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How do you think about pitches when you play?
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RosinedUp
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When you play, what are you thinking?  I don't mean your romantic interest or family or job or money.

Naturally sometimes you are concentrating on elements that I might call technique: keeping the bow parallel to the bridge, making clean bow crossings, fingering cleanly and accurately, keeping good posture, etc.. 

But what elements do you think of in relation to what pitch to play next?  I want to focus especially on what will help me play easily by ear or improvise. 

Is the ideal to not think of anything?  Can you do that after you know a piece?  Can you do it while learning a piece, easy or hard?  If you can play without thinking, what was your path to that ability?

I have a few things I believe maybe I should have in mind while playing.  Can you say whether you think of any of these, which ones, when, and how much?   In your answer, can you say whether you are reading sheet music, playing by ear, or improvising?

Here are some possibilities that come to mind for me:

* Most obvious: the fingering of the note.

* What the note is going to sound like.

* An image of the letter name of the note---do you see a letter in your mind?

* The sound of the letter name---that is, do you say the name of the note in your mind or even aloud?

* Even though you are not reading from sheet music: an image of the note's position on the staff.

* The representation of the note in other notation, such as ABC or tablature.

* The interval between the current note and the next note.

* The interval between the tonic and the next note.

Can you mention things that I have not thought of?

Do you think of different things at different times?

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Barry
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Is the ideal to not think of anything?

heres my thoughts on this question..  I think you should practice two forms of practice.

Conscious practice, where you are studying technique,notes, learning a tune,etc.

then you should also practice unconscious practice... I know.. What you talkin' bout Willis ??

Unconscious playing is that ability you see when some one walks up to the guitarist at the club right in the middle of a song and asks them if they know ______ (their request) and the guitarist answers back without skipping a beat.  I can carry on a full conversation while jamming a song on auto pilot on guitar. Im starting to get there on fiddle.

I think the best way to practice unconscious practice is to play a piece you know well while watching TV.

Now Im not saying you shouldnt be in the moment when you perform, but auto pilot will come in handy when your duckin' beer bottles and such

cheers

There is no shame in playing twinkle, youre playing Mozart

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HeadCheese
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Barry said
 

Now Im not saying you shouldnt be in the moment when you perform, but auto pilot will come in handy when your duckin' beer bottles and such

cheers

I'm thinking you need to find a friendlier venue... bunny_pole_dancer

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DanielB
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I guess I think of the pitches as sound.  I know the song/bit I'm playing, so I know what sound comes next.  The "I guess" is because I'm not sure I think at all in the usual sense when playing.  When I am playing it is more a matter of listening, acting and reacting. 

Say I'm playing a song that happens to be in E major.  I know that scale, I don't have to think about it.  If I need to get to a particular pitch that happens to be the E in "first position" on the D string, I don't think of it as relating to a finger, it is a spot on the string/fingerboard.  And I'm also aware that I can get the same pitch higher up on the G string, and which one I'll choose depends on where my hand happens to be on the neck at the moment or which timbre I want, since they are slightly different.  Or what will work best for the transition to or from that pitch.  

That isn't really a good way of explaining it either though, since it isn't all really visual.  If I've played the piece enough that I'm reasonably comfortable with it, I can close my eyes and work by just the feel of the instrument and the sound. 

I'm not good at talking while playing.  Kinda "nobody home".  So my "autopilot" isn't as good as Barry's.  LOL  But I can walk around and etc while playing.  Umm...  But not if I have my eyes closed, that works better when staying in one spot, for obvious reasons. LOL  

 

"This young wine may have a lot of tannins now, but in 5 or 10 years it is going to be spectacular, despite the fact that right now it tastes like crude oil. You know this is how it is supposed to taste at this stage of development." ~ Itzhak Perlman

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RosinedUp
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DanielB said 
Say I'm playing a song that happens to be in E major.  I know that scale, I don't have to think about it.  If I need to get to a particular pitch that happens to be the E in "first position" on the D string, I don't think of it as relating to a finger, it is a spot on the string/fingerboard.  And I'm also aware that I can get the same pitch higher up on the G string,

So when you are playing in E, you somehow just think "key signature E" or "E scale" or similar and then you go into E mode, to the effect that your fingers don't on their own go outside the positions of the E key signature? 

And when you are, as you say, about to play an E note, you are aware of some ways to do that.  Then are you aware of those possibilities merely as being the same (i.e. of the same pitch class), or are you aware of them both specifically being E's?  So now I am asking you directly whether you see or say the name of the note you are about to play---all the time, some of the time, or never.

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RosinedUp
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Barry said

I think you should practice two forms of practice.

I think I am getting the idea that playing a piece unconsciously becomes possible only after you know the piece.  Then the better your skills at playing by ear and improvisation, the faster you can go from conscious to unconscious playing for a given piece.

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ftufc
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I was so glad to see this thread Rosined; this has always been a big issue for me.  I just had this conversation with my teacher this week.  As a point of reference, I've been learning now for 12 months.

When I'm learning a new song, I'm intently focused on reading the music correctly, correct pitch of each note, and bow technique.  And since my pea brain can only seem to focus on two of those at a time, the bowing is the last piece to get attention, which is unfortunate because that's where your style comes from.  But once it all comes together (progressively), which will usually take around 100 trials (+/- 50) depending on the complexity of the song, I then start to lock it in rote fashion, sort of like Barry suggests, just walking around, watching stuff, talking to myself and family, grabbin a drink, watching the dogs, etc..  And after a few hundred playings, I'm not thinking of much at all,,, but I AM then starting to enjoy "hearing" the song, and then making phrasing adjustments that I personally like.

I brought it to my teacher's attention because, whenever I record a video of a song, my wife (who's brutally honest about my playing; which I honestly appreciate, I know she's not going to bullshit me, because she wants to help me with an unbiased ear) comments at how much better I play the song when I'm not focused on the recording; it's like I've reverted to my level of play 6 months earlier.  So I mentioned that to my teacher, who asked me to send him my recording, and he concurred.  His observations are this; I may be so concerned about my performance because it's being captured, that I'm not playing naturally and freely; and because I'm following a click track with other instruments playing different parts at the same time, which I've had no experience doing.  And I know that my mind is totally wandering when I'm recording; I am not focused on anything really, which I don't understand.

I think I made this comment when I was in my 3rd month of play, that playing violin is so much more like playing golf than playing tennis or MMA, there's too much time to think (or in my case zone) than to be reactionary and immediate, and I need to learn what to do with my brain while I'm playing. 

So during my last lesson, my teacher started playing viola while I played and he took the timing, phrasing lead, and I had to follow.  It caused me to focus intently on where he was and what he was doing with the song so that I meshed/harmonized with him.  And it was an INCREDIBLE experience for me.  I know that a lot of you have had the benefit of playing with other musicians, and there is tremendous benefit in it. 

It's a whole new skill for me; reading on the fly, while making sure my pitch is right, and bowing is correct, while also "listening to" another player.  It is a freakin riot, so we're going to be working on that a lot in the next few months.  It is almost like skiing moguls, you have to have your technique down, so that's always in the back of your head, while you're accommodating whatever turn comes your way and experiencing that interaction; it's such a kick in the ass.

I may not have given you any better advice than Barry, or Keith, or Daniel, but it's such a timely topic for me that I thought I'd share my thoughts.

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TerryT
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HeadCheese said

Barry said

Now Im not saying you shouldnt be in the moment when you perform, but auto pilot will come in handy when your duckin' beer bottles and such

cheers

I'm thinking you need to find a friendlier venue... 

 

 

PMSL

 

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and to my surprise I still have most of it left!

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TerryT
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Fred, tell me, in the ring, did you think about how good your technique was? Or did you empty your head and ju your opponent?

Could you do the same with a violin under your chin?

I was born with nothing,
and to my surprise I still have most of it left!

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TerryT
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Just empty your head and go with your opponent.

 

....is what it should have said!

 

Anyone elseusing and iPhone having trouble with editing/replying?

I was born with nothing,
and to my surprise I still have most of it left!

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DanielB
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RosinedUp said

So when you are playing in E, you somehow just think "key signature E" or "E scale" or similar and then you go into E mode, to the effect that your fingers don't on their own go outside the positions of the E key signature? 

And when you are, as you say, about to play an E note, you are aware of some ways to do that.  Then are you aware of those possibilities merely as being the same (i.e. of the same pitch class), or are you aware of them both specifically being E's?  So now I am asking you directly whether you see or say the name of the note you are about to play---all the time, some of the time, or never.

   I can do that, but more often I don't think about it much, if at all.  A song is a set of sounds.  If I need to know the key, I can determine it from the sounds I need to use.  I'll usually work out a song and get familiar with it first in whatever key my favorite version is in, but then I may decide to transpose it if I'm playing too many songs in that key or if I think it sounds nicer voiced in a different key, or if it makes it much easier to play th transitions and have it feel "natural".

So far as the two E notes in the example I gave, they may have the same pitch/frequency, but the timbre/tone is a little different.  So they are different sounds, though the pitch/frequency being the same is my main focus so far, and I mostly choose which to use based on what if the easiest transition for the fingers.  Pressure used to finger the note also affects the timbre.  But I'm not good enough yet at the mechanical skills of playing to be able to focus on just the sounds all the time to be able to make use of those elements in expression when playing.   That's what takes practice and careful listening to other players. 

A melody is more than pitches and timing.  A MIDI program can play the pitches and timing perfectly, but still not actually sound like B.B King.  In an early Moog synthesizer album, Wendy Carlos used the synthesizer to play some Bach pieces.  But they don't sound or feel the same as when Milstein plays the same pieces on violin. 

The violin has a considerably more flexible "voice" in many regards than a fretted string instrument like guitar.  That's why I've been expecting it to take at least the first year to just get familiar with the sounds it can make and to "bond" with the instrument a bit.  I've also had to learn to hear some of the nuances in violin/fiddle music because I had never really listened as hard to it to appreciate the elements of style and dynamics that make different players sound different.  It may end up taking another year (or more), I'm not sure at this point. LOL

I did say the note names the first couple weeks to help get used to the instrument, and get over the confusion of an instrument where the string courses are 5ths apart instead of 4ths apart like (most) of a standard guitar tuning.    Using theory as a bridge to make the necessary mental transition so I don't confuse the two instruments when playing. 

I don't usually see or visualize the note, because I have been avoiding written score so far.  Score and theory are rather strongly linked in my brain, and if I approached the instrument from the beginning by playing score, I would think of the fingerboard and strings more in terms of theory than as sound.  Not to say that is wrong, but it isn't what I personally want for being able to play this instrument.  I do "cheat" once in a while, if I find a melody or exercise that is interesting and where I can't find what I consider a good audio example to work from.  But I mostly do that by reading the score and imagining what it would sound like on piano/keyboard to get the gist of the melody before playing it.  I have not worked at all on sight reading for violin yet.  That is a specific skill that needs it's own sort of practice, and I haven't made it a priority yet. 

Did this reply clarify what I'm talking about for you, RU, or muddy the waters even more?  LOL

"This young wine may have a lot of tannins now, but in 5 or 10 years it is going to be spectacular, despite the fact that right now it tastes like crude oil. You know this is how it is supposed to taste at this stage of development." ~ Itzhak Perlman

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ftufc
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Hey, just saw this in Strings Mag, straight out of the mouth of Barry -

Over-thinking can really sabotage us sometimes. Have you ever zoned out on something other than what you're playing to find yourself performing better?! I really resonated with the idea Victor Wooten put forth in his book "The Music Lesson" for moving technique from conscious brain activity to a more background, automatic, reflex activity and encouraged a couple students to try such things this week (in the name of science!). As strange as it might sound, watching TV or something else that can occupy the conscious mind while you're playing could be good for you, in small doses! NOT while you're learning something new and not all the time of course, but once you're confident with a certain piece or a technique you're trying to master. And, if you're playing with others, put your focus on them rather than that shift you've made successfully 50 times already. It doesn't need your full attention any more, but they'll love it!

 

It was actually both for me Terry; about 25% planning and 75% completely reactionary; most of the time my mind was a complete blank with just sparks of thought; seemed to work,,, I'm still kinda pretty; lmfao.

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Barry
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ftufc said
 

Hey, just saw this in Strings Mag, straight out of the mouth of Barry -

Over-thinking can really sabotage us sometimes. Have you ever zoned out on something other than what you're playing to find yourself performing better?! I really resonated with the idea Victor Wooten put forth in his book "The Music Lesson" for moving technique from conscious brain activity to a more background, automatic, reflex activity and encouraged a couple students to try such things this week (in the name of science!). As strange as it might sound, watching TV or something else that can occupy the conscious mind while you're playing could be good for you, in small doses! NOT while you're learning something new and not all the time of course, but once you're confident with a certain piece or a technique you're trying to master. And, if you're playing with others, put your focus on them rather than that shift you've made successfully 50 times already. It doesn't need your full attention any more, but they'll love it!

 

It was actually both for me Terry; about 25% planning and 75% completely reactionary; most of the time my mind was a complete blank with just sparks of thought; seemed to work,,, I'm still kinda pretty; lmfao.

 

 

Hey, nice to know others think the same. Back when I was a kid I used to practice scales on guitar while watching TV

thumbs-up

 

There is no shame in playing twinkle, youre playing Mozart

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DanielB said 
Did this reply clarify what I'm talking about for you, RU, or muddy the waters even more?  LOL

I think I basically understand what you have written, and it helps me know better what to do.  Thank you.

As this is my first serious attempt to play or understand music, I tend to ignore the fine points, such as timbre across octaves, for now.  I think the stylistic elements and other fine points you mention will come to me easily enough after I can do the basics of pitch and timing.

"A song is a set of sounds.  If I need to know the key, I can determine it from the sounds I need to use."

I feel my way through a new piece by ear, noting the flats and sharps so as to determine the key signature.  If the key sig is one that I am not used to, I am inclined to transpose it right away.  Then I may practice the scale.  A song uses a set of pitches.  If I know the key signature, it narrows down the number of pitch classes from 12 to 7 (with exceptions for accidentals, slides, vibrato, etc., if I need to mention those).  Knowing that---at some level, whether just in finger habits or consciously---seems like an advantage to me.

Okay, so you don't usually say the name of the note or imagine it on the staff.  Saying the name seems too slow, especially when there is a sharp or flat.  Lately sometimes I have been envisioning the letter name of the note (in capital Roman font! with or without sharp or flat symbol, sometimes with a subscript to denote the octave).  I have some idea that my subconscious might be able to work on that to some benefit as I sleep!  Never know until you try, I guess.  And maybe not even then, which is why I am asking for experience and best practices. 

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@RosinedUp:  One of the things I have always loved about music is it's self-renewing quality.  There is always more nuance to learn, more to understand.  Learn and play for 10 years and you're just more eager to go for another 10.  LOL

At the risk of sounding a bit "new agey", I do think the subconscious has a lot more to do with learning and playing music than most people might think.  Sometimes you can work on something and not get it right, and the next morning, it comes easily.  That couldn't have been the conscious mind.  Sometimes you may dream an idea for a good song and bring enough of it back with you to the waking world to at least develop a version of it. 

Anyway, the best practice routines I have found are mostly "stupid simple".  I do things like bowing some simple rhythm like a 3/4 slow waltz on a couple open strings for 15 min or more to work on getting more tone and getting string landings and transitions better.  When you get really bored doing that, then you can just let your hands keep working on it while you check your form and whether hands are relaxed, etc.  Chromatic scales done slowly to let where the sounds are on the strings burn into your brain better.  Simple melodies done while trying to play as clean as you can, no matter how slow you have to go to get it.  Working melodies in short bits over and over, like one line from a verse or chorus at a time.

"Fancy" can come later, and will develop over time as you try different things and learn sounds you like from one piece to use on another.  Speed is the easiest thing to develop, since simple repetition will teach that fairly soon.  But fanciness like embellishments/adornments and playing fast aren't worth much if you can't play the notes/pitches you mean to play clean and reliably.  So that is the thing to practice, in my opinion.

 

"This young wine may have a lot of tannins now, but in 5 or 10 years it is going to be spectacular, despite the fact that right now it tastes like crude oil. You know this is how it is supposed to taste at this stage of development." ~ Itzhak Perlman

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Oliver
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@ DanielB

This post may be "been there, done that" but just in case ..... I'm sure you would like a Google on "mental incubation".  It works (all by itself)>

 

 

 

When you come to a fork in the road, take it.

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@Oliver: Yup, I'm familiar with that.  I would still call it more a subconscious than conscious thing, though. 

 

"This young wine may have a lot of tannins now, but in 5 or 10 years it is going to be spectacular, despite the fact that right now it tastes like crude oil. You know this is how it is supposed to taste at this stage of development." ~ Itzhak Perlman

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DanielB said
@Oliver: Yup, I'm familiar with that.  I would still call it more a subconscious than conscious thing, though. 

I read a book in the '70s, and I can't recall the name of it, but it talked about the "subconscious cooker method" or similar.  The idea was to learn and know consciously the ideas relevant to a problem (to put the ingredients in a cook pot so to speak), then to let the subconscious "cook" the ideas while you sleep or or watch a movie or similar.  Then perhaps unexpectedly, you find the solution laying on your pillow when you wake up, or next to the shampoo bottle when you shower.

I was able to find something similar here in Part VI, page 41 of the following:

http://www.mlmblog.com/how-to-.....-ideas.pdf

This seems partly derived from the "mental incubation" concept that Oliver mentions.

 

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Fiddlerman
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Sorry guys, I fell so far behind that I couldn't read all of this but the question is a great one.
I think about what story I want to tell with the piece. Like Barry said, there is a lot of auto-pilot going on but make no mistake that I take session of intense concentration to clean things up and enforce correct playing. IOW, intonation, shifts, tone production, etc.

"The richest person is not the one who has the most,
but the one who needs the least."

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Thanks for all the great replies so far.  I can't say that I've gotten a complete answer yet, but what is here so far is bound to help anybody wondering about this kind of thing.  Maybe the best answer is something written by AdverseD, appended below but original to a different thread. namely Barry's thread of December 20, 2012 - 9:01 pm entitled "just jam".

=========

To sort of tag along with what Barry said, when you practice just "doing it" (improvising I mean) You'll get into the habit of forming interval patterns in your subconscious thoughts about scales and their different modes. Watch some of fiddlerman's blues series and you'll see what I mean when he mentions a "Secret weapon pattern."

(Theres actually a lot of different patterns that just naturally sound good together transposed to any key!)

Back when I played trombone, I improvised every day since I was in a jazz group with several other musicians that jammed together frequently, and you'll be surprised what you can commit to muscle memory if you practice scales often. It had gotten to the point that it didn't matter what key I was in, I didn't even subconsciously think about it or the name of the key.. it just sort of comes out!

It's similar to developing my sight reading ability, but with ears and no music. In sight reading's case it will get to the point where you don't even think about the names of notes or the logistics of the instrument, it will just automatically happen when you look at music, even for the first time

=========

 

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