More Thoughts on Motivation (yawn), part 4.75: “Eye” See!

Sorry I’ve been so scarce recently. This has proved to be a more difficult topic than I thought.

So, how do you get into the “no mistakes allowed” mindset? The Fearless Leader asked us how we thought professional concert violinists learned music. Very simply, said he, they never give themselves an opportunity to make a mistake, because they only play review pieces. Suzuki students should be very familiar with this already because we, too, only play review pieces in performance situations. The difference between Them and Us is the way they do it. They use their eyes. The direct eye-brain connection is faster, more efficient, and eliminates the mistakes that sometimes get drilled into muscle memory for days or weeks (or longer!) before they are discovered and corrected.  That’s the claim of the Fearless Leader anyway.

The rest of us can learn music just like the pros do. The only requirements for success are motivation and perspiration. Believe it or not, your motivation is probably the same as Itzhak Perlman’s when he’s getting ready for a gig: to learn the piece. You’re learning it so you can go on to the next one. He’s learning it so he can play it with the New York Philharmonic. To which you say, meh.  Anyway. The big difference between Us and Mr. Perlman is  that he leaves his violin in the case while he’s studying the piece.  The pros know their music cold before they ever put a bow on the string, or fingers on the keyboard or the frets, or lips to the mouthpiece. They don’t make mistakes on stage because they didn’t learn any to begin with. (And if they do make a mistake, the majority of the audience isn’t going to catch it, because the pro did before anyone heard it.)   I remember from my much-younger-student-days, the routine involved learning the easy parts, while I hope-and-groped my way through the hard parts, hoping that they would magically go away get easier. Didn’t happen.  Sound familiar?  So. Resist the temptation, exercise some restraint and leave the violin in the case.  If Itzhak Perlman can do it, so can you.

Now, I hear what you’re thinking: “I can’t learn to play without making some mistakes.” OK, first of all, “can’t” is a four-letter word. OK, it’s actually four letters with an apostrophe, a contraction for “I cannot.” Its meaning implies that I’m either physically or mentally incapable of accomplishing the assigned task, or I’m too lazy. Whichever one applies, the words “I cannot” or “can’t” are violin profanity, which is not allowed in public or private. So stop it or I’ll get out my trusty keg o’ rosin and soap your bow. Now that we’ve settled that, to restate your thought: yes, mistakes are one of the central truths of violin playing. The “figuring it out” process is rife with error. It’s how we learn. Mistakes are normal and totally expected. Problem is, by the time you play the wrong note or the backwards bowing on the violin, it’s too late. An irreplaceable amount of time has been wasted, because it’s going to take three times more time to erase the mistake and relearn it correctly. Multiply that amount by each mistake you make. Every single last cotton-pickin’ one. That’s a lot of time, yes? (And I have actually done the math on this.) So I’m not saying you can’t make mistakes. You can make all the mistakes you want, just not with a violin under your chin.  Do. Not. Touch. The. Violin. Please?

Perspiration means you’re willing to sweat a little (or a lot), do whatever is necessary, do however much work is required to learn it. As much as it takes. There is no shortcut; you have to spend time and effort. I understand perfectly that everyone is not obsessed with excellent violin playing. Or even fair-to-middling playing. There have been times when I was not, and I’m a teacher! The best players, the ones who sound good, the ones you admire and envy because they play hard pieces, have Violin OCD (even the ones who won’t admit it. Or their parents have it. Heh!) They do whatever is necessary to make it sound good. A half-way commitment will eventually result in full-time quitting.

Now, based on my experience, I still think the best, easiest and fastest way to train your eyes is to use your ears. A good recording can help you learn faster. It is an always-available reference; you never have to wait for your next lesson to hear what it’s supposed to sound like. When you use a recording, you get a good overview of how all the parts fit together, which makes it easier to separate them out for individual practice. You need to be able to sing the melody by itself, in tune. You need to be able to reproduce the correct rhythm. Then you can add all the other stuff: tempo, dynamics, phrasing, etc. You can actually do everything separately and as a cohesive unit by listening carefully and attentively. But that’s just my opinion. You, or your teacher, may have different ideas.

I decided to test the Fearless Leader’s theory, and tried learning some orchestra music by sight, finding the problem spots and solving them, all by listening to YouTube and using my eyes.  Guess what I discovered? It works! So I’m pretty sure it can work for you, too. I’ll have some specific ideas on how to start training your eyes in the next post.

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