Playing feels great one day, but the next can be a completely different story...

June 24, 2006 at 04:53 AM ·

Replies (31)

June 24, 2006 at 05:13 AM · I'd be very interested to see if anyone can shed some light on this, too. I know exactly what you mean, and I don't know if it's so with others, but with me my good and bad days seem to especially affect my vibrato. A bad day might mean my arm vibrato turns into a sort of inconsistent spasm.

When not "in the zone" as I say, I find it pointless trying to force it and I'll just put the instrument down until later.

Is this something even the most experienced players can relate to?

June 24, 2006 at 05:17 AM · I can absolutely relate! Some days it just feels like I've never picked up a violin before, I've never figured out why - but I think it has to do with fatigue, both physical and mental. I usually try not to obsess over it - and come back to the violin a little later, even if it is only 20 minutes later it can help.

June 24, 2006 at 05:13 AM · The body and mind often get tired, thus resulting in "varying" levels of performance.

Just as athletes don't always perform well day in and day out, violinists are not capable of putting out 100% every day on the money. No violinist escapes this, so it's more about learning how to live with the ups and downs that constitute the routine of everyday living. In fact, smart violinists build rest into their schedules and use that time to allow their bodies to recover from intense practice sessions or big concerts.

The best violinists learn to pace themselves so that they're not fluctuating wildly from day to day. They make changes in their musicianship and violin playing in order to minimize the fluctations and raise the overall level of play. They also learn specialized techniques to preserve their minds and bodies so that they can play well consistently.

Do not discount the natural physical talents of the best violinists. Those who have faster recovery time tend to advance further than those who have the exact same training but whose bodies and minds don't quite keep up. Fortunately, violin is such an art that even a late bloomer can make it if he sticks doggedly with his training and doesn't give up.

June 24, 2006 at 05:37 AM · I used to have alot of the same problems (and still, as do most people, have them). What I did (and stick with me here) is get seriously into self hypnosis and meditation. I found that the good days happened when you get bursts of inspiration- say watching a video of heifetz or milstein. This is simply not acceptable because when going into a performance it is hard to think of emulating (nor should you want to emulate necessarily) these musicians. But this made me realize that this problem was almost striclty mental. Now I spend about about 2 hours every morning and an hour every night in a mixture of self hypnosis and meditation clearing my mind not to mention before each time I practice I do relaxation techniques. I realized that basically I had alot of clutter in my mind when I played and when one actually gets down and relaxingly focuses everything becomes so much clearer. Intonation and bow control become very apparent because your able to focus on all your muscle movements and easily remember them physically. I have been doing this steadily for the last year and a half and its pretty much the sole reason I was able to become a musician. I started violin when I was 14 and started classical music at 16 and before I started this I was having trouble with the bruch concerto and after a year I had played many paganini caprices major concertos and alot of crazy stuff and got into places like eastman and new england conservatory. and good and bad days just arent an issue really anymore even when I perform I can easily enter the state of meditation to be completely calm (although still not always in tune ;))

As for the physical (because it is DEFINITELY a mizture of physcal and mental) I spend about 15 minutes before each meditation stretching not just my violin friendly muscles but ALLLLL my muscles because you HAVE to have no problems physically in order to be completely at peace in the mind.

I even now only practice classical music about an hour a day and can memorize entire pieces in a couple days flat.

I dont talk about it alot with musicians and people because they think I am TOTALLY weird. But I cant possibly see playing without it (or doing ANYTHING for that matter). it would be absolutely impossible for me. Its also great because with how easily I can learn pieces I can easily play all the pieces that composers in the schools I play at ask me to. It kind of proved to me that violin isnt necessarily all about the time you put into it but the state of mind and the quality that you put into the time you spend.

June 24, 2006 at 06:42 AM · !@#$%

You started when you were 14?!

I heard you played the Sibelius Concerto with the Fox Valley Symphony... and you were what? a high school senior or something?

Good grief...

June 25, 2006 at 05:49 AM · indeed. I shouldnt have even won that competition technically. but becasue I played so crazily I think they gave it to me anyways lol.

June 25, 2006 at 06:10 PM · I agree with most of what Jordan has to say.

I have two points to make.

First, violin playing is a cutting edge sort of activity. We perform, or try to, at the very limits of our capabilities. I believe the human body is a chaotic system. That means it is impossible to predict exact behavior at the edges of the system. It also means that even though the system is incredibly complex that we can easily, by continued observation, predict behavior or performance as defined by limits inside or outside the chaotic boundary.

Still with me?

Let's take a talented high school student for example. S/he plays some Kreutzer etudes, 3 octave scales quite well and is just starting to take a look at the Bruch concerto.

She comes to her lesson with me.

I KNOW with certainty, if I ask her, she will be able to play a beautiful two octave scale, in tune, etc., as well as a number of other works well within her capability.

I also KNOW, with certainty, that if I present her with the first movement of the Sibelius concerto that she will not be able to play it well and at tempo at her next lesson. That level of preformance is clearly beyond her current capabilities.

So, neither of us worries about her two octave scales and neither of us considers the Sibelius as her next weekly assignment.

We have just clearly defined two areas of her performance capability even though the entire system of human violin performance is mind bogglingly complex.

Now the good part...

I ask her: "How abaout a fast three octave E major scale?"

She thinks to herself, "Usually, at home, I could play it in tune at about MM 90. But right now at my lesson? Hmmm...I'm not sure"

Neither am I which is why I asked her to try it for me.

Now we are exploring the chaotic "boundary layer" of the complex performance system.

Performance here is unpredictable, exquisitely sensitive to very small changes almost anywhere within the system, but, surprisingly enough, we can very predictably and easily move the whole chaotic boundary layer around with small careful changes within the inside of the system.

ie, careful practice will improve performance.

I would love to talk more about this as I find it fascinating but it is time for breakfast.

Perhaps more later.(the second of my two points concerns the mental aspects of performance)

oops...I just re read this and I misspoke: the human body is a "complex" system, not a "chaotic" one, at least in the mathematical sense. We can use insights from chaos theory to make meaningful changes in how we practice and evaluate our performance over time.

June 25, 2006 at 03:47 PM · Maybe so jordan, but some of those "crazy" performances ARE the technically good ones!

It's amazing how a crazy performance can be pretty much all there technically. Look at Maxim Vengerov - that guy gives pretty much technically perfect live performances and he does some "crazy" stuff. Audiences love him and so do we.

June 25, 2006 at 04:26 PM · I think the fact is is when you play how you want (or crazy in other words) you tend to invent your own technical style. Because this technical style is yours created, its easier to play it convincingly just like its easier to play your own compositions because of an innate feeling of confidence you have with them. Its easy to cinvince your listener that you meant to do something when its genuine because its part of your personality.

June 25, 2006 at 05:34 PM · I so much like what Jordan is saying. Some people call it self hypnosis, some call it focusing the mind, some call it meditation and some call it prayer. I believe the difference between an "on" day and an "off" day usually resides in this process of directing the concentration.

This is what I was trying to convey in the teacher's comments thread, in my disapproval of certain comments which I felt were *distracting to proper concentration* and disrespectful of the student. A teacher can *undermine* or *help* this process of appropriately focused concentration. Allow me to relate a story:

In my student days, I had, for a period of time, the misfortune to be directed by a conductor who would say things like: "Strings: You're getting a tight, strangled sound, you're all tied up in knots. Why are you choking, pressing and strangling the tone so horribly? You're pressing like you want to break your violins. It sounds like someone is being strangled to death..............OK, letter C everyone!"

Imagine playing in that student orchestra. If you most sincerely want to please him and to get a beautiful tone, you need to fight against his doing everything in his power to sabotage your concentration! He is his own worst enemy!

Sequel to the story: One day conductor A was out of town and conductor B (with totally opposite personality) came in to substitute. He looked at us as if he were about to enjoy himself enormously. He said: "Brahms", and raised his arms in a relaxed gesture. When he brought down the baton, a tone came out of that orchestra that surprised everyone....It was far more beautiful than anything previously heard.

When you pick up the violin to practice each day, you are a teacher. Will you be conductor A or conductor B? This will have a large role in determining whether you have an "off" day or an "on" day.

June 25, 2006 at 05:24 PM · Another story: If I suspect, during a lesson, that a student's concentration is incorrectly focused, I sometimes try this trick: I say to my student: "Would you like to try a really marvelous bow? Go ahead, try it, I know you will be careful with it." The student tries the bow and plays with 400% improvement. He says: "Wow, great bow!" I say (I believe this to be the absolute truth): It wasn't the bow, it was you. You picked up that bow with the best possible focus of concentration. Like a child with a new toy! You wanted to see what a gorgeous tone it could draw. That's the mental state that you want to learn to switch on at will."

June 25, 2006 at 11:29 PM · Greetings,

all these great comments cover the issue well I think. Personally I have found it helpful to consider three areas before beginning playing*

1) Warming up physically.

2) Reconnecting with the way you are feeling

3) Awakening concentration.

For number one I think it is vital to do some kind of active aerobic exercise for a few minutes before playing. A short walk or some Tai chi or whatever is fine.

For number two , really try and sense you own mood and even verbalize it. Think of a piece you can play that corresponds to that mood. Play a few lines. If you can`t then improvise accordg to the mood. (I think the celiist William Pleeth wa sinto this improvization kind of thing at one time. )

For cocnentration, pick a scales or a few lines of an etude and play them through a little under tempo noting things mentally that you would like to play better. Perhaps pause beween each run through and review what you are going to think about, a litlte mentla imaging. Then play it again without stopping with the same procedure.

By this stage one shoudl be ina good state for the main work of th eday.

But, keep in mind thta the main work of the day started the night before. What I mena by this is that when you end a days practice that is -the only- logical time to plan the next days work. And the proces sof plannning will get your subconscious working on the problems while you are asleep.

If you fail to take advantage of this approach and just pick up the violin and start then you will always have good days and bad because your mind is confused and whtehr or not you succeed is completley hit and miss.



June 26, 2006 at 12:39 AM · I'm not at all that high a performance level, but I have been at it long enough (50 years) to know about good days and bad days.

Sometimes the violin has a bad day, sometimes I do. Sometimes both. But they no longer concern me, because I have been through so many.

I have lost more progress from worrying about bad days than ever from the bad days themselves.

Just recently, I noticed that during a mental practice session, I made a mistake. I also was unable to go past a certain speed. This is something I should have noticed decades ago, but that's okay, I noticed it now.

Once I noticed it, I also realized that the mistakes and speed limits were the same as my actual practice problems. But, since my imagination is not limited in mass or force, there is no reason to have such limitations. I was able to speed up and correct the problems.

Sadly, that doesn't mean that all the issues vanished during the physical practice, but I definitely made some serious progress. Clearly, the mental game is much, if not most, of the matter.

The other thing that gives me hope vis a vis bad days, is that I now understand how much better my bad days are now, compared to my good days from a year ago. That, plus the fact that I sound a great deal better to others than I do to myself.

January 18, 2011 at 06:35 AM ·

This is, by far, the best thread I've seen on this site, if only because I'm absolutely convinced that playing the violin (or any instrument, for that matter) is 80% psychological.  It's astounding to me that one will hear the "10,000 hours" quote every other day with no mention of the fact that you can spend countless amounts of time on any given piece only to discover that you played it better during the first week than you did after two months.  You can do all the "disciplined" slow practice you want, but if you're not using the correct mental techniques you're still wasting your time. 

I guess the real issue is that we simply don't have the words to accurately describe the mental processes necessary to achieve proficiency, so we automatically assume that one person "has it" while another is completely unable to succeed.  I remember reading a great article posted on this site about the difference between a "fixed" and a "growth" mindset, and it's the former philosophy which has caused me (and I doubt I'm alone here) a large amount of grief, affecting my playing and initiating a very destructive and counterproductive cycle. 

While the exact details of these mental tricks are admittedly nearly impossible to communicate, I've been discovering over the past year that the elusiveness of said details does not necessarily mean that one should give up hope, and it's this search for the real fundamentals of proficiency that make playing the violin endlessly fascinating to me - what we're discussing here, if we're still on the same page, has, in my opinion, much further implications than those that are simply musical.

In the end, I can't say I have any specific advice, and I apologize for that and the fact that I may just be ranting: I've pretty much tried to condense years of thought into a couple paragraphs, some of which I haven't quite made complete sense of at this point in time.  But this is the first good opportunity I've had to vent, and hopefully my post will offer some commiseration if nothing else.

(P.S. A nod to one of my classmates in the posts above, I've been waiting to see one of you on here - this site is great, isn't it?)

January 18, 2011 at 04:36 PM ·

I'm glad this thread was resurrected.  When it first appeared, I wasn't playing the violin and didn't know about

There are days when my practicing goes SO well that I'm euphoric for the rest of the day.  How I wish it could ALWAYS be that way!  Then I occasionally have days like this past Saturday.  I'm still trying to overcome problems resulting from that being a REALLY bad day.  My head wasn't in a good place when I started practicing, so even though I warmed up physically as I always do, there was still a lot of mental tension.  This translated to tension in my playing, setbacks in every piece I worked on, and physical tension that I'm still trying to resolve.

I used to meditate, and I found that it helped every aspect of my life.  Over the years, I've drifted away from it.  Now I see how important it is that I get back into it!

January 18, 2011 at 07:34 PM ·

Marsha, you're not the only one who had a bad Saturday.  Last Saturday I was at the point where I could barely make myself pick up my violin.  My tone was horrible, and I couldn't do anything with my assigned piece (Brahms' Hungarian Dance No. 2).  But Sunday we went over to a friend's place and played a lot of simpler material, and I managed to slow down and pay close attention to what I was doing.  I started to feel better.  Back at home that night I tackled the Brahms again - slowly, carefully, with less fire and more precision.  It was better.  The next day, before my lesson, I ran through it again.  Not only did it come out not too badly, I even managed to hit a decent number of notes (with good timing) in front of my teacher.

I feel better now; I'm out of my slump.  And this week it's back to some more Wohlfahrt etudes to build up that precision that I need to work on.  I figured I was due for that.

We all need something to hold on to so that we can keep going through a slump.  Something I remember comes from growing up on a small farm.  If any of you have raised chickens, you'll know that a young rooster doesn't just wake up one morning and start crowing beautifully.  He has to learn how to do it - and it sounds quite comical while he's doing so.  In fact, I realized that a lot of the squeaks and squawks that come out of my violin sound very much like a rooster's early attempts - and that for me, like that rooster, the only cure is time.  Eventually the rooster gets it figured out.  Hopefully, someday I will too.

January 18, 2011 at 07:42 PM ·

Wow, how comforting it is to know I'm not alone.  Terrific to read how others deal with it - and yes, I used to do a lot of 'self hypnosis' (meditation, whatever it is) so I have that tool right on hand.  I'm going to test it out and report back...

January 18, 2011 at 10:14 PM ·

 From my experience with strength training, I've learned that if you work muscles to exhaustion one day, they're gonna be tired and flabby for at least 24 hours.  Once I figured out that practicing is much the same issue, well, that solved some of the problem!  if I've been doing intensive work on one particular type of passage, coming back to it the very next day might work...but more likely, my fingers will go awol on me.  Not just the psychological side of things, but the physical can throw me off.

I like that --you can't win two days in a row on the violin--fits so MANY activities.

January 19, 2011 at 12:30 AM ·

i think it helps a lot to play more 'technica'l things first, such as scales very slowly to concentrate on the physicality and sound production rather than musicality. i  think initiating it thuslike, if done really slowly and carefully without worrying about anything else or complicating matters with intricate musicality and tricky bowings, is tantamount to both meditation and warming up added together. simply concentrating on the bowing and then the intonation is soothing when done really slowly and for a prolonged period rather than 5 minutes. when i do this, i never find that my playing is worse than before, it eases me into the warmth of playing. its like easing oneself into a jacuzzi, taking many sleeping pills and falling asleep before drowning.  

January 19, 2011 at 02:23 AM ·

I really agree with everyone here!  Now that I'm in university in a non musical field, I have less time for my violin.  I am forced to focus way more than before if I want to have little results in my progress and to play even when I don't want, am tired feels tired, buzzed (from homework...) etc

I have really understand what everyone was talking about focus. 

When I practice at the university music faculty, they is a trompettist to my right, a soprano to my left, a pianist and a sax player across and students beside the door talking loudly about their weekend in the hall etc  I sometimes barely can hear my A on the piano to tune and one dies if one isn't focus.   But when one focus, one almost doesn't hear all that music around and can learn a big deal about the force of mental power. 

Of course, the body also plays us terrible tricks.  That's even more true in the beginning stages.  But after a few years, one learns with experience (with a good violin training of course) what's causing the problems and what to do.  Per example, one learns to know

- if they did that mistake because their technique was bad of because they are not warmed up

- what time of the day you are warm or cold (according to my physiology teacher, one is warmer on evenings than in the mornings and middle of the afternoon)

-what to do if you start freezing so much that you can't play (I call this freezing attacks)  (run, jump, do push ups, drink a hot liquid, put an extra sweather etc)

-what to do when one get tense (take a break, listen to your favorite record to change your mind etc)

-learn to know when rest will be more profitable for you than to continu practicing a load of mistakes because you are tired and angry!!!

Interesting thread!

January 19, 2011 at 12:29 PM ·

Charlie -- As of last night, my "slump" seems to have ended.

Thanks for the reminder about the rooster.  I'd forgotten how comical their efforts are at first.  Good analogy!!!  :)

January 19, 2011 at 12:59 PM ·

Tamuz wrote: "i think it helps a lot to play more 'technica'l things first, such as scales very slowly to concentrate on the physicality and sound production rather than musicality. i  think initiating it thuslike, if done really slowly and carefully without worrying about anything else or complicating matters with intricate musicality and tricky bowings, is tantamount to both meditation and warming up added together. simply concentrating on the bowing and then the intonation is soothing when done really slowly and for a prolonged period rather than 5 minutes. when i do this, i never find that my playing is worse than before, it eases me into the warmth of playing. its like easing oneself into a jacuzzi, taking many sleeping pills and falling asleep before drowning."

So maybe thats the main reason my teachers (and I bet every one of yours too) tell me to do slow scales before I practise?  Perhaps its a tradition that they may not fully grasp either.  I had assumed scales were to prepare me physically - practise my fingering and careful bowing before I let rip on etudes or pieces.  But maybe you are right Tamuz and I've been missing the point and the main reason for the slow rhythmical scales is something much deeper - mental relaxation; entry into 'violin zen space' (VZS).  And you have to get into VZS to really play.

I think that might really help me.  Thanks T.... 

January 19, 2011 at 01:00 PM ·

Charlie, how cute about the roosters...

I raised a domestic chicken as a pet when I was young (female chicken).  While I didn't assist to morning singing attempts, I assisted to laying egg attempts (very impressing by the way...) one wonders how the egg will ever pass and it does look like a big effort...  I suppose one can tell that it's the same in violin:  you don't "lay" good music from the start and it will take efforts and strain you out...  

January 19, 2011 at 11:27 PM ·

Actually, I find scales quite difficult and technically challenging.  Besides the intonation, which must be very precise during scale work, really focusing on clean bow changes and shifts, perfect rhythms, and string crossings, while practicing different bowing patterns, is really very difficult, even for advanced musicians.  Scales are completely exposed and if done right, with proper focus, all your flaws will be revealed. I play scales near the beginning of my practice sessions, but not for relaxation, but rather to get my mind focused and my ears into listening mode.

January 19, 2011 at 11:55 PM ·

Smiley you're so right!  My teacher tells that in an exam, it's not really the peices that will tell the real "level" of the student but the scales.  Considering the hundred something different ones that can be asked in exams here and, I presume, elsewhere too (all keys min melodic, harmonic and major, arpegios, 7th dominant/diminished, chromatic and double stops + in various bow patterns), one have to be pretty quick to pick the one asked and play it nicely right away... 

This is way more stressful than playing a predictable peice or study, no?  (even if that's not a peice of cake either...) 

According to my teacher, when she judges exams, she sees more students with nicely played peices than scales... 

That's why we must practice them along with the other things too...

January 26, 2011 at 08:07 PM ·

hi smiley

1- it works for me; i'm just suggesting it might work for others

2- as i mentioned, it should be slow and relaxed. i concentrate on the physicality of it, the balance of the bow in my hand and shifts of weight, the sound production via flat hair/unaccentuation through manipulating bow speed and weight /smooth transition between up and down bow/wrist-finger action...etc. i dont have such an issue with intonation when its that slow...and rythmwise. well there is a slow underlying pulse i try to always maintain but i dont get paranoid about it because if you do, u lose track of all the other things that matter most for me at this point and thats reacquainting myself with the proper physicality of producing a decent sound. you can always correct the rythm in the repeat if u fail at times. anyway, rythm at such a slow speed is also not really such a biggie and its embedded in a sort of  mental awareness of the bow speed .and you dont need to cram perfection in one go...that sort of paranoia will definitely not help one warm up. ;o)

i'm applying this to octave scales now and it works just as well even though i have the added complication of sudden string shifts and octave intonation and position shifts. but if you go about it in a calm non tense way, its just as soothing as a regular scale.

of course im not saying my playing is v good or anything but its improved so much because of this slow immersion at the beginning of my practice. but just to note that its not an oblivious slowness either . to also counter the serenity of the long bows, i also work on the new more 'dynamic' techniques, again concetrating on the physicality..such as spicatto using wrist-finger coordination clockwise then anti clockwise, currently...etc. so basically, through doing all this right at the beginning, i'm physically reacquainting and reimmersing myself within the physicality (sorry im using this word so often, but thats exactly the core of my point) of violin playing via a non-cramming relaxed focusing. it suckers you in phenomenologically (to use a more philosophical word so as to avoid repeating that other word above :-P) 

then i start the associated etudes  and then the musical pieces 

January 26, 2011 at 08:11 PM ·

hi elise;

im glad i made sense to you. at least this is what works for me. the teachers are quite correct when they ask for slooow conscious practice. but its of course more helpful for the teachers to tell us exactly what to do during this slow practice ;o)

January 27, 2011 at 03:20 AM ·

 My bad days are the ones when I come home from work stressed out and fast-track it through my warm-up routine without much thought.  

My good days are the ones when I come home from work stressed out and focus on my warm-up routine.  

It took years for me to figure out what worked for warming up.  Half of it is physical and the other half in the mind.  Take scales for instance.  Besides focusing on the intonation, a good warm-up also involves being aware of my body, noting any tension, feeling the vibrations not only through the instrument but also through the bow.  With that physical awareness comes a shifting of mental gears from the day job to music making.  

There are other factors that come into play for a good/bad day: the relative humidity and temperature, acoustics of the particular room I'm playing in, physical health and wellness, extraneous environmental sounds (like jet fighters flying overhead or just kids playing on the street), and so on.  Much of those I can't do anything about, but learn from the experience.

January 27, 2011 at 06:28 PM ·

My bad days are the ones when I come home from work stressed out and fast-track it through my warm-up routine without much thought.   My good days are the ones when I come home from work stressed out and focus on my warm-up routine.

*stares at screen*

I'm sitting here going "dur!" right now.  Thank you for this comment.

January 28, 2011 at 03:43 AM ·

"My good days are the ones when I come home from work stressed out and focus on my warm-up routine."

I've discovered the same thing; except I play in the morning so am not stressed out from work.  But I have noticed that on my best days, I am very critical of my sound, and will really focus on very specific flaws in my playing, and I have the patience and desire to work them out.  This focus begins with the very first note, which for me is usually bowing work on open strings.  Whereas on not so good days, I tend to gloss them over.  I think the so-called "good days" are perhaps 80% mental and 20% physiological.  One thing's for sure, if I'm in a hurry or anxious, it is not going to be a good day. 

January 28, 2011 at 04:27 AM ·

One thing's for sure, if I'm in a hurry or anxious, it is not going to be a good day.

That's true...  I know that many people will tell that playing 10 or 20 minutes each day is better than many hours on the weekend or on specific days. 

I would say true but not when one is more advanced...

I tired both methods and can't stand to do just 10 or 20 or even 30 min...   It's so frustrating.

If I put my violin back in its case and that my hands are still stiff and cold, it means that I'm not even warmed up when I stop my practice...  (and I have never "absorb" or "retain overnight" anything good with such trash short practices) 

But I know everyone is different and everyone doesn't have the same practice "formula"...

Something will work for someone but not for the neighbour... : )

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