How do you make a violin sound great?  Throw it in the trash and buy a piano! Practice tips from CMC faculty member Heidi Kim

Heidi Kim (left) teaches violin at the Mission and Richmond District Branches. She is also a coach for Chamber Music Camp.

From the series: Practice Tips from Community Music Center Faculty

By: Heidi Kim, violin faculty member

Some days more than others I want to throw my violin (or bow) against the wall, neither of which I recommend doing. (If you’re looking to vent, I would actually suggest throwing stuffed animals or pillows at a wall.) Because the truth is: the practicing never stops— EVER, even once you’ve turned professional. Talent can only get one so far. But if you’re looking for a Lizst of practice tips to give you a Händel on your practice situation, you’ve come to the right place. 


Tip 1: Bullet Time

There never seem to be enough hours in the day, regardless of whether you are a young student or working professional. And then you have that one violin teacher who is asking their students to practice themselves into a black hole … But you know what? Like anything else, it all boils down to prioritization. What do you make the time for? What is most important to you? What is it exactly that you care about? Growing up, it was a nonnegotiable to practice five hours a day. But many of us don’t have that kind of time, and to be frank, studies show that after you hit the two-hour mark, your level of concentration starts to wane anyway, which means you’ll be mindlessly practicing. Who wants to be in the practice room all-day anyway? I purposely do not put a clock in my room anymore because I realized that when I was practicing, my eyes would gradually start to wander away from the music … the wheels in my head would begin to turn, and my dark conscience would say, “Hm … what can I do to burn through these next 10 minutes?” I’m sad to report that it wasn’t always the best 10 minutes of my life because I was working through those 10 minutes just to get through them, which is a terrible way to practice. So, what I discovered that has made practicing much more fun for me is what I call, “Bullet Time.” Bullet time, just to clarify, is a visual effect in many action films where time stands still for a moment, and the action is slowed down enough to show normally imperceptible and unfilmable events, such as (you guessed it) flying bullets. For me, there’s a bit of a thrill in racing against the clock while not knowing how much time is available to you. It forces you to make the most of time, creating the ultimate competition against yourself, which, in my very humble opinion, is the healthiest kind. I’ll set a timer for 20-30 minutes and, with a specific goal or two in mind, will proceed to tackle the music. Within each of those power sessions, I usually record myself. It might be sporadically throughout, or only the beginning and end products, but regardless, recording oneself is an extremely valuable tool that can really help you zero in on your sound. It makes you ask yourself, “What’s actually working, and what’s just all in my head?”, for intonation, pulse, your choice of fingering, phrasing, etc. The key to not destroying the magic of this tool is to avoid becoming overly obsessed with recording every single little thing. It’s important to have a chance to digest and enjoy the music you’re making, in real time. 


Tip 2: Memorization

To revel even more on Cloud 9 of music making, memorization is another component. Why do we memorize music anyway? You can blame it on virtuosi like Paganini, Lizst, Clara Wieck Schumann, and Mendelssohn. Collectively, they initiated this evolution of memorization as a performance practice. As rockstars of the Romantic Era, they made it ‘cool’ to have all the music seemingly come straight out of their heads. The practice became mainstream from the late 19th century and on, setting the stage for generations of musicians to come. But aside from the cool factor, I am an advocate of it because I do feel that once you have internalized the music, you have more freedom with musical expression and communicating with your full undivided attention with your audience and/or colleagues on stage. The benefits also extend beyond music. Completing such a herculean effort in front of an audience of any size helps to boost confidence because it develops your performance skills under pressure. Students can easily translate this skill to any number of aspects in their nonmusical life, such as giving pitches or presentations at work, job interviews, and public speaking. So, maybe I’ve now convinced you that memorization is worth trying, but you’re haunted by the fact that you’ve struggled with it in the past. Well I am here to say, if you practice something until you can’t get it wrong (as opposed to just getting it right), it usually seeps into your memory at some point. But you can also try to associate a tricky spot with something iconic, such as a memory from your childhood, a mood, a color, and how that all fits into the bigger picture. You might also consider examining your music for any finger patterns. There might be a moving bass line and the surrounding notes are either exactly the same or the intervals remain consistent as the line progresses. 


Tip 3: Play along with recordings

Then there’s my absolute favorite method: playing along with a recording with your headphones on (or your earbuds in), which helps with memorizing. Ever watch the Super Bowl or some other major sporting event in America? The event host brings in a different singer each year to sing the “National Anthem,” and every single one of them has a different take on the song. It’s the same thing with using this method. When you play along with recordings, not only do you have to be flexible with timing, but it might also give you some inspiration for how to approach a passage you haven’t quite decided how to phrase. You’ll have fun pretending to be a Hollywood studio musician, but I think you will also be pleasantly surprised to discover that all of a sudden, somehow you know that piece you’ve been struggling to memorize, by heart. 


Hopefully when you go Bach to the practice shed, you will feel less inclined to chuck your instrument against the wall after trying out some of these practice tips. Rome was not built in a day, and neither were you nor the intricacies of music. Just remember to stay the course, be patient, take it one day at a time, and definitely be sure to treat yourself to some fresh air and your choice of dessert after a hard day’s work. Easier said than done, but you Can-Can do it.