Practical Violin Staying Motivated to Practice

When (and How) to be Negative During Your Violin Practice

It’s fairly clear that we humans all share a bit of a negativity bias. When presented with a situation that could go two ways, we’re prone to predict it will go badly more often then not.

That’s a great quality if you’re a caveman worried about being eaten by a saber tooth tiger.

When it comes to violin practice, we often generalize in the same way, though it’s not quite as useful.

Recently, in the middle of a practice session I was thinking “there’s no way I can play this etude properly,” when in reality the situation was a lot more nuanced. Large sections of the music were totally fine.

I had generalized the problem in a way that wasn’t helpful.

Better to just think about the specific challenges in a more granular way. It turns out that problem was isolated to a specific motion on a specific string.

Looking past all the misplaced negativity allowed me to focus my practice much more efficiently. I fixed the problems quickly.

Negativity as an emotion is toxic to practice. Instead, use your “negativity” in more of a left brain context. “This specific problem in this specific spot isn’t what I want.”

Certainly, critical judgment is an important part of practice. It’s a positive way of being negative.

Next time you’re feeling down on your playing, stop and notice the emotion of the moment. What triggered this feeling? Take a break, do some stretching and hit the reset button.

Can you separate the emotion from what’s actually happening on your violin? Can you get clear about the actual problem(s), right now?

Feeling stuck and depressed during practice?

Clearing the negativity cloud will soon create a spacious attitude in your right brain. You become more sensitive, more aware. Creative solutions will appear without effort!

Try it yourself and let me know what happens!

Practicing the Violin Song of the Month

Bach Peasant Cantata Left Hand Practice Song of the Month

June 2017: Bach Peasant Cantata Part 3 – Left Hand Practice

Update: Over the last couple of weeks we’ve focussed on preparing a practice of Bach’s music. View and/or download these related resources at this link.

Already this month we’ve created a clarified vision of our final musical result and instilled a bit of variety in our Peasant Cantata bow strokes.

It’s great to divide our practice into these discrete but related activities. This “simplify” strategy creates an atmosphere of ease around our practice time.

I can say unequivocally that a practice defined by ease will always connect you to your instrument (and your life) in a more mindful and joyful way.

Said more simply: with easeful practice, your skills and enjoyment will both improve while boredom and struggle fly out the window.

Continuing with the simplify strategy, this we’ll discover to play the Bach with improved left hand intonation. We’ll learn practice tactics that give us better control over pitch.

The ability to play well in tune is a hallmark of good musicianship. Every level of violinist from novice to professional needs this in her toolkit.

Luckily, Peasant Cantata, draws upon a relatively modest palette of pitches. We only need to control a single finger pattern within the A major scale. That’s great news, since the A major scale is perhaps the most accessible in all of violin technique.


  1. Begin by placing your fingertips in a row, lightly on a pencil. Think “light touch” as if typing on a keyboard. Learn the A major scale pattern by gliding your 1st and 4th fingers along the pencil. I also call this the “red” pattern in my full course.
  2. On the violin, balance the 3rd finger on the A string in its approximate normal position. Then spread the fingers into the red pattern as noted above.
  3. Use the plucking match to fine tune the pitch of the 3rd finger note (D) by matching to the open D string. You can pluck both together until they sound like a single pitch.
  4. Keep your hand comfortably stretched in the red pattern while you bow the “twinkle” rhythm up the scale from open A up to the 3rd finger. Use a full rich tone.
  5. Follow the same pattern up the E string. You have now completed the A Major scale.
  6. Once you’re comfortable with all the pitches, use the twinkle rhythm to perform all the notes of the Peasant Cantata, one after another.


  • The second finger will be right next to the third. If you have thick fingers, 2 and 3 might even be touching.
  • The first finger will stitch back quite considerably from the second. You can test the pitch by playing it alongside an open E string.
  • While “twinkling” though the cantata, begin with small groups of notes, then later expand until you can comfortably play through every note of the piece in sequence.

By separating the pitch from other challenges in this music, we can create more ease when later adding back other elements of the music.

This would also be a great time to review last week’s bowing practice on open strings. At our upcoming live class, we’ll begin to reassemble all the elements of the piece into a unified performance.

Register for the Free June Class

Create a violin practice that really works! Learn how to bring a joyful ease to your practice in my next live online class on June 24, 2017. The June class is The Violin: Your Companion Along the Journey to Becoming Fully Awake and Alive.

Click here to register for the June class.

Song of the Month

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.

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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. 🙂

Practicing the Violin

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!

Classes: Practicing the Violin

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!