By Grigory Kalinovsky
Teaching has been a calling for me since childhood. I have memories of myself
at around age 12, back in my native St. Petersburg, Russia, helping a younger classmate practice. I vividly recall my fascination with trying to figure out exactly what I was doing differently with a particular phrase that made it sound more interesting, or in the words of our teacher, “more mature.” My first teacher, Tatiana Liberova, used an abundance of imagery to explain not only the emotional content of the music, but also the muscular sensations needed for execution of technical difficulties. This allowed her to develop her students’ imagination in an incredibly creative fashion—something that I appreciate more and more with every passing year.
However, after moving to New York at the age of 15, and being without her guidance for a few years, I realized that in order to get to the next level, I needed a more practical, specific knowledge of how the fundamentals of violin technique work. At that point, I had the great fortune to start working with
Pinchas Zukerman and Patinka Kopec at the Manhattan School of Music. This transition was not easy, as I spent weeks doing nothing but basic technique (open strings, scales, études, etc.), but this was exactly what I needed. In the end, this process not only gave me the foundation I was missing, but also made it possible for me to effectively teach these basics to my students. Having gone through this technique overhaul at a relatively mature age gave me a deeper understanding of these concepts than I would have had if I had acquired them as a beginner.
As I started teaching professionally, my goal was to merge the two approaches in working with my students, using a combination of imagery and specific explanations of muscle movements to teach both basic technique and complex musical expression. The greatest challenge for all musicians is to transform the emotional ideas in the music into expressive musical gestures using one’s body in the most physically efficient manner to maximize expressive effect while minimizing unnecessary tension. In my teaching, I try to incorporate the sensation of musical expression from the very beginning—even while practicing open strings—so that instead of the musical emotion overwhelming the body, every intended expressive gesture becomes a toolset of “whole-body images,” allowing for the most physically efficient ways to produce a wide variety of musical ideas.
Over the years, I’ve developed a systematic approach to setting up the most important aspects of basic technique with incoming students. I find going through this process is beneficial even for those students who don’t need a full technique overhaul, for three main reasons:
1. It lets us establish a common technical vocabulary, making further work more efficient.
2. I might bring up a detail or use an image they have not thought of before that can help them utilize their technique better.
3. It is quite useful to “clean the machinery” periodically for a player of any level.
We start with basic posture and the proper ergonomic way of balancing the instrument. We then go through a set of bow-grip exercises designed to master balancing the bow with the lightest possible finger contact, while maintaining freedom and fluidity in all the arm and finger joints. We then move on to the ergonomics of right-shoulder motion, and how to use the natural momentum of the arm swing to produce the most effortless yet powerful sound. This is followed by a set of exercises for basic bow division as well as specific bow strokes—detaché, collé, martelé, etc. At the same time, we work on the left-hand basics, such as effortless articulation and frictionless shifting.
After these introductory lessons, we start working on incorporating the new physical sensations into repertoire, usually beginning with a piece that is somewhat easier than that student’s overall level in order to avoid additional technical difficulties while learning to apply the newly reworked technique. My favorite piece for this phase is Kreisler’s Praeludium & Allegro—it is a beautifully expressive piece of music, while at the same time being one of the most “organizable” technically.
Following this initial period, as we start to “speak the same language,” further repertoire is chosen according to that particular student’s level and interest, and the work becomes more about finding the student’s personal voice and achieving greater musical sophistication in increasingly advanced repertoire, while maintaining healthy technique and maximizing efficiency in one’s practicing habits.
My goal and hope with all my students is that this “technique reset” will give them tools to increasingly be able to work out technical and musical problems on their own, and to be able in the future to pass these concepts on to their own students.