The SFIM Method
Why the SFIM Method can help overcome playing-related injuries and improve technical and musical understanding
One of our main objectives at the Institute is to guide students to a deep understanding of the art of music. Another is to teach students to play their instruments with fundamentals perfect enough to allow for continual improvement and development of their talent throughout their lives. These two goals are inseparable. Therefore, part of our mission at the Institute is to analyze and study the methodologies of the greatest performers in classical music and utilize what we discover to improve current pedagogical approaches. The deficiencies of today’s educational approach in music are often preventing many talented students from reaching their potential and imparting a mundane understanding of music as an art to the general public.
Many people, we included, believe that there was a Golden Era of instrumental playing which ended sometime in the 1950s. What has changed? We have studied this question for many years.
To this end we have chosen to analyze performers acknowledged by most musicians to be of an untouchable caliber--Jascha Heifetz, Nathan Milstein, Vladimir Horowitz, Sergei Rachmaninoff, among others. Our many years of analysis has shown us that they approached playing and musical thought in ways that are fundamentally identical to each other (interestingly they all come from the same geographical area, and knew each other) yet, often directly opposite to what most students and professional performers have been taught nowadays. We find ourselves in this situation for many reasons, of which I will propose but a few.
First, these masters were mainly performing, not teaching. In the late nineteenth century most great performers concertized as well as taught, but in the beginning of the twentieth century two developments gave performers new possibilities for income--the invention of recording, and increasingly easy methods of transportation. Recording technology made it possible for the public to hear virtuoso performers for the price of a record, and advanced modes of transportation allowed performers to easily travel throughout a world familiar with their playing because of record sales. Therefore, while their fame as performers was immense, their pedagogical influence was minor.
Additionally, information acquired from them was imperfectly passed on, in the same way that a bit of gossip is altered with each new raconteur. Finally, like most 'secret' family recipes, the source will often leave out one key step that preserves her or his continued acclaim. There are many other explanations--cultural, educational changes, the destruction of Europe from two world wars, the diaspora of the European musical and artistic community--far too many to discuss in this format.
Yet it is inarguable that these masters’ were able to combine technique, musical expression, and physical ease into a system of playing that allowed them to reach the highest levels of virtuosity and musical expression and to play at this elevated level into their seventies and beyond. They could do this without injury because their musical/muscular thought process eliminates mental and muscular antagonism.
Their approach was modeled on bel canto singing, a vocal method developed in Italy in the late 18th century. This system created opera’s greatest virtuosi, and we at the Institute believe not without good reason. Bel canto singing is essentially about smooth connection between notes. Smooth connection is both musically and athletically correct. How one thinks about music has physical ramifications.
Smooth connection is inseparable from creating a beautiful sound, the foundation of all instrumental playing. In fact, smooth connection is the foundation of all virtuoso technique. Nowadays most players are taught to take a percussively articulated approach to playing. However, articulation, while necessary, is more correctly, a by-product of smooth connection. Articulation should be layered on top of a technique that is smooth and connected, not percussive.
Additionally, in the past it was commonplace for musicians to be trained as composers. Horowitz and Rachmaninoff were trained composers, Milstein and Heifetz were skilled enough to be capable of writing wonderful cadenzas and arrangements. But by the 1930s this method of training musicians was reserved only for students of composition. Unfortunately, a compositional understanding of music is a large part of acquiring a virtuoso technique that is expressive, not mechanical. Let me explain.
Composition, at least of music in the past, was essentially based on the variation of simple elements--harmonic and motific (I include rhythm as motific) to create a whole, complex piece of music. Yet even the most outwardly intricate piece of music is based on simple ideas.
Technique is also based on simple ideas (of movement and phrasing) which, through variation, create virtuoso effects. However, one’s musical understanding is inseparable from the technical approach. After all, one’s technique is the medium through which the music is expressed. This begs the question--What is music?
Music is a direct experience of the 'feeling' of life without the abstraction and confinement of that experience that is created by thoughts and words. Music frees us from programmed thought. It is pure intellect united with feeling.
The performer trains himself to become a perfect pipeline of inspiration coming directly from the music, and through him, to the audience. To do this requires that the artist have no physical or mental antagonism to the free flow of expression, expression which is one with the material, not added on by design. To do this requires technique. Without technique--skill that has become internalized-- there can be no direct communion, hence no true feeling.
The 'feeling' is the melding of the beauty of the sound, the subtlety, the nuance, the flow, the play of the rhythm, the organic understanding of the material, the physical presence and energy of the performer, the ability to create a 'world' for an audience, the passion to work to that end, the pulling together of one’s entire being for the purpose at hand.
Without compositional understanding and sensitivity to sound and its nuances, technical skill is empty. And that is, in fact, what we hear today and much of the reason everyone sounds the same. We are trained with only a surface understanding of the art of music, a deficit that is reflected in our contemporary 'sound' (tone) which tends to be pushed out from above the instrument, not released from within the instrument, and, additionally, in our metronomic, inexpressive conception of rhythm, a mechanistic lack of subtlety anathema to the composers whose music we attempt to interpret.
Our many years of continual scientific analysis of the playing methodologies of great violinists and pianists has produced a fortunate by-product. We can use them as a reference to improve anyone’s technique and musical understanding.
By using these performers physical and mental approach as a template - a model that we can explain to you--we can compare your method with a superior system. Using this approach we are able to pinpoint the root causes of any technical difficulties that occur in students and professional performers. The cause of these problems is usually a misconception of muscle use, often aggravated by an incorrect understanding of basic--but currently, largely unknown (as I mentioned above)--principles of phrasing and musical thought. It is usually these misconceptions that create problematic technique, and ultimately often lead to playing-related injuries.
We have discovered that the techniques and mental approaches of these masters can be taught to others, bringing great benefits. Knowledge of these principles, which we call the SFIM Method, makes playing much easier and greatly helps overcome any technical and musical shortcomings a player may have. Additionally, we have been able to help instrumentalists resolve playing-related injuries because we address problems at their foundational level.
Doctors can diagnose what is physically impaired. Others, practitioners of relaxation techniques, (for example disciples of the Alexander Technique) understand the subtleties of muscle usage for everyday situations, such as how to sit in a chair or stand correctly, (which is still necessary). But the underlying, inescapable deficiency in all of these approaches is that they cannot explain to anyone how to play an instrument at a virtuoso level with muscle usage that is correct.
Playing-related injury is a result of incorrect technical understanding and until that lack is cured through correct understanding the injury will persist. Therefore, from another perspective, playing-related injury is an opportunity to advance technically and musically. The same is true for a perceived 'ceiling' to one’s improvement. There is no end to improvement.
One of the main goals and areas of focus of the Institute is to use the knowledge we have gained to benefit advanced students as well as professional performers, offering a way around any technical, physical, or mental “brick wall” a player may encounter. We are able to impart true, tested knowledge--the SFIM Method--to anyone seeking a foundational understanding of technique, musical expression, and the mastery of a musical instrument.
If you play any stringed instrument or the piano and are experiencing confusion about your technical approach, or have reached a musical or technical plateau which you cannot surpass, or are suffering from a playing-related injury that recurs email or call us. The SFIM Method can help.