Here’s a dead simple bowing warm-up that just might turn out to be the best thing you ever did for your violin playing.
I’m talking about a warm up that is more than getting your joints and muscles moving. And it’s more than “getting in the zone.”
This is more of a “big-picture” warm-up that creates forward momentum in your playing every time you pick up your violin.
Think about it this way: You should put everything you need into a custom made warm-up. Then everything else you practice is just gravy.
Now that’s a far cry from typical practice, where you just jump in and randomly hammer away at your current songs or pieces. To me, that kind of practice always feels like an uphill battle, where you are constantly grasping for the notes, but can never quite reach them.
But the best players don’t fight that uphill battle; it’s more like a downhill cruise when they practice and when they perform.
Now that’s the kind of practice you want too.
So with that in mind: let’s learn the bow accelerator!
You need: Violin (in tune) and bow. Metronome optional
Your bow wants to move. These warm-ups will add speed, variety, dexterity and pure enjoyment to your bowing.
>>Want more warmups like this? CLICK HERE and I’ll deliver them to your in-box every week
If there’s one thing I admire in a musician it’s courage.
The courage to forget about playing it safe. The courage to be willing to give everything during a performance. Even if doing that could lead to embarrassment or a massive meltdown.
During a recent performance, I had a chance to see that kind of courage in action. A long time friend had to take a big spotlight solo while the rest of our 60 piece orchestra had nothing written. All we could do was stop and listen along with the large audience in attendance.
It was a situation I could relate to; a skilled musician who could easily play the passage in question under normal circumstances. But that doesn’t count for much when you’re expected to play perfectly, even under the spotlight.
So when the orchestra came to a stop and the lights went up, my friend rose to the occasion and gave it everything. Even though it was more than a little uncomfortable. Even though a noticeable tremble began to form in his bow arm, and his sound began to waver ever so slightly. But somehow he held it together to the very end.
I just wanted to tell him: “Slow down. Take your time. Enjoy your moment in the spotlight.”
And though my friend was courageous, he certainly wasn’t having much fun that night. Too many experiences like that, and soon a musician begins to dread the thought of playing a solo.
That performance (and many other similar experiences) remind me of a Jackson Browne lyric:
Take it easy, take it easy
Don’t let the sound of your own wheels drive you crazy
It’s a lyric that reminds me that I’m often my own worst enemy. And that even though I’ve got enough courage there’s still something else that can be missing.
After playing hundreds, maybe even thousands of concerts in my lifetime it’s become obvious that even with the courage to get on stage, the sound of my own wheels can still drive me crazy. Unless I have a rock-solid belief that I can “pull it off.”
The famous violinist Itzhak Perlman said it best: “Trust in your ability.” Over the years I’ve learned that only when I have the kind of deep trust that I could practically play a concert in my sleep, does the real fun begin.
Courage + Trust = FUN
How do you get that kind of trust in your ability? You already know the unexciting answer: you’ve got to practice. But not just any kind of practice.
I spent years practicing and getting nowhere fast. I think my playing may actually have gotten worse during those “random and reactive practice” years.
Why didn’t anyone (like my teachers) tell me that only a certain type of practice could give me what I really wanted: the ability to play at my best without the worry of freaking out that my bow would shake or my palms would go sweaty. The problem was so bad I started reading up on stage fright, while at the same time avoiding auditions and solo performances. At one point I even took drugs to calm my nerves.
Only after years (that’s a story in itself) did I discover that there is a little known way of approaching practice so that it actually makes you feel completely confident in your own ability. And better yet, this practice approach is WAY more interesting than regular practice.
It’s all about getting rid of the bright shiny objects that cloud your focus and instead commit to a daily working process. I call it my “warm-up” routine.
There is a “zen” in violin practice. It’s your best single path to increasing your skills and your enjoyment of the instrument.
More on this to follow. In the mean time, may your violin journey be courageous and FUN!
P.S. Some people are born with a knack for effective practice: it’s called natural talent. The good news is everyone can learn this skill.
I’ll just say it: Many, if not most aspiring musicians have no clear idea of how to get better. In fact, our picture of “getting better” consists of a few fuzzy images that we hope come become real some day in the future.
Getting better at violin (improving your skills) can only happen at one place and time. Right here, right now.
If you started your practice at 1:00 p.m. and can’t point to any clear change in your playing by 1:15 p.m. your session has been a failure. In fact, you may actually play “worse.”
And yet, we pick up our instruments day after day and immediately go into the trance of “someday.” It’s a day which all too often eludes us.
It all begins with a powerful warm-up routine; the very same routine we’ve been discussing over the last weeks. A physical/mental transition, followed by a fine tuning of the senses. These steps take you out of trance and put you squarely in the here and now.
Now we are ready for Part 3, growing our skills. This is where our heightened awareness and sensitivity really put you “in the zone.” You are feeling resourceful and creative. You have an arsenal of strategically crafted practice tools in your back pocket.
Moment by moment, you are discovering new things about the violin, while you naturally move forward on your journey.
Whether you want to play a dazzling Mozart Rondo, or learn how to shred the famous guitar solo in Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way,” it must happen right here, right now. Yet, non-intuitively, we have to let go of attachment to the end result to actually reach it.
Think of it this way: the violin journey is a lot like any other great journey. It’s not about the destination but the journey itself that counts.
The violinist who is mindlessly hammering away at a trophy song is usually attached to a final result. A part of her isn’t in the room to do the work, to discover what’s really inside the music.
“Stop the madness!” I say to her. Let’s pause and come back into the moment. Let us grow our playing organically by using our God given creativity and intelligence. This is how we get better, as human beings and as musicians.
By Part 3 of your warm-up, you’ve honed your senses and you’ve strategically reviewed your goals for the session. Now you are ready for your daily growth.
That Mozart passage requires a tricky set of bow motions. You proceed to break down those motions six different ways until they are dead simple. In five minutes you can feel a small transformation. By the end of 15 minutes, you’ve discovered something new about your bow arm.
And if you want to learn to shred like Joe Perry, you add a simple five note scale to your warm-up routine. Before long, you’re on the way to “Walk this Way” along with countless other similar solos.
With each passing day you get “in the groove” more quickly and with more confidence. And your daily practice becomes a source of constant pleasure.
Key things to remember:
After decades of performing and practicing the hard way, I’m finally hitting my stride. I’m learning difficult music with ease, and enjoying every last detail along the way.
I can honestly say that this is an approach that more people need and I hope this series has been a step in the right direction towards solving the problem of ineffective practice.
I’ve enjoyed sharing this information with you over the last five weeks. Drop me a note with any thoughts or questions about this series. And stay tuned for more. Thanks for reading!
The Alpert Studio of Violin
Dear Violin Co-Journiers,
Last week I shared with you the three parts to an effective warm-up, and described Part 1 in detail. We also learned that most aspiring musicians struggle endlessly with random, reactive practice. That’s why so many end up going in circles until they finally quit out of boredom or frustration. (if you missed that, you can read it online here)
Over the years I’ve been privileged to observe and model many advanced teaching, performing and practice strategies. I’ve “hung-out” with some of the best in the business. These are teachers who have taught violinists that are now celebrities on the world stage. They know what works; they know how to “grow” a violinist from the ground up.
What I’ve learned: players with advanced skills almost always owe their success to “strategic” practicing. Strangely enough, many high level musicians aren’t consciously aware of the strategies they are using, as they’ve become ingrained into a regular practice routine. If you study their practice in detail, you’ll soon begin to see clear patterns.
If you’re going to get anywhere on your violin journey, you need a step-by-step practice routine to get you there. Your routine covers all the skills that are currently on your plate. And it always begins with a warm-up.
After your Part 1 transition, we begin our Fine Tuning, which is perhaps the most crucial part of your practice. Fine tuning is not what it sounds like, adjusting the pitch of your strings or your left hand. Fine tuning goes far deeper than that!
Imagine, for example what it would be like to play the violin with a catcher’s mitt on each of your hands. Surely that would be impossible! You wouldn’t be able to feel a thing, let alone the delicate and nuanced motions of a fine violinist. When we Fine Tune we are “taking our gloves off” and becoming intimately connected to every movement, every motion.
Only by Fine Tuning your senses around the violin can you make the huge-payoff gains that grow your skills. Too many of us “bang away” on the violin for hours only to make matters worse. This type of practice is actually de-tuning, pushing your further away from the skills your are seeking.
Last night I had the rare treat of attending a Santa Barbara California recital of Joshua Bell, perhaps today’s most famous violin soloist. Of course, his performance was overwhelmingly beautiful and his dazzling technical feats were astonishing. But from a violinist’s point of view, I can also saw something at the core of his playing that he did unfailingly, for every second of his two hour plus performance.
Every time you draw the bow across your violin string there is a white hot locus of control. You won’t notice it until you look, but that tiny patch of real estate where bow and string meet is the heart of your voice as a violinist. Controlling that point of contact is the single most defining factor of your playing.
Josh never lost his locus of control. Not for a second. You can do this too.
When you are Fine Tuning during your warm-up, you’re becoming keenly aware of your white hot contact point. You’ll be refining skills such as:
Whether you play in the great concert halls of Europe or you’re simply playing at home for family and friends, a bit of daily Fine Tuning immediately puts an end to that “beginner” sound and gives you the tools you need to create your own signature violin tone.
If you want to sound more like Josh Bell, Mark O’Connor, Joe Venuti, Regina Carter, Itzhak Perlman or any great violin player, the only way to get there is by continually Fine Tuning. Every time you play. The effect adds up quickly, and leads to breakthroughs you probably never thought possible.
Surprisingly, Fine Tuning is a lot simpler than you think. This exercise will get you started.
Fair Warning: The first time you try the above routine, your ingrained practice habits are likely to kick in. Your every cell may want to kick and scream, skip or quickly push through this approach. If this happens, STOP! Go back to Part 1 of your warm-up! It’s not about hammering away for hours or playing more/faster notes. But it’s all about experimenting, noticing and letting go of your immediate expectations. Clearly this is a Zen-like approach to violin. So, light up some incense and embrace it!
The more you follow a regular practice routine, the more you will notice the gains you are making during the Fine Tuning part of your warm-up. There’s nothing like playing the same exercises and/or passages regularly for a year or more to shine a light on your progress. You will learn (like I did) that there’s much more value in going deeper than broader when you are in a skill building phase of your practice.
Key things to remember:
Experience the Fine Tuning exercise above for a day or two and let me know how it goes. Add a comment below; I read everything!
(If you missed Part 2, you can read it here)
Dear Violin Co-Journiers,
Last week we discussed why “reactive” practice doesn’t work. The point I’m trying to get across: your best practice happens only when you plan for it to happen.
Of course, everybody “plans” on improving their skills, but hardly anyone knows how to make a specific plan for exceptional practice to happen. It’s true that sooner or later you might get better at violin by sheer grit and determination, but that’s a risky proposition.
If you are a random, reactive practicer, the odds are stacked against you.
If you are struggling, “don’t quit, don’t quit!” is something you might hear from yourself or from others whose violin skills are ahead of yours. But exactly how and when did these people become more advanced players?
I used to think these advanced players were simply started earlier, worked harder, etc. And in some cases these things could have been a factor. But after years of teaching and working alongside players of every level, it became clear they all had one thing in common:
These “advanced” players, the ones I thought of as luckier or more talented, all had some type of strategic approach to practicing. They weren’t/aren’t slamming away at their violins for hour upon hour for every little improvement. They all found a way to get things done more quickly and easily.
They all had a practice plan, (a strategy) and they all used some practice tricks (tactics) within that plan to make it all work. All of this done right is a lot simpler than it might sound. It works, whether you think you have “talent” or or not, whether you practice for hours or minutes, and even if you’re a complete skeptic!
Now to bring it all back, my #1, go-to violin skill development strategy is to make a comprehensive warm-up part of every practice session. You’ll remember last week we discussed the benefits of a warm-up routine. It clears your mind and provides a transition from the rest of your day. It lubricates your joints and muscles. It fine-tunes your sense of touch.
Doing this at the beginning of your session promotes a sense of ease and fluidity in your playing. You’ll feel it right away. It will feel great just to get your hands around the instrument. You’ll also get a lot more done in the remainder of your session. Others will notice the growing refinement in your playing.
I break my warm-up into three distinct parts. The best part about creating a three part warm-up routine: it improves everything you play, even the songs/pieces that you aren’t practicing that day. Sure, you will want to learn songs and pieces at some point, but when you bring your new found warm-up skills to your music, the notes and phrases will begin to quickly fall into your fingers.
To begin, here’s a simple way to remember your warm-up in three parts:
Part 1: Preliminaries (make a transition)
Part 2: Fine Tuning
Part 3: Growing
To begin, let’s consider Part 1.
To draw an analogy: If you get up in the morning, immediately wash down a cup of coffee, jump into your car and push full speed ahead into your day, burnout will very quickly catch up with you. On the other hand, you could stretch out, do a few simple exercises and top things off with a bit of meditation or gratitude practice. I guarantee that this second approach will make everything about your day better, including your violin practice.
The goal of Part 1 is to make a physical and mental transition into your practice. Perhaps you already have such a habit in place. If you need some ideas you can easily find inspiration in countless books or websites. Or simply find a quiet place to sit and breathe for five minutes. Notice the thoughts that come and go like clouds passing in the sky. Try it before your very next practice session.
Frequently taking such a mental and physical break is helpful even during a practice session. If you accidental drop a pencil during practice, consider it your cue to switch gears. If you find yourself feeling rushed, preoccupied or otherwise distracted during practice stop immediately. You are likely digging yourself into a hole. And that’s definitely not a good practice plan!
To sum up Part 1, here are a few mental trigger words for Part One of your warm-up:
Breathing, touching, stretching, moving, releasing, focussing, clearing
We’ll be talking about Parts 2 and 3 in the next couple of weeks. But there’s one more thing about the entire warm-up routine that I need to share with you today:
Your warm-up can (and should) include ALL of the specific skills you are currently interested in developing.
Example One: You’re preparing to play a song that requires fast finger motions in your left hand. You are tempted to blast your way directly into the song. Don’t! Instead, break out the rapid-fire finger action skill into Part 2 or 3 of your warm-up. I’ll be explaining how you can easily do that.
Example Two: You’ve noticed that your bow arm feels tense when performing certain musical passages. Removing tension is an important goal for many violinists, myself included. Instead of struggling and increasing the tension, simply model your desired bow action during Part 2 of your warm-up routine.
Remember: What you do during the warm-up spills over into every part of your playing. Always keep the cardinal rule of practice in mind: how you practice alone will always be how you play in public.
Your practice is more than a preparation for playing. Your practice is your playing. When you walk out on stage there’s no “performance mode” switch to flip. Your playing in public rarely if ever exceeds what you do in private. Every moment of your practice counts. Every note and every bow stroke matters.
Next week we’ll delve deeply into Parts 2 and 3 of your warm-up. Until then, enjoy your practice! The word we use is play the violin, so bring the attitude of curiosity and joyfulness into everything you do!
The Alpert Studio of Violin