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.
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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