10,000 bow circles in a week: an effective way to practice?

February 3, 2014 at 04:37 AM · Vcommer Kate Little recently blogged about stories that Suzuki would ask students to complete 10,000 bow cycles in a week. She estimates that this would take about 40 minutes a day.

Until now I've been using Prof Sassmannshaus's idea of Virtuous Moments - focusing on a technique for around 3 minutes at a time. Intuitively I feel that this is the most time-efficient way to train the nervous system.

But perhaps I'm thinking too narrowly. Is it possible to achieve breakthroughs by focusing intensively on a single exercise for a few days or weeks?

I can think of more fun ways to practice, so it would have to produce results to be worth it!

If you've tried this "binge" approach, perhaps you could share your experience?

Replies (26)

February 3, 2014 at 05:08 AM · Cant we have pedagogy that doesn't feature abject insanity as a likely side effect?

February 3, 2014 at 05:42 AM · Have you ever played tennis?

Some of my kids who are also tennis players spend lots of time training with a ball machine, hitting a thousand forehands and/or backhands a day to develop a single aspect of their technique.

I don't think this is any different in that regard. However, one doesn't just go about it with the brain shut off. It's not the act of playing 10,000 bow circles that develops consistency and accuracy (after all, you could do it wrong 10,000 times in a row), it's the process of analyzing how you're doing it and constantly making adjustments and adapting to the results that makes it useful.

February 3, 2014 at 07:16 AM · What's a bow circle?

February 3, 2014 at 07:34 AM · Cycle, or circle?


- Sassmannhaus is right when it comes to carefully establishing the right gestures;

- Suzuki is right when we are in the sports training mode.

Perhaps in the west we seek the right gesture before repeating it, while in more oriental philosophies we may find the exact movement through endless attempts (I am thinking of "Zen and the Art of Archery" where the poor pupil seems to me to have had ten minutes of instruction and a few years of observation..)

Hang on, though, "three minutes at a time" can easily add up to 40!

I tell my pupils that I do 6,000 steps for the round trip to and from my lessons: if we can do 6,000 notes a day, violin-playing could be as easy as walking!

February 3, 2014 at 10:16 AM · Tobias - from what I can gather the Suzuki exercise is to work on a clean retake on the upbow or downbow followed by a controlled bow stroke of 2 seconds or so.

Gene - we can surely agree that we have to practice mindfully and intelligently, whatever the number of repetitions!

But to restate my question, is there any real evidence that we'd progress more quickly if, every now and again, we took an exercise like the bow circle and practiced it for, say half an hour a day for a week, rather than for a 3 minute "virtuous moment".

I'm sceptical, but when a teacher of Suzuki's stature recommends an approach, it makes you wonder if you're missing something...

February 3, 2014 at 03:42 PM ·

February 3, 2014 at 04:44 PM · Long sustained repetition in practice sessions is a bad idea that should be stamped out. First, it increases the risk of very serious injury, as in not just muscle or tendon damage, but nerve damage - neuropathy. Nerve damage is often permanent. There are plenty of examples and stories about these injuries from sustained repetition. Do some internet searching if you are interested.

Second, it is not an effective way to learn. Learning experiments in psychology have shown that the brain learns and remembers best when new challenges or problems occur. It is "newness" that makes an impact on the brain's retention of a learning experience. An extreme example is we never forget that certain fright, and how we reacted. Sports coaching (an area that has money to do research with statistical data) has found that young athletes build measured skill 30 to 50% faster when they do an exercise for about 3 minutes, do a different one, and repeat a mix in 3 minute intervals. If 15 minutes on 1 exercise is needed, it is done 5 times, but interspersed with several other exercises. Sports trainers have data that this works better to get students up a learning curve faster. Violin teachers don't get research money, but we ought to learn from others experience.

February 3, 2014 at 05:49 PM · Honestly, 40 minutes isn't that much time, especially if it's broken up into segments throughout the day.

It's strange to see this being as an "either or" question when the practical approach is to do both. Bow circles can be adapted with hundreds of other different tasks related to point of contact, bow hold, bow placement, speed, angle, tilt, etc. so you can do a different kind exercise in three minute increments, approximately three exercises every ten minutes, broken up to two twenty minute windows throughout the day. Maybe you don't have that much time to do this, so you'll break it down into smaller units and take longer to reach the milestones.

Back to the tennis thing, these kids don't just mindlessly slam a thousand shots in a row. There's necessary breaks, time to analyze the video, and then varying the exercise to focus on footwork, body position, rotation of the torso, racquet position, racquet head speed, racquet angle, grip type, etc.

February 3, 2014 at 09:36 PM · Gene, the tennis analogy is quite a fair response, I appreciated that. Bow circles just don't seem like they'd be as much fun as trying to hit forehands down the line. With tennis you can see whether you're doing it right, because the ball either lands where it should or it doesn't. So you can measure your progress by how many you land, say, within a two feet of the corner. With bow circles, how do you know you're getting those right? Sometimes a particular motion can be TOO isolated.

February 3, 2014 at 10:03 PM · deleted

February 4, 2014 at 12:07 AM · I find that rote learning techniques or muscle memory techniques are a complete waste of time and energy. The techniques are focusing on repetition instead of building a strong memory in the mind. Techniques that use the mind more than the muscle are much more efficient. For instance, if we practice a muscle movement or thought, our minds will spend at least 4 hours of time processing that information, or the area of the brain being used will stay active for 4 hours.

The real question is how many times do you have to repeat something so that the mind processes the information from short to long term memory. In my teaching experience it is only 3-6 times.

an example:

student A practices g scale in the morning, repeats the scale 6 times then plays the scale at lunch time and only plays the scale 6 times and after dinner he plays the scale 6 time.

Total time practicing is 15-30 min., but the minds processing time is at least 12 hours.

student B practices g scale for 40 min. after dinner. Minds processing time is 4 hours.

Student A practiced less, but learned a lot more because of the processing time.

Repeating something over and over again doesn't equal learned. Building a memory in the mind is how we learn something and the mind requires processing time.

February 4, 2014 at 01:56 AM · Sounds like a recipe for repetitive strain injury.

February 4, 2014 at 11:00 AM · Hi folks

Thanks for all the helpful responses! Thanks particularly to Mike and Charles for contributing research-based posts - the info on brain processing time was new to me and particularly interesting (any links or references would be welcome).

My intuition has always been that brief, dispersed practice is safer and more time-effective, and I think the balance of this thread simply reinforces that.

For relatively driven people like myself there is a certain attraction in the idea that some kind of heroic effort could produce a leap forwards. But I suspect it's a false promise. Suzuki was clearly a great pedagogue, but I guess knowledge moves on...

February 5, 2014 at 02:38 AM ·

In line to what Mike was talking about.


Mind staying active, processing information for 5 hours after learning new skill.


Rote practice vs Variable skill practice.


I do not believe in rote learning techniques; I call it "force learning", and find it doesn't work. I find repeating something 3-6 times in one setting is enough, or repeating something 10-15 times for relearning techniques.

Analysis of repeating something:

first attempt - done poorly

second attempt - better

third attempt - best

forth attempt - best

fifth attempt - good

six attempt - getting sloppy


I like to think that it is better to stop when you are ahead.

February 5, 2014 at 08:25 AM · Charles

Fascinating links - much appreciated!

I've only skimmed the research myself, but my strong intuition is that you start to get diminishing returns after 6-12 reps or so.

As you say, novelty is surely important in stimulating the brain to develop and strengthen learning pathways. Apart from anything else, it's virtually impossible to maintain full attention over many reps, and mindless rote practice is obviously not very constructive.

And then there's the question of motivation. When I know I'm only going to work on it for 3 minutes, I can find the motivation and concentration to tackle the stuff I struggle with. And for the stuff I enjoy I'm even more concentrated because I know I'll be moving on soon and I want to make the most of the time I have!

Certainly, the results that Prof Sassmannshaus achieves with his young charges speak for themselves - his Magic Moments is clearly an approach that works.

February 5, 2014 at 04:51 PM · Seems as if this exercise concentrates on only one aspect of bowing technique. How about practicing for 10 repetitions of bow loops starting down bow. then 10 reps starting up bow. then 10 reps starting down bow and concentrating on a curved pinky at the start of a down bow. Then 10 reps with a straight pinky on the up bow. Then staying on the string 10 reps going from down to up bow. then 10 reps making sure the pinky is curved on the down bow, 10 reps making sure the pinky is straight on the up bow, 10 reps thinking curved on the down and straight on the up bow. You get the drift.

After this you could add thinking about the elbow being on a higher level on the up bow and lower on the down bow, etc. Once a student had mastered one technique, they could delete it from their exercise and add another.

February 7, 2014 at 08:08 AM · I do the Fischer tone exercises a bit like this, to keep them fresh.

And when I finally discipline myself to do regular scales, this approach would work there too...

February 7, 2014 at 10:43 PM · You can't build muscles in your mind! This is why repetition -- correct repetition -- is an essential part of practicing and technique-building.

February 8, 2014 at 08:59 AM · Hi Laurie

We would surely all agree with that.

But the question I'm seeking guidance on is how much repetition, and whether concentrating on a single technique every now and again for very high reps is a worthwhile approach. With your background in Suzuki, I'd welcome your views.

February 8, 2014 at 09:23 AM ·

Build muscle? For what, playing the violin? Why is it necessary to build muscle to play the violin? Repeating something as effortless as straight bowing for 40 min. doesn't build muscle or anything else, its a complete waste of time. 'Muscle memory techniques' (repeating a single movement over and over for a excessive amount of time) do not work for mind or muscle, and this archaic mythical method of teaching that needs to stopped. Muscle memory techniques are extremely counter productive. Students are more likely to learn the wrong ways of doing things and possibility of an injury would be high.

When it comes to building muscle advance players need to exercise the unbalanced weaker muscle areas that are not being used.

Muscles don't learn anything, only the mind does. Playing the violin is 100% TRAINING OF THE MIND.

February 8, 2014 at 03:31 PM · Charles, I am not convinced! Through insistent, but not obsessive practice, (with small fingers on a viola), my left hand has become not only more agile, but noticeably stronger than my right, in spite of my being very much right-handed.

"100% in the mind" is an illusion of those whose physical strength and dexterity are so finely tuned that they don't have to worry about them. They are so lucky!

And the "10,000 times" notion serves to create and reinforce the brain connections as much as muscular strength and agility. At 65 yrs old I now often teach more than I play, and I know the need to re-learn skills that I used to take for granted.

And I feel we often confuse acquired physical skills (e.g. walking, trills, rhythms) with their more concious counterparts. Muscle Memory is in the brain, rather than in the mind.

However, as you suggest, excessive, obsessive, physical training will only dangerously harden both body and mind.

February 8, 2014 at 06:19 PM · I believe that repetition without meaningful comprehension bears little return.

February 8, 2014 at 06:51 PM · Okay, I'm not going for the “in a week” part, but I found the idea inspiring. I'm not keeping a running total, but during my open string warm ups, I set the metronome to 60 with the intent of two beats per bow stroke, including the circle. Eight down bow, eight up bow (16) using each of the three main sections of the bow: middle, tip, frog (48). I do this on each of the four strings. My order generally is A, G, D and then E (192).

That's not quite six and a half minutes added to my warmup (192 x 2 beats = 384 / 60 seconds = 6.4 minutes). If I were to do this at the beginning of every practice it would take under two months to do 10,000. (10,000 / 192 = 52.08 days / 30 days = approx 1.74 months).

Mainly I listen for quality of tone and stability of the landing. You can see if the bow bounces, even just a little. After just three sessions I was already starting to hear and see a difference. As an added benefit it is easy to watch the bow to make sure you are as straight as you want to be.

I suppose if you wanted to do this in a week, you could just repeat the pattern 8 times throughout your practice. But that would add almost an hour (51.2 minutes) daily. But you would finish in a week. But like I said, I'm not keeping a running total.

February 8, 2014 at 09:05 PM · I think 10,000 is an awful lot, but many teachers say, "Perfect practice, plus 100" in order to build something to fluency. When you walk, you don't think extremely hard about how to flex your foot, how high to lift it, where to place it, etc. This is because you have built physical fluency through practice. Physical fluency is not all in the mind. Ask someone who is trying to walk, after being on crutches for three weeks! They know how to walk, but their muscles need re-building. Also, the muscles need constant practice, or they atrophy. This goes for the muscles in your fingers, hands and arms as much as it goes for anywhere else in your body.

I think another helpful part of "repetition" is the fact that when you repeat things you already know, you are more likely to be repeating correct motion than if you spend 100 percent of your time learning things that are new and beyond your ability. Students who regularly review pieces they know are building physical fluency. They are teaching their fingers to go to the right places, they are repeating techniques that they learned well, etc.

February 9, 2014 at 03:06 AM · I guess 100% is a little extreme, 90- 95% would be a better guess.

Geoff your question about how many repetitions and what approach is necessary to learn something is a good one.

The key is to figure out how many reps and how many sets of reps and time between sets.

something learned = #reps + #sets + rest time

It's important to analyze how you learn- repeat something for # of times, don't practice it for 4-8hrs, then repeat it 3-4 times to see there is a slight improvement. Over time you will be able to figure out how many reps + rest times are necessary to = something learned.

February 9, 2014 at 07:44 PM · Why not just try it and see? All you have to lose is a few hours the week in question. I've wasted more than that some weeks just on Facebook!

While at Curtis, I was having trouble with double-harmonics in the Paganini concerto (admittedly, a technique with limited use) and a fellow student overheard me griping about it. I think he had just a bit of ill intent when he mused, "I wonder what would happen if you just spent a week practicing only double harmonics every way possible?" I resolved to show him just what would happen, so the next day I started out on some double-harmonic scales, then the Paganini passage again, then another passage that I knew, then a long break, then Paganini, then more scales, then a long think. I started making up more exercises, and I think I got to about 3 hours. I stopped practicing for the day. The next day, I got about an hour into it and couldn't take any more (mentally, this is)! What do you know, it did get a lot better! I'm glad I tried it, not sure I would do it for that technique again, but wouldn't rule it out in the future for something else that was giving me fits.

Some people are wired with the kind of obsessive concentration that makes that style of work productive for the long term (Evgeny Kissin for one, who I've written about before). Most are not, although that doesn't mean that we can't go part-way down that road from time to time. There's no way around directed, incremental improvement built on lots of repetition. For my own practice, I can usually sustain focus on one task for about 3-5 minutes before needing to switch gears. But as others have noted, I can fit plenty of repetitions in that time! How many forehands?

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