Reflections on the first SDSU String Academy Class and Fall Enrollment!

 Fall Registration for the String Academy is now open!  Click to register

In May we completed the first term of the SDSU String Academy with 6 violinists, 5 cellists and 3 student assistants.  Every student has re-enrolled for the Fall semester, which I would call a great start!  

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The first term flew by quickly: by mid-June the students had already performed in three recitals and had a fun trip to the Language Academy, where a number of our students attend school.  As part of this performance the students played for a group of parents, and afterwards we visited each student's classroom for a mini-performance for their peers.  It was heart-warming to see how excited and proud the kids were to play for their friends!

Since I've now had the experience of seeing students that begin violin with the group lesson and private lesson combination, and I've also taught students that begin with only a private lesson, I thought I would share a few observations on the relative advantages of having a group class.  

Students in group lessons quickly establish a bond with their fellow players.  This leads to some great social development, especially for some of the younger and shyer children.  Young children get to interact with older students in some collaborative ways that many of them don't experience at school.  One child's kindergarten teacher noticed a big change in this particular student's confidence and engagement after several months in the Academy.  The teacher hadn't known that this particular child had taken up violin until we visited the school, but was convinced this was the source of her growth!   

Students in group class have more fun!  We make the private lesson as fun as possible, but the nature of the group class leads itself to games and group activities that aren't possible in the private lesson setting.   

Students in group get a well-rounded musical education.  Not only are these students learning to play their pieces with others, but the extra hour a week allows time to introduce basic music theory, ear training, rhythm training and even music history!  This leads to better violinists, but also to better overall musicians and music lovers.  

Students in group class are more comfortable performing in public.  My pre-college private students perform in solo recitals once or twice a semester, so it's common for them to be uncomfortable in a performance, even if they are very prepared! String Academy kids, however, perform solo for their peers in group every week from a very early stage - so performing in recitals is no big deal!   

Students in group are motivated by their peers to improve.  There is nothing that drives a student to get better like hearing one of their peers play a piece that's more advanced than their own!  I can't tell you how many times I heard the phrase "I want to play that piece!" during group!

There are clearly many advantages to the group/private combination versus the private only route, and I have noticed a significant improvement in the speed in which these String Academy students have advanced on the violin.  I can't wait to see how much more they improve this year!










SDSU String Academy

For the past few months I've been working on developing the SDSU String Academy.  I was inspired by Mimi Zweig's Academy at Indiana University and along with my Co-Director, cellist Carina Voly, we've been busy setting up the program.  The program is aimed at 6-10 year olds that have never played violin or cello, and the idea is to make sure from day one that they are getting high quality instruction and ENJOYING playing the instrument.  

Each student will receive weekly private instruction, weekly group lessons (on Saturday mornings), and regular recitals.  They'll be comfortable performing solo and in a group, because they'll be doing it from day one!   More more info on registration, dates, and tuition, please visit

Fall Chamber Music Performances

I have a number of chamber music performances this fall that I'm excited to share with you.  In the first three performances I'll be performing with members of the San Diego Symphony, in the last two with Camarada and The Tree Ring.  I hope you'll be able to join me at one (or more!) of them!

Here are the details: 

Sunday, September 23 | 7pm
First United Methodist Church Music Series
2111 Camino Del Rio South
$10 Suggested Donation

Music of Tournier, Mozart, Faure, Marquez, Puccini and Ljova

Thursday, September 27 | 7pm
Art of Elan - Luce Loft Series
1037 J Street
$15 (includes one free drink)

Music of Riley, Adams, Schoenberg

Tuesday, October 9 | 7pm
Art of Elan - San Diego Museum of Art Series
1450 El Prado
$25/$10 - Buy Tickets >>

Music of Riley, Adams, Schoenberg

Wednesday, October 24 | 6:30pm
Rancho Bernardo Public Library Series
17110 Bernardo Center Drive

With Camarada - Music of Debussy, Mozart, Ljova, Piazzolla and more

Friday, October 27 | Time TBD
Tree Ring Record Release Show
Birch North Park Theatre
2891 University Avenue
$16 or $23 with purchase of record - Buy Tickets >>

The Tree Ring and Camarada perform songs from the Tree Ring's new album.

Practicing after Summer Break

Picking up the instrument after a break of a week or more can be daunting.  It feels like the fingers are no longer under control, the instrument feels awkward and uncomfortable under the chin and it's easy to get frustrated because you know you can sound better!  Here are a few pointers for starting to play again after a long break to maintain sanity and health:

Start With Short Sessions

The first time you pick up the instrument after a long break, practice for 10 or 15 minutes, and no more.  Your muscles will be out of shape and practicing too long will cause injury!  Depending on your level, each day add 10-15 minutes practice to each session (1st day 15 mins, 2nd day 30 mins, 3rd day 45 mins etc.) until you reach your regular practice session length.  It may be very tempting to play for more than this the first day, but trust me, you will regret it if you do!

Basics Are Your Friend 

It's best to start with simple technical exercises and build your playing back from the ground up. DO NOT try to jump into the hardest piece you were playing before your break, this will only cause frustration and injury!  Instead, here's a list of things to do:

  1. Play open strings (long and short bows)
  2. See Saw on all strings
  3. G/D/G (left hand pizz and bowed on all strings)
  4. Left hand tapping on the instrument
  5. Whole bow exercises
  6. Simple pieces that you know from memory 
  7. Improvise a melody that you hear in your head
  8. Slow and Fast Scales (separate bows, slurred, slurred staccato)
  9. Shifting exercises

That's it!  If you do these things for 5-7 days in a row you will start feeling back to your normal self!  At this point you should be able to pick up on the piece where you left off before the break.  Now get out that instrument and practice! But only for 10-15 minutes!

Simon Fischer Basics - Introduction

Basics - 300 exercises and practice routines for the violin .  By Simon Fischer

Basics - 300 exercises and practice routines for the violin.  By Simon Fischer

Simon Fischer's Basics is the best nuts and bolts book on the violin that I've ever read.  Fischer was a student of Dorothy Delay, is a faculty member at the Guildhall School in London and writes a column for the Strad on technique.  He delves into every aspect of technique and has solutions for almost every technical problem that is out there. More importantly, he explains everything in a very clear and concise manner, with lots of pictures and illustrations to clarify difficult concepts. I encourage you to explore his website, which contains a number of insightful articles on rhythm, practicing, mental rehearsal, and more.

I got this book when I was an undergrad and spent a month or so in the summer exploring it.  At the time I was interested in developing my tone and vibrato that were giving me trouble, and I largely ignored large sections of the book, or just didn't think they applied to me.  Boy was I wrong! 

I came back to the book for possible solutions to problems I was having with spiccato and decided to try some other exercises in the book for fun.  My experiment convinced me that there's a lot of merit in practicing technical exercises even if you don't think they apply to you!

I've been inspired by this article at Study Hacks, one of my favorite blogs, to create a textbook of my own as a way to encourage deeper and faster learning.  What follows could be considered my first entry in my personal violin/viola textbook.

Anyway, to the problem: I've always noticed that at the end of my practice sessions I would have a bruise or red spot on my index finger where it contacted the bow.  I knew this meant I was likely putting too much pressure on it and that I should be spreading the weight of the bow throughout all five fingers, but no matter what I tried I tended to pinch too much with my first finger and thumb.

The first exercise "Thumb Counter-Pressure" got me to feel how pressure from the thumb is really only needed slightly at the middle, more at the tip, and not at all at the frog.  Right away my thumb started to feel more relaxed, a feeling which only increased after trying the "Thumb Flexibility" exercise on pg. 3.  This exercise essentially has you flex and release your thumb while playing at various dynamic levels, showing you that it can be quite loose no matter how loud or soft you are playing.

Those exercises did a lot for my poor, overworked thumb, but what about my first finger?  I had been taught the "Hand Balance" exercise on pgs. 5- 6 many years ago by Jeffrey Irvine.  In this exercise you hold your first finger off the bow for the entirety of a long bow, putting it down lightly only for the last quarter of the bow.  This is a great exercise but it hadn't really solved my own problem. 

The hint of the solution posed itself to me after practicing Heidi Castleman's spiccato series, which has you start with dropping and "dribbling" the bow, lifting it off the string with forearm rotation and using the pinky to support the weight of the tip.  After practicing "Balancing with the fourth finger" (pg. 3) and "The Give of the Hand into the Bow" (pg. 6) I realized that I had  very little awareness of how the back of my hand balances the bow, especially at the frog. This new awareness has proven to be really useful not only in spiccato, but also while playing at dynamic extremes, which have given me a lot of trouble in the past.  I feel a much greater sense of control and ease in this strokes now!

In a short amount of time this has totally changed my approach to the bow, and I'm really looking forward to seeing how it develops!   More soon!