One way to track violin practice is with a simple checklist of tasks. For the weeks of Wednesday, July 16, through Tuesday, July 29, mine looks like this:
Not all tasks are checked off every day. This is because, with 14 elemental technique exercises, 2 scales, 3 technique books, 3 review pieces, 2 repertoire pieces, fiddle bowing technique and 3 fiddle songs, 3 aspects of viola, and 3 musicianship exercises, it would take about 8-hours to practice everything, and I simply do not have 8-hours a day to devote to practice. Therefor, on any given day, I have to pick and choose what I will practice, depending on how much practice time is available that day, and what needs are most pressing.
My checklist indicates that priorities tend toward technique over repertoire. In fact, about 2/3’s of my practice time is devoted to basic exercises. For example: Last Thursday the first hour was spent simply bowing open strings in various ways to develop clear, consistent and (hopefully) beautiful tone. Quality of sound is the heart of playing violin, and if I’m not going to work hard at this, why should I even bother trying to learn?
The next 45-minutes were spent on exercises from Schradieck and Melodious Double Stops. Here the emphasis was on intonation, intonation, intonation. This is the second priority after tone quality. I work hard at pitch accuracy every single day, for, my songs will never be songs if not played in tune. They’ll just be a mess.
After lunch, an hour devoted to 2- & 3- octave G-major scales, and a Wohlfahrt exercise. The emphasis is finger preparation, agility, speed and precision, working to offset the ravages of age. Perhaps it is easier for a child to learn these things. However, my physical therapist says that with time and effort I can accomplish the same, so I am determined to put in the time and effort.
Finally, time for music. Since the previous week had emphasized fiddle tunes and review pieces, I worked on the repertoire from Suzuki Book III. They were rusty from lack of daily practice, but returned quickly to better-than-before: progress that I credit wholly to the solid daily emphasis on fundamental technique.
Do I find all this technical work boring? No way! Continuously searching for inabilities, exploring ways to correct them, listening for nuances of sound and establishing their physical expression: this all makes for satisfied curiosity. Practice is not stale repetition. Practice is prolonged and focused study: Do I like what I hear? What is wrong? How can I fix it. What level of nuance can I discern? This is the crux of progress in the skill of making music, and it is exhilarating.
The following are notes from a recent lesson that was particularly effective. The notes were taken after-the-fact from the audio recording of the lesson. After performing Minuet II (Bach/Suzuki Book I) for my Montana teacher, Angella Ahn, we spent the next 40 minutes of our hour together studying the opening 8 notes of the piece. Focusing on clarity and intonation, the phrase was presented in a continuous series of exercises of increasing complexity, building toward fluid playing.
On the octave sequence G (on E-string) to G (on D-string): play upper note – stop and hear silence – cross – play lower note. The double string crossing itself should be completely silent, absent extraneous string and bow contact sound. Keeping the 2nd finger on E, reach the 3rd finger to D. Relax the left thumb. Keep the finger frame stable and the fingers low.
The relationship between these two notes is important. Relax and open the palm to get this octave interval. Pay closer attention to what is happening physically and really listen to the resulting sound.
The first exercise examined the 2-note double string crossing. The following exercises refer to the first 4 measures of the minuet, of which measures 1-2 are sequenced in m3-4.
Play and stop after every 4 notes to see if L-hand is clenching. Relax the palm. Play – check – play – check. Always stop to check. Have silence in the stops. Make them absolute stops to give time to listen and check.
Play 1st 4 measures on open strings. Slow tempo. Loose wrist. Strive for noiseless string crossings. Stop before double-crossing to prepare it.
Play m1-4 on open strings with slow-fast-slow-fast rhythm. Stay in the middle of bow. Don’t rush. Silence before the double-crossing. Keep wrist in line as pull up-bow. Keep bow straight. Avoid clenching violin with chin.
Play m1-4 on open strings with opposite fast-slow-fast-slow rhythm. Pay attention to the bow hair – all should be in contact with the string. Keep bow action in the wrist and lessen use of the whole arm.
Start with bow on A-string: play A-D-A-E-A- . . . . . . Use wrist to create this continuous figure-8. Allow wrist to be really flexible & loose. Release all tension in the right (bow arm) shoulder. Sometimes the wrist is too low and bow turns to bridge so hair not flat on string. Pay attention to wrist to fix this.
Using loose wrist of previous exercise, play normal rhythm and bowing of open strings of m1-4. Stop at each phrase and fix bow grip. With supple wrist don’t loose bow grip – you don’t want to drop the bow. Create relaxed stability in bow fingers. Is your wrist relaxed and the bow-hair flat on the string? Watch this.
Ex. 8 (20 minutes into the lesson)
Add the left hand. Use each fingered note to find the placement of the next finger – use the physical intervals between fingers to find notes. Learn these physical intervals. Prep each finger as playing the previous note. Take care not to get sharp. Is your hand moving up the neck? Check and re-do intonation. Be exacting about this. Play ½ scales with drone in G-major. F# should be high for the leading tone. Remember the note sound and physical placement. E’’ on a-string and E’’ on e-string should sound identical.
Add slow-fast-slow-fast rhythm to fingering the tune. Make fast really fast. Don’t go to tip, stay mid-bow. Keep wrist loose. Watch intonation, always go back to the same G’.
Change rhythm to fast-slow-fast-slow. Don’t creep to the frog. Stay in the middle of the bow regardless of the rhythm. Try to do the phrase with even tempo, without stopping. Relax your shoulder. Relax your bow arm. Relax your left arm, too. Keep everything loose.
Ex. 11 (32 minutes into the lesson)
Play m1-4 as written. Bow arm is less cockeyed, but still work on this. The tiniest bit off parallel changes the sound. Use the mirror. Make it clean – no extraneous noise! Go slow and watch. Balance the bow. Keep the hair flat. Stop intermittently and fix the bow grip (and the L-hand grip). Work bow – bow – bow!!!
Now go home and on any line with predominant 1/8 notes work this whole process to develop muscle memory.
With lessons like this, maybe I’ve got a chance.
Previous entries: June 2014
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