Breaking free from this plateau

June 25, 2011 at 06:29 PM ·

Hello all!

I've been registered here since 2009 and regularly read, but I think this is my first posting. I'm after some advice about improving my technique. Brief summary, I began playing violin in school at age 8, it was suggested I study under a private tutor - which I did, and took my Grade 4 the following year, then Grade 5 and 7 by the time I was 12. Due to financial constraints, I had to have lessons at school which weren't so good, and although I was studying for Grade 8 the following year, I quit lessons and focused on my other instruments (beginner and intermediate).

Fast forward 20yrs: I still continue to play and I tutor beginner and intermediate students, but I find it difficult to improve without a teacher. I'm currently looking for someone in Liverpool with a view to taking lessons again in Autumn, but would appreciate any tips or advice in the meantime, as I don't feel I play any better than I used to! 

I would like to achieve orchestral standard, if possible, just for my own pleasure as I'm probably too old to think about auditioning for orchestras (plus I did a Contemporary Music degree). Did I reach my apex as a child? Is there any hope for me to get better? Grrr, it's frustrating.



Replies (36)

June 25, 2011 at 10:59 PM ·


ALL musicians and athletes plateau. It's the human default state, and it happens to us all. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that people generally don't really constantly improve so much as lurch from plateau to plateau. Each jump in level necessitates a corresponding jump in focus, energy, time spent, and coaching. Leaving a plateau as a string player is costly on the psyche, and body, and it gets no easier as we age. But it can be done.


June 26, 2011 at 01:37 AM ·

<<<<I would like to achieve orchestral standard>>>>


I would say....Go, Go, Go For It!.....Today is the first day of your journey.

I don;t think I need to explain how you would reach your destination.

But I believe you will be so very satisfied when you find the 'path way' all by your self.

Keep climbing, there's a great view from the higher plateau.

BTW, nice profile pic....................


June 26, 2011 at 06:31 AM ·

I don't think anyone really plateaus if they are working steadily although we certainly feel like it.  the problem is that its easy to forget ones own (earlier) limitations.  One way to demonstrate advancement is to go back to pieces you failed to play some time ago (preferably that were just beyond playability) and try them again.  I've been quite astonished at how my playing has really improved. 

I think the key to breaking out of plateaus (real or imagined) is to set interim goals.  You have a clear long-term one, that of playing in an orchestra - to realize that I think you need a set of interim ones.  These should range from modest (such as play a piece in the studio at a higher metronome setting without major error) to moderate (memorize the piece) and to major (perform it).  Goals are essential to give us a sense of achievement and to prevent the feeling that you are stuck. 

The other essential is an impartial observer - you don't have a teacher but is there another accomplished violinist that is familiar with your playing?  There is nothing better than positive feedback...

June 26, 2011 at 09:35 AM ·

Emma I looked at your profile and I listened to your voice and recording, I can only say "WOW' you do not need advice, you have got it made honey. Most of us will give our front-teeth to have half your talent. You played grade 8 as a thirteen year old, and here you get advice of go-go-go. Do you really want to play classical music and sit as a non-entity in an orchestra or do want to branch out in the entertainment field playing violin like Vanessa Mae, which I surmise will suit your temperament better. You are an entertainer and I hope you will build on that, and that does not necessary need a classical training. Now the Liverpudlians can tell you where you can find a good teacher, while everybody else tries to tell you how to jump from plateau to plateau.

June 26, 2011 at 01:38 PM ·

so, orchestra players are non entities?

i wonder what an adult beginner/amateur qualifies as being then? a black hole, anti matter...?

June 26, 2011 at 05:41 PM ·

 "Not only does Emma live and breathe music she is a diva as a vocalist. In addition she is an extremely competent classical violinist, bass player, guitarist, woodwind and brass multi-instrumentalist. Miss Sweeney can compose, arrange and engineer. She is also a competent programmer." 

~ Jennifer John - Sense of Sound

Tammuz if you read Emma's website thoroughly you will understand that she is a very unusually talented lady. So do not get upset about a metaphor, I am also a non-entity as a violinist but I still enjoy it.

June 27, 2011 at 12:18 PM ·

Wow, lots of responses! Firstly, thank you all for the replies; I'm going to work my way through now :)

@ Joyce - So many points in that article resonate with me, especially these:

'We are conditioned to be preoccupied with mistakes, missed notes, out of tune notes, bad sounds – all the things that are “wrong” with our performances. We spend comparatively little time listening for and reinforcing the “right” things.'

'As we become increasingly skilled, we tend to adopt an all-or-nothing view of our playing. In other words, we either miss the note or hit it. If we hit it, we’re satisfied and move on to the next thing. If we miss it we circle back and try again, and again, and again, until we do hit it. Meanwhile, we become increasingly frustrated when we don’t nail it consistently.'

And this one really stood out to me:

'This is what happens with child prodigies or “natural” players. They grow up doing quite well based on their instincts and natural tendencies. However, they eventually reach a ceiling, at which time (assuming they want to reach their potential) they need to learn for perhaps the first time in their life how to deliberately control the things they used to do without thinking.'

As a child, I could just 'do' it. I barely had to try. I had a wonderful tutor, a RLPO veteran in her 80s and her instruction was incomparable to any of the tutors I had afterwards. The combination of being in her tutelage and my natural gift made me fly through the stages without much thought about HOW I was producing the sounds I did. I remember being very proud when playing at a music festival and one of the judges requested to examine my violin as it 'looked' like a Skylark but didn't sound like one, apparently. It really was a Skylark! :) I mention this, because I have changed my instrument in recent years and so had to adjust my finger positioning slightly. It is also a less forgiving violin - not a great one, an old German Sachsen, but it is less booming than the Skylark, which makes for better sectional work.

@ Scott - Thank you, I was starting to feel like it's impossible for me to improve at this stage in life, and I'm prone to frustration!

@ Henry - Do you think I could achieve that? I can play the parts, but as for the audition pieces, I sound like a hen, scratching out the notes with my claws haha. If I can just incrementally improve, and hear those improvements, it will motivate me to continue. I think I need to structure my practice time as I would a student; right now, I'm just playing whatever I throw on the stand, but I should devote a portion to scales etc, repertoire, new pieces. It's funny how I can be far more disciplined with beginners than I am with myself...

@ Elise - Yes, I always set the bar far too high! I'm going to incoprorate your suggestions into my practice sessions (I do love my metronome, the children hate it with a passion!). Unfortunately, I don't know any classical players here, and the musicians I do know say, "Yeah, yeah, that sounds amazing," when it doesn't at all. I joined an orchestra last year, but whle I enjoyed the experience of playing with others, the repertoire was around Grade 6, so it didn't stretch me enough.

Andre - Aw thank you. We all need advice! :) Since 18 (I'm 33 now) , I've worked as a contemporary performer, solo, in bands etc, and I really miss the discipline and high standard of classical music. I miss sitting in 1st violins, dodging sweat and spit from the conductor, beung attuned to every nuance of each player. I miss the feeling one gets when the whole orchestra is playing as one, especially during rehearsals rather than performances. I miss hearing the baton rap on the stand haha. Most of all, I miss music being the priority instead of the afterthought. In pop music, more attention is given to the performer than what is performed, and one is able to play far sloppier because amplifiers and microphones are very forgiving. I used to dislike being the youngest in any orchestra as I didn't relate to the older players in a social manner, but once we were sat down to play, I was in rapture! I've had some great shows as a singer, but nothing comes close to playing in an orchestra. I'm cataloguing my compositions and incorporating some of them into pop/rock recordings which I'll likely perform on the electric violin at gigs, but it;s not an orchestra :D

I'm still trying to figure out the best duration for practicing. I did five hours the other day, but by Hour 4, I was half-blind and shortly before stomping off in a temper, my bowing was all over the place. I think I'm going to try for an hour in the morning and one in the evening. I'm focusing on Kreutzer, Bach Partitas, and my two personally challenging pieces that I love - but they don't love me - Mendelssohn E Minor (Op.64) and Tchaikovsky D Major (Op.35). If it takes my last breath, I will nail these pieces!!!

June 27, 2011 at 01:10 PM ·

if you have any 'free weekends' have a look at the Rehearsal Orchestra, they run weekend courses and I bet you would love it!

They cover the repertoire that would 'stretch you' :)

they don't perform for audience, it is purely for rehearsals only but you would have a 'ball' and learn a lot from them.  I think it's right up your street.

And you might end up making friends/contacts with someone useful in your area too? (or someone who knows someone in your area?)

June 27, 2011 at 01:43 PM ·

Oo, thanks, Jo. I'd love that! Reading their site now.

The courses are reasonably priced, too. I'm going to have a look at my diary and see which one is best for me. Yay, I feel like a child again.

June 27, 2011 at 02:01 PM ·

Yes Emma, I know you would have to go down to London but surely that would be a nice excuse to combine it with a nice weekend in the big capital? then you can also have a night out too? :)

DOUBLE nice weekend!

I bet you must know people in London and a friend could 'put you up' for the night? hehehehe


June 27, 2011 at 02:17 PM ·

I do indeed; in fact, my ex-housemate was asking just yesterday when I'm coming for a visit :)

June 27, 2011 at 03:29 PM ·

What did I tell ya? You Go, Go Gal..........I did'nt mean you had to travel so far, but nice to visit your ex-house mate....I chose local groups, the acapella group is a great buzz  but the bass player in the country band better learn his part soon.......And I have my solo repertoire ready for  busking in the summer.

June 27, 2011 at 08:43 PM ·

Yay, sounds exciting! :)

Just reading the boards here every day is helping me get into a routine; I don't know any violinists, or classical musicians, come to think of it, so this place gets me into the right mindset. I'm going to start recording my practice sessions to see what my worst flaws are.

June 27, 2011 at 09:07 PM ·

Emma,  I don't have any different or unique advice on your situation - but I do want to say you are one terribly cool person.  Very few people in life are blessed with your combination of talent, curiosity, grace, and humility as often one attribute crowds out the others.  I'll look forward to hearing more from you!

June 27, 2011 at 11:05 PM ·

Aw, thank you.! All credit goes to my family :)

June 28, 2011 at 12:34 AM ·

Recording your self playing will stop you 'scratching about like a hen' then you could post a video on youtube, that will motivate you knowing the whole world will be listening and watching.

And I would suggest getting off this plateau right away....'I'm just playing whatever I throw on the stand'.........And move up to the 'memory plateau' some pieces well with in your technical capabilities and perform them in your local community.....churches, nursing homes...

June 28, 2011 at 01:19 AM ·

Play in front of people? *hyperventilates*

I do need to stick to one piece until I play it well. I'm going to focus on scales, etudes, and a longer piece this week. Not sure what piece yet - like you say, something within my ability, so I can work on my tone and interpretation.

June 28, 2011 at 02:28 AM ·

'Play In Front Of Poeple'........Yes, of course..! We are musicians, that's what we do.

You say you are an experienced performer? Have you lost your nerve to get up on stage? There are some good books, like 'Inner Game Of Music' which will help you to enjoy sharing your music. And you say that you practise the S & P's, this assumes a skill level well enough to play pieces like ' Meditation', 'Schon Rosmarin' and 'Monti's Czardas'. These pieces are not just for performances but also to practise Tone and Interpretation.....every time you play them from memory. You also state that you are....' highly-skilled and adaptable to all genres'.........Join a local band so that  you can rehearse regulary a bracket of songs for performances in your community.....As you can see I am relating to this because I was on the same plateau as you, and now I am arisen to the ( my ) next 'Plateau'......and I have my sights on the ( my ) next plateau up there, it's a work in progress.

June 28, 2011 at 02:57 AM ·

I've not lost my nerve as a singer, because I do that for a living, so I'm used to it. Also, I know my voice and am confident the notes sound exactly as I want them to. But fiddling...gosh, I haven't played for anyone aside from students and studios for about 15yrs (except for ensemble work, amateur orchestras etc).

 I have 'The Inner Game Of Music', I need to read it again. I don't want to work with bands again unless I'm getting paid a lot of money, but I'd enjoy playing Ceilidh in the back room of a pub with other musicians. That used to be fun. As for solo classical playing, I need to build my confidence up a lot. Maybe I'll go and harass Nanny and the others she lives with at the residential home.

I don't have Schon Rosmarin, I'll order it. And get practicing the others again!

June 28, 2011 at 03:35 AM ·

OK, great, get yourself out there...........if you have any specific problems with technique, just let us know, and better still, post a recording of your playing................

June 28, 2011 at 09:02 AM ·

Emma just a quiet word of advice, be very selective about the advice you get on forums like this. It is all well meant, but not everything will be appropriate for you. Your website is on your profile, so it could be good idea for posters to be acquainted with it. 

June 28, 2011 at 10:00 AM ·

Emma, you say you can get up and sing in front of an audience as you do that professionally so you are used to it, it's 'your job', fair enough.  If you feel you can't do that with the violin then maybe you just need to slowly 'work your way' up to it.  Start with organising an evening where you play for just a small group of friends (or Nanny and the residential home why not? GREAT IDEA!).  Organise a cocktail evening or dinner party and put together just 3 or 4 pieces you know you can play well.  They don't have to be the hardest pieces technically, you know that!  Music does not have to be technically challenging to be beautiful right?  After  that organise another friends evening, after that organise something a little bigger where you hire a hall and you sell tickets and do it for charity so that people are encouraged to come? so after you cover the cost of hiring the hall the rest goes to charity?  see where I am going here?  this will help you to get used to playing the violin for an audience, from small to BIG! :)   soon  you'll be ready to play at the Royal Albert Hall hehehehe :)

You've 'got it in you' as you ARE a performer, you just need to transfer it to the violin right? :)

June 28, 2011 at 10:51 AM ·

 "I am available for strings sessions (violin, cello), as a voice coach & music tutor, and for any composition/arranging requirements as I am a reading musician & composer. I have toured extensively as a singer & violinist."

I do not think Emma has to be told how to get an audience, when you read as far as the last sentence above.

June 28, 2011 at 10:52 AM ·

I don't think practicing is the right thing to do right now. It sound like you are having some technical  problems that need to be addressed first. If you had a vocal student that wasn't using their diaphragm , was screaming when she sang , and  was working on Ava Maria. Would you tell her she was doing great , keep up the good work , practice practice practice , practice makes perfect. You have to address the technical problems before moving on.

June 28, 2011 at 12:37 PM ·

Yes, technique is definitely my main area I need to work on, and then when I'm grounded and confident, I have to address the playing in front of people thing. I have become a tad sloppy over the years.

I'm taking all advice on board and making notes; it will help me to see what areas to focus on. Also, I need to get back into the swing of things, in terms of knowing what studies and pieces are useful, so browsing the forums is helping. Back in the 'olden days' of playing in youth orchestras, recommendations would come from teachers and other players, but I'm totally out of the loop now.

I'm going backwards today - some easy Carse studies to focus on my bowing and intonation :)

June 28, 2011 at 12:47 PM ·

Andre, take a deep breath and 'relax' no one here is trying to belittle anyone or offend anyone, you have a chip on  your shoulder, take it off and eat it with some salt and vinegar on it, the english way :)

June 28, 2011 at 02:12 PM ·

Mmmmmmm I think I'll have fish and chips tonight. Drenched in salt and vinegar om nom nom. Just had a nice little practice session, scales/arpeggios, an old favourite Accolay concerto from when I was a child, and some Mozart. Must hurry and vacuum before my students arrive. I have my favourites tonight - they actually practice. I can always tell when children lie about how much they practice hehe.

June 28, 2011 at 02:54 PM ·

Jo, nuts are also nice with salt, and you have plenty of that. 

June 28, 2011 at 04:37 PM ·

 aaaaawwwwwww thanks for the nice compliment Andre, you and me ALWAYS get on so well on these boards don't we? :)

June 28, 2011 at 06:04 PM ·

 Kindred spirits?

June 30, 2011 at 05:28 PM ·

Okay, I'm a pig in clover. I just found my Paganini set with piano accompaniment on CD. I'm going to learn and perfect a couple and then crash the party at the old folks' home :D

July 1, 2011 at 12:07 AM ·

I hope you sort out the problem with the 'Tight E String'. And if you don a 'Tight G String' ........this will surely take your mind off the technical problems you are having with intonation and scratching about like a hen.

July 1, 2011 at 07:47 AM ·

Hehe, I think it's just a bad set up; the tailpiece is slightly off, too. It's barely noticeable, but once you DO notice it, it's odd. I need to busk with my electric violin, or something, and start a Fiddle Fund. I have to get a license and public liability insurance just to busk in this city, grrrr. I should advertise as a wedding player, too. :D

July 27, 2011 at 04:18 PM ·

Feel like crying! My last bow just snapped. I have a stack of them waiting to be rehaired, but this one, the wood split while I was playing. It was only an entry level bow that came with my electric violin, but that's never happened to me before!

I don't know much about bows and have only ever had wood. I'm going to just get another cheap one to tide me over, but long-term, what materials and makes does anyone recommend.

So mad. Can't even practice now :(

July 27, 2011 at 10:13 PM ·


Practice scales, and do bow drills - fastest way to success.  I wouldn't bother with etudes at this point in time.  Simon Fischer has a book 300 exercises or some such.  Many will agree to disagree with his methods, but the fact is there is something in the book that can help everyone, and the best part is that everything is explained in a simple way, and is easy to understand.

Remember too that musicality determines technique.  Try recording yourself (hopefully with a slightly higher-end recorder so you can hear more colors/timbre).  You will be amazed at the things you do in the bow arm/left hand vibrato/shifting etc. that you didn't notice before.  If you have a good ear, you can correct these things and get what you want.  Violin isn't about natural talent.  It's about knowing what you want, preparation-and yes, a little luck always helps!

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