I keep trying to make my posts shorter, and this is producing the unfortunate effect of making them longer. The more I try, the worse it gets. So I guess you’re stuck with long posts. For now. Until I stop trying to make them shorter. Heh.
Those of you who already read pretty well can adapt this to fit your needs or pick and choose things that you might find useful or interesting to try. This is only one way; it happens to be the way I tested and it worked for me. Something else might work better for you. Although, as the old saying goes, “You never know until you try.”
As you read this you may think that it is oversimplified. Maybe it is; after all, it is meant to be an outline, not a detailed plan. (If you want a detailed plan, leave a comment or shoot me an email and we’ll get something going.) But in many ways, it’s not simple enough. You see, I remember high school really well. Way down deep, I still remember how stupid I felt. I was an advanced player, sort of locally famous. But I couldn’t read music. I learned my All-State parts, all four years worth, by checking LPs out of the public library, listening to them and playing along until I knew the part. (I’ve never admitted that publicly.) My private violin teacher and my orchestra directors each thought that teaching reading was the others responsibility. So I floundered. If this sounds like a repeat of your situation, I feel your pain, literally, because I still feel it myself when I think about it. It’s something you never forget. So, I know where you’re coming from.
Start slowly. Frustration is nearly as bad as mistakes. Rule number one of Violin 101 is: make it easy. Go back to a few really old review pieces first, just to get the hang of the “routine” I’m laying out here. Whether you choose a review piece or feel brave enough to apply this to an upcoming piece, you’ll follow the same routine. In the Suzuki world, there are only three types of repertoire: review pieces, working (or current) pieces and preview pieces. Sometimes we have all three going at the same time. This is just another way to preview, or a way to take your previewing to the next level. (Makes me wonder if the Fearless Leader is actually a Suzuki teacher in professor clothing. Heh.)
Take your music, a pencil and the recording and sit down, preferably in your comfy spot. Make sure the recording is in the CD player or your iPod or whatever. Close your eyes and listen a couple of times. Notice the structure of the music: does anything repeat? Do certain themes come back later? Are the themes the same every time you hear them, or are they different? Are there loud parts and soft parts? Do the rhythms sound easy? Or hard? Do they sound like something you’ve played before? Can you keep a beat? Does the beat change anywhere?
Next, listen again, but this time look at the music and follow along. Do this several times. You might find it helpful to point your finger under the staff as a following tool. Don’t worry if you lose your place. The more you listen and watch, your eyes will start recognizing patterns and groups of notes and it will get easier. For reference, I have my early book one students listen in five-minute chunks for fifteen minutes, with a minute of rest between each chunk. Your level (or teacher) may require more; if your preview piece is ten minutes long, you can’t listen once and call it good, unless you start your preview months ahead of time. You have to make time for this, so plan it out in advance and follow your plan.
When you can follow a decent sized chunk — maybe as little as a four-bar phrase — without losing your place, start working on learning the rhythm. Rhythm is the most important element of music; without rhythm, music would be a meaningless blob of pitches. Many students find rhythm to be much more challenging than melody (the second most important element in music). Start in very small amounts. Spend five minutes talking the rhythm (use “la” or a nonsense word). Enunciate: rhythm is not mushy; it is specific and precise. Slow is OK — it does not have to be the same speed as what you heard on the recording. Slow and correct is better than fast and sloppy. Clap, tap, walk or physically move to the rhythm. Find the big beats: the top number in the time signature is the number of beats are in a measure. (Note: Theory series coming eventually.) Use your feet to keep the big beats moving along steadily; think of them as a really big metronome. Use your voice to talk the rhythm patterns you see on the page. Try different combinations: hands plus voice, hands plus feet, voice plus feet, hands plus voice plus feet, etc. The next step in the rhythm process is to add air bow, or prop bow: Talk or sing the rhythm while you “bow” it. Do it with the recording occasionally to measure your progress. You don’t get to use the actual bow until you can do it perfectly without the bow. Be patient. Be precise. Please?
Then do the same thing with the melody. Learn a note at a time, in tune. It does not have to be the same pitch as what is on the page. It does have to be in tune with the other notes; in Theoryspeak it’s called “relative intonation”. Where is the pitch located on the violin? Can you find it on your imaginary air violin? Imagine playing that note perfectly in your head. Then see if you can do both together, using your voice and body: melody with correct rhythm. It may be slow, but it has to be correct. Refer to the recording often. Listen carefully — to the recording and to yourself — so that if there is a problem you don’t have to puzzle for a half-hour trying to figure out what you did wrong.
Remember: the reason you are doing this is so that you do not give yourself an opportunity to learn mistakes on the violin. If you are prone to making lots of mistakes right off the bat in a new piece, you might want to do component practice for several days before you try to put rhythm and melody together. Do not try to play it on the violin until you can do it multiple times correctly without the violin. Don’t even try. A sort-of mistake is still a mistake. It’s either correct or it’s not. Even if you think it’s correct, go back and listen while looking at the music, or sing along while looking at the music. Record yourself singing and check it against what you see on the page. Can you make it better each time?
All we are aiming for at this moment is “better.” Keep your perspective: it will get easier and you’ll know how to teach yourself.