Best ways to learn violin (after talking to 600+ people)
In order to build Trala, we conducted over 600 interviews with violin teachers, students, and performers and read pretty much all of the scientific literature surrounding music education (so you don’t have to). Much of this research was done during our time at the National Science Foundation I-Corps program.
Now we’d like to share that knowledge with you.
We present to you…
the 10 Commandments of Practicing Violin!
THOU SHALT Set Achievable Goals.
Enter a practice session knowing what you want to accomplish. A good goal might be very simple: play the correct rhythm and intonation on an 8-bar phrase. This keeps you on task and mindful about whether or not you’re succeeding. Setting goals like, ‘Practice for 30 minutes’ or ‘Play through my solo piece three times’ is actively bad—it encourages repetition and mindless practice. Most students waste 90% of their practice time because they set the wrong goals.
THOU SHALT Listen Before You Play.
If you don’t know what a piece sounds like, you’ll never play it correctly. In our testing groups, we found that listening to a recording before practicing cuts the time it takes for Trala users to master a phrase by 60%. That means they learn more than twice as fast!
THOU SHALT Break It Down.
Yo-Yo Ma first learned cello by practicing two measures of Bach every day. Practicing in smaller chunks lets you concentrate and pick out difficult passages. If you try to learn a piece by playing it all the way through over and over, you’ll never get it. Start small and work your way up.
THOU SHALT Practice Slowly.
Muscle memory is key, and the best way to build up muscle memory is to practice very slowly at first. You’ll be able to play correctly from the get-go, and can work your way up to performance speed without developing bad habits. Not only the best musicians but the best athletes practice slowly first.
THOU SHALT Listen For Your Mistakes.
It’s easy to blow through entire sections at a time and ignore your mistakes. If you do this, you’ll waste 90% of your practice time. Focus on one bit at a time and think, “am I really playing this correctly?” If you hear yourself hit a string accidentally, don’t ignore it. Go back and practice it again, slower this time.
THOU SHALT Use A Metronome.
Download a free app. Buy a fancy one for 500 bucks. Whatever it takes, just make sure you play at the right tempo. Using a metronome builds discipline in your timing and rhythm. It MAKES you practice correctly. You may think you have an amazing internal beat, but when it comes to practicing difficult rhythms, the metronome doesn’t lie.
Using a metronome is extremely useful for following Commandment 4 (Thou Shalt Practice Slowly). Set a slow tempo and stick to it, then increase your tempo only when you can play it correctly.
THOU SHALT Keep An Audio Practice Journal.
Stefan Milenkovich, one of the world’s top violinists, swears by the audio practice journal. Listening to yourself makes you catch mistakes and correct them without even picking up a violin. It’s also difficult to catch all of your mistakes, even when you follow Commandment 5 (Thou Shalt Listen For Your Mistakes). Even top violinists hear mistakes in their recordings that they didn’t notice while playing.
Using an audio practice journal also turns your daily practice into a source of motivation. We practice every day and don’t even realize we’re getting better, until we hear recordings of ourselves from weeks or even just days ago.
THOU SHALT Practice In Front of A Mirror.
Listen to your body and the sounds you’re making. Practice is a continual exploration of sound production and should never be a rote routine. Move your body and find what works for you. Loosen up. You’ll find that radical changes in sound quality can come from small changes in your posture and bow hold. But you won’t always be able to hear it while playing—see Commandment 7 (Thou Shalt Keep An Audio Practice Journal).
THOU SHALT Practice Away From Your Instrument.
Simply visualizing yourself practicing has been proven to help you make progress. This is because the paths in our brain that map to physical action also map to memory. This is perhaps the ultimate practice hack—you can practice with your mind. Think about what you’re supposed to play, and imagine yourself playing it flawlessly. It may surprise you how difficult this is to do—especially if you’ve had trouble with the section you’re visualizing!
THOU SHALT Share Your Struggle With Others.
We’ve found that people who actively talk with other musicians are much more likely to keep practicing and improving than those who keep it to themselves. Even snapchatting a picture of your violin to a friend (really!) helps you improve. We encourage Trala users to engage with each other and even have a secret Facebook group for those who really want the motivation.
Sources: Interviews with over 300 teachers and students through the National Science Foundation I-Corps program as well as 351 (and counting!) conversations with Trala users and Trala teachers.