Practice Room Pitfalls: Technical vs. Musical Playing

June 7, 2020, 3:29 PM · If I had to define the ideal violin lesson, it would come down to three equal parts – learning to play as part of an ensemble, performing with expression as a soloist, and processing it all in a fun and nurturing environment. Of course, such an ideal is hard to attain because it seems like so much work just to play the notes, let alone make them expressive. Teachers may have much to give in terms of their musical offering, but students find they can only take so much in at any given time.

practice violin

So where does a student get what he needs to develop both sides of his musical mind? In the practice room! That’s where our true musical personality is developed, even though there are pitfalls that keep us from reaching our potential. Each of us has fallen into one, if not all, of the traps. Here are some of the most common practice room pitfalls.

1. Getting caught up in the left hand

Sometimes we concentrate so much on the left hand that the bow arm is operating at minimum energy. By not giving the bow some plan of action, it makes the left hand have to work harder than it needs to. Why? Because the bow gives rhythm to the left hand.

What’s the longest you’ve ever gone without giving the bow arm a second thought? To get the ball rolling, give a friendly reminder to the bow to wake up and get out of bed. Start with highlighting the differences between duplets, triplets, and sixteenths. When you’re about to give the bow a little more energy, give a heads up to the left hand to be ready for the change. It’s so used to getting all the attention that it might be thrown off a bit.

Plan on fixing a couple of new mistakes in the left hand caused by broadening your concentration on the right hand. Think of it as the cost of being human. You’ll become more patient as well, a quality every musician needs.

2. Getting stuck on one thing.

We need a quick mechanism to shift gears, either from right hand to left hand, or from technical to musical practicing. I like the image of the windshield wiper, which in one moment shifts to the opposite side. Because our minds (referring to both geniuses and the rest of us) aren’t designed to think of two things at the same time, we have become quite adept at thinking of numerous things in quick succession.

Wouldn’t you like some relief from thinking of the same thing all the time? How long can you dwell on learning second position? Use the windshield wiper to tear you away from something old to something new. All it takes is a little prompt, then our musical minds take over from there.

Remember, shifting our attention from the norm makes us grow as musicians. Concentrating on two techniques separately makes them interact in unique, stronger ways. The better the vibrato, the better the bow sound.

3. Neglecting technique for musicality, or vice-versa.

Sometimes we get fixated on the musical interpretation, and technique and caution get thrown to the wind. Take a moment and remember how elegant, refined, and ordered great music is. Expressive music and technique weave in and out with each other. While we may get transfigured by a deep dive into the sensuous or exotic elements of a piece, it may become unrecognizable to others.

There are numerous ways to combine music and technique, and the first step is to imagine you’re playing with someone else.

If you’re convinced that your one way of feeling or playing a piece is the only way, you may want to take a step back. I don’t know which is more complicated, chess or music, but the number of possibilities for a particular outcome is endless in both endeavors. When a particular rhythm is throwing you off, you may find the reason is because your interpretation is overwrought. Take a breath, iron out the massive acceleration you’ve buried yourself under, and enjoy a healthy, still expressive phrase.

4. Belittling one's own skills and knowledge.

There’s one thing that smooths over this complex task of transitioning between technique and music. It’s the confidence to know that you have worked hard to acquire the knowledge, and it’s not going anywhere. As you gain experience, your artistry will take on new forms and you’ll connect the dots between old knowledge and new.

Teachers come and go, some more nurturing than others. Learn to value your self-esteem as early as possible so it doesn’t have to be re-invented with each new experience.

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June 8, 2020 at 07:01 AM · I've certainly had a number of occasions where I fixed left hand difficulties by changing focus to the right hand, precisely because of the right hand giving rhythm to the left hand. For example, sometimes I've found that I've been able to finger a fast passage more cleanly by paying attention to bow distribution and contact point to get quicker string response; the difficulties with fingering came mainly from my left hand waiting for my right hand.

June 8, 2020 at 01:44 PM · I do not entirely agree with your third point. Music and technique are not on the same level of hierarchy. There is no music without technique. But without technique music is worthless.

In other words: Technique is the tool kit that allows us to make music. It allows us first to play all the notes correctly. Second we have to choose the technical means that make the music alive (i.e. fingerings, bowings, dynamic, vibrato etc.).

June 8, 2020 at 01:44 PM · Andrew, your last line sums it up so well. It rings with truth and poetry. I think we all are inspired by the symbiosis between the right and left hands. When you think about it, reinforcing a stronger detache isn’t that difficult. But asking for it and turning it on is hard. Why do we get so myopic?

June 8, 2020 at 03:39 PM · Albrecht, You present what could clearly be a fun debate. We learn technique first because many of us operate on a rote level when we’re in elementary school. It’s harder to think of music and expression in rote, repetitive terms. Then we get older, wiser, and hopefully more creative. Even our technique becomes streamlined and smoother.

Ultimately, though, our technique changes to fit the constantly evolving musical needs. Even though it takes a moment or 5 minutes to formulate a musical idea, it’s worth the effort. Music takes precedence over technique because the latter will change completely when the music shows what it requires. With solid musical guidance, the technique often becomes easier.

June 10, 2020 at 10:04 PM · You need to ask yourself one question and answer it? What is music?

June 12, 2020 at 12:03 AM · Wow what a great topic ! Nice article and wonderful comments very thought provoking. I find myself envisioning playing and doing the windshield wiper thing, which I know I’ve done before. I play mostly improvisational music but quite often am called on to play very specific phrases in specific places within the tunes in a show. When improvising I really don’t think much about techniques or fingering . I just play musical ideas as they come to mind. Specific passages however are an entirely different ball of string. I usually figure out the left hand and then concentrate on bowing trying different things until I develop a feeling that works in those parameters, and then commit it to memory. When it comes time to rehearse or play the show without a rehearsal , I may have to change the bowing and timing a little to make it fit. In these cases I find great admiration for classical orchestra violinists. I love reading these things!

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