William Fitzpatrick - violin expert

Understanding where to look when playing your violin

Learn how to stay focused during your playing by finding your own right spot.

In this video, Prof. Fitzpatrick talks about avoiding "looking around" during your violin playing, or your student's violin playing, with practical tips to find your own "looking spot".

Released on March 2, 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

So you see, I once had a student that whenever they were playing, they would look at the ground or at the ceiling or to the left or to the right, but never at what they were doing, where they were doing it. I became so exasperated by this that I drew a little drawing. Something like this. Looking at the drawing, I asked the students where does the sound come from? And they pointed to here.

I said, "That's true." And then posed the following question, "If that's where the sound comes from, then why are you looking at the ceiling or at the floor?" Why aren't you looking at where you produce the sound?

And with that question, I would like to welcome you to VirtualSheetMusic.com's Meet The Expert. My name is William Fitzpatrick, and I am the Henry Tamianka Professor of Violin at the Hull-Musco Conservatory of Music, which is located on the campus of Chapman University. I am, as well, Director of MusiShare and the MusiShare Young Artist Program.

I remember once with Ms. DeLay at Juilliard that I was playing this passage from a concerto and I closed my eyes to feel the music better. Well, Ms. DeLay looked at me and said the following, "Billy. Billy, you can't close your eyes while you play." I responded by saying to Ms. DeLay, "But this is how I feel the music better. When I close my eyes and play I can see inside of myself what it is I want to play with more clarity."

But Ms. DeLay was not touched by what I said and adamantly responded, "But Billy, if you don't look at what you're doing you don't know what you did. And if you don't know what you did, you can't do it again." Well I argued with her about this but as usual I didn't win. It took me quite a while to understand her point of view but eventually I did. I then understood why she was right.

Okay, so let me try to explain it. Think about it, how many senses do we have? Well, we have five. Okay. How many of these senses do we use to play the violin? Well, certainly we use sight, hearing, and touching. Obviously, we don't need to taste or smell the violin to play. Well, each one of us has a sense which is more important than another. For me it's hearing. This is my prominent or dominant sense. You see, it's important that we understand which one is dominant so that we can develop ways to augment the others.

For example, if hearing is our strong suit then we should probably work on sight and touch. Or if sight is the strongest then we should probably work on hearing and touch. You see we need to do this to develop the strongest possible awareness of how we play the violin. What we do to make the music happen. So looking away or closing one's eyes could certainly run contrary to this purpose. In principle, it would certainly not help us to practice in what we are doing.

So once I was looking at a video of a very famous violinist with a student and they played this passage. Or something like this. As you just saw, before they played the octaves they suddenly stopped, moved their fingers like that, and then continued to play. And it was in tune. Well, it seems obvious that they knew the octave was out of tune, that they saw that the octave was out of tune.

So before they heard it they fixed it. And then they played it and it was in tune. I believe that this opens the door towards understanding why we need to explore our senses, heighten our awareness. For example, on the left side we can explore how we touch the strings on a particular passage. Or what we do with our wrist or with our elbow. Or we could look at our right side and explore how the finger weight is distributed through our bow grip. Or look at whether or not our wrist is free, or try to explore the cause or causes as to why it isn't.

I'm sure you could imagine other possibilities. All right. So if we need to be aware then you might ask, "How can I look at the music at the same time?" Well, it's precisely for this reason that I ask, insist, that my students memorize their concertos and solo pieces as quickly as possible. Doing this, memorizing, enables us to use this awareness to produce that which we wish to express. And so consequently we need to have the music memorized to be able to clearly feel, see, and hear what we want to produce so that we can do it again.

Now my students ask me, "Where exactly do I look when performing?" Well, I look at where the bow touches the string. You see for me the music comes from there. From here I can see what my bow is doing, where it's landing, how it's going to feel. What's happening in my bow grip? I can feel all of those things. If I need to I can even look at what's happening with my fingers.

Now, what about you? Where should you look? Well as we are all different it will not nor should it ever be exactly where I look. But my hope is that this discussion will act as a model, a guide to helping you discover your place. That spot that works for you. Oh, yes and by the way, some very famous violinist don't look all the time at what they're doing. My students constantly are reminding me of this. Okay, this is true. But check them out when it gets to be tricky, when there's a tricky passage, follow their eyes.

I bet you, you'll see that they are looking at what they're doing. So that's it for this discussion. If you have a comment or a question to ask me, please feel free to post it below. And as always, do take care and here's hoping that your practicing is becoming more and more efficient. And that it is leading you to even better performances.
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

Chelsea on July 28, 2021 @4:57 pm PST
Hi, I am a beginner, with tape on the violin still. Do I want to get in the habit of looking at my fingers when I play? I’m worried I’ll be back to square one once I remove the tape!
William - host, on July 29, 2021 @2:22 pm PST
I look at where my bow touches the string. Hope this is helpful!
Peter Charles on June 20, 2016 @10:57 am PST
What about a blind violinist?
William - host, on May 10, 2017 @12:41 pm PST
This would certainly be a special circumstance... the other senses would really have to kick in to make up for the inability to see! Thank you for bringing this up!
Terry * VSM MEMBER * on March 30, 2016 @4:51 pm PST
Your videos are wonderful! I watch them all night on You Tube and re-watch them. I am starting to play with other strings now and I need help on learning tempo. When I concentrate on tempo or use a metronome I lose concentration on music and I give up sound. How do I overcome this?
thelindulafamily * VSM MEMBER * on March 23, 2016 @8:20 pm PST
Thank you very much for the video.
Cheryl * VSM MEMBER * on March 23, 2016 @9:17 am PST
For some of my students, who are having rhythm or pitch issues, I will have them close their eyes so they can hear better. Players new to metronome practice sometimes believe (wrongly) that they are with the click...but when they close their eyes (and don't look at the electronic swipe or lights) they can actually hear the click better. Ditto for pitch matching -- they might be watching for a green light on a tuner, but to be in tune they need to feel and hear the vibrations.
William - host, on May 10, 2017 @12:39 pm PST
The issue is in doing it again! As if you don't have all the information can you reproduce what you have done? Thanks for the comment!!!
Inge on March 2, 2016 @5:04 pm PST
A thought about "memorizing" and what it means: I could have the entire melody in my head, including the dynamics etc., prehearing it, and maybe the notes. But what about things such as when and where to shift, which part of the bow to use, how much bow? When I was a student first time round I'd prehear, and barely had any reading ability anyway, but that other part never occurred to me. It was "automatic" and on good luck - which is not that precise. I'm wondering - should what memorizing itself means be touched on as well?
Inge on March 2, 2016 @11:45 am PST
This means an awful lot to me. The integration of all the senses makes a lot of sense, and while I "feel" music, I decided some time ago that it is definitely not nearly enough. I can't explain the emotion that this seemingly dry subject brought up - not so dry in fact. Smiley Face
William - host, on March 2, 2016 @12:08 pm PST
I am touched! Thanks!
don summers * VSM MEMBER * on March 2, 2016 @5:24 am PST
O.K. now that's what I call some relevant information for someone like me who is largely a self taught and still learning player. Good advice....practical.... and answers a question probably lots of players have wondered about. I find my visual focus shifts from bow placement to finger position once the piece is committed to memory and sight reading has been "mastered" on a particular piece. I just assumed that looking in other directions was just a performance technique for the "optics" of playing for an audience.
Thanks...good advice.
William - host, on March 2, 2016 @9:42 am PST
Glad that the video is so helpful! Thanks!
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