String Quartets and closed loop feedback

In the exercises I got you to do earlier, you have discovered that when you wave your arms violently your body also moves a bit. Quite a bit if you're doing it properly. However in the military examples, as the gun barrel on battleship moves up and down it has a negligible effect on the whole of the whole battleship. That hull will keep rocking in the way it wants to rock despite the movements of the gun. This is a bit technical, but take it from me that the bigger the weight difference between the item that is being moved and it's base in terms of weight, and the more stable the basis, the faster you can wiggle your object and the more accurately you can position it. This is why it is relatively easy to aim a gun on a battleship, but very difficult to get a flimsy and flexible industrial robot to work quickly and accurately without shaking. This is the reason why in robot dancing, which used to be popular on POP shows accompanying function and covers bands at one time, the dancer mimics a robot by moving jerkily and shaking. This derives from the early robots which were relatively unstable. If a violinist were to wobble and shake like that, their music wouldn't be up to much. It takes an awful lot of computing power from the brain to keep a person stable as they move, and the faster they move and the more accurately they have to move, the more difficult this becomes. The more physically stable a musician can be when they are playing, the faster and more accurate can be their movements, which is vital when playing a violin solo or a string quartet. The scientific basis of this is demonstrated well in industrial robots and the military applications I've described above.

Another way of achieving stability in a flexible system like the human body, is described by Newton's Third Law of Motion, the one that states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

As you've seen, if the violinist throws their right arm to the right hand side, their body moves a little to the left and vice versa. If instead of keeping your left arm still while you're right I moved, you move your left arm in an equal and opposite reaction to your right arm, your body would not move at all. When playing a violin, your right arm is in front of you and to the left, holding your violin. There is a method of playing whereby, when you move your right arm  to the right you move your violin and left arm to the left, and vice versa. This gives much greater stability. This is not a common way of playing in the UK and America, where teaching tends to favor keeping the body as rigidly still as possible so that the left arm and hand can do their job without interference. But you will see this motion happening as a soloist plays a sudden very loud note, they cannot fail but to move. This method of moving to the left and right simultaneously is more common in eastern European violin playing styles, and in certain schools of teaching which favour motion in the body rather than a rigid stance. A famous example of this style of playing was the wonderful cellist Jacqueline du Pre who moved and danced her whole body has she played. Having read her biography it seems that she learnt dance and movement as young girl and applied this to her style of playing. She was already an accomplished player by the time she attended music college. I understand that she had great problems because her teachers, or at least some of her teachers, tried to make her play in the traditional physically rigida way.  Fortunately for the rest of the world, she ignored this and continued to develop their own fluid and movement centred style of playing. I remember as a schoolboy standing in front of the stage at a promenade concert, with Jacqueline du Pre just a few feet away from me playing the Elgar cello concerto. It was a performance of movement, passion and sound quality that surpasses anything I have ever experienced since.

So the thing about playing standing up is that the musician is much more stable, and therefore put much more effort into bowing without shaking around, which makes the bow bounce and makes fingering and intonation problematic.It isn't just the backward and forward movement of the bow that require stability, but sfortzandos, that is short sharp and loud notes which require very high acceleration of the bow and the arm holding the bow. Without a high degree of stability a musician cannot produce effective and violent sforzando notes, making the performance sound tame and wishy washy. Other bowings which require a high degree of stability are staccatos and spiccatos, where the bow is bounced at the natural frequency of the bow and string. Because the violinist will be doing staccatos at a range of different speeds, the exact point in the boat needs to be found to achieve the bounce at the Natural frequency of the system. If a violin is moving around because of an instability in the musicians physical body, the violin and string will move and alter the natural frequency of the system. When this happens the bow bounces, then stop  bouncing, then bounces again. It becomes chaos and is not musical.

Another requirement for stability is to achieve the correct angle of the bow as it moves back and forward across the string.  If you are not a string player you probably have no concept of the difficulty of moving a bow on a violin string. Let me describe it to you. Looking from above the violin bow has to be rubbed across the violin strings at right angles to the string. If it isn't accurately at right angles, but is a few degrees off, the bow will tend to slide along the length of the string i.e. towards the fingers and then toward the bridge. This makes an awful sound and changes the tonality of the note as the bow plays on different parts of the string.

Looking again from above the violin and the violinist, look at the geometry of the violinist's arm. From the shoulder joint it will stick out at an angle, then bend sharply at the elbow, then bend back at the wrist with a fingers holding onto the bow in a sort of claw like group.  This is the geometry you see at a given moment in time, but the bow is being moved constantly, nothing is static.

Imagine first of all the bow  resting on the string near its point. The plan of the violinist’s arm will be with his upper arm and lower arm in almost a straight line and the wrist slightly bent back.  Imagine that they move so that the centre position of the bow is resting on the violin string. Now in plain view, the elbow joint will be fairly well bent on the angle of wrist will have changed. Consider the bow having been moved so that the heel of the bow is by the string. In this position the elbow joint will be very bent, and the wrist will have bent back. Think now that the violinist has to do a smooth motion joining up all these points, keeping the violin bow travelling in a straight line to plus a minus two or three degrees of angle. This is remarkable. We mostly find it difficult enough to draw a long straight line on a piece of paper freehand, but imagine that you have to draw that straight line over 60 centimetres in length, backwards and forwards with great accuracy, two or three times a second. Could you do that? I doubt it, but that is what a violinist is doing when they're playing fast.

 But it is even more difficult than this. We have only considered the movement of the bow when viewed in plan. In elevation i.e.looking from the side, there is need for an even greater angular accuracy. If you look along the length of the Strings of a violin at the point where they go over the bridge that supports them, the bridge is not flat. The strings are not perfectly in line. The bridge has a slight curvature , and when I say slight it is very small indeed. When the hairs of the  bow rest on a string there are only two or three millimetres clearance between the bow hair and the strings either side. For most music, certainly classical music, only one string of time must be touched.  Thus as the bow is flying backwards and forwards it must be kept at an angle that prevent that one or two millimetres spacing from going to zero and touching one of the other strings.

If you talk about it theoretically in this way, it sounds impossible, even to me, a violinist. But with years of practice, this can be achieved, not only when playing simple backwards and forwards bowings, but also bouncing the bow and changing rapidly from string to string without over shooting and touching another string and at different speeds of movement and pressure on the bow itself. The speed and pressure on the bow define the volume of the music, so as music gets louder and softer over a number of bars, or over to one or two notes, or even during a note, the speed and pressure on the bow and indeed its angle from side to side, have to be accurately controlled whilst moving the bow in a perfectly straight line when viewed in plan and a perfectly straight line when viewed horizontally. No wonder it takes years of painful practice to achieve this.

 The rub for a classical violinist is when they turn to playing folk music, particularly American folk music, is that often two notes are often played simultaneously. Having spent their lifetime so far learning to play on one string only and never to touch another string, they suddenly have to start touching more than one string with the bow hair. Mental circuits have been trained to react to the sound the second string being touched by accident, and automatically adjust the bow angle to move the bow hairs away from the offending string. It is a fight to not react to this automatic corrective action and to allow two strings to be played simultaneously, often through many bars of the peace.

 You might say classical musicians do play two strings on many occasions. This is called double stopping. But it is a different situation. Even in the Bach unaccompanied sonatas which have a lot of double stopping, it is a different process. It is very purposeful and only lasts for one or two or three notes at the most before going onto single strings, so it is a sort of conscious action to override the automatic aversion to hearing two notes just for those specific notes. Between playing folk music, either Irish Ceilidh music or American barn dance music, the double stopping can go on for a long time or drift in and out of the music independent of written notation. This is a whole new learning, or unlearning process which can be as painful as  learning to play a single string in the first place. Scottish Ceilidh music is much more classical in nature and tends not to use much double stopping and when it does, it is more in the style of a Bach unaccompanied sonata.

So far we have only got as far as what a violinist does with their bow, and haven't even begun to consider what they do with the fingers of their left hand. Don't you feel now that you should pay a String Quartet at least double their fee, considering a very clever and difficult playing a stringed instrument is? By the time you’ve go to the end of this, you will want to pay them four times as much!

Now that we are talking about ceilidh bands and barn dance bands, you will understand why it is normally much better for the fiddle player to play standing. Because of the added stability of the standing pose, they can play faster, put more accents and sforzandos into their playing and all together produce a much more lively and exciting sound.