William Fitzpatrick - violin expert

Let the Force Be With You

What does "force" mean in violin playing?

In this video, Prof. Fitzpatrick answers this very intriguing question: How can we take the concept of "force" from the popular Star Wars movies, and apply it to the violin?

Released on February 3, 2016

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

All right. Okay, I know it was a bit cheesy, but as I wanted to talk about force and I love Star Wars, this came to mind and I just couldn't resist. So suppose we talk about the force. Albeit, not the one in the movie that surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds us together, but the force we use with our left-hand fingers to play the violin. Well you see, it so happens that the very first video that I did for virtualsheetmusic.com in November of 2013 was called, "How Much Pressure to Use on the Violin With Your Left Hand."

Well, since there's been so much discussion about that video, I thought I would take the idea a bit further by doing this video. And in doing so, try to be a bit clearer with an in-depth chat about the force. Okay, okay, I'll stop. So welcome to virtualsheetmusic.com's meet the expert. My name is William Fitzpatrick and I am the Henry Temianca professor of violin, the Hall-Musco Conservatory of Music which is located on the campus of Chapman University. And I'm as well Director of MusiShare and the MusiShare young artist program.

So I think we can all agree that we need a force to push the string down to make a clear sound. Well, let me tell you a story. You see, starting my first week of teaching at the Conservatoire Levallois Perret in France, I thought that I would give them something really obvious to consider. I told them that we didn't need to press. I had no idea that I had just ignited a revolution as one by one they replied that if they did not press, there would be no sound.

Well, it took about a year, with a lot of discussion, but I finally got them to see my point of view. Here, don't have a year, but I got about 10 minutes, so I'm game to give it a try if you are. Let's get to it. First of all, let's define what we wish to accomplish. We want to have a clear sound. To get this sound, we will need to have a force to depress the string, but what exactly is the definition of force? Well, dictionaries say that a force is a push or a pull upon an object resulting from that object's interaction with another object.

Okay, so let's see, with regard to our left-hand fingers, there would seem to be three kinds of forces that are applicable, that appropriately come in to play. There's an applied force, or a pressure, there is gravity or weight, and finally, there is spring, which I would translate into velocity, or speed. Other forces such as friction and resistance, tension will seem less applicable to what we do. So again, we have pressure, speed, and gravity or weight.

So since we need to apply a force we need to understand Newton's third law of motion that states that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. So this would mean that if a force is applied to the string, an equal force will occur, but from the other direction. For many years the opposite force was considered to be the finger board because the distance between the string and the finger board was low, this allowed for the following sound to be heard when playing. You see back in the day, we'd just come away from using gut strings. And after that, the gut would be wound with aluminum. So the strings were not nearly as strong as today's totally synthetic ones.

Well now let's be certain about what I'm saying because we don't want to have any further discussions like as of a year from now. So why don't we simply listen, why don't you simply listen to older recordings of violinists. You will hear this sound. Now you see, we were told that this thumping on the finger board was a sign of good articulation and we were encouraged to strengthen up our muscles to make it. Well, this is what I believed as well till one day in a lesson with Ms. DeLay she explained the following. She said, "Billy, do you have a good imagination?" And of course I said, "Yes." And she then said, "Okay, do you remember the movie King Kong?" I sort of looked at her and I went, "Yes." She then put her violin on the piano and she said, "Okay, the distance between the string and the finger board is going to be, let's see, the Empire State Building." She then asked if I remembered how many floors the building had and I could not so we said, "Well, let's just say 100."

Now, she said, "Your finger is King Kong and he's at the top of the building, but you know what, in the movie this part gets a bit sad, so perhaps I'll skip it and move to the diagram." She drew to explain what she was talking about. You see she told me that the finger touches the string, then goes down to, say, the fifteenth floor, then rebounds up to the thirtieth where it stays. Now in my prior video I showed a moving piece of paper under my finger while making a sound, a good sound. And this is why. So the velocity or speed of the finger being thrust to the string descends the string towards the finger board. Do notice that this is not from the force of pressure.

And then the finger rebounds up to the point where it resides. So, you can start to see how things have changed in that regard. With better strings we've sort of taken the place of the finger board in providing that opposite force. Now here's where it gets dicey. As we need that other force, which was gravity or weight, to keep the finger there. You see the string is pulled down by the weight of the arm or gravity. Well, this weight becomes a constant and through the use of these two forces, speed and weight, our left hand stays extremely relaxed as muscles or tendons are not actively being used.

So now it was explained to me by Ms. DeLay that in doing this a sound occurs which is called "ping," as in ping-pong. The sound sounds like this. You see, the sound substitutes the tapping, thumping sound we did before when pressing the finger to the finger board. Now doing this has some very interesting side effects, as you can move your finger far more rapidly to correct say, an error. A small one. Or to correct the pitch, not a bit one.

Another side effect is through this new suppleness that you have because you're not using those muscles. It gives you the potential to go faster and your bravado will probably loosen up as well. There are more, but you should try this, try it out. Discover it for yourself, see what's there and see what's available. Now, here's a sticking point as well. Does this mean we never use pressure? Well, come on, if I were going to play Zhang, I would really have to have a lot more weight in my finger. But if I were going to play Mendelssohn, the second theme, I certainly would not want...

So it's all relative to the character of what we're trying to play, the expression that we're trying to get out of this box. So now that we have explored the use of force in the left hand, please feel free to post a comment or ask a question below. Do take care, and I hope that these videos are helping your practicing to become more and more efficient, that this leads you to even better performances. Oh yes, and of course, do let the force be with you.
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

Virginia Stiles on December 28, 2016 @2:54 pm PST
Prof. Fitzpatrick we enjoyed tutorials.
Virginia Stiles
Daniel Rosen on July 19, 2016 @12:41 pm PST
I wish I had a teacher like you. I'm learning to "relax" more on the violin., and enjoy it more. From your videos, I feel you are with me as I play. Thanks, Professor Fitzpatrick.
Richard on May 17, 2016 @6:29 pm PST
Wonderful lesson. Interesting from the start to the finish.
William - host, on July 14, 2016 @11:26 pm PST
Inge on April 4, 2016 @6:29 pm PST
I restarted violin after 8 years away, and back then I had problems. The lighter touch is the first thing I aimed for. Recently a score fell out of a book. It was a piece with a passage that for weeks I had been unable to play back then because my hand always locked up. With trepidation I went to it, and that passage was effortless - I truly had not expected that only for it to be less difficult. So most definitely - and yes, helpful and timely.
William - host, on July 14, 2016 @11:27 pm PST
Thank you!
Al Colombo * VSM MEMBER * on February 17, 2016 @11:14 am PST
Dear Mr. Fitzpatrick,

First thing first. Your articles have been most interesting, enlightening and indeed most helpful in many way. Thank you.

I am using very good quality strings, and have been experimenting with the concept noted in this article. The idea sounds good and the explanation seems to back it up. However, there is an issue e present:

When comparing the tone "quality" of sound produced by not touching the fingerboard with the finger and touching the fingerboard - there is an obvious difference. Not quite sure how to describe that difference, perhaps when not touching a rather "thin," ethereal sound emits. This might be because the overtones are weak, or in some cases reduced in number. Granted the difference is somewhat subtle, but it is there.

To further substantiate my point, try playing the 5th note on any string ("A" on the D string, etc.) and if the finger does not contact the fingerboard, chances are very good that the harmonic will prevail. If it doesn't, there will occasional, intermittent breaking up of tone, and not a good steady, full sound.

In defense of your idea, it is noted that in the higher positions, where there is more space between string and fingerboard, enough normal weight seems to produce about the same quality of sound as compared to pressing the string to the fingerboard.

What this concept has done for me is: to make me aware not to use heavy finger pressure when playing. My object being to stop the string with the least amount of weight (or pressure) so as to touch the fingerboard.

Old habits are tough to shed, but my conscious effort to accomplish this is paying off, especially at my age (over 80). I definitely see an increase in speed, dexterity and the actual amount of time I can play before the fatigue factor sets in has increased.

In summary, I am using your concept in a slightly different manner and getting positive results, It can be quite delicate, especially when playing the 5th and octave harmonic notes. In those instances I find the need for additional weight in order to produce a clear, full tone.

Once again, thank you for sharing your expertise.

Al Colombo (Lenoir City, TN)
William - host, on July 14, 2016 @11:28 pm PST
Its an idea and not a rule so good for you!
Bill Kadner * VSM MEMBER * on February 10, 2016 @6:31 pm PST
Thanks- I tend to press to hard and your video encourages me to ease up. I've enjoyed all your videos.
William - host, on July 14, 2016 @11:28 pm PST
Lois Owsley * VSM MEMBER * on February 4, 2016 @8:33 am PST
Very good and interestingly creative explanation in this video! I learned a similar thing when I recorded a number of years ago and heard the thumping. I relaxed my finger placement to eliminate the undesired sound which seems to be what you're explaining here. Thanks!
William - host, on February 5, 2016 @5:51 pm PST
You are very welcome!
Tosh * VSM MEMBER * on February 3, 2016 @10:36 am PST
When I haven't been playing for awhile, I notice that my fingers are stiffer and the vibrato more rigid or difficult to control. I think, perhaps, using your advice to "lighten" finger pressure in the left hand might alleviate the above problems...since, after I've been playing for about 10 minutes, I do notice that my finger pressure becomes lighter and vibrato control becomes much easier. Thanks for the advice. Your explanation was very clear.
William - host, on February 5, 2016 @5:51 pm PST
Very glad that its helpful!
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