Category Archives for Practicing the Violin

Song of the Month: Bach Peasant Cantata Bowing Practice

June 2017: Part 2 – Bow Practice

Update: Last week I posted a recording of Bach’s Peasant cantata along with the sheet music and bowing practice. View and/or download these items at this link. I’ve updated the practice handout to make things more clear, so you may wish to download a fresh copy.

If there’s one thing you need to know practicing music, it’s that the sheet music on the stand in front of you doesn’t begin to capture the heart and soul of the music.

It’s your job as a musician to create that aura or mood around the music while your playing it. It won’t happen by accident.

Beginning and intermediate violinists don’t get a pass on this idea. Your job as artist and interpreter starts on day one. Leave out this crucial step and your music resembles playing a tune using the keypad of a telephone. Dull and lifeless.

The heart and soul of your interpretation begins with the bow arm, so that’s where we’ll begin our work.

The Peasant Cantata, like much of J.S. Bach’s music is adaptable to almost any style of playing. For our purposes, create interest and variety in the music by introducing variety of bowing styles.

We’ll use three separate bowing techniques:

  1. A relatively fast smooth connected bow, also called legato
  2. The “slow bow” which retains the smoothness of the of the fast bow but at a markedly slower pace.
  3. The swoosh bow, which features a subtle gap in sound between strokes and a slight acceleration/deceleration in during each stroke.
  • Begin by practicing the swoosh bow on open strings. Support the violin with your unused left hand while you bow.
    • Play either open A or open E swooshes in the tempo of the song
    • Next, play swooshes on the A or E string using the practice sheet to indicate where your bow will ultimately
    • Create a subtle gap between your up and down strokes along with the “swoosh” speed up in the middle of the stroke.
    • Practice Tip: Choose a tempo that enables you to fully control these motions and speed up over a few days until you reach your desired performance tempo.
  • The smooth bow is straightforward. Make the change of bow direction seem inaudible to the listener. Use open strings, just like the swoosh bow practice above.Some smooth bow practice tips:
    • Always feel the a “sticky connection” between your bow and string. It’s feels more like swimming than ice skating.
    • Your bow speed will be consistent both in the middle of the stroke and at when you change directions.
    • There no need to use the entire bow. Instead opt for as much freedom of movement as you can muster while retaining a sense of ease and control.
  • In this music, slow bow follows on the heels of the smooth bow. Practice it by simply adding a single slower “gooey” extended note to the end of a series of faster smooth bows.Slow bow practice tip:
    • The volume and tone of your slow bow should match the quicker smooth bows that proceed it. You may need to adjust the bow position a bit closer to the bridge while you produce this note.
  • Finally practice all three bowing styles in sequence on open strings while following the bowing practice guide.You are now “performing” the entire song with the bow alone, a valuable experience.

    Practice tip:

    • Practice two note groups, i.e. moving from smooth/fast to slow or moving from swoosh to smooth. Do this at the full tempo of the song as you intend to perform it.

Taken together, this practice sequence will give you a nimble and dynamic control over the bowing process. At the same time, your performance gains in variety and color.

Experiment with “hamming it up” by moving your bow arm with the grace and fluidity of a ballet dancer. It’s fun to try this in front of a mirror.

Resist the temptation to immediately add the left hand (pitches) to your practice. Waiting a few days will give your bow arm the attention it truly deserves. I like to say the bow is 90% of your performance.

Also, it’s great to enjoy the sonorous quality of open string playing. Playing on open strings is under-rated! Just be sure your strings are in tune before you begin your session.

Next week we’ll expand on our bow work by adding a relaxed control over pitch in our left hand. In the mean time, enjoy your Bach bowing! Remember, ham it up! It’s your job to entertain the listener. 🙂

Song of the Month: Bach Peasant Cantata, Aria: “Mer hahn en neue Oberkeet”

Bowing Practice Guide for Bach Peasant Cantata

June 2017: Bach Peasant Cantata

Musicians young and old love to spend most of their practice time learning songs. I admit, song time does seem a lot more interesting than practicing scales and exercises.

But there’s a trap that catches so many song learners. It snares even experienced musicians.

It’s kind of an optical illusion: it appears that the music lives somewhere in those little black notes on the page. So we spend a lot of time looking at the page.

Somewhere along the way we lose track of the music itself. We are stuck in the quicksand of those black dots while at the same time trying to navigate our instruments.

Here’s the truth that explains why people who can’t read music at all are often fabulous musicians:

Songs contain more than a series of pitches, one after another. A lot more.

It’s a long list: articulation, phrasing, tone, groove, harmonic motion, and much more.

Yet too often, we can’t see the forest for the trees with our noses buried deeply in a music book, and our limbs mirroring a plodding rhythm that faintly resembles the original.

With that said, this month we’ll explore a better way to learn songs. Not from the printed page but instead from the inside out. We’ll try to capture the true energy that powers a song and learn to share it with our listeners.

J.S. Bach is mostly known for his serious religious music. But remember, the famous composer was a real human being, not made of marble. The Peasant Cantata beautifully illustrates Bach’s lighter side.

Let’s begin our journey inside this music by simply listening and enjoying the short video above.

You may have heard this song (aria) performed like a church hymn. But this lively performance illustrates the text (lyrics) beautifully.

The music opens with a rustic dance tune. A young couple then sing a happy duet to celebrate the arrival of a new lord of the manor who gives them beer — “real strong stuff.”

Clearly, this isn’t the Bach you might have expected to hear! So this week, let’s enjoy the music by watching the video a few times. You can also download the sheet music, which we’ll be using beginning next week.

Next week we’ll learn the two bowing motions that bring this music to life. Stay tuned!

Violin Practice Advice from a Shrink + Free Class

Psychologist and Buddhist teacher Tara Brach has me nailed.

Perhaps you too?

Tara talks about the “over controller” in all of us.

It’s that misguided part of our inner being that works overtime to help keep us safe, but in the end puts us in more peril.

For me its the feeling of being driven. It’s an endless quest to fix some part of me that’s “not OK.”

When it happens, I’m never exactly sure what’s broken; it’s a stressful, dull feeling that’s hard to shake.

The over-controller is endemic in aspiring musicians. It’s a deadly virus that can kill your violin practice!

I once thought that a healthy dose of perfectionism was actually good for my practice. What a myth!

When you practice under the spell of the over controller, you’re working in a tunnel vision universe. Creativity and resourcefulness (what you need most) are nowhere to be found.

So your practice becomes dull and lifeless.

Your best practice happens when (and only when) you bring your best self to your violin.

That’s why I write and teach. It’s our lifelong journey as aspiring musicians and fulfilled human beings.

Free Class: Live Online Violin Instruction by Bill Alpert

Your best self and your best practice is the core topic of my June 24 live, online session of Power Up Your Violin Practice. It’s a free class; to sign up just click here.

Last, but not least: Are you ready for some honest, yet supportive feedback on your practicing habits? I’m seeking a few more readers who’d like to send in a video and be featured as part of my upcoming online sessions.

If you’d like to send a video, drop me a quick note ( and I’ll send you the simple instructions. I promise it will be fun and easy to participate, and you’ll be glad you did!

May your violin practice be joyful and liberating!

—Bill Alpert

P.S. My next online live class is Saturday, June 24, at 10:30 a.m. PDT (Los Angeles).
Register here! (complimentary registration for my readers). See you at the class!

Live Online Violin Class: The Best Mindset for Beginning to Intermediate Students

I’ve written a lot about the (all too common) destructive beginner violin habits that can easily stop you in your tracks.

But there’s a bright side to the story: you don’t have to become another victim of these rookie playing errors.

There are several “big picture” strategies that can steer you clear of these problems.

On April 22, 2017 I’m laying out these strategies into a playing “mindset” that is simple to understand and accessible to all levels of violinists.

The Class: It’s Saturday April, 22, 10:30 a.m. Pacific and it’s Free

Please note: If you’re already signed up for a 4/15 class, look for an email update: This class was originally scheduled for 4/15 but performance commitments require that I move it back a week.

Class Description:

This one hour session for new to intermediate violinists will provide you with tools to evaluate your current playing as well as a high level mindset about how to avoid common counterproductive practice habits. We will:

  • spot (and fix) tension problems that might be holding you back
  • demonstrate a great warm-up routine to eliminate tension and promote positive playing habits
  • give you a useful roadmap for all your future practice

The class is free for all levels of violinists, though it will be geared toward violinists from 0-3 years of experience. Nothing will be promoted or sold during the session.

There will be a Q&A period at the end of the class, and I’ll invite a few readers to submit videos of their own playing for discussion. Full instructions will be sent in advance to everyone who signs up.

So, sign up now; it’s free! If you have questions, drop me a note:

>>Click here to register for my free April 22 class

See you in the class!

— Bill Alpert

p.s. You’ll obviously need a computer or smartphone with internet access to participate in this live class.

p.p.s. Optional: If you’d like to appear in front of the group, you’ll also need a webcam.

Facepalm! How I Came Back to My Violin Playing Senses

I was reminded about a great truth of violin playing while walking the streets of New Orleans today. (I’m in the city for my son’s wedding)

Strolling around the French Quarter, I heard a faint and hauntingly beautiful violin melody wafting from around the corner. Soon I found myself in front of a NOLA street band, enjoying traditional and jazz standards spun out with beautiful tone and a great sense of style.

I absolutely loved the violinist (as well as the other band members), and stood there transfixed for one song after another.

Then suddenly came my facepalm moment: Why haven’t I been doing more music like this? And why aren’t we all?

These are songs that you can learn and perform in a matter of days, even hours. The technical demands are modest, giving you the time and freedom to work on style and personal touches. It’s a chance to drop all pretense and simply have fun.

If you’re like most people, you’ve got at least a song or two you want to play. A violin piece you want to perform. Maybe even a song set to play in a band.

Finding the right songs for a developing violinist can a bit of an art in itself. Choose well, and you gain incredible forward momentum in your playing. You’ve got something you can play for years to come. You gain more choices and options as a musician.

How to Mess Up Your Relationship with the Violin

I know from my own experience, it’s tempting to choose material that is over your head. When that happens you’re not doing yourself (or your listeners) any favor. Struggling with notes for weeks on end locks you up physically and may even leave you with emotional “scars.”

Sooner or later you begin to dread practicing and performing.

This is how we can end the struggle.

In coming weeks I’ll begin introducing traditional/fiddle tunes that you’ll enjoy learning and playing. The objective is to get us both up and running on several tunes in a short span of time.

We’ll tie together the songs with the warm-ups and violin motions we’ve discussed. You’ll see how things come full circle.

The real fun (and learning) happens when you can take these tunes out into the world. Playing for (and with) others adds an important and enjoyable dimension to your musicianship, as my new found New Orleans friends have taken to heart.

What You Can Do Now

If you’d like to come along on a “song quest,” please do me a favor: Click on this link and take my short survey. Near the end you can let me know what song(s) you’d be interested in learning and/or performing.

I’m looking forward to hearing from you. But for now, I have a father-of-the-groom speech to practice and a son to marry off!

Until we next meet, savor your violin journey.

—Bill A.