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The art of Accepting Constructive Criticism
Posted on August 21, 2011 by Fiddlerman

Isn’t it hard for us to accept criticism, even so called “constructive criticism”? We tend to take our playing too personally as though it was a part of us.

In previous positions as concertmaster and section leader, I had to give great professional musicians criticism and witnessed how hard it was for some to take it.

Because of how critical we are, sharing our progress with others can be very difficult knowing that we could be judged the same way. We often know what we are doing wrong but must accept our imperfections to continue playing and performing.

Allthough we are in awe of great soloists we can still find flaws in their performances. Even they are not perfect. We enjoy their performances in part by choosing to hear the greatness and not focusing on the faults.
One way to accept criticism is to realize that no one is without fault and every one of us can improve.

The musicians that I have had the most respect for in my life are the ones that don’t appear to be negatively affected by criticism and actually try to do what is suggested.

I remember being impressed by opera star Dilber who was a soloist at a concert I played in Sweden a few years ago. She is extremely self critical, and spent time during the rehearsal asking orchestra musicians sitting close to her if a particular note was too high or too low, etc. She seemed sincerely concerned with doing the best job she possibly could, even though she is successful and well known.
Professional orchestra musicians are more used to divas who love to give instructions and very few that would accept advice. It’s true that big name soloists have earned the right to be pompous and that is understandable.

One of my life time goals is to become great at accepting criticism. The better we are at doing this, the more secure we are as individuals.
Whenever I can accept critique without feeling bad, I am very proud of myself for doing so. We can all learn faster if we are open to advice.


Jamming on the violin

From time to time I get asked how to jam on the violin. Jamming is easy. What is difficult is jamming at an advanced level with complicated rhythms and pattern

To be able to improvise and jam, you should first familiarize yourself with the most common keys and scales both going up and down. Identify the appropriate key while jamming. Most music consist greatly of scales and arpeggios even if all the notes are not being used. Practice finger patterns corresponding with interesting licks in as many different keys as you can. Some of the most common keys are G, D, F, C, A, E, Bb, Eb.
Also extremely beneficial  to learn and master minor dorian scales.

You are jamming even if you are only playing the base note of a piece in any given key and some kind of rhythm (hopefully creative and interesting). Rhythm is just as important and interesting as note patterns. If you add one note, such as a fifth to a base note and keep the rhythm you are already doing much better. Eventually add scales or arpeggios and play them with the interesting rhythms. Chromatic scales work well too, provided you begin on and shoot for the appropriate notes. It is often a safe bet to keep the base note and fifth in mind at all times.
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Our embarrassing incidents while playing in orchestras

Most of us have had at least one bad, negative or embarrassing incident while playing in an orchestra. Here are three of mine. Please share yours.

I like to spin my instrument around and have a great technique for it so that I can’t possibly drop it. My stand partner asked me, during a longer rest, if I could spin it in the other direction. Without hesitation I spun it in the opposite direction but my thumb ended up on the outside of the violin and it took off flying through the air, spinning wildly and rolled on the stage floor. Everyone turned around as I picked up my fiddle and I am sure that my face was pure red. The conductor said, “Oyyyyy”,  and I proceeded to tune while everyone listened. I acted as though nothing had happened and said, “I’m ready”. Miraculously, the violin was almost in perfect condition except for a broken peg tip and fine tuner on the E.

We were playing a piece that required us to put on the mute within a 2 second break. I was one of those people, still am kind of, who always had to play everything on the page. I’ll learn the hardest, what others call unplayable, passages in contemporary music even though no one will ever hear it with all the noise going on and the conductor could even say, don’t worry about the notes here because that passage was intended as an effect. I had normally gotten the mute on without missing any music but was too careless and knocked over the bridge. It was so loud that everyone turned around and stopped playing.

I was the concert master during a tour with Robert Wells, and to top it off we were doing a live recording. Robert made some changes including taking out a repeat and was very clear about it. That repeat was an accented FFF note way up high on the E string. I of course prepared myself for the greatest accent of all times and nailed the note but unfortunately, all by myself since the next part began with some rests. After we played that piece Robert asked the audience if they would mind us repeating the piece since it was a live recording. He added “you all understand why”.
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After reading various blogs about orchestra etiquette I decided to compile ideas collected from many different professional as well as amateur players. If you come up with suggestions to add or change, please contribute to this list in the Fiddle Talk forum

Orchestra Rules

  • Always have a pencil on your stand to write down bowings and instructions.
  • Be kind to your stand partner?.
  • Check with your stand partner that you′re both sitting comfortably to see the music.
  • Write any additional bowings/fingerings into the pages immediately and if something is unclear don′t be afraid to ask
  • The person on the inside (left) of the stand usually turns the pages of the music.
  • The person on the outside plays the top part of the divisi parts.  the person on the inside plays the bottom.
  • When there are more than two parts the section leader decides, but usually 1st line – 1st desk, 2nd line – 2nd desk, 3rd line – 3rd desk and so on. If only 3 lines than 4th desk 1st line…….
  • Watch the section leader for bowings, length of notes, style of bowing, entrances, etc.
  • If you have a question, ask the section leader, don’t raise your hand to pose questions to the conductor.  If the leader of your section can’t answer your question he or she should pose the question.
  • Arrive in plenty of time, at least 15 minutes before rehearsals.
  • Learn your material thoroughly.
  • Be sure you can clearly see the conductor
  • Count carefully.
  • Listen – not just to your own part but to everything else that is going on around you.
  • Be respectful of other people’s space
  • Don′t talk or whisper if the conductor is talking or rehearsing other sections and you′re not playing.
  • Play with confidence and don’t be ashamed of messing up, keep your cool and know what’s going on.
  • Observe dynamics, especially extreme soft dynamics such as pp, otherwise you might stick out and destroy the effect for the whole section.
  • It’s better to follow your section, even if your leader is wrong, than to strike out on your own if he or she has entered at the wrong spot. Hopefully you have a good leader who isn’t wrong very often.
  • No matter how tempted you may be to take your finger and “thump” on an instrument in the percussion section, don’t.  In fact, refrain from walking through the percussion set up at all.
  • The concertmaster is considered in charge after the conductor and the section leaders are his/her deputies.
  • Keep your ears and eyes open and your mouth shut
  • When the oboe plays 440 Hz at the beginning of rehearsal or after break, stop what you are doing and be silent.
  • Tune only when it is your section’s turn to tune.
  • When you are done tuning sit quietly until all others are done tuning.
  • Don’t practice while others are tuning.
  • Tune quietly and not loudly.
  • Respect others so that everyone can hear their instrument and the tuning note being given.
  • Begin by tuning your A until everyone has done so then proceed to tune the rest of your instrument.
  • Don’t practice concertos,  cadenzas,  solos, and caprices loudly before rehearsal so that everyone can hear how great you are. Many will hate you immediately.
  • Look over your part and practice softly instead of showing off or do some quiet warm-ups. Play scales, arpeggios, your part, or whatever you need to play to feel ready.
  • Don’t stare at wind players who make mistakes, heads whipping around while they play can be annoying.
  • Don’t text or surf your iPhone (or any other electronic mobile device) when the conductor is working with another section.  Instead, pay attention to what s/he is telling the other section.
  • Bring cough drops in case you or someone else has a coughing attack.
  • If you must choose between getting all the notes or getting the beats, choose the beats.
  • If you have to completely fake a section, get the bowings in sync with your section at the very least.
  • It is better to skip a note/ measure than to play a solo during a rest
  • Know which notes and exposed sections exist for your part and learn them to the best of your ability.
  • Don’t be afraid to make mistakes or ask questions.
  • Don’t be the loudest player in the group unless asked for.
  • Arrogance wins no friends.  A pleasant attitude makes for a player that others want to have around.
  • For outdoors – clip well your pages because if their is a slight breeze they can fall off the stand. Be able to turn them fast and efficiently.
  • Bring sunglasses if ever you do outside summer concerts they could be your savior.

For women

  • Be careful what kind of skirts you choose (if ever it’s needed) since one is more comfortable sitting with legs appart to play.
  • Last but not least, smile and have fun :slight_smile:

The following, while it may be good advice, is not necessarily my recommendation

    • Enjoy the jokester of the group, the one making wry observations about everything happening around you and causing everyone to start giggling uncontrollably. There always seems to be one.
    • If you can’t play your part learn how to air-bow (i.e., look like you are playing when you’re not – when the going is too tough) because one person playing wrong is still heard under 10 playing right.
    • Learn the art of “fakeando” as it’s known in my local orchestral community… If you can’t play every note, at least play the one note on the start of every beat. Some professional orchestral musicians even fake things from time to time.

by: Fiddlerman


When should I change my strings?

After much discussion on the web and many misconceptions about how frequently strings should be changed, I decided that a more detailed summary is necessary.Let’s start by mentioning that there are several factors that affect the life of your strings, not just playing time:

  • Age of strings and how they are stored
  • Length of time under stress (tuned)
  • Hours of playing – type of playing and fingers (acidic, sweaty, dry)
  • Materials

If you are not a professional and don’t have a special performance or audition coming up, I suggest that you change your strings when they loose strength, unravel or can’t play perfect fifths.

Full time professional violinists typically play between 30 to 60 hours a week. Most orchestras have approximately a 30 hour on stage week and its members are expected to practice on their own time. Most musicians accept gigs in their free time adding to this time. Obviously the hourly playing of professionals varies tremendously but if a violinist plays an average of 30 hrs/week (120 hrs/month), they can generally play on the same strings for at least 3 months with good results.
I regularly change my dominant strings after 6 weeks to avoid dealing with bad, flat, weak sounding, or unwrapping strings. I change them before problems arise and I have very acidic fingers. Most of my colleagues play for 3 to 6 months before changing.
Those who change their strings most often usually change after approximately 180 hours of playing, and those who pushes the limit plays 720 hours before changing their strings.

Provided the strings are fresh to begin with and you play frequently, you can expect between 180-720 hours out of your strings.

I read an amateur violinist blog where the users mentioned that strings last approximately 120 hours. One violinist mentioned that the string makers themselves refer to this figure. String makers would obviously have you think that you need to change your strings after 120 hours to sell more strings. This could be true if a violinist plays an average of 20 minutes a day, (120 hours a year). Then they may need to change their strings after a year due to the fact that the strings also have been under stress.

I have tested instruments that were newly strung years ago but have not been used for many years. If a string has been under pressure for a very long time and not used at all, it may need to be changed as well. Strings can be bad without ever having been played on.
Combine multiple factors into the equation and you will get completely different results.

Finally, all strings are not equal. From my experience steel core strings seem to last the longest but can have a harsh sound. Synthetic core strings last longer than gut  strings and have a similar warmth in sound but are not suitable for all instruments.
I use Obligato, which is a synthetic core string, and am completely satisfied with the sound and life span.

by: Fiddlerman


Take time to play the music that you love

Symphony Orchestra

Playing in an orchestra

Keeping the fire burning for music is extremely important for self preservation. Playing in an orchestra to earn a living, we play music that we don’t necessarily want to? Having played in Scandinavian orchestras for over 20 years, which are funded by the government, I have played a fair share of contemporary music both great and terrible. The government supports the native composers and therefor sponsor a certain amount of work for contemporary composers. I am not saying that I don’t like contemporary music, though I usually don’t enjoy the work involved in preparing for the difficult works. I am one of those people that feel obliged to play every single note and rhythm, even in the cases where the conductor thinks that the notes are not important, rather the effect. Being stubborn about playing every note means that I must spend countless hours on music that I may not like and probably will never play again in my life. I often put off the preparation for a later date even though the music in our case was usually available up to 3 weeks in advance. I’ll feel guilty about not looking at it and have to cram it all in at the last moment even if it means no sleep the night before. The strange thing is that I will enjoy myself enormously when the piece is extremely difficult and I am nailing it. The truth is that I often learn to enjoy the music no matter how bad it seems from the beginning. There are also contemporary works that feel good right from the start as well.
Since playing full time in an orchestra devours a great deal of our practice time, we don’t find the time to play what we REALLY want and love to play. We often come home sick of playing and needing a break. In my later years of full time orchestra work I forced myself to practice solo works and chamber music, which is what drove me to play the violin from the start. Doing so gives me extra energy and makes practicing orchestra repertoire more enjoyable and I strongly recommend it to all full time symphony musicians. Set aside time for playing what you love, whether it be solos, etudes, scales, pop, country, rock….. Whatever it may be. Don’t let the fire burn out.

by: Fiddlerman


SITTING UP ON THE EDGE OF THE CHAIR WHILE PLAYING VIOLIN

Obviously we need to keep good posture in mind, but the one single change that I made helping me play violin for countless hours without getting tired is to learn to sit on the edge of my chair. Having worked in professional full time orchestras for 25 years I have been playing while sitting for countless hours to say the least. I used to sit back in my chair thinking that I could relax but was always tired and couldn’t wait for the next break. After making a very conscious effort to sit on the edge of my chair with my back arched, I rarely feel tired and time actually flies during rehearsals like it never did before. It takes more initial effort to sit correctly but makes playing much more pleasant and precise.

If you don’t already, DO IT.
by: Fiddlerman


Vibrato – when and how much?

Vibrato is one of the violinists greatest expression tool when used correctly. Many argue as to how much and how often one should vibrate. Basically we should vibrate more when playing romantic music and tighter when playing classical music. When playing baroque music it is a great idea not to vibrate at all. Many believe this to be boring while I think it adds imagination to expressing ourselves in other ways. We’re forced to do more with the right hand when we can’t take advantage of vibrato as an expression tool. We must do more with phrasing and dynamics instead. This can make playing baroque music much more interesting and creative and even educational.

Basic rules:

  • Vibrate wider on the lower notes and tighter on the high ones.
  • Vibrate more on accents and downbeats in classical music.
  • Vibrate from the tone and downwards for correct intonation.
  • Don’t play some notes with and some without vibrato unless intentionally thought out.
  • Avoid vibrating more than the leader of the section in an orchestra except in special situations.

Try to vary your vibrato as much as possible and save the most intensive vibrato for the most expressive phrases to avoid being boring.
by: Fiddlerman


Musicians preparing for new symphonic programs

Musicians having to learn and prepare a new program every week often feel guilty about the time that they don’t spend on preparing adequately.What is the best way to prepare for a new program? After 10 years of playing in a full time orchestra you have probably played most of the classical repertoire, a great deal of the contemporary, and a portion of the modern. However, it often feels as though we are learning the part for the first time. For the most part, difficult parts need to be relearned. I found ways to save enormous preparation time and it became even easier with internet and streaming. The latest and greatest for me is Naxos which has almost any classical work that you can imagine available for streaming at a reasonable cost. http://www.naxos.com/  The biggest drawback is that you can’t save the file.Listening to as many varying recordings and as early as possible for the given program, while still doing other things, cuts the learning time at least by half for me. It also helps me enjoy the works more during rehearsal week as well. The feeling of not only being prepared technically but also musically makes the whole experience many times fuller than imaginable.Listen to the works while still being productive, doing chores,  traveling, working or eating.  Begin as early as possible, at least 2 weeks in order to give yourself a good week before the first rehearsal to practice your parts.  Many of us read well enough that we could get away with not practicing but there is no doubt that you will do a much better job and enjoy it more if you prepare properly. Good luck and love the music.

by: Fiddlerman

How long should I practice everyday?

People often ask me how long they should practice.
My answer is that it depends on what your goals are. Ask yourself
what you want to accomplish and what you would like to be able to do with your instrument and set goals from there. Practicing a little bit at a time several times a day is better than playing too long once every day.
In other words, if you usually play one hour in the day but feel like
it was a chore and it became non-productive towards the end, try playing for just 30 or 15 minutes but don’t put the violin away. Leave it out so that you see it all day. Decide to play again in the afternoon for just a little while then again in the evening. Divide the hour into 3 sessions instead.
This gives your brain and body a fresh start every time and teaches you to play better quicker instead of needing to warm up as much.

Tip: If you love to practice but have a hard time getting started tell yourself that you are only going to play for 5 minutes. See what happens, you probably won’t be able to stop :slight_smile:
by: Fiddlerman


Practicing tips

A serious student spends much more time working on their own in a practice room then they do with a teacher or coach.
Be your own teacher, learn to analyze your playing, listen very carefully to the sound that you are producing. Every single note is important no matter how fast the passage is. Music is not just notes and scales. It is expression and emotion. Learn to play phrases in the same way that you speak sentences to be expressive. Take advantage of the assets available to you such as dynamics, note lengths and vibrato in order to express yourself.  Be extremely conscientious of your intonation. Spend 90% of your practice time on the things that don’t sound great, slowly and analytically, and 10% putting it all together so that it sounds simple.
by: Fiddlerman