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Think like a pro

Nathan Cole

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Published: January 10, 2014 at 11:21 PM [UTC]

I enjoy photography, and when I was a member of the Chicago Symphony I would often bug our photographer, Todd Rosenberg, when he wasn't strictly on the job. Sometimes I would show him a shot or two that I was proud of, and other times I might follow him around a party (with his permission!) just to watch him work. At one party he noticed me fussing with my camera settings one too many times, and said, "Look, try thinking like a pro for the next half hour. Do you see me messing with my camera, or do you see me shooting? I have to get shots of X number of donors or else I don't get paid. And they have to be good shots! Here..." and he took my camera and set it to a sensible aperture and shutter. "Now go take some good pictures. Watch the people, and shoot!"

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

From Dottie Case
Posted on January 11, 2014 at 5:50 AM
This is great.....thank you.
From Karen Collins
Posted on January 11, 2014 at 7:52 PM
a second thank you.
From Kate Little
Posted on January 11, 2014 at 9:25 PM
Hi Nathan - Thank you for the concept. I am wondering how it applies to a beginner like myself who is still building a technical foundation. I find that I have to work on a piece long and intently just to get it to the point where I can get the note sequence & in pitch & with a relaxed bow arm & good tone. I'm afraid that if I tried to "learn something in a day" that I might just work in really bad technique and that the effort would be counter-productive.

Also, what do you mean by "messing with the settings"?

From Nathan Cole
Posted on January 11, 2014 at 11:03 PM
Hi Kate, this idea is probably most helpful to those who find themselves "stuck in a rut", perhaps from practicing the same wrong way over and over. So if you're making good progress learning the basics, there's no need to change things up!

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.

Video of my Vivaldi concerto

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.

From Kate Little
Posted on January 12, 2014 at 1:11 AM
Thank you. The additional explaination clarifies, and the video is instructive. You are right, children and adults do have inherently different approaches to learning. However, I must say that I would gladly perform more often if given the opportunity, even if not "perfect," as there is so much to learn from the experience.

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.

From Laurie Niles
Posted on January 12, 2014 at 6:42 PM
Hey, one of my adult students went to Suzuki group class for several years, with all the kids. I thought it was great!
From Kate Little
Posted on January 12, 2014 at 11:25 PM
An opportunity like that would be so useful. The first "group" experience available to beginner adults in my area is a non-auditioned string orchestra or community orchestra. Going from private lessons and solo recitals to this level of group play is a huge leap. Suzuki groups would serve as a great intermediary.

From Roy Sonne
Posted on January 13, 2014 at 2:17 AM
A Venezuelan friend of mine who plays professionally in the Pittsburgh area, started out in El Sistema as an adult, going through all the years of instruction alongside of the classes filled with kids.
From Kate Little
Posted on January 13, 2014 at 2:51 AM
Wow! What a cool opportunity. That is wonderful that he could be included and that it worked out for him.
From Paul Deck
Posted on January 13, 2014 at 1:16 PM
there is a famous chess book called "think like a grandmaster"
From Charlie Gibbs
Posted on January 14, 2014 at 8:52 PM
I find I'm picking up this "think like a pro" attitude from having joined a community orchestra. It's nice to work on something until it's perfect, but now I often find myself facing a standful of music I haven't seen before but will have to play in a concert in a month and a half (while keeping up with my day job and other real-life tasks). So I take a quick pass through the material and find the hard parts. It's important to concentrate on a few parts rather than try to do everything at once. So I'll work on some of the hardest parts - not until they're perfect, but until they're good enough. Then I'll move to other parts that need work. Eventually everything is "good enough" - and if the concert is still a week or two away I can spend some time polishing everything. What starts out as a daunting task turns out to be not so bad after all - and come concert time I can play everything pretty well.

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.

From Nathan Cole
Posted on January 15, 2014 at 12:04 AM
Yes, there's no way to get through an orchestra season without being able to get things ready in a hurry! For the full-time orchestra member, in fact, it's often more a challenge to "think like an amateur"! In other words, take the opportunity to prepare pieces for which there is no time limit, and enjoy the process!
From Rebecca Darnall
Posted on January 16, 2014 at 10:38 PM
Fabulous way of thinking! I am learning more and more how to be efficient in my practice sessions. Definitely a separate skill that is important to learn and takes time to learn.
From Bryan Goodhead
Posted on January 17, 2014 at 6:25 AM
Hello Nathan, Thank you for this wonderful article! Sympathetic resonance! (My complimentary way of saying that I loved it!) This article comes at a good time for this violinist, as I'm extremely focused and determined! See you soon with a new video!

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