Learning to play the violin, like every worthwhile pursuit, involves long hours of training. Every student understands that the total amount of practice you put in will equal how great a violinist you can become. Indeed, that’s why so many of those hours are spent practicing. Yet, for many intermediate violin students, the progress they make from repeated, lengthy practice sessions appears slow.
If you’ve ever wondered why others seem to master certain techniques or learn tough pieces of music easier and faster than you, the answer may lie in how you practice, rather than how much you practice.
An early 1990s study conducted by K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf Th. Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Romer, entitled “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance,” published in the Psychological Review changed the way many musicians approach violin practice. The study revealed the practice habits of an “elite” group of successful violin players versus an “average” group. It found that although the two groups practiced exactly the same amount of time each day, the “elite” group of students were engaging in deliberate practice.
Deliberate practice is difficult, but worth it. By changing the way you practice, you can make bigger strides in your violin skill level. The trick for intermediate violin players is to avoid an auto-pilot syndrome. Deliberate means centering all of your thoughts on your practice, for the entire time.
Although all violinists have their own individual regimen, by incorporating these practice habits and visualization techniques, you can develop your own deliberate practice style and begin seeing remarkable results.
Outline and Visualize Your Goals
Without a clear, attainable goal it will be incredibly difficult to make progress. For example, instead of concentrating on the violin fingering that you’re doing wrong, focus your mind on how it should look when it’s done properly. It can help to watch a close-up of a virtuoso performing the same passage. It’s important to create realistic images of how it will feel and sound when the piece is performed perfectly.
This same technique is used effectively in defensive driving courses, professional sports training, and other pursuits. Students are taught to focus on the outcome desired, rather than a current limitation.
Organize Your Surroundings
The place where you practice has a direct influence on how effective you’ll be able to learn. Essentially, you’re practicing to get better, so if your mind is able to wander easily or there are a lot of distractions nearby, deliberate practice is going to be difficult, if not impossible.
Your practice area should be organized to support total concentration. It’s hard to focus your thoughts on visualizing perfection if you are being constantly interrupted by texts, phone calls, or objects unrelated to the music.
Find a quiet room and make sure that your phone and computer are off (or silent). It will also help if you situate your music stand in an area that offers few visual distractions. For example, instead of practicing where you can see posters or your bulletin board, create an area that is free from those type of items. Even better, conduct your practice near a mirror to assist the visualization process.
Train Yourself to Identify and Solve Specific Problems
Rather than play the same, incorrect passage over and over (which actually trains you to play it wrong), use problem-solving strategies to fix your violin bow technique, fingering issues, or problems with violin notes. The best way to create deliberate practice is to slow down and play softly. Research has shown that sensory perception is heightened when sounds are faint, which makes it easier to detect slight alterations in pitch and vibrato.
Moreover, by reducing your tempo, you give yourself time to process the information. There’s a tendency with intermediate violin students to forget how beneficial playing at an extremely reduced tempo can be. Remember your early training, every piece is played with exaggerated slowness. Reducing the tempo at first can help ensure that your arms and fingers execute correctly, then you can gradually pick up the pace.
Determine Effective Practice Times
In a recent submission to The Strad, Itzhak Perlman offered his practice advice for young violinists. He emphasized the need to perform scales properly, and to be careful not to overdo it. Perlman also quipped, “When kids ask me for an autograph, I always sign my name and then write, practice slowly!’”
Rather than one large practice session, experiment with two shorter ones per day. It may require some rescheduling, but it’s worth it.