Just some general thoughts about practicing

November 23, 2015 at 06:35 PM · I have been thinking a lot lately, and sometimes I think it's hard to be efficient about practicing really knowing how to practice. I am starting to think that it is really important to know what I am actually trying to achieve through practicing. I think a part of that is because sometimes, my technique limits what I can do musically, but other times, my understanding of musical interpretation limits me technically, if that makes sense.

When I practice, the progress is slow, but I think the results are concrete, noticeable, at least on some level. I'm a full time student right now, and not taking lessons, but whenever I have time to practice the violin, I would record myself playing either an excerpt or a piece maybe once or twice a week.

Today, I listened to a recording of a piece I played a month or two ago, and was shocked how cringe worthy the intonation was in the recording. The recording of the same piece I made today sounded very different from that recording, yet, I did not remember hearing those same out of tune notes when I recorded it a month ago. It's really interesting how perception is different from reality at times. I would not say that my sense of pitch changed much in such a short amount of time, but definitely, the first time I heard my initial recording, I was not aware of all of the problems with pitch, or all the extra noise I was making with the bow. Yet, despite the fact that I wasn't aware of these things, they changed for the better somehow?

However, I would not say that everything about the my current version of the piece is better than it was a month ago. There were many phrases where I thought I played sounded more musically or less "carefully" than how I play it now.

It seems that perhaps I'm making progress, but also taking some steps back at the same time? I would be really interesting to hear what some teachers have to say about this matter, or how to go about retaining what you like, and trying to get better at what you don't like.

Sometimes I think my practicing is too aimless, and that it lacks direction. I mean clearly, something changed about the way I played that piece from two months ago, but I'm not sure everything I ended up changing was intended, or if things just happened to get assembled randomly.

Before you practice something are you supposed to have some type of an end goal, or some kind of a end result in your mind? Sure, just about everyone wants to sound like the Heifetz, but those kind of results are not achievable in a matter of months. Also, if you just try to copy a recording, then it inhibits your ability to interpret the music yourself, and it's much easier to copy a master violinist's technical flaws than their strengths, because everyone has a different physical makeup.

Sometimes, I listen to me recording, and pretty much I just think, 'wow i really need to work on that martele at some point, that was super sloppy', but I am not even sure where to start, or what my problem is exactly. I mean I know how to compress my bow hair, and just jerk it around. Maybe I can even do it pretty cleanly on open strings, but not when I play that phrase. Or maybe, I think I'm playing it perfectly when I play it, but when I listen to my recording, it just sound kind of awful. It's like, I know what it's supposed to sound like when played well in a recording, but not how it's supposed to sound while I'm playing it? Haha!

The violin seems like such a simple instrument at times, but why is that almost everyone has a unique type of sound when playing a simple legato with a whole bow?

How can we objectively evaluate our playing, and be conscious of everything that we are doing, while simultaneous making calculated adjustments?

Sorry if this rant was hard to follow. I am just not sure how to articulate my thoughts in a organized and coherent manner right now, but I would still like to hear some thoughts.

Replies (33)

November 23, 2015 at 07:13 PM · That's why one needs a professionally trained teacher or coach. One can gain more in a year (maybe a month) with such training than in a lifetime working alone.

Andy

November 23, 2015 at 07:54 PM · In Flesch's book, he describes an intonation exercise where one takes a Rode etude (or probably whatever etude with some movement in it), and plays each note incredibly slowly, really paying attention. He says that the student will often be really alarmed after practicing this exercise even for a short time, because the student will seem to have much worse intonation - actually, the ear has been attuned to the actual state of the intonation, and he goes on to say that after this, the student often makes a great improvement in intonation.

I think it's about how much attention you are paying to intonation, and that it can be in the fore of your attention for any practice you are doing. I've yet to try this out, but it's good to take the pieces we are working on, slow down, and really make sure everything is in tune with our open strings, and that we aren't just playing passages in a lazy-eared fashion.

Also, recording is good - It's a tool that I bet violinist over 100 years ago would have appreciated, because it allows us feedback and objectivity. You just have to know when to and when not to use these tools. At the end of the day, we need to rely on our ears.

November 24, 2015 at 12:42 AM · I think there isn't any question that studying with a good teacher makes things easier, and intonation will always be a struggle regardless of your current level at the violin. However, I would not say that all of these struggles are absent when you have a teacher, since it's impossible to get to everything in a one hour lesson.

November 24, 2015 at 01:25 AM ·

November 24, 2015 at 02:33 AM · On practice, didn't Pablo Casals say something on the lines of "because I think I am making progress" when he was asked (at age 80-something) why he still practiced every day? He was already one of the greatest cellists ever; makes you wonder what he was aiming for. ;)

I don't think there's anything 'simple' about the violin; it's an incredibly personal instrument, almost like a person's voice itself. Some people make it seem easy, but it really takes endless practice or special talent to be any good at it.

November 24, 2015 at 04:52 AM · Greetings,

well, it is supposed to be ranked as one of the hardest skills humankind has created for themselves. However, one of the things i really began to understand through the work of Simon Fischer is that we basically overrate he technical difficulties of the instrument, it's not , as he himself points out somewhere 'rocket science.' The number of variables involved in the us eof the instrument are actually quite limited. Once we begin thinking in terms of these variable then anyone, at any stage, an make adjustments to a factor and cause improvement to occur. This is most learly and comprehensibly explained in The Violin Lesson.

The artistic side of playing is of course infinite but it is confusion between the notion of simple elements, building blocks and a wholistic desire to make some stupendous imrpovement by sheer repetition, as though art will emerge in the same way we take a dump in the morning that is causing such negative and unproductive beliefs.

cheers,

Buri

November 24, 2015 at 05:23 AM · You should occasionally play something that you worked on in the past because you will see your own progress pretty clearly that way.

November 26, 2015 at 10:41 PM · It's not rocket science, but it's a bit like trying to make a rocket out of jelly.

November 26, 2015 at 11:14 PM · thats terribly Freudian for this time in the morning.

Cheers,

Burp

November 29, 2015 at 10:43 PM · Yeah I agree with buri about not over complicating things. There are times where I find myself doing the right thing before I actually realize what I'm doing, but generally, it's harder to do that when a piece is technically difficult. Any thoughts on this? Also, there are times when, while practicing, it seems that I can sound great, but as soon as I hit the record button, or if I'm pretending to play in front of an audience, I tense up.

November 29, 2015 at 11:26 PM · if that is the case then pretend tonplaynin front of an audience as much a spossible until mind and body get used to the experience.

Cheers,

Buri

November 29, 2015 at 11:29 PM · Shawn, I'm in the same boat as you. Even though I take lessons and play in a local small orchestra, I feel like I'm all over the place with my skills currently.

Like you mentioned, you can play a piece one way and revisit it after a couple of months and hear the differences. While some aspects are better, some aren't. I lack the consistancy and know how to improve the parts I didn't like, and keep the parts I liked.

I'll tell you about lessons a couple weeks ago before the holiday... I was finishing up the second movements (allegro) of Handel's F major sonata. The last portion of the Handel sonata goes into Dminor. The day I was first introduced to this section we play through it site reading. I pretty much played it correctly the first go. My teacher even commented on how well I played and how very few students have ever done so.

So, the following week after preparing the whole piece (paying particular attention to the minor section along with a few tricky spots) I played it at lesson... While I fixed my previous mistakes in the earlier sections, I could not play the last minor section correctly if my life depended on it.

My teacher asked me how I could play it perfectly the first time, but so poorly the second. :p

I'll say this type of thing happens to me all the time. I don't particularly understand why, so I just assume I need more practice.

November 29, 2015 at 11:42 PM · To your OP - "How can we objectively evaluate our playing, and be conscious of everything that we are doing, while simultaneous making calculated adjustments?" That all seems like a daunting task, and I'm not remotely qualified or skilled on the topic. For me, a lot has to be automatic for a satisfying performance. Getting to the automatic for me takes on a long and varied routine that's far from perfect and way to slow. I rarely get to the practice recording stage because I'm still working on the very obvious. I do think there are two modes for me, skill practice and repertoire practice. I am still developing my skill practice. I've been watching some of the competitions. To me an amazing volume of material that I assume is well presented ( I don't know the material at all). This site and those who post here have lead to some major changes and I hope noticeable improvements and I thank you very much folks.

November 29, 2015 at 11:49 PM · Great points guys!

Buri, great point about the mental practice. Until recently, I thought I had no problems with nerves, but I guess it's not as simple as that.

Kimberly, I think often times, we don't have a good perception about how we played something. When I record myself, every time I think I did well, I end up doing mediocre, and sometimes when I think I think I played mediocre, it ends up being good. This is why I record myself often.

David, I'm always appreciative of the people on this site, who are as passionate as me about playing the violin(if not more). Sometimes, it doesn't even matter what level you are at right now, and what's important is having a blast, and making progress at the same time.

I've actually only gone through 3-4 short sonatas in the past 5 months or so(mostly because of a busy schedule at university), but the weird thing is that, the piece I"ve practiced the most is also the piece, that sounds the most simple, and the piece that I'm the least happy about haha.

I made a video today.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kud_WK68124&feature=youtu.be

Any advice would be welcome. I would love to hear about what you like, and especially what you don't like about it, just your impressions as a listener. I'm still searching hard for my sound, and my voice, and working on my bow arm in particular, so it would be nice if someone can recommend some technical exercises.

November 30, 2015 at 02:52 AM · Nice video. I like your overall impression and tempo and your vibrato is tasteful for Bach, and your interpretation is respectful, not overwrought. It's not my favorite movement of Bach, but that's not your fault.

A couple of other comments.

(1) Be mindful of the soundpoint of your bow, I think you can get a fuller and more reliable tone, even through string changes, double stops, etc., if you back away from the finger board a little (on average).

(2) You allow yourself a lot of movement, especially twisting and bending your upper torso at the waist. I am sensitive to this because my teacher made me stop doing this too. It may be what you are "feeling" with the music but it's counterproductive because it torques and strains your arm and hand positions and redirects the influence of gravity -- this could be sabotaging your sound point, for instance. Channel your inner Kogan. :)

Next time you do a video, please make a separate thread for it because I fear it's buried in a long thread about something else and you might not get as many viewers or comments now.

November 30, 2015 at 05:14 AM · Thanks Paul, 100% agree about the sound point thing. It's weird since I rarely watch myself when I play, and others notice things that I generally won't notice. I think that probably is a key issue I have with this piece. I tend to play pretty much at the fingerboard, and sometimes the sound is just weak. Weird how on the other three movements, I have the opposite issue of playing too close to the bridge, but the sound is generally better still.

Having watched my own video, I would also say that the string crosses aren't as clean as they need to be, and the intonation, while not a huge issue, is not the level where I would like it to be at.

November 30, 2015 at 11:45 AM · hi Shawn, being aware of the soundpoint at all times is also my main comment on an otherwise really quite OK video! you can be happy about the level you already have, it clearly allows you to make music on a good level and that is what it's all about. congratulations!

November 30, 2015 at 03:53 PM · Shawn,

Not a bad performance. Can you breathe more?

Agreed about the sounding point. When do you work on it? If you make it a regular part of your scale practice, and then extend to your other studies, you'll gain more control/awareness of it. Ideally, It has to be integral to the Bach, not tacked on after all the other work is done.

November 30, 2015 at 07:23 PM · Greetings,

the SP issue s interesting. I work on exercises for these lal the time, both in my own playing and with students. But sometimes it seems that a student gets it and can kind of do the exercises but the effect does not cross over into the pieces as much a sone would like. I think you need to work consciously at this by practicing every phrase on every sound point as a matter of roitine. When you can do this , of course by juggling tempo as well as weight, and bow speed then i think you will begin to notice what you can and should be doing with the work.

Cheers,

Buri

December 1, 2015 at 02:33 AM · Thanks for the responses guys. Scott, I actually haven't been paying attention to the sounding point that much specifically when I play scales(I know I should). Should I just be practicing scales near the bridge, or should I be experimenting more? I'm not sure what type of a routine I should make. I just watched a video of me playing the fugue from the same sonata today, and it sounds a bit rough at times when I articulate too strongly, because I'm pretty much at the bridge the whole time. The fugue is already a hard enough piece, and playing it that way makes it very boring to listen to I think, because like in this piece, the sound is a bit tight. I'll definitely be more conscious of it.

The breathing is an issue. I know that the lack of breathing causes a lot of tension, but I'm not entirely sure how to resolve it. I've tried just to relax more, and I'm able to breathe periodically, but it's been a recurring issue for me. Any advice would be amazing.

I think for now, I'm just gonna do what Buri suggested, and just go through and play every phrase to see how it sounds at all the different sounding points. My issues are mainly from the type of slow practicing I did as I was learning this piece I think. One of the challenges for me was maintaining a "soft type of character" on string crosses, as well as the intonation. I think I probably played near the fingerboard a lot so that I could "hear" more clearly. I also wasn't very comfortable with switching between sounding points constantly when I was changing planes, or if I was, it wasn't something I payed very much attention to.

December 1, 2015 at 04:14 AM · Scales are not the only way to work on sound point, you can do it also very effectively with studies that involve a lot of detache bowing, like Kreutzer No. 2, 8, and 10; Mazas No. 4, 5, 6, and 28, etc. Once you feel your sound point is reliable in that context than you can move to studies that have detache with other strokes mixed in like Mazas 15-16-17. For your Bach, you can practice that by removing complicating factors like slurs (yes really!) and just play the notes with back-and-forth bowing, this will allow you to focus on sound point an intonation without having to deal with bow distribution which is mentally taxing in this kind of piece.

About intonation, well, intonation can always be more correct and more perfect. But can you move even another step further and make it more expressive? If you have not seen the great series of videos on intonation by Kurt Sassmannshaus, I recommend them very highly. His explanations seem very clear and logical to me.

December 2, 2015 at 11:59 PM · Thanks Paul! Yes, I just watched some more of his videos. They are amazing. Any other suggestions besides just sounding point though? I know that there are some other things about my playing that are sub optimal.

I watched some more of my videos, and I think my setup is actually a bit awkward. Probably need to stand more upright and limit movement like mentioned above. Maybe it's also time to do some Schradieck and Kreutzer 9 or something like that.

It looks like I'm throwing my bow around a lot more than I need to, and that I should really just be using a slow bow near at the bridge in many instances, which should make tone more consistent, although the poor acoustics in the room and microphone are also to blame on some level.

It also looks like the breathing is causing some unnecessary tension. Should breathing be a part of slow practice? I'll probably get a teacher soon.

December 4, 2015 at 07:01 PM · Jenny!! Picking out feathers, looking at them one by one and placing them in front of you ending with a pile of them. That's pure poetry, amazingly insightful way of thinking of this piece!

December 4, 2015 at 07:24 PM · I agree that bow distribution is very critical in solo Bach. That's partly why, in my previous remarks, I recommended that you practice this piece without any slurs, just bow it back-and-forth as it comes, because then you don't have to think about bow distribution while you are concentrating on intonation and sound point.

While I like the tiny feathers analogy, one of my teachers told me that the ultimate challenge of solo Bach is that it can be rather dry and cerebral for many audiences, and it's up to the soloist to *teach* the piece to the audience, so that they "get" it. That's going to be a lot harder for your Largo than it would be for a pair of Minuets or Bourrees, so once you have decided how to handle individual phrases, then you have to identify the much longer musical ideas and bring those out. Listen to Hahn or Mullova or Grumiaux, see how they do it.

December 5, 2015 at 02:04 AM · Jenny,

when we are talking about Bach, and any other piece for that matter, I always go back to Casals and his comments about music and waves. But as he points out, every wave needs to be in proportion to something or it is just a random surge that dies away to some degree or another. So he said that everything we play should have a central point or pinnacle that guides the proportions of every single wave that occurs in the music. Once we have found that moment of ultimate intensity and excitement then everything else must be created organically in relation to that one moment. Heifetz understood this very well I think. There is one note the slow movement of his recording of the Tchaikovsky which structures the whole thing to perfection. (You can find it for yourself....)

In the same way , I think if Sean finds this peak and looks down on everything around him he may find some clues that wer eluding him . The interesting thing is at the end of the day recreating these waves is a purely technicla matter of adjusting speed, width of vibrato, the three bow factors and some shifting. There still aint that much to playing the violin. Its swimming in the sea that remains dangerous ......

Burp

December 5, 2015 at 03:53 AM · Perhaps the bigger picture *should* come first, but I often find that hard to manage with some pieces until I've got the notes mostly in my fingers. Not sure why, probably just not smart enough.

December 5, 2015 at 03:56 PM · Thanks Jenny! Love the analogies. I think I might just only play scales and Schradieck for a while to fix the issues with the 4th finger curving. Having never done Schradieck, might need to just start out very slowly.

Separating the chords is a very interesting concept. Sometimes I'm just tempted roll them, because I think it sounds better like that than if you go like "ba bah" and play half of it on two strings and other half on the other. However, I am not sure if that shows a lack of control or not? I'll be practicing this piece(and other bach pieces) like you say though, with only the melody or harmony, and see what I'm not hearing when I play. I'll use a metronome as well, since I haven't done that in this piece at all.

Yes, I just watched Hilary Hahn play this movement on youtube for the first time(really surprised), and wow what a amazing and inspiring performance. Of course, I always like it when she playing Bach, but man this movement just really takes it away. Wish I listened to it earlier.

And Buri, I think that whenever I ask questions about the violin, I always tend to be opening many cans of worms. I'll try to pay attention to what you are talking about while listening. I just wish I understood that concept better. Basically what you described is what I think someone like Ivry Gitlis sounds like when he plays every note(maybe I have no idea what I'm talking about).

December 5, 2015 at 11:58 PM · Hi all,

There seems to be a lot going on here. First of all, polishing a piece nd working on your playing is an effort, and it takes years to master. Second, producing a good sound could have something to do with bow speed and how much weight you are putting into the string.

December 6, 2015 at 01:16 AM · Yes,

but that is what Shawn is asking. Of course effort and time is involved but the point is that this kind of thinking gets you nowhere. Effort that exceeds the actual amount of energy to perform a given action is a waste of time. So how do you learn to work -smart- so that everything you do is valuable and you don't waste the thoudands of millions of countless hours that so many young players do because of their idiotic belief that if they just work a little bit harder than everyone else for a little bit longer they will be the next Hilary Hahn.

Its summed up best I think by Liszts advice to think ten times and play once. A huge number of learners prefer the Marx Brothers approach of not thinking at all but playing 200 times.

Shawn does think of course. Probabl

y he thinks too much and might benifit from stepping back from verbalizing and letting the universe tell him what sound is true to his nature. But that is yet another can of worms. Or in my case spaghetti because i am a vegetRian.

Cheers,

Burp

December 6, 2015 at 05:18 AM · Thank you.

December 6, 2015 at 11:20 PM · Shawn,

for what it's worth, here is a very rough translation of a passage from a book callled 'If you purify your ears your world will widen.' (or something like that.....) by the very good blind Japananese violinist Kawabata Naramichi.

'The voice doesn't lie. If you want to express ypur individuality in performance there is is one fundamental thing you must keep going back to. Turn your ears towards your inner voice.When I was preparing for concerts in England, the first thing I did was to sing everything. If you start by picking up your instrument and moving your fingers, whatever you do, what comes out will be a stereotype. You won't b developing your artistry but only an immovable rigidity. If you try with your voice, very unexpectedly, the phrases will become cooperative and naturalas you construct them . Even now, when I am uncertain, I sometimes sing rather than play. When we use the voice we become less conscious of ourself and we can hear what is coming from the very depths of our heart.......Unless we lean our ears towards our inner voice we will be fumbling around in the dark, not knowing what we really want to express.'

Clear as mud I suppose,

Buri

December 7, 2015 at 12:50 AM · No that's clear as crystal. And beautifully articulated. Something to think about for sure.

December 7, 2015 at 02:54 AM · Yeah, true.

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