Norges musikkhøgskole Norwegian Academy of Music
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A Violinist is Transformed

Is it possible to relearn how to play a musical instrument? This is the story of how violin student Sander Tingstad and his teacher Morten Carlsen went back to basics.

The student's story

I started my master studies in violin performance with Professor Morten Carlsen in autumn 2014. I had struggled for a long time with issues concerning unnecessary movement and excessive use of energy while playing. These movements got in the way of both the technical and musical aspects of my playing.

Different teachers had suggested numerous solutions, but I had a feeling that they were only addressing the symptoms, not the cause of my problems. I felt that my problems were first and foremost linked to my desire to express something. The more involved I got in my performance, the more I would move around.

I could hardly do a thing on the violin without the problems manifesting themselves in one way or other.

Sander Tingstad Violin student

When Morten and I started working together it quickly became clear that my bad habits were more deep-seated than I had thought. I had been assimilating them over a number of years and performed without conscious mind control. I could hardly do a thing on the violin without the problems manifesting themselves in one way or other.

Starting from scratch

Morten wanted to go into more detail than I had expected, but I soon realised it was necessary. For about a month I put most of my repertoire to one side and focused on exercises that in themselves were basic but for me posed significant challenges in the beginning. Thinking that there is so much repertoire and more complex technical challenges that you could be working on can make it difficult to accept that going back to basics in this way is the right thing to do.
Morten and Sander working closely together.


Once I got into it, I actually found it quite inspiring. In the beginning, we worked on specific exercises, and I could see where Morten was going. I soon made good progress and found satisfaction in mastering the simpler exercises.

It is important to note, however, that most of the things we did were intended as experiments. The focus was not on achievement but rather on observing and discovering. We were really looking for light bulb moments.

Even after the first few months, I felt as if I had improved in leaps and bounds. I was able to perform with a much greater sense of calm, both physically and mentally, and I had acquired useful tools for developing a healthy pattern of movement.

The instructor's story

Sander had, of course, acquired great skill on the violin with the help of my colleagues at the Academy by the time we started working together. The problem was that he was unable to apply this skill properly. You could compare it to a gymnast trying to perform a floor exercise on ice. Every detail was laboured, with the result that the flow of movement was interrupted.

You could compare it to a gymnast trying to perform a floor exercise on ice.

Morten Carlsen on Sander's playing prior to the change

We needed to find firm ground to stand on and then piece his violin playing back together again, first in terms of basics such as balance and breathing and then regaining the fluency of arm movement.

Unlearning and relearning

I have helped several students go through such an unlearning and relearning process, and I know it is challenging for those involved. Suddenly Sander suffered a relapse, almost taking him back to where he had started. Paganini was replaced by basic movement, breathing and coordination exercises.

Crucial to a process like this is that it must be built on co-operation between student and teacher. Sander describes how he had to muster up the motivation to succeed. I am also impressed by how he adopted the principles of the methodology and continued to refine them. He posed constructive questions and made reflections that helped me develop new exercises and ways of addressing his violin technique. In other words, by putting me on the spot, he helped me teach him better.

By putting me on the spot he helped me teach him better.

Morten Carlsen about Sander

Raw power

The more confident Sander became about his basic technique, the more he was able to apply his virtuosic skills without falling back into his old habits. However, we still had to be on the alert when five months later we started working on Brahms’ violin concerto, which was Sander’s big ambition. Even with his reflective approach to playing, a certain amount of raw power could easily create obstacles when facing the huge musical and technical challenges that this work poses.

The fact that he now feels comfortable studying one of the greatest works in the violin repertoire tells me that he has succeeded in this challenging process. I should like to congratulate both him and myself!

What Sander worked on

  • Balance. “When your co-ordination is not optimal the signals from the brain to the muscles become muddled.”
  • Impulses. “At the moment before the bow hits the string, I had a tendency to tense my muscles and control the stroke instead of giving an impulse at the outset and letting the bow strike the string as part of an overall movement.”
  • Listening. “I think if you try too hard to create the expression you are looking for, you can easily fall into the trap of listening more to how you want it to sound rather than how it actually sounds.”
  • Expression. “I had to learn that creating an expressive sound does not depend on tensing a whole load of muscles.”
  • Musical performance. “Having a clear idea about how the music should sound means I automatically perform in a way that allows me to produce this sound. However, I need to allow these automated processes to happen.”
  • Control. “We worked on completely removing my focus, and exercises such as counting backwards in a language I don’t know – whilst playing – had an astonishing effect.”