Tips & Tricks: How Violin is Like Hockey

small__4912748706Perhaps due to my classical training, I feel best about lessons that include technique, such as scales, as well as learning pieces.  Here is a conversation that often occurs as I am working on a study or scale with a student:

Student:  “What is the name of this piece?”

Me:  “D Major Study.”

Student:  “So, is it a song?”

Me:  “No, it is an exercise.”

Student:  “If it isn’t a song, why do I have to learn it?”

I would usually tell the student that you have to practice your studies/scales so playing pieces will be easier, but one day, in a moment of brilliance one day I told the student I was teaching at the time that learning the violin is like going to a hockey practice:  You don’t just play the game, but you also have to work on drills.  The reason for doing these drills is so that you can develop all the skills you need for playing in a game situation.  By already having the skills, you can react as needed when a certain situation arises.  That seemed to make sense to him.

In music, you should practice your scales and arpeggios so that when you come upon one in a piece, you don’t have to think about every single note individually. The pattern will already be familiar to you.  You should also work on exercises that will develop your technique.  This is again so that when you run across a specific technique in a piece of music, you will already have the skill needed.

Having said all this, there are some teachers who don’t believe in using studies, and prefer to teach technique by picking pieces that include whatever it is they want to teach.  There is definite validity to both techniques.  My teachers were great believers in scales and studies, and it is these habits and techniques that I aim to pass along to my students!

photo credit: Paul L Dineen via photopin cc


A Violinist’s Experience Playing in a Chamber Orchestra

SINFONIA_LogoK+PMSMet117I play many forms of music with many different groups.  This past weekend I performed as part of the Atlantic Sinfonia, a professional chamber orchestra based in Fredericton, NB.  I got thinking about the rewards and challenges of playing with such a group and thought I would share them with you.

Formed in 2004, the Atlantic Sinfonia is a group of professional musicians from New Brunswick.  The ensemble alternates between concerts featuring a string ensemble, usually formed of about 13 members, and concerts featuring a wind ensemble.  As could be guessed, I am involved in the concerts that feature strings.

This group performs in an 18th century style, standing up instead of sitting down.  I actually prefer standing to play the violin as there is more freedom of movement.  Also, if you who have played your violin sitting down, you will know that you legs are constantly in the way!  Standing up eliminates this problem.

The big challenge of playing in such a group is that we don’t have a conductor.  This means that we are playing more as a chamber group than as an orchestra.  We have to be really in touch with the other players to stay together.  During rehearsals we have to decide who is going to cue each beginning in the music.  For the most part, it is our concertmaster, so he is not only playing his own part, but cueing the rest of us.

We also spend time in rehearsal making sure that we are all on the same page as far as expression, dynamics and bowings.  Without a conductor, everyone is more a part of the decisions about expression in the music.  It is a more democratic setting than working with a conductor.

As far as rewards, I love being in a small group and feeling like I am really important.  I know that all the players in a symphony are important, but when you are one of 10-12 second violins, you don’t always feel that way.  In the Atlantic Sinfonia, there were only four second violins.  Playing in a chamber orchestra you definitely feel like you are making a difference!

Please leave a comment if you have any experiences playing in a group that you would like to share!


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

Searching for a violist

Last year I had a fabulous string quartet.  The four of us played well together, we were starting to get a nice blended sound, and we enjoyed spending time together.  Sadly, my violist moved away, leaving me needed a four member to the quartet, and so the search began.

This is a challenge that occurs with all groups at some point!  A friend of mine recently was looking for a bass player for her rock band so we were going through the process of looking for a new musician at the same time.

I have to admit that as I get older, what I look for in a musician has changed!  Through the years I have played in many musical groups, with a wide range of people with varying personalities and skill levels.  I have played with fabulous musicians who were a real pain to work with, and I have played with less skilled musicians who were lovely!

So, what do I look for now?  The best of all worlds would be a great person that you like to spend time with who is an excellent musician.  These people do exist!  However, if I can’t find that person, here is what I look for in order of importance:

  1. Personality – Let’s face it.  You are going to spend hours of rehearsal with this person as well as hours in the car driving to gigs.  You really want to be able to enjoy all of that time!  The time you are on stage is only a brief portion of all the time you spend together!
  2. Reliability – I really want to know that my musicians are going to show up for rehearsal and most importantly for gigs!  I want to know that they will be there on time with everything that they need.
  3. Being a Team Player – I like working with people who are willing to give their opinions and will to take criticism.  I want the whole group to sound the best it can, so anyone who wants to showboat is not welcome!
  4. Musical ability – Yes…  This one is number four.  I used to put a lot more importance on it, but I have played with musicians who have improved drastically over the time we worked together.  Weak skills can be improved upon with work and time.

So, I am sure that you all want to know…  I found a fourth member for my quartet and my friend found a bass player for her band.  We both feel really good about our choices!  I hope that you all have as much luck finding musicians to play in your groups!

photo credit: Daveybot via photopin cc

Meet my idol

Alasdair FraserAll of us have idols in our lives. People that we look up to in some way or another. My idol, as far as fiddling goes, is Alasdair Fraser.

Alasdair is a Scottish fiddler who now resides in California. He tours quite a lot, most recently with Natalie Haas, a cellist. I don’t remember when I first heard Alasdair, but have been able to see him perform many times, and have enjoyed it each time! One of my earliest memories of watching him perform was at the New Hampshire Highland Games at Loon Mountain.

So, why is this man my idol? It has all got to do with his tone. Various people like different things in fiddle music. For me, one of the big things that I listen for, and also aspire to, is a beautiful, singing tone. Alasdair has that tone!

There is no extraneous sound and no scratching! His sound is very clean. His playing also seems to be completely effortless.

One of the things that I have always loved about the Scottish and Irish styles of fiddling is the lilt to the music. The fast tunes are energetic and driving, but there is a swing to the music. A lilt that always brings a smile to my face!
Perhaps one of the reasons I have been drawn to Alasdair Fraser is that he is classically trained, as am I. This means that he has been trained to listen to his tone and has also trained to work on bow control. Sometimes you will hear people comment on a fiddler being classically trained as if it is a negative thing, but to me it seems to work well for Alasdair.

If you want to hear my idol in action, check out Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas in Boston on YouTube.

You can also visit his site at:

This is what I aspire to be and to sound like!