Written by Nathan Cole
Published: January 10, 2014 at 11:21 PM [UTC]
I had a great half hour, pretending to be a pro, watching and shooting. And my shots had a different look, too! Not like Todd's, but not like the old me either. I think of this sometimes when I'm coaching or teaching the violin, especially for those who don't perform often. I ask people to "think like a pro" much more of the time.
What does this mean for the violin? Well, you can start by pretending that you find yourself in an unfamiliar situation: you have to learn a short piece (say one to three minutes long) by tomorrow and play it in front of people. Now, what would a pro do? He might play through it once or twice, slowly. Then he would write in the bowings and fingerings he wasn't likely to remember automatically. Then he'd start with the toughest spots and work each for 5 or 10 minutes. Then play through again and see where he was. Would it be perfect at the end of the day? Maybe not, but it would need to be good enough for a public performance.
I don't suggest this as the way to work all the time, of course. The music we play deserves time for reflection, and experimentation. But some students I know reflect all day long, and what actually comes out of the instrument is a pale reflection indeed! They never work with the kind of purpose they need to present a piece in performance. It's well and good for them to try and get just a little bit better each day, but what if they're getting in their own way? Many people would be surprised to learn that they limit themselves to their perceived level of improvement, even when more is possible.
I've had the privilege to watch or listen to many top soloists practice, and I'm always struck by just how good they sound even when slowly working a passage. They sound like the pros they are. I remember a colleague saying about one of these soloists, "She forgot how to play out of tune!" I love that expression. I used to have the bad habit of hitting my string with the metal of the bow near the frog, on big down-bow chords. I have the broken strings to prove it! But after deciding that it wasn't a professional thing to do, I've "forgotten" how to do it! The result took a while, but the decision happened one day in a practice room.
Now, there are plenty of tasks that require more than a day's work. For these, you truly must be patient and experience the two-steps-forward and one-step-back cycle. But if it's been a while, you owe it to yourself to try a different way of working: quit messing with the "settings", such as strings, bowings, fingerings, etc. Spend one day working something from start to finish, and see how you do. Think of it as a snapshot of you, the violinist. If you like what you see in the snapshot, remember how it felt to work that way, and tap into that focus every day. If you're disturbed instead (as I am when I see some casual shots of myself!) then choose one weakness and hit it hard the next day. Choose a different short selection, such as an etude, that is based on the weak technique. You'll likely see and hear progress right away. If you don't, that's the time to bring this technique to a teacher.
There are times I relish spending weeks or months with a piece of music. But those are fewer and further between the busier I get! In the meantime, I'm grateful to my teachers who taught me how to work quickly and efficiently, and to Todd, who reminded me that his kind of focus crosses all artistic boundaries.
Nathan is an ArtistWorks teacher at nathancoleviolin.com.
Also, what do you mean by "messing with the settings"?
The adult beginners that I know are blessed because you can understand what it is that you're learning and why! Plus, you can appreciate all aspects of the music as you learn, rather than just learning motions. But as you know, we adults are much more reluctant to present anything until and unless it's well prepared and polished. One nice thing about the Suzuki method, for example, is the emphasis on performing right from the start, even if it's "just Twinkle". I must say that I was shocked to see video of a 7-year-old me, playing a Suzuki recital, and sort of slashing my way through song after song. Polished? Not exactly. But I got used to performing, and I refined things over the years. Nobody (OK, little Heifetz, little Menhuin, and little Sarah Chang?) is polished after just a few years of study. So you present what you have when you have it, and use the experience as a learning tool.
My reference to camera settings was for those violinists who spend all their time changing bowings, fingerings and equipment, and who miss the chance to listen to their violin! When I was a beginning photographer, I certainly had to spend time learning about apertures, shutter speeds and focal lengths. There was plenty to read and remember. And of course, the best photographers never stop learning and experimenting. But they've spent most of their time actually taking pictures.
If you're interested, this photography book by Ansel Adams is a great example of what I'm talking about. For each of 40 photos, he walks you through how it was made. There are settings, equipment and other details for those who are interested, but over and over he stresses that his knowledge of these details came from endless hikes, walks and climbs in pursuit of an image that he had in his head all along. There's a big difference between that kind of knowledge and the knowledge I got from just reading his book! Not until I got out there and took pictures did I start to learn what he was talking about.
Unfortunately though, adults are locked out of group and performing experience even if they do study Suzuki, because it is "for children only." This agism is prejudicial and interferes with adults' progress, and it is not easy to make up for this system-bias.
Another place where the "think like a pro" attitude comes in handy is at the bluegrass jams I attend. Tunes are chosen on the fly, everything is improvised, and there are no rehearsals, retakes, or repeat performances. You have to draw on your skills, play the licks you can, and skip the ones you can't. If you stumble, you pick yourself up and keep going; nobody is going to get upset because all that matters is the music, not what little details you tweaked to get there.
Yes, you need to do some serious woodshedding to hone your techniques. But it's just as important - and a heck of a lot of fun - to just get out there and cut loose.
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