Violin Practice Tips

There! I've played that piece through three times. Practice done!

Uhh, not so fast there. Yes you've played through your pieces, but have you actually learned anything apart from drumming in your mistakes? Its commonly said that 'practice makes perfect'. My wifes piano teacher had a more accurate version – 'practice makes permanent' – or an alternative 'perfect practice makes perfect'.


So what are they getting at? To improve with practice, you actually have to slow down enough, and focus enough on what you are doing to play your piece perfectly as you practice. Otherwise you simply get more fluent with the mistakes you are making. To my mind, the key ingredient for effective practice is.

Focus.

Call it focus, concentration, paying attention or whatever. Don't drift off during practice if you want it to be effective.

Focus is critical in a number of ways

Focus - on small chunks at a time. Work on a bar or a phrase at a time, not a whole page.

Focus – play S L O W L Y (every beginning violinist should have this tattooed on their forehead) and listen carefully to your intonation, dynamics and articulation. Playing slowly is actually harder than playing at tempo with your mistakes. Oh, and want a definition of 'slowly'? Try this exercise illustrated at www.violinmasterclass.com for improving intonation.

Set your metronome to mm40. Take a phrase of your piece, and ignoring the timing of the music, play one note at a time, with a one beat rest in between each note. During the rest, try to hear in your head the next pitch you are going to play. When you can do that perfectly, take out the rests. Once you have mastered that, add in the proper timing, still at mm40. Got that? Now start speeding up the metronome. If you haven't tried this, believe me it is HARD at first. At the very least, use a metronome at a slow speed to stop yourself racing away. As you get more fluent, increase the speed and let it come at its own pace. Focus – fix ONE thing at a time. Your conscious mind can only focus on a limited number of things at a time. Pick one thing to improve – perhaps intonation. Perhaps straight bowing or tone production or string crossings. Perhaps vibrato. Whatever it is, pick it, focus on it, fix it.

Focus – listen carefully and don't gloss over your mistakes. This is sooo easy to do on your own. You need to be super critical when listening to your own playing to be able to hear it the way others do. One help for this is to record your playing. You could use a cassette recorder, or MP3 recorder. I use my computer and some free recording software called Audacity. If you haven't done it, you'll be surprised what you pick up. It is also useful for hearing your progress over time.

Focus – on your scales! Instead of dreamily letting your fingers do their own thing as they run up and down the fingerboard pay attention! Look at the notes on the page and say their names in your head as you play them to improve how fluently you read them. Concentrate on the intervals between the notes.

Focus – on one piece at a time. I have only 1 hour a day to practice. With weekly lessons, there is no way I can make significant progress on lots of different pieces and studies during a single week. I have found it far more profitable to pick 1 piece, 1 or 2 etudes, and some technical exercises to focus on for the week, rather than spreading my efforts all over the place.

Just in case you think this is all just my opinion, heres a comment by a leading violin pedagogue of the 20th C, Ivan Galamian. In his book 'Principles of Violin Teaching and Playing' in the introduction he says

“...what is paramount in importance is not the physical movements as such, but the mental control over them. The key to facility and accuracy and, ultimately, to complete mastery of violin technique is to be found in the relationship of mind to muscles.”

He goes on to discuss the importance of what he calls 'correlation', by which he means the correlation between the mental command to do an action, and the response of the muscles to execute that action.Later in chapter 4 titled 'On Practicing' he has a section devoted to 'Mental alertness in practicing' where he writes;

“The thing that must be impressed on the student above all else is the necessity for complete and constant mental alertness during practice. It happens only too often with too many students that the mind wanders to different spheres while the fingers and hands are engaged in mechanical routine-functioning and endless repetitions. Practice of this kind, lacking both direction and control, is a waste of time and effort.”

One final point on practice. Little and often. Yes, you've probably heard it a dozen times before (or more) and perhaps till you are tired of hearing it, but the reality is – its true. Do even 15 minutes a day rather than an hour or more in one sitting at the end of the week, and you will be much better off.