Tips & Tricks: Overcoming The Dreaded Plateau

progressRecently a student of mine was getting very frustrated because she was working really hard, practicing regularly, and felt that she was not improving.  I have been through this many times over the past 20 years.  We all think that progress should be a smooth curve, like the image I have included here.  It is not!

In reality, even though you are practicing regularly, there will be times when you won’t feel like you are progressing at all!  There will then be times when you will feel like your playing has improved immensely over night.  The plateau periods are incredibly frustrating and make you feel like you might as well quit trying, but over time, it will all pay off!

So, once you hit a plateau period, what should you do?  The big thing is not to quit trying, but to persevere.  I will often change my practice routine.  I honestly don’t know that it helps break the plateau any faster, but it does help your morale!

Something else you should know is that I still experience plateaus at this point in my career.  I still practice and am still aiming to improve.  I also still experience the moments that seem like sudden improvement.  So, when you run into a plateau, don’t get discouraged and keep on working!

Please leave a comment if you have a great way to break the dreaded plateau!


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 Reasons Why a Digital Recorder Should Be in Every Fiddler’s Tool Kit

medium_3353936487Hearing yourself play any instrument is kind of like hearing recordings of your own voice.  It is terrifying, but one of the best things you can do to improve your playing!  I know that I am guilty of not doing this enough.  After recording my first CD, I learned to record myself at home before I go to the studio.  This is a good habit whether you are releasing a CD or not!  Here are the kinds of things I notice when I listen to a recording of myself.

1.  All of my little mistakes are obvious.  I pick up the big mistakes when I practice, but smaller inaccuracies in my playing (notes that aren’t clear) become obvious in a recording.

2.  Any little squeak or squawk is amplified.  I think of my playing as being very clean, so I am always surprised to hear squeaks when I listen back to a recording of myself.

3.  Tuning, tuning, tuning!  Again, all inconsistencies become obvious to me!

4.  When I was taking lessons, I remember my teachers complaining that my dynamics were not varied enough.  There is nothing like hearing a recording of your own playing to realize that they were right!

You don’t need to spend a lot of money on fancy equipment in order to do this.  Most computers now come with recording software and there are digital recorders at all price points as well.  The important thing is to get recording and listening to your own playing!  It is terrifying, but an important step improving your playing!

Leave a comment to let me know if you have experience with this and how it helped you with your fiddling!

photo credit: Beverly & Pack 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

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

It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Christmas music is incredibly polarizing. Where do you stand? Do you love it? Do you hate it? The other day on twitter, Jian Ghomeshi tweeted that we should not be playing Christmas music until December. This led to a barrage of tweets and retweets about the topic with, by the sounds of it, most people agreeing with him.

I happen to love Christmas, and I love the music that comes with it, which is really good since I teach violin/fiddle lessons and will be hearing Silent Night many times between now and December 25th. My students are always excited about learning Christmas music because these songs are familiar to them. These are tunes that they have heard every year for their whole lives.

The only restriction that I put on working on Christmas music is that I chose not to teach it until after Halloween. This seems like a good balance for not working on it for four months, but still having long enough that my students can play the music well by the Christmas recital.

I do understand though the frustration with having Christmas music played in the malls as soon as Halloween is over. I fully agree with the idea of generally not having Christmas music playing until December 1st. There are always exceptions to every rule, but I think that the stores and malls could wait until December 1st anyway, if for no other reason than the sanity of the people who work there! I will personally continue to enjoy all of my students playing their Christmas music from now until the recital!

photo credit: ClaraDon via photopin cc

To Forgive is Devine…

I recently did a gig with my band Different Folk where at first we messed everything up. We were playing in a new venue and had hoped to make a good first impression. We started songs in the wrong key, forgot words, messed up fiddle tunes. Pretty much anything that could go wrong did. As the night progressed though, we did get better, and by the end of the night were the back to being the band that we usually are.

So, what has this got to do with forgiveness? Well, as the night wore on I was thinking about the fact that the best musicians still make mistakes but are able to move on from them quickly. I am always telling my students that you have to let go of your mistakes and focus on what is coming. The more you think about how badly you just played, the more mistakes you make, and the more removed you are from the performance! If you let go of the mistake and focus on playing well for the rest of the night, no one will even remember your mistake! An audience is there to be entertained and not to keep score of how many mistakes you have made!

In the end, I think this advice applies to life in general. Those of you who have been reading my blog know that I have been working on losing weight, and it has been going really well! You also know (by looking at the calendar) that we just passed Easter, and talk about needing to be able to forgive yourself! I love chocolate, and certainly ate some (or maybe a little more than some) over the Easter weekend. One ‘trick’ to long term weight loss is also allowing yourself the occasional transgression, don’t beat yourself up and get back on-track!

Forgiveness is an integral part of my life and what I do. I have always been good at forgiving other people, but it is equally, if not more important, to allow yourself to make some mistakes, get back on track, and then move on with the experience and knowledge that you have gained.