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For beginners especially - how to maintain a love for the violin once the secret is out that it's hard...

By Michael Fox
Los Angeles, California
Published: October 24, 2014 at 17:01

I remember getting my first violin, and feeling enchanted from my 6 year-old eyes, the cloth covered, curved box made of wood stained with a dark orange hue. It seemed almost scary in its unapproachable fanciness, as if it possessed magical properties. So I just kind of looked at it with a sense of awe, until I heard some musicians play it, first in a bluegrass band, and then in a symphony, with the promise that lessons and practice would lead me being able to do that. So I tried to pick it up – and practiced my first assignment – an open A string to a steady rhythm that I was taught as “Mississippi Hotdog.” (which I guess would be one with grits in it)

My teacher could play an amazing “Mississippi Hotdog,” with each note ringing out clearly, and keeping the beat perfectly wherever she felt like setting the metronome. About half the time, my “Mississippi Hotdog” sounded like the annoying static-y noise I would hear when I went to the wrong TV channel. It took a few months of doing nothing but @%$*#& “Mississippi Hotdog” on a open string before we even talked about putting the other hand on the string to play actually notes. When we did, I usually ended up with something that sounded a little like a very sad cat. This in turn led to another few months of hard work before I was able to play “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.”

Violin playing is hard. Specifically, the worst part of learning is often at the front end. Some instruments, like the piano can be learned cumulatively – meaning it’s easy to do at first, and then can get more complicated as your knowledge builds. Violin playing is much more like riding a bike – it’s basically impossible at first, but you have to train your muscles to cooperate, and certain bodily movements have to become basically automatic. That’s why you often have to spend so much time simply learning how to hold the bow, or get a pitch in tune. It can be easy to get discouraged at this point (and I have seen a few students get discouraged and lose interest when progress wasn’t going fast enough) – but here are a few things I find are really helpful in helping to maintain a sense of motivation past the hurdle:

1) Never let the love of music die

When I first started lessons, my mom made the observation that the kids who carried their own violins seemed more likely to stick with it then those who had their instrument carried by parents. I’ve sense discovered what an ingenious discovery this was, that students who really “own” their instruments are the ones who keep going even when it’s too hard to get right away. I think one of the main things a teacher (of any subject really, but music especially) should strive for internal motivation – or that a student needs to really desire to learn music for its own sake, because he or she really wants to. The great painter Pablo Picasso once said, “All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist when we grow up.” So, I consider one of my main jobs as a teacher to maintain a sense of fun playfulness and love of music even when it gets hard. The discipline needed to reach proficiency will come if you really love it. But you can help me out in this goal! Keep listening to music, especially stuff with violins in it. Listen to your body, and know when you’re pushing it too much, and feel free to take a break. Play music-related games so you can “practice” without it feeling like drudgery.

2) Remember you are learning “music,” not just “violin”

Dragging a bow across a string is not just a technique. It is a way to play rhythm. It is not enough merely to know where the fingers of the left hand “should go” on the finger board, you need to listen carefully and know what it means to be in tune. Thus, playing the violin is not an act in itself, and sometimes it may be helpful to take a break from building technique, to instead build up “musical intelligence” more broadly. This can be accomplished by singing, clapping, playing a shaker or other percussion instruments, and dancing, as ways to work on matching a rhythm and pitch to what you hear.

3) Focus on only one thing at a time

One of the main reasons violin playing is such a challenge is that is requires you to do so many different things at the same time. Even “Mississippi Hotdog,” my favorite song of all time, requires an overwhelming level of coordination that can go wrong if any individual muscle is pressing down too much or not moving enough. It’s too much to think about at one time, which is how many people end up practicing things incorrectly and making everything even more difficult. Instead, really try to concentrate on one thing at a time. For example, try playing a song one time focusing on keeping the bow straight and in between the bridge and the edge of the finger board, and then do it again with making sure the fingers on the “note hand” aren’t jumping up after you lift them off the string. With my beginner students, I find it sometimes helps to focus on bowing on open strings, and then working on the note hand by plucking “guitar style.”

4) Daily short practice is better then inconsistent long practice

Violin playing is something that is only going to get easier with consistent practice. Trying to “cram” practice just before a lesson is about as effective as only brushing your teeth before going to the dentist. But I understand that, realistically, we’re not all students at Julliard or the Berklee College of Music. For many of my students, school, work, and friends gets in the way of working on everything every day. My encouragement to them is simply this – practice less more often. Even on days when you feel totally stressed out and overwhelmed, at least get the violin out of its case, and play scales for 5 – 10 minutes or so. Even that small bit of practice, with appropriate levels of concentration, activates the pathways of your brain, that, over a long period of time, will make playing come more automatically, so you can focus on actually making music.

A parable -

Once upon a time, there lived a little pony in a forest far away. One day, the pony found a huge tree that, according to his bird friends, had the juiciest, largest, and sweetest apples in the world. So he went to the tree, and discovered, sadly, that these amazing apples were only on the tree’s highest branches. He stretched out as far as he could go, but couldn’t get anywhere near the apples he wanted. But our pony wouldn’t give up. Every day, he would go up to the tree and stretch his neck, trying to reach as high as he could go. At first, it was really hard, and he couldn’t stretch anywhere near the apples. But, after a very long time of going to the tree and stretching his neck every day, he found it got easier and he was able to stretch higher then he had before. Finally, one day, he discovered that he could reach the apples, but that he had to work harder to reach down to the grass, because his stretching had made his neck longer. And he had become the world’s first giraffe.

And the moral of the story is – Your body, and your mind, are capable of far more than you think. If you just work at pushing yourself just a little bit every day, things that seem impossible will become second nature. Happy practicing!

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V.com weekend vote: Which is your favorite string?

By The Weekend Vote
Published: October 24, 2014 at 10:18

violin stringsWhich is your favorite violin or viola string, and why?

Of course we need all our strings, and we appreciate them differently, depending on the music. But writing about Giora Schmidt and his quest for a modern instrument this week, I was struck with one of his preferences: that he wanted a violin with power on the D string, for those special D-string moments, like the beginning of the melody in the first movement of the Tchaikovsky concerto. It made me think, which string do I like best on my own violin, and why? When I pick up another violin, what do I want to hear from each string, and what would be a deal-breaker, if I didn't like it?

So I thought it would make for a nice vote this week: which is your favorite string? Here are a few thoughts on the various strings. First, that part of the Tchaik with the nice D-string moment -- here is Josh Bell playing the piece at the 2013 BBC Proms with the National Youth Orchestra of the U.S.; the part I'm speaking about is at 3:13:

Some people don't like the brightness of the E string, and yet check out 16:08 in the video above -- what other instrument than the violin can reach those height and still sound gorgeous?

One might have a little "thing" for the G-string (no silly jokes please!) because of moments like the beginning of the 2nd movement of the Franck Sonata -- behold Soyoung Yoon playing it in 2009 at the St. Elizabeth competition (wish I could tell you the pianist!):

Of course, the A string seems to be at the center of our universe, the beloved note that tunes the orchestra. Should it be 440, 442, higher? Do we think much about this string, or is it just a workhorse for us, between the juicy high and low notes?

And I've included the C string, as we are all one family here in the string section. Many love those rich deep tones better than anything else.

So please chime in on your favorite string, and let us know why you picked what you picked! (If you like more than one string, and yes we all do, remember that this is just for fun!)

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The Intermediate Player

By Danielle Gomez
Encinitas, California
Published: October 23, 2014 at 23:10

The concept of being "intermediate" is something often overlooked. Everyone is guilty of this regardless of age. Though most would not admit as much, there seems to be this unspoken expectation that a student goes from "beginner" and then immediately jumps to "expert."

What happened to intermediate?

Understanding the basics of an instrument and achieving a reasonable amount of control is really only just the beginning of the learning process. Just because the student can't play everything doesn't mean that the student is a failure or even that the effort was wasted. Being intermediate at something is the only way to eventually become advanced.

The learning curve is not a straight upward line. It may resemble such in the beginning when everything is a new concept. But eventually this line plateaus. Learning happens in phases and there is a definite possibility that things could get worse at times before things get better.

Being intermediate is far more difficult than being advanced. At the advanced level most music seems achievable given enough time and effort. At the intermediate level the mental knowledge has outstripped physical ability and the result is frustration. The effort of achieving mastery seems daunting, making everything achieved so far appear trivial.

But take comfort in the fact that these feelings are normal. It is part of the learning process and there's no way to skip this step. Every advanced musician that you hear playing was both a beginner and intermediate player at some point.

Rethinking Genius

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A List of Established Modern Violin and Bow Makers from the VSA's New Instrument Exhibit

By Laurie Niles
Published: October 23, 2014 at 14:46

Who exactly are some of the more established modern violin and bow makers who are raising the art of the craft to new level? We hope that the list below can serve as a helpful resource to anyone looking for a fine modern instrument.

Last month during the Violin Society of America's Convention, an entire exhibit was devoted to new violins make by well-established violin and bow makers. Many of these makers have won so many VSA awards that they were no longer eligible to enter the 2014 VSA Competition for makers (Winners of the 2014 Violin Society of America Competition are listed here.)

Called the "New Instrument Exhibit," it featured 120 instruments and bows by 85 makers. Players visited the room all week to test the violins and bows, and they often could meet the maker right there in the room; so it was possible to speak to a maker while testing his or her violin or bow. What an incredible opportunity!

VSA violins

Here is a list of the makers represented in the VSA's "New Instrument Exbibit," all with links to their contact information. I hope you find this to be helpful!

Carruthers
Andrew Carruthers of Santa Rosa

Scott-Alf-Braun
Bill Scott, Gregg Alf and Dennis Braun

Michael Fischer
Michael Fischer of Los Angeles

Skreko Indy
Theodore Skreko of Indianapolis Violins

Zyg and Curtin
Sam Zygmuntowicz and Joseph Curtin

VIOLIN MAKERS

Gregg T. Alf
Pablo Alfaro
Robert Ames
GianCarlo Arcieri
Dimitri Atanassov
Dorian Barnes
Gonzalo Bayolo
David Burgess
Andrew Carruthers
Chicago School of Violin Making
Carlo Chiesa
David L. Chrapkiewicz
Marco Coppiardi
Martin Cornelissen
Thomas Croen
Joseph Curtin
David Finck
Michael Fischer
Ronald L Fletcher
David Folland
Andrea Frandsen
Christopher Germain
Todd Goldenberg
David Gusset
Jonathan Hai
Mark Hollinger
Li Ming Huai
Indianapolis Violins
Feng Jiang
Chris Kiely
Felix Krafft
Francis Kuttner
Christophe Landon
Silvio Levaggi
Zhen Hua Ling
Douglas Martin
Jesse Maschmeyer
Steven M. McCann
Georg Meiwes
Ray Melanson
Thomas Meuwissen
Eduard Miller
Sally Mullikin
Orest Nakonechny
Oberlin Workshop
Phillippe Reynaud
James Robinson
Benjamin Ruth
Andrew Ryan
Julien Schneider
Kelvin Scott
Bill Scott, Jr.
Sigrun Seifert and Joseph Grubaugh
Nathan Slobodkin
Jan Spidlen
David Swanson
Joe Thrift
Stefan Valcuha
Jason Viseltear
Stephan Von Baehr
Marilyn J Wallin
Mark Hough
Ute Zahn
Samuel Zygmuntowicz

BOW MAKERS

Morgan Andersen
John Aniano
Pierre-Yves Fuchs
Lee Guthrie
David Hawthorne
Kwonsu Kim
Rodney Mohr
Evan Orman
Richard Riggal
Steve Salchow
David Samuels
Elizabeth Shaak
Matthew Wehling
Li Xueyong
Roger Zabinski

* * *

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