For Adult Students

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.


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.


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.


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

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Learning Violin for Adults

In the last few weeks several readers wrote to me with questions about learning violin as an adult, some in response to my article in, My Worst Day, Biggest Lesson. It prompted me to write this rather long post, to relate experiences from my own violin odyssey and to share a few tips I learned in the climb.


Although I studied piano from 4 years old until mid high school, learned folk guitar at 18 and did music at university (history and theory), I took up the violin as an adult. My musical background helped, but many ways it didn’t really count. Nothing prepared me for the hard work it took to learn violin. As I said to one aspiring mature player, It’s kind of possible, but you have to be a little demented. Obsessed, he knowingly replied. If you’ve fallen victim to the irresistible allure of the violin, you’ll know what I mean.

I’m not going to debate the question of whether it is possible or not to learn the violin as an adult. To myself, at least, I’ve proved it. With another 3 or 4 more years of intensive study after graduating at the Suzuki Institute in Japan I might have finished learning the awesome ‘Tchaik’  (Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto), but I’d reached a tipping point. I was brimming with inspiration for teaching again. These days I’m content with the belief that I can learn to play as much of the violin repertoire as I want to. (I just don’t want to learn the Wieniawski No. 1 in F# minor right now and by the way, I’m leaving the Paganini Caprices for later.)

Adult students of the violin, you see, have advantages that young children don’t possess – Mind Power, Critical Analysis and Delusional Self-Belief. Ok, maybe I’m joking about the last one. 🙂

So, adult violin students, this post is for you. It’s a daring and daunting adventure you have embarked upon, but the rewards are immeasurable – and you keep getting them along the way. At times you will look in awe and disbelief at what lies ahead, but you can also look back and clearly see how far you’ve come. Just enjoy the journey – and never ever give up.

The 5 Most Important Things an Adult Student Must Do. Read More →

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How to Form a Fabulous Fourth Finger

This post comes to you from the city of Melbourne. Last week I said that we were driving 3,500 kms from the west side of the continent to live in the east. We expected to arrive in 4 or 5 days, but it took almost exactly a week! It was an epic journey across the vast expanse of Australia.

Today, I want to talk about how to teach fourth finger on the left hand. All fingers should be equally strong and adept, but the fourth takes a bit more work than the others, so it needs its own special post.

Often I am asked, When should we start using 4th finger instead of an open string?

The answer depends on the age of the student. Many children can learn to use 4th finger on early pieces, e.g. May Song or before, but very young players can wait until Perpetual Motion. At this stage, the previous pieces should be fluent and fingers 1, 2 and 3 well established. And right from the beginning, 4th has been held comfortably in position above the fingerboard, especially when 3rd is down.

Joshua Bell's 4th Finger

Violinists prefer 4th finger to an open string in 1st position where it simplifies the fingering and bowing of a passage or when the plainer sound of an open string would be overly prominent or unmusical. A stopped (fingered) note can be played with more expression, e.g. with vibrato and  portamento – techniques that are not possible on an open string.

Because 4th finger is shorter than the others, its shape can be flatter – less curved. Here is how I teach it: Read More →

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