Systematic progress in self teaching...?

Edited: July 5, 2020, 5:00 PM · As some of you may remember, here's an adult late starter who had to quit lessons 18 months ago due to his daytime job with an irregular and dense working schedule.

I definitely don't suffer from a lack of self-motivation, not at all. My job doesn't allow a regular practice schedule, so I'm mainly thrown back to the weekends, plus eventually succeed in stealing half an hour here and twenty minutes there two or three times during the week at maximum. About 80% of my practice time goes to viola, 20% to violin. I try to pack in some etudes, scales and basic technical stuff, but to be honest most of the time is noodling through pieces, polishing them a bit and trying to build up some repertoire that feels "easily accessible" within my range. This contributes a lot to come down after a stressful day and maintain mental health, but isn't what I'd regard as a systematic approach to improve.

Despite being teacherless, and having to notice that part of my technical skills are running wild, amazingly and to my own surprise there is still some noticeable progress. Especially reading music has improved a lot, and not only in alto clef. Double stops, higher positions, stability of intonation - pieces that I gave up to work on even a year ago are now accessible to sight reading. Nevertheless I don't feel that I'm making "real" progress, what would mean that I could work on more challenging repertoire than back then. It's rather that I feel more confident, and that playing a stringed instrument has become more of a second nature, if this makes sense. (To give you a dimension, I lately polished on the Bach double, Massenet Meditation de Thais, Bruch 8 pieces (No. 1, 2 & 4) and Bach Cello suite No.1 transcribed for viola, and tried to get started with Schuberts Arpeggione Sonata which still definitely is by far out of reach in some parts. Most of these were already studied without a teacher, but having a teaching friend abroad to occasionally ask things if I'm feeling stuck with something.)

I know I have to be glad and grateful for what I achieved, it's more than I could expect in my situation, because I rather had seen myself falling into frustration and eventually stop. Instead, making music has become the most important factor in keeping myself safe and sane.

Any ideas how I could pack in some technics systematically, not just doing random stuff? There's not enough time to go through any dedicated etude books (which I haven't found to be very systematically anyway, but I may lack experience and overview). At the moment I'm trying to force myself to ten or fifteen minutes of long slow bows, upbow staccato, and scales / arpeggios / double stops in the same key as the "piece" I'm currently working on. Usually this is restricted to the weekends, during the week I'm lacking time, energy and motivation.

Any experiences from folks who have been in a similar situation? I'm sure I'm not the only one here.
I'm not asking for a dead sure recipe to skyrocket my abilities within five minutes per week. And yes I know, I should change my life, work less, eat healthy, do sports, and get a teacher. Everything planned, but that's a long term project.

Replies (21)

Edited: July 6, 2020, 6:53 PM · You could look at published syllabi for suggestions on organization of technique and also studies. E.g. the RCM here - it has specific technical requirements for each level, and selections of studies from the standard sets, which helps you reduce the options.

That you're even asking the question while self-learning gives you some distinction in my view.

Edited: July 5, 2020, 6:00 PM · I agree with the above, having self-taught all the way from zero to showing up at my first lesson with a mostly-learned Brahms E-flat major viola sonata 16 years later, in my case because I didn't think any teacher would accept me. I organized my technical practice around the published ABRSM and RCM syllabi all the way up until I reached the end of the numbered grade levels.

But it's somewhat inaccurate to say I was completely self-taught, because community orchestras, and advice from other people in orchestras, also helped immensely in deciding what technical studies need to take priority. Orchestra repertoire dictated much of my technical work after I ran out of syllabi. Unfortunately those aren't options for most of the world at this time.

Edited: July 7, 2020, 4:29 AM · I'm not far from being self-taught, having had about 12 irregular lessons in 2 years, supplemented with Galamian.
ABRSM for me. I was wondering where to go post grade 8, but it's not really that complicated - the ARSM (Associate) syllabus is the next level. That and enough Kreutzer should see me through until I try out the Licentiate syllabus, not that I'll have time when I'm in two orchestras!

(don't confuse the RCM with the Royal College of Midwives, lol!)
In fact in Britain the RCM is the Royal College of Music, one of the Royal Schools, whereas in Canada, the RCM is the Royal Conservatory of Music.

The New Zealand Music Examining Board publishes very good syllabus information (grade 1 up to licentiate level) : -

July 6, 2020, 8:24 AM · I'm self teaching too, mostly for financial reasons, but early cello more than violin, since I injured my back and can't hold a fiddle for very long.

I've been using the technical syllabus from AMEB (Australian syllabus) and study books from the Trinity syllabus (which feels like it's a grade down from ABRSM and maybe 2 down from AMEB at beginner levels. It feels more basic than etude books, so for violin I'm trying to look for whatever studies they've included in the 'studies' part of the exams.

For cello I'm also using Suzuki books, cause they have a good progression, but that wouldn't apply, I think, at your level (any Suzuki teacher mightiest to correct me there?).

For violin/viola, I've also been focusing on random sections from Simon Fischer's The Violin Lesson, which has all kinds of technical things I'd never have thought of, kind of like a written masterclass, but not focused on any actual pieces. You might also find his scales book useful, as it's a different approach from exam-syllabus progressions. I'm not sure about his basics book, which might overlap somewhat with the violin lesson? Someone else may be able to tell you about that...

July 6, 2020, 9:10 AM · AMEB charges for digital syllabuses, really? Strewth!
July 6, 2020, 9:13 AM · Based on your post, if I was your teacher I would probably recommend:
1. Sevcik Op. 3 40 bowing variations- Short/concise and reasonably musical bowing etudes that cover a lot, but don't take up much time.
2. Trot Melodious double stops- they are probably somewhat "easy" for you, but I find few things keep you in-shape better than daily double stop practice. Etudes are melodic and fairly short.
3. Working through the pieces in the Suzuki Viola Books-Starting with probably either bk. 5 or 6 (The Bach Prelude is in book 5-Arpeggione in book 9). Not that you need to play every piece, but the progression through the books should help you feel like you are progressing.
I would also continue to play a 3-octave scale or two every time you practice, probably just going either up chromatically or in the circle of 5ths to make sure you cycle through all of them.
July 7, 2020, 4:18 AM · Yes, Gordon. Forgot about that when I posted, though. It's one of the reasons I teach the English syllabi when parents ask for exams...

But being in oz I can access the syllabus at the consrvatorium library. Specialist music shops usually have them for consultation too. They were useful for self learning and comparing different ideas of what went when.

July 7, 2020, 4:26 AM · You know what they say - New Zealand is Australia with culture!
July 7, 2020, 4:35 AM · Ingrid, thanks for reminding me of melodious double stops. They've come up a few times and I keep meaning to chase them up. This time it's school holidays so I'll have time to find it.
July 7, 2020, 4:37 AM · Gordon- agreed!
July 7, 2020, 8:00 AM · Question: What is your ultimate dream or goal for all this?

I have found that for me having one or more ensembles that I play with regularly helps keep me focused and gives me goals for my music practice. I discovered this at the end of my freshman year of high school and followed the "formula" for the rest of my life. If nothing else it has kept me from being disappointed by what I did not achieve while providing me with new goals all the time - most of which were realistic for me at the times and places where I found myself.

The times I have relocated for a new job or retirement I have always been assured there were ensemble opportunities before I moved.

Now, at this time of world-wide pandemic preventing ensemble playing I can revert to the musical paths I was following 70 years ago and still find new joy in old things reexamined.

July 7, 2020, 8:27 AM · Hi Nuuska!

I've been in a fairly similar position - trying to fit in practice alongside work and life - and balance practice for fun with practicing to improve.

It doesn't necessarily take lots of time to develop. But it does take spending what time and energy you have on focused practice.

Any time at all playing is better than not playing.
Any time at all doing slow, deliberate practice is better than no time.
Any time at all doing that practice in a structured way is better than no time.

Some days just picking up the violin is an achievement, and that's fine.

I would probably suggest trying to do fewer technical things on the weekend. Scales and double-stops and up-bow staccato is a lot of ground to cover. You will benefit more from spending 10 minutes on a scale than you will from spending the time on 3 different things, so long as you are able to identify what you can improve on that scale and then work on one or two specific things about e.g. shifting or intonation. However I would aim to put a small amount of scales and so on into your weekday practice. (I would however change keys on the scales every day or two, rather than always doing the same key as your piece). Also, studies are useful even in small doses - two minutes of working on 2 bars of a Kreutzer study will improve your technique very slowly and gradually.

I hope this helps!

Edited: July 7, 2020, 10:28 AM · "two minutes of working on 2 bars of a Kreutzer study will improve your technique very slowly and gradually."

I like this advice - I tried the whole of Kreutzer 4 until my teacher told me I was mad and that I only needed to do bits of it.

Our string orchestra might be reconvening at the end of July (at least we can wear masks, unlike wind and brass players). That will put an end to some of my best-laid plans.

July 7, 2020, 4:01 PM · Ingrid, thank you - I'll keep that in mind. Although my collection of etudes and other technical stuff already is rather impressive (I really tend to getting bogged down in them and lacking a concept), I ordered the Trott right away. Not completely sure about the Suzuki Books, although I do get your point about its systematic. Maybe it's because it is so uncommon here in Europe, or because I'm too used to playing a piece completely, and not only one movement. From a pedagogical point of view, I know you're right. I'll try to buy a PDF Version for my iPad, if there is some.
July 7, 2020, 4:22 PM · Andrew H., I appreciate to hear your story, it gives confidence that things cam be achieved this way!

Andrew V., if it's about my ultimate goal... Well, things change. When I started on a loaned, badly set up old violin with crooked neck that couldn't be tuned properly, I dreamed of being able to play easy duets together with my son. Like Christmas carrols and alike. Then I fell in love with the viola by Schumanns Maerchenbilder and Schmidts A minor Quartett.
It's not my ultimate goal to be playing in a community orchestra, except maybe if I'd ever become good enough for being able to keep up without too much effort. I just can't see myself working myself through orchestra parts for months. My main goal would be to play chamber music and find a few stable cooperations with other hobbyists. mainly for the pure enjoyment. I'd like to be good enough for reading through easier quartets, but would also want to tackle more complex music (not necessarily asking for virtuoso technique). But heaven alone knows how far it will go. My main goal is having fun.

Edited: July 7, 2020, 4:28 PM · Chris, you're so right! A little bit is always better than nothing. And it's helpful to focus on small chunks. If I could be more patient with myself, this would most probably accelerate my learning curve. But alas, I'm not the most patient person ever...
July 7, 2020, 6:23 PM · Nuuska, most of the Suzuki Viola books actually have all of the movements for the pieces (at least books 6+) there are enough big multi-movement pieces in there that you can skip the few things you don't care for.
July 8, 2020, 4:01 PM · Ingrid, that's good news. And even better: it's available as an ebook, even specifically for iOS...
Edited: July 9, 2020, 5:49 AM · When I was teaching myself CG, I found that ABRSM, up to and including grade 5, put all of its materials into compendia, but as soon as you got to grade 6 material, you had to (?) buy it stand-alone (I.e. you get to choose what you want to play, not tolerate what they chose to put in their compendia), so I rushed to get that far as quickly as possible.

It's a little like that with Suzuki. Apart from the fact that progression doesn't seem to be at all linear, by the time you reach book 4's Vivaldi and the Bach Double, you'll find the Suzuki amendments - bits of the Vivaldi are an octave lower than in other editions - mean you'll be wanting to buy Urtexts instead (e.g. the Manze Baerenreiter and the Oistrakh Peters editions of the Bach, and whatever of the Vivaldi).

ABRSM are capable of being very boring, but at least they change their syllabus every 4 years, and you can collect older second-hand materials cheaply (try charity shops - I've got ABRSM materials going back to 1979). Some grades are a bit of a desert, others, such as the grade 7 stuff I'm working on at the moment, leave you spoilt for choice (I'm doing a Bach Adagio, Schubert Allegro Vivace, Massenet Meditation, Tchaikovsky Melody, the Bach Double and that Vivaldi. It's way too much, really. The Vivaldi is more challenging than the Bach Double, so I'll drop JS for a while. I guess I should toss a coin between Massenet and Tchaik too)

The OP asks for systematic. I think there's more system in ABRSM than in Suzuki. Or at least syllabuses are where you'll find system. Suzuki doesn't really have a syllabus, does it, and what it offers never changes, it's a case of take it or leave it.

So my final recommendation might be, try the NZMEB syllabus. But what country the OP is in will affect availability of materials, maybe.

Edited: July 10, 2020, 4:35 AM · Hi, you have said yourself that you are surprised about your progress when you compare your current level with last year’s.
That’s normal, you almost never have these Heureka-moments when you suddenly make a giant jump forward. Instead, progress is a slow process, but it happens, anyway.

I wonder if it might be a good idea, in order to speed things up, to stick with one instrument, at a time? Let’s say, 1-2 months only violin, then change?
This will allow you to focus on one specific size and tone production, until you have it considerably refined.
When you switch, THEN, you will easily apply all of this to the other instrument.

July 10, 2020, 9:08 AM · Dear Anish,

You're kind. Understand, that it does not matter what level you are now.

There are very few teachers available, and those who are not cold, imitating, or deceiving are basically in danger of losing their jobs.



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