abbreviations and shortcuts for learning music faster

January 21, 2023, 3:28 PM · I am trying to become more efficient in the way I learn music so that I can do so more quickly.

I am interested in hearing any abbreviations or signifiers that people use in their music (whether orchestral or solo) that helps to serve as a brain shortcut to remembering something important.

(e.g., arrows up or down for a note that is customarily played either too low or too high, respectively, squiggle for places that slow down or stretch out, glasses when one really, really needs to look at the conductor, breath marks, etc.)

I realized I don't have a good symbol to indicate when I need to place fingers in a fifth across strings, such that I do so on the first note of the fifth rather than remembering after it's already placed on the single note)...and I'm sure there are many other helpful shortcuts that others might have found and use.

I appreciate any suggestions.

Replies (32)

January 21, 2023, 3:41 PM · You draw a line straight up from the head of one note, 90 degrees straight over above head of the other note, then 90 degrees down to the head. It looks kind of like a staple.

Edited: January 21, 2023, 4:36 PM · For cross-string fifths fingered as double-stops I write in the "ghost note" over or under the first played note. I can also write the finger number followed by two parallel lines showing the duration of the double stop. An extended single or double line is also useful when one or two fingers are held down for a longer passage.

I use short diagonal lines between numbers to represent shifts, and occasionally separating notes to represent string crossings:\ to a higher string, / to a lower one.

To the wavy line for slowing down I add a forward-looking arrow for speeding up.

January 21, 2023, 4:05 PM · For prepared fingerings and placing those Perfect fifths with the same finger I write an open diamond; <>. I still do not have a practical notation for when to lift fingers.
In general I keep my extra penciled notations to a minimum, especially for orchestra music. Your stand partner would not appreciate it. Especially annoying for me is penciling circles around things that you miss in rehearsal. If don't play pp when you see pp, adding a circle only increases the visual clutter.
Only use finger numbers when there is a real choice, or a shift. If the direction of a shift is not obvious write / for a shift up, for a down shift write [ ] oops my keyboard does have that reverse slant.
There are no shortcuts or magic secrets. But,- memorizing the fast or really difficult spots helps.
January 21, 2023, 4:34 PM · For lifted fingers I write the number and cross it out!
January 21, 2023, 4:35 PM · There are a small number of basic finger patterns that make up virtually all our repertoire. Mastering these is the key to left hand mastery. TRy allocating each one a color code on (photocopied) difficult passages.
January 21, 2023, 4:54 PM · (1-2.3-4) (1-2-3.4) (1.2-.3.4) etc etc over the staff?

I am colour-blind!

January 21, 2023, 7:49 PM · At least you can spell colour correctly…
January 21, 2023, 7:57 PM · LOL Buri.

Color, labor, honor, valor, judgment, aluminum.

I feel better now.

January 22, 2023, 9:52 AM · Mary Ellen...the THEATER was full for our concert yesterday.

(Actually I can’t contribute anything to the finger pattern debate.)

Edited: January 22, 2023, 10:25 AM · For lifting fingers I put the finger number under the staff as you do for holding a finger down, then I indicate carefully where to raise it. At least I'm aware that fingers need to be lifted in a timely fashion at times!

abbreviationz and shortcutz is the correct American spelling, btw, OP

January 22, 2023, 1:36 PM · For fifth you can do the "staple" suggested by Paul Carlson, or you write, e.g., 2= on the first note, depicting that you should put the finger (2 in this example) on both strings. A really useful marking (which I got from "The orchestral violinist companion") is to indicate whole tones by a "staple" like Paul's, but then upside down (you mark it under the notes to avoid confusion with downbow sign), and to indicate half tones by an open "vee" shape.
Edited: January 22, 2023, 4:58 PM · Thank you all for the helpful replies, apologies that I am responding so late.

I use the staple-like character to indicate half and whole steps; plus, it is so similar to the down bow symbol (which in some European-printed music is indicated the other way around from American-printed music, so both iterations can become confusing!) However, I like the idea of writing the finger number with lines to indicate how long they must stay down.

@Joel Quivey, could you explain in more detail what you mean by using <> to indicate perfect fifths? Is this just in double stops, or also when a finger should ideally be placed at the same time? Also, to be clear, I am not looking for "magic", but I DO believe that "shortcutz" can help us go through the process of learning and internalizing more quickly!

@Buri, I actually really like the idea of colo(u)r-coding finger patterns! I think a lot in colo(u)rs, and it's easy for me to develop those sorts of associations (being synesthetic, my brain already does that for letters and numbers!) In fact, when the score indicates that a line should be played on a particular string, I highlight that indication with the "colo(u)r" that the string is in my mind, and that gives me the subconscious clue that I should be on that particular string.

@Adrian Heath - I've never thought of indicating string crossings, but that would help so much! I have to think SO HARD when I'm trying to practice the strings crossings on open strings...sometimes I write the letters above each note, but that's very awkward lol. I also like your idea of indicating shifts with a line...I like to think in intervals, so I usually write something like m3 or M3 above the note I'm shifting from, but a line would help things be clearer...

Thank you all! If there are any more ideas, I'm open to hearing them! I appreciate it so much!

January 22, 2023, 4:57 PM · (to clarify, I use the staple-like character to indicate WHOLE steps hehe silly me)
January 22, 2023, 5:49 PM · continued -- the <> sign. I did not invent this. I first saw it in one of my etude books. Example; If you have 3rd finger D on the A string, and the next note is G on the D string, write <> immediately under the first note. Adrian calls it a "ghost note", fingered, but not yet played. Also use it for any prepared fingering. I also use it sometimes to indicate a long, difficult shift, first finger at note <>, even though the note you play is with a different finger. Hope that makes sense.
Edited: January 24, 2023, 4:53 PM · I use a staple character to indicate successive notes at the same place on two adjacent strings (i.e. separated by a perfect fifth), indicating that I should use one finger to bridge both strings. The staple looks like a downbow character, but I make sure it's wide enough to encompass both notes and therefore not too ambiguous. (On multi-note passages crossing back and forth, the staple becomes really wide, and might encompass notes played with other fingers as a reminder to keep my original finger in place.)

If I need to emphasize that two successive notes are a half step apart, I'll sometimes place a caret character (^) between them. It's sort of like an upbow sign but upside-down, and between notes rather than over one.

If I need a low finger (e.g. D# on the D string using the first finger), I'll put a little down arrow following the finger number (1 in this case). If the next note is the adjacent E I can mark it with a 2, but for longer runs I'll just write "1/2 pos." over the passage since I'll be playing it in half-position. Similarly, I'll indicate a "high 2" by a 2 with an up arrow after it.

In passages where the counting gets tricky, I'll extend the bar lines above and below the staff at the beginning of each phrase. That way, even if I get lost, I can listen for the start of the next phrase and go to my next phrasing mark.

If the oboe comes in 24 bars into a 32-bar rest, I'll write "|<--24-->|Oboe" over the staff. That way, whatever happens, I can wait for the oboe to come in, then just count off the remaining 8 bars.

Our orchestra is currently working on Dvorák's New World symphony. At the end of the third movement, as the tempo slows down, the counting gets tricky: 6 notes in a bar, 5 notes in a bar, 4 notes in a bar. One of our cellists suggested writing "hip-po-pot-a-mus" over the 5-note measure. It works!

Edited: January 24, 2023, 8:50 PM · Barbara Barbara's book Fingerboard Geography has already done the work of color coding 12 finger patterns. 1 23 4 is red. 12 3 4 is blue 1 2 34 is yellow. 1 2 3 4 is green. low 1 high 23 4 is purple. 12 34 is orange. I don't remember the others. I know there is coral, gold, torquoise. I would have to look the others up. The book includes pull out colored diagrams. (Edit: not sure if it is appropriate to give that much info about her book. If it is not, let me know and I will take the specifics out.)

The colors really can be a useful short hand for finger patterns.

For needing to lift a finger I just write pop 2 or whatever finger. Some of the schools near me use a dash and then a finger number such as -3 to indicate a shift.

Some of the blues and fiddle music I use have the / and \ to indicate slides into or out of the notes.

Charlie - I had a teacher who liked a-phro-di-si-ac for 5 syllables. Encyclopedia can work for 6 syllables.

Edited: January 25, 2023, 4:35 AM · Oh dear coloUrs again!
I can recognise about three; blue(can be mauve), yellow(can be green) and mud(can be anything).
But I have never crossed a "red" light (or so my wife tells me).
Common amongst boys.
Just out of interest, what coloUr is coral?
January 25, 2023, 6:42 AM · My maths teacher was red-blind. We used to write stuff in red chalk on his blackboard for amusement, but if he caught the light's reflections or not off the chalk, he could tell what was up.
January 25, 2023, 6:01 PM · Well, apart from using cullers, I like all the various suggestions on this thread.
Especially my own.
January 25, 2023, 7:59 PM · Adrian, do you use cullers to get rid of seals on your students’s fingerboards?
January 26, 2023, 3:19 PM · I eat crullers.
January 26, 2023, 5:00 PM · I use a few. I use 5 for denoting when I should cover the 5th (finger on both strings). I use a circle with a dot to denote the frog (like start key on a computer), I use a lightening bolt to denote fast bow, and a $ or a hand symbol (can't reproduce on the keyboard) for saving bow. An ear symbol kind of like -)for listen for pitch to the piano, squiggly lines above the note to remember to vibrate a note. Really as long as you know your own short cuts, anything works!
Edited: January 28, 2023, 8:55 AM · Interestingly, the "5" mark that Susanna mentions is used in Europe (perhaps also elsewhere) to indicate a 4th finger extension. The $ for "save bow" is a good one!
January 28, 2023, 10:22 AM · For extensions, as opposed to 1/2 step shifts, I write [ X ] over the finger number.
Edited: January 29, 2023, 6:32 AM · Martin Wulfhorst in "The orchestral violinist's companion" has a nice notation for extension, upward or downward, by writing a small arc (a "frown") above the finger number (for upward) or a "smile" below (for downward).
January 31, 2023, 8:31 AM · Many good ideas, already!
I’d like to add that I try to identify the tricky parts in contrast to the ones that I can sight read.
This, I do with orchestra repertoire: I play new music in the original tempo and see where I make mistakes. I mark
those places so I can’t accidentally practice those, again. ;-)
It may be that I have to play according to a certain pattern, so that once I got it, the whole section is done. And there might be the one little place where the pattern doesn’t work, as an exception. This is the place to keep in mind.

Then, I try to find out which fingers want to play, automatically, or which bowings. For the orchestra, I set up my personal fingerings in a way that mostly follows what my fingers tend to choose, anyway, even if that might not be the musically nicest fingering. Works for tutti playing.
In the end, there are only few spots left, normally, where I know that I will always make a mistake. And these are the ones where I write in a fingering, even in the orchestra (after asking my partner if she doesn’t get irritated by that).

As a result, whatever the marking might be, a number or any other graphic element- IF there is one, I know it is important.

January 31, 2023, 2:59 PM · thank you Emily for giving us a glimpse into your world!
February 2, 2023, 3:19 PM · Oh, there's one more thing I forgot: I put a big X in the margin next to tricky passages that need extra work. If it takes up multiple lines on the score, I make it a really tall X. Then I know that to concentrate on during my practice sessions.
Edited: February 3, 2023, 7:39 AM · Just wondering, why such the deep interest in notation, over changes in how to practice more efficiently?

Isn’t seeking out changes in how to practice more effectively what matters more?
Like efficient practice methods, practicing out weak spots beyond marking them, chunking, avoid playing-in mistakes (already mentioned, but a big one) developing aural memory, etc. (scratching the surface of a mountain.)

For example, with chunking up to a few bars at a time, not more than your memory can hold, a person can familiarize themselves with a lot of repertoire rapidly. Good interval training and aural memory development supports that. Then music becomes a reference, where to track your place in rehearsals, so you can focus on playing over reading music. Food for thought?

February 3, 2023, 7:48 AM · Jane, these added scribbles remind us of the myriad gestures which are not only personal, but also absent from musical notation: they shorten the learning process so we can concentrate on the music.

I like to say that two thirds of our technique lies before and between the notes...

February 4, 2023, 11:58 AM · @Jane What you say about efficient practice methods is of course very important!

For me, looking at notated music is visually difficult - it doesn't translate into notes on the instrument very easily. (I have even considered that I might have a visual processing disorder!) So, I am specifically trying to shorten the time between first reading through the music and having it memorized. Since I memorize incredibly easily (perhaps developed because of my difficulties in parsing out what is happening on the page), it is easy to become divorced from the notation BEFORE I have done all the chunking and intonation practice and internalized the rhythm without fudges or noticed which notes have accents vs which don't, etc. I want to be able to continue to look at the page while I practice, precisely for more effective practice. As a kid, I used to just play it through painstakingly once or twice, and then play from memory...but I lacked the practice of...well, practicing! This meant I was mostly just "playing through" a piece, working from working memory. Oof.

I know this might all sound strange, but little efficiencies in abbreviations or signifiers that can move me from "that looks like a mess of notes" to "ah, a M3, and there's a whole step there, and this is a diminished chord," notated in a way that I pick up faster than just looking at the black and white notes...would, I am theorizing, (and has begun to) help me considerably.

If anyone else can relate to this "problem" of mine, I would be open to solutions you might have found!

February 4, 2023, 11:59 AM · I just came across this! Had never thought of this before!

Thank you, algorithms! :)

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