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Laurie Niles

Laurie's Violin School: There Are No Teaching Secrets

September 15, 2014 12:34

The more we elevate the level of music teaching, the more we elevate the level of music education. The more we elevate the level of music education, the better appreciation our society has for music.

So how do we elevate the level of teaching? With the widespread sharing of all our teaching secrets. That's right, stealing ideas from other teachers!

In fact, this very idea is something I've stolen, from Shinichi Suzuki. (And from whom did he steal it? I'm not sure!) Not only did he invite teachers from all over the globe to watch him teach and "steal" his ideas, he also encouraged teachers to do the same: Have an open studio, where teachers, parents and other students are welcome to observe. Learning from other teachers is so critical that many teaching programs, including SAA's Suzuki pedagogy program, require aspiring teachers to observe established teachers for a certain number hours.

But of course it doesn't matter whether you are a Suzuki teacher, traditional teacher, or for that matter, a trombone teacher. The point is that when it comes to educating students, we need a lot of ideas, and sharing those ideas only helps us reach more students in more ways.

Now, when I say "steal," I don't mean to use people's copyrighted music or texts without payment or permission. I simply mean to seek, test and use new ideas on a regular basis. Push yourself beyond your comfortable habits. In turn, share your best ideas with other teaching colleagues.

Here are a few ways to renew your store of teaching ideas on a regular basis:

  • Observe excellent teachers teaching in their studio
  • Go to master classes
  • Talk with other teachers about specific ideas and concepts
  • Share your good ideas -- write a blog about a particular good idea
  • Continue to take classes and read books, even after you are a well-established teacher
  • Participate in online teaching forums
  • Watch teachers who teach subjects unrelated to music
  • Use ideas that will fit your personal teaching style; don't feel you have to imitate good teachers in any kind of way that feels foreign or uncomfortable to you.

When it comes to teaching children, there should be no "secrets" about how to do it. If you find something that works, use it. If you see someone else doing something that works, use it. And give credit where it's due; acknowledge the sources of your ideas and publicly praise your colleagues for their best ideas.

Also, remember your purpose as a teacher. You are not in a competition to be the "best" teacher in the world, or to prove yourself "better" than the teacher across town. You are not trying to find the secret best method that propels your students "ahead" of everyone else's. Those kinds of goals are isolating and can lead to ugly comparisons between teachers and between students. Those goals focus on your Big Teacherly Ego, rather than on your student's progress and learning.

You goal is to teach the student or students in front of you, to the best of your ability. Keep working on connecting your students with music and with their own abilities, and everything else will fall in place.

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Interview with Philippe Quint: The Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto

September 10, 2014 21:33

After some 200 performances of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, Russian-born violinist Philippe Quint felt it was time to record this work that has been part of his musical backdrop since childhood.

Last week, he released his first all-Russian album, a recording of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, with with the Sofia Philharmonic led by conductor Martin Panteleev. Philippe performs the "Ruby" Stradivari of 1708 for the recording, which also includes Russian composer Anton Arensky's Quartet No. 2 in A minor, written in memory of Tchaikovsky and scored unconventionally for violin, viola and two cellos.

When it comes to the "Tchaik," Philippe enjoys diving right into the controversy and contradiction that is this concerto -- so loved, so criticized and so often played since its semi-disastrous premiere in 1881.

"What hasn't happened to this concerto?" Philippe said, laughing. "If you look at the history, everyone and their mother had a hand in the bowings, the editing, fingerings, interpretations, ideas. From the time it was conceived, it's incredible how many controversial things have taken place, how many urban legends have spread about this concerto, including the most famous one, which is: The concerto is "unplayable."

That is what the concerto's original dedicatee, Leopold Auer, is said to have pronounced upon reading the score. But is it true?

Philippe Quint
Photo by Jeff Gerew

"It's a total myth, at least based on my personal research," Philippe said. "The concerto was not proclaimed 'unplayable,' that is an English translation of the Russian word, 'unviolinistic,' which is what Leopold Auer said in his memoirs. He also did not exactly, as the history says, decline to play the piece. Again, in his memoirs, he explains that when he received the score of the concerto, he found the first movement quite lovely, the second movement beautiful, and then he felt that the third movement needed revisions. However, he was just appointed as professor at the Saint Petersburg conservatory as well as leader of the Russian Music Society with his quartet, and he said that he did not have enough time to give proper attention to the score of the Tchaikovsky Concerto, so he just put it away until he had the time. But in the meantime, Tchaikovsky grew very frustrated with the fact that Auer wasn't taking care of the score. He re-dedicated it to Adolph Brodsky, who was very happy to jump on the wagon and give the first performance of the piece in Vienna."

But the drama was not over for the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto.

"From there, we jump into the most famous review of the concerto: "This music stinks to the ear!" by the meanest critic in Vienna, Eduard Hanslick," Philippe said. "Again, based on what I have read, my guess is that this was probably not a great performance. The orchestra didn't have enough time, the parts were not well-prepared, and Brodsky wasn't well-prepared. So it may have been quite a disastrous performance, giving the work a very bad first impression. The great Hanslick simply could not see through (that performance) and understand that this is actually a masterpiece."

Philippe also uncovered more intrigue: "There is a mysterious performance by Leopold Damrosch in New York, with piano," Philippe said. "Yes, Leopold Damrosch, an American violinist, supposedly got his hands on the score and premiered the work in New York around the time it was written."

Another person with great influence over the piece was the violinist Iosif Kotek, whose visit to Tchaikovsky at the lakeside Swiss village of Clarens likely spurred the creation of the concerto in the first place, after Kotek introduced Tchaikovsky to the score of Lalo's then-new "Symphonie Espagnole," among a number of other newly-published violin works.

"(Kotek) had his hand in the future of the piece by editing and suggesting different passages, making it more violinistic, dynamics," Philippe said.

Tchaikovsky himself made major changes to the piece, the biggest being that he pitched his original middle movement.

"Tchaikovsky substituted the beautiful "Meditation" that he originally wrote for the Concerto with the "Canzonetta," and that's also a very interesting choice," Philippe said.

Eventually Auer did get around to editing that last movement that he had found to be problematic, and his changes still leave us with a dilemma. For his recording, Quint recorded both Tchaikovsky's original third movement and the third movement as Auer edited it. The original version includes quite a few little passages that repeat themselves; Auer's version does away with those repetitions.

"The third movement is what prompted me to do more research on the work and just keep thinking about it," Philippe said. "The new trend in the last couple of years is to play the original version, without cuts, and to view Auer's edits as being in bad taste and not what Tchaikovsky wrote. So the violin world is now split into two camps: one that think that the edited version is better and Tchaikovsky would have approved of it, and the other camp which says, 'This is classic Tchaikovsky redundancy, how can you cut the incredible music of Tchaikovsky?' I've had this conversation with a lot of my colleagues, and they have very strong opinions about this debate."

"For me, I learned it with the Auer version," Philippe said. "Even if you look at relatively recent recordings of the concerto, with Perlman or Zukerman, and of course the old school with Heifetz, Milstein, Stern, Oistrakh, Kogan -- everyone played it with cuts. Is there a chance that they weren't aware of the Tchaikovsky original version? I doubt it. I really feel that they also felt that the Auer version is a better, more condensed, well-edited third movement, that it's more suitable for the concerto and flows better. This is my belief, but the reason I put both versions on the recording is for people to compare, because really, who knows? Would Tchaikovsky like (the edited version)? Auer helped Tchaikovsky with many works, and Tchaikovsky, I think, was always in doubt, always questioning. Perhaps even, he was easily influenced by his collaborators, like Kotek."

"There's the same controversy about 'Valse-Scherzo,' by the way, which exists two versions," Philippe said. "One is longer, redundant, repetitive, and the other one was edited by, I'm not sure whom, nobody knows. I ran into this problem at a performance many, many years ago, when the conductor had the score of the original version of the Tchaikovsky 'Valse-Scherzo,' which I'd never heard about. And it was impossible for me to indicate the cuts, there were just too many, it was just too different from the version that I grew up with and always heard being performed by absolutely everybody.

Philippe was 16 when he started learning the piece, and the first time he brought it to his teacher, Andrei Korsakov, "he was absolutely furious because I basically memorized the whole piece from recordings and performances that I'd heard -- I had barely looked at the page!" Philippe said. "I was so happy with the assignment, I wanted to impress my teacher by bringing the whole piece right away, playing it by memory." That's right, all three movements, by memory. "I think he appreciated my excitement and affinity for the work, but he said, in Russian, 'This is an absolute disaster. Go home, open the pages. Do not listen to recordings any more! And practice with a metronome, put everything back, pay attention to what Tchaikovsky wrote.'" Over the years, Philippe has undergone a long process: sorting through those early aural impressions, studying the score, taking in the advice of teachers and ultimately finding his own interpretation. "It's so individual, it's so personal," Philippe said. "Tchaikovsky really did give the performer an opportunity to properly display their personality and their musicianship. It's a very personal work and you can make it even more personal. Honestly, with this concerto, every time is like the very first time for me."

And what to pair with the Tchaikovsky? Philippe saw the chance to give attention to a work that had been slightly neglected in choosing Anton Arensky's Quartet No. 2 in A minor. "Arensky is a little bit of an underrated composer -- in Russia, in fact, he was frequently called 'mini-Tchaikovsky' because he always possessed the same nostalgic, sentimental qualities, but not on a grand scale," Philippe said. "Arensky was a huge admirer of Tchaikovsky and Tchaikovsky was very supportive of Arensky." Arensky wrote the piece in memory of Tchaikovsky. "In the second movement Arensky uses a melody by Tchaikovsky, and in the outer movements he's using very religious Russian orthodox songs. So it has a great level of spiritual energy, which we thought would be an absolutely perfect fit."

He called his collaboration with cellists Nicolas Altstaedt and Claudio Bohorquez, and violist Lily Francis "maybe one of the top collaborations in my life."

Quint quartet

"These guys were so professional and such perfectionists. We would not let one little thing slip." The group put the piece together in three days of 12-hour rehearsals and then two days of studio work. "We had so much fun. It's just tremendous to find such chemistry, given the fact that we're all such vastly different musicians, coming from such different backgrounds. It proves one fact only: music unites all," Philippe said. "That's what music is about, it's about this incredible joy, it's about chemistry, it's about having fun -- not taking it seriously when it's not necessary, and being extremely serious when the time calls for it. 'Give work love, and you shall be rewarded.' I can't remember who said it, but it's true!"

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6 replies

Semi-finalists announced for 2014 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis

September 10, 2014 18:00

Sixteen semi-finalists have been announced in the 2014 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis. They are:


Nancy Zhou Nancy Zhou, 21, United States

Yu-Chien Tseng Yu-Chien Tseng, 20, Taiwan

Ayana Tsuji Ayana Tsuji, 16, Japan

Tessa Lark Tessa Lark, 25, United States

Jinjoo Cho Jinjoo Cho, 26, South Korea

Stephen Waarts Stephen Waarts, 18, United States/Netherlands

Stephen Kim Stephen Kim, 18, United States

Ji Yoon Lee Ji Yoon Lee, 22, South Korea

Ji Young Lim Ji Young Lim, 19, South Korea

Kristi Gjezi Kristi Gjezi, 24, France

Yoo Jin Jang Yoo Jin Jang, 23, South Korea

Bomsori Kim Bomsori Kim, 24, South Korea

Suyeon Kang Suyeon Kang, 25, Australia

Ji-Won Song Ji-Won Song, 21, South Korea

Dami Kim Dami Kim, 25, South Korea

Christine Lim Christine Lim, 19, United States/South Korea

Congratulations to these accomplished young musicians!

The Semi-Finals begin Friday at 1:30 p.m. Eastern time. Repertoire for the Semi-Finals includes: Beethoven Sonata; Late-Romantic or Modern Sonata; Tone Poem/Concert piece; Commissioned work: "Fantasy for Solo Violin" by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich.

Click here for Live-Streaming.

Keep reading Violinist.com for continuing coverage of the IVCI. I will be Indianapolis to cover the finals next week.

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10 replies

Laurie's Violin School: The Limitations of the Bear-Claw Bow Hold

September 8, 2014 11:39

"Why do I need to hold my bow this way, and not this way?" asked a student last week.

Bow hold 1

This is a nine-year-old beginner -- and I love those. She's taking lessons because she wanted to, and she's going to demand good explanations along the way. For example: Who would come up with this weird way of placing fingers on the bow, when it's clearly possible to play a tune just fine, clenching the bow with your fist like a bear would?

However, she had stopped in her tracks, halfway through all the Twinkle Variations, to ask this question. Those Twinkle Variations do require some stamina -- she's still working on the stamina part. Thus the interruption -- yes, I'm onto you.

"I can tell you why, but that's a bit of a lecture," I said. "I'll do it after we finish Twinkle."

So she finished those last three variations, and as soon as she took the violin off her shoulder she said, "Okay, I want the lecture." (As the mother of two teenagers, I confess that hearing "I want the lecture" fills me with a certain kind of glee.) Haha, she really did want the explanation!

So I gave it to her:

It is possible, I acknowledged, to play "Twinkle" holding the bow in the way that a bear would hold a bow. We can just call this the bear-claw bow hold.

However, the bear-claw bow hold has its limitations, and the better you get at the violin, the more these limitations become apparent. My reason for this picky bow hold is that I am setting up your bow hand so that one day you can play Bach, or country fiddle music, or anything you ever want to play.

I played her a little bit of the Preludio from the Partita in E -- kids (okay anyone, not just kids) tend to enjoy this piece. (It could have been a fiddle tune, to demonstrate the same thing.) With all these string crossings, I have to have a flexible bow hand, loose wrist and relaxed fingers. Does it look like I'm working very hard? No. Then I switched to the bear-claw bow hold and played the beginning of the Preludio again, with all the string-crossings coming from my upper arm, thanks to the stiffness in my bear-claw hand. I looked like an injured chicken, flapping one deranged wing. She laughed.

Moving on, what if we want to play the cadenza from the Mendelssohn concerto's first movement? Here's another crowd-pleaser. I showed her that four-string spiccato barriolage, which spikes up off the string with a flick of the wrist and just a bit of arm motion. Then I demonstrated the same passage with the bear-claw bow hold. Rather inelegant, and we're back to being a one-winged chicken.

I told her that the bow-hand I teach is based on the Franco-Belgian bow hold; there is also a Russian bow hold that works well, and other teachers teach that. The idea is that, over the years, we develop flexible but strong fingers and a relaxed way of holding the bow. The way we place the fingers in the beginning is just a start, and you'll learn how the balance works as you play more and learn more bowing techniques.

I don't know of any other activities that require holding something quite in the way that we hold a bow. But it's similar, in certain respects, to learning a tennis grip, or the way to hold a golf club or baseball bat. Humans have figured out the optimal way to swing a bat, and so we start with certain principles. Over time, you'll make it your own and optimize it in small ways for your body, to be most effective.

7 replies

International Violin Competition of Indianapolis Begins Sunday! Order for Preliminary Rounds

September 5, 2014 14:38

The International Violin Competition of Indianapolis begins Sunday at 9:30 a.m. Eastern Time, so get ready to watch! Click on this link to view live streaming (heck, bookmark it, this will be going on through Sept. 21!):


Check for our continuing coverage on our Indianapolis Competition Page.

Look at all these faces of the young artists participating in the IVCI! Below the collage is a schedule of when each contestant will be playing.



Sunday, September 7
Youjin Lee: 9:30-10:15 AM
Nancy Zhou: 10:15-11:00 AM
Yu-Chien Tseng: 11:10-11:55 AM
Ayana Tsuji: 11:55-12:40 PM
Anna Savkina: 2:00-2:45 PM
Ermir Abeshi: 2:45-3:30 PM
Tessa Lark : 3:40-4:25 PM
Jung Min Choi: 4:25-5:10 PM
Chiharu Taki: 5:20-6:05 PM
Jinjoo Cho : 6:05-6:50 PM

Monday September 8
Stephen Waarts: 9:30-10:15 AM
Andrea Segar: 10:15-11:00 AM
Stephen Kim: 11:10-11:55 AM
Jennifer Liu: 11:55-12:40 PM
Daniel Cho: 2:00-2:45 PM
Shannon Lee: 2:45-3:30 PM
Dominika Przech: 3:40-4:25 PM
Mariya Krasnyuk: 4:25-5:10 PM
Ji Yoon Lee: 5:20-6:05 PM

Tuesday September 9
Ji Young Lim: 9:30-10:15 AM
Luosha Fang: 10:15-11:00 AM
Tianyun Jia: 11:10-11:55 AM
Ui-Youn Hong: 11:55-12:40 PM
Petteri Iivonen: 2:00-2:45 PM
Kristi Gjezi: 2:45-3:30 PM
Vladyslava Luchenko: 3:40-4:25 PM
Andi Zhang: 4:25-5:10 PM
Wonyoung Jung : 5:20-6:05 PM

Wednesday September 10
Yoo Jin Jang: 9:30-10:15 AM
Bomsori Kim: 10:15-11:00 AM
Areta Zhulla: 11:10-11:55 AM
Nadir Khashimov: 11:55-12:40 PM
Suyeon Kang: 2:00-2:45 PM
Ji-Won Song: 2:45-3:30 PM
Dami Kim: 3:40-4:25 PM
Christine Lim: 4:25-5:10 PM
Richard Lin: 5:20-6:05 PM

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The Chiara String Quartet: Playing by Heart

September 3, 2014 17:56

Members of the Chiara String Quartet weren't just being romantic (or Romantic) when they named their latest album "Brahms by Heart." They actually played all three of Brahms' String Quartets, plus one Quintet -- by memory when they recorded it.

Not only that, but this fall they will perform a full cycle of Béla Bartók’s six string quartets from memory, at Bargemusic in Brooklyn, on Sept. 26 and and Oct. 17.

"We now have 10 pieces in our repertoire that are memorized, and we're adding to them," said violist Jonah Sirota, who spoke to me earlier this summer about the quartet and its newfound enthusiasm for memorization. Other members of the Chiara are Rebecca Fischer, Hyeyung Julie Yoon and Gregory Beaver. The group, which won First Prize at the Fischoff Chamber Music Competition in 2003, currently serves as artists-in-residence at Harvard University and at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. "Chiara," pronounced "key-ARE-uh" is an Italian word for "clear, pure, or light."

Though the Chiara String Quartet has been together for nearly 15 years, the idea of memorizing quartet music came to them only recently.

"We'd wanted to record the Brahms Quartets for a long time," Jonah said. "We started that six or seven years ago, but when we listened to the playbacks, we just weren't happy." They wanted their recording to be more inspiring, more unique. "So we ended up deciding to scrap it and start over," he said. This led them to a new question, "How can we make this special?" That was when Hyeyung suggested the idea of a recording session with musicians and microphones only, no sheet music on stands. In other words: memorizing the whole cycle.

"We were a little bit apprehensive at first," Jonah said, "then we tried it out in rehearsal, and it was a powerfully different experience for us." They committed to memorizing the Brahms, which also included doing the Quintet No. 2 in G Major, Op. 111 with violist Roger Tapping, whose guest appearance with them came right after he retired from the Takács Quartet and right before he joined the Juilliard Quartet.

Memorizing the music had a profound effect on their group dynamic, Jonah said.

"It's a different feeling, and it's a great feeling," he said. For four intensely analytical people, this process gave them plenty to think about, just remembering the music. That helped get them out of their own heads and into the process of making music together. "We find that it helps us to hear each other better and to respond to each other in a much more immediate way," Jonah said. "It's been a positive change. The process has been challenging for each of us in different ways, but it's been a very equal challenge; it's hard work for everyone. It also keeps us off of each other's backs a little bit."

But how do they stick to the score, with no score?

"We have to memorize all of the markings," he said. During rehearsals, "we keep the parts and score right next to us -- it's just that when we're playing, we don't look at them. We'll often play a passage, immediately go back and look at our part or the score, to get a better understanding of what's going on."

After memorizing all the Brahms quartets, they tackled an even bigger task: memorizing the six string quartets by Béla Bartók.

"The Bartók quartets were challenging to memorize because there's so much detail and so many seemingly random patterns," Jonah said. "We had to really grapple with what the composer wrote. You can't memorize something you don't understand, so we had to spend a lot of time working with the score and getting to the point where we understood."

Coming to that understanding was almost a process of "de-composition."

"Composers have this incredibly rich notational system, but it's still not perfect, it doesn't really show everything the composer is hearing," Jonah said. "For us, we have to memorize just about the whole score, not just our own parts, and that memorization process is almost like doing the composition process in reverse. The composer took what he heard in his head, somehow translated it into notation -- we have to re-translate it back into something that makes sense as a musical idea, beyond the page."

"Ideally, that's what music-making is about," he said. "(Memorizing) absolutely forces us to get to that place." For example, in discussing a dynamic marking, quartet members find that nowadays the discussion often moves straight to the philosophical level. Instead of simply pointing out, say, that a passage is marked "piano," the conversation may sound more like: "Well, the composer wants a piano, but obviously there's kind of a deeper character that he's looking for, it's not just a dynamic change, it's a character shift..."

"We do start to think along those lines more immediately as we're working, more quickly in the process," he said. Performing by memory demands a deeper understanding than performing with the aid of the sheet music. "We can't go on stage and play by memory before doing that work, whereas you can totally go on stage and play through a piece that you've rehearsed but maybe don't have a rich understanding of yet."

Is it nerve-wracking, a live performance with no music?

"At first we were really nervous to go onstage without the music, but in the long run, I think it's made it easier," Jonah said. Quartet cellist Greg Beaver has pointed out that members tend to be much more nervous for rehearsal than they ever used to be, because they have to be extremely prepared. "If we say that we're going to practice the exposition of Mozart K. 590 tomorrow, from memory, you're either ready to do that or you're not," Jonah said. "So it front-loads that kind of pressure. But it's nice, because it means that by the time you get to the concert, you've already been through what seems like a series of high-stakes situations, in rehearsal. We still get nerves, but the nervous energy is more like excitement and less like fear. It's freeing: we're going to go for it, no net."

After all this memorizing, do they have any advise about the memorization process?

"Once you start memorizing something, you make a commitment not to be playing and looking at the music at the same time," Jonah said. "That sounds like an obvious thing, but it took me a while to get to that. I was still trying to glance at the music and test myself and see -- but that doesn't really work. If you're going to send your brain the message that you're not going to be using the music, then having the music anywhere in front of you while you're playing really messes that up."

For example, maybe you are trying to memorize something, but you keep the music on the stand, and you keep it turned to the page you need. You are still turning pages, still tracking with the music, still occasionally glancing over. "It can throw you off, and it can get confusing."

"If there's one thing that we've figured out, it's that the parts of the brain that you're using to play without music and the parts that you're using to play with music are different," he said. With the music, you are interpreting the visual, then converting it to sound and musical ideas. For Jonah, playing by memory is not visual at all. It could be different for the others -- "I know that at least two of my colleagues have pretty good visual memories, so they may be basically looking at the page in their brain."

In the beginning stages of memorization, first look at the music, mentally play through it, imagine it, stare at it, then go away from the music and play it. "It's as simple as that," Jonah said. "You start with little chunks. When we prepare for rehearsal, and we're saying we're going to do this from memory, we usually memorize about 80 to 100 measures in a rehearsal."


"We have to memorize our own parts first, absolutely," he said, but there is also a process of memorization together, as a group. "Once you play with each other, you may get a little thrown off, even if you've done a pretty good job memorizing your part." You may not fully know how the score works, or you may be thrown off when you hear the counterpoint. It requires practicin as a group.

"We'll often do slow playing; we basically drill. We want to be playing it correctly and playing it well, most of the time," he said. When it comes to practice, "whatever you do a lot, is what happens. So if you play something well half the time and not-well half the time, then you have a 50 percent chance of it going well at a concert." The more times you execute something correctly, the more you improve your odds of playing it well in performance. And this takes time -- a lot of time.

"You write it to the short-term memory, but it takes a while for it to sink into a more lasting memory," Jonah said. They don't want every performance to sound the same, but when it comes to the work of a rehearsal, they are trying to master the things that need to be there no matter what: notes, pitch, dynamics and phrasing.

The entire process may seem antiquated, in this day of instant access to everything on the Internet.

"I think that, as human beings, our memory used to be stronger," Jonah said. Before the smart phone or Internet, before the television, before recorded sound, before the recorded word -- we stored our ideas, knowledge and histories in our memories, which were highly evolved. "We've lost that sense of memory," Jonah said. For example, "I'm traveling all the time, but I don't really learn the geography of most places I go, I just punch it into Google maps, I don't think about it." For Jonah, the memorization projects have been like an antidote to this culture of the throwaway mind. "It's so not-a-modern-thing-to-do, to spend all this time stuffing these notes into our brains. But we wanted something that spoke of who we are right now, and I think that we got that."

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Here is the Chiara String Quartet playing the Ravel String Quartet by memory:

5 replies

Laurie's Violin School: Why Repetition Gets a Bad Rap

September 1, 2014 10:09

Dear friends, I'm starting a new Monday series called "Laurie's Violin School," which will focus on various aspects of learning and teaching the violin, drawing on my 20 years of experience teaching and extensive teacher training (Suzuki Book 1-10 units, various other training and ongoing quest for new ideas!) I plan to cover a wide range of topics, such as practice tips, teaching ideas and philosophies, helpful aides, repertoire, and maybe even some videos. I welcome your input and suggestions!

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Sometimes repetition gets a bad rap: "Don't just do mindless repetition!"

But repetition is one of our most effective tools, when practiced correctly. I would go farther: repetition is absolutely essential for beginners building skill and for players of any level learning new repertoire, especially the tricky parts. In fact, the concept is inherent in the world "practice" -- here's one definition: "repeated exercise in or performance of an activity or skill so as to acquire or maintain proficiency in it."


So what's the problem with repetition? My son's piano teacher put it well: "Practice doesn't make perfect -- Perfect practice makes perfect!" No pressure there!

Her point: What you practice is what you write to your brain and what you pattern for your fingers. If you practice sloppily, with bad position, wrong notes and disconnection from the music, you will learn sloppy playing, bad position, wrong notes and robotic playing.

The idea of "perfect practice" is a little confusing, though. Let's say you have a passage that you need to practice: Obviously, you can't play it "perfectly" at the moment -- that is why you are practicing it. So how are you supposed to play it "perfectly"?

Let's just acknowledge that "perfect" is a stressful word; but I'm going to define it for our purposes in the following way: Playing something "perfectly" means playing it with the correct notes, with the correct rhythms, with the correct fingerings and bowings, at the correct speed, with the correct dynamics, and the with the kind of energy with which you wish to ultimately perform it.

Chances are, these can't all come together all at once. But as you work your repetitions, you must keep in mind that your ultimate goal has all these elements, and that every one of them must be included, as your growing ability allows you to include them.

How to go about it? The repetition begins only after you have achieved a goal. Sometimes you are simply trying to string two or three notes together correctly. Once you can do it, repeat it correctly ten times. Then go deeper: perhaps you work on correct rhythm, or bringing it up to speed. Maybe the passage has a crescendo; work out how to play those correct notes with a crescendo, then repeat when you like what you hear.

Let's say your passage is really beginning to sound like something, you can execute the notes correctly, in time, with dynamics. Have you animated the passage? Are you playing it as if you are in front of other people, trying to speak to them with this music? That needs repetition as well. If you add that energy only in performance, it's easy to overdo it and mess up. Or, it's easy to just never add it at all and play like a robot.

Done correctly, repetition is not dangerous; it will not turn you into a robotic drone. The problems occur when one neglects to dig deeper, when repetition does indeed become "mindless," done without attention to detail and care for the ultimate outcome.

So repetition requires concentration. If you begin to stare vacantly and forget you are playing the violin, then it's time to take a break or stop for the day.

But do cultivate that ability to concentrate repeatedly. Ten times correctly gets the job done quite well. For students, I like to stand up dominos with each correct repetition and let them knock them down at the end. I don't count the incorrect ones. For my own practice, I usually just move the dominos back and forth across the desk, so I know when I've done ten. If you are really concentrating on playing, it's sometimes difficult to keep track of the number of repetitions. Writing tallies on a sheet works, too. Or an abacus! But keeping track, I've found, makes me do more repetitions. Left on my own, I'd probably do about three, rather than 10!

So do your repetitions and do them correctly. It works wonders!

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