Listening: Playing Music You Know, and Knowing the Music You Play

October 14, 2021, 2:52 PM · It's so much easier to learn how to play music that you already know.

That's why, as a violin student, or even simply as a violinist in the world, it's important to seek out violin music and listen to it. In fact, listening -- to the point of knowing the music in your head -- is perhaps even more important than practicing. That way, when it comes time to learn the next piece, you already "know" it as well as you know the theme song to your favorite show, or the track to your favorite video game, or the music on your favorite playlist.

listening phonograph

When it comes to violin music, you might not just find that music "in the air" around you. (Although, if a close relative plays music, or a sibling takes lessons, or someone in your house listens non-stop to classical music over speakers, maybe you will!)

More likely, though, you'll need to take an active role in making violin music a regular part of your environment.

Here's an idea: make a special playlist for yourself (digitally or just on a piece of paper), and update it on a regular basis. Here are some ideas about what it could include:

If you don't have music to place in those categories for yourself, then either ask your teacher for help create such a list, or start creating it on your own! And if you are a parent of a violin student, you will have to help with this process. Listening will be a key factor in motivating your child to keep practicing.

I've actually made lists on Spotify such as "Quartets this week" and "Orchestra next month" and for students - "Suzuki originals" - the pieces that Suzuki is based on, so it has things like "Le Streghe" for "Witches Dance," etc.

If you have a streaming service, then making playlists is very easy to do, and once you do it, then listening is quite simple. And if you have more traditional listening habits, then you can write out such lists and physically get out the CDs to have on hand.

When I was a student in youth orchestra, every few months my dad would take me to the record store (it was that long ago, yes) and he would buy me a cassette or vinyl record of what we were scheduled to play next in orchestra. I was pretty excited to listen to my new cassette of Rimsky Korsakov Capriccio Espagnol, or my big record of Sibelius Symphony No. 1 (which also happened to have the "Swan of Tuonela" on the back). I listened and listened! And all that listening certainly made my life easier in orchestra; I knew my part by ear, and I know how it fit into everything else. I could "feel" the music much earlier in the process. On the occasions I did not listen, I felt the struggle of simply trying to learn my own part in isolation, then not knowing until quite a few rehearsals in, how all the parts fit together as a whole.

Incidentally, listening is part of the Suzuki method, and one of its keys to success. Every book has its recording, and students are expected to listen. Parents and students generally listen with enthusiasm in the beginning, and as a result students often can figure out the "next piece" by ear, even before their teacher assigns it. This especially happens in younger siblings - they hear an older brother or sister playing all these pieces, and they know the pieces inside out, well before they get to playing them.

But very often, by the time a student has reached Book 2 or 3 or 4, the listening aspect of violin lessons starts falling by the wayside. Instead of listening to the entire book, a student might listen a few times to the piece they are playing. At the same time, the music is getting harder. Without listening, it gets MUCH harder. The student loses motivation. Can't I just play something I know?

Well, get to know it, and you will be playing something you "know"!

This goes for students well beyond the Suzuki books. In fact, I remember one instance in my own studio where listening made a night-and-day difference. One of my students was learning the Bruch Concerto, struggling mightily over it. I'd encouraged her to listen to the piece, but she was a busy high-schooler and week after week, she just didn't get around to it. Then one week, she came to her lesson and somehow, all those puzzle pieces we'd been sorting through had become the clearest of pictures. She was making the most amazing music! I was floored.

"Did you go and take a lesson with Itzhak Perlman?" I said.

"No," she said. "Sarah Chang! I listened to a recording by Sarah Chang!"

All right, enough reading about it. Go make your list, and listen to some violin music! And please share: in the comments tell me what you would put on such a list.

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October 14, 2021 at 10:04 PM · Thoughtful. I just realized this a shortwhile back. Why did I learn guitar so much faster? It's an easier instrument, yes, but I learned popular songs of the day in a snap. Then it struck me, popular songs was the key. Since, I've begun listening to songs I would like to learn several times a day, played by different artists I admire. Thank you for the post.

October 14, 2021 at 11:42 PM · I don't think that this is true for me. I am pre-Susuki; there were no recordings; everything in the book (Doflein) was new to me. I don't think it held me back at all. I had played all 44 Bartok duos with friends before ever listening to a recording of them.

October 15, 2021 at 06:08 AM · Albrecht, I also did not learn using the Suzuki method and did not have recordings of the pieces I was playing, until I was playing concertos. And no recordings of the Wolfhahrt, Doflein, Mazas, Kreutzer, etc etc. But I certainly heard other kids playing the music I would be playing next . I was picking up the Bach Double by ear at my public elementary school because other students were playing it. My parents played classical recordings as well as musicals. In fact, there was classical music playing on the radio in many public places. I don’t feel this is the case today. Music education is not as robust in the schools, and unless you are at a special conservatory or music school, your best bet for hearing violin music and getting it into your child’s environment will be listening to recordings and videos with some sense of purpose about it.

October 15, 2021 at 01:56 PM · I agree! When I coach new violin students, one method I use is to hum or sing the piece of song with my students. They will usually find it easier to play the song (or the phrase) on the violin after that.

October 15, 2021 at 07:01 PM · When I started leaning the violin a couple of years ago, after many years of guitar playing, I actually thought that all classically trained musicians just picked up any score and could immediately read and play it.

I can now read music but find it far easier if I hear the piece, no matter what it is, beforehand, this helps tremendously with the timing, for me at least.

October 18, 2021 at 07:50 PM · Laurie, since you are experienced as a violin teacher I wonder if you share my observation that second children have a significant advantage because they have heard their older siblings practicing.

The bassist in our community orchestra always makes a YouTube playlist of our pieces for the semester. The best way to listen is to have your part in your lap and follow along. Of course playing along would be ideal, but we can't always match the professional tempos. And once you get lost, there's nobody on the YouTube shouting "Coming up on Letter D!!!!" to help you get lined up again. :)

October 19, 2021 at 02:08 AM · As an adult learner, I was working through the Suzuki books 1-4 and Wolfahrt. My teacher was not a Suzuki method teacher but used the repertoire. I found Suzuki very helpful because I COULD hear the pieces I was supposed to play prior to practicing . My teacher alternated between Wolfahrt and Suzuki. I would record her playing Wolfarht pieces. Hearing them made the recognizable to me and made a reference for me to correct myself before my next lesson.

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