Tips for a frustrated student?

Edited: June 5, 2019, 4:04 PM · Hi all.

I'll start off with a bit of background info. I've been playing the violin for just a bit over 3 years. As a reference to my skill level, I am currently working on Seitz Student Concerto No, 2. I started playing in my teen years. At the beginning it was just a hobby, a curiosity. My knowledge in music theory is fairly limited. Prior to violin, I had taken saxophone in elementary school, which as I'm sure you can guess, wasn't the most enriching experience. Recently, my adoration of music has grown substantially. I have started going to classical music concerts and rehearsals, I've begun researching composers and their history, I engage with recording of the great violinists. I wish I could go back in time and urge my younger self to take practice more seriously. I feel as if I have wasted so much time, just practising whatever and whenever I wanted, with no structure. I would like to take learning violin and music more seriously. However, I am feeling very frustrated with my progress. Three years later, and I am still making very basic mistakes, such as incorrect intonation and string crossing. I have tried to research exercises and methods to improve but always seem to reach a dead end. I was wondering what the violinist community recommends? What warm-ups helped you as a relatively new student? What can I do to develop a strong and reliable intonation? How does one go about learning theory in an efficient manner? How do I get over this plateau and start seeing progress?

Replies (15)

June 5, 2019, 4:11 PM · You didn't mention your teacher, but string crossing is not a simple task, and if you keep going, you will have many etudes in your future that have big string-crossing components. Intonation is a lifelong struggle, and you will probably find that as your intonation gets better (it will) your ear will also get better, so you are kind of perpetually dissatisfied, which is just part of the learning process.

Music theory is great, but I think it has its limits in making you play in tune. I think violinists have more leeway to be dumb than, say, pianists, but less than, say, singers ;-)

Focus on what your teacher gives you, and hopefully your teacher has demonstrated that they are worthy of your trust.

June 5, 2019, 4:26 PM · Playing the violin is seriously freaking hard.

You'll make intonation errors your whole life. No violinist succeeds in playing perfectly in tune, though the number and severity of the errors will decline with time and practice and constant vigilance.

String crossings will get smoother with practice and forethought.

Theory, there are plenty of books and apps and whatnot. It's a sideline, though.

What is your teacher having you do? How are they structuring the tasks for each week?

Edited: June 5, 2019, 6:08 PM · I'm an adult amateur and not particularly accomplished. I studied as a child, then put the violin away for a long time, and now I'm a "returner."

You will continue to struggle with "basic" stuff for a long time because, as Lydia says, what you are trying to do is very hard. The "hard" part is part of why many of us really like it. As an amateur, I can totally bury myself in this challenge without the outcome affecting my health -- or my livelihood. (I'm a chemistry professor with tenure.)

You've been playing a few years and regretting how not-serious you were in the past. Welcome to a very well-populated club on that score. These kinds of regrets, you will come to learn, are not only pointless but poisonous. Put them aside. (But at the same time, consider what you are doing -- e.g., in school -- and don't make the same mistake again!)

Now would be a good time to "take stock" of your progress and your possibilities. First of all, Seitz Concerto after a few years is not such bad progress. But as you probably know if you've been lurking on this site, if you're already in your mid-teens, you are sufficiently far behind your conservatory-bound peers that your chances for forging a career as a professional violinist are essentially zero.

Fortunately, there is still a lot of opportunity to enjoy the violin as an amateur. That is what Lydia does and she is quite a fine violinist.

At this point there are three main factors that will govern your progress. You should evaluate all three calmly and rationally.

(1) Your effort, focus, and ambition. Only you can measure these, but objectively, it stands to reason that you can spend more time on violin if you are not doing a sport and if you are not struggling to finish your homework. So you have to make choices as you manage your schedule. And as college approaches, believe me, that gets much harder because you will have more AP type courses and you need time to prepare SAT/ACT and think about where you will go. Collecting data and making visits takes time.

(2) The support of your friends and parents. Help them understand why you are doing this and how they can help. Sometimes a headlong transition into the music world means making new friends while some of your old friends fade away. These are facts of life.

(3) Your violin teacher. Is (s)he challenging you on a weekly basis? Assigning you scales and studies in addition to your repertoire pieces? Do they seem to have a plan for you? Are they following a clear pedagogical model (such as Suzuki). Are they coaching you on improving the "basics" and do you feel you're getting advice you can heed? Do they demonstrate techniques on their own violin (or yours) or only talk to you in your lessons? Not all teachers are cut from the same cloth. Going to a summer music camp is one way to get exposed to other teachers in a way that won't be threatening to your current teacher. I'm not talking about Interlochen here. There are camps that will gladly accept a student who is doing Seitz, where you don't even have to audition. Of course be ready to find yourself among children half your age who can play the same stuff, but you already know that's happening because you can see it all over YouTube.

There is a fourth "thing" on this list but my gut tells me it's less likely to be your main problem: If your violin is total garbage you can feel like you work hard and nothing happens. In this case, if you have a good teacher, ask your teacher to tell you whether you need to upgrade.

June 5, 2019, 9:44 PM · Thank you all for the (quick!) responses. There is some wonderful advice here that has changed my perspective a little.

Paul and Lydia, in regards to my teacher, he is quite accomplished and has (from what I have heard) very successful students. However most of them are significantly younger and have seemingly already expressed interest in music as a career. I fear that because I am in no rush to get into a music school, any plans or structured lessons have been neglected. While he does challenge me, it also seems as if I am stuck working on the same thing every week. We usually just focus on whatever piece I am working on, for many weeks at a time. I feel as if the technical aspects have been shoved aside, and despite me asking about it, it always remains an afterthought.

I will admit, as a student in the IB programme, I do have my plate full. However, I have made the conscious decision to stop making excuses and make more time for violin.

June 5, 2019, 11:29 PM · Maybe there are basic technical things that you have not learned properly earlier due to you not having practiced properly and they are no hampering you down? Have you asked your teacher what these are? Or better stilll, make a video of yourself playing and compare it then to the many excellent soloist out there, maybe you can spot some basic wrong posture? If you analyze your playing yourself, you will really learn and thus have the capazity to change things.
June 6, 2019, 7:22 AM · Okay. Maybe at your next lesson you could ask your teacher the following:
(1) What are the two or three main things I should be working on this week with my repertoire piece?
(2) Should I be doing any additional work like scales or studies? Can you recommend a book of studies for me? ("I have heard about students at my level doing Hrimaly scales or Wohlfahrt studies -- would those be good for me?")
(3) Are there aspects of my general setup (posture, hand positions) that need attention?
(4) "I want to raise my game and increase the speed of my progress. Besides just practicing more, how do I do that?"
June 6, 2019, 8:39 AM · Kaly, good suggestions by all above. I think Paul has a good idea: learn what you teacher foresees for you on violin and try to establish a long-term plan. And congrats on the IB (our youngest granddaughter did an International Baccelaureate in high school about 10 years ago).

There are plenty of sources (books (like "Idiot's Guide") and web sites) for learning "Music Theory." Most of it is really just the "rules of the road." There is actual (acoustic and auditory) science and theory related to music, but that never comes up until one dives into it more deeply than "circle of fifths"and so forth. There are many other scale systems and intonation concepts too and interesting books about them too, but all are unnecessary for "Western classical music." You can play the violin for 80 years and never worry about them - I know, I do it - but I've read some of the stuff, just in case.

Edited: June 6, 2019, 8:55 AM · This could be me writing this post ! I’m working on the same piece with exactly the same frustrations . ( Those darn double stops!)
My teacher tells me I’m doing well, but I feel like I’m working through mud , making the same errors all the time, and for weeks. At this point I remind myself of the type of things that have been said above, ( as in, this was never going to be easy!) and that when I started, I would have been excited to think about playing this, and real progress has been made , I just can’t see it . Also that I’ve had similar feelings of frustration before, and somehow moved on eventually.
I have read that it’s normal to reach plateaux on the learning curve, that have to be worked through , and can seem very long, when in the beginning, you were learning so many new things quickly..
I know , if I were to bleat to my teacher, what he would say, which is “practice slowly, very slowly”

I try not to look at the cover of my Seitz concerto, which has a couple of 7 year olds on it.!

June 6, 2019, 9:03 AM · How much, and how often, were you practicing, before you started "taking it seriously"?

When did you start taking it seriously?

And how much, and how often, are you practicing now?

June 6, 2019, 9:21 AM · Great advice.

I'm like Paul and Lydia (though not accomplished like either of them!) in that I had put my violin down then returned to it many years later.

I will say, looking back at my student-teacher interactions as a kid - the things that I regret are not learning how to properly practice and problem solve with the violin. For me, I think my weaknesses were a combination of maturity, having way too many activities, along with a teacher who knew that I was not conservatory bound. I was told I could do it if I wanted to, and our lessons changed after I said I did not want that kind of pressure with my playing. Not having a "goal" with my playing, since conservatory was not on the menu, was not conducive towards highly beneficial lessons and practice sessions beyond loving the violin.

So... my advice is to follow Paul's advice, express your current goals as a musician, ask for a game-plan, and see what your teacher does.

And remember: the violin is hard, progress tends to be subtle and slow, so keep your eye on the bigger picture!

As for theory, my teacher talks about it and I understand enough to get by, but I do want to up my game beyond what the basic music theory stuff covers.

June 6, 2019, 10:27 AM · One of the advantages of using method books (like Suzuki) for your repertoire pieces is that the progression is very gradual. My own experience is that teachers who follow the approach of just assigning you a new piece out of thin air (well, it can seem like that anyway) when you've finished your current one often do not go gradually enough. I struggled with this very badly with the teacher I had as a teenager. I couldn't play Accolay so he assigned me Mozart 3. And the reason he gave me Accolay was because I couldn't play Vivaldi. I'm not kidding.

So, if your teacher is like that, then you need to help them help you. Let's say you're in Rosemary's situation where mostly things are going okay but double-stops are giving you fits. (And if you're doing your first Seitz concerto then I could well imagine that being an issue.) In that case you could ask your teacher, "The double stops here seem to be holding me back from doing my next piece. Maybe I could take a break from this, start my next piece, and start on some studies (like Whistler "Developing Double Stops" or Trott "Melodious Double Stops") to focus on double stops without having to keep playing this piece. Then when I've improved in that area I can come back to my Seitz and finish it off so I can perform it."

Maybe your situation is different from Rosemary's, but that kind of strategy can be good when you are working with your teacher. Most teachers I know would be pleased that you are being thoughtful and willing to do extra work, but they also should hopefully understand that you don't want to be stuck on the same thing for months. Please be warned, however, that if you tell your teacher you went onto a website and got advice from total strangers, they might not warm to the idea.

On the other hand, being stuck on the same thing for months is usually not about the whole piece, it's usually about the hardest 10% of a piece. That's why I suggested getting a task list from your teacher. You need to identify what that 10% is so that you can work ONLY on that. You should hardly ever, almost never, "play through" your repertoire piece. If you're worried about transitions in and out of the hard bits, then work on just the transitions! This is where you have to be disciplined enough to do the menial work on the tough spots -- going VERY SLOWLY, using rhythms, checking your hand positions, making sure something actually improves with each repetition, eliminating tension, moving on to something else if you get frustrated, etc.

June 6, 2019, 5:28 PM · Lydia, I'd say that when I first started, I was practising for about 30 minutes, 4 to 5 times a week. When I decided to take learning the violin more seriously (around December of last year), my practice times started to fluctuate, ranging from about 45 minutes to over an hour and 30 minutes. Within the past month and a bit, I've made an effort to stay at a stable 1.5 hrs, nearly everyday if I can manage my time.

The structure of my practice worries me more than the amount of time I spend playing. I never really know what to do for warm up besides a few odd scales or arpeggios, and from what I'm reading above, I should definitely be focusing more on small sections of the piece I'm playing rather than going all the way through. With the advice given, I am going to ask my teacher at my next lesson to help me develop a plan, and hopefully my practising will have more direction, and be more focused!

June 6, 2019, 5:40 PM · It will help you if, even on the days you can't really manage to practice, if you can do at least 30 minutes, and if not 30, at least 10 to 15 minutes of basics. You are better off practicing 7 days a week for shorter periods of time, than skipping days in order to get more time on some days.

When I was a kid playing Seitz in Suzuki book 4, I was also assigned daily scales, Schradieck exercises, Sevcik exercises (from the "Best of Sevcik" Applebaum book which is sadly now out of print), Suzuki Quint and Position etudes and Wohlfahrt etudes, and sight-reading from Doflein. That's the kind of routine you're looking for.

June 8, 2019, 3:09 PM · "Three years later, and I am still making very basic mistakes, such as incorrect intonation and string crossing. I have tried to research exercises and methods to improve but always seem to reach a dead end. I was wondering what the violinist community recommends? What warm-ups helped you as a relatively new student? What can I do to develop a strong and reliable intonation? How does one go about learning theory in an efficient manner? How do I get over this plateau and start seeing progress?"

Great question, but wrong in that it already presumes that an answer is to be found in mechanical approaches and "tips". First and foremost, in my opinion, is the awareness of the errors, and their recognition and valuation as important rather than something to argue about in forums, and to make oneself do something, anything, about it. If you want to play more in tune, don't look for magic exercises or pieces which will make you play more in tune, but demand it of yourself - learn what is or is not in tune, and try to do a better job of playing it in that way, and continue to have attention which informs you.

Edited: June 9, 2019, 2:27 AM · We do not know how out of tune are. So these ideas might be too easy for you, but here goes. (As my girl is at the same level, I still use tuner app to check the piches when she practises as I myself cannot here when the pitch goes a bit wrong.)

But you can check it easily. Play scales or difficult parts of your pieces with a tuner app note by note, slowly repeating every note several times. And take care that you practise moving from note to note until you move so that the pitches are exact. Many think it is enough when they can correct the pitch to the right but the important thing is the practise the changing of piches until the finger goes straight to the right place. No sloppyness aloud in this.

Listening to the notepitches actively with a tuner is also good for intonation until you can hear the spesific sounds that your violin makes with every single pitch.

I know some do not like using tuner apps when excersizing intonation, but I find it a very good method indeed. It probably depends on how you do it.


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