As violinists, we often encounter works that require considerable physical stamina. Whether we’re playing Brahms's Violin Concerto, a Bruckner symphony, or a short but intense work, we have to develop a plan for how to pace ourselves, stay as relaxed as possible, and build our stamina.
I’m currently learning two works that require significant stamina: Richard Einhorn’s Maxwell’s Demon No. 4 and Michael Nyman’s Zoo Caprices. These works fall into the category of short but very intense. For example, while Maxwell’s Demon No. 4 is only four minutes long, the bow strokes are repetitive, quick, short, and all at the frog. As a result, my bow arm is exhausted by the end of the movement.
When I started learning Maxwell’s Demon No. 4, I was able to play through roughly half of the movement before becoming overly fatigued in my bow arm. Here are some approaches that I found helpful for developing my physical endurance:
Actively release tension:
Look for places in the music where you can relax, exhale, and intentionally release tension. These spots can come in the form of a rest, an open string, the end of a phrase, or a quiet moment. When practicing these places, consciously exhale, lighten the pressure in the left fingers, release the left thumb, and relax the right shoulder.
Practice releasing tension in the left hand when shifting. This entails lightening up in the fingers and releasing the left thumb.
The excerpt below from Maxwell's Demon # 4 by Richard Einhorn is an example of a great place to release tension. The end of m. 52 (A-E double stop) into m. 53 (circled in red, G-D double stop) features open strings. Consequently, the violinist has an opportunity to relax and breathe, if only for a second.
Vary repetitive motions: repetitive motions can cause fatigue and injury. Even subtle variations in your motions can help alleviate tension and fatigue.
If possible, try moving to different parts of the bow, even if the change is subtle. Bring out the contours of the musical line by lengthening and shortening strokes. This approach enhances musicality and makes the physical work seem easier.
Change fingers in the left hand. When there is particular strain on one or two fingers, periodically shift positions to use different fingers.
Vary vibrato speeds and widths (or simply vibrate). Again, varying your motions will help prevent physical exhaustion.
Practice the work in short sessions multiple times over the course of the day. Don’t risk injuring yourself by trying to play for too long at once. Focus on a different passage during each practice session to ensure that you cover the entire work.
Each day, at the beginning of a practice session, start by running through as much of the movement as your fatigue level will allow. (You don’t have to start the run through at the beginning of the piece. You can vary the starting point to make sure that you cover everything every few days.) Then take a five to ten minute break before continuing with your practice. Over time, the amount that you are able to play through should increase. If the length is not increasing, you will need to examine what you can do to release tension and to consolidate your physical motions.