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July 2007

Laterality: On the Other Hand

How loosening the bowing wrist can have a surprisingly profound effect on intonation.

by John Krakenberger

Appeared in April 2007 edition of The Strad.

Playing a string instrument requires the ability to co-ordinate several different movements with both arms simultaneously. String pedagogues have developed various methods to help students overcome their inborn symmetry. For example, in his Principles of Violin Playing and Teaching (1962), the great Armenian-American teacher Ivan Galamian invented a three-scale exercise with different rhythms and slurring patterns, with the aim of developing the dexterity needed to work subconsciously with one arm while concentrating on the movement of the other. However, this independence of movement between the two arms does not circumvent the role of our inborn symmetry: in fact, the aim of this article is to show how we can harness and make good use of it.

What would you say if I stated that right-wrist suppleness has an important role to play in achieving sensitive intonation with the left-hand fingers? These two matters may seem to have no connection whatsoever. However, my experience as a teacher has shown me that one does have an effect on the other. My first insight on a right-left connection came through an advanced 19-year-old left-handed student who was passed on to me. He was clumsy at stopping the strings and thus his intonation was erratic. This may be because when left-handed people write they often bend their wrist in order to see what they are writing. This torsion tightens the wrist, and since this movement is carried out every day from an early age, a certain trauma may remain that will interfere when left-handers try to play the violin, where the wrist should be inert, supple and straight. But how can one train a wrist to be both supple and inert? Having read some laboratory research proving that right-handed rats could be induced to become left-handed, and vice versa, I started to train this student's right arm very intensively towards wrist-suppleness, using exercise no.29 from Sevcík's Violin Studies op.2 part 3, and arpeggios over all four strings played only with wrist-motion. After a few weeks, his intonation improved, the fingers of his left hand became more flexible and eventually the original clumsiness disappeared completely.

What has left-wrist suppleness to do with good intonation? Firstly, I make a distinction between correct intonation and sensitive intonation. The former hits the note accurately but may just miss the place on the string that produces vibrations in sympathy with the instrument itself or with surrounding sounds. If you can tune in to these, the sound improves, becoming richer and rounder: this is what I call sensitive intonation. To produce this requires the left hand to be supple enough that the fingertips are extremely sensitive - subliminally - to the vibrations coming back from the string. Incidentally, this feedback also produces endorphins in the player, and once you get a student to feel this you are on the right track. The human has an insatiable appetite for endorphins and will look for more sensations of the kind; thus, gradually, sensitive intonation becomes automatic.

The sensitivity of the left fingertips relies on the suppleness of the left wrist. My argument is that one can increase the suppleness of the left wrist by intensively training the right wrist. A look at the players of the past corroborates this: Baroque violinists, with their short bows and scanty vibrato but plenty of acoustical reverberation, had to rely on sympathetic vibrations to get a nice sound, and this demanded, of course, immaculate intonation. If we look at their way of bowing, there was plenty of right-wrist activity - more than with the modern French bow. Accomplished players achieved this precision with a very loose right wrist.

Two centuries later, teachers such as Leopold Auer and Otakar Ševčík also cared very much about suppleness; they taught without any scientific knowledge but resorted to insight, intelligence and curiosity. A picture in Auer's Violin Playing As I Teach It (1920) emphasises the looseness of his right wrist, and ?Sev?cík took great care in exercises 29 and 30 of his op.2 part 3 to enhance the suppleness of the right wrist.

In my own teaching I use right-hand suppleness to correct left-hand defects. For instance, a very stiff pupil I recently took on could not get certain double-stops right because his fingers were unable to bridge adjacent strings. I made him play arpeggios over the four open strings for about ten minutes, just with his right wrist - the 'waving good-bye' movement - using the whole bow or, in sequence, a third of the bow-length at the nut, in the middle and at the tip. After getting him to do this smoothly, I immediately asked him to play the double-stops in question. He got them right at the first attempt - you should have seen the expression of amazement on his face!

I am a musician, not a scientist, but my teaching has been influenced by recent research into laterality - the human preference for the use of one side of the body over the other - and its implications for musicians. Laterality is a comparatively new concept in neurology and physiology. While an in-depth discussion of it is outside the scope of this article, particular light is shed on the influence of laterality on string playing by the article 'Coordination of bowing and fingering in violin playing' by A.P. Baader, O. Kazennikov and M. Wiesendanger in Cognitive Brain Research (vol.23, 2005, pages 436-443) and by the work of the neurologist Dr Iraj Derakhshan.

Due to historical circumstances, the teaching of the upper strings in Spain, where I live, has been in the doldrums for the last century and few locally trained violinists or violists can compete with foreign candidates for employment in Spanish orchestras. I contend that a reason for these players' inferior sound is that they are taught to play with a very stiff bowing action - all arm and very little wrist. In fact, many violin teachers even prohibit right-wrist movement in their students. Consequently, the left wrist lacks the suppleness necessary to achieve sensitive intonation.

Many violin methods, old and modern, insist routinely on wrist suppleness - particularly the right wrist - but it is surprising that none make the link between loose wrists and good intonation. I'm not suggesting that my experience has uncovered anything new, but it may define an aspect that - as far as I know - has not hitherto been expressly stated.

For more information about John Krakenberger, please see his website: