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Laurie's Violin School: Why Repetition Gets a Bad Rap

By Laurie Niles
Published: September 1, 2014 at 10:09

Dear friends, I'm starting a new Monday series called "Laurie's Violin School," which will focus on various aspects of learning and teaching the violin, drawing on my 20 years of experience teaching and extensive teacher training (Suzuki Book 1-10 certification, various other training and ongoing quest for new ideas!) I plan to cover a wide range of topics, such as practice tips, teaching ideas and philosophies, helpful aides, repertoire, and maybe even some videos. I welcome your input and suggestions!

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Sometimes repetition gets a bad rap: "Don't just do mindless repetition!"

But repetition is one of our most effective tools, when practiced correctly. I would go farther: repetition is absolutely essential for beginners building skill and for players of any level learning new repertoire, especially the tricky parts. In fact, the concept is inherent in the world "practice" -- here's one definition: "repeated exercise in or performance of an activity or skill so as to acquire or maintain proficiency in it."


So what's the problem with repetition? My son's piano teacher put it well: "Practice doesn't make perfect -- Perfect practice makes perfect!" No pressure there!

Her point: What you practice is what you write to your brain and what you pattern for your fingers. If you practice sloppily, with bad position, wrong notes and disconnection from the music, you will learn sloppy playing, bad position, wrong notes and robotic playing.

The idea of "perfect practice" is a little confusing, though. Let's say you have a passage that you need to practice: Obviously, you can't play it "perfectly" at the moment -- that is why you are practicing it. So how are you supposed to play it "perfectly"?

Let's just acknowledge that "perfect" is a stressful word; but I'm going to define it for our purposes in the following way: Playing something "perfectly" means playing it with the correct notes, with the correct rhythms, with the correct fingerings and bowings, at the correct speed, with the correct dynamics, and the with the kind of energy with which you wish to ultimately perform it.

Chances are, these can't all come together all at once. But as you work your repetitions, you must keep in mind that your ultimate goal has all these elements, and that every one of them must be included, as your growing ability allows you to include them.

How to go about it? The repetition begins only after you have achieved a goal. Sometimes you are simply trying to string two or three notes together correctly. Once you can do it, repeat it correctly ten times. Then go deeper: perhaps you work on correct rhythm, or bringing it up to speed. Maybe the passage has a crescendo; work out how to play those correct notes with a crescendo, then repeat when you like what you hear.

Let's say your passage is really beginning to sound like something, you can execute the notes correctly, in time, with dynamics. Have you animated the passage? Are you playing it as if you are in front of other people, trying to speak to them with this music? That needs repetition as well. If you add that energy only in performance, it's easy to overdo it and mess up. Or, it's easy to just never add it at all and play like a robot.

Done correctly, repetition is not dangerous; it will not turn you into a robotic drone. The problems occur when one neglects to dig deeper, when repetition does indeed become "mindless," done without attention to detail and care for the ultimate outcome.

So repetition requires concentration. If you begin to stare vacantly and forget you are playing the violin, then it's time to take a break or stop for the day.

But do cultivate that ability to concentrate repeatedly. Ten times correctly gets the job done quite well. For students, I like to stand up dominos with each correct repetition and let them knock them down at the end. I don't count the incorrect ones. For my own practice, I usually just move the dominos back and forth across the desk, so I know when I've done ten. If you are really concentrating on playing, it's sometimes difficult to keep track of the number of repetitions. Writing tallies on a sheet works, too. Or an abacus! But keeping track, I've found, makes me do more repetitions. Left on my own, I'd probably do about three, rather than 10!

So do your repetitions and do them correctly. It works wonders!

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Listen to Laurie's Public Radio Interview about Violinist.com

By Laurie Niles
Published: August 29, 2014 at 21:33

I wanted to share with you a link to a radio interview that I did, talking about the many wonderful violinists I've had the privilege of interviewing over the years as editor of Violinist.com.

Here's the link: A new book of interviews of top violinists from the editor of Violinist.com (WVXU - Cincinnati)


After being the "interviewer" for so long, I was a little nervous to be the "interviewee"! I was in great hands, though, with the easy-talking and deep-voiced Mark Perzel, host of Cincinnati Edition on Cincinnati Public Radio (WVXU). In our conversation we talk about interviewing Hilary Hahn, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, Sarah Chang, Anne Akiko Meyers, David Garrett, Ruggiero Ricci, Lara St. John, Midori, Aaron Rosand, and about the new book that contains many of those interviews, called Violinist.com Interviews, Vol. 1. We also talk about the history of Violinist.com and about the upcoming International Violin Competition of Indianapolis. Why Cincinnati? It's home to my parents and sister's family, and while visiting this summer I did a little book-signing recital.

I hope you enjoy the interview; please share the link if you do!

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V.com weekend vote: When is the last time you played something by memory?

By The Weekend Vote
Published: August 29, 2014 at 10:09

When is the last time you played something by memory?

koko spotlight

Performing a with the music and performing by memory involve different levels of preparation and different kinds of concentration.

"If you don't know it by memory, you don't really know it. It has to become part of you," said Curtis Professor of Violin Aaron Rosand in a recent interview with Violinist.com. The English language has a nice idiom for playing by memory: "playing by heart." Anyone who has put in the effort to memorize something knows that this saying contains much truth.

Students routinely memorize pieces for their teachers and often are required to perform them in recital. In the early stages, some students prefer playing by memory to reading music. But what happens when we move on from being students? Once we get adept at reading, though, we can also grow reliant on it. The wonderful thing about reading music is that it allows us to play new music on sight and prepare a performance without as much rehearsal as memorization would take. Orchestra playing often involves just a few rehearsals -- with music, of course!

And once you move past having a teacher, do you memorize music on your own?

When was the last time you memorized music, and performed it? Please vote, and share your thoughts about this topic in the comments section below.

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Busking For Life

By Karen Rile
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Published: August 28, 2014 at 22:38


I hadn't even heard the term "busking"until my kids told me that they wanted to do it. When they did, I grabbed a dictionary: to play music or otherwise perform for voluntary donations in the street. That seemed a little—how could I put it?—unsavory. Or, on second thought, maybe not. We'd spent, after all, thousands in lessons and instruments, which they had worked hard to learn how to play. Maybe it would be a lesson in personal economics, like a lemonade stand.

The girls were eight and ten at the time, and their goal was to earn enough to buy a Playmobil Grand Mansion dollhouse from the toy store up the street. The dream dollhouse was a very large and, I thought, unattractive object comprised of hundreds of tiny parts, something I really did not want inside my life-size house. And it cost over a hundred dollars, which I doubted they would be able to earn. I gave them the go-ahead to busk, expecting they'd earn a few dollars and spend it on ice cream.

They made their goal in a single afternoon. Apparently, little kids playing Bach are hard to resist, so the empty half-size violin case they'd set out on the corner with its hand-lettered sign, "Busking for a Doll House", quickly filled with cash. Their dollhouse, purchased and painstakingly assembled, took over the living room.

Next week they went out to busk some more.

Ours is in a quirky but pleasant urban neighborhood where cops patrol their beat on horseback and neighbors plant free lending libraries in their front yards. We have a lot of garden festivals and craft fairs where you'll see street musicians, both those hired by the business association and those playing for tips. Even on ordinary week days, our main street, lined with restaurants and coffee shops is a perfect place for busking. You don't need a permit like you do downtown or in the subway. Passers-by are friendly—no one shrieks at you to be quiet or tries to rip you off— and, rather than shooing you away from their stores, shop keepers cheer you on. Busking draws a crowd, and crowds are good for business.

I was never a hundred percent pro-busking when my kids were growing up because it ate into practice time. And you could hardly call it high-quality performing. Busking is something you do as a treat after your chores are done. It's a specialized skill: you don't play your real repertoire. You play arrangements, pieces that are recognizable, or at least easily digestible. Audiences want Pachelbel, not Paganini. You need to be able to grin back at dancing toddlers while their mothers pepper you with questions about Suzuki method and the best age to start lessons. You have to field requests ("Do you know anything by Beyoncé?") But the pay is great.

When they were younger my kids often busked to raise funds for charity. Once, outside of Starbucks, they earned a record-breaking $300 in less than an hour for earthquake rescue efforts in Haiti. The Starbucks manager brought them free Frappuccinos because they were attracting so many thirsty customers. Then the manager from the cheese store up the street came out and told them they could play in front of his place any time. Over the years my kids and their friends have done a lot busking, in lots of different cities. One of my daughters now lives in New York, where she busks in Central Park with friends whenever she can fit in a spare hour or two. Even though she's a far better musician now than at age eight, the take isn't as good there as it was years ago back home—only about $50/hour. Or maybe the take is lower because she's grown up.

It's been years since she busked in the neighborhood. When she's home now busking is the last thing on her mind. She's focused on the family, or practicing in the quiet of our house, or getting ready for a real performance. But I'll admit I miss walking up the street and hearing the sound of her Bach traveling on the wind.

Photo credit:Brian Fass, Bethesda Fountain, Central Park

Before my kids started busking I barely noticed street musicians. But now I give money to all of them, no matter what they're playing or how well. It's a compulsion shared by many parents of musicians. I start digging in my wallet as soon as I hear the music: the erhu player outside the Art Institute; the subway saxophonist; the accordion player in lederhosen with a stuffed monkey clipped to his shoulder. I can't walk by without stopping, and listening, and giving.

The other day I was out walking my dogs when I heard a faint but unmistakable sound: a fakebook arrangement of "Some Enchanted Evening". The busker I found when I rounded the corner was 87-year-old Patricia Woods Sellers, tapping away on a portable keyboard plugged into the electric supply of the hardware store. I stood there, my dogs wagging their tails, held in place by her jaunty, indomitable style.

I know it's not polite to talk to buskers, but I also know they're adept at talking while they play. So I asked if I could photograph her (she was all for it) and I asked her about herself. She told me that in 2011 she was fired from her job of 24 years at our neighborhood Cricket Club. (I don't belong, but yes, our neighborhood has a Cricket Club.)

"New management took over and they got rid of the old," she said, smiling dryly without missing a beat. Without a real piano now (she had to sell hers, she said) she makes do with a borrowed keyboard, busking for tips on the sidewalk in good weather.

I don't know the real story behind the employment dispute, but if you do the math, this 87-year-old was 84 in 2011 when she was let go. And here she is, dignified, beautiful, and playing well. "I'm here mostly on Saturdays," she said. If the weather's good this weekend, I'm going back to look for her. I want to hear her while I can, before the chill of winter.


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