Ways to work out fast tricky spots

Edited: August 30, 2017, 2:41 PM · Slow practice is essential but not sufficient, especially when it comes to practicing fast tricky spots. These are the ways we are often told to practice, with metronome,

1. Slow to start with, then gradually speed up.
2. Play with different dotted rhythms and bowings
3. Reverse the notes
4. Always practice the tricky part in connection with a note before and after it.

Also, I find it's more efficient to work on each spot for no more than 10 minutes, move on and come back at a later time, instead of spending a lot of time trying to perfect each spot singularly.

Please share your ways of practicing such spots.

Replies (33)

Edited: August 30, 2017, 1:36 PM · Some more ideas:

-Practice a chunk (say 5 or 7) notes of a run, then move one note forward (from the first note) and practice the next chunk, etc

-As you practice in different rhythms, try and fully hear the next chunk in your head

-More specifically for the different bowings, playing a passage spiccato can force you to have your fingers set more ahead of time (Though often it's the opposite - a spiccato passage needs to be practiced with various slurs and detache to really nail the intonation before adding the spiccato on top)

-A spiccato passage can be practiced with three bows for every written note, which allows more time for your left hand and intonation, while keeping the bowing direction the same

-Know what intervals are in the passage, and try and focus on important notes in the key that can function as anchors for intonation

I would love to hear other strategies. Sevcik's concerto studies have some interesting breakdowns on how to practice passages (Even if it may be a little overkill sometimes)

August 30, 2017, 4:09 PM · In addition to all of the above, pause just before every string crossing.
Edited: August 30, 2017, 6:04 PM · Hi,

Carrying on from the idea that Mary Ellen mentioned, for me, knowing the components and preparing those - things like strings crossing, knowing all intermediate notes and how I am going to execute every shift, where fifths are in the left hand, which part of the bow I am going to use at tempo, and executing my movements correctly, all make slow practice efficient. They are the things that will make learning a passage work for me. If the slow practice doesn't translate in tempo, it is because I don't know what the components are, or the planning isn't what it needs to be. Or I may have general errors in movements in my playing (or setup) that need to be addressed, or ways in my mental concepts that need to be changed.

Again, this maybe just me, but I find that things like increasing the tempo by clicks (though I have to see if the slow practice correlates at playing speed) means making things progressively sloppier, so I prefer the old-fashioned way of slow to tempo correlation. Practicing things that I don't need or won't use (different bowings, or reverse patterns, etc.) have made me realize in time that I am learning things that I won't use or worse, lead me to confusion between the various versions vs what the passage is actually like.

That said, also context. A difficult passage isn't only one beat, or bar, often it is several lines or pages. Context is much larger.

As for time, it can happen in a moment, in a day, in a week, in month, in a year, in a decade, in several decades, etc. It depends on when I solve what is getting in my way and that process is both linear and sometimes non-linear. James Ehnes once mentioned that he liked to work on something until he got it before moving on to the next no matter what the time or size of the fragment. Haven't made it that far yet, lol!

On top of that, here is one of the fundamental thoughts that I gathered from Heifetz and has materialized for me in recent times: the number one source of mistakes is the fear of making a mistake. Like he repeatedly said: "Take a chance, it hurts only once."

Just a thought...


August 30, 2017, 6:12 PM · I often see slow-practice preached -- and I don't challenge that. It's worked well for me ... sometimes. Having slow practice translate to tempo means what Christian said -- it means understanding ALL of the components and how they fit together. This I believe is a learned skill like so many other things. That's why I think slow-practice works so much more brilliantly for better players, whereas for intermediate players the gradual tempo increase seems to work better. Or is that all just nonsense?
August 30, 2017, 6:28 PM · Play the passage at tempo, break it up into little chunks, and gradually add when it's clean.
Edited: August 30, 2017, 7:29 PM · Tempo increase also means we learn to play a passage in many different tempi which means we are learning different passages, but such practice may not necessarily bring up to the tempo we really want. Dotted rhythms should help. But as Christian and Paul said, components are the key. Learning what we don't need. Also, my teacher often quizzes me the number of notes on each string when it comes to complicated string crossing passages.
August 31, 2017, 6:04 AM · As Mary Ellen said "pause just before every string crossing".
I would add, make sure the left hand leads the crossing.

One of my students doubted the wisdom of this, and filmed me playing the passage on her smarphone; then she played it back much more slowly, and my fingers did indeed anticipate the bow. Whew!

Edited: August 31, 2017, 6:50 AM · I agree with most of what the OP and others say but I'm not sure of the value of playing backwards. I also believe that the bowing should be strictly followed where possible as you are programming your brain with inconsistent patterns by changing it around.

Cheers Carlo

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Edited: August 31, 2017, 9:01 AM · I would add to the string crossings, that a passage that is rapidly alternating between strings can be practiced with the right hand bowing only open strings. It takes a surprising amount of concentration to know exactly what string you are on without the context of your left hand and the actual melody (My guess is it gets easier the more you do it). When you finally bring the left hand back in, it usually is much more coordinated.

Although as was mentioned above, I am a little curious about practice techniques that take you farther and farther from the actual notes you are playing.

August 31, 2017, 9:12 AM · I would add that shifts should be started as early as possible, as soon as you reach the note that is being shifted from. This is difficult to coordinate if you aren't used to it, but it really works when the tempo increases. I see too many students who shift just at the very last microsecond. This technique works fine at slow tempi, but at fast tempi the left hand will start to be behind the bow.

I'm not sure I see the value in reversing notes.

Edited: August 31, 2017, 9:36 AM · Regarding reversing notes, I don't do this all the time but only when I feel particularly insecure about intonation of a passage that requires many shifts all the way up the fingerboard, with lots of accidentals or with unusual melodic lines. It seems to help me psychologically; that is,if I can do it forward and backward, I feel more sure about playing it. It takes away some boredom of repetition, as it is fun to "compose" when practice.

Generally speaking, I believe that doing more than necessary and doing things backwards or something not habitual is good for our brain.

Edited: August 31, 2017, 11:22 AM · Now, here is another question, if you are good at mental practice, do you use that method to iron out fast tricky spots? If you do, please tell us more about it.
August 31, 2017, 9:42 AM · I think there's a difference between practicing passages that are merely fast, and passages that are both fast *and* tricky. Just fast typically yields to drill techniques -- rhythms, chaining, backwards chaining, and so forth. Fast and tricky, though, requires figuring out what makes it tricky and then finding a practice technique that deals with the trickiness.

My teacher likes to say that the best practice techniques are the ones that feel harder than the original passage -- they are harder because they're getting at the root of the problem.

August 31, 2017, 10:14 AM · Lydia I think your teacher is right. For example dotted rhythms. One of the two "forms" of dotted rhythms often feels the same as the passage. Then, don't practice that one! Practice the one that feels hard.

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Edited: August 31, 2017, 11:24 AM · That's right! I meant fast and tricky spots. And more, how does one apply mental practice technique to work on these spots. I'm going to be traveling and be away from violin for a few days. I will bring the music with me to practice without touching the instrument. I've tried mental practice but not very good at it. For me, that's harder than any practice methods I've used.
August 31, 2017, 11:42 AM · Yixi, I can see the value of setting your hand for where you are going and working backwards from that, usually for some tricky shift, or moving between certain double stops. I haven't used it for passagework, partly because I don't want to accidentally embed something that isn't there, but sometimes, if a shift isn't working, and I'm arriving at some notes with tension (especially for a really big shift), I might set my hand in the most relaxed way at the target, and then work the shift out backward, so that I know exactly how my hand should feel at the end, and I now know better what to aim for.

Other times, if I shift up high to a passage that immediately descends, I might play it backwards in order to feel how I need to set my whole hand for the descent. It's mostly for working out the intervals and being able to set all my fingers at once.

Edited: August 31, 2017, 12:14 PM · Christian Lesniak, it is about hearing the intervals, the distance, and the hand feel of the tricky group(s) of notes, etc. I understand the fear of "accidentally embed something that isn't there", but if that's a serious concern, would you still practice different rhythms, bowings or even different tempi, different fingerings, etc.?

To me, practicing tricky and/or fast passages, it's mostly mental work. Practice by pushing harder beyond necessary and trying different routes at least gives me a bit of "mental cushion" when play under pressure.

August 31, 2017, 12:44 PM · I personally have found the mental practicing thing to be better for the broader musical questions. This is the kind of practicing that can be done on a plane with the score in your lap. I mostly memorized the first movement of the Franck Sonata on a flight to California once.
Edited: August 31, 2017, 1:02 PM · Yixi,

I'm with you on the intervals and feel. I practice a little bit with different rhythms, and will intersperse some different bowings (in order to either simplify so I can focus on the left hand, or to make it a little more difficult, so that it seems easier when I return to the original bowing), although I don't reverse the bowings, because I am apt to remember the bowing the wrong way, and because for the most part, my bowings are set (or given to me) because of the particular sound or playability that I won't get from reversing the bowing. I don't practice with different fingerings, for the same reason that I don't reverse the bowings. I might mess around with some fingerings initially, or later discover that I prefer a different fingering, but from then on, I stick with the fingering I have settled on.

A lot of the breaking stuff apart is about keeping enough context that I can apply the practice to the actual passage, while still being able to minimize the number of elements I am trying to work out at once. If intonation or facility is the issue, I might simplify the bowing to isolate the left hand, then add it back in, or if the bowing is the issue, I might try and simplify the left hand as much as possible. Sometimes, it is a coordination issue, so the two hands need to work together, but other factors can be simplified (tempo, rhythm, etc.), but I never try and take things too out of context for myself. But maybe it would be helpful for me to try some of that!

Sorry, I'm writing too much. Remember, I'm just describing my process, which is as a slowly advancing amateur (Lest I corrupt the minds of any youth reading this).

Edited: August 31, 2017, 2:05 PM · Hmm I thought I'd responded to this but I must have exited the browser before replying...

Anyways, there are seriously so many "tricks" to mastering hard little sections that it would take an entire book to describe them all, let alone knowing when to put each one into effect.

However, since generalization is required here, my thought is this: while practicing very slowly, be extremely conscious of EVERY transitional movement between any two notes. In other words, be cognizant of the physical requirement to get from one note to the other, and take it in context of the speed that it will eventually require when you get up to tempo. For example, a very quick string change will feel dynamically different once it's sped up (because the weight of the bow arm is moving fast and generating inertia), so we need to take into consideration the upward momentum that an arm-based string change would have, and thus decide to do that particular transition with the wrist instead of the arm while still in slow-motion, even though we could do it either way when playing slowly. On that same thought, notes that will end up being very fast should be practiced with very short bows (if detached), simply because the eventual speed will require the smaller amount of movement. We need to PROGRAM efficiency into the movement BEFORE the speed gets fast. This could also include playing with the fingers extremely close to their eventual positions.

I think that the biggest flaw in most peoples' preparation of very difficult sections is that they see the notes as a "chunk" rather than the individual transitions, simply because it's played so quickly. So by taking a step back and realizing that 32nd notes are just as valid as 1/4 notes and their transitions must be prepared accordingly, these sections become more manageable.

I could provide more examples, but the general idea remains the same: prepare very slowly, but in a way that will translate to the physical changes that occur at the faster speeds. I think that in this way, slow practice often becomes both necessary AND sufficient in many sections.

Obviously dotted rhythms, incremental metronome practice, etc... are all great. And as Yixi noted, providing a "cushion" for pressured situations by building redundancy and over-engineering into our learning processes.

August 31, 2017, 9:53 PM · One of the mistakes I used to make and still catch myself making during slow practice is that the movements themselves are no longer representative of the passage, and this is something to watch out for.

An example would be using too much bow on a note just because the tempo is slower, or taking longer to shift, etc.

As Erik says above, "prepare very slowly, but in a way that will translate to the physical changes that occur at the faster speeds"

Of course there are also situations where purposefully practicing the passage in a completely different way can help unblock us mentally.

September 1, 2017, 5:26 AM · As pointed out by Erik above it is of outmost importance not to learn to use too much bow just because we are practicing slowly. I see that often at section rehearsals in our orchestra: When going through something slowly people tend to use more bow. That can also happen when practicing with different rythms as often advocated - too much bow will be used on the dotted note. Therefore I like to take a slightly different approach to the rythm practicing (it sounds almost the same but the thinking is a bit different): Play the notes in the way and at the tempo they should eventually be played, but play only as many of them as you are absolutely sure you can play correctly. In the beginning that would mean two. Go through the passage that way a number of times then start on the second note and do the same thing. Pause after each group of notes to prepare for the next group and only play them when you are sure you can.
Next step could be 3 or 4 notes in each group and again alter the starting point. Then increase to 6 or 8, then half or whole bars etc. depending on the music. But never increase the group size until you can play the current group size correctly.
Edited: September 1, 2017, 5:50 AM · I think what Bo writes is very important and it also corresponds to one of Nate Cole's great instructional videos (Gain speed and accuracy by grouping notes). So slow practice really means, slow as in "taking the time to figure out what exactly are the technical difficulties/transitions between notes", and slow as in "giving yourself a break from time to time". Really playing the whole thing completely slow, I really doubt that this has much value, except for intonation. By the way, playing in dotted rhythm basically amounts to playing groups of two fast notes with a break in between. So equally valid is playing longer groups of fast notes with a break in between, as advocated by Bo and Nate Cole. It is also very important to start the fast notes in different places in the passage.
September 1, 2017, 6:32 AM · I like to encourage students to take a binary approach to learning anything. I call it the "+1 or -1" principle. The basic implication is that there is no "partially correct" playthrough of a section. There's no such thing as playing something and it having a neutral effect. Either you are getting better at the section or you're making it worse, and it's a lot easier to get a "-1" than a "+1", since only one wrong note will make it a "-1 attempt.". Thus, we play slowly because it counts as a "+1" regardless of the speed we play it at, and it's a lot faster to accumulate +10 with a series of very slow, correct attempts than it is to do 30 "-1" attempts and 40 "+1" attempts to achieve the same net effect.
September 1, 2017, 8:17 AM · just as an aside: at a local university, one of the profs had a cutesy slogan on his/her door:

"fix the phrase, not the note!"

I always rolled my eyes when I walked past it. That's usually the issue: we ignore those small transitions--and those notes-because we want to play the phrase. So the notes, shifts, and string crossings never really get fixed.

Here's something I pose to some of my students (the ones who have developed the ability to fix complex passages but haven't yet):

Q: "do you know when that passage will get fixed?"
A: "Um, when"?

My answer: "You'll fix it when you make the decision to fix it."

I say this because often it's not really about the specific technique. It's about making a decision to just not let yourself miss something anymore. The decision comes first--the specific technique is actually secondary.

Edited: September 3, 2017, 9:57 AM · "You'll fix it when you make the decision to fix it."
This is quite profound. I guess a futher question is where does a decision come from? We don't decide anything out of blue. We have to first be aware of the *need* that some decision has to be made. For instance, just listen or watch something passively doesn't involve decision-making, but talking does. I talk because I decide to talk. But if I want to stop talking nonsense, the decision can be make only if I notice that I am talking nonsense. Same goes with the decision to fix problem. As Scott said, the awareness needs to be focused on those small transitions.
Edited: September 3, 2017, 6:05 PM · I think the best thing for tricky spots, is a pencil. Mark the bars(areas) with an X.

Repeat these X areas several times a day. What I mean by that is don't spend 10 minutes on one area; this is a huge backwards waste of time. It is far better to repeat a tricky area 4-6 times every 5 min. 4-6 times in a 30 min. practice, than to repeat it 30 times in one shot(rote memorization). WHY???
Why, because when you are learning something new you will eventually "quite literally" run out of the brain chemicals needed to make or build the new memory(s). There are several brain chemicals involved, but I am only going to talk about two to explain this: Dopamine and Cortisol. When we are building new memories we tend to run out of Dopamine first. Once the neuron that creates the memory runs out of Dopamine, it will then use another chemical to compensate for this, thus Cortisol. You can think of Dopamine memories like a constant laser beam to send information, and think of Cortisol memories like a machine gun.... _______________________ compared to this-------------------------.
The signs of OCD over-repeating(Cortisol Memories) are: memory loss, erratic muscle movements and thoughts(more mistakes), frustration, increase in speed that is uncontrollable, mind becomes overstimulate, poor focus, hyper, etc...
I generally only repeat something 4-6 times, and then move to another trouble area, next bar etc... and then come back to repeat it 4-6 times a minute later. I also try not to repeat this rep cycle more than 4-6 times in a 30 min. practice session. I also try to keep 3, 30 min. practice sessions a day, with a least 20 min. rest time. I find this to be very productive.

I've have always found that if you can't do something well after 3 tries, you're not going to get it right after 6, 10 or 20 times. After 6 tries you are going start making it worse. Whether that rest time is 30 seconds, 5 min, 20 min, or a nights sleep, figuring out the rest times is far more important than rote memorization.

Why does variations work? Because you are training a new memories with every type of variation, so you are less likely to have the Dopamine chemical burnout.

September 4, 2017, 5:44 PM · Oftentimes the problem is in the phrase or the note grouping, and no amount of technical work fixes the issue. The more advanced you get, the more it becomes a matter of forgetting the technique and aiming for the musical. Indeed, the goal is to integrate them so they're really one and the same thought, or intuition, two sides of the same coin. Sometimes fixing the phrase is the more immediate solution.

In the end everything is mental. You develop attention and learn what you need to attend to, ever expanding the violinistic and musical senses, and categories. No matter how much you try, you won't be able tell what's going on until you develop the sensation of moving in the appropriate way, or of the rhythm, or direction of the phrase, or what have you. We're only as good as what we can sense and differentiate. For that reason, I think it's crucial to practice difference in the initial stages. And whether you practice with the instrument or away from it, it's the ability to detect minute differences, refine our sensation of playing, which helps take things to the next level.

Edited: September 4, 2017, 7:33 PM · Jeewon, my teacher will completely agree with you. But you said in such a way that I must print it out and put on my music stand for a daily review. Great stuff! Together with your previous comments on different phases of practice from the other thread, I've got a fuller picture now. Thank you!

Charles, the Dopamine vs Cortisol memories make a lot of sense. If you know any further reading material regarding the above that might be helpful to us, please share.

September 5, 2017, 6:13 AM ·
I've learned a lot from Eric Kandel: 'Mapping Memory in the brain', is a good lecture you can find on youtube.

There is nothing really specific to this, this is from years of reading about memory, teaching, analyzing how we learn, etc.... and bringing this information together to form a theory.

A lot of people ask the question, " How many time do you have to repeat something until it's learned?" Well this question is wrong, and that's because it doesn't include the minds 'processing time'. The mind has to process the information FIRST for you to actually 'learn it'. You only need to repeat something 3-6 times, and then the mind will spend 8 hours processing that information.
OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) is the base of depression. Depression is physically visible on a neurons synapses, where memory is stored.
OCD is not healthy at all, and over repeating something damages the memories that you are trying to strengthen- I metaphorically call this damaged memory a Cortisol Memory.

Our memory formation works in a similar to weight lifting.

If it's an new memory, it's like a heavy weight, and after 5 tries you feel the burn.
If it's an old well used memory, it's like a light weight, and after 30 tries you start to feel the burn.

This 'BURN' also happens in our minds after a number of repeats, and it is very important to recognize it when it's happening: confusion, memory loss, hyperactivity, more mistakes, poor rhythm, frustration etc...

Analyzing how you learn is very important. Here is an example of how most of my 3-6 month beginner students play a 2 octave ascending scale:
First try- poorly, many mistakes
Second try- slightly better
third try - much better only a few mistakes
forth try - same as third
fifth try - similar to second try with more mistakes
sixth try - more mistakes, very inconsistent
seventh try - more and more mistakes, student becoming frustrated
If we went to a 10th try, I would also become frustrated with the student too. My rule is: if you can't do it well after 3 tries, you are not going to perfect it in 10, no matter what level you're at. The mind just doesn't work that way. The goal should be to try to make it better than the first and second tries, then STOP. The STOPPING part when it is still relatively clean is what's important; memorizing mistakes and OCD memories....waste of time.

The best thing you can do is video yourself practicing and analyze how you learn. Watch yourself closely and see how well you do something after 4 attempts. I can pretty much guarantee that if you can't do it in the first attempt, the 3rd and 4th attempts will be the best and then everything after that.....mess.

I am not saying to only repeat something 3-6 times once a day; what I am trying to say is listen to the MIND when it has BECOME CONFUSED, then give it for 30 second, minute, 5 min., 20 min or a nights sleep to replenish the chemical and proteins required to make healthy memories, before returning for another set of reps. It is the analyzing that's important, and over time you will know when to stop doing something and move on to something else or rest, and then when to return for more repetitions.

September 5, 2017, 6:38 AM · Good theory Charles! Truthfully, I noticed that exact phenomena in my own learning process. My teacher helped me to see it. Now, my practices are becoming more fruitful and a lot less frustrating.
Edited: September 5, 2017, 9:52 AM · Charles, brain-based strategies of learning, especially at molecular level, is such a fascinating area that really opens up to a bright new world. It is also very technical and complex. I'm grateful that you have applied theories and studies into violin practice so clearly and practicable. Thank you!
Edited: September 7, 2017, 10:39 PM · Having thought a bit more about issues of mental control in Katie's thread, and this idea of sensing difference, I think getting over tricky spots has mostly to do with developing our attention to timing (developing an inner rhythm and rhythmic movement.)

Timing (firing actions precisely on time) is impeded by "stuckness" and all of our exercises are aimed at removing stuckness, or improving flow.

Stuckness can result from too much pressure from the fingers, moving this way with the arm when the fingers need to go that way, poor coordination between left and right (sometimes one hand needs to lead the other, at other times the hands have to come together, or go apart together,) committing too early to an action, or too late, muscling through a motion instead of using just enough motion or just letting it happen, braking a whole motion, thereby chopping it up or making it choppy, etc.

Of course this is all very abstract and kind of vague. But given a specific problem, if we can find 'sticking points' which interfere with timing and flow, the solution will be forthcoming.

Three important tools we have at our disposal are 1) hearing what actually happens v. what we want to happen and vice-versa, 2) feeling what an action feels like as we do it, and 3) counting our motions and instilling rhythmic movement

E.g. reverse dotted rhythm (short-long): Are all the short notes made to be as short as possible and are they equal in length (quick motions need to be equally quick no matter how awkward or tricky)? Do we use the same amount of bow on all the short notes, all the long notes (make all the short notes sound the same, long notes sound the same)? Does each short-long pair of notes start precisely on the beat (control the long note, waiting on the released action, preparing for the short, active action)? Do all the tricky actions feel as fluid, 'easy' as the easy actions (as much as possible, we want to move without effort, pressure, contrary actions, seizing, 'heldness')? Are we preparing for the next action, thinking of how it changes from the previous action (whether that's a finger pattern change, direction change, a different coordination, anticipating a new level, etc. always know the difference and prepare)

And sometimes, how we conceive of note groupings, or put another way, how we chunk actions together according to the phrase, organizes and coordinates the actions we need. E.g. of possible note groupings in K8

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