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Play or Practise? An adult beginner’s dilemma

July 12, 2012 at 1:54 PM

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”.

From Asher Wade
Posted on July 12, 2012 at 8:08 PM
I loved your opening first paragraph (& most of the rest as well). I started when I was 22yrs old and took lessons for a year & then "played" my heart out. Several years past, took some more lessons & then played my heart out again (repeat this several, numerous times ~ I'm 63yrs old now). My attitude is: I take lessons when I get sick of my playing and recognize that certain pieces I just can't figure out on my own & want to go up a notch (like pulling my car into a filling-station when the needle is pointing close to "E"). I'm just like you: I flat-out love playing either my violin or my viola; I've learned how to get the various intonations I want; I've long ago learned how to do several styles of vibrato; I've learned how to do double-stops (and those viciously beautiful Bach 4-note chords) and have even thrown away my shoulder-rest for (1) unbelievable 'freedom' of movement and (2) the absolute amazing & sublime "feeling of each note" as it is vibrated through my collarbone & on through my skeletal frame {wow!} for a hearing-feeling sensation. Thus, your debate with yourself is like the "nature-nurture" debate in psychology: practice vs. playing. I'd said as an adult-beginner, & if it "really" is just a hobby [i.e. passionate love], ...PLAY ON, MY FRIEND, PLAY ON!
From Tyrone Wilkins
Posted on July 12, 2012 at 8:16 PM
Well I guess you can call me a masochist because I love practicing! I can sometimes work up to 1-2 hours on scales. Try doing this with your octaves. Instead of starting over when you miss the 2nd note,just slide it to the right place. Feel where it's supposed to be. THEN, you start over. You need to develop you technique and musicality if you want to truly enjoy your instrument. I could write pages on how I make practice fun but I don't have the time. Message me if you need advice. :D
From steven su
Posted on July 12, 2012 at 10:20 PM
Any professional would advice you to spend a great deal of time on scales and etudes but it is indeed boring. The first three years of my playing or even now, my mom would sometimes come screaming at me to stop practicing. Mr. Heifetz said "it is something you have to do so just get it outta the way" I can't remember what he said exactly but yea. I don't find scales fun but I still spend an hour a day. I also heard some professionals make scales fun by playing them like concertos. Add in dynamics, different bowings, and different rhythms.
but as an adult beginner, I think it's more important to develop the tone you desire. Technique is not really as important to you as long as it's sufficient enough. I like how you do it though. practice, if not, just play pieces you enjoy
From Tyrone Wilkins
Posted on July 12, 2012 at 10:37 PM
Maybe I'm the only person that actually likes playing scales and arpeggios. . .
From Valeria M. Sandoval
Posted on July 12, 2012 at 10:59 PM
No, not really Tyrone my mom actually likes playing scales too =D (she plays piano).
From Tyrone Wilkins
Posted on July 12, 2012 at 11:10 PM
OK good hahaha. I love playing scales on piano too. You know what...I think I'm gonna pull a Julia Fischer and play both both professionally. :D
From marjory lange
Posted on July 12, 2012 at 11:23 PM
Runners love to race, but they have to put the miles in. Gymnasts love to compete, but they do the exercises first, second, and always.

I think, at base, if one does NOT love working on the details of playing (that is, practice, really, in its essentials) s/he doesn't love playing so much as playing around. Now playing around has its place, but it doesn't make a person into a violinist.

A good balance of scales, etudes, and 'fun stuff' makes a well-rounded musical diet. And, even if you don't love doing the scales...don't you love it when they get better?

From Paul Deck
Posted on July 13, 2012 at 4:06 AM
I understand your dilemma, but I am another one, like Tyrone, who enjoys practicing scales and arpeggios very much (and studies, for that matter). There's something very soothing and mind-exercising (and calming) about focusing so much attention and mental energy on something so "apparently" simple (but not so simple in reality). Making each pitch as perfect as possible, your tone as even and rich as you can, and working the tempo up very very gradually so that finger placement and shifts develop their needed facility. You can kind of get lost in it. I love to practice Mazas and Kreutzer and Dont studies too. I have to admit that I might like practicing them partly because I don't expect anyone to ever ask me to perform them!

I think that as along as you can maintain reasonable expectations for reaching certain goals -- and your teacher can doubtlessly help you with that -- then you can learn to find the zen-like "mental center" of practicing.

I would very much enjoy playing in the local community orchestra, but that would mean another evening a week that I could not practice. Chamber music is a different story -- I think I would enjoy playing in a chamber group that was going after repertoire that was toward the limit of my skill level. I would enjoy that challenge. I played in an orchestra as a youngster and it didn't do that much for me personally.

If you are at all inclined to buy any books, I can seriously recommend "Scales" and "Basics" and "Practice" by Simon Fischer. Both "Basics" and "Practice" are books that contain exercises, but in addition you can simply read them to get ideas about the violin from someone who understands it very very deeply.

From Shen-Han Lin
Posted on July 13, 2012 at 5:39 AM
I'm an adult starter as well and I'm now 27. For me I only enjoy playing if I play something nice! So right now I spent a couple hours just to practice everyday. I usually start with one tonality of Flesch scale, everything except double harmonic and finger octave. As an adult starter my finger is already too stiff to do those so I don't bother. After that I'll randomly select one etude from those 4 categories of Kreutzer (so 4 etudes from Kreutzer in total). 2 movement of Bach solo (sorry, but I really treated it as etude), and 2 Paganini Caprices (Well~ I only know 2 so far). These are the stuff that I do before I move to the concerto/sonata work.

Of course if I'm very busy, I'll just do the Flesch Urstudien.

But to be honest, I only start to practice from last year. Before that I only touch violin 4 hours a... ... week... And that includes the rehearsal in amateur orchestra (which is 2.5 hours) and an hour lesson :p I have no idea what drives me mad to spend 2~3 hours a day this year though, but I hope I'll have progress while it last :p
From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on July 13, 2012 at 11:24 AM
I think this is a dilemma for everyone, not just adult beginners. I've quit, and restarted, the violin twice over the years. Each time I quit, it had, at root, to do with dislike of practicing--or more specifically, with the prioritization of other activities that I found more enjoyable, over practicing. And those weren't exactly hard to find.

I don't think I'm going to quit again, but it's not for the reason that most people seem to be able to use to motivate themselves to practice. I don't seem to particularly care about improving and getting better as a player. That's nice, I guess, and I have improved over the past 5 years since I started playing again, but it's kind of a side benefit. And it's just not enough to get me into the practice room on a regular basis. I really had to learn to like something more connected to the process itself.

So, somewhere along the line I had to learn to enjoy the physical process of practicing. I had back pain for a while when I was younger and I saw an Alexander Teacher and I've been largely pain-free since I've been playing this time. And if I do feel any pain, I just stop. I also bought a new violin about 3 years ago, which has really increased my enjoyment of the feel of the instrument under my fingers, and the sensations of getting the right notes and clear(er) tone. Not just aural, but kinesthetic. And finally, I started writing about it. I still enjoy writing more than I enjoy practicing, but some of the enjoyment of writing rubs off. In fact, I kind of feel inspired to write another blog, thanks to this post--if I can find the time later.

From Roy Sonne
Posted on July 13, 2012 at 1:25 PM
As I get older I find practicing more and more enjoyable. I wouldn't exactly call it fun but it is immensely satisfying. When I get up in the morning I often play for a while before I even put my clothes on. You need to find the joy -- look for it, search for it--- the joy of making beautiful tones, beautifully executed bow strokes, etc. A beautifully in tune double stop is an object of exquisite beauty, don't you think. Does it give you pleasure when you play one?
From Barry Nelson
Posted on July 13, 2012 at 2:09 PM
Im part of the "I like to practice club" I enjoy challenging myself .
From Tyrone Wilkins
Posted on July 13, 2012 at 5:34 PM
Wish my blog got this much publicity XD I find joy in hitting notes and executing bowing accurately. I also find it fun to play things in other keys,or play my scales an octave higher even when I know I'm going off the finger board XD Have fun with your instrument.I take violin way more seriously than most people think I should but I still have fun when I practice.
From steven su
Posted on July 13, 2012 at 6:05 PM

I am not saying everyone hates practicing scales. It's a good thing in fact to be enjoying scales. It's still something I do everyday. If I only have an hour to practice, I would practice scales rather than other pieces. I think the reference to athletes is true. I used to compete and enjoyed competing but the countless hours of running and training were something you have to do to achieve results.

From Annette Brower
Posted on July 13, 2012 at 10:26 PM
I have been playing violin for 35 years, have always liked practicing, and I started when I was 10. I think I enjoy the solitude, I don't mind repetition, I like to impress my teacher (went back to lessons after a couple decades of no lessons), and I like knowing how to do things. I am usually thinking to myself, "Wow, that's awesome, look what I can do". And then I do it again because I like the feeling. It's addictive to me.

Somehow, I understood from a very young age that if I wanted to know how to do something I would have to practice and it was never a problem for me. I don't usually tell my students this though because I realize it is a bit unusal and I don't want to loose credibility with them:-).

From ShieYng Yeow
Posted on July 14, 2012 at 1:39 AM
Wow! Thank you for reading my blog and leaving so many thoughtful replies! Please bear with me as I’ll try to reply everyone.

Asher – Thank you. I will definitely keep playing. Not a question at all. And try to practise as much as I can along the way.

Tyrone – I’m glad that you enjoy your scales. Yes, I think you’re a masochist. Anyone who enjoys scales is beyond my understanding, but this enjoyment is going to help a lot in your violin journey. In fact, I’m probably a little envious! I tolerate them, but I don’t think I will ever be able to say that I actually enjoy them.

Steven – An hour a day! That was my routine before the examination, which I hope not to repeat anytime soon. I only have an hour to practise everyday (ah, the demands of work and life) so I got to make full use of it.

Valeria – Your mom’s a masochist too. My dislike of scales goes back to my piano playing days. Maybe that’s why I never got very far on it.

Marjory – Yes I do love it when they get better. Everything else gets better when they get better too. It’s the only reason why I still do them. I understand what you are saying and I don’t disagree, hence the dilemma! My love of the violin is the only reason why I even practise at all. I want to be able to say certain things with my violin and create my own sound, but I don’t have the tools to do it yet.

Paul – Wow, I can see you really love scales and practice. I enjoy the making music, crafting sound, and creating emotions part of violin, but I find it hard to put so much attention into something mundane like scales. They are deceptively simple but oh so hard to do them well. Strangely, I don’t mind studies. They are the mind-numbing stuff for me like scales is for you.

I do have pretty high goals, and they get higher all the time as I get better unfortunately. No it’s not to turn professional or anything like that, but one day I would like to sound professional. It might not happen, but better to aim high and hit lower than not to aim at all I say.

I’ve ordered Basics, but it’s just taking a long time to get to me.

Shen-Han – Wow that’s a lot of stuff to practise. I don’t know where you find the time!
Karen – Don’t quit! And I’m glad my blog inspired you to write another blog. I like writing as well, and the ideas for this blog has been in me for a while.

Roy – It’s hard finding the joy in practising because for me, practising is only done for things that I cannot do well. So no beautiful tones, and no wonderfully executed bow strokes. Just a lot of brain working out problems and a lot of repetitions and most don’t get it right. Although, when you do get it right, the feeling is amazing. Then you struggle to try and find that feeling again, and do it until it becomes second nature. Which is probably why I love playing more than practising, because when I play, I’ve already gotten it right. Everything is effortless and that’s when you start to vary it a little, add more depth, etc. That’s when the fun begins, at least for me.

A beautifully in tune double stop is indeed an object of exquisite beauty (so wonderfully put!), I’m just not quite there yet unfortunately.

Barry – I’m glad to hear it!

Annette – I’ve never enjoyed practising, so I totally understand why kids don’t want to practise. They don’t have the discipline adults have and so it’s that much harder for them. Although, to be any good in anything, you need to work at it and that is essentially practice in all forms and disguises.

Lastly, I just want to say that I don’t really detest detest detest practising. I do it. I tolerate it, but I think I can never say that I enjoy it.

From Dave Bazell
Posted on July 14, 2012 at 12:39 PM
I am sort of an adult starter, now in my mid 50s. I took lessons for a few years in high school and college but then quit. I have been taking lessons again for about 6 months and love it. I enjoy practicing because I love the sound of the violin. I find it deeply satisfying when I can make things sound nice, be it a scale, a study or a piece. I like playing 'music' (mostly suzuki pieces now) but I have to practice them too. I like working a difficult passage, even if it is only four notes. I can practice it in a variety of ways for five or ten minutes until it gets better. And that is partly what drives me. I can see my improvement when I practice. I might work on a passage one day for fifteen or twenty minutes. The next day it is usually smoother, sounds better, and I can move the metronome mark up a notch or two. My teacher had me working on one of the Sevcik etudes, number 8 maybe, basically changing strings. I have worked on different bowings and moved it up in tempo and I can hear the echos of a Bach Partita when I play. When I hit the intonation and everything resonates, well, that makes any practice worth doing. I get up every morning and practice for 45 minutes to an hour and feel bad when I don't. I which my physical exercise program kept me going like this. To me, playing the violin, or mastering the violin, is a journey. I love the ride or I wouldn't be able to do it. I can't even imagine what it will be like to arrive, I don't really care. The other day I was listening to Mendelssohn's Octet and my 12 yo daughter made me promise to play it for her some day. There is a goal I can work toward.
From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on July 14, 2012 at 1:12 PM
"Anyone who tells you that they enjoy practising is in my opinion, either a) lying b) deluding themselves or c) a masochist"

That is so nice : )

I don't like some of the practicing. Scales and such = torture for me (perhaps it's more my small hands than the scales themselves. If I had more natural facility, I would like them a little more!)

I also hate when I practice a few bars in 1000 different ways and that it still doesn't work... Then it almost becomes an obsession to fix it (I'm so frustrated to not have it after all these attemps) and I'm not happy. In these times, it is sometimes best to put it aside and practice later on.

When I or my violin are not working well (becaue sometimes, it really is your instrument contrarely to what we think!), I also hate practicing.

But the feeling to play well (even if just a few times a year lol) is PRICELESS and that + my love of well played violin music is what keeps me going!

Interesting blog...

From Paul Deck
Posted on July 15, 2012 at 4:26 PM
"I’ve ordered Basics, but it’s just taking a long time to get to me." Hmm, I got mine in a matter of a few days. But I ordered them from Peters's website, and I think the books came from a US warehouse. I did not order them directly from Simon's web site.

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