by Marie Votapka
We’ve all heard that practice makes perfect, but, is that really true if you don’t a.) practice the right things and b.) practice using the right tools?
The answer might surprise you. Practice - IF you’re not practicing correctly - can actually lead to developing bad habits, poor form or shaky technique. So the key is not only to practice, but to practice correctly! And a large part of practicing correctly involves having the right tools and resources to work with. As a violin student this would of course include having a decent instrument and bow (click here for a video on how to go about purchasing a good beginner violin), good rosin, strings and other accessories, etc.
But let’s start with talking about the good old musical education basics that apply to pretty much any instrument out there, and not just the violin:
Why talk about these things? Because they’re a key part of your practicing for success. Have you ever heard an out of tune violin? Or an out of tune piano? Or an out of tune trombone? Or an out of tune anything? Doesn’t sound good, does it? It doesn’t matter who’s playing it. You could practice all day and night until the cows come home without making an out of tune instrument sound any better. Trust me, in my early learning days before I knew how to tune, I tried.
It can get really frustrating playing something over and over again and yet each time something just doesn’t sound quite right and you can’t figure out why. This would be the time to check your tuning. Although, sometimes that's easier said than done.
If you’re just starting out and you don’t have any previous musical background, how are you supposed to know what’s “in tune” and what’s “out of tune”? The answer is a device you probably know about, called a “tuner”. Now, there are a lot of different kinds of tuners out there and a lot of different things that could be said about them, but we won’t really get into all that here. Some are helpful, some are confusing, but the gist of it is, a tuner should be used as a guide to help you find the correct pitch. As a teacher, I steer clear of having students become completely dependent on their tuner during practice, as it’s very important to develop a good ear and an ability to recognize the notes by sound, but along the way having a tool to help you develop this sense is a crucial part of your progress.
A great online resource is tuner.ninja. It’s simple, straightforward and easy to access right on your computer. Click on the link provided, or literally just type in “tuner.ninja” to your browser and it pops right up. The virtual wheel and green arrow gives you a visual on exactly what note you’re playing, and allows you to see how far above or below you are from the right now (if the pitch you’re playing is not what you wanted). Check it out, it just might give your practice sessions a little boost or streamline the tuning process for you.
Another great reference tool is actually a virtual piano, believe it or not. Yes, even for violin students. It gives you a quick way to hear what different notes sound like for comparison’s sake whenever you need, and it’s just another backup way to verify your tuning as well. A good one can be found right here, at musicca.com. There are tons of options, but I decided on this one because it labels each key for you so you know what exact note you’re hearing.
Our second favorite piano pick is at apronus.com. I may look confusing at first, but if you're interested in hearing chords on the piano, simply click on any of the piano keys in the lower section to hear chords (triads, specifically) and major and minor scales. It's educational and fun!
If you want to shop around for something similar, just google “virtual piano” and you’ll find plenty of other options.
Next, the metronome. Our dear friend. Or your worst nightmare, depending on how you feel about it. It’s not uncommon for some students to dislike sticking to the confines of a steady beat or click (or whatever sound your metronome makes), but the truth is, it’s good for you. It’s like eating your vegetables or taking your vitamins - it is simply very healthy for your playing to maintain a good sense of rhythm and working on this skill early on will do you wonders in your future playing.
The metronome has proved its usefulness for musicians since its invention in the 1800s, and despite having gone through many technological evolutions in terms of design and style, the concept remains the same. It keeps an even, unwavering beat so you don’t play too fast or too slow. Which might sound simple, but to keep an even pace while ALSO trying to keep the bow straight, hold the instrument correctly, move your left hand fingers in coordination with your right hand, read the music, play the right notes...it’s a lot to think about. Having a metronome going in the background while you practice can actually be a godsend, like a steady heartbeat, helping you to stay the course while playing when things get a little tough. For easy access to a nice simple option, just google “metronome” or click here.
All in all, there are a lot of elements that make your practice time successful. But just remember...the most important element is you. Without you, the music won’t happen!
Don’t give up, keep playing and enjoy yourself. Sometimes it’s hard, but remember not to compare yourself to others. Each and every student is their own person, on their own schedule, on their own musical journey. Music does not exist to cause you stress, but rather to give you an outlet to express yourself and share with others. To quote Sir Malcolm Arnold (a great English composer), “Music is the social act of communication among people, a gesture of friendship, the strongest there is.”
So, keep making music and do what you love! Happy practicing everyone.
Violin Teacher, NYC Violin Studio
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