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!

Classes: Practicing the Violin

Live Online Violin Class: The Best Mindset for Beginning to Intermediate Students

I’ve written a lot about the (all too common) destructive beginner violin habits that can easily stop you in your tracks.

But there’s a bright side to the story: you don’t have to become another victim of these rookie playing errors.

There are several “big picture” strategies that can steer you clear of these problems.

On April 22, 2017 I’m laying out these strategies into a playing “mindset” that is simple to understand and accessible to all levels of violinists.

The Class: It’s Saturday April, 22, 10:30 a.m. Pacific and it’s Free

Please note: If you’re already signed up for a 4/15 class, look for an email update: This class was originally scheduled for 4/15 but performance commitments require that I move it back a week.

Class Description:

This one hour session for new to intermediate violinists will provide you with tools to evaluate your current playing as well as a high level mindset about how to avoid common counterproductive practice habits. We will:

  • spot (and fix) tension problems that might be holding you back
  • demonstrate a great warm-up routine to eliminate tension and promote positive playing habits
  • give you a useful roadmap for all your future practice

The class is free for all levels of violinists, though it will be geared toward violinists from 0-3 years of experience. Nothing will be promoted or sold during the session.

There will be a Q&A period at the end of the class, and I’ll invite a few readers to submit videos of their own playing for discussion. Full instructions will be sent in advance to everyone who signs up.

So, sign up now; it’s free! If you have questions, drop me a note:

>>Click here to register for my free April 22 class

See you in the class!

— Bill Alpert

p.s. You’ll obviously need a computer or smartphone with internet access to participate in this live class.

p.p.s. Optional: If you’d like to appear in front of the group, you’ll also need a webcam.

Performing Practical Violin Practicing the Violin

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.

Practicing the Violin

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

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