101 Ways to Practice Anything: Variations for Individual Practice, Classroom Teaching, and Ensemble Rehearsals

Since my original 101 Ways to Practice a Scale has gotten a lot of bandwidth since I published it here two years ago, I thought I would expand the list to include some of the strategies I regularly use in private teaching, clinics, and ensemble rehearsals to help students and professionals find new ways to bypass rote repetition and add variation. Many of these ideas are inspired by the pedagogical ideas of Moshe Feldenkrais, extracted from individual lessons and tailored for work with musicians — something I explore extensively in work with string teachers and students in more detailed form in clinics and workshops. Other ideas are influenced by Feldenkrais and many other wonderful educators and musicians I have known, compiled over the years and melded with more recent pedagogical inspirations.

In addition to both physiological and neurological benefits of decreased likelihood of repetitive overuse injuries, variation helps prepare us for an increasing range of performing circumstances (no two are ever the same!), enhances our creativity, and elevates our learning potential by providing us with new sensory experiences generating new ways of development in our functional relationships to playing. I hope that this new list can be just a foundation for many new ideas in your own playing and teaching!

  1. Try a new fingering or bowing.
  2. Where do you normally start? Start on a different measure or a different note in the measure.
  3. Explore a new phrasing; change the climax or overall shape of the phrase.
  4. Create new kinds of articulation by exploring various consonant sounds.
  5. Make a list of textures (fuzzy, rough, silky, sticky, airy, warm, etc.) and experiment with how to create those sounds.
  6. Play with your eyes closed.
  7. Play facing a new direction or in a different orientation (facing a wall, facing out a window, standing on a chair, lying on your back).
  8. Change your acoustic environment (drier, larger, smaller, more resonant).
  9. Play with different shoes, higher, flatter, barefoot, one shoe on and one foot barefoot.
  10. Play with a new orientation for your eyes (looking up, looking down, right, left, or moving your eyes continuously as you play.
  11. Play while moving your tongue (right, left, up, down, sliding along the inside of your teeth).
  12. Extend and flex your toes, knees, hips as you play, bending forward or backwards, or squatting versus standing on your toes.
  13. Play sitting on only one sit bone on one side of the chair/stool, or standing on one foot.
  14. Play while contracting and decontracting your abdominal muscles, buttocks, or muscles of your pelvic floor and notice the effect on your breathing, sound, and freedom of movement.
  15. Sing the tonic at various points during your performance.
  16. Leave out notes while continuing to play in rhythm.
  17. Audiate whole measures in between playing.
  18. Change your position while playing from sitting to standing, walking, or marching.
  19. Record yourself playing and then count out loud along with the recording in various subdivisions of the beat.
  20. Sing or whistle in thirds, sixths, or other intervals with yourself as you play.
  21. Solfege a difficult passage from memory.
  22. Play with the metronome on the off-beats.
  23. Play a duple passage with the metronome in triplets.
  24. Walk backwards while you play.
  25. Play while reading your music upside down.
  26. Play a difficult passage in reverse.
  27. Transpose passages and play them in other keys or other octaves.
  28. Play the notes in between difficult intervals.
  29. Play the notes in between two notes a half-step apart. How many distinct pitches can you play?
  30. Play slowly while walking fast.
  31. Play a fast passage while walking or shifting your weight very slowly.
  32. Play only the tonic, or tonic and fifth, or note of your choice in a passage without changing the rhythm.
  33. Choose one note in a passage to play in another octave (every C or every F, for example).
  34. Play with a varied articulation (slurs could be staccato and staccato could be slurred).
  35. Play a duple passage against triplets on the metronome.
  36. Play each measure with a different subdivision (one measure in 8ths, the next in 32nds, the next in 16ths) without changing the pulse.
  37. Play all of the notes in a difficult run out of order or in a loop starting on a different note and going back to play the beginning at the end.
  38. Accent different notes or beats in a phrase (only beat 2 or only the third sixteenth of every beat).
  39. Play with different rhythms or groupings of notes. Can you group 5 notes at a time in a 4/4 passage?
  40. Change your breathing as you play. Contract your abdomen and fill your chest or push your belly out with each inhalation.
  41. Cue the start of a phrase with a sharp exhalation.
  42. Focus on the breath passing through one nostril or filling one lung.
  43. Practice saying difficult rhythms with new articulations, or with your lips closed, or with your tongue held against the roof of your mouth.
  44. Restrict your breathing on one side by lying on your side or side bending while you play.
  45. Play a difficult rhythm with completely different notes (maybe wide intervals when the notes are in close proximity, for example).
  46. Play a difficult rhythm on two alternating notes.
  47. Play the phrasing you would like to achieve using only one pitch.
  48. Change the mode of a passage from major to minor or vice versa. Add harmonic minor to a major passage.
  49. Create a harmonization or accompaniment for yourself (could be as simple as holding a drone or playing in thirds or sixths). Record and play with it.
  50. Balance a beanbag, bag of rice, or pillow on your head.
  51. Sit on a balance pad, foam roller, or ball.
  52. Stand on a balance board or roller.
  53. Play up against a wall positioning an inflatable ball or balloon along various parts of your spine.
  54. Shift your weight in and out of phase with various movements of playing (string players might move right or left with and against the bow, while wind players might look for other habitual forwards/backwards/sideways movements that accompany different kinds of playing)
  55. Play soundlessly with one hand, then the other. Pianists might finger one hand soundlessly while playing audibly with the other hand.
  56. Observe which ear you use to listen to yourself.
  57. Which eye is more dominant when reading music? Try closing your dominant eye and notice how you might reposition yourself to read.
  58. Which eye dominates when looking at your instrument or your fingers? How is it to look with the other eye?
  59. Do you swallow when you play? Find places to intentionally swallow.
  60. How do you stop or hold your breath when you play something difficult? Can you stop your breath in another way?
  61. How do you use momentum in your playing? Do you throw, spin, spring, grab? Can you achieve the same effect in another way?
  62. How do you use or resist gravity when you play? Do you drop, sink, bounce, press, or hold? What options feel like less work?
  63. How do you use resistance? Do you feel friction, counterpressure, release?
  64. From where do you derive power? From big muscles, little muscles, skeleton, support, weight, speed?
  65. What are the differences in playing something very slowly, very fast, at a “comfortable” speed?
  66. Where does the action come from? Flexing, extending, going both directions equally? Experiment with another option to compare.
  67. What happens between the notes? What is the quality of the movement? Fast, slow, smooth, jerky?
  68. Observe 3 performers of different build, age, or gender playing the same piece. Discern what appeals to you in each.
  69. Listen to 3 performances from different generations or of contrasting interpretation. Find what seems convincing to you in each.
  70. Listen to 5 other works by the same composer. Pay attention to characteristics that have found their way into your piece or which contrast significantly.
  71. Listen to 5 other works by different composers who wrote works during a similar time period. Note the similarities and distinctions.
  72. Listen to 5 works of the same genre from previous stylistic eras. Note ideas which your composer might be exploring that are derived from other works or from other composer’s experimentation with your instrument.
  73. Study etudes written during the same time period as the work you are playing.
  74. Note any changes in instrument technology or performance practice and experiment with modern and older equipment (harpsichords, baroque bows, mouth pieces, tuning, etc.)
  75. Play with a drone or tuner without first tuning your instrument. Can you make adjustments even when your set-up is not idea?
  76. Warm-up with scales in other keys, or chromatics, or modes.
  77. Warm up exploring multiple intervals, seconds, sevenths, fifths, not always tonally. Give yourself new contexts in which to hear yourself.
  78. Warm up with rhythmic challenges. Play in septuples or quintuples or using changes in meter.
  79. Play while moving your instrument in conducting patterns or shapes or signing your name.
  80. Play one measure with only your right hand and the next measure with only your left.
  81. Warm up by improvising on a difficult rhythm or in the key of your piece.
  82. Warm up playing only descending patterns.
  83. Don’t warm up.
  84. Do your “normal” practice routine in reverse order.
  85. Practice in 10 minute intervals, changing what you practice after a time goes off, even if you are not finished.
  86. Practice only 1 measure for a day, but find 101 new ways to play it.
  87. Practice everything pianissimo for a day.
  88. Practice everything without vibrato for a day.
  89. Practice everything with vibrato for a day.
  90. Practice everything legato for a day, finding connections between the note that you haven’t attempted to make.
  91. Practice when you are sad.
  92. Practice when you are feeling on top of the world.
  93. Practice the thing you know you are avoiding.
  94. Write a short story that describes what you think happens over the course of a work.
  95. Tell a short story about what happens in a single phrase.
  96. Sing a phrase or rhythm using words.
  97. Sing a phrase or rhythm using words in a made-up language.
  98. Practice a passage, not until it is perfect, but until you discover something new.
  99. Practice until you feel something you haven’t felt before.
  100. Play like you are a child, then like seasoned soloist, like your favorite musician, or like an amateur who loves music.
  101. Play like you are the only YOU who will ever play this music and nothing else matters.

Slow Learning for Fast Students

“If you know what you are doing, you can do what you want.”

Moshe Feldenkrais

This past week one of my quickest, brightest middle school violin students came to her lesson after a week of standardized testing, still reeling from the stress and pressure of the experience. As always, she was exceptionally prepared for her lesson, in spite of my expectation with many of my students that there might be some reprioritization around the tests. We went through her practice material and I asked her how she was doing with a new etude on shifting in a difficult key. She began telling me right away about how she had actually moved on and learned the next TWO etudes in the book and could play them in tempo with the metronome. I said that I would love to hear her play those, but was very curious about the etude I had actually assigned. She admitted that she had not been able to learn the whole thing and that she felt ashamed that she could not play it even after two weeks.

After some coaxing and assurance that I was fine to use her lesson to help her figure out what might be going on, she finally agreed to play it for me in a slower tempo. We found that there were two measures in the middle of the etude that she could not play continuously through without either making a mistake with the bow or with the left hand finger pattern. She told me that she had isolated the measures, practiced very slowly, separated out the various elements, but each time she played them, she made similar mistakes. As she attempted to repeat these measures, her frustration mounted, and, on the verge of tears, she said, “I know exactly what the bowing is, and I know what the intervals need to be between the notes, and I know how to do each of these things. I SHOULD be able to play this, but the only thing I can think is that I am not concentrating hard enough. Since I wasn’t able to learn this, I thought that I should learn two new etudes to make up for it.”

Everything in this statement made me think about why it is so important for fast students to spend more time learning slowly just to learn, rather than to achieve something. It made me realize how little opportunity there really was for these students to know something about themselves though their learning.

I asked her if it was really true that if we knew how something should work or knew what it was we were supposed to do that we should just be able to do it. She said she didn’t know, but that it seemed like most of the time if she knew what she was supposed to do and how she was supposed to go about doing it, then she could usually achieve the expected result. She said she had tried breaking the problem down into the steps that usually worked when she practiced, but it still didn’t come together in the end.

Then I gave her an example. I asked her to show me that she could draw a triangle with her right hand. She did. I asked her then to draw a circle with her left hand. She did. Then I said I wanted her to draw a triangle with one hand while she drew a circle with the other hand. She tried several times and each time either the triangle morphed into a circle or the circle began to have corners. I mentioned that she did know how to do the task with each hand individually, so it wasn’t simply a matter of separating the tasks. She agreed. I asked her if she concentrated harder on what she was trying to do with each hand if that would make her able to do it. She said she was concentrating very hard, but it still didn’t work, so she didn’t think so.

After she spent some time with this puzzle, I asked her what she needed to learn if she really wanted to be able to draw a triangle and a circle at the same time. She immediately began to reframe the problem based on what she was actually doing—she noticed that her circles had corners, and discovered, in particular, that one side of the circle was more prone to having corners, and could observe some details about the shifting of attention between hands. So I said that the learning lay in discovering how YOU do what you are doing, not in what your are being asked to do. As she observed herself, she became calmer and the shapes became clearer.

We brought this idea back to the measures where she struggled, and I asked her to play the first measure and observe where she felt inclined to change the bowing. She discovered that she always wanted to change the bow on a different beat because of a pattern she had played in another similar etude, and that this was compounded by her shift in attention to execute a new finger pattern at the end of that measure. Gradually she was able to name several things she had observed about herself that were new to her, and by taking the time shift her concentration from the desired outcome to what it was she was actually doing, she sorted through the problem and could play both measures without difficulty.

When you teach the violin, you often end up teaching the kinds of students who excel in academics and are particularly achievement-oriented. They are in the math club and health sciences organizations, they write award-winning poetry, they build robots and their idea of fun is to do weekend-long hacking tournaments. They take every Advanced Placement class offered regardless of their interest in the subject and they pride themselves on the number of all-nighters they have pulled in the last month.

Because these students thrive on achievement they are, however, some of the most vulnerable students I teach when it comes to performance anxiety and fear of failure. Although they appreciate challenges and enjoy learning, they also become quite skilled at evading challenges that require a longer process to overcome. When they encounter a difficulty, they often bypass it in a search of the next success, like one might be trained to do in taking a standardized test to maximize the score within a particular time limit. When they accumulate enough successes in this way, they begin to favor speed of learning over the much slower process of exploring their biggest difficulties. Over time, then, anxiety increases as this important slow learning and the chance they have to truly come to know themselves and trust in their ability to be their own best teachers is sacrificed for success and achievement.

The particular student whose story I share has been among the fastest to progress on the violin of anyone I have ever taught. She began late as a 6th grade beginner and has now been playing for a year and a half. She loves the violin and practices 1-3 hours a day and just devours almost every bit of repertoire and technique I give her. She ALWAYS comes prepared for lessons and often begins working ahead in some of her technique books just to be able to come to her lessons with questions about how to continue practice new material. She knows ALL of her major and minor 3-octave scales, performs concerto movements at the Suzuki Book 4 level from memory with much of the fluidity and control of an advanced student who might have studied for several years. She is thoughtful, quick, bright, and creative. Yet, at the age of 13, she has the kind of performance anxiety that literally makes her sick.

In working with her over the last nine months, it has been a great puzzle to learn how to help her slow down, to find a difficulty, to stick with it, and to become comfortable with knowing herself through that difficulty. But when she learns slowly the result is almost always a calmer, happier girl who makes music with authenticity and confidence.

Finding these difficulties in students who are extremely successful can be challenging, but as I often remind my students, these are the places where you want to reside in your practice and become comfortable studying and questioning and even sometimes struggling a little bit, not just looking for an easy way out. This journey through learning to know ourselves is what gives us the foundation for all future learning and what allows us to grow towards our human potential far beyond our short term successes and accumulated achievements.


The Plus of the Compensation

If a blind or deaf child achieves the same level of development as a normal child, the child with a defect achieves this in another way, by another course, by other means. And, for the pedagogue, it is particularly important to know the uniqueness of the course, along which he must lead the child. The key to originality transforms the minus of the handicap into the plus of the compensation. (Russian psychologist, Lev Vygotsky)

My love for the work of the late neuropsychologist, Oliver Sacks, has led me recently into the writings of some of his primary influences. I have been reading bits of Alexander Luria’s The Mind of a Mnemonist and am increasingly interested in his own teacher, the Russian psychologist, Lev Vygotsky. All three doctors made careers of studying brain function by studying and documenting the stories of their patients from a phenomenological perspective. With each individual they strove to uncover a map of function and learning that not only explained their difficulties and dysfunctions, but, revealed, moreover, what gave rise to exceptional genius, creativity, artistry—the phenomena of the compensations for the difficulty that allowed them to not only work around difficulty, but to function in some other way at a very high level.

This work interests me as a teacher for each of my students and clients, but it is particularly relevant when the difficulty is seemingly more obvious and yet the compensation and the way into successful learning remains quite elusive. In the following case, as is more often than not, it was my own inability to perceive the compensation beyond my assumptions of what it might be that had to be overcome for the best learning to occur. I am publishing this account of our work with her permission.

One of my violin students suffers from low vision as a result of oculocutaneous albinism. She is legally blind and often walks with a cane, but is able to and prefers to read by placing material very close to her face. She reads well this way, but the conditions have to be ideal in terms of lighting and text/music size, and even the background behind the text makes a huge difference.
When she came to her first lesson with me, with the intent of becoming a professional in music, she played almost all of her music while reading with her eyes 1-2 inches from the music stand. She had to position her violin on the opposite side of the stand, extending out from the back of the stand, in order to be close enough to read what was on the page, affecting her posture and limiting her ability to move.
I have taught students with various visual challenges before, and most have a very strong aural sense that compensates for the visual loss, so it seemed natural to me to have her begin to work on learning music aurally and playing from her aural memory. I was surprised that she had reached such a high level of proficiency in her playing without working this way.
However, as we began to try to work this way, it became fairly clear that this was not a simple task. Her ears were excellent in making small corrections, and she was able to sing back what she heard with accuracy, but mapping this into some kind of physical coordination in playing eluded her.
We tried multiple ways of building aural sequences in her playing, but it seemed like she always wanted to come back to the reading as a primary means for learning her music–an arduous task, which, even with visual aids and large print, still took months to internalize.
Over time, I began to notice that in addition to her surprising visual dependence, she was also very dependent on physical organization — leaving her fingers down to “hold her place” on the fingerboard as she played — a habit that also produced quite a bit of physical tension in her playing. She recognized this tension, but struggled to “let go” and become lost in what seemed to be a vast, unmapped space of the violin…she seemed to have mapped the relationships she felt in her hands but not connected that so clearly to the violin. For example, she could find various intervals using the relationship between one finger and another once she found a starting place on the violin, but she didn’t know where these notes existed between her body and her own instrument independent of finding a starting point.
Recently I tried a different kind of experiment with her finally allowing her to use her preferred tactile sense to illustrate a new concept for organizing her practice. I had her close her eyes and I handed her various objects to identify. Some I handed her right-side-up and others in various orientations; some objects were familiar and others had familiar features, but she had not actually seen or felt them before. I asked her to describe the features and tell me what she thought they were. As she turned them over in her hands, her descriptions became very detailed with regard to texture, volume, weight, and other features. Even with the unfamiliar ones, her descriptions were complete. I asked her how she knew how to identify them, and she recognized that she had to turn them over and examine each from as many perspectives as possible, sometimes feeling just one element and then relating it to the whole. She realized that she could find any starting point and begin to map the whole.
My idea was to show her this capacity to explore fully from multiple starting points in order to get a tactile “picture” of the whole, and then to show her that this could happen with the kinesthetic in relation to the aural in learning music, too. She got this immediately, and we both began to recognize how important honing this kinesthetic strength and attaching it to her aural sense AND particularly in changing perspective so that she felt it and heard the music together in many ways was an important step in her memory. She noticed that her usual approach was to find the same starting and stopping points. So I began playing parts of passages that she already knew but starting 2-3 beats into the passage and stopping on various ending notes for her to reproduce. At first this was extremely difficult, as she felt she could only start at the beginning of the passage and stop at her normal ending to play it. But as we continued in this way of always reproducing parts of the passage within changing limits and then stringing them together with the limits overlapping, her memory began to become increasingly clear and reliable.
A week later she returned to her lesson having learned and memorized the full exposition of a Mozart violin concerto and could play through this segment without stopping. When I quizzed her on sections, playing them for her with different starting and stopping spots, she could immediately identify their location in the music, recognize the relationship to the meter, and we could discuss discrepancies in bowing and fingering that were making her uncomfortable. Instead of having to micromanage every physical detail of the playing, she was, for the first time, connecting the parts into a clearer whole. She was able to relinquish rather easily some of the physical tension tied to her “place holding” tendencies on the instrument.
When I asked to describe her practice, she said that she was able to find her own ways now to create starts and stops in each section to “turn them over” in her mind until the pieces fit together clearly. I asked her how much time this took compared to previous weeks, and she responded that her practice time was the same, but that the results came faster.
It was a great lesson to me with a student whom I had struggled to determine whether or not she was really putting in the work to learn. The difference was so striking in the outcome, that I realized how important it is to help each student find the kind of work that plays to their greatest strengths.

101 Ways to Differentiate a Scale

In the Feldenkrais Method we use two main principles, usually with movement, to improve function: Differentiation and Integration. These are the same two principles which are used similarly in mathematics to explore and understand smaller or more particular parts of a whole and recombine them to further clarify some larger function which we might be exploring, such as speed of movement or acceleration. Feldenkrais broke down functions into incremental explorations of movement and sensation using a concept he called “differentiation” and and then “integrated” them back into functions that brought the individual self into a relationship with the world and used this functional integration to not only clarify movement, but also the thoughts, feelings, and sensations that are interconnected in these relationships. Because the concept of a large function was so tied up well established networks of thoughts, feelings, and sensations that we have developed over years without even knowing it (habits), Feldenkrais theorized that by using these concepts of varied and subtle exploration of the infinite parts of a function, we could get around some of the burdensome complexity and learn more effectively. We could affect maximum change and come closer to our potential by allowing our learning to be about these infinite and varied relationships at finer and deeper levels, but also well spread over the spectrum of potential function.

I take these ideas directly into my violin/viola teaching, clinicing in schools, and work with professional musicians to circumnavigate injury and difficulty. I like working with instrumentalists WITH their instruments to explore these infinite relationships, because, as musicians, we rely on our aural capabilities more than almost any other sensation for feedback on our success, making our listening a critical component in our learning.

A colleague for whom I regularly clinic challenged me to create a list of 101 Differentiations of a Scale. This was a brainstorm of variations I’ve used with students and in clinics to highlight various relationships that I feel are important in our overall function of playing, segmented down to the function of a scale. Some are silly, some are challenging, some might not work for you and your particular set up or instrument, but I hope they might stimulate you to expand into infinite variations of your own!

  1. Play it from the top down and then back up.
  2. Play it in separate tetrachords.
  3. Sing the tonic before each note.
  4. Sing the tonic before each tetrachord.
  5. Play each individual tetrachord in each octave with correct fingerings.
  6. Do this with each of the 4 tetrachords, 2 going up, two going down…these are different in minor
  7. Play the scale going up one string.
  8. On another string.
  9. On another string.
  10. On the OTHER string.
  11. Play the octaves out of order.
  12. Play the whole scale with fingers 1 and 2.
  13. With 2 and 3.
  14. With 3 and 4.
  15. With 1 and 3.
  16. With 2 and 4.
  17. With 1 and 4.
  18. With 1, 2, 3.
  19. With 1, 2, 3, 4, and always in this order consecutively.
  20. With 2, 3, 4.
  21. With 1, 3, 4.
  22. With 1, 2, 4. (If you can dream it, you might need it!
  23. Play with one finger on one string.
  24. Another finger.
  25. Another finger.
  26. Another finger.
  27. Slide one finger up and down, returning to the tonic between notes.
  28. Play it standing on one foot.
  29. Stand on the other foot.
  30. Move side to side (RL, LR) with the bow.
  31. Move side to side against the bow.
  32. Rotate clockwise and counterclockwise over your feet with the bow.
  33. Rotate against the bow.
  34. If you stepped on the RIGHT foot to rotate clockwise, step left, rotate clockwise, and right for counterclockwise…with the bow.
  35. Do the above against the bow (I call this distinction inward versus outward rotation).
  36. Open and close your jaw while you play.
  37. Slide your upper jaw side to side with your chin remaining in place on the chinrest with the bow.
  38. Slide your jaw side to side in the direction opposite to the bow’s movement.
  39. Count your teeth with your tongue while you play.
  40. Stick your tongue out and in like a lizard while you play.
  41. Bring the corners of your mouth apart and together while you play.
  42. Scan your eyes side to side above the horizon while you play.
  43. Scan your eyes along the floor while you play.
  44. Move your eyes side to side with the bow.
  45. Eyes against the bow.
  46. Cover or close one eye while you play.
  47. Cover or close the other eye.
  48. Move in circles over your feet as you play.
  49. Cross one leg over the other and move in circles.
  50. Cross the other leg in front.
  51. Play with your feet wide.
  52. Play with your feet touching.
  53. Play with your feet in a straight line, one in front of the other.
  54. Stand on your heels while you play.
  55. Stand on your toes.
  56. Rock between your heels and your toes.
  57. Make circles with your scroll while you play, as if you are pushing the hand around an imaginary clock.
  58. Make circles with your nose while you play.
  59. Make circles with the top of your head.
  60. Exhale during your down bows.
  61. Inhale during your down bows.
  62. Only change your breath in the middle of the bow.
  63. Hold your breath in while you play.
  64. Hold your breath out while you play.
  65. Play the scale with all whole bow down bows and circle your bow around your scroll in between each.
  66. Play with whole bow up bows and circle around the scroll in between.
  67. Pizzicato the last note you played after every up bow.
  68. Play the whole scale with your bow held in your fist with your thumb on top of the stick, together with your fingers.
  69. Draw the bow with only the index, ring finger, and thumb.
  70. Draw the bow with only the pinky, middle finger, and thumb.
  71. Move from sitting to standing on all shifts.
  72. Move from standing to sitting on all shifts.
  73. Walk forwards.
  74. Walk backwards.
  75. Walk sideways.
  76. Walk in circles. Which way did you circle?
  77. Go the other way.
  78. Swing the right leg forward and backward with the bow while standing on the left.
  79. Swing the left leg.
  80. Zigzag between contact points…54345, 43234, 12321, etc.
  81. Play sitting on one sit bone.
  82. Sit on the other sit bone.
  83. Kneel on one foot and one knee.
  84. Other foot, other knee.
  85. Switch feet while you are playing, randomly or with string crossings, shifts, etc.
  86. Bend and unbend your knees.
  87. Bend and unbend your knees and hip joints…bring your butt back as your upper body goes forward!
  88. Make a SSSSSSSSsssssss sound until you are empty of air.
  89. Play it ponticello.
  90. Play whole bows using the wood of the bow…slippery.
  91. Intentionally slide into each note from above…random, an octave, a planned note.
  92. Intentionally slide into each note from below.
  93. Move from standing to squatting while playing.
  94. Stand on a balance board.
  95. Stand on a foam roller.
  96. Sit on a foam roller and roll your pelvis forward and back.
  97. Play with a beanbag on your head.
  98. Lie on your back on a foam roller vertically and play.
  99. Play while hula-hooping! Did you go both directions?

If you practice your scales with even one little variation each day, you will keep evolving and you will never get bored. Have fun, and let me know if you have some other crazy ones you discover on your own!

Modeling Imperfection

Do you remember back to a time when you thought a teacher or a mentor was absolutely perfect, and you were a mere peon at the bottom rungs of the ladder of perfectionism? Maybe you don’t, but I was definitely that kid, that college student, that grad student, at least initially, with most of my teachers. I remember being somewhat disillusioned in eventually discovering my teachers’ flaws, but ultimately, I learned to trust teachers more and more whose own learning process and inevitable imperfections were revealed as an essential part of their success and effectiveness. Especially in struggling with my own personal challenges, I have learned to trust people that I see as “real” learners who are comfortable in sharing their struggles as well as their successes. As a teacher, I’ve been determined not to foster the illusion of perfection in myself in relationships with my students. I really try to create an environment of “scientific” skepticism and experimentation in which we are both/all participants in a process of discovery.

Until recently, however, it never occurred to me that I could be coming across as anything but flawed, well aware of daily trial and error that I experience myself in working with the individual marvels and idiosyncrasies of each student or group that I clinic, and certainly in working on the challenges I face in my own learning. For me, the struggle is also where the fascination lies–it’s also part of the fun.

The idea of intentionally modeling my own imperfection, and pointing it out, came to the surface this last week in working with a long time student who has been struggling with a lot of self doubt to the point of some serious emotional changes and changes in her learning. In the last couple of years my student has been coming to lessons with a mountain of worries about what other people think of her. She is afraid to play anything if she thinks someone is outside the door listening, or possibly able to hear any mistake she makes. She has an older sibling who is a whiz a math, and she comes from a family who seems to pressure her to achieve at the same rate as her brother. Historically, she has been a much more creative type who used to come to lessons full of questions and unique ideas and an avid reader and discoverer. Recently, however, there has been a lot of pressure from home, she says, to drop activities that “don’t matter” (for college admissions) and pick up the slack she’s created in math/science by being too involved in other “frivolous” pursuits. She also told me of a number of horrifying incidents where a math teacher of whom her brother has always been a favorite has been criticizing her and openly comparing her to her brother in front of the other students in her class.

My heart breaks in hearing about this treatment, as I have seen her go from a bubbly and creative middle schooler to an increasingly introverted teenager who seems to be hiding her most important tools of learning in fear of judgment and criticism…failure, mistakes, taking chances, experimentation, questioning, etc. My one hope has been that her lessons could be a place that she could continue to be herself, to let go, to be comfortable making mistakes and experimenting because, after all, her teacher is as flawed as the best of them!

But here’s where I had some learning to do myself, because in her lesson two weeks ago, my student was too paralyzed to play in front of me. Even after weeks of talking the talk of flaws and vulnerability and what learning was all about, I finally started to see that it was just talk, because she didn’t see me in the same light. After much coaxing I got her to begin to play part of an assignment for the week–one which I thought I knew backwards and forwards after many years of teaching. We came to a point in our work on it when I demonstrated a technique using a phrase from her etude. As I played her eyes got big and she froze again. I asked her if she would give it a try if she understood, but after a bit more staring at me, I asked her what was wrong. She finally, timidly said, “Do you think my music might be wrong? …Because mine says that’s an F-natural, and I think you played an F-sharp.” I laughed and said, “Oh wow…good catch! I thought I knew that passage, but I got it wrong!” It wasn’t a big deal to me, but to her, it was pivotal in the lesson, as she started playing again with increased confidence and didn’t stop until she got to the end. I was kind of dumbstruck that the simple act of admitting my mistake would be so powerful in this relationship. For the rest of the lesson, I made a point of articulating my mistakes as I made them, not making any with intention, but mildly commenting on them as if they were no big deal…and believe me, there were plenty, even just articulating an idea I might have had for her and allowing her to join into the discussion of what made sense or worked and what was not quite accurate. The change in her for that lesson was noticeable.

The next week, she arrived in better spirits, quite possibly due to many other factors. In the small talk at the beginning of her lesson, however, I still made a point to share an experience from earlier that day–I was doing a clinic with middle schoolers using a silly bow exercise, and I kept teasing them that if they dropped the bow they were out! Guess who was the first to have her bow go flying…me! She thought this was funny. Five minutes later, when she was playing a scale, another student walked into the room, and for the first time EVER she kept playing! Afterwards, she said, “Did you see that? That kid came in, and I made a decision not to stop and not to care what he thought.”

It was and continues to be a huge lesson for me. In this world of increasing competition and emphasis on getting the right answer, we need more than ever to be guides to what real learning is, not just in our language, but by sharing our own ongoing processes and revealing our own powerful vulnerability.

Balancing the Bow Hold #2 (with the bow)

Balancing the Bow Hold #2

This lesson is a good continuation of Balancing the Bow Hold #1. You can do this in sitting or standing, or even kneeling on one knee with one foot standing, alternating sides…experiment with your position to see if you open up some new possibilities with movement. This time you will need a bow!

Find the balance point in the bow by holding it lightly between your index finger and your thumb with your palm facing downward, somewhere towards the frog side of the middle. With some bows, it might be almost 1/3 of the length away from the frog. Experiment with the lightest hold you can find, bringing the bow parallel to the floor, and think of it like a balance scale, or a lever shifting over a fulcrum. Find the place where the frog and tip balance equidistant from the floor with no effort on your part. Here roll the bow a tiny bit between your finger and thumb to feel that your hold is such that you can move easily without disturbing the bow. Now also roll the bow so that the hair is facing the floor, and notice the position and orientation of your thumb and finger. Roll it so the hair goes away from you. Roll it so that the hair faces you.

Repeat the above sequence between each of your fingers and your thumb individually, noticing the relationship between each of the fingers and the bow at each orientation, and also noticing how the fingers and the thumb coordinate to act as a passive fulcrum for the bow. Rest as needed as you change fingers.

Now use all of your fingers and thumb to hold the bow at this balance point, and see if you can discover an easy relationship between your thumb and fingers that allows your hand to act as a fulcrum with no strain on any individual finger or the thumb. Where does your thumb want to rest? Is it across from your index finger, or your middle finger, or somewhere in between? If you are not comfortable, move your thumb and fingers until you find the best balance with the least effort…this might even change day to day, or as you grow or change yourself.

Roll the bow a little between you thumb and fingers and notice how they bend and unbend as you do this. As you roll the stick, can you find an easy way to also orient your bow hair toward the floor? With the hair facing the floor, push with your index finger to tilt the tip downward, and then stop pushing and allow the bow to “ride” back up into balance. Do the same thing with your pinky; if you play violin or viola, use the tip of your pinky on top of the stick to do this, and if you play cello or bass, use your middle joint. Feel how you can get out of the way to allow the bow to rebalance itself. Go back and forth pushing one end down and then the other, always allowing the bow itself to ride back into the balanced position with no work from your hand.

Rest for a moment.

Hold the bow at the balance point with all of your fingers and thumb, noticing how you can do this with the least amount of interference, and bring your right arm out to your side, extended, parallel to the floor. Hold the bow with the tip pointing to the front and the hair facing the floor. Now begin to tilt the tip down toward the floor by rotating your whole arm forward, all the way to your shoulder, like your arm is a long rolling pin or dowel. Rotate as far as is comfortable, and then come back up to parallel. Do this 5-6 times. Then rotate your arm in the opposite direction to take the tip toward the ceiling, and then slowly return to parallel. Repeat this noticing the differences in your hand, in your shoulder, etc.

Rest for a moment.

Extend your arm and bow, held at the balance point again out to your right side. This time as your rotate your arm to point the tip toward the floor, fold forward as though your wanted to take the top of your head toward the floor. Feel how this changes things in your shoulder blade and ribs and assists in the rotation. Do this a few times, returning to upright each time. Then, as you begin to rotate your arm to point the tip upward, lengthen the front of yourself and look up toward the ceiling. Can you rotate farther? Can you feel why? Repeat this a few times, and then alternate between bending forward and rotating down, and looking up as your rotate the tip upward. Can you feel how your entire arm carries the weight of the bow as your rotate in each direction? Imagine that the bow itself is just another bone joined to your arm through your hand and fingers.

Rest.

Return to your balance point bow hold in front of you. Rotate your fingers and thumb to find an easy way to orient your bow hair downward without effort. Bring your instrument into playing position. Set your bow directly at the balance point on one of your middle strings under your hand and begin silently crossing strings by tilting the bow to each string level. Feel how you can allow your fingers, hand, arm, and whole body to cross strings maintaining this balance with minimal effort. Where do you feel you want to work? Where can you let go to allow the bow to balance naturally in relation to your whole self?

Try drawing some bows on each string from your balance point to the tip, observing the variety of sounds you can create when you let the bow do most of the work. This can be especially useful if you are “frog shy”!

Balancing the Bow Hold #1

Based on some of my work in clinics, sectionals, private violin and viola teaching, and work with injured musicians on multiple instruments, I have decided to begin writing down and publishing a series of Feldenkrais-inspired movement lessons to address aspects of string technique and musicianship and enliven our overall awareness to start to sense injuries in the making before they fully manifest. I’m hoping you might discover some tidbits for your students and new ways to add variation and maybe a little fun to your own practice. I’m starting with the bow, but I have a list of about 50 different movement lessons that I’ve tried with various ages and levels, so let me know if you have a particular interest. I welcome any comments or future topics to explore. In Feldenkrais style, go easily and remaining in a comfortable range, and don’t do anything that doesn’t feel good or causes strain or any kind of disturbing reaction! Here’s the first of, hopefully, many:

Balancing the Bow Hold #1

Find a comfortable place to move, seated in a chair or standing.

Begin by holding a pencil vertically between your index finger and your thumb of your right hand somewhere around the middle of the pencil. Feel the weight of the pencil and notice how much pressure you apply between your finger and your thumb to keep the pencil from dropping. Through much trial and error many years ago, you discovered how much was enough, and you eventually let excess effort subside; see if you can rediscover this relationship. Roll the pencil back and forth a few times to feel it’s shape, texture, and dimensions. Turn the pencil sideways, still holding between your index finger and your thumb. Hang your arm down by your side. Feel how the weight of the pencil hangs in your fingers, and feel for the minimum pressure you can use to keep the pencil from falling. When you reduce the effort to hold the pencil, does it begin to tilt? If it does, use your other hand to adjust where you are holding the pencil to have it balance parallel to the floor with no effort from your fingers. Now bring your arm straight out in front of you. Does the feeling of weight redistribute in your hand? Bring your arm up straight above your head. Does the pencil’s weight change? What do your other fingers do? Do they want to activate, or can remain soft? How can the shape of these fingers contribute to the ease of the holding fingers? Can they coordinate with the middle of your hand to help the balance?

Let go and rest your hand and arm for a moment.

Repeat the previous steps with your middle finger and thumb, adjusting in the horizontal to make the pencil balance without effort.

Pause for a rest.

Repeat with first the ring finger, then the pinky finger, resting between. Notice how the relationship between the thumb and each finger changes the shape in the middle of your hand. Notice how the balance point for the pencil in horizontal must change to accommodate this relationship. It is not necessary to keep the pencil horizontally oriented toward your face. Just see if you can find how to balance the pencil with minimal effort between the thumb and each finger.

Rest your hand, arm, and pencil.

Now hold the pencil vertically between each of your fingertips and thumb, finding the most comfortable, restful position. This does NOT have to look like a bow hold, but make sure all four fingers remain in contact with the pencil. Maintaining this contact, roll the pencil between all fingers and the thumb, feeling the texture and weight as though examining a foreign object for the first time. Where does your thumb hold in relation to your fingers? Move your thumb slightly higher and lower on the pencil and experiment with rolling. Notice if some placements inhibit some of the rolling or if some of your fingers want to leave the pencil. Find a range where it feels smooth and easy to both hold and roll the pencil.

Hang your arm by your side and feel the weight of the pencil resting against your fingers. Roll the pencil in this position. Rotate your arm so that the palm of your hand faces forward, but still hanging by your side. Roll the pencil in this position. Keep contact with all four fingers and your thumb. Rotate your arm so that your palm faces behind you, and roll the pencil here.

Rest.

Extend your arm in front of you, palm facing down, and hold the pencil between your thumb and all of your fingers. Find a place to hold where the pencil easily remains parallel to the floor. Roll the pencil and notice if you can keep it parallel to the floor with little effort. Turn the pencil so that the palm of your hand faces the ceiling, and rotate the pencil. Begin to slowly rotate your arm so that the pencil moves from palm up position to palm down position and returning continuously. Can you continue to roll the pencil in your thumb and fingers, keeping contact, as you rotate? Do you find that you want to stop the rotation at various points along your pencil’s arc? Do this movement until you can find a smooth, continuous rotation, while also continuously rolling the pencil.

Rest your arm and notice the sensation in your right hand and arm. How does your right hand feel in relation to your left?

Return to your practice and try out some slow, legato bow strokes in different parts of the bow. How does it feel to change bows at the frog? At the tip? In the midde? Notice your connection to the string through your arm playing whole bows. Are you able to sense the transfer of weight/force/power through your body into the instrument more clearly? Notice how the balance in your hand affects the smoothness of your bow changes and overall vibrancy of sound.