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Julian Stokes

It's Not Magic - Just Practice

August 19, 2010 at 3:53 PM

I'm in my 17th week after returning to the violin after  a 30 year break. And while I am far from the virtuoso I was born to be, I am enthused and joyful about the progression I have experienced.

It would seem that  there is not to be one big revelation regarding playing - rather a series of smaller epiphanies which together combine to make rather pleasing progress.

I am assisted in this journey by my teacher. Without his help, encouragement, cajoling and enormous well of patience I would still be somewhere near the level I was at 17 weeks ago.

I visit this site almost every day and see so many questions on the Discussion section about problems and difficulties - I even posted one - to which the answer is: it's not magic - just practice.

I think, as adults, we are unused to this slow, organic way of learning. We want results and we want them now! In my work (IT) if I can't do something, I look it up, apply what I have found out and that's it. Job done. Next. It's just not like that with the violin.

Taking my personal experience so far...

Back before, I remember doing a little 3rd position. I used to hate it. Couldn't for the life of me figure out where all the notes were. Or tie the notes to the fingers.

It was one of the first things my teacher got me doing this time. I recall asking him what the secret was. I mean,  come on, what a ridiculous thing it is to expect to move your fingers, blind, up a fretless fingerboard and hit the right note, millimetre perfect. Surely there had to be a trick. There I was, slip-slip-sliding all over the place - too high, too low, missing it 99 times out of 100. He said no trick - practice.

This week we started looking at some 4th position playing and some 5th and 6th... And then I got the idea: just put your first finger where your third would be - bingo! And now 9 times out of 10, I get it. But I know it isn't that simple - my left hand and arm have learned where my third finger, my fourth, a tone above the fourth, etc are. It's not magic - just practice.

Fourth Finger:
A tricky one. I could not, just could not, pull it close enough to the third finger to make a nice semitone. I was resigned to my deformity. This was a real problem with a visible physical cause - right? Well, yes and no. Again, practice, noting I was sharp and doing my best to pull the finger in has over the weeks resulted in my being less sharp and sometimes even in tune! Looking at the fingers I can see I can tilt the 4th finger into the 3rd so the tips are touching Result! It's not magic - just practice.

Looking forward:
The next big thing is vibrato. Whoo-hoo! Truth be told that is the Grail after which I seek. Armed with that I shall feel more complete. We had a little look at it last week. I can't loosen my wrist enough without loosening my grip and losing the note. However I shall persevere. After all, it's not magic - just practice.

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on August 20, 2010 at 4:38 AM

I'm glad that you're making progress and feeling good about it.

As a violin teacher, I have found many times that when I tell a student that he is playing much better, he says, "Thanks for telling me that.  I couldn't tell."  You can tell, and it's not just repetition that makes the difference for you.  You focus on a goal and listen to yourself when you play.  You are not just practicing harder or more; you're practicing smarter.

From Ann Marie Cordial
Posted on August 20, 2010 at 12:18 PM

Yea it IS practice.  Your post reminds me a lot of myself in my pursuit to be a better violist.  I have been playing 23 months now.  I can shift comfortably up to 5th position.  Vibrato still eludes me.  I see all these beautiful pieces that I want to learn, but can't yet, because I haven't learned the technical aspect needed to execute difficult passages in the music.

I practice a lot.  I don't see myself getting any better.  Sometimes I get really mad and frustrated with myself.  Then my teacher will tell me wow that was really good, or hey that sounded really nice, and suddenly I feel as though (for a second or two at least) I'm the Viola Goddess of the Universe.

Then it's back to the Salt Mines to sweat out some more progress.

----Ann Marie

From Charlie Gibbs
Posted on August 20, 2010 at 3:34 PM

I know what you mean about that "slow, organic way of learning".  I'm an IT type too, and like you I'm constantly looking up techniques and tidbits of information in a process I call "demand learning".  It was an eye-opener when I realized that the violin doesn't work like that at all.

I've been taking lessons for 9 months now; I have no previous violin experience, although I've been playing bluegrass mandolin for 7 or 8 years and have a good ear and knowledge of theory.  My teacher is building on that, bypassing the "twinkle" stage completely.

As for shifting, at first my teacher told me not to worry about position numbers - just go up there and find the notes.  Surprisingly, they were usually there.  Now that I have more experience, I can go back to those original pieces and realize, "Oh, that's just third (or fifth, or whatever) position," and it looks easy.  I'm sufficiently comfortable in third position now that I'll choose to shift rather than use my fourth finger if I need a good strong note (although I'm giving my fourth finger plenty of exercise too).

I'm looking forward to developing vibrato too.  While playing a passionate piece I feel something about to erupt - sort of like baby teeth - but my teacher isn't at all concerned at this point.  As far as he's concerned it's something that will come in due time - even it it takes a couple of years.  For now he's giving me material that develops technique and tone.  Getting decent tone - that's my Grail for now.

From Casey Jefferson
Posted on August 20, 2010 at 4:44 PM

Shifting is like throwing darts, bowling, and the likes.

Practice makes perfect, and always learn from mistakes...

From Sue Porter
Posted on August 20, 2010 at 10:30 PM

True confessions, please.  How many of you go to to learn (of course) when you're really procrastinating about getting down to practice? :) :) 

Really enjoy your writing, Julian--my favorite is your entry about having no one to "talk violin" with.

From robert keith
Posted on August 21, 2010 at 7:11 PM

 If you are having problems with hand positions, you can go to the internet and get a free copy of the violin finger board. That way you can see the notes and they lay on the violin. Hand positions are not that difficult to learn.  There are only 12 tones. 

As for vibrato, you can search Youtube and watch many people show you how they play vibrato. It is really not that difficult.  If the violin had frets, nobody would ever complain about hand positions. Well, I have news for you. The violin has frets, but the frets are in your mind and ear and the muscle memory in your hand. Your brain makes the connections for you, all you have to do is a little practice to teach your brain what connections to make. 


That is the physical side, however; making music is a horse of a different color.


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