Category Archives for Practicing the Violin

“How to Get Your Kids Unstuck on a Song”

Gossec Gavotte

Gossec Gavotte: Song from Hell or Heaven Sent?

If you’re a Suzuki parent, you probably remember the song entitled Gavotte by Gossec. Some might know it as “the song from hell.”

As a teacher, I find the song quite magical; it contains several passages that enable me to read the mind of a young violinist, and to surmise much about his “musical parenting” as well.

These seemingly unplayable fast groups of 16th notes, are being encountered for the first time by a Book 1 Suzuki student. It’s the kind of passage seems to induce what musicians commonly call “black note fever.”

Seven year old John, might think (or even verbalize) “this is beyond me.” Hence, he’ll play and improve the large part of song for week upon week, though the execution of this particular passage itself never seems to change much. He has metaphorically left the room and shut off the lights. Completion of this project was filed in the “someday” or “never” category.

Winning the Mental Game

Enter six year old Susan, an equally skilled student. Upon facing the same passage, she experiences a completely different internal dialog. “My family and teacher gave me this age appropriate problem, and so they expect me to solve it.” And before long, the “impossibly” difficult passage, looks pretty much like the rest of the song.

Both Susan and John have yet to develop a mature practice strategy, yet Susan’s “I can solve this now” belief system stimulates a vastly higher quality of work on her part. If only by a process of elimination, she will ultimately discover one or more keys to unlock the difficulties in the notes.

And it doesn’t stop there. That same “I can do it now” internal dialog fires up a student’s motivation and zest for the violin journey. It’s a circle of positive self-reinforcement that grows ever larger and stronger. These kids rarely crawl to their lessons with an excuse of “I’ve had a really busy week.”

Make This Work for Your Family

The confident six year old recitalist who can easily and brilliantly perform Gossec almost automatically gets the “talented” label. This, as if only the chosen few were fortunate enough to end up on the planet with the super-prodigy-violinist gene. Well let me just say, this just isn’t so. Any six year old with average motor skills has the ability to pull off the Book 1 Gavotte.

 The wise family sees music as a journey of self discovery that gives a child something far beyond a “fun” activity, far beyond mere self-esteem.

Many a family sees their children’s music lessons as just one more extracurricular activity that happens to be centered around playing songs on an instrument. The wise family sees music as a journey of self discovery that gives a child something far beyond a “fun” activity, far beyond mere self-esteem.

All of that said, here’s my advice to parents who are serious about music for their kids:

1. Don’t use the T word. It will only make you kids think they “have it” or don’t. Either way, the result will kill the motivation to improve.

2. Don’t pamper your kids with praise for their half-hearted efforts. Instead, be the benevolent dictator that helps them discover their own ability to solve problems and succeed. Music may not always be fun, but at times can bring joy, bliss and elation, when mastered.

3. As a parent, part of your job is to keep the kids motivated and excited about their music lessons. Why would they be enthusiastic, if your head is buried in a magazine during the entire lesson, if you never take them to a great concert, or if you’re indifferent to the topic of music in general?

Be it Gossec Gavotte or the Sibelius Concerto, the challenge of continual progress is truly met within our minds. For the student and the family, we must always expect quality work, continual improvement and a sense of focused ease while practicing. As a parent, you are the hero that must make it happen.

What are your thoughts about kids and music? Please add a comment below. Thanks!

Poisoned Practice

If there’s any one way to make practice time painful and counterproductive, it is to practice in the land of “will be.” That’s because the oxygen of practice is visible improvement and immediate results. Invincible musicians universally share a “success now” practice regimen.

“Will be” musicians are not “wanna be” players. The former often pay their dues in spades. But their endless hours in the practice room are poisoned by a faulty internal dialog and a matching mindless practice method which is inherently ineffective.

Practicing in the world of “will be” always produces low quality work, despite endless repetition and an interminable work schedule.

The famous violinist Itzhak Perlman famously warns against practicing more that a few hours a day. This, in contrast to legions of 8 hour a day practice zombies that fill the practice rooms and dorms of music conservatories. Perlman clearly knows something that these musicians don’t.

Or, more specifically, Mr. Perlman’s practice is guided by his deep internal belief in his own efficacy, be it on the stage or in the practice room.

Your own practice alone can’t make you Invincible. Invincibility begins from the inside out. Ultimately your practice routine becomes exponentially more effective as it becomes congruent with your beliefs. And similarly, Invincible practice serves to bolster your internal dialog.

Too many musicians are put into situations that will only serve to cripple their future efforts. The scars can run deep. As a teacher, it is my heartfelt obligation to provide my students with a significant track record of positive experiences. And to provide the tools that they can use to achieve it.

Whether your goal is mastering Lightly Row or the Tchaik Concerto, the task can be (and must be) achieved with ease. You must find success at every turn or every turn will become a detour.

Stated another way: you must find the patience to become successful in the moment. That’s at the heart of being Invincible.

What are your favorite practice strategies? Please add your comment!

Violin: How to Guarantee Success

Young Violinist masters the Vivaldi concerto

New music students (and their families) often think learning violin is about soaking up the lessons. That the private teacher will give them those mad skills. So get some lessons, then go out into the world and use what you learned. Practice to refine it and to improve retention. All’s well and good, except…

What you can get out of a 30 minute lesson is just a skimpy slice of the pie. Surprisingly, the process of becoming a proficient musician is more like being a combination of an inventor, explorer and planner. Your teacher can only give you the raw ingredients of the  of the recipe; it’s up to you to actually make something of it.

So forget about coming to lessons and mindlessly spitting out what you’ve learned. Or watching videos on the internet and trying to copy other violinists playing your favorite songs. Learning violin requires that you engage your brain and your best powers of observation. It demands a patient attitude and a lot of curiosity.

If you’re proficient at music, it’s because you’ve learned how to solve these progressively more complex problems. But if you’re bored, stuck, frustrated and/or no longer making progress, it’s likely because you don’t have a solid strategy to improve your playing.

Repeating a song or musical passage over and over until you’re bored to tears is an almost certain recipe for failure. Instead let your sense of discomfort or frustration be your guidepost. Your mind is telling you that what you are doing isn’t going to produce the result you want. You need something more.

In my studio, once we get past the basics we kick into our “creative problem solving” mode. I demonstrate some simple strategies to fix a problem passage, and ask the student to do the same.

“Bobby, next week, show me three different ways to improve this weak spot” goes right into the homework assignment. “And playing it over and over until it sounds good doesn’t count.”

Surely a violin newbie will be hard pressed to come up with much of a list. So I supply a menu from which the student can select the most effective and appropriate choice. For example, here are some items from my “take away” menu for young violinists.

TAKE AWAY SOMETHING from a problem to make it simpler

  • Remove the rhythm and play it in quarter notes
  • Remove the bowings
  • Play it in an easier position/fingering
  • Work on a smaller section and expand to surroundings
  • Use a slower tempo, when improved, make a meaningful tempo increase and try again.
  • Use less tone or vibrato
  • Don’t play across syncopated ties (similar to remove bowings)
  • Use pizzicato instead of bow
  • Use the bow without the violin hand
  • Left hand only and bow 2″ above string
  • Left hand only and sing or count
  • Bow only and sing or count
  • Freeze time after every note and take stock of bow position

The concept behind the take away strategy is simple: problems become easy to solve once you’ve isolated them to their most basic components. This enables you to make visible progress in just minutes. That alone is super motivating for a student of any level.

What are your favorite practice strategies? Please help me grow the list by commenting, sharing or tweeting. Thanks!

How much money are you wasting on violin lessons?

It’s a fair question.

When I was a young student, I wasted my share of family funds in the violin studio. I was unprepared. I didn’t fully understand what the teacher was saying. The subject matter was over my head. The teacher couldn’t explain it in a way I could understand. It could be 1000 things. And over the years, it probably *was* 1000 things..

And it’s not all on the student side; teachers are human… they make mistakes too. They miss things that should be fixed. Or they don’t know how to correct problems that the students brings into the studio.

Enter the real world; distracted parent, exhausted student and frustrated teacher. This is not a recipe for making progress on the violin.

It gets me when people worry about the high cost of private lessons, then turn around and barely put any effort into making good use of the invested time and money. It just doesn’t make any kind of sense.

That’s why Invincible Violinists are always fully prepared. They value their time and money. They want to use their teacher’s expertise in the best possible way. Whether in the studio or at home, they’re embracing the best practices.

The most expensive violin lessons you can ever take, are the ones you have to take over. And over, and over.

If you find this information helpful, please share or tweet this page or post, using the buttons below. Thanks!

Violin Lessons, Turn Signals and Intersections

The city where I live took more than a year to approve a stop light at a busy intersection near my home. When crews finally began construction, I saw activity at the site for many weeks. But there was little visible progress. No lights, no stripes, no traffic control at all.

Finally, one day almost a year later, the shiny new signal lights stood guard at the intersection. In fact, they were installed in a matter of hours. Then it all became clear: the end was the easy part. But the months of planning, drilling, digging and wiring seemed unrewarded and unnoticed. One morning’s work is what got all the attention.

Your violin journey will likely be much the same. The first months, even the first year of lessons may not produce a result that looks glamorous or exciting. Still, it’s the most crucial period of time in any violinist’s lifetime. Doing things correctly at the start make it possible to reach the Mozart Concerti and beyond.

In the perfect curve of a tiny five year old finger, I see a brilliantly executed concerto passage. In the simple arc of an arm are the seeds of a rich and mature violin tone. It doesn’t look like much, at least to the untrained eye.

In the perfect curve of a tiny five year old finger, I see a brilliantly executed concerto passage.

Patience and vision and resolve are by far the most important virtues for a violin family. Too many folks try to sandwich this long term project into a few remaining slivers between soccer practice and homework.

When your child mounts the stage and plays her first Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, it’s a 90 second reflection of months and hour upon hour of dedication. It’s a celebration of a family’s resolve.

Practice is a pleasurable activity for an Invincible Violinist. He works to make sure that is so. That’s not to say there won’t be some moments that test our mettle.

The decision to begin a violin journey is always easier than the many decisions that follow. There’s a decision point at each intersection of the journey’s path with a busy family schedule. Greet each intersection with care. That’s how to make the journey successful.