Long-time Devotee Needs Some Encouragement

July 20, 2013 at 01:56 PM · This summer, I chose to devote my ample free time to a serious drive for improvement. I've been practicing and performing regularly over the last nine years, making small but steady progress as a musician, but I'm still not happy with my level of playing: I feel limited and inadequate when tackling the great chamber works. After dabbling about, I decided to dig into the serious technical studies and methodically chip away at my technical weaknesses. So, for six hours a day, I play a variety of etudes and scales that challenge everything I can imagine: detache, spiccato, sautille, staccato, and legato bowing exercises, intonation studies, scales, and arpeggios, double stops, trills, speed work, fourth finger vibrato--you name it. Each hour takes incredible focus and clarity of mind, and I choose specific goals and devise steps to achieve them. By the end of the day, I'm mentally spent.

I've been at it for six weeks so far, and I have six more before the teaching season gets busy again. (I'm a violin teacher and performing chamber musician.) Some days, I think I've gotten somewhere finally, but progress is so much more difficult when you are in your thirties. I'm usually a quick learner with a strong intuitive drive, but the mind games are so negative sometimes, and some days I feel like it's back to square one. Once a week or so, I take a day off and play maybe just an hour of scales and some Bach, to let my muscles recover. Surprisingly, my body feels great, though.

Maybe that's the problem, though. I got all obsessive about things, and it seems like there's no limit to it; I always feel like I could be doing more. If I take time off to go fishing or hiking, I feel guilty and worry that I'll lose momentum. But if I spend my whole summer inside practicing, I'm afraid I will regret it, especially if I don't improve.

The problem is, I don't have anyone for feedback, and it's very rare that I see or play with other musicians. In my current situation, I'm living a very isolated life, far away from like-minded musicians; If I'm lucky, once a week I will drive 150 miles up to Anchorage and play trios or quartets, but schedules are difficult to arrange. So, I'm turning to my friends on the internet now for inspiration and encouragement. This website is what got me started on this journey, nine years ago, and it's always been an invaluable resource to me. I don't want to burn out, and I want to keep having faith that I'll be glad I invested in this, and people will play with me, and we will perform the beautiful music I've always dreamed of playing.

I don't know what I'm asking you guys to do... Maybe just discuss your own inner struggles as a violinist and who or what has helped you through the tough times when you wanted to give up. I know, I know, it's a threadbare topic, but it's late, and I'm lonely.

Replies (35)

July 20, 2013 at 02:44 PM · Emily,

"You have no idea of what you don’t know. Now it’s time that you begin to learn. And you should get up every morning and say thank God, thank the Lord, thank you, thank you, for making me a musician." — Isaac Stern

If you are a non-believer, you can thank your violin teacher, someone else or yourself. Try to remember that being a musician is indeed a privilege and a blessing.

You have already noticed that the lack of feedback and the opportunity to play with other musicians is part of your challenge. Have you ever tried chamber music over Skype?

July 20, 2013 at 04:58 PM · Forget yourself and focus on music.

July 20, 2013 at 05:14 PM · Your feelings are universal to most, if not all musicians. It's really the path, the persuit of perfection, the constant drive to become better that matters. I find when I least expect it, I am reminded of why I keep at it... when a friend asks me to play for them, but I don't feel "ready"-- it can still inspire others.

Having suffered a serious health defeat a few years ago, I beleived music was over for me, but it hasn't happend that way. I am more limited in my performance abilities now, but I haven't given up, and the time spent practicing is still worth the effort, now more than ever.

July 20, 2013 at 06:21 PM · Rocky, I hadn't seen that Isaac Stern quote before: I love it! Thankfulness can never be overrated. I think it is a key factor in overcoming self-pity, rage, and bitterness. I certainly have so many blessings.

I would never skype a chamber ensemble rehearsal, for far too many reasons to list at the moment.

J Ray, isn't that the best part about playing music? It's the best escape.

Evan, sorry to hear about your health, and I'm glad you persist despite the setback. I just thought of something: I heard once that of all athletes, swimmers suffer the most from burnout because they deal the least with injury setbacks. I don't know if it's true, but as a runner, I know that the body takes you through all sorts of setbacks, and I was constantly having to take time off. The delays were frustrating, but sometimes we take for granted the fresh perspective we get after a break. It's probably a good idea to let myself take a few days easy, regroup, and go at it fresh again.

July 20, 2013 at 07:13 PM · Greetings,

IM very impressed but not entirely convinced this is the best way of practiicng whatever one`s level. Although it is true one tends ot divorce techncial work from musical work, something that is noted even in great works by Flesch on the subject, I think that on the whole we must not only have a musical objective for practicing technique but also think musically as much as is humanly posisble when practiicng technique. IE this scale is in the style of....

This spicatto extract from a Beethoven quartet leads me to practice this spicatto etude.....

For a player like you I think it is probably more interesting and useful to search through all the major cocnertos and pull out difficult sections. Make the into a scrap book. The passages in thirds from Paginin 1 would be a good choice. The Sibelius has much to offer.

Do the same with chmaber works and orchestral excerpts.

I am not convinced one can actually fully focus for six hurs a day on technique anyway so why not try doing the opposite- limit yourself absolutely to ten minutes a day and no more. What do you want to achieve and how can you achive t in that time?

But at the end of the day I think your problem is goal setting. True you set yourself a kind of goal but it is too abstract , especially a sensitive and gifted musician like yourself. The end product is what? More technique yes, but that is not why you dance with the viiolin everyday. A better goal might be something like learn the complete Back solo sonatas., or Beethoven or whatever.

Deep down I think part of your burn out stems from not letting go of the past rather than enjoying now which is the most beautiful time of one@s life.

Just my two cents,


July 20, 2013 at 07:40 PM · Emily,

my little 2 cents advice :) If you were an amateur (as I am), I would tell you to slack off a bit and to not feel guilty to go outdoors all you can! It's so important and even more when you still can do it... How many people start knee and back problems in their 40-50s... then you will still be able to play the violin but to hike a big mountain or to jog with the dog??? Amateurs can do music for their enjoyment and still progress slowly through it if they are wise in their musical choices/activities.

Since you are a violin teacher, I understand that you want to be a little more serious about it and a modal for your students etc. Perhaps it depends on your situation. Do you have to train students to become symphony players or do your students (because of the geographical situation etc.) do not usually go beyond the good amateur level? What type of orchestras, chamber groups do you attend? I'm not saying this to put people in categories or give simplistic solutions. It's just that the type of studio you run is maybe an indicator of how hard you should be on yourself... Maybe you already have 130% more knowledge that you need to be a very competent teacher for your students. Well, if I was a teacher, I would see it that way.

Music is an art and not a business... still my teacher said that students and pros aiming for really difficult goals often lose passion or health during this intense process.... I once heard an interview with my favorite idol (and many others said similar things in other interviews). He said that to do all these things/projects at once, it cost time and health. He died the next day following that interview from a heart attack at 66 yo... (that was David Oistrakh in 1974) Even today, great players have a very nasty side to their lives too!

So, depending on your musical goals, if you can afford to relax a bit in this wonderful nature around you, it's a must do (imho)! Many professional musicians tied in leash to perform difficult things they sometimes do not even like would love to be hicking in Alaska with you :)

Have a nice day and good luck!


July 20, 2013 at 11:25 PM · Emily, Buri beat me to it, but what struck me was 6 hours of practising everything. WHY may I ask? to what end.

Even at my much less accomplished level, I have been in a self imposed similar situation - a bow arm boot camp. but its 1.5 hour a day and no more. Aim: relax my upper arm; get back flexibility in my wrist, and make clean string crossings at speed. At first I was going to do a bit of everything - had Sevcik, Trott, Schradiek, Fischer, Kreutzer, Bach. So after a week realised that was just stupid. My hour is spent enjoying but concentrating on Trotts double stops - 1 page, Kreutzer (only 1 or 2 variations of 1 or 2 ex), 1 unaccompanied bach and an accompanied bach + whichever movement of the double I feel up to today. And then I leave, with a plan for tomorrow. I do the same ex for the 5 days and then move on.

Now get out of that studio, go for a run, and make a clear decision about a thing you want to improve. As Simon Fischer says, everything affects everything, so improve one thing, it will improve everything :) My job here is done.

July 21, 2013 at 03:18 AM · Emily,

a grasshopper here with a few more cents. I've just joined this site and have been cruising these boards myself for inspiration at the start of a year long commitment to dedicated improvement. I lack your years of experience, but perhaps the freshness of my amateur status can be of help to you? Picking up the violin again as an adult without a teacher, I made a very exciting discovery: a messy approach can be a most powerful tool! I was so rusty and out of touch at first that I was shocked at how bad I sounded. But whereas as a child I obsessed about trying to play the "right way" and painted myself into technical corners, this time around I dove in with a new exuberant joy and brought the element of "play" to the playing. I lavished the instrument with exaggeratedly gross movements, squawked and scratched, and let the inspiration to discover be the leading edge of my motivation. To my surprise, not only did I get the feel of familiarity back pretty quickly, but this approach opened up new avenues of tonal production that I'd heard in the music of others as a child but hadn't ever come close to producing myself. The tunnel-visioned intentional mind can pretty much only recognize the ends that it has specifically sought out to achieve. The open and playful mind, however, recognizes and adopts far more easily the unintended and happy surprises it discovers along the way through accidental experimentation. I recognize that your quest for technical improvement is obviously quite different from my own reintroduction to the violin... but perhaps the psychological approach need not be? Finding some way to bring a more playful element--both in your overall attitude as well as to each individual exercise--could potentially ease some of the pressure and make your boot camp more enjoyable and more fruitful. Even though you're already an accomplished musician, maybe try also being a bit messy from time to time and let your own inner problem solver (much different from an inner perfectionist!) become inspired to jump in and seek out improvement to the "that's not right" feeling the way water naturally seeks the lowest point. I think of it like the game teachers play with preschoolers where they point to a body part but name it incorrectly; the kids shriek with delight as they scream out the correct name. This is sort of the feeling I have as I'm zeroing in on the "right" motion after allowing myself to freely tour all kinds of "wrong" ones. With this degree of playfulness, the inspiration begins to generate itself! Hope this helps in some way and best of luck for the next 6 weeks, Sarah

July 21, 2013 at 03:46 AM · Well, I guess this year has been the best and the worst year of my life. During the school year, I was rounding up chamber musicians and rehearsing regularly. The culmination was the foundation of a new local chamber ensemble organization, Musica Borealis, and a wonderfully attended concert in March. I played in five different ensembles and loved every single one: this is the kind of thing I absolutely live for. After the concert, our happy group went out for drinks, toasting our success and agreeing to continue playing together. I remember looking at them, thinking about how difficult it had been to pull everyone together--next to impossible--and thinking, yes, this is what we want to be doing, but none of you will follow through after the post-concert high wears off. I pestered them a couple of times in the weeks after the concert, but everyone went back to their busy lives, and none of us have rehearsed together since. I love them all dearly, and I totally understand, but it still hurts.

I do have a string trio in Anchorage, but the violist formed a rock band and doesn't have time to rehearse anymore. She is a single mom with a full time job, and I really admire her, but it still hurts to lose her.

We almost had a really awesome quartet, but every time we find one person to join, another one leaves. Last week, at our first and probably last rehearsal, we read Ravel, with the intention of performing the second movement in August and perhaps the rest of it in September. It was me, a Carnegie Hall cellist, a conservatory grad from Italy, and a young virtuoso who will be studying in Germany this fall. We immediately set about the nitty gritty details of ensemble work, like balancing voices, tuning chords, timing the fingers of legato passages, matching bow strokes, etc. I was pushed more in my first hour of real quartet playing than I think I have in any of the few lessons I've ever received in my life. It was wonderful; I loved it, but it was so difficult to go home with no debriefing afterward, and of course it can be so mentally hard to receive so much constructive criticism with no compliments. --Not that anyone should be doling out compliments when hashing out a string quartet, but I think everyone must have thought that I would be totally used to such rigorous training. Everyone else was seasoned--I mean, they probably grew up playing in ensembles. And I just kept my poker face on and hoped they didn't notice that I was a complete quartet newbie.

Needless to say, when people don't return emails and won't work with me to help set up rehearsals, I feel that I must not have been good enough somehow. I've been trying my very best to be professional, courteous, thoughtful, prepared, and not too pushy, but for whatever reason, I can't get my ensembles to stay together. And I guess, when left alone for so many hours in a day, I will turn to fix the one thing that I have control over, and that's my skill. I can't help anything else, but I can at least be a better player.

So, I ask, why do we practice? Why do we play? Do any of us have completely pure motives? I personally just feel inadequate, and when life is out of control, I go there to regain it. For the most part, I feel meditative and productive, and my mind stays very calm. But I suppose the lie that I've been telling myself is that if I'm eventually good enough, then people will ask me to play with them. And that's simply not true. I'll never be "good enough," and neither will anyone else.

I'm going for a walk in the evening sunshine with my puppy. The great thing about dogs is, they will always need you. Always.

July 21, 2013 at 04:35 AM · Well...I just wrote a great big long thing and left it alone for a minute and it got lost, and it was probably just as well because I'm not sure it was to the purpose. But I just wanted to speak as someone else who has come from a bit--actually a lot--behind; unsatisfied, tried as an adult and teacher to reach higher and become a "real", performable violinist, had the epiphany moment where the foundations finally lock into place and it seems everything is possible...and then realized how amazingly, endlessly, impossibly immense "everything" is and that I am at least 20 to 25 years behind on it all and where do I start and is it almost disrespectful to even bother. I am nowhere near as dedicated or compelled as you are, Emily, but you are not alone. In fact in many ways your blog has been one of my inspirations, I guess--she's doing it--I think I can, I think I can :) My life is balancing a whole different set of priorities now including kids, and so the violin is relegated to spare bits of time, not the lofty goals I originally set out for, at least for now--and that's ok with me for now--most of the time--until I go to a concert and wish I were rehearsing again, or go back home and jam with my brother and marvel that it's so much harder in my big, musical city to find people. To make music with than it was in my little hometown...etc. I don't think I can speak to the deep soul-place and therefore the deep soul-frustration or loneliness it is for you. But just know that I appreciate you sharing your journey.

July 21, 2013 at 05:57 AM · Sarah, you posted while I was writing, and I didn't read it until now. I like what you wrote about messing things up on purpose to free yourself. An artistic comparison would be when my friend once made me hold a charcoal pencil in each hand and scribble shapes with both hands at the same time to the beat of some techno music. It felt awkward and stupid, and I immediately understood just how inhibited I was by the notion that I had to create something "good."

Buri, I agree about too many etudes makes Jack a dull boy. I play Kreutzer and Rode, mostly, and I had a lot of fun getting Rode Caprice #2 up to performance level. Kreutzer feels very musical to me, too. And what I like to do, is take a concept and apply it to pieces I know. I know what you mean about integrating technical concepts into music. I feel like I perform with a different part of my brain, and the technical aspects become subconscious to a degree. The problem is, a lot of bad habits are stuck there, and they only show up when I abandon technical thinking and just play. But in the long run, I think better playing comes from this part of the brain.

I also think I could accomplish a lot more in a lot less time if I had some enlightenment from a good teacher like you. Sometimes, I feel like Lewis and Clark, making maps from scratch and trying not to get eaten by grizzlies along the way...

Kathryn, I'm so glad to be any type of inspiration! :) Be on the lookout for my new blog, starting in August. I'm excited to be writing again; it'll be good to be back.

July 21, 2013 at 06:10 AM · In case anyone missed him, here's Ben:

...and meet Chewy, Ben's 10-week-old son:

We just got done playing in the lake.

July 21, 2013 at 06:33 AM · Am I right in thinking that people have to make a point of making paths cross where you live, Emily? That its not so likely to be a frequent 'fancy seeing you here' event?

Because I'm hearing you retreating in to control, to try to make them come back. But YOU can't do that. Its like trying to get the kids to want to stay friends with you, but the reason they stop playing is because their parents are about to move away again and they're going to the next school.

People live where they live for their reasons, and every thing comes with its compromises, no? You have things that are important, but you have compromises, and perhaps one of the bigger compromises for the moment is the absence of ensemble opportunities.

Probably not something that 6 hours in the practise room is going to fix, and in fact, you're denying yourself one of the rewards that you earn yourself for living where you do. So why are suffering that compromise?

July 21, 2013 at 01:34 PM · Has anyone suggested recording yourself? At least this gives you a pause, and a chance to listen back and evaluate what you did. Potentially this could lead to recordings of actual pieces, and the chance to tweak the performance, then listen to it. Gives you a more active role than just playing.

Which doesn't address the problem of isolation, especially for someone who seems to be most interested in ensemble playing. What if you forced a commitment, say by arranging a paying gig once a month at some hotel in Anchorage? Gotta rehearse, gotta show up. Work it right and you start to pick up more jobs, like weddings. Would musicians respond to that? Would you want to be in the position of managing the whole thing? Might be some ideas to consider.

July 21, 2013 at 06:04 PM · Ah, recording--good idea! I want to record my Rode #2, just to put the pressure on. I should play it for my friends, too.

I played a wedding gig in Homer yesterday with the groom's best friend, who is also an Anchorage Symphony cellist. It was a good experience to meet a new cellist, and although he already has his own string quartet, he said I might fill in when the second violinist sometimes can't make it. I think the key is lots of networking. The concertmaster will be joining our community orchestra to play in our peninsula orchestra's summer music festival in a couple of weeks, and I'll make sure to connect with her as much as possible while she's down.

It's a lot like fishing.

The Father-in-Law is coming for a visit tomorrow, so there will be lots more fishing, never fear... This summer has been gorgeous, and the river has never been more packed with tourists. It's pretty insane in town right now: people are filling their ice chests at such a rate that the grocery store brings out bags by the pallet and doesn't even bother putting it in the freezer, because it's gone that fast. Today's forecasted high is 72; Wednesday's is 81--unbelievable!

Meanwhile, I was thinking about how to consolidate my practice time while driving into town for coffee, and I heard a voice in my head objecting. That's when I realised I do actually like practicing a lot. Isn't that funny, how sometimes we don't know what we want until someone says we can't or shouldn't, and then of course that's what we want to do?

July 21, 2013 at 08:06 PM · Hi Emily,

I wish I could offer some advice however I am not at the level you and other posters are, but I can wish you the best and know that somehow this experience is going to provide a wealth of knowledge and wisdom that will benefit you as a teacher and performer in the future. Keep up the good work and I'm cheering for you. Don't forget to feed your soul with a good walk with the awesome scenery with your doggy, that is soul food we all need too. :o)


July 21, 2013 at 11:52 PM · Hi, Emily:

Great responses, and you've certainly got my encouragement (as a life-long amateur violinist, but also as a clinical psychologist and as an owner of 2 dogs). Aside from boring the heck out of my wife (of 44 years) and 2 daughters by practicing the violin, I've learned a few things about this peculiarly frustrating musical instrument. I'll try to be brief.

1. I've learned that frustration and loneliness are inevitable. We're like writers, who create, "practice," and "perform" virtually alone. It's not an interpersonal activity, so you're entitled to have an existential crisis.

2. I've learned that it's not about me, or my technique, or lack of it. It's about the music. That helps when I'm feeling particularly isolated.

3. However, feedback is obviously crucial. I've learned that anyone and everyone who gives me feedback (directly or indirectly) is valuable. So don't think of "feedback" as just coming from a fellow professional or a knowledgeable critic.

4. As a clinical psychologist who specializes in (among other areas) career and job search counseling, I can tell you that NOTHING you ever do or that happens to you in a career is ever wasted. Somewhere along line, what you are going through is going to turn out in perhaps a most unexpected way to have been an incredible advantage.

Now let me tell you a little story. You may or may not know the name "Zig Ziglar," but he passed away recently after a long career as THE premier sales trainer and one of the most sought-after motivational speakers in the world.

Years ago, a friend of mine (Mike) was at a major conference where Mr. Ziglar was a major speaker. Mike bumped into him in the hotel hallway in between meetings, and asked him if he would answer a question. Mr. Ziglar said "sure," and listened to Mike's question, and then answered it.

Mr. Ziglar then asked Mike a question, which Mike answered as best he could. The two of them ended up having a cup of coffee and trading experiences and questions and suggestions.

Then Mr. Ziglar looked at his watch, and said he had to run to give another talk. Mike expressed his appreciation, and added, "I can just imagine the demands on your time, so I'm really flattered that you've taken the time to talk with me, who no one ever heard of."

Mr. Ziglar responded, "That's how I stay ahead."

MOST people plateau in their careers and jobs. Most of us reach a level of success or satisfaction or competence, and we settle in and coast.

The people at the very top of ANY profession don't let themselves plateau. They keep pushing the envelope. They keep trying to figure out the next problem, the next challenge, the next insight, the next improvement, the next goal.

So, like Mr. Ziglar, take all the advice you can get, but keep pushing on in your own way.

I hope that helps.



July 22, 2013 at 05:25 AM · You're great, Sandy, and thanks for the encouragement!

I have a good feeling about this fall; I think the tides are going to turn in my favor. This week, I'm putting some repertoire back into the mix, to prepare for a trio performance next Sunday, and I am already feeling a huge difference. I think I'm breaking through to the next level; the hard work and persistence are about to pay off! :)

July 22, 2013 at 06:24 AM · Of course you are.

Of course you will.

You can cut back on the prunes now.

Look forward to hearing of your success,


July 22, 2013 at 07:00 AM · Emily, I have little to add to the above great advices others have given, other than saying that I have heard your playing and you are one good player! I wish I could play like you but darn it, you got me into knitting and now I'm a polyamorist and can't seem to give full attention to them all. But I do believe in practice binge...

I think I am a better musician now since I started knitting again, even with less time devoted to practice each day because when I do, I pay attention to how more than what, and I don't get panic or frustrated if something doesn't work, as I learned to appreciate the unwravel and other similar setbacks.

As Sandy said, nothing is wasted when we put ourselves deep into it, only that we don't see the light if we push ourselves too hard.

Thanks for the wonderful discussion!

July 22, 2013 at 08:59 AM · Haha, Yixi, I've been on a turtle knitting jag this summer; I'm on turtle #6 now. You should post more photos of you knitting projects, I think;)

I'm not sure what recording(s) you've gotten to hear; I'm embarrassed of some of them, but thanks for the vote of confidence and the compliment--made me smile! It's painful to make recordings, but always nice to see how I continue to improve, at least. Have you recorded yourself? I still remember the first time I heard a recording of a performance, back in '05, of Danse Macabre. Funny, I was shocked at how much better I sounded than I thought. A lot of the tiny flaws get lost on the way to the audience, thankfully. And, quite honestly, I have a serious inferiority complex. Like, I have a complete disconnection between how I think I play and how I actually play. George has to remind me of that all the time. I always think everyone else is waaay so much better than me. We all know there are some really insanely good people out there these days, but there are many facets to being a good, well-rounded musician, and perfection is simply not to be obtained (no matter how much Bach deserves it!). I bet all of us tend to focus rather on what needs improvement over our own strengths; it's the natural tendency of musicians.

I've always liked to think of our pursuit as a "chasing after the moon," so to speak. It's unobtainable, but it draws us outside of ourselves and compels us ever forward. We're just--going for it, you know?

July 22, 2013 at 04:55 PM · Six hours a day is a lot of time. It's one thing when there is a clear goal in mind, such as a performance or audition, but when it's "just because" measuring progress and results is difficult. Add to that not having a teacher or someone else to check in with, and you are not getting any feedback other than the voice in your own head. You describe what you are doing as trying to become a better player, not trying to get really comfortable in 6th position, perfecting up-bow spicatto, and getting all the 3-octave minor scales shipshape. At least for me, working towards something a little more concrete keeps the motivation higher.

DON'T let the summer slip away! Alaskan winters are long and cold, no? Get some warmth while you can. Besides, a 10-week-old puppy wants to play and needs a walk.

July 22, 2013 at 06:06 PM · Okay, maybe I can be more specific. I thought my original post was rambly long in the first place, so I didn't want to go into details.

First, to clear up a misconception I created, I go on three walks or jogs every day. I live on a lake that has a very nice trail that goes around it. The mosquitoes have been as awful as they've ever been this summer, so running makes it more enjoyable, but I have a persistent overuse injury in my left knee, and I fear my endurance activities are drawing to a close... But, I do get out every day. I can only sleep six hours a night (no matter what I try!), so with an eighteen hour day, there actually is plenty of time for other things. I teach only two hours a day on average. The sun is out twenty hours a day, and the weather has been gorgeous, and every single Alaskan suffers from this insatiable desire to overindulge while it's here, but absolutely no one can keep up with this insanely good weather streak. People who try end up crashing in exhaustion about this time of year. :)

My specific goals:

Hour one: scales and arpeggios. Work on tone production, pick a different bowing and focus on consistency. Sometimes, I just focus on landing pitches every time. I also do specific pinky vibrato exercises. I sprinkle those into every hour because I have a goal to make it sound just as good as the other three. I also sprinkle in some position shifting and note-landing exercises.

Hour two: a little bit of martele etudes, string crossings, upbow staccato, and legato lines across the strings. (I could list the various etudes if you like.) Shifting.

Hour 3: double stops. I've gotten addicted to these! Octaves are like a secret weapon.

Hour 4: trills, pinky exercises. Kreutzer galore. Goal: articulate, accurate fourth finger in various scenarios.

Hour 5: speed. I tackled Rode #2. I replaced it yesterday with the presto of Bach's B minor Partita. Lots of rhythm practice and metronome work, with a performance run-through every once in a while.

Hour 6: just the repertoire. If it's been a hard day, I will play some simple Bach and look for ways to make it more beautiful (4th finger vibrato, legato bow strokes, phrase shaping, whatever.) I was working on the Ravel string quartet, but I think that's off the menu for now. I have a trio performance on Sunday, so I'm going to add more and more repertoire to the menu this week. We perform the Haydn G major (op. 53), the Beethoven C minor, Mozart's Prelude/Fugue in D minor, a selection of Bach three-part inventions arranged for string trio, and some easy filler music, like Telemann Minuets and Mozart serenades.

I'm trying to integrate repertoire into each hour's subject, to practice putting to use whatever technique I've been focusing on.

The reason I originally divorced from the repertoire for a bit was that if you've been playing the same music for some time, old habits are often ingrained in your approach to that music, and it takes some stepping back from it for them to begin to go away. I find that if I take a break for several weeks, hit some more difficult exercises, and come back to it, I will immediately notice improvement, as well as many weaknesses I hadn't been hearing before.

An end note: the reason I am completely injury/fatigue free after six weeks of this is that I've been gradually working up to six hours over the course of the past year, just in the amount of repertoire I've had to injest alone. I also got a lot of good advice on body mechanics and good setup from people on this website. With the habits I had just six years ago, I would have broken down. Also, I never practice more than fifty minutes unless I accidentally lose track of time. Six hours is usually spread out between 10:00 am and midnight. Like I said, it's more mentally tiresome than physically.

I think that if one were to include repertoire while trying to instill some new habits, one should incorporate new pieces, not ones that have been learned with the bad habits. Am I wrong in thinking this way? It seems to make sense to me. And, it seems to work. I also agree that if anyone practices from merely a technical angle, but never integrates the technique with the creative music-making process, then the technique alone is basically useless.

July 22, 2013 at 06:09 PM · Another side note: in case you hadn't gathered already, I am clinically OCD. I do have a difficult time with boundaries, and I have never been good at doing anything without taking it to an unhealthy, obsessive extreme. If I'm not throwing myself into my music, it's something else, oftentimes destructive. So, I'll pick music. I'll jut try again to find balance. Such is the struggle of life... I've always thought if something was worth doing, it was worth doing to the best of your ability.

July 22, 2013 at 06:21 PM · Oh yeah, and I don't always practice in that specific order with those specific things. It's different from day to day, but those are the general consistencies of my focus. Yes, it's never good to practice an hour just for the sake of logging an hour, and if you can set specific, achievable goals, you will feel much more satisfied being able to reach them.

Oh my gosh, sorry for the huge monologue!

July 22, 2013 at 07:16 PM · I can't add much more... Excellent advice has been given to you!

I just wanted to tell your puppies (yes, growned up dogs remain big puppies...) are beautiful!

Really, (seriously) having one or more good pets is in the best things of life... so many musicians love animals (something there!)

July 22, 2013 at 10:24 PM · "I've always thought if something was worth doing, it was worth doing to the best of your ability".

Or doing it to death! :) I think I can hear your anxiety screaming to be let out. Go let it rumble with the little puppy for a bit, wear it out. Shock it with the unpredictable.

Minds play tricks, OCD minds play bigger tricks than some others. But you know that already. So tell it to shut up, enough is enough. You're good enough.

July 23, 2013 at 01:51 AM · My hunch is that your dialogue with others (I wouldn't call it a monologue) is requiring you to clarify what you are doing and why you are doing it. Answers the original questions?

I wanted to comment on how hard it is for you to find groups to play together consistently. Do people move to rural Alaska to get away from routines and obligations? I wonder if you, through no fault of your own, keep teaming up with people who are at a time in their lives when they don't want to commit to anything, even to something as wonderful as a well-matched quartet.

July 23, 2013 at 02:25 AM · Boy, Lisa, I think you nailed it! After all, I had no interest at all in playing music when I moved up here, so I think that's probably the mindset of a lot of musicians here. Although, I can think of no better natural setting for such beautiful music; the wedding I played on the Homer bluff Saturday was in an absolutely surreal setting--unbelievable!

I think I may have another quartet in the making as we speak, so things look good for the fall. That makes everything feel more worthwhile, along with the fact that as I pick up the repertoire again, it is noticeably easier and cleaner in general. That's real progress--yay!

And yes, writing this all out with dialogue from other people has been infinitely valuable to me, for gaining clarity, direction, and affirmation. I just want to thank everyone for their contributions and encouragement. You all are awesome!

July 23, 2013 at 05:29 PM · My inner struggle is this. While I don’t consider myself as an isolated violinist, I do find forming a steady group to be very challenging: finding the right group, coordination and other social aspects of things can be the major deterrence. I love playing chamber music but I'm not too crazy about performance. I try not to care what other thinks about my playing, but performance makes this attempt nearly impossible, as I have to have the audience in mind. That's the whole point of performance, isn't it? What I really love is practice and building repertoire. So, I find it very rewarding these days to be a selfish and standoffish violinist, although I do leave the windows open when practice. Sometimes I see people stop and listen, which makes me happy for giving a free concert to the appreciating ears :)

Emily, I think you probably can relate to my thoughts of the day: Violin is painting, violin is knitting, violin is yoga and meditation… We only have so much time a day, but if I play with all my sweat and heart because I want to, the rest can take care of itself. This is what I hope.

July 23, 2013 at 06:45 PM · Emily - you have been an inspiration to all of the v.commers because of your adventurous spirit, imagination, and unique ability to share your wonderful story and your feelings about your life with us. Thank you. This is not the first time, however, that you have written about the problems of being a violinist in Soldotna. As an amateur, I can only try to view/understand your issues from a distance. What strikes me as your most difficult problem, and I think it struck others, is your isolation from other musicians. I live near Washington, DC, and cannot walk down the street practically, without tripping over enough good musicians to form an advanced chamber group. There is also plenty of exposure/opportunity to other sorts of music that is of interest to a violinist, e.g., jazz, klezmer, etc. I cannot imagine what it would be like to be in your situation. I know you have considered leaving Alaska because of this problem, and I wonder if you are thinking along those lines again. Or at least moving to Anchorage or getting a room there and spending several days per week there, perhaps. I am not sure there is an easy answer to your dilemna, and, as we get older, it becomes more difficult to make changes of the sort that might be helpful. It also, of course depends on your husband's situation. I wish you good luck and hope you will find your way. Keep us posted.

July 24, 2013 at 10:13 AM · Emily thanks for sharing your practice routine, I found it very helpful and inspiring. Just reading this topic from top to bottom and was extremely relieved to see you getting better and better as the conversations progressed! Wish you all the best, -Jan

July 24, 2013 at 10:37 AM · Hi Emily,

I would like to compliment you on your hard work and determination! I would say that the best is to trust yourself as to what you need to work on.

As for finding encouragement in the time you are putting in, I find that a mistake that we often make is to view that we are missing out on something rather than seeing what are gaining by choosing to concentrate on something that we want to accomplish.

I encourage you to continue and I am sure that your efforts will pay off as time goes by!


July 25, 2013 at 12:05 AM · Hi Emily,

I think Lisa and Tom both hit the nail on the head. Alaska is not exactly the center of the cultural universe, and it's easy to believe that you would have a hard time finding playing partners.....but...just as cream rises to the top, so have you. You've managed to put together a trio, a quartet, an ensemble and play with the Anchorage orchestra, all while keeping a studio up and running which in itself is no small feat. Maybe you're being too hard on yourself; cut yourself some slack. If you're practicing with some sense of urgency, a feeling of being left behind, perhaps; try practicing with a more relaxed attitude, as if maybe you'll conquer this and maybe you won't but you will have fun in the process.

Everyone here is sending good vibes your way...so soak 'em up and be happy!

July 25, 2013 at 10:26 PM · Christian, long time...good to hear from you again! I'm finding a lot of wisdom in your comment about not being fooled into thinking about what you're missing out on. Simple concept, yet so deep... I hope you are well!

Thanks everyone again, you've been most helpful!

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