Can we learn from a Robot Violinist?

Several years ago we saw Toyota debut this video of a robot that could ‘play’ the violin:

It’s kind of funny to watch, but I’m sure that Toyota put  a lot of effort into designing this particular robot.  Who knows why they picked Elgar’s Pomp & Circumstance, but that’s not really relevant to what I want to discuss.  I think this particular video illustrates a couple interesting points about string pedagogy and teaching:

1) Playing the violin (or the doublebass for that matter) is a challenging and complex task- I don’t know how many motors, pumps and computer chips were needed for this robot but, if you look at the complexity of the robot compared to us a humans we’re millions of more times complex!  For beginning students trying to obtain a good bow hold, posture, and draw a good sound, they’re still attempting to coordinate all those muscles and balances.  It’s a challenge for teachers to describe how this all happens, and sometimes fewer words are almost better.  I’ve had success with some students just by saying: “Look at my hand position and I want you to mirror what I do.”

2) Music performance requires two things- 1) As musicians we bring thoughts and technical ideas to a performance (ie. bowings, fingerings, reading notes or rests, etc.  We all study very hard with great teachers to learn more about music.  2) We (unlike the robot) learn to adapt and make changes (sometimes on the fly) while playing.  For instance, what if you realize one of your strings goes flat during a performance, or you are asked to play someone else’s instrument that feels different or responds differently.  We, as humans are able to compensate for variables, whereas the robot is not going to be able to deviate from the program or code that’s stored in it’s memory.

3)Everything in string playing is inter-connected- I’ve found that if I’m working with a private student and I ask him/her to change one aspect of their technique, then that change affects another part of their technique, and eventually we start changing even more things.  A good example is changing the placement of the left thumb to be behind the 2nd finger on the back of the neck.  Once this is corrected I’m working on adjusting hand shape, then wrist, then arm, then shoulder, and all the way down to the feet and overall posture.  One critical thing that the robot doesn’t have is the ability to make global changes to technique like you can.  Even the words we use as teachers while giving instruction, for example “I want a darker sound”, will for some of us mean making a lot of small, subtle, inter-connected changes that make the sound darker.  As a teacher, I hope I can convey the technical path to your success.  It’s astounding that we have this amazing ability to change technique with non-technical language (no computer code required).

4) We bring our experiences and ‘flavor’ to whatever we’re playing-  The robot obviously has no connection to society, musical training, past experiences, etc.  It can’t bring anything “to the table” so to speak because it’s programmed to just play and that’s about all.  As humans, we bring a whole wealth of experiences, emotions, and long hours of practice to a performance.  I feel this is one of the key distinctions (if not the most important difference) between us and the robot.

5)  A technically good performance is not always as interesting as a musical performance- Of course learning notes and rhythms is essential to good music making… however if there’s not a spark to keep the audience interested, there’s a tendency to bore your audience.  Even when you listen to some of the best performers and orchestras, it’s not always ‘perfect’, but often times the spontaneity and emotion is what often turns an otherwise normal performance into an excellent one.


About tunedin4ths

David Ballam Doctoral Student at the University of Texas at Austin Doublebass Instructor: UT String Project & Round Rock School District BLOG: WEB:
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