Teaching, practicing, performing

The violin: teaching, practicing, performing

Teaching

  • In a violin lesson, the teacher hears (and sees) myriad faults to be corrected. But the student can assimilate a limited amount of new information. The teacher must exercise considerable self-discipline to choose what will most benefit the student at this point in his development. (I have found that sipping a cup of tea during lessons helps keep my mouth shut and ears open).
  • Maintain a healthy balance between encouragement and criticism. Maintain a healthy balance between reading and memorization. Often, students who memorize well read poorly and students who read well memorize poorly.
  • Provide the student with many opportunities to perform, including informal occasions.
  • In particular, most students will need help and support to perform comfortably from memory. It helps to have a repertoire, rather than always performing the latest piece learned.

Practicing

  • Practicing the violin is a difficult and elusive art that should be taught as part of the lesson. Violin lessons should include sessions of guided practice. Here is a pamphlet that I have written about the art of practicing: Practice Thoughtfully (and stop banging your head against a wall)
  • Work on a piece as a whole, rather than perfecting from the first bar. It is often a good idea to study a piece starting from the last movement, since this is often the most challenging to both technique and endurance.
  • The ultimate goal of all practice is performance. For instance, etudes should be studied so that they can be performed as short, violinistic, unaccompanied pieces (like pianists with Chopin). Even scales should be practiced musically.
  • Practice performing. Sometimes one should keep going no matter what. Other times one should stop and fix. But clearly distinguish these two modes of practice.
  • Practice performing short sections of a piece (a few notes, or a few bars, or just a phrase)—with full expression, as if this section were the entire piece.
  • Practice often with a metronome (but not always).

It is often helpful to move the tempo slower and slower—down to the slowest setting on the metronome.

  • Practice performing well under tempo—as if the piece were actually written at the slower tempo. Exaggerate shifts, dynamics, articulation and expression.
  • Practice quickly in a slow tempo: quick finger movement, shifts and string changes in a slow tempo.
  • One should almost always practice slowly, but sometimes one should practice above tempo just to see where things break down.
  • Afterwards, fix the broken passages and perform the whole piece under tempo in order to integrate the problem passages into the whole piece.
  • You can’t practice everything every day. Organize a rotating schedule. Flashcards are a great tool for this (see the book).
  • Alternate scales and exercise with pieces both old and new, slow and fast, more and less challenging. Often a piece will benefit from a rest.
  • Technical tools, such as uneven rhythms or finger-calisthenics, should be used to serve a clearly-defined purpose such as cleaning up a problematic passage. Avoid the common practice of mindless finger-banging.
  • When something goes well, do it again to solidify. But never reinforce playing tense, ugly, or out of tune by mindless repetition.
  • When practicing, take regular rests. Don’t practice tense. Breathe.

Violin technique

  • Physical comfort with the instrument is fundamentally important. The teacher must make sure that the student has a healthy physical relationship with the instrument before piling on challenges.
  • Scales are fundamental to violin technique.
  • Choose the technical means to support the musical end. For example, shift where a shift will be expressive.
  • Use musical expression to help technique. For example, it may make musical sense to broaden tempo for large chords.
  • By taking a piece apart and playing slowly enough, one can meet nearly any technical challenge. The trick is to put it all back together again.
  • Intonation on the violin is a difficult and unobvious art that can benefit from understanding the basic physics involved. Every student should be taught the overtone series, beats and the difference between Pythagorean and harmonic intonation.
  • Memorization is fundamental. It comes easily to some students; other students will need help. Encourage young students to memorize; it will never again in their lives be so easy.
  • Etudes can make nice pieces; pieces (or passages) can make useful etudes.

Violin repertoire

  • Bach is the foundation of the violinist’s repertoire.
  • Study great music ( Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Bartok, Stravinsky, etc. etc.).
  • Learn to improvise on the violin. All the great composers did.
  • The violin student should study repertoire that is challenging enough to foster improvement, but not so challenging that it causes physical tension and frustration.
  • Integrate the student’s other playing obligations (such as chamber music and orchestra) into lessons. For example, orchestral passages can make useful and challenging etudes.
  • Maintain a healthy balance between learning new repertoire and polishing old repertoire. The violin student should always have something ready to perform at the drop of a hat.
  • A portion of the student’s repertoire should be performable without accompaniment, so that the student always has something to play, any time and any place.

Music

  • Listen to a variety of music, for example there is a great deal that classical musicians can learn from jazz.
  • Listen to recordings. However, avoid listening to recordings of a piece that you are studying until you have come to your own conclusions about how it should be played. Then listen to several. Be inspired by and learn from the greats, yet feel free to disagree with them. One of the pitfalls of listening to recordings is that the student may be seduced into tempos for which he is not ready, leading to tense and sloppy playing.
  • Analyze what you are studying. In addition to aiding memorization, this will help you come to your own conclusions about interpretation based on the fundamental qualities of the work, rather than slavish imitation.

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