The Integrated String Player: Embodied Vibration

Pedro de Alcantara

Oxford University Press, December 2017

The Integrated String Player is an innovative book for violinists, violists, cellists, double-bass players, and all musicians who make music by drawing a bow across a string. The book’s core idea is that there’s no separation between the technical and the musical, the physical and the mental, or the aesthetic and the metaphysical. To make music is to celebrate your oneness, as well as the oneness between you and the creative source from which music itself flows.

The Integrated String Player introduces several dozen exercises covering basic aspects of string playing. Some exercises are completely original; others come from standard pedagogy but are presented and developed in new ways. The exercises marry technique and musicianship, giving you the means to pass easily from exercises to improvisation to repertory. Narratives, metaphors, and anecdotes accompany the exercises, helping you turn each exercise into a meditation that brings together the physical, the psychological, and the metaphysical.

The book’s most distinctive feature is the exploration of the extraordinary inside the ordinary. Studying the book, you may become able to play even the simplest things (such as an open string) in an inspired and rewarding manner.

The book has a dedicated website with 80 video clips and ten audio clips. The website will be published at the same time as the book.

Part I: Before Everything Else

1. Do Nothing

The most important skill for all string players (as well as for everyone else) is to know how to do nothing—that is, to keep your mind free of preconceived ideas and suppositions, and to make fresh creative decisions moment by moment. This chapter proposes several exercises for you to learn how to stay calm and focused when faced with musical and psychomotor challenges. In addition, the chapter covers the skill of gradations (of sound, dynamics, articulation, postures, gestures, and so on), and the skill of repetitive practice.

2. Coordination

This chapter offers an original approach to coordination, defining it not as a set of physical skills but as embodied choices and decisions. To improve you coordination, then, you must work not on purely technical skills but on how you choose to react to a given situation—in the practice room, in audition, in performance. The chapter proposes several exercises that incite you to explore you occupation of space in time. In addition, the chapter develops the concept that a physical gesture exists in a sociocultural and linguistic context; to give an example, the tango dancer and the samba dancer are each responding to a different set of cultural elements. In brief, to work on your coordination is to work on your identity.

3. Rhythm

Music is made of the opposition between different types of rhythmic elements—for instance, metronomic precision and rubato; or predictable, symmetrical phrase structures and unpredictable, asymmetrical events such as syncopations, accent displacements, hemiolas, triplets, off-beats, and so on. This chapter proposes practical exercises to help you integrate these opposite elements. The exercises include an inventive approach to working with the metronome; the use of vocalized subdivisions to integrate the opposition between precision and rubato; and practicing suggestions inspired by the inégale effects of the French Baroque. 

4. Listening

There are two basic types of sonic awareness: acquisitive and receptive. In acquisitive listening, you go toward sonic information with goals in mind: the desire to analyze a tune, for instance, or the wish to stock information up for later use. In receptive listening, you allow sonic information to come toward you, without a specific goal in mind. This chapter proposes multiple exercises to sharpen these listening skills. In addition, it covers the subject of the physical ears themselves and the role they can play in enhancing sound awareness; the acoustic relationship involving you, your instrument, and the environment in which you practice or perform; and the possibility of listening not only through the ears, but through the whole body.

Part II: The Right Side

5. The Bow: Object & Gesture

This chapter proposes practical exercises for you to become comfortable and relaxed while handling your bow, which is an extension of your body and mind. The chapter also proposes the database principle—a way of practicing where you explore a subject freely, gathering as much information as possible before drawing conclusions or making choices. In this chapter, the database principle is applied to your bow holds. In addition, the chapter develops a creative approach to expressive gesticulation and the integration of linguistic impulses in bowing techniques. The chapter’s main exercise is the foundational gesture, a simple but powerful approach to your most important concern: the contact between the bow and the string.

6. Strings, Drones, Clefs

This chapter discusses the powerful role of the imagination in determining our likes and dislikes, and what we consider possible or impossible. It makes a detailed study of scordatura, or the use of nonstandard tunings.  In addition, the chapter introduces the concept of droning—that is, sustaining long sounds such as playing open strings. The chapter introduces a simple way of enhancing the awareness of consonance and dissonance, and it proposes multiple practical exercises to integrate droning, listening, playing, and singing at the same time. The chapter ends with a brief, practical consideration of the use of clefs, showing the relationship between the clefs and the open strings of the main string instruments.

7. Vowels & Consonants

Every note you play can be likened to a syllable or word, consisting of a combination of vowels and consonants. To play a string instrument, in other words, is akin to speaking and singing. This chapter highlights the vowel-shaping art of crescendo and diminuendo, and its use in mastering tension and relaxation in string playing. It also addresses the built-in sonic unevenness of string instruments (for instance, a top string such as the A on the cello behaves differently from a bottom string such as the C on the cello), and it proposes a simple, effective, and powerful exercise to help you even out your playing across the instrument’s full range. The chapter introduces an original exercise to develop your sensitivity and control over the onset of a bowed note. In addition, the chapter develops the concept of improvisation as an attitude to practicing and learning.

8. Smart Makes Easy

An attentive and creative approach to string playing allows you to find ease and relaxation. Using multiple anecdotes, jokes, and illustrations, this chapter introduces relevant concepts from mechanics and physics: stress and strain, coil and recoil, torque, inertia, kinetic energy, and mechanical advantage. The chapter develops the subject of articulations—both those in your body and those in the musical text—and introduces chopping (a technique common in jazz and fiddling) as a meditation on the double meaning of the word “articulation.” The chapter then presents an exercise for string crossing, using a simple five-note pattern that allows for mastery of clockwise and counterclockwise string crossings. In addition, the chapter introduces several exercises to meld physical ease with musical freedom.

Part III: The Left Side

9. The Left Hand

This chapter offers an overview of the string player’s left hand: its capabilities, its relationship with your whole body and mind, and its functioning in the technical and musical domains. It introduces a simple exercise with the potential to render the left hand supple, organized, sensitive, and intelligent. Called the Cat’s Leap, the exercise integrates four functions of the left hand: articulation, vibrato, pizzicato, and changes of position. In the healthy hand, each of these functions contains the latent energies needed for the other functions. In addition, the chapter proposes a way for cellists and bassists to conceptualize the thumb position in a context of whole-body coordination with rhythmic and sonic components.


10. Changes of Position

This chapter covers the art of left-hand position changes. It provides an overview of the position-change mechanisms available to you (sliding, articulating, substituting, and others), and it covers the timing of changes of position, developing the concept of anticipated shifts and delayed shifts. It introduces the notion of sprezzatura, or the art of working intelligently to master a skill. The chapter introduces a simple but well-constructed exercise to practice changes of position between stopped notes and natural harmonics, using the difference in left-hand tension required by stopped notes and harmonics as a portal to the control of tension and relaxation. In addition, the chapter develops a narrative regarding territories and their maps—in this case, the territory of the fingerboard.

11. On Vibrato

A tight vibrato is among the most harmful aspects of string playing, and a relaxed, integrated vibrato is among the most health-giving aspects of string playing. This chapter argues that there are three good reasons to use vibrato in string playing, each leading to a specific vibrato mechanism: the vibrato of oscillation, the vibrato of physical comfort, and the vibrato of expressivity. The chapter offers practical exercises to develop and integrate these mechanisms, with an emphasis on health, comfort, and optimized vibration. In addition, the chapter covers the linguistic aspects of vibrato, as well as its rhythmic control in practice. The chapter ends with an exercise to help you integrate mechanical, linguistic, psychomotor, and aesthetic dimensions of vibrato.

12. The Art of Fingering

Fingerings organize your physical gestures; in addition, fingerings also reflect your aesthetic choices. To put it differently, fingerings can help you “play well” and “play beautifully.” This chapter takes the first solo of Mozart’s Fifth Concerto for violin and orchestra and makes a study of the differences between the Urtext and the well-known performing edition created by Joseph Joachim, showing how fingerings are interpretative and individual to the player, shaping or reshaping a composition. The chapter then proposes a set of musical, psychological, and technical principles to help you systematize your study of fingering.

Part IV: Integration

13. The Harmonic Series

The harmonic series is at the heart of nearly every acoustic event. It determines such aspects of music as resonance, consonance, dissonance, and intonation. Because of resonance and sympathetic vibrations, a thorough understanding of the harmonic series can lead you to produce big, beautiful, and free sounds with little muscular effort. This chapter includes a detailed, practical study of the harmonic series, covering its technical, musical, and psychomotor aspects and helping you play, understand, memorize, and internalize the harmonic series. In addition, the chapter explains the concept of Tartini tones (also known as resultant tones), offering you multiple exercises to master the concept in practice.

14. Practicing Theory

This chapter proposes ways of integrating string-playing technique, musicianship, music theory, and psychomotor skills. Using narratives and examples, the chapter introduces the circle of fifths, which is central to the understanding of tonal music. And as a way of exploring the circle of fifths in practice, the chapter introduces arpeggios with lower neighboring tones; arpeggios with higher neighboring tones; and arpeggios with grupetti (also known as turns). The exercises are constructed rhythmically so that the linguistic energy of neighboring tones and grupetti enliven the left hand and prepare changes of positions. In addition, the chapter allows you to understand, in practice, the concepts of diatonic and chromatic tones, the enharmonic passage, dominant and subdominant structures, and other analytical aspects of music.

15. The Conversational Approach

What appears to be a technical challenge to a string player is most often a linguistic challenge; if a passage is difficult to play, it often turns out that the passage is difficult to say. This chapter offers exercises for you to learn how to speak your pieces with ease, and it considers two styles of storytelling: internal and external. The mark of external storytelling is movement and the expression of emotion, and the mark of internal storytelling is containment of energy and the shift of emphasis from the performer to the musical text. The chapter concludes with practical suggestions born of a light-hearted approach to Aristotle’s concepts of ethos, pathos, and logos.

16. Integration

This chapter opens with a discussion of the assumptions we make about the scores we study and perform, and how these assumptions sometimes prevent us from having a healthy, collaborative, creative relationship with scores and their composers. The chapter then covers multiple exercises to help you produce beautiful, tension-free, healthy sounds while interpreting a score. In addition, the chapter consider the physicality of interpretation, proposing several exercises for you to embody a musical phrase comfortably. Finally, the chapter introduces a way for you to find your way into the minds of the composers you play and make music that flows as if directly from the creative source.

Appendix: Further Study

The appendix to The Integrated String Player offers a study guide for readers who wish to explore the companion volumes in THE INTEGRATED MUSICIAN SERIES: Indirect Procedures: A Musician’s Guide to the Alexander Technique and Integrated Practice: Coordination, Rhythm & Sound.