September 24, 2009 at 2:18 AM
The credit for this blog goes to my amazing violin teacher here in VA, who taught me all these things and completely changed my stance as a musician, and therefore I am so indebted to her for that.
I am sure this has happened at least once to all of you: Everything in your practicing is going so well, you’re improving, you’re playing in tune. Then all of a sudden, one day, something doesn’t go right. Then another thing, then another. You’re not playing musically, you’re having problems with technique, and your body is tensing up as a result. And then, in order to combat this sudden musical “fever”, if you will, you start doing every single complicated kind of practice you can think of, thinking that in time everything will get better. But it doesn’t.
Has this happened to you? I know it definitely has for me. But what can we do to fix it?
I believe that we as musicians sometimes forget the easy, analogy-ridden way we used to be taught when we were beginners, before we knew all about tone, musicality, and technique. Instead, we start to find every single possible way to practice a difficult section of a piece: breaking it up, playing it slowly, doing exercises, all in order to make the phrasing flow easier and make it be technically smoother. This is all well and good, and much of the time, it works. However, when everything doesn’t go as planned, we start questioning ourselves and we wonder, deep inside (don’t deny it, we know we do), whether what we’re trying to fix will ever get fixed, whether we’re cut out for violin playing, etc. etc.
But why put yourself in these blue funks? Sometimes complicated thinking makes things….well….complicated. Let’s make things simple-grab a glass of prune juice and let’s go!
I think that one thing that could truly make life easier and more fun while practicing is that old idea of concepts and analogies. These were things that were used on us when we were little kids (“Make sure your left thumb makes a mouse hole”, for example). Why not go back to those days and apply them again? It can really make for a wonderfully efficient, entertaining, and ultimately rewarding practice session. I can share a few of those concepts here and I’m looking forward to hearing some of yours!
There are those passages in which the technique is so difficult or awkward that it makes the musical line very chopped up and hard to stitch together seamlessly. For me, practicing them slowly does not really help; in fact, it just makes it harder to play musically since everything seems heavier. However, there is a sort of “quick fix” of sorts. Imagine a thin, unwavering laser beam that shoots out from your fingerboard through the tip of your scroll and out into infinity. Then play the passage just a BIT undertempo, but make every single note travel along that laser beam, shooting them out into infinity along the laser. Do not let the notes waver, fall off the laser, or bounce too high. Just let them travel smoothly. If done correctly, this will make your musical line so much more intact and smooth, not to mention it’s a lot of fun! Also, since you will most likely be concentrated on making the laser not waver, your violin will most likely stay still and straight-another bonus of practicing this way.
We also have those times when our sound becomes forced, pinched, and too thin. That is something we never want. Another simple concept which could greatly affect that is simple: imagine that, whenever and whatever you play, you make sure that you play so that you make the bottom of your instrument resonate. Sure, we can all scrape the top of the strings and press in to make the sound bigger, but simply trying not to play the top of the instrument, yet playing to the very bottom plate makes a huge difference in tone.
And, finally, I know that we all at some point develop tension in our left arms. We end up grasping the violin too tightly and our vibrato, intonation, and muscles suffer. My teacher told me to imagine one of those old fashioned, two side balance scales. One side is the part of the violin that tucks into your chin, the other side is the scroll and where you hold the violin with your hand. First of all she said to straighten out my neck bones so that they sit comfortably on top of my spine. Then she told me to let my left arm “hang” on the scroll end, so that I’m not holding up the violin in any way. And since that side of the scale would hang “down”, the other side would go up, into your chin. The violin would almost feel like its drooping down, but if you look in the mirror, it actually shouldn’t be noticeable. What will be noticeable is the huge relief of the tension in your arm, since the violin will be held up, but without any effort on your arm’s part. This was hugely helpful to me, and something I am working on at the moment.
I am not saying these concepts should go in place of your complicated practice; this is just a fun, friendly way to vary your work, put your spirits up, and to make things easier for you so you can do much less of the tiring, intensive stuff. It’s surprising how much of playing the violin comes from the state of your mind, not the muscle memory.
I would also like to bring up a point that the great violin pedagogue Drew Lecher made in a blog of his here on Violinist.com. Mr. Lecher basically wrote, “The violin is a piece of cake! Have fun with it and play your heart out!” Yes, we should do intensive studies to keep up our technique or to improve it, but the majority of the reasons why we play music are for the fun and joy of it, and these little exercises could drastically affect your practice for the better.
Or you could just go and eat some prunes.
Brian, Good post. I don't play at your level but I recognize this problem. Your suggestions are interesting. I know what the cause was for me (but I cannot apply this to others. They have to decide for themselves whether it is applicable.) I used to rely on facility to play things. I cultivated facility by repetition.
Repetition does aid facility do some degree. But repetition has limits.
I had to eliminate crutches and I had to learn technique and I needed to learn how to analyze. I had to dissect passages: how long is every shift, what are the intervals between every note, what is the finger pattern for this passage, what fingers do I pre-position, what fingers cover multiple positions etc. Then I had to learn the motions and postures that allowed for repeatability and accuracy. This is ongoing but I also need to cultivate my ear so that it anticipates what I should be hearing. It is stupid to shift to a note three or four times and think that it is right but then after testing the pitch finding that I am a half step off. Several things were obviously wrong but my testing mechanism (my ear) didn't pick them up and force me back to analysis.
The more I do this the less frustrated I am and the fewer "no progress days".
Hi Brian, even if me too I'm not your level, I regularly live this and I become angry etc... as I said many times here, my best cure ever is to listen to Oistrakh's Bach concertos that are so lively that it always makes me smile even when I don't feel like it at all! And this makes me realize that the fun will come back another day, that if I stay angry, it will just be worst and tense up everything... Also, it helps to remember your good memories with your instrument and to say to yourself that, somehow, this cannot be all "gone". With each painful practice, one becomes stronger and better player after...
These days, I realized with great horror that I played (left hand) a little too on my nails... and that one of my bow finger was 1 mm out of the place it should be... I showed this to my teacher and also how I wanted to fix the problem. She agreed and said that even with super good musicians, when they changed the slightest detail, they play more crappy for a while. I was kind of depress about it but she said 1000 times that she prefered a student that plays not so well for a few lessons but who realizes her problems and work to fix them. But the good new is that it doesn't last forever! But I do know how bad it feels when your practices go wrong and I'm sure this happens with everyone. Well, it is to everyone to find its reciepies to get out of this lol
at least you realize it. I'm convinced some students don't even care when they play "not at their best" and just do nothing about it... perhaps don't even realize it???
Several of these are related to the "Inner Game" practices. Freeing your attention from the minutiae to experience the entirety of an action. Concentrating on an image that is an analogy for what you want to create. Focussing on the results of whatever you do, rather than on what you are trying to do. I think they are valuable exercises.
What you mention at the begining... YES! It happens and I carry this dread that I'm going to mess up my hard earned efforts and get stuck wasting time having to undo a birds-nest! But your tips and the statement that playing the violin in relation to ones state of mind then quoting Drew...... That was a shot in my arm!
Got to Love them Prunes!
Thanks Maestro Hong!
Brian you are such a freaking genius! I was practicing yesterday and it was about two or three measures in the Mozart that were just melting, like I had never played it before.
Thanks so much for your amazing words.
Brian, I loved your suggestion of envisioning a laser extending out from the fingerboard, and I definitely agree about how we violinists tend to complicate things in our practice.
While reading your post, I kept thinking about Yoda's words to Luke Skywalker that he had to unlearn what he had learned (from The Empire Strikes Back). I thought that could just as easily apply to our thinking about practice. ;)
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