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Serious & Drastic Improvements

Edited: August 13, 2022, 11:35 PM · Hi,
I've been playing since 4th grade and I'm about to start my junior year. Mid last year I decided I want to get my performance degree and hopefully get into a symphony orchestra somewhere. I lead my high school orchestra and am placed high in my community orchestra. I take private lessons with 2 different teachers and practice more than plenty. My practice sessions usually start with scales, drills in the key of my choosing, sight reading and 5 minutes of improvisation. I then move to assigned work including more excersies and repertoire. Next I work on pieces of my choosing my composer such as paganini, Bach, saen seans, and I just started Mendelssohn. Usually at the end I either work on something tricky from earlier in my practice session or some improvisation for while. When I say I do these things they're far from perfect which is why I work on them. I need help on improving all my work in general from others personal experience. When I work on scales I tend to find myself morphing scales such A major and A flat major. How do i prevent this and improve all my scales in general especially in the higher octaves. Are there any specific techniques/excersies that would help my playing that I should start working on? How do I do "brain work" while practcing instead of zoning out and not finding my little mistakes? I can practice for long periods of time but I'm well aware that it does little for me unless I'm making myself nitpick and go back many times. I fins myself saying I'll work on it next time or it'll go away. Lately I've been better but how can i help improve this? As far as composers what will make me more of a well rounded player and also a well educated musician? I can start applying for colleges as early as this coming summer and I'm well aware that although I may be a good musician for my town, I'll be compared to the child prodigies and others who have worked harder than I have. How can I, in general make large improvements in the 1 year I have before applying? And what would be beneficial for me to work on specifically for college auditions that will help me stand out/do my best? Also, what can i do during orchestra that will help me imorove? Thank you!

Replies (16)

Edited: August 14, 2022, 8:16 AM · It’s impossible to give you advice without hearing (and preferably seeing) you play, but I do have some questions. The first thing that jumps out at me is that you say you are studying with two different teachers. Why? Are you working on separate types of repertoire? It’s unusual and not usually advisable to have more than one teacher at a time.

Do your teachers know about your aspirations? If one of your teachers has experience successfully preparing students for conservatory or high-level music school auditions, perhaps you should focus on lessons with that teacher. I suspect that either you have not had such a conversation with a teacher or that your teachers don’t have experience, because your remark that you can start applying for colleges this summer is a bit naïve. The most important factor in acceptance to a good music school is the audition, and auditions are held on set dates in the spring of the applicant’s senior year, with pre-screen recordings usually due the preceding December 1.

Your comment about morphing from A flat to A major in a scale is concerning. The most powerful thing you can do to work on this as well as intonation, rhythm, etc in your solo and etude repertoire is to record yourself, and then listen to the playback with a pencil in your hand and a copy of the music in front of you. Mark everywhere that you hear a problem. You will hear where you start to go wrong much more readily in a recording than while you are playing.

Especially if you live in a less competitive part of the country, to get an idea of the level of your competition for the best music schools, I suggest that you go to YouTube and look up Juilliard pre-college senior recitals.

Finally, please give some thought to what it really means to pursue a career in performance. Jobs are few and the process to win one is brutal. Winning a job does not guarantee a stable professional life – if you want to know more about that, just Google my last name with “San Antonio Symphony.” If you can play the violin at a high level, then you obviously have the intelligence, work ethic, and drive to succeed in many other professional fields. If there is something else that you can imagine yourself being happy while doing, you should do that other thing.

Editing upon rereading your post to say that you mention improvisation twice. Improvisation may be fun, and it is certainly a skill that many professionals lack, definitely including me. But it will matter absolutely zero when it comes to college auditions, unless perhaps you are looking at Berklee. You might want to take some of that time and reassign it to careful intonation work and/or to recording yourself and listening to the playback.

August 14, 2022, 9:25 AM · There are quite a lot of red flags here. That doesn't mean you can't apply for music performance, but you most certainly aren't receiving the necessary preparation right now. Things like orchestra aren't what will help you. It's proper teaching and proper practicing.

The first thing I would do is examine the teacher situation. You can have two teachers if they work together (ie one does repertoire and one does technique and they coordinate), but otherwise this is not a good idea. You need one teacher who knows how to prepare students for college auditions. Find the best teacher in your region/state who will take you if at all possible.

Next, practicing at this level is not a one-session a day kind of thing. At minimum you should be doing two separate sessions. Shorter sessions with breaks yield way more benefits and are better for you mentally and physically. For example, my middle schooler does 30-45 minutes of scales, etudes, and technique in the morning before school. Then, after school she does an hour on pieces and other stuff. My 17yo does 30 minutes of scales/etudes in the morning, 1.5-2 hours (with a break in the middle) after school, and 1-2 hours after dinner. If you have trouble staying on task, you may want to use a journal or app to plan and track your practicing.

While you can take 10 minutes here or there for fun stuff, you should only be practicing your assigned pieces and technical work. You shouldn't be practicing pieces of your choosing. Otherwise you are wasting a lot of time learning rep at a low level instead of polishing it at a high level. You should be spending all your daily repertoire time on the likely 2-3 pieces you have been assigned. (And if you aren't getting assigned rep in this way, that is another sign you need a new teacher.)

As for scales, if you are going consistently flat or sharp, that is a huge problem. I would start by doing one key for at least a week at a time so you can really learn it properly. Put a drone of the tonic on in the background and make sure that you go slowly enough to stay in tune all the way up and down. Are you using a system like Flesch scales? You should be doing single-string scales, scales in 3 octaves, arpeggios in 3 octaves, and scales in 3rds/6ths/8ves at minimum.

Most colleges require the first movement of a concerto, two movements of unaccompanied Bach, a caprice or etude, and then some other odds and ends like a Mozart concerto, a virtuosic piece, a modern piece, or a sonata. I would look at the schools you are interested in and map out the requirements. Then pick out pieces to fit them and start focusing on those pretty soon. My almost-senior already has all his college rep completely learned and now has six months to polish it all up. You should aim to have all your rep learned before senior year.

Posting a video would definitely help assess where you are.

August 14, 2022, 9:46 AM · I hate to say something like this, but learn to spell "Saint-Saëns." Misspelling composer's names may strike some resume readers as a red flag for lack of attention and concentration.
Unfortunately computer spell-checkers may miss this sort of thing.

Sorry!

August 14, 2022, 10:16 AM · >When I work on scales I tend to find myself morphing scales such A major and A flat major.

This is where some music theory fundamentals are important. The tetrachord sequence for the major scale is different from say, melodic minor, and you should have those sequences committed to memory so that you can focus on playing those correct intervals in tune during the execution of the scale.

August 14, 2022, 10:37 AM · There has been a lot of discussion in the recent past about applying to music schools, as well as choosing the path that leads to performance as a vocation. You might want to read through those to get a good idea of the challenges that lie ahead.

The thing that struck me the most about what you wrote, is that it seems like you’re doing pretty much everything with little guidance from your two teachers (why two?). At an absolute minimum, you need instructors with experience successfully preparing their students to go to music schools.

If you are prepared to receive some honest feedback, you can post a video or audio of something you have prepared to a fairly high standard. Or you can probably find a well regarded instructor to give you the same sort of feedback, privately.

August 14, 2022, 11:39 AM · Both teachers work together to make sure they're not telling me different things nor stepping on each other's toes. The first teacher I have, I've been taught by since I started learning. She tends to work on any repertoire for class and community orchestra. Her job for me is finding the things that not many others would. She also works in lots of shifting where I wouldn't add it in myself and goes over a lot of technical things I can do to make the class music even easier. My other teacher works on things for solo and ensemble, and is the one whole picks out excersises and scale work. I'd go to one except for the fact that my community has a high amount of people in the arts world. Getting lessons with them is tricky which means only once a week. By adding more it helps to get more one on one practice as well as more ideas and tips. When it comes to morphing scales I realize I was not clear. It's only the A major and A flat major. No matter how much I work I come back the next day still not quite spot on. I have no idea how to get over. As far as colleges I'd like to start putting my pre-screening recordings together this summer to have them all ready. I've already done my research into which schools start accepting pre-screening materials and when and where auditions are held. I've gone through each school I'll apply to and found the pieces I need. For me setting deadlines is the best way to stay motivated. Some of the schools I'll have more time to get in tapes than others, however I feel if i'm not ready for the first thats a major problem. I have no idea how to get the dots over saens, thank you for pointing out the misspelling of his first name. It also brings up the point that this year I'll be taking music theory courses and also taking a deeper dive into the composer's life and how they wanted their music to sound and why. Thank you for all your advice, especially about splitting my practice times.
August 14, 2022, 11:39 AM · Both teachers work together to make sure they're not telling me different things nor stepping on each other's toes. The first teacher I have, I've been taught by since I started learning. She tends to work on any repertoire for class and community orchestra. Her job for me is finding the things that not many others would. She also works in lots of shifting where I wouldn't add it in myself and goes over a lot of technical things I can do to make the class music even easier. My other teacher works on things for solo and ensemble, and is the one whole picks out excersises and scale work. I'd go to one except for the fact that my community has a high amount of people in the arts world. Getting lessons with them is tricky which means only once a week. By adding more it helps to get more one on one practice as well as more ideas and tips. When it comes to morphing scales I realize I was not clear. It's only the A major and A flat major. No matter how much I work I come back the next day still not quite spot on. I have no idea how to get over. As far as colleges I'd like to start putting my pre-screening recordings together this summer to have them all ready. I've already done my research into which schools start accepting pre-screening materials and when and where auditions are held. I've gone through each school I'll apply to and found the pieces I need. For me setting deadlines is the best way to stay motivated. Some of the schools I'll have more time to get in tapes than others, however I feel if i'm not ready for the first thats a major problem. I have no idea how to get the dots over saens, thank you for pointing out the misspelling of his first name. It also brings up the point that this year I'll be taking music theory courses and also taking a deeper dive into the composer's life and how they wanted their music to sound and why. Thank you for all your advice, especially about splitting my practice times.
Edited: August 14, 2022, 1:31 PM · I agree with Susan that your original post has some red flags which your followup is not doing much to mitigate.

If neither of your teachers has experience with successfully preparing students for admission to at least second tier music schools, I urge you to schedule a one-off coaching with such a teacher or a member of the closest major professional orchestra. Take your proposed prescreen audition material, and do this the sooner the better.

I googled you and if you are who I think you are, there is a major professional orchestra within a few hours of your home.

I will repeat my original advice to record yourself and listen to the playback. Morphing between Ab and A major is symptomatic of serious ear training needs. You aren’t properly hearing the intervals. This is not something that successful music school candidates will be struggling with.

Incidentally, the following will have absolutely no bearing on your admission to any music school, even the lowest tiers:

Music history
Music theory

Don’t get me wrong, they are worth learning, but the most important thing is practicing.

August 14, 2022, 2:19 PM · Wow, so much here that is a red flag. Read Susan Agrawal’s reply carefully, along with Mary Ellen's replies. (I especially share the concern about the A/Ab issue; if you're going so wildly out of tune that you're ending up in a different key, that's a MASSIVE issue, even if it only happens on those pair of keys -- and I'm guessing that might be because you're not aware of it in the other keys, given that A is such a fundamentally obvious key.)

When you say you practice “more than plenty”, how many hours is that a day? How does the time divide up across each of your efforts?

You should post a video. The work doesn't need to be polished. Whatever solo work your teacher is having you work on now is fine. That'll help everyone tailor their advice.

It’d also be helpful to see a minute or two of what “typical practicing” looks like for you. Do you typically play through? How do you work on trouble spots? It very much sounds like you haven't been taught how to practice or don't have the discipline to do what you've been told you should.

Raw talent doesn't have all that much to do with success. The abilities to work hard, and to work consistently and thoughtfully and with strict discipline, and be receptive to excellent teaching, are all far more important. In some ways, if you can hear something is wrong, and that thing will yield to practice techniques you are aware of, if it's still wrong when you next see your teacher, you have wasted both your time and the teacher's time.

A single teacher should easily be able to load you up with enough material to cover four hours of practice a day. You may still benefit from a midweek check-in with that teacher, but you're not at a point where seeing two teachers for different assignments make sense -- if they're coordinating together such that one teacher is effectively the master and the other is the assistant, that's different (i.e. they're teaching you the same material in a fully synchronized fashion).

August 14, 2022, 2:28 PM · Now let's talk time allocation. Practice time and *especially* lesson time spent on your orchestra material is a near complete waste, except to the extent that any of it is a standard orchestral excerpt you’ll need later (Don Juan, etc.) or is a concertmaster solo. Dump it.

Honestly, the school orchestra material should be easy enough to be sight-readable for a pre-conservatory student. The community orchestra material might require work to reach a reasonable minimum bar but should not get lesson time except when you encounter a novel technique. Why does your community orchestra have ranked seating, anyway? (As a pre-conservatory student, in ranked seating without consideration to maturity, you should demonstrably be exceeding the skill of nearly all the adult violinists. At your age, I was assistant concertmaster for a community orchestra.)

In the high school years, the single most important thing you can do is to raise your baseline reliable technical level as high as possible. That becomes the default base for all new rep from now and for the rest of your life. The higher this baseline, the less you have to work on any piece of rep to play it at an acceptable level, so you are buying efficiency for your whole lifetime. (This will be true whether you go the pro route or simply play as an adult hobbyist. Arguably even *more* vital for the latter.)

That means *mastering* the core technique of the violin with conscious control. Fully half of your practice time, if not more, should go to etudes and exercises -- one to two hours daily just on technique. (By this point your scales *should* be reliable and anything that isn't needs a teacher to address.)

Time spent on repertoire (or etudes) not being assigned by a teacher is essentially also a waste. You should have enough solo repertoire assigned that it more than easily eats two hours by itself -- a concerto, a showpiece, and solo Bach (or sonata or similar chamber work).

If this four-hour plan (divided across multiple sessions each day) doesn't sound joyful, well, it is because preprofessional preparation to be a violinist is *work* and needs to be treated as such. When you have fully done the work, you can have fun, but don't confuse the two. I'm all for improv skills, but improv is not just about fooling around on the instrument; improv players work on specific improvisation exercises to strengthen their skills.

Major repertoire should be done under the guidance of a good teacher so you don't wreck the work for future preparation by practicing in bad habits (which you might not even be aware of).

You need a serious assessment, as Mary Ellen says. Even if you can't get that in person, there are certainly people who will do that over Zoom.

Edited: August 14, 2022, 4:46 PM · I agree with what was written here, so I'll comment on the scales.

Slipping between A and A flat is a sign that you aren't practicing scales correctly at all. The major scale of both doesn't share any common open strings, which you need to be checking constantly to establish the scaffolding of your intonation. In A major, the notes A, D and E need to be matched against the open strings, and the rest of the notes have to fit into this framework. In A-flat major, the note G has to be matched against open G.

If you aren't checking and getting these notes right, that means you aren't actually listening or building your listening skills. Years ago, when I was learning to play scales, there would be times where I would go up in one scale and come down in another. I had A LOT of work to do, and you do too. It sounds like either your teachers are incompetent, or you aren't listening to them and doing what they are asking.

You need to carefully and slowly train the scales while listening to yourself, and you need to nail those notes that correspond to your open strings by playing them in doublestops often, either checking them as a unison, octave, fourth, octave+fourth, or octave+fifth doublestop.

Don't wait! This is foundational stuff.

Edited: August 14, 2022, 2:45 PM · You should try practicing the A and A-flat scales with an "A" or "A-flat" drone in the background. (go on youtube and look up "cello drone A" or "cello drone A-flat")

Whatever scale you're practicing, use the drone with the same name. For example, for C Major, you would use a "C" drone.

I recommend doing the problem scale with the drone a few times, then a couple times without it. Back and forth, until you can somewhat hear the drone in your head throughout the scale, even when it's not playing.

As for everything else, the others have already said everything I would have (and more).

August 14, 2022, 4:00 PM · On the subject of practicing: You should try the discipline of practice journaling. Based on your last lesson, you should have a specific list of things that need practicing. You should also have an idea of what your teacher didn't get to in the lesson, that still requires working on. Take that list. Divide it up. Focus on those spots, rotating between spots every couple of minutes. Use a practice journal app to help you to do this (I like Modacity, personally), if need be. Otherwise a plain ol' kitchen timer will do the trick.

Your teachers should have taught you highly specific methods for breaking down something that's problematic and fixing it. You won't get better just by repeating a tough spot. You've got to invent little exercises for yourself that will help make it better, and if you haven't been taught to do that in all of these years, NOW is the time to change teachers. You need to patiently attack each problem until it's better. Rinse and repeat through the week.

When you're learning an etude, do just the first few lines of the etude until the technique feels comfortable, so you can focus on getting the new technique squared away rather than learning notes. Then learn the rest of the etude (which will generally contain progressively more difficult applications of the technique).

Don't let yourself just play through things. It's a waste of time.

August 14, 2022, 5:54 PM · I'm still trying to understand what schools you are trying to apply to. I don't know ANY tier 1, 2, or 3 schools that allow you to apply during junior year. A few tier 3 and lower schools will allow you to audition in fall of senior year, but even that is pretty rare.

Since it sounds like you are quite behind in your general technical preparation, I would highly recommend waiting as long as possible to make your prescreens (and auditions) in hope that you have improved considerably over the next year and a half.

August 14, 2022, 7:45 PM · Susan, I read the OP's statement of "applying as early as this coming summer" as referring to the summer of 2023, after their junior year -- i.e. when they could potentially be recording prescreenings in prep for the fall deadlines.
August 15, 2022, 7:04 PM · There have been many good suggestions in this thread. The audition is of paramount importance in being accepted. Practice should be directed at improving the audition. Make recordings of yourself. Keep a practice journal. Have specific practice goals assigned by your teacher.

I will add several points. Video tape your teacher demonstrating the practice technique. Watch performances of the pieces you are working on. Both of these things are invaluable guides.

Equally important is the concept of interleaved practice. Do not play a scale for five minutes and then switch to the next scale. Instead challenge your brain by changing the activity. Play a given scale then switch to playing arpeggios, then play an etude, etc. Do not repeat a task too many times. If something feels comfortable, or you zone out, that is a sign you could benefit from changing things up.

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