Practicing the Violin

Just One Thing

When you practice or prepare to perform on the violin perhaps the greatest single danger is overwhelm. It’s far too easy to get caught up in perfecting every single thing that not one single thing is measurably improved.

So instead of that pie-in-the-sky agenda you’ve created for yourself, perhaps consider a practice plan that guarantees you will be successful:

Pick one thing that you can make better today. Then go make it better.

Maybe two or three things, if you’re really feeling on top of things. The real trap is taking on so much that at the end of your session, you can’t claim to have truly solved a single problem, or consisitently moved the needle forward anywhere.

I’ve wasted years, stuck in that trap.

So go make one thing better. One passage, one phrase, maybe even one note. Just make sure that you really did make it better. Otherwise, it really doesn’t matter that you just spent four hours in the practice room.

Practicing the Violin

Recovering from a Long Practice Absence

A recent hiking accident left me reeling in pain on the ground. My broken ankle took a deep toll on my violin practice. For many weeks I was basically horizontal; for several months following standing (and even sitting) was uncomfortable at best and often very painful. Any protracted violin practice sessions were impossible. The psychological toll is not to be underestimated. Incapacitation and pain combine to sap your energy, your motivation and any sustainable interest in picking up your instrument.

My recovery has been slow and steady and has afforded me the opportunity to rethink and remake my playing. At this point I can sustain about 30 minutes of practice. That’s basically a warmup plus a few carefully chosen minutes. In a perverse way, it’s a blessing in disguise as my natural tendency is to work and rework endlessly. It’s a common problem; the overly developed work ethic.

The Benefits of a Short Practice Session.

I’ve discovered that less can be more. In a way, the limitations of time can somehow be freeing. Here are a few tips I’ve gleaned:

  • Limit yourself to “micro passages.” Discover what you can improve within just a few notes or beats before tackling an entire phrase or passage.
  • Ration your attention. You’ll find that its far easier to stay razor focussed when you can limit your attention to seconds and minutes instead of unabated hours.
  • Allow yourself noticeably more time around and between phrases, tricky string changes and anything that leaves you unsatisfied. We tend to push too hard across what can be natural and comfortable spaces in our playing.
  • Constantly reflect on the object of your attention. Does it feel poised? How can I perform this with greater ease? What happens when I don’t try so hard.
  • Be satisfied with solving or improving one or two problems. The rest can wait for next time.
  • Clarify your artistic intentions. Use bold contrasts to clarify your choices to yourself and your listener.
  • Recognize your biases of interpretation. Are your assumptions based on someone else’s performance? Are you playing on autopilot?

All of these tips come back to the attitude of working patiently, mindfully and with curiosity. It’s about letting go of preconceptions and releasing the grip of your ego. Rethinking your practice is never easy, but in a sense it’s the easiest thing you can do.

The bottom line: you’ve got just a few minutes to “be in the room” with your practice. So why not really be there to enjoy it? I’ll gladly take the beauty of those fully present moments, just for now. That’s all I’ve got. That’s all any musician has.

Practicing the Violin Quick Violin Practice Hacks

Keep a Journal for Your Violin Practice

I’ve talked about this for the longest time. I’ve done it off and on. But not until this became a daily practice, did I realize how much better it made my practice time.

Why journal, when you really just want to practice? In the moment it often feels like a waste of time and a distraction from the task at hand. But… when enough of these journaling moments are strung together you begin to realize the following:

  1. How much time you lost/wasted because you left out journaling
  2. How much more efficient (faster) you become at getting from point A to B.
  3. How much clarity you gain from the act of seeing your efforts on paper.

I won’t belabor the reasons to journal. If the above three points aren’t compelling for you, you are just dabbling in the violin. Whether pro or amateur, a real violinist shows up regularly, and brings crystal clear focus to her work. It is the difference between a wonderful lifelong journey with our magnificent instrument and simply being the owner of a violin shaped object that will ultimately end up collecting dust in the corner of a closet.

A violin journal can/should be structured according to your particular needs. Here I will share what I keep track of in my journal:

  • Current musical and technical goals, updated regularly. Include performance opportunities and dates.
  • A “setlist” of my practice time, the pieces, etudes and scales that I incorporate in my session
  • Notes alongside the setlist that remind what/how I did last and what’s next for each setlist entry
  • Audio and Video entries that help me self-assess and track my progress over time.
  • For performance pieces, an annotated extra copy of the sheet music with free form ideas, sketches, descriptions, etc. that encapsulate my ideas about the piece.
  • Notes from your teacher/coach

If you have ambitious performance goals, spend more time on journaling. If you’re on a basic course of study, the journal can be quite simple.

Bottom line: if you care, keep a journal. Keep it fresh. Make it real and make it useful. And enjoy your violin journey!




Practicing the Violin

Did You Ever Video Yourself Playing the Violin?

Wow, that sucked! Was the really me? What was I thinking, that I could really play a Brahms Sonata? Gees, remind me never to record myself again, it just makes me want to playing nothing harder than Mary Had a Little Lamb.

That was yesterday. But remember last week…

OMG, that Bach Partita was incredible. Best tone and interpretation ever; feeling like I’m on top of the violin world. Up there with the greats, or at least getting close!

What a difference a day makes. Or really was there any difference at all? More likely the inner workings of a deluded mind. Maybe I’m not really all that stellar, but then again, there’s a lot I can do day in and day out without sweating it. Fairly impressive, at least to a select circle of appreciative fans. LOL.

At this point it’s pretty obvious that following the rants and raves of my monkey mind isn’t really helping, (no offense to monkeys).

Maybe, today I keep things simple. It won’t be easy, but at least it’s simple. Just pick up the instrument and practice. Just for a few minutes or so. Then stop before I get too caught up in my own greatness or sucky-ness. Then pick it up again and start over.

Maybe I can remember a bit about my tone last time at the end of that section? Or did the pitch need a bit of work in measure 73? Maybe Mr. Violin Genius can stop trying to conquer the violin world and just focus in on one thing for five minutes? Wow, what a concept!

Well, I played the video again and it turns out that the “horrendous” video could help me remember what needs work and what’s OK. Maybe parts of it are actually better than OK. Maybe watching it again (for a reason beyond stroking my own ego) can take me out of my dangerous monkey mind, and leave me with something useful to practice.

Maybe that three minute video just saved me an hour of practice. Brahms sounds better already, with just five minutes of practice. Wait! Maybe I am really greater than I thought, a soloist in the making!

Or maybe it’s time to make another video LOL!

Practicing the Violin

How to Make 2019 Your Best Violin Year Ever

You probably think of playing the violin as a creative and artistic activity. And so it should be.

Yet practicing the violin is as much about being methodical and organized as it is creative.

If you want to slow your practice results to a crawl, simply spend your practice time with and ad-hoc, touchy-feely-right-brain-only approach. Similarly, robotically repeating a song or musical passage with the hope that it “gets better” falls into this category.

In contrast, the greatest musicians (the players you truly admire) all share a common trait: when it comes to practice, they are consistently well organized and highly flexible.

In fact, the world’s most “talented” violinists have a knack for organizing their work super effectively. They gravitate toward these more efficient working strategies almost by second nature.

For the rest of us mere violin mortals, we can learn from the best in the business by modeling a few simple practice room strategies.

Here is my “top six” list of practice hacks.

  1. Divide your practice session into logical categories. In my case there’s a physical/mental warmup section, a technique building module and a repertoire building area (and a couple of others) all wrapped into a single practice session.
  2. Journal your work. The extra moments it takes to make notes during your practice session will save countless hours of wasted effort.
  3. Monitor your moment by moment mental state. If you find yourself overworking, striving or obsessing, it’s time to take a break and regroup.
  4. Use a session To-Do list rather than relying upon your memory to move between the various portions of your practice. I actually use a task management software program on my computer.
  5. Utilize proven physical and mental tactics. When I want to improve any element of my playing, I attack it from a variety of differing angles, looking for the most effective approach. Put these tactics on a special page of your practice journal.
  6. Frame your work in a context that relates to the the upcoming performance of whatever you’re playing. Said differently: you’re not practicing for the abstract. Create something that will work in the heat of the moment.

Clearly, this list covers a lot of ground. I could write a whole book on each item. Yet, I hope it gives you a flavor for what great practice really looks and feels like in 2019 and beyond.

If you’d like to use these ideas in your own practice, stay tuned!

And: If you’re not already an InvincibleViolinist member, sign up here. I’ll be expounding more on each of these items during the course of the year. As a member, you’ll receive an update whenever I add a new blog.

May 2019 bring you your most joyful and productive violin growth ever!

~ Bill Alpert