Violin Practice Tips by Catherine Tait

When doing some research, I stumbled upon this wonderful practice article written by the late Catherine Tait (1953-1997), teacher at the Eastman School of Music. It really helps to explain how students need to have a thoughtful direction while practicing. Here it is:

The whole point of practicing is to improve. You should always know what you want to accomplish before starting your practice session. A good way to organize your thoughts is to have a set of goals. You can have an overall goal such as becoming a professional orchestral violinist, or learning enough Irish fiddle tunes to play in the sessions at your local pub. Then you need to have a medium-range goal, such as learning vibrato by the end of the year. After that, aim for a weekly goal, like improving your straight bowing. Finally, have a daily goal, such as fixing a slipping bow hand, or memorizing a page of music. The daily goal is the primary thing to concentrate on during the session, but you should also work on the weekly goal. Goals give you a target that you can aim toward, giving you direction.

I used to write my daily goal on a piece of paper and tape it to my music stand. This would focus my attention, and remind me every time I saw it. It’s very hard to multi-task while learning something new and my attention would always drift to other things, but the note on my music stand would bring me back, over and over. Concentrate on one thing and do it correctly enough times to start making it a habit. There is a Japanese saying that translates into “keep one point,” or, only think about one thing at a time. Suzuki used to say that knowledge is not skill, knowledge plus 10,000 repetitions creates skill, or automatic execution.

As for fixing difficult passages in your music, Carl Flesh used to ask students to play through a work, paying special attention to the difficult spots (but not stopping), then to go back and work on those spots in great detail. Then, after performing breathing exercises (for relaxation), to play through the work again to see if the difficult passages had improved.

How much each day should you practice? It depends on your ambitions, school/job/family requirements and energy level. The most important thing is to do some practice EVERY DAY. Suzuki used to tell his students to practice only on the days they eat. Practicing six hours on Saturday will not make up for five missed days of study. For a violinist wishing to become a professional classical artist, Leopold Auer (Heifetz’s teacher) wrote that if a student needed more than three hours a day to complete their violin studies, they should do something else! However, Ivan Galamian used to ask students at the Meadowmount school to practice for 50 minutes, followed by 10 minutes of rest, repeated from 8:00 a.m. until 12:00 noon, then again from 1:00 – 1:50. Resting each hour allows you to return to your practice with more focus and stamina. I’d like to add that it’s very risky to start practicing that much all at once. You must work up to it slowly. If you’ve read My Purpose page, you’ll know about the injury I sustained from over-use. You need to think of yourself as an athlete! Plan time to stretch before and after you practice. Warm up slowly, do not just ‘jump in’. If something hurts, pay attention to your body because it’s telling you something important. Everyone has heard the saying no pain, no gain, but I say no pain, no pain. Work smarter, not just harder. If you injure yourself and don’t let it heal properly, it can become chronic and actually end your career.

I’ll finish by saying that the power of positive thinking is an incredible practice tool. If you do not believe you can achieve something, if you can’t visualize yourself succeeding, you will not succeed. If you have a low self esteem this can be a problem. If you can identify that self esteem is a problem for you, one of your goals to should be to improve it. How can this be done??? First of all, remember that you cannot be perfect. You should aim for your personal best, not something that is impossible. Remember that you are unique! One of a kind. Instead of looking at the things you dislike about yourself (or can’t do), consider all the things you can do, even if it’s something you think is simple or unimportant. There’s a good chance the same thing would be difficult for someone else. Also, start telling yourself “good job” when you do something correctly. Train your thinking patterns to become positive. It takes a lot of discipline to shut out the negative thoughts, but it can be done.

Posted by Tim Yip