What makes quality practice?

April 12, 2021, 6:37 PM · greetings,
If I was asked to choose one action that contributed the most significantly to the quality of my practice, I would probably choose pre-planning. That is, before I did anything else, I sit quietly and think about what I want to achieve in the upcoming practice time, whether it be long or short, and how I should go about it in the most effective manner.
What are everybody else’s ideas?
Cheers,
Buri

Replies (51)

April 12, 2021, 7:35 PM · Plan to slowly play each section of each practice segment. Speed comes by itself. I'm just learning this.
Edited: April 12, 2021, 8:09 PM · Greetings?
Absolutely. I can’t remember if he said it in his main book on teaching or not, but Ivan Galamian stated that the single most important way of practising was slow practice. A point that Dorothy delay also emphasised to the nth degree.
Cheers,
Buri
April 12, 2021, 8:20 PM · For me, making sure I use tools such as my metronome really helps. Also ensuring that I know how to tackle a problem, whether that be through research online, consulting a reference book or asking my teacher. Having a comfortable set up, and checking it every time I play, is crucial to making sure there is no extraneous tension interfering with my focus. I also try to have a set time and space to practice where I won't be interrupted, and where I won't be disturbing others.
Edited: April 12, 2021, 8:39 PM · I practice each passage slightly slower than tempo, then repeat while correcting and redoing the passage if any mistakes occur. I use rhythms, listening to recordings of the passage, playing without the music, and etc. Whenever I'm tired from doing this, I move on to APUSH or AP CALC studying, then I potentially go back to practicing after focusing on something else for a bit. It's a good way to avoid frustration. I think the biggest part is getting each passage to where I can play without looking at the music and with no mistakes, then I consider it ok. It's impossible for me to play difficult passages with music because I just don't have time to look at the notes, which coupled with my near-sightedness recently... yeah.
April 12, 2021, 9:41 PM · "If I was asked to choose one action that contributed the most significantly to the quality of my practice, I would probably choose pre-planning."

Replace "practice" with "laboratory chemistry" and read that back.

One thing about "slow practice" that I have noticed, on this site in particular, is that nobody ever says exactly how they do it. Let's say I'm working on the Mozart/Kreisler "Haffner" Rondo, a piece I adore but find almost nightmarishly hard. I'm not sure how slow practicing applies to this piece and would appreciate advice in that regard. For simplicity we can just talk about the first several bars.

The only place I have seen a truly clear description of what slow practicing means is on the "violinmasterclass" website created by Kurt Sassmannshaus. It is recommended by him as a means of improving intonation specifically.

https://youtu.be/R5y1uR5txww

Edited: April 12, 2021, 9:59 PM · Make all the notes long enough that you no longer make mistakes. Practice at that speed again and then a little faster next time until you no longer makes mistakes. Then speed it up a little more keeping your intonation etc. correct. This is a process. I have this from a student of Sally Thomas.
Edited: April 13, 2021, 12:18 AM · I don't think quality practice always means slow practice, though it often does (depending on the objective). For me, it doesn't even have to be extensively pre-planned; it is enough to have some goals in mind. The single most important things are careful listening and awareness of what is happening while playing.
April 12, 2021, 11:02 PM · For the Haffner, learn it detache and don't worry about having it come off the string until the speed is such that the bow nearly bounces by itself. Slur four notes to the bow using relatively little bow in order to hear any unevenness in the left hand. When you practice the spiccato do so entirely on open strings in order to be sure that any string crossings are perfect.
April 12, 2021, 11:10 PM · https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9bttSatDZcw

I am of the opinion that Szeryng is the best Mozart interpreter.

Edited: April 13, 2021, 4:59 AM · greetings,
Paul, I don’t really understand why I would substitute laboratory experimentation for practice but I think your analogy is interesting. When we practice, we are in a laboratory, like scientists keeping an open mind, looking at what’s happening experimenting with adjustments and noting the results.
The expression is slow practice, it is indeed used in a very sloppy and meaningless way much of the time. Fast practice done in a thoughtful way is every bit as important. The most obvious example being, in my opinion, the necessity to perform in simulated concert conditions whatever we are practising at the end of any practice session, noting any problems for the following practice session. During the reflective period before the next practice session, we may be considering the problems raised by the first performance and how we might tackle them.
I think slow practice is actually the creation of space in which we can give clear and unequivocal instructions to our mind about what we want to happen. The actual physical manifestation of this programming of the mind may actually be extremely fast. For example, it is very important to practice developing finger speed. in order to do this, we may take a rapid semiquaver passage from for example, Mozart or back, and set the metronome to an extremely slow tempo. The fingers released from the string or contact the string at the absolute last possible moment. there is in essence, rapid action derived from slow and careful programming. This kind of practice in many forms is essential so that when one is performing in a concert there is a minimum amount of mental activity generating extensive and possibly extremely rapid action.
Cheers,
Buri
April 13, 2021, 5:20 AM · I find that setting some sort of goal for my practice (ex: I want to be able to play my scales smoothly and at xx tempo) and then practicing at a variety of speeds is what works for me. For something like scales there comes a point where I have to be playing quickly and lightly to achieve my goal. However, it is when I play slowly that I am able to identify when something is not working for me and I can make adjustments. When playing quickly I don't have the mental capacity to notice what does and doesn't work in an effort to just produce the notes.
April 13, 2021, 7:56 AM · Andrew, what you say is true. But if practicing at concert tempo isn't making for improvement then it's time to slow down for a while.
April 13, 2021, 10:45 AM · "What makes quality practice?"
Undivided Attention to the smallest detail!

However, when a scale, study, or work is learned, we have to be able to play it perfectly while watching a good sitcom, so we will be able to play it against all odds.

Edited: April 13, 2021, 12:02 PM · I think there is an important role for being flexible and responsive in practice as well. We come to each session a little different, and we can also use scales or some other platform as a way of exploring some particular element.

If we find that our shifts are particularly heavy, or our articulation is not crisp, then we can quickly shift to breaking that element down and working on it in a really concentrated way - Practicing the shift without metrical consideration, just to really establish the intonation, and practicing the shift into immediate vibrato, and practicing just for lightness, and then incorporating more elements, like putting the shift back in the context of the notes leading up to it and ending at the shift note, or practicing the shift with a few notes after in order to make sure our shift includes the handframe we want, and then including notes on both sides of the shift, and then perhaps if we are still relaxed, starting with the metronome and ticking it up slowly, having established that we are only going to tick the metronome up if our shift was relaxed and in-tune, and so on.

We also need to understand what our bow is doing during the shift, and this is really all guided by the sound we make and somewhat by the feeling in our hand - The sound is usually a good guide to tension as well.

This sounds really convoluted, perhaps, the way I put it so literally, but my point is that by constantly listening and adapting, our ear naturally guides us so that we don't need to make big to-do lists. We more or less practice until our ears are satisfied, and we need some more guardrails, like checking our intonation constantly and checking our relaxation, because our ears can get sloppy too. It's good to have some points to guide us that are "more objective".

Edited: April 14, 2021, 11:04 AM · I do two kinds of slow-motion practice: Moonwalk, and Frame-by-Frame.

In Moonwalk, there is time to shape every finger-fall and string-change, and discover exactly how much, or how little, strength is required.

In Frame-by-Frame, each note or transition is performed fast, with real tone, but well separated from its neighbours, before re-assembling in small, then longer, groups.

I find the Moonwalk particularly useful for de-rusting my aging technique and memory...

Edited: April 14, 2021, 11:17 AM · I find that bowing and fingering can be speed-dependent, so if I practise slowly, it's after I've worked out the bowing and fingering at full speed, not before. My teacher doesn't seem to like slow practice - she prefers one note, then 2, then 3 then 4, etc at full speed.

I suspect much depends on whether you have mastered basic détaché at top speed, or not. If you have, slow practice is permissible: if you haven't, too much slow practice will prevent you from ever getting there.

The ABRSM method seems to be to get you to 400bpm as quickly as possible in simple passages, then gradually increase the complexity.

Edited: April 15, 2021, 3:32 AM · Gordon, I reckon two thirds of our technique lurks between the notes, hence the value of the Moonwalk practice as a 5-10 minute preparation for other kinds.
Each passage or difficulty should be Moonwalked, Frame-by-Framed, then at full speed, in the same practice session.
April 14, 2021, 12:12 PM · Well, barring the applicability of that Jimi Hendrix paraphrase, if your détaché is perfectly coordinated, then all your effort will have gone into what happens between the notes.
Edited: April 14, 2021, 12:18 PM · Louis Spohr recommended a couple of hours of practice each day. That's a quite of bit of practice so it's probably best to break that up into 3 or 4 parts throughout the day (morning, afternoon, evening sessions). I think some breaks can give some time for reflection (e.g. what worked, what could work better).
Edited: April 14, 2021, 12:42 PM · But Gordon, I want an even better, and more varied, quick détaché. On all four very different strings of a viola..
April 15, 2021, 3:39 AM · Another aspect of perfect practice is not allowing oneself to play a note out of tune, fuzzy, crunchy, boring etc more than once!
Moon-Walking is a diagnostic tool (like Alexander technique etc).
April 15, 2021, 5:21 AM · No, perfect practice is not allowing oneself to do any of those even once. If you do any of those, start the passage over again. Don't tell yourself that "it's just one mistake" because in practice you are aiming for the most ideal interpretation. It's only ok to make mistakes while performing because there are factors like stress, anxiety, and Feng Shui.
April 15, 2021, 6:39 AM · Hi Mike,
your sentiment is absolutely correct. We should not let anything pass. However, I would respectfully disagree with your solution. In my opinion, the biggest mistake players make up to a quite advanced level is ‘repeating the passage.`. Rather, one should isolate precisely where the mistakes is, usually just a shift or odd bowing pattern between a couple of notes and practice -only- that after having analyses what is going wrong and devised appropriate solutions. The next step is work outwards in increments from that specific error. Only after this kind of work should one even consider playing through the passage again.
Cheers,
Buri
Edited: April 16, 2021, 9:55 AM · We can repeat the passage and play it better because our perception has changed. But if we don't zoom in with twice as much detailed attention to the twice-as-tricky bits, they may well catch us out in public.
We have to negotiate with our fingers and our brains..
Edited: April 16, 2021, 12:44 PM · Repeating a passage in practice does imply that you're watching and correcting intonation errors and mistakes. What I had in mind was that if you have trouble with a run, you should repeat it and fix errors too. I should have used the diction of "the place (shift etc) you have trouble with" instead of "passage" because it could be confused with dumb wholistic repetition. Although, I think it does help to practice a passage in context. For example, the first run in Wieniawski 2 requires a bunch of eight notes that lead up to the run, which is something that you have to account for when playing the passage because they build up to you getting in position. Or the var 9 to var 10 in Pag 24, which requires one to shift greatly immediately after the pizz.
April 16, 2021, 2:18 PM · I believe that different recipes will be optimal for different people.

What is most important though is this: To listen to oneself with a critical ear whenever one plays.

How you work best in detail depends on your learning style (more analytic or more synthetic if I may be allowed to use these words here).

April 16, 2021, 4:00 PM · Greetings Albrecht,
If you don’t mind I7d like to expand a little on what you say here. Short posts never really give a full understanding of what someone is saying so I may get things wrong though.
The concept of critical listening is important but I think one also needs to be cautious as terminology often drives mood, feelings and so on. Most of the time one should be listening critically but we also need to perform and that also often implies a suspension of criticism per se. It become san example of an ‘Inner Game of Tennis’ destructive voice if we are not careful. Maybe substituting the word awareness is useful in some cases?
To be honest I don’t think How you work best in detail depends on your learning style (more analytic or more synthetic if I may be allowed to use these words here).‘ stands up to closer examination. ‘Working in detail’ by default implies working in detail which would mean isolating the exact point of the problem and finding a means to resolve it. Although it’s true that a more advanced player might play a passage through and think for example ‘need to use more vibrato on fourth finger notes’ and repeat the passage rather than isolate the defective notes the experienced player has certainly isolated the exact problem. It might well be the case that working on the specific problem would also have been useful too... Howveer, for less advanced players (actually up to college level and more) the failure to isolate specific problems at the most miscrosopic level and resolve those is , in my opinion the fundamental reason not only why players improve so slowly but also why so many hours of practice become necessary.
Auer’s famous comment about ‘practicng’ with your head for 3 hours or so is looked at with incredulity by those who consider 6 or 7 the norm but there is a great lesson behind what he says.
Although the fact that one should play the passage as a whole is a no brained , this can only logically take place -after- solving an issue. Context is vital. T(This approach also works on a macro level where one resolves the issues in a section of a work and then places it in a context of new sections and so on)
I’m afraid the positing of a dichotomy in practice approach here is not really correct . Rather, I think we are dealing with a fundamental truth of approach that has stood the test of time.
Cheers,
Buri
Edited: April 17, 2021, 5:22 AM · May I try a caricature?
- Intense Concentration is accompanied by gritted teeth and furrowed brow, and can actually impede progress;
- Undivided Attention shows in narrowed eyes and pursed lips: emotional calm plus efficient perception and gestures.

My 2 centimes d'€uro..

Edited: April 17, 2021, 9:31 AM · I do not doubt the value of analyzing a problem, then working on the smallest unit and then working one's way out from there. It has worked for me often. But sometimes it fails--or rather it eats so much time that I give up. Adding back the context after fixing the core problem is sometimes far from straightforward. For me at least the original problem often re-occurs as soon as the context is added back in.

A maths teacher of ours once told us the following: If you can't solve a problem take some time right before going to bed and think about it. Then forget it and sleep. When you wake up in the morning you'll have the solution. This trick works for me. The brain works subconsciously at stuff one has given enough thought. One learns without conscious effort.

Something like this happens to me with the violin as well (and I don't think only to me). I practice on some problem for some time. I fail to make much progress so I give up for the day. Next day, when I tackle the same problem again, I start from a better place right away. Over time my problem gets resolved. The only problem of course is that it can't forced. For people under time pressure for an audience or performance this is not fully applicable; one has to accept the rhythm that the brain dictates. And it goes without saying that this "method" is fully compatible with a strictly analytical approach.

Another curious thing: The string crossings in the bariolage section of the E-Major Preludio: I can do them acceptably in the context of the piece (in fact when I started on the piece they succeeded almost right off the bat). If I try the same motion on open strings I fail. I can only bow the section with my left hand at work as well. If everything is analyzable how does that even happen?

April 17, 2021, 9:38 AM · As to the starting question: I don't think pre-planning is the most essential thing. I rather believe that the ear is the key: The difference between how one imagines the music and how one hears one's own music is what drives effective practice.
April 17, 2021, 8:21 PM · Greetings,
). `If I try the same motion on open strings I fail. I can only bow the section with my left hand at work as well. If everything is analyzable how does that even happen?`
If there is nothing wrong with it why would you want to isolate a specific problem and work on it?
Also, it is often the case that pra ting left without right and vice versa in the same way piano players do does not always provide an appropriate mental model for improvement. That is why exercises such as bowing on only one string while playing the left hand are so powerful.
Planning to me is sitting quietly and reviewing my goals. Mentally reviewing what didn’t go so well the day before. Seeing if that can be improved by practicing scales in a particular way that contributes to an indirect improvement in the music I am going to play . Perhaps consulting a notebook about overall trends and weaknesses. It is of course correct tosa y that `listening ‘ and ‘the ear’ are the central factors in practicing. I suppose one could argue that since they are essentially what practicing is they dont shed much light on an activity that deserves a great deal more thought than it usually gets.
Cheers,
buri
Edited: April 21, 2021, 11:43 PM · Buri has raised not only a great question but I'd say it is THE QUESTION.

I love to play as a child and would put 6-10 hours each day whenever I could to practice and play. Without a good teacher, I figured out a lot of things on my own but also built a lot of bad habits along the way, mostly bad practicing habits. So as soon as I was able to learn properly from a teacher here in Canada, the issue of how to practice became somewhat of an obsession of mine. Without going into too much details, I finally realized that while knowing the science of learning is essential, each person also have to find a scheme fits his/her own unique situation.

For me, the number one thing is I must know what exactly I want to achieve before each practice session, and confident that I will achieve if I break things down and tackle each step to get exactly right, this is not unlike knitting, cooking, btw.

Also important to be aware that we are making progress even subjectively we don't immediately feel that way. In other words, trust the process of focused practice, when we put in the work, even without the instrument, out brain will still be processing what we practiced and the next time it'll happen... Not sure I'm making sense.

Edited: April 22, 2021, 12:45 AM · Albrecht raised this issue and I completely agree. How to train our listening ability as key part of quality practice? Assuming most of us have normal healthy hearing, a well-trained violinist ear hears so much more, definitely more than those who don't often listen to violin music. Yet, among advanced players, including some professional orchestra players I know, their tone production, intonation, phrasing/musicality etc differ so greatly. I don't think it's a matter of care (although some poor intonation may need more frequent checking), but rather I suspect many just can't hear the difference; or rather, don't hear things objectively. Recording won't help. Other people's honest positive/negative feedbacks may do.

So, how should we incorporating really good listening into lessons as well as practice? How to regularly evaluate the progress of our listening?

Edited: April 22, 2021, 2:49 AM · Actually, recording does help. I have heard recordings of myself. Ouch!
I admit I rarely do it myself. In recordings done by someone else my tone seems to be ok. When I self record it sounds just awfully scratchy and sharp. But as far as intonation recording--and listening to the recording--helps locate critical notes etc.

Here is an exercise that includes the ear (from one of my violin teachers): Play a piece note by note slowly. No dynamic, no rhythm, no vibrato, just one pitch after another. Listen and correct intonation. Take enough time to hear every note. My teacher used to make me do this mostly when a piece for some performance was on the stand. She said she did it herself when she had to perform.

Edited: April 22, 2021, 2:51 AM · I also think that having a comfortable environment for practicing matters a lot too. Some examples are: removing all distractions (phone etc), making room, having a chair to rest on, etc. Also, not being hungry, doing all your homework/work if you're not in school beforehand, wasting time accompanying your significant other to continue to foster a pointless relationship, and so on. I find that I get easily distracted if I have anything to think about besides practicing. I do realize however that adults probably have many arduous tasks that cannot simply be completed before they have to do their daily practice.
Edited: April 22, 2021, 3:39 AM · Albrecht, you are right that recording does help, to a certain degree. It helps a lot on hearing things like intonation, phrasing, cleanness, etc, but recording is not very good at giving feedback on tone production, unless you have a very expensive recording system. Even so, I know a lot of people just don't seem to have the ear for the quality of sound. Even during live performance, people don't always pick up on that. String instruments should be treated like voices. People get turned off quickly if a singer's voice is boring or unrefined (in classical music), and they should treat string instruments the same.

It takes a lot of training, but first of all you have to care about it enough.

April 22, 2021, 3:38 AM · "but first of all you have to care about it enough"

What musician doesn't care about the quality of sound?

"Even so, I know a lot of people just don't seem to have the ear for quality of sound, even during live performance, people don't always pick up on that."

If you don't have an ear for the quality of sound, of course recording won't help... but also, if you don't have an ear for that, I doubt practicing normally would help either. Most violinists can hear these things, and I think that for those people recording has a clear benefit of allowing them to focus on the intonation if nothing else.

I do agree that having a good recording system is a factor that can put into question the usefulness of recordings. Although, if you use the same system for all of your recordings, you will likely even notice things in tone quality. Because, if you keep every other variable the same, you can isolate the variable of your playing quality.

April 22, 2021, 3:49 AM · Greetings,
Mike, very good point about comfortable environment.
Cheers,
buri
April 22, 2021, 3:50 AM · "If you don't have an ear for the quality of sound, of course recording won't help... but also, if you don't have an ear for that, I doubt practicing normally would help either."

"Practicing normally" is exactly we should explore; what is normal? Is normal practice sufficient?

Of course, you can't just practice normally for good sound without first know what good sound should be. Listening to great soloists, a lot, helps. I talked to quite a few young prodigies over the years and they all have great sound. They really care about it to the point of obsession at times. When the sound is a little below their ideal, even though most others wouldn't notice, they get really upset. Care so much is insufficient of course, but it's a necessary condition. Sadly I see quite enough professional orchestra players simply don't care about their tone production.

April 22, 2021, 3:51 AM · I meant practicing “live” using whatever personal methods.
Edited: April 22, 2021, 4:26 AM · Good sound?

The violin sounds a few inches from our left ear; a computer mike (of dubious quality?), a few feet away; a listener with their recorder, a few yards away.

I record myself with a Zoom H1 one bow's length away, in the same room (full of books), so that I can compare the tone of different takes and adjustments.
But I also use an Etymotic filter in my over-sensitive left ear.

Professionally recorded soloists have both close and distanced mikes, and recording engineers with ears often better than ours.

So, plenty of parameters to explore!

Edited: April 22, 2021, 4:45 AM · Hey Adrian, yes you are right of course, but I'm skeptical about using a recorder to train our ear for our own sound. Our sound differs so drastically from a small studio to a large church to a very 'dead' big hall, etc. It takes a lot of experiments without the aid of equipment to assess and adjust. When I suggested to listen to a lot of great soloists, it's not only the recordings we should listen to, but more importantly are the live performances, competitions, masterclasses, workshops, etc.

How about this:

Pay attention to all sounds around us. Be astonished, and then express with our violin.

April 22, 2021, 6:42 AM · Here is a short video on how to practice (and how not to practice) by someone who should know:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OLJwQQNqffs

April 22, 2021, 11:17 AM · Anyway, it seems that we can once more enjoy those thoughtful discussions between Yixi and Buri!
April 22, 2021, 1:18 PM · I'm glad to see Yixi here too. It's been a long time. How are you enjoying your violin, Yixi?
April 22, 2021, 10:19 PM · Paul Deck, that's a great vid on how to practice! By one of the greatest violinists no doubt.

While my practice is generally wrought with distractions and interruptions, I find that focused goal oriented practice is key. Having a loud violin also helps! lol!

April 23, 2021, 2:16 AM · Yixi, yes, great to see you back on this forum!
April 25, 2021, 8:28 AM · Hi everyone, this is my first post and hopefully I'd be able to add something meaningfull as this topic is very important.. Apologies for the grammar - English is not my first language. In my opinion, one of the most improtant points (as was mentioned in one of the comments) is a preparation, but one aspect of this preparation is often missed... Our posture in general and specifically the way we hold violin/bow. It's not natural for humans to spend hours with our hands raised and our heads slightly tilted etc. You know that more than eightly percent of violinists have some sort of shoulder/neck issues, resulting in tension, pain, tiredness, sometimes injuries etc. Even before we address the posture issues, we have to make sure we are perfectly aligned and relaxed. If you feel even the slight tiredness in one of the muscles, immediately stop, never push through, as the results could be very negative. What I say to all my students, 'the road to greatness is littered by unfortunates who are not able to play and perform fully because of the effect of the wrong posture and ignoring even the slightest discomfort or pain'. This is the foundation of everyhting.

Just my five cents :-)

April 25, 2021, 8:52 AM · I quite agree. I see amateurs and professionals who play in such a way that I wonder how they do it!

(I'm only worth two cents..)

Edited: April 25, 2021, 8:59 AM · Apparently even the great Maxim Vengerov is suffering from the shoulder tension and as a result the quality of his sound has slightly deteriorated over the last years.... (he's still an amazing musician and violinist though, one of the titans IMO)
April 25, 2021, 7:18 PM · Greetings,
you are absolutely right Oleg. I sometimes tell my students to pay attention to their feet before beginning. practice. That is, feel very carefully which parts of each foot are touching the floor or not, what is the difference between the two feet and so on. Even this simple act of awareness can help integrate the body into something less likely to get injured.
Cheers,
Buri


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