Violin Practice with 'Think Spots' for Fast Passages (with VIDEO)

February 14, 2019, 3:13 PM · Have you ever found yourself - or your student - getting tangled up in a long passage of fast notes?

Perhaps you have practiced this passage or etude slowly, but somehow when you speed it up, it falls apart, or it's full of random mistakes.
You can practice it in rhythms, and this is a wonderful strategy that often helps a great deal. But what if you are still having trouble getting through a long passage, up-to-speed?

Here is one way to practice that works well in this situation: practicing with "think spots." This is actually a method that will work on any instrument, not just the violin! Sometimes the trouble actually lies with sustaining one's mental concentration, and so one needs to practice thinking. Also, when it comes to playing fast, after playing something slowly to get the notes correct, at a certain point, one has to practice fast in order to play fast.

So here is a way to do both. Below is my video, and then below that, I will explain it in words:

I made this video because I was working with a student on the fifth etude from Wohfahrt's 60 Etudes, Op. 45, and despite the fact that he clearly had practiced, he simply could not string together the whole etude without a lot of fumbles and mistakes, especially in the more-complicated second half of the etude.

Here's what we did: I asked him to stop before each measure, make sure he was completely sure that he could play that one measure accurately, then play it as fast as he could do it without making any mistakes. Then, stop and think, play the next measure. Basically, we were adding these "think spots" before every single measure, then playing each measure very quickly. The condition is that the measure must not be played with any mistakes! So you have to take long enough to KNOW that you will play the measure accurately, and then you have to prove yourself by actually playing it 100 percent accurately!

If you do this correctly, you are both adding "think spots" and you are also practicing playing fast. The "think spots" will remain, even when you take away the stops, and in the meantime, your fingers are getting the hang of executing each measure up to speed. Once can do this successfully, taking as much time as you need before each measure, you can add the metronome. Adding the metronome actually limits and automates the time that you spend on each "think spot." Eventually, of course, you will take away this extra time spent on "think spots," and hopefully by then, you will have given both your brain and your fingers enough practice to get through the entire passage, accident-free!

Hope this helps you with your practicing and/or your teaching! Please feel free to add your thoughts in the comments below.

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Replies

February 14, 2019 at 11:49 PM · Another way with pieces like that is to practice measures 1 and 2, then measures 2 and 3, 3 and 4, etc. Then 1-2-3-4, 4-5-6-7, etc. For "fun" this can also be done starting at the end each time.

Let us know how your method works with your student! Nothing like an experiment with a human subject -- especially with informed consent!

February 15, 2019 at 12:22 AM · Yes, you can string together bigger "chunks" of the music, that is a good next step, Paul. And yes, it worked like a charm!

February 15, 2019 at 04:26 AM · That's very cool. Not to downplay the effectiveness of the method, but frankly I sometimes wonder whether there is kind of a placebo effect at work in some of these practice techniques. You get better because you're taking a pill (practicing) and you feel that should make you better -- what's actually in the pill is less important.

February 15, 2019 at 09:38 AM · I practiced a passage this way in the viola part to a Ginastera piano concerto last fall. It was a fast passage of sextuplets without any intuitive pattern to them. (Ginastera's piano concertos are from his "Neo-Expressionist" period in which his music was largely atonal.) After slow practice, I reached the point where I could play all six notes in each bow stroke in tempo, but needed to pause between bow strokes to think about the next set of six notes.

From there, I practiced two ways:

1) Continuing to pause between each bow stroke, but gradually reducing the length of the pause until it was nothing.

2) Two bow strokes at a time before pausing, similarly to what Paul was describing: beats 1-2 without stopping, then beats 2-3 without stopping, then beats 3-4 without stopping, etc. I didn't extend this beyond two bow strokes at a time, because the entire passage was just 8 beats.

February 15, 2019 at 01:30 PM · Thanks for this video! I knows lots of material but it seems I need to be bringing it up to speed and this has been difficult for me to do. Some of that might be that my mind "remembers" the music slower. I have thought that maybe augmenting an up to tempo listening immersion of the material would help break that pattern.

Your solution is something I will also be trying out and seems a great bridge in trying to get to a faster playing tempo. Thanks!

February 15, 2019 at 03:38 PM · Laurie, I tried this technique with a Bach aria I'm working on that has measure after measure of rapid 16th notes. I was sounding a bit like a wind-up toy by the end of the passage... getting slower and slower until I ultimately ran out of breath. This practice strategy really helped! Thank you!

February 15, 2019 at 07:47 PM · Andrew, thank you for sharing those strategies! It's amazing how some of these passages take so much work, even for something that is just eight beats!

Diana, I'm so glad it helped!

Paul, practicing at all definitely is better than not practicing! But one does have to have effective strategies to avoid those things that we are all prone to doing -- practicing "in" mistakes, or just glossing over those things that aren't quite coming together!

February 15, 2019 at 08:48 PM · That's certainly true too. Your method gives little bursts of very intense focus. That might be easier for an adolescent to deal with. Or even an easily distracted old man like me.

February 15, 2019 at 09:21 PM · Yes. I find this method useful. It reminds me of typing fluently at high speed by mentally breaking up lines of words into smaller units and identifying common finger patterns and phrases. When you can isolate and drill on common patterns, they become second nature after a while.

My first teacher introduced me to Wohlfahrt, Op. 45, when we were about 6 months into lessons. One other tool that I use in tandem with "think spots" is memorization. I know this facility comes more readily to some students than others. It's always been one of my strong suits. In fact, I put it to the test last summer by doing a tryout session -- after all these years -- of Wohlfahrt, Op. 45, Nos. 1-7 -- from memory. It worked -- undoubtedly, in part, because I had a clear idea in my mind of how these pieces sound.

Regarding slow-practice stage: One additional tool I use here is to play with the same short bows that I would use in playing up to tempo. Then the speed-up process doesn't feel so strange.

February 15, 2019 at 10:37 PM · Jim, using the same-length bow stroke can be very helpful, that is a really good point. It's so easy to really lengthen the bow stroke while playing slow, and then the muscle memory is off when you speed it up and have shorter bow strokes.

February 16, 2019 at 08:18 AM · Hi Laurie. Yeah, it works...I've been doing it for many years under a different name. I call it the "music box." The image is a music box that only plays when you open it. When the box closes, you not only have time to plan but just as importantly you have to "reboot" the nervous system. SPAZ ATTACKS can happen to anyone but o ly when the nerves/muscles get overloaded.

Whatever one calls it, this method is also incredibly powerful both in chamber music and orchestra. I have found that kids of all ages (6-65) connect with the "music box" metaphor. Michael Strauss

February 16, 2019 at 12:04 PM · I have always used the technic of weaving bars together as Paul Deck suggests. After applying rhythms, I also have fun adding an accelerando to a rapid passage (and imagine I am Ivry Gitls!).

Steve Kelley

February 16, 2019 at 01:04 PM · Thank you so much, Laurie, very helpful. (also a nice metaphor for life, to put in thinking spots before/between fast action times!)

February 16, 2019 at 03:08 PM · I like the “music box” metaphor!

February 16, 2019 at 11:37 PM · I have a very non-musical adult student with minimal sense of pitch or rhythm (meaning no matter how he plays things, they sound beautiful to him). He naturally does your technique to a degree, treating each bar line as a new starting point.

So I guess what I'm saying is your technique would be excellent for someone who does nothing like the technique usually. It's the change in approach that works.

February 18, 2019 at 05:35 PM · Thank you Laurie for sharing this technique. It came at the right time to me as I was thinking to apply it in some slightly different form to difficult and fast orchestral passages with no intuitive connection between the notes. I think my problem comes not from lack of concentration, but from slow reading speed. It is difficult for me to read the next measure and mentally prepare for it while I am still trying to finish playing the first one. And therefore, I stumble on the next difficult notes. I wonder if you would have suggestions for increasing my reading speed? Perhaps your addition of thinking spots in between would help. I will try it. On repertoire music, my solution is to memorize that passage through many repetitions.

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