How have you improved?

June 9, 2019, 12:54 AM · I've been thinking about the ways that I have and haven't improved over the six years since I picked up the violin again.

In what ways have you improved over the last few years? Are they associated with concrete milestones? What hasn't gotten better, but you wish had?

Replies (23)

June 9, 2019, 2:05 AM · I wish I just had the discipline to consistently practice more than a couple of hours a month.
June 9, 2019, 2:59 AM · I've improved in that I can actually use a metronome (back in my junior high days, I was adamant to never use one.) Schoenberg fixed that pretty quickly in my sophomore year of HS, though.

I'm still god-awful at upbow staccato. No matter how much I worked at it, either alone or with a teacher, it resisted progress. I've basically decided to not play rep that has it at this point after three performance disasters (Zigeunerweisen, Zapateado, and IRC) all solely around that single technique.

Edited: June 9, 2019, 6:45 AM · Hmm, it's hard to say what "last few years" means, so I'll go with the same six-year window that Lydia is thinking about.

My biggest improvements have been in bowing: I broke a bad habit that had been baked in over 15 years and learned to pull from the wrist instead of pushing the bow into the string with the arm. These days, I wonder how I even managed the level of bow control I had before, with such poor right-hand technique. Also, I've seen big improvements in off-the-string bow strokes (though they're still not nearly as good as I'd like them to be) and I'm a lot better about deliberately choosing my contact point and bow tilt than before.

I'm a lot better at playing in the viola's extreme upper register than before. My shifts are both quicker and more consistent, which I attribute to a much more relaxed left hand. This led to a whole bunch of milestones with solo rep, as I suddenly noticed I was able to sight-read things I wouldn't have been able to play at all a few years earlier. By the beginning of 2018 I was comfortable starting to work on the Walton concerto; I noticed I was able to at least hack my way through the entire third movement, under tempo but not inordinately slowly, on a first reading. (Unfortunately, a shoulder injury hit me not long after that.)

I have a decent first-finger vibrato now, and learned arm vibrato to go with the wrist vibrato I already had. I'm getting to the point where I'm almost always maintaining good control of speed and amplitude.

Rapid string crossing and especially bariolage are still big weaknesses compared to the level I'm otherwise playing at. The difficulty for me may be mostly in my left hand, where I may have to work around having extremely short fingers. (Wait, why am I playing viola?) It takes an extreme elbow swing to use my 4th finger in lower positions without touching the string above. I don't think I'll ever perform the third movement of the Arpeggione Sonata, because given my hand size I can't think of anything else in the entire viola repertoire that is as awkward for the left hand.

One thing seems to have gotten worse, hopefully only temporarily: in 2019, after physical therapy for a shoulder injury, my constantly changing posture is wreaking havoc on my muscle memory for both bowing planes and shifting, especially in 1st through 3rd positions! Nothing seems to feel right. I now need at least 15 minutes of warm-up just to re-orient myself every time I take my viola out of its case.

June 9, 2019, 4:06 AM · I started playing the violin 3 years ago, so obviously everything has been an improvement. At the same time, I took the piano up again, after a 6 year hiatus. And by playing the piano I’ve discovered how the violin has made me improve. My intonation has definitely improved. I’d sometimes like to play a sharper/flatter note at the piano. And I play it in a much more expressive and delicate way. The violín gives you control over the full extent of a note. That’s not possible in the same way at piano playing. But I see that unconsciously I’m trying something of the sort.

Overall, taking up the violín has been one of the best ideas I’ve had in the last decade.

June 9, 2019, 5:34 AM · I had a natural narrow finger vibrato with no variation. I made a decision to tackle vibrato from the base up and it was the hardest thing I've tried to do since picking the violin up in the first place. I envy those out there who say it just developed unnoticed so far back they can't remember. As an adult learner, it was two years of building muscle and mind memory and required a re-looking at posture, left hand shape and asking how and when to use it; as for some music it's frowned upon.

I'm listening as I write to that superb Franck video you put on here, thank you....

June 9, 2019, 6:43 AM · A few years ago I think I finally developed a supple left hand and a good left hand position on the violin. I think I now should work more on the right hand, for instance, a rather slow spiccato in a really nice and solid non-rushed German style is something I still don't really have.
June 9, 2019, 9:08 AM · Does anyone else here track progress on video / audio recordings?
June 9, 2019, 10:07 AM · I enjoyed your recent YouTube.
Peg tuning by ear.
More accurate reading.
Crushing notes less.
More discipline.
June 9, 2019, 10:10 AM · I'm glad you started this thread Lydia!

Since I picked up my instrument again, a little over 2.5 years ago:

My hand frame is much more secure and "correct", as is my intonation (I can hear very clearly when a note is in or out of tune within a given passage, and I know how to fix it - before I knew I was out of tune, but it was overwhelming).

I'm feeling more confident in my ability to make the sound that I want with my instrument. I'm also making smarter fingering choices. My posture is better, and my bowing (and bow-hold) have made big improvements - I'm pretty comfortable playing staccato, for example.

What has not improved, despite daily practice, is feeling secure in shifts from say first or third position to fifth-plus on the G string. It is so hard for me to get around the violin in a graceful manner! I'm hoping to rectify this in the coming months since it drives me crazy that I cannot do it - yet. That said, I'm thinking in positions now, and recognize intervals in a way that I was unable to do so before.

What has also not improved is that I am too note-focused, in that I tend to lose the line of a phrase and get buried in each note. So my musical lines are not musical.

I struggle with subdividing in my head, and rely on the metronome a lot. I've become a little paranoid at playing the rhythms perfectly, and it's negatively affected my ability to shape a phrase.

To boot, playing fast passages are also challenging - but I'm getting better. It's more an issue of tension than ability at this point.

I've done a lot of recordings/videos - which used to make me sick because my playing was so awful. So I can see the progress - which is reassuring, despite it being very very slow. And I know I'm making progress because I don't hate the way I sound anymore.

June 9, 2019, 10:10 AM · I can finally relax my right arm enough to do fast string crossings, like in bariolage.
June 9, 2019, 12:07 PM · I know ive improved .. tone, intonation, vibrato. No longer afraid of passages in thirds even though its still a challenge.

So... why is Mozart still so damned hard?

June 9, 2019, 12:16 PM · I record my practice sessions about once a week.

I have developed a much better left hand position and as a result better intonation in the upper registers and better 4th finger vibrato.

Mozart concertos and various etudes improved my right hand significantly. I can do a lot more with the bow.

Runs in thirds and octaves still present challenges.

June 9, 2019, 9:38 PM · I went through a brief period of frequently recording an "end state" at the end of practice sessions, but decided it wasn't sufficiently helpful. But I have kept a steady record of performances.

I've had a goal for the last two years to get better at performing. As part of that work, I did three recent performances of a single work (the Franck sonata) in quick succession, which takes the edge of the nerves, and also shows decent progression over just a three-week period:

My teacher has been working with me on getting a more robust sound, assigning repertoire for that purpose. I think you can hear the change over a five-year period:

My teacher has also been helping me to control my performance nerves -- trying to reduce the degree to which both of my hands shake, or more precisely, to work around the shakes technically and try to get them to stop. And to get a slower and wider vibrato in general. He picked a piece specifically to do that, initially, and I think there's some benefit that's audible immediately in its performance:

I feel like I've made a lot more progress with a teacher than I would have without one.

June 10, 2019, 1:17 AM · I have terrible performance nerves as well and I hate it.
Edited: June 10, 2019, 3:40 AM · I sort of 'track' my progress in the sense that I'll stumble across a recording from 3 years ago and think "wow, what a mess! glad I don't sound like that anymore!"

A lot of things have improved to varying degrees, but I'd still like my playing to sound more varied & interesting (which is, as we all know, much more difficult than it sounds...)

June 10, 2019, 5:26 AM · Congratulations Lydia! You play better than me but If I may make just a small comment on your playing: sometimes you need to take more musical time, put more quality within the phrase. Often it feels like you are too much already thinking ahead about what you're going to have to do next, so that you "forget" to put quality in what you are playing at that very instant... This can make the performance sound a bit technical.
June 10, 2019, 5:42 AM · Being the perfectionist I am, I still can't gather the necessary courage to record my violin playing, nor to perform in front of anyone who is not a close relative/close friend. Time and practice should solve it...
Edited: June 10, 2019, 8:48 AM · I enjoyed your Franck. That's one of my favorite pieces in the whole literature.

I didn't listen to all of it yet. After listening to some of the first recording, I noticed in Bars 19 and 23 where you have unison with the piano in those triplets and you're taking those in individual bows (which I do also), it was a little too obvious -- too much emphasis. But on the second recording that basically entirely fixed and on the third recording beautifully done. So it seems you are listening very closely to your own recordings, which is of course good. Very hard to find these kinds of things otherwise.

Personal taste: In the third recording at 7:45-7:49 there is a portamento that I wouldn't do. It's in your second recording too (7:35-7:39) so it's probably intentional. I think I'd re-finger that.

I have to wonder how much of vibrato speed is just the total mass of your hand. Mass-on-a-spring physics (admittedly a crude model here) suggests with a heavier hand (sorry to say, like most men's hands) there is just more mass to move around. Does that help keep the "nervous vibrato" sound at bay? I notice that whenever my vibrato starts to sound "nervous" I can also start to feel tension in my upper arm.

I'm sure these recordings aren't doing justice to your sound. You look like you're really playing well into the string, especially in passages that you clearly love, like the lyrical passage just before the coda in the 2nd movement. Just my $0.02.

Third movement glowed. The opening recititavo was really beautifully played. In the fourth movement at 23:10 I'd like those to be even broader, more largamente-like.

OMG! You played a chord at the end! Way to put an exclam on a great performance. I feel that your nerves may have taken a little something from your first movement but after that you seemed fine.

By the way please let Mr. Sim know we enjoyed his playing very much.

And for heaven's sake, there should be a rule on IMSLP that if you're going to post something there you have to number the measures!!!

And finally a question -- does your teacher ever attend your performances? Not that it would be fair to expect that.

June 10, 2019, 11:38 AM · Nice playing! Lydia. Thanks for sharing it.
June 10, 2019, 12:02 PM · My sound, intonation, ease and control have all gotten better. I think that my bowing is more consistently straight for detache than it used to be. I didn't notice for a long time. But I've still got old bad habits like not using my wrist for quick string changes.

The last etude I've been playing, my fingers have been getting stuck on short trills with turns - I think it's a coordination issue with trying to have a lot of notes on one bow and having string changes throughout, so that's a reminder that I should add some trill work into my routine.

My shifts are better, but could always use work. In general, my playing is good, but sometimes, and especially when I perform, I tense up enough to make things feel tough. I think it's mostly trusting that I know how to do it and getting used to that through regular performance, but it's nice to see some progress.

I record my lessons and performances, but generally not too much beyond that.

Edited: June 11, 2019, 1:20 PM · What my teacher taught me is that mordents and trills will sound out clearer by feeding each one a little wee burst of bow.
June 11, 2019, 11:17 PM · Paul, very interesting comments! It's taken me a while to have the time to read your post and cross-reference the recordings.

Bars 19 and 23: I'm not sure that was conscious, actually. It might simply be an attempt to pay more attention to the "directionality" of the entire opening, which results in a subtle difference in continuity and blend.

7:45 portamento: You're right. I think it's less the portamento itself as the fact that it's too big, too slow, and sticks out as a result. I want the slide but it needs to be more subtle.

Vibrato speed: The notion of mass as a factor is a pretty fascinating one. I think part of the issue, though, is that I often perceive a slow, wide vibrato as having more pitch variance than I want. And so I don't necessarily aim for the right sound. And then there's a natural fast-twitchiness. At a recent summer festival, it was suggested to me that I start making Simon Fischer's four vibrato exercises from "Warming Up" part of my daily routine, and I figure that I should try taking that suggestion.

Sound: The first recording is taken from the back of the room, the second recording about halfway back in a good-sized high-ceiling chapel, and the third recording a couple of rows back (again, good-sized high-ceiling chapel). I'm told live that the sound was huge. I'm hitting the max "red" zone on my Zoom Q4n camera, volume-wise. My bow isn't always always as continuously into the string as my teacher would like to see, though.

Chord at the end: My teacher does this, I believe by way of Erick Friedman, and thereby by way of Heifetz. Heifetz actually plays a full descending arpeggio. But I really like the chord.

Pianist: Very glad to have found him!

Teacher attending performances: Never.

June 12, 2019, 2:44 AM · I had formal training for 12 years in my youth, now I play for some 6 years constantly. Here are my findings:

Best improvement:
- Stage presence and comfort
- Sound and sonority, volume
- Ability to memorize music
- Ability to fidget out of a mistake

Good improvement
- Intonation
- Speed and coherence
- Bowing techniques
- Clarity of sound
- Dynamics
- improvisation

Need to work on:
- Arpeggios and intonation above 8th position
- Bowing refinement
- Synchronization of both hands
- More improvisation

The greatest improvements were due to Bach's second partita which I have been relentlessly polishing for the last half a year. I wish I had done that before. Unfortunately I thought it was above my abilities, so I never tried.

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