How to improve violin Technique?

October 28, 2017, 3:26 PM · Seems my daughter can only play well on the level below Kreutzer, for music on difficult side of Kreutzer and above, she can't play ok and on tempo.

The private teacher sometimes points out some fix on left/right hand, and always told her to practice more. But not very helpful.

Like this year's Texas High School All State material 'Berkley De Beriot, Op. 123', she can't play ok and on tempo(I assume needs to be playing good to win All State)

I know her foundation is not very good. If the foundation is very critical on technique improvement, is that reasonable to stop playing violin and save money/time?

Replies (29)

October 28, 2017, 4:23 PM · I guess that would depend on her and should be up to no one but her. I would suggest if she wants to continue to play violin and improve, you find her another teacher who can help with her technique. I would encourage you to encourage her to continue to play. "All State" should not be relevant to violin playing. If All State is the only reason she is playing, maybe you wasted your money for a long time.
October 28, 2017, 4:51 PM · What do you mean foundation? What can she play? Are you suggesting that the teacher is unhelpful or is it that the music is way beyond her? All state in Texas is quite competitive - for serious students who have played and practiced the violin for a long time now. Does she intend to go major in it? How much Does she practice? Does she make all region and sits high?

Agree with Jim, 100%. The primary question I have is which factors made you think that her foundation is low?

Edited: October 28, 2017, 4:58 PM · Texas All-State is not a good metric. I've had some excellent students who never made All-State, yet playing the violin adds joy and meaning to their lives.

Does your daughter enjoy playing the violin? If she enjoys it, is she making good progress with her teacher? If the answer to the first question is "yes," and the answer to the second question is "no," then maybe it's time to change teachers.

Editing to add that yes, All-State in Texas is quite competitive; the Region orchestras are more comparable to what All-State is in some other states. One thing to keep in mind is that the judging of All-State tapes is a very imperfect process. The very best players usually--but not always--end up near the top and the weakest players--almost always--end up near the bottom of the rankings. But anything subjective is going to have the imperfections of human nature, and on top of that it's fair to say that many of those judging the All-State string tapes do not actually play at the level of the best students auditioning. I have seen some interesting results through the years. One year my best student got in, but barely--second violin section of the string orchestra--the next year his tape was ranked #9 in the state. Did he improve over the course of that year? Yes, but not nearly that much; the high ranking was much closer to the truth than his low ranking the year before.

Edited: October 28, 2017, 10:14 PM · My guess is that a high school student who has trouble playing Kreutzer-level material (and Jason Yu has mentioned previously that his child's intonation is quite bad) is not going to be making All-State -- not a chance. It's probably a waste of time even to bother preparing the audition repertoire.

If a child likes playing the violin but has poor fundamentals, it's time for a teacher switch. Recognize that this may mean going "backwards" into simpler material so that the technical foundation can be rebuilt properly. After that progress should be much more rapid. The goal at that point is to reach a level of competence that will allow enjoyable amateur playing as an adult -- the level to be a good contributor to a community orchestra and for chamber music.

October 28, 2017, 8:03 PM · I have no idea what "all state" is. I can only tell you, that practicing more and the right stuff will most definitely help to get to a new level. Usually that is fundamentals like scales and.... Kreutzer. If you know how to practice Kreutzer, there is not much else you will need.
So your teacher is right with the advice to practice more. And maybe also pay more attention to what exactly he/she wants to fix in the right and left hand and fix it. A good posture of the hands is key to good technique and free playing.
Edited: October 28, 2017, 9:14 PM · Simon, in the U.S. most if not all states (I am not sure about whether it is all 50 or not) have an organization of music teachers--mostly classroom orchestra, band and choir directors, although private teachers and university faculty are also welcome. In Texas this organization is called TMEA, Texas Music Educators Association.

Also in most if not all states, these organizations sponsor an annual All-State orchestra for the best high school musicians in the state. The quality of these orchestras varies depending on the population of the state and the level of music education, but a few--notably California and Texas--are extremely competitive. The students spend months preparing a prescribed audition list and on a certain day (today, in Texas) audition for the All-State orchestra. Texas is a very large state and so rather than auditioning in person, the students are recorded playing their auditions at designated places all over Texas. The recordings are judged in a central location and the results will be posted in about a week.

Not all states are as competitive as Texas, not by a long shot. The population of New Mexico in total is less than the population of one of the largest cities in Texas, so it can be fairly inferred that making All-State in New Mexico is more equivalent to making one of the Region orchestras in Texas (honor orchestras composed of the best high school musicians in one of a few dozen defined geographic areas within Texas).

The Texas All-State Orchestras (and Bands and Choirs, it's a big deal) rehearse and perform over a three- or four-day period during the state convention in February. They play at an extraordinarily high level. Here's a link to the 2015 Texas All-State Symphony (the highest of the three orchestras) playing Don Juan. The principal oboe of that orchestra that year was **cough cough** my son. :-D (I also had a student seated well up in the second violins.)

Editing to add that if the OP's daughter really plays out of tune, her teacher should have given her a fair appraisal of her chances at All-State. I have advised students not to waste their time preparing the excerpts. I have told other students that I would work with them on the audition but they had to understand that it was for the experience only, that they didn't have a chance of making All-State that year.

Edited: October 29, 2017, 1:53 AM ·
"The private teacher sometimes points out some fix on left/right hand, and always told her to practice more. But not very helpful."......

I often find with teachers that use the terms "practice practice practice", or "you have to practice it more", use these because the don't understand how to get to the next level and fix the root problems. Often the cure is not more practice. Students really need to see improvement each week or month, or they will get frustrated and end up practicing less and not more. Constant frustration and not seeing improvement, longer than 3 months, by a student is usually a sign that a teacher needs to come up with a new strategy or new teacher is needed to get them to the next level.

To define learning: some work = some rewards
To define frustration: more work = less\no rewards

Edited: October 29, 2017, 4:15 AM · Mary, that is a good Don Juan! Thank you for the clarification! We have a similar orchestra in Germany, but it is basically just one for the whole country and they also play on a semi-professional, if not professional level! Congrats, that your son made it as oboist! Especially the woodwinds are usually even more highly competitive. Oboe is a great instrument as well! I also love English horn! Good choice!

Charles, I totally know, what you have in mind, but I kind of have to disagree as a teacher. I have seen many students having lessons with the best teachers and I haven't seen the case yet, where the student, who practices more isn't the better one after a while. So when I say, that practicing more is the key factor I have it as a prerequisite, that the technical instruction in the lessons is decent at least. I have a problem with the attitude of parents, who think a teacher can fix major problems within the short time of the lesson. The main thing happens at home, and if someone wants to really change something, try to go from irregular 1-2 hours to regularly 4 hours of practice. If that will not help, maybe change the teacher. But only after considering his/her advice.
Because the OP marked the advice of the teacher as "not helpful" I am very skeptical, if it maybe is more the ignorance of the student/parents towards the importance of technical details the current teacher tries to teach, what makes them get stuck.
If you have a talented student with intelligent and collaborative parents, even a mediocre teacher will come very far with the student!
I wouldn't say, that changing teacher is always bad. I personally had multiple teachers and always changed based on my own preference. But the way the OP framed the question makes me skeptical, weather or not the teacher is the problem here.
And if we are talking about a level of this all-state orchestra... that is hard hard work and much time invested upfront!

October 29, 2017, 6:34 AM · If there are other good teachers in your area, then making a change is probably a good thing. I stayed too long with the same teacher in childhood and my "fundamentals" suffered badly. My suggestion is just get a few trial lessons and don't try to tell the teacher what you think your child needs. Just have your child play something they know very well and let the teacher assess what is needed. Changing teachers almost always means a step backward. But that step is often overcome very quickly and your child will again be on a good learning curve.
Edited: October 29, 2017, 10:07 AM · My daughter got into Region Orchestra each year from middle school. For out of tone, when she play easy pieces of Kreutzer, mostly in tone. If play difficult pieces of Kreutzer, then more places out of tone. For me, it looks like she reaches technique bottleneck.

Each years's All State has some very difficult materials, like this year's De Beriot, Op. 123 and last year's Bartok.
I believe except top 10 in All State, all other students have some out of tune or inaccuracy places on De Beriot, Op. 123 this year if play at 70-76?

I think most students learning violin here is to win Region and All State, which will help student's college enrollment. Only very few for enjoying. Also every school orchestras here require students to do region audition, students will not feel good if she enjoy violin but fails audition.

Edited: October 29, 2017, 10:35 AM · "I think most students learning violin here is to win Region and All State, which will help student's college enrollment. Only very few for enjoying."

I really hope that students aren't learning violin just to do "All State." That seems like an inefficient and unhappy use of one's time. Conservatories don't care about All State; they care about how you play in your audition. And for top universities, "All State" is not as distinguishing for college applications as you'd think, not when every other applicant in your community is also claiming the exact same thing, and without actually liking it.

Edited: October 29, 2017, 12:28 PM · Frieda is exactly right.

At some point in time, parents -- especially Asian parents -- got into their head that the ideal kid for college admissions, especially at the Ivy League, is highly academically accomplished, plays violin and piano, has done a STEM research project with a prestigious mentor, and maybe has an individual sport like tennis. In many cases, they also insist that the kid do nothing but study -- they feel that having friends is a waste of time, so the kids have neither personal interests or good social skills (and social skills form the core of leadership skills).

This is not, in fact, what competitive colleges are looking for, especially when all the kids are so formulaic that they might as well have been stamped out by machines, and when these kids often have zero passion for any of these activities (or the future career in medicine, engineering, or law that their parents have decided is the one they're pursuing).

So why do competitive colleges look for kids who are accomplished in one or more extracurricular activities? Because they are looking for students that are going to enrich their community by their presence -- and hopefully also make a positive impact upon their communities in their years after college. And they want people who are going to be positive presences on campus -- friendly, enthusiastic, empathetic, capable of seizing initiative and setting their own goals and leading.

A kid who has a genuine passion for playing the violin, regardless of their level of accomplishment, is enormously different from the kid who is dutifully trudging through it because their parents have insisted on them doing so, often in misguided pursuit of a "trophy" like All-State (which is far less distinguishing than you think, even in a highly competitive state). The kid who loves playing the violin is probably going to keep doing so in college. They'll join the university orchestra, or play pit for musicals, or play chamber music, or go out and volunteer-teach disadvantaged kids, or whatever. As adults, they might continue to play in community groups or play chamber music -- or they might just be enthusiastic patrons of the arts and perhaps donors to arts organizations. Either way, that passion informs and illuminates their lives, and the environment around them is better for it.

What schools are absolutely not interested is the kid who has just been following the formula that their parents have erroneously concluded is the Winning Way to an Ivy Followed By a Lucrative Career. Those kids are unlikely to have discovered their true passion (or it's been ruthlessly suppressed by their Parent With a Plan), are somewhat indifferent to what they've been forced to do, and can't contribute to the richness of the community because their inner lives aren't actually enriched. Most of those kids, for instance, put down their violin the moment they get their college admissions letter, or certainly when they graduate from high school, and they never pick it up again in life -- in fact, they might hate playing and never want to hear a piece of classical music again in their life.

It's a terrible life plan, and it's also not a successful one. I can't tell you how many Ivy League alumni interviewers despair at the parade of undifferentiated Asian kids they interview. Don't be that parent.

If your daughter wants to play the violin for enjoyment, she should play the violin, and she should get a teacher who helps to inspire her, and who can build her technique in a solid fashion that will serve her ability to continue to enrich her life, and the lives of those around her, with music. Intonation is a fundamental for violinists; it shouldn't go seriously off-kilter for a student at the Kreutzer level. "Mostly" in tune is unacceptable for violinists at the intermediate level and above.

Edited: October 29, 2017, 12:45 PM · 100% agree with Frieda and Lydia. My goal for my students is not that they make All-State (though some do); it is that through learning to play the violin they can bring joy to themselves and others in their lives.
October 29, 2017, 1:09 PM · Also I wanted to comment on this: "Also every school orchestras here require students to do region audition, students will not feel good if she enjoy violin but fails audition."

That's not true. In my high school, yes, many of the students were required to do the regional audition. But those who either weren't going to make it, or just didn't care, didn't stress about it. It was a Saturday in which we'd go, meet other students, eat junk food, play in a Really Huge Orchestra (just the sheer surround of sound is kind of a magnificent experience), and hang out with our friends while we were waiting for our audition turn.

I will tell you that some of the very best students just don't care about making Regionals or All-State, either -- they might not even bother to audition -- which is part of why it doesn't really matter that much to college admissions committees.

Edited: October 29, 2017, 2:07 PM · It is true that some orchestra directors require all their students, or at least all the students in their top orchestras, to audition for all region. I don't know anyone who requires all their students to audition for all-state. Either way, I really wish the directors would not do this. The students who are forced to take this audition who do not want to be there typically show up unprepared and just slop through the material. I don't blame them.
October 29, 2017, 2:34 PM · ..., students will not feel good if she enjoy violin but fails audition.

I also want to add to Lydia's comment on this particular line of thinking, particularly with respect to feeling bad about failure. To me, a part of the benefits of early music education in my life is that I learned how to deal with failure. The earlier one learns this and the better for future success in any area one pursues.

Edited: October 29, 2017, 3:33 PM · Practically speaking, if your daughter is only a freshman or sophomore it is possible for her before she graduates to make all state in my opinion but that would require hours of practice each day and complete dedication. I don't pretend to know the scene anymore in TX so that might not be true.

In all fairness, having all state in her college application does make her stand out and it is a goal many have especially if she wins local competitions!

Failing is a good learning experience and might be a wake up call.

You mentioned bottleneck. This happens to many violinists (if not all) and most work through it and eventually overcomes it. The bottleneck whatever it is whenever it occurs depends on the effort and innate talent of the musician as well as motivation. Maybe she does need another teacher to take her to the next level. Is she practicing as much as she should? Does she enjoy playing? What is her opinion in all of this? Could you get a second opinion? Keep supporting her.

Congrats Mary to your son! That is quite an accomplishment! You should be proud. And further accolades to having your students make All State. You are doing right.

Edited: October 29, 2017, 3:41 PM · "Congrats Mary to your son! That is quite an accomplishment! You should be proud. And further accolades to having your students make All State. You are doing right."

Thank you, I am very proud. :-) Unfortunately that concert was pretty much the end of my son's serious oboe career. He is an engineering major and loving it. Also, that son had #1 oboe at All-State plus 1600 SATs and grades to match, and was waitlisted at Stanford. My other son was a three-year All-Stater on double bass, 1600 SATs plus merit scholar plus grades to match, waitlisted at Harvard. I can hardly wait to see who waitlists my daughter. All-State might mean something within Texas but it doesn't seem to mean a whole lot outside.

Editing to add, I am very proud of my students who make All-State but in all honesty they do so at a cost. The student who was in the orchestra I linked upthread was told by his prospective violin teacher at a solid second-tier school that he had a very small repertoire for someone who played at his level. My response to that was, "Yes, because we spent a year on Don Juan." (only a small exaggeration) I have also had excellent students who decide after a year or two of All-State that they're done with it because of the time commitment required to prepare the audition. It's very common for conservatory-bound students to skip All-State their senior years in order to prepare college auditions.

Edited: October 29, 2017, 4:38 PM · Mary Ellen, wow, such a professional sounding orchestra! Congratulations! Oboe is such a beautiful and difficult instrument to master. Sometimes I find it sounds more beautiful than violin. How's that possible?
October 29, 2017, 5:11 PM · I love the sound of the oboe. :-)

I have a cartoon saved on my computer that consists of two little girls walking side by side with violin cases, the one saying to the other, "My plan is to keep practicing until I get really good so I can totally disappoint my parents when I quit," which pretty much sums up how I feel about #2 son and the oboe.

October 29, 2017, 6:35 PM · As teachers, if a student is struggling with something, it is always a good idea to suggest strategies to correct it, rather than saying things like "practice more", "control the bow", "listen to your sound", etc. If the student is not making progress, even with specific strategies, then the student isn't practicing enough (not necessarily time wise). If the teacher is not suggesting strategies to correct problems, then it's time to find a new teacher. Also keep in mind that students do not have to learn etudes (unless required for exams, auditions, etc) if the teacher assigns lots of technique-building exercises and repertoire to make up for it (my teacher, for instance, is like this, at least for me).
October 29, 2017, 7:26 PM · Yes, actually practicing is the art we all should want to learn!
Edited: October 29, 2017, 7:42 PM · Haha, Mary Ellen, that's funny! I'm so happy for you though. Your kids sound like some of those very lucky people whom I've met and play with in chamber groups (physicians, lawyers, professors, etc.) who are doing something very well in their non-music field while playing at near professional level stress-free. What more can we ask for?

Edit: Regarding the art of practice, I highly recommend John Harnum's The Practice of Practice: How to Boost Your Music Skills.

October 30, 2017, 10:19 AM · I agree enjoy violin is the most important thing on learning it. But here in the city, I didn't see students pay for course and not do audition.

For more accurate, the school orchestra requires top 2 orchestras must attend region audition. Unfortunately my daughter not agree to downgrade.

For Ivy League enrollment, I think they consider students' accomplishments instead of how many friends they made or if they followed parents' routing, because those are not measurable.

I think the reason my daughter can't break the bottleneck maybe due to 1)Not practicing cleverly 2)The teacher doesn't have correct strategies.

The teacher did tell me that some students can't go beyond Kreutzer level, is that true?

Edited: October 30, 2017, 10:33 AM · It's fine to attend the auditions. But just keep in mind that it might not be useful to spend much time practicing for them. That's especially true for technically deficient students, whose time is going to be more productively used elsewhere.

You're wrong about Ivy League admissions (as well as admissions to other high-level competitive colleges). At the baseline, yes, schools are looking for students who meet a certain academic baseline. Beyond that, though, they are looking to build an interesting student community, and they are trying to choose students who are going to be future leaders in the world. The quantifiable list of achievements, especially if everyone else has the same achievements, are less important than you think they are. (I say this as an Ivy League graduate, with a lot of Ivy League friends, who remain involved in the interviewing process and know what's being looked for.)

They don't care about how many friends someone has, but they do care about social skills. Social skills aren't quantifiable, but you can be absolutely certain that they are looking for them (and your interviewer, and possibly on-campus visit observers) will be grading them and writing comments about them.

An interviewer is not going to have very much trouble distinguishing between students who are on a path because their parents put them on it, and students who have a genuine passion for what they are doing. And you can bet that this will show up in the interviewer's notes and rating.

Similarly, if a kid is going to follow a stereotypical Asian path, even if this is genuinely what they want to do there had better be something in their interview, essays, and recommendations that helps them stand out from the thousand other kids that look identical, that says this is who I am rather than this is who my parents wanted me to be.

Also, being who your parents want you to be is a recipe for a miserable adulthood for the person in question. I recognize that there's a cultural difference involved here -- Asian parents are more likely to narcissistically think that their children exist to please them (and should have their own children to perpetuate this cycle of brokenness of parental servitude / "filial piety") -- but Asian children raised in the US are likely to have the realization in adulthood (with or without therapy) that perhaps they'd have been better off if they'd been allowed to bloom into their own passions.

I don't agree that some students can't get beyond the Kreutzer level, and it sounds from your comments that your daughter is actually having issues at the Kreutzer level. I expect that it's likely a combination of the quality of teaching, and not actually practicing the way that the teacher has instructed.

Lack of motivation to practice is also likely to lead to unfocused, not-very-useful practicing (or simply inadequate time practicing). If your daughter has no desire to play, she's probably not going to progress at the rate of someone who's interested in playing well.

Edited: October 30, 2017, 11:16 AM · I would listen to Lydia on college admissions, and also please keep in mind that it's possible to have a full, happy and successful life even without an Ivy League degree. Of my children mentioned in a previous comment, my oldest son (waitlisted at Harvard) graduated from the University of Oklahoma as a Merit Scholar, Summa Cum Laude, Phi Beta Kappa, with two degrees (one in philosophy and one in mathematics). If he chooses to go to law school, I think his score on the LSAT will matter more than the fact that his degrees aren't from an Ivy League school--except maybe in the case of an Ivy League law school, but you know, lots of successful attorneys didn't go Ivy League.

My younger son, the one waitlisted at Stanford, is currently a junior at UT-Austin's excellent (nationally ranked) engineering college. He was an intern at NASA last summer and has another internship at another first-rank government installation coming up next summer--I don't want to say the name because he's still completing paperwork, but you would recognize it.

I don't worry about my sons' future success in life. Ivy League is not everything, and I think we could all name an Ivy League graduate or two whose paths in life are nothing to emulate.

Editing to add regarding a bottleneck: part of a teacher's responsibility is to demonstrate productive practicing techniques to the students. If your daughter's teacher isn't instructing her in *how* to practice, that's a problem.

Edited: October 30, 2017, 11:50 AM · Wow, Texas All-State auditions sound like a major downer. I'm trying to imagine myself in the shoes of an advanced intermediate/early advanced high school student who, by virtue of playing in the school orchestra, is required to spend gobs of time on orchestral excerpts/tricky etudes, knowing all the while that acceptance is probably not happening. And the incumbent pressure from peers/parents...and the opportunity cost that Mary Ellen so excellently describes.

All-State in North Carolina in the early 90s was so low-key by comparison. We had to play something comparatively easy from a short list (e.g. Bach A minor, Handel D Major Sonata)–something most of us had already learned–and then a three-octave scale. There was probably sight-reading but I don't remember learning any excerpts. Preliminary seating was conditional on acing excerpts from the actual concert, and I remember dropping a few chairs by failing to nail the tricky section from The Moldau. But that makes sense: you learn the piece you're going to play and are judged on your ability to play it shortly before the concert.

I cannot emphasize enough how little all this will matter a few years from now, unless the All-State process is so painful that it turns students off from playing. It would be highly disappointing if a negative All-State experience led to someone quitting their instrument prematurely.

October 30, 2017, 12:17 PM · I bothered with practicing for the Illinois All-State audition one year because I wanted to do the road trip / orchestra party. That consisted of actually looking at the music (audition excerpts were not announced and could be drawn from anything on the All-State concert) a week in advance, rather than the night before, like I'd done for Regionals. :-)

My impression is that absent serious under-preparation, back then in Illinois, violinists usually got ranked almost identically to how they were seated in the Chicago Youth Symphony, with a handful of students from downstate inserted. Prep didn't matter much up front; it did further back. It was still exceptionally competitive, though, and in some ways, more competitive for the Chicago-area Regional than All-State, due to the fact that pretty much all the good players lived in Chicago and its 'burbs.

(For context, I was seated fifth. #1 through #4 went to Curtis, Yale with a double major, Curtis, and Oberlin thereafter; they're now a pro quartet player, a museum curator, a Chicago Symphony violinist, and a NY Phil violinist, respectively. I am pretty sure nobody cared that we made All-State.)

October 30, 2017, 12:21 PM · Occasionally we will get resumes for an opening in our orchestra in which All-State is listed...I roll my eyes SO HARD at that. All-State is completely irrelevant in the pro world.

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