Stage fright is a state of nervousness or fear leading up to and during a performance. It is an exaggerated symptom of anxiety. The hands sweat or become icy cold, the body shakes, sometimes symptoms include nausea, an overwhelming sense of tiredness, a need to go to the toilet or shortness of breath, and there can be a frightening sense of disassociation; of playing your instrument from behind a curtain through which you simply cannot connect with what you’re doing.
Stage fright is a very common problem amongst performing musicians. In one recent survey 96% of the orchestra musicians questioned admitted to anxiety before performances. It’s common to see the backstage sign leading Stage Right enhanced with a cynical ‘F’, and this self-mocking comment is pertinent. To many performers stage fright represents a destructive personal shortcoming.
The physical symptoms are the result of a primal instinct known as Fight or Flight. This is the inborn physiological response to a threatening or dangerous situation. It readies you either to resist the danger forcibly – Fight - or to run away from it – Flight. Hormones including adrenaline flood into the bloodstream, the heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate all increase, the neck and back muscles contract, which means that if you try to maintain an upright posture your muscles shake violently, the digestive system shuts down.
It’s useful on a basic level to understand what is happening to cause the unpleasant physical symptoms of stage fright. It’s also worth knowing that everybody suffers from it to some degree or at some point in their life, no matter how successful or famous. Even Heifetz who was renowned for his perfect performances was apparently stricken with fear before he went on stage, convinced that two thousand nine hundred and ninety nine of the three thousand audience members had come to hear him play a wrong note.
It is useful to know these things but it is not, in reality, any help at all when you are in the grip of stage fright.
So what is the reason for stage fright?
The danger your body is reacting to is the performance. There’s a fear you won’t do yourself justice. The more important the outcome of the performance, the worse the anxiety will be. If the stakes are high, say you’re auditioning for an orchestra you’ve always wanted to play with, you’re broke and you need the money, you’re playing in a competitive situation where you know your performance is being judged in a critical way, even more adrenaline will release and the resultant anxiety can be paralysing.
Many instrumentalists, particularly those playing an instrument as tactile and personal as the violin, relate very strongly with their instrument. “I am a violinist,” becomes more than a job description. In situations like this, the identity of the self as a musician can seem to rely on the outcome of the performance.
There is also a genetic aspect. Some people are simply more genetically predisposed to strong feelings of anxiety than others.
Another aspect behind performance anxiety is the level of task mastery. The more comfortable you feel with your playing, the more confident you will feel. Our fears of unreliable shifting, stiff left hand, bow shake or dropping the violin are all founded in an unreliable physical reaction.
What has really happened in stage fright is that the positive aspect of music making, an overriding desire to communicate, has somehow become lost as the ego distorts the relevance of the performance. Stage fright is ultimately a product of self-regard in which the performance has become more about the performer than the music or the audience. The idea of giving; that in performance you are transmitting something greater than yourself; has been supplanted by the fear that you will be exposed as not good enough.
So what can you do?
Stage fright is essentially a problem of expression and preparation and there are many creative solutions to nerves. Here are some ideas to try.
Here is a short video from the Ted Talks about stage fright. It’s worth watching to consolidate what you know and ends with a helpful breathing exercise.
The scale systems by Carl Flesch and Ivan Galamian are by no means the only in existence, but they have been the most widely used by violin students and teachers for many years. The systems are different in profound ways and each has valid applications for the modern violinist.
Both Galamian and Flesch were master teachers, each from a long line of violin pedagogues. Carl Flesch (1873-1944) was born in Hungary. He began playing at the age of five, and was accepted into the Vienna Conservatoire aged just 13. His students include Henryk Szering, Ida Haendel, Ginette Neveu and Max Rostal.
Flesch believed that violin teaching before Sevçik had been flawed; that Sevçik had proven that advanced technique could be a result of training and not genius. He maintained that all violinists should be schooled sequentially and defined each technical step clearly on the principle that tone quality, intonation, technical proficiency, listening and hearing skills are all things that can be taught.
Ivan Galamian (1903-1981) studied in Moscow. His concert career was short. It was speculated that this was due to chronic kidney stones which left him in great pain after every performance. Galamian used to chain-smoke his way through lessons, perhaps to diminish the pain and keep it from interfering with his teaching. He had moved to New York as the Russian Revolution gathered pace, and once there he founded the Meadowmount Summer Violin School. He also held prestigious teaching posts at the Curtis Institute and the Julliard School of Music. This clip gives some insight into Galamian’s relationship with his students.
Galamian was a consummate teacher, and once remarked, “One must make a choice – either a solo career or a teaching career. You cannot do both equally well. One or the other will suffer.” He explained his enthusiasm for teaching, “Ever since I was a child I have been interested in the how-to-do-it aspect.”
Galamian saw problems in the way violin students were taught. He disagreed with the idea that the violin must be taught from a physical angle, stating that technical mastery depends on the control of mind over muscle, rather than agility of fingers. He also felt the interdependence and relationship of the many technical elements was neglected.
Here is a video of a lesson given by Galamian, cigarette in hand, to a young Joshua Bell. Between the fourth and fifth minute, you can here a G major three-octave scale, from the Galamian scale system.
In order to see the difference in the two systems, let’s have a look at the way they are laid out.
Flesch’s Skalensystem deals with one key at a time. The entire study for that key is contained in one place in the book in sections numbered 1 through 12.
In the new edition there is some attempt to cover four-octave scales but it is not very comprehensive and serves to further overwhelm the student with material. As you progress through the book, different rhythms, bow strokes and bowings are suggested for the study of each key.
Each scale from B flat major up uses the same fingering, always beginning on the second finger. This way, the spacing is learned for every position and intervals remain the same for almost every major and every minor key.
Flesch instructs that scales should be practised slowly for intonation and rapidly for facility, and that the key must be changed every day. In the modern edition, Max Rostal suggests in his preface that the key may be changed twice a week. He also explains that focus should be on the legato bowing with bowing exercises added later, as the initial goal is to develop left hand technique. Legato playing allows for the development of inaudible shifting and controlled string crossing. Rostal also suggests less time consuming programmes for studying the system, selecting parts of the designated key each day.
This is all perhaps rather overwhelming. Particularly since the advent of television and Internet we all have much less time to practice. This system would be ideal if within 45 minutes each day we were able to cover a complete key as Flesch suggests, but it is not actually possible to do! What can happen is a lot of arduous, unrewarding work and the onset of a deep hatred of scales because Flesch just seems too difficult.
Volume One covers single stopped scales. The sections are:
This book is written with only the note heads and no note values. There are several suggested basic bowing patterns to work from. There is then a second book, which contains rhythmic variations for the bowing patterns. Galamian also uses more diverse fingerings rather than applying one fingering to every key.
The main feature of the Galamian scales which differs from the Flesch, is the Galamian turn. At the start of the three octave scales, the third note is played immediately after the first, then back to the second and first notes before ascending, so a G major scale would start like this: G B A G A B C D and so on. This turn is repeated at the end of the scale. The result of this is that every three-octave scale has exactly 48 notes, 24 on the way up and 24 on the way down. This means that the notes are divisible by 3, 6, 8, 12 or 24 notes per bow. This facilitates Galamian’s Acceleration Series. He suggests the student puts on a metronome at crotchet (quarter note) = 60 or 50, or even slower, and begins the scale slurring two quavers (eighth notes) per beat. The scale then progresses to three notes per beat, then four, six and so on. The left hand speeds up and the right hand maintains the same bow speed, but with faster, more fluid string changes. This fulfils Rostal’s suggestion that the legato playing to facilitate development of left hand technique is most important.
Once this is done, bowing patterns can be imposed on the scale. In this way, a strong foundation is laid in the left hand for good intonation in every position, and the student also has a daily outlet for working on bowing techniques.
The less prescriptive fingerings of the Galamian book are useful in repertoire. There is no correct fingering for scales or pieces. In the Flesch system, scale patterns are memorised easily because the fingering remains the same, but fingerings serve a purpose. The more fingerings a student can learn, the more artistic choices are available.
The Galamian book is also more approachable for intermediate level players. The Flesch book looks frankly impossible to the less ambitious or advanced player, but with Galamian it’s possible to start at whatever level you have reached.
The second volume of Galamian’s scale system comprehensively covers double and multiple stops. My violin professor, Howard Davis, who had studied with Frederick Grinke, himself a pupil of Carl Flesch, used to prescribe ten minutes a day of thirds, ten of sixths and ten of octaves, played with a metronome at crotchet = 60, four beats to a note. “That’s all you need to do,” he’d say.
The purpose of practising scales is to build technique. The purpose of building technique is to facilitate more beautiful interpretation of repertoire, and scales provide the most effective targeting for this. Using scales, the violinist can work on intonation, rhythm evenness of tone, constant bow speed, beauty of tone, relaxation, breath, shifting, posture and many other aspects of playing.
Some students may prefer the stricter layout of the Flesch book, where everything for each key is in one place. Others may prefer the open ended system by Galamian, in which it’s possible to pick and choose what to cover and how. I would suggest that the Galamian system might show improvements more quickly as it is easier to be more random with the approach to practice, giving the brain new problems to solve rather than repeating a section until it is right.
These two books on the study of scales are by no means the only ones available. The newest on the market is by Simon Fischer, who has written two other books of technique, Basics and Practice. His book Scales, is designed to counteract the problems many people suffer when approaching scale practice. Fischer maintains that since the main purpose of scale practice is to build technique, it is important to work on the elements of the scale even more than on the complete scale. Instead of the traditional scale system, he gives a detailed analysis of how intonation works and provides exercises to develop shifting, string crossing and intonation within the scale. He then develops the practice in a streamlined way, connecting the whole scale together.
With any scale system, the trick is to maintain focus, discipline and creativity in practice. Perhaps the best solution is to use several different systems and take what you can from each. Sometimes we want to be challenged, at other times we want to explore.
In the context of violin study, where so much knowledge is passed on verbally in lessons, it is a huge privilege to have these works available to give us a window into the teaching of some of the greatest violin teachers, who’s approach would otherwise have been diluted or lost altogether.
Karl Jenkins is a Welsh composer and musician, born in 1944. He started his musical career as an oboist in the National Youth Orchestra of Wales and studied as a postgraduate at the Royal Academy of Music. He went on to work mainly in jazz and jazz-rock bands, on baritone and soprano saxophone, keyboard, and oboe; an unusual instrument in jazz music.
Jenkins’ compositions are amongst some of the most popular around. His choral work The Armed Man was listed no.1 in Classic FM's Top 10 by Living Composers, 2008 and his work has featured in adverts for international companies including Levi Jeans, Renault and De Beers.
The Palladio Suite, one of Jenkins’ most famous works, is written in the Concerto Grosso style more commonly associated with Baroque music. It is made up of three movements; Allegretto, Largo and Vivace; and harks back to the writing of Venetian composers such as Vivaldi and Albinoni. It is conventional and unchallenging, its techniques and harmonies remaining firmly based in the 18th Century, a feature which is unusual for Jenkins who often combines a mixture of modern and traditional musical styles in his work.
Palladio was inspired by the architect Andrea Palladio, who designed many beautiful villas and churches in the Venice region in the 16th Century, and who gives his name to the London Palladium. The piece mirrors the idea of artistic beauty within a defined architectural framework.
This is not the only time Jenkins has found a connection between his music and visual aesthetics. On the front page of his website he tells the following story:
“Very late one night in 1997, across a dark and deserted St. Mark’s Square, Venice, I saw a painting, lit like a beacon, drawing me inexorably to the window of Galleria Ravagnan. It made a deep impression on me and as my wife and fellow musician, Carol, remarked, it looked like my music sounded. I simply had to have it so I returned the next day, bought the painting and began a long friendship with gallery owner Luciano Ravagnan. On a return visit, a year or so later, I met and befriended the artist only for us both to discover that he, not knowing who had bought his painting, had been painting to my music!”
The first movement of the Palladio Suite, Allegretto, is the most frequently performed. It became well known initially as the music for the 1994 De Beers Diamond advert. It has been recorded by the electric string quartets, Bond and Escala, and has established a permanent position in Classic FM’s Hall of Fame.
The movement is constructed from rigid, repetitive string lines, which exist as building blocks over a staccato bass line, driving an ever-developing sense of drama and intensity.
It is important when playing this movement to subdivide the bars so as not to rush. You can hear how the parts interject and answer each other, but do so within a tight rhythmic framework. The rests are just as important as the notes and a combination of good counting, strong pulse and listening will help the ensemble. Try listening along with the score to see how the parts weave together and bounce off each other.
The bow-stroke in this movement should be clean, with plenty of contact, in the middle to lower-middle part of the bow. Each gesture of the main rhythmic figure works well from an up-bow. The tightly interwoven harmonies require clear intonation and a ringing tone to recreate the openness of the Venetian Baroque sound world.
The Suite has two further movements, both of which are immediately reminiscent of Vivaldi’s Violin Concerto, Winter from The Four Seasons.
The Largo features a pulsating accompaniment and a soaring, wistful violin solo, in which parallels with Vivaldi’s Largo are strongly apparent.
The Vivace is much lighter and more delicate than the Allegretto, with an immediately Baroque sound. Imagine how a lighter baroque bow would feel. You can do this by holding your own bow higher up the stick away from the frog. This will give you an idea of the lightness and vivacity of bow stroke necessary to bring the Vivace to life.
Again, it is easy to recall the nervous energy of the third movement of Vivaldi’s Winter. The insistent quality in the staccato, accompanying figure, the use of ostinato, which Jenkins frequently favours, and the minor tonality are common to both the Vivaldi and the third movement of Palladio.
The popular first movement has been recorded countless times by a diverse spectrum of musicians, given thousands of minutes of airtime on Classic FM and even remixed as a Dubstep song, but which recording is the best?
Classic FM recommends The Smith Quartet: London Philharmonic Strings Conducted by Karl Jenkins – Sony SK62276, or if you fancy something more up-tempo, try the recording by electric string quartet Escala.
Interestingly, both versions only feature the first movement. The complete suite is available on Jenkins’ 1996 album, the aptly named Diamond Music, featuring the Smith Quartet and the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
Recordings on YouTube are also mainly restricted to the famous first movement, neglecting the others, despite their rather delicate beauty. This echoes another phenomenon of popular Baroque music whereby one movement becomes favoured, perhaps due to exposure in television, film or advertising. The first movement of Vivaldi’s Spring has become more popular than its other movements, and everybody thinks Pachelbel only wrote one tune.
Pattern building studies for the violin are composed around simple ‘building-block’ phrases and repetitive figures, designed solely to build finger strength, agility and facility. There are many such studies in the violin repertoire, the best of which are the study books by Sevçik and Schradieck which, when practiced correctly, build left hand technique and strength comprehensively and incrementally. These books are essential supplementary material for scale and study practice and contain repetitive drills, covering all possible approaches to any particular problem.
Study of the pattern building exercises in these books hones basic skills, resolves the technical issues which hamper musical performance and leads to large jumps in technical improvement. Where a repertoire-rich practice diet can miss out the basics, covering these supplementary studies, which are sometimes shunned because they seem dull and dry, gives solid technique and avoids the need for rehabilitation in the future.
In his 1986 introduction to the Flesch Skalensystem, violinist Max Rostal explains that the best way to build intonation and facility is by practicing technical difficulties in isolation. For example, he says a problem with intonation or shifting must be approached by deciphering and improving how the wrong note is accessed. Since Sevçik’s Opus 8, Studies in Changes of Position and Preparatory Scale Studies, is the most comprehensive book on shifting that exists, there is therefore no reason why a student wishing to improve shifting, intonation and facility would avoid it.
Pattern building exercises may be considered old fashioned by some teachers, but they are designed with a deep understanding of how the muscles and brain learn, an understanding which can be explained with recent discoveries in neurological science.
In 1959, William Primrose, the famous viola player who performed and recorded chamber music with Jascha Heifetz, published his book, Technique is Memory. In his introduction he states, “This book is not for geniuses.”
Primrose’s book is based entirely on the study of left hand finger patterns. He explains that, “To know when to put a finger in a given place at a given time; to know also its position relating to the other three fingers at that particular place and time, is to know all that is necessary in the search for accuracy.
“Technique is a means to an end,” he says. “There is no short-cut to efficiency on any instrument that will bypass systematic practice.”
His book is thoroughly systematic. It covers every key in every position, aiming to cover the entire topography of the fingerboard. Primrose explains that if technique is memory, it follows that the eye plays an important role in pattern building practice. The route is eye to brain, brain to finger, finger (or the sound produced by it) to ear and ear to brain. In his book, numbered groups of fingers are connected with symbols, designed to be filled in by the student in colour; red for semitones, green for whole-tone sequences and so on. Each scale is practiced very slowly at first and then repeated faster. Primrose concludes that when study of the book is complete, the student should be able to recall verbally, whilst away from the instrument, the finger pattern of any scale in any part of the instrument.
The violin has a range of about four and a half octaves, or 54 semitones. There are at least 100 different places in which to play the 54 semitones, since many are playable in more than one place. It makes sense then that detailed study of the left hand patterns is required to build good intonation and knowledge of the fingerboard. We talk about muscle memory, but that is quite a lot for the muscles to remember!
Ivan Galamian explains in his book, The Principles of Violin Playing and Teaching (1962), that the foundation upon which the technique lies rests upon the correct relationship of the mind to the muscles, the smooth, quick and accurate functioning of the sequence in which the mental command elicits the desired muscular response. The greater this correlation, the greater the facility. Interestingly, neurological science has only recently been able to prove this idea, which the great violin teachers already understood and implemented in their pattern building approach.
Further recommended reading:
As recently as the 1980’s neuroscientists discovered the importance of a neural insulator called myelin. Every human skill is created by chains of nerve fibres carrying electrical impulses. As these impulses are repeated, myelin, or white matter, wraps the fibres in the same way that we insulate an electrical wire. This insulation makes the signal stronger and faster by preventing the electrical impulses from leaking out.
When we practice a pattern building exercise, a neural circuit is fired and the myelin responds by wrapping layers of insulation around it. Each new layer adds a bit more skill and speed. Skill can therefore be describes as a cellular insulation which wraps neural circuits. Experiences where you are forced to slow down, make errors and correct them, repeat the same constructive piece of study many times; which is exactly how you would be approaching an exercise from a book of Sevçik; result in greater fluency.
In an interview with Daniel Coyle, author of The Talent Code, Robert Bjork, chair of UCLA explains, “We tend to think of our memory as a tape recorder but that’s wrong. It’s a living structure, a scaffold of nearly infinite size. The more we generate impulses, encountering and overcoming difficulties, the more scaffolding we build, the faster we learn.”
The more you fire a particular circuit, the more myelin optimises that circuit, and the stronger, faster and more fluid your playing will become, just as Galamian said. Targeted practice of pattern building exercises is effective precisely because the best way to build good circuits is to fire them over and over again. This is the science behind the 10,000 hour rule; the theory that to acquire mastery in any given skill, 10,000 hours of targeted, concentrated practice is required.
In his book, Practice, violinist and teacher Simon Fischer also describes how improving technique means building an ever larger collection of automatic, unthinking actions that have a desired, not an undesired effect.
Pattern building exercises are a chance to linger in the early stages of technical acquisition, maintaining a child-like curiosity for the instrument. Small children love this sort of skill mastery. A child will never seek reasons, justifications or explanations the way older students and adults do. Children are physical learners, and instinctively understand that technique facilitates more genuine responses to music. When we play musically and with inspiration, a better feeling comes into the muscles than when we play mechanically. Passion and persistence are key.In his book, Practice, violinist and teacher Simon Fischer also describes how improving technique means building an ever larger collection of automatic, unthinking actions that have a desired, not an undesired effect.This is the science behind the 10,000 hour rule; the theory that to acquire mastery in any given skill, 10,000 hours of targeted, concentrated practice is required.
To avoid over-practicing, or falling into the trap of playing these exercises mechanically, always practice with a goal in mind. What would you like to play better? Use the exercises according to your needs. Practice them regularly but only for a short, concentrated period, optimising your circuit building. The objective is not to learn a particular book of Sevçik or Schradieck in its entirety, or to get through all of the exercises as fast as possible; the reward is in the increased complexity of personal ability which comes as a result of mixing and matching the exercises with scales, studies and repertoire.
The Schradieck exercises are extremely helpful in that their focus on left hand co-ordination can be added to with variations in bowing style and technique. This exponentially increases the benefit of the work, and makes it more fun and more rewarding. In a postscript to Galamian’s Principles of Violin Playing and Teaching, former student, Elizabeth A H Green recalls how Galamian used studies as a “panorama of pertinent technique.” Various rhythms and diverse bowings were superimposed on left hand work, always creating problems for the mind to solve. The variations would become gradually more demanding, and she describes transcending technical problems as the exercises resulted in rapidly accelerated learning.
Finally, these books of pattern building studies are designed to fulfil a purpose: to provide a means of study for thoroughly learning the basis of a strong, reliable technique and an understanding of the geography of the instrument. Be careful to avoid becoming obsessive or overly perfectionist, as this will render them dull and counterproductive. This kind of analytical work can be stultifying for right-brained and creative thinkers and should only be approached in a creative, explorative and musical way. Perfectionism seems a natural outcome of something so thorough as a volume of shifting exercises, but perfectionist expectations lead to a detachment from the body and a self-apologetic approach. Repetitive work becomes less effective when we are bored, so try a random approach to repetition, working alternately on several different exercises and mixing up bowing patterns and rhythms.
|To understand more about the value of repetitive practice within a randomized schedule and with variations of rhythm and bowing, read this post by clarinetist Christine Carter.|
Make sure you know the reason for practicing each exercise; remind yourself of your intention for practicing; observe your work carefully to ensure you are getting good results in small, concentrated time slots; play musically and enjoy the process of discovery.
If anyone ever says to you, “It sounds like you’re playing the violin with gloves on!” then you can take it they aren’t complimenting you on your performance. But sometimes, especially as winter approaches, we have to practice and perform in cold conditions. Is there a solution for violinists? Something which doesn’t interfere with the sound or ease of movement, and which is smart enough to wear on stage, or are there better ways to keep the hands warm? You can’t, after all, just put your gloves on.
Keeping the hands warm and flexible is important for every violinist. Increasingly, professional musicians are being alerted to the importance of a physical warm up. Many muscle and tendon strains can be attributed to overstretching when the body is cold. It’s for this very reason that ballet dancers wear leg warmers to stop their calf muscles from getting cold and stiff. For violinists rehearsing in cold churches, practising at home as it gets colder, travelling to and from work in the winter, and even playing outdoor concerts in the summer when it can become very cold as night falls, cold hands mean loss of dexterity, painful joints, poor vibrato, and compromised left hand agility, bow control and facility of shifts. If your hands get really cold, you’ll find you can’t even feel the string.
The first thing to do if you’re somewhere you can do so, is to put the heating on. Practising in a warm room is much less tiring. If you’ve been sitting at your computer or watching TV, or something else sedentary before you decide to practice, counteract the cold by doing something physical. Exercise in general improves the circulation. Do the washing up in a nice bowl of warm water, using rubber gloves to keep your hands dry. The combination of heat from the water and physical movement will get your hands warm in no time.
It is also important to realise that cold hands can be a result of an overall cold body temperature. If your core, or torso, is warm, blood is readily released to the extremities. When you get cold, blood is kept back for the vital organs and the brain. It’s no good sourcing the perfect gloves for your outdoor gig if you don’t dress appropriately to keep warm, especially when for most concerts you will be sitting fairly still. Layers of clothes trap in body heat and full-length sleeves make a huge difference to the warmth retained in your hands. Try wearing a HeatTech™ vest (available from Uniqlo for both men and women) under your concert outfit for incredible warmth.
The next stage is to find a glove (or ideally a pair of gloves) which allows for the dexterity needed and doesn’t get in the way. Here, Maxim Vengerov gives a moving performance of the Bach Chaconne from the D Minor Partita, at Auschwitz as part of a Holocaust Memorial.
There is snow on the ground, and from about five minutes into the piece, as he moves outside, Vengerov is wearing fingerless gloves to play.
Fingerless gloves or wrist warmers, or in extreme circumstances a combination of the two, are the ultimate solution. Chose a warm material such as wool or cashmere, but make sure the fabric is not too thick. These violin gloves from Etsy are fun, and they’re made of merino wool so they’re probably quite warm, but they’re no good for the platform. Something like these unisex thermal gloves from Sealskinz, which are specifically designed to keep the hands warm whilst allowing for high levels of dexterity would be more suitable. And they’re black.
A simple wrist warmer may be less obtrusive. Orkney Angora do some good ones, but they don’t help much when it’s really cold, whereas these heated “Wristies” look great. These customer reviews on Amazon US are helpful in recommending “Wristies” for violin practice, and the product comes in different sizes with several arm lengths. The longer sleeve will give more warmth, the shorter may be less restrictive.
There is also a wide range of hand warmers on the market, whether reusable, portable gel packs, or microwaveable pads to use at home. These can be a comforting alternative on a cold day.
Avoid anything like these support gloves. These gloves are designed for knitting, and while the idea of a supportive fabric seems appealing, they compress the muscles, hampering freedom in the tendons and ligaments, in the same way that playing in a support bandage does.
If you can’t find any fingerless gloves or mittens that take your fancy, or you feel like exercising your creativity, try knitting your own from one of these free patterns. Not wishing to succumb to stereotypes, these Man Paw gloves are perfect for the violin playing man-who-knits. Or he could get someone to knit them for him for Christmas. These cable knit gloves are warm without being too chunky to play in, and would be smart enough in black for a performance. Some people even find shifting is easier with these sorts of mittens on. These smaller gloves, which have individual fingers, rather than an open mitten-style top, and therefore keep more warmth in round the fingers, are also great for busking and for concerts outdoors or in cold churches. Choose a warm wool or wool blend, something fine enough to make fairly thin gloves, or treat yourself with cashmere.
And if none of those solutions seem creative enough for you, there’s always this violin playing glove puppet.
It’s no good at all for helping your violin practice or performance, but at least it will get a laugh.
Finally, remember that when you perform, your hands will often feel very cold. Circulation in the hands can decrease when we feel nervous. Sometimes it is good to practice with cold hands, just to get used to this feeling; otherwise it’s easy to get obsessed with everything being “just so” for a performance and panicking when it’s not.
Scales are basic patterns of notes, ordered by pitch, most often in ascending then descending order. Each major or minor scale covers all of the notes of the key in which it is played; a chromatic scale contains every semitone within an octave span. There are double-stopped scales in thirds, sixths and octaves, arpeggios, pentatonic scales, scales in harmonics, scales of three, even four octaves, lengthy violin scale systems, intimidating Germanic directories of scales displaying every key, every position and every conceivable bowing. Every piece of music composed between the Baroque and Romantic periods; that’s three hundred years’ worth of repertoire; is made up of scale and arpeggio patterns.
But scales are not music. Unless you are taking an exam you will never be expected to perform them. Who wants to go to a scale recital, after all? It is easy to understand why many of us consider scale practice a chore to be avoided, yet we are encouraged every lesson to spend time practising our scales.
The famous violin virtuoso and teacher Yehudi Menuhin, who made his first public appearance aged just 7, explains in his autobiography, Unfinished Journey, that as a child he considered learning an imposed method of scales, arpeggios and theory a waste of time. He learned instead by doing, acquiring the techniques for each piece as he studied it; wishing only to make music. Menuhin describes the journey he then undertook when, as he got older, determined to maintain his high performance level and also become a great teacher, he began to realise that he had skipped the basics. He had no idea how he did what he did.
To fully understand the way his fingers moved, Menuhin decided to go back, even at the risk of losing the skill he had acquired, and learned every scale there is at every speed. He learned the anatomy of the muscles in his back; he studied yoga; he sought advice from violin teachers, dancers and even gymnasts to understand how his body worked when he played the violin. Menuhin writes, “There is an advantage in establishing the top story of one's constructions first: One has seen the heights; one knows what one is building for and what must be sustained,” but “'Undoubtedly I had lost time in balking at scales and arpeggios.”
The truth is, scale practice is crucial to your violin technique, and, as Menuhin’s detailed explorations show, it doesn’t have to be boring.
Scale practice is repetitive by nature. Scale systems like those by Carl Flesch and Ivan Galamian offer a comprehensive study guide, often with three octave scales using the same fingering in each key. Instructions for study are included, but these can seem unrealistic to a modern student with little time to practice. The best way to practice is therefore to tackle scales with full concentration and musical intent, essentially condensing the fundamentals of music into a daily routine.
The reason scale practice works is because the brain needs repetition to learn. Neurologists have discovered that when a new neural pathway is created, which happens every time you do something new, for example when you play D major scale for the first time, insulating fibres grow around that neural pathway. When the pathway is used repeatedly, the insulating layer increases, embedding the action in your long-term memory. It takes between 30 and 50 perfect repetitions of an action to imbed it in your nervous system where it becomes a habit or skill. When we are emotionally engaged in learning, this process is much more effective. Learning the placing of first and second fingers on the A string with a mediocre tone and little enthusiasm will therefore not produce the same results as engaging fully in the idea of a ringing tone and musical outcome.
Played with full concentration and a musical approach, scales build a consistent practice routine in which you become familiar with the proper spacing of intervals on the instrument. Slow scales can be used as a physical warm up, but above and beyond this initial function, scale practice is invaluable in maintaining and developing every aspect of your violin technique.
Scale practice gives you a chance to acquire a really firm left hand technique. It builds strength, independence and dexterity in the left hand fingers. Co-ordination of left hand and bow hand improve. Touch control and sensitivity of the left hand fingers can be developed within a familiar practice pattern to avoid over-pressing, as can secure knowledge of the fingerboard and perfect intonation, a rhythmic left hand, tidy shifting and shifting with the whole hand. Mastering scales allows the fingers to learn the correct spacing in every position on the violin.
Scale practice can also be used to work on ease of playing, with focus on a relaxed bow arm, different bowing styles, full bows and purity of tone.
Ease of playing decreases risk of injury and stress, and a genuine understanding of how your technique works leads to consistent, secure performances. Familiarity with scales in every key gives a new ease to note reading and improves sight-reading, as well as improving knowledge of key signatures and tonality.
Start slowly, with the metronome, focussing on your sound, purity of pitch and beauty of tone. Enjoy the experience of listening to your own violin. Work out a clear goal or intention for this section of your practice, and engage with the process of full concentration for a short period of time. Use your scale practice mindfully and creatively. Challenge yourself to expand your technique and your understanding of how scales work for you.
So... why play scales? Because they are interesting, musical, challenging and really, really useful!
Finding new music to learn is a huge part of studying the violin, and if you want to expand your music library without spending a fortune there are several ways to find free easy violin sheet music.
During your lessons, your teacher will guide your choice of repertoire and help you progress through different styles and skill levels. However, discovering new music for yourself, even with a teacher’s help, can be an overwhelming task, and buying new music books only to find you don’t like the pieces can be expensive.
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