Looking Ahead and Preparing for Your Next Step

As you begin to advance through the ranks of the local Youth Symphony, you will realize the hard work is beginning to pay off! Now is the time to begin planning for your continuing and enhanced advancement, to explore the upcoming adjudications/competitions during the school year, and note the timetables for applying to selective summer festivals!

Most adjudications/competitions have entry deadlines of January/February, but these deadlines vary from competition to competition and from year to year. Discuss with your private teacher which would be most appropriate.

Music camps and festivals most often have early deadlines (January) as well. These often involve submitting prepared repertoire, usually with piano accompaniment. The key to applying to great festivals on time is to plan ahead! Start now to select two or three camps/festivals, find out the repertoire requirements, and get the music learned and rehearsed early. Then the recording process can take place in late December, to ensure all deadlines are met. Most festivals are very selective of their applicants, so prepare well.

The classic music camp for which to apply is Interlochen Center for the Arts, located in Interlochen, Michigan. Interlochen has many areas of focus to choose from: orchestral and chamber music are most popular. Green Mountain Chamber Music Festival, in Burlington Vermont, is terrific, also, and specializes in solo/chamber music. Indiana University String Academy, in Bloomington, Indiana, is great as well, for more solo/technique training.

Music camps and festivals can give you a great boost over the summer and also will look nice on a high school transcript! They are also great opportunities to meet with faculty you may like to try studying with in college!

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The Importance of a Loose Thumb in Spiccato

Spiccato is the most fun of all bowings to use on a string instrument. It is also the most difficult to learn. This bowing incorporates looseness and grace, and most of these elements need to occur in the bow hand.

Be sure the student has no issues with their bow hand before spiccato is taught. Issues such as a stiff thumb can derail any attempts to make spiccato happen properly, resulting in a spiccato generated and controlled by the shoulder, which is difficult to sustain for more than a measure and will be unsteady as well. Long full bows with scales, watching loose thumb movement as bow approaches frog, are essential. Have the student notice the connection between a stiff thumb and a stiff wrist—with the reverse connection between a loose thumb and a loose wrist.

Once a loose thumb is established, find the balance point, or slightly higher, on the bow, and let student drop/bounce bow from about 4” above string, repeatedly on all four strings, at quarter = 60, each note as a quarter note. Have student notice the slight scooping motion with about an inch of bow contact on string. If thumb is still loose, go twice as fast, with even less contact, and even closer drop/bounce to the string. Repeat the process again, in sixteenth notes, if thumb stays loose.

Learning spiccato can take time. Assign weekly open string exercises until spiccato seems easy and effortless, then try with Schradieck and scales, then later with etudes and pieces. I tell my students that once they do learn spiccato, it will be like riding a bike—they will always remember how to do it.

Combining “Pair Fingering” with Finger Pattern no. 3

As a follow-up to the discussion of finger patterns, when using Finger Pattern no. 3 (finger spacing of 1-2-34), try the technique of “pair fingering” when playing a descending passage. Simply place finger tips of 4 and 3 together in the air before the 4 lands on the string: “high 3” will be more in tune, and 4th finger will be more curved.

When a student begins to learn third position, discussing Finger Pattern no. 3 and “pair fingering” together is very helpful for achieving good intonation. The left hand will have a better sense of where fingers are placed when using these two techniques. As a first shifting book, I like to use Whistler’s Introducing the Positions, book 1: chapters are arranged by key signatures, with many short etude excerpts followed by many repetitive, back-and-forth shifting drills.

Always remember to discuss in any scale, etude, exercise or piece, which Finger Pattern is used on each string. This strategy will eventually become automatic and will improve speed of sight-reading and pace of learning new repertoire.

The Importance of Finger Patterns

Learning to identify and consistently use finger patterns is essential to good intonation and better sight reading, especially in higher positions. I classify finger patterns into four main groups, with the dashes indicating whole steps: 1-23-4, 12-3-4, 1-2-34 and 1-2-3-4. The first group I simply call Finger Pattern #1 (the first finger pattern the student had learned); Finger Pattern #2 uses “low” second finger; Finger Pattern #3 uses “high” third finger; Finger Pattern #4 is simply all whole steps.

When my students are first introduced to “low” second fingering their pieces, (Finger Pattern #2), we begin discussing which finger pattern is used in each piece, per each key signature.

These Patterns become really useful when the student begins to play in 3rd position. For example, if a violinist plays 3rd position in the key of C major, have the student decide the Finger Pattern occurs on G and D string: they will correctly choose #3; on A and D string, they will correctly choose pattern #1. Any subsequent etude, piece or sight reading in 3rd position, C major, will be much easier to learn and play by simply having the fingers fall into the correct Finger Pattern. In addition, the student will now have music theory introduced, and learn to think about their piece in terms of its key signature.

You will see the value of this approach in 4th position and above!

Motivating Students to Practice

The first lessons of the new school year have come and gone. Students arrive rested from summer break, excited and ready for the new challenges ahead. But soon, the spark and excitement seem to fade away. How can we keep the student eager, motivated and prepared for lessons?

Try maintaining a practice list of 4 items: scales, an etude and two contrasting pieces. Have the student bring a composition notebook for each lesson to serve as a journal. You may write short and specific notes for each weekly journal entry regarding roughly how long to work on each piece per day, as well as pointers for each item. For example, the scale item will specify metronome tempo, name of scale/s, bowing/s to practice. For the etude, specify metronome tempo and rhythmic/intonation issues. For each solo piece, specify a goal speed for the end of the practice week and certain measures to isolate in practice.

If a student is in a school orchestra or youth symphony program, add that music to the list as item 5. If a student has a particularly busy schedule, have the orchestra music take the place of the etude until orchestra music has been learned. I recommend a practice list that contains no more than five items. This organized practice structure will really help keep the student on task and continue to improve.

Why practice scales?

Scales form the foundation of all written music; likewise, scales for a string player can form the basis for all technique. I find teachers and students often neglect work on basic tone production, or, right hand/arm technique.

With scale practice, the student should quickly learn the left hand pattern and move most of the focus to the bow technique.

Learning precise bow divisions can be taught with a simple whole bow for one whole note pitch, followed by the next two pitches as half notes, using a half bow each. This precise dividing of the bow gives the player a sense of the actual length of the bow. Many variations on this bowing can be used. For example, every pitch can be a quarter note, and the first two could be slurred starting at the frog, to form a whole bow, followed by two separate half bows at the tip/upper half; the next 2-slur whole bow begins at tip, going to the frog, for two half bows at the lower half, and so on until the end of the scale. A more advanced bowing is in ¾ time, using groups of half and quarter notes: the half note is one pitch, using a whole bow, and the next pitch is a quarter note, also using a whole bow. The student should use a metronome speed of quarter = 80, and try to not accent the quarter note with its faster bow speed. Also, the advanced player may use the Galamian scale book accelerando format for bowing groups of notes, in slurs, as well as separate detache and spiccato notes, in one dynamic only (forte, mf, piano) as well as with a gradual crescendo/decrescendo.

A mirror should be used in this type of practice, to keep watch of the bow’s more parallel movement in relation to the bridge, as well as to watch change in sounding point moving from mid-point on the string, to a closer point near the bridge when playing in a high position and/or louder dynamic. For the beginning/intermediate student, mirror practice can also be used to watch bow hand and bent bow thumb/pinkie while in lower half of the bow.

Always remember our left hand technique depends on producing a good tone!

“Absolute Minimum” Practice Plan for Busy Students

From time to time, we will all see our students become seemingly too busy to practice, due to homework deadlines, sports or other activities. It is really important that the student knows that some practice daily is much better than no practice, and that there is always a 15-minute space they can carve into their schedule to fit in this minimum time.

The best item to always practice—no matter what—is a simple scale. Allow 3 minutes for a scale, to be played in whole bows, listening for intonation/tone and watching the precision of the whole bow on one sounding point on the string. If the student has vibrato technique, play the scale one time no vibrato, then repeat with vibrato.

Spend the next 3 quality minutes on a left hand articulation exercise such as Schradieck. Play four slurred at quarter = 50, listening to the clear and strong articulation of all fingers, especially the curved fourth finger.

Next, play 4 minutes of arpeggios, in single whole bows, 2 and also 3 slurred, watching fingers walk across the string to anticipate each new note, and if shifting, to focus on perfect intonation with correct and relaxed shifting technique.

The remaining 5 minutes can be spend on one tricky spot the student has in one of their pieces, playing slowly without slurs, if any, gradually speeding up tempo and adding slurs.

It has been my experience that these mere 15 minutes quickly expands to 30: this is certainly better than the zero minutes student may have anticipated!

Mapping Musical Phrase Structures

The intellectual concepts of artistic musical phrasing can be difficult at times, to express and teach to a younger player. However, using a colorful and visual mapping approach can clarify phrase structure and help a student learn dynamic shaping. Have plenty of blank paper handy, and colored pencils, too. Begin the exercise by drawing a straight line across the sheet of paper, and then demonstrate by playing a completely static phrase with no phrase movement. Then draw a line similar to the ups and downs of a mountain range, describing to the student that music is very often up and down like the drawing of a mountain range. Next, ask the student sing a sample phrase from their music, and then draw a sloping line either up or down to indicate whether the notes should become louder or softer. Over time, this exercise will facilitate thinking about phrases visually and aurally, and will promote more artistic playing.

Dynamics

Many aspects of learning to play a string instrument rely on experimentation and common sense. A perfect example concerns the use of dynamics. Students will wonder why the simple increase or decrease in bow pressure (traction) does not produce the change in dynamic, as one might think it should. Although traction changes do help, the answer also lies in the combination of the bow’s sounding point and a change in bow speed, in addition to changes in vertical traction.

Try this simple experiment: keeping the same bow pressure for the following, play eight open D  string quarter notes at the edge of the fingerboard. Next, play the same eight notes on the string half-way between the fingerboard and bridge; and finally, the same notes next to the bridge. The student will notice immediately the looseness of the string by the fingerboard, and the tightness next the the bridge. The student can then experiment with which of these three sounding points on the string works best with fast bow speed, and conversely, slow bow speed. As the student will correctly guess, the looser part of the string nearer the fingerboard works best with fast bow speed; the tighter part near the bridge with slower bow speed. Students will very quickly adjust and increase the amount of traction next to the bridge, and keep the bow feeling lighter near the fingerboard.

Using scales to practice the above exercises is a great way to teach the bow arm to maintain a constant position on the chosen sounding point, and watching bow in front of a mirror can be really helpful. As this type of dynamic practice becomes more automatic, the student will use the elements of sounding point/bow speed/traction for the chosen dynamics more often.