This is something that occurs too often. For non-musicians, this may seem like a surprising concept. However, people who can hear but do not listen are often found sitting in orchestras and chamber music groups. So much of what is taught in music is about how to make your instrument function properly. This is very important, yet the education cannot stop there. The "why" factor is not answered or questioned often enough. "Play with curved fingers." OK, why? Because it looks nice? Well, no. Curved fingers will get you the most clarity (on a stringed instrument) in fast passage work. It SOUNDS the best, it is the most musical way to tackle a specific gesture, and it works. How about a slow melodic passage? Should your fingers intersect the string at a right angle? Well, perhaps, but it sounds bad. Why? Well, most people don't even notice this fact. It is because playing at a right angle to the string involves playing with the smallest amount of pad on the fingerboard, causing a long note to sound thin and have no over-tones. Playing with MORE pad of the finger allows a longer portion of the string to be in contact with the fingerboard, allowing the instrument to resonate and produce beautiful over-tones. So how do you get more pad of your finger on the string? Well, it depends on your hand. If you have big honking fingertips, you're in luck. But if your fingers are thin, you'll have to flatten the top joint a bit. Sure it "looks bad," but if it sounds good, who the hell cares? The SOUND is the what matters.
Listening to oneself is where the music begins. It is crucial for a musician to be aware of how they sound on their individual instrument in order to play with others. When a string quartet is trying to fix intonation of a particularly gnarly passage, it is not wise to play it slowly and loudly. It is important to play softly yet with a core sound in order to hear everyone and make necessary adjustments.
I had an interesting experience in orchestra yesterday. We were doing string sectionals, and Terry King (my teacher) and Laura Bossert (his wife, who is a violin teacher at Longy and I consider her to be my second teacher) were leading the ensemble. It was revealed to me that very few people were listening. Sure the violinists were great as individuals, but when they were asked to play together, it was a total mess. This was also very depressing. Terry and Laura were very disappointed because this was an indication that the orchestra did not know how to listen. I spoke with Terry during break, and he said, "I can't fix everything. All I can do is shine a mirror to them and hope that they can do the necessary work to make changes." It kills me to play in a mediocre orchestra, because I know that it feels great to play in a great orchestra. Granted, this has only happened a few times, and my heart is not set on being an orchestral cellist in the future, but it would certainly be nice to WANT to WANT to be in an orchestra where everyone is on the same page.