Imagine your favorite violinist on stage gesticulating wildly through crazy difficult musical passages. Like Maxim Vengerov in the Sibelius Concerto, as seen in the video above. The theatrics of this kind of performance captures the imagination of the public. To some extent as violinists we are influenced by these images as well.
Don’t be fooled; deep inside the dramatic and romanticized images that Maxim Vengerov projects in performance is the razor sharp economy and control of Nathan Cole, also picture in the video above. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with motion on stage, especially when it is organically felt by the performer. The (all too common) problem comes when we use motion as a crutch. Or when it becomes a manifestation of stress, tension or nerves.
I’ve personally learned that the ability to quiet your body and mind provides far more access and control over the fine motor actions you need to play the violin, at any level. The habit of overplaying, of working too hard is difficult to shake once entrenched. So it makes sense to focus on ease and economy of motion regardless of what you are practicing.
Stated another way: you can spend hundreds of hours practicing intricate and complicated technique only to have it obliterated in the heat of the moment. Perhaps the most underrated musical skill is cultivating the ability to do more with less, always removing that which is unnecessary and unhelpful.
Economy of motion and ease of execution should be at the heart your practice. Begin today, by doing more with less.
Is it your experience (like mine) that playing the violin is a journey of a highs quickly followed by lows?
One day on top of the world, I can play practically anything. The very next day, even a simple challenge can seem baffling.
Logically you know that it’s better not to buy into either of these extreme story lines. Clearly, you’re not as great (or as terrible) as you might be telling yourself any given moment.
Still those “off the charts” thoughts and feelings are likely to plague you in any goal oriented project, such as mastering a musical instrument. They can distract, annoy or depress your for weeks on end.
Or… you can take the middle path.
You learn to simply notice the passing thoughts of a chattering mind without believing those thoughts. Noticing your thinking is part of your practice, just like playing scales.
Then, you pick up your fiddle and continue your violin journey with renewed clarity, creativity and a sense of joy.
Now, you begin to trust yourself. “Yes! my practice does work, and that’s all that really matters.”
Meditation teacher Jack Kornfield describes it this way:
Learning to rest in the middle path requires a trust in life itself. It is like learning to swim. I remember first taking swimming lessons when I was seven years old. I was a skinny, shivering boy flailing around, trying to stay afloat in a cold pool. But one morning there came a magical moment lying on my back when I was held by the teacher and then released. I realized that the water would hold me, that I could float. I began to trust. Trusting in the middle way, there is an ease and grace, a cellular knowing that we, too, can float in the ever-changing ocean of life which has always held us.
Thats’s really all there is, but it changes everything! When you begin to turn off that chattering mind you’ll feel the freedom of really great practice.
If clear minded, joyful practice resonates with you, read about Practice Circle Program charter membership.
1. Consider all the new songs/pieces, the scales, the bowing exercises. Everything you’re currently working on. It can add up fast!
2. Grab a yellow pad and put it all on a list.
3. Move half the items to a new list, called “coming attractions.”
4. The remaining items: this becomes your working list. Use all your new found time to go deeper, twice as deep as you could have before. Now without the burden of a long list, notice how you can indulge your creativity, curiosity and sense of fun.
5. Then, after you’re feeling good about your working list, go back to your coming attractions list. Now repeat the process: go twice as deep with these items too, but now with the added benefit of everything you’ve learned.
Enjoy the benefits, and this radical idea: the easiest practice is also the best.
If you’re seeking to create positive change in your violin playing, it’s almost certain you’ll feel discomfort during that process.
Want to improve your tone? Making changes in your bow hold or adding vibrato will certainly feel awkward in the short term. Hoping to play better in tune? Your developing pitch acuity will make you crazy until things settle in.
It’s feels better to simply learn a new tune, or jam with some friends.
Usually, when we’re ready to improve our technique, we think, “this is going to help me move ahead, and create more opportunities. I’m excited about it.”
That’s all well and good, but what’s a lot more difficult (and also more helpful) is to say all of the above plus, “and this is going to make me uncomfortable.”
It’s fairly clear that we humans all share a bit of a negativity bias. When presented with a situation that could go two ways, we’re prone to predict it will go badly more often then not.
That’s a great quality if you’re a caveman worried about being eaten by a saber tooth tiger.
When it comes to violin practice, we often generalize in the same way, though it’s not quite as useful.
Recently, in the middle of a practice session I was thinking “there’s no way I can play this etude properly,” when in reality the situation was a lot more nuanced. Large sections of the music were totally fine.
I had generalized the problem in a way that wasn’t helpful.
Better to just think about the specific challenges in a more granular way. It turns out that problem was isolated to a specific motion on a specific string.
Looking past all the misplaced negativity allowed me to focus my practice much more efficiently. I fixed the problems quickly.
Negativity as an emotion is toxic to practice. Instead, use your “negativity” in more of a left brain context. “This specific problem in this specific spot isn’t what I want.”
Certainly, critical judgment is an important part of practice. It’s a positive way of being negative.
Next time you’re feeling down on your playing, stop and notice the emotion of the moment. What triggered this feeling? Take a break, do some stretching and hit the reset button.
Can you separate the emotion from what’s actually happening on your violin? Can you get clear about the actual problem(s), right now?
Feeling stuck and depressed during practice?
Clearing the negativity cloud will soon create a spacious attitude in your right brain. You become more sensitive, more aware. Creative solutions will appear without effort!
Try it yourself and let me know what happens!