Practice

5 Quick Tips To Improve Your Violin Practice

One of the most satisfying feelings comes from viewing the end product of your labour. Artists such as painters, sculptors, writers and photographers, for example, have physically tangible products to show for their work. For musicians, the sense of accomplishment has a different quality. Music is an art that exists in the moment, inseparable from the performer in time. Even recordings can only be experienced in the flow of the now. Funny thing is, most of every musicians’ labour goes into practice.

At-practice

I wonder if this ethereal quality of music is why musicians spend a disproportionate amount of time practising compared with actual performing for live audiences. In a way, like dancers and actors, we are the ‘product.’ Yes, we study and train for our art, but more than anything else, we just practise. Love it or not, the not-so-gentle Art of Practice is a significant part of musicians’ expertise – and life. Here’s five tips!

1. Slow Practice/Fast Practice

Every musician knows the necessity and value of practising slowly, learning to perfect a piece at an achievable speed. Making the connection with the music at the normal tempo is not as simple. It requires a different kind of practice: fast playing is not just slow playing speeded up. Performing a passage quickly requires additional skills, such as finger preparation, economy of motion, thinking ahead and learning some new ways of playing. Many techniques take on different qualities at speed. Certain types of staccato bowstrokes, for example, must be executed with the rapid springing of the bow rather than deliberate finger pinches originating at the bowhold.

Ray-Chen-speed

Posture, bowhold and left hand skills that appear adequate for slow playing may not work well for quick playing. Stiffness in the elbow or fingers and excessive movement of the bow arm hampers fast bow strokes and string crossings. Habitually raising fingers too high above the fingerboard limits the speed with which they can be accurately placed and causes poor coordination with the bow.

2. Only Work on What Needs Improving

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How Children Learn

I am a violinist, but like many string players I started out on the piano. From the age of four I took lessons on an old upright, practising on cold winter mornings with a feather eiderdown around my legs and on early summer mornings before the heat arrived . The piano stood in a dark room of our house at the rear of my parents’ shoe shop, a crepuscular light struggling through its one dusty window. Oblivious to my still-sleeping siblings a room away, I played away with cheerful forte. The sound of the piano resonated deeply within my soul – I loved it.

Allie-on-learning-process

Allie talks on the Learning Process

Reflecting on how I learned new pieces, I wish I’d known as that young child what experience and training has taught me since. When learning a new piece, I would read haltingly from beginning to end, only forming a sense of what the music should sound like from the gradually coalescing fragments. I never heard it performed by an accomplished musician – even my teacher.

Unsurprisingly, the initial results were rather stilted. Playing the piece at the next lesson, I could feel my teacher picking up errors – notes too short or too long, rhythms unclear, phrases muddled, accents too loud or soft.

Next morning, I tried to remember the teacher’s instructions, noting ruefully the exclamation marks and underlinings pencilled on the score. Yet in spite of my conscientious labours, more faults would inevitably surface at the next class. And so the piece evolved painstakingly into something musical. It was frustratingly slow. Mistakes are annoyingly difficult to repair. They must be deliberately usurped and supplanted.

Two disconnected worlds exist in music education – children’s hobby music lessons and the real thing. Hobby music is well meaning stuff, but it contains a falsehood. Parents are encouraged to believe that poor results are acceptable, even laudable – because ‘she is enjoying it and doing her best’. As the famous intellectual Tony Judt said, “effort is a poor substitute for achievement.”

Inferior performances are applauded with an unspoken acknowledgement that ‘doing your best’ precludes real achievement – which is available only to the seriously talented. And the serious label is the dark thread in the fabric of this lie, insinuating that building real expertise requires boring work; practice; pain; dedication; willpower; tedium and toil. It implies that the pursuit of perfection precludes enjoyment, when in fact the opposite is true: we all enjoy doing the things we do well.

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How to Build Morning Violin Practice

By now you’ve both been to the first few exciting lessons and joined in the Saturday group classes. You watch all the other young students put up their hands in the goal-setting session to say they’ve played and practised twice every day. It shows in the quality of their playing – and they make consistent quick progress, move gracefully and remember all their old pieces. You steal a quick glance at their parents. They’re not stressed and don’t look like strict disciplinarians. In fact they appear relaxed and smiling. And no, they haven’t bribed or pressured their children to practise. How do they do it?

Ready for morning practice!

The secret, if there is one, is learning to make playing violin into a habit. The great thing about habits is that they live on day after day without a lot of fuss. When playing and practice becomes an automatic habit you won’t need to nag, cajole, beg, motivate, bribe or manipulate your child to play. You won’t need to say much at all. You’ll just work together and watch the progress – with music in your heart and a smile on your face.

Building the habit of daily practice

Habits are activities we carry out repeatedly with little conscious effort. Useful habits, i.e. good ones, take conscious consistency to establish. (And as you know, bad ones seem to arise all by themselves!) But to make one thing clear: building the habit of daily practice is the parent’s responsibility. It is your gift to your precious child. Although it takes time, commitment and creative thought, daily practice becomes easier and easier to maintain – and gains a momentum of its own. And it doesn’t mean putting pressure on your child. The daily practice habit starts with simple beginnings, then as Paul Kelly sings, “From little things, big things grow.” Good habits are sustained by your kindly unwavering persistence.

How long does it takes to create a habit?  Read More →

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