Interview with Todd Ehle
Virtual Sheet Music Interview No. 2 - November 4th, 2010
Fabrizio Ferrari: Hello and welcome to this second Virtual Sheet Music interview. My name is Fabrizio Ferrari, and our guest today is Todd Ehle—joining us via Skype from Texas. Hello Todd, and thank you for joining us.
Todd Ehle: Hello, Fabrizio. Thank you for having me.
FF: Todd is an Associate Professor of violin at the Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas where he has taught since 1999. But, Todd is also known as “Professor V” on YouTube for his very popular violin lessons channel, with hundreds of instructional videos, and counting almost 4 million views since 2007. His channel is actually among the most famous YouTube channels on violin learning.
Well, what’s to say Todd, congratulations! Looks (like) you are a really talented and famous violin teacher, which is great.
TE: Thank you! That’s an honor. I appreciate it. I think they call it micro-fame though. I haven’t been recognized on the street yet, so…
FF: Oh, yeah, sure! Well… my first natural question is: How did you get the idea to start a YouTube channel about violin lessons?
TE: Well, one of my jobs at the college—Del Mar College where I teach—is to recruit students. And I had an idea that I could make some instructional videos and then go out to the local schools and direct them towards these videos. Because there are many, many more students than I could personally teach one on one instruction every day. So I had this idea, and I started making the videos and right away people started paying attention. But they weren’t the local kids. They were other people who then started asking me questions: “How do I do this? How do I do that?” And so, I started responding to those videos or to those questions by making other videos.
So, my initial project was not very organized. It was bow hand, violin hold, and then I think they wanted vibrato. I mean, we jumped right to it. So, it wasn’t in order. So, since then I’ve gone back and tried to put an order system to it, which is on my own website, www.toddehle.com, but not on the YouTube sites. So, you’ll notice that things are a little chaotic, if you’re trying to navigate your way through.
FF: I understand. It’s probably like a sort of work in progress, right?
FF: All the time, I understand. That’s the way it usually goes on the Internet. So, since the time you started this project on YouTube, how (has) your life actually changed?
TE: You know, my life actually changed before. And, I think it was part of the reason I did this.
About six-and-a-half years ago, I developed some real neck problems. And…it’s neck and shoulder. And, it made it almost impossible for me to keep performing, and really difficult to even practice. So, one of the things I wanted to do was still be able to communicate with my students. And, I made some videos. And, part of it, in the back of my mind, was: Let’s get these things recorded so I can document what I know before I can’t play at all. Because I was actually told by a doctor, he said, “You need to go into administration and stop playing.” So…uh, I did not take his advice. And I have, with therapists, actually been recovering some, and I’m playing more. But the videos changed my life only moderately. I will say at first, I was on the computer a lot more because I was trying to answer questions. Finally, I gave up with that. It’s too hard to answer so many specific questions. And then, you know, what’s very easy to show is often very difficult when you write it out—to give just the right information. So I finally blocked it, so that they couldn’t send me messages personally. People can comment, but I am not accepting question after question.
FF: I understand, because looking at the number of subscribers you have, it would have been probably really overwhelming.
TE: The night I did it, I think, I checked my personal messages and there were 66 questions and I just thought: I have to stop.
FF: It’s a lot!
FF: And I was wondering, do you have any special, interesting or amusing experiences you got through your channel you would like to share with us today?
TE: The funniest thing about the channel was when I created it. It certainly was just to have a username on YouTube. And I picked “Professor V” because I wanted something I would be able to remember. So, I thought: Well I’m professor of violin…and it had nothing to do with the idea that I was going to teach. My friends, they make fun of me and call me “Professor Five.”
I have had some pretty fascinating emails from people, even in Iraq during the war. Not soldiers, but someone trying to learn violin in Baghdad.
TE: …communicating with him during the invasion. No, it was after the invasion, but… It was, you know, very touching to me that this person was just trying to do something so human and so important to me, and we were corresponding. So, I’ve had a lot of things like that.
FF: So, moving to a more general perspective, I’m sure that our audience would like to learn more about your philosophy of teaching. Would you like to tell us about that?
TE: It has changed over the years. And of course, I have many different types of students. I have very, very young students all the way through college students. And, to have one philosophy… At first, I thought, well that’s impossible. But you know in the end, I came up with: My goal is to inspire the love of learning. And I want to show that the process of learning is even more important than the final result.
FF: I agree.
TE: You can spend your whole life with this.
FF: I agree with that completely. And do you plan to keep adding new videos to your YouTube channel for the years to come?
TE: I haven’t decided. You know, the things that are there came very easily for me, because this is information that I share with students every single day. Now, there are other things in my mind that I am sharing, but not all of it translates well into a 5-minute video. So, I haven’t really decided if I’m going to keep going. I don’t want it to just be silly things.
FF: I understand, because I’m a violinist myself. I would be afraid of running out of topics.
TE: Right, right.
FF: After a while…after more than 100 video lessons that you’ve already done.
TE: You can run out of great ideas, there’s no doubt. I don’t want to just throw things out there. I think that I need to be careful at this point and really think it through before I continue.
FF: Yeah, sure. That sounds great to me. And so we all look forward to watching and learning from you, Todd. Thank you.
For everyone interested in learning more, please visit www.virtualmusicsheet.com/interviews/ehle to find links to Professor Ehle’s video lessons, to get in touch with him or to subscribe to his wonderful YouTube channel.
Now, it’s time to move on with the questions we have been collecting over the past three weeks from our audience. We’ve got, as usual, over 50 questions. Due to this the fact, we let our audience vote on these questions, and we picked the questions with the most votes to ask you today, Todd. Of course, they are all questions about violin technique and violin learning. And as a violinist myself, I’m eager to hear your answers.
So the first voted question is from Jose who asks, “Is there a method for memorizing sheet music?”
TE: Well, I can’t give you a method. I can just tell you what I do myself and how I instruct my students. And the first piece of advice is: Don’t wait until you’ve learned the piece to begin memorization, because you will become very confident with the sheet music. And then, when you try to wean yourself off, there is that sense of “Oh, I cannot play it anymore.” It’s very disturbing.
So, I would say from the very beginning: If you have sheet music on your stand, you can play through it a couple of times, then just do a measure, turn around and play that measure. Maybe play it ten times, so that you put it in your muscle memory, in your aural memory, turn around, look at it, put it in your visual memory—there are three types of memory. Then do the next measure. And then maybe, you do the same process and then try and play the two together. So, I break it into sections, maybe a measure at a time, maybe a phrase, a line, however your mind works, but think of them as train cars that you’re coupling together, putting all these sections together.
Now, I mention the three types of memory. It’s aural, what you hear; visual, what you see; and kinesthetic, which is your muscle memory—what does it feel like. So, some people have very highly developed…uh, one of these or another. The sense of, say, visual memory is very strong, so they can look at the page, see it, and then you have maybe a photographic memory. Others really struggle with one of those, so then you want to try and learn it in more than one manner.
I had a professor that used to say, “If you can lay in your bed or sit in a chair and play through the entire piece just in your mind—know every shift, every bowing—then you really have it.” So, those are some ideas. But I try and do it just a tiny bit at a time, so I’m not overwhelmed. One measure, turn around—that’s not too much information—then repeat it, and then do the next measure. And just chip away at it every day.
FF: It’s a great tip, thanks. The second question is by Debndevon who asks, “Are there any good exercises you can suggest to aid relaxation in the bow arm or hand?”
TE: Well, maybe I can show you something [taking the violin]. A lot of students will come to me and then I will see tension in their bow hand, maybe this peak or a collapsed pinky and rigid fingers. And then when they start to play, I see this the whole time. And the first thing that I want to say to you is to let the bow weight be held by the violin.
So if you look at my pinky: I come down curved, it’s relaxed, I’m on the string. When I lift it, I feel the weight in that pinky. When I set it down, my pinky is then relaxed. I usually keep it on the stick, but if you tap your fingers, you’re completely relaxed and the weight of the bow is being held by the violin. And then you can create artificial weight by adding the weight of the arm at the frog or as you work your way towards the tip, you’ll have to start feeling the thumb go up and the first finger come down, so you can get the stick into the hair or into the string here. But you don’t have to add a tremendous amount. As you bow from here, you add a little more, a little more, a little more.
I show an exercise where you start with all four fingers on the string, totally relaxed—like tap your fingers—then as you bow, you lift your fingers. Pinky goes up, then your ring (finger) goes up and then your middle finger goes up. Then you turn it around and you add, add, add. So you’re teaching that rolling sensation or the transfer of weight from all four fingers to the first finger and then back to all four. But again, I let the instrument support the weight of the bow.
FF: Wonderful. So, the third question is by Carole Silva who asks, “What exercise do you use to stretch your fourth finger so it is not flat?”
TE: Well, I don’t try and stretch anything. That concerns me. That would create tension. I don’t believe you can make the hand size much larger. So, what I do is I adjust the hand position. And really, it’s the thumb. But there are a couple of ways to think about it.
I teach my students to support the instrument between…there’s a bone, right there, above the crease or the knuckle on the thumb. So, I rest the violin there, and then on the other side as well. So, it’s that point. And there’s a little space underneath it. Now, that is a starting point. But if you look, I could actually set it where I can’t even reach my pinky. Or, I can adjust my thumb and my elbow a little bit—I can come lower, I can come higher, depending on the size of your hand. So, what you can do is actually put your fourth finger down first and then place your other fingers. That should set your thumb into proper place. Be careful not to have this way out here, though. I like to maintain contact with both sides of the fingerboard. Place your finger…
But look, if you have a big hand, your thumb can be much higher than if you have a little hand, okay? So, if I see some girl, a very small child, who is having trouble reaching her pinky, I may have that thumb quite a bit under the neck. Let’s see if you can see it there…like that. But if you have very large hands, like say Itzhak Perlman, or even Heifetz, his thumb comes up here. So, really concentrate on the placement of your thumb, but do not distort your wrist when you come under. Don’t let that wrist pull out—there’s a risk of carpal tunnel syndrome if you bend your wrist.
FF: And, I like your concept where everyone is different.
TE: Everyone is different, right.
FF: Yeah, absolutely.
FF: The fourth question is by Greg Ronalds who asks, “How many hours a week should a beginner violinist practice?”
TE: Well, I try to break it into each day, not into hours per week. Initially, you might try just practicing the lengths of your lesson. So, if you’re taking a 15‑minute lesson…say the child is six, 15 minutes that’s an attention span for a six-year-old. If you have a half-hour lesson, start with that. What you should do then is…I mean really, what it comes down to is the amount of concentration. Once you’ve lost concentration or focus, you’re done. You should stop. If you want to come back again the same day—say later in the day—that’s okay. As long as you have focus, you can actually keep progressing.
So, I don’t say, “You must do this amount.” I know some teachers that do. And mostly it’s to get students who aren’t motivated to actually get their hands on the instrument. But, I would just say that as your concentration skills develop, the amount of practice time will develop. Also, you want to ease into it physically too, because you don’t want to create tendinitis or injury by suddenly practicing a lot more.
FF: Sure, sure, absolutely. The fifth question is by one of our members who asks, “How can one re-teach a student who has developed bad bow-hand habits under someone else’s instruction?”
TE: Well, the first thing is that you need to know what you’re trying to achieve. If someone says to you, “I want you to hold it in a Russian-bow hold. You’ve been doing Franco-Belgian, and I want Russian.” Or, vice versa. You must know exactly what it is the teacher wants. Once you have a clear idea, then you can work to achieve that.
With the bow hand, I have a student work with a pencil first, and then with a bow. I hold the bow this way [demonstrating vertical bow position], not this way [demonstrating horizontal bow position], because it feels so much lighter when you point it toward the ceiling. Once you add the weight to the pinky [in horizontal bow position], it becomes harder and many students start clutching. So, develop here [in vertical bow position]. Once you can do that, remember how we set it on the instrument and we let the violin support the weight?
So, say you’re trying to work on a piece of music and change your technique at the same time. That’s doing two things at once, which is pretty complicated. So, what you might do is, again, isolate one measure. Practice that one measure. Stop. Check your bow hand. Has it changed from what you think your new teacher wants you to be doing? If so, reset it. Do another measure. Stop and check it. If you can get to one measure, try doing two. Try doing a phrase. And then keep checking it.
What I used to do was get a piece of paper and write down the technical things I was trying to achieve: point one, point two, point three. I didn’t do very many, because it’s very easy to become overwhelmed. But I would think about one or two things, and take that piece of paper and tape it to my music stand. So, then I’m looking at the music, but whenever my eyes just wandered, and I saw that point, then I would think about that point. So, it was a trigger to remind me to work on that. And then, as that became something I was confident with, I crossed it off, worked on the others, or put on a new piece of paper with all my goals up there. And so that way, you slowly can start to conquer all of these issues. I also would say…say you’re in an orchestra at school and the music isn’t hard in a certain spot. Instead of just daydreaming, you can think about your bow. Practice during a rehearsal, if the music is easy. Don’t just sit there.
FF: Yeah, sure, I agree. That’s a great tip. Thank you. The sixth question is by MTsui333 who asks, “What is the best way to approach and practice double, triple and quadruple stops?”
TE: Yes, double stops certainly are a challenge and most of my students struggle with them. I would say first, that you have to be able to play on two strings and maintain a beautiful tone. It’s very easy to go out of tune or be scratchy or create squeaks with the right hand. And that has nothing to do with the left hand and tuning of the fingers. I can bend the string flat by pressing. So practice open strings, just for the small bow at first, then start to extend the amount of bow. Try to sustain it through the bow changes. Once you’re comfortable with that, I believe double stops are about hand patterns or the hand frame and about the interaction of the two notes.
A great trick [taking the violin], and I don’t believe it will work well through Skype, I doubt you can hear it. But take your first finger and play on the A string, you’ll play a B. And then tune it, say, with open E, so it’s a perfect fourth. And tune it until it’s very smooth. So, if they’re too flat, you’ll hear a graininess or a distortion. Too sharp, same problem. So, play your one with open E until it totally sounds smooth to you. Don’t move it. Roll your bow. Leave that one in the exact same place. Roll your bow over so you’re playing (open) D and that first finger together. And then try and adjust it so it sounds smooth with the open D. You’ll have to go lower, and what you’ll notice from that is the interaction with the lower string requires a slightly lower finger, which means you can’t just say there’s one place to put your one down. So with a double stop, we do something called just intonation. That is to actually eliminate beats. You don’t have to do it, but it’s a great way to train your ear. I heard a trumpet player say once, he said about string players. He said, “String players can hear the grass grow.” And I believe it’s because we’re listening to the interaction of notes.
TE: When you start doing more than double stops, say you go to triple stops… What the stop actually means is stopping three notes. So, technically playing an open string isn’t a stop, but it doesn’t matter. If you think about G Major Mozart, you know [playing the violin]…right?
The important thing here would be first of all, the hand pattern. So my B and my G create what feels like a half-step. They’re touching. Now if you have really thick fingers, they’re going to be touching tighter than if you have thin fingers. So you use your ear to make that determination, but they create a touching pattern. And then you have to learn how to do the bow stroke. Now, I like to think of the bottom two notes. There are only three notes, right? But I play the open D with a first finger on the A string—I play those together—and then I roll my bow to the upper strings, which is a one and a two—one on the A string, two on E string—and then I play them together.
Now when you string cross, you can move your bow out a little bit towards the fingerboard, so that the angles aren’t so severe. Use some bow speed. And I try and raise my elbow just a little bit, so I don’t roll this way—I roll that way. And I try and keep my bow on the upper two strings and it gives the illusion that I’m playing all three.
And you would say the same thing about quadruple stops. You can’t play all four at once. I can’t even play all four at once if I go all the way out to the fingerboard. It’s still going to be a rolling motion. But what I don’t want to do is just roll right off of it. So, I feel the elbow come up. I hope that makes sense. So, it is hand pattern, it is the relationship of the two notes and then it’s how the bow crosses the string.
FF: It’s perfectly clear. Unfortunately, via Skype, the audio of course…
TE: The audio is bad.
FF: …doesn’t do it much justice.
TE: That’s what I was expecting.
FF: Yeah, exactly. So, the next question is by Sarah Powles who asks, “How do I regulate my vibrato so it remains even? I know it’s all in the relaxation of the arm, but do you have any other tips?”
TE: Right. Well, the first thing I would say is, when you’re trying to regulate vibrato…many times the first thing you’ll do is squeeze the arm muscles and tighten up, trying to control it. And it’s very dangerous, you know. The tension of the arm always travels up the shoulder and into the neck and the head. And so, you want to do it in a relaxed manner and just find what works for you.
I heard or read that Paul Rolland said, an artistic vibrato was five to nine cycles in a second. Okay? That gives you a little leeway. But even five per second…and you can test this by setting your metronome to 60, and see how many oscillations you can get between the clicks. That doesn’t really teach you how to control it, but it does show you what you’re doing.
So, if you are too wide, try instead of rotating deeper into the pad of the finger, try and stay a little closer to the bony tip. Maybe that will narrow it down. If you’re too narrow, you then want to transfer weight from here [the bony tip], deeper into the finger. And there has to be some flexibility in that first finger, in that first knuckle, and that will give you a wider sensation.
Now, when I was at Eastman, I remember my teacher saying, “If you are too wide,” she said…I say this with tremendous caution. I almost hesitated to say it, but I’ll tell you what she said. She said, “Feel the underside of the finger as not being allowed to open.” I told that to another violin professor who said, “That’s the worst idea I ever heard, because it immediately creates tension in the hand.” So perhaps you can understand that that’s just not allowing it to go wider. But then just try and do it by not rolling so deep. In the end, use your ear to determine what’s going on. You can tell if it’s wobbly. You can often tell if it’s too slow.
You can also set your metronome to…well, I think 105 is the technical number, but my metronome, I think, goes to one of 104. And, then try and get… Remember how I said Paul Rolland said anything between five to nice cycles per second was desirable? If you pick the number in the middle, it would be seven, okay? But to do that, set your metronome to 105, then practice knocking a peg and try and get four motions—four motions when you set your metronome to 105—four motions in between each click. So, that is a goal that would put you right between the five and the nine. That’s seven cycles.
FF: Great tip. The eighth question is by NellieVic who asks, “What is the best way to teach independent fingering?”
TE: Yeah. That is a hot-button subject. Almost like Healthcare or Social Security. I have known so many people that were so strongly opinionated about this. And personally, I think we do both. I think you do independent and block fingering.
In case you don’t know what we’re talking about, block fingering is where you keep all your fingers down. Independent fingering is where you only leave the finger down that you’re using. Okay, so when a student first starts to play, I usually approach with block fingering, so that they start to understand hand frame-like patterns, because on the fingerboard there are no keys, buttons, frets. You have to understand what a whole-step is and what a half-step is. And so, I have them feel a half-step if their hand is big enough. As I said, everybody’s got a different size of hand and a very small hand may not even touch for a half step but they’re close, okay?
After that, the problem with keeping all your fingers down is that you can exponentially create tension in the hand and the arm. And then when you try and do vibrato, it’s very difficult. So when I start to talk about independent fingering, first of all, it’s important that you keep the old finger down until the new finger begins. And then you’re free to lift the old finger. And you don’t really want it popping up, you want to keep it close to the string. But I still like to think: What is the distance? So if I’m going from one to three, I still like to think: Where would my two be, if I set it down, in the key that I’m playing? Say it’s an F sharp or an F natural. I like to think where would it be, so that my hand would always be in tune. And then it’s easiest to play independent fingers in slow passages with lots of vibrato, so you’re free to vibrate. If you’re playing very quickly, it doesn’t make any sense to lift a finger if you’re coming right back to it. So, I hope that clarifies.
FF: I’m sure. The ninth question is by Tony De Rosa who asks, “Is there any specific book you can suggest for learning violin basics?”
TE: Well, okay, I don’t know how basic he wants to go.
FF: No idea.
TE: Right. I went to school with a guy name Robert Frost who wrote All for Strings. This is a very well-known method, and if you were at the very beginning, you want All for Strings: Book One for Violin, and it gives you all sorts of information. But it’s really basic. So you need to understand what it is that you’re looking for.
Another great book for… Let’s see, this is the Principles of Violin Playing, can you see that?
TE: By Ivan Galamian. And this is a fantastic book and I looked on Amazon and you can still get it. But it is not cheap. I went to Meadowmount and bought it at Meadowmount at the summer music camp. I found a four-leaf clover while I was there. I taped it in the book. So it’s my lucky book.
TE: Another great book is called the Teaching of Action in String Playing by Paul Rolland. I looked on Amazon. It’s also there. These books are not cheap, though. So you have to expect that. But those two, the Galamian book and the Paul Rolland book are much, much more in depth. They’ll take you farther than say the All for Strings book.
Another nice book is called, The Viola by Henry Barrett. I know it’s not the violin, but that has some tremendous information. And a lot of violinists play viola, too. And there’s some information in here that is not in the others, so I recommend all of those books. They’re fantastic!
FF: Okay, perfect. Yeah, I just want to mention to our audience that they can find links to these books on your dedicated page, which is www.virtualsheetmusic.com/interviews/ehle.
Alright! Let’s move on with the last question by John Parkinson who asks, “What do you consider to be the most important daily violin exercise?”
TE: That’s a good question.
FF: Key question, I’d say.
TE: Yes, it is. Well, I can tell you what one of my teachers said to me. And he said it like this. He said, “The secret…” He said to me “The secret is practicing trills.” Now I’m not going to say that it’s totally true. I’m just going to tell you what he said to me, okay? And what he was talking about was the lifting motion from the base knuckle and following the pathway to the fingertip and always hitting it in the same place. Lifting with energy, so that you’re not in, in, in. You tap, you lift with energy.
I even heard a famous violinist once say, “You should lift twice as fast as you set it down.” I don’t know how to do that myself, but the point is, you’re lifting with energy. But you’re tapping… And he said to me, “It doesn’t have to be fast, but it has to be accurate.”
Now another professor I studied with said, you could practice trills and try to increase the speed by working in small bursts. So [buzz sound] stop, [buzz sound] stop, [buzz sound] stop. So that you’re trying to increase your—I think they call that, twitch muscle—your reflex speed. That’s firing the same muscle over and over and over. I will also say, for those of you that are advanced enough, when I warm up, my goal is to get the pads firm. I don’t like the spongy or soft sensation my fingers have in the morning, and I don’t want to perform with it that way. So what I’ll do is a scale on one string with one finger and I’ll go up and back down, and then I’ll add the second finger and the do the scale on the second finger go up. Add the third finger. And by the time I’m done with that, my fingers have the groove in them and the pads feel solid enough that I feel confident and I’m ready to go. If you want to just warm up your vibrato or practice your intonation, slow scales are just the best.
FF: Yes, sure. That actually makes me remember when I used to be a student at the conservatory in Milan in Italy. There were actually two different movements inside the students. There were students that used to do just scales every day and students doing just trills all the day. And I used to belong to the second movement doing trills all the time. And I remember Laura, my wife, she used to be a violinist too, tell me, “You should stop doing just trills and maybe also do scales.” And, actually that’s right. We need actually both.
TE: We need both, yeah.
FF: Yeah, exactly. So that’s a pretty funny story.
TE: It is.
FF: So we are done with the questions from our audience, and I have my final personal question which is, “Do you have any plans to come here visiting Southern California anytime soon?”
TE: Well, I need to come and learn how to surf.
FF: Me too! Maybe we can do it together!
TE: The waves here are too small for real surfing so sure, let’s do it. Let’s go surfing.
FF: Yes! So, I really hope to meet you personally.
TE: Me, too.
FF: Because it will be a great honor.
TE: That would be very nice.
FF: Alright! It has been a great pleasure. Thank you very much, Todd, for joining us today.
FF: And thank you for watching.
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