Sylvia: new routine and technique basics

I’ve been adjusting to my new teaching schedule since mid-September and have been struggling to create a functional practice routine. Today I came in early to my main school to take advantage of the empty teaching studios before the rush of the afternoon—dedicated space for music-making, a door I can close, furniture to do my Alexander Technique exercises, a big mirror, a nice view when I need a break, people around who are working on music in various ways for indirect moral support. These are the things I’ve learned I need in a supportive practice environment. (We’ll see how the temperature is in the wintertime!)

Part of the fallout from not having consistent practice the past few weeks is that my old overuse injury is flaring up, so my top practice priority for this week is healing and getting back to basics to support a healthy technique when I’m playing in the rehearsals and gigs I have coming up. Repertoire is secondary at the moment.

Here’s what I worked on today (Baroque violin with long bow):

  • Qi gong warm-up
  • Chair rolls (this is an Alexander Technique exercise that lengthens the torso and helps everything move more freely; I haven’t done this in many days and it helps me so much to hold the violin up without extra effort)
  • Playing a little scale figure in a 1 2 34 finger pattern while looking in the mirror at my left knuckles; I have a recurring discomfort in my 3rd finger base knuckle that I haven’t spent time investigating yet. For the first time I looked and saw a weird twisting in that joint when I put the finger down and lift it again; how can I minimize extra movement/effort and simplify the motion to just drop the finger from that knuckle? What do I need to change about the hand and arm posture around it, the placement of my hand with respect to the neck of the violin? Seems like I also would benefit from a practice technique my teacher Karen called Ghost Fingers: playing with the fingers barely touching the strings, making harmonics or just fuzzy sound, to remove as much effort as possible from the fingers.
  • 1-octave Dmajor scale in first position with stops after every note, a little tool Karen gave me to use different Alexander directions after each note and then groupings under increasing slurs. The first direction I tried was feeling the violin’s weight going down into my collarbone, which I picked because I’m still working on finding a chinrest-and-shoulder-rest-free setup for playing baroque style that works physically for long periods of playing when my chest is broad and open after doing Alexander work. However, my problem spot in my left arm felt tight and aggravated after one-note-per-bow of this, so I switched to directing to the points of the primary curve (more on this for those who are curious in another post or in the comments), which felt much much better and I was able to complete the whole sequence of the exercise with increasing freedom and comfort and mobility.
  • I noticed an issue with my intonation on first-position B fourth finger on the E string during a rehearsal on Monday, so I wanted to spend a few minutes investigating this. Hearing B intonation used to be an issue for me a few years ago so I wanted to see how much of the issue now is physical and how much is awareness. I invented a little exercise just playing 4th finger and lifting, directing to primary curve points after each note, on all four strings, checking for the last finger bone going straight down at a 90° angle to the fingerboard. The string above ringing freely was my indicator that it was in tune (then feeling the same relative position on the E string). This made me think of connections to how I am teaching my beginner violin students to have a good left-hand setup. An important line of inquiry for me and for them.

It was a little bit of work to give myself permission to stop; this work took about 15 minutes, not including the stretches. But, Rome was not built in a day, and I know from past experience how easy it is for me to drill down and focus on technique long past my current stamina in terms of injury prevention. So, more practice chunks like this, not longer chunks, for a little while. The goal is to come in early to take advantage of this positive practice environment as many days of the week as I can make it work. I’ll keep you posted!

All best, looking forward to hearing about your practicing struggles and successes,