On 'Practice'

April 25, 2015, 7:47 PM · Greetings,

What is the difference between a good teacher and a bad one? Probably about $50.

Flippancy aside, one of the most noticeable things about great teachers is they focus on how to practice for a large part of the lesson time. (An excellent example of this is the collection of DVD's featuring Zhakar Bron teaching -- here is an excerpt on Youtube) The reason for this is simply that a person learns to play the violin for the days in between their violin lesson.

PracticeOne thing that I have noticed over the years, although I don't have any concrete data on the subject, is that of all Simon Fischer's books, the one that gets mentioned the least is called Practice. As a collection, anybody who studies all Simon's books in depth will know pretty much everything one needs to know about violin playing. But each book serves a slightly different function. The granddaddy, Basics gives both teacher and hard core student alike, the technical resources to develop any aspect of their playing through tried and tested exercises. The Violin Lesson is a magisterial work which shows clearly how anyone from a professional to a self-taught older learner can improve any aspect of their playing that they choose. I suppose it is possible that "Practice" got a little overshadowed by being sandwiched in between these masterworks, but if I am right in thinking it is neglected, then that is rather odd!

In a sense, "Basics" and "Practice" are a two-volume set. The former provides the "What" and the latter the "How." And it is this "how" which is central to the only way we can actually learn to be violinists: by being able to practice efficiently. What, then, is the key concept underlying "Practice?" Quite simple: the more ways one has of approaching a specific problem, the faster and more effectively we can solve it. This may involve choosing a single correct approach, applying a few, or a huge number. It's case-by-case, but unless one has a repertoire of practice techniques, then there isn't necessarily a best single one to select!

I would like to illustrate this by referring to the great video and discussion by Ben Chan a few blogs back. He made this in response to a student having trouble with the octaves at the end of the first movement of Wieniawski Concerto no. 2 so you might want to take a look at that before continuing. Here are my observations on the topic.

A typical student will probably go through some kind of mental/physical procedure as follows: "Gosh, these octaves suck. Mmm. Play them a bit slower. Mmm. Not so good, but work them up to speed with metronome. Better repeat the passage a lot...29, 30, 31....what's for dinner tonight? Done with this. Play it all through. Octaves still suck. Lasagne and grape jelly."

Ben immediately hones in on two fundamental aspects of playing:

  1. Bowing is as important as the left hand.
  2. The problem may actually be in the other hand than the one you think it is.

So Ben recommends working on double-stopped open strings and then keeping the bow as close to the string as possible. One could actually take this a step further by playing either double-stopped open or octaves, and and having one string p and the other f. Then one string ppp and the other fff.
This develops great sensitivity in bowing. (Actually this kind of string crossing should be part of the technical regime and be done in all parts of the bow at least three times a week.)

However, in the end there is only one secret to playing octaves, which Auer states clearly in his little book on the violin: the first finger must be absolutely in tune. The rest just follows. This is one reason why students should be introduced to one-finger, one-string scales very quickly. The way to practice them is by using the hooked bowing method, where the next note is played slurred to the previous one and then played as the first note of the next slur. One should always hear the next note in your head before playing it. These scales can also be practiced with the fourth finger resting lightly on the upper string. Once the intonation is mastered then there are a variety of ways of practicing one can choose from:

These are just a few examples of the kind of things one can get from studying "Practice," so I hope students of the violin will take a closer look if they are not already. Simon's books are rather like The Wizard of Earthsea collection. It's more fun to do the whole lot.


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April 27, 2015 at 03:26 PM · I don't have "Practice" yet but it's on my wish list to get as soon as I think I can get away with spending another $50 on yet another violin-related thing. I just have to keep reminding myself that playing the violin is less expensive than skiing or scuba diving.

To some extent I think Mr. Fischer has himself to blame if one of his books is less popular than the others. First at least "Basics" and "Scales" (which I have) are super books, so he's set a pretty high standard for himself. Second, at least for me, there's the strong likelihood of information saturation. Basics is not a small book. Maybe you don't feel this way because you've been buying his books over time as they've been published, or maybe since you're a fully trained professional you already know much of what is in there. But I'm sure you can appreciate that it's not so easy for an amateur to integrate all that information especially when one's teacher is not a Fischerman.

April 28, 2015 at 07:06 AM · Gretings,

yes, I know exactly what you mean. The key word you yourself use is 'integrate.' We all have different mental structure? sand needs , many of which we are not even aware of. So it is all very well working through such books in a linear fashion (probably the best option) but how you actually integrate ans assimilate things is a much more complex process that will have you going round in circles. The value oThe Violin Lesson is that it takes away a lot of the intimidation and makes it easie from people to make the choices they think they need to make at a given moment. I actually spend most of my time with warming up because I have found it to be the most focused means of doing the maximum in a minimum amount of time. The exercises so starkly illuminate what one cannot do, deficiencies in ones technique we may not even have been aware of, that the mere act of running thoughtful but rapidly through the exercises ona daily basis pole vaults one stechnique. Simon himself told me that he was surprise dot find that just using those exercises he was actually concert ready for some difficult solos that he though he was going to have to revise a great deal. I huave also found that I have a markedly increased ability to call up old works and just play through them when I feel like a break. Technical obstructions one wa snot aware of are clearly being stripe daway.

Pracitce is a reall pleasure because the excerpts are so enjoyable.



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