How to keep up practicing for orchestra and solo

January 3, 2018, 12:09 PM · Hello guys,
I've quite a few concerts this year ahead of me (alone 3 orchestra performances this month) and to be honest it overwhelms me.

This month I'm playing Mozarts Haffner, Schubert 6th symphony and the Haydn trumpet concerto.

My teacher also told me that I will play the Bach Double Concerto in March or April AND I will most likely perform the 1st mov of Beethovens 5th sonata for a recital of my piano friend.

For some this might not be the hardest repetoire but it's pretty challenging for me to practice everything including the fact that I've only been playing the violin for a short time.

The thing is that I get frustrated if I don't achieve my goal to improve a certain passage to the point that I can't practice with much concentration.

I've tried to come up with a practice routine which looks like this:

1. Scales
2. Shifting (1st-5th pos.)
3. Etudes (Kayser)
4. Solo rep (Bach, Beethoven)
5. Orchestra (Mozart, Haydn, Schubert)

Even if I leave out the etudes or shifting exercises I seem to get exhausted when I practice my solo rep/orchestra exerpts.

I also don't have the chance to divide my practice sessions as I almost always have a long school day and my mom doesn't let me play after 8pm.

I'm really frustrated and scared that I will hate the violin since I have so many problems I need to fix but not enough time/ energy to fix them.

Replies (44)

January 3, 2018, 12:25 PM · How long are you currently able to practice each day?
January 3, 2018, 12:32 PM · Mondays only 30 min., tuesdays 1h, wednesdays 3h, thursdays 1h, friday 30min., saturdays and sundays I could play up to 4h if I only had the energy and my mom the nerves ;).
January 3, 2018, 12:33 PM · You're a high schooler? Focus on the materials for your lessons, and do the bare minimum necessary not to embarrass yourself in orchestra.
January 3, 2018, 12:35 PM · Welcome to our world. At the professional orchestra level, the players learn a different program every week. Major Opera companies will play a different show every night, on rotation. You probably need to put a time limit on your technical practice- for me it is one hour. For orchestra parts, I use the triage concept: this section I can sight-read correctly, that section I will learn in the rehearsal, this spot is beyond me no matter how hard I work on it, so fake it, skip it. I only practice a few selected excerpts.
January 3, 2018, 12:46 PM · @Lydia You could say I go to a high school (I live in Germany). I have two years of school left.
@joel Well I'm the second chair of the 2nd violins so it would be obvious if I fake a passage.
January 3, 2018, 1:05 PM · "@joel Well I'm the second chair of the 2nd violins so it would be obvious if I fake a passage."

Not necessarily. ;-) And you'll be amazed at how good a sightreader you can become under duress.

Seriously, I agree with Joel about the triage. I suspect you're investing far more time than necessary on your orchestra repertoire. Practice only what is necessary to pull your weight.

The first thing I do with an unfamiliar orchestra work is listen to it with my part in front of me. You could do this after 8 PM with headphones. You will find that in doing this, it will become obvious to you which passages are going to need woodshedding and which are playable at sight.

January 3, 2018, 2:51 PM · I agree with Mary Ellen and Joel, especially about the triage.

Get the rhythms right. Hit the structural notes of the passage. Leave learning all the notes to the principal. :-)

January 3, 2018, 3:01 PM · If you need to fake things just make sure to get the bowings right no matter what. During fall last year I faked the 1st chair 2nd violin part for quite a bit without anyone but my stand partner noticing. If you're really tight on time and need to fake it well, spend the majority of your time rehearsing the fingerings, not getting it in tune. Go over your music and just make sure your fingers look like they're going to the right place, and that your bow looks like you're playing things correctly.

Also, if your schedule is really too packed, drop a few orchestra's and concerts. It's always better to enjoy what you do :). Good luck in the concerts!

January 3, 2018, 3:02 PM · "During fall last year I faked the 1st chair 2nd violin part for quite a bit without anyone but my stand partner noticing."

*and the conductor


Edited: January 3, 2018, 3:18 PM · The obvious strategy is to practice your most impressive solo bits during orchestral breaks...where by practice, I mean rip through, loudly, making sure everyone around you can hear and will know how awesome you are.

(I kid. Although this is a classic youth orchestra scenario...)

Seriously, I've found orchestra breaks to be great for quick-but-intense spot-checking/woodshedding. You're warmed've just remembered where the scary sections are, and what tempo you're expected to manage...and there's an immediacy to what you're doing that helps. The pros around here may disagree.

Another tip, perhaps controversial, which may be the one thing I learned freshman year from an otherwise awful teacher: if you practice the tough spots ONLY slowly, you may never get them up to speed. She made me rip through them at concert pace to determine exactly where the challenges lay and get the bigger feel for the timing of the passage into my fingers/ears. Her philosophy (which almost certainly wouldn't fly in a professional setting) was that it was better to get it 80% with conviction at tempo than 95% accurate but just a hair too slow. (We were playing the Rachmaninov 2nd Symphony and the opening of the last movement was eluding me at tempo. For that piece, at that time, it worked.)

January 3, 2018, 3:17 PM · Given your circumstances, I'd probably quit orchestra and just focus on improving your own playing ability. I think orchestra screws up a lot of potentially good players because much of the time is spent on learning new repertoire each week, which borrows from actually improving lesson materials with your limited time.

Spend time on orchestra once you've improved enough to where the majority of the repertoire is almost sight-readable. If orchestra is taking up tons of your time to prepare, then it's too hard for you, relatively.

In a perfect world, you'd have time/energy to both improve yourself as a player and constantly learn new orchestra parts, but it sounds like that's not your world.

In absence of that option, Lydia's suggestion is good, about focusing on lesson materials and doing the bare minimum to not embarrass yourself in orchestra.

Think of your practice - while still a teen - like saving money in a bank account. Practicing lesson materials (etudes, scales, solo pieces) is like putting money IN the bank account. It will grow into a lot more money if you put it in now, rather than later. Think of orchestra playing as taking money OUT of the savings account and spending it.

The more you "save" now, the better you'll do later, so spend your practice time wisely.

January 3, 2018, 3:21 PM · I agree that practicing lesson material now is putting money in the bank. I strongly disagree that orchestra playing is taking money out of the account. Orchestra playing done right reinforces what is being learned in the lessons.

Besides, the payoff for learning an instrument is being able to play great music under congenial circumstances. My best friends from high school were my orchestra friends.

January 3, 2018, 3:24 PM · Erik may be right, but assuming that you're not preparing for a career in music, orchestra can make playing a lot more enjoyable and balance out the hours of etudes/scales/studies/etc.

I tend to think Lydia's approach makes the most sense. Do what you need to do for orchestra to be fulfilling. At some point, but maybe not just yet, you'll achieve a level of playing where this won't take quite as much energy.

What part of learning violin is most fun for you? You write about worrying that you'll start hating it. To me, this sounds like a good time to assess:
–do you feel that you're making progress with your lessons? are you happy with your teacher?
-is orchestra fun or tedious?
-are you more drawn to collaborative or solo musical efforts?
Then tinker with your priorities accordingly.

For me, orchestra and chamber music were important motivators, especially once I realized that a career in music was well beyond my reach. That said, there's an interesting paradox here: the more time you invest now in your individual development (studies, etudes, the progression of standard solo repertoire), the more likely you are to enjoy ensemble playing later on.

January 3, 2018, 3:30 PM · Wait, one more thought. Be like Lydia! divide up your practice priorities into timed events. Some things will be small chunks. Some will require more warm-up and thought. With planning, you might be able to fit more in than you think, and then you won't have a daunting list saved up for the weekend/day before your lesson.

When I was an exchange student in Dresden, we had something that I'd never experienced in American high school: free periods in the middle of a day (sometimes planned, sometimes because a teacher was absent). I brought my violin with me (I typically had lessons after school, anyway) and would sneak off to a secluded corner and practice a bit when I didn't have somewhere else I had to be.

Another solution if practicing after 8 PM is a noise issue: get a heavy practice mute.

Edited: January 3, 2018, 4:50 PM · Great advice, everyone. My recommendation is to take breaks when you feel your brain needs it on long practice days (in the OP's case, weekends), if you feel you're losing energy. If you're really short on time on particular days:
1. skip repertoire and other items you're confident on
2. only do what really needs practicing
Personally, I only practice orchestra repertoire until I can play it fairly fluently and accurately (note accuracy, generally clean and clear, dynamics achieved). After that stage, I don't bother to practice my orchestra repertoire anymore. I disagree on quitting orchestra. Depending on the orchestra you're in, you'll generally spend several months on the same repertoire, but take your orchestral situation into account. Playing in orchestra as a student can be educational, fulfilling, and enjoyable.
In terms of your time management, what can you do after 8 pm? If you have school homework and other quiet activities, save as much of it as you can after 8 pm as long as you don't stay up too late, and spend the earlier hours on violin practice.
Edited: January 3, 2018, 5:12 PM · Don't quit orchestra, especially if that's the nucleus of your social life. You're working on good things there and you are probably learning a lot.

As for the Bach Double ("Doc Bubble") you probably already have the first movement well learned. The second movement is not technically that difficult (as long as you have learned how to save bow!), but don't wait until too late to get the ensemble working with orchestra and your soloist partner because phrasing and dynamics need to be just right. The third movement has a few tricky spots so you should get to work on those now. I recommend listening to Arthur Grumiaux, it's well recorded and you can really hear how they close out their phrases and how they execute vibrato.

For the trumpet concerto the audience will be focused on the soloist. Your job there is to keep your bowings aligned and don't blow any big entrances. For the symphonies, Mary Ellen's idea is excellent -- listen with your part in front of you, and have your pencil in hand to mark spots where the alignment of your part with another part is critical. Right in your part you can write "with cellos" or "follow horns" or "pass to violas."

The Beethoven is the wild card here. Since it's your friend's recital of course you want to play well. This piece lives and dies on style and ensemble. Don't try to play it too fast. Those "accompaniment triplet" parts -- don't agonize over those because nobody pays any attention to them anyway. The recording by Mutter is lovely.

January 4, 2018, 5:53 AM · @Katie to answer your questions...
I don´t see as much progress in my lessons anymore than it used to be though I believe it has something to do with my bad practice habits. I really like my teacher thought I need to say, that don´t think she´ll be able to teach me much more in the future.
Orchestra can be tons of fun (it´s most of the time) yet I get stressed out if I can´t play fast passages.
I adore orchestra/chamber music as much as I love solo rep.

@Katie Yes, sometimes periods get cancelled and I always try to practice at that time.
P.S. I always play with a heavy metal mute as much as I hate the tone my violin then produces. Our apartment has pretty thin walls.

I have another question to all of you.
How can I still be focused if I just can´t seem to get a passage right? A huge practice habit of mine is that I immediately give up if I can´t play something up to tempo even if I practice with a metronome (only slightly increasing speed time) and practicing with rhythm. It only leads to me ending the practice session.
I know it´s a huge drawback being a perfectionist as it damages my habits more than it does any good. Any advice?

Edited: January 4, 2018, 6:47 AM · It's fine to be a perfectionist but you need to learn how perfection on the violin is actually achieved. "Quickly" is not how.

* Slow practice (really slow) and rhythms are good. When you become flustered with something, just set it aside but then work on something else instead of putting your violin away.

* One of the things you're supposed to learn from slow practice and the process of speeding up with the metronome is WHY a certain passage is not succeeding. This finger needs to lift off more quickly, or I need to rotate my elbow sooner, or something like that. Usually it's a string change or a shift, so pay close attention to those. Stopping before every string change or shift and preparing the next note is an interesting technique.

* Sometimes the only reason you cannot play all the way through a hard passage without breaking down is the fear, itself, that you cannot do it.

* Save 10 minutes at the end of each practice session to write down the sections you're going to work on next time. Don't expect the list to change all that much day by day, but write it afresh every day, perhaps in a different order.

* Spending time on scales and studies is different from wasting time on them. Which are you doing?

* Your practice schedule is very uneven. Make sure you are able to get to a state of productivity within about five minutes of starting to make best use of the one-hour slots. But when you have three or four hours, take a break every hour and have tea or a snack.

January 4, 2018, 8:00 AM · You're going to have trouble developing a good tone if you can't hear yourself properly; try not to play with a mute if you can avoid it. The big heavy metal ones can damage your bridge, too.

You're still in the process of getting technical fundamentals into place. Your maximum speed on a passage, for instance, is a function of your overall facility on the instrument. The baseline patterns and fast finger motions need to be set into your brain. So does the coordination for string-crossings and the like. Your time is probably more productively spent on learning those patterns than it is on woodshedding orchestra passages, unless the passage is itself a useful exercise.

Some fast passages require multiple days, even weeks, to get up to tempo. You're looking to making incremental progress each day, not get it all in a single practice session.

January 4, 2018, 9:07 AM · Valerie, to avoid stopping practicing a fast passage entirely, you should instead focus not on the entire passage, but, say on the first four notes, then the next four notes, etc. It is called ABC practice (because you chop the passage in parts A, B, C, D and so on). Then you connect two parts, like you do AB together, BC together, and so on. After than you do ABC together, BCD together, and so on. Like Lydia said it can take many days to nail a fast passage.
January 4, 2018, 11:48 AM · ("Heavy Metal" mutes can also fall ON the instrument and damage it-in addition to any bridge damage-when playing vigorously. Try the big, practice rubber ones if need be, but I second the opinion that practice mutes are better left for emergency times, when you really need to practice without being heard.)

Also agree-advance technique and repertoire over orchestra duties. No need to abandon the latter, but the former is essential.

January 4, 2018, 1:56 PM · Valeria lives in an apartment, so a mute may be necessary. We need to find out from her, though.
Edited: January 4, 2018, 2:06 PM · Violins are not necessarily as loud as people sometimes assume. That's especially true of student violins.

I used to live in a townhouse where I practiced at full volume at 1 am. Didn't bother the neighbors, and that was with a shared bedroom wall.

And I've lived in an apartment with terrible walls (I had no problem hearing the neighbors' television). Didn't bother them that I was practicing at midnight.

January 4, 2018, 3:07 PM · Valeria, et al.,

I always thought that only American young people were over-scheduled. Clearly you have a heavy music program as well as your academic course load. Unless you are enrolled in a pre-college conservatory, it sounds like too much.

What are your career aspirations? Professional musician, soloist, teacher,... or will music only be your hobby as you pursue a non-musical career? The choice of direction does make a difference as to how to approach your very busy schedule.

January 4, 2018, 4:08 PM · Be mindful that some neighbours are more sensitive than others. I will not recommend anything until I hear more from the OP.
Edited: January 4, 2018, 6:40 PM · It looks like I've been using Joel's triage method for many years, both as a cellist and now latterly as an orchestral violinist. The orchestras I play in have rehearsal speeds at or very near performance speed, and conductors who don't take prisoners. Fortunately, I'm a reasonably good sight-reader (esp. under pressure, thank you Mary Ellen!), so I probably get about 75% of the first rehearsal in my fingers sight-reading, another 15% I learn during the rehearsal, and the tricky bits I work on at home, with variable success I might add, so I know about faking it when necessary!

Regarding practice at home, I have my practice room in the loft at the top of the house well away from the rest of the household, the building is well sound-insulated, and any violin sound that escapes through an open window is, I've been told, pretty well absorbed in the ambient sound of the city. Never needed to use a practice mute.

January 4, 2018, 6:52 PM · Well, an apartment is different. Are you living in a singular house, Trevor?
Edited: January 5, 2018, 6:25 AM · I also practice "full blast" but I personally remodeled the room myself and insulated all the walls and ceiling with fiberglass, including the interior walls. Why? Because it's a guest bedroom. The occupant of the bedroom immediately above my practice room can hear me, but only faintly. The occupant of the next bedroom over (again, upstairs) cannot hear me at all. That's one problem with apartments is that you can't control or even measure the sound insulation. One thing you can do is just try practicing at full volume and see if anyone complains. It's really not as mean as it sounds.
January 5, 2018, 8:09 AM · Good idea. If worst comes to worst, use a mute or practice room insulators.
Edited: January 5, 2018, 8:20 AM · Going back to the original question of practice schedule...

I'm currently faced with a similar problem. I have a pile of orchestra music to learn, some of it quite difficult, and it needs to be pretty close to note-perfect, since I'm the concertmaster (which also means that the solos have to be confidently correct). I have a recital commitment upcoming, so I'm time-crunched to learn a difficult sonata. I have commitments to learn two difficult chamber-music first violin parts for upcoming concerts. I have a concerto and technical work that I should also be doing. I have limited practice time, and several days now frequently go by where I don't practice at all because I'm out of town without my violin or simply too busy with other things (including the evenings that are taken up by rehearsals).

In theory, I would have a nicely planned-out practice schedule. In practice, I actually lurch from thing to thing, depending on what I'm most panicked about at the moment. :-)

I'm currently finding it more profitable to spend practice sessions working on a single thing in depth (moving between sections of it), rather than rotating between material. But I have mental milestones for how far along I should be on something in order meet my timeframes for getting things learned to a workable level (i.e., at the start of rehearsals, nondisruptive mistakes are tolerable, but it's got to reach performance level by the performance date). And those can be granular -- timed to the cadence of lessons, rehearsals, etc.

January 5, 2018, 8:50 AM · Sorry to hear about your situation, Lydia. I think I'd spend my time working on what's most difficult for me, and only review the easier stuff when I have time. Of course, practice schedules are your responsibility to organize.
January 5, 2018, 9:11 AM · Well, in a way, it's a positive situation, since I'm getting the opportunity to do as much quality music as I want, and turning down a lot more stuff because I don't have the time for it.

Orchestra and chamber music can be triaged, per the above. But in solo repertoire, even the easy parts need practice. That's what goes off the rails in performance -- concentration slip combined with autopiloting through a section never properly practiced, equals stupid meaningless mistake. And solo repertoire needs work throughout for expressiveness, which consumes practice time in experimentation.

January 5, 2018, 9:50 AM · ""During fall last year I faked the 1st chair 2nd violin part for quite a bit without anyone but my stand partner noticing."
*and the conductor"

Don't worry, the conductor is likely faking it too.

As for practicing, I'm wondering if you have really narrowed your music down to just those parts that require it. 99% of all students (in my experience) don't do this--they tend to use too much time playing through material they already know and without really stopping to FIX things. It can add up to a lot of wasted time. We all do it.

What generally needs fixing? Shifts. Bow distribution. String crossings. Usually small points of transition.
Here's a question for those that practice 3 octave scales: How many of you start at the beginning of the scale?

WHY? That's not where the issues are. The problems in 3 octave scales are 20% the shifts going up, and 80% the shifts going down.

Cats have the same problem--ever wonder why we never call the fire department to help cats up trees? Only to get them down. So next time you practice scales, spend 80% of your time practicing the shifts down from the very top. Don't waste time practicing the first octave.

If you apply this principle across your music--practicing the corners instead of the straightaways, you'll save time and get more done. Half of what we learn as we mature isn't shifting, vibrato, trills, etc---it's how to be efficient.

January 5, 2018, 10:13 AM · I like to run through stuff, just to keep it fresh. I find that each time I play a piece, I mess up in different spots, so I only isolate parts that I constantly mess up on. I just fix the small bloopers "on the fly". Not a great idea, but I don't know what else to do. Yeah, I could do slow practice and sectional break-up. When I'm mentally tired, I don't play as well as when I'm mentally alert because I find that I have less control over my body when I play in a mentally tired state.
Edited: January 5, 2018, 10:33 AM · "Airbow!" said Bogidar Avramov with his Eastern European accent, our conductor of the Desert Community Orchestra for a number of years. (I notice his time in front of THAT orchestra is not mentioned in any on-line biographical material- and since I was CM all those years, I don't blame him for leaving it out.) Of course, airbowing would not likely get you a chair during his many years conducting the Eastern Sierra Symphony at Mammoth Lakes, CA. But "airbowing" can get you through here and there in most places the OP is likely to be playing in orchestra for a while.

Building technique and sight-reading ability are the things that will carry your violin playing through life. Practice for all my years in orchestras involved finding the hard parts, working them up to about 10% faster than we would perform them and ignoring the rest in my daily practice sessions. When we first got the music for every concert it was to sight-read it through as a full orchestra. Thus it was easy from that first reading to know what would take some work.

Typically practice of orchestra music probably took me no more than 5 minutes a day per concert. However, this week I was reminded of one big exception when I watched the New York Philharmonic's special program of Leonard Bernstein's "Broadway Music" that opened with his overture to "Candide." Over the 20 years I sat in that CM chair we performed that overture twice and I recall practicing much of the 1st violin part every day up to the performance for both concerts.

Edited: January 5, 2018, 11:58 AM · Funny, my next orchestra concert has the Candide overture (as noted above, difficult), Brahms 2 (many difficult sections, many of them right hand control oriented, not just left hand), and Hovhaness 66 ("Glacier Peak", not difficult but totally unfamiliar).

Scott's scale suggestion is quite acute, and it reminds me that ages ago, a teacher of mine told me that I should practice scales starting from the top, and I don't think I ever followed that directive. ;-)

Edited: January 5, 2018, 2:21 PM · I've been reworking on hitting the high notes from nowhere lately by relying heavily on visual cue and hand position without any guessing. Practising scales top down is another good way of achieving accuracy of playing this kind of notes.
January 5, 2018, 1:26 PM · 3-octave scales: There is a great moment in the Jascha Heifetz Masterclass video (I think it was filmed in 1962) when he asks student Claire Hodgkins to play a 3-octave G major scale. Well, by mistake she starts on G4 (on the D string) instead of G3, open G string - when she realizes her error (here quoted, "oops!!), Heifetz encouragers her to continue and so she does - going up all three additional octaves. Years later, in 1973, I was in a masterclass that Claire led at Loma Linda University, at that time she was the assistant to Heifetz at the still continuing Masterclass at USC.
January 5, 2018, 1:54 PM · "I've been reworking on hitting the high notes from nowhere lately by relying heavily on visual cue and hand position without any guessing."

We should not be guessing when finding high notes, especially when we have time to place them.
If one can find the middle node (the exact string middle which produces the harmonic one octave up) with each finger, you can find practically everything else. For example, the 2nd page of Brahms 2 that has the octave A leap really shouldn't be that bad if you know where that harmonic is on the A string.

I'm always telling students to use a reference finger to find the position. Just throwing the fingers up there and praying will only get you so far. Just watch very accomplished players as they find high positions--they almost always us a reference finger for accuracy. And sometimes put a nice portamento on the reference finger.

January 5, 2018, 2:17 PM · The octave reference points are super useful.

On the E string, you should probably have the kinesthetic sense to shift up to find a 1st finger G, 2nd finger A, and 3rd finger B on demand. Preferably all those notes on the 2nd and 3rd fingers, which are your most likely big leaps. You should have a kind of mental "feel" for those notes in your head.

I find it useful to mentally go through the kinesthetic feel of a shift (I close my eyes to feel it), before doing the actual shift, in slow practice. It's like recalling what it should feel like. Good priming.

Edited: January 5, 2018, 8:37 PM · Good advices, Scott and Lydia! In practice room, I usually can be confident about kinesthetic feel when doing big shifts, but to be absolutely sure, especially during performance, I find looking at the fingerboard to gauge the distance gives me additional confirmation, even at relative low positions such as 5th position, where my first finger is aligned with the rim of the body, they at EBF#C# from G string to E.

I see a lot of performers plucking the string when playing high notes from nowhere. It can be a bit annoying and not always necessary. For instance, the first note Bb on A string in the Bruch's Scottish Fantasy, if I can accurately put my first finger on 5th position (F#/Gb) on A string, then I can start that Bb with 3rd finger without plucking. I used to do the silent one octave shift to get to that note since I regularly practice one finger shift and have the confidence to do this accurately most of the time, but by adding the visual aid, it gives me certainty.

January 5, 2018, 3:59 PM · For big shifts I just use the force.
January 5, 2018, 4:19 PM · Ella, I must apologise for overlooking the fact that an "apartment" is an important part of a discussion about noise. Yes, I do now live in a singular house - in the UK they're called "detached", or "semidetached" if two houses are joined by a common wall but are otherwise separate from other houses - but before I got married I lived in an apartment in a succession of multiple occupancy dwellings, so have had some experience of unwanted noise issues!
Edited: January 6, 2018, 10:14 PM · I find the fourth above the harmonic to have been a useful spot to learn as a reference point, and it was easy to do so since you can check intonation when doing so with the string below. And, of course, the harmonic the note above that (8+5) is also a good spot, esoecially on the G string (since no C string to check the 8+4 note). With those and the octave itself you pretty much have all the high stuff framed up except for the ocassional nosebleed note here or there outside of solo repertoire.

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