violin What do we learn
when we practise?

By: Sheila Veryard & Richard Veryard

First published by ESTA (European String Teachers Association) Summer 1996


In this year of good practice, maybe we should look for the reasons why there is a need to have such a year. Are we celebrating a situation already in place? Or do we assume that this ideal is something unusual, something to encourage and work for, something without which we shall never reach the dizzy heights of fine violin playing?

In many musical households, the word ‘practice’ is a dirty word; it has become an ogre, something that has to be done, boring. It is unrelated to whether the pupil likes playing the instrument - they want to play, but they don’t want to practise. It is a struggle to keep up with daily practice, even for those who know that without practising they will never be able to achieve the satisfaction of playing well, or the fun of joining in with other players in chamber music or orchestras.

Practice is not just for correcting mistakes, it is for playing correctly

Perhaps one of the problems with violin practice is the way that it is too Pavlovian. By practising, the pupil is supposedly being conditioned to play correctly. But the way practice normally works, the ‘punishment’ for getting something wrong is repeating it; the ‘reward’ for getting something right is you can stop. The simple version allows you to stop after you get it right once, which means that you’ve played it wrong far more often than you’ve played it right. A more demanding version allows you to stop only when you’ve played it right as many times as you’ve played it wrong, so that the right way is embedded in your memory. But both incorporate the implicit axiom that to stop is a reward. Is this what we are unconsciously teaching ourselves and our pupils?

This mode of thinking can be countered by introducing more structure into practice. One way is to establish a more appropriate reward than stopping. "When I get this study right, then I can play some tunes." And another way is to establish a more appropriate punishment than merely repeating. "If I get this wrong again, I’ll do some difficult scales before I have another go." Practice is still playing the role of punishment, but in a differentiated way: the boring bits of practice (studies and scales) are punishment, while the musical bits (tunes) are reward. Even Mary Cohen’s wonderful book of Scaley Monsters implies that medicine must be taken with sugar.

Another approach is to set non-musical rewards and punishments. There are several longer-term motivators - passing grade exams, winning competitions, not embarrassing oneself at school concerts. But much shorter-term motivators may be required for structuring individual practice sessions. Sometimes a parent provides an external discipline, depending on the age of the student. "When you get that piece right, you can have some cake." "If you don’t get that piece right today, I won’t let you play football tomorrow." (Note: it must not be "you can play football as soon as you get that piece right", because then playing football become equivalent to stopping practice, which returns us to the very motivator we are trying to escape.)

This of course raises the question: what criteria does the parent use to judge whether the student has played the piece right, and are these the criteria the teacher would want the parent to apply? The musical parent will be tempted to apply æsthetic criteria (which are likely to be irrelevant or incomplete), while the non-musical parent will be more inclined to take the student’s word for it, or to apply such criteria as confidence and body language. If the parent is driving the system, then there needs to be a communication channel between teacher and parent, and wherever this is in place, there is certainly a better understanding of the needs of the pupil.

As the student grows older, such parental discipline needs to be replaced by internal discipline. Some people play private games with themselves. One might write "I am an idiot" on a large piece of paper every time s/he got something wrong, while another might possess a lapel badge which s/he pinned to the shirt as a token of getting something right.

Note: the interesting thing about such games is that although they may start out as pointless gestures, they can acquire psychological significance if repeated enough. In other words, the student deliberately forms what appears to be a meaningless but harmless habit, which then becomes a psychological prop.

When I practise this piece, it is not just this piece I am learning

There is also a question of the overall goal of learning the violin. Is there a difference between a pupil who wants to be a top soloist, and a pupil who would be happy to play at the back of an amateur orchestra? Should the teacher differentiate between the ‘serious’ and the ‘hobby’ pupils? Each pupil must be taken seriously enough to enable each to reach their potential (which in some cases is much greater or much less than their ambitions).

To play a musical instrument well, both intellectual and physical activity is required, combining some features of learning mathematics or chess with those of becoming an athlete.

School mathematics is a simple problem-solving activity. One student knows the ‘correct’ technique straight away and applies it without thinking. Another student often has to try several techniques before finding the answer. A third tries the wrong technique, and then gives up. But in all cases, the activity does not continue after the solution is found. Similarly with most amateur chess players.

Professional mathematicians regard the solution to a problem not as an end but as a beginning. If this problem can be solved in this way, they ask themselves, what other problems can be solved in similar ways? How can we develop and generalize what we have just done? The published commentaries of championship chess reveal a similar concern for the large numbers of possible variations and developments from a given position.

The stop-when-successful approach, which we criticized above because it carries negative attitudes towards practice, is therefore common in other intellectual activities, but only at amateur or school levels. (Thus it should be no surprise that students adopt it for violin practice as well.) Professionals, in any intellectual field, adopt a develop-when-successful approach.

Practice as exercise

Now let us turn to the physical side of violin-playing. We must also train our muscles to respond automatically and without undue strain to increasingly complex mental instructions.

If you want to keep fit, you have to exercise regularly. Just to maintain the same speed, let alone to develop a faster speed, a runner must run nearly every day. Consider a runner, who becomes physiologically addicted to running. If s/he is prevented from running for a few days, the body becomes uncomfortable. The same may be true of professional musicians, who practise and play several hours each day. But for a junior student, who is attending regular school as well as learning the violin, it may not be reasonable to expect more than one hour of practice each day. But the physical discipline is still important.

Observation and feedback

"Good coaches in sports or in the arts typically are experienced in the practice in question and have an eye for the fine points. They provide athletes and artists with a form of self-observation which is otherwise physically impossible." [Janik]

In dance, there is usually no formal notation. So the pupil must memorize the piece during the lesson, and practise it afterwards. The pupil is much more reliant on the teacher to say whether the piece has been performed accurately. There is therefore a significant danger that, if the piece has been incorrectly memorized, the pupil will practise the wrong movements, in the wrong sequence or rhythm, and show up at the next lesson incapable of unlearning these wrongs.

This occurs in violin practice as well; some pupils learn so efficiently, without noticing inaccuracies of rhythm or pitch, that they may be subsequently incapable of unlearning. The teacher can perhaps get them to play correctly as a conscious effort, but under stress (e.g. during exam or concert) the original mistakes will reemerge.

Regression to the mean

In the Israeli airforce, instructors would praise the trainees when they effected a particularly smooth landing, and would criticise the trainees after a particularly bumpy landing. But the instructors observed that after the praise the trainees got worse, while after the criticism the trainees got better. They concluded that criticism was more useful than praise.

This is actually a logical error. The fact is that trainees are just not able to perform consistently. A very good landing is not likely to be followed by another very good landing; a very bad landing is not likely to be followed by a very bad landing. This phenomenon is referred to by statisticians as ‘regression to the mean’. In other words, over a series of attempts, there will be an average, with some very good results and some very poor results.

At the end of the training, of course, the goal is to be able to produce an excellent result every time. But during the training, within a given practice session, there are two short-term goals: to improve the average, and to increase the consistency (i.e. reduce the deviation from the average). These two goals may temporarily conflict. In other words, to reduce the risk of a very poor result, we may not be prepared to take the risks that could lead to an excellent result.

There are two views on what one should do when achieving a very good result during practice. One is to repeat it immediately, before forgetting. The other is to pause and work out specifically what enabled the success, before covering the memory with a result that (by the law of averages) may not be so good. The former is the intuitive approach, the latter is the intellectual approach. (A third approach is to quit practice for the day. But we have already attacked this approach.)

Similarly, there are three views on what one should do when achieving a very poor result. One is to try again immediately, to superimpose the memory of an average result over the memory of the poor result. Another is to pause and work out specifically what went wrong, in order to change technique. A third is to quit practice for the day. (This may sometimes be the best approach. Although for a pupil that dislikes practice, it may seem to be a reward for failure, encouraging further failure tomorrow, if the pupil feels the need to earn the right to practise by playing better every day, then practice will itself become a valuable activity. Such paradoxes will only work for some pupils, and will only work if the pupil is strictly forbidden to practise after any really bad failure.)

Practice as enthusiasm

Have we now arrived at the basic problem of motivation? The onus does often seem to come back to the teacher to inspire pupils. Teaching is like a sales job: interest them in the goods and they will be hooked for life. This means finding interesting and alternative ways of approaching the music, to enhance the learning process.

Indian music masters often teach through poetry or philosophy, rather than through mere technique (as so often in the West). In James Kippen’s account of his journey to Lucknow, to study the tabla under Ustad Afaq Husain, he quotes the following couplet by Jamil Mazhari, which he had often heard from his teacher.

Baqadr-e-paimana-e-takhayyul sarur har dil men hai khudi ka, agar na ye ho fereb-e-paiham to dam nikal ja’e admia ka.
  • The delight a man takes in contemplating himself is proportional to the scale of his powers of imagination.
  • The more vivid his imagination, the more joy he feels in his (imagined) unique powers.
  • This self-contemplation is really self-deception, but without it man could not survive.
  • [Jamil Mazhari]

    What has this got to do with learning music? Kippen interprets it as follows: In order to succeed in any sphere, particularly music, one must have shauq, which is the Urdu word for ‘enthusiasm’ or ‘passion’. A bad tutor will only stifle the pupil’s shauq, or channel it in the wrong direction. Alternatively, a good tutor will expand the capacity of the pupil’s mind, thus increasing his powers of imagination and understanding. A good tutor therefore encourages the pupil’s shauq, which, in turn, leads to greater fulfilment.

    Problems of motivation may not be uppermost in pupils’ minds. It may be the ex-pupils, those who have given up, who have experienced the greater motivational problems. But even with enthusiastic pupils, these motivation effects may cause some erosion of their enthusiasm (shauq), unless consciously dealt with.

    Even with motivation and regular practice, perfection is a hard-won gain. What we must remember is that practice is not just about correcting mistakes and not repeating them. It is about becoming aware of everything we are doing, so that when it goes right we are able to repeat it. Maybe it is only with this positive approach that we can see and hear what we are achieving and be encouraged to continue.


    Allan Janik, Tacit Knowledge, Rule-Following and Learning, in Bo Granzon & Magnus Florin (eds) Artificial Intelligence, Culture and Language (Berlin: Springer Verlag, 1990)

    James Kippen, The Tabla of Lucknow: A Cultural Analysis of a Musical Tradition (Cambridge University Press, 1988)

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    Sheila Veryard performs and teaches violin and viola.

    Richard Veryard is a technology consultant.


    Please send your comments and questions to the authors

    First published in ESTA magazine, Summer 1996
    Technical update September 7th, 1999.
    Copyright © 1996 Sheila Veryard & Richard Veryard