A while ago I had a student, let's call her Jane, who was struggling with some school orchestra music.
A beginner, she was struggling to learn "When the Saints Go Marching In." She had learned the notes quite well, but she wasn't feeling the rhythm. She said she'd been trying to use a metronome to help her figure it out. I was happy she was making such a strong effort, and yet I felt there was something very obvious missing from this picture.
"Jane, do you know this song? Have you heard it before? Can you sing it?"
I backed up a bit to explain: "It's a song, actually..."
I called up a few versions on Youtube: Louis Armstrong singing and playing it, a version from an Andre Rieu concert, a few more. We listened for a good five minutes. She has a good ear, and this is a catchy song. After hearing it a half-dozen times, I said, "Try playing it again."
Sure enough, the rhythm was correct this time. Of course, it would take more than listening to the song a half-dozen times to fully solve the problem, but listening was one important element. "Knowing" the song would be even better.
My point is that it's easy for a violinist at any level to get bogged down in the complexities and forget to "learn the song." This is music! It helps to listen to music and to internalize it. If you can sing it, whistle it, or carry it around as an ear worm, all the better.
One can argue that if a student is learning to read music, then it's cheating to listen to the music. I completely disagree in most cases. Take the example of a child learning to read words: If a child is reading out loud, and he stumbles over the word "Renaissance," is it cheating to tell him how it's pronounced? Will it compromise his future ability to read words by sounding out syllables? No! As long as he keeps reading, his vocabulary will continue to expand and his fluency will grow.
More mature musicians also need to keep that connection between the music we hear and the music we play. I loved learning about Norwegian violinist Henning Kraggerud's practice routine: he starts his daily practicing with 20 minutes of improvisation. He just plays what is in his head. He said he wants to constantly cultivate that ability to play any music that comes into his mind, to make the connection so strong that it just flows, kind of like speaking.
A long while ago, when I was doing a lot of orchestra playing, I felt like I was losing that connection. I resolved to learn something completely by listening to it. No sheet music allowed. I wanted something fairly simple and doable, so I chose Kreisler's "Liebesleid." Using a recording of the piece by Nadja Salerno Sonnenberg, I listened, with my violin in hand. I'd already internalized the music long before, but there were still plenty of details to work out. (Not having perfect pitch, the actual key of the piece and first note was the first step!) I enjoyed the process, then when I felt I'd completely learned the music, I bought the sheet music (no IMSLP in those days!). I checked myself, but I've pretty much never used that sheet music again!
After all, the sheet music is just the messenger; the music is the message.
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