Encouraging the Musical Impulse

You have a child playing an instrument, they are already taking private lessons, maybe playing in orchestra at school, what other things can you do to encourage your child to go deeper into their journey with the violin or viola?

Here are three things that will encourage and develop the musical impulse in your child:

Listen, Listen, Listen!!!

There is no better way for your child to develop their sense of style and ear for tone than to listen to recordings or attend live performances.

Not having anyone to guide me, when I was young I purchased CDs with titles like "The Top Ten Pieces of the Baroque Era." These recordings weren't great, but they exposed me to many different composers and styles, leading me to discover the composers I liked, which led me to buy more CDs of my new favorite composer's music! Eventually I subscribed to a CD club and received a few CDs a month featuring artists like Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman, and Yo-Yo Ma. Growing up in a place where artists of that caliber rarely visited, getting their sound in my ear was life-changing.

With YouTube there is now the opportunity to hear countless recordings of artists like this at any time, and yet many students don't take advantage of it. Here are two YouTube channels I created featuring some of my favorite violinists and violists

Make Daily, Organized Practice a Habit

Daily practice is the only route to mastery of an instrument and having a structure to your child's practice allows them to feel a clear sense of improvement and prevents aimless playing.

The Practice Habit

One of the most common questions I get is: How long should my child practice, and how frequently?  It is far better to practice 20-30 minutes each day (with a day off a week, and a week or two off at a time for vacations) than say 45 mins Monday, nothing on Tuesday or Wednesday, an hour on Thursday etc.

Let me stress that it's important to make practicing a habit.  Try and make practice time a regular part of the daily schedule, right before your child leaves from school, or after they finish their homework.  This will make it much easier to ensure that they practice regularly, and they will be encouraged by their progress. No matter how smart or talented your child, sporadic practicing will result in slow progress.

Organizing Practicing

Try to organize your child's practice time this way (based on 30 min session, should be scaled for longer sessions):

  • 10 Mins - Building Time - Scales, Etudes, Technical exercises (see saw, g/d/g)
  • 10 Mins - Polishing Time -  Practice current songs/repertoire (play through a few times, play problem areas, practice with methods below)
  • 10 Mins - Performance Practice Time -  Review old repertoire, sight read or improvise!

To encourage variety, mix up the order of these so that they don't get stale!

Practice Is More Than Playing the Instrument

There are SO many beneficial ways to practice without ever putting the bow on the string!

Here are a few:

1) Listen to recording of the piece and watch music
2) Sing the piece (with solfege if you can!)
3) Shadow bow
4) Finger the piece
5) Clap the rhythms
6) Say the pitch names or finger numbers aloud (in rhythm or without rhythm)
7) Write a story about the piece
8) Determine the form of the piece and its high/low points

These methods can be combined (singing will fingering, saying note names while shadow bowing) for an endless variety of practice methods!  This not only keeps practicing from getting stale it will also deepen your child's understanding and grasp of the piece.

I hope you find these suggestions helpful, and let me know in the comments if you have ideas of your own on how to encourage the beginning player on their journey! 


Musings on Simon Fischer's Mind Map

Simon Fischer's Mind Map - Click to Enlarge

I just came off a three week musical sprint (is such a thing possible?) that included a recital with the 5 Ensemble at Point Loma Nazarene University, two performances with Camarada, a performance and recording session with the Palimpsest Ensemble at UCSD, and wedged in between that, an Art of Elan performance in Breckenridge, Colorado! 

Throughout these three weeks I've been thinking a lot about practicing, and this picture of Simon Fischer's mind map on practicing has been circulating among my Facebook friends.

I love this because it's rare that you get to see inside the brain of such an amazing teacher! Many of these ideas, like building time/interpreting time/performing time, are things I incorporated into my own practicing and teaching a long time ago. 

Others are improvements or reminders of things I SHOULD be doing.  For example, I consistently rotate the technical material I practice (scales, double-stops, shifting, bow strokes etc.), but I'm not so great about tracking it (which would be an interesting thing to do). 

Additionally, there is one aspect of technique I haven't rotated in a long time, my scales fingering!  I've been in a practice rut of Flesch scales for the past couple years, and I've never tried rotating in other fingering systems.  I tried this out this week, working on Galamian scales, and it's been great! The new fingering forces me out of my muscle memory crutch, making me feel like I am filling in little holes in my mental map of the fingerboard.  This is hard, but great!

Some suggestions in this map, like Mental Rehearsal, are things that I've only begun to explore, but have already seen great benefit in.  With all the music that I had to play these past three weeks, I didn't have nearly enough time or physical energy to practice everything to the level I wanted to.  One piece in particular, the Beethoven Serenade for Flute, Violin and Viola, felt especially neglected, with very little time actually practicing the piece on the instrument. However, I spent a good amount of time listening to and studying the piece, and shortly before the performance I silently fingered and internally sang the whole piece from start to finish and I'm happy to say it went very well!    

Another excellent reminder in this mind-map: choosing etudes and techinical studies suited to your current repertoire.  This is something we should all be doing, simply for effeciency.  It stands to reason that each of us has technical weaknesses that are not limited to the problems in our current music, but there's no way we can address all these problems at once!  Therefore, we should choose etudes, technical studies and scale variations designed to tackle these problems away from their musical context. 

An example from my current practicing: the Fugue from Bach's Sonata #1 for Solo Violin (transcribed for Viola) has tons of thorny double, triple and quadruple stops, which present many problems for me, mostly related to intonation.  To speed up my learning of these tricky passages, in my building time I've been practicing lots of double and triple stops (thirds, fourth, sixths and octaves) in different positions and different strings in the keys of the Fugue.  

  1. How could you incorporate this idea into your current practicing? 
  2. What specific technical problems do you have in your current repertoire? 
  3. What etudes, technical exercises, scale variations, or other practice methods could you use to address these problems in your Building Time?

The Two Finger Bow Straightener

As a teacher, I think it's incredibly important to be open-minded: inspiration can come from anywhere!  One concept I've struggled to communicate to students is how to play with a straight bow.  Playing with a straight bow is critical to bow control: if the bow wanders up and down the string, it's impossible to play with an even tone!  I've tried many methods to get my students to play with a straight bow, with limited success.

Recently, my youngest student, Cami, came in to her lesson and sounded great!  Her bow was moving parallel to the bridge and she was getting an excellent sound.  I asked her Dad, Keith, what had changed.  He told me that his father, who is an amateur violinist, told him that getting the correct bow angle on the string was difficult for him. 

Keith came up with a brilliantly simple method of getting Cami to play with a straight bow: while she's practicing, he holds two fingers up (like a football goal post) near the left rib of the violin.  The only way Cami can play without hitting his fingers is to play with a straight bow!  Genius!  I joke with Keith that his method is patent-pending, but feel free to steal it! 

This device accomplishes bow straightening as well, but my hunch is that it's not nearly as fun as having a friend/parent helping you out!

My students and their insights teach me something about learning the violin/viola on a regular basis, but it's great to know I can learn from a parent too!   

Any other teachers out there that had an "A-HA!" moment from a teacher/student or an unusual source? 

Practicing with Open Strings to build a Beautiful Tone

One of the most valuable practicing techniques for general tone and bow control is practicing with open strings.  There are an infinite number of ways to practice with open strings that will generate postive results.  I recommend incorporating 5-10 minutes of open string practice into your daily routine.  Here are some suggestions:

Definitions: Imagine that there are 5 points of contact on the string between the bridge and fingerboard, with contact point 5 being closest to the fingerboard, and contact point 1 being nearly on top of the bridge.

Practice all of these exercises on each open string, then with fingered notes in different positions.

Exercise 1 - Amount of bow stays constant; weight, speed, contact point change.

  • Starting on contact point 5, play repeated full bows.  Bow speed should be fast, bow weight should be light.  Play until the sound is full and ringing and the string is vibrating widely from side to side.
  • Repeat on contact points 4-1, still using your whole bow. Remember that as you get closer to the bridge the bow weight must get heavier and the bow speed must get slower. 
  • Practice on each string.  As you get closer to the bridge, check in to make sure your right arm, shoulder, and hand are relaxed.  No Pressing!

Exercise 2 - Weight and speed stay constant; contact point and amount of bow change

  • Starting on contact point 1 in the middle of the bow, play right on the bridge using just an inch or two of bow.  Weight will be very heavy, speed will be very slow.
  • Continue playing and move to contact point 2.  Weight stays the same, but you will be using more bow and a slightly faster bow speed. 
  • Continue to contact point 3.  You will be using a full bow. 
  • Return to contact point 2, then contact point 1, gradually using less bow as you get closer to the bridge.

Exercise 3 - Son File

With your metronome set at quarter note = 40, play whole notes, practicing the following:

  • Down bow diminuendo (f>p), up bow crescendo (p<f)
  • Down bow crescendo (p<f), up bow diminuendo (f>p)
  • Down bow diminuendo (f>p), up bow diminuendo (f>p)
  • Down bow crescendo, up bow crescendo (p<f)
  • Down bow and up bow hairpin (p<f>p) (f>p<f)

The goal is to expand your dynamic range, so that you play these exercises with the fullest forte and softest piano that you can.  Practice producing these dynamics changes first using only bow speed, then only weight, then only by changing your contact point, then put them all together!


Getting the Most Out of Your Violin or Viola Lesson

Most private lessons are for one hour, once a week.  That leaves 167 hours during the week where your practicing is not supervised by your teacher!  So how do you make sure that you're practicing correctly, in the manner that your teacher suggests? 

The fact is, it's simply impossible for you to remember everything that happens in a lesson.  I require that my students bring in notebooks so that I can jot down important concepts for them, but so much in a lesson is shown visually, or demonstrated aurally with the instrument -- how do you remember those ideas? 

The simple answer is recording.  Recording your lesson allows you to review concepts when you have questions about them, and also serves as a great feedback tool: most students have never actually seen or heard their own playing!  Seeing and hearing yourself will be a shock at first (I know from experience!) but it's the quickest path to improvement.

Audio or Video?

When it comes to recording, audio recording is great, video recording is even better. It used to be that audio recorders were significantly cheaper than video, but now both can be had inexpensively.  And a high quality video or audio recorder isn't necessary, you just need something that gives you a good idea of what you look and sound like.  Something like the Flip UltraHD Video Camera (about $140) or Olympus Digital Voice Recorder (about $30) is all you need.  The Flip is especially handy because it can plug right into the USB port on your computer, so that you can easily save and organize your lessons.

After the Lesson

A good rule of thumb is to review the lesson the day of or the day after the lesson while the ideas from the lesson are still fresh. Often it's not necessary to listen to the whole lesson, just skip to the parts that you had questions about.  Jot down concepts in your own words in your notebook, or write down questions that you have for your teacher to be answered at the next lesson.

Do you record your lessons?  Do you have other tips for getting the most of your lesson?