What Jackson Browne and Glenn Frey Can Teach You About Violin

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!

—Bill Alpert

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.

How I Finally Took Charge of My Ineffective Violin Practice in 2016. And How You Can Do the Same in 2017

Part 5 of 5.

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.

How to Finally End Your Practice Trance

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.

Tackling Tough Music

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.

Growing Your Violin Practice

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:

  • Create a simple 3 part warm-up routine and stick to it!
  • Expect success at every point. Always keep your strategically crafted practice goals in the back of your mind, but stay focussed on the moment at hand!

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!

Bill Alpert
The Alpert Studio of Violin

How I Finally Took Charge of My Ineffective Violin Practice in 2016. And How You Can Do the Same in 2017.

Part 4 of 5:

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.

The Golden Rule of Music Practice (no exceptions!)

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.

The Warm-Up Part 2: Fine Tuning

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:

  • how to manage and tweak the almost imperceptible but crucial “stickiness” between bow and string
  • how to create a graceful, ballet-like bow arm motion that is dynamic and free, never stuck or tense
  • how to produce a seamless connection between notes and long soaring phrases.

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:

  • Always follow a consistent practice routine begins with a physical and mental transition into your practice session.
  • Make Fine-Tuning a priority during your warm-up. Use this exercise to get started.

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!

How I Finally Took Charge of My Ineffective Violin Practice in 2016. And How You Can Do the Same in 2017.

Part 3 of 5.

(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.

Violin Warmup Deconstructed

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!

Bill Alpert
The Alpert Studio of Violin

How I Finally Took Charge of My Ineffective Violin Practice in 2016. And How You Can Do the Same in 2017.

Part 2 of 5.

(If you missed Part 1, you can read it here)

Dear Violin Co-Journiers,

More and more violinists are discovering the power hidden in a simple but effective warmup routine. For me, it has become the single most important part of my violin day. If I only have 30 minutes to play, I simply warm up knowing that I’ve surely maintained my skills, and most likely made some forward progress.

You might ask: “what about my orchestra music?” or “shouldn’t I be covering the solo I’ll be playing in church next month?” And my response will always be “Begin with your warmup. It will be the rock, the heart from which everything about your playing will emanate.”

This is utterly non-intuitive for many. Every cell in your body will be screaming to get started on the “real” music. More often than not it becomes a mindless fixation. You mindlessly focus on what could go wrong and then randomly pick away at the spots in the music that are likely to be the source of an embarrassing screw up.

The above paragraph describes a lot of violinists at levels ranging from novice to expert. And true confessions… yes, that was me for much of my playing career. All of this falls into the category of what I call “reactive” practice. Before long it can suck all the joy out of playing the violin.

Pardon my French, but screw that! If missing (or cutting short) a week of warmups is the price I pay for accepting low pay work,  then I’ve made a deal with the devil. I’ve paid the ultimate price to take home a few dollars. If you’re a working musician, you must bring your skills noticeably forward on a regular basis. Otherwise you are doomed to a lifetime of low pay work.

That’s what a warmup can do: bring your skills to a constantly increasing level. Your playing becomes more refined and effortless. You are claiming new tools that give your playing more color, nuance and variety. You become a more flexible musician and have a lot more fun while playing.

Even if your aren’t a working musician, if you play purely for the joy of it, your warmup provides all the same above mentioned benefits. Even more so, since you can play on your own terms 100% of the time.

Reactive practice doesn’t work. It can actually make you a worse musician, reinforcing all the worst aspects of your playing and completely ignoring what you do well. If you’ve played for a while, I’m sure you know that bad habits are easier to form than good ones.

This is another reason to choose your gigs (even if they’re non-paying) carefully. Jim Rohn famously said “you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” The very same holds true for the musicians you hang with. Always try to play with players who have skills equal to or ahead of your own. Avoid the gigs where you feel like your own playing is getting dragged into the mud.

I’ve tried to make the point that reactive practice isn’t the way to go. That you should always have a plan for you practice. That holds true for EVERY level of player.

The best practice plans always begin with a warmup routine. Yours should too.

A few beautiful things about a good warmup:

  • clears your mind and provides a transition from everyday thinking to a more open and aware modality.
  • “lubricates” your muscles and joints for ease of flow and reduced effort
  • fine tunes your tactile perception to the tiniest of sensations
  • zeros in on the aspect(s) of your playing that match your current and future objectives

And more. But the above four points alone are more than sufficient to move your playing and enjoyment forward every day. Whether you are working alone, studying with a private teacher or enrolled in a conservatory program the warmup will have great value for you.

Next week I’ll describe the three building blocks of an effective warmup and also give you a simple plan to create your own. Stay tuned!

Bill Alpert
The Alpert Studio of Violin

p.s. If you have specific questions about warming up, or any other aspect of your violin journey you can REPLY to this email or simply visit this page.