Tips & Tricks: Know when to walk away…

ImageYou have been practicing really hard, you have been making progress, and now things seem to be getting worse instead of better.  It feels like nothing is working and like you have completely forgotten how to play the violin/fiddle.  I am sure that we have all been there!  So, on a day like that, what do you do?

1.  Don’t panic and don’t beat yourself up!  This happens to professional musicians as well, so it is nothing to worry about, but is incredibly frustrating!

2.  Slow the passage down to see if you can play it slowly.  Sometimes if I can prove to myself that I can play the passage slowly, I am able to speed it up again.

3.  If that doesn’t work, try to play something else.  Something familiar, something that you enjoy and can play well.  I like to do this just to see if I can break whatever pattern is occurring.  I sometimes do this in lessons with my students as well if they are having trouble with a passage on a given day.

4.  If you really can’t seem to get beyond the frustration, step away from the violin and come back to it later.  At this point it is good to do something unrelated to music.  Go for a walk, read a book, or do something that will relax you.  Once you hit a certain point with frustration, you can actually just be compounding the problem by continuing on.  Sometimes I return to the passage later that day, sometimes I wait until the next day.

I don’t have a good reason for why this happens, but I do still days like this at times!  I hope that you don’t experience this too often, but remember when you do, that you are not alone, and it will get better!

If you have any good suggestions for how to beat these days, please leave a reply below.

photo credit: thecrazyfilmgirl via photopin cc

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Tips & Tricks: Four easy steps to playing sixteenth notes evenly

Have you ever been playing a piece with a lot of sixteenth notes and found that they were sounding uneven? I have a trick that will help you to even out your playing! I was introduced to this technique by my high school violin teacher and have used it ever since with great success!

Here are the 4 easy steps to playing sixteenth notes evenly using this sample passage:

1. Get your metronome. Your metronome is your friend when you are trying to solve rhythm and evenness issues. I usually slow the passage down while working on it, but if you already have the notes down, it may not be necessary.

2. Play the passage using the following rhythm:

3. Play the passage again using this second rhythm:

4. Play the passage as it was originally written.

You will find that once you have used the two altered rhythms (especially the second one) that playing the passage with straight sixteenth notes is much easier, that your rhythm is much more steady, and likely you will even be able to play it faster than before.

Why is that? Well, when you think about it, to play the dotted rhythms, you have had to move your fingers and your twice as fast as when you were playing the straight sixteenth notes, so by playing both the dotted rhythms, in a way you had to play the whole passage as thirty-second notes.

Likely, it will not be enough to play the passage once through each way and be able to play it perfectly once you are done. Spend some time on each step and make sure that you are playing all the notes in the correct rhythm and that your bow and left-hand fingers are coordinated. Depending on how long the passage is, it can be a challenge to maintain the rhythm in step three.

This is a tried and true technique that is one of the most useful in my toolbox. Let me know how it works out for you!

photo credit: amandabhslater via photopin cc

Tips & Tricks: Playing in an Orchestra

This week we just started our orchestras at Park St. Elementary School.  It is very exciting for the kids because this is the chance for them to play in a group with different instruments.  This made me think of all the things that a person needs to know about playing in a group.  Here are six tips for playing in an orchestra.

1.  Learn your notes at home

When you are in a group, there is nothing that slows rehearsal more than having to wait for someone to learn their notes.  As my teachers were fond of saying, practicing (ie. learning your notes) is something you do at home, rehearsal (ie. fitting all the parts together and working on expression) is what you do with the group.

2.  Listen to the others around you

The most important thing is to listen to the people around you.  It is not enough to play the right notes at the right time.  I have described it to my students as being the difference between people playing music in the same room that just happens to fit together and people actually playing music together.  You can hear the difference!

3.  Listen to recordings of the music

This is actually just plain good advice.  If you are playing in an orchestral setting, it is important to become familiar with the music and to be able to pick up auditory cues as to when you need to play your part.

4.  Listen to the director/conductor

You need to listen to the director.  It is important to listen even if the director is not talking to you as often things that the director says to one group will carry over to others.  Also, this is a big time saver if the director does not have to repeat information to each group member individually.

5.  Check your ego at the door

Music is a lot like marriage:  It is more important to be together than to be right!  Even if you are technically playing the passage correctly, but the rest of the group is playing it a different way, don’t play louder to try to convince everyone to play your way, adjust and fit into the group.  I have seen this with notes, rhythms and tuning.  In the end, even if you are right, if you are the only one doing it, it will look like you are making a mistake.

6.  Don’t make excuses

This is a hard one, and I have seen many professional musicians fall into this trap.  If the director corrects you or tells you that a note is incorrect, don’t make excuses for why you played it that way, just mark your part and try to fix the problem.  If there is a mistake in your printed music (which can happen), just check to make sure that you now have the correct notes, and move on.  The director is not making a judgment against you (we tend to take it too personally when we are corrected) he/she is just trying to make the group sound as good as possible!

I hope these tips help!  Have a great time playing in a group.  It is one of the great joys in music!

photo credit: Niels Linneberg via photopin cc

Tips & Tricks: How to make the most of your lesson

How to make the most of your lessonThe other day as a student was leaving my studio her Mom asked her if we had worked on the part of her piece where she had been having trouble. “Oh yeah,” she said to me, “My violin keeps squeaking when I change my bow over to the e-string.” This made me think about how we tend to avoid anything we find hard and how much that does not serve us as we are trying to learn. Here are some ideas for how to make the most of your lessons:

  1. Warm up before your lesson. Often students arrive without having played violin earlier that day, so during the first 5-10 minutes you are not getting the most out of your lesson, but are simply warming up.
  2. Practice as soon as you can after your lesson, ideally on the same day, but at the latest, the next day. Sometimes after a lesson it is tempting to relax and not practice right away, but later in the week when you do practice, you won’t necessarily remember what you were supposed to be doing.
  3. Take notes during your lesson. When I was a child my teacher would write notes about what I was supposed to work on, and when I was older, I would write my own notes. With notes you can refer to them during the week to make sure that you are on the right track.
  4. If you are having a problem with something, mention it to your teacher so you can work on it. I know that it is tempting to hope that your teacher won’t ask you to play the things that you can’t do. I know that I am guilty of this one for sure! I can’t count how many times my students have said to me “I was hoping that you wouldn’t asked me to play that!” It is human nature, but not the best use of your time, and you are really just holding yourself back.

I hope these tips are helpful! Go out and make the most of your lessons!

Tips & Tricks: Am I too old to learn the fiddle?

Am I too old to learn the fiddle?The most common question I am asked by adults when they call me for lessons is “Am I too old?” My answer is “Of course not!” I believe that you can learn an instrument at any age!

As time has gone on, I have been teaching more adults. There are three stories that I often hear:

Scenario Number 1:
These people have always wanted to learn to fiddle and never had a chance as a child. Often they are now at a point in their lives where their children have moved out, maybe they are retired (although not necessarily) and now have time to pursue their own interests.

Scenario Number 2:
These people are very interesting. These are people who hated the fiddle when they were kids, often because it was something that their parents loved and that they were subjected to against their will. Now that these people are adults, they have developed a taste for the music they heard as children and want to pursue it.

Scenario Number 3:
These people did take lessons as a kid and now want to start up again. Often they took classical violin lessons as children and now really want to play fiddle music.

You will run into people who feel that you should not start at a late age as you will not learn as fast as a child, and you likely will never be as comfortable with the instrument. These things are true, but as I tell my students, if you want to play at Carnegie Hall, it might be too late, but if you want to improve, play for your own pleasure and join a group, you can do that at any age!

No matter what your scenario is, it is never too late to start playing the fiddle! It will take time and dedication to improve your playing, but it will also be rewarding!

Tips & Tricks: Making it easy to practice!

Making it easy to practice!Often the parents of my students ask me how to get their children to practice more. One parent once said to me “My daughter always plays the piano when she walks by, but rarely picks up her violin unless she is reminded.” One of the best ways to encouraging practice is to make it easy and to make sure your child’s violin is visible. This works for adults too!
I recently read an article about making the habit of starting, an idea that works well with practicing. The article is a great read, and the gist of it is that you should focus on getting started with whatever it is you want to do. If you want to run a half marathon, focus on tying your shoes and getting out the door… This idea works really well for practicing! I know from personal experience that sometimes you have the time, it is just the inclination to practice that is missing.

So why is that? Sometimes you are comfortable and happily occupied, and sometimes it just seems like too much effort to get your instrument ready. What is the solution? There is no easy solution to the first other than just getting started. For the second, you can try to make it as easy as possible. I like to leave my violin out on a violin stand so that I don’t have to open my case, put my shoulder rest on and get out my bow. I know that it doesn’t sound like much to do, but sometimes it can be enough of an excuse for you not to practice.

Do you remember the mother I mentioned earlier? Well, the piano was in the dining room, so her daughter saw it all the time when she walked through the room. Her violin was stored in its case under her bed. That meant that she did not see it, so didn’t think of playing it, and when she was reminded she had to go through the effort of getting it out.

The use of violin stands is somewhat controversial because you can regulate the humidity in your case. Ideally you want your violin to remain in a consistent environment. My suggestion though is to make sure that the room where you have your violin stored is not too dry.

My challenge to you is to practice 5 minutes every day for a week. Don’t worry about practicing for 20 minutes, for an hour… Just get started every day! You may very well find out that once you get started you want to keep on going. Please comment below and let me know how this goes!

“Time” to practice

"Time" to practiceLike many of my students, I took some time off over the summer. I was playing a lot of gigs, but was not focusing on practicing. It has been nice to get back into a routine! I have been reading about business and time management and have run into the same idea repeatedly. I have decided to apply it to my practicing so I am now using a timer!

So, what is the advantage of using a timer? I come up with a plan for my practice session before I start and then stick to it. For example if I were going to practice for an hour I might make the following plan:

  • 5 minutes: 1 minute bow exercise (link back to my 1 minute blog)
  • 10 minutes: scales
  • 10 minutes: technique exercise
  • 15 minutes: reviewing old fiddle tunes
  • 20 minutes: learning new material

I then set my timer, and start practicing. When the timer rings, no matter where I am, I move on to the next part of my practice session.

So far I am really pleased with how well this technique is going. I see three major advantages:

  1. I know that there is a finite amount of time that I am going to spend on learning or improving a technique or piece. I am not trying to perfect it today, just improve on it.
  2. I am able to focus much better. I now don’t feel like I am practicing and having to focus for a full hour because it is now broken down into smaller, manageable chunks.
  3. I actually work on everything that I was planning on practicing. I have had many practice sessions where I have gotten focused on one thing and run out of time to work on other material.

Do you have any tricks that help you practice more efficiently?