Practicing or Wasting Time: Learning the Art of Teaching Yourself

July 12, 2018, 8:48 PM · 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.

thinking while practicing

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.


July 13, 2018 at 11:13 AM · Wonderful article! The old, now old old, school approach of mindless repetition was only effective for the most naturally gifted - those who naturally played in tune and with general ease.

The reality, for example, that repeating a passage out of tune did not lead to playing that passage in tune was not part of violin pedagogy.

July 13, 2018 at 01:46 PM · You could be describing me except no bachelors or masters degrees or musical career.. Twenty years ago I found a teaching genius who helped me fix a few fundamentals. In a couple of years he gave me a lifetime set of tools to apply. He passed away two years ago but one of his virtuoso colleague that he advised has provided some recent reminders. But all said it is thoughtful practice founded on good instruction that has turned a corner for me in the last year.

One key has been taking on the right challenges. A few years ago my virtuoso friend gave a brilliant recital. I overheard two of Houston's older violinists congratulate my friend on his recital. One told him that he had studied one of the works for years but never had the courage to take it out of the studio. Something clicked for me in that statement. I don't take anything out of the studio but everything I worked on was too "easy" to command my full attention. The result was all the sloppiness you described multiplied. So I decided that I was going to record something hard—something that would not tolerate the sloppy attacks, sloppy intonation etc. that made me disgusted with my playing.

The recording may or may not happen but I chose a "hard" piece and started to work. I have found that "hard" pieces cannot be taught. They can only be learned. In one form or fashion everything you said in your blog has been presented to me as a challenge begging me to find a solution. When I am in problem solving mode I can practice for extended periods. I am constantly asking myself why. Why is this out of tune, why is this ugly, why does this not flow. Why leads to how. How will I find this pitch, how will a start my attack, how will I cross this string, how will I prepare my fingers etc. Of course there are other questions on the what and where variety.

I am fortunate to have a skilled adviser. He has a lot of excellent suggestions but he has a huge amount of innate ability, perfect pitch, and a completely different physical make up. He hasn't solved all of my problems because he did not need to or he solved them so early that they are just a part of his "native language". Good advice is not enough. We have to own our problems and solve them ourselves.

I wish I had woken up years ago.

Thanks for the encouraging blog.

July 13, 2018 at 01:47 PM · This article has really inspired me! The line that truly made a difference to me: "Every facet of my playing depended on how well I understood the natural properties of the violin and the bow." If I can keep that at the forefront of my mind when I'm practicing, regardless of whether it's for 15 minutes or 2 hours, it will help me reinforce the "good physics." I fear that my rote, timed practice oftentimes simply reinforces the "bad physics" Thanks for a great motivator!

July 13, 2018 at 03:22 PM · Great article!

I'm still on the path and likely will be for some time. It's great to see others who have been there and come out the other side of it with enhanced playing skills.

July 13, 2018 at 05:21 PM · Corwin, you gave me a lot of food for thought. When you said that easier pieces don’t command your full attention, it teaches me that I can remind myself to concentrate more. Even a single note should tell me where I am in the phrase and what character I’m trying to express. My teacher Carroll Glenn asked me to write a list of emotions. Such a handy reminder is necessary when it’s essy to forget that music is first and foremost about feelings.

What do you mean when you say that hard pieces cannot be taught, only learned?

July 13, 2018 at 09:56 PM · This is something I wish I learned earlier, too. I get more out of a 15-minute practice session with a problem-solving mindset than I used to get out of three hours of mindless repetition.

Re: Corwin's comment, "easy" pieces often test our ability to do the basics extremely well. There's a reason Schnabel described Mozart as "too easy for children, too difficult for artists."

July 13, 2018 at 10:38 PM · Whenever I’m looking for a new insight into the violin or music in general, I play a super easy piece so I can let my mind wander. I liken this to free-associating. It frees my mind to let new concepts in, ones that I never would have conceived of if I was trying too hard to figure them out.

This strategy worked when I discovered I needed to focus on the targets on the fingerboard, as opposed to concentrating on my hand position. This totally changed my paradigm.

July 14, 2018 at 04:19 PM · Paul, here are a few rambling thoughts to answer your questions.

My "hard pieces cannot be taught only learned" phrase is probably trite but no one can stand over a person and tell them every little thing they have to do to master the piece. The student has to assemble his repertory of techniques, organize them into scripts for rendering the music and fill in gaps by discovering new techniques. A teacher cannot fully know what it takes for a given student to complete the process. She doesn't have the fingers or brain of the student. She can really only offer suggestions. Hardness of a piece creates necessity and urgency.

I played Massenet's Meditation in high school. In a certain way it was easy. I slopped and scratched it away. It's actually shameful to dredge up and confront the memory of that and other easy pieces. I would not dream of playing Meditation today. It is harder than a hard piece with extended multiples stops, difficult bow techniques etc. But the reason I call it an easy piece is that superficially it is playable where a Paganini caprice or a Bach fugue is not.

The superficial easiness is a bigger barrier to mastery than the obvious challenges of something flashier. The other problems of easy pieces is that they require more art than hard pieces. Art requires technique but it is not technique and it is not reducible to all the motions of playing the violin.

We can see this today by comparing the repertory of Fritz Kreisler with modern violinists. Tons of musicians play the big concertos, Bach S&Ps, virtuoso showpieces etc. and play them quite well. But few play more than a fraction of Kreisler's repertory and no one plays any of it with his art. In the meantime students regularly learn and play Kreisler's " easy" pieces. I contend that the easiness of the piece is actually a barrier to mastery. (Until someone approaches it like you do)

July 14, 2018 at 04:54 PM · Corwin, you’re right about our tendency to not treat easy pieces with enough respect. Musical matters come up more often in slow passages, and the greater the musician, the more magically he/she plays. (Vilde Frang come to mind as the greatest magician since Nathan Milstein.)

On another note, there are teachers who, even when teaching the most advanced students the most difficult pieces, will micromanage and insist on following the teacher’s bowings, fingerings, and dynamics. Ironically, this practice may keep such a student forever in that arrested part of his development. Just because a student is advanced doesn’t mean that he’s growing. That may be saddest waste of talent.

July 14, 2018 at 08:43 PM · Paul,

Thanks for the insightful article. I became an autodidact when my teacher for many decades got seriously ill and died. While I have friends who are professional violinists I don't want a student-teacher relationship with them. On rare occasions I'll get some "pointers" but generally my learning is done by myself.

I also "think like an engineer" (which explains my success in Bell Labs as a Subject Matter Expert in Supply Chain Management). I love looking at the technical aspects of playing the violin. (That explains my love of the Doflein method).

Of course, at over-70 a lot of my time is maintaining the skills which I acquired but seem to be losing thanks to the degenerations and injuries while getting older.

July 15, 2018 at 05:14 AM · Thank you for your article. I wish I knew now (at age 67) about the art of practice. When I first learnt as a young girl practice as a certain amount of time and that's what the teacher wanted. Now, as a mature student I know that good practice is what matters not how much time is spent. On reflection, I realise that a lot of time practising can be a big mistake - you just practice over and over the wrong bits and over and over the bits you can do easily. No gain at all and can be detrimental. The secret is to isolate the difficult bits and get them right. Time is irrelevant. I know that this concept is difficult to explain to youngsters. With age comes wisdom.

July 15, 2018 at 04:47 PM · Hello Paul (and a note to George Wells)

Paul, yes a recommended to read essay on Mindful Practice.

George, I too reached a pinnacle in Telephone Technology and must agree that having the mind of an engineer (It must work before letting it out of the factory compare with It must sound and just as importantly must FEEL right before progressing to the next level of attainment).

Paul I have completed Maurice Onderet's Books 1, 2a and 2b.

Now I am half-way through Ralph Matesky's The Well Tempered String Player for Violin. He provides real informed guidance and that is keeping me on-track.

So, many thanks for all of you for sharing your thoughts.

Stewart (72)

July 16, 2018 at 12:22 PM · thanks to you all

July 17, 2018 at 12:40 PM · Excellent article, so well written that I was mesmerized from beginning to end, even thought I started reading expecting to quit after one or two paragraphs!

Thank you.

July 17, 2018 at 03:31 PM · I appreciated and enjoyed all of the interesting comments! Thank you

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