How to use the magic power of repetition to acquire ability

Ability, especially if it is exceptional, has this wonderful and mysterious quality of fluency and grace. You can see and hear it every day in the most ordinary places and situations: a skateboarder gliding past on the street, a barista producing another cup of perfect aromatic coffee, the clear voice of a child speaking, the sure motions of a chef creating a culinary masterpiece.

skateboarder

Photo by Hans Eiskonen

What ability looks like

  • Fluency and ease of movement.
  • The skill looks and sounds natural and seems effortless. Observers are often unaware of the level of difficulty – until they try to do it themselves.
  • The skill is integrated into the whole. Physical actions seem to involve the whole body rather than just one part, such as an arm or leg.
  • It works spontaneously and can easily adapt to different situations or contexts.
  • The performer’s self awareness is minimised, and absorption in the activity is near total.

Musicians and other performing artists who have achieved high levels of ability are able to focus on expression, communication and subtle details while performing the most complex passages. I once watched Vadim Repin rehearsing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with orchestra, chatting away with the conductor as he played. (In the video below he is playing the Tchaik in 1989 – when he was a teenager.)

Many of the everyday abilities and skills we possess were acquired by repeated actions in a mostly unconscious process. Paradoxically, most people see learning by consciously doing something over and over as difficult and laborious.

Take the young student who said to me in frustration one day, “I’m no good at learning.”

I reminded her of the abilities she had already learned and gave her some humorous little examples. First I asked her to walk over to the far corner of the studio and back.

Oh,” I commented, joking, “You walk very well, and I notice you didn’t fall over. Do you walk often? How did you learn to do that? And I hear you are speaking excellent English. It’s such a difficult language to learn. How did you manage to do it?” She laughed and looked at me as if I was a bit thick and being silly. (Both partly true.)

She couldn’t remember, of course, how she learned to walk and talk, and the exercise gave me the opportunity I needed to explain how learning worked – and that she was just as good at it as anyone else.

Despite acquiring many wonderful everyday abilities, we are led to think people are just born smart or dumb, good at stuff or hopeless. It’s a limiting, mistaken belief with important consequences for a person’s life.

Looking closely at learning by repetition as it flowers into ability reveals the deeper principles at work.

How to use the magic power of repetition to acquire ability

  1. Make correct and perfect repetitions. It goes without saying that if you repeat a mistake or an imperfect skill, this too will become fluent and corrections will need to be made down the track. It is vital to get the guidance of a good teacher. If possible, get them to model the motion, such as guiding the arm for particular bow strokes or getting the feel of vibrato.Suzuki-Teaching-3
  2. Break up the skill into small learnable segments. This enables you to focus with clarity on one thing at a time with shorter repetitions.Gavotte-by-Rameau-segment
  3. Do a sufficient numbers of repeats. Practise being completely relentless and patient in your pursuit of ability. counting
  4. Remember to put the skill segment back into context. When mastered, it needs to be fitted into place within the whole to become part of you.
  5. Always seek objective guidance – from your teacher and expert sources outside yourself. They see instantly what is needed.
  6. Make sure the skill will serve your long term goals. Avoid watered-down hobby-type skills and learn the real thing.
the-railroad-goes-into-the-distance

Photo by Larisa Koshkina

Well, that’s it for now. Thanks for visiting Teach Suzuki Violin. Happy repetitions!

Cheers,

John

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The Advanced Player’s Bowhold

It’s natural in the early stages of violin studies to focus on left hand skills. After all, there’s little worse than playing out of tune! Then as string students give more attention to mastery of the right arm – the creator and controller of sound – things really start to improve. The reason, of course, is that so much of tone quality, note duration, note speed, articulation, shape and colour comes from the violin’s magic wand – the bow.

Sarah Perricone

Sarah Perricone

Since I posted Making a great bowhold for beginners, several visitors to Teach Suzuki Violin asked how Suzuki taught the advanced player’s bowhold.

Suzuki was very particular about where each finger is placed on the bow, and trained us to use flexible finger motion actively in our bow strokes. As a prerequisite to flexibility, the fingers need to be shaped and positioned correctly, as in Sarah Perricone’s perfect bowhold above. (You can watch Gwyn Cole’s delightful cameo of Sarah on Vimeo at the end of this post.)

Let’s review the basics.

Finger Shape and Place

  1. Position the thumb between the two middle fingers, taking hold of the stick just in front of the frog at the leather binding. The right edge of the thumbnail touches the stick and the fingers wrap over – no further than the pads. The back of the hand is relatively flat.
  2. The index finger rests on the stick at the first joint. Suzuki emphasized stable arm weight rather than muscle pressure for producing powerful tone.
  3. The second finger, slightly ahead of the thumb, forms the upper part of the fulcrum.
  4. Third (ring) finger curves around the stick.
  5. The little finger curves and sits on the stick, not too far from the ring finger.
  6. Hold in position with everything soft and relaxed, and a little space between fingers.

Balance

At this stage, fingers should rest with equal weight on the bow and you should be able to easily lift off each one independently. This avoids the index finger dominating too much and allows for a more balanced flexibility.

Suzuki’s Famous Finger Flexibility Exercise

Suzuki taught us a finger movement exercise holding a pencil. It requires constant practice over a few months to feel natural, and I remember the weeks and months following this class, seeing everyone practise the exercise as they watched other students’ classes and even during activities such as eating lunch or reading a book!

Relax‘ is an inadequate word for reducing tension. Overly relaxed fingers lessens bow control as much as gripping it too strongly. A better idea is to teach students to imagine the pads of their fingers are glued to the stick, actively flexible and strong. As shown in the photos below, start with just the thumb and index finger, before adding the other fingers.

finger-flex-1

finger-flex-2

finger-flex-3

finger-flex-4

finger-flex-5

Why we use finger movement

  • For seamless changes of direction between strokes;
  • To add bow speed, while lifting an upbow off the string;
  • To make quick and smooth string crossings;
  • For small and rapid strokes, such as sautillé and doubles, and especially near the frog.

Rotation on the thumb

When fingers are flexible, the bow is able to rotate on the thumb, allowing quick string crossings without excessive arm movement (flapping), and keeping the back of the hand stable.

The Little Finger

The shape of the little finger is curved and flexible to carry some of the bow’s weight when playing in the lower half. Make sure it’s not straight, stiff or locked in position.

Index (first) finger

Suzuki was particularly careful to avoid forced tone from excessive first finger pressure. Part of the index finger’s role is to keep the bow at the sound points on the string, making sure it doesn’t drift away from the bridge, and to move it to the best position for particular notes or passages.

Thanks for visiting Teach Suzuki Violin and for your interesting emails this week. A big welcome to new members. I hope you find something useful.

Cheers,

John

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Corelli’s Courante

Arcangelo Corelli’s Courante in Suzuki Volume 7 comes from his Concerto Grosso No. 6. Today a concerto is known as a piece of music in three movements, usually played by one solo instrument and orchestra, but why grosso?

Photo by Larisa Birta

Photo by Larisa Birta

Grosso means big in Italian, and concerto grosso refers to a concerto with a group of soloists plus orchestra – a kind of big concerto. Corelli was the first major composer to use the term and other composers, such as Geminiani, Locatelli, Torelli, Bach and especially Handel, subsequently took up the form. Finally it was superseded by the solo concerto and sinfonia concertante.

Concerti grossi (plural) from the Baroque era (approx. 1600  to 1750) are generally pleasant harmonious pieces, often without prominent solo lines, a reason perhaps why they were overtaken by the solo concerto.

Corelli’s Op. 6, for two violins and cello, with stronger melodies and themes, has the balance about right, and it remains a popular concert piece.

Trills

When violin students first encounter trills in Volume 2, the big issue is finger speed. In the effort go faster, however, the upper trilling finger may hammer down too strongly and the lower finger may press down on the fingerboard with too much force. Paradoxically, it has the effect of restricting speed. It’s better to relax the left hand, focus on clarity and listen for accurate pitch in the upper note.

What is the musical purpose of trills? Are they simply ornamental? One way to find out is to play the piece omitting the trills. If you know the piece well enough, it sounds like part of the melody is missing, though not as much as when you leave out a note or two.

Trills in Baroque music are usually added to produce harmonic suspensions, preparing for and leading into cadences. They may begin on or above the principal note and unless there are specific signs in the score, can be played at the performer’s discretion.

There’s some trill exercises on previous posts here at Teach Suzuki Violin. Here’s the links:

Gavotte by Lully

Veracini Sonata in E Minor II

Courelli’s Courante has just five trills marked in the score, so omitting them has a smaller effect than say, Tartini’s famous Devil’s Trill Sonata, which is based on trills.

If you’d like to hear some of these fabulous trills, watch Itzhak Perlman play the last part below.

Video Recordings of Corelli’s Courante

Here is The King’s Consort conducted by Robert King. The Courante starts at 3.27.

Below is the self-conducted orchestra A Far Cry. The Courante starts at 3.58.


Thanks for visiting Teach Suzuki Violin. The score for Corelli’s Courante is now available in Resources.

Cheers for now,

John


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How to Teach Musical Phrasing

What is musical phrasing? It is a mysterious and elusive concept even for experienced musicians to explain.

Musical phrasing is essentially about grouping notes in performance to make the music more meaningful and enjoyable for the audience. Notes within phrases can grouped and interpreted in a myriad ways, with different kinds of connections and articulations, dynamics, weights, colours, styles, variations in speed and phrase rhythm – all to give listeners a clearer musical experience.

Stephanie Novacek

Stephanie Novacek, mezzo-soprano

Violinists (and other instrumentalists) commonly draw on analogies and similarities with language, such as sentences, lyrics, poetry and punctuation; or with visual terms like expressive shaping.

These allusions are very useful for understanding phrasing, especially when combined with listening to the music and above all, playing it for yourself.

Even very young students understand and appreciate phrases quite well and benefit musically from studying how to play them.

How to Teach Musical Phrasing

Breathing Life into the Music

One of the best ways to teach the basics of phrasing is simply through singing. Beginnings and endings of phrases, for example, can be indicated by identifying where to breathe.

boy singing

Photo by Jason Rosewell

I describe this method in an earlier post, using the first phrase of the Suzuki Volume One song, Go Tell Aunt Rhody.

Interestingly, if you play the first phrase of this piece on the violin, and ask new students (or parents) to find the breath point, they are often unsure. Should it be at the end of the second bar? By contrast when you sing the piece, they are much more certain about taking a breath at the end of the fourth bar.

Go Tell Aunt Rhody

This exercise illustrates why the vocal perspective – singing – is so valuable for teaching and learning about phrases. Singers must clearly understand phrasing for breath control.

Instrumentalists benefit from applying the same principles, taking imaginary breaths and using the voice as the starting point for phrasing and musical expression.

High notes within phrases are naturally louder because singers need to use more energy to reach them. In fact, it is very difficult for singers to sing high notes softly or low notes loudly with the right tone quality and only skilled vocalists are able to do it successfully. String players have an opposite problem: the highest notes are harder to play very loudly with good tone.

Long Long Ago. Don’t be tempted to take a breath too soon.

Long-Ago-phrases

Gavotte by Gossec. Where should you breathe?

Gossec-Gavotte-phrases

The Shape of Music

The shape of the melody on the page also provides clues about phrasing. In some instances a quick glance at the curving line of notes will give you a fair idea of phrase shapes. A good example is J.S. Bach’s autograph of the first Solo Violin Partita.

J.S. Bach autograph

Beyond all of the analogies and theories about phrasing, ultimately it is the performer’s role to bring together all of the interpretive elements to create musically expressive phrases. Experienced musicians develop an intuitive approach that supersedes theoretical analysis.

To Summarise:

  • Start by identifying the breath points;
  • Determine how the notes are joined within the phrase. Are they smoothly articulated or separated? If separated, how?
  • Work out the dynamic shapes, pinnacles and valleys within the phrase;
  • Sing out loud (or at least internally) to test your ideas;
  • Listen and learn from the great players and singers.

Joan Sutherland sings Casta diva, from Norma by Bellini. Watch how beautifully she breathes to sing the phrases.


Thanks for visiting Teach Suzuki Violin.

Cheers,

John

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Courante from Cello Suite No.1 in G Major by J.S. Bach

Cellists will instantly recognise this famous Courante from Cello Suite No.1 in G Major by J.S. Bach, BWV 1007, a natural inclusion by Suzuki in Volume 7 to follow the Gigue from the same cello suite. A delightfully quick dance, it has a memorable melody of attractive leaps and runs set against the deep resonances of bass notes, many of them on lower open strings.

Mischa Maisky

Mischa Maisky

As you’ll see below in the YouTube performances, this attractive piece has been arranged for several other instruments. Because it sounds so good and right on the cello, and despite what it teaches us musically, I can’t help feeling it almost seems a folly to play the Courante transposed for the violin. It makes us want to learn the cello!

Study Points

The falling staccato notes require cello-like resonance, which involves taking care with both the attack and the end of each bow stroke. Aim for a clean attack without extraneous string noise and  areverberant ending. Practise the finish of the stroke by lifting the bow off the string to listen to the ringing sound. Now try to achieve equal resonance gently leaving the bow on the string.

Even beats, even notes

Due to the surging melodic structure of the Courante, some students tend to rush the semiquavers (sixteenth notes) in relation to the quavers (eighth notes). Practise with a metronome to even out the beat before letting go of the reins for the right balance of time flexibility.

Tempo

When you listen to Maisky, Rostropovich, Casals and Carr play the Courante, you’ll soon realise that playing at the correct tempo is a vital part of the musical expression. Often it is played too slowly on the violin, and with excessively long bows for the staccato notes.

Quick Tech Tips

  • Begin in the upper half of the bow.
  • Take advantage of the open string notes to shift early into 3rd position in measure 2.

Courante-by-Bach-Ex-A

  • Leave 1st finger down in measures 11-12.

Courante-by-Bach-Ex-B

  • Watch out for the C# in measure 28.

Courante-by-Bach-Ex-C

  • Leave fingers down in measures 31 and 32.

Courante-by-Bach-Ex-D

Performances

Colin Carr, British Cellist

Mischa Maisky

Mstislav Rostropovich

The incomparable Pablo Casals. The Courante begins at 5:32.

Denise Djokic

Jeff Bradetich, double bass

Tariq Harb, guitar

Being a rather easy piece for Volume 7 players, it is tempting to move on quickly after learning to play the Courante. To receive real musical value, however, spend some time listening to some of the great cello recordings.

The score is now available for download in Resources.

Cheers and thanks for the emails. I love hearing your stories.

John

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Adagio from Sonata No 3 in F Major

Sonata No 3 in F Major, appearing in Suzuki Violin Volume 6, has long been attributed to G.F. Handel, yet understandably, music scholars have expressed doubts about its origins.

The Child Handel

Reading the story of its history solved a quandary of mine, as the Adagio in particular just seems to lack the Handel flavour. Where are the clean melodious voice and lucid harmonies? If you’re interested, you can read the convoluted story of pirated sonatas and the nefarious publisher Mr Walsh here.

Even though we don’t know who composed it, No 3 is an attractive sonata, with a very good second movement, Allegro, as we’ve seen in this previous post.

Adagio from Sonata No 3 in F Major

In some ways the Adagio tries to do too much – with too little. The rather plain descending theme returns in measure 18 in an altered state, and in part again in measure 48. The melody travels along pleasantly enough, yet never seems to get anywhere, except of course at the end.

Nonetheless it compensates for any austerity with some imaginative key changes and unexpected detours, without stretching belief or taking us too far from the path, to finally lead us with a clear sense of direction into the next movement, the excellent Allegro.

In the first of the YouTube videos below, violinist composer Gary Kuo makes an excellent job of transforming it into real music with his fine playing and compelling interpretation.

Study Points

Connecting the Notes

Unquestionably the melody comes together better with a sound understanding, if you’ll forgive the puns, of the way the notes are linked. Since there are practically no breaks in the melody line, not even to breathe very much between phrases, we must focus on the shape of connections between the notes – making sure to never lose the thread of where we are going. As Gary Kuo demonstrates, playing with a continuous vibrato helps.

Tempting as it may seem to regard the two opening sections as little sub-phrases, make sure that the minims (1/2 notes) in measures 2, 4 and elsewhere extend to their full value of two beats to connect well with the next part of the phrase.

Adagio-by-Handel-Ex-A

Positions and Shifting

Violinistic fingering preferences are revealed in the first few notes. We start on 3rd finger in 3rd position and move immediately with 1st finger to 2nd position.

Leading off with 4th finger and remaining in 2nd position would seem more logical, but many violinists (including me) would rather use 3rd finger to produce a strong tone and vibrato at the the beginning.

In general, the shifts are quite easy throughout the piece, mainly within the first three positions.

In measure 35, to create a contrasting tone quality, the second D and several following notes are played on D string in 4th position, with a delicate pianissimo.

Adagio-by-Handel-Ex-B

Ornaments

From the many editions and arrangements of the sonata it’s interesting to see that not every violinist plays the same trills and mordents when performing the Adagio, sometimes omitting them completely. In our version however, the mordent should be played as shown below.

Adagio-by-Handel-Ex-C

The-mordent

Modulations

For such a short piece there are a surprising number of expertly crafted modulations and short deviations into neighbouring and related keys, such as C major , D minor (the relative minor) and F minor (in measure 41), to show up the different colours and flavours of these keys in relation to the underlying home key of F major.

It’s valuable to identify these changes and bear them in mind when developing your own interpretation.

Update: Emmanuel Steffens has kindly written to correct my previous harmonic analysis. The B as the major seventh of the C major chord resolves into a B♭, which is part of a dominant C7 chord. (Not into B♭ major as I originally stated.)

Adagio-by-Handel-Ex-D-update

In measure 27 an innocuous half step back from D to C# marks the beginning of a pathway that eventually leads to a D minor cadence. What is the best way to convince the audience?

Adagio-by-Handel-Ex-E

Performances

As mentioned above, here’s a fine performance by Gary Kuo.

And it’s worth listening to the audio track below by the legendary virtuoso Yehudi Menuhin, to compare tempos, phrasing and note connections.

The score is now available for download on the Resources page. I hope you enjoy studying, teaching and playing this intriguing piece!

Cheers,

John

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Gigue in D Major by Bach

We’re in unaccompanied violin territory this week with the Gigue in D Major by Bach from Suzuki Violin Volume 7. This bright little dance was composed for cello in Suite No. 1 in G major, BWV 1007, part of the monumental works for solo cello Bach wrote around the time of  the great violin solo sonatas.

Gigue in D Major by Bach

The Gigue transcribes well from the cello-friendly key of G Major to the violin’s equally amiable D, exploiting the deep resonances of open strings. As expected, this effect is much stronger when played on the cello, and violinists have to work hard to create a corresponding sense of tone colour. Is it possible? Listen to some of the magic performances by cellists Mischa Maisky and Mstislav Rostropovich – and decide for yourself.

One feature of this piece is Bach’s use of repeated notes with slurs before and onto the beat, giving these parts of the melody a lilting rhythmic quality within the flow of quavers. Performers usually play these two notes in the same bow, distinctly separated and a little more weight on the beat note, creating surging shapes and runs within the stream of notes.

A Few Study Points

Bowing

The Gigue is an excellent opportunity to study the direct relationship between bow control, note connections and tone quality. For example, the right amount of separation between notes marked staccato (dot or dash) and the repeated notes with slurs depends on their role in the melodic line and phrase.

In measure 3 – and in similar patterns later in the piece – stop the bow before playing the staccato notes.

Gigue-by-Bach-Ex-A

Chords and Trill

Practise the chords without the trill at first, taking care not to rush and ensuring each lasts for the correct duration. Play with a smooth even sound – as if tuning up.

When you are happy with the sound quality add in the trill, focusing on clarity. For a little extra brightness, try slightly sharpening G, the upper trill note.

Gigue-by-Bach-Ex-B

Shifting in Measure 33

These semiquavers (1/8th notes) need to be strong and clear, so the shift must be quick and ‘invisible’. Practise slowly, lifting 1st finger as you place 2nd on C#, anticipating a seamless shift to 3rd position at D, taking care that D to E is a whole tone.

Gigue-by-Bach-Ex-C

Musical Expression

Before developing your own interpretation, you can do no better than to study how Maisky and Rostropovich play the Gigue. Don’t be put off by Rostropovich’s typically rather serious demeanour and the poor video quality in his performance. Despite this, his playing is unmistakably superb.

Maisky’s Gigue starts at 17.38

Below is a fabulous performance by Canadian cellist Denise Djokic.

The cello is such a marvelous instrument, but let’s not get distracted by it’s glorious warm tone and beauty. It’s just as much work as the violin, and way less portable!

The score is now available for download in Resources.

Cheers,

John

 

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Allegro by Bach

The Allegro by Bach in Suzuki Violin Volume 8 comes from the Sonata in E Minor for Violin and Keyboard, BWV 1023. The movement has an improvisational quality, like a fantasia, lending itself to a wide range of interpretative ideas and arrangements.

fantasy-picture

J.S. Bach was a fluent improviser who could extemporize with virtuosic ease. Some genres, such as Jazz, are more or less based on musical invention in the moment, whereas the score grew to dominate classical performance. Now there are signs that the art of improvisation in classical music, especially in cadenzas, is starting to return from its long decline in the 20th century.

Suzuki and Bach

Parents and students sometimes ask me:

Why is there so much music in the Suzuki violin repertoire by Bach, a German composer who lived over 300 years ago, especially when there’s an abundance of violin music by composers from later times that is equally suitable for violin study and performance?

It’s an interesting question.

During the time he lived and studied in Germany, Suzuki heard the works of the great German composers performed by German musicians at home in their native musical culture, and at this poignant period between the wars, this music enjoyed a refreshed authenticity.

It was like experiencing Italian opera at La Scala or Tchaikovsky at St Petersburg. We can imagine powerful musical awakenings in these settings. Suzuki’s well-known attraction to Mozart was formed through profoundly moving experiences with his music.

Yet the reasons for including so much of Bach’s music into the violin books go beyond Suzuki’s musical tastes. As any violinist knows, J.S. Bach’s music lives at the heart of string playing. After hearing, studying and playing his compositions, a musical world without his music is unthinkable, unimaginable.

Bach’s music teaches us so much, but we don’t learn to play it for educational purposes. We do so to live and believe in a beautiful world – and to fly.

Allegro by Bach

At first glance and at first hearing, it seems that the main technical point is associated with speed and tempo, yet for the most part the Allegro moves through a series of chords, which makes for relatively easy and simple fingering.

Melody

The musical points take more thought and practice, determining which notes to bring out to give clarity to the melody – principally on the first and third beat of the bar – and shaping the phrases. Starting in measure 5, the melodic line is set against a repeated B. The pattern changes in measure 8, moving by steps on the 1st and 3rd beats against repeated descending intervals – until measure 16, followed by a new pattern with a background of open E.

Allegro-by-Bach-Ex-B

Intonation and Shifting

When shifting, pay close attention to the intervals. In measure 10, for example, going from F# (4th position) to G (5th position) is a shift of a semitone, and so is G#  to A in measure 11.

Allegro-by-Bach-Ex-A

Leave down anchor and guide fingers as shown in the score and use the harmonic high E to check your intonation.

Performances

Here’s three fine baroque-style interpretations by Javier Lupiáñez, Penelope Spencer and Jennifer Roig-Francoli. (Note the different bowing.)

The score for Allegro by Bach is now available in Resources. For such a short piece, it took a surprisingly long time to complete. The scoring is more complicated to construct than it looks. The purpose of such an unusual arrangement is to clarify the musical structure and how it should be played.

Welcome to all of the new members and thanks for coming to visit Teach Suzuki Violin. I appreciate your interest and support, and enjoy hearing from you. Please write to me at john@teachsuzukiviolin.com if you have a question, a story or some helpful advice to benefit teachers, students or parents.

Cheers,

John

Coming soon – More Bach: the Gigue from Volume 7

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Overcoming Performance Anxiety – A Personal Odyssey

In this post, the second about overcoming performance anxiety, I relate how we handled it in our violin institute and my personal experiences. In the lead up to my final concert in Japan, I stumbled upon a solution to this mystifying nervous reaction. Later on I realised it is an old technique, used by many before me.

Graduation-Concert-87

(This photo from should get a few laughs from old friends and colleagues.)

It’s clear for teaching violin, or any of the performing arts, that there are two starting points when dealing with the problem of performance anxiety.

  1. Bypassing it from the very beginning;
  2. Overcoming it when you’ve already got it.

This rather simple and obvious division helps us determine which teaching and learning strategies we need to use for playing on stage with serenity and confidence.

1. Bypassing Performance Anxiety

As a result of some of my own experiences and those of my musician and music teacher friends, focus was initially centred on the second point: how to help students overcome performance anxiety. I wondered if predisposition (or luck) played a significant role in whether or not a performer suffered from nerves on stage.

The picture changed when we saw the concerts and classes of young violinists from the Suzuki Institute in Matsumoto. Performers of all ages appeared remarkably composed on stage. They were very well prepared and rehearsed, played securely from memory and with rare exceptions, seemed quite happy and relaxed to perform in front of large audiences.

Suzuki-Violinists-at-the-Budokan

Watching them confirmed to me the answer was training, learning and teaching – and not luck or natural propensity.

So on returning to teaching at our violin institute, we made a policy of giving all players lots of regular opportunities to perform publicly, as soloists and in groups, making sure no one was left out, regardless of age or level. Soloists played for our enthusiastic audience of parents in the last session of group class and we held extra solo preparation classes leading up to concert performances.

This was very successful, especially when we changed to regular weekly group classes. Students became accustomed to playing with confidence and flair in public, in both group pieces and solos, to the point where it became normal.

2. Overcoming Performance Anxiety

When I coached older students or trainee teachers for a special purpose, such as an audition for university entrance, an exam or an important concert, we occasionally had to contend with some stage fright issues, particularly if they hadn’t grown up nerve free, so to speak.

Some of the symptoms can be reduced by:

  • Thoroughly preparing and memorising the music;
  • Regular practising the whole performance over an extended period, including graceful entrance on to stage, taking a bow, acknowledging audience applause, working on stage posture and presence.
  • Rehearsing in the actual concert performance space and becoming familiar with the stage environment and acoustics.

Even after these measures, some players still experienced the performance jitters.

Finally I began to teach the simple single strategy that changed everything for me.

My Experience

Public performances became rarer when I started teaching, but for several years prior to going to Japan I’d played in my students’ lessons and at large classes more or less free from nerves. I’d believed performance anxiety was mostly under control – until it rose again, without warning.

Here’s the story as I wrote later to friends…

There are ample opportunities at the institute to play in public – at Suzuki’s morning group classes, Monday Concert solos and other public concerts through the year, but the Graduation Concert is different. It is every student teacher’s premier performance here, marking the culmination of studies and the launch of new teaching careers.

The concert requires meticulous planning and preparation: we must choose a piano accompanist and orchestra members from among our colleagues and work with them to develop our ideas about the music; produce the concert programs and the shuji scroll; invite guests and of course, prepare the music itself.

During my final year I work harder than ever. Practice time in the latter months expands to ten and ultimately twelve hours a day outside of classes. (Except for the last week, I still teach English in the evenings to support us.) It is exhilarating to be extended to the limit and to finally feel like I’m making real progress in my playing.

As the day approaches I rehearse with the orchestra and accompanist two or three times each week. All is going well, until during one rehearsal just a week out from the concert, I make a nervy gaffe in the middle of the Bach concerto that I’d been playing well for over a year!

What is happening? I ride my bike home in gloom and ponder over my preparation. It doesn’t make sense. I know the music so well. Every note is like an old friend.

Eventually it dawns on me that I’m sometimes thinking ahead about a passage coming up – or reflecting on a section I have just played. I’m not living in the music as it’s happening.

During my next practice I resolve to just listen to the music as I play, and keep my attention in the present moment without wavering. It is easy to do for short periods of time, but invariably my thoughts veer off again to a difficult section ahead or back to an earlier one that could have been a little better.

Only after several hours of persistent concentration am I able stay in the zone for longer periods.

As the next rehearsal approaches I am more confident that I can stay focused. Happily, the rehearsal goes off without a hitch, as does the next ones and I sense I am on to something. It’s working.

All during the week I practise hard at keeping in the present.

Winter this year is particularly cold. There are heavy snowfalls and we sometimes have to struggle through a metre of snow to get to the institute. On the day of my concert the temperature goes down to -20°C, yet I love the cold, it revives me out the years of hot Australian summers. Despite the heating in the concert hall, I have to immerse my hands in warm water before going on stage.

The-car-at-Suzuki-Kaikan

In the audience are all the other students, teachers, my family, friends and others. This is it – the pinnacle of my studies with Suzuki.

From that special moment, I walk on to stage in the space-time of now. When I begin playing, the sense of time disappears completely and I am carried along on the river of music to the end of the concert. As the last notes of Beethoven’s Spring Sonata ring out in the auditorium, it feels as if the beginning and the end are connected, part of the same whole, an experience that affects me profoundly and I carry to this day.


My concert experience was similar to how our Buddhist friends describe meditation as they watch the rise and fall of the breath.

The link to meditation is an interesting one. For both musicians and listeners, music exists only in the present and calls us into the world of the timeless now.

buddhist-meditation

Is this a cure for performance anxiety? For me it was, yet I notice how easy it is to slip out this state of mind into self-consciousness and its accompanying nervous reactions. Like the music, it needs practice to become a habit.

Further Reading and Resources

Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi’s Ted Talk on Flow

Zen Habits – The life changing website created by my friend Leo Babauta, writer.

Cheers,

John

Coming soon: Allegro by J.S. Bach from Volume 8.

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How to Overcome Performance Anxiety

Performance anxiety or stage fright, has afflicted musicians throughout history, even famous virtuosos such as cellist Pablo Casals, tenor Luciano Pavarotti, violinist Kennedy and pianists Vladimir Horowitz and Arthur Rubenstein. Frédéric Chopin disliked performing in public for the same reason.

hands-over-face

Photo courtesy of Abigail Keenan

For some musicians, it fades away with lots of playing on stage or becomes controllable enough to add a little spark to the music.

In a newsletter two years ago, I told of my first experience of these perplexing sensations of nervousness while playing in public at the age of 6 or so. After years of regular performances as an adult it more or less stopped bothering me, until suddenly appearing again like an old ghost a week or so before my solo graduation concert at the Suzuki Institute in Japan.

I learned a very important lesson and experienced an epiphany which has stayed with me ever since. I’ll tell this more personal story and how we handled stage fright in our violin institute in my next post, but for now I want to look more broadly at the phenomenon.

What does it feel like?

The symptoms range from mild to severe, including perspiration (an aptly named cold sweat), increased heart rate, uncontrollable shaking or weakness in the hands and fingers, difficulty in concentration, memory lapses and feelings of panic and dread – triggered by the release of adrenaline into the bloodstream. An accompanying reaction is an intense self-consciousness, which seems impossible to avoid or control.

seal

Photo courtesy of Alec Weir

The sensations are highly individual. They may decline gradually, arrive in disconcerting surges or persist throughout the whole performance. Some performers experience a crisis point, marking a lessening of anxiety.

Origins

Talking with other musicians, it became clear that in many instances stage fright originated from a single stressful experience during childhood. Typically they remembered a difficult exam, recital or other significant stressful situation where it first became a problem. Many described it in terms of a personal flaw, an affliction that was part of their makeup. Several lost interest in playing in public altogether, preferring to play their music in private or make recordings.

How to Overcome Performance Anxiety: Some Common Strategies

Regular Performances: By starting with low pressure situations and playing long programs of well prepared easier music, some performers have been able to gradually reduce the effects, similar to desensitizing an allergic reaction.
Practice, Practice: This strategy has some merit for many students, since lack of adequate preparation creates doubt and uncertainty during the performance.
The Mental Approach: Cognitive restructuring involves changing your patterns of thought and working with a coach or counselor enables performers to understand more clearly what is happening and to develop long term strategies.
Pharmaceuticals: Surveys have shown that up to 30% of professional musicians use beta blockers and other substances such as alcohol or cannabis, to help them through difficult performance situations.

Further Reading

The Bulletproof Musician – an excellent website by Noa Kageyama, Ph.D. about performance anxiety and related subjects.

CMUSE – another great site with articles on this subject and other aspects of music.

Being Musical Being Human – 5 Big Mistakes in Dealing with Performance Anxiety.

Anxiety Coach – Good in-depth analysis with actionable tips.

Michael Murray – excellent down to earth article from an experienced performer.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch – Sarah Bryan Miller writes about the use of Beta Blockers and more.

Cross-eyed Pianist – Essential reading from Frances Wilson, London-based pianist, piano teacher, writer, music reviewer and blogger.

Composed – Yet to be released documentary about performance mentioned in Frances’s blog. Looks like it will be a ground-breaker. Check out the great links.


We want to hear from you! Write and tell us about the highs and lows of your experiences with performance anxiety. If you’ve discovered or developed ways to overcome stage fright, others can benefit.

Cheers,

John

Coming up in the next post: How I overcame performance anxiety with just one strategy (if you can call it that).

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