Violin literature is full of short passages of notes and simple etudes that need to be played repetitively in order to be mastered. One of the best methods to get better at a piece you’re working on, is take a short, three to five note section of a piece you’re working on, and turn it into a repetitive etude (aka play it over and over again, and then play things that are similar to it over and over again) until you’re comfortable with it. So repetition is very common in the process of learning to play.
But how do you play a short piece of music over and over without spacing out and practicing ineffectively?
Because that’s the danger of playing exercises or etudes. They’re not very engaging on their own. It’s very easy to get distracted and think about something else while playing them, and, as a result, not get benefit from playing them. Because the mind and the body have to be as engaged as possible in order to get the most out of one’s practice time.
A simple solution is to ask yourself questions.
To play something simple over and over can be incredibly boring. But the goal is to learn to look deeper at what you’re doing. The goal is to improve the quality of the notes you play, instead of focusing on the quantity of them. To do that, you have to do more than repetitive practice, you have to develop your awareness. To develop your awareness, you need something to focus on. An easy thing to focus on is finding the answer to a question.
Ask yourself a question about something you know you already have the ability to change, and play the short passage once, and then ask yourself the question again, and see if you have an answer. That answer should be a conclusion about something you need to improve, or something you need to move on from. The next step is then either to move on to a new question (in order to improve the section), move on to a new section (if the section you’re working on is as good as it can get), or most likely, focus on the answer of the question and practice the passage again with a specific goal in mind based on the answer to the question.
So a good basic practice pattern for short passages is:
- Ask a question about something you know you can change about how you play the violin.
- Play a short passage with that question in mind.
- Ask the question again and try to answer it.
- Using the answer to the question, practice the passage again with a specific goal in mind based on the answer to the question. Repeat enough times with the same goal in mind to make the change and internalize it as a habit. (If you get distracted, take a break, pick a new question.)
- Move to a new question.
- Continue this pattern until you feel you have made an improvement on your playing.
Improvements don’t have to be big. In fact, they almost never are. The key to learning quickly is to internalize small improvements quickly. That is what this method of practiced is designed to facilitate.
Below is a list of questions that bring different aspects of playing the violin to focus. They are intended to start simple and move towards the more complex. But almost any player can benefit from any question on the list.
This is a list I use with my students. This is a list I use myself. Also, you can find a video about any of these questions on my Facebook page.
Am I holding the violin in the right place?
Is my left hand thumb in the right place?
Is my left hand wrist straight?
Are my right hand fingers wrapped around the bow correctly?
Is my right hand pinky in the right place?
Is my right hand wrist bending properly when I move the bow?
Is the spacing between my left hand fingers on the fingerboard correct?
Is my back upright with good posture?
Should I move my entire right arm up and down when changing strings?
Are my shoulders resting back and relaxed?
Is my bow placed in the right location between the bridge and fingerboard?
Am I using the correct amount of bow pressure?
Am I using the correct amount of bow speed?
Am I playing in tune?
Am I pinching the left hand fingered notes on the fingerboard?
Is the first knuckle of my left hand first finger touching the violin where it shouldn’t be?
Should I move less than my entire arm while changing strings (a wrist or forearm motion for fast passages)?
Am I breathing?
This is by no means an exhaustive list. You can invent new questions in almost infinite number and variety. But you can easily spend a half hour or an hour working on one passage, and going through these questions one at a time. This will increase your ability to play a given piece of music, as well as increasing your awareness, technical ability, and ability to focus. I think that’s a good start.