Practicing

February 18, 2017 at 02:31 PM · I'm starting to think a big fundamental difficulty I have is practising. Maybe not in the way you're thinking, let me explain.

The longer I have a piece, the worse I feel I get. If I contemplate why this is, I come to the following conclusion. When I first start a piece, I'm very diligent, and I'm paying attention to every small detail, but the once I learn the song I start to work on speed, phrasing, dynamics, etc. At this point, my attention wains from the important stuff, intonation, fingers, bowing, etc.

Not only that but once I learn a song and I try to work on the fine details, I feel at a stand still. I believe that the fine details don't exist for a beginner, we're only good at exaggerating. So, that's a second reason why I feel music plateaus really early and gets worse.

I'm a year and two months into learning, and if I think about it, these are the issues I struggle with the most. Full attention on all aspects of playing–at all times–is challenging. Especially, when working on small 2 minute pieces for a month or more.

This frightens me in two ways. One, I sometimes feel like I'm not progressing, and two, I worry about when I start working on significant pieces, will I plateau and start getting worse; as these are worked on for months if not years.

I just wanted to add that I'm probably progressing more than I realise, and my teacher hasn't had any complaints, so maybe my beginner ears just can't tell.

I guess the positive thing is that I think I know what the issue is, I just don't know how to fix it.

Replies

February 18, 2017 at 04:51 PM · I've been playing violin since September 2012. I sometimes get ahead of myself, and I start playing a piece much faster than I'm capable of playing it. I have to refocus by practicing very slowly for days, to get each and every detail. You have to force yourself to practice very, very slowly, paying special attention to the little details you miss. Even when you can play it at that very slow speed, continue to play it very slow, and play it that slow until the things you usually forget, the "intonation, fingers, bowing, etc" become automatic to you. Then, when you increase the speed, you will already have the things you usually miss built into your muscle & brain memory.

Sometimes I get over-confident in myself, and I think I can play a piece up to tempo. Then I hear errors I make over and over again, and I kind of "reset" myself. I start playing very slowly again, like how I would've when I just got the piece, so that I can correct my errors and redevelop my habits when playing that piece.

Recently my orchestra played A Mad Russian's Christmas by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. It was a very cool piece, and more than half of it is Trepak from the Nutcracker. I was really struggling with intonation and all the string crossing and slurs, so I just played it extremely slow. It got very frustrating, and I got bored of playing the exact same thing, slowly, over and over again, but once I did all of my very very slow practice for several days, I could play the piece as precisely and fast as the woodwinds and brass (who are much better than the strings, but don't tell any of them I said that ;)).

February 18, 2017 at 05:02 PM · I think part of your issue might be that you're viewing the phrasing and dynamics as separate from learning the notes. The basics of the phrase shape and correct dynamic level need to be woven in from the very start, because they affect how you choose to use the bow. Even if you are practicing very slowly, the shape of the phrase is still present. Similarly, you want to practice slowly enough to eliminate any hesitations and to ensure that you are maintaining rhythmic integrity, so that speeding it up is just a matter of doing the same motions faster, without having to eliminate hiccups where brain and body aren't in sync.

February 18, 2017 at 05:32 PM · Hi,

One of my former world famous performer violin teachers had a saying: "If it's not slow, it's not practice." This comes up repeatedly in all masterclasses and from basically everybody (Perlman, Zukerman, you name them...). The number 1 mistake most people make in practicing is not making slow practice the kind of practice they do everyday. That doesn't mean not to practice performing at tempo, but slow practice is the everyday way to practice. The moment you stop, it catches up to you instantly, at least in my experience.

Cheers!

February 18, 2017 at 05:46 PM · Corey, the good news is that, given you are only year and two months into learning, you've already noticed such issues that many of us playing for more than 10 years also encounter. Lydia's advice is very important, especially regarding maintaining the rhythm. Try this, put down the violin and conduct the piece vocally. Don't pay too much attention on the pitch, just focus on the rhythm and dynamic to get the pulse into you.

The bad news is that, you think you've learned the piece but you probably haven't learned it probably. To see if this is the case, play very slowly and as clean as possible by using the bow only without the left hand to see if you can improve the tone production and other bow technique such as legato and string cross. Then add the left hand. Practice by breaking down to smallest chunks. For instance, if a phrase is not clean, find the worst bar, then zoom into one note or transition between two notes, fix that, then the next, and stitch them together. By slow practice, I'd start 40bpm then increase 20% each time when speed up.

Sometimes when feel stuck on one piece, I find it helps to work on something else for a day or to and then come back.

I hope you have a good teacher.

Edit: Just saw Christian Vachon's comment. Yes! I think people often don't understand how slow a slow practice should be.

February 18, 2017 at 06:41 PM · Thanks for the tips, guys. Slow practice it is.

I need to remind myself that at this stage each piece of music is mostly to learn an individual skill, and not master the piece.

Even with this knowledge, It's difficult not to get frustrated when we feel we can't progress further with a piece of music. Part of this could be that I go away for work for two weeks at a time and I don't see my teacher, so I don't move on to the next piece probably as fast as I should. My teacher can just give me a load of pieces to work on, but then I feel overwhelmed, and we can't check anything off until I get back home.

Perhaps I'm also pushing myself to get the song to tempo when we are just learning a technique and will probably move on to another piece.

Lydia, I was always told to learn the notes and rhythm first, then slowly introduce the bowing, and dynamics as I go. That way a beginner isn't overwhelmed all at the beggining. Therefore, taking a layered approach to learn the music. Maybe I didn't understand that fully.

Seems not only the instrument is a lifetime of learning, but learning how to practice is also.

February 18, 2017 at 06:41 PM ·

February 18, 2017 at 06:48 PM · "My teacher can just give me a load of pieces to work on, but then I feel overwhelmed, and we can't check anything off until I get back home. "

In such case, Corey, I would focus on quality rather than quantity. What I mean is that don't worry about playing in tempo. Pick a tempo that allows you to play everything you can at your best and then move on to the next piece. You will more likely to spot problems at this tempo, fix them the best you can, and move on to learn new skills.

I had a teacher in the past pushed my to play flashy stuff and play fast. I ended up with quite a bit bad habits and got sciatic. Fortunately I didn't stay with her for more than four months, but still a lot of setback that I could have avoided.

February 18, 2017 at 07:11 PM · Thanks, Yixi! To clarify, my current teacher has never specified the tempo, that's my own issues from previous teachers. haha

I will do what others have said. Thanks. :)

February 18, 2017 at 07:54 PM · I think it's important with beginners that the technique taught with each piece be mastered. That means the piece needs to be played up to tempo, in all likelihood, because a technique isn't really learned until you can do it at full speed without dropping all the other skills that are being juggled. This, in turn, sets a solid foundation for each skill, preventing the "advancing without improving" syndrome in which you're gradually able to tackle harder and harder stuff but never really really become a better player.

If you have to layer things, you should be starting with the correct rhythm. You can learn this away from the violin by clapping the rhythm or tapping it with a pencil, in conjunction with the use of the metronome.

Next, learn to sing the piece. If you can't sing on-pitch, hum it or sing it silently in your head. Do it in the right rhythm, with the right notes, so you get used to "pre-hearing" the pitches. You have to have this firmly fixed in your head because those pitches are what you're comparing your actual playing to. Singing the piece will help you figure out the phrasing.

Then, bow the correct rhythm on the appropriate open strings, using the proper bowing articulations, length of stroke, etc. to achieve the phrasing and dynamics. (The pressure, speed, portion of the bow used, stroke used, and sounding-point chosen are all interrelated, are part of learning the work, and are integral to the phrasing and dynamics.)

Once you can do that, add the left-hand fingers.

February 18, 2017 at 08:00 PM · Thanks, Lydia. I will write that all down and try applying that to the next piece I'm assigned.

With all this, I can see why people can play for 3 years and still not know what they are doing or sound good. It's pretty scary to think someone could be wasting their time without knowing. I love my teacher now, but beginners have no idea if they have a good teacher or not. That takes years to figure out.

I will have a chat with my teacher about singing the song to get the pitch in my ears. I've hummed it without any clue if it's the right pitch.

February 18, 2017 at 08:16 PM · The essence of good intonation is having a really clear pitch in your head, anticipated a split second before the note goes down. You may adjust the finger placement slightly if what you're hearing isn't matching what you pre-heard. Importantly it also lets you know where to place the next finger relative to what you've got down, once your brain gets to judging the distances intuitively.

This is the skill that eventually lets you play in-tune even when the violin is significantly out of tune, or switch between instruments of different sizes (for instance, you can instinctively play in tune on a viola or a 1/2-size violin, say).

February 18, 2017 at 08:52 PM · Corey, et al.,

Your post brought to mind memories from long ago when I was new to the instrument. There are plateaus to be surmounted and they keep coming as you learn more-and-more about the instrument, music and yourself. 40 years on I'm still learning lessons from the music.

A few thoughts:

Written music has a lot of information beyond just the notes. Your brain has to learn how to read all this information simultaneously and that process takes time and frankly gets more difficult with the progression of the music.

Listen to your instrument: learn when you have a stopped note in tune and "hear" how your instrument responds. Generally, over time, it will tell you when you are off-pitch and you will learn to self-correct.

Give yourself time: I don't know how old you are or what your musical objectives are. Music is a lifetime skill and it will develop over time but rarely come all at once.

Mastery: My teacher taught me that music cannot be mastered, it can only be learned and that learning brings you to the next lesson that music has to teach. You won't learn all of them, nobody ever will. You can become highly skilled and still be a student of music. As I said, this is a lifetime skill and something that should bring you joy every time you play.

February 18, 2017 at 09:22 PM · Thank, George. I always enjoy reading your well formed and articulated thoughts.

February 19, 2017 at 12:58 AM · Here is another perspective.

The teacher who started me on the violin was very old school. For two years, I did nothing but etudes. In fact, I didn't start working on repertoire until I was half way into Kayser.

With etudes, you are more focused on the issues at hand and not so distracted. And you get a better sense of accomplishment!

February 19, 2017 at 01:38 AM · Beginner music tends to basically be a tune intended to teach a particular technique. This is why both Suzuki and Mark O'Connor's methods both have songs, for instance. Understand that you are playing music, not just technique, is fundamental to developing some sense of musical sensitivity.

February 19, 2017 at 01:15 PM · Hi again Corey,

I posted this on another thread yesterday, but some of the best practicing advice I have ever read comes from Hilary Hahn, and can be seen in this link:

http://hilaryhahn.com/2004/01/slow-practice-for-string-players/

Hopefully it will give you good ideas as well...

Cheers!

February 19, 2017 at 08:05 PM · Teachers advocate slow practice - as detailed in the link Mr. Vachon referred to, written by Ms. Hahn.

My biggest fault is that I don't have patience for myself and my slow progress. This causes me to get 'bored' of a piece of music very quickly, as soon as I have the fingering and bowing details memorized (which doesn't take long). But I loose patience to work on bow scratches, bow bounces, smooth string crossings and good tone production... (I have some patience for intonation and vibrato, though ;) Probably because it's more challenging.)

Any ideas of how to add some excitement in practising? Specifically in the real, beginner issues like I mentioned above.

February 20, 2017 at 01:19 AM · Yes, I record occasionally. I know it helps pinpoint areas that need focus, but I cringe when I listen to the playback.

Like the OP writes, I also sometimes feel like I'm not progressing. Then I loose patience in my practicing. This week, I'm luckily feeling accomplished. But last week wasn't so motivating.

February 20, 2017 at 01:53 PM · Lots of good discussions.

I struggle when I'm at work, and I have to remind myself that it's going to be slower and more difficult while I'm away for work. When I get home, I have a lot more motivation, energy, and excitement around practising.

I've always known that slow practice was necessary, but I'm really starting to see what that means.

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