Every violinist, at every level, can at times feel what I call “musical overwhelm” during a practice session. Often times, the people who choose to study the violin do so because it is an instrument that requires a lot of precision, dedication, and skill to make the beautiful and romantic sounds we love from this instrument. These results come from lots of time and effort devoted to practicing many small skills, and then applying them to a piece of music to add to our repertoire. Part of the reason why it is so vital to have an experienced violin tutor is because he/she will help mediate the amount of work to be done on your behalf. There is no reason to go after everything all at once!
Musical overwhelm is that feeling that occurs during a focused practice session where the notes just simply aren’t coming out, or whatever skill we are working on seems too big or impossible, and generally our fingers get so fatigued at the very thought of trying to master our subject of practice. It is a frustrating feeling, particularly when our only reward for bravely stepping up to the plate in the face of difficult challenges is that our violin sounds worse, not better!!
Your violin tutor should be your ally and coach during these times. If he/she has not given you proper practice patterns, it would be an excellent question to ask as to what method works for development. If you do have practice patterns that you are following, access, and work with you tutor to make sure they are as efficient with the difficult material as they are with the easy material.
Musical overwhelm can happen for various reasons: Either there is too much material to practice, or too little, there is not a quiet designated space to focus, or (and let’s just be honest that this happens) we love the violin, but don’t actually like the specific material we’re currently studying. Sometimes the reason we don’t care for the material we are working on is rooted in that material being repertoire for a coming performance, and our “not liking it” is how we can sometimes express our performance anxiety.
But more important, music is a part of the Arts. And no matter what, the show must go on. This includes with practice also.
Here are some things I coach people to do when they experience musical overwhelm during a practice session. The list is incomplete, but feel free to email or comment with your questions:
1. Breathe- Take a deep, slow breath through the nose, filling the tummy, and then the chest. Then exhale from the mouth, emptying the chest and then the tummy. You should at least feel like a human being again, not the orchestra nerd version of the Incredible Hulk.
2. Relax Your Jaw- We violinists carry a lot of tension in our jaws when we are not trained to relax into playing. Imagine every part of your jaw being completely weightless and relaxed. You won’t start drooling, and even you did, no one would mention for fear of the Hulk coming back, so you’re free to take your time here.
3. Stretch Your Arms/Wiggle Fingers/Roll Wrists in Circles- We like our muscles here to be ready and calm, so stretching them out will return proper circulation. You should be feeling a little better by now. If not, just repeat steps 1-3 until you’re ready to go on.
4. Assess Your Material- What is the skill you’re trying to accomplish? Narrow it down to one skill. Where in the music are you practicing that skill the most? Find one measure. Only one. Really. Only ONE MEASURE as best you can.
5. Analyze- Why is this skill important. How do I think it sounds? Do I like the way it sounds when it’s properly done? Why? Why not?
6. Play- IN SLOW MOTION. sloooooooow mooooooooootion. I’m not kidding. Think of it as Tai Chi, Violin Style. It’s going to sound like the the call of a cat from outer space getting run over by a semi, but it’s going to look cool. And if you can master the skill in slow motion, generally you can begin to speed up the one (ONE!) measure incrementally with a metronome. The best part about this? Mastery of a skill means just that–you will have mastered it permanently. That means the following years of your life will have you with this skill, being able to use it whenever you want. That’s worth one day, or one week, or one month of slow practice, don’t you think? Overwhelm happens when we work too hard. Development happens when we work smart.
Learning how to deal with this overwhelm is a part of every violinist’s journey. Just like every other skill, working through it takes practice and experience. Don’t give up. Just do your best. The next time you encounter overwhelm, it certainly won’t be the first time! And you will already have a foundation of skills to move past it and grow even more with your violin.