There are two types of practicing philosophies when you’re a child starting out on the violin. I was an adherent of the one in which you practiced x amount of time each day. The other type involved playing each piece in your tiny repertoire x amount of times. Invariably, those students were able to get the job done in less time than those in Group One. Our conductor in the Fourth Grade, Billye Cook, let us know that she felt Group One was more effective. She gave a prize to the kid that practiced the longest. Our practice habits were honed on how much importance we placed on Ms. Cook’s contest. I sometimes came in second in her contest., never first.
The advantage of these two options is that they’re easy to explain to children. Surprisingly, they improve their technique and muscle memory even though their practice sessions can be rather mindless. If the teacher makes the lessons fun and nurturing as well, she has instilled in the child the love of music without guilt and shame. The student retains much more when such a positive atmosphere is presented.
What Doesn’t Benefit From Mindless Practicing
Of course, the honeymoon of playing without thinking does come to an end. What slowly dawned on me, and took me twenty-five years to coin a name for it, is that the violin is a mistake machine. My little strategy of practicing x amount a day didn’t solve the ever-present squeaky E’s, twangy pizzicatos, non-existent vibratos, horrific fifths, scary string crossings, bow changes too close to the frog (heaven help me!), spiccato (oh my!), and shifting into second position.
That was fun! Making a list of your mistakes at the very least helps you make fun of yourself, an attribute that comes in handy when you’re playing chamber music or in an orchestra. I just remembered one more problem that plagued me: playing everything as fast as I possible could. Very hard to fix.
Everyone’s musical and technical journey is unique. Mine never included following general, boiler-plate pedagogy. I could read and re-read Ivan Galamian’s Principles of Violin Playing and Teaching, but I had two very significant shortcomings. First, my ear had limitations, so I didn’t immediately know that I was out of tune. Second, my eye-hand, or more appropriately, ear-hand, or even better, eye-ear-hand coordination was severely lacking. None of Galamian’s detailed explanations could address the concentration I needed during performance, nor the subtle manipulations that my inner thoughts and inner ear had on what came out of my violin.
As demanding as music is, it is surprisingly forgiving even when you’re faced with two such extreme limitations. I found that I could ignore them and keep learning repertoire, even earn a Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in music. I could even ignore the fact that I wasn’t improving in the nitty-gritty of mastering the details. I was coasting, but it sure felt rocky.
Layering: Discovering One Thing at a Time
I don’t remember the day I started practicing better, but at some point I realized that no one could teach me better than myself. Every facet of my playing depended on how well I understood the natural properties of the violin and the bow. It didn’t matter where I placed my index finger on the bow. Instead I thought about the relationship between the hair and the string, and the various thicknesses of the string, and the timing when I would change strings. This was the good physics that I was either going to acknowledge and respect, or I would be faced with forty more years of falling into every trap the instrument unleashed. The bad physics was crunching at the frog, changing strings without engaging the string properly, and inadvertently skidding towards the fingerboard or bridge.
Which physics was going to prevail, the good or the bad? Dogs being thrown from car seats by the driver turning too fast is an example of bad physics. Slowing down at a turn and holding the dog by its collar is good physics.
I am in awe of music’s ability to move us, excite us, and lift us spiritually. What amazes me even more is the difficulty of making sense of the physical and mental demands it places on us. To ever pretend that it is easy, or that its secrets can be explained in a book, is to avert our eyes and ears from some such an overwhelming reality.
Yet each aspect of music, the technique, the phrasing, and the performance itself can be understood organically, and in a way that serves the unique part of each one of us. Discovery can happen many times each day we practice, in layers that are added one by one.
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