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Musing: Playing vs Talking

I had a wonderful time rehearsing the Prokofiev Quintet for our last Musicians for Michiana concert, at the end of April.  My colleagues were AMAZING, came with their A games, and were prepared and ready to work every time we got together.

I found that there was a big difference in rehearsal style between the wind players that I'm accustomed to working with and the string players in the group.  Strings just plain play more in rehearsal.  We'd run a movement, without stopping, and then talk about what we needed to do differently.  Then, where wind players would have either played a few tiny spots to try out ideas or just marked their parts and moved on, this group played the whole movement again.  And again, if necessary.  It surprised me a bit each time, though I was perfectly happy to do it and it ABSOLUTELY helped us to learn this difficult and unfamiliar work as an ensemble.

I think I attribute this difference to a couple of factors.

One is physical - wind instruments are tiring to play.  So much of what we do rides on a few tiny facial muscles, and those fatigue easily.  I'm not saying that I had any trouble playing Prokofiev over and over - just that that might be one cause of the generalized difference.

One is habit - in the orchestra, strings are used to playing continuously.  Winds are used to counting, and thinking, and analyzing.  We talk to each other quietly during rehearsal to work out the small ensemble issues we've heard - "are you playing those short or long?"  "we're not quite in tune there, can we try it at break?" "Can we all balance to the flute in that place?"  These issues are subtle, and usually involve a small number of players, because winds are used to playing as soloists.  The conductor spends time getting the sea of strings to act as a unified mass, which DOES require time and attention. We try to take care of ourselves so as to not waste everyone else's rehearsal time. We do not expect to play through all of our material over and over, and generally consider it time wasted if we're not trying new tweaks with every pass through.

For whatever reason, we all PLAYED a lot in our Prokofiev rehearsals, and had a blast learning the piece, and performed it very well.  Both systems seem to work, if differently - and it made me think about my teaching style.  I've been known to exhaust a student's embouchure within the first thirty minutes of a lesson playing and replaying long passages, but FAR more often I interrupt two lines in and talk for several minutes, after which we mark the parts and move on.  I like the thought of employing more variety in lessons, and making sure that there's plenty of playing interspersed with the philosophical musical discussions.

I love my job.


  1. Having played in both sides of this equation, you do have some valid points. The physicality of playing a wind vs playing a string instrument does make for different rehearsal technique. You could even say that string players learn music more vertically than horizontally, paying attention to how a phrase feels over its span. Wind players, particularly orchestral wind players, tend to examine phrases through microscopes, questioning how one note relates to the next in specific ways.

    I think that as a string player I tend to teach like a wind player, and often I want to rehearse like one too, but as a violist I rarely can think like a wind player in an ensemble.

  2. So interesting! I wonder what you mean about teaching like a wind player? I love this comment. Thanks for reading!

  3. I always teach my string students about breath support and about using the diaphragm to help with shifting from position to position. For students who have played wind instruments (luckily I have had a few flutists who have wanted to become violinists), I make analogies between the mechanics of the hand and arm and the mechanics of the air column and the tongue, with the hand and fingers being most directly associated with the tongue. (Consider how we use our hands and arms when we talk, and consider how readily sign language becomes instant expression, once you understand the syntax and method.)

    I suppose I will always think of phrasing like a wind player, i.e. unencumbered by the need to either bow in one direction or the other, but I also consciously take advantage of the fact that I can breathe during long notes. I believe that this is something that makes string playing compelling--that string players can physically breathe in places that wind players and singers cannot. Heifetz used that kind of phrasing to great advantage.

    So often string players strive to phrase like wind players and singers, and sometimes being able to do so makes a great deal of musical sense. But it is a physical impossibility, so we have to create the illusion of phrasing like a singer. String players have to learn the physical sensation of having not enough air (in the case of the flute--in my experience), or too much air (in the case of the oboe and the recorder).

    Wind players do not readily have the physical tools to make the kinds of contrasts that string players can make, since all the mechanics for expression are on the inside, so wind players have to develop imagination. After years and years of having to rely on pure imagination in order to be able to have the colors and textures I wanted to have in my flute playing, that imagination still kicks in right away when I am teaching.

    The pure string-playing approach to problems having to do with phrasing often takes visible physical elements into account first. Once those are under control (the physical holding of the instrument and the bow, the alignment and configuration of the left hand, the amount of bow being used and the location of that amount, the ease and comfort involved in getting from one note to the next), then we can concentrate on the relationships of notes within a phrase.

    The wind-playing approach, as I see it, comes from creating a technique that is based on the relationship of the diaphragm to the throat and the tongue. When everything is in place, the diaphragm's role in taking in air opens the throat and lifts the soft palate. As long as the tongue remains in a forward position, there is air in the mouth, and the diaphragm remains strong and deep (without tensing the abdominal muscles), the air column will allow whatever musical whims to happen, as long as the fingers remain efficient. Once this is set up you can spend a whole lesson on the music at hand.

    In my own string practice I find that I have to concentrate on the physical relationships of bow to string most of the time. If those physical relationships are working properly, then I can think about where phrases are going and how they relate to one another, but I find most often that I have to do something physical in order to make phrases come out the way I want them to. When practicing recorder (I don't have a working flute, so I don't practice that instrument) I find that once I am "set up" I don't need to do any physical "thinking" in order to have a phrase go where I want it to go.

  4. Wow. I want to read YOUR blog, on wind and string pedagogy, every single day. Are you publishing that somewhere? Thanks for your thoughtful and fascinating comment!


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