How to practice when skills are getting rusty?

Edited: March 21, 2019, 7:35 PM · A very warm greeting to everyone.
I studied under a teacher until I completed my Grade 7 violin exam. Since then, I have been staying in a city far from my hometown to pursue undergraduate program (NOT MUSIC). It has been almost 4 years I just practice purely like a strings fan i.e. I was not taking it very seriously as I used to be. Right now, I want to brush up and hone in my skills (i.e. bowing, fingerings, vibrato, etc.) but I am lost of my progress. I won't be having a teacher for the next 1 year. I don't want the skills to be rusty. I wish to know more about the materials that of higher grades (6,7&8) students to revise my skill sets as I'm planning to take grade 8 exam 2-3 yrs from now. Besides, I would be yearning to learn about the materials that students taking Diploma and Bachelor's Degree in violin major will be studying/practicing. Maybe there are sonatas, concertos,studies,etudes?? How can I get back on track in improving my violin progress? May I have some helpful advice?

Replies (20)

March 21, 2019, 7:44 PM · Can you find a teacher in the city that you live in now?
Edited: March 21, 2019, 8:58 PM · This is a terrific question. I find Lydia's answer, while obviously reasonable, taps into a deep-seated personal frustration.

In my limited experience trying to take violin lessons as an adult, I haven't been able to find a teacher that will actively guide me the way teachers did when I was a kid. It was more "what do you want to work on?" I suppose if I'd chosen something wildly inappropriate they might have said something...but in general there wasn't the same emphasis on studies, scales, technique, etc. And I really didn't know what I didn't know and didn't feel I had sufficient perspective to say "vibrato!" or whatever.

(At least three of the four teachers that I've studied with since moving away from home routinely train serious younger students, too. and so I'm assuming that those kids get the standard treatment. But not for me.)

Without wanting to hijack the thread, my question is: why? what is it about intermediate-to-advanced adult students that makes solid teachers reluctant to impose a real course of study? Are we just not worth it?

So...to return to the OP's question, do not assume that finding a teacher will solve your challenge. But it's obviously the first course of action. Just look for someone who is willing to prescribe a course of study and invest in your technical and musical advancement. Also good: someone who has studio recitals, takes students to master classes, etc. Performing opportunities will help you focus.

What to do if you can't find a teacher? Giving yourself a community of some kind might inspire you to practice in more frequent/focused way. I think Karen Allendoerfer might belong to a Facebook group that shares practice videos and gives each other feedback. This could be another way to keep yourself honest, get feedback, and stay motivated. Working on chamber music–a sonata, trio, or quartet–with other like-minded musicians could be similarly motivating, especially if your focus is on honing a piece, rather than just sight-reading.

Figuring out what to practice when you're on your own can be tough. I think when you're self-guided, it's easy to get overwhelmed with ALL THE THINGS. I know a lot of people love the awesomely comprehensive Simon Fisher books; I've personally struggled to integrate them into my practice in any kind of meaningful way. (Mostly I look through them and then become convinced that I know nothing and need to start over again from scratch when in fact I'm pretty damn competent.) But there are great posts in the archives about what/how people practice (Lydia wrote a great one a few years back)–maybe start with some of those?

Looking forward to hearing what other people recommend. I feel your pain, as one who made it to a certain level and struggles to maintain skills, let alone advance.

March 22, 2019, 2:14 AM · Katie, I think teachers are generally afraid of telling adults what to do.

It's fairly easy to tell a child "here's what you're going to do, now go do it". But to tell someone who is the same age or older than you the same thing is tough for those not used to it.

Of course, I don't have any qaulms about treating adult students in this way, but I've probably taught over a hundred of them, varying in age from slightly younger than me to 40+ years older.

And of course, I've learned that people come to lessons to be told what to do.. They don't WANT options (well, some do actually, and as a teacher you have to be able to read which ones do).

On the other hand, I haven't really taught many advanced adults (or perhaps none, depending on what you consider advanced). So maybe my perspective is moot.

March 22, 2019, 4:59 AM · I find the "returning" violinist needs to patiently regain physical flexibility and strength but also re-awaken dormant neurones!

But whatever material is chosen, the adult needs a more conceptual approach than a child.

March 22, 2019, 5:26 AM · Maybe I was just lucky, but I'm an adult returner and managed to find an absolutely fantastic teacher at my first attempt.

I was playing to ABRSM diploma standard when I took a 35 year break. I've been playing again for around nine months and started lessons at the beginning of the year. Nancy insists on scales, she started me on Kayser but decided that I was ready for Kreutzer. She's also working with me on the 1st movement of Mozart K216.

She always has a plan, always pushes me, never lets a mistake go by and it's proved an incredible learning experience. I now have a better bow hold, and am doing things I never could before.

I am willing to concede that I may just have been lucky - but I think two things helped me get on the right track. Firstly, I very carefully chose Nancy on the basis that she had been taught at a prestigious music college by a famous teacher (Wen Zhou Li).

Secondly, I went into my first lesson with a clear goal. I told Nancy that I wanted to take the Diploma exam. This gave her and me a clear objective and helped define the path I'm on now.

Edited: March 22, 2019, 8:19 AM · The OP asked what she could work on to brush up her skills. Studies! Start with Kayser -- too easy? Okay but do some of them anyway to bring back your foundation. Then move on to Schradieck, Dont Op 37, Kreutzer, and eventually Rode. But just like your childhood experience, don't try to move up too fast. Make sure your hand positions and posture are secure. You might need a different setup (SR, CR) than you had as a kid. Avoid tension -- but especially watch for it in your neck and forearms. Those are good indicators that you're overdoing it. Look for intonation, tone, clarity in your string crossings, etc. Use a mirror and a metronome: Old school.

I'll bet the teachers who struggle to help solid adult students have been burned several times by trying to help wretched adult students. I've obviously been to a lot of my daughter's violin lessons. She and I have the same teacher. My lessons are basically the same kind of lessons as hers. But I don't cry on my teacher's shoulder about how hard my life is, and I don't make lame excuses when I'm not prepared. My teacher knows I have an active, busy life and he can always find ways to help push me forward.

March 22, 2019, 7:52 AM · I think it's easier to guide intermediate-level adult students than advanced adult students, as intermediate-level players are still doing a lot of building-block technique. At the advanced level, the path isn't clear, especially because building technique at that level may take more practice time than most adults have.

I feel like I make good progress technically when I focus on doing the assigned etudes, but a ton of repertoire occupies my practice time -- everything that I'm learning to perform. So that's sonatas and other recital works, orchestra music, and chamber music, which can readily eat my limited practice time.

Edited: March 22, 2019, 8:45 AM · Keep your previously learned skills going by regular practice of the works from Grade 7. Maybe add the Bach from grade 8.

Having a fine teacher is certainly a great help, but not essential to maintenance and improvement of skills.

March 22, 2019, 8:21 AM · I find having a teacher is still useful because he can help me reach a higher technical level more quickly than I could on my own and with fewer dead ends. Also I greatly value his musical advice.
March 22, 2019, 8:41 AM · If I'm inferring from the OP's post correctly, he is a young person a little over the age of a typical college- or graduate-level conservatory student, so he might still fit into an "appropriate" student category in the mind of a teacher.

But I would think that if he's only been away from the violin for four years, getting back on track might not take a herculean effort. Maybe just working carefully through 3 octave scales, some previously-studied Kreutzer etudes, and some Bach?

March 22, 2019, 9:54 AM · I never consider any music "easy". Even in a simple folk tune (which Mozart may well have used) there is a lot of unnoticed technical underpinning and detail that needs to be got right to really get at what the music is all about. So go for those "easy" studies!
March 22, 2019, 11:04 AM · If it were me, I'd start with the standard RCM (Royal Conservatory of Music) work books (Violin technique and etudes), 2 levels down from where I left off. The programs suggests numerous studies and repertoire appropriate to each level in addition to what is in the workbooks. If you are struggling go down more levels as much as you need to. https://bookstore.rcmusic.com/us_store/?p=2&series_layer=435
Edited: March 22, 2019, 11:44 AM · The first few pages of Schradieck are unlikely to do much damage unless you do them for hours on end. A lot depends on your discipline for not ingraining bad habits, which is unfortunately very easy to do.

I just saw this video by Nicola Benedetti on Schradieck exercises. Her videos are good. I also recommend checking out videos by Kerson Leong.


March 22, 2019, 1:32 PM · Even though I think it may not apply to the OP, Katie B. brings up issues that are on my mind a lot: 1. how violin teachers perceive and teach those of us in our forties and beyond in comparison to how we were taught as adolescents; 2. how we are different as students than when we were adolescents. Maybe for discussion on another thread?
March 22, 2019, 2:39 PM · Definitely for another thread.
March 22, 2019, 3:23 PM · This is a fascinating discussion with many good insights by all. I am an adult who would prefer to be taught as I was as a child. My wife, a returning pianist is the opposite. She is the one these teachers who work with adults are teaching to. She wants to work on what she wants to work on, and not be told too much, or have too many exercises. She wants real 'pieces.' And she has a limited time to practice as a working adult. So the teacher she has is perfect for her. But if that teacher were a violin teacher for me, I'd be frustrated.
March 22, 2019, 3:25 PM · It also looks like the OP never entirely stopped playing, but simply hasn't practiced seriously for four years. That's different from most returners who have stopped completely.
Edited: March 23, 2019, 1:35 AM · Thanks Christian Lesniak for the recommendations! I appreciate everyone's response. But I still have a question out of curiosity. What are the violin solos compositions that are quite frequently performed by concert violinists? Is there a way to watch the full concerts online?

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