How Covid-19 has Changed my Music Teaching for the Better. And Tips on Online Violin Learning and Teaching

Of late due to the Covid-19 Virus, a lot has changed around the world affecting the way that we work, study and interact. In order to move on with the times and not to put our lives on hold, we need to adjust and adapt to some of these changes even if it means being uncomfortable and experimental. Here is an entry from me about adapting some of my teaching styles in the past 24 years to finally transitioning to a complete non physical contact with my students.

Past Experiences

My first encounters with online learning were at law school at NUS (National University of Singapore) where I was doing my Graduate Diploma in Singapore Law. They tested out online lectures where we could be in our pajamas in the comfort of our own home taking down lectures notes. Being from a UK University, this was very new to me as we were used to taking down notes without handouts, armed with just a pen and plain piece of paper with perhaps a voice recorder. (No not those found in your mobile phones, there were none of these functions some 15 years ago). Most of our Professors used transparencies or no visual aids for our learning. In NUS, it was a bit of a culture shock where students brought in their laptops to class and lectures to take down notes with lecturers using PowerPoint presentations. The concept of open book examination and a massive stack of handouts to refer to instead of memorizing and doing your own thorough library research was also something that I needed to quickly adapt to in order to complete my short one year of learning.

That was my first experience having to adapt to technology and moving away from traditional educational medium of physical classroom interaction. When I had to leave my students in Singapore to move to Beijing, I took on the feat of teaching weekly online theory lessons to two of my existing violin students. It was through a lot of commitment from their part and mine to have completed our grade 4 & 5 theory grades (They both passed with high distinctions) within a short span of time. It entailed them scanning in their completed work, my marking the work electronically and then sending it back for them to take in the markings and corrections, On hindsight theory classes as they consist of constant paper work, is definitely a lot more work to do but not impossible as compared to practical lessons.

After I left Beijing, I continued pursuing internet online tutoring to some existing students I had, however this time, 6 years later, technology had advanced we did not have to use a separate webcam and simply did so via our mobile phones (through WeChat). Until today, I have students who would Skype me for one off lessons or regular lessons which is extremely useful if they have to move and we need to part ways.

When Social Distancing Started

This year, I had planned with my studio to conduct a “Tuning Workshop” where we would learn different methods and ways of tuning our instruments. This would have been also a compulsory event even for the very little ones as their parents would also benefit from helping them tune their instruments for them to have well tuned instruments to practice all week long.

However, on 7 February 2020 as Covid19 worsened and the DORSCON Orange was implemented. I also took measures in ensuring hygiene was up kept by social distancing (students to stand at least a 1 metre distance from my sitting area) this helped me to look at them at a better angle actually and listen to a better projection as I always felt they were too close. It helped me to look at their overall performance stance better at a further distance which I was more used to when at the Conservatory.

We had no physical contact which meant that they would have to apply their own rosins, tune their own instruments unless it was really necessary for me to do so (then of course we would ensure proper hand washing and sanitizing thereafter.) Automatically over time, the students young and old learnt how to tune their own instruments. Thankfully, we had a few weeks of doing so before we were no longer to physically meet.

Full Online Learning

1. Tuning their instruments

When we had to transition to no more physical contact, the aspect of the students’ abilities to tune their own instruments would be paramount to online learning. As without a well tuned instrument, I would be unable to conduct the class for them. But having said this, I did have a 6 year old student last week who managed to tune her violin (with pegs not fine tuners) all by herself with some instruction from me online, I was really proud of her effort and felt she had risen to a new skill to be able to distinguish tuning of her strings independently.

2. Independence to take charge of their learning

Online teaching, has taught my students independence. They would need to take down their own notes and certain fingerings where necessary – I’m the minimalist fingering sort of teacher who habitually writes minimal fingerings for the students unless it is a change in position not indicated or a very difficult part that just cannot do without jotting down the fingering in that particular few notes. This is because I believe it really does help in memorizing the piece to have a neater sheet of music put out in front of you, then one with scribbles all over. I used to simply write in what I wanted while they were playing during physical classes for efficiency, having them to put down their instruments to write something down at junctures of class time deemed too time consuming. However through this process that I am completely unable to help them, I realize that it is probably needful that they do these notes themselves as part of the learning and training process.

3. Understanding of orientation in the music

They are better aware as well of bar numbers which previously I would just ask them to start at a particular note, otherwise get up and point. This was definitely not a good habit, as only the ones exposed to orchestra would be able to draw their attention to referencing of bar numbers. These days, I cite the bar numbers first in order to bring their attention straightaway to the point that needs to be addressed. They would also be forced to understand the concept of beats as i would reference “first, second, third etc.” according to the meter time in the music.

Showing a student where to begin on the score is still possible

4. Tone

It helps that both teacher and student situates the lesson close to a WiFi router. I rely heavily on Skype for classes as I find the sound and picture quality best. I can actually hear their dynamics better online than in my usual teaching place, I find this especially so for piano and pianissimo dynamics. Perhaps , there is an echo which only in a well acoustically tuned large concert hall you would be able to hear the dynamic changes. I am also not as distracted unnecessarily as the screen automatically provides a portrait and silhouette of the student in focus where I can see their posture clearly. The broadcast over a “recording medium” also offers an audio that sounds more like what we are used to hear in a recording on a CD, DVD performance or YouTube videos. This enables me to be able to judge and give my critical comments fairly. I also find it easier to focus on their sounding points and bow distributions somehow on a screen rather than live and experiment more accurately on what is affecting their tone, be it a bow hold or bow movement problem or too much pressure etc.

I have found that if the student is standing in a smaller room, like a studio, the violin tone would be more accurately gauged rather than in a larger room where there may be some feedback or echoes which would not be as effective to listen to the true tonal production.

5. Angles

It helps if the student provides a different angle of filming at each class as I will be able to check all aspects of their posture and not leave out anything due to the “2D” nature of a video. However, it is necessary that their bow movements and their left hand movements must be visible within the frame of the video at all times and angles they choose to stand in. Make sure that they are not blocked by their music stand or that the camera is placed too high or too low.

As I also get to see them in their natural practice environment, I have found it extremely useful to check that their stands and usual practice positions and postures are correct. This would not be possible if I am not “let into” their rooms. Over the weeks I have corrected many badly angled music stands which had caused all sorts of bad posture habits. Some of the stands I learnt were not able to go any higher for example, and for these, i had to put my foot down to recommend buying a more suitable one which could be angled well and fit the height needs of the student.

Somehow in their own rooms, they also tend to be bolder in their performance and less “shocked and shy” playing in another foreign environment. Initially, there were some apprehensive stances on our first week of video online lessons, but past that, the students adapted and got very used to how it was. I also felt that as they had a video in front of them, likened to a mirror, they were able to be more self aware of their own performance and could also correct some of the problems themselves without me having to address it in the first place than in a live physical class.

Furthermore, when I had to bring their focus to a particular posture or angle I could move myself around to show them what I wanted them to see which if in a physical lesson, this would be difficult to frame what I want them to notice.

Focusing and zooming into the angle and posture I want the student to pay attention to

6. Younger Students

The absence of physical touch means you would need to be more descriptive in what you would like to convey to the students or teacher. Younger students (6 or under) are harder to teach online, as you cannot use much worded descriptions to convey a thought process as effectively than an older student. For these students, it helps greatly for a parent to be there at the online lesson with them just like in a physical class, i would encourage parents to sit in the class till the child does not prefer that or the child is 9 years of age.

The younger students fare better through imitation, hence this would mean our online lessons have enhanced their aural training and abilities. I would play something and ask them to echo instead of going through a whole of lot of descriptive words which I may do with an older student.

Lastly, remember we have fun together! Till we get to meet physically again.

Some other Tips that may be Helpful to have a Successful Online Class

  1. Always get your instrument and materials ready, books and scores (preferably in the same edition or publication as your student for quicker referencing) that you would need to refer to during the lesson; stationery like pencils, plain paper and markers should be within reach.
  2. Dress up nicely as if you are having an actual lesson. Although it is home based, it is also important to set the tone of the seriousness of the class by dressing appropriately to show the other party respect.
  3. Get battery packs or chargers ready if you are using a mobile or tablet and locate yourself close to the WiFi router for clear picture and audio quality.
  4. Try to locate yourself also in a position that you are able to look out of the window. Some days of lessons for me involve a good 10 hour long almost non stop sessions. These days looking out of the window now and then really does help with eye health.
  5. Do not be embarrassed to do some stretching exercises in front of the students. These days with technology especially during a lock-down, there is just too much screen time and not enough activity. I even try to do these stretches with my students to educate them on some ways they could prevent playing injury.
  6. Keep a student diary on what they are working on and what they should be improving during the lesson so that you can refer to this the following week and pick up from there.
  7. Make sure your instrument is in tune before the class begins to save class time.
  8. Set yourself up at a good camera angle so that you don’t have to take up the class time to adjust your position.
  1. Always get your instrument and materials ready, books and scores (preferably in the same edition or publication as your student for quicker referencing) that you would need to refer to during the lesson; stationery like pencils, plain paper and markers should be within reach.
  2. Dress up nicely as if you are having an actual lesson. Although it is home based, it is also important to set the tone of the seriousness of the class by dressing appropriately to show the other party respect.
  3. Get battery packs or chargers ready if you are using a mobile or tablet and locate yourself close to the WiFi router for clear picture and audio quality.
  4. Try to locate yourself also in a position that you are able to look out of the window. Some days of lessons for me involve a good 10 hour long almost non stop sessions. These days looking out of the window now and then really does help with eye health.
  5. Do not be embarrassed to do some stretching exercises in front of the students. These days with technology especially during a lock-down, there is just too much screen time and not enough activity. I even try to do these stretches with my students to educate them on some ways they could prevent playing injury.
  6. Keep a student diary on what they are working on and what they should be improving during the lesson so that you can refer to this the following week and pick up from there.
  7. Make sure your instrument is in tune before the class begins to save class time.
  8. Set yourself up at a good camera angle so that you don’t have to take up the class time to adjust your position.
1. Stationery and writing equipment
Photo by Frans Van Heerden on Pexels.com
4. By a Window
Photo by Taryn Elliott on Pexels.com
6. My Teaching Diary

Stay inspired and be THE Inspiration

The Covid19 Pandemic is by all ways an unfortunate event which has cost people’s lives, opportunities and economic value. I am thankful for technology which probably would not have been even as available about 10 years ago when I started online teaching (but not in such a prevalent manner.). The support technology has for online music classes are more than sufficient for something different.

Get inspiration from others online. There are many artistes and fellow violinists sharing material and their performances online. Here is a list of some musicians that I follow on instagram (they are not in an order of any preference):

1. Augustin Hadelich – A violinist who has a series of advice on violin technique and more on his “Ask Augustin” segment. He also shares his home concerts of himself on both the violin and piano. Recently, he also shared an interesting joint concert of 14 musicians playing Bach’s Chaconne initiated by Julia Fischer.

2. Itzhak Perlman – A 16-time Grammy Award-winning Israeli-American violinist, conductor and pedagogue who teaches at Juilliard School. He tells interesting stories and accounts and would play a short segment of music at the end.

3.Nicola Benedetti – A violinist who initiates interactive chats with other musicians.

4. virtuoso_violinist – A violinist who demonstrates practical tips from the Dounis Method.

5. Maxim Vengerov – A superstar violinist, violist and conductor who shares his performances with his children and friends. Very privileged to be able to have him share these with us as his concerts are often sold out quickly.

5. Anna Savkina – A violinist who shares tips on practice and how to troubleshoot difficult passages.

6. Nancy Zhou – A violinist who shares her practice and also references to what she has learnt.

7. Nikki Naghavi – A violinist who shares some tips on practise and her own practise from time to time.

8. Kimberlee Dray aka “Greencasegirl” – A violinist who is an enthusiast of the violin who shares topics centered around the violin.

9. Ray Chen – A very popular and entertaining Violinist who engages others to join his live streams centered around the violin and his interests.

10. Stefan Jackiw – A violinist who shares his practice performances with us.

11. The Violin Channel has been featuring artistes recitals on demand recorded from their living rooms.

12. Yoyoma – A famous cellist who is famed for also being an great humanitarian. He shares his playing with us in a series #songs of comfort.

This list is definitely by no means exhaustive. There are many wonderful musicians out there sharing their practices, thoughts and advice on a regular basis. You too can share something to inspire someone during this difficult stay home time be it within your family, your own group of friends or community, especially dedicate something to the front line workers for encouragement could be a great idea as a musical project. It does not have to be on the World Wide Web. But it is a good chance to use your music capability to touch someone or send an uplifting message that would brighten their day.

Moving Forward

In some institutions such as the Central Conservatory of Music In Beijing, they had already started with online exams using an app about 2 years ago. The ABRSM (Associated Board of the Royal School of Music also indicated last month that this may be in the works to keep our examinations going as there is a temporary suspension at the moment due to Covid-19.

Keeping up with the times is important, it would be wise to be practiced and comfortable playing in front of a camera and not just leave these experiences to the last moments of taking an exam. Submitting a video of yourself for a music competition is also these days a trend rather than an option as it was before, where the candidates had to be physically present for auditions (which escalates costs for going for such competitions having to pay additionally for hotel and air tickets). I am glad that we have a chance to explore these experiences for every student not just for the selected few who do competitions or have the guts to be on a video recording, but every student will be getting the same valuable experience in the coming concert that I am planning “Our Perfect Number”.

Further to this, we have definitely learnt to raise our own hygiene standards to also prevent the spread of other bacteria or viruses which would be beneficial for health in the long run!

Thanks for reading 🙂

How to Encounter Phrases of Music with Sudden Dynamic Changes

The article in the link below by cello Professor Miranda Wilson, gives useful practice tips on how to carry out the sudden dynamic changes found in Beethoven’s compositions.

Other than Beethoven, Bach’s compositions also have sudden dynamic changes in parts that echo from forte to sudden piano with no diminuendo or crescendo.

I often practice these sudden changes by stopping after the end of the dynamic, just before the sudden comparably soft or loud dynamic change.

For example, complete the forte portion completely without any hint of diminuendo, give a slight halt to prepare for the next piano section. This is an additional way to this author’s idea of practising out a sudden drop or increment of dynamics. You can do the same with a piano portion, practice without a hint of crescendo, stop before the forte section then prepare and continue with the forte.

After a certain while of practicing in this fashion, you will be able to execute your the sudden dynamic changes more effectively for the listener and your ear and muscles get used to not committing any unnecessary diminuendo or crescendo which is not intended by the composer, the sections will be kept distinctly and the character of the piece will be executed well. Do try this method of practice and let me know if it works for you too! This method is not confined to violinists but all sorts of other instrumentalist should try it too.

Here is more from the original article from Strings magazine that inspired this blog post.

16 Good Violin Practice Habits

 

  1. Stretching

Before starting your daily practise routine, you should do a series of stretches just to lengthen your muscles and keep them flexible so as to prevent any unwanted injury.  The stretching routine should consist of deep stretches not only for the fingers and arms which are directly involved, but also for your core and leg muscles because every part of your body is very much engaged in playing the violin.  I would advocate practising Yoga or Pilates a few times a week as these are good exercises to stretch the entire body and to keep your mind calm which is an excellent condition to be in when called to do a performance.

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  1. Practise Basic Technical Exercises, Scales and Etudes at every practice session.

Over the years of teaching, I have noticed that not every teacher would include basic right and left hand exercises or even Etudes to practise in the student’s repertoire.  Focusing just on pieces would impede the student’s growth.  Basic Technical Exercises, Scales and Etudes enable a Building Time for the students to develop their technical ability on the violin necessary for the skill later used in performance pieces.  Having a good Right Hand and Left Hand exercise routine will help to focus on overall posture, tone production and intonation.  Even the best of violinists would tell you the importance of practising Scales daily.  If Building Time with the Basic Technical Exercises, Scales and Etudes are part of the practice routine, you would realize that that when called to learn a new piece, you would be able to grasp it quicker and there will be more time to be left to explore a Musical Interpretation of the piece which would be just as important as focusing on overall posture, tone production and intonation.  Classroom time efficiency with the teacher would also be better as the daily practices on these would a establish a higher chance of being able to teach the student on every aspect of playing the violin and not just focusing on either technique or musical interpretation.

  1. Always start with slow practice

When embarking on a new piece, it is important not to be hasty and excited in learning it.  Even if time is short and you need to learn a piece quickly due to a performance deadline, starting with slow practice would yield much better result for the performance than to rush through the piece at performance tempo.  This process of slow practice enables you to be able to think of the piece carefully.  It is also important to start with analyzing the form and structure of the piece to establish repetitions (the repetition could be in another key as well)

If a piece is already in a slow tempo, it would still be necessary to practice in an even slower tempo so that every expression can be even more thorough and thought out.  So that when playing at the normal tempo as indicated a deeper depth of expression can be communicated to the audience.

  1. While learning a song for the first time, you must take into consideration and follow all markings that are written

Apart from some exceptions, for example the Bach Partitas and Sonatas where some of the movements need to be purposefully played in entirety in forte in order to get the right tone production before taking into account the other ranges of dynamics, performance directions should be followed carefully.

In fact, certain directions should also be played purposefully and intentionally during practise as a lot of dynamics and expressions are lost during the performance due to nerves or just the acoustics of the concert hall.  Not only does volume or articulations have to be in utmost clarity, but also the physical expression (body movement) of playing the markings on the score can be acted out to match the markings intended in performance.

Only following markings written down after getting the notes right may result to developing your own expression which is not intended by the composer in the original score.  Then taking into consideration the markings as a second thought, might tantamount to bad habits that need to be broken which may be less efficient than to apply the original markings written down from the start.  As a Musician, there should be integrity in performing the piece as the composer intends it to be.

  1. Always have a pencil ready

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Get a pencil ready during practice to note down any ideas or changes that you may want to make during the session.  It is my own personal practice to have as little markings on my score as possible unless I wish to make essential changes to the fingerings or bowings then mark them down with a pencil.  Here are some instances where I would make pencil markings of my own:

  1. If there is a fingering or another string that I would like to use which is different from what is indicated on the score;
  2. I keep repeating a mistake with the fingering on a certain note; and
  3. A particular bar or few bars that I find particularly difficult to play

– There are a lot of parts of the piece that have easy playability and need little to no practise but there are just some parts that need a lot of work and special attention.  As I conquer these parts bit by bit, I erase the circles so that the score again looks tidy.

This will minimize mess on the page if referring during a performance it will be neat and tidy to use or if you had to memorize the piece, the score is clearer to you in your mind than a very untidy score.  This can be likened to keeping your home neat and tidy where things would be more organized and will more likely to be able to recall where you have kept something quickly.

Another occasion which I would use the pencil would be to circle out parts that I keep making mistakes at.

  1. Try not to listen to recordings of pieces before you have mastered a piece of music.

It is important to listen to recordings and classical music generally, especially to recordings of violin repertoire.  Being a violinist means that you should also be able to appreciate different interpretations and adapt them to your own style of performance.  This heading may come as surprise to many that listening to a piece before learning it may not necessary be the best way to learn a piece.  It is best to first try to learn the piece according to your own personal interpretation as at the end of the day you are an artiste trying to create something unique and not replicating anyone’s performance.

There is a greater importance these days to be able to learn a piece without listening to a prior recording due to new composers and commissioned violin concertos and pieces where there may be a limited number of performances and recordings done; or you may find that there have been no recordings that have been made at all because you are the first person to be performing the work for the first time.  This method of learning from scratch would expand your ability to sight read music to develop all your senses needing to make the music.  And from there, to explore a piece on your own which will carry far more depth instead of total reliance of learning a piece aurally and depending on that aural sense to replicate the same tune.

  1. Always break up the piece into smaller section and single out frequent errors to practise these separately.

When embarking on a new piece, always look at the structure and form of the piece.  Some pieces may be in a ternary form (2 sections, A-B Parts) some in binary (3 Sections with repetition of one of the section A-B-A parts); or in Sonatas at the recapitulation section.  Hence, always analyse the piece to check with sections repeat.  You should ideally give the same weightage of practise to every section.  If a section is repeated many times, if you follow the order of the score to practise, you would be practising one section more than other sections.  So the other sections may feel less practised at the end of the week.

By analysing the score and breaking up the piece into smaller sections, you would also be able to understand the structure of the piece better and sight reading this way can be improved as you are essentially learning musical patterns and not just going about the piece at random as it comes.  I like to use different colours to highlight the different sections to the younger students, so that the whole piece appears colourful and they are able to break up their practise according to the colours and sections to practise and learn each day or week.

Lastly as mentioned in Number 5 “Always have a Pencil Ready”, you would find playing some parts of the piece with more difficulty than others which would require more practice and attention, do circle out these parts with the pencil and pay special attention on ways to practice them.

  1. Pay Close attention to your posture

While practising, be conscious of your playing posture at all times. You should ideally feel like a tree, deeply rooted and planted down so that when playing exciting parts of the piece you do not appear wobbly but confident. The instrument should emanate from your soul which means physically, you should appear that the violin is not a separate instrument apparatus but part of your physique, like just an extension of you.

On closer scrutiny to impediments or difficulty while playing some pieces, you may find the root cause to be poor posture whether it is with your fingers or your standing posture itself.

At all times you should feel relaxed when playing the violin, the music should seamlessly flow from the violin.  If you feel tense in any area while playing, you should check your posture as that should not be the case.  Even at difficult sections of the piece instead of feeling a sense of tightness, you should feel relaxed even if your mind is working overtime.  Being relaxed would heighten the probability of the notes coming out as practised and anticipated; the effect would look like effortless playing even at the most technically challenging of parts.  Making music really does require one to be relaxed for all emotions and mental faculties to be at their best levels for a good performance.

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  1. Choose Repertoire that is at your Level and Capability

I do not discredit the importance of having a thirst and hunger for improvement.  As this motivation is the drive to aim for a higher standard of playing.  But the repertoire chosen for the student or for yourself has to be digestible and appropriate for the level you are at.  Making a student constantly play pieces that require several position changes when they have barely understood or grasped playing in the first position for example; may be damaging instead of helpful in due course.  It may corrode their confidence with the instrument.  This hurried teaching style may result to mental connections to be missed on basic foundations of posture, note reading and other violin technique like shifting, playing different positions, bowings etc.  When learning the violin in a haphazard manner and not establishing fundamental violin technique is likened to not laying a proper foundation for a 100-storey skyscraper.  This often shows up at more advanced levels, the student may feel frustrated or stuck due to the lack of skill to advance.

It would be definitely better and more efficient to follow a moderate climb, one that is at a suitable level of challenge, this challenge level will need to be constantly tested and gauged as it is unique for everyone.  I have some students who are like sponges who can grasp concepts very quickly but there are also others who need more time to absorb new concepts of learning technique.

The foundations of good technique should never be belittled.  The teacher should make sure that the student learns and practices good technique making use of the repertoire. Finding repertoire to achieve proper Violin Technique should take priority over selecting a piece at your whim and fancy and then working in Technique Building through these pieces.  Learning Violin Technique should not be left at random.  That is not to say that you should be selecting repertoire that is dry and unpopular, it just means that you have to be wiser at choosing.   Be aware on what you can actually play: if it feels too easy, then find something more challenging; if it is too insurmountable, most likely the piece is too difficult and should be shelved for another later time. This will enable a more visible and structured improvement rather than a random one which may leave out certain important points about playing the violin at the more formative stage.

  1. Memorize Everything

It always looks better to perform a piece without looking at the score.  The music stand can be viewed as is a barrier to communication with the audience during a performance.  (In some cases, where the piano accompanist is using the music score, as a manner of style the violinist can also refer to a score.)

Knowing how Brain Memory works in the earlier section on devising a Practice Schedule Plan, will aid in understanding how to memorize a piece of music well.  I personally find too that it is more effective and efficient to practice a piece trying to memorize the piece rather than to be practicing the piece reading off the music score always.  This way, the non-reliance of the score makes me more sensitive to all aspects of the piece.

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  1. Make a Goal for Learning every day

The mind should constantly be seeking out ways of improving and not be on an auto pilot mode while practicing. Time at hand during practice is not just a figure, especially for young children it may seem that time is an infinite concept, but the older you grow you realize the limited nature of time.  Therefore, at any age or stage you are at do make a goal for learning every day.  You can also make a goal based on the lesson that you have just had for the following lesson; these small objectives met will be one step closer to a larger improvement, thereby achieving a more efficient practice every day.  Over a week and months of practice, these improvements will be both audible and visible.

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  1. Do not get through the piece with a Get By attitude

You should always aim for excellence and put your best foot forward.  It will pay off to have this tenacious spirit toward practise.  Simply achieving goals set by your teacher is good but setting your own goals which exceed expectations would be better.  The world is constantly looking for outstanding people and it is good to apply this to everything you do not just for the violin.

Rest should also not be underestimated, a well-rounded person will not be absolutely efficient without adequate rest that the body needs. The mind and the body need rest and adequate sleep to function at its best.

  1. The use of a Metronome

It is tempting to speed up at exciting parts of the piece. Or sometimes, with a series of confusing note values to attempt to aurally discern the time values and play by what you think is right.  Because the violin is usually played as an accompanied instrument whether it is in a chamber group setting or with a piano or an orchestra, being able to be accurate in rhythm and timing is essential and should be developed during practise.  Being as accurate as playing in a professional band may not be necessary but it is certainly necessary to follow the note values and develop a sense of rhythm for collaborating with other professionals or instruments.  This area of development is just as important as having good intonation, being able to play in tune is just as important as having a good sense of rhythm.

Even where you are the only solo instrument, practising repertoire like Bach’s (Sonatas and Partitas) unaccompanied pieces for the Solo Violin are good opportunities of developing on your rhythms in perpetual motion or the slow movements where the rhythm values are very obscure, achieving accuracy, discerning their note values would definitely sharpen your skill on rhythm and timing.

For passages with runs where the notes are in a perpetual motion (of equal note value), to achieve a consistent rhythm, it would be essential to practise with the metronome from a slow tempo and using increments of two values for example, starting at 80, increase it to 82 then 84 and so on. At the next practise start off at the second fastest value you were at and then start the pattern again.  If you would like to play a passage of runs quickly, it would be best to practise it on an even higher value than prescribed or perform.  So that when you switch back to correct (slower) tempo, you would find playing the passage with ease.

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  1. Practise pieces from the past frequently

It takes so many hours to get a piece of music polished and perfected to a performance standard.  Often so much hard work is put into perfecting a piece, therefore before the memory of the piece diminishes completely, you should pick up the piece and play it once more.  Each time playing the piece would rekindle the memory of it.  Pieces from the past that have been mastered must be included in the Practise Schedule plan.

  1. Over-practising and Strain Injury

It is good to be conscientious and hardworking with practise but not overly zealous that it affects your health.  Stretching before practise allows the muscles to expand and get ready for the range of motions that are to come during the practise.  I strongly advocate resting in between practise: say for example your practise is 5 hours long, break it up to sessions that you have at least a 5-10 minute break every hour.  This will ensure that you do not over strain yourself and give your mind time to rest and freshen up.  Concentrating on one activity is actually counter-productive to trying to achieve your goal in practise

It is worth mentioning not to over stretch or over work the fourth finger (pinky) on the left hand.  The fourth finger is a delicate finger and often the gap to stretch is too far for some hands.  Take care especially when playing double-stops in tenths.  It is a generally good practise to get the note right and just move on without dwelling too much on it which will cause a strain injury.  There are some practises that are better with using your ears to figure out the intonation instead of over practising or over straining.  Always remember it is the quality of the practise that counts and not the quantity of hours put in.

  1. Be Careful with your hands!

If you are playing the violin or learning the violin, it would be just be sensible to protect your fingers by not exposing them to activities which may injure your fingers such as ball games and some sports which may endanger your fingers into getting them hurt.

The body does heal itself but often times, the rehabilitation is a painful process and a sprained or broken finger or arm might not heal back to the original angle it was in.  Prevention is always better than cure for sure.

gph6

We are now on Sassy Mama Guide for the Best Music Schools in Singapore


SassyMama is a one stop go to guide for parents in Singapore for stuff to do with their kids and important announcements and Schools recommendations. In their recent revamp to their website, they included us in their round up feature on the Best Music Schools in Singapore 😍. Even though I’m the only teacher at the Violin Studio at the moment and it is certainly counted as private learning! Well it is a vision at Belcanto Violins that we will become a full music school one day! Read the full article here 

What makes a good Violin Teacher? Can I Learn the violin all by myself without formal lessons?


 I sometimes get this question from friends and people I meet with existing violin teachers or if they are looking for one- How would they know if the teacher is teaching the right content in the lessons? Are they good or are they bad?  Infamously, I do not take up students of friends or relatives and would rather to have them learn from someone else. (though it has become somewhat challenging to have this policy as most of my friends with kids now have their kids at the age of learning the violin.)  The familiarity sometimes is to a disadvantage rather than an advantage but of course there are lots of exceptions.

To answer this question, is the must read blog article by Nathan Cole, it covers how you would know if your violin teacher is teaching the right lesson content or proves to have the adequate knowledge about the violin and how this works to establish a suitable playing posture advantageous to the student. (Having said this, about 90% of students that I teach having returned to Singapore has an incorrect playing posture which would be disadvantageous to fulfilling a better violin technique.  I certainly must start with my violin videos tutorials to cover these initial hiccups to benefit more!)   I agree fully and put into practice, that the end goal of any teaching process, is for the student to be independent and free of the teacher.  Essentially, every lesson I take with my student would be a step closer in their gaining independence to be self taught!

This would also answer partly another very frequently asked question if one can learn violin by themselves. With YouTube and the internet with countless books written on beginner violin and information shared about playing and learning the violin, why not?  But everyone has a different physiology make up – different shoulder shapes, differing finger lengths (longer thumbs or pinkies and so on) etc, so there will be generally some guidelines on how to hold a bow or violin or how to execute a staccato bow, but a better confirmation will be with a good teacher who has himself mastered the art of the violin.  Playing the violin is really likened to being an Artist, I can teach you how to do the (bowings) brush strokes and recommend the colours (tones), but at the end of the day music is made entirely from the heart, and it would be so subjective from one student to another the corrections to be done and praise to be given.  So to answer the question, yes, a good teacher is not someone that you cannot do without if you are aspiring to learn the violin properly or well efficiently.

One of the most important things that a teacher ought to teach his students is, therefore, the technique of good practice.  He has to impress on his students that practice has to be a continuation of the lesson, that it is nothing but a process of self-instruction in which, in the absence of the teacher, the student has to act as the teacher’s deputy, assigning himself definite tasks and supervising his own work. A teacher who limits himself to pointing out the mistakes and does not show the proper way to overcome them fails in the important mission of teaching the student how to work for himself.

Ivan Galamian – Principles of Violin Playing and Teaching