The Mental Side of Violin Playing

Technique is conception.

-Zvi Zeitlin

As we begin a new year of practicing, let’s consider the mental side of violin playing.  The concepts we hold in mind can be an important guide for sound, phrasing, musical style and other aspects of playing.  Technique should always serve the musical concept.  In many cases, starting with a musical concept can propel us over a technical hurdle.

Think about your last practice session.  Did you focus mainly on the technical issues of the bow and the left hand?  Did a difficult passage remain illusive, even after many repetitions and problem solving attempts?  Put the violin down and hear the sound you want to create in your mind.  Imagine the physical feeling of playing well.  Think of a few words or images that capture the character of the music.  See if the power of your concept makes the bow and fingers automatically fall into place.

For the youngest Suzuki student words like “soft”, “squishy” and “springy” immediately create a good mental image for the bow hold. For the left hand, “spaghetti fingers” and “holding an imaginary ball” are good images. Hearing the string ring “like a bell” and using syllables like “Tuck-a-Tuck-a Tuck-a” and “Toh, Toh, Toh” can help build a mental image of tone production.

The opening phrase of Dvorak’s Humoresque in Suzuki Violin Book 3 provides a specific example of the way concept can improve technical control.  Challenges in this phrase include the “snapped” rhythm (cheating the rest can accidentally turn the rhythm into a triplet) and “zig-zag” bowing which can lead to an undesirably heavy sound.  A word like “sneaky” might help with the rhythm, while playing the last note before each rest “like a feather” could guide the wrist and bow hand to lighten up the sound.

Violinist and teacher Simon Fischer has written an interesting article about Mental Rehearsal which highlights the importance of visualization in violin playing.  Visualization is also central to the work of Don Greene and others who help professional musicians overcome performance anxiety.

Another important component of mental practicing involves attending concerts, listening to recordings and studying the score. If you’re learning a concerto it’s essential that you know the orchestra part as well as the solo part and how the two interact.

As you practice in the new year, remember that it’s important to use time efficiently.  Make a commitment to thoughtful practice and allow musical concepts to be your guide.

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2 Responses to The Mental Side of Violin Playing

  1. Kim Foster Wallace January 7, 2013 at 1:33 pm #

    Great post! I find that listening to our mental chatter while practicing is essential to progress. When you tune into what your mind is saying to you, especially as we judge ourselves and our technique and ability, we can easily slip down the slope into a fixed mindset about a certain passage and ‘give up’. We can dispute these thoughts by looking for evidence. Try using the tag line ‘that’s not true because…’ Whenever you notice a thought that is negative in tone, and dispute your negative mental chatter. This is effective for any student at any age. An example would be, you are practicing the Bartok viola concerto, and get to the arpeggios in the first movement, page 5. You just can’t seem to play them clearly and cleanly. As much as you try during your practice, they just don’t seem to improve. Your mind starts saying things like, ‘I will never be able to play this.’ Disputing would look like ‘ That’s not true because when I was learning the Stamitz concerto I had a difficult time with the arpeggios of the first movement, and I was able to master that through my commitment daily to working the passage through, and I eventually achieved my goal.’ This work comes from positive psychology, a new field that I am working in and using to help musicians work on issues in peak performance. Looking forward to more of your posts!

  2. rose lander January 8, 2013 at 9:37 am #

    Dear Mr. Judd,
    I enjoyed your article very much. I think you would love Green’s Inner Game of Music. It is filled with great ideas. By the way, Ms. Jempeles taught at one of my workshops, and she was great! “Fix Feet First!” And I had the pleasure of hearing another of your former teachers, Krysa at Niagara On The Lake, and he was sensational.
    Good luck, and many thanks,
    Rose Lander

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