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Yuri Yankelevich and The Russian Violin School

Tong Keat has an M.A. in Violin Performance from MTSU, TN. He is the founder of Just Violin—a free resources site for violinists.

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The Russian Violin School

Because few violinists were allowed to travel freely outside Russia after the revolution in 1917, The Russian Violin School was little known to the West. The Hungarian violinist Leopold Auer, who taught at St. Petersburg from 1868 to 1917, left a strong legacy behind when he fled the Soviet Union. His former students, and assistants who remained in the country, continued his legacy and became part of the new Violin School that produced many successful violinists.

The Russian School is a broad term. According to Masha Lankovsky, it represents a combination of foreign and native elements over many centuries. Many people associated the Russian school with the Russian bow hold as described by Carl Flesch in his book The Art of Violin Playing. However, there was no evidence to that, and Auer himself claimed that there should be no exact rules in how to hold the bow.

Yuri Yankelevich taught at the Moscow Conservatory. He started as an assistant to Abraham Yampolsky, who himself studied with Sergei Korguyev, a former student and assistant to Leopold Auer. Yankelevich's analytical nature and strong pedagogy intuition allowed him to publish some of the most important research on violin pedagogy. This article highlights two of his original essays published in the book "The Russian Violin School: The Legacy of Yuri Yankelevich."

Setting up the Violin and Bow Hold

Yankelevich's writings were never about setting rules on how to play the violin. Instead, they were in-depth studies on the violin technique, offering practical solutions by taking into account various possibilities and points of view. Yankelevich was fearless in calling out the flaws in the methods of notable violinists such as Ion Voiku, B.Mikhailovsky, and even Joseph Joachim. He argued strongly against the one-size-fits-all methods that tend to overlook many finer details. He described each component clearly, and at the same time, drawing a comparison between all violin methods. Compared to the earlier violin treatises, Yankelevich's works represent a modern research on violin pedagogy.

On holding the violin, he pointed out that the body needs to be free of tension. The human body is a unified system in which tension can spread from one part to the other. It is, therefore important to observe the posture starting from the legs and up.

For the upper body, he discussed how the freedom of the shoulders depends on the head. A shoulder pad/rest can greatly aid the violinist in lightening the burden of the neck. He also highlighted the angle and the inclination of the violin. The angle of the violin that is improper (i.e., too far left or right) will make bowing difficult. Likewise, the inclination refers to how flat the violin is positioned on the shoulder. It should not be too flat nor too inclined as it will affect the left hand.

On holding the bow, he noticed that the position of the thumb in relation to the other fingers is a controversial issue. Some violinists preferred to place the thumb opposite the ring finger, resulting in greater pressure on the bow. Some others preferred the thumb to be opposite the middle finger, which allows for more versatility in various bow techniques. The positions and functions of each finger, along with the wrist and arm, were discussed further in this essay. It also covered issues regarding bow angle, bow inclination, and tightness of the hair.

Maya Glezarova and Yuri Yankelevich

Maya Glezarova and Yuri Yankelevich

Shifting Positions in Conjuction with the Musical Goals of the Violinist

The second essay by Yankelevich is a thorough study on various positions on the fingerboard and the action of shifting. He drew across different violin methods and concluded that any system of dividing the fingerboard into multiple positions is entirely relative to the musical context.

On the actions of shifting, there are many elements involved. Certain part of the hand plays the leading role in initiating the shift while others play a guiding role. The position of the hand and its movement differs between the lower and upper part of the fingerboard. He also discussed in great length on how a one-point contact (violin supported solely by the head) or two-point contact (violin supported by the head and the left hand) affect shifting.

It was mentioned that shifting is ultimately a procedure between the ears and the hands. Established violinists have a well-developed reflex system where the brain has learned to associate the perception of the sound with the movement of the hand. Such an ability to coordinate needs to be trained and cultivated over the years.

Another interesting part of this essay is the use of oscillograph to illustrate the ways of shifting by different violinists under different circumstances. It was observed that a shift using the same finger tends to start slowly and then accelerate as it approaches the next note. There was also another observation where, despite the popular notion of shifting using an intermediary note, many violinists rarely adhere to that.

Apart from those, this essay discussed shiftings that involve double stops, chromatic glissando, open strings, and harmonics.

© 2019 Goh Tong Keat

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