Welcome to my site, about all things violin and viola. Here you will find interesting tips and pointers, and thoughts about playing these beautiful instruments.

28 May 2024

Marbles in a Jar - practice technique

I remember many years ago reading a biography about a famous violin player who talked about this method for preparing solidly for performance. I remember the method so clearly, but have unfortunately forgotten the violinist to attribute this to. It requires a jar, and 10 marbles.

Choosing a particular section to work on (chunking) – he would focus on this part to play through. If he got the section completely correct, one marble would go in the jar. If he got the section completely correct again, another marble would go in the jar… then another. If he played the section and made even a small mistake, ALL the marbles would be taken out of the jar and he would start again from zero. The aim was to get 10 marbles in the jar.

A few very important things to keep in mind if trying this method:

1. Make sure the chunk you have chosen and speed you are playing at is one where you can manage to play perfectly without it being too difficult (or you will end up wanting to throw your violin out the window in frustration!). Set yourself up to work and concentrate hard, but succeed in the end!

2. I recommend starting out with 5 marbles in a jar.

3. You have to be very honest with yourself here… don’t let yourself get away with that mistake!

4. I love to use this method with my students… but with small chocolates instead of marbles. If they get to 5 chocolates in the jar, they get to choose which one they would like to have at the end. It’s amazing how a little extra motivation like this can focus the mind and make a previously unplayable section very carefully practised in!

14 May 2024

Snow Lion - Tibetan singing and dranyen with strings

 And now for more music inspiration I hope you will enjoy - mixing of chamber string orchestra with traditional Tibetan music.

Here is the wonderful Tibetan musician Tenzin Choegyal playing the dranyen and singing, with Camerata - Queensland's Chamber Orchestra.  The piece is called Snow Lion, and was arranged for the ensemble by cellist Katherine Philp.

This album Yeshi Dolma was a delight to get to work on, and I hope you enjoy Tenzin's incredible voice.

6 May 2024

How to practice perfectly

Only perfect practice makes perfect... this is a big deal.  What this means is that when practising, you only ever want to let yourself play anything as you would like to perform it.  That way you are only ever programming in to your brain and body, the perfect result you want to get out.

But how can you practice something perfectly when you can't play it yet?!  Working out this puzzle is the key to practice!

Of course an important part of this puzzle is to first choose your music carefully - enough of a challenge to stretch you, but not so hard that you cannot technically master it.  Beyond this, I have two favourite practice techniques in my toolbox that I always recommend:

1.  Chunking - isolating out one small section to work on, perhaps so small it is only a couple of notes.

2.  Practice slowly (and I mean really slowly... seriously, much more slowly than you are probably thinking right now!).

If you make a problem section small enough, and slow enough, you should be able to master it with all the physical co-ordination requirements clearly ordered.  Then it is just a matter of a few perfect repetitions of this section to 'programme it in'.  Repeat this over a few days and you should see clear progression.

You can then use a method such as 'marbles in a jar' (explained in a later post) to effectively and perfectly practice this section, particularly if you want to be extra secure for performance.

When I was a student, I had a sticky note on my music stand clearly prominent with the words - Practice makes PERMANENT!  It was a very helpful reminder to me during those years, and I think an important thing to always keep in mind whenever you pick up your instrument (or do anything in life).

1 May 2024

Practice makes perfect

Practice makes perfect - such a common saying particularly in the world of learning music.  Sadly this saying is only half true.

Practice makes permanent!  Only perfect practice makes perfect

This should be the actual saying, and it is a very important distinction.  Whatever you practice will become permanent, and this is so important to think about when playing your instrument.  If you let yourself get away with bad habits, they will become permanent (or at least very hard to fix!).

The trick to getting better is not the amount of time spent practising, but rather regular intentional and careful time with your instrument.  Always be aware of what you are training your brain and body to do while playing, and whether or not that is actually what you want to become your permanent habit.

Practising while keeping this in mind is so much more tiring, and requires careful and constant attention to detail.  You will probably find you cannot practise for as long when you start focusing like this at all times.  My top tip for helping focus while practising - dark chocolate 85% and up!

29 Apr 2024

Chill Monday morning string vibes

Looking back on past perfomances this cold Monday morning, I thought I might link to a video I performed in from a few years ago to ease in to the coming week.

Here is a gorgeous composition by composer Erik Griswold (playing the prepared piano) with the wonderful musicians from Camerata - Queensland's Chamber Orchestra.  It is from a larger work called Hollows out of Time, and this movement is called Drifting Clouds.

16 Apr 2013

An introduction to scales

A scale is just a pattern - a pattern of steps (or intervals) from one note such as C to it's octave, another C.  Once you know the pattern of intervals, you can start the scale from any note and create the same sounding melody line.

The main scales we have in western classical music are the major, minor (harmonic and melodic), chromatic and whole tone scale.

To talk about scales more easily, it will help to discuss terminology a little.  Lets start by having a look at the major scale (in the key of C major).

C major scale has no sharps or flats, which looking at a piano keyboard means that it is all the white notes from C to C.

It can help to think of each note as being a degree of a scale e.g. I - tonic, V - dominant etc.  The tonic is the most important and stable degree of the scale.

An octave refers to the 8 (oct) step interval from one tonic to the next - C D E F G A B C.  Scales on violin and viola will tend to span 1, 2 or 3 octaves, raising and falling back to the first tonic played.

In following posts, we will look more closely at the details of the different scales.

19 Mar 2013

How many hours a day should you practice?

I came across this article today, which is an excellent discussion on how much (and more importantly how to effectively) practice.

... a really good (and quick) read on how to focus your time and mental energy to get the best out of your practice - even when you don't have time for much.

The Bullet Proof Musician - How Many Hours to Practice

More isn't always better!  It's all about the quality of your work.

20 Feb 2013

Game of Thrones sheet music

If you're a fan of the TV show Game of Thrones, and can't wait for season 3 - then here's an arrangement of the theme song for violin (to tide you over).

I've transposed the melody from C minor to D minor (which makes it a little easier to play), and arranged things a little more compactly for one instrument.

Click here for the full Game of Thrones sheet music for violin.  I have also transposed the music for all the violists out there.

Here are the opening titles on YouTube, if you would like to hear the original version.

If you like it, or have other tunes you would like to play... let me know in the comments.

19 Feb 2013

Ringing tones and intonation

When playing a string instrument, it is very important to always strive for perfect intonation (playing in tune)! Not only does this make the melody sound correct, but over time it 'opens up' your instrument and causes it to vibrate freely producing a more warm and ringing tone.

Sometimes, however, it can be hard to even hear  what is actually in tune, let alone consistently reproduce this.  This can be particularly difficult as a beginner, when you aren't actually sure what you are listening for.

To help this, start by listening to (and training yourself to listen out for) ringing tones.  Ringing tones are particular notes on your instrument, that when in tune cause your open strings to resonate at the same time, creating a richer, warmer and brighter sound.

To start with, it is important that your violin is properly tuned.  When working on intonation, always be careful with your bow contact to ensure you are creating a consistent and even tone, vibrating the string fully.

Now try playing your open strings, and compare the sound to stopped notes (notes created by pressing your fingers on the string).  Notice how the open strings sound, and ring in a brighter and fuller way than stopped notes.  When working on our intonation, we are trying to get our stopped notes to ring as much like our open strings as possible.  The more sensitive you are to the ringing quality of a note, the more your intonation will improve.

Try this experiment (which I think is pretty cool).  Play your 1st finger A on the G string.  If you get this note perfectly in tune (with good bow contact)  it will cause your open A string to start vibrating wildly due to sympathetic resonance.  This means that the resonance of your open A string to be added to the sound of your stopped 1st finger on the G string, creating a warmer, richer tone.  Try playing this note out of tune, then in tune, and compare the different type of sound produced (and the amount of time the note rings after you have stopped playing).  An in tune ringing tone will ring for longer after you have stopped playing than an out of tune note.

There are many ringing tones on your instrument - though some ring more clearly than others.  The main ringing tones are the same note as your open strings (over different octaves).

Therefore with the violin strings of G, D, A, E we have the following very clear ringing tones:
1. 1st finger on G and D string (ringing with open A and E string)
2. 3rd finger on D, A and E string (ringing with the open string below)
3. 4th finger on G, D and A string (ringing with the open string above) - be careful here that you are not touching the string above as this will stop it vibrating.

Try playing these ringing tones, and see if you can start to hear clearly when the notes are perfectly in tune and ringing, compared to when they are out of tune and slightly 'duller'.

As your ear develops, you will start to notice the different ringing qualities of all the notes on your instrument, and this will help you to play beautifully in tune all the time.

18 Feb 2013

Overtones & Harmonics

Have you ever thought about why different instruments sound different, even when playing the same note in the same register?  How can you instantly tell a clarinet from a cello, or even two different violins apart?

The different timbres (tone colours) of different types of instruments (and even between different violins) are due to the different ways the note is produced, and therefore the different ratios of harmonics and overtones created.

But what are harmonics and overtones?

Whenever a note is produced on an instrument, what we hear is one fundamental  tone (for example an C).  What we don't hear clearly, is that there are many other tones above the fundamental - ringing at the same time.  All these tones are called overtones.  The different strengths of each overtone created by an instrument produces the particular timbre that we hear .

String instruments are built in a particular way, so as to create particular types of overtones.  The overtones in violins and violas are notes in harmony with the fundamental tone, and are therefore known particularly as harmonics.  These harmonics create the rich beautiful tone that is so lovely to listen to.

Here is the harmonic series showing the fundamental tone as 1 (low C in bass clef), and following harmonics in order.

As you can see from this, the first harmonic in the series is the octave (C no 2), followed by the fifth (G no 3) etc...

Within the first 4 tones of the harmonic series, you also find the intervals of an octave (C-C), a perfect fifth (C-G) and a perfect fourth (G-C), the 3 most perfectly harmonious intervals in music.