Four Points of Relaxation for Violin Playing

relaxationRelaxation is the key to all technique. Often when we’re on the spot trying to perform our best, the natural tendency is to tense up. The “fight or flight” instinct is activated. In violin playing, tension blocks the natural springy weight of the bow arm, leading to smaller tone and reduced control. Tension in the left hand causes fingers to push into the fingerboard and then lift too high, leading to loss of speed, accuracy and efficiency. There is also the danger of playing-related injury.

Often tension develops needlessly because we don’t take the time to establish the correct physical feeling and posture. During your next practice session, try placing the bow on the string, setting up good left hand posture and then isolate the following four areas for relaxation:

  • right shoulder
  • right elbow
  • right hand and wrist
  • knuckles of the left hand

Focus on each area individually for a few seconds and then play. If you feel tension creeping back in, shake out your arms and hands and go through the process again. Over time, the roadblock of tension will be removed, leading to more efficient playing.

[quote]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, that is, in the ability to make the sequence of mental command and physical response as quick and as precise as possible.[/quote]

-Ivan Galamian

Practicing is Problem Solving

Take a moment and think about your last practice session. Did you take time to imagine how you wanted the music to sound before you started playing? How attentively were you listening to yourself? Did you stay mentally alert? What did you do when you encountered a musical or technical hurdle?

It’s easy to fall into the trap of playing through a difficult passage slowly until you “get it right.” This is often counterproductive because it relies completely on luck. Without first identifying the problem and finding a solution, you may find yourself ingraining the bad habits you’re trying to eliminate. Remember, whatever we repeat becomes a habit, good or bad.

Productive practicing requires problem solving. It requires your mind as much as your fingers. It’s about visualization, audiation and evaluation. To avoid aimless practicing remember the motto “Stop…Think…Play.”

Whether you’re an older student practicing on your own, or a Suzuki parent guiding your child through a practice session, here are a few things to keep in mind:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Identify the Problem[/typography]

Listen carefully. Are you matching the sound that you have in your mind? If you’re a violinist the challenge could be anything from a string crossing to intonation (correct shape of the left hand and finger placement) to a difficult shift. Maybe there are a number of challenges that need to be isolated, as in the Bach Minuets in Suzuki Book 1. Take one problem at a time and work patiently.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Unit Practice[/typography]

Unit practice involves isolating a small group of notes and repeating them. Use your time effectively by practicing only the problem spot. For shifts start from the preceding note, memorizing the distance visually and physically. Focusing on small units helps your brain absorb new skills quickly. Start by repeating small units and then begin adding and combining other units. If you’re confronted with a run of notes (as in La Folia in Suzuki Book 6) it’s helpful to isolate all the notes on each string, stopping for each string crossing. In Witches Dance the triplets can be isolated into rhythmic units.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Isolate the bow and the left hand[/typography]

Reduce a passage to open strings to practice string crossings and bowing. For co-ordination between the left and right hands, stop the bow in between each note to set each finger carefully. Long slurs can also be practiced with stopped bows.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Tempo Adjustment[/typography]

Practice slower and faster than the tempo you intend to take. Feel the inside beats to maintain a sense of pulse. Use the metronome to gradually build up speed for fast music.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Make up rhythms[/typography]

For straight eighth or sixteenth note passages, practice with a variety of rhythms to increase finger co-ordination and improve evenness, quickness and strength.

These are just a few strategies that might help you overcome technical challenges. For more thoughts on practicing read The Most Valuable Lesson I Learned from Playing the Violin and Don’t Just Learn-Overlearn! Next time you take out the violin try to listen with your teacher’s critical ear. Challenge yourself to become your own teacher and remember that good practicing requires problem solving.

The Mental Side of Violin Playing

[quote]Technique is conception.[/quote]

-Zvi Zeitlin

As we begin a new year of practicing, let’s consider the mental side of violin playing.  The concepts we hold in mind can be an important guide for sound, phrasing, musical style and other aspects of playing.  Technique should always serve the musical concept.  In many cases, starting with a musical concept can propel us over a technical hurdle.

Think about your last practice session.  Did you focus mainly on the technical issues of the bow and the left hand?  Did a difficult passage remain illusive, even after many repetitions and problem solving attempts?  Put the violin down and hear the sound you want to create in your mind.  Imagine the physical feeling of playing well.  Think of a few words or images that capture the character of the music.  See if the power of your concept makes the bow and fingers automatically fall into place.

For the youngest Suzuki student words like “soft”, “squishy” and “springy” immediately create a good mental image for the bow hold. For the left hand, “spaghetti fingers” and “holding an imaginary ball” are good images. Hearing the string ring “like a bell” and using syllables like “Tuck-a-Tuck-a Tuck-a” and “Toh, Toh, Toh” can help build a mental image of tone production.

The opening phrase of Dvorak’s Humoresque in Suzuki Violin Book 3 provides a specific example of the way concept can improve technical control.  Challenges in this phrase include the “snapped” rhythm (cheating the rest can accidentally turn the rhythm into a triplet) and “zig-zag” bowing which can lead to an undesirably heavy sound.  A word like “sneaky” might help with the rhythm, while playing the last note before each rest “like a feather” could guide the wrist and bow hand to lighten up the sound.

Violinist and teacher Simon Fischer has written an interesting article about Mental Rehearsal which highlights the importance of visualization in violin playing.  Visualization is also central to the work of Don Greene and others who help professional musicians overcome performance anxiety.

Another important component of mental practicing involves attending concerts, listening to recordings and studying the score. If you’re learning a concerto it’s essential that you know the orchestra part as well as the solo part and how the two interact.

As you practice in the new year, remember that it’s important to use time efficiently.  Make a commitment to thoughtful practice and allow musical concepts to be your guide.

Ten Tips For Practicing

The beginning of a new year is a great time to evaluate our practicing and to reaffirm our commitment to consistent, thoughtful practicing.  How we practice is as important as how much we practice.  Here are some tips to keep in mind:

1. Practice Every Day

In some ways, practicing is like exercise.  If it’s sporadic you won’t see progress and you’ll be constantly frustrated.   When practicing becomes a part of your daily routine, your practice sessions become easier. You begin to develop muscle memory and one skill builds on another.  Progress and momentum follow.  Dr. Suzuki said that for every day you don’t practice you need to practice two days to catch up.  “Only  practice on the days that you eat.” was his famous advice.

2. Organize Your Time

Understand each component of your practice session and its purpose.  In the first Suzuki books a typical practice session should include Suzuki’s Tonalization exercises, your new piece and review.  More advanced students might similarly divide their time between scales, etudes, unaccompanied Bach, concerto, sonata, show pieces and orchestra music.  Each component helps your playing in a different way.

As you become more comfortable with a new piece, continue to practice small sections of the piece slowly, but also spend some time “performing” the piece by playing through from beginning to end without stopping.

3. Identify Your Objective 

Make sure you always understand specifically what you’re trying to accomplish.  Be goal oriented and focus on only one point at a time.

4. Use Your Time Efficiently and Intelligently 

Practicing almost always involves problem solving.  Identify the problem and then consider the most efficient and effective way to solve it.  If you have difficulty with a musical passage, don’t immediately play it again.  Instead, stop and ask yourself why it isn’t working.  It may involve a string crossing, a shift or questionable intonation. After you have identified the problem, focus only on its solution.  This usually involves starting in the middle of the piece and only repeating a small group of notes.  Stop and isolate each action, whether it be a string crossing or setting fingers on the fingerboard.  After repeating it correctly many times, back up and play the passage again in context.  It’s important to be able to start anywhere in a given piece.

5. Stay Mentally Alert 

Listen carefully and evaluate your playing throughout your practice session. Be as tough on yourself as your teacher is at your lesson.  Every time you go on autopilot and allow a sloppy string crossing or out of tune note to pass you are ingraining that habit.  By listening and solving the problem quickly, you save yourself time in end.

6. Imagine What You Want It To Sound Like

Let the piece play in your mind like a recording.  How do you want it sound?  Put the bow on the string and play.  Then evaluate what you played, making adjustments if necessary.  Always stay positive and evaluate after you have played.

7. Stay Relaxed

Relaxation is the key to all technique.  Focus on four points of relaxation, isolating each separately before you play: the right shoulder, right elbow, right hand and the knuckles of the left hand.

For less advanced students, always go through a posture checklist before starting to play.  Place the bow on the string and take a moment to feel the connection and relaxed arm weight.

Throughout your practice session, keep renewing a soft, springy feeling in your left hand and bow arm.

8. Slow Down

This is especially true when learning a new piece.  Find the tempo where it feels easy and focus on your most full, beautiful tone.  Stay calm and relaxed.  If you find yourself scrambling for notes, evaluate what is happening.  Usually, this is a sign that you are not making the most efficient physical motions possible.  This, in turn makes it harder and you risk building a habit of tension.  Think about a relaxed “roof” over the fingerboard and fingertips that stay close to the strings and try again.

Dr. Suzuki asks beginners learning a new piece to use short, small bow strokes and to stop between each note to prepare the left hand.  Practicing this way reinforces the appropriate coordination (the left hand preparing first).  It also ensures that mind and muscles have time to learn and remember the correct finger patterns.  Students who try to go too fast and skip this step often end up ingraining wrong notes that have to be unlearned later. There is also a danger of sloppy coordination between the right and left hands.

There are times when it can be beneficial to play a piece at full tempo (or even faster than the performance tempo) before you are ready.  However, as a general rule slow practice is essential.

9. Do Many Correct Repetitions

Whatever we repeat becomes a habit.  To improve we must replace old, inhibiting habits with new and correct ones.  Dr. Suzuki said, “Knowledge is not skill. Knowledge plus 10,000 repetitions creates skill.”  Those who worked with Suzuki have suggested that he intended this not as hyperbole, but rather quite literally!  In his book, Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell suggests something similar.

10. Always Play Your Best

Because what you repeat becomes a habit, it is essential that you never let down. Don’t settle for anything less than your best.  Always turn the energy switch on and practice with your best tone and most inspired musicianship.

Test Your Practice Skills

Anastasia Jempelis with a student
Anastasia Jempelis with a student

Dr. Suzuki told his students: “Only practice on the days that you eat.”  This is good advice, but it’s also important to evaluate the quality of your practicing.  It’s not just about the hours you put in, but what you put in the hours!  Suzuki’s triangle (student, parent, teacher) gives parents the vital role of guiding their child’s practice sessions at home.  Practicing correctly helps students develop self discipline, perseverance, and an increased ability to concentrate.  Years of parent led practice sessions prepare students to work effectively on their own as teenagers.  Most importantly, through practicing we develop and maintain the skills that allow us to connect freely and meaningfully with the music.  I’ll have a few more thoughts on practicing in future posts, but for now here are some helpful points that my former teacher Anastasia Jempelis put together many years ago.  Miss Jempelis asks that you “please answer this form as honestly as you would your Federal Income tax return.  Then, keep the form and test yourself again in a couple of months.”

Do you and your child
1.  understand the definition of practice?
2.  practice every day?
3.  understand exactly what your teacher wants you to practice?
4.  keep one goal in mind as you practice?

Do you
5.  keep a notebook?
6.  praise your child for a job well done so that their motivation will stay high?
7.  practice only as long as your child’s concentration is of a high quality?
8.  very gradually lengthen practice sessions if your child’s concentration is good?
9.  ask your teacher questions, so that you will be a good teacher at home?
10.  know when to stop a practice?
11.  use variety and creativity to make repetitions fun?
12.  do many repetitions so that the practice session is productive?

Some helpful “secrets” to remember:
1.  Be goal-oriented in practice.
2.  Keep motivation high.
3.  Lengthen and improve your child’s concentration.
4.  Try to be as good a teacher at home as your Suzuki teacher is at the lesson.
5.  Use repetitions to develop ability.  (The more good repetitions, the more ability).