On Practice

Like any physical movement, violin playing needs to be learned. Its motion is not naturally acquired, as it requires fine motor skills. However, it does not depend on the physical movement alone. Like writing, drawing or painting, it is important to possess the imagination. Specifically, musical imagination. It drives the body to move according to what the music requires. Additionally, creative impulses must be tempered with logic and awareness. Some music needs to be read and rendered as written, some music requires understanding of its style, and then there is music that needs comprehension of its theoretical aspects. In general, music needs sensitivity towards rhythm, pitch and tone. Like a child learning their mother tongue, the skill is honed over time through environmental stimulation and practice.

One of the most challenging aspects of violin playing is pitch. Violinists must be familiar with the concept of pitch and intervals. Unlike with a guitar or piano, there are no markings or guides to indicate the exact location of the pitch. Violinists must train their ears to differentiate between the right and wrong pitches from the beginning, because it is impossible to progress being tone deaf. The ability to intonate, i.e. predicting where the next pitch should be placed, must be developed extensively. Though violin playing can be physically stimulating, pitch must always be practiced at a slow tempo because accuracy is more important than speed. Nobody is impressed when the violin is played in tune, but everybody will notice when it is out of tune. It is always good to listen to recordings as many times as possible when a piece is being studied. It is also a privilege to have accompaniment while learning or practising – a backing track should be an alternative if there is no live accompaniment. This is to reinforce the concept of harmony and cadence, besides building the ability to jam with other musicians.

Many violinists spend so much time on techniques, to the point where the music is neglected. Techniques are there for only one reason: to serve the music. It is important to realise the type of sound one desires, as a great artist is limited by their imagination, not their tools. Nevertheless, good techniques must be cultivated for the sake of movement efficiency and to facilitate playing. Violin playing can be a complex, frustrating exercise. It is easy to develop bad habits, but difficult to eradicate them. Poor techniques impede progress and prevents one from mastering the instrument. When practising, it is important for violinists to be aware of tension, as all problems start from there. Violinists must know how to achieve comfort in playing without sacrificing sound quality. Some pains are temporary as muscles and joints need time to adjust to new movements. However, if the pain does not go away after several sessions of practice, it is time to consult an expert.

On top of the already-complex violin playing, reading music is another sport to tackle. Translating musical symbols in order to render them physically in real time, and to adjust the sound output accordingly, is a serious skill. This cannot be acquired overnight or passively – the violinist must be actively obsessed about it. In practice sessions, learners must figure out patterns such as scales, chords, harmony, cadence, phrasing, articulation, dynamics, etc. as elements that make up the musical universe. Each element needs thorough understanding. Exposure to different musical periods, styles, recordings and performances can reinforce the understanding of these patterns. Along the way, it is hoped that violinists can see the sound beyond whatever is written on the sheet music, as the symbols are just there to encode musical ideas. The music comes from the player.

Still, having good ears, techniques and comprehension of music does not make a musician. In fact, it is about sustained focus and discipline. Since the skills are acquired over time, practice is all about consistency. Once committed to music, there is no turning back. There is no reward for playing music badly. How can you entertain others when you know your playing is terrible? Practice is about doing what you believe in – things that give you identity, and how it makes you feel. It is an image you want to portray to others. The thing you are looking forward to doing every day. And having the desire to keep doing it relentlessly is where the practice begins. It no longer becomes an act of doing, but of being.

In summary, practice is about acquiring and reinforcing new skills, finding comfort in challenging moments, and gaining deeper understanding about the subject. It is a journey towards the state of perfection. After all, practice makes perfect.

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