Sunday, August 9, 2009

Biggest Key to Playing Violin - for me anyway

I love playing the violin. And part of being able to love playing to violin means that it has to sound good. I thought I'd share some practice tips to get to that goal of "sounding good."

The biggest key to playing the violin is breaking down "hard" parts down to simpler parts.

How do I break down complex passages into simpler parts?
Each of these items below are very important to me. The advice below is the same advice I give myself as I struggle through difficult passages. Breaking down hard parts in to simpler parts -takes some practice too. This process in itself takes some skill!
  • 1st identify the challenges
  • Work slowly. Slow work is key to accurate faster work.
  • Use syncopation - dotted rhythms and be sure to do the reverse syncopation.
  • Change the rhythms to speed/slow down the hard parts (similar to syncopation, but it's putting more fast notes together and holding out fewer notes than a 50/50 split with the syncopation)
  • Use looping - playing the same passage over and over without stopping - it saves a lot of time
  • Use lots of repetition. It takes time - be patient, and keep at it. But when you repeat a passage, keep the passage itself relatively short, so that your body and mind gets to "try it again" before too much time goes by and then "forgetting" sets in. In otherwords, if you make the passage you want to repeat 1 minute long, the parts that were played wrong don't get repeated till the next minute. It would be better if the passage were a 10 second passage or less. Thus in that 1 minute, you could repeat it 6 times. As you get closer to being concert ready - then the passages of practice of course need to be longer than 10 seconds otherwise the piece wouldn't seem like a whole (it would then seem like a bunch of fragments glued together - but this is for another discussion).
  • Memorize the passage. This way you can wander away from your music stand. Play at a different corner of the room or a different location in your house. This may give you a different perspective on this passage - and of course help you fight some boredom. Once in a while, it's ok to let your mind wander a little as you develop some finger automaticity. But it's usually good to have an inner dialogue with yourself while you are practicing.
  • Be your own coach. Hear your own voice telling you how to do it better and what was wrong.
  • Visualize it before going to sleep at night or if you're bored somewhere - this becomes a good use of time.
  • Love your metronome. It will help you as you crank up the speed. You can set it at a slow speed to start and inch it up. You can play these metronome games with yourself and it will help against some boredom.
  • If you're working on a left hand finger technique challenge, do pay attention to the bowing. Know the correct bowing while practicing the passage, yet once in a while, purposely vary the bowing for variety - such as throw in a few up bow staccato for fun.
  • Believe in yourself that amazing things will happen if you work at it.
  • You may not get the passage right away in one practice session - let your body rest, and your mind will continue practicing. It might be better the next day.
  • Pace yourself. Don't get injured. Some musical passages just seem like finger gymnastics - some can be harmful if practiced too long for fingers, hands and arms that aren't built up for them. I set a timer for 10 minutes and use it to remind myself to take a little stretch break (about 30 seconds), then I plow right back in my practice session.
  • Another way to pace yourself is to pick two hard passages, and alternate practicing each one, so that the body doesn't get so over-used in the same repetitive motion. This adds some variety. So alternate practicing two or three hard parts is an idea. For example you could spend 5 minutes on the first passage and then spend another 5 minutes on the 2nd passage. Take a 30 second stretch break and then go back to the first passage, etc.
  • Consider working backwards. I don't mean play the passage backwards, but I mean to start at the end of the hard passage (playing forwards), then work to the beginning of the hard passage - working out the segments, then put it together into one larger segment. For example if you were were a non-English speaker and wanted to say the word "Entertainment" start by saying "ment" then "tainment" then "tertainment" and finally "Entertainment". This might be another key that cracks a hard passage.
  • Don't mind that some of these passages are easy for other people - every person's body is different and thus we all have different challanges.
  • Overpractice - make these passages so automatic that they really start to seem easy. When we're on stage, we tend to lose some of our perfection... So make it better than "perfect".
  • Xerox the hard passage and paste it on a separate piece of paper - collect all these "trophy" hard parts and make it part of your daily warm up - so that these hard passages will be under your fingers for life!

Hopefully the above server as a nice intro to how to practice by breaking down difficult passages into smaller manageable ones. Each bullet point could probably be a book chapter in itself.

Sometimes the biggest "secrets" are very simple - such as this one.

Good luck!

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  1. Excellent post. I definitely appreciate this site. Thanks for this violin lessons.

  2. I truly believe that this post is wonderful. I've been playing the violin for ten years now, and I'm currently trying to work through the third movement of the Sibelius Violin Concerto. Sometimes, I see the piece as a 400 meter track and field race--arguably the hardest one with regards to stamina requirement. There are definitely some difficult parts in the piece, including the thirds-progression about one minute into the movement, but I've used some of your tips before to help me. I never thought of "over-practicing" before because my musician friends have told me about the physical pains that can come of it, but I can attest to the validity of your statement since I remember messing up a bit while performing the Khachaturian Violin Concerto on stage even though I had played it perfectly while practicing at home. As you stated, I might need to research Sibelius and the piece itself as well as to contemplate the style and tonality I need to employ as well as introduce my own interpretation in order to play the piece satisfactorily. I need to remind myself that not even professional violinists like Hahn and Perlman can just play herculean pieces immediately. They also have to break the pieces apart. Thank you so much for the amazing advice! I will definitely use them while practicing!