Long bowing and plateau #1

It had to come sooner or later: I hit my first plateau with the violin. You know, that point where you keep practicing and working and somehow nothing seems to improve (and sometimes things even get worse!). This is frustrating, but I recognize that it’s part of the process and you just have to push on. After a while, something will click, and you’ll start making progress again.

My plateau hit while working on the first two Minuets in Suzuki book #1. These are two simple pieces in 3/4 time in the key of G. I’ve gotten rather good at scales and arpeggios in the key of G (when I relax and focus), but this only means I hear my mistakes all the more when playing the pieces. :) You know you’re at a plateau when you start getting exactly the same feedback and homework assignments from your teacher on subsequent weeks.

For me, the struggle was in (as dumb as this sounds) using the whole bow. I’d gotten used to practicing with a small mid-section of the bow, as this made “enough” sound for me.

“No, no,” my teacher says. “This piece is to be played forte, and that means the whole bow!”

So, just use the whole bow, right? But you have to cram the whole bow into a quarter note. Suddenly I was rushing, trying to use up the whole bow’s real estate in one click of the metronome. And my intonation degraded, and the bow would make breathy sounds or skip on the strings. Ugh! Gradually I figured out that some of this can be addressed by pressing more firmly (“dig in!” says my teacher) and that it’s really an issue of good bow control (not just letting it slide across the strings), which will come with practice and time.

At about this point, I happened across the excellent “Teaching Suzuki” blog (by a Suzuki teacher) who coincidentally posted about Long Bow Day. She writes about the utility of setting aside a practice session just to work on long bows, and breaks this down very nicely. I went on to read some more of her posts, which manage somehow to be both delightful detailed and accessible, and fascinating in that they provide pedagogical insights about (her philosophy of) how one learns the violin. She appears to be working her way through book 1 right now, in her posts, so I’m eager for her to “catch up” to where I am with the evil Minuets. I love the chance to learn from someone else in addition to my weekly lessons.

Anyway, after much effort, I am making more forte-like sounds, and the intonation is improving. I feel I’m starting to break free of that static-feeling plateau. I’m also getting a bit better at some associated skills from these pieces, like triples (3 notes played in one quarter-note’s time; tricky mainly because it’s a rhythm change), staccato slurs, and “hopping” a left-hand finger to enable playing two notes in succession that require the same finger but are on different strings. Onward and upward!