letter to a young violinist: things I wish I'd known

I got very interested in playing the violin for hours and hours a day when I was about 10 or 11. Before I practiced 30000 hours, I wish I'd known a few things.

90% of playing is about choosing what you think about.

If anyone can, you can. 

Be patient.

Simplify and advance.

Sound and rhythm are mostly in the bow, (except that nothing will resonate if it is out of tune) or sometimes in the coordination between the left hand and the bow, usually meaning that the two have to be out of sync in the correct way.

Except when you want a fuzzy sound (and sometimes you do) the left hand has to stop the string completely stopped before the bow pulls the string.

The bow hold changes a little bit all the time.

The bow is balanced in the hand.

Use as few actions as possible. Each action makes the potential for the next action.

Listening and body perception are slow at first.

Interleaved practice and spaced practice work better than trying to “play it correctly ten times in a row!” This and other examples indicate that common sense and common knowledge might be COMPLETELY wrong!

You do need to sing to understand a melody, but you also need to hear the other voices to interpret a melody in a way that will be coherent.

Planning is practicing.


interleaved practice

When I was a kid I learned that you should cement your progress as you go. Practice and figure out how to do something correctly, and then stop and try to do that exact thing, correctly, nine times more. One person even told me to put ten pennies on my music stand and move one over for each correct repetition. I was told I should not go on until I had really learned that one spot. That made sense to me then, and it still sounds logical. I thought I would memorize the correct way to play by reinforcing it right away, but this turns out to be incorrect.

Instead, practice the first thing for three minutes, then the second thing for three minutes, then the third thing for three minutes and THEN come back to the first thing, the second and the third and then a loop around again a few more times. You don't feel as competent while you are doing it, but you are learning much more efficiently.

It turns out this is so much more effective than practicing the first thing for nine minutes and then thing two for nine minutes, and then thing three for nine minutes.

Here is a scientist talking about it: http://gocognitive.net/interviews/benefits-interleaving-practice

music with words

I'm having a blast working on Kurt Rohde's opera Death With Interruptions.  It is based on a book by José Saramago, translated by Margaret Jull Costa. Because the opera sets ordinary English words I'm always running across little phrases from the opera in ordinary conversations. And when I hear them, I'm reminded of the way those words sound when sung with Kurt's amazing melodies, rhythms, and sounds. It is adding a whole new layer of enjoyment  to my every day life. 


Nikki Einfeld plays a ravishing character, death. She can't help falling in love with music and a cellist she is supposed to have killed. Nikki is a coloratura soprano and her voice is actually to die for.

The other thing is that the people I'm working with are incredibly nice and, naturally, I've been seeing them lots since we've been working together all the time. 

finger tips

If you play the violin eventually someone will bring up the idea of playing from the base joints of the left hand. Curve your finger so the fingertip is floating over the string. Then you lift and drop the finger by moving from the knuckle joint, where the finger joins the hand.

This is easy to say, but people sometimes find it difficult to do, which makes perfect sense: Apparently the fingertip is the densest site of nerve endings  in the body. You have really acute sensation at the point where the fingertip hits the strings. Back in your knuckle joint? Not so much!

Once you realize what is going on, though, you can put your attention fully on that sleepy knuckle. Hover the curved finger over the string and then enjoy activating the movement from the base joint of the finger.