Joy Lee remembers the violin pedagogue and examines the principles and methodology behind her famed teaching

Alice Waten cr Dan White

Alice Waten © Dan White

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Alice Waten studied violin with Valery Klimov at the Moscow Conservatoire of Music between 1966 and 1970, graduating with a Masters of orchestral instruments. She also participated in masterclasses with such luminaries as David Oistrakh and Leonid Kogan, and as an enthusiastic quartet player with members of the Borodin Quartet. Prior to this, she had studied violin with Eberhard Feltz at the Hochschule für Musik Hanns Eisler, Berlin. 

After leaving Moscow, Waten was appointed head of strings at Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester. In 1972 she returned to Australia, where she subsequently held leading positions at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, the Australian Institute of Music and the Australian National Academy of Music. As Waten explained, ‘I was trained in the modern Russian School, yet I have undergone many different influences since then.’ She went on to develop her own methodology using thorough analysis and new organisation of violin technique. This was aided not only by her wonderful intellect but also her infallible intuition. 

Waten shared Leopold Auer’s belief, in his Violin Playing As I Teach It, that ‘monotony is the death of music’. Thus, she stimulated the musical individuality in each of her students. She worked methodically to achieve this though setting appropriate concert repertoire and studies to suit the technical and musical level of each young violinist, carefully monitoring changes and adjusting her advice. Her musical approach was open and continually developing, for she kept abreast of ever-changing fashions, and researched trends across the globe. In this she kept Australia closer to the rest of the violin world. 

In Waten’s view, technique should always be at the service of music, with the violin emulating the singing voice. Crucially she advocated that violinists play with flexibility and agility. For this, freedom and economy of movement were fundamental in gaining a secure and reliable technique. She firmly believed that a secure violin hold should be attainable while keeping the body in a natural position. In this, the setup was dependent on the physique of each student. The placement of the violin was determined by assuring the student could reach the point of the bow on the G string without strain. Physical changes were treated with great care and consideration, the approach to adjustments being determined by, among other factors, students’ temperaments and expectations. 

Waten promoted complete independence of the left and right arms, which allowed for different actions to take place simultaneously. She worked with each student to eliminate excess movement in the hands, wrists and arms in order to minimise physical and intonation problems. Her approach to left-hand technique emphasised that hand placement was determined by the individual’s hand shape. Fingers rounded and pads on the strings, the hand stretched back from the little finger and the thumb to maintain a soft position. Any evidence of shape in the wrist or the fingers pressing together was to be avoided. Freedom of movement in the left arm ensured that the finger angle placement on each string stayed the same, thus promoting a more consistent sound and pure intonation throughout string crossings and between position changes. Lightness and agility in the fingers and thumb were encouraged in order to facilitate ease of vibrato and shifting, and while fingerings were adjusted to suit each hand shape. 

One of Waten’s most strongly held tenets was cantilena sound. Its production depended on flexibility of all joints of the left arm, from the fingers to the shoulder. At the end of the day, her principal aim was to instil in each of her students the concept of beautiful violin sound. Her intellectual curiosity ensured the widest musical vision, which incorporated many influences and the latest performance practices. This too was something she wished to share with her students. 

At the time of her death, Waten was working on a project with her colleague Dr Marina Robinson to publish a series of articles entitled Cornerstones of Violin Playing. Here she intended to lay out her views on the freedom of movement and the development of the musical persona, or the ‘inner ear’. These articles, drawing on Waten’s more than 50 years of teaching experience, would have been an invaluable resource for violinists and pedagogues. Sadly, this series was not to be. Instead, her influence and pedagogical inspiration continues through the generations of students she mentored.

Alice Waten talks of her views in a recorded interview with Dr Marina Robinson 


In my approach to the bowing arm, I encourage freedom of movement in the arm and flexibility in the bow-hold, which should use the fingers curved in a natural way, promoting a flexibility that allows all the natural springs in the fingers and the hand to function easily and well. I look for the best position for every size of hand and body, rather than demand a standard ‘one size fits all’. I emphasise the difference in hand positions at the tip of the bow, particularly for those with smaller hands and arms. This may entail the player not keeping all fingers on the bow and make it necessary to pronate more markedly. Altogether, it is important to sort out the movements of the right arm, the vertical and horizontal movements, and the various combinations of these. When the arm is free in action, there is usually one active movement, and numerous other smaller passive or reactive movements. 

In my experience, the most frequently encountered problem is lack of freedom in the forearm. There can be different causes: the first simply being the use of the whole arm instead of the more agile forearm and hand. In younger students this is usually solved easily by using exercises relating to movements common in life, such as shaking hands, brushing your hair, ironing and stirring. I ask students to show me how they cut with a knife, how they use chopsticks, how they put on their glasses, etc. 

On the other hand, if the elbow joint is very stiff from years of playing without flexibility, then there are many etudes at every level that can reinforce the new movement, from Mazas to Kreutzer, Rode and Dont. 

Most teachers are familiar with the concept of detaché being a flowing movement, but there is often confusion among students about its articulation, as the English word implies detached, as in separate. Many older editions have dots over every note. I believe it is best to establish the strokes smoothly without extra articulation, as this allows the teacher to check that the forearm movement is free and that the fingers are not gripping the bow, allowing it to move easily, parallel to the bridge. Initially it is best to find the spot in the bow that suits the student’s arm, where the forearm movement can be equidistant, both out and in. Traditionally, Kreutzer Etude no.2 has been used for strokes of all sorts. There is nothing wrong with this, but more variety can be found by using Kayser, Mazas and then Rode, in order of difficulty. 

Many pedagogues describe the bow as an extension of the arm, but first the student must learn to feel exactly what happens. Many problems are created by gripping the bow too hard; the fingers and wrists become inflexible and may even influence the right shoulder. I demonstrate the difference in feeling between gripping the bow and gripping the string by demonstration on the student’s hand. Everyone can feel the ‘baby grip’. (There is a wonderful demonstration of the bow hold by Julian Rachlin on YouTube.) 

Universally, there are more differences in bow hold than in the left hand, but without making too many hard-and-fast rules, there are certain concepts which apply to everyone. Firstly, the hand needs to be flexible and balanced. The thumb takes a very active role and needs to be movable in each joint, so it must not be pulled out of its relaxed position.

This is why the Russian School and Galamian advocate the ring position between the second finger and the thumb. Galamian emphasised that the correct bow grip must be a comfortable one. Thus, all fingers are curved in a natural, relaxed way, and no single joint should be stiffened. The result will be a correct flexibility which allows all the natural springs in the fingers and the hand to function easily and well. There exist slight differences of opinion about the exact placement of the thumb on the stick – touching the frog or not. However, the angle of the thumb remains the same, using its natural curve for greatest flexibility. 

If the middle finger (second) acts as the fulcrum for the balance of the hand, it requires the least effort to allow the finger to rest on the stick at the curve of the first joint. The third finger is also important, but it should not be pulled back over the stick to the same level as the second. This allows for increased sensitivity in feeling the tip of the bow. 

Much is made of the role of the little finger to balance the bow at the nut, to feel the direction of the movement and to help bow changes. Finally, the first finger needs to be able to move a bit on the stick and to feel the change of the balance between the nut of the point. The first finger should never hold the bow with the tip.

Some of the most common faults seen in a student’s right hand and arm are:

  • · Stretching the fingers towards the frog of the bow or placing the little finger on the screw.
  • · Trying to cover the mother-of-pearl eye with a third finger. The eye is purely ornamental, and players have different lengths of fingers. Both habits cause stiffness in the fingers and thumb, affecting both sound quality and dexterity.
  • · Trying to keep all fingers on the bow at all times. Players with shorter arms or fingers are very disadvantaged playing at the point of the bow if they cannot release the little finger and sometimes even the third finger. Holding all fingers on the bow causes the wrist to go down, instigating extreme strain and turning the slant of the hair towards them.
  • · Fingers pressing or even touching each other in the bow hold causes inflexibility, as in the left hand.
  • · Gripping the stick of the bow with the first finger can render all the other fingers useless and cause great roughness. 


This overview article is the first in a series documenting one of Australia’s most important string pedagogues Alice Waten. Here she shares just the beginning of the exciting journey of transforming a tertiary violinist/violist. Waten planned to lead the reader through the concepts of freedom of movement, developing the musical person (inner ear) with appropriate repertoire progression. 

Alice 1

Alice Waten with student Richard Tognetti (Australian Chamber Orchestra- Artistic Director and Lead Violinist)

Below is a list of her students in leading positions at the time of her death in July 2022. 

Australian Chamber Orchestra: Artistic Director & Lead Violinist, Principal Viola

Adelaide Symphony Orchestra: Associate Concertmaster, Principal 2ndviolin

Australian National Academy of Music: Head of Chamber Music

Canberra Symphony Orchestra: Concertmaster

City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong: Concertmaster

Goldner String Quartet: Violinist

Melbourne Chamber Orchestra: Artistic Director

Opera Australia Orchestra Acting: Associate Concertmaster

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House: Sub Principal 2nd violin

Philharmonia Orchestra: Associate Leader

Royal Academy of Music: Violin Professor

Sydney Symphony Orchestra: Associate Concertmaster, Principal 2nd violins

West Australian Symphony Orchestra: Associate Principal 2nd violin

Yehudi Menuhin School: Violin Professor 

‘Chutney’ Klezmer Punk: Violin

‘The Crooked Fiddle’: Violin

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