To write a blog post describing how I practice my violin technique on a day-to-day basis feels somewhat akin to that common teenagers’ nightmare, where one, suddenly and for no apparent reason, finds themselves stripped down to their underwear in front of their high school cafeteria. The truth is that an open and honest conversation about technique practice amongst musicians, and even more so between musicians and the general public, is a pretty rare thing; we love talking about our exciting concerts and projects, not so much about our scales! During student years, technique is generally a private matter between a teacher and their student and I am sure you would be hard-pressed to find a professional musician who will freely admit to what they have to do to stay technically fit on their instruments.
Why is this?! Perhaps we, as musicians, secretly enjoy that the only image the public has of us is when we are at our absolute best – on stage, in performance. Nobody has to see the daily slog, the painful 3rds and octaves exercises, endless scales and studies that drone on and on. In a live performance, musicians can hide all of that work behind their music and make what they are doing look effortless… which seems wonderful, but it is only a tiny fraction of the whole story.
I think it’s time to let the cat out of the bag. Playing an instrument is SO difficult – it simply cannot be done without learning a good technique and, even more importantly as you get older, maintaining and looking after that technique! In this blog post, I am daring to expose myself and put out there what I do every day to keep my technique in shape. I will set out my technique practice routine in the order that I do it, which is also my personal order of priority, according to how much time I have on any particular day. I hope you might find it interesting, or that it may give you some ideas, and I also hope it will be a useful post for me to look back on, on those days where I don’t feel motivated to practice. I also wanted to state that this routine is true as of now, this present moment, July 2018, and it does change up often, so perhaps I will make this post into a series and update it as it changes!
One last thing to mention before I dive in, is that I was about 13 years old when I really discovered scales and all the potential ways to practice them; as a teenager I spent about two hours a day practising scales, playing them in different rhythms, bowings, dynamics, tempi, double stops. I actually enjoyed the structure and nitty-grittiness of this kind of practice and I have to say that the work I did on scales back then has saved my ass SO MANY times – in situations where I am sight-reading, where I have to learn a piece really quickly and just in general daily intonation practice. So, if you have any doubts as to how worthwhile technique practice is, I can assure you, it is. And the sooner you start, the better.
Step 1 – Warm up. Every day, come rain or shine. Approx. 12 minutes
- At the beginning of my practice, after tuning, I play a simple chromatic exercise, which I think originally came from a Ševčík exercise book, but I’ve been doing it for so long now that I can’t even remember. It’s basically just a short series of chromatic scales, starting with 5 note scales, then octave scales, and finally two-octaves (in one bow) from bottom G up to C (extended 4th on E string). I use this exercise to warm up my fingers and get them used to the feeling of the strings at the start of every new day. I might also do this exercise when warming up for a concert, or re-warming up for an afternoon rehearsal, especially if my hands are cold.
- Next, I will play a slow scale (usually it’s just a 4 octave G major scale), one note per bow. This exercise isn’t really for the left hand, but instead so I can concentrate on the feeling in my right arm, feeling the weight of it going into the string and using gravity to draw out the sound from the instrument. I will also think about my bow changes and string crossings, focusing on making them as smooth as possible. After repeating this maybe three or even four times, I will turn one note per bow into four, and then eight, sixteen, and lastly all the way up and all the way down, getting faster and faster. I will repeat until I feel comfortable.
These two small exercises take about 12 minutes to complete. On days where I don’t have much time to practice, I will stop here and go straight into practising pieces. This is also my typical private warm up before an orchestral or ensemble rehearsal, where I am able to arrive a few minutes early and prepare myself privately.
Step 2 – Flesch. Brace yourself. Approx. 55-60 minutes (split between two days)
Alright, now comes some real nasty technique stuff. I like the Flesch system, although I am not absolutely devoted – I will sometimes change up fingerings and bowings as I need to, or jump around between exercises if I feel like it. Basically, each day I will pick a new key (or continue from the previous day if I didn’t manage to complete a whole set) and just dive in.
- First come the one string, one-octave scales and arpeggios
- Followed by the full three-octave scale and arpeggios.
These take me about 10 minutes, so this is another potential place for me to stop if I have run out of time. I do these regularly, basically every day.
- Next come the scales in thirds and 6ths.
I usually do thirds and 6ths together, and they take me about 15-20 minutes (variable..!) and, again, this is another place to stop and move on. I probably get to these about 5-6 days a week, and usually I stop here and complete the whole set the following day.
- Up next are the scales in octaves, regular and fingered.
Altogether, the octaves take about 15 minutes – I try not to spend too long on fingered octaves because it gets painful and isn’t good to do too much of. To be totally honest, I usually HAVE to stop here, even if I have started with the octaves on a new day!
- If I can manage it, I’ll add on 10ths.
- I can’t lie, I pretty much always leave out the harmonics and double stop harmonics… I know, it’s bad. I’ll work on implementing them more often.
10ths and harmonics together would probably take about 15 minutes. Then, DONE.
Step 3 – An enjoyable etude. Approx. 30 mins.
For the last part of my daily technique practice, I will choose an etude to work on. I try to pick etudes that are related to the repertoire I am playing, or a specific technical issue I want to improve. For example, when I was working on Kreutzer Sonata recently, I had trouble with the opening chords, so I chose etudes like Kreutzer No. 37 (I know, ironic that I chose an etude by the violinist for whom the Sonata I was working on was written!), and Dont No. 9. Generally, I love the Kreutzer etudes, the Rhode, Dont and to keep things interesting I switch up between these, or if I find a new unique exercise that I want to try out, or one gets recommended to me, I will add it into my practice at this point.
- Practice etude slow and intentionally.
- Focus on the technical issue at hand.
- Finish by playing it like a beautiful piece of music.
I can spend about 30 mins per day on an etude, or more if it’s a new one and I am enjoying it! I would say, I get around to step 3 on about 5 days in a week of typical practice, but this is totally dependable on my schedule, if I am doing an orchestral project etc.
And that is usually where I leave it. I probably spend about an hour and a quarter in total on my technique practice each day, and this feels about right according to the rest of my practice. So, now I would LOVE to hear from you. How do you structure your technique practice?? Are there any particular exercises or systems that you swear by? Please let me know!