Practice

Violin Exercises, Etudes and Scales

Violin exercises, études and scales: are they valuable or necessary? And who are they for, after all? Considering their widespread use the answers might seem obvious, yet many student violinists feel they are just an obstacle to overcome on the way to their heart’s desire – the music.

Exercise

Photo courtesy of Dominik QN

For the Love of Scales

When the subject of scales arose in a music curriculum meeting I was attending, a university professor known for his strong views commented, “I’ve never yet seen scales played at a concert.” He was making a forceful point against the robotic playing of scales and exercises. His words contained a truth, but there’s another side to the story.

At least half of my own practice sessions as a young child at the piano consisted of scales, as indeed did my lessons. They were an inseparable element of the music examination system in which I was obliged to participate. Despite my ambivalence towards exams, I learned to appreciate the musical beauty in scales, and retained the same sense when I took up the violin.

The diatonic major scale arises from the deep natural harmonic structure of sound (vibrations) described by the circle of fifths. In a way, each note ‘elects’ the next in the chain of fifths, creating the 7 golden steps we know so well, and the 12 tones of the chromatic scale.

Fifths have a special resonance for string players, if you’ll pardon the pun. I remember the moment of epiphany when the architecture of the diatonic key system appeared before me in radiant visual simplicity on the violin fingerboard in the perfect fifths between the strings. The circle of fifths was under our fingers (and noses) all along!

In contrast to pianists, the first scale for Suzuki violin students is A major, which – along with D and G major – is one of the natural keys of the violin.

Unlike the white-note purity of C major on the piano, it may seem confusing to start with a scale that has three sharps. In my experience, young children take this in their stride, especially when you abandon finger names (A, A1, A2l A3 etc.) for notes on the fingerboard and use real note names instead (A, B, C#, D).

A practical knowledge of scales helps students understand basic musical elements such as sharps, flats, intervals and leading tones, and has benefits for reading and studying the music.

The Wide World of Exercises and Études

The Suzuki violinist’s introduction to the world of exercises is Shinichi Suzuki’s Étude in Volume 1. Do Étude’s medicinal virtues exceed its artistic qualities? Mm. As I’ve said elsewhere I rather like it, but I’m a teacher.

Sadly or perhaps inevitably, in many compositions designed to improve technique, the musical side takes second place to the important task at hand. There are important exceptions, the most famous coming from Frederic Chopin’s treasure chest of sparkling piano jewels. His three sets of Études are musical wonders.

Just take a moment to listen to his most popular one, Op.10 No.3 in E Major.

Lang Lang

Valentina Lisitsa

Alessandro Deljavan

There are copious, abundant volumes and collections of violin studies, exercises and technique manuals available to today’s aspiring string instrumentalists. A short list includes works by Kreutzer, Ševčík, Keyser, Wohlfahrt, Dont, Doflein, Mazas, Beriot, Flesch, Singer, Dancla, Fiorillo, Rode, Galamian and Fischer, plus caprices from legendary violinists such as Wieniawski and Paganini – enough for several lifetimes of study.

Many of the best ones are suitable only for advanced students.

    

So which ones should you study? It’s a great question. Every teacher has an indispensable favourite or two or three, and you’ll likely delve into several at different times depending on the music you’re working on. Among my favourites is Simon Fischer’s Basics.

Free digital copies of some of these volumes are generously made available by violinsheetmusic.org and the Petrucci Music Library.

Kids’ Stuff

What about violin exercises for beginners and less advanced students? Much written for the early stages suffers from being too general, rudimentary or let’s face it, boring.

The pieces Suzuki wrote for Volume 1 – Allegro, Perpetual Motion, Andantino, Allegretto (and let’s allow Etude to slip in) – artfully combine technical and musical elements and demonstrate his masterful understanding of how violin skills should be sequentially built up and practised.

This is one of the great strengths of Suzuki’s work.

The repertoire he assembled is attractive and engaging for very young children and his compositions are an inspiring example for music teachers, to create interesting, imaginative and tuneful music that seamlessly combines technical and artistic qualities.

I don’t believe it’s necessary to labour through uninteresting violin calisthenics. In the same way young children learn to read easily from engaging stories, they’ll learn to play from well crafted music.

Suzuki showed us how to let great music become our exercise and make the study of the technique an inseparable part of our music making.

Sound advice.

Cheers,

John

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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.) Read More →

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Motivation and Practice Habits Course

Perhaps we’ve all heard the old joke attributed to violinist Mischa Elman, who answered tourist’s question, “How do you get to Carnagie Hall?” with the witty answer, “Practice!” And clearly, all musicians understand he meant consistent and regular practice of the right things – and plenty of it. There’s a world of meanings and implications in that simple word.

young violinists practising

If you’re a musician, it’s an unavoidably important part of life, since we spend far more time practising than actually performing!

How we practise is crucial, because – as every instrumental teacher knows – it’s possible to implant poor technique as much as good. Moreover, in spite of the mountains of material and advice available in textbooks, online and elsewhere about what to practise, there’s precious little about the elephant in the room: how to achieve consistent practice.

It’s mainly left up to that old workhorse, motivation, either from internal sources like self discipline, determination and willpower, or externally from the dedication of an Amy Chua-like parent. Remember the agonies Lang Lang went through from his father?

Does it need to be such an arduous struggle?

music books

Unsurprisingly, this emerged as a leading issue when I surveyed Teach Suzuki Violin readers and members a year or so ago about their biggest challenge in teaching, studying and playing violin.

How to keep the practice going happily along without losing momentum is a problem experienced by most young musicians at some time or another.

Many parents reported a parallel problem: how to keep their child motivated to practise without turning into a tired tiger mother/father, becoming a bribing ATM machine, a cajoling cheerleader or worse, a hassling nag.

money

We’d all like to be inspired and enthusiastic about practice all the time, but even if it was possible, we don’t actually need to be. What we really need is an infallible practice habit. Then we can put all our energy, enthusiasm and love into where it’s most needed: the music.

As expected, students feel good when they sense progress in their playing – which, let’s face it, is only possible with regular reliable practice. With irregular practice comes a stop-start roundabout of guilty feelings, relieved by bursts of activity and, don’t we all know, unsatisfying lessons and slow progress.

A perpetual practice habit eliminates the guilt-binge-guilt cycle and gets you where you want to go without the hassle, but how exactly do you create one?

For most of us, the answer is curiously different from accepted common knowledge, mainly because the habits we acquire are mostly formed without our conscious awareness of the process. They seem to happen by themselves – especially the unwanted ones.

In our violin institute, understanding and solving this pivotal question created and sustained the fastest and most consistent advances for all of our students. We want to make this knowledge and training available to all who need it, and we created the Motivation and Practice Habits Course.

Here’s some of the video tutorials and topics from the course:

What is Motivation?
Working Together for Parent and Students.
The Morning Practice Session.
How to Build a Good Practice Habit.

A key part of the Motivation and Practice Habits Course is access to the teachers who created it. We want you to experience the success our students and parents achieved. Perhaps it’s not a magic formula or some secret knowledge, but it is a proven way through the practice forest.

The course is now included in the TSV Gold Membership subscription.

Cheers,

John

Coming Up Next: Mozart’s Concerto No. 5 in A Major K.219 (Vol. 9)

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Memory Games

I love to play memory games with students. A favourite of one of mine is based on a game Suzuki played with us, and like all good learning games, creates smiles, laughter and enjoyment all round, while getting an important point across. It masquerades as a test – to see how well a piece has been memorised, and goes like this:

violin-games

Play for me the first Twinkle variation (or any piece, really – it depends on the student’s age and level), and while you are playing you have to answer my questions, without stopping or making a mistake.”

“Ok, that’s easy!”

We begin playing the piece together. (I’ve got to be able to ask the questions while softly playing, too.)

After half a phrase I call out, “How many eyes have you got?”

“Two!”

Big smiles. “How many ears have you got?”

“Two!”

“How many feet?”

“Two!!”

“How many hands?”

“Two!!”

(Can you see what’s coming?)

“How many noses have you got?”

Bigger smiles now, and the little violinist answers, Two!!! or just looks at me, laughing and trying to keep playing, while giggles and guffaws break out from the parents.

Once they’ve got used to how the game works, I venture more complicated questions such as, “How old are you at your next birthday? What’s 11 plus 3?”  and finally, “What is your telephone number at home – backwards?”

Types of Memory

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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.

How do we become good at something? Read More →

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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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