What to do when you face a difficult passage?

Edited: November 6, 2018, 1:59 PM · Hi, I'm a beginner and I find quite often that I can play a whole piece at the correct tempo after some weeks or months of practice, but there's always one part or passage that is way harder than the rest, at least for me, and to be able to control it I have to play it at almost 50% of the correct tempo, which is very slow.

In other words, my problem is not a matter of "you need to practice those sections isolated". I mean, I would need months and months to play that passage at the right speed, while I've just needed a few days to control all the other passages. Normally it's passages that include slurs of fast notes in different strings plus "one" recovering note, legato, etc...

Thank you

Replies (23)

November 6, 2018, 2:49 PM · Pieces like this are not so rare. It happens at every level and has little to do with your stage as a learner. A few tips:

This is a question to put to your teacher. Be guided by his/her response.

As to practicing a passage that poses multiple simultaneous difficulties: Separate these difficulties: Practice the left hand with simple up and down bowing. Practice complicated legato patterns sort strings crossings on open strings. This last one is surprisingly hard at the beginning, especially for string crossings, but persist and play the bowing--slowly at first--exactly as you need it while giving the left hand a rest. When you have both of these at speed begin to put them together, again slowly at first. Obviously even with all the best tricks this is time consuming.

Finally: Sometimes the passage in question is one that you are just not yet ready for. Put the piece aside and accept the situation. If the piece is interesting enough you can get back to it in a year or so and you will be able to add on the missing section.

November 6, 2018, 4:13 PM · Paul it simply means you still lack some of the basic technique. Keep developing your technique! Keep up the good stuff!
November 6, 2018, 4:28 PM · You’ve got the “what” of your problem, now you just need the “why” and the “how.” He other day I was practicing something and the tempo was off. It was my string crossings- they were too late. The why was hat my elbow was too slow, and the “how to fix it” was to raise my elbow earlier. Eventually, you’ll have to figure out all that by yourself, but for now, your teacher should be able to help you.
November 6, 2018, 6:06 PM · Just do what David Krakovich does.
Play the whole piece at 150% speed and ignore all the mistakes.
November 6, 2018, 6:26 PM · "I would need months and months to play that passage at the right speed, while I've just needed a few days to control all the other passages...."

Yes? And? What is your question?

Sometimes that's what it takes. That's why they call it "violin." If you want something easy, go to medical or law school.

Edited: November 6, 2018, 6:52 PM · I think Albrecht has given you very good advice. Going along the same line as what Julie wrote, "isolating" the passage isn't enough. You need to know how to practice that specific thing. A good chunk of a lesson would be profitably spent on how to practice that specific passage. Repetition and slowly increasing the metronome are not efficient enough for an adult learner. And if your teacher cannot lead you toward progress on it, then either they're not such a good teacher or, as Albrecht wrote, that passage is just going to be beyond you a little. The latter is more likely.
Edited: November 7, 2018, 6:24 AM · Wow, thank you for all the replies. I've been told by my teacher that I should practice left and right hand separated. My problem is almost never the left hand, but the right hand (bow). I guess I will have to put them aside, I feel these parts are beyond my skills.

Scott Cole, and everybody, the problem is that there's a huge difference in difficulty between "that one part" and the rest of the piece, and this is happening to me in several pieces. At first I can barely play any passage of the piece correctly and controlled, but after a few weeks learning each passage and sections I am able to play it correctly, in tempo and feeling confident. Everything except that one part, that putting the same (actually more) amount of practice time I can just play it at 50% of the correct tempo.

I guess I'm trying to say that many pieces I'm learning are not balanced in difficulty, thing I gave for granted in beginner pieces.

November 7, 2018, 6:42 AM · Unfortunately for me, separating the L and R hand in practice only solves half the problem, since often in fast passages I have trouble coordinating my R and L hands (and yes, sometimes I have trouble chewing gum and walking at the same time).

In order to fix this (or any other) problem, you first need to deduce what the problem is. I'm also a fairly new player, and what you're describing typically occurs when a new bowing technique is introduced. Quite often in my lesson, I'll come in with a passage like you're describing (where I'm stuck because it seems beyond my capacity), and my teacher will suggest staying with a certain part of the bow, or crossing strings with my wrist instead of elbow, or some other trick that, once I learn how to do it, makes the piece playable.

November 7, 2018, 6:44 AM · You are doing the right thing playing it slow. If it is impossible for you to bring it up to speed, then it is too difficult for you at the moment, and you should play something a little easier.
Edited: November 7, 2018, 6:51 AM · And remember you don't have to perform every piece you practice. So there's a hard spot that's giving you fits. Continue to work on it, don't let it get the best of you, put it aside for a while and work on your bowing with studies, and come back to it. And don't mind Scott Cole. Normally his advice is very measured and solid and he's a great contributor to these pages, but I think he had a cranky moment there. We all do from time to time.
Edited: November 7, 2018, 7:03 AM · When faced with a difficult passage, often in orchestral music which comprises about 90% of my playing, following my teacher's advice from years ago I analyse it carefully to see where the fundamental problem lies. More often than not it is not the entire passage but only one or two short sections, perhaps only two or three notes, that are causing the problem for the whole.

I isolate the problem sections and work on them slowly note by note to further isolate the cause - which may turn out to be a string crossing, tricky fingering, bowing, or a quirky rhythm for example. A solution then usually suggests itself - shifting to the 3rd or 4th position (often your best friends and life savers) which can easily sort out fingering and string crossing problems, for example. All done slowly of course until I get it right. Then I proceed to the next stage which is leading into and out of the difficult bit. Again slowly until everything feels comfortable and automatic, then finally increasing speed to performance level.

November 7, 2018, 7:09 AM · OK. I have another question. I'm sure I can't put aside pieces forever, avoiding any difficult passage.

Where do you put the limit between "this is too difficult for me now" and "it just needs more work"?

As I've already said, at the beginning my playing is bad, dull, ugly, incorrect rhythm. After days or weeks of practice I improve and control what in the past was difficult. Nonetheless, these hard parts I'm talking about barely improve after practicing them slowly and trying to speed them up. So, when do you say "this is future stuff" or "it needs some more weeks"?

There has to be a limit, if not, a beginner could start to learn a Paganini Caprice, get stuck in the first bar but think "it's just a matter of practice".

November 7, 2018, 7:25 AM · Medical school or law school may well be comparatively "easy" compared with learning to play the violin to a professional level, but when one graduates from medical or law school it is then that the comparison stops. A graduate medic is in the business of saving lives and mending broken or sick bodies; a moment of carelessness or inattention can result in the patient's death or a life-long disability. A lawyer's mistake may deprive someone of their freedom when they're innocent, or in the civil sphere cost a client millions. A mistake made in a music performance ... ?

Fwiw, two of my closest family members work in the front line in hospitals, and most of my working life was as a patent attorney.

Edited: November 7, 2018, 7:28 AM · You should play things that you can bring up to speed within two or three weeks, I guess (this is a process I had to go through on the piano in the Seventies, so my memory and grasp of time-scales is very hazy - as a kid I had weekly lessons; as an adult I have monthly lessons).

I said "at the moment"; please don't convert that to "forever". I guess you feel frustrated at how slow progress can be. Welcome to my world!

A "method" should take into account a player's ability and length of piece and most difficult technical passage in that piece. The earliest pieces are very short. As you get better, the pieces get longer and you are expected to play them all the way through. In some of them length and technical requirements are a trade-off. But you should expect to play any piece from beginning to end after a month (guess). If you can't, then the piece is too difficult for you at your current ability.
But, as someone said, a piece you are playing for development may be harder than a piece you play to perform. If a piece IS too difficult for you, that's probably OK, as long as you have a teacher supervising you making sure that you don't tackle those difficulties by developing bad habits.
But I wouldn't play such a piece forever hoping to perfect it. I'd quit after a month and go on to something midway between that and your easier "performance" piece. (I put performance in inverted commas because I don't literally intend to perform any of the pieces I practise)

November 7, 2018, 7:30 AM · Paul,on the other question, this falls predominantly in your teacher's field of decisions and choices and how she or he builds you up to meet increasingly difficult music. If youre having doubts about the appropriateness of tge music you're playing in terms of difficulty, you're having doubts about the teacher's decisions.
November 7, 2018, 7:31 AM · Paul, the short answer to your subsidiary question for me is, do I have a public performance coming up in the next few weeks? If so, then I buckle down and work on the problem. I find that the pressure of a deadline is effective.
November 7, 2018, 7:38 AM · Trevor, Paul is a beginner.
Edited: November 7, 2018, 8:22 AM · Yes, I'm a beginner, I don't have a performance schedule or anything similar.

Do I feel frustrated?

Hahaha, yes, each practice session. It's not the difficulty of learning the violin that bugs me, it's that I could perform many pieces at the correct tempo, but there's always this part or passage that I can only play slow, so the piece gets hidden and forgotten in my scores.

Edited: November 7, 2018, 9:57 AM · You have to figure out which hand is causing the issue, and work with the most glaring problems first. If it's problems with string crossings or bow division, you can leave the left hand out of it while practicing the string crossings in rhythm on open strings, first slowly, then speeding up. Then you can reintroduce the left hand.

If the left hand is the problem, you can simplify the right hand by using just a regular detache or playing a few notes per bow, and work out the left hand. You can also practice the left hand in rhythmic groups, where you can take a passage of 16th notes and make every group of two notes into a dotted 8th note together with a 16th note, and practice slower - This trains your fingers to lift faster and with better coordination. Then you can switch the order, so that the 16th comes before the dotted 8th.

You can make up your own exercises after a while, but there are special ways to practice this kind of stuff. Sometimes, you just practice a passage at a tempo you can play it well, and then tick the metronome up by one tick and then try it again, and don't go past where it falls apart, and you can go back down and up. Mixing up the tempo of practice is important. Sometimes you need to just let something breathe for a while. Sometimes your technique just isn't going to be up to some passage for a while, but you might come back in a year, and now you can play it, because of all the other work you did in the meantime.

As you can tell by the relative length of my answer, I spent a lot more time talking about the left hand than the right, but don't neglect the right hand. Practicing on open strings can be kinda boring, but it's important and easy to neglect.

Edited: November 8, 2018, 9:58 AM · Many years ago a fine piano teacher gave me this very helpful advice on a Mozart passage of very fast notes in a run; she told me, You can't learn to play it fast by practicing it slowly; PRACTICE IT PLAYING AS FAST AS YOU CAN: START WITH ONE NOTE, THEN TWO NOTES, THEN THREE NOTES...etc. While I totally agree that slow practice is the norm, I find this advice is valuable for getting the feeling of putting the fingers down in rapid succession, which is NOT the same as playing slowly. Try it?!!
Edited: November 7, 2018, 10:25 AM · Building off the last post . . . I asked this question on another forum and learned about "fast practice."


Listen to the whole video, as the concept is explained at the beginning. It takes into account cognitive learning. The guy explains why starting slowly and moving up does not really work past a certain point. Your brain actually builds in the delays between notes at the slower tempo, and keeps trying to put them in, even as you get faster. With "fast practice," the brain never puts the gaps in.

And it WORKS! I'm not sure it's possible if the whole piece is super fast. But for shorter passages that are fast and difficult, it DOES work. I know for a fact that there is a speed past which I cannot go if I work up gradually. When I tried fast practice on passages, I WAS able to play them. I was surprised by how well it worked. Worth trying. :-)

November 7, 2018, 2:12 PM · Here is another angle: You have problems with one passage. Assume for the sake of argument that you achieve to play that passage at speed. What happens now? You play the piece, listen to yourself and find here a note out of tune, there a staccato that does not sound right, at another place a piano that you ignored. You solve one problem and another one pops up immediately.

It never ends. You will always have to put pieces aside when they are far from perfect (unless you are Heifetz or somebody). If you have to perform you have to prioritize and make the best of the limited time you have.

Here is the good news. Set the pieces aside once you have put in a reasonable amount of work (it depends on the piece, but at your level not much more than a month I'd say). Take them up after a serious amount of time (a few months in your case) and try to play them again. You'll find that many problems have gone away by themselves, just by virtue of the progress you have made in the mean time.

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