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Next in the hierarchy of playing musically is control over the character or the “tone color” you want to achieve….and that’s not always a big complicated thing….when playing a Baroque piece, simply use a generic “Baroque” color. (light bow strokes with nice decay at the end of each stroke, primarily in the upper half of the bow) When playing a Mozart piece, simply use a “classical” color. (light bow strokes, often bounced, more in the middle of the bow than the tip)
Beyond those generic defaults, ALWAYS be on the look-out for “SPECIAL” moments in each piece of music where you do something unique with bow distribution, tone color, vibrato speed, or dynamics.
Learn to describe the character, mood, or color you want to convey in special moments of each piece of music.
Happy, sad, introspective, noble, jovial, dignified, warm, cold, ANY words you can use to describe the wanted effect will help you to achieve it.
Then, experiment with bow distribution as pertains to your desired effect. Keep in mind it’s not always desirable to use a whole bow. It’s sometimes preferable to stay in the upper half of the bow, if you want a more of a brisk, sweeping character, or a more transparent, ethereal tone color. Sometimes, it’s obviously best to stay at the FROG, like for short, pecky colle’ strokes.
Decide what part of the bow best conveys what you are trying to express. Making this choice improves with practice, experience, learning from others, playing in orchestras, and asking questions of your teachers or other violin friends.
So keep asking the questions, but remember that it is a TOTALITY OF EXPERIENCE that eventually gives you the answers, and over time, the instinct for bow distribution.
But bow distribution alone is not enough when trying to express various moods and characters on violin. We must learn to utilize the “primary colors” on violin which give us infinite shades of expression. Those colors are bow weight, bow speed, and bow placement. And that is the topic of the next post in this series.
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You can read the first part of this “bow distribution” article chainhere.
So, you have started developing your instinct for making spontaneous bow distribution choices using the note values of a piece to guide you. The next step in developing your “violinistic instinct” is to use bow distribution to shape phrases.
First you have to learn how to spot a phrase
This is another topic for discussion, but here’s a rule of thumb: Phrases tend to be 8 bars long. Sometimes they are shorter or longer, but if you start searching for a phrase ending every 8 bars, you will find it near there. Sometimes, a piece is organized into miniature “half-phrases” which are 4 bars long…so you could also look every 4 bars and see what is happening.
Think of a phrase as a “sentence”. The melody should make a full, meaningful statement, like a sentence that ends with a period, versus a sentence that doesn’t come to a
See? You instinctively knew my sentence wasn’t finished!!! It’s the same with music, and you’ll develop an instinct for musical syntax as well!
Ask yourself: where does the music “breathe”? Those are phrase endings.
And do not stress out about being right or wrong…..even if you count the wrong number of bars for your phrase, if you shape it nicely, it’s still going to be awesome….and you will continue to learn and refine this skill.
Listening to recordings and private teachers can also help tremdendously.
Next, Learn to Shape the Phrase
Once you learn how to spot a phrase or a musical statement, then you start developing your instinct to SHAPE it through the use of bow distribution. Bow distribution allows us extra bow when we want to move the phrase energy higher, and less bow when we want to bring a phrase to a resting point.
Some common phrase shapes are:
1) “The A-Frame”: Starting soft, getting loud in the middle, then ending soft.
2) “The Bow-Tie”: Starting loud, getting soft in the middle, then ending loud.
3) “Crescendo”: Starting soft and getting progressively louder throughout the phrase
4) “Decrescendo”: Staring loud and getting progressively softer throughout the phrase
Three “rules of thumb” for musical phrasing:
1) Obey the dynamics and other markings provided by the publisher or composer
2) When the notes get higher, try getting louder or more energetic, when the notes go lower, try getting softer or less energetic.
3) For extra dramatic effect, try doing JUST the opposite of number 2. (softer as you go higher, louder as you go lower)
After you have the phrases sketched out, play around with bow distribution to shape and execute the phrases the way you envision them. Remember, you want to learn to make spontaneous choices, spur of the moment adjustments, and quick recovery if you choose wrong.
The next article relating to bow distribution will be here
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I have the pleasure of watching adults all over the world take their first tentative steps toward their dream of learning to play the violin. I get to watch as doubt turns to joy and amazement when they realize they are learning to play like they always dreamed!
When a violin student learns vibrato, they literally have the ability to create hundreds of shades in their playing. It is like handing an artist a tube of red, yellow, and blue paint….does every artist know how to create any color from the primary shades? No, but it can be learned!
To the right is a picture of an actual worksheet I give my students….and therefore, I replicated the vibrato chart 4 times on one page to save paper. This chart would be used for 4 different practice sessions. Download a free printable PDF here.
Students must practice vibrato using every possible combination of speeds and widths by drawing a line from every item on the left side to every item on the right side, and practicing each combination represented by the line.
The idea is to expand the student’s thinking about vibrato by asking them to make a noticeable difference between their speeds and widths. As it turns out, this exercise gives us 9 different combinations. Simple and POWERFUL, this exercises will explode your expressive vocabulary and increase your color palette.
Oh, I almost forgot: Did you know that I have video vibrato classes which teach beginner, intermediate, and advanced vibrato? More info here
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Let’s think about driving a car for just a second:
You have driven for so many years, you don’t think about all the complicated things that you do each time you drive. It’s just part of your “driving instinct”. Good drivers have amazing awareness. They can see when other drivers are about to cut them off. They are aware when they are boxed in that it’s not safe. They try to maintain a safe bubble around them. They signal to communicate with other drivers. They are aware of the dimensions of their vehicle, so they instinctively know how to stay in the middle of the lane, or how to park without hitting someone. They are multi-tasking like crazy, and it’s effortless.
A beginning driver has NONE of these instincts or skills. And you can talk until you are blue in the face……but on certain activities, people have to absorb and learn by DOING, not by explanations. Of course, explanations beforehand help, but ultimately, it must be learned by DOING. And doing A LOT.
Or how about learning to golf? Tiger Woods could explain his secrets to me for a year solid…but at the end of the year, I would not be a good golfer. I would have to take what he told me, and practice for several years before all that knowledge would do me any good.
Driving a car and golf is very similar to violin playing. We must learn it by DOING it….and doing it alot! Of course, we need a teacher to help us do it correctly A LOT…but some things truly become intuitive as we learn and progress.
Some of my best online students often ask me to dictate their bow speed, sounding point, and bow weight on every note for entire pieces. They are my best students because they CARE about phrasing, musical expression, tone color, tone quality….all those qualities that go beyond just playing the right notes and rhythm.
They are asking all the right questions, but they don’t realize a fundamental principle:
If bow placement, distribution, and weight were dictated to them for every note, it would hinder them with a zillion instructions, paralyzing them from the freedom they need to make music. They become a slave to “instructions”.
So, back to violin and bow distribution, we must not impede ourselves with instructions. Instead, we must learn to make make split-second decisions, and if you choose wrongly, then the art comes from recovering quickly and getting back on track.
Where can I start learning the skill of bow distribution? Rhythm holds the key.
Basic rhythm will tell you most of what you need to know for bow distribution. The art comes by making split-second decisions, and if you choose wrongly, then the art comes from recovering quickly and getting back on track.
Example: You have two half notes followed by a whole note. You want to use whole bows on every note, because it’s a slow song. You would use whole bows on the half notes, and when the whole note comes, your bow speed would have to be twice as slow as the half notes so you could get four beats to a bow instead of two. This example is for a slow piece that allows you to use full bows for every note. In faster songs, you might not be able to get the full length of a bow in time, so you must always adjust for tempo.
General rule of thumb: use lots of bow as long is it is natural and controllable.
When I was an intermediate player, no one told me it should be natural and controllable….so I was going crazy trying to use WHOLE BOWS on fast moving 8th notes. It was a disaster until someone told me I didn’t have to on fast moving notes.
But what if you have a whole note down bow followed by something crazy like an 8th note up bow, followed by another whole note down bow? Well, then we have to adapt to try to prevent ourselves from getting trapped or running out of bow. We would use really slow bow speed for the whole notes, and really fast bow speed (with very light bow weight) for the 8th note. Sometimes, we might change a bowing to avoid such crazy awkwardness, but we don’t have to. It can be managed just by adapting our bow weight, bow speed, and bow placement appropriately.
Once you start to develop “instinctive bow distribution”, THEN you are ready to start applying that instinct to help you shape your phrases. That is next in my “musical hierarchy” of learning to play musically and with expression.
Did you realize that LOUD does not equal INTENSE?
Once you realize this fact, you are well on your way to achieving the subtlety and nuance that makes the violin speak with greater inflection and expressive range.
When I first start to teach my students how to play violin expressively, I give them this general guideline: get louder when the melody goes higher and get softer when the melody goes lower in pitch. This is a starting point.
But as student progress in their expressive abilities, I start asking them for INTENSITY or CALM rather than volume.
So what is the difference?
Well, we don’t always want to rely on changes in dynamics for our phrasing and expression.
Have you ever heard someone whisper angrily?
It is emotional, intense, yet quiet. This is a WONDERFUL tool to learn to play with quiet intensity.
Let’s briefly review how we change dynamics on violin:
To play louder, we can
–Use more bow weight
–Use more bow speed
–Play closer to the bridge. (or all 3 for a HUGE change in volume)
To play softer, we do the opposite, i.e., use less bow weight, less bow speed, and go further from the bridge.
To achieve intensity, we can play louder, but to achieve that magical “quiet intensity”, we can:
–increase our vibrato speed
–punch the notes more with the bow (accents, colle’, etc.)
–elongate the notes more (tenuto, or loure)
–project our tone by focusing it like a laser…this is sort of louder….but it’s not just volume….it is just more focused, like a flashlight on a straight beam rather than diffused, fuzzy light. This can be accomplished by manipulating the sounding point combined with bow weight and speed, and it can also be enhanced by left hand technique, namely vibrato. Most professionals utilize both vibrato AND bow technique to achieve quiet intensity.
The only way to learn this is in experimentation and exploration. Choose an emotion that might come in handy for musical expression, maybe sorrow, anger, love. Try whispering a statement that represents that emotion to you. Notice how your diction changes, the pacing of your words, your breath.
Next try playing a minor scale with quiet intensity, reflecting the emotion you just whispered. Your diction is your bow articulation and left hand articulation.
Your breath is your bow speed.
Your choice of words are the notes.
The speed and width of your vibrato will emphasize the emotion you are trying to convey.
The more you can work on and develop these subtle techniques, the more you can make noticeable contrasts. That’s what etudes like Wohlfahrt Opus 45 are for…..to INCREASE your ability to create contrasts by developing these skills that are considered too subtle to make a difference.
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Playing by ear is indistinguishable from ear training….they are mirror images of each other….with memorization stuck somewhere in between. Here are a few tips to help you dive right into playing by ear.
1) Most important for playing by ear is EAR TRAINING
Without ear training, all the other steps that follow will be much harder. (see other post). Interestingly, playing by ear IS a form of ear training, so you can choose to try to learn tunes by ear or you can choose to work on formal ear training…..they BOTH compliment each other. Just TRY! 2) Be able to sing the tune you are trying to learn (within reason)
If you can sing it, you can teach your fingers to play it. 3) Find the lowest and highest notes of the tune
This gives you a range, and limits your possibilities.
4) Define the general structure of the tune.
Does it have parts that repeat? Sketch this out. If could be Verse 1, Verse 2, chorus, Verse 3 Bridge. Or you might just call it A1, A2, B, A3, C. It doesn’t matter how you label it. It is YOUR map of the tune. 4) Describe the “shape” of each section
Does it go in small, scalar steps, or is it full of jumps and skips? Does it climb high and then dip low, or does it stay fairly level? Melodies that skip, jump, and have a wide range of pitches are more advanced to play by ear, so you can expect those to be a little harder. No big deal! Just brace for it, and move forward! 5) Find a “toe-hold” for each section
Something memorable, something that grabs your ear. Singing the tune will help you find these little toe-holds. 6) Pizzicato
I find it easier to woodshed my way through a tune by plucking the notes instead of bowing them. 7) Find your first and last note of each section
If you are playing from a recording, then you must MATCH your first note to the recording. If you are playing a tune from your memory, then you can start on ANY note….but if you start going into crazy finger patterns, i.e. lots of flats or sharps, try starting on a different starting note. To do this, choose a nice normal note, and then SING to help transpose the melody into your new key. See if that works better. If it doesn’t, try ANOTHER different starting note.
Give any of these tips a try! Most important of all: do not be afraid to try, and do not be afraid to make a zillion mistakes! It’s all part of the process! Sing, pluck, and have fun!
Playing tunes by ear is just one of the many benefits of ear training. People think ear training is a big mystery, and they have no idea how to go about doing it, so they don’t. But it’s simple. Here are 5 steps you can take to put your ears through boot camp. Go in order, and each step will inspire you to take the next!
The importance of singing cannot be over-stated. You must sing to the radio, sing in church, sing in the shower, sing in the car, sing with your children, sing to your birds. Specifically, besides just singing for fun, try playing a note on your violin, piano, or cell phone, then MATCH THAT NOTE with your voice. This creates connections in your brain that helps you to conceptualize pitch.
2) Learn to compare pitches
Can you tell if two pitches are the same or different? Can you be more specific and tell which note is higher, and which note is lower? Start with pitches that are extremely far apart….as the pitches get closer together, it gets more advanced. Eventually, you will be able to tell extremely small differences between the SAME pitches…..for instance, when one note is slightly flat or slightly out of tune.
3) Play “Match That Pitch”
Sing a note, then find that same note on your violin.
Play a note on the piano, computer or your cell phone. Match that note on your violin. Now SING that note.
Eventually, you will be able to match two notes, then three notes, and finally whole snippets of notes…..and this means you can play by ear.
4) Take your ear training to a whole new level by studying “intervals”
Intervals are simply a measurement of distance between two notes. If you listen to 2 notes, knowing the distance between them means you can replicate the two notes without any guesswork. (once you have the first note, that is). When notes are apart, there is more guesswork in duplicating them….unless you train yourself to recognize intervals by ear.
5) Utilize cell phone apps and websites
There are dozens of free apps and free ear training websites. If you spend 5 minutes per day for literally ONE MONTH, you will see REMARKABLE growth in your ear training….and it will inspire you to continue.
For more wonderful instruction like you have just received, please visit Red Desert Violin’s homepage and see why Lora has happy students in 53 countries all around the world!
I regularly have to cram 50 new fiddle tunes into my head and fingers, to sit in with a new band, or playing in unfamiliar circles. I try not to cram classical music as blatantly, but I have to do that occasionally too. It is regrettable to have to cram like this because it doesn’t leave time to really “develop” the tunes. But that’s life as a performer, we roll with it, and try to go back later and tease out a little more artistry from the tunes.
To be perfectly honest, this is one of my favorite activities because it is intense, exhilarating, and I don’t have to worry about polishing things up! I just hash through as much as I can. Here’s how to learn a huge body of music in as short a time as possible.
Cramming tunes in 5 simple steps
1. Listen: Learn Tunes Aurally
My method requires an investment of time up front….but it pays you back and you come out ahead! First, find reference recordings of all the songs. Make sure they are the same or close to the same version as the one you will play. There are wildly different versions of famous tunes like Cottoneye Joe, and if you were to learn the Southern version, for instance, it would be completely different from the Northern version. Classical music is more standardized with less variation. Just listen through to make sure it’s the familiar version, or check it against your sheet music or tablature so that you have the RIGHT reference recording.
You can find EVERYTHING on YouTube these days, and it is possible to download audio or video off of YouTube with free programs such as the “Ummy Downloader”. (I use Ummy, but download it at your own risk, and make sure you get it directly from Ummy, not a 3rd party, or you are certain to get something nasty on your computer.
Load these recordings onto an MP3 player or burn them to several CDs. Put them in your car, or in your home stereo, wherever you will be spending the most time, and play them ALL THE TIME. Sing along. Memorize the name of the tune, and be able to name it as soon as it starts to play. Memorize the key the tune is in.
In fact, when I make reference recordings for myself, I name each track with the key in it: “Cottoneye Joe A”. Because if you know what key it should be in, it gives you important clues to help with your absorption. By listening to these recordings, you are cramming the tunes into your aural memory. Commuting time is the perfect time to listen, whether you are in a car or train or bus, or walking.
2. Retention Through Visual Reference
If you read music or tablature, find it for the tunes you are learning or write out your own. I have binders full of hand-written cheat sheets which represent the shape and form of tunes I have learned. I save these because it is an investment in time to learn each tune, and it helps me to “resurrect” old tunes more quickly by saving my old notes.
Having a visual aid helps you cram these tunes into your fingers, develop muscle and aural memory, and helps you retain what you learn each day. This takes time, but saves time in the long run.
Whether you read music or not, create a nice neat binder with the tabs or sheet music for the tunes in it. Arrange them alphabetically or by key, whichever serves your needs best. That way, all your hard work is part of a permanent record. Yes, of course we want to have it memorized. Just think of the binder as your own personal “back-up” storage for your brain.
3. Build Continuity Playing Along with Recordings
Practice playing with your recordings at a manageable speed, meaning, you can get 85% of the notes correct at that speed. Absolutely no stopping, no second chances! If you miss a note, learn to hop back on that moving train. Just listen and shadow along until you can jump back in. Nobody cares if you have to drop a few notes here and there. But if you stop playing and have to start all over, that simply will not work in performance. Practice that speed until you are getting at least 95% of the notes, then speed it up. If you do not have recordings of a tune, use a metronome instead.
Now, there are some fabulous tools to help you play with your recordings. “The Amazing Slow-Downer,” software priced at about $40 is…well, amazing. People absolutely love it. I don’t own it. I downloaded the freebie by the reputable Royal Schools of Music. They have it for PC, Mac, or smartphones. It doesn’t have as many features, but it serves my purposes. Finally, every media player such as VLC, Windows Media Player, or whatever Apple uses, has built in speed controls! Most people don’t realize it, but on PCs you can find that feature by RIGHT CLICKING during playback.
Summarizing, play along with your reference recordings at a manageable speed, and practice getting from beginning to end successfully, even if you drop notes. Then, speed it up, over and over, until you are at performance tempo.
4. Build Independence: Wean Yourself From the Recordings
Now you have to learn to do it without the reference recording carrying you along (unless you know you will be playing in a group with strong fiddlers to help carry you).
For this, I recommend getting a back-up track for each tune. You can find lots of these back-up tracks online, or you can create your own using Garage Band (Mac) or Band in a Box (PC).
My favorite site with old time back up tracks is Old Time Jam. Last I heard, they stopped adding new tunes, but you can start there, and I’m sure if you search, you will find other great sites for EVERY style of music.
If you can’t find back up tracks or don’t have time to search, then use your metronome instead. It’s a little bit harder and a little less fun, but just as effective.
Budget your time! Remember, we are CRAMMING. We are not out for perfection and we have to move FAST. If you have 12 tunes and only 1 hour per day, don’t spend 30 minutes on 1 tune. Spend 15 minutes and make sure you knock out 4 tunes in the hour. The next day, do 4 different tunes. Don’t give into the temptation of doing the same tunes again because it makes you feel good.
You may or may not be required to have the music memorized, or, it might just be a goal for you to eventually memorize it. Well, frankly, all the steps listed above are the same steps I use for memorization. Namely: listen, sing, use cheat sheets, build continuity with music or cheat sheets, build continuity without music, increase the speed as your continuity builds.
One aspect of memory must be mentioned here because it is absolutely paramount to memorization, and that is SINGING. I cannot emphasize strongly enough the magical power of singing for learning, playing, and memorizing music.
Try to sing the tunes from beginning to end without the recording. If you can sing it by memory, you can play it by memory. (with work) You can do this in the shower, as you fall asleep at night, or anytime throughout the day, while you do housework, having lunch, etc. Part of the beauty of singing is that it can be done any time, any place, without equipment. No more excuses! Sing!
Many students are left wondering where they should begin in the Suzuki books, and likewise, sometimes teachers are unsure what level to place a student in. I’ve written these guidelines are according to how I teach the Suzuki material, the supplements I use, and the scales and etudes I require. If you do not necessarily want to follow the Suzuki repertoire, that’s okay! You will be very interested in my other article which draws equivalencies between traditional methods and the Suzuki method. You can find that article here.
Let’s just dive right in! Many of these skills might not be clear to you. If you would like more of an explanation of what these skills mean, watch my video on YouTube on this topic.
Do You Need Suzuki Violin Book 1?
If a student has trouble with 3 or more of these skills, they need to go through Suzuki Book 1:
• holding the violin securely and naturally
• Holding the bow securely but relaxed
• Relaxing the left hand (no squeezing)
• Good left hand position
• Playing in tune with finger tapes (at least 80% accuracy)
• Producing a good solid, beautiful tone
• Learning book 1 songs by ear without assistance
• Keeping the bow on the highway
• Drawing a straight bow
• Crossing strings without noise
If students only have problems with 1 or 2 items above, then those can be addressed as the student continues into Suzuki Book 2, but they need to be TOP priority.
Do You Need Suzuki Violin Book 2?
Assuming all skills listed for Suzuki Book 1 are mastered, if a student has trouble with 3 or more of the skills below, they need to take Suzuki Book 2:
• Ears should adjust for very fine pitch discrepancies without the aid of the tapes
• Understanding of ringy notes (sympath. Vibrations) and consistent accurate use of them
• Nice clean hooked bow with dotted rhythms (Witches Dance)
• Understanding of detache’, legato, and staccato
• Learning Book 2 tunes by ear unassisted
• Good accurate rhythmic playing
• Slurring up to 4 notes
• Left Hand relaxed
• Hitting the corners of the finger tips consistently (targets)
• Good left hand dexterity and speed
• Bow and Left hand are synchronized
• Note reading
• 1-2 Octave Scales and arpeggios
• Common finger patterns on violin (tetrachords)
• Finger independence
If students only have problems with 1 or 2 items above, then those can be addressed as the student continues into Suzuki Book 3, but they need to be TOP priority.
Do You Need Suzuki Violin Book 3?
Assuming all skills listed for book 1 and 2 are mastered, if a student has trouble with 3 or more of the following skills, they need to take Suzuki Book 3:
• Vibrato fully developed and implemented
• Aware of the performance practices of the Baroque period
• Ornaments: grace notes, trills, mordents, turns, nachschlag….well, maybe not nachschlag
• History of major musical periods and composers (Baroque, Classical, Romantic, 20th c.)
• Musical phrasing
• Bow distribution, bow speed
• Manipulating 3 elements of tone for tone color
• 2 Octave Major and Minor scales and arpeggios in all keys
• Practice techniques (extensive)
• Fluent in 3rd position
• Music theory and Ear training: interval identification, fingerboard geography, timbre recognition, pitch memory
If they only have problems with 1 or 2 items, then those can be addressed as the student continues into Suzuki Book 4, (coming soon in mid-2017!) but they need to be TOP priority. Keep in mind, some of these issues can easily be addressed by studying music history online, or picking up “Music Theory for Dummies”, and does not necessarily require a private teacher.
Thanks for reading this long article. I hope it helps both students and teachers alike! Keep up the pursuit of violin excellence!