Unable to Focus While Playing/Practicing

June 18, 2018, 5:48 AM · So I recently returned to learning the violin and taking classes(stopped like 2yrs. ago for various reasons) and so far everything's going okay, better than my previous experience.

Until one time during class.
My teacher brought up a new piece to study and it's not particularly complicated or challenging. I've played more difficult ones before.
Just, this time, I can't really seem to focus well.
I mean it's just a piece with three flats in its key signature and a few accidentals in the piece itself.
But I just can't play it straight.
I stop and look and play one bar over and over again. A bar that contains the simplest of notes.
It's like it's not registering in my head anymore or my brain's just panicking and not sending any signals to my fingers.
Or it could be a fear of mistake?
I've never had one this.. crippling, in a way.

I recently had a successful(one of my first ones ever, in my opinion) recital and my whole family watched, etc. and my teacher was proud.
I guess after all that I unconsciously feel that there's some deep, heavy pressure that now I have to do everything well. And each note could possibly be a mistake so I look back on it and hesitate everytime.

I just need to know if this is normal or something 'cause even my teacher's starting to notice how I stumble on a simple bar and I'm starting to get frustrated and the more frustrated I get the tenser I become during practice.
It's a bit unnerving..

Replies (25)

June 18, 2018, 6:08 AM · How old are you, if you don't mind me asking?

Also - what piece did gave you a good experience on the recital and what piece are you learning now (again, if you feel comfortable sharing)?

June 18, 2018, 6:20 AM · I'm 21 years old.
And I played a Pirates of The Caribbean medley at my recital. It's one of my favorite movie series so it felt good to be able to play it well.
The piece that's giving me trouble is Wohlfahrt Op. 45's #19.
June 18, 2018, 6:42 AM · Yeah, that etude is a step up in difficulty due to the key.

Many students of mine take a little while to process everything in it. Don't beat yourself up about it. It's harder than it seems. Your mind has to wrap itself around the general concepts therein before it begins to feel smooth. Pay close attention that your 3rd finger on the e string is low enough.

Just remember: the mind is like a mountain of solid stone. Every time you learn something new and challenging you're basically hollowing out a new chamber or room. That has to be done first before you can really begin to attend to details.

Just keep at it - those Wohlfahrt etudes are beautifully graded and put together. Practice them well and they'll always lead you in the right direction. I hope that #19 is not the first one you're trying to learn?

Have your teacher play it through with you a few times (starting slowly, of course). That can really help.

June 18, 2018, 6:51 AM · It just seems so easy at first glance.. So I sort of just skip through the notes? I know I shouldn't. Pay attention and importance to every note and such.. But I feel like I'm always running out of time or something.
At the back of my head, thinking of all those other violinists who started playing at like 3-years-old. That feeling of having to catch up.
So when I practice I sort of try to rush through it, in a way. And it takes effort to take a deep breath and really pay attention to the piece and not think about all the other pieces I'm supposed to practice.
All of it just adds more tension to me.

No it's not my first Wohlfahrt etude.. I think this is my second book. And I can't say that I played the previous ones perfectly. So that adds to my lack of confidence when playing. I often have trouble playing loudly or expressively. "More emotion," as my teacher would say.
And I can't seem to use the whole bow and often stay at the top/middle part. I feel like the bow's way too long or something and I have to elongate myself or bend backwards to use the whole bow.

June 18, 2018, 6:58 AM · I certainly don't want to contradict your teacher. I'm sure they have their own plan.

I'm not sure about the emotion part in an early Wohlfahrt etude. Your focus should be on a pure tone and good intonation. I say get comfortable with the notes and then add as much energy to the bow stroke as you can. This is primarily a left hand etude, with the proper bow stroke being the secondary goal.

As far as using the whole bow is concerned: I've never had a student use the whole bow on this etude. IMO it should be played middle to tip, with a vigorous stroke (eventually). Keep your bow straight.

June 18, 2018, 7:18 AM · Not just in Wohlfahrt etudes though. She usually has me play other pieces too that will sharpen some of my edges. Like she gives me emotional pieces or slow ones, I guess to help me learn how to convey emotion properly when playing.

Thanks. I usually get confused on how much bow to use or if I'm using too much or too little. Because I often see other violinists use the whole bow on a half-note or shorter notes. So I thought I should just always use the whole bow.
Like using the whole bow = better playing overall.

June 18, 2018, 7:22 AM · You should always use as much bow - AS YOU CAN. That can mean using 3 inches instead of 2.

Make sure that the amount of bow you use in any given passage allows for the purest tone and best measure of control. It's certainly possible to use too much bow.

June 18, 2018, 8:17 AM · Problem is I often tense up too much making my bow movement a bit rigid and sometimes "flies off." Hitting the edge of the violin and cutting off the note. And I admit my arm needs to be a bit more loose. It often feels too heavy for me to move properly.
June 18, 2018, 8:27 AM · For every etude you do, you should make sure that you understand the core point of the etude -- the particular skill or set of skills that the etude is trying to teach.

Most etudes increase in difficulty as you go through that particular etude. That sometimes means that it can be productive to concentrate on, say, just the first line or two of the etude, in order to get down the basics of the skill in a reasonably solid way, before you pile on more difficulties.

Playing the violin requires diligent, patient, focused practice. Also, if you play something incorrectly, you have just practiced playing it wrong. If you keep playing it incorrectly, you will actually learn it wrong, which will make doing it correctly far more difficult than if you hadn't taught yourself the screwed-up way in the first place.

So you deal with it, slowly, one bar at a time if you need to.

The problem with blind repetition is that you don't know why it's wrong over and over again. So stop, and figure it out, because clearly in those circumstances, just repeating it isn't going to make it better. Play the first note correctly. If it's not correct, ask yourself why it's not correct -- think through an troubleshoot the problem. Are you not "pre-hearing" the right pitch in your head? Are you not aiming the bow for the right contact point? Once the first note is correct, add the second note. If it's not right, go through that same checklist and also ask if you're ending the first note in a way that properly prepares you for the second note. (You may need to make sure that your hand is not in the wrong position, etc. for the first note in a way that makes it tough to get the second note.)

If you don't know how to troubleshoot problems in your practice, your teacher needs to explain how. Learning how to practice effectively is a vital skill.

June 18, 2018, 12:13 PM · "not registering in the brain" At risk of practicing medicine without a license; I had this problem at the day job; I am right eye dominant but the left eye is better at reading distance. So small type would look clear but did not register in the correct part of the brain; I made mistakes until I got glasses. Quick check; sight read something with one eye closed, then the other, see if there is a difference. Note; Reading distance is rather far for orchestra musicians; easily 2-3 feet. My only other trick for improving sight-reading is to train yourself to look ahead of where you are playing. Otherwise everything slightly difficult catches you by surprise. I know it's difficult. Our thought follows our eyes. Too many musicians are stuck in the present tense.
June 19, 2018, 5:37 AM · Lydia Leong - Thank you so much for the detailed assistance. I think it's time to bring out my inner perfectionist and be more meticulous when practicing. Too often I just go with the, "That'll do," approach. I need to take it more seriously now. Thank you for reminding me.

Joel Quivey - I recently got prescription contact lenses so that says something about my eyesight. I think I should wear them when practicing now, thank you. I actually got them to help during violin lessons 'cause I couldn't see the sheet music too clearly anymore.

June 19, 2018, 5:42 AM · I find I have the same problem if I don't listen to a performance of it. And I don't connect to some pieces, anyway. Certain ones just aren't my style. And other pieces that are fairly simple have taken me forever to memorize. Have you listened to a performance of the etude?
I do share your thoughts about young musicians who are really skilled. A part of me is happy and amazed to see it, and the other just keeps thinking that I should be able to play like that, as well, after five years of playing. So you aren't alone. It helps me to understand that it really doesn't come down to how many years a musician has been playing. Some students are just quicker at learning an instrument, and their teachers are also partially responsible, as well.
I don't like focusing on one piece at a time. I hate it. For me, it holds me back. Do you practice other pieces?
As far as tensing up, maybe you could try thinking of something you really enjoy doing before you practice, or where you like to be. You should, theoretically, naturally loosen up. Then just breathe, and play.
Hope this helps.
June 19, 2018, 8:48 AM · I do that too! I feel disconnected from the piece until I hear a performance of it. Only then can I go, "Ah, this is how it's supposed to feel."
Then I can replicate it to some degree. But if I just play it by myself just from reading the notes, I can't seem to turn it into music. They still feel like separate notes to me.
I have a handful of pieces and bars I practice. But I go through them one by one when practicing. I'll get more confused if I mix it up.
And at times I listen to my favorite music beforehand and even during practice to get me in the mood and I find that it does make my playing a lot better. But I also feel like it's not the proper way. Like all practices have to be in a quiet room filled with focus and seriousness and just intensely staring at the sheet music.

Obviously I'm yet to find my hold on the whole music thing.. Haha. I can't tell yet which is normal and which is me just being silly. And being silly = not practicing hard enough or not improving, in my head.

June 19, 2018, 11:50 AM · Aha. You prefer to hear the piece first. You may be more sound-oriented than visual. That is very common, and not really a problem.
Sight-reading ability is needed most by professional orchestra musicians and some of them are really amazing. Those dots on the page are not "real" music, it is a notation system, a code, a language that has been evolving for a thousand years, originally invented as an aid to memory.
June 19, 2018, 12:11 PM · We are all wired a little differently. I can identify with some of what you say.
It seems you may be letting too many unrelated thoughts into your mind when practicing in addition to some other things.

The thoughts about being behind others who started earlier aren't related to the now and probably aren't healthy. Ask yourself , what is the goal? The goal doesn't involve them. The rushed feelings are subtractive to your experience and improvement. There is no invisible troll sitting there poking at you to move it along.That enemy is yourself.

The way in which you learn seems similar to me....or maybe I misunderstand. You heed the music as a beginning place. Too much concentration on the printed note though and it becomes a distraction at some point. Some of us don't have the ability to multitask both written note and emotional feel of the music simultaneously. We might go back and forth during a performance. Glance at the map but pay more attention to the route while driving.Hearing the "feel" of a tune is the difference between playing it as intended or playing it the way you imagine it was intended.

Sometimes we have days when we feel we can paint a masterpiece.Other days
we feel lucky to color in the lines of a coloring book...ok an adult coloring book :) Life is full of baggage. We don't ask for most of it.

June 19, 2018, 1:25 PM · Try this: Pretend the key signature is four sharps instead. Play through it a few times. (You'll have to deal with some accidentals but it's fun to figure that out too.) Then go back to three flats.
June 19, 2018, 1:26 PM · Have you played a scale that has 3 flats before?
June 19, 2018, 1:58 PM · Jaya,

One of my favorite novel series, "Dune" has the mantra: "Fear is the mind-killer" not so strangely, it's true.

Perhaps this is your first piece in E-Flat/C-Minor and any new key signature can be problematic the first time out. However, this is just music and a teaching piece at that (nobody will pay you to play that for an audience). Relax, take it slow and don't try to over-think it. It's only music and making music is supposed to be enjoyable - often difficult, but always enjoyable.

FWIW: Personally, I like half-position for playing three flats but that isn't the same for everyone.

June 19, 2018, 3:26 PM · Curiously, no one has mentioned that when you come up against a single set of notes that gives you problems, the cure is to grind them out over and over again, at whatever slowness you require to play with 100% accuracy, until the passage is engraved in your mind and represents no problem at all. This might require literally dozens of repetitions of one measure, which then gets extended and spread outwards in each direction until the playing flows through it. It was also suggested to me (but I don't have the patience) to play problems in different rhythms, syncopated, etc, and then backwards until muscle memory cuts a path in your brain that your fingers will inevitably follow flawlessly. Performances are built up of such units (the reason for practicing scales and arpeggios is because those sequences are so often found as short bits in pieces).

I'm currently learning a piece (on a different instrument) that is such a finger-twister that I am spending five minutes a couple of times a day repeating one or two measure sections over and over, surprising myself that things I had to take literally one note at a time are now starting to roll off my fingers without much thought.

June 19, 2018, 5:22 PM · Thanks to all who have contributed to this discussion so far, especially of course Jaya, but also especially Ryan and Lydia, and really...everyone, I read it all carefully. As someone beginning my 4th year of self-taught violin journey, these discussions (and the concerts I attend) are my lessons, and I learn a lot about how to think and listen from the experiences you each have shared.

In many ways I think my own progress could have been better with a teacher, could have been better with systematic practice of scales and etudes, and definitely will require some more concentrated rhythmic training so I can, as Joel says, sight read properly to turn the dots into real music that moves the soul. But the combination of my budget and work and fatherly duties (and possibly a crusty personality) keep bringing me back to confidence that autodidact is my path for this instrument (and a few others) for the time I'm in now.

As you might expect, I have no technical advice (and admire that already given by Ryan, Lydia and Michael)...but I will chime in with Jeanette, Timothy and George: reconsider your philosophical position, especially any sense of competitiveness or perfection that seem to run rampant in classical music. As in athletics or scholarship, there will always be someone smarter, stronger and faster than you, so comparing yourself to others will only undermine your morale and satisfaction in music. Rather only compare yourself to how you were playing a year ago.

In a similar vein, writing as someone who has the luxury of paid manual labor full time, and thus avoiding the high-stress competition to make a living in music, I feel that for all my technical inferiority I enjoy the freedom to remain true to what makes music so dear to the human heart: open your heart to the sound, to the divinity of joining your mind and fingers to the wood and string that vibrate the soul into ecstasy. Play for joy, and do not try to be perfect but rather play as your heart feels. The brain is a slave to the heart, and fingers are slave to the brain.

Decades ago I grew up in a rock music culture of friends, and I even went to a few dozen Grateful Dead concerts before we lost Jerry. Some nights they were perfect and made music of the gods, other nights they were so bad I asked myself "why do you keep coming?" But they played probably 10,000 nights and the goal was not technical perfection but rather community of players and dancers in sound. Music is a very human art and belongs in many venues and comes from many levels of proficiency, but the old-time family on the porch making music with neighbors had something that the finest technical virtuosic recording can not give us.

Edited: June 19, 2018, 6:24 PM · Wow I wake up and there are like 6 new people advising me this is fascinating, haha. Especially since I have no one to talk to about violin issues. Thank you so much everyone.

Joel Quivey - I'm glad to know that being sound-oriented isn't a bad thing. Especially in music, of course. I guess since I'm a beginner I've leaned too much on the technical side. And so my teacher often gives me more emotional pieces to practice and invoke that emotion in me.

Timothy Smith - That is true. I find myself bringing outward problems while practicing as if I'm in a therapy room. Worrying about things that won't happen until 2-4 months later in the year.
It's only recently that I've begun stressing out about other people better than me. I mean, I knew there were lots before but it didn't bother me as much. I just wanted to play.
And I find that once I like the piece or find it to be a particularly fun one, I tend to relax more and really enjoy what I'm playing(and sometimes I pretend I'm doing a solo concert but don't tell anyone).

Paul Deck - I might try that once I'm a bit more comfortable. Trying a whole new key signature might just put me off more or make me more confused.

Erik Williams - Yes I've played one with three flats before. Other times four. So it really bothered me when I couldn't get this piece right.

George Wells - It isn't though. It just started to bug me for some reason after my recital. The violin class I had the day after my recital is when I started to have these little lapses of focus.

Michael Darnton - Unfortunately I have an issue with patience, haha. But I will try that. I'm eager to get over this problem and move on to.. worse ones along the way. But I intend to get through all of them to reach my standard of good at the violin.

Will Wilkin - It only really started to bother me recently. Back then I had no problems and insecurities about people better than me. In fact I often idolized them and have now changed my view to learning from them rather than being a bitter and jealous violinist.
I think from now on I'll put myself in a good mood before practicing, like some sort of meditation ritual. So I'm more relaxed and focused on the music rather than worrying that I'll play the wrong note.

June 20, 2018, 6:16 AM · My son's teacher says from time to time that it's OK to write the fingerings on the notes. So it's OK; it's a rule. You could extend this by writing out all the details that will help you identify the notes for a new piece and especially key signature that you don't know well combined with apparently random accidentals, and use that to help you until you no longer need it.

And leave out the bowing variations until you have a handle on the notes, then learn the bowings by themselves and then apply them to the notes. You don't have to try to do everything at once from the start.

By the way, the key is based on C Minor -- that might be throwing you off as well. You could have practised C minor harmonic and melodic scales to get you more comfortable with the needs of this piece. I don't know where the F# comes from though -- it's another factor throwing it off easy recognition. Maybe someone can inform us.

June 21, 2018, 1:31 PM · J Ray, et al.,

"My son's teacher says from time to time that it's OK to write the fingerings on the notes."

I burst out laughing when I read that. I have professional musicians and friends and I have seen their music - all kinds of handwritten notes including fingering numbers. There is nothing laudatory about having a clean sheet. The only reason for not marking the music is to improve sight-reading. If you are going to perform or simply play your best by all means mark the music to avoid problem areas. If top professionals from top conservatories do it, students should not be bothered and neither should their teachers.

June 21, 2018, 9:51 PM · Write in fingerings and bowings when there are real choices, options. In general, mark only what is necessary, to avoid visual clutter. I never write a circle around anything. I once played in an orchestra seated well behind a first-rate Russian immigrant violinist. He was warming up back stage on the Prokofiev concerto #2. I looked at his part and was amazed that there were no markings at all. Was he doing it exactly like Oistrakh's edition ?-not likely. Did he improvise the details each time or just not need them -a scary thought. Whatever the explanation, he was out my league.
July 1, 2018, 6:02 PM · Very good discussion all around.
If the issue is that of focus of attention, I think this is very complex. If you think about it, even playing one note, there are many things to pay careful attention to - for example, the pitch of the note, the position of the left hand, the bow hold, the part of the bow on the string, the distance to the bridge, the volume of sound, the beginning and end of the note, the preparation for the next note, and so forth.
If one can separate any of these, and then just pay attention to one hold or sound or movement, and just play one note (rather than a complete phrase), it seems to me that one can build one's attention by this kind of (admittedly) ridiculously brief attention to detail. After all, if you can't pay attention to one note, how can you pay attention to a phrase?
Get used to doing one little thing at a time (a very, very brief time), and then you can build on that.
Hope that helps.
Cheers,
Sandy

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