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.

Crush Your Beginner Bow with a Swoosh!

Would you believe that it’s possible to change (read: improve) your violin bowing on the spot, just by thinking a simple thought?

Sure, there are things about your violin playing that can only change over time.

But… stack up too many of these items on your future violin “wish list” and it won’t be long before things look pretty dismal.

It’s far better to work on things that you can change right now, right in the moment.

In fact, that’s the only way anything can get done. It happens right now, or it doesn’t happen at all.

There’s a huge misconception about violin practice; the idea that you can keep repeating something that isn’t quite there yet, in the hope that it will someday become perfect.

The problem: that never works. Ever.

There’s only one thing that does work, as anyone who has mastered an instrument will tell you.

Practice only the violin motions and physical actions that you can fully control. Anything else is anti-practice.

Today’s video: a basic motion that you can control, by changing your thinking about the bow!

The Swoosh Bow

You need: violin and bow

Here’s How:

  • Choose an open string or harmonic for the exercise. I’m using an open A harmonic in the examples.
  • Watch the video above once, and then follow along with your violin.

Tip: “Hang on” to the motion. Let it feel infinite, as if there’s still another millisecond before you need to change bow direction!

Think about it this way:

You’re visualizing a bow that produces continuous “pipe organ” sound without a gap. When you reach the bow end, visualize and create a follow though motion that becomes a transition to the next bow.

Think about a jet imperceptibly lifting off the runway and becoming airborne. Or the follow though of a great golf swing.

It’s merely a thought. You don’t actually have to lift your bow off the string. But your thoughts count when you practice and play.

And though the bow never leaves the string, your visualization unlocks the muscles and joints of your arm and hand, and produce a healthy and ergonomically sound motion in your bowing.

This “swoosh” creates a seamlessly smooth connection between your up and down bow, and at the same time unlocks the rigid bow “stuckness” that may be hampering your progress.

Try the swoosh right now, and let me know what you’re feeling and thinking!

To your endless violin journey!

Bill Alpert

>>Want more warmups like this? CLICK HERE and I’ll deliver them to your in-box every week

Bow Stuck? This CRUSHES Your Beginner Bow

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!

Bow Acceleration Warm-up

You need: Violin (in tune) and bow. Metronome optional

Here’s How:

  • Choose an open string or harmonic for the exercise. I’m using an open A harmonic in the examples.
  • Watch the video above once, and then follow along with your violin. Note that I’m using almost the entire bow for this exercise. If your bow is out of control, simply reduce the amount of bow used until you can achieve a comfortable, controlled motion.
  • Though the speed of bow will vary, always use a consistent length of bow thought this activity.
  • Once you’ve learned the routine, you can turn off the video and play to a metronome set as follows:
    A. 3 beat combos: Metronome 60
    B. 4 beat combos: Metronome 80

Let Your Bow Move!

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

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