Kato Havas and the New Approach to string playing

How to eliminate
tendonitis and stage fright, improve your tone and play with more ease

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Kato Havas is a violin and viola teacher who developed a way to teach and play to prevent and eliminate physical injuries (tendonitis, tenosynovitis, bursitis etc.) and nerves, stage fright, related to string playing.

This was first illustrated in the book "A New Approach to violin playing", published in 1961. Despite the title, the New Approach applies to all string playing and many of its concepts can be applied also to all other instruments.

Following the success of the first book, she also wrote "The twelve lesson course" (1964) and "Stage fright - Its causes and cures" (1973) and in 1991 she published a teaching video - DVD which is great because you can actually see what's written in the books and understand it better. This DVD was very difficult to find, now it's here). Her books were praised by Yehudi Menuhin.


"Miss Havas is original in her approach to the violin [& viola] playing because she insists that technique must be reducible to basic motions involving more than the fingertips"

Sir Yehudi Menuhin
Preface to "A New Approach to violin playing"

Dear Kató Havas, I would like… to congratulate you on your book Stage Fright... It is the most realistic and practical approach imaginable… it should be worth its weight in gold to every student and many a performer.

Sir Yehudi Menuhin
Preface to "Stage fright"


 Back then, those books were ahead of their time, nobody spoke about physical injuries caused by playing an instrument. Nowadays everybody is well aware of this issue, there are even clinics for musicians' injuries.



Buy New Approach books       Buy the teaching video - DVD


Kato Havas: short biography

Kato Havas was born in Hungary and was a child prodigy on the violin. She received the virtuoso training at the Budapest Academy of Music, gave concerts since the age of seven and at 17 made her debut at the Carnegie Hall. Soon later she got married and started a family, retiring from the concert world. During this time she was able to think about playing and its problems, remembering the Hungarian gypsy players she had met as a kid.

Kato Havas, having been a child prodigy on the violin, professional player, successful soloist, knows all the aspects of  performing, she herself suffered from stage fright. Being Hungarian, she had seen and heard Hungarian gypsy violin players, with their ease of playing, so she developed this New Approach to playing that eliminates physical tension. By teaching it, she realised that it also eliminates stage fright.

In the following two videos, shot at an ESTA Italy (European String Teachers' Association) in Cremona, presided by the great viola player Bruno Giuranna, you can see Kato Havas talking about her experience as a child prodigy in Hungary and with gypsy violin players, how she learned to play. In these videos Kato Havas speaks in English and I translate into Italian.

In the first video she tells of when she started as a little girl having fun; her training at the Budapest academy at the time when Bartok, Kodaly, Donhany, Hubay were there; her career, her debut in Carnegie Hall, her problems, how she remembered the gypsies she had met, the influence they had on her.

If you have any problems watching these videos check this YouTube page



This second video is about the time Kato Havas stopped playing and how she developed the New Approach, movement by movement, by remembering the gypsies, their left hand, their love of playing and giving the music, that they had no fear. What's the secret of music making.

The cause of bad sound and a lot of other problems too

The horrible sound, or rather noise, that "everybody knows" beginners have to suffer, is caused by tensions in the body, by the right hand gripping the bow and pressing on the strings, by the left hand clamping the instrument between shoulder and head for fear of dropping it and pressing the fingers down on the fingerboard.

All this not only causes physical tension that produces horrible noises (and not only at the beginning), bad intonation, inability to play fast and to play double stops and chords, it also causes more or less pain in the back, neck, arms, thumbs and causes nerves, stage fright, the fear of playing in front of an audience. Pain is nothing else than a message your body is sending you, it's telling you that you are doing something wrong, you are mistreating it.

In more serious cases it causes physical injuries (tendonitis) following which some players have to completely give up playing, after maybe undergoing surgical operations.

It is possible to have a beautiful tone from the beginning

And advanced players can also have a better quality tone. A beautiful tone is a rich and warm tone, not squeaky, and this depends both on intonation and the way the tone is produced by the bow friction (not pressure) on the strings and by the softness of your left hand, that remains supple and able to play fast, play chords, so that the player can focus on expressing himself or herself rather than on the technical problems.

What is really important to improve one's playing and achieve results quickly is the ability to control every single movement of our body and to do this it's necessary to focus our mind on one thing at a time, one movement at a time and then, once we can control individual movements, put them together.

So, what is the New Approach?

As Kato Havas explains,

"...when I began to teach, I realized that a whole new approach was necessary -  an approach which eliminates physical disturbances and makes it possible for the mind to have full reign over the music. ... This  approach is based on the idea of balance, not of strength."

See "A New Approach to violin playing, pag.2.

It is about using the natural balances that are found in the body's movements.

The New Approach developed by Kato Havas is all about playing with ease, without worries, so that we are free to give the music to our listeners, communicating music instead of trying to prove how good we are (or being worried thinking we are not good enough), playing doing the spontaneous, natural movements, of the body.

This starts with eliminating all physical tensions we have when playing, which cause pain, physical injuries, harsh sound and insecurity and nerves, a serious problem for most players. It's not enough to say "practice more", "play more in public" (but how, if you cannot do it?), etc. A lot of teachers are good at teaching the "interpretation" of a piece, what about the emotional side of playing? In our drug-oriented society there is the tendency to solve every problem with a specific drug, and this more and more often applies to musicians and their stage fright.

In her three books on the New Approach, Kato Havas explains it very well. In Stage fright you can read that we need to address the physical, mental and social aspects (causes) of stage fright, in that order. However, after you've already studied for many many years, it doesn't happen in a week, but it's worth spending some time on it.

Here is a summary of it:

  1. physical tension (gripping the bow, pressing the chin on the chin rest, the bow on the strings, the fingers on the fingerboard) makes all technical aspects (double stops, fast passages, high positions) very difficult, often almost impossible to play, causes pain and even serious physical injuries
  2. this generates insecurity as to one's ability to overcome those passages, mental tension (fear of not making it)
  3. to complete the picture, what we think the society (family, teachers, schoolmates, etc.) expects of us (being good, perfect, no mistakes..,) makes us forget about the meaning, the purpose of making music and we only worry, fear and we get stage fright.

Why New Approach?

Because it is about playing from the the point of view of using coordinated balances, from inside outwards, from the whole of your body instead of using pressure, instead of playing with the fingers.

With regard to playing, there are a lot of optical illusions that mislead us. We learn to play from the fingers and with the bow, because we see the left fingers and right hand moving so we tend to focus on them, but they are only the effect, not the real cause of their movement. 

The New Approach is about TOTAL COORDINATION and CONTROL of what we do.

The basics concepts of the New Approach are

  • Rhythmic pulse to acquire an elastic stance and body and the flow of music, clapping and singing, to play from inside-outwards
  • Horizontal movements and images to prevent vertical pressure
  • Imagination, use of the inner ear to imagine, anticipate the music. With your inner ear you imagine the note and sing it before you play, you also imagine the sound quality.

The following are the main physical aspects of the New Approach, to prevent and eliminate physical tension:

  • the "giving hand", with the left wrist gently, naturally bent toward you;
  • the left thumb mobile, forward
  • the left finger movement from the base joints
  • the right arm movement from the shoulder and elbow joints

Videos with Kato Havas on the basics of the New Approach

On this subject, the New Approach, to prevent tension and physical injuries and stage fright, both for beginners and for advanced players, I recommend you to watch the following videos where Kato Havas explains the basics of playing. The concepts exposed here are fundamentals, which means they are the foundation for any player, not for beginners. So if you've already played for many years but have pain here and there, get nervous when you have to play for any sort of audience or find many things very difficult, the advice in these videos may apply to you too.

So, no matter what you are, a beginner, an advanced student or a professional or a teacher, if you want to save time (I mean, even years) and save yourself a lot of frustrations and wish to learn to play violin or viola, or improve your playing or teaching, in a way that leads you to your target in an easier and more effective way, start right from the beginning, watch these videos and read  Kato Havas books on the New Approach.

Each video deals with a specific aspect of playing. I recommend you to watch them in sequence and then focus on specific ones you are more interested in. All of them will last just over an hour, but you don't have to watch them all at the same time. They are for practical use, don't just sit there and watch them, see yourself at the workshop, grab your violin, viola or other instrument and do the exercises, following one video at a time, one exercise at a time so that you feel physically comfortable.

A New Approach workshop with Kato Havas

Now I hope you don't think I'm a fanatic! I'm writing this page because I myself have experienced the success of the New Approach, I got to a point where I was really terribly nervous playing solo for an audience, not happy at all. Then I studied with Kato Havas and I completely got rid of all those fears, playing "difficult" things is much easier and I really enjoy playing for an audience (and, incidentally, my listeners say they like my playing).

I really could see that being able to really think only about playing to entertain your listeners through music (instead of thinking "what will they think of me?") at the end makes you play better.

I've studied with Kato Havas for some years, translated her three books and I've seen a complete difference between the way I used to play and what I've learned from her. Therefore, I was happy to take part in these videos to help Kato to explain some aspects of her New Approach teaching.

You'll see that Kato Havas' teaching is quite different from what most people know about how to play violin or viola, that's why she's special. I'm not a "believer", I've verified that it works. I myself have learned that when somebody has a really serious physical or emotional problem related to playing, with her they find the solution.


How to activate the Subtitles

The audio is a bit low (put the volume at the maximum), so make sure the subtitles are on. Here is how to do:

  • start the video,
  • move your mouse over the CC on red background, in the bottom right corner, (if the background is grey, the subtitles aren't activated, click on CC to activate them: the background will become red)
  • move your mouse a bit further to the left, over the little black  triangle
  • you'll see the  picture below
  • select the subtitles you prefer. Click on English (or other).

Subtitles can also be translated in many languages by clicking on Translate...  (other translations are not mine, I don't guarantee the results).

The image you'll see might be slightly different (they keep changing), like the one below, in English or in Italian, but the procedure to follow is the same.


Titles of the videos, choose the one you want to watch first:

1. The rhythmic pulse

2. Suspended arms

3. The right arm movement, 1: the lower half

4. The right arm movement, 2: the upper half

5. The left hand action

6. The bridal, a folk tune

7. The trembling bow

8. The thumbs - Telemann

9. Sing the note names

10. "What I learned from the Hungarian gypsies"


1. The rhythmic pulse

How to prevent and eliminate physical problems and stage fright, the importance of the rhythmic pulse in any music, the importance of imagination, how to learn to play from the very core of your being, not from the fingers. The first, simple exercise to achieve this.



2. Suspended arms

The importance of having light arms, suspended arms, with horizontal movement, how to achieve it. With exercises: the winging, flip flop, the "no violin-hold".



3. The right arm movement, 1: the lower half

The right arm movement, in the lower half of the bow, Allegro quavers. Where the arm movement originates, the two "hinges" in the right arm, the "no bow-hold". The connection between the touch, the eyes and the voice. What stiff wrists cause, how to prevent this.



4. The right arm movement, 2: the upper half

The right arm movement, in the upper half of the bow, Andante quavers. Where the arm movement originates, the two "hinges" in the right arm. Teach your body what to do, focus. What is the cause of problems with the elbow, the connection between wrist and elbow.



5. The left hand action

The simplicity of the New approach, the left hand movement, the interval shapes, there are only three intervals in your hand. The importance of a soft hand, you play with the whole hand, not with the fingers.



6. The bridal, a folk tune

A lovely English jig: sing and clap, to get the feeling, then play. This applies to all playing, at any level. Here is a violin player who eliminated stage fright with the New Approach and now enjoys playing for an audience.



7. The trembling bow

The reason for the trembling bow, a very common and feared problem, how to prevent it, eliminate it; the importance of the thumbs, what stiff thumbs cause.



8. The thumbs - Telemann

The importance of the thumbs in string playing, what stiff thumbs cause. Use imagination to create. A real example applied to Telemann's viola concerto.



9. Sing the note names 

The importance of singing the note names, the left hand power, the drama of the intervals. A real example applied to Telemann's viola concerto.

This aspect of the New Approach often tends to go a bit undervalued, people tend to feel "silly" about singing, think is not related to playing, Yet, as I myself could experience, this is THE MOST IMPORTANT aspect, because through singing, before and while playing, we coordinate all separate parts (left hand and right arm movement, rhythmic pulse, melody) in a whole, so the mind is totally focused on one thing: music. It's impossible to think two things at the same time and, while you sing, your mind is totally busy with something and cannot possibly think any scary thoughts, it cannot worry about being good or not and what they will think of you. Your mind is full of music which comes out from the whole of you through singing.



10. "What I learned from the Hungarian gypsies"

Here is what Kato Havas says she learned from the Hungarian gypsies about music and violin playing. I think this final video is very appropriate as a conclusion, it really explains the purpose of music and playing, the New Approach is not just about doing the right movements and playing all the right notes. I wish you to enjoy your playing much more and that also your listeners enjoy your music much more.



Buy Kato Havas teaching DVD (not the above videos) on the prevention and cure of tendonitis and other physical injuries caused by violin and viola playing.

For lessons, contact me, I'm based in Oxford (UK). Also online viola and violin lessons are available.

Come to the workshops on the New Approach by Kato Havas. Where? When?

Description of the books: A New Approach - The twelve lesson courseStage fright - Causes and cures
Buy the teaching video on DVD
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Havas New Approach

What's Your greatest New Approach success? Share your story!

Did you eliminate pain or tendonitis that prevented you from playing? Did you overcome stage fright? Do you find playing easier, more enjoyable? If you are a teacher, what's the best improvement you had with your students who learn to play with the new approach? I'd like to hear it, tell everybody!

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