Violin Playing
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How The Tomatis Method Affected My Violin Playing

by Richard Lawrence with Dorothy Lawrence

I am a classically trained violinist and composer. For the past 14 years or so, I have been very interested in music and healing. I have read everything I could find about the subject and have been fascinated to find that music as a healing art has been practiced in many forms for centuries in nearly every culture. As a classical musician I was especially interested to discover that many of the great classical composers shared this fascination with the power of music.

A few years ago, a friend who is extremely knowledgeable about health suggested that I read a book titled "The Conscious Ear" by Alfred A. Tomatis. Tomatis is a French physician, psychologist, and educator who has had a revolutionary impact on understanding how the ear really works and the different roles it plays beyond what we normally call "hearing".

Fortunately for musicians, Tomatis' father was an opera singer. Since his son specialized in studying the ear, he began to send singers to him for help with their voice problems. It was thanks to his work with singers that Tomatis was led to develop the Tomatis Method which over the last forty years has helped many musicians and singers to fine tune their skills or to overcome some of the problems they experience in the practice of their art. To achieve this goal, Dr. Tomatis has developed an electronic device that teaches to focus better on sounds.

It was at the first meeting of a Northern California group who were interested in sound and healing that I met Pierre Sollier, Director of the Tomatis Center in Lafayette. Pierre was from southern France and had personally experienced the effects of the Tomatis method as a remarkably effective tool in learning to speak correctly English. He later become a Child and Family Therapist and completed the required training at the Tomatis Center in Paris to become a certified Tomatis consultant. He worked with many learning disabled children but was also interested in how the retraining would affect a performing musician and I enthusiastically volunteered.

My first session was in January of 1995. To begin, my listening abilities were tested. As a musician, I thought that I had a pretty good ear and most of the time my answers were right, but there were times for instance when I could not tell from which direction a sound was coming. This was surprising to me: Could this be one of the causes of some of the minor difficulties I experienced in playing the violin? It was exciting to think that those could be overcome.

In the beginning, I listened to tapes while I relaxed for two hours. The tapes were created from recordings by Mozart which had been filtered to provide a precise range of high and low frequencies. I kept a log of what I experienced and wrote, "it sounds pretty scratchy. You start with Mozart and towards the end of the session it switches to Gregorian chant. Mozart makes me feel that something is changing, the chant makes me feel more centered and relaxed." I even fell asleep at times during those first few days.

During the listening sessions participants are encouraged to draw or paint. On both the first and second days, the scenes I painted/drew were scenes from happy childhood memories. On the third day the filtering was noticeably higher. By the 4th day I felt less sleepy than I had felt during the first three days. By the 5th day, the Mozart was even more filtered, sounding even more scratchy. When the filtering was at its highest, it was disturbing to listen to. I started to draw more abstract paintings. And I did three paintings which was a lot for me. The Gregorian chant was not filtered and it was more satisfying to listen to.

Towards the end of the first block of sessions, I began to notice physical differences. For example, I felt a desire to sit straighter. My neck felt more free. My hearing was opening up, and I was experiencing more clarity in the sound. At home in the evenings, when I would listen to orchestral music, I noticed a broader range of sounds. I especially noticed that I could hear each instrument separately when I listened to music. For example, if a bassoon was playing, it would stand out more. In particular, I began to notice the high frequency instruments in a new way. The orchestra was sounding much richer. My improved hearing was like getting a new stereo system!

That week I played some Mozart Concertos. It felt pretty good even though I hadn't been practicing or playing those pieces for years.

I also noticed a change in my voice. It was much freer and I experienced a wider vocal range. In addition to the musical changes, I noticed a greater focus on goals in my life. I felt more centered.

I was also hearing music in my head more clearly. This made me more aware of the importance of the music you hear inside you. Most people concentrate on just the playing and work to fix the technical problems. But you hear the music inside first and this is what fuels your desire to recreate the sound. I believe that music schools and teachers assume that somehow inner listening just develops. They don't really ever explain to their students that the whole thing starts inside your head with something that you hear.

Generally teachers believe that if you develop a certain technique you will play better. But a better technique will only reproduce more accurately the sound that you want, the sound that you hear inside and imagine. If you imagine a rather average, indifferent sound, you will just be better at playing it with your improved technique. Unfortunately, this doesn't necessarily mean that you will sound better.

I believe that the more natural and efficient way to increase the quality of the sound is to re-educate your ear to perceive more beautiful sounds. Then because you want to play those sounds, you will change your playing to try to reproduce them.

The most interesting period of the training was the last block of sessions. It started off with another listening test. There was a definitely noticeable difference. It was much easier and I could tell where the sound was coming from. I was more focused and had few problems with it. I felt more positive, confident, good about life.

For this last block, I took along my violin and listened to the way I played through the special earphones. This means that I was hearing my sound filtered and gated through the electronic ear rather than directly from the violin. Gating means that the music shifts gently from an emphasis on low frequencies to an emphasis on the highs. At the same time, the sound was fed almost exclusively through my right ear to condition it to become the leading ear. Tomatis has demonstrated that, when the right ear leads, we can process the sound faster. This is not only important for musicians but also for singers who need to control their voice. Tomatis tells in his autobiography that the famous opera singer Maria Callas walked in his office one day telling him that she could not sing anymore because she could not control her voice with her right ear. Tomatis retrained her and she went back singing with the success that we know.

As I began to play my violin, it wasn't the sound that I noticed the most! I began to feel inside myself the areas which were tense. At first I became aware of tension on my left side. I immediately adjusted my playing so that I would feel better. I felt my breathing opening up and I became very aware of balance. The experience I was having was very similar to what happened when I studied the Alexander Technique a number of years ago. But it was even more vivid because it was more of an inner experience of feeling where the tensions were in my playing.

Each time I played, I learned a little more about where the tension was and how to fix it. I was really "hearing" my body. I was feeling more space between my violin and my shoulder and could really feel my breathing. It became more obvious to me where my rhythm was off. I have always had what is known as a wrist vibrato. I found myself able to do an arm vibrato which I had never been able to do before. Shifting started to be easier too. The feeling of balance became a big thing for me. I wrote in my daily log: "My increased awareness of hearing the inner sound and its relationship with the muscles to reproduce this sound has increased my self-confidence on the violin noticeably."

During this period, one evening I played a jazz session with friend and pianist John Simon. He was commenting on how I was noticeably much freer with my improvising. I was much more able to let go.

One of the things that struck me during this process is that people may study music for their whole lives, and go to conservatories and universities, and still their hearing is never tested as part of their studying! That is unfortunate because, as Tomatis points out, we cannot reproduce a sound that we do not hear well

This last idea raised many questions and comparisons. For instance, Dr. Tomatis did extensive studies of languages. He analyzed the main frequency band of each language to determine which sounds the speakers used most often and would be the most sensitive to. Here are some of the frequency bands used preferentially in a few languages:

French             1,000 to  2,000 Hertz
British English    2,000 to 12,000 
N American English   800 to  3,000 
German               100 to  3,000 
Slavic               100 to  8,000 
Spanish              100 to    500, and 1,500 to 2,500 

We say that someone has an "ear" for a certain language. Dr. Tomatis proved that this was exactly right. From his analysis he proved that the gift of languages is more an aptitude for hearing the sounds of the language than for speaking it. As a result his method of conditioning the ear is widely and very successfully used in learning languages throughout Europe.

Could this be true with various types of music then? Do certain instruments, certain styles of music, literally resonate more clearly for some people than others? Could musical problems be corrected by improving the range of frequency heard by the musician? For example, if someone has a problem with rhythm, another with pitch, another with tone quality, could hearing an expanded frequency range more clearly allow them to correct their problem?

When I first listened to the filtered music, I noticed how the highs did not feel very good in the beginning but the lows did. This made me wonder if we crave sound that isn't good for us. Perhaps we hear so much music/sound in a certain frequency range, that we crave more of the same because we are used to it. Maybe this is like craving sugar, even when too much may not be good for us.

Has my expanded hearing and greater flexibility lasted? Since the training, over a year ago, I have more confidence, more freedom in my playing. I still feel the difference. I believe that the breakthrough brought about by this new technology could help many people. I am fascinated by the possibilities the Method brings to experiencing and learning music and look forward to seeing further research in this area with performing musicians.


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