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!

The Amazing 3 Year Old Violinist

Holy cow, yet another call today, a man hoping to start his 3 year old grandson on violin.

Okay, okay. I agree there are advantages to starting early. But…

Few people though consider the far greater risks of starting music lessons too early.

It takes five years for the average child to learn to cut in a straight line using scissors. Is playing the violin any simpler a task? And that’s not considering the focus, patience and intellectual skills required to play a musical instrument.

Drop the average three year old into a few months of lessons and you’ll often have one frustrated family. Progress will be difficult to discern. This sets up a negative mindset around the project, one which may be impossible to surmount later in life. Had the same student started at five years of age, he would likely catch up to the 3 year old within 6 months. And everyone, student included, will be much happier.

Sure, you can find a few outliers on YouTube. Like the 3 year old prodigy playing Vivaldi. But what you’re not seeing is behind the scenes: a razor focussed family support network built around that child. A practice regimen that doesn’t waver. And an inordinate amount of time on the project (to the exclusion of other activities) and a child that is far, far ahead of the bell curve.

Even if you are one of those outliers, you still must ask yourself: is this in the best interest of the child? Will the world be a better place and will your child be happier for this experience?

Remember that Violin is a long term project. It will still be around when your child is four or five. And she’ll likely devote the better part of a decade to achieve any level of mastery.

So what’s the rush?

Still, there’s much you can provide for your child before he is ready for structured lessons. Here are just a few ideas:

• Singing informally or in a group

• Classes that emphasize rhythm, movement and motor development

• Attending concerts in a variety of styles and venues

• Structured listening at home (Suzuki CDs are available to everyone)

All of this can start as early as in the womb! Your child’s love and devotion for music starts by modeling your own. There’s nothing wrong with starting actual lessons at five to seven years of age and beyond.

In a nutshell, give your young violinist a better than average chance for success. Provide the needed family support. Be an active participant in the learning process. Model your own love for music. Do all of this, and you can’t help but succeed in creating an Invincible Violinist in your own home.

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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!

Violin: Do You Find it “Touching?”

Grasping

Flop that fiddle on your shoulder and put your fingers on the fingerboard. Ready to go, yes? Well, actually… no!

Right out of the cradle we’re pre-programmed to play the violin wrong. Our very first instinct actually works against us.

Hand a baby a rattle, and she grasps it. Hand a five year old a violin, and she does pretty much the same thing with her left (violin) hand. That grasping motion works great; it’s extremely powerful.

The only problem is that this type of power actually works against the violinist. What a violinist really needs is exactly the opposite thing, a delicate touch, freedom of movement and a high degree of finesse.

In the violin studio, even the teacher’s simple choice of a word can influence success or failure. I work hard to remove words such as “bow grip” from my vocabulary. Similarly we need to find the right word to describe how the violin hand approaches the instrument.

Hand Position in Violin Image
Touch Typing

I like the word “touch” as in touch typing. The touch typist on a modern keyboard uses a light, fast motion. His fingers are curved and his knuckles are high. Playing the violin well is amazingly much the same.

Playing the violin is much the same as typing an e-mail to a friend on your PCs keyboard.

The First Time Ever You Touch a Violin

Do this right the first time, and you’re off to a great start. Do it wrong, and you’ve got a bad habit. Minutes or seconds can establish the habit. It could take months to re-learn it the correct way.

Because a picture (or in this case a video) is worth one thousand words, I’m creating a video demonstration to help you get started. As always, this can work best under the supervision of a qualified teacher. So I’m not going to say “don’t try this at home” but then again, self-taught violinists are a rare breed indeed.

If you find any part of this unclear, please let me know. It’s my endeavor to make this the best it can be!


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Is your Violin Chin Rest a Good Fit?

Analyzing Violin Chin Rest Setup - Artist Kyung-Wha-Chung

First of all, enjoy this video of Kyung-Wha-Chung, one of the great violin artists of our time. It’s a fabulous, world class and heartfelt performance by any standard.

Viewed from the perspective of a violin teacher, I feel obligated to point out that from a setup standpoint, the violin and the violinist may not be set up to best advantage, though I would be the last to suggest that Ms. Chung change anything about her playing.

On the other hand, when I see a fit or setup problem in a young student, I would always try to make things more comfortable and practical.

In this case notice that the player’s jaw bone isn’t aligned in the “groove” of the chin rest. Often in a case such as this, a chin rest that floats over the tailpiece of the violin might be more comfortable for the player. It won’t work for everyone as factors such as length of neck and arms also come into play. All of this can (and should) be analyzed by someone experienced in optimizing the violin/chin rest/shoulder rest combination.

So why does this work so well for Ms. Chung? Simply because her approach to the violin is dynamic, not rigid. The instrument isn’t locked into place. Rather, it floats, moves and adjusts along with the needs of the musical passage. The weight of the violin is balanced between multiple points, keeping the head and neck free of excess tension. It’s a great lesson for every player.

Why make things difficult when they can be simple?

For our younger Invincible Violinists and their families, know this: Never accept your instrument setup at face value. The size, lift and type of chin rest, the presence (or absence of) a shoulder rest, the way your instrument relates to your body and its movements, all of this, shouldn’t be left to chance.

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