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Too Many Books Not Enough Precision

Yixi Zhang

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Published: April 16, 2014 at 8:45 PM [UTC]

Last a few years I've been thinking about when to stop relying on written materials and really learn how to practice. I think might start to get somewhere.

After more than ten years of violin learning (not counting the 20-year gap in between) and worked with a pretty amazing teacher for the past seven years, I slowly realized that the stubborn habit of wanting to learn everything in a systematic and orthodox way through research and books could be one of the chief obstacles in my approach to the violin and music making.

As a child, I followed my teacher’s advice and practiced diligently and read anything I could get my hands on. As an adult, whenever major problem pointed by someone in my playing (e.g., tone production, intonation, etc), I immediately research and buy books and materials that promise help. I know why I did it. Years of academic trainings and consumerism all have something to do with it. My library is pretty full and the materials I’ve got are all wonderful and helped me a great deal over the years; however, allow me to state the obvious, there is always a gap, sometimes a huge one, between what is written in a text and the extent to which I as can fully apply. The approach of mine perpetuates what is desperation in disguise – the diligence allows the root of the problem unsolved: the lack of surgical precision in diagnosing the problem, breaking it down to the finest detail and quickly fixing it.

Lately there seems to be a lot of discussions around practice less advocated by some very prominent masters of the day such as Pamela Frank and Christian Tetzlaff. I’ve also discussed this issue with some top prize winners of international competitions whom practice no more than one hour/day. I watched my teacher learned and performed Ligeti concerto within six weeks on top of leading a string quartet touring and performing other demanding programs the same time. I’m convinced that some of them can even though some violin god allegedly couldn’t in the past.

How they did it is more fascinating and I hope someday I’ll know. One thing though I’m certain is that, other than special innate talent in music and years of experience these violinists possess, what separates an exceptional violinist to a competent one is efficiency of learning and how they practice. As Pamela puts it, “the way you play is the way you have practiced”

In absence of such talent and experience, I think I could at least try to learn to listen and observe my playing with surgical precision. For instance, when I play a long line of phrase that I have all the notes but the line still doesn’t seem to work, learn to spot the exact problematic note, or a space between two notes, as the source of the problem and then find a way to fix it.

I’m not saying learning by research and buying books are wrong; these are necessary educational steps and I’ve learned tons by doing so, but these are also the easiest things to do to get sidetracked. Being a good violinist means we need to always push beyond our own comfort zone and learn to do what are hardest things for us to do. For me, less material acquisition and more surgical precision in practice is one of them, and I'm having fun working on it.


Posted on April 16, 2014 at 11:05 PM
I loved your blog about practicing. Thanks loads.
From Paul Deck
Posted on April 17, 2014 at 4:31 AM
Yixi, your posts and discussion comments are always so thoughtful and intelligent -- logical but never cold.

So there are people who can learn a new concerto in several weeks, and who only practice an hour a day. The thing is, though, that knowing that and $0.75 buys me a coke. Maybe that individual has learned so many concertos before that (s)he knows how to be more efficient in his/her approach. I submit that a good conservatory education *ought to be* about developing this efficiency as much as it is about raising one's technique and musicality to professional levels.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on April 17, 2014 at 11:48 AM
When I first started here on I also bought a lot of books. While some of them were good reads, I turned out to be much more of a kinesthetic learner when it comes to the violin. I'm generally not very good at learning skills from books. (I love to read, but I read for enjoyment and to learn facts and ideas, as opposed to skills).

My daughter's teacher brought up tendonitis recently in the context of long practice hours. She said that she's seen many students get tendonitis from too much Flesch and Sevcik. No one in my family tends to practice long enough to get tendonitis, but injury is often at the back of my mind. A friend and long-term member of my orchestra who is about my age (mid-to-late 40's) recently had to stop playing because of osteoarthritis in the neck and back. He had to leave the orchestra. There was more going on with him than overpracticing, but it still got me thinking. I've been really blessed that I have reached this relatively advanced age without any major physical problems related to violin playing. My teacher is in agreement--if something hurts, stop doing it. Don't play through pain. Realistically I end up practicing 30-45 mins/day. It's not a lot, but it seems to be enough.

From Yixi Zhang
Posted on April 17, 2014 at 7:14 PM
@ glad you liked it and thank you for letting me know! Happy practicing!

@ Paul Deck: thanks you for your supportive comments! My teacher didn’t just learn a new concerto in several weeks, she learned and spectacularly performed Ligeti concerto, one of the most unplayable violin concerti ever written in such a short time when on tour performing other concerts.

I don’t know how many hours she got each day to practice to prepare for Ligeti. I understand that years of learning a lot of material under tight timeline does the trick. In her case, it entails a lot of tough competitions in younger age and keeping actively engaged in solo and chamber tours in addition to playing in professional orchestras season after season. It is considered a luxury to have one hour/day practice for professional violinists like her. Good conservatory education doesn’t necessarily guarantee such efficiency, as I was told some Julliard graduates who could afford a more relaxed professional life openly admitted that they couldn’t learn a piece nearly that quickly.

Incidentally, I’m not sure how evident it is in my blog that I had in mind some petty reactions against Tetzlaff's recent comment about practice less ( Understandably some professionals might feel uncomfortable knowing they have to put way more time to sound polished on stage. But why not be astonished and try to learn something about other’s success instead?

@ Karen: I’m not a fast reader but it works for me since I read to think and I tend to learn all sorts of ideas and skills from slow reading.

It’s interesting that you mentioned tendonitis, I did have some experience with that year or so ago but, according to my doctor and physiotherapist, it was not caused by over practice (I don’t practice more than two hour/day even when working on stuff like Mendelssohn concerto), but rather was the combination of violin practice, 3-4 hour/day knitting and all day computer-using at office, as the same muscle groups were used in a repetitive manner. I’ve learned a lot about and how to listen to my body since that injury.

I too feel blessed that I can do pretty much everything I want to without hurting myself these days. I’m also mindful that our body will eventually fall apart so I’d rather use it as much as I can before loosing it.

From Bob Small
Posted on April 20, 2014 at 2:45 PM
I am 70, in my fourth year and my commitment is pick up one of my three violins and play for an unspecified time daily, usually on rising and before going to work. I am slowly learning to read music. Most importantly I enjoy looking for my voice and hearing from neighbors, such comments as improving, enjoyed your music and best of all, "I thought it was magic." I love the sound of this instrument and am looking to the next 30 years of learning it's nuances.

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