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This, and the supporting concepts took me a long time to learn. A lot longer than I care to admit. But, I am glad that I learned them in a manner that makes sense to me. Since then, I have learned and starting learning other instruments, and I have found that at least my initial development has been fast.
Now, none of these concepts were new to me, but actually *understanding* them was at a certain point in my playing 'career'.
First, a bit of history, to give an example of just how much of an impact getting that understanding had on me. I had been playing guitar for quite a long time, and I was a pretty good rhythm guitarists. My lead playing was okay, but I had a very serious handicap. About the fastest I could play picked lead lines as 16th notes at 120bpm.
Sure, speed isn't everything, but, it *is* required in hard rock and metal guitar.
And this was after over a decade and more of practicing scales, practicing 'speed exercises', and best of all 'practicing slow so i could play it fast'. (Twoset fans rejoice!)
Then, I read a book, and actually understood a couple of these concepts. I almost doubled my playing speed in under 2 weeks. At least, on the couple of picking licks I practiced those two weeks. There is still a lot of practice to be done! 😀
Concept #1: Practice does *NOT* make perfect. *PERFECT* practice makes perfect! The key to this was understanding muscle memory. Muscle memory is an awesome thing. When trained correctly. When not trained correctly, it puts huge roadblocks in our way. I have heard and read things like "you need to do something 1,000 times to build muscle memory" which is true, and not true. It is more like "you have to do 1,000 times in a *row* the *exact same way* to build muscle memory".
It really is a "one step forward, two step back" sort of thing though. These numbers are really arbitrary, but if you practice something 100 times, and are perfect on 98 of them, those two misses are a huge setback, and end up adding up to practicing it 20 times. It is a lot more efficient to just do it perfect, every single time.
Concept #2: Mindful practice. This is one area that I am finding so much more engaging on violin that I do on guitar. Perhaps because it is new to me, but I think it is more due to the nature of the instrument itself.
The big thing that was slowing me down on guitar was excess tension. And it was not in an area that I had ever realized I had that tension. It was in my upper right shoulder. But how did I ever find this tension? It was not a lot. It caused no tiredness, no pain. My picking wrist felt loose, my fingers felt loose. But it was there.
How I found it? Rotating attention.
Let's go back to violin. I find it is a lot more noticeable for me. Ever been learning a new piece, and find your bowing goes to pieces when trying to get the new notes under your fingers, with good intonation and feel? I know I have! And do every. Single. New. Piece.
Right now, everything is in information overload mode. There is absolutely no way that I can keep track of this new fingering, intonation, posture, relaxed left wrist, bowing pressure, bowing straight, bowing pressure, relaxed right hand, relaxed stable shoulder, flexible elbow, just to name a few.
But, I can rotate my attention. This requires deep attention, the mindful practice. Not focusing on one thing, but constantly shifting my focus from one aspect to the next.
Concept #3: Slow practice. This concept irritates me to such a degree that I can barely suppress my anger. I wasted so many hours doing this for years, but without Concept #1 and Concept #2, it is meaningless. And pointless. And likely a waste of time.
However, with concept #1 and #2, it has become the absolute core of my practice routine, no matter which instrument I am working on.
How slow is slow? It's not a number. It's not 1/4 note = 60bpm, or even 20bpm.
The TOP speed of slow, is where I can maintain #1 (perfect practice) AND #2 (rotating attention).
This means, playing the piece with absolutely no mistakes. Good intonation. Good tone. No excess tension. No wild bowing. This is a summarization of everything going on in #1 and #2. 😀
Now, if you can do this on demand, THAT is the slow speed to start practice at. At this point, you can start stepping it up so it's two steps forward, and one step back instead of three steps back.
I am new at violin, and would love to hear from others on this topic of practice. This is just my approach on learning how to learn. If you have found this of value, let me know. I have other topics to share from my own learning (and at times frustration in learning) such as:
Short Skiis Bunny Hill vs Long Skiis Black Diamond
Mindful Noodling to Mindless Music
Hi .@Sasha - Thanks for this post.
There's a lot to process from your writing, but after reading through once I found a lot of resonance with my own experience, especially with full-tempo learning (it's the only way to learn telegraphy, for instance).
Your concept of 'rotating attention' through the aspects of playing is something I must do more rigorously. I tend to stab at obvious problems, such as awkward string crossings, but such whack-a-mole behaviour is possibly masking errors in other areas which may be contributing to the problem. Method must be imposed on the madness, especially as I have no teacher to beat me up when I drift off-piste.
"It is vain to do with more that which can be done with less" - William of Ockham
"A crown is merely a hat that lets the rain in" - Frederick the Great
Your post is very interesting @Sasha
Muscle memory (or subconscious memory) is a concept many of us are familiar with, but how many of us actually work at it beyond the minimum, or just go through the motions without focus on quality, which dooms us to failure?
In the past I "repeated" certain movements...like straight bowing. I would sit perpendicular to the large floor mirror in the room where I practice. I would practice until my bow was straight for a few strokes, and then go back to "playing", only to make the same mistakes very quickly. Somewhere in the back of my brain, I knew I wasn't doing it enough, or properly, but just could not wrap my head, or my desire, around the fact that there are no short cuts.
Now, almost at my one year anniversary with my fiddle (the only instrument I "play"), I've started to let this concept sink it, and I start each practice session looking in the same mirror and begin on the G string. I do not stop until I can bow straight for 20 times in a row. If I make a mistake, I start again. Then I move on to the D, A and E strings in the same fashion. Once done, I play a song I am familiar with. At any point in playing, if I start to hear sounds that I know are related to crooked bowing, I stop and start the straight bowing exercise again until I bow straight 20 times in a row on each string. It can be quite frustrating...and boring...but necessary if I am going to embed straight bowing subconsciously into my brain so my muscles can carry it out consistently.
Slowly, I am seeing improvement, but need to keep up this routine until I can do it so well I can't make a mistake, in other words, until I have to consciously try to bow at an angle.
What you said about Mindful Practice really struck me...the idea of rotating attention, and I want to couple that with Slow Practice. I do find the slower I play the better I usually play, probably because at a slow speed my brain has more time to be more mindful of everything (most things) I need to do to produce a better end product. Which brings me back to Perfect Practice, and how that is key to all you discussed.
It is only through muscle memory (subconscious memory) improvement (or perfection) that we can be more mindful of all that is involved...almost like a computer monitoring a mechanical system (machine) that can make adjustments to that system. If the mechanical system is in good running order, the computer can "oversee" and make the minor adjustments that may be needed in the system. But, if the mechanical system is all out of whack, the computer will begin to overload, not be able to make adjustments to the system, and start send out all kinds of alarms. (Starting to sound like one of my practices! )
Thanks again for your thoughtful post.
It is interesting to see your journey Sasha. As a musician who has also played other instruments for a long time, I see many of the same correlations. I mean, what else can we do but attempt to make comparisons in the hope that it might help us with this instrument?
A couple of thoughts or ideas jumped out at me when I read this and from ideas garnered from various other sources.
- Our brains need to be focused on so many different aspects while playing that we sometimes make a selection as to which "thing" is most important at the time. All of them are important, yet we can usually only manage one or two at a time. I say our "brains" because this is where I think it all needs to begin, in how we think about what we need to do and direct our actions from there.
-Small catch phrases can be very helpful and are often used to translate a technique with one or a few words. My teacher often uses these terms which might sound a bit silly, but really work well. Phrases like
"Pick the apple"- The way you twist your left hand under the neck to position the fingers
"tabletops"- The idea that we use the ends of the fingers after we "pick the apple"
Sometimes we can only concentrate on one or two of those in the beginning and of course, there are many more slang terms like this. Lo2 means pull the 2nd finger more toward the pegbox. Hi2 would be the opposite. These terms help my brain to make a translation fast if written on the score or if a teacher is coaching me.
I am slowly learning that when playing the violin we need to distribute unequal amounts of force in different places and relax in others....for instance in discussing the left hand, the hand itself needs to be fairly relaxed, the wrist straight so the fingers can "lean" better into the strings, yet we need to be able to exert more force on the fingers, especially when playing those 4th finger positions on lower strings more force is needed. Same hand, but varying degrees of pressure in different places.No tension in the thumb or wrist. So the pinky is pressing like heck while the rest of the hand is at ease. While all of this is going on at the same time, the upper right arm pivots up and down acting more like a leveler but isn't supposed to be involved in any side to side movement, the wrist relaxes on upbow. I always said my hand looks like a T-rex head on upbow lol. Same ideas of distributed degrees of force apply here. We need some weight on the strings but not too much weight. Not pressing into them too much. This all changes with dynamics of the tune and where we are on the bow.....and 20 more little things I haven't mentioned. Playing the violin as you have seen , is a very complex set of varied skills that all have to come together well.
On repetition, my teacher never leaves some material. I am never really over it. We go over it for practice every single time. These are mainly pieces that focus on tricky finger positions and intonation. It's a routine. Like they say, miss one day you will notice, miss two days your wife or husband will notice, miss three days and the whole world notices 🙂 And yes, if you learn a fingering in muscle memory wrong, you will always play it wrong and will need to "unlearn" playing it the wrong way. This is why I am so careful when I tune and in the beginning I use some kind of a very accurate tuner , an app like intonia or my tuner app. I try to learn the finger note as near perfect as I can.