they tended to resort to over-practicing in an unmindful way, as if to force their way through to the desired results. Practice hours became longer, improvement was minimal, and the potential for injury rose alarmingly.

My method centres upon the breaking down of basic elements of playing so as to encourage the appropriate development of fine muscular control (and mindful concentration) by playing super-soft and super-slow. After several months players generally report that they can create a far more powerful sound with much less effort, and that their dexterity is significantly improved. Even the most elite musicians, as they progress through the exercises will discover elements of their playing that can be improved upon.

There are six basic phases or ‘drills’ for the method.

  1. Super-soft and super-slow
  1. Select a brief musical excerpt and a. play it extremely slowly and nearly inaudibly without regard for being in tune.

b.This is a real test of the player’s b. ability to control the bow and initially it demands great patience

  1. Super-soft and super-slow without vibrato

a.Vibrato as we know,  is the purposeful b. distortion of pitch, and it of course can be varied in countless ways to produce many nuances and colourings .

  1. deliberately eliminating vibrato c. forces the player to concentrate on the very basics of bowing and sound production — it’s like playing ‘naked’.
  2. Super-slow and super-soft without 3. vibrato but with perfect intonation
  3. Now reintroduce an emphasis on playing the notes perfectly in tune
  4. Super-slow and super-soft without vibrato, with perfect intonation and with channeled bow movement
  5. Restrict the lateral movement of the bow to a narrow channel
  6. This further enhances muscular e. control and precision
  7. Reintroduction of vibrato and 5. experimentation with tempo and dynamics
  8. Now add colour and vary the e. volume and pace –  exaggerate them for purposes of contrast and exploratory fun.
  9. Putting it all together and making 6. music
  10. Proceed stepwise throughall of f. the preceding drills, then let loose and play the piece as musically as possible.

One finds that with diligent adherence to the above regimen, which takes no more than 20 minutes daily, playing becomes much easier, much more fluid, and much more powerful – in short, more capable of expressing the creative ideas of the musician and therefore much more satisfying!  It has been gratifying for me to hear from string players around the world who have benefited from these exercises, and who now routinely ‘play’ with them as they learn new compositions and negotiate technically challenging passages. Give it a good six months’ trial — and let me know what you hear.

Emanuel E. Garcia, MD

[1] Garcia, E.E.: A Practical Program for Enhancing Technique in Players of Stringed Instruments,