Rule No. 1: You cannot perform relaxed without practicing relaxed
This is the most important rule of all—if you’re not relaxed, you won’t be able to achieve what you want to accomplish onstage. Being relaxed is as much mental as physical—it’s crucial to know what to focus on and, just as importantly, what not to focus on.
For example, if you walk out onto a concert stage or an audition thinking about how crazy you are to attempt pretty much impossible fine-motor coordination in front of a few thousand strangers, or, even worse, a few critical people who may decide the path that your life will take, it’s completely natural to panic. But panic causes tightening of the muscles, which in turn impedes accuracy, which then creates more panic. (“What the hey? This sounded way better at home!!!!”)
It’s a vicious circle.
Thus, Rule No.1: You cannot perform relaxed without practicing relaxed.
This makes a lot of sense, obviously. You can’t do anything onstage, which you haven’t done in the practice room. While practicing, you need constant vigilance. You must feel your shoulders, arms, and fingers for any sense of tightness. Suppose a difficult passage or shift is coming up—which I call a “freakout” place (or, alternatively, a “Stalingrad” moment). As an example, let’s use one of my own ancient Stalingrads—the diminished chord that leaps an octave at the end of the first page of the Sibelius Concerto (Ex. 1). You know, the one that’s completely exposed and sounds terrible if it is not spot-on. It’s a place that, long ago, made me a bundle of nerves leading up to it, and I once took a spectacular nosedive in concert (yep, missed it by a mile, and a finger even fell off a string to boot).
When the time came to perform the then-dreaded Sibelius again, I decided to approach this shift with an almost clinically interested attitude—searching for the true reason why it had gone so showstoppingly wrong. It turned out that I was subconsciously pressing harder on the way up with my fingers, as well as gripping with the left thumb, so I couldn’t smoothly clear the entire distance of the octave. I tried to relax fingers and forearm, but still felt the “freakout” memory everywhere else—breathing, shoulders, back, and so on.
And, worst of all, loud and clear in my head.
In severe cases like this (I imagine everyone has at least one or two), you have to perform an exorcism. Study the physical makeup of, in this case, the shift. Slide up glacially slowly, be aware of the weight of the violin between the jaw and shoulder, feel the left thumb make its way, without pressing, around the wood, feel the interval get smaller, concentrating on the second finger’s traveling distance while all the while consciously relaxing every body part. Little by little, add more context and speed, and consciously “force” yourself to relax while leading up to the shift as well as during it. It’s almost a feeling of heaviness, a connection with the ground—weight instead of pressure—and the end result should be fearlessness.
This relaxation technique needs to be practiced for any passage, shift, or leap that causes trepidation, recent or ancient. I use it to this day on myriad concerti: the broken third passage in the third movement of Mendelssohn concerto, the opening of the Beethoven concerto, and many others. These Stalingrad passages are in different places for everyone, but if you learn them relaxed and well, you’ll never have them in the first place. And, existing ones can be exorcised.
It just takes time and thought.
As for the end to my story, many years and dozens of Sibelii later, I have never since flamed out on that shift.
I’ve noticed that students are not always aware that the weight of the violin should be taken with the shoulder and jaw, not held up by the left hand. A good test is to drop the left hand at any moment, without changing the shoulder height—if that is possible for you, you’re probably doing it right. A shoulder rest can help a lot for long-necked folks. This frees up the left hand for shifts and allows the left thumb to move in tandem, thereby keeping the “frame” of the fingers in higher positions.
This may seem elementary, but I made this mistake for years (I have a very long thumb), and although the changeover eventually made everything far easier and more consistent, it was also very hard to go through.
This does not apply to Baroque players, of course.
Further Resources: For the next step in becoming a better string player, read Pt. II of Lara St. John’s article, “Consistency.”