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Timothy Smith
At times I believed learning good technique was permanent. It seems I play some techniques well 9 out of 10 times or almost to perfection, then slip up on something elementary I thought I knew like the back of my hand.

I especially notice this playing something the very first time in a rehearsal. Oh I get through it to passable, but then it's so much better the second or third time I play it. Sometimes it almost seems like a hit or miss kind of thing. Other times I play it perfectly.
I think I begin to get slightly paranoid and begin to change things about the violin or bow to see if that was the problem.

I especially notice this when I first get to the lesson playing for my teacher the first time that lesson. I usually crash and burn the first time and I'm not typically the type to wince if someone is watching me. This leads to a whole set of thoughts from my teacher that probably aren't entirely correct because I know I can play better than that. She makes me repeat things over and over again that I'm pretty sure I know.

Is there some way I can start better, maybe mentally prepare myself in some way? I'm not sure why this is even happening. I don't seem to be able to maintain a steady level of technique at the worst possible times, but then I can play it better for long periods of time. Doesn't seem to make sense. If repetition were the answer I should have nailed it a long time ago, because believe me, I've played some of this over and over and over again.
Timothy Smith
16 Responses
Posted: October 1, 2019
Last Comment: October 8, 2019

Timothy Smith
Posted: October 8, 2019
I'll hold further responses to this short. I don't want to use up the internet. Is it sinful to write long posts? Probably not but no one will read them....I guess. There's an unwritten law somewhere that more than a few paragraphs is sacrilegious. I've never found the law so you can count me as ignorant on the subject :S

I did have a thought on drones that might be taken as negative though it isn't intended as such. To me drones are a great help and I even made my own bagpipe drones because the simple tone was a bit boring. I've wondered since if maybe they could potentially become a crutch? Never heard a term like or similar to "tone memory". I guess the main idea is to remember the tones. Play to the tones. Associate muscle memory to the tones. When we wean ourselves off of the drones or play without them we rely on both muscle memory and tone memory.....which might not bode well for anyone with a fragile memory. I've never tested myself to record me playing a solid tone by memory with no point of reference, then compared it to the accurate tone. If you wanted to take muscle memory out of the equation
so that you know for certain you are relying only on "tone memory" you could intentionally detune a string and the try to play say, an A on the detuned string the way your brain remembers it.

Posted: October 6, 2019
I was so glad to read about never practicing without a drone, because I have been droning with an open string during scales lately, and does it ever help! Wished I could continue in octaves, and an external drone will help with that!

Timothy Smith
Posted: October 4, 2019
Ray, I was pulled away from this thread. I didn't feel as if I really gave your comments a response that encapsulated everything you said.

I reading over what you said again I get the comments about having different ways we practice. In response to your comments I would agree. I tend to play with more freedom when I simply play what I want to play. It's a lot more fun and I can sort of "let myself go" while doing that. In some parts of the world those who learn to play will say they have never really "practiced". They simply play all the time until it sounds good. This is particularly true of "fiddlers". If the goal is self expression on an instrument, then maybe this is why this type of playing is so enjoyable for me. I would imagine myself playing something that sounds like something and eventually it does! At least to me.

Having said that, it seems  the most deeply thought out methods by the most gifted people over the years are the best ways to learn something in the most in depth way. This is why I think technical measured  practice that concentrates on each facet of the craft is best. Even so, I can feel myself kind of tightening up when I know my teacher is there. "Don't play that too fast yet", "you played this out if tune", "Watch how you're holding that bow, move the violin more over your shoulder". We know it's coming. We know it's what we need, doesn't bode well for that relaxed expressive feeling, feels more conformist which sometimes grates against my nature. It IS conformist in that we need to to it the right way in order to do it right! This is a house of cards that will fall down without good early foundations. I am forced to admit that some properly focused conformity is both beneficial and necessary. Most musicians pay their dues.

Oh, and not to drift........I wanted to ask about the drones. Do those of you who use them only use them for scale work?

Timothy Smith
Posted: October 4, 2019
@Beth, thank you for this.  My teacher now says that she still goes back over the Suzuki material, similar to your comment, she feels the need to revisit learned techniques years after she initially learned them..

I understand you to say that maybe it's the sequence a known technique is played in that makes it unique. I can see why this might pose more of a problem, much like life, every day seems similar but there's usually something different in the mix. Maybe something we haven't dealt with.

In any case, it is refreshing for me to read this in an odd way. Maybe because those who are wonderful players like yourself don't develop into these super human robotic players.Every ending is a new beginning. I applaud your "down to earth" attitude which resonates mightily here.

@Dianne, I really think this was some of it for me. Up at 5am. Lots of driving to get there after already doing lots of driving lol. My teacher just moved. Her new location seemed to relax me. I feel better vibes here and I think I might have played better last night because of it.

@Ray, If I'm reading this correctly, it seems similar to envisioning your performance. Something I've read about both good athletes and  musicians who practice it. It would be like imagining going into the instructor's studio and imagining a perfect "performance". In this case the performance is simply the lesson that could be seen as a performance in some aspects. I believe most of it is mental approach. I remember how nervous I once was to play piano and sing up in front of several hundred people. Now I barely give it a second thought. Mainly because I know the material and I know many of the people. Hopefully in time I'll feel similar about the violin.

@Sonia, I want to comment more however I'm being pulled away....I ate the banana lol. I think it helped!!! 
You are such an organized person! I probably do a similar thing in moving the blocks around. In my case it's disorganization. Just the random way I pick my material up to play it on any given day :)

Beth Blackerby
Posted: October 4, 2019
Timothy, I wish I could say that once you learn a skill it sticks, but that's just not the case and never will be. I continually have to work on skills that I learned decades ago. It's a part of the process. 

Here's how I practice. I turn on the drone. I now NEVER practice without it, and it's a game changer with intonation. Then I zero in on the hard things I have to improve. If  I mess up on something, no matter how simple or difficult it is, I have a singular mindset: 
To teach myself every note, shift, string crossing, no matter how many times in my life I've played those same notes, shifts, and string crossings.  Because THESE notes, shifts, and string crossings are uniquely sequenced and ordered to form this particular piece. 

When I think like that, it removes the frustration of missing things I should not be missing. If I become my own teacher, and treat every measure as something to teach myself, my practice is way more productive.  

Posted: October 3, 2019
A couple of more thoughts on this came to mind after reading these posts of great ideas. One was that when I travelled to the city for lessons, it took between 1-1.5 hours, then 2-2.5 hours to get back because of rush hour. But when I arrived at my lesson, I did some quick hand warmups before going in, because holding the steering wheel on highways at 75mph does take its toll for immediate violin playing. Perhaps you could do some quick warmups? The other thought I had was just complete relaxation of both arms so that they hang in their sockets, and then using back muscles to play. This was in a tutorial on VLab and does it ever work! It actually causes a generalized, overall relaxation that helps me avoid hitting other strings, get a good, rich tone and loose vibrato etc..

Posted: October 3, 2019
Hi Timothy,

Hold onto to your hat, Timothy, I'm thinking outside of that 'box'.  

I interpreted your question slightly different, my thoughts did not go to what or how many times you get something right.  "I especially notice this playing something the very first time in a rehearsal."  "I especially notice this when I first get to the lesson playing for my teacher the first time that lesson. I usually crash and burn the first time..."

This is the parts that I focused on: I truly believe that most of us practice one way to needs to fit a few different situations.  I believe that there needs to be a different level of practicing.  One type of practicing is to learn techniques in order to play the piece of music.  Another to incorporate musicality and interpretation into the piece of music.  Another if you want to just have fun.  And yes finally a type of practice whose focus to so that you are able to perform the piece of music whether the audience is your teacher or a standing room only performance.

For instance, you mention that when at rehearsal, for the first time through, there were mistakes in areas that you knew quite well.  I believe that was because you were focussing on different areas from when you were in the practice room compared to the rehearsal.  Perhaps, back in your practice room, you could set aside time to simulate what would likely happen at a rehearsal or performance.  You could wear the same clothes, right down to the shoes.  Enter the room as though you were walking on stage.  Even bow before you sit.  Have the camera recording you enter the room, walking to your chair, preparing  to play, and then playing the piece.    

If you are anxious to playing for your teacher because you want to be able to show improvement.  At one lesson record your teacher talking and showing you how to play a technique.  Then you could replay their voice and in some way it may stimulate your mind and therefore your attitude and focus while you are practicing.

Any way, just some random thoughts and you may in fact be rolling in the aisles right now with my crazy ideas.  Remember, I did warn you about how much I think outside of the box.  

Best of Luck.


Sonia Lancaster
Posted: October 3, 2019
Good to see how you practice, Timothy and yes, I agree with what you say Dianne, why Practice 3 notes if only 2 re causing the problem? Itís a third of your time wasted!

I guess to some extent we all play interleaved, in that one piece begins and another ends. Just looking at what you said and that your Suzuki pieces are the least enjoyable, can you split the pieces into sections? At natural phrases? Say A, B, C, D. The play B, A,D,C or even with another piece A2, B2, C2, D2 and play A, A2, B, B2, C,C2,D,D2 etc? This is something Iím going to try because I know I start to switch off.

The other thing is we learn most from the beginning and end of a session, and the least from the middle, so taking frequent breaks say ever 15-20mins minimises the amount of time spent on the middle section.

I think interleaved practice can feel as though weíre not learning and a bit messy but itís based on science and results say it works. Iím just in the process of devising a practice plan to take account of this. Itís  also easy to be drawn in and forget the time, 5 mins becomes 30 mins, so Iím going to set a timer and be strict. Iíd say aim for 10-15mins per chunk.

Itís interesting that the actual learning is done when weíve finished practicing and most when we sleep! Some professionals actually have a nap to improve this. Iíve also read that there is an optimal revisit time, when you should revisit what youíve practiced.... I heard it was 60 mins.

Let us know if anything works for you.


Posted: October 3, 2019
Hi Tim, maybe just practice the areas in each Suzuki piece that give you trouble, rather than playing them through each time. If you can play a majority of it well, just practicing the entrances into the trouble spots and a measure at the other end or so can free you up to do more practice in other areas. Not sure you are playing pieces through but thought I'd mention it. It comes up here from time to time not to play through pieces repeatedly in practice unless we want to try once at the end to see if it's 'polished'.

Timothy Smith
Posted: October 3, 2019
Hi Sonia, Thanks for sharing that article. I read it. I can see the wisdom in the recommended approach.

Interesting question- How do we practice?

 My teacher suggests repeating harder passages 5 times. My lessons info outline looks something like this-

  • Practice a scale all the way up the neck paying special attention to intonation.
  • Practice multiple pieces out of several Suzuki books designated by her. Repeating the places that are hanging me up as noted above.
  • Practice one piece not in Suzuki that she gives me to learn
  • Play one piece of my choosing I selected for critique
Last week I was caught off guard when asked to play something I am working on. 
I am encouraged to play other things as I like aside from this.

  • I usually play through the scale I was given in multiple ways spending maybe 5-10 minutes on it. I have been improvising some melodies over the scale to make it more interesting.
  • I play the Suzuki assignments often. They have been taking up a large part of my daily rehearsal. I go back over them to get them polished. Sometimes playing one piece 10 or more times attempting to improve each time.Might be as much as 30 minutes or more. Probably the most disliked part for me.
So I guess this is interleaved somewhat. I don't usually stay on any one thing for much more than 20-25 minutes before I take a few minutes break, even if it's just me walking into another room and stretching.

I think some of it might be nerves for me. Since our brains need so much concentration to play, I'm beginning to wonder if when I go away to a lesson I might be distracted even though it doesn't seem like a major distraction, it's just enough to tip me. When I'm at home maybe I don't have concentration techniques mastered to the point that I can let every peripheral thought go? Though it seems I'm concentrating something is usually always going on in the background of my thoughts. My type is the classic "overthinker".

Sonia Lancaster
Posted: October 3, 2019
Just another thought Timothy... how do you actually do your practice? The usual method is block practice, but interleaved practice is much more effective. It may be you think you have learned it but are then forgetting it.

Posted: October 2, 2019
Of course, our teacher only sees us once a week- brilliant!

Timothy Smith
Posted: October 2, 2019
Thank you Dianne, Lesley and Sonia. I didn't know about eating a banana before rehearsal.
I'll give that one a try. 
Lesley, she doesn't seem to be loading me up with too much right now. If anything I feel slightly held back...like I'll never get ahead. I think I'm doing better only to be told I need to go back and work on it some more. She gives me these notes every week which I really like a lot because it's a written assignment. I follow written word instruction much easier than only verbal. Sorry to hear about your initial experiences with this teacher. Glad it's getting better for you.

I didn't believe it was my nerves. Maybe it is. For large audiences they always say to imagine everyone in their underwear. I tried that once and it was weird. I really don't want to see everyone in their underwear. In this case just...no. So I guess I need other ideas. I like the banana idea a lot. If it helps I'll be eating lots of bananas!

Sonia Lancaster
Posted: October 2, 2019
I can empathise as well. I think this is probably something we all suffer from. In my case the nerves come from caring... wanting to show the teacher Iíve listened and have improved. To us our steps will seem very small, but when we havenít seen the teacher for a week or 2, then they have the skill to know weíve improved.

Although you may not feel it, nerves probably do play part. Playing to lots of different people, or performing in friendly circumstances can help. I also find eating a banana 30 minutes before the expected event helps - something to do with serotonin.


Posted: October 1, 2019
My first lesson with my new teacher was a DISASTER. Talk about crash and burn. It didn't help that his (very small) practice room faces west, and that, on that day, with full sun and no AC, the room temperature was in the mid-90s. It was like hot yoga. Shifting was impossible. Nerves made it even worse!! It was a steady spiral down from the first note.

That was about two months ago. One thing that has since really helped re. the nerves was realizing that he isn't "perfect" when he plays either. (I mean, he's light years ahead of me, of course! but definitely not spot-on absolutely perfect, which my first teacher was.) Just generally getting to know each other has also helped -- we laugh a lot now, and that deals with the pressure nicely. 

I don't know what you can do to mentally prepare yourself except make sure you've worked on whatever main issue she pointed out in your last lesson. It doesn't matter if you haven't "nailed" it yet: she just wants to know you listened to her and focused on that one thing. And in my experience, knowing that you did, and to the best of your ability, helps with the nerves cuz really, what more can you ask from yourself? So for example, if my teacher says to me, "Okay, this week, go very slowly on these four tricky measures to work on the string crossings" and then I go home and do that faithfully, then I'm not nervous when I see him the following week cuz a) I probably did actually improve and b) I usually have a new question to throw back at him about it. But my teacher believes in keeping progress very bite-sized... Does your teacher, too? Or do you feel she gives you more than you can handle?

Posted: October 1, 2019
Aha! This happens when playing with a teacher, atleast also for me! I think our teachers must correct what they see and we hope they realize there are some nerves involved with playing for them once weekly our progress. In time they get to know us better and may let the small things go because they realize it is nerves. It all seems to work out because the corrections are always good to reinforce something. Don't have a teacher presently but recognize the situation from my previous two teachers for sure!