ShieYng Yeow

Play or Practise? An adult beginner’s dilemma

July 12, 2012 06:54

I am an adult beginner of the violin, and (probably) like many adult beginners out there, I picked up the violin because I’m really in love with its beautiful tone and the wide range of expressions it can produce. Second only to the human voice I’m told, and I don’t doubt it. At my age where I’ve got nothing to prove and nothing to lose, playing the violin is ultimately a fun hobby that I truly enjoy.

Now, here comes the snag. In order to get anyway near playing the violin well enough to enjoy the sounds I’m making, I need to practise. . Anyone who tells you that they enjoy practising is in my opinion, either a) lying b) deluding themselves or c) a masochist. Now, don’t get me wrong. Playing is fun, practising is just… well… isn’t!

Not convinced? Okay, hear me out. For the first 2½ years of my violin-playing journey, I must honestly say that I didn’t really practise. Not really. When I picked up the violin to “practise”, all I did was play all the pieces assigned to me top to bottom, rinse and repeat. If I’m bored, I just played other tunes that interest me – like the violin soundtrack from Angels and Demons (played by Joshua Bell by the way). In essence, I was noodling around, not concentrating on what I’m doing and taking shortcuts wherever I can. Thanks to my good grounding in classical music playing both the piano and the double bass as a child right up to pre-university, I could fake my way through most lessons and I don’t think my teacher quite realized that I was sight-reading my scales. Sure, intonation was sometimes off (can you say sneaky shifty fingers?), and the shifts could be smoother and more confident. Probably he just thought that it would get better with time. He’s probably right… IF I practise.

That all changed about 6 months ago, when my teacher convinced me to take an ABRSM examination. I think he probably suggested it to give my lessons more direction. I agreed because I thought it might be interesting to work some repertoire to performance level, play them to a total stranger and get some honest feedback. Unfortunately, this deal involved scales – quite a few of them actually, and they came with tempo and bowing requirements. All of a sudden, my teacher was picking on them like no tomorrow – intonation, uncertain tone, no, I don’t want to hear your shifts, etc. All of a sudden, I found myself working on scales like no tomorrow. It wasn’t fun. It was work.

One day at a lesson, my teacher suddenly asked,

“Did you change your strings?”

“No. Why do you ask?”

“You sound different.”

“Different? What do you mean different?”

“Your tone’s less muddy. It’s more defined.” – I paraphrased this one, can’t remember the exact words, but the gist is there.

“Well, I practiced scales all week”

“Maybe that’s why.”

Yup. Much as I hate scales and love noodling around, focused practice actually does get you somewhere. After just 2 weeks of furiously polishing scales with specific things to work on, they got better (obviously), but I realized that a lot of other things suddenly got easier as well. My shifting improved loads, and suddenly I was bang on intonation-wise (no more sneaky shifty fingers).

Fast forward to after the examination. I celebrated not having to go through that self-imposed dogmatical scales routine anymore. And I admitted (albeit reluctantly) to my teacher that scales did a world of good to my playing. I think my teacher secretly celebrated for 10 seconds that I might actually start to do a lot more scales, until I informed him I had no intention of going through that routine again anytime soon.

Despite saying that, I’ve gained a newfound respect for scales and focused practice. I now devote 15 minutes every day on scales. You might think, now that’s not so bad. But for me, yes it’s that bad. I’m currently working on double stop scales (thirds, sixths and octaves) and I have problems nailing intonation. This is what I have to do. Play the first note (or chord), think about the second note (chord), and I mean THINK. Play the second note, either it’s bang on or it’s not. If it’s not, (which right now is about 90% of the time) try again from the first note. Try doing that for 15 minutes working on just two notes. Not fun. Not even close. And I haven’t even started on what I need to do for the pieces yet.

Thus, here lies my dilemma, do I play or practise? I play for the fun of it, and I need to practise in order to play but practising isn’t fun which then makes play-practising not so fun right now. Some weeks, I gave up on practising and just played (meaning noodled). When lesson time came, I just told my teacher, I didn’t practise this week and so my scales are atrocious. He agrees. Well, he didn’t exactly say that my scales was atrocious, he just said that they were “quite bad”.

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